The above quote is only understood if we follow its logic through carefully. We know nothing, as Socrates keenly observed. We don't even know the full extent of the ten words in his quote and we need to remain humbled in our lack of knowledge. Socrates, by gathering together human souls to ask the deepest questions, thereby laid down the principle which would guide the entire future of Western civilization. It is a principle which came to its most famous manifestation nearly 2000 years later in the personality of Rene Descartes, who determined that he could doubt nearly everything he knew about the world and his own experience in it. Is there a 'Sun' in the sky? I do not know. Is this person I am speaking to a human being with inner life or an entirely pre-programmed machine? This, I know not. Am I actually awake, dreaming, asleep, or dead right this moment? Who knows, not I! The one undeniable constant in all of these doubts was the existence of the "I" who is doubting everything. I can doubt everything but the "I" itself. In this manner, Descartes proclaimed, Cogito Ergo Sum - "I think [and doubt], therefore I am". The activity of this self-positing "I" is what I truly know. Furthermore, everyone - slow or fast; young or old; rich or poor - can verify this activity for themselves by way of direct conscious reflection. The abstract intellect can rationalize to itself that this "I" is a convenient fiction, but if it attempts to function without it for just one day - without speaking the "I" verbally or even thinking the "I" internally - it will fail miserably.
We cannot directly perceive the "I" we are referring to in waking consciousness. If someone calls out to our "I", we would never conclude this person was speaking to our "I" rather than his own. The "I" transcends all identities and therefore cannot be named from outside of itself. It should not be confused with the sum of our traits, conscious experiences, states of being, or anything similar. What we directly perceive of the "I" is its reflections in our actions, feelings, and thoughts. Descartes,via his doubting process, came to rediscover the immanent reality of the "I" within himself; an immanent reality which had previously been revealed as external Wisdom to Moses before his triumphant entrance into Egypt to free the people of the Hebrew nation - "tell them 'I am' has sent you." It was the same Wisdom which Jesus of Nazareth proclaimed before his triumphant entrance into Jerusalem to free the people of all nations - "Before Abraham was, 'I am'". The Power of this simple realization - I am - cannot be overestimated or overemphasized, and must not be overlooked. It is impossible to capture this Power in words or images. Just as the physical eye cannot perceive itself with pictures, the spiritual "I" cannot either. This fact led Carl Jung to remark, "...as for the self ["I'], it is completely outside the personal sphere, and appears, if at all, only as a religious mythologem, and its symbols range from the highest to the lowest."
The highest Self is the "I" who is and sits at the base of all knowledge, as "a tested stone, a precious cornerstone, a sure foundation", and thereby allows for the accrual of knowledge which will never be shaken. As Gottlieb Fichte observed, "The ‘I’ posits itself, and it is by virtue of this mere positing of itself; and conversely: The ‘I’ is, and posits its existence, by virtue of its mere existence. It is at the same time the one acting and the product of its action; the active one and what is brought forth by the activity; action and deed are one and the same." How does this Self-positing certainty of the "I" reconcile with what we discussed at the beginning via Socrates, when he said, "the only true Wisdom is in knowing you know nothing"? The answer to that question will be explored in the remainder of this essay. We will also address how we avoid the all-too-common peril of genuine and hard-won knowledge calcifying into rigid dogma. It takes much effort to make our knowledge transparent in a manner which safeguards it from this sort of caprice and error, which is only separated from genuine knowledge by a fine line, yet it is entirely possible if we ourselves take responsibility for contributing that effort. He who is wise knows that no external authorities will provide him with the knowledge or Wisdom that he must earn for himself from within.
What Socrates prefigured around 500 B.C. was not an isolated incident or a result of pure happenstance. Rather, it naturally unfolded in accordance with the inner logic of our cognitive evolution, just as our late childhood cognition naturally unfolds from our infant cognition. The latter has no sense of any "I" standing behind its experiences for quite a few months after birth. We will briefly take note of how this same prophetic Wisdom of the consciously emerging "I" who thinks [and doubts] was expressed by other souls living around the same time as Socrates in cultures which span the entire globe from ancient China, India, Persia, and Palestine. These other souls did not express it as forcefully or comprehensively as it was proclaimed in the West, so it did not take root in their respective cultures or manifest to the same degree it later did in the Western European personality of Descartes. We can discern from the quotes below a certain equivocation in the individual's relationship to "knowlege" which is entirely absent from the matter-of-fact assertions that were issued from the minds of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and so forth. Nevertheless, it is clear that all of these personalities were expressions of a monumental evolutionary transformation occurring in the history of human 'knowing', i.e. in the history of what it actually means "to know".
Confucious: "The Master said, 'Yu, shall I teach you what knowledge is? When you know a thing, to hold that you know it; and when you do not know a thing, to allow that you do not know it;— this is knowledge."
Siddartha Guatama (the Buddha): "Without knowledge there is no meditation, without meditation there is no knowledge: he who has knowledge and meditation is near unto Nirvana."
Zarathustra (Zoroaster): "I WILL now tell you who are assembled here the wise sayings of Mazda, the praises of Ahura, and the hymns of the Good Spirit, the sublime truth which I see rising out of these flames. You shall therefore hearken to the Soul of Nature. Contemplate the beams of fire with a most pious mind! Every one, both men and women, ought today to choose his Dread. Ye offspring of renowned ancestors, awake to agree with us."
At this time, Wisdom about what it means "to know" was also growing from the fertile soil in ancient Palestine, which is clearly reflected to us through the imagery of the Old Testament. It is especially evident in the book of Proverbs, Psalms, the Wisdom of Solomon, and the book of Ecclesiastes. There is much confusion surrounding the latter precisely because it is not understood in its holistic context, which is none other than this evolutionary progression of cognition we have already mentioned. Most have heard the saying, "eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrowe we die", which is a reference to verses in the book of Ecclesiastes. The sentiment behind the saying could be summed up as, "don't waste your time thinking about all the things you do or don't know, because death comes to the knowledgeable and unknowledgeable alike". Could there be a more nihilistic sentiment than this one? Our intuition, which is one and the same as our essential "I", conveys to us subconsciously an emphatic "NO!", but our mostly conscious intellect then kicks into gear and doubts what the "I" subconsciously knows. The rationalizing intellect may eventually convince us that what we first intuited as nihilistic sentiment is actually the most "wise" knowledge we could possess. In this manner, the abstract intellect of the 'left brain' tends to turn upside-down all that we subconsciously experience with the 'right brain'.
Considering all the words quoted above from these various personalities and traditions in their holistic context, including the illuminating Light which each sheds on the others, it becomes clear that none of them are urging people to diminish the value of pursuing knowledge, but rather it is the exact opposite. When one realizes that their minds are empty vessels of knowledge - that all of their superficial thought-contents actually amount to no true knowledge whatsoever, and all of their toiling under the Sun is vanity and grasping for the wind - that is precisely when they feel the impulse to reach up through the superficial content and reach those higher contents which can be poured into their soul. "Blessed are the poor in Spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven." That is, blessed are those who have doubted everything they thought they once knew, and thereby prepared the soil of their soul to receive the grace of God "through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out on us abundantly." It is this Spirit who raises up the soul into an entirely new life of knowledge; who allows our sense-knowledge to be born again through the Light it sheds on our essential "I". What exactly is this new life of knowledge and what is the role of our essential "I" in it? Proceeding in the spirit of Confucius, the Buddha, Zarathustra, Socrates, Moses, and Jesus, we need to start over from scratch so that we are clear about what "knowing" is, and, actually, what it has always been.
For the modern soul immersed in the 'facts' of science, that is best achieved by looking at the method of science and consciously discovering what that method is. It is not enough to know the method, but we must also know why the method works. That is how we take flattened abstract thinking and give it some 3-dimensional depth. Some people will refuse to engage in such an inquiry out of sheer principle - the principle that what they already "know" about the world is how the world must be. More concerningly, these people cling to the principle that the reasons why we know what we know are unimportant. They value their thinking in so far as it provides them some practical results and a sense of internal solace, but they do not value the process of observing Thinking itself to discern its deepest secrets. It is this glaring lack of interest in the depth of Thinking which Socrates desired to draw his disciples' attention to with his incessant questioning. He anticipated a new impulse for humanity which would only arrive centuries later and gradually weave its way into human culture. This impulse arrived to adress the problem that thinking without depth is how one builds up superifical "knowledge" like a house which is only built on a foundation of sand - when "the winds blew and beat on that house...it fell. And great was its fall."
The way in which we strengthen the foundation of our knowledge is referred to as "the Socratic method", appropriately enough. This method forces us to consider more deeply why we hold certainly to some conclusions and not to others, and how the conclusions we hold to relate to each other, i.e. whether they are consistent, contradictory, etc. Our flattened intellect prizes "certain" knowledge so much that it seldom stops to think about how it has never actually experienced or reasoned through most of the claims made by modern science; claims which it has the utmost confidence in. We will be looking into some concrete illustrations of what I am referring to soon. To begin with, let's ask ourselves a few questions in the spirit of Socrates. Who among us has run the experiments and mathematical analysis which establish the 'foundational' scientific claims we have the utmost confidence in? Who knows someone who has run such experiments or published the papers with the results? Who actually knows what, in fact, modern science is claiming about the fundamental structure of the world we live in and experience? To be clear, I am not implying anything by these questions - they are simply questions which should put our thoughts in motion. I presume that at least a handful of people reading this write now would not be aware of the transition in modern science which occurred within roughly the last 100 years and which is described below.
At present the physicists only talk about there being nothing outside us but vibrations, and that it is these that, for example, bring about red in us. What the physicists dream of today will come true. At present they only dream of it, but it will then be true. People will... "know" that all those things are caused by their own organism. They will consider it a superstition that there are colors outside that tint objects. The outer world will be grey in grey and human beings will be conscious of the fact that they themselves put the colors into the world... People who then see only the outer reality will say to the others who still see colors in their full freshness, “Oh, you dreamers! Do you really believe there are colors outside in nature? You do not know that you are only dreaming inside yourself that nature has these colors.” Outer nature will become more and more a matter of mathematics and geometry. ... People in the future will not believe that the capacity to see colors in the outer world has any objective significance; they will ascribe it purely to subjectivity.
- Rudolf Steiner, Necessity and Freedom (1916)
It is no coincidence that these "people in the future" (our present) who Steiner referenced are also the people most likely to deny existence to the only aspect of experience which Descartes could not deny - the essential "I". One such person is Annaka Harris. an author and editor for Science Writers and The New York Times who often speaks on the philosophy of consciousness. She published a book in 2019 which purported to shed light on some deep mysteries surrounding the "nature of consciousness". My purpose here is not to launch any sort of personal attack against Mrs. Harris and her work - her ideas, unfortunately, are shared by a fair number of modern scientific commentators and reflect a much broader, transpersonal trend towards the mechanical accumulation of superficial "knowledge". Another notable commentator would be Carlo Rovelli, who is a theoretical physicist and has concluded, "There is no ultimate or mysterious essence to understand—that is the true essence of our being. “I” is nothing other than the vast and interconnected set of phenomena that constitute it, each one dependent on something else. Centuries of Western speculation on the subject, and on the nature of consciousness, vanish like morning mist." Below are two more quotes from Rovelli and Harris, respectively, which really stand in for the widely-held and accelerating thought-patterns of many 21st century philosophers and scientists. These popular personalities are bringing Steiner's predictions quoted above to manifestation within the somewhat educated populace at large, and that should be cause for concern to anyone who values a living foundation for knowledge.
And myself, looking at a star, do I exist? No, not even I. So who is observing the star? No one, says Nāgārjuna. To see a star is a component of that set of interactions that I conventionally call my “self.” “What articulates language does not exist. The circle of thoughts does not exist... Like much philosophy and much science, Nāgārjuna distinguishes between two levels: conventional, apparent reality with its illusory and perspectival aspects, and ultimate reality. But in this case the distinction takes us in an unexpected direction: the ultimate reality, the essence, is absence, is vacuity. It does not exist. If every metaphysics seeks a primary substance, an essence on which everything may depend, the point of departure from which everything follows, Nāgārjuna suggests that the ultimate substance, the point of departure . . . does not exist... Even emptiness is devoid of essence: it is conventional. No metaphysics survives. Emptiness is empty.
- Carlo Rovelli, Helgoland (2020)
When we talk about consciousness, we usually refer to a “self” that is the subject of everything we experience—all that we are aware of seems to be happening to oraround this self. We have what feels like a unified experience, with events in the world unfolding to us in an integrated way. But, as we have seen, binding pro-cesses are partly responsible for this, presenting us with the illusion that physical occurrences are perfectly synchronized with our conscious experience of them in the present moment. Binding also helps solidify other percepts in time and space, such as the color, shape, and texture of an object—all of which are processed bythe brain separately and melded together before arriving in our consciousness as a whole.
- Annaka Harris, Consious: A Brief Guide to the Fundamental Mystery of the Mind (2019)
The reason why Rovelli and Harris reach these flawed conclusions is not because they are reasoning poorly, but rather because they arbitrarily decided to stop reasoning once they reached their desired conclusions which negate the "I". In the modern age, all error in knowledge is truly born of incompleteness. Owen Barfield illustrated nicely in the second edition of his book, Poetic Diction (1953), how modern philosophers were mechanically echoing the conclusions of modern science as they both gazed into the abyss where even "emptiness is empty": "Twentieth-century science has abolished the 'thing' altogether; and twentieth-century philosophy (that part of it, at least, which takes no account of imagination) has obediently followed suit. There are no objects, says the voice of Science, there are only bundles of waves or possibly something else; adding that, although it is convenient to think of them, it would be naïve to suppose that the waves or the something else actually exist. There is no 'referent', echoes the philosophy of linguistic analysis deferentially, no substance or underlying reality which is 'meant' by words." We should observe this overall pattern which reveals how far we have descended from the Cogito of Descartes in the 16th century towards what Barfield called, "the Self-less liquidation of the human spirit".
Once upon a time there was a very large motor-car called the Universe. Although there was nobody who wasn't on board, nobody knew how it worked or how to work it, and in course of time two very different problems occupied the attention of two different groups of passengers. The first group became interested in invisibles like internal combustion; but the second group said the thing to do was to push and pull levers and find out by trial and error what happened. The words 'internal combustion', they said, were obviously meaningless, because nobody ever pushed or pulled either of these things. For a time both groups agreed that knowledge of how it worked and knowledge of how to work it were closely connected with one another, but in the end the second group began to maintain that the first kind of knowledge was an illusion based on a misunderstanding of language. Pushing, pulling and seeing what happens, they said, are not a means to knowledge; they are knowledge. It was an odd sort of car, because, after the second group had with conspicuous and gratifying success tried pushing and pulling all the big levers, they began on some of the smaller ones, and the car was so constructed that nearly all of these, whatever other effect they had, acted as accelerators. Meanwhile the first group held their breath and began to think that their kind of knowledge might perhaps come in useful after the smash.
- Owen Barfield, Poetic Diction (1953)
A new Socratic impulse towards knowledge, which integrates how the Universe works and how to work it, must be manifested in the 21st century if we are to find anything meaning-full waiting for us on the other side of Rovelli's "emptiness devoid of essence". We should view all claims to knowledge with skepticism until we have at least established to ourselves why our skepticism is no longer warranted. When we think we are confident in our conclusions, we should lose that confidence until we have carefully examined the means by which we they were derived. This doubting process requires an oppeness to error and a commitment to thoughtful effort which most people spend their entire adult lives avoiding. In fact, our intellectual ego will construct all sorts of obstacles just to make sure we do not raise up to see the maze through which our desires, feelings, and thoughts travel before arriving within the light of our conscious experience. Instead, it will convince us that either (a) all of those inner experiences have arrived to us ready-made, or (b) there is no possibility of slaying this dragon of the unknown with the light of our knowledge. The worst deceptions are those mixed in with a good dose of truth. There is, in fact, very little yet known in modern science. It has been confirmed in various fields that even the most simple experiences, like the perception of an 'object' in the world, cannot be explained by standard cause-effect relationships. Usually, what is most proximate in time and space to the effect is simply assumed to be the cause. Acutally, it appears we cannot even explain with modern science how there is continuity of perceptual experience in the first place.
But consider the following thought experiment. Imagine an extraterrestrial humanoid life form whose mode of visual recognition was based on the enumeration of the material components that make up particular [manifestations] of general types, rather than on the identification of the general types that are instantiated by particular [manifestations]. Imagine, further, that this alien lands on Earth at a particular location and encounters two dogs: a living dog and a robotic dog. The alien scans the two dogs, catalogues their material constitution for future identification, and returns home. A few years later, the alien returns to Earth to the same location and faces the two dogs it encountered in its first trip. Despite being in the presence of the same two dogs, the alien’s cognitive apparatus is such that he is only able to identify the robotic dog and not the living one. From the alien’s perspective, the living dog of the first trip has faded out of existence, and an entirely different living dog has taken its place. What this admittedly fanciful thought experiment is meant to illustrate is that, if one focuses on matter rather than on form and allows for a sufficiently extended period of time, the stream-like nature of macroscopic organisms becomes perfectly evident. The fact that this does not happen to be easily perceptible to us does not make it any less true or important.
- Everything Flows: Towards a Processual Philosophy of Science (2018)
All of our body parts, our tissues and cells, our inner experiences, and the configurations of these 'things' we identify ourselves with are changing entirely over any non-arbitrary timescale we can observe. Here, again, we come upon the fact that incompleteness - assuming a momentary perception of a ceaseless process can be equated with 'the-thing-itself' - erects our knowledge on an edifice which will inevtiably crumble. Is our "I", who claims to know the world, the configuration of 'things' from seven years ago, from the present day, or from ten years into the future? All too often, the intellectual elite of our age will observe these difficulties of knowing and conclude, "if I do not yet know anything about my own 'I' and what it knows, then it is best to assume that no true 'I' and no true knowledge exists." It is much easier that way, is it not? Our intellect will shift to a manic gear and rationalize endlessly to avoid the apparently tedious work of true knowing which lies ahead of it. But, take notice that, by asking these questions, we have already arrived to some true knowledge about our deepest inner experiences. We have perceived why the intellect will try to stop us dead in our tracks of knowing. At least half of all true knowledge, then, is the re-cognition of the realities within ourselves which are trying to prevent any further knowledge. That reality is also the more comprehesnive meaning of Socrates' Wisdom - what prevents further knowledge is the egoic conviction that we have already reached complete knowledge.
This conviction can come in many forms. Many times we will tell others that we are "open minded" and we are "still learning", but inwardly, if we are honest with ourselves, we can sense that there are certain conclusions - whether personal (related to our "identity"), philosophcal, scientific, or religious - which we will not question under any circumstances. We can and will drive ourselves half-insane trying to understand all the factors which keep us glued to our certainties, but we should not lose sight of the most obvious explanation - it is easier that way! Re-searching, re-thinking, and re-evaluating all of those certain conclusions is no simple matter. It takes time, effort, and discpline. Yet we should also re-member the truth that there is nothing in life which is not made much easier to do, even enjoyable to do, with the proper motivation. Waking up in the morning and getting out of bed is no simple matter either - there are many people who find it difficult to do so precisely because they cannot find the motivating factors within themselves. Here again, the depth of Self-knowledge is what truly provides this inner motivation through its enrichment of all the meaning that it comes into contact with. That is why Carl Jung remarked, "Your visions will become clear only when you can look into your own heart. Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes."
And why Jesus also remarked, "first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother's eye." Our egoic urge to share our 'wise conclusions' with everyone else and thereby "enlighten" them is frequently a stumbling block to any knowing inquiry. That is especially true when it gets so deeply entangled with our finances, our reputation, our status, and overall 'self-worth' that we cannot even imagine a safe retreat to humility. For anyone reading who senses this egoic obstacle may apply to them, as sometimes I also sense it applies to me, I hope what is written serves as a shared motivation to begin enjoying the previously unimaginable work ahead of us. In the next part of this essay, we proceed with the quest for true knowledge by way of a phenomenology of knowing. We will look precisely at what our essential "I" does when phenomenal perceptions appear within the field of its consciousness, whether in our daily experience, our research hobbies, or our scientific investigations. One of the most important convictions to dispel from the outset is the assumption that our "I" is engaged in different 'kinds' of knowing depending on the activity. Whether that is true or not, or to what extent it may be true, will only be revealed to us after we have carefully examined and reasoned through the givens of our experience without any added assumptions. So let us share our encouragement and excitement, for who knows what riddles of the Cosmos our "I" may resolve in its journey?