Saturday, 22 August, 1998
J. Harmon Grahn, Editor
Back to The New Paradigm Index
Somebody of considerable wisdom has remarked, "You must know you don't know before you can learn." In that vein, with apologies to those of you who have seen this before, on behalf of those who have not, I feel inspired to resurrect an essay I wrote some time back, and which has been on the Internet since August 1997. The essay, "Knowledge," was the lead-off entry for an earlier book-length work titled You, which as far as I know has gained the attention of approximately nobody. Nevertheless, I feel that "Knowledge" (the essay) addresses an issue of crucial importance to the shift from an "old paradigm" mentality to "new paradigm" consciousness; and so I would like to include a slightly revised version within the corpus of these "New Paradigm Essays." For those of you who may have already read the original essay, I respectfully submit, if I may, that it bears re-reading.
How do you know that you know what you know? This may seem a somewhat unsettling question; but because just about everything "known" in the "old paradigm" is either profoundly mistaken or catastrophically misleading, and consequently a formidable obstacle to achieving a genuine appreciation of who and what you (and I) are, there are advantages to examining the concept of knowledge with some penetration.
The domain of knowledge, as opposed to the domain of belief, is highly exclusive. It is possible to believe, and to believe intelligently and sincerely, almost anything imaginable; but knowledge must be so utterly certain that no possibility exists for its being mistaken for illusion. On the basis of this strict criterion, the alleged "body of human knowledge" shrinks almost to the vanishing point. How much, do you suppose, of the contents of all the libraries of accumulated "human wisdom" in the world, are certain to stand for all eternity without being subject to revision or refutation? Precious little, wouldn't you say? And yet you (and I) are possessed of knowledge; for we know, beyond any possibility of doubt or refutation, that we exist. This is a nonnegotiable cosmic fact. We do not exist because we think, as in "cogito ergo sum;" we exist because... well for now, just because.
Existence is such an important concept that it is addressed repeatedly in prior and future editions of tnp. Suffice it here to remind your awareness of what an awesome, stupendous, incomprehensible fact existence is. There is no rational accounting for it. One may employ words like "God," "Creator," "Great Spirit," "Heavenly Father," "Big Bang." "Evolution," "Blind Chance," etc., but these are only words which ultimately convey no meaning and no knowledge; for they mean whatever one thinks they mean, and that only to shim who employs them. Yet the inescapable cosmic fact of existence remains, unaltered and unexplained: we exist. How? Why? To what purpose? These remain unanswered mysteries and are the ultimate goal of the timeless quest for knowledge.
The quest for knowledge is not the exclusive property of any one culture, race or civilization; but because what follows is addressed primarily to constituents of the contemporary prevailing culture on planet Earth, namely so-called "Western Civilization," I will focus predominantly upon that cultural milieu. Western Civilization traces its cultural roots principally from the ancient Hebrews, the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, as chronicled in Genesis; and from the ancient Greek heroes, possible approximate contemporaries of Moses, sung of in the Iliad and Odyssey of Homer. Taking a quick overview, one could tick off a dozen or so major mileposts along the route of the "Western Quest for Knowledge," such as:
This is obviously not the only such list one might assemble, but it does highlight some of the major events along the path of the "Western Quest for Knowledge." One notable feature of the quest is the heavy reliance placed upon the authority of priesthoods, of one kind or another, throughout much of history; and the gradual and repetitious disclosure of the impermanence of such "authority."
The basic premise of Science, inherited from its Judeo-Christian-Islamic / Greco-Roman roots, has traditionally been that "The Truth" is an objective reality which may be apprehended, if at all, only through the skillful application of experiment, observation and reason. It was not necessarily assumed that the human mind is capable of assimilating the totality of "The Truth;" only that "The Truth" is "out there" for any and all to approach and probe with such instruments as mathematics, geometry and rational experimental analysis. Moreover, it has been believed that whatever "The Truth" is, it may be relied upon to "hold still," so to speak, and not "change its shape" like some diabolical phantasm with which it is impossible to come to grips. "The Truth," in other words, is presumed to be the same for "you" as it is for "me," as well as for "everybody else."
The classical notion of reality, dating in particular from the work of Sir Isaac Newton (1642 to 1727), imagined that although it may not be possible for an individual human mind to grasp the full scope of its detailed complexity, it is possible to grasp the general idea that the universe runs essentially like a species of "cosmic clockwork," obeying natural laws with predictable reliability, such as the laws of gravitation, motion and inertia which govern planetary systems with observable precision and regularity. Reality is presumed, in other words, to be consistent with itself and not self-contradictory or paradoxical; and at least theoretically, is essentially predictable. As one of the seminal thinkers of the 20th century, Albert Einstein, put it, "God is subtle but he is not malicious."
It is somewhat ironic, therefore, that Einstein himself was one of the early pioneers whose quest for knowledge led to the eventual unraveling of this tidy "objective" view of reality. In a paper published in 1905 Einstein used the term "photon" to describe the "quantum" behavior of light, which had been thought to be well settled as a "wave phenomenon," at least since its velocity had been calculated in 1865 by James Clerk Maxwell (1831 to 1879). At a time when some advanced physicists were beginning to imagine that they had the universe just about "wrapped up" and that the quest for human knowledge was nearing the conclusion of its mission (with the exception of a few minor details which were expected to be fairly swiftly dispatched), the discovery of quantum effects ushered in a whole new era, and in the course of a very few years completely altered the picture of what is and is not "known" about reality.
The early twentieth century investigation into the fundamental nature of the universe was undertaken by an illustrious body of men I refer to (I hope not too disrespectfully) as the "Quantum Mechanics;" in particular, Ernest Rutherford (1871 to 1937), Max Planck (1858 to 1947), Albert Einstein (1879 to 1955), Niels Bohr (1885 to 1962), Erwin Schrödinger (1887 to 1961), Max Born (1882 to 1970), Louis-Victor de Broglie (1892 to 1987), Werner Heisenberg (1901 to 1976), and others.
Strictly speaking, Rutherford was not himself a Quantum Mechanic; but his work paved the way for theirs by demonstrating in 1911 that the atom, the supposed indivisible unit of matter, had a fine-grain internal structure and was composed of constituent parts. The assumption underlying the scientific investigation of the atom, or the search for the "ultimate building blocks" of the universe, first proposed by Leucippus of Abdera in the fifth century B.C.E., was that since all material objects can be broken down into smaller constituents, and those into smaller constituents still, there must at some point in a chain of subdivisions be reached an ultimate particle of matter which cannot be further subdivided. This Leucippus called atomos, the atom, or indivisible particle. Rutherford's demonstration that the atom had an internal structure was a significant initial step into the almost unimaginably minute world of subatomic particles, and the branch of physics known today as quantum mechanics.
It is to the priceless credit of scientific tradition that in the course of the intensive investigation of the fundamental nature of matter, energy and the universe during the early part of the twentieth century, the following irreducible, unwelcome and indigestible challenge was encountered and squarely investigated: It is not even theoretically possible to know everything about anything. The comments of some of the Quantum Mechanics involved in this fascinating chapter of the Quest for Knowledge illustrate how far from their classical moorings their pursuit of quantum theory eventually bore them:
The quantum scale discloses a landscape filled with surprising paradoxes and ambiguities, as for instance the ambiguity between particles and waves; which makes about as much barnyard horse sense as.... Well, pick up an ordinary garden variety rock (a particle), and heave it into a common every day kind of pond; and what happens? A pattern of circular waves radiates out from the place the rock struck the pond. Of course. There's nothing ambiguous about that. Nobody's going to strain shim's brain trying to figure out which is the rock (particle) and which are the waves (waves). But at the quantum scale, particles are waves, and waves are particles; and that takes some getting used to.
Electrons, for instance, are "known" to be subatomic particles; but they also exhibit wave properties. And light propagates as a wave, sure enough, but it also behaves like a particle. Einstein named light particles "photons" in 1905, and de Broglie was the first to suggest wave properties for electrons, which was confirmed in 1927. But if waves are particles at the quantum scale, and particles are waves, nevertheless, you just can't catch them at it. Being both, that is. Sir Arthur Eddington (1882 to 1944) called them wavicles; but nobody has ever observed a wavicle. You can observe the wave properties of light, or a flux of electrons or other particles so-called; but in that case never a particle will you see. Only waves, or wave phenomena. Alternatively, you can observe the particle, or quantum, properties of light (photons) or electrons; and in that case... exactly: no waves or wave phenomena.
It gets worse. What the Quantum Mechanics eventually came up with, first proposed by Werner Heisenberg in 1927, was a principle whose far-reaching implications are only lately being (reluctantly) assimilated by contemporary culture: the uncertainty principle, or the principle of indeterminacy. Applied strictly to quantum events, the uncertainty principle states in effect that not everything can be known with precision. There are unavoidable tradeoffs. One can determine, for instance, the momentum of a particle, or a flux of particles, with precision; but that knowledge must be purchased at the price of total ignorance of the particles' whereabouts in space-time. Alternatively, one may determine a particle's precise location at a particular intersection of space-time - but at the cost of total ignorance of the particle's momentum, where it "came from" and where it "went." (These words are in quotes because subatomic particles evidently don't really "come" and "go" in the common sense in which these terms are usually applied; but that's getting into this rather more deeply than is strictly necessary here.)
The classical notion that, at least theoretically, everything in the universe can be known, understood and predicted - even down to the future motion of a particular hydrogen atom within the interior of the Sun, provided only that its and its neighbors' physical conditions (location, velocity, direction, etc.) at a prior instant are known with sufficient precision - was contradicted by the uncertainty principle, which implies that everything in the universe cannot be known, understood or predicted, even theoretically, because not all of the prerequisite data can be ascertained. Some data are mutually exclusive: if you have one you cannot have the other; and vice versa.
In its quantum context the uncertainty principle merely states that every factor in a quantum event cannot be simultaneously determined with precision; that a precise fact is determined at the price of an unavoidable nebulosity of ignorance. One may choose which facts one wishes to ascertain, and set up experiments accordingly; but one cannot in a single experiment cast a net by any means which is able to draw together all the factors of a quantum event. This implies that at the quantum scale the experimenter is inextricably part of shim's experiment: the experimental output is determined by the experimental input, which is ultimately determined in the mind of the experimenter. What it all boils down to is an irreducible subjective choice.
Consequently, a hairline fracture was disclosed in the wall which had traditionally separated the subjective from the objective; the "in here" from the "out there." As already mentioned, the perennial human quest for knowledge, which stretches indefinitely into the dim recesses of prehistory, and particularly as conducted in the course of Western Civilization, has assumed that "The Truth" is something objective, "out there," to be discovered or revealed in reward of diligent search or pious conduct or suitable sacrifices propitiously accepted by the gods. "The Truth," the God, the Holy Grail, has always been something one went in quest of somewhere else. The last place one would expect to find the object of shim's quest was "in here," in the midst of the subject. Yet that is one of the implications of the uncertainty principle, which makes an unbreakable connection, however minute and tenuous seeming, between the "in here" and the "out there," between the subject and the object. The Answer is unavoidably determined by the Question; "The Truth" is a function of shim who seeks it.
For a time it was widely presumed that the unpalatable implications of the uncertainty principle applied only at the quantum scale; that at the human scale of experience the principles of classical physics still prevail, and reality may yet be understood for all intents and purposes in deterministic, objective terms. After all, what could the momentum of an electron have to do with calculating the trajectory of a mortar shell, or the orbit of Jupiter?
Recent explorations, however, into the realm of what is today called chaos theory, or complexity theory, have disclosed that this too was a forlorn hope. Minute fluctuations can, and frequently do, cascade into unpredictably catastrophic events at the human, or even cosmic, scale. As variables are added to systems, their inherent complexity quickly proliferates beyond the bounds of comprehension; so that even if the mathematical equations describing the behavior of a complex system are "known," their solutions can never be reached within large multiples of reasonable limits; such as the presumed "age of the universe." Because everything in the universe is evidently the sum of innumerable quantum events, there is no way to isolate the implications of the uncertainty principle within the borders of quantum mechanics. Quantum mechanics has no borders. Neither, by extension, is there a border between the subjective and the objective, between the "in here" and the "out there," on any level, or at any scale. Although you may not have noticed it, with the discovery of the uncertainty principle the entire cosmos has just climbed right into the interior of your own mind with you.
Upon examination, this is not as bizarre an idea as it may at first appear. It merely runs counter to some widespread and firmly entrenched assumptions about reality; but your personal experience discloses that you are at all times circumscribed by an "event horizon," a term I've borrowed somewhat out of context from black hole physics to denote in this instance the fluid line which always divides the scene from the unseen, the observable from the unobservable, for any particular point of view. No matter where you are or where you look, like the Quantum Mechanics, you cannot determine all the facts about anything at once; for some lie over your horizon and are not accessible from your immediate point of view. By changing your point of view you reshape your event horizon, so that new features emerge to your scrutiny, while others cease to be visible. But there is always something unknown, around the corner, over the hill, down the hall, behind your head, around the world, tomorrow or a minute from now ... some missing data you do not know and cannot know, while you are here to make sure of what lies within your horizon right now. As soon as you move, something currently within your view and knowledge disappears over your horizon and becomes an unknown factor in your world; even though at the same time other factors enter your horizon and become subject to your examination. Stop to think about it and you must realize that what you can "know" by direct observation about the universe around you at any particular moment constitutes a vanishingly small fraction of "the totality of all things." Think of all the things that are presumably going on right now within your own body that you don't know anything about; or in the next room, or up the road, or in the next county, or on a planet in a distant solar system, or half a foot underground....
Thus with very few exceptions, what passes for knowledge in conventional usage, even that arrived at through rigorous and disciplined rational analysis, is in fact belief fabricated within the matrix of the human imagination. The same of course applies to "knowledge" revealed by prophets, messiahs, gurus, mystics, holy books and tablets graven in stone by the Finger of God. If you believe the scientific priesthood, or the ecclesiastical priesthood, or "the Word of God," or your own eyes and ears ... so be it: you believe. But this is not knowledge.
Knowledge does not come either through revelation or reason or direct observation. It does not come from books, either holy, profane or scholarly, or from sermons, or university courses, or advanced research, or from any "authority" of any kind. Outside of yourself, there is no reliable source of knowledge to be found anywhere, about anything. This is a difficult pill to swallow, for we have all labored long under the illusion that we can gain knowledge, if only we can find an authoritative source: a Master or a priesthood that knows, and will teach us. But it is an inescapable and irrefutable fact that there is nobody and nothing that can teach us knowledge. Even if we do meet an indisputable Master with knowledge, Shim will never impart Shim's knowledge to us; not out of secrecy, necessarily, or any sinister intent, but simply because it cannot be done. Knowledge can neither be got from any external source nor given by any means.
On the other hand, it is also an inescapable and irrefutable cosmic fact that we do possess knowledge; for we know that we exist. This we have not learned from any external source; yet we know it with unalloyed certainty. We actually know much more than this, but have forgotten most of it. We actually know everything. Everything. EVERYTHING! All knowledge is already within us; all we have to do is remember; re-cognize it. In order to find the knowledge we seek, we must search where it is, not where it isn't. Where it isn't, and where it cannot be found, is anywhere "outside" of us, such as books, universities, churches, at the feet of the Masters, or by reading this text. Where it is is where it has always been: within you (and me). Seek it there, and you shall find it.
In summary, it should be perfectly clear that the foregoing is neither "anti-religion" nor "anti-science." It merely draws a stricter distinction than usual between knowledge and belief. There is a wide spectrum of bases for plausible belief: everything from, for instance, "The Bible says it, I believe it, and that settles it." to "Self-evident assumptions A through E, plus established facts F through M, combined with rigorous logical steps N through W, lead inescapably to conclusion X." But it should be borne in mind that the basis for belief is always plausible to the believer, no matter what. Yet belief is not knowledge, for knowledge is necessarily by nature entirely beyond belief. This is not to take a position of anti- anything; it is more in the nature of pointing out that in the domain of human knowledge, the Emperor, so to speak, is naked.
How do we know that we know what we know? We know because we know that we exist; and existing, we are thereby enfranchised with that which is common to all existence. Your existence (and mine) is infinitely extensible, for it includes all existence, and does not exclude anything. If you think of yourself as limited in any way, you are simply mistaken; and your limitless power enforces your self-imposed limitation upon you with ironclad rigidity ...until such time as you change your mind and decide either that you are not limited after all, or that your limitations are less binding than you had previously believed. The process of expanding this realization, either explosively or incrementally, is called growth; and that (in my opinion) is what you (and I) are here to do.
By way of Post Script to the preceding essay I would like to add emphasis to the point that all the "old paradigm" sources of so-called "knowledge" have proven themselves to be utterly barren of reliable content. That is an idea unlikely to sit easily with a great many people, for the "authorities" are well entrenched, and reliance upon them by "the multitudes" is a venerable tradition stretching far over the horizon of historical memory. Nevertheless, it is becoming increasingly evident to those "with eyes to see" that such "knowledge" leads nowhere but in endless circles of futility and despair. The only exit from such "closed loops" lies in the direction of the inward knowledge of all things which resides unblemished and undisturbed within the Heart and inmost Mind of each of us. The task that faces each one of us, uniquely, but with mounting collective urgency, is that of tapping into this boundless and freely available resource. This is the distilled essence of the shift to the "new paradigm."
Again: Is this true? I make no such claim. It is for you to determine for yourself whether it is true, and what, if anything, it means.
Love & Light,
Back to The New Paradigm Index