A common man marvels at uncommon things. A wise man marvels at the commonplace. CONFUCIUS

Saturday, 29 October 2016


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.


donna baker said...

I've kind of always been the 'jack of all trades, master of some' kind of person. Curiosity my driving force. I think nowadays, my brain is full. It's all downhill now.

George said...

Your posting reminds me of Eliot's two questions in The Rock: "Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?/Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?"

Like you, I'm simply overwhelmed by the amount of information that washes through my life every day. It's far too much to rationally process, and, more to your point, very little of it leads to more knowledge or greater wisdom. Increasingly, I have found comfort in accepting just how little I will ever know. With the falling of the last of the autumn leaves (you can take that metaphorically), what I need most at this point is to simply get better at BEING in a world that is largely beyond my comprehension.

I've always admired that commitment of Tennyson's Ulysses "to follow knowledge like a sinking star beyond the utmost bounds of human thought." At seventy-four, however, I'm beginning to think that this prescription for happiness might be a fool's errand. Perhaps it's much better to follow nothing, and, instead, to simply accept and experience what is given in our random perambulations through life. Add to that a dash of humility and gratitude, and, presto, you've discovered a life worth living.

The Solitary Walker said...

Exactly the same with me, Donna. I'm also curious, and seem to know a little about a lot (though definitely nothing about football, the combustion engine or country dancing).

The Solitary Walker said...

I really like your comment, George, and warm to it very much. The art of Being is the thing, and the knowledge, insight and joy (or contentment at the very least) that can come from that. Striving for distant horizons is our human condition, but sometimes, I suspect, the answer lies at our very feet, and we just didn't see.

Bouncing Bertie said...

I have been a geophysicist for over thirty years and I still feel I know remarkably little about even that!
Cheers, Gail.

The Solitary Walker said...

And I was a salesman for over 25 years, and now I don't think I could sell anything at all without sardonic irony, peals of laughter and hints of madness. I've forgotten all those cliched mantras like 'There's no such thing as a problem, only an opportunity', thank God! Real truth and knowledge comes from contemplating a river or walking through a woodland rather than learning how to outwit one's fellow (wo)man (ie the buyers). I reject that life now as worthless.

Sabine said...

When I compare the way I access and dig through the seemingly endless amount of stuff that is presented these days, mostly online, with the careless attitude towards it that my daughter's generation displays, I realise that I need to learn the difference between information and trivia. The clever young people seem to be able to sniff out rubbish much faster than I do, the laugh it off and tell me to just swipe/close/click it away while I waste time looking for sources and proof where there is none.

But truth or even real truth? I have a soft spot for science mainly because it "makes sense" more often than not. But that's not truth, that's evidence based on facts as we have them at the time.

The Solitary Walker said...

Yes, that does seem to be a generational thing, Sabine - and a cultural/educational thing. And I like science, but not the arrogance of some scientists (or some monotheists or atheists or liberal-humanists for that matter).

Gwil W said...

I've seen enough in my 70 years to say that I believe in ghosts, time travel, and other such things. The general way of thinking is that the evidence of one's own experiences is of little or no value when confronted by scientific facts which are generally theories which have replaced earlier theories and so on almost ad infinitum.

The Solitary Walker said...

There's scientific method (often not as objective as some might think) and there's personal experience, our uniquely individual and subjective view of the world - the springboard for art and self-expression. Both are valid! I'd like to synthesise them (as the Dalai Lama does) rather than put them in opposition (CP Snow's two cultures), though the arrogance of some scientists and technologists can be lamentable. God was once God but now technology is God. Or neoliberalism. Or capitalism.

dritanje said...

I'm all for the validity of one's own experience though happy too with various scientific discoveries (as opposed to theories). I had some great dreams while I was away, including one lucid one, where I was 'back home' but was intending going back to USA the next day. Wait a minute I thought, that's a bit odd - am I dreaming? Yes, I realised, I was! and immediately after that realisation, I was whirling round and round (which was very enjoyable) and then woke up. It's such fun! The dream self clearly doesn't need trains and airplanes to travel. And dreams can give us insights and ideas for creative work and for scientific breakthroughs too, as when Kekule (I think that was his name) discovered the structure of the benzine ring through a dream.

The Solitary Walker said...

My natural instinct is always for holism, Dritanje - for a harmonious relationship between art and science, reason and unreason, the real and the imagined, the mind and the body, and so on. For all are interrelated in beautiful, mysterious and complex ways. But this balance remains an ideal, for our micro and macro world is ever more divided and polarised - current politics in Europe and the US being just one example

Nick said...

"...our own mind and body. They are our two constant and intimate companions..."

Two, not one, a unity? Really? I've never heard of the one being present without the other. But then what do I know?

Regards, Nick

The Solitary Walker said...

Of course, you are right, Nick! Indivisible - despite Cartesian dualism.

Carruthers said...

I think it is just beginning to dawn on us as a species that our understanding is not necessarily much superior to the rest of the animal kingdom. The concepts of 'truth' and 'understanding' might be less absolute and more anthropocentric than we care to admit. Cheetahs are good runners. We're good talkers.

Carruthers said...

As for dualism, I quite often find my body's in one place while my mind's somewhere else. :-)