Knowledge, Truth, and Growth

avatarFeatured Columnist – Meditations
Martin LeFerve

The branch of philosophy concerned with the nature of knowledge, especially with reference to its limits and validity, is called epistemology. Ironically, such specialization is at the heart of the problem of philosophy in the modern era.

That’s because a philosopher who specializes is no philosopher at all. The word philosophy means ‘love of truth,’ and the truth cannot be put into categories, to become specialized domains of knowledge.

Doing philosophy means questioning everything, and one of the most important questions is: What is knowledge?

We face a conundrum. To define knowledge is of course a function of knowledge. Is a perspective from which knowledge can be viewed even possible? I feel so.

To my mind, knowledge, in the broadest sense, is the totality of human experience, rational and non-rational, whether stored in the brain, in books, or in computers. Knowledge, and the known, are the cumulative products of thought.

One facet of knowledge is the scientific, testable body of information that is exponentially expanding. Another kind of knowledge is the memories of a person’s lifetime, as well as everything that has been passed down through the generations.

Is memory really a kind of knowledge? Certainly retrievable memory is. Personal experience is accumulative, as is knowledge. Both are growing in inverse proportion to wisdom, while tradition (the cultural and contextual knowledge of previous generations), is rapidly eroding.

Other animals acquire rudimentary knowledge (though in the case of Orcas, apparently not rudimentary at all). But only humans know that they know, and know that they don’t know (though few come from that premise). Do Orcas in the wild have self-consciousness? I doubt it.

This is a very broad definition of knowledge, which doesn’t wade into the many pools of schools, such as empiricism, rationalism, and constructivism, not to mention the even muddier streams of ‘true knowledge’ and ‘true belief.’

My intent is to initiate philosophical inquiry, and convey two things that seem clear. First, that knowledge and truth are completely distinct domains, and aren’t synonymous, as is commonly held. Second, that there are two kinds of learning—accumulative and negational.

For thousands of years, conscious knowledge was only passed down orally. Technology changed very slowly, and traditions endured for a very long time. When writing emerged, knowledge began to expand much more rapidly, although outer change was still slow, and civilizations such Rome or Egypt lasted hundreds of years.

In prehistoric times, people did not distinguish practical knowledge from other kinds of knowledge. Beliefs about ancestors were just as real as the knowledge of animal behavior and edible plants that enabled hunting and gathering.

A creation myth was just as true as the technique for making a fire, and woven just as deeply into the fabric of social life. We’re losing this kind of knowledge, which is more implicit than explicit. With it we’re losing the meaning and cultural context that myths and traditions provided.

Knowledge, even the most rigorous scientific knowledge, is not truth, but a set of ideas, information, theories, and observable facts about the world. Knowledge may be accurate or inaccurate, but it cannot be truth, since what is true can only be perceived in the moment, without words or prior knowledge and experience. In short, to know something, and have a keen awareness/understanding of something are completely different functions of the brain.

Most philosophers reject the proposal that human beings have the capacity for direct, unmediated perception, maintaining that our knowledge and conditioning always determine, or at least color what we see. But just as one can have a sensory perception of pain without a thought or memory of pain, so too one can see a tree without the word, knowledge, and prior experience about the tree mediating the moment of experiencing.

In fact, one only really sees a tree, or anything else, when knowledge and the entire content of the known are silent. One may study birds, and know a lot about hummingbirds. But watching one feed a meter away with all one’s senses, and not just with the mind, one sees and feels the incredible actuality of a hummingbird. Such experiencing is not a function of knowledge; indeed, knowledge gets in the way of it. To truly see the hummingbird, or anything else, knowledge and the known must be quiet.

Knowledge is always partial because it is a movement of the past, but the truth is always present and whole. The complete, silent apprehension of the ever-changing actuality of the present leads one to awareness of truth, which is neither relative nor absolute.

One can’t ‘know’ the truth, but one can live by the light of insight. To do so however, one has to allow knowledge and the known to be in abeyance, through watching and listening with all one’s being, without division or effort.

Is knowledge is limited, extensionally or intrinsically? Not extensionally, since knowledge of the universe can grow forever, but it is intrinsically, in its basic nature. That’s why living in terms of knowledge and prior experience severely limits, and ultimately deadens people and cultures.

The great lie of our age is that knowledge and expertise are making people intelligent and wise, and making civilization progress. No matter how much evidence there is to contrary, the vast majority of supposedly educated people adhere to this illusion.

Is there another kind of learning? The only kind of learning most people understand is cumulative, involving knowledge and experience.

But there is another kind of learning altogether. Negational learning starts with an attitude of ‘I don’t know,’ and ends with a state of ‘I don’t know.’

True growth occurs in the space that’s opened up with the ending of knowledge and the known.