Commentary: Knowing things


One truism in life is that we can never fully know a particular thing. While we know our name, our birthdate, our propensity to get grumpy if we do not have our morning coffee, etc., anything outside of ourselves is truly fully unknowable. We gather information from the outside of our bodies through our senses – sight, hearing, touch, smell, and taste (and maybe some others). Light, sound waves, molecules drifting off from an object, etc., are received by our sensory systems and then transformed by our electrochemical perceptual sense systems to neurological on and off switches. While we know that big green thing over there is a tree, what we think is a tree is just our brain’s interpretation of the neurological data that our senses took in. We do not really know the tree, only our interpretation of it based on the limited information we received from it and what our culture taught us about trees.

And that is just the beginning of it. We might all agree it is green, but what is “green” except what we have all learned to call a particular wavelength of light “green”? We all probably “see” very different colors in our heads. (My girlfriend says her suitcase is green; I insist it is blue, but in the interests of conviviality, I admit it is a sort of bluish-green.)

And what is a tree, anyway? People from different experiences, occupations, and cultures will attach meanings to trees in very different ways. And that is just trees. Take it to the next level, and one can easily see why people have so many disagreements regarding politics, religion, and Uncle Bob’s latest adventure.

What follows is the realization that, due to our limited internal sensory sampling system, we can never truly experience anything outside ourselves for what it really is. Likewise, we can never be on the exact same sensory neurological page as anyone else.

One of the most difficult aspects of “knowing” is that one cannot fully understand something unless one accepts it for what it is, accepts it on his or her own terms, for as soon as we put our own meanings or interpretations on something, we interfere with knowing it in all its depth and nuances. This is the old adage, One cannot know someone until you have walked a mile in his or her moccasins.

A good example of this is trying to understand why someone would hate people in a particular group so much that they feel the need to exterminate them. One aspect of this hateful action  is called “terrorism.” Many people think they understand the terrorist’s mind, but my conversations with them suggest otherwise. None are willing to understand a terrorist for who he or she really is, to try to comprehend them on their own terms. Instead, one hears about how evil they are, how they are trying to take over our country, etc. These are all ideas based on fear, not understanding, and they limit true understanding of terrorists, and hence, being able to prevent their threats and actions. Trying to understand something as violent as a terrorist act is very difficult, not for the angry or fearful or faint of heart, and requires an open mind that many (perhaps most) people cannot muster.

One exercise would be to watch the videos of Osama Bin Laden, the archetypical terrorist in the American mind. The idea would be to try to understand where he is coming from, what he is trying to say, and what drives his anger, not with the goal of condoning it, but with the goal of attempting to prevent more violence from him and other terrorists. We find that in the videos there is much anger and calls for violence, but in every video, there transpires a common thread: “America and her allies, get out of our countries, and we will stop this violence towards you.” Understanding how Arabs have been mistreated, lied to, invaded, and exploited for centuries by Western hemisphere countries, it is not a difficult stretch to understand the anger with which Ben Laden felt. Such understanding can lead to solutions to the problem of terrorism.

Right now please allow me to head off the criticism that I anticipate from my conservative nemeses. Understanding a terrorist for who they are does not mean that we accept them as “right,” believe everything they say, or condone their behaviors, it only means that we try to understand them from their own point of view. They are, after all, fellow human beings with the same desires and needs as ourselves. I do not condone the violence they perpetrate, just as I do not condone the similar violence of Americans committed in the name of our government on people of other countries and even within our own borders. It is only by fully understanding our enemies (and the actions of our governments) that we can solve the social and political problems of the world.

Understanding a terrorist (or for that matter, anyone different from ourselves) might actually be easier than understanding a tree, if we allow ourselves to do so. At least the former is a human being with whom we share many species-specific commonalities. But in order to do so, we must allow ourselves to temporarily remove our preconceived ideas of a person’s intentions, motivations, culture, and histories. We must go into the exercise with an open mind, non-judgmental, and ready for whatever we find. This can be a very difficult thing to do. It implies that we might be wrong about our subject and be open to change our beliefs in some way, which is not always easy to do.

Admitting that one might be wrong about something does not imply that we have no faith or beliefs or that we are not diligent in getting our facts straight, but rather is a recognition that, as a human being, we understand that we have the capability to think that we have it right but might find out later that we were wrong all along. We have different understandings and beliefs about things at ages 2, 5, 10, 20, and hopefully 40 and 70. We can always learn more about something, and this will change the meaning of it for us.

The understanding that we might change our beliefs creates humility within us; it rightly knocks us off our pedestal. Also, it creates a connection for us with all other human beings. We understand that “they” might be right, after all, as we try to understand their viewpoints in order to know them and see what we can learn from them.


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