The more you know, the more you know you don't know.
Socrates, Aristotle and Einstein all realised this. And it's a statement worth unpicking. First of all, what do we mean by to 'know'?
|Einstein — boy to man.|
There's a world of seemingly incontrovertible facts and figures out there, things which by and large are not a matter of opinion. The moon spins round the earth. The earth spins round the sun. Trump and Clinton are the USA's presidential candidates. The capital of Venezuela is Caracas. The kind of bald truths churned out in question and answer form on the innumerable quiz shows which plague the media in the guise of entertainment.
Then there's the wealth of information and misinformation grounded in hearsay, gossip, prejudice, conjecture, supposition, intelligent (and not-so-intelligent) guesswork, propaganda, and religious, political and economic belief. Jesus married Mary Magdalene. Marlowe and others co-wrote many of Shakespeare's plays. Eating cheese increases your chance of a heart attack. Allah is the one true God. The Labour party is the best. Communism is dead.
A few things we can be completely sure about, i.e. mathematical formulations, such as one plus one equals two, and syllogisms, such as 'All men are mortal. Socrates is a man. Therefore Socrates is mortal'. These rather uninteresting truths are true for all time and are what philosophers call a priori truths. Most other truths are empirical truths — whether 99.9% certainties (the sun will rise tomorrow) or highly dubious beliefs which are advocated by some but disparaged by others (wearing a copper bracelet will help the arthritis in your wrist). There's a vast spectrum of truths and beliefs, ranging from unassailable logical truth to absolute falsehood, with many shades of truth, half-truth and untruth in-between.
If we consider the whole of history, how many things can we be utterly sure of? The accuracy of some dates and the reality of some personages and events, certainly. But many things remain in obscurity or semi-obscurity. What was the actual cause of the First World War? What was Rasputin's true character? Why do we think the Greeks invented democracy when their empire was built on slavery? Did Atlantis really exist?
Science seeks and often uncovers the truth (cigarette smoking is likely to cause lung cancer), but this may only be a relative truth (Galileo and Einstein turned astronomy and physics upside down), dependent on the historical timeline.
The point of all this is to say quite simply that truth is a tricky business — and we haven't even begun to consider emotional truth, imaginative truth or artistic truth.
The reason I'm trying to sort out my feelings about truth and knowledge at the moment is that I feel I'm being bombarded with incredible amounts of information — from the Internet, from social media, from TV and radio, from politicians, economists, new-age gurus and other pundits, from salespersons, from books and magazines, from just about everyone and everywhere. And this flow of information ever increases. But to whose benefit? Do we really want to know all those facts about celebrity and sport and TV shows regurgitated by the blotting-paper brains of quiz show contestants? Do we really need to fill our minds with pro-and-contra arguments about every conceivable subject? Are we really going to be made to feel inadequate because we haven't mastered this or that skill or learnt this or that fact in order to increase our kudos in the eyes of contemporary society?
Faced with this onslaught of undifferentiated, often trivial information, we have the ability, thank goodness, to select, discriminate and shut out the bits we want to shut out. I refuse to be jealous of those with apparently huge mental reservoirs of facts and figures, of arguments and opinions, who are able to recall them and rehearse them at will. I refuse to be intimidated by the pressurised demands of the noisy and instant information age. I want to read and watch and hear and learn and digest the things which I myself decide I want to know, and to hell with the rest.
For I know that, despite all we know, we know very little, and, anyhow, knowledge is quite a different beast from wisdom. I read a great deal, but I know I'll never read all the books I want to read, and I don't care. (Or I tell myself I don't care.) Often it's far more rewarding to know one thing in depth rather than many things superficially. And knowledge itself, as we've found, is a slippery creature. For instance, take our own mind and body. They are our two constant and intimate companions — but do we really know them? I would hazard barely at all. Take a random subject — China, say, or geophysics, or Mediterranean flowers, or phenomenology, or a million others. Unless we happen to be a specialist in that particular area, do we really know very much about any of them? (I'm not saying that we should do — a small amount of knowledge may well be all that is necessary for our sanity, despite the saying that a little learning is a dangerous thing.)
I come back to this. I know that the more you know, the more you don't know — as Socrates, Aristotle and Einstein once said. Actually, in the end, that's quite a comforting notion.