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One of the most important steps on the path of knowledge, whether scientific, spiritual, or otherwise, is to admit that we do not really know. If we really believe that we know something, then we no longer feel compelled to question what we believe we really know. Of course, we have to pretend that we know all kinds of practical things, such as believing that I know I am typing this sentence, or that garbage day is on Wednesday. But when we start to question with increasingly detailed logical scrutiny what we believe we know, we soon realize that we don’t really know what we are talking about. It is this sort of self-aware ignorance that is essential on the path to all forms of knowledge.

Socrates was wise because he knew that he did not know. But there is an important caveat here: he did know what could be truly known. That may sound weird or trivial, but it is actually a very powerful statement. For example, he knew that if anything was beautiful here in the physical world, it could only be beautiful to the degree that it participated in absolute Beauty. That sort of spiritual or philosophical knowledge is unchanging, and so it is something that can genuinely be known. However, which particular things in the physical word are beautiful, and to what degree they are beautiful, is very difficult to know objectively. In other words, because all things in the physical world (including all types of matter and energy) are in some way and to some degree always changing, then we can never really have complete knowledge about any particular thing in the physical world. By the time we have knowledge of something, it will have already changed in one way or another. (How this fact relates to scientific knowledge will need to be addressed in a separate post.)

So we can say that Socrates knew that he did not know what he really did not know, and that he knew what he did really know, which was part of what made him so wise. Only fools believe they know what they do not. Indeed, given the infinity of potential knowledge that awaits discovery, we can be sure that we know very little. Let us humbly work on reducing our own foolishness.


  • Avatar Mwalimujohn says:

    Indeed! If we compare knowledge with all the bytes whizzing around in the blogosphere or with our modern knowledge of the cosmos or the quantum field, any one person’s knowledge is infinitesimally small. This should induce a profound respect for ignorance and the realisation that probably most of us are in its grip. Though ignorance should never become a lame excuse for not trying to understand the universe and our place in it. True philosophical reflection requires, what today has become, a luxury time-path for reflection. Where is the Academy today?

    • Avatar John H Spencer says:

      “Where is the Academy today?” That is a great question. There are individuals in contemporary academia who are, to the best of their abilities, carrying on the ancient tradition of valuing wisdom above technical knowledge, but they are a very small minority and are often marginalized. University bureaucracy and parochial purely-for-profit agendas, coupled with the reality of economic pressures for new grads (and everyone else), are important contributing factors to the demise of the contemporary Academy. It is not that bureaucracy and the seeking of profit are intrinsically wrong; it is that they should not be the guiding vision or the masters of education. I am also not falsely glorifying the ancient learning centers, as they, too, had their own problems, but we cannot ignore the fact that we have created an educational system that is disastrous in terms of fostering higher ideals.

      All participants in the educational system should be serving the goal of seeking wisdom, truth, beauty, and the good. While such idealism (in the colloquial and philosophical sense) cannot ignore the brute facts of physical reality, or the shadow aspects of our individual and collective psyches, it is only by aiming for these higher ideals that we increase the probability of finding better ways of unfolding a plurality of educational pathways. And we are in good company: in contrast to the overemphasis on specialization found in the educational system, Einstein believed that students must aim to ‘acquire a vivid sense of the beautiful and of the morally good’.

      While some universities may have the required vision and capacity to endure the necessary transformation, I am not expecting to see any major changes in the majority of educational institutions any time soon. After all, how often can we expect profound changes from within the system to manifest when only those who obey the current system tend to be promoted to the positions of power required in order to instantiate the requisite changes? (It does happen, of course, but it is not very common.)

      Hopefully someday we will see pervasive educational transformation across the globe, but it is not very likely to happen as fast as we need it to. We are too entrenched in old habits of thought, and we are so easily deceived into accepting irrational fear and ego-centric goals as being the basis of reality. Using trendy buzz words may bring us a temporary boost in social media status, but without the concomitant depth of genuine understanding, they serve no purpose, and may even lead to greater damage by fooling us into believing that we actually know what we are talking about.

      As a small part of the necessary remedy, I am currently involved in the creation of alternative educational opportunities.

  • Avatar Mwalimujohn says:

    I’m definitely with Einstein there! It’s surely not a coincidence that most of history’s great teachers of wisdom, truth, beauty and the good were individuals prepared to think and act outside the ‘system’ of their time., often at great personal cost. At risk of over-generalising, in terms of education at least, the problem is the system, which seems to me to have been increasingly based on false values and assumptions – compliance, consumerism, functionalism, and the twin carrots of status and a good salary, for example. My observations of the current system in many of our schools lead me to conclude that many teachers have become technicians, extensions of web servers, social workers and system managers at the crucial cost of being original thinkers able to engage students in the realm of higher ideals. That is not necessarily their fault. The curriculum is too narrowly directed towards examinations of a kind that promotes a ‘painting-by-number’ approach to learning, with answers readily available on the web for those who take the trouble to look. A long time ago when I was a student teacher I read a book on the philosophy of education by RS Peters in which he asked one simple but profound question: ‘What knowledge is of most worth?’ By that standard alone, Education, if one can still call it that, seems to have lost its way for both teachers and students alike. There will come a time for significant change for the better, perhaps with Eternal Law to guide the change-makers. We hoped for it back in the ’70s with Ivan Illich’s radical ‘Deschooling Society’ but the underlying forces governing our culture at the time were not ready for it. I wish you joy your alternatives today.