Foolish, Foolish Me
Our Limited Knowledge
BY: T. Franklin Murphy | June 2016
The Complexity of What We Don't Know
We exist in a universe of unknowns. Life is too complex; wisdom is found in knowing our limitations.
The human mind transformed the world. With the power of thought, we created culture. The social world, with all its complexities, has made survival increasingly difficult—a by-product of this fabulous mind. Whether we like complexity or not, it exists. We must compete with other complex beings within the rules established by culture. Often, overtime, the rules begin to divide, pushing some up to the top, while trampling on unfortunate others. Integrity teaches, we work for equitable change, keeping opportunity available; but changes to cultural norms usually are subtle, often unrecognizable, while waiting for the utopia of equality, we must survive. The growing poverty spreading through the large cities of our wealthy nation sorrows me. This nothing new to this world. History of almost all societies exposes an ugly division between the haves and have-nots.
In our complexity, and great discoveries, we still, as a society, suffer from this great divide. We may ignorantly blame poverty on individuals and glorify the successful as benefactors of their own genius. But this story is incomplete. Wealth and power beget more wealth and power. Some are lucky, some are blessed, while many hard-working intelligent men and women merely survive. The poor are not exempt from responsible. Some suffer from karma of their own making; their actions beget more sorrows and more troubles. No matter where we assign blame, the problem still exists, and people suffer.
Childhood socialization, fortunate or unfortunate encounters, choices, and millions of other unknown factors combine, creating the circumstances of our lives. Many people face the complexity of living with ineffective tools and undeveloped skills; ill prepared and unschooled, they are unable to effectively navigate the stormy waters of modern life. We quickly abandon them, blame their hurt on their own addictions, busying our mind with our tiny lives, protecting our sensitivities from their tears.
We attribute success to personal characteristics. We point to grit, patience, wisdom and hard work as the driver of achievement. Our beliefs in the power of self-determination reinforces self-confidence; we find solace in possessing the ability to conquer the world. But this view is short-sighted. We must dig deeper, asking, “what motivates the desire to achieve? Where does the self-discipline to change originate?”
Baruch Spinoza suggested we feel free because we know our desires; but that freedom is not absolute; we know nothing about the underlying motivations stimulating those desires.
"Many people face complexity with ineffective tools and undeveloped skills; ill prepared and unschooled, they fail to effectively navigate the stormy waters of modern life."
The factors intensifying desires, combining forces from inside and out until the explode into action often lie hidden. William Shakespeare aptly stated, “A fool thinks himself to be wise, but a wise man knows himself to be a fool.” Our understanding of the human predicament supposes a much greater degree of self-empowerment than exists. Our mind detects order from ambiguous stimuli where order is absent. However, this belief has a positive effect on action. When we believe we are empowered—the creator of our own success, we courageously venture further into the unknowns. We seek novel solutions to problems. This personal deception of strength creates an evolutionary advantage. We think, we perform, and we create.
But again, just because a characteristic provides an evolutionary advantage doesn’t imply infallibility. We create fictional stories that succor our need for control. We do this by giving strength to personal actions where our personal greatness if only a small factor, or even perhaps not a factor at all. We lie to ourselves, ignoring large inheritances, fortunate timing, or just plain stupid luck that outweighed our own ignorance.
Sometimes the children of the very wealthy possess less wit, intelligence and skill than majority of the working class; they are sickening wealthy none-the-less. We are no better, We may claim, “I live in a home because I’m wonderful; they live under the bridge because they are terrible.” Our judgment ignorantly skipping over the unknown contributing factors to our blessing and their curse. The judgments cruelly blame the down trodden for their own dire conditions; we point to a single missing trait and self-righteously blame the individual, disregarding the massive impact of unknown factors that always are present.
Wisdom demands we must approach life from two different perspectives. Our minds still need the security of order, identifying contributing causes and the effects. We gain wisdom from identifying associations between action of consequence. This knowledge creates a map for action, giving direction, becoming co-creators of our futures. But we must also acknowledge our foolishness; life is too complex to clearly define every cause. The unknowns bias judgments and create division.
“I am the wisest man alive, for I know one thing, and that is that I know nothing.” ― Plato
Life often diverts from expectations. The unknowns exert influence and the expectations fail to materialize. We feel frustration and disappointment when reality plays outside of our rigid borders of beliefs.
When threatened, we tenaciously seek security from rigidness. Our mind creates protective reasoning that explains away hostile evidence. A quick ad hoc explanation quickly relieves discomfort. Instead of gaining knowledge, we hold to beliefs that foster security, over relying on personal knowledge.
We will never completely rid ourselves of faulty beliefs. We are meaning-making machines. Meaning creates the order we need to explore. We wouldn’t survive in a random and chaotic world if we approached every experience completely detached from the past. The power of our mind thrives on meaning, predicting and preparing for the future. Without the complexity of thought, the conscious mind would serve no survival purposes. Many happenings can be ordered, providing meaningful information to direct us toward complex goals.
Our ability to plan depends on the ability to make connections between action and consequence; even though these plans rely on incomplete and random data.
True wisdom is the ability to balance limitations to personal knowledge with the safety of known facts. Both the known and unknown accompany every new venture. When we balance plans with willingness to evaluate, reevaluate and update, we artfully adapt to the dynamic world where we reside. Our foolishness and wisdom combine to create a more palatable world. The acceptance of personal foolishness expresses the depth of wisdom and allows for a continual flow of awe.
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