Hey, you there! Yes, you reading this! You know nothing.
Don’t worry, I’m not trying to insult you. I know nothing too.
Okay, “nothing” is quite an extreme term. I’m sure we both know a few things.
But other than that, there is not much in this life that you or me can verify with 100% certainty.
For example, you may think you know a lot about Trump. And based on that “knowledge”, you have formed a certain opinion about the guy. But how do you know these things that you base your opinion on? Do you have any first hand experiences interacting with him? And if you have, how do you know he wasn’t just trying to act a certain way?
I’m giving Trump as an example because almost everyone has an opinion on him. But the same is true for most things in this world.
When you start questioning your own knowledge, you’ll realize how little of it is actually verified by rigorous scientific testing, or even anecdotal first-hand experience.
Most of the things you consider “verified truths” are in fact just your “current most plausible theory” about something. On top of that, most of those theories are adopted from someone else.
That’s okay. We need second-hand learning. It’s not a bad idea to believe your parents when they tell you you can’t fly, are not superman and therefore shouldn’t jump out the window. Consider yourself lucky that this knowledge didn’t come from rigorous scientific research with yourself as the subject.
We also need “current most plausible theories” that we can casually relate to as truths. Because since there is very little in this world that we can truly know, we need such theories to get at least some idea of how things might work. How else are we going to make sense of life?. Let alone navigate it?
But the longer one of these theories has remained uncontested, the more we forget it’s just a nice theory and start to consider it an absolute truth. Especially if the current theory gives us some kind of emotional benefit Like believing our hometown’s soccer team is the best. Or that immigrants / politicians / billionaires are responsible for our problems, not us.
No matter how “solid” your current theories seem, it’s important to remember that 50 years from now, they may seem completely ridiculous. And right now you’re just not seeing it because you forget that you know nothing, Jon Snow.
For example, here’s a list that were still considered true as recent as the 1950`s (or even later):
• Asbestos is great building material
• Smoking is harmless and may help against constipation during pregnancy
• Sugar is harmless, eggs are bad for you
• Lobotomies cure depression
Similarly, there are for sure many things we all currently believe are true, of which we’ll later discover we were totally wrong about.
Okay, I Get It. I Don’t Know Anything. Now What, Smart-Ass?
Once you have the deep realization that you barely know anything, it can throw you off a bit.
What do you do with this information?
How do you still have conversations with people about anything?
Well for starters, you can have more conversations about what you feel. You can ask them questions to get to know them. You can focus on conversations that build intimacy or joke around instead of talking about external things that have nothing to with the other person or you. Of course it can still be fun to entertain theories and discuss their plausibility. But when you do so, realize that it’s okay to admit you don’t know and wait before forming an opinion. And when you have formed one, realize that it can change, so there’s no need to defend it aggressively. That would achieve nothing more than making you a source of entertainment for your Facebook friends.
In early years of this blog I’d sometimes write about big complex topics. Like migration, or the environmental impact of eating certain types of food. I would let the ideologies that influenced me dictate my perception of truth. In hindsight I can see it was naive to think I knew anything about those things.
Admitting that I don’t know anything about most things, even after years of studying many of them, is one of the reasons I quit writing for over a year. This change in mindset required some time to figure out how I could continue to write with authority, knowing that the perspectives I wrote about were only temporary viewpoints on my trip through life.
I realized that a temporary perspective is still valuable. Just like you can learn from empathizing with other people, you can learn from temporarily looking at life through the lens of certain theories or beliefs. There are things I wrote 5 years ago that I no longer fully agree with. Yet I still receive messages from people about how reading it gave them hope and helped them take action to improve their lives. And since right now, my life feels way more awesome then 5 years ago, I can only say that the same is true for me. So while my current perspective may have outgrown it, there is still merit in the less nuanced perspective I had before.
In short: There’s nothing wrong with sharing your current opinion on something, as long as you don’t get attached to it. Learn to wear your beliefs about what is “true” like loose clothing: They’re comfortable to be in. But the real fun begins once you are willing to take them off. As much as you love your “truths”, be willing to stand naked without them and try on the other person’s truths for a bit. See what you can learn from them. How your old truths look from their perspective.
There’s also nothing wrong with never having an opinion about anything and just admitting you don’t know. Imagine you had a friend like this: Whatever you asked him, he said “I don’t know enough to give you a solid answer.” But then one day, he’d tell you “Hey, here’s something I know that will make you rich.” Wouldn’t you be very inclined to take such a person’s word as likely to be true?
It’s interesting that there are so few people who do this. We “know” now, that nobody really knows anything. Yet you rarely hear people say “Oh, my political opinion about this very complicated matter? I don’t know, I haven’t done in depth research on this, pardon me.”
Instead, what you do often see is people arguing about things they think they know. While in reality neither person knows. But what they are really fighting for is just for the other person to tell them they are right. So that they can now fully believe it themselves.. Of course this never happens. Because none of them really knows. So when they find out the other person disagrees, they have to defend their own belief. Otherwise they may end up listening to the other guy and realizing that they are uncertain about these things.
A Sense of Wonder
…and that is EXACTLY why we avoid admitting this too much. Even to ourselves. Not only is there the fact that you know nothing. There’s also the fact that barely anyone else knows it better than you. That’s a lot of nothing to deal with. A great unknown. Which is the ultimate form of uncertainty, so it scares us.
But if you think about it, false knowing is way scarier than not knowing. Not knowing is potential and hope:-) False knowing is operating on defective software.
Knowing nothing is also nothing to be ashamed of. Jon Snow was quite a popular character, so it must be okay for people. In fact, it’s better to learn to be okay. Because this universe is so big and this life so mysterious that there will always be infinitely more that you don’t know compared to the few things you do know.
Do you ever think about that? How immense and mysterious the universe is? Most people have pondered it at some point (and if not, they will once you give them enough drugs).
Can you perhaps remember how as a kid, you would feel that way about everything? And it excited you all the time?
For example: Maybe you saw a cow and got super excited because you knew nothing about it. So you asked your parents “What is that big thing with black and white spots?”
Then they’d tell you “A cow, my dear child. They make milk.”
“Oh, so they’re like factories?”
“No, they’re animals. The milk comes from their tits. Come on kid, factories are bigger than that and have tubes with smoke coming out of them. Get your act together. You’re smarter than this, dawg.”
After getting your act together, you’d see a brown cow with no spots and ask “What kind of animal is that?”
“Also a cow…”
“Why is it brown?”
“They make chocolate milk”.
And you’d reply with”Woah dude… This world is full of wonder and mystery. Thanks mom and dad. You guys are so rad! Also sorry, mom, I didn’t mean to use gender specific pronouns to signify a group that includes people of both gender, namely you and dad when I said “you guys”. But I haven’t gone to school yet so my language is still heavily influenced by the tyrranny of the patriarchy that still controls the media. As a baby, I still have a bit too much misplaced trust in television characters.”
But I digress. The point was that as a kid, you looked at a “simple cow” for the first time and it filled you with a beautiful sense of wonder and awe. Because you did not know anything. Once you knew about the cow, the beautiful feeling was gone. You now saw it and instead thought “I know that thing. It’s a cow.” and felt proud. Even though you still barely knew anything about it.
I invite you to try and get in touch with that feeling again. When you look around you at nature. At technology. At the people around you. At the existence of things you take for granted. Like baked bread, audio recordings or the concept of language. Every single one of those things is mind-blowing. You know them as concepts. But when you throw those concepts away, it allows you to see their magic. Looking in someone’s eyes can already fill you with a sense of mystery for hours. Now imagine how many other body parts they have to be in awe of 😉
Reminding yourself that you know nothing can fill you with this sense of awe about everything. The fact that every thing is so much bigger than you’ll ever understand, so you might as well enjoy just observing it.
It’s way more satisfying than arguing with strangers on Facebook about something you both don’t know the half of.
But what do I know? 😉