Dear Tristan: How do you know?

Dear Tristan,

Yesterday I wrote about Truth. I wrote about what it is, and what it isn’t. I wrote about how I love to seek it out, as elusive as it is, and how I hope you come to love the same thing.

But how do you know when you’ve found it?

I’m not entirely sure you ever can. I’m not sure any of us can ever really know something with absolute certainty. Sure, you can “know” what your senses tell you: the things you see and hear and feel, and so forth . . . kind of. But senses can be decieving . . . and they are most certainly subjective.

They can be deceiving because we are human, and therefore subject to limitations. For example, it’s been estimated that approximately 1 in 33,000 people suffer from a type of color-blindness that removes their ability to see anything other than shades of gray. Others suffer from additional forms of color-blindness that make it difficult to distinguish, for example, between red and green. In other words, their sense of sight deceives them. They cannot rely 100% on what they see.

But more than that, our senses are certainly subjective. Sticking with the color example, you might look at a particular shade and perceive it as “red” where another person would perceive the same hue as “purple” and another might perceive it as “pink.”

But what about those things that we “know” from sources other than our own senses? The simple fact is that all “knowledge” comes from either direct observation, shared information or logical reasoning. Logical reasoning shares the same flaws as direct observation in that it relies on our limited, sometimes outright flawed, perception, and therefore we can be reasonably sure that we’re right, but never absolutely certain. Shared information has these same problems, with the additional burden of having been transferred through multiple individuals – each of whom has the same sorts of limits in his or her ability to perceive. Through this process, it becomes not so much “knowledge” as “conventional wisdom” . . . which is sort of the lowest common denominator for information. It’s knowledge that has been diluted just enough to be acceptable to nearly everybody without causing much of a fuss.

Virtually all of what we think of as “knowledge,” then, is either erroneous or subjective, or both. Oh, sure, there are those who point to examples like mathematics and say that it is entirely objective, but that’s only true in its purest theoretical form. The minute you want it to become practical, it again becomes subjective. Take, for example, the fact that 2+2=4. This is an objectively true statement. However, what happens when you add two things to two other things? Well, that depends entirely on the nature of the “things.” If you add two letters to two other letters, you can make words, and those words of four letters can be anything from a name, like “Mike,” to a curse word you use to attack another person. If you add two cups of flower to two eggs, you don’t get four of anything . . . instead you get part of the recipe can be used to bake a tasty dessert. On the other hand, when you add two pounds of sodium to two gallons of water, instead of getting “four” of anything, you get a concoction that blows up in your face!

So yes, you can say for certain that “2+2=4.” But that doesn’t actually mean that you truly know anything, unless you can answer the question “Two of what, under what conditions??” In truth, that information is just another building block like the ones I wrote about in yesterday’s letter: Perceptions, opinions, categorizations, interpretations and the like . . . those building blocks that can be both integral to seeking out the truth, or can be applied to twist or obscure it.

So what I want you to learn from today’s letter is this: Be very, very wary whenever someone comes to you and tells you that they “know” something. Be even more wary when they tell you that their knowledge obligates you to take a certain course of action.

Here’s an example:

As I write this, most of the industrialized world is in the midst of a grave financial crisis. There are about 7 billion people on the planet, and you could probably find nearly that many opinions as to what the cause of this financial crisis might be. In my opinion, though, most of these alleged causes can be traced back to one central issue: There are too many people who think they “know” how the global economy works, and think their supposed “knowledge” entitles them to make economic decisions on your behalf, and mine, and everyone else’s.

There are a few simple economic calculations that are almost as certain as 2+2=4 . . . calculations like “if you increase the supply of something and keep all other factors equal, that thing will become cheaper” . . . part of the law of supply and demand.

The problem is that most of these calculations, along with many others that are much more complex, are just as meaningless as 2+2=4 until they are applied to a practical situation . . . because “all other factors” are never equal! So in this country, and others, we have seen our government leaders running around as if they know what they’re doing, using our money to engage in all sorts of speculative ventures and assuming that those ventures will yield certain results. They haven’t, and most of them have made the whole situation worse. If you forge ahead with running a nation’s economy based on overly simplistic calculations, while assuming that the system will remain completely unaffected by anything you didn’t happen to plan for, you create all sorts of side-effects that cause (as they are currently causing) the whole global economic system to run completely off the rails!

“Knowledge is power,” you will hear from many people throughout your life. This cliche is one we most often hear from those who have some bit of knowledge in a certain area they wish to share with us. But it is almost always used to further the dynamic of “power over” that your mom and I have written about in some of our earlier letters. “Knowledge is power” they say, but what they mean is “my knowledge gives me the power to tell you what I think you should do.” We see this drama played out in politics all the time. Members of one faction assert that their knowledge is superior, and therefore they have the right to tell others what to do. Members of the other faction asserts that, no, their knowledge is superior, so they should be the ones in charge.

Very, very rare is the person who comes along and says, “None of us has enough information to truly know what the right answer is in this situation, so we should just leave it alone and not tell anyone what to do!”

That would, after all, require them to surrender some of their “power over” the rest of us.

What, then, do we do with our imperfect knowledge?

Here’s the thing: It is not always necessary to have perfect knowledge in order for that knowledge to be useful. For example, textbooks for most of the last hundred years have shown images of what atoms, among of the tiniest building blocks that make up our world around us, supposedly “look like.” These pictures say atoms are made up of three types of even smaller particles: protons and neutrons clumped together in the center, with electrons spinning around in circles around that central clump.

The fact that scientists have since learned that this picture of what an atom “looks like” is completely and totally wrong, has not prevented this notional concept of an atom from enabling all kinds of scientific breakthroughs in the last century or so.

In other words, knowledge does not have to be perfect in order to be useful. It only becomes dangerous when we assume that it is perfect (or that the gaps and imperfections do not matter), and use these imperfect results to compel a particular course of action upon others, or allow that course of action to be forced upon us.

What is the alternative? I think your mother exemplifies the best answer to that question. She has a wealth of knowledge gained from many, many years of experience and instruction in the proper way to play the violin. Coupled with that technique is her passion for music, and her passion for life that is expressed in her music. But she would never, ever say that she “knows all there is to know” about how to play or teach the violin.

She has a great deal of knowledge, but it is still imperfect. Yet she has dedicated her life to sharing what knowledge she has with children . . . the next generation of violinists who will grow up and either share their love of music with others, or use the experience of learning a difficult instrument to make them stronger, healthier people in other areas of life. All the while, though, I’ve heard her talk many times of the many, many things she has learned from her students, even as she spends her life teaching them.

In other words, by acknowledging that her understanding is imperfect, and by seeking to build up herself as she builds up others, she has developed a “power with” dynamic that she can share with her students, learning and growing herself, even as she helps each of them learn and grow.

Virtually any “knowledge” we possess is only as good as the assumptions and presuppositions behind it. This viewpoint will not make you very many friends, because we all like to think that we know what we’re doing. In truth, though, the concept of “faith” is not just something that fits in religious beliefs. Even the most rigorous scientific experiment is just an exercise in the faith that this time, things will work out just like they did last time, and that all possible factors have been accounted for. And like religious faith, such scientific faith can at times be misplaced, and can turn out to be wrong.

So beware of certainty. In anything. Live life with humility, realizing that at any time your most heartfelt beliefs could turn out to be wrong. Be open to those moments! Don’t cling to something your heart and soul tell you is no longer true . . . or was never really true in the first place.

Sure, if you rely on your own judgment, you’ll end up being wrong sometimes. You, like all of us, are limited and flawed. But you will be wrong for the right reasons. You will be wrong because you sought out the answers for yourself, and came up short of the truth . . . which means you can try again and improve on your previous result. When you instead turn out to be wrong because you relied on the wrong person to tell you what you should do, all you can do is wait for someone else to come along and tell you something different, because you’ve trained yourself to let someone else do your thinking for you.

This is, I think, the difference between a good teacher and a bad teacher. A poor teacher tells you what to think. A good teacher tells you how to think.

The ancient philosopher Socrates was a good teacher. He believed the first step to true knowledge was recognizing one’s own ignorance. He considered his own wisdom to be based in the fact that he didn’t know anything. So he went around talking to people . . . not telling them what they should think . . . or even what he thought. Instead he went around asking questions . . . making them think about why they believed as they did.

When we believe that we know something, that little bit of knowledge blinds us to any potential alternatives out there . . . for if we “know” it, then how can it possibly be wrong? And if it can’t possibly be wrong, then there are no possible alternatives! If, on the other hand, we understand that we know nothing, like Socrates said, we are free to take that first step on the road to truly understanding.

So instead of loving knowledge, love learning . . . love the fact that in all this wide world you will never, ever run out of things to learn, to explore, to discover. Love the fact that, no matter how much you think you know, there is always more to find out.

And always, always beware of those who are eager to tell you what you “should” do, based on what they “know.”


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