The Things We Know We Can’t Know

 

There are things we can know: the circumference of a cylinder, for example. Or the number of miles in a kilometer. The capital of Kansas.

Then there are things that we can’t know: what happens after we die. If there is a meaning to life, and if so, what it is. If one religion or genre of morality is inherently superior to another.

There’s nothing wrong with believing in things that we can’t know, so long as we know that they are things that we can’t know.

It’s when we’ve decided that – despite the fact that there are no facts involved, just wants and emotions and faith – that we CAN know the things we can’t know, that things get tricky. When there are no answers, there’s no way to disprove any answer that’s given.

The meaning of life can be muffins. When we die, maybe we turn into shoes. There’s no way to prove or disprove either of these assertions.

We may someday have the science to understand how the world was created. We may someday have the math to describe what happens after we die.

Until then, just remember the different between the two types of knowledge and be careful about trusting anyone who says they just KNOW something that they can’t.

Either they’re a revolutionary ahead of their time with advanced research techniques that the rest of us don’t have, a huckster trying to sell you something, or just someone who is just as lost as anyone else and frantically searching for meaning but not realizing that their time might be better spent focusing on things that we can actually know right now.

18 comments

  1. Then there are things that you can know, but can’t communicate precisely. For example, what does alligator meat taste like. Or the time when I “knew” that I won’t be evicted the next day. A check for $8,000 showed up in the morning out of the blue. (I wasn’t just hoping, I KNEW. Though I didn’t know the details of how it was going to happen. I just had a calm of knowing engulf me that it was taken care of. I can’t explain it, but there is no doubt in my mind that I knew it more certainly than the circumference of a quarter.

  2. I think my goal needs to be to not to get frustrated by people who claim to know things they can’t. It’s not worth the hassle.

    As a fairly new reader, how often do you update on your experiences in your new country?

    • It’s tough sometimes, but everyone claims to know SOMETHING they don’t, otherwise there would be no leaps forward (we might be pretty damn sure that the two chemicals we’re about to mix will create a tasty drink and not explode, but we’re not 100% sure…).

      Thanks for reading! Glad to have you around!

      I tend to talk about the places I’m living as it makes sense…I’ve found that trying to force something interesting out of something mundane doesn’t go over too well. That being said, I tend to live a life full of random adventures and constant ‘research’ or sorts, so every 4 or 5 posts usually has something to do with my homeland of the moment.

  3. Sometimes it’s difficult to tell whether we know something or not – religion, even science.

    I believe in time dilation, and Heisenburg’s uncertainty principle, and electrons as “probability fields” around a nucleus… it’s never occured to me not to believe in it. I just trusted the people who taught me about these things, and those teachers trusted whoever taught them…

    I have a friend who is catholic, and it never occured to her not to believe things like the bread and wine turns into Jesus after mass.

  4. Sometimes it’s difficult to tell whether we know something or not – religion, even science.

    I believe in time dilation, and Heisenburg’s uncertainty principle, and electrons as “probability fields” around a nucleus… it’s never occured to me not to believe in it. I just trusted the people who taught me about these things, and those teachers trusted whoever taught them…

    I have a friend who is catholic, and it never occured to her not to believe things like the bread and wine turns into Jesus after mass.

  5. It highlights the importance of living life with the socratic confession of ignorance. Understanding that we don’t know everything about anything or anything about everything grants us the freedom to expand beyond our currently limited model of knowledge.

      • Well let’s say we knew. Then what?

        We all know what’s coming and there is no longer a mystery. No more various views and opinions. A lot of different cultures that follow whatever belief disappear.

        The mystery actually helps humanity. If all kinds of religious people suddenly found out that you just fade to black at the end there may be a wave of depression. Some people need that sort of thing.

        Or imagine if we found that one religion was a fact. I don’t know how that would go.

        It just seems like an area that is perfect the way it is.

  6. There is a beauty in the mystery…

    I can’t prove that God exists by scientific facts… but I think it’s that way for a reason. If I could… there would be no faith.

    The writer of Hebrews says… “Faith is being sure of what you hope for, and certain of what you do not see”. It’s a knowing that can’t be proved by conventional means… but is still a knowing nonetheless.

    How do I know that I know..? It’s the many ways that God has revealed himself in my life. The mind-blowing beauty of the world we live in… the profound message of the cross… the many ‘coincidences’ that point to a loving God… and the truth of my radically transformed life.

    At the end of the day… we all have faith. There are things that can’t be proved… and what we choose to believe; is ultimately a step of faith.

    • There is beauty in mystery, and I think that it’s human nature to want to understand the things we can’t yet explain, and faith fills those gaps, for sure.

      Religion especially – throughout the ages – has filled the gaps of what we knew and what we didn’t know yet. When we couldn’t explain rain, we had rain gods. When we couldn’t explain earthquakes, those were caused by gods, too. Etc.

      To say that faith = ‘knowing’ is something I have to disagree with you on, though. We have a lot of senses and feelings and things like that, but faith is not testable.

      If you cannot prove or disprove something, you can’t know anything about it for sure, and so anything faith-based is subjective: you might see a beautiful sunset as an act of God, while another person might see it as an awesome display of chemistry and biology in action. That’s interpretation, not knowledge.

      You’re right, though, that at the end of the day we all have faith in something. Some have religion to keep them going, while others are sustained by faith in the human race or technology or something else that’s beyond our capabilities to fully know now.

      There’s no right answer, and each person is left to find what works best for them.

  7. Of course you realize that just because *you* don’t know something doesn’t mean it can’t be known, or that no one else knows it, right?

    • True, but I would hazard to say that the examples I gave are either subjective (by definition, there cannot be a perfect moral code) or currently beyond what anyone has been able to discover scientifically.

      And if there’s no scientific process involved, it’s really just hoping, guessing or ‘feeling’ that you know something, and though that might be a good place to start, it doesn’t prove anything.

      In an absolute sense, though, of course you’re right that what one person knows doesn’t speak for the entirety of the population.

  8. Goddam, that is so true. So very true. I have no more else to add except, believe what you want to believe, in the end, whatever happens, happens. All the arguing in the world won’t change what will happen.

    Right now, miss you! Hope all is well.

  9. Assuming we can know anything. The above facts (Kansas, cylender, etc.) assume quite a bit about the exactness of empericism, is it faith that this theory is correct? You tell me.

  10. The Things We Know We Can’t Know ..

    a very attractive title but not so complete article. Although, i appreciate a lot your site, blog and lifestyle, I do not agree with this article’s reflexion.
    I’m a engaged christian, and I’m certain of what happens after death.
    I’m talking about hell and heaven just as the Bible says. But I understand that’s a matter of faith.

    What’s your really point of view about it ?
    (sorry for the langage, I’m native French ;)

  11. The Things We Know We Can’t Know ..

    a very attractive title but not so complete article. Although, i appreciate a lot your site, blog and lifestyle, I do not agree with this article’s reflexion.
    I’m a engaged christian, and I’m certain of what happens after death.
    I’m talking about hell and heaven just as the Bible says. But I understand that’s a matter of faith.

    What’s your really point of view about it ?
    (sorry for the langage, I’m native French ;)

  12. I think that some of the questions you’ve asked that have no concrete answers are questions that can be answered, but just not with spoken word. For instance, I’ve heard from many people who used to wonder about some of these questions (where do we go when we die, what’s the meaning of life, etc.), and I mean, they really used to spend their time wondering about it. As they aged and matured, these questions slowly fell to the wayside. Not because they’d had a Eureka moment in their life, no, but because something inside of them resolved the question.

    When asked these questions point blank, these people are unable to offer an explanation, but for themselves, they have a resolved answer. Unfortunately, it’s just not something that can be communicated.

    With Love and Gratitude,

    Jeremiah

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