We know nothing (It’s turtles all the way down)

We know nothing.

It is a surprisingly liberating idea to accept, even if it is only approximately true. We are so caught up — biologically driven, even — trying to make sense of the world, we rarely stop to consider the fidelity of the information we gather, the integrity of our ability to process it, or the multitude of ways how what we consider “fact” or “truth” can be discredited with the slightest shift in perspective.

This is heady stuff. The main theme is epistemology, which the Britannica online describes as, “the philosophical study of the nature, origin, and limits of human knowledge”. But as I have no training in the field, I am not going to presume any technical competence or go much deeper than personal experience.

The author is not oblivious to the irony of writing on a topic about the limitations of knowledge, considering his lack of knowledge of the field. But as you are still reading, he will keep writing. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

When my defence mechanisms allow it — because truly, we crave homeostasis like little else in this world, except maybe belonging — I become aware of this fact being hammered home multiple times a day, as:

  • I start researching something and realise my current understanding barely reaches the surface, never mind scratches it,
  • information I thought was true is proven false or updated,
  • a perspective I hold is challenged, and I am forced to reconsider my stance on the topic,
  • beliefs I hold are challenged by reason, evidence, experience, or the lack thereof,
  • confidence I put in people is eroded as they reveal less saintly versions of themselves,

and so on.

The thing is, all information we have is built on the presupposition of something else. Which raises three immediate concerns:

  1. Somewhere down the line, some of that presupposed knowledge will be factually, experientially or contextually wrong.
    • (This is one of the main reasons a humble conversation on race is so hard for most white westerners. We shout down into most interactions from the crenellations of our castle of “superior knowledge”, refusing to accept that we cannot ever truly understand the lived experience of an oppressed people. Our experiential lens is broken, but unaware or uncaring, we moer onward with our privilege, apathetic disregard and platitudes regardless.)

Sorry, where were we? Ah yes. Two other immediate concerns:

  1. Even assuming very little of that knowledge is incorrect, our mediums of expression are subjective at best, where not wholly inadequate. The asymptotic fidelity of words is a subject of its own, but in sum:
    • language is subjective and rooted in experience, thus easily misunderstood, and
    • language cannot adequately express experience, the numinous, colour to a blind person, and any number of other fields.
  2. The beings doing the knowing (i.e. you and I) have such deep filters and powerful subconscious drives, nothing we interpret is without interpretation (distortion).

To do any real justice to the three points above this piece would need to become a thesis, which I refuse to do to you. It also leads very quickly to nihilism, which is a road I do not intend on walking today.

So why bring it up then? For three reasons (I’d be a great Baptist preacher). When I accept that I don’t know anything (or at least, know much less than I presume):

  1. It moves me towards greater humility and willingness to learn,
  2. it inspires in me a deeper awe at the mysteries of life (both material and mystical), and
  3. it forces me to either accept that I don’t know much, and thus allow others with more experience to teach me, or be willing to do the work to earn a deeper understanding.

If what I’m saying resonates with you on some level but you aren’t yet willing to say, “I know nothing”, I have a stopgap phrase for you to lean on.

“It’s turtles all the way down.”

Terry Pratchett would approve.

ps. If what I’m saying does resonate with you, I’d love to hear from you in the comments.

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