The Nature of Knowledge
Part 5 of ‘Surrender to the Mystery: On Knowing and the Power of Not-Knowing’
What is Knowledge?
Our relationship to words is the result of our relationship to the concepts they represent.
One result of this is that many people use the same words, but mean different things by them, which results in miscommunication and disconnection.
Relatively few people delve deeply into the concepts behind their words and so they have only a shallow understanding of the words they use.
When most people say they ‘know’ something, they are unaware of the fact that they are misusing the word and that they actually don’t know the thing they think they know.
Most people confuse knowledge with belief.
As someone who dearly wished to answer the big questions, knowing what it means ‘to know’, or ‘knowing how I can know I know’, or understanding ‘what actually can be known’ were all important questions for me.
Unfortunately they are not easily answered.
For that reason an entire branch of philosophy, Epistemology, is devoted to these basic questions.
As with most philosophical questions, there are no definitive answers, only different perspectives and millennia of debate.
After immersing myself in the subject, what I came to believe is, at the very least, ‘knowledge’ requires both truth and properly motivated certainty.
You can’t really be said to ‘know’ something that isn’t true. That’s clearly belief, or opinion, not knowledge.
Yet, if you aren’t sure that you know the truth of something that you believe then, even if it is a truthful belief, it would be hard to say that you really ‘know’ that thing, or how could you doubt it?
If you know something you should have a deep confidence in the truth of the thing you feel is true.
You should also have very good reason to feel certain of the truth of your belief, as the connection between the truth and your reason for being certain of that truth is critical, if it is to count as knowledge.
If, for example, you are convinced of something that happens to be true, just because you saw it mentioned in a film, but have never checked or researched what you heard, then it still seems that what you have is simply a belief. For, even if that belief were false you would still believe it is true, so you don’t really ‘know’ the thing, even if you feel certain it is true because it came out the mouth of your favorite actor.
These are a couple basic criteria required for one to ‘know’.
Some philosophers might take issue with them, or offer many more in their place. It’s what philosophers do.
If you really want to see how hard it is to be absolutely certain of anything, just study philosophy.
Yet, as I will discuss in the next parts of this essay, this is just the tip of the iceberg as to why true ‘Knowledge’ is actually very hard to come by.
I will simply note for now that, on these simple criteria alone, most information consumption cannot count as the acquisition of knowledge.
So too, most argument is nothing more than the disagreement in opinion between people who do not know and should be treated accordingly.
Yet it is not uncommon for folk to assume that they know that those who agree with them are ‘right’ and those who don’t are ‘wrong’.
Too often, people are just defending their preconceptions, while attacking others for holding contrasting perspectives, judging them for having opinions different to their own.
Many act as though life were a test and if only everyone had their answers the world would go well at last.
For my part, after much time spent in such unfruitful, unfulfilling and unloving discussion, I now feel strongly that we would all be much happier if we could let go of the need to be right and admit that our perspectives are simply that, no matter how well informed they may be.
If we can receive another’s viewpoint without feeling like they are in need of correction, simply allowing them to share, it tends to make for a much better talk-experience. Being uninvested in whether what they express is ‘right’, or ‘wrong’, we are free to simply receive the truth of their expression and connect in a way that make our moments together rich, meaningful and enjoyable, while allowing us to augment and expand our own sense of things by genuinely receiving the other and the bulk of what they are communicating in the moment, which is the energy, emotion and experience that lies beneath, behind and between their words.