“I know nothing”
The more I learn the less I know; the more I know the less I learn.
I have existed on this planet for seven decades and if there’s anything I have had to discover for myself — despite so many others knowing it before me and telling me over and over — it is that the more I learn, the less I know and its corollary, the more I know, the less I learn.
And I say that as someone who has always been prideful of how much I knew — or thought I knew. By the time I was four, I could ID any car on the road, including Kaisers and LaSalles. My uncle would parade me around as a curiosity, like Mozart before Maria Theresa. By third grade, I could name any dinosaur known to science. By 13, I could name everything my parents did wrong and by college I could tell the president how many kids he killed today and further, I instructed the dean on changes to the curriculum. God, I was a prat.
In my 20s, my girlfriend took bets from coworkers that when I came to pick her up after her shift, I could answer any question. “Who was the first secretary general of the U.N.?” “Trygve Lie.” And she would collect her winnings and we’d go home. What a racket.
At any rate, my ambition in life was to know everything. I can’t say I came even close.
It is distressing how much we have to discover for ourselves. Libraries are filled with books overflowing with wisdom, but even if you were to read everyone of them, what you gather is only book-learning. Your parents and grandparents tried to tell you what they had learned, to try to save you from the pain, frustration and humiliation that is everyone’s birthright. But being told is the equivalent of book-learning — it cannot really teach you to swim or ride a bicycle; you have to learn by doing. And these two truths of knowing and learning have come hard and slow to me. Hard to acknowledge because I have spent so much of my life being smart and knowing stuff (ask anyone who has had to listen to me), and slow because I have spent so much of my life being dumb as a pumpkin.
The Firesign Theatre produced an LP in 1974 titled Everything You Know is Wrong. (Weird Al Yankovic put out a song in 1996 with the same title, and more recently, in 2004, British band Chumbawamba released their song with the selfsame name.) How right they all are.
Everyone knows that Socrates once claimed to be the wisest man of all, because, he said, he knew nothing. Except, of course, he never said that. In the Apology, Plato has him saying that Socrates queried a wise man but came away disappointed. “Although I do not suppose that either of us knows anything really beautiful and good, I am better off than he is – for he knows nothing, and thinks that he knows. I neither know nor think that I know” (Benjamin Jowett translation). Close, maybe, but no cigar.
Life is full of things we all know but that ain’t so. Napoleon was not short. Abner Doubleday did not invent baseball. Mrs. O’Leary’s cow did not start the Chicago Fire. Einstein did not flunk math and John Kennedy never said he was a German pastry. Anti-war protesters never spat on returning Vietnam War vets. Sugar does not cause hyperactivity in children (that doesn’t make it OK, although my wife used to say eating cake is good for you because “sugar is a preservative.”) The Great Wall of China is not visible from the moon. All that right-brain, left-brain stuff is mostly hooey. And water does not circle the drain the other way in Australia. Everything you know is wrong.
Some is wrong because the common knowledge is just a story someone made up; some because we used to think so, but science has progressed and now we know better; and some is wrong because we misunderstood something. But most is wrong because things are just more complicated than that.
I grew up with an image of the atom being like a tiny solar system, with electrons spinning in orbit around the nucleus. Turns out that is a bad analogy. Maybe like a cloud of possible electrons, but can’t quite put your finger on them. It is only understood mathematically, the quantum physicists tell us. Too complicated to make a simple picture.
We tend to fit our facts into a coherent whole that we take as our “Umwelt,” that picture of reality we manufacture from experience. But these things can become ossified. When we learn more, we discover we know less — we were mistaken, or only half right, or maybe just confused.
And now that I am old, I am confronted by the fact that learning only lets me know how much more there is I don’t know. As I say, my knowledge grows arithmetically but my ignorance grows exponentially.
I like to take the example of the common tomato. When I was two or three, a tomato was just something we ate in a salad or on a burger; I gave it no more thought. But when a little older I learned to classify. A tomato was a vegetable. The world was divided into animal, mineral and vegetable and the tomato fit the third category.
A little later I learned — was told, by some pedant — that a tomato is not a vegetable, but a fruit. I scratched my head, but then went about repeating this Cliff Clavinism. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.
Well, it isn’t animal and it isn’t mineral, so a tomato must be vegetable. Simply put, a fruit is a vegetable, isn’t it? This turned into a lesson in philology. The word “vegetable” has multiple meanings. Our definitions must be examined. I learned the difficulty of matching language and reality. This came as an uncomfortable truth to me as a writer, whose faith in words was, at one time, unshakeable. Now, I say, like Sergeant Schultz in Hogan’s Heroes, “I know nothing.”
Of the things of this world, those that are vegetable can be divided into the edible and the inedible. The botanist can divide comestible plants into those with seeds and those without. One we call fruits and the other, vegetables. The cook divides the same into those sweet and those savory. There is no single “right” way to think of them. The knowledge changes as we learn more. It doesn’t matter how many facts I warehouse in the noggin, they are likely to be superseded or just plain wrong.
But those facts can be mulish, which explains my corollary: What you know prevents learning. That Umwelt is hard to nudge. If your sense has been for millennia that the sun revolves around the Earth, then you cannot accept what Copernicus tells us. If you know that continents are fixed and permanent, then Alfred Wegener comes across as an unmoored screwball. If you are used to bleeding ill patients, then Joseph Lister is a crackpot.
Isaac Newton’s physics ruled the world until Albert Einstein gave us relativity, but even Einstein could not fully accept probabilistic quantum physics, saying God “does not play dice.”
If we still think of all history in sequential steps, then progress makes sense. But experience proves that we don’t keep heading for a Utopia. Rather we lose just as much as we gain. Art historians used to think that they could predict where art would go next by analogizing what had gone before. Arnold Schoenberg knew that the line of musical harmony went from diatonic to chromatic to atonal. It had to: History teaches. He almost made it work, but no one still writes dodecaphonic music anymore; what was produced in academia through the 1960s was barely even music; no one wanted to listen. Karl Marx assumed history had a rightful completion in true Communism. Francis Fukuyama gave us a different “end of history.”
We are a stubborn people; we know what we know until we don’t. The only way to see what is in front of us is to forget what we already know about it. I call this “volitional ignorance” — trying to forget what I know — or believe I know — in order to see with fresh eyes, with baby eyes. Of course, I’m not in favor of actual ignorance: Let Shiva dance over its body. (According to Hindu mythology, Apasmara — Ignorance — must be subdued, not killed.) But you can attempt to forget temporarily what seems fixed and certain in order to see what doesn’t fit into the accepted schema — the odd bits that contradict your assumptions.
That’s how Einstein saw the holes in Newtonian physics. It’s how Mary MacLane broke the impenetrable “fourth wall” by speaking directly to her audience (in title cards) in her 1918 film Men Who Have Made Love to Me (now lost). It’s how Bobby Lee came to divide his army against all accepted principles of war and beat the pants off the Union forces.
It’s the only decent way to overcome the sad premise that: “What you know prevents learning.” .And so my two assertions are mirror images. The more I learn the less I know; the more I know the less I learn.
This essay originally appeared on the Spirit of the Senses webpage on Oct. 5, 2020.