Socrates once famously quipped, “I know nothing.” It is for this self-effacing statement that the Oracle at Delphi pronounced him the wisest person in all of Athens.
And the older I get, the more I comprehend why he said such things.
For those of you who don’t know me personally, I am a huge nerd and a voracious reader. While I don’t foresee myself writing book reviews of everything I read, I will occasionally pass along something that I think could benefit everyone. The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone by Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach is one of those books.
My current teaching assignment, Theory of Knowledge, is the capstone course for the International Baccalaureate program, and I LOVE teaching the class. It is primarily driven by reflection and dialogue, and I get to work with bright and inquisitive young minds who share a love of learning. Though the curriculum delves into various Areas of Knowledge (e.g. Natural Sciences, Mathematics, History, Ethics, etc) and how they interact with Ways of Knowing (e.g. Sense Perception, Reason, Language, Emotion, etc), it is essentially a high-level critical thinking course that examines the nature of knowledge, what knowledge is as a human construct, and how knowledge has changed over time. Perhaps most importantly, it tasks the learner with a central question around which the entire course revolves: how do you know?
This excellent little book, then, is effectively a primer on the subject matter dealt with in a course such as Theory of Knowledge. In the opening pages, the authors ask a simple question: how does a toilet work? They use this as an example of how the vast majority of what we think we know actually exists outside of our own heads and that, ultimately, knowledge is communal in nature (hence the subtitle). Much of the rest of the book details how our brains were never really designed to “know” much, and how that false sense of “knowing”–mostly predicated on an outmoded view of the brain that essentially sees it as a hard drive that stores information and carries out instructions–gets us into all sorts of trouble in our daily lives.
But why read it? Because it gives both pause and perspective. We unfortunately live in a highly polarized political climate, and if we all take a deep breath and realize that we don’t know nearly as much as we think we do, perhaps we can have honest conversations with one another. Perhaps we can ask better questions rather than simply make assertions based on scant evidence. Perhaps we’ll be actually willing to listen to the other person’s positions. Perhaps we’ll actually have opinions that can be augmented (GASP!) when new information is presented. Perhaps we’ll have less hubris and more humility, something that all our pundits and politicians could certainly use.
I’ll be 42 soon. I don’t plan on imbibing hemlock at any point in the foreseeable future. But with each passing day I understand Socrates’ pithy statement more and more…