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Word Gems 

exploring self-realization, sacred personhood, and full humanity


 

Knowledge

 


 

 

"We don't see things as they are, we see them as we are." Anais Nin
 

 

Mortimer Adler's Syntopicon Essay: Knowledge

Editor's 1-Minute Essay, Part 1: Knowledge

Editor's 1-Minute Essay, Part 2: Stars And Midnight Blue

Niels Bohr, student iconoclast 

 

 

 

What we know, or think we know, is but one grain of sand on an endless beach of ignorance; therefore, whatever is believed to be known must be held lightly, pending, and anticipating, further light. It shall always be so.

 

T.H. Huxley: The known is finite, the unknown infinite; intellectually we stand on an islet in the midst of an illimitable ocean of inexplicability. Our business in every generation is to reclaim a little more land.

Dr. Richard Feynman, Nobel Laureate, considered to be "the most brilliant teacher" of physics: "We do not yet know all the basic laws [of physics]: there is an expanding frontier of ignorance... one needs a considerable amount of preparatory training even to learn what the words [of physics] mean... Each piece, or part, of the whole of nature is always merely an approximation to the complete truth, or the complete truth so far as we know it. In fact, everything we know is only some kind of approximation, because we know that we do not know all the laws as yet. Therefore, things must be learned only to be unlearned again, or, more likely, to be corrected."  

 

everything you’ve ever learned or heard or read or were taught is wrong

Everything, including what Grandma said, or what your PhD research revealed, or what you learned from 40 years of experience, or what the Nice Young Man at Church preached to you -- it’s wrong.

Everything you’ve ever come to believe as true, as a fact of the world, is either patently wrong, wrong on its face, or effectively wrong, obsolete-wrong, in that, though an aspect of it might be true enough, as new information becomes available, it will find itself in a more expansive, more complex setting, thereby rendering what we thought to be a final answer as something childish, utterly incomplete, merely a subset of a much larger reality – to be cast aside as a few-years-old college textbook, for sale now in the bargain-book bin for 50 cents.

Newton’s “clockwork” universe seemed so authoritative that, in his day, it was taken as the very voice of God, with no major new discoveries in physics deemed to be possible. And his “laws of motion” were impressive and did take us to the Moon and back. However, today the Newtonian worldview has been relegated to status of mere subset of a larger system. This same paradigmatical diminution is currently afflicting Einsteinian explanations of the cosmos. It’s a big place out there with lots of knowledge to be discovered, and, at best, we perceive “one grain of sand.”

There is no fact of the world which shall escape this degradation. There is nothing that you can know about the world that can endure the onslaught, as Abraham Lincoln used the phrase, the “silent artillery” of new discovery, new research, new information. All “final answers” are swept away in this tidal wave of progress.

I said “fact of the world” and that which we may know “about the world.” All externals tumble and swirl and dance a death of obsolescence. What I say here is true in our world and also in the worlds to come. All knowledge, here and there, like a river’s torrent, moves inexorably forward.

But in this condition of perpetual change, motion, and evolution, there is one aspect of life to remain ever immutable. When you find love, the real love, it will plant a flag of permanence in your heart and being. Like an ember glowing, radiating, warming, it will live within you. Permanently. And though its initial visitation may have occurred decades ago, the warmth of that ember fades not, changes not. It will be there tomorrow, next year, and a million years from now, and beyond. Settled, abiding, imperishable.

Facts of the world, things to be known about the world, are derived intellectually. But love, true love, is apprehended as an altered and elevated state of consciousness. It is eternal as the soul; indeed, it lives as inherent aspect of the soul. Ultimate Reality itself might be defined by it.

Editor’s note: The foregoing observations of life are mine alone as fruit of my own meditations. Later, to my shock, however, I realized that the apostle Paul had offered the same in I Corinthians 13. He spoke of the transitoriness of knowledge, and did so within the context of unremitting love.

 

 

 


from the book, “The Power Of Myth,”
a discussion with Dr. Joseph Campbell 

 

Moyers: I like the idea that it’s not the destination that counts, it’s the journey.

Campbell: Yes. As Karlfried Graf Durkheim says, “When you’re on a journey, and the end keeps getting further and further away, then you realize that the real end is the journey.”

 

 

Oliver Wendell Holmes: A mind stretched by a new idea can never go back to its original dimensions.

Ambrose Bierce: "Idiot, n. A member of a large and powerful tribe whose influence in human affairs has always been dominant and controlling." 

John Maxwell: A belief is not just an idea that you possess; it is an idea that possesses you.

 

why was Socrates called the wisest of all  

Editor’s note: Many of the following concepts are from a lecture by Professor Timothy B. Shutt of Kenyon College.

One of Socrates’ friends asked the Oracle at Delphi, “Who is the wisest of men?” – "Socrates" she said. “If this is so,” answered the famous Greek philosopher, “it is because I know what I don’t know.”

There are two primary meanings here.

  1. Socrates could be saying, “I don’t know anything” or “I know the limits of my knowledge.”

Some have called the former the “Socratic irony,” a kind of false modesty, which, with a wink, denies erudition. And while there is a sense in which a wise person might humbly make such assertion, there’s another connotation, likely, as the far better meaning.

  1. Socrates perceives in a non-discursive way, without argumentation or reasoning, that is, he knows by intuition. Not only does he know what he does not know, he also knows that which cannot be known by conventional means, by empiricism, debate, study, or the scientific method. This intuitive pathway to knowledge is what the Greeks called “noetic” insight. 

Editor’s note: The word “noesis” refers to a perception or intelligence originating in the mind. The Greek root is “noos,” meaning “mind.” While it’s true that all perceptions take place in the mind, noesis speaks of insight or perception that does not arise from discursive debate or argumentation but via intuitive means. For a full discussion of the Greeks’ noesis, see the extensive article on “Higher Creativity: Liberating The Unconscious For Breakthrough Insights.”

the form of all forms, the fundamental structure of all things

The noetic insights of Socrates allow him to perceive not only what is good, but the form of the good, the fundamental structure of things, the form of all forms. These reveal the origin not only of being but also the very essence of goodness.

all revelation, all gift of intuition, is utterly non-transferable

Socrates cannot make a student see any of this; he cannot directly lend his insights to another. All revelation is non-transferable – it’s for one recipient only. The best Socrates can do is to help a student demolish self-imposed impediments which prevent the student from seeing.

Hence, the “Socratic dialogue” or the “Socratic method.” This way of teaching by asking questions is not unlike the pedagogy of a Zen master. The famous riddles “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” and the like are designed to short-circuit common egoic thought, to arrest the unfruitful ratiocinations of the “monkey mind.” These are meant to stun the mind into “openness, surrender, and acceptance” – allowing noetic insight to break into one’s perceptions and consciousness.

For example, in the Socratic dialogues we find the subject of justice debated. The egos of the world believe that justice is merely the advantage of the strong, that, “the strong do what they can, and the weak suffer what they must.” This “law of the jungle” view seems reasonable to the grasping “false self.” Socrates cannot directly impart to another a higher view, but he will try to prepare minds of listeners to discover better meanings of justice within the depths of their deeper persons.

Editor’s note:

Prof. Shutt’s phrases, “the form of all forms, the fundamental structure of all things,” I find tantalizingly interesting. On the level of metaphor, his words are very helpful; I’m not certain, however, if Dr. Shutt intends for us to apply symbolism here. Strictly speaking, the noumenal realm of the architectonic is one of formlessness, without phenomenal content, the domain of “the thing in itself.” It is the realm of Universal Consciousness. See further discussion on the “Consciousness” page, an inset-box featuring Tolle’s “stillness.”

All this accepted, I still very much like Prof. Shutt’s “the form of all forms, the fundamental structure of all things.” And while “God,” “the Truth,” “Goodness,” and other heavy-weight virtuous ideals cannot be grasped conceptually, I believe these are accessible, and can be known, via the sacred inner stillness, that is, our link to Universal Consciousness.

What does this mean? It means that there is such a thing as a non-conceptual knowing. It is a knowing without commentary from the mind. It is a wordless, formless, apprehension, an accessing of reality by means of an intelligence that is higher, more potent, than thinking. See further discussion in the “Higher Creativity” article.

Knowing something by way of the “sacred inner stillness” does, in a sense, allow one to perceive “the form of all forms, the fundamental structure of all things.” However, when you are granted such glimpse of ultimate reality, it will be just for you. You won’t be able to adequately communicate what you saw: All mystical revelations are non-transferable. You will be like those on the other side, in their thousands of reports, who cry, “I have no words to describe, it is far too wonderful, and far beyond earthly eyes.”

 

 

Daniel Boorstin, Living Philosophies: "Artists and writers, I believe, have a special role, creating new questions for which they offer experimental answers. We are tested, enriched, and fulfilled by the varieties of experience. And as the years pass there are increasing advantages to being a questioner. Answers can trouble us by their inconsistency, but there is no such problem with questions. I am not obliged to hang on to earlier questions, and there can be no discord -- only growth -- between then and now. Learning, I have found, is a way of becoming inconsistent with my past self. I believe in vocation, a calling for reasons we do not understand to do whatever we discover we can do... I have observed that the world has suffered far less from ignorance than from pretensions to knowledge. It is not skeptics or explorers but fanatics and ideologues who menace decency and progress. No agnostic ever burned anyone at the stake or tortured a pagan, a heretic, or an unbeliever... If our knowledge is, as I believe, only an island in an infinite sea of ignorance, how can we in our short lifetime find satisfaction in exploring our little island? How can we persuade ourselves to be exhilarated by our meager knowledge and yet not be discouraged by the ocean vistas?..I am, then, a short-term pessimist but a long-term optimist. If our mission is an endless search, how can we fail? In the short run, institutions and professions and even language keep us in the discouraging ruts. But in the long run the ruts wear away and adventuring amateur reward us by a wonderful vagrancy into the unexpected."

Thomas Stearns Eliot (1888-1965): "Where is the Life we have lost in living? Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?"

Ralph Gomary, President, Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, quoted in Forbes, Jan. 11, 1999: "Instead of accepting information as fact, we ought to be taught that it is only a fragment on the edge of the unknown. That pushes us to look further."

Adolf Hitler: "A violently active, intrepid, brutal youth - that is what I am after... I will have no intellectual training. Knowledge is ruin for my young men."

Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan: "Everyone is entitled to his own opinion but not his own [set of] facts."

René Descartes, Meditation II: "Archimedes, that he might transport the entire globe ... demanded only a point that was firm and immovable; so also, I shall be entitled to entertain the highest expectations, if I am fortunate enough to discover only one thing that is certain and indubitable."

Francis Bacon: "Knowledge is power."

Clarence Darrow (1857-1938): "I do not pretend to know what many ignorant men are sure of."

Albert Einstein: "Imagination is more important than knowledge... When I examine myself and my methods of thought, I come to the conclusion that the gift of fantasy has meant more to me than my talent for absorbing positive knowledge."

Picasso: "Computers are useless. They can only give you answers."

Oscar Wilde: "Education is an admirable thing, but it is well to remember from time to time that nothing that is worth knowing can be taught."

Jonathan Swift: "It is useless to attempt to reason a man out of a thing he was never reasoned into."

Ecclesiastes 1:18: "For in much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow."

George Gurdjieff: “A man can only attain knowledge with the help of those who possess it. This must be understood from the very beginning. One must learn from him who knows.”

Laurence Sterne: “The desire of knowledge, like the thirst of riches, increases ever with the acquisition of it.”

Roger Bacon: "There are two modes of acquiring knowledge, namely by reasoning and experience. Reasoning draws a conclusion and makes us grant the conclusion, but does not make the conclusion certain, nor does it remove doubt so that the mind may rest on the intuition of truth, unless the mind discovers it by the path of experience."

Albert Einstein: "The difference between what the most and the least learned people know is inexpressibly trivial in relation to that which is unknown."

Thomas Sowell: "Physicists have determined that even the most solid and heavy mass of matter we see is mostly empty space. But at the submicroscopic level, specks of matter scattered through a vast emptiness have such incredible density and weight, and are linked to one another by such powerful forces, that together they produce all the properties of concrete, cast iron and solid rock. In much the same way, specks of knowledge are scattered through a vast emptiness of ignorance, and everything depends upon how solid the individual specks of knowledge are, and on how powerfully linked and coordinated they are with one another."

John Stuart Mill: "The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error."

Dr. Mortimer Adler, Syntopicon essay, Truth: "But the ancient controversy in which Socrates engages with the sophists of his day, who were willing to regard as true whatever anyone wished to think, seems to differ not at all from Freud's quarrel with those whom he calls intellectual nihilists. They are the persons who say there is no such thing as truth or that it is only the product of our own needs and desires. They make it 'absolutely immaterial,' Freud writes, 'what views we accept. All of them are equally true and false. And no one has a right to accuse anyone else of error.' ... If all opinions are equally true or false, then why, Aristotle asks, does not the denier of truth walk 'into a well or over a precipice' instead of avoiding such things. 'If it were really a matter of indifference what we believed,' Freud similarly argues, 'then we might just as well build our bridges of cardboard as of stone, or inject a tenth of a gramme of morphia into a patient instead of a hundredth, or take tear-gas as a narcotic instead of ether. But,' he adds, 'the intellectual anarchists themselves would strongly repudiate such practical applications of their theory.'"

Albert Einstein: "My religion consists of a humble admiration of the illimitable superior spirit who reveals himself in the slight details we are able to perceive with our frail and feeble mind."

John Adams, argument in defense of the soldiers in the Boston Massacre Trials, December 1770: "Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence."

Margaret Fuller: "If you have knowledge, let others light their candles at it."

Galileo, quoted by Stillman Drake, Galileo at Work: His Scientific Biography: "I do not think it is necessary to believe that the same God who has given us our senses, reason, and intelligence wished us to abandon their use, giving us by some other means the information that we could gain through them."

Andrew Russell Forsyth, Mathematics, in Life and Thought: "... fuller knowledge through patient labour... for the acquisition of mathematical knowledge: for he will find, as Euclid told a bored and discontented pupil in words that have lived for more than two thousand years, There is no royal road to learning."

Woody Allen, Without Feathers: “What if everything is an illusion and nothing exists? In that case, I definitely overpaid for my carpet.”

Albert Einstein: "Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one."

Albert Einstein: "I have no particular talent. I am merely inquisitive."

Ian J. Davenport: "... common sense is only based on a very small subset of the universe."

Noam Chomsky: "How is it that we know so little, given that we have so much information."

Confucius: "Real knowledge is to know the extent of one's ignorance."

Dr. Gary E. Schwartz, U. of Arizona, The AfterLife Experiments: "I was trained to look at the world as an intellectual, a scientist. In science we hypothesize; we do not believe. And science does not establish 'proof' so much as provide evidence for or against a hypothesis."

Editor's note (9-17-02): "Faith" is often deemed an exclusive attribute of religious people, something unfamiliar to the world of science. But this is illusion. Faith is our admission, the reasonable person's concession, that complete knowledge in this world, is a most rare species. Evidence, that little we might apprehend, must be marked, in bold red letters, "tentative." Evidence takes us only a short way down the dimly lighted road of truth-discovery; and then, as some have stated, we must leap into the unknown with our best guess. It is a leap of faith, and will remain so, until greater light verifies the truth or falsity of our position. And, in this process - a fitful blend of faith and discovery - men and women, of both science and religion, grope for truth in the darkness of incomplete knowledge, building civilization, almost inadvertently, as they go.

Sir Oliver Lodge, Raymond: "... the Christian conception; not of a God apart from His creatures, looking on, taking no personal interest in their behaviour, sitting aloof only to judge them; but One who anxiously takes measures for their betterment, takes trouble, takes pains - a pregnant phrase, takes pains - One who suffers when they go wrong, One who feels painfully the miseries and wrongdoings and sins and cruelties of the creatures whom He has endowed with free will; One who actively enters into the storm and the conflict; One who actually took flesh and dwelt among us, to save us from the slough into which we might have fallen, to show us what the beauty and dignity of man might be. Well, it is a great idea, a great and simple idea, so simple as to be incredible to some minds... To sum up: Let us not be discouraged by simplicity. Real things are simple. Human conceptions are not altogether misleading. Our view of the Universe is a partial one but is not an untrue one. Our knowledge of the conditions of existence is not altogether false - only inadequate."

Professor Daniel N. Robinson, Georgetown University: "In answer to the question What kind of stuff is there really? the materialist will answer material stuff. And if you then say to the ontological materialist, How do you know that? - that is, epistemologically, Defend that claim - usually you will find a mode of inquiry that presupposes that the ultimate stuff of reality is material. But if you say I can think of all sorts of things that have no moving parts [seemingly, no material essence: dreams, thoughts, etc.], the materialist will say Well, they don't exist. And if you say, But how do you know they don't exist? he will answer: My methods of inquiry don't turn up any evidence for any of it. Well, there's a certain circularity [of reasoning here], even a viciousness, between the ontological position we take and the methodology we adopt to confirm [our propositions]."

Professor Daniel N. Robinson, Georgetown University: "What is there? -- the common answer is, Look around!... but ancient man engaged in spear-fishing and learned early that where you think the fish is in the water is not quite where the fish is, and you've got to learn to adjust to the fact that your senses might deceive you. Might they always deceive you? And might all these things we take for granted as having real being be merely apparitions? or manifestations of a peculiar sort -- behind which we can find a reality worthy of the title reality... the subject of ontology is to ask the question What is there? -- it is the subject of what has real existence. Are there minds and thoughts, do they really exist? ... What is the right mode of inquiry? Should we answer the question What is there? by making observations? that is, what "is" is anything I can see, hear, taste or smell. If we do that, then surely there can be no quarks, or neutrons, or electrons... and it will turn out that the only thing that has real existence is that which can make contact with our sense organs. But as we know, the maximum visual sensitivity of the honey bee is in a region of the spectrum, that is called ultra-violet, where we can't see anything; so the ontology of the honey bee is radically different from the ontology of Homo Sapiens. What a strange turn of events if it turns out that the right answer to the question What is there? depends on what your sense organs are -- we surely don't want to think that things go in and out of being depending upon which sensory apparatus is brought to bear on them... the deep implication of What is there? is there may well be more than meets the eye -- that's why we're raising the question! If it were obvious that all there is is what I see, the question would never arise ... because I am often deceived by what I see, or often discover that something is going on though I couldn't sense any of it at all..."

Professor Daniel N. Robinson, Georgetown University: "The only way we can make the claim that the senses deceive us is if we have some non-deceptive mode of discovery against which we can weigh the claims of the senses and say, Aha! the senses got it wrong! ... epistemology is the study of our modes of knowing, the study of knowledge claims, a critical perspective of what we take to be the right forms of inquiry, the inquiries by which we avoid error."

Professor C.J. Ducasse: "Assertions of impossibility are based on the metaphysical creeds of the scientists of the day."

Bernard of Clairvaux: "There are those who seek knowledge for the sake of knowing; that is curiosity. There are those who seek knowledge to be known by others; that is vanity. There are those who seek knowledge in order to serve; that is love.”

Alvin Toffler, Rethinking the Future: "The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn."

Edmund Burke: "Facts are to the mind, what food is to the body. On the due digestion of the former depend the strength and wisdom of the one, just as vigour and health depend on the other. The wisest in council, the ablest in debate, and the most agreeable companion in the commerce of human life, is that man who has assimilated to his understanding the greatest number of facts."

Dorothy L. Sayers, Gaudy Night: "The proportion and relations of things are just as much facts as the things themselves ; and if you get those wrong, you falsify the picture really seriously."

 

"All men by nature desire to know. An indication of this is the delight we take in our senses; for even apart from their usefulness they are loved for themselves." Aristotle, METAPHYSICS

 

 

 

Editor's last word: