He’s often credited as one of the most intelligent people that ever lived, but this is all Socrates had to say about knowledge:
“And in knowing that you know nothing, that makes you the smartest of all.” ~ Socrates
A few decades earlier, fellow philosopher Confucius was expressing a similar sentiment in the far east: “Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance. “
I guess they were speaking at a time (circa 450 b.c) when there fewer ways to learn about their surroundings – no history books, no world-maps, no photographs, no Wikipedia… but even now, when we do have all of these things, I am still doubtful that – certainly when it comes to the intangible – any of us really know anything.
A calculator can tell us that 14278 divided by 9 is 1586.4 recurring. Google Translate can tell us that the Swahili word for ‘shoe’ is kiatu. A friend can tell us that a box of Mr Kipling mince pies cost £1.79 in Sainsburys. These are things we can ‘know’, these are measurable and definitive facts.
But when it comes to a lot of other things, our understanding is based only on how we have interpreted these things. Opinions. Feelings. Ideas. Not facts.
Here’s what I mean…
A twist on the age-old cliche – is this terribly-drawn picture of a glass of Blue Hawaiian half-empty or half-full? We might assume that a pessimist would respond with “half-empty” and the optimist with “half-full”. The mathematician may press his ruler against the glass to see whether there is any disparity between the number of blue and transparent millimetres against it. The alcoholic might argue, “Damn the glass! Where’s the pitcher?!”
They’ll each be sure of their answer, but they’re all looking at the same thing. Who’s correct? What’s the right answer? Is there even one at all?
And what about this drawing? What is it? A pair of ear-muffs that have been squashed? A piece of male genitalia? A rocket? Somebody’s long nose, bushy eyebrows and moustache? A toilet plunger?
Actually, it’s a sketch of the Washington Memorial set against a backdrop of the parkland shrubbery which encircles it. And I only know this because I drew it, but if I wasn’t here to say so then the answer could be anything.
There are 7 billion people on the planet, and each of them are unique. We may share our skin colour, hometowns, appearances, faith, tastes in music or preference of shampoo with millions of others, but our eyes – those useful things we see through – are the one thing which will distinguish us from absolutely everybody else. When you think about it, that’s a hell of a lot of different ways by which the things around us can be seen and interpreted.
There is a lot of positive sentiment expressed these days for being ‘strong-minded’ – having beliefs and opinions, and standing by them at all costs. With any flexibility to this can come the slightly more derogatory term ‘weak-minded’. I think that it’s important to be both – to have opinions, but to accept that they are not the same as truth, and to welcome any opposing suggestions. This may be sounding obvious, but it surprises me just how often I see or hear opinions being projected as facts. We all do it: the cashier who short-changes us in the cafe is stupid, the cab driver who drove us into town on Saturday night was a perve, Thanet is a shithole. But none of this is true. It is only what we think. It’s only how our eyes have interpreted things.
There is a very fine line between being strong-minded, and being stubborn. Insisting that the sky is a cyan blue has no credence unless you have listened to and absorbed the words of somebody saying why they think it is more azure in colour. How can we call the cashier stupid when for all we know she might be able to play Earth Song on a pan-pipe, how can we call the cab driver a pervert when he may just have a lazy eye. Perhaps Thanet is nicer on a sunny day.
We may judge occasionally, but we will never be judges. We can share our opinions, but we have absolutely no right to try and sell them as facts, and we cannot simply presume that people will understand things in exactly the same way that we do.
A middle-aged nurse and mother of two killed herself this week because she was left so abashed after falling for a cruel joke carried out by two radio DJs on the other side of the world. What was to them and many listeners a ‘funny’ prank was to her a catalyst of unbearable shame. This is a tragic example of how individual interpretations can manage to shape exactly the same thing into such a variety of ways. This is exactly why we each need to take much more care to try and understand each other’s perspectives a little better; to be far more aware of the fact that not everybody feels the way we do about everything, and to listen and learn rather than to scuttle away with our assumptions and opinions.
And so perhaps this is what Socrates and Confucius meant when they spoke of the limitations to knowledge. So much of what we think isn’t based on fact or truth, merely on interpretations seen through unique pairs of eyes belonging to people who have led unique lives.
Let’s remember that before we allow our opinions to transcend into facts, and let’s see if there are other ways to view the things around us.
Perhaps we might surprise ourselves.
Song of the Day: Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr – Vocal Chords
Detroit-based indie-pop band named after a racing driver.
This is a great song My opinion of this song is that it’s great.