What Do We Really Know Anyway


Jesus said, "Those who seek should not stop seeking until they find. When they find, they will be disturbed. When they are disturbed, they will marvel, and will reign over all. [And after they have reigned they will rest.]" - The Gnostic Gospel of Thomas

What do we really know? How do we find the truth? These questions may drive some of us to roll our eyes. But with a bit of careful thought, they can become profoundly disturbing. Many would admit that each of us lives in a bubble of self-absorption and distraction with very little room for questions as these. Should such "mental heavy lifting" be left for philosophers and theologians on our behalf? Should we let institutions dictate knowledge and define truth for us as we go about our lives, working, paying taxes and munching on popcorn at movie theaters on the weekend? Or do we dare ask these questions and risk tumbling down our very own rabbit hole, right at the place we are sitting? Do we dare shake the foundations beneath our feet, enter an unknown labyrinth of sorts and put into doubt the sanity that powers our lives?


Everything we know about the world comes to us first through our own physical senses. As babies we are visually attracted by colors and sounds. We like to feel textures with our fingers, play in dirt and even put it in our mouths. It is our way of acquainting ourselves with the world. As we grow, we begin to rely on external sources for knowledge, primarily on our parents. We mature under their umbrella of beliefs and values, whatever they may be. Then we are sent off to school to be educated by our teachers. From there, we go to our temples to be admonished by our pastors and clerics. The schooling process continues with a whole army of supposed authorities that includes employers, politicians, governors, entertainers and others. All of these pushers and jugglers of information are extensions of the institutions that have produced them. They are the voice of the social or cultural patterns of the day. While we inherit their values and knowledge, can we fully rely on their perspectives to define the truth for our personal lives? Do we risk something by simply repeating the same patterns without question? There is a lot to be said for following in our mentors' footsteps. The patterns have already been drawn out; we simply have to follow in their grooves. Such inherited paths may afford security, stability, financial wealth, social recognition and respect. But is this enough to really satisfy us? Most of us operate through an image of the world and ourselves that has been imposed on us. We truly know very little despite the staggering amount of information and knowledge at our disposal. We believe in the idea that we should know. We believe in the patterns that have given birth to this idea.

As children, we have no choice but to trust the authorities in our lives, beginning with our parents and teachers. During our formative years, we are deeply conditioned to accept certain facts as unshakeable. We learn in school that Columbus's discovery of America was an important and positive turning point in the flourishing of our western civilization. While this may be a viable observation from one perspective, there is often no mention of Columbus's atrocious slaughter of the natives who were already living in this "undiscovered" land. We get the message from our schooling that the American Indians were uncivilized and primitive and not as important as the white man. Regardless of which account of history we subscribe to, none of us on this planet was there to see it unfold with our own eyes. We must rely on sources who have their own perspectives, which are always skewed or biased to some degree. In the information age, we know without a shadow of a doubt that there is an opposite view to any perspective with varying degrees in between them. This applies to history, politics, religion, etc.

To really know something, most agree that we must investigate for ourselves. Like children, we must examine supposed truth or information. We must smell it, listen to it as we shake it, look at it from all angles and fumble with it with our hands and perhaps even try to bite into it. Then we can truly claim that we know something or have experienced it. Or can we? Unfortunately, our own physical senses can deceive us in many ways. This fact is demonstrated aptly by optical illusions or by limitations or failures in perception (see video below).

Also as we age, the senses dim and cannot be trusted totally to guide us through our daily routine. We come to rely increasingly on the outside world to carry on with life. Moreover, we know that subconscious elements can alter or influence the messages received by our brains from our physical senses. In effect, we have the ability to deceive ourselves and it seems that we do so quite often. Given all of these facts, we must conclude that it is impossible to absolutely trust even our own senses.

If there is any unbiased, objective perspective in the world, it may be found in the field of science. However, science makes no claims about absolutely having the last word on anything. It only offers working theories. For a long time, Newton's theories on gravity and motion ruled the world. The Universe was taken to be like a giant pool table with billiard balls for planets and stars. Then Einstein showed us a different perspective that transformed our basic notions of space and time. As a result of his discoveries, new perspectives within his own lifetime popped up that questioned the entire basis of scientific observation. Even Einstein felt uneasy about the startling conclusions of modern physics. New revelations have completely revolutionized the study of science itself. They have forced us to realize that the observer in any experiment always has an influence on the object being observed. In other words, the latest information we have points to a very strange, paradoxical and psychedelic Universe where we, as observers, can never get at an absolute objective perspective. Observer and observed are always intertwined.

This leads us to only one possible conclusion... for now. There is no firm ground under our feet. The world we see is shaped by our own biases, hang-ups, and subconscious fears and desires. It is a colossal, interconnected construct of billowing smoke. The best we can do is to participate in its phantasmagorical drama without getting hung up on any single truth. Our resting place may not be in finding "the truth" but in living a genuine life the integrity of which does not depend on either our own physical senses or on external informants. In other words, the answers to our fundamental questions cannot be found in the world. They are not dependent on time. Any clue to this riddle will only be found deep down in that rabbit hole, right where we are sitting, here and now.

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