Knowledge and Ignorance

Man is driven by the need to create patterns from his experience of reality. Pattern seeking is instinctive to human beings. It is the driving force behind our search for meaning and order. Individuals pick up a variety of ‘pattern forming techniques’ through education and social conditioning. Such skills are used to comprehend and connect the multitude of experience, to form meaningful patterns out of the cacophony of sensory inputs.

Every culture has ground rules to guide its members in this task. For example, ‘survival of fittest’ decides the course of biological evolution has emerged as a key guiding principle in modern societies. Unfortunately, most fashionable of such ground rules contradict each other. It is not surprising because these are derived from mutually exclusive sources of scientific knowledge and religious faith. Experience is compartmentalized, creating conflicts in both personal and social interactions. Patterns emerging out of our times are distorted and contradictory.

Imagine an arithmetic based on the assumption 1+1 = 3. Building up from here, no amount of hard work or ingenuity will produce results that truly correspond to reality. Mankind is facing a similar crisis today. Our problems originate from a cause that is too fundamental to be solved by present day scientific thinking. We are suffering the consequences of an epistemological error, a serious mistake in comprehending the relationship between Knowledge and Reality.

I believe this is the reason for our failure to integrate subjective and objective aspects of experience into a meaningful whole. My inner sense of ‘being at harmony with nature’ is as real to me as the force of gravity. Why is it that science has no place for such purely subjective experiences? What is the significance of experiences that cannot be translated into objective expressions?


Any attempt to unify human experience should begin with the question of knowledge. What constitute knowledge and why is it so powerful? Last two centuries saw explosive growth in one type of knowledge, objective knowledge, in the form of science and technology. It is true that our lives are often dominated by ‘subjective’ knowledge, but we must begin by suspecting its validity. Scientists, using data and reason, can convince any intelligent person to see the truth of their findings. Poets or mystics cannot do that. On the other hand, reason may be truly limited in its explanatory power. What other options do we have? Nothing. Reason is the only path, even when the destination is its outer limits.

We must understand ‘knowledge’ as a product evolution. We must dig into its evolutionary history to understand how it came into being. This is the only way to study ‘knowledge’ objectively. Words such as mind or consciousness cannot be used to explain knowledge because we do not know what exactly ‘mind’ or ‘consciousness’ is. There is no mind to begin with, only the objective certainty of evolution.

Life evolved from simple self-replicating molecules to monstrously complex trees and animals over a period of 3.5 billion years. ‘Knowing’ was not around for almost the entire duration of this growth and proliferation. It is a very recent entry on evolutionary time scale. How did the transition from ‘unknowing ape’ to ‘knowing man’ happen? How did early humans perceive themselves and their environment?

I am sitting comfortably in my office room, typing these words into the computer. There is a beautifully painted jug on the side table. I am aware that it is shaped out of clay, fired in an oven, polished and painted to give me the comfort of storing water. Let me do a thought experiment. I want to travel back in time, to the irrational perplexity of my earliest ancestor. I forget the history of water jugs, chemical composition of clay, structure of atoms, and along with it every bit of knowledge that makes me a civilized human being. I stare at the jug through the emptiness of my mind. Isolated in pre-historic vacuum, far away from the origin of languages, my mind has lost its words. Universe is confined to this remarkably colored object and myself. How do I describe my experience? What is this thing I am staring at? I concentrate on its shape and color, hesitantly stretching hand to explore. I tremble at the feeling of contact with this strange object and withdraw, only to try again and again. What are the secrets of this jug’s being? I don’t know. Words have flown off, leaving only a smothering vacuum. I do not know how to express my perplexity. What exactly is the thing known to my civilized contemporaries as a jug? What is left in a jug if I empty it of all the ideas and associations that have got into it in the past ten thousand years? I am confronting the puzzle that haunted generations of primitive humans – the task of describing the thing-in-itself.

Our ancestors at the dawn of awareness encountered a puzzling world. This puzzle was partially solved with the invention of language. Emerging human rationality found that the easiest way to deal with a mystery is to cover it up. Early man attempted to tame the unknowable thing-in-itself by giving it a name. Act of naming is the most basic form of objective knowing. Names are objective entities for the group of people who share this knowledge. The wild, fearful thing that pounces on the hunter became an objective fact after it was named ‘qxzitlntol’ – something that can be spoken of and acted against. Real objects are mysterious and unknowable. Knowing is an act of de-mystification, a practical trick of concealing the strangeness of unknowns behind a veil called knowledge.

Who does this covering up? We can identify an agent, a part of ourselves with the task of exploring and covering up the mystery of things. Let us call this agent ‘demystifier’. Let us dump words such as consciousness, awareness and rationality into this black box. ‘Demystifier’ is functionally similar to other sense organs such as the eye or ear. We can possibly open up this black box and explore its contents later, after we are convinced about its reality and function.

We are not cooking up something mysterious here. There was a point in time, not far from the appearance of human species in the history of evolution, when objective knowledge did not exist. Contrast this situation with the present. What happened between these two points of time? We are looking for natural explanations and it is sensible to view objective knowledge as the output of an organ, similar to other sense organs we are endowed with. We do not know anything about the structure or mechanism of this sense organ at this point. It is a black box, definable in terms of its output, which is indeed real. Thus ‘demystifier’ is simply a label attached to a new function that evolved in human beings, possibly over few hundred thousand years. It evolved as the ‘organ of knowing’, just as eyes evolved as the ‘organ of seeing’.

Karl Popper(1) compares objective knowledge to organs outside our skins ‘I suggest that we may look upon these myths, these ideas and theories, as some of the most characteristic products of human activity. Like tools, they are organs evolving outside our skins. They are exosomatic artifacts. Thus we may count among these characteristic products especially what is called ‘human knowledge’; where we take the word ‘knowledge’ in the objective or impersonal sense, in which it may be said to be contained in a book; or stored in a library; or taught in a university’. It may be useful to imagine the evolution of a super-organ or meta-tool with the function of producing knowledge, which are tools themselves.

Demystification proceeded in stages. Man mastered the trick of naming and extinguished the mystery of reality by naming everything around. Noun forms thus conceived were tied up at various levels of interrelationship, resulting in complex language structures. Names were useful in shielding infant awareness from the threat of unknowing. It helped survival by making communication possible. The roots of our knowledge go back to the primitive fear that confronted earliest man facing a world of things-in-themselves.

Knower grew bolder with accumulated experience of many generations and ‘name covers’ were slowly lifted to take a fresh look at the mystery behind. The substance named ‘clay’ was found to be a mixture of chemical compounds A, B, C etc, which were in turn smaller packets of mystery. Early science thrived on the identification of such constituent parts and patterns of their interaction. Unknowability was pushed back by another step. Subsequent stages of demystification have produced fruitful branches in the tree of science – Atomic physics and Quantum mechanics.

It is amazing that beautiful patterns emerge from such ‘externalized knowledge’. That tells something about the nature of reality and its relation with the knower. Why is nature comprehensible to human observers? We should first gain some insight into the nature of the ‘demystifier’ before this all-important question can be explored.

We know that our eyes have a limited range. There are real things that would remain forever invisible to the naked eye. Is it likely that nature has properties that would remain forever beyond the ‘demystifier’? Such a conclusion appears reasonable if we accept the knower as a product of biological evolution. We are forever attempting to hold the unknowable thing-in-itself by grasping it with our tool of objective knowing. We detect newer patterns with every attempt, adding another layer to our interpretation of reality.

What exactly is going on? Unknowability goes into hiding behind the growing façade of certainty. Man has built his majestic edifice of knowledge on the foundation of a terrifying mystery. Our ancestors were aware of this fundamental ignorance. It was their wisdom, a legacy that modern man has disclaimed.

1.      Karl Popper, Objective Knowledge: An Evolutionary Approach, 1972

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One Response to Knowledge and Ignorance

  1. Pingback: Creativity As A Property Of Matter | shajanmathew

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