The Rainbow of Knowledge

To know yet to think that one does not know is best;

Not to know yet to think that one knows will lead to difficulty. ~Lao Tzu, Tao te Ching

I have spent most of my life institutionalized. For more than ' of my life ' 39 of my 50 years ' I have either studied or taught in a school or a college in upstate New York .

You might think, then, that after all this time I'd have some grasp of the situation, that I'd actually know things ' that I'd have some positive sense of assurance, of certainty, about knowledge and about life.

But I don't. In fact, the more I know, the more I know I don't know. And this leads me to believe that the arrogance, the rigidity of 'knowing' results in the desire, perhaps even the need, for Power, thus creating the stiff, unyielding golem we call the State.

To say that the more I know, the more I know I don't know is, of course, contradictory and paradoxical. But then, modern physics tells us that reality itself is contradictory. For example, in an 1894 speech, Albert Michelson, who in 1907 would win the Nobel Prize in Physics, said that 'The more important fundamental laws and facts of physical science have all been discovered, and these are now so firmly established that the possibility of their ever being supplanted in consequence of new discoveries is exceedingly remote.' But less than ten years later, just as the Nineteenth Century was ending, a German physicist named Max Planck presented a paper that changed everything. Physicists had found indisputable evidence and therefore knew that, to put it bluntly and simply, matter was matter and energy was energy ' that they were distinct and as different as can be. But now Planck provided evidence just as indisputable that it (whatever 'it' was) was both, or neither ' even at the same time! And the more they looked into this phenomenon, the stranger it became. Electrons revolving around a nucleus, for instance, seemed able to move from one orbit to another instantaneously, without physically traveling the distance in between.

It is, of course, paradoxical to think of a 'particle' as being both matter and energy, of it being both thing and no-thing, especially at the same time. How could an electron instanteously travel huge distances? How could it be here one moment and there the next without physically, materially, traversing that distance? It can't be! And yet, it is. If quantum mechanics were not true, if it didn't work, then neither would our computers.

Interestingly ' paradoxically? ' the more men looked into physical reality, the more it slipped away from them. In a way, the more they learned, the less they knew. These revelations of quantum physics prompted the great physicist Sir James Jeans to comment that 'The universe begins to look more like a great thought than like a great machine.' Or as the perhaps even greater Niels Bohr put it, 'If quantum mechanics hasn't profoundly shocked you, you haven't understood it yet.'

As if we could understand. As if we could ever understand, ever know.

Not that this is necessarily modern. Many of the ancients knew paradox quite well. One of my favorite books of the spirit, the Tao te Ching, begins: 'The way that can be spoken of is not the constant way. The name that can be named is not the constant name.' The Tao offers paradox after paradox. Chapter Two tells us that 'the sage keeps to the deed that consists in taking no action and practices the teaching that uses no words.' Jesus, too, spoke of paradox. Didn't he, after all, teach us in Matthew 5:39 to 'resist not evil'? Did he not teach us that 'whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also'? Did he not teach us to love those who hate us, that the poor in spirit were blessed, and that theirs was the kingdom of heaven? And are not all these teachings paradoxical?

Knowledge itself is contradictory and paradoxical. For example, picture your knowledge as a dot, as perhaps the period at the end of this sentence. Notice the tiny circumference of that period, and let that represent the interface of the known with the unknown ' in other words, your awareness of what you don't know.

But now imagine that little period growing, its blackness consuming more and more of the page. As it grows, so does its circumference. And if that growing blackness represents knowledge, then as it grows, so does the concomitant awareness of what remains unknown. In other words, the more you know, the more you know you don't know.

No doubt you've experienced this yourself in your own personal quests for knowledge. At first, you don't even know a field of learning exists. It's been there all along, of course; you just haven't noticed it before. When I got my first computer in 1988, I walked down to the magazine store hoping to find something about computing and was amazed at the number of choices. Likewise, when I lucked into an opportunity to teach film analysis, I found myself dazzled at the sheer number of books devoted to the subject.

Let's say you decide to learn about this topic. You buy one of these books, the best and most complete one you can find (or so you think), or perhaps you borrow it from the library. But you quickly find that your reading, rather than answering questions, only creates more of them.

Earlier this year, for example, I not only had no idea that I had any interest at all in the relationship of technology to freedom, I didn't even realize that a connection between them might exist. It was my writing that led me into it. We think often that only people who know, people who are sure, write. For me, however, it's just the opposite. Writing doesn't close things off ' it opens things up.

For example, one of my first pieces concerned the American invasion of Iraq . In reading about television, I had happened upon a site that also contained information about something called the Olduvai Theory, and I wondered if perhaps the United States had invaded Iraq because the supply of oil needed to sustain modern American life had dwindled to such an extent that it justified such action, at least in the eyes of the State. That led me to thinking about the role of oil and of technology in modern life, and that led me to Jacques Ellul's book The Technological Society. His thought intrigued me so that I then read more of his work, in particular Propaganda and Anarchy and Christianity. I have probably three of four more of his books around here somewhere. They'd been next on the list but then something came up in between ' Lewis Mumford, a name that had popped up occasionally in Ellul's work. Mumford's Technics and Civilization was magnificent, and that led in turn to more of his work (I'm currently reading The Pentagon of Power) as well as books by people he mentioned, such as The Tragedy of Waste by Stewart Chase, and books related to ideas of technological power, like those by David E. Nye. From that one seemingly small thread, then, I have gleaned knowledge from several fascinating, wonderful books with many more laying in wait ' and even more, doubt, that they will engender.

On one hand, then, I know much more about this topic than I did a few short months ago. But on the other hand, all this reading has made me see how little I really know and how much more I need to read and think and write. It seems for every book I read, hoping to learn, I end up once I've finished it needing to read three more to gain a better grasp of the topic.

For a long time, this paradox of knowing less the more I knew paralyzed me as a writer. I was very aware of the teaching from the Tao that said 'those who know don't speak; those who speak don't know.' I wasn't sure I should write at all and, even if I did, I didn't believe that I was qualified to do it. I always felt I had to know more first. It took me a long time not to let this paradox freeze me (after all, Lao Tzu did write the Tao) and to believe that it was my writing that would qualify my knowledge, and not the other way around. I think of my work not as articles or as columns but as essays ' a word from the French, meaning 'to try.' I do not know truth. I only try to find it.

Most Americans, however, especially those concerned with and involved in both education and politics, can't or won't accept such thinking. How can something be true today and false tomorrow ' or even both at once? The truth, they tell us with certainty, is certain. It's stiff, hard, and unbending, not gentle or soft or yielding. We have been quite carefully bred to believe fully in education, in knowledge and degrees and certification and authority. You and I might not know, but other people ' smarter people, better people ' do, and we must rely upon their expertise and knowledge. Our professors, our political leaders, especially our presidential candidates, must all know. They must have solutions to our problems. They cannot say, when asked about the homeless or abortion or the death penalty or Osama bin Laden, 'I don't know.' They must know. They must be certain. But, as William James wrote, 'Objective evidence and certitude are doubtless very fine ideals to play with, but where on this moonlit and dream-visited planet are they found?'

No matter what they know, no matter how smart they are, no matter how many studies they make or PhDs they consult, they will always get it wrong. They will always leave something unaccounted for, something overlooked, something not even considered. Something unexpected will happen because something unexpected always happens.

I don't mean in any of this, of course, to suggest that we should not learn, that we should not read and write and think and talk. I do not mean to suggest that we should not try. An infinite quest is not a hopeless one. I only suggest that an understanding of the paradox of knowledge will inevitably and inexorably lead away from Power, away from the force and rigidity of the State, and toward the flexibility and freedom of the individual. As the Tao teaches, 'the stiff and unbending is the disciple of death. The gentle and yielding is the disciple of life.'

We must temper our pride in knowing with the humility of not knowing. The truth, as they say, is out there, but maybe, like the rainbow, we can never really grasp it, never hold it in our hands and truly know it. We can only, as William James said, 'live today by what truth we can get today and be ready to call it falsehood tomorrow."

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Craig Russell's picture
Columns on STR: 35

Craig Russell is a writer and musician in upstate New York.