Robert Augustus Masters

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What Do We Know About Knowing?

  • October 27, 2016
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What do we know about knowing? Much, much less than we think.


We do know something about certain functions of knowing, such as perception, and we have before us neuroscience’s latest findings about the brain, but we are still pretty much in the dark about the actual process of knowing, with our explanations only affirming and deepening the mystery of what knowing — especially conscious knowing — actually is.


And even when the lights go on, we are not any closer to knowing what knowing actually is. This, however, is not really a problem, but a massive clue — which I’ll detail after a bit more background.


It’s no secret that having knowledge about something is not the same as actually knowing — or genuinely getting — what it is. Every description and explanation cannot help but fall more than short, since every definition and explanation rests on other definitions and explanations, never getting down to the bare — and radically non-conceptual — reality of anything.


Part of the challenge here is that to really know what anything is, we cannot know it in isolation from everything else (because there’s nothing that truly exists apart from or independent of everything else). For example, to know what a leaf actually is, we’d also need to know what a tree is, what light is, what water is, what soil is, and what all other leaf-precursors are.


So to truly know what anything is, we would also have to know what everything else is, if only because the apparent causes of every arising have their own causes, and so on, back and back and back, in all directions, intersecting and interacting with absolutely staggering complexity, implicating everything from the very start — if there actually was a start.


So to know what anything in particular is — as opposed to knowing all sorts of things about it — is to know what everything is. This is not a philosophical consideration but an existential one, without any language other than that of supercharged intuition.


To dig into this is to encounter firsthand the interconnected and inescapably contingent nature of all that exists, and not just spatially. And the deeper we dig, the weirder it gets, stripping us of our usual sense of familiarity.


And how can we actually know — or really be in the position of a knower — when it is impossible to be positioned truly apart from (or with no connection to) what we are trying to know? That aspect of the Whole that wants to figure out and explain the Whole is still part of the Whole, being just as open-ended, unfathomable, and inexplicable as everything else — which is the ultimate bummer for the sense of self that thinks part of its mission, its raison d’etre, is to know, to be in the know.


What we do know is that we do not know in any fundamental sense — and this is not news. It’s just that we tend to not dive deeper into its implications, not feeling well-enough equipped to face what might be there or might not be there.


Our essential state, our very being-ness, is anchored in conscious not-knowing — not ignorance, not stupidity, not empty-headedness, not willful separation from thought — but rather knowledge-transcending recognition and revelation.


Not-knowing is the root and stem, revelation the bloom.