P.S. Positivity: On Knowledge (and Ignorance)


Tom Gauld for the New Yorker, 2014

By Tara Monjazeb, Co-Editor-In-Chief

“An educated mind is nothing but the God-given mind of a child after his parents’ and his grandparents’ generation have got through molding it…We are prone to teach you what we know, and I am going, now and again, to warn you: Remember, we really don’t know anything. Keep your baby eyes on what we don’t know. That is your playground, bare and graveled, safe and unbreakable.” – Lincoln Steffens, in a letter to his son 

NASA reports that 96% of space is left unexplored, made up of things astronomers can’t even think to comprehend. Within that, NOAA reports that humans have only explored five percent of the ocean. If we have explored so little of our own planet, how can we even begin to understand the depths of universes beyond our own? The incomprehensible lies within our own bodies, even – mantis shrimp have twelve color receptors while humans have three. These “impossible colors”, which we are unable to recognize, exist in a perspective much different than our own. There are so many things we don’t know, regarding both the physical and spiritual worlds we live in. Reminding ourselves of that will tear us away from our constant desperation for answers.

Self-actualization is placed at the top of Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs – defined as “the realization or fulfillment of one’s talents and potentialities.” This need, according to Maslow, is present in everyone. The pursuit of knowledge is a drive fueling our every action. Though the curiosity of which is positive, the need for “expertise” in a field or a subject is merely an artificial point of limitation, cutting us off from whatever else is out there for us to learn. We tend to fill in gaps quickly and carelessly, rather than letting them overflow by themselves.  Overconfidence leads to misinformation and, frankly, a lack of knowledge. We are so inclined to race towards closure that we often stop to take a look at what surrounds us outside of the bubble around our heads.

Italian writer Umberto Eco had a personal library of over 40,000 books. His relationship with them was uncommon – striving to collect as many as he possibly could, not because of ego, but rather the lack of it. Having so many unread books (a phenomenon that actually has a name in Japanese – tsundoku) is a physical representation of our potential. This collection of unrealized knowledge keeps us intellectually hungry and perpetually curious.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, a Lebanese-American scholar and essayist, analyzes this concept of the unknowable in his modern classic The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable. In it, he calls this collection of unread books as an anti-library. He says that someone with an anti-library “makes an attempt not to treat his knowledge as a treasure, or even a possession, or even a self-esteem enhancement device”, but rather a tool to pry open our minds and take in as much as we can.

Pulitzer-winning novelist and essayist Marilynne Robinson writes: “We live in uncertainty, which means that we are always exposed to the possibility of learning more, for weal and woe. I would call this awareness humanism, an ultimate loyalty to ourselves that we are all too ready to withhold.”

It’s humbling, knowing that we are just a small fraction of an unfathomably vast universe. So yes, knowledge is power – the power to be open-minded, considerate, and respectful. Humans are a unique species, in that we are aware of what we do not know. This intellectual humility is key in learning and decision-making, as well as creating meaningful connections with the world around us.