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Word Gems 

exploring self-realization, sacred personhood, and full humanity


Editor's 1-Minute Essay: 




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The following represents a distillation of Dr. Adler's Syntopicon Essay plus my own thoughts:

  • Editor's note: the reader will benefit if the following is studied in conjunction with the essay on "Opinion."

The word "knowledge" today sometimes takes on a low-grade sense of mere (uncertain) information; however, the classical definition of "knowledge" admitted to no such equivocation and professed a kinship with "the truth."

Truth is reality.

To "know" is to possess some of the truth; moreover, knowing includes understanding why something is true. The person who admits "ignorance" knows that he or she does not know. (Socrates played upon this irony.)

But the person in "error" is mistaken when a claim to knowledge is made. Persons of this latter category, the ancients assert, are very difficult to teach for they think that they "know."

The relationship between knowledge and error is one of truth and falsity; but that of knowledge and opinion is a different matter.

In the essay on TRUTH we learned that, for something to be "true," there needs to be a one-to-one correspondence between a particular object and a mind's representation of it. Knowledge, a possession of the truth, seems to take this process another step by adding the element of understanding.

Because, according to Socrates, opinions are sometimes correct, they can serve as useful guides, just as knowledge does. The person of opinion, one who may be accidentally correct, however, cannot establish the certainty of his or her position -- cannot give adequate supporting reasons to explain why a particular path is to be chosen. This kind of opinion-based position is fragile and susceptible to being exchanged for something less valuable; in other words, people can change their minds -- even if they hold correct opinions, and they may do so if their assertions are not founded upon understanding.

There is a big difference between knowing that something is true and wishful-thinking or believing that it might be so. This suggests that one of the differences between knowledge and opinion is the manner in which an object is apprehended by the mind.

The person of knowledge is not only certain and sure but also understands the reasons for his or her position.

All of this suggests, as Aristotle wrote, that the kind of education and teaching which relies too heavily on appeals to authority ("accept it because I say so") and rote-memorization becomes a means to shallow-minded indoctrination -- a pedagogy unbefitting a free people.

A first-rate education, above all, teaches one how to think, how to reason. Because "knowledge" requires an understanding of the truth, because it "sees" in its mind's eye how things work, an act of the will to "believe" is not necessary, in a sense, not even possible. Mental assent to knowledge, because it is based on reason, is a natural, even automatic, process.

In fact, when the mind truly "sees," it cannot help itself but to admit to knowledge; however, this is not the case concerning opinion.
Because opinion lacks the certainty of knowledge, it must take a stand based upon its best guess -- a matter of probabilities. As such, the resulting "belief" is an awkward construct of the mind, an assent somewhat artificially produced and tenuously held.

This does not mean, of course, that it is wrong to hold opinions; we must do so, as the Apostle Paul conceded (1 Cor. 13. 9); in a world of limited knowledge, we are forced to make our best estimate in our decisions as we cannot wait for perfect and complete knowledge to light our path.

But the danger comes about when we fail to understand the difference between knowledge and opinion, and mistake one for the other -- it is dangerous to be sure when there is no basis for certitude.

Skeptics deny truth or, at least, a human ability to access it. Radical skeptics deny the possibility of knowing anything.

However, this extreme position, as the great teachers point out, is self-defeating: the moment the skeptic pontificates with blanket statements such as "there is no truth" or "everything is a matter of opinion," he is caught in his own web of illogicality.

These statements are themselves absolute positions and contradict the skeptic's own underlying thesis.

To say, "everything is a matter of opinion," in itself, is a kind of  knowledge -- an absolute statement -- and professes a measure of certainty about the nature of things, thereby offering evidence that truth, and knowledge of it, exist, at least in some form.



Editor's last word: