What is knowledge? How certain can we be about the knowledge we have? Can we ever be completely certain about what we know? Is it wise to aim for greater certainty?
The development of our own knowledge
In this article I wish to explore the concept of ‘knowledge’. We have all learned and taken in information throughout our lives that we could state as fact. We are aware of millions of events that have occurred to us or around us in our lives, the knowledge, understanding and recall of which we can be certain. There are also millions of pieces of information we have learned in our education that we would be confident to state as fact. At the same time, we could all acknowledge that we have experienced, at points throughout our lives, a sudden or a gradual acquiring of new knowledge that substantially affected and challenged our understanding of the world at that time.
It is easy to recollect our simplistic view of the world when we were very young and how, through new learning, experiences, interactions with others, natural development and chance discoveries, our childish understanding changed over time. We may recall examples where new understanding came about suddenly but also examples of awareness that evolved and developed over time. As we mature towards adulthood, it is natural to question and refine our overly simplistic views as we learn to appreciate that the real world is far more complex and nuanced than we could ever have first imagined.
If we think about how our views of the world, our environment and ourselves have come into being we may be able to appreciate that many factors have had an influence. Our understanding and awareness of ourselves and the world around us has clearly been influenced by factors such as our upbringing, our experiences, our interactions with others and the wider culture of the society to which we belong. We then have our own unique character through which all sensory information is processed and stored to help us best make sense of the world. It is the culmination of all this information which we would call knowledge and at every point in our lives we can feel certain that the knowledge we have is accurate and trustworthy.
Certainty provides security
If we feel a sense of certainty, we feel secure. Feeling secure is a human need – a necessity to feel in balance and good health. If we don’t feel secure, we will experience a sense of unease – a feeling of stress. This uncomfortable feeling of uncertainty is not sustainable as the brain will be using up energy as it seeks to understand the world so it can navigate through it safely. The brain always seeks to conserve energy where possible so that it has enough reserves if required for unforeseen events. It is natural then, that we gravitate towards feelings of certainty with our knowledge so that we can achieve a sense of ease.
But what about when we learn that the knowledge, that we previously held to be true, no longer stands up to scrutiny. When this happens, we are forced to accept that what we previously took to be knowledge was really just the best information that we had at the time. When new information comes along, it makes us re-evaluate and recategorize what we know, so that we can accept the new information as knowledge and allow us to remain certain.
How well we are able to accept new information that challenges established knowledge, however, will depend on a number of factors. The stronger the feeling of insecurity brought about by conflicting information, the less likely we are to accept it and embrace the necessary changes that follow. The more our identity is linked to the existing knowledge, the harder it is to let go. The more we depend on the old knowledge for getting our needs met, the more resistance we will put up. Needs such as security, control, attention, friendship, belonging, status, competence, purpose can all be compromised in the light of fresh evidence that challenges knowledge that has been classified as certain.
Without wanting to get stuck on any specifics, there are countless examples throughout history of the extent to which new information – which was shocking at the time but which we now hold to be true – threatened the established norms. Many people have been vilified and suffered or even paid the ultimate price for daring to question accepted facts by presenting new ways of seeing the world. We see this being played out in all walks of life at macro and micro levels. This reaction can take place in any group, organisation or community, whether political, social, scientific or cultural. This defence of established norms, however, starts at a personal level and it is with us as individuals where important changes can initially take place.
The security paradox
To be able to embrace change, we have to be able to accept that our world view is not complete. If we believe that we already have the correct answers, then there really is no need to listen to alternative viewpoints – clearly, they must be wrong. Not only that, the more convinced we are in the importance of our knowledge, the more necessary it will be for others to listen and learn from us so that they can change for the better. Again, this scenario has played out throughout history, and we do not have to look far to see this happening today.
This is where we can find a paradox. A person who appears to have a high level of certainty in their current knowledge, that is, they feel strongly that what they know is right, will feel and seem very secure as they are no longer searching for answers and meaning. A person who has a low level of certainty in their current knowledge, that is, they are not sure if what they know is right, will feel and seem insecure as they are still searching for answers and meaning. The paradox, however, is this: the person with high certainty, who thinks they are secure, is actually far more insecure than the person who lacks certainty and would admit to feeling insecure.
How can this be? In our earliest years of life, we are in a highly programmable state. We are wide open to the influences of our environment. We absorb the emotional colour and temperature of our immediate environment. We pick up on the feelings around us long before we start to discern the meaning of words, phrases and sentences. We get a sense of how well we are cared for and how safe we feel. The quality of the emotional feedback loop between us and our caregivers informs our sense of security. If our needs are well provided for, we can relax in the knowledge that we are in a safe and nourishing environment. If we sense fear or hostility in our environment and if our needs are not being met adequately, this will start to colour our understanding of our world.
If our earliest experience of our world is that we are safe, valued and cared for, we can relax, take in nourishment, learn, grow and feel secure exploring our outer environment. If, from the beginning of our life, we encounter significant feelings of fear in our outer environment, then we must be alert to potential danger so that we can protect ourselves. If we are focusing on, and expecting danger, we cannot relax. We cannot remain in a state of acceptance and openness – rather, we learn to stay in a protective mode. To learn and grow optimally, and have full access to our intelligence, we need to be calm, relaxed and open to new possibilities. If we do not feel safe, we cannot allow ourselves to relax and enter a state of openness. Therefore we cannot learn and grow optimally.
Let us use the analogy of a human being as a cell. Let us consider three vital components of a cell: the nucleus, the cytoplasm, and the membrane. The nucleus of the cell would represent the deepest sense of ourselves, before any experience or learning has taken place; a pure consciousness, a bundle of innate latent potential. The cytoplasm represents all of our experiences, learning, skills, knowledge, beliefs and understanding that build up around us as we interact with our environment. The membrane is the protective barrier between us and our outer environment.
If we feel our environment is safe, we can allow our membrane to be permeable to let in the nutrients we need for us to function optimally. If we feel our environment is unsafe, we must reinforce and thicken our membrane to protect ourselves from potential harm. Clearly, there is an optimum level of density and permeability that a membrane should have in order to protect the cell from potential harm whilst allowing vital nutrients to enter. In the case of a human being, if a person has grown up unconsciously believing their environment is unsafe, the barrier around themselves will be more difficult to penetrate than someone who essentially believes their outer environment to be safe.
Human beings have diverse non-negotiable needs. These needs are the nourishment that we need to absorb in order to be healthy and to function at our best. Human beings are individuals within a social structure. We have a need for meaning and purpose as an individual whilst belonging to a group. We must therefore have sense of self. We need to go out into the world, connect with others, learn, achieve and feel competent. If our earliest years have resulted in us being programmed into an over-protective state, we will always struggle to take in the nourishment that is essential for our development and healthy existence because of the protective barrier around us.
This is why someone who appears certain in their knowledge is actually feeling insecure in their environment. If they have reached a point where they feel they no longer need to take in new information, it is because they are in an over-protective state and new information acts as a threat. They have managed to achieve a sense of security with the knowledge they have developed over time so they cannot risk losing that. Conversely, someone who feels less certain in their knowledge is still searching for answers. They are therefore still having to go out into their environment to seek the knowledge they need. They are also still in a state of openness and acceptance. They can only allow themselves to be this way if they essentially feel secure in their environment.
The ideal balance
So, what should we aim for? You may be familiar with the paradoxical phrase “the more I learn, the less I know”. This phrase refers to the realisation of both the complexity and enormity of knowledge that civilisation has already acquired and has yet to acquire. It is only as we gain greater insight, that we are also able to start to appreciate the vast sum of knowledge that we don’t yet have. As we gain greater awareness, we are able to ask more informed questions that can start to lead us towards the knowledge we haven’t yet absorbed. It is only in the spirit of accepting how much we lack, that we can go out to seek further knowledge. If the unfamiliar environment is interpreted as a threat in our belief system, we cannot go out to seek further knowledge. If we are not seeking further knowledge, we will never be able to appreciate the vastness and the complexity of the knowledge that is out there. We therefore feel certain with what we know because it is all we can see.
With this understanding of how people operate through a belief system which initially was programmed into us at a pre-verbal stage, there can be no blame or fault. None of us chose the environment we were born into. It may be impossible for us to ever fully separate our true innate identity from the person we become through the build-up of billions of experiences in our lives. Therefore, being certain about the rightness or wrongness of other peoples’ actions is a stance of ignorance in itself. Closing ourselves off from truly trying to understand the actions, thoughts and beliefs of others is an insecurity on our part. Reserving judgement may be the most intelligent stance. Holding back from having firm opinions means we are prepared to accept our own lack of knowledge. Holding back from judgement may also mean we are prepared to stand apart from the crowd. Keeping an open mind means we are prepared to be wrong. This takes a strong sense of self which, in turn, requires a sense of security.
To be able to take this stance, it is healthier to think of what we know currently as ‘beliefs’ rather than ‘knowledge’. Everything we ‘know’ is simply the best information we have at the time. There are many areas in life where even experts disagree. Therefore, our knowledge is simply the most ‘trustworthy’ information that we currently have. When we are very young, we trust everyone. As we grow, we learn that not everyone is equally trustworthy. When we are faced with conflicting sources of information, it is the ‘source’ of the information that is most important. It is in whom we choose to believe and put our trust that informs what we ‘know’. If ever, in our lives, we realise that our original source of information is not as reliable as a new source, we can then accept the new source and learn new information. When this happens, it becomes clear that what we thought we knew was only ever a belief. It therefore follows that all our knowledge is just our current beliefs based on the most trustworthy information we have currently. It may be accurate but, at the same time, a new source may come along that is more trustworthy. At this point, we would need the courage to accept the need to change.
If we believe in the importance of optimum health, then we must understand the ‘nourishment’ a human being needs. A human being’s needs go far beyond our simplistic understanding of physical nutrients. As individuals, living within a social structure, our health depends on having a strong sense of our unique self, whilst also being connected to the larger body of humanity. Like a cell within a particular area of the body, it must perform its own unique function to ensure the health of its particular area which, in turn, helps the survival of the whole organism. For us to function optimally, we need to continually learn, achieve and grow. To do this, we must continually explore our outer environment, gain new experiences and gather further knowledge. To move through our environment gathering new knowledge, we need to feel we are safe. If we do not feel our environment is safe, we cannot keep moving and gathering new information – we will have to stick with what we have gathered.
As we move through our environment, gathering new information, we will be continually refining and improving our knowledge. We will therefore be replacing old knowledge with more reliable and up-to-date information. It therefore stands that our knowledge, what we ‘know’, is only the best information we have to date. It is, therefore, never really true ‘knowledge’, just the information we most trust. If and when we become aware of new information, from a new source, that challenges our current ‘knowledge’ we have a choice of whether we stick with what we currently believe to be true or replace it with the new information. Once we update and refine our ‘knowledge’ we accept that the old version of events was simply a belief and never really the truth. What we now accept as the new truth is absorbed into our new knowledge system until it is eventually refined and replaced. It should then become clear that all of our current knowledge is simply the information in which we most believe, and everything we ‘know’ now could be replaced in the future.
To be able to update our understanding and knowledge we need to be able to let go of previous versions. This requires a strong sense of security and self. If we are too attached to our beliefs, if our current beliefs are wrapped up with our sense of security, our sense of status, our sense of control, our sense of connection or our sense of meaning, then the discomfort of letting go may seem too difficult. We will then find ourselves defending previous versions of ‘the truth’ to ensure we are getting our needs met. When we see people defending their beliefs in spite of what we can clearly see is overwhelming evidence to the contrary, we can be sure that the perceived threat of change is too great for them to face.
It is important that we understand that everyone is operating from within their own belief system which originally began its formation at a pre-verbal, unconscious stage of life. This was a stage in our life when the foundation of our belief system was being programmed and from which we have no conscious memories to go back to. We therefore aften believe that our emotional responses, our thinking style and our actions are all part of out innate personality and our identity. If we can accept that, what we have come to believe to be our personality, is simply our belief system that has built up around us, we can be more ready for change, development, growth and improvement. If we also accept that other people’s emotional responses, thinking styles and actions are simply a result of their own belief systems that have built up as a result of their own unique experiences, we should be able to be more accepting, more understanding, less judgmental and ultimately more forgiving.
Adopting a more understanding and accepting attitude towards ourselves and others allows us to feel more relaxed, open, accepting and so ultimately more secure. If we feel more secure, we can explore and seek out the nourishment we need, we will be a healthy organism. If we are healthy, we are able to perform the function required of us in our immediate environment. If our immediate environment is healthy then it, in turn, is helping the larger environment to function optimally. Ultimately, moving away from certainty, judgement and fixed truths towards a new understanding of how we all operate through our belief systems, is an essential step for the body of humanity to live in harmony, grow, develop, thrive and move forwards into a healthier and more secure future.