XI. Knowledge and Know-how

~ The School of Athens by Raphael


Thinking is very far from knowing. The eye that sees all things else sees not itself. Experience is the mother of wisdom. She is the best teacher. Failure teaches success and experience must be bought. Only trouble brings experience and only experience brings wisdom. In doing we learn. By writing we learn to write. Experience without learning is better than learning without experience. Knowledge without practice makes but half an artist. Use is all. Use makes mastery.

Socrates maintained to his death that the only life worth living is that of a good life. But a good life can only be attained when one knows what is ‘good’ and what is ‘evil’. According to Socrates, the highest virtue is the knowledge of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ gained by the process of questioning and reasoning. In short, knowledge is virtue. Morality and knowledge are bound together like two faces of the same coin, fated to dance together until the end of time. For old gadfly, ‘the unexamined life is not worth living’ and he drank hemlock gladly to prove to the world that his death would lead to his immortality in the minds of men forever. Is this not true to this very day?

Indeed, death holds no sway over philosophy. Through Plato, student of Socrates, it gained its divinity and sadly its superstitious flavours. For Plato thought and believed that the world we live in is but a shadow of another world. That our world contains but imperfect copies of Ideal Forms that exist in a separate world that he called the World of Ideas.

When we look at horses, we can’t help but notice that no two horses are ever the same. They either come in different breeds, shapes and sizes although they have many similarities. We recognize them as horses solely because we recognize that they are imperfect copies of the Ideal Form of a horse, the perfect horse, in the World of Ideas. From his observations, Plato deduced that everything in the world we live in is but a ‘shadow’ of its Ideal Form residing within the World of Ideas.

For Plato, he had given philosophy the answer to the questions revolving around the existence and nature of many things. But instead he had given the superstitious and simple-minded the apparatus for more devious and sinister ideas. But fate would not let philosophy be taken by the simple misunderstanding of one man. It is for Plato’s own pupil, Aristotle, which would let philosophy ascend to new heights, conquering new worlds, and discovering a universe of ideas, thoughts and truths.

Aristotle believed that no such perfect world such as the World of Ideas exists. When we see different instances of horses in the world around us, we recognize their common characteristics and group them under the similar species before giving them a name to represent our idea. Unlike Plato, Aristotle advocated the use of our senses and reason to understand what makes a horse, a horse. What are the general characteristics within all of those animals of the same species? Is it a tail, wings, or fangs? We can only find the truth from evidence gained in the world around us through trusting our senses instead of just relying on our reasoning and ideas to form and gain knowledge.

For his common sense, it was Aristotle and not Plato that would be the father of almost every branch of modern day science. His approach to gaining knowledge would define our understanding of the external world for centuries to come. Would it not be for he who pointed to the earth and started observing, mankind would have still been trapped under the delusion that all they can imagine can be real. And all that is real may be an imagination.

But the idealism of Plato would not die from being buried by the sheer weight of observations and experiments. 15th century Descartes believed and preached that knowledge of the world could be gained by using reason alone. He believed that if the methods by which mathematicians could be applied to human attempts to understand the world, the world could be fully explained. The knowledge of mathematics is absolute. So certain that it would stand the test of time. One plus one would always equal to two under all circumstances and for all men alike. With a minimal number of basic premises so obvious that it is impossible to doubt them, he began to deconstruct the world.

So firmly did he believed that mathematics is the key to knowledge that he forgot that not everything could be measured. Not everything could be placed beneath a ruler and be given a number. He held also equally firm that knowledge acquired through sense-experience is unreliable as our senses often deceive us when we do not think or observe a step further. As if an evil genie is behind all deception, Descartes pointed out that a straight rod looks bent when placed inside a glass of water. Surely, the rationalist that believes in self-evident propositions deduced by reason alone is the sole basis of all knowledge.

But across the English Channel, John Locke would write an essay against rationalism that would form the tenets of good common sense. So fervent was he that his essay turned out into an impenetrable book over 700 pages long. It was as though his belief that knowledge must be gain only through many observations materialized in ink on paper. And so the empiricists took an opposite view from Descartes and his believers and insisted that information about the world external to ourselves can come to us only through our senses. The original source of knowledge must be only sensory-experience because there is nothing else that we have before experience to think about. And since it is the most original source of knowledge, it must also be the accurate and reliable source.

Believing that he has unlocked the secret to knowledge and then, to power, Locke stated that we are born with no innate ideas and that our mind as a newborn must be like a blank sheet of paper on which experience starts to write. He put forth his idea into the light of the world that all our subsequent knowledge and understanding of our external reality develops from a blank state from birth before slowly developing into the mind of full-grown men.

Before the modern study of genetics could prove him wrong, along came the German Immanuel Kant to put out the flames from the fight between the two schools of philosophy. To counter Locke, Kant wrote an 800 page long book to seal his name within the realms of the intellectuals. But his idea started in all simplicity, “there can be no doubt that all our knowledge begins with experience. But although all our knowledge begins with experience, it does not follow that it arises from experience.”

For Kant, our sense-experience provides us the raw data and the mind organizes this data into knowledge and understanding.

Hence, knowledge can be ‘a posteriori’, dependent on experience, or ‘a priori’, independent of the evidence of experience. In the words of Bertrand Russell, knowledge may be based on acquaintance, whereby the subject has a direct experience with the object, or on description, whereby the subject knows of the object only through definite description. In other words, one does not need to go to Berlin to know that it is the capital of Germany.

Knowledge that we so often prized is derived from thought and experience, the former being the more important. We should tread lightly and carefully when relying on the experiences and testimonies of another to base our knowledge of the world upon. When one has no choice but to believe in faith, always remember that knowledge based on faith alone is never definitive. Better to base it on one’s own experience than the testimonies of thousands. Trust your eyes rather than your ears. Consider it prudent to believe what you see rather than to believe what you hear.

The Tao Dejing quotes, ‘all under heaven know beauty as beauty, therefore there is ugliness; all under heaven know good as good, therefore there is badness. Being and beingless generate each other; difficult and easy form each other; long and short shape each other; high and low complete each other; note and voice match each other; front and back follow each other’. Knowledge is elusive and vague. ‘Welcoming her you do not see her head; following her you do not see her tail; grasping the Way of old so as to guide the beings of today.’ But even as knowledge seeks to escape our grasp, we should still continue our pursuit of her.

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