The Challenge of Knowing

Part 6 of ‘Surrender to the Mystery: On Knowing and the Power of Not-Knowing’

Why do we need to know?

We are intentional beings, capable of crafting our experience, who need to inform ourselves and make assumptions in order to act in the world.

It is only when we mistake assumption for knowledge and religiously hold onto our reasons for acting that we persist in error and fail to pivot effectively when we discover that there is more to the picture.

The point, however, is that there is always more to the picture.

Anybody who has seriously engaged in learning anything knows that as soon as you delve deeply into something, the first thing you learn is how much you don’t know, then that there is so much still to learn and then you find that no matter how deep you go, you will never, ever, know it all, even in any one subject or discipline.

But the shadow of our needing-to-know is pervasive, as we very much want to believe that we have things figured out. It offers us a sense of security. It helps us feel that we have our lives under control.

It can be deeply challenging to exist in the void of not-knowing.

To admit that we may not know the way, may not have the answer, or don’t know how to do better, can quickly bring to the surface fear, anxiety and doubt.

But we rarely change from a place of comfort.

Being willing to be uncomfortable is a prerequisite for growth.

To admit our limitations entails the admission that we have no choice but to surrender to life’s power. It leaves stark and naked the brute fact that we can only trust ourselves to our fate and endeavor to do our best with what comes.

Most of us are terrible at trusting this wild, untamed, dimension of life.

So much so, that what is generally called the history of human ‘progress’ is, at times, little more than a history of us attempting to dominate and control every aspect of life, to the point now of destroying it.

One may as well try hold back the ocean as control life. The endeavor is the same. The same wild power that surges through the ocean ripples through all aspects of our lives and it will carry us where it will.

What we really need to know is that we can trust ourselves to ride the wild waves, as it is only in such self-trust that a true sense of security lies.

This type of knowledge can only arise through living deeply.

Only when one aspires and struggles, tests and stretches oneself, can one truly come to know the bounds and possibilities of one’s own reality and rest in the truth that we are always well equipped for each moment we meet.

What can we really know?

The range of the knowable is far more limited than most people realize and the vast majority of what we think we know is merely belief. Sometimes truthful, sometimes not.

One great challenge to our ability to know is that the vast majority of what we think we know about the world is based on information brought to us by others. This includes everything we believe about the world that we have not been present to and every assumption we have not personally tested for ourselves.

From our all too human parents, to state-licensed schools, to the media, etc., the entire foundation of our intellectual knowing, the very framework from which we attempt to make meaning of life, is given to us by other humans.

The problem is that humans are not entirely reliable sources of information.

At best, people are often honestly mistaken in what they say.

Equally often, they have agendas for what they choose to believe and communicate.

People can lie or otherwise manipulate the information they provide, for any number of reasons.

Even when something is generally accepted, or when there are numerous trustworthy sources making the same claim, history has often shown us examples of widely held beliefs that proved to be deceptive, inaccurate, incomplete, or just flat-out wrong.

In our ‘post truth’ age, it is clearer than ever that any belief built on a human medium is very much open to doubt.

There can be little doubt, at this point, that all of us have been exposed to a significant amount of propaganda and bullshit over the course of our lives.

The ability to question and to be discerning in terms of the information we imbibe is one of the most critical skills a human being can possess, but it is a skill that is grossly lacking in many folk and that has, strangely, been mostly eradicated from the educations most of us receive, which instead focus on conditioning us to obey authority.

Even if one has a highly developed critical faculty, time and distance place huge limits on the ability to verify sources, let alone to delve into the motivations, agendas and the quality of the efforts that yielded the information, such that we can be certain of its authenticity and truth.

So too, gaps in our own background knowledge also makes it difficult to properly judge the information offered by experts in specialized fields.

At some point, one has no choice but to simply put trust in some source or another and have faith that what they are saying is true. Having a good source increases the probability that information is true, but knowledge precludes any need for faith.

Even outside specialist disciplines, whenever we analyze any information for its veracity we must draw on and fit it in with a huge amount of our own background information and belief, which in itself may be false.

To be absolutely certain of anything external to our own experience is almost impossible.

These issues place almost all accumulated information into the realm of belief. Some of that information may in fact be true, but these problems in determining their truth prevents it from counting as ‘knowledge’ ( See part 5). Yet these are far from the greatest challenges to our knowing.

The Matrix of Knowing

Beyond our beliefs about the world, anyone with any experience in epistemology will know of a classic problem, involving a nefarious demon deceiving us, which shows how even our most essential experiences are open to doubt and may be false.

To the modern ear this may sound absurd, but the film ‘The Matrix’ is a modern expression of this classic philosophical problem.

This new version goes something like, ‘what if you were a brain in a vat, being manipulated by an advanced intelligence? If that were the case then everything you think you know about our world would be wrong, but it would still appear to you just as it does now. As it certainly could be the case that you are in fact just a brain in a vat being programmed to have this experience, it is fair to say that you don’t really know anything about the external reality at all. You merely have beliefs about it.’

This problem arises from the fact that our experience of reality is a biological and social construct.

What we experience is simply the functioning of our brain. And the brain’s main function is to filter out the vast majority of the information being brought in by the senses, in order to focus our awareness on the aspects of our experience that it has learned are most pertinent.

This means that, by some standards, we cannot even be said to know that which we have experienced through our senses.

At the least, we cannot know that what we experience through our senses is the whole truth of our reality.

Given that our senses perceive only a tiny fraction of the electromagnetic spectrum, this is almost certainly the case.

Just as our brain is constantly interpreting our reality for us, so does our culture.

Our society is heavily invested in proscribing a collective reality to us. We are constantly being programmed through our parents, media, authority figures, thought leaders and others to perceive our reality in socially approved ways and are thereby conditioned to perceive and behave in ways society has deemed acceptable.

This fact is not necessarily nefarious, as consensus perception is necessary to facilitate social interaction. It’s unfortunate, however, that power-mongers have always used the power of propaganda and indoctrination to manipulate our need for a consensus reality, in order to shape society to their advantage.

This need for a consensus reality has another shadow, in that it makes it challenging to step outside social consensus into novel perception and belief. When wider society is being lead in a dangerous direction, as it is at present, this need, fundamental to our basic humanness, makes it much harder to shift the course of the whole, as many people cannot perceive outside the limits of group-think.

Our ultimate challenge to knowing is that we do not have direct independent access to the truth of our external reality, or at least we do not have such access through our mind-stream, so the vast majority of the most basic beliefs we hold about the world could be inaccurate, or false.

When I came across these problems in my student days, I had to grapple with their power, but I naively dismissed them as extreme examples of philosophical mind-bondage, irrelevant to actual life.

I felt like such propositions could only be taken seriously by people well-stuck in their minds, hell-bent on ignoring their actual experience. My intuition was that we do not live in a deceptive reality and that I could trust what I felt I knew.

In some ways I still feel that this to be the case, but the issue is not that reality is deceptive. Our challenge rather is that a proper appreciation of our own limitations should engender some sense of humility and prevent us from taking our perspective as an absolute truth.

The limitations of our senses and of our consciousness are real and important.

As our technological capacities increase we are learning more and more that our experience of reality is, very literally, a brain-manufactured illusion.

Just consider that 99.99% of all the matter we experience is empty space.

We live in a world of vibrating frequency, pulled into being from a field of quantum possibility, which is a far cry from our lived experience.

What our senses yield is simply a perceptual construct that tunes us into a particular picture of reality, making possible a certain experience of it. I believe that picture is real and true, but can morph into different realities and deeper layers of truth as more of the picture comes into view.

Take a psychedelic and the picture will shift in surprising ways. Peak into the quantum and the picture will change again.

We perceive as we are. As we change, if we change, our perception changes and with it our entire experience of the world changes.

There is a fluidity to observation and experience and we would do well not to limit ourselves by assuming that life is, or will remain, as we currently perceive it to be.