Suspicion of Knowledge

Suspicion of Knowledge

Easter 42

With recent events regarding the education of girls that have occurred in the Middle East which are truly terroristic occurrences whose purpose is more about exercising a false sense of power than it is about religion, one might believe that not trusting knowledge or the quest for it is a modern thing. Certainly Islamic extremists would like the world to believe it is the fault of the United States of America. The truth is, however, that mankind has always been suspect of learning new things.

“New opinions are always suspected, and usually opposed, without any other reason but because they are not already common.” John Locke introduced a new concept into the science of thinking – the fact that man’s capacity for learning might have limits. Locke took the concept that we learn through our senses and applied it to the limits of those senses. Locke gave the contents of consciousness the name “ideas” and proposed that unless we also incorporate someone else’s sensory perceptions, then we are limited in understanding the reality external to us: “No man’s knowledge here can go beyond his experience.”

Locke is also known for encouraging both tolerance and liberal capitalism, a system of voluntary transactions based upon one owning one’s work and then used, independent of government. “Where is the man that has incontestable evidence of the truth of all that he holds, or of the falsehood of all that he condemns, or can say that he has examined to the bottom all his own, or other men’s, opinions? The necessity of believing without knowledge, nay often upon very slight grounds, in this fleeting state of action and blindness we are in, should make us more busy and careful to inform ourselves than constrain others.”

Locke strongly believed in the community as playing a vital role in advancing one’s knowledge. I might see a fuzzy shape but from another’s perceptive, they might see four legs. Someone from yet another perspective might see a tail. Take a fourth perspective that see the front and gradually we can understand whether or not we are looking at a cat or a dog. Through the experiences of each, we combine through and gain greater knowledge than was possible through just one perspective. What about those things we believe exist but cannot prove through our sense, things like time and space?

Many in the German school of philosophy known as German Idealism believed time and space could not exist, in part based upon the teachings of the classical philosopher Spinoza. German Immanuel Kant varied from this and maintained that time and space existed in our intuition. Basically German Idealism believed that the reality we known is based upon ideas or thoughts. It held that only our thoughts are truly knowable and those things that exist or are thought to exist in the outside world can never be truly proven to exist. This basic concept dates back to Plato and was revived with the writings of Englishman and bishop George Berkeley in the early part of the eighteenth century.

Kant attempted to join the philosophical schools of rationalism which believed knowledge was gained only through reason and empiricism which held that we learned only through our senses. Kant proposed that we do know more than basic knowledge and that we know the potential for other things exists, even if we do not have the ability to prove them or perhaps even see them. Kant believed that that which we perceive and know might just be how they appear to us and not perhaps as they really are.

It is important to remember these teachings and where they led because if we don’t, we are in danger of repeating past mistakes and will have learned nothing through time. German philosophers following Kant both embraced and rejected his notions in developing their own, a practice which reflected the beginnings of the study of philosophy. Some reinstated the connection between faith and belief with the basis of all knowledge, a concept that laid the groundwork for the American Transcendalist movement of the nineteenth century. Some like the German Jacobi used Kant’s potential for things to be more than the appeared, something he termed “thing-in-itself”, as a fact of faith. Schulze maintained, however, that an external thing could not produce a mental image. Schulze held these mental images or concepts were the result of our own ego while Schelling felt the ideal and the real were simply manifestations of the entity of God.

“It is precisely in knowing its limits that philosophy exists.” Immanuel Kant’s words might seem strange but most believe that we learn by realizing what we do not know. It is much like having a key ring full of keys, not knowing which key opens the door we want to use. The last key we use will always be the correct key to open the door simply because once it is opened we stop trying the other keys. We never discover is there are duplicate keys on the key ring that would open the door because our goal has been met.

“Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance.”  Confucius said this centuries before Kant did and both men were right. The problem comes when we decide what we need to learn and learn it and then stop trying to learn new things. We become comfortable with that which we have. There is nothing wrong with comfort but sometimes it can restrain us from advancements. When we accept that all that is possible is what we know, then we stop living. It is good to scrutinize new knowledge and to question it. To disregard it simply because it is not common or comfortable is useless and a sure road to downfall, stagnation, and decay. In the twentieth century Richard Feynman wrote: “You can know the name of a bird in all the languages of the world, but when you’re finished, you’ll know absolutely nothing whatever about the bird… So let’s look at the bird and see what it’s doing — that’s what counts. I learned very early the difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something.”

In our world today we know the names of many things but do we really know them? There are extremists in every country using the names of supposed enemies but is what they are saying really true? During the political campaigns across the planet, speeches are made, not so much about the candidate’s beliefs but about those of his/her opponents. Do those speeches contain truth or rhetoric best described as propaganda? I once was in a meeting that had yet to start. A discussion of vegetable arose and everyone in the room agreed they hated beets. I always thought I hated them as well and was about to join in when I suddenly realized I had no idea what they tasted like. So I asked the group what beets tasted like. No one could tell me but they all knew they hated them. Did they really hate them or was it just popular to not like beets?

We achieve not only greater knowledge but greater freedom when we open our minds to new knowledge. It must be viewed and not just accepted because it is popular to accept it. We should not fear the stranger but we should proceed with cautious good intent and wise thinking. A person is not evil because they are unknown or different. Some people I like and some I don’t; some people like me and some don’t. After our meeting, we all went out to eat and I ordered beets. Three others discovered that, like me, they did like beets. They were not the evil vegetable we thought they were. I agree with Socrates: “The only good is knowledge and the only evil is ignorance.”


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