Agnotology

The Paradox Of Knowing What I Don’t

This piece is inspired by this article on claiming to know something you cannot.


知者不言,zhī zhě bù yán
言者不知。yán zhě bù zhī
He who speaks does not know; he who knows does not speak”
— Lao Zi, Dao De Jing


This is the great paradox which I admit to struggling with any time I go to write an article, post on social media, or respond to one.

The question I inevitably ask myself is “how do I know what I think I know?”

The ancient Chinese philosopher Zhuang Zi explores this epistemological paradox even further, and has probably been the most influential philosophical text I’ve read. The reality is I don’t believe anything anyone says. And that has to – by logic – extend to myself, as well as (paradoxically) to Zhuang Zi.


I feel a little down today
And I ain’t got much to say
But you’re gonna miss me when I’m not there
— Oasis


This inevitably leads to the question, “why is anything I have to say more or less valuable than anything anyone else has to say?” The answer, of course, is it’s not.

Therefore, neither are the opinions of others. Or their ‘facts’.

The value of an opinion, of knowledge, etc. becomes a conscious (or maybe an unconscious) choice. It must have a subjective pay-off.

For example:

I believe in paradox, and in the subjective assessment of lived experience.

In other words, I believe that no single opinion or voice has more authority over another. Because if the whole world held this statement to be true, it would mean no single doctrine could be used to oppress those who had an opposing view.

My purpose for holding this view (the pay-off) is this: if I am part of a society where this Value is held up, then the situation will never arise where I could be part of a marginalised or oppressed group of people, because of my beliefs, politics, opinions, etc.

Ultimately, it’s driven by the fear that I may be herded onto a train or locked up into a camp – or worse, my family or children would be.

What I’m intrigued by is when folks write articles or blog posts denigrating or belittling intellectuals, homosexuals, feminists, “cultural-Marxists”, blacks, asians, moslems, or any other marginalised parts of society. In these moments, I can’t help myself but ask the following question:

What’s the pay-off for that person to believe that?
What do they get from that belief that’s even more important than holding and stating that belief?

Clearly I can never answer that question. I will just never know.


Ask yourself and try to find the answer
See the signs they’re always there
— Hawkwind


By Petah Raven on .
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Exported from Medium on August 1, 2018.

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