photo credit: Elle Moss

How do you know what you know? With a near-infinite combination of lifestyles, cultures, theologies, and opinions, how can one be certain that his world view is the best or most correct? In our shared attempt to understand our lives and the world around us, the worst thing we can do is fixate on our current understanding of reality and assume that all other truths must fit neatly within that framework. The best thing we can do is to challenge our assumptions and ask questions.

In the movie Dead Poets Society, a professor named Mr. Keating struggles to open the minds of his students and have them learn what they are truly capable of. His quest to do so is repeatedly smothered by thick layers of culture and scholastic regulations that stifle his creative methods of getting through to the boys in his class. In one scene, he jumps up on his desk, towering above his confused, unbelieving students. He then says:

I stand upon my desk to remind myself that we must constantly look at things in a different way. You see, the world looks very different from up here…
Just when you think you know something, you have to look at it in another way even though it may seem silly, or wrong. You must try!
Boys, you must strive to find your own voice, but the longer you wait to begin, the less likely you are to find it at all. Thoreau said, “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation.” Don’t be resigned to that. Break out! Don’t just walk off the edge like lemmings; look around you!

One by one, the boys step up to the desk, look around the room, and jump back down. While the experience was brief, it taught them at least one thing: they can see the same things differently from a different perspective. This simple knowledge alone can, for us, serve as a catalyst for greater and deeper understanding of reality.

Those who try and conform life to their current comprehension consign themselves to a life of mediocrity and dullness. It’s as if a person grew up using salt only for flavoring food, completely oblivious to the mineral’s many other uses. Of course, we all see through our personal pairs of mortally-tinted glasses; one group of people is trying to take them off, and another seems to prefer making them thicker.

A truth-seeker is a person not content with their current and limited knowledge. They have an obsession with information, and ask all sorts of questions to analyze an issue or theory from various points of view. They are confident in their current understanding only insofar as they have not yet discovered something contradictory; once a new truth is revealed, they willingly forsake their former, erroneous beliefs and embrace it openly.

In our effort to know what we know, we make use of one or more methods from the various branches of epistemology: revelation, empiricism, authoritarianism, pragmatism, etc. While commonplace, our reliance on authoritarianism—trusting information received from “experts” or knowledgeable people—should be minimal. Only when the person sharing information has a long track record of integrity and reliability should we trust their words with any amount of confidence. Even then, other methods of inquiry should not be abandoned in our aim to assess a truth from all angles—not only to ensure it is indeed truth, but if it is, and more importantly, to maximize our understanding of that truth by gaining additional perspective.

A sincere quest for truth and knowledge requires continually challenging our assumptions—only then do we refine our current understanding where necessary, or in some cases, abandon it entirely in favor of some newly-discovered insight.


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