I know nothing

Published on February 19, 2013 by      Print
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By Louis Cortese

Imagine yourself at the proverbial cocktail party attended by a variety of people from all walks of life.

Notice how, in any topic of conversation—politics, religion, sports, movies, psychological therapy, societal issues, etc.—everyone seems to have such expert, seemingly inside knowledge of the topic. No one ever takes the position of admitting they just don’t know enough to form a definitive opinion. On the contrary, they will exude an air of knowing. No veil is being pulled over their eyes. And if you don’t agree, well, then you’re just being naive.

In such instances, I always ask myself, how did this person with no experience at all in this particular subject get to have such incontestable inside information about it, which defies the opinion of renowned experts in that particular field?

Whereas, I feel like I know nothing.

And I don’t feel like I’m alone in that. I also think everyone else knows nothing. We all have opinions, strong confident viewpoints. The problem is that most of us consider our own opinions as absolute fact, even though we’ve usually only skimmed the surface of what there is to know about something. If our version is challenged, we go as far as to wage battle to defend it, or at the very least, view the person holding the opposing view with indignation and scorn. But in reality, it’s all speculation or just intuitive inclination.

I’m not even talking about religious beliefs. We all know that the world is full of all kinds of spiritual paths, and the adherents of each are absolutely sure theirs is the one true way. But I think most of us know, when it comes to religion, everybody gets a pass on whatever crazy loony stuff they believe in.

I’m referring more to the locked-in thinking pattern that most of us apply to almost everything else we think about. There are matters that affect our world and how we live our lives—from serious stuff like climate change to silly nonsense like whether a particular movie star is gay or not.

In any subject, everyone knows with certainty.

Very few of us question our own positions on what we hold to be true: politics, morals, the role of society, our place in nature, how we relate to one another, work ethics, the meaning of human life. We all act as though we hold the indisputable truth about most subjects. It just doesn’t seem plausible that all of us can offer an exhaustively dissected dissertation about any given topic at any time.

There are those who spend a lifetime studying and dissecting one particular specialized area, and even they debate among themselves their conclusions. Just to pick a topic, there’s the question of whether we human beings exercise free will or not. There are experts in the field of psychology and philosophy who have PhD degrees, have spent countless hours conducting experiments on the subject, have written well-researched and substantiated books and theses about it, and yet still arrive at opposing opinions with regard to that particular question. Yet the average guy who spends his time selling used cars will tell you, without batting an eyelash and with unqualified certainty, the true answer to the question of whether we exercise free will, just as the woman who works in the accounting department of that used car dealership will tell you, without any doubt whatsoever, that life begins at conception. There is the philosophy professor at the local community college who is convinced that he knows who was really behind the 9/11 World Trade terrorist attack; or the wall street stock peddler who holds the incontrovertible belief that the way to get the economy on track is by having the Federal Reserve engage in quantitative monetary easing in opposition to the view of a Nobel prize–winning economist.

We all operate from a position of knowing it all.

Very few of us look at how we are living our lives, at how we relate to one another, or at the meaning of our existence and say, “I have no fucking clue, but I would like to share my ideas with others and listen to their ideas.” No, we instead form a steadfast belief first and venture forth from that engraved-in-stone attitude, which causes us to shut out anything that differs from that position.

I don’t know this for sure, but my feeling is that we wear this mantle of assuredness because of a conditioned childhood orientation which preaches that those who succeed in life do so because they are confident in their principles and never waver. Those who waffle never get anywhere. It’s the John Wayne way of presenting oneself to the world: self-confident, certain of your ways, and no pussy footing around.

This attitude may be useful for certain endeavors in business, or technological engineering achievements, or even political disputation in order to form legislation, but we unfortunately apply the same tenacity and doggedness to matters of human relations, existential questions, morals and ethics, or worldly subjects of which we only have surface knowledge.

Instead of approaching these questions from a state of wonder (as an infant does with everything it comes into contact with) we begin our observation with an already preconceived and biased intractable notion. It’s as though we shut the door to the infinite possibilities that lie out there for the sharing, because we are afraid to admit that we know nothing.

When I feel that I need to be John Wayne and am afraid to admit I know nothing, I consider this passage from Plato’s Apology where he ascribes the following quote to Socrates:

“He fancies he knows something, although he knows nothing; whereas I, as I do not know anything, so I do not fancy I do. In this trifling particular, then, I appear to be wiser than he, because I do not fancy I know what I do not know.”

About Louis Cortese

Lou , in his life, has been a precocious young boy in an anachronistic town in the mountains of Sicily, an immigrant at the age of 8 arriving by way of an ocean liner to the shores of the west side of Manhattan, a guido from the Bronx, a hippy, a Zen Buddhist, a businessman, a yogi and a conventional family man with three sons and two grandchildren, among other things, none of which describes his true self and all of which in the aggregate do not give a full account of him. If his story is not he, then what is? He’s still looking. Lou’s musings can be followed on his blog http://louiebop.tumblr.com/

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  1. Ed says:

    Reminds me of something said by a Zen teacher as a guideline to life – “Only don’t know”. I have not been able to locate the quote and what it referenced.

  2. eleles says:

  3. Katherine says:

    Reminds me of the quote, “We don’t see things as they are, we see things as we are.” Anaïs Nin

  4. beth says:

    I sort of think we no nothing is very true…there are infinite possibilities but we do have to some beliefs of something to guide us in how we choose to make decisions

    • Louis Cortese says:

      Of course we all have a set of principals that we are guided by. I am not proposing total abnegation of view point. I am suggesting rather that the intransigent positions we sometimes hold are totally unjustified and unsupported by fact and should be softened.

  5. karl oss says:

    Really good, but I’ll bet there’s still some air holes out there
    Who won’t believe this could be relevant to them.

  6. Rene says:

    I know exactly what you mean.

  7. Renee - Blacksheepyoga.com says:

    I adore the quote from Plato’s Apology at the end. Adore. I think much of it has to do with people’s fear of being rejected, or ostracized. I’m pretty good at admitting I know ‘nothing;’ my weakness lies in not knowing how to approach the know-it-alls mid-conversation. But I almost don’t care that much, almost; I’m finding when you give up on being a know-it-all there are more curious….’baby-like’ people out there who are fun! And don’t care to know it all….

    Just some thoughts! Thank you.


  8. Giselle says:

    I think many things about this..that some people that hold on so tightly to their viewpoint are hanging on by a thread. Fear maybe..ie. if this isn’t true then what? Their world falls apart? I also think that men feel the pressure to be right more than women..hormones maybe. Or not. (This in no way means that women don’t “fight it out” in a good argument). I also think it is exciting to feel passionately about something..so much to be learned in the process.. including the possibility of coming out the other side. But most of all I agree with you, Plato and Anais Nin. It’s just a perspective.. :)

    • Louis says:

      Regarding men having more pressure to be right more than women, I think it’s more of a cultural conditioning matter rather than biological as you conjecture. I used the John Wayne analogy in the essay to describe it. Men, more than women, are conditioned to feel that one of the more important aspects of being a real man is to be confident in what you believe in and be ready to wage battle to defend it. Anything short of that, you’re considered a wimp. Women who take a strong stand, on the other hand, are considered unfeminine. I do find from personal experience, in general, not always, I find women to be more open minded about most things.

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