Posts Tagged ‘knowledge’

I have never been an habitual reader of the Bible.  This is a failing, I know, but my carelessness goes back to my childhood, at a time when I suppose I identified the Bible with school assemblies – and I more or less hated school.  It is the same with our great authors – Shakespeare, Milton, Dickens, et al ; I associate them all with school, and I have more or less ignored them all until comparatively recently.

As a result of all this, I am not like a cradle Christian, and for that I am somewhat grateful for my early life.  I am grateful not least because I spent so much time trying to make sense of the crazy world of the adults in my life that I became insatiably inquisitive about all things.  But, most of all, I became inquisitive about people and what makes them tick.  In other words, I am religious without being hampered by religiosity.

Of course, much of what I learned came from books ; for it’s all very well to observe behaviour in order to learn, but it is vain to try to invent theories that explain that behaviour without reference to greater minds who have given the matter more thought.  And in the course of my explorations, I have learned that it is also vain to trust the theories of others uncritically.  There are few experiences more depressing than a correspondence or a conversation with someone who quotes Shakespeare by the yard or the Book of Genesis by the metre ; or a blogger who pastes whole column-feet from Wikipedia.

With regard to my approach to learning, I recently came across two kindred spirits, and I stress that they are both far more clever than I ; and the second of those spirits is possibly far more clever than most people give him credit for.

DH Lawrence is not particularly well-known for his philosophy and his religion.  But I do recommend his very last book, published a year after his death.  It is called Apocalypse.  In it he addresses the meaning of the book, and compares his understanding with the many other opinions that have flourished since the earliest times ; opinions which range from the scholarly to the downright loony.  I have skimmed through Lawrence’s Apocalypse, as I usually do with a new book, and have only just begun to read it.

In the Introduction, there is a quotation which caught my eye : Lawrence wrote this :-

I am no ‘scholar’ of any sort.  But I am very grateful to scholars for their sound work.  I have found hints, suggestions for what I say here in all kinds of scholarly books, from Yoga and Plato and St. John the Evangel and the early Greek philosophers like Herakleitos down to Frazer and his ‘Golden Bough,’ and even Freud and Frobenius.  Even then I only remember hints – and I proceed by intuition.

Now here we have someone who is no mere book-learner.  He gathers information and proceeds to think about it ; and from his thinking he receives trustworthy intuitions – spontaneous realizations about the meaning of what he has read.  He does not feel bound by what he has read, but uses his readings as a springboard to deeper understandings.  He is a true seeker of knowledge.

Also he writes elsewhere that you can divide books into two classes : those that do not bear re-reading : and those that do.  A good book, he says, will offer new revelations at each successive reading.

Now all this is just what I should have said if only I had Lawrence’s skill with thoughts and words.  For, surely he is right on both counts.  For books by even the great writers are not there to be taken at face value ; they are not there to be slavishly believed and slavishly quoted from.  Even the greatest books are there to be intelligently interpreted and re-interpreted ; this is the secret of their greatness ; this is the seat of their power ; this is the key to the evolution of human consciousness.  Any other approach comes close to idolatry.

But there are limits to interpretation.  The aim is to allow the meaning of the original text to evolve ; to keep its spirit alive ; for it is the spirit that gives the text its life.  The aim is not merely to change the meaning of the text, for that is not evolution, but substitution, and that is likely to end in meaninglessness. I regret that many interpreters make that mistake.

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It’s  interesting how marriage can change a young man’s mind for the better, and sometimes to his complete surprise.  It is as if a thousand thoughts, neglected and unspoken in the careless days of bachelorhood, silently combine in wonderful ways to produce new understandings of the world ; which then make themselves known step by step.

This process, of unconscious thinking, has a name given by psychologists : they call it latent learning.  Of course, psychologists, being of a cautious disposition, presume that all the unconscious knowledge we have has been previously learned at a younger age, from the time of birth ; there are few now who are so bold as to presume that individuals might have knowledge that they brought with them into this world, or knowledge that they might have acquired directly mind from mind.

These thoughts were going through my mind recently as I was re-reading Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, a book I first read when our first daughter was on her way into the world.  For reasons I could not have been fully aware of, I began to take an interest in what was to me a somewhat alien world – the world of myth and legend, of allegory and fable.  And, to my surprise, through that master story-teller I discovered the importance of these genres ; and their essential truths.  Much more was to follow in the coming years.

Most people now know, I think, that Tolkien wrote his great book in order to fill a gap ; a gap so obvious that no-one seemed to have noticed it ; or, if they had noticed it, they felt unable or unwilling to fill it.  What was missing was a truly Anglo-Saxon grand myth.  True, there was Beowulf, but however fine that was, it made but a small contribution to our heritage and was of limited scope.

On my first reading these aims of Tolkien quickly drifted far from my mind.  That was because I was so enchanted by the story, so drawn in to the adventure, that I forgot completely the wider aims of the author.  And that was just it ought to have been ; for no successful story was ever written merely to be an exemplar of a  genre ; a mere literary exercise.

And who can doubt the success of The Lord of the Rings?  And who can doubt the essential and eternal truths it first embodies and then expresses?  Who does not, at some point and to some extent, identify with each and every character in the tale?  Whether you be woman or man, you will sympathise with Eowyn in her dilemmas.  Also with Aragorn in his dangers and toils ; with Gandalf in his mighty hopes and fears.  And we can even identify with Sauron in his striving for mastery over all things both living and unliving.  And who needs reminding of hobbits?

In myth there is a hidden power.  It is the power to stir those obscured thoughts that come to the light of consciousness only when stimulated by some mysterious power that is latent in the very words we use.  If myth were mere fantasy then our rational minds would dismiss it on first sight, and by this stage of our evolution, myth would simply not exist.  But, although a myth may contain elements of fantasy, it is not those elements which stick in our minds and touch our hearts.  And that is why true myths are ageless and enduring.  That is why they adhere to our language.  That is why all successful novels are based on traditional myths.  That is why myths appear and reappear in all our arts and sciences.

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Somewhere in the book written by Ecclesiastes there are the words, Knowledge is a curse – or something similar.  Perhaps he is near the mark.  We can think of knowledge as the contents of our memory, both individual and collective.  Most creatures have a memory of some kind, but what distinguishes us is that we can become conscious of our past experiences by means of recall.  And we have other highly-developed abilities, too : we can think, and we can imagine the future.  So, by recalling the past and comparing it with the present – by thinking about what was and what is – we can detect a kind of process at work.  From there, we can imagine what the future might hold for us, and also how that future might be amended.  And all this tempts some of us to imagine that we might become masters of our own destiny.

But why should knowledge be a curse?  Because it is never complete ; and because it is never precisely known.  Thus all our plans for the future are flawed right from the start.  From this mere weakness, many strong evils emerge.



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Something to meditate on.  We say that we live in the World.  We say that we know the World.  What is the difference between the World, on the one hand, and what we know of the World, on the other?

We live in a phenomenal world, a world of mental images consciously perceived. Surely the World (universe) is exactly what we collectively know about it ; it is the collective phenomena ; no more and no less.  If so, then the world would seem to be coterminous with human consciousness.

Of course, this need not mean that there is nothing outside of our consciousness ; but that which is outside of our consciousness is not the World.

I can remember words Pascal the wise
Left us to ponder , which gave rise
To other ideas, paler than his own.
All worlds and suns, and even yet
The brightest stars that nature did beget,
Compare with dust in light of human mind.

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The tale is told of how Socrates was confronted by a citizen of Athens who posed a question for him.  “Socrates,” the man asked, “Why does the Oracle at Delphi describe you as the wisest man in the world?”

The answer he got was something of a surprise : “I can only think that it is because I know nothing.”  Then Socrates added, “But I have opinions on nearly everything.”

Clearly Socrates was attaching what we would take as a special meaning to the word ‘knowledge’ ; he took knowledge to be something that was infallible and incontrovertible.  It seems that , for him, to have knowledge of a thing was to apprehend its reality ; knowledge was not a matter of opinion, it was not a matter of truth or falsity ; nor was it a matter for partiality.  This view opens up many possibilities for discussion.

Socrates was one of those very rare people who did not merely invent some new mathematical technique or some new machine ; he proposed a whole new way of thinking about ourselves and the world we live in.  The consequences were tremendous, and we live with them to this day.

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The well-known biologist, Louis Wolpert is oft-quoted as saying, “The universe is not only stranger than we know, it is stranger than we can know.”  Perhaps he was right, and perhaps he was wrong – maybe we shall never know or even be able to know.  I wonder what it means to be unable to know a thing?

But what is really interesting is that we seem never to have ceased trying to know ; indeed, there are many who still make a handsome living out of it.  And it is interesting, too, that we still use the basic yardstick of knowledge which was proposed at least twenty-five centuries ago.  Yes, we still use mathematics.  We also use words, of course.  Some say that there is no fundamental difference between numbers and words.

But puzzles have grown up since those far-off days ; or, have they re-emerged from even more murky and ancient times?  For there is a strong tendency now to believe that numbers are the property of nature ; that numbers actually define nature.  Some of those old Greeks would have boggled at this notion ; at least they would have thought it quaint.

Anyhow, here’s a puzzle.  Where are the numbers in nature?  If you can find one, please do take a photo of it (in colour if you like) and enter it for a competition somewhere.

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I remember being indoctrinated at school.  “There’s knowledge in books,” they said.  “Lies,” I thought, “There’s only paper and ink.”  And all that paper and ink in the book is meaningless ; knowledge exists only in minds.

I tested my hypothesis by consulting a book written in Greek ; it conveyed nothing intelligible to me at all.  I then consulted a book written in English ; it conveyed a wonderful story to me.  Is it something about Greek ink that causes this strange difference?  or Greek paper?  At any rate, I concluded that the experiment supported my hypothesis : there is no knowledge in books.

But was I right in my thinking?  Wouldn’t it be truer to say that there is knowledge in books for those with eyes to see and a mind to understand?  If this is so, then there has to be more to a book than mere paper and ink.  What is that ‘something more’?  And where does it come from?  It cannot be a material thing, for nothing material is added to  the paper and ink.

Dare one say that, if knowledge (or wisdom) is not a material thing, then it must be spiritual.  Knowledge is not a quantity but a quality.  And if it comes from somewhere, then surely it has to come from either the writer or from the reader ; or from both.  Or does it come from language itself?  Does the writer merely re-arrange the knowledge inherent in the words? So the words are the material symbols which represent (and are connected to) the spiritual knowledge.  And is the reader’s mind stimulated by the sight of the material symbols, so as to awaken his own spiritual knowledge to the new arrangement of words?

I have no doubt that some of the very finest of minds have unravelled this mystery.  I shall be content to wonder at the hidden power of words.

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