How do we know that we know what we know?

Posted on January 23, 2018


In a world full of people saying with such gusto, “I’m right and therefore you are wrong,”

how do we know what we know?

Why do we know what we know?

What does it matter?

“Each of us creates a picture of our world by connecting a dozen or so of the trillions of dots that would need to be connected to make a ‘true’ portrait of the universe.” — Sam Keen

Just because we think we know, does that mean we really know?

Just because someone told us so, does that mean we know?

Just because a person with power or authority tells us it is so, does that make it so?

How do we know that we know what we know?

There is no authentic “knowing” outside the context of relationship or direct experience.

“The path between the head and the heart is the longest journey.” Ojibwe saying.

Head knowledge is a form of passive learning that we are told. Its source is external. It is downloaded from culture and higher authorities. It is second-hand knowledge.

Heart knowledge is a form of active learning, learning by doing, learning through direct experience and through relationships. Its source is internal. It is knowledge that is ‘realized’ from within.

FOUR dimensions of knowing

Known knowns: things we know that we know.

Known unknowns: things that we know we don’t know.

Unknown knowns: things that we already know, down deep, but have forgotten.

Unknown unknowns: things we don’t know we don’t know.

  1. Known Knowns: knowing what I know. Certainty is a sort of “god” for many of us. We seek to learn only so that we no longer “don’t know”; which is “anathema” or cursed in our culture. We are uncomfortable with not knowing, and so we cling to any sort of idea that makes us comfortable. We fear what we do not know, and so we grasp hold of anything that will squelch our fears; an illusion of “knowing”. These are often opinions that are nurtured and developed within our bubble of sameness within which we exist. Out of our desire for comfortableness, we tend to gravitate toward ourselves, and those that are like ourselves. We get our ideas from what we are told, by those that think like us. Another way of referring to this tendency is “group-think” or “gang-think” or “confirmation bias” or “conditioning” or “conformity to the world”. It is not thinking at all. It is simply downloading the opinions of others, of culture, of the “educated”, of those in authority, of the powerful, of the influential. This then becomes a sort of Head Knowledge, sort of like a bank deposit. Knowledge becomes something that is bestowed upon us by those that know, those that are greater than us. We then can wash our hands of our responsibility to inner truth or our inner teacher; for we make it the responsibility of our external teachers to find and preach true truth, not fake truth. Part of “Known Knowns” are those things that we do know for sure. But these “knowns” are not bestowed upon us from any external source. They are more like an ancient knowing, recognition, or resonance. For me, discerning truth is not so much about being right as it is about resonating deep within. And hence, “Most of life is about remembering what we already know.” These are the things that we truly “know”. Often these ideas come to us through external sources, but until each downloaded idea is discerned and confirmed within through direct experience and/ or relationship, then it is simply opinion. It is not yet a Known Known.
  2. Known Unknowns: Knowing what I do not know. The older I get, the more I realize how much I do not know. All learning begins with the realization and the admission that “I do not know”. But this realization and admission requires that we face our own limitations, the unknown, the mystery that engulfs us all. Our ego does not allow us to not know. As we let go of ego and pride, we begin to see things at a much deeper level. As we open up our hearts and minds, we can allow for a knowing that has no place in a closed mind that already knows. This emptying admission of the unknown gives birth to wisdom. And hence, we must remember that “If I already know, I can no longer learn.”
  3. Unknown Knowns: Not knowing what I know. Far too often, we know, deep within, the path that we should take. We know how we should treat another person. But we forget that we know. Life usurps our knowing by its busyness and noise and confusion and complexity… and we are left confused and in fear of what we think we do not know. But there is an “ancient wisdom”, a “deeper understanding”, an “inherent knowing”, an “Implicit or tacit knowledge” that lies at the center of our being. We must learn to listen, to wait, and allow this “knowing” to emerge. And hence, “most of life consists in remembering what we already know”.
  4. Unknown Unknowns: Not knowing what I do not know. (the bubble of indifference) We spend our lives in our self made cocoons where we know what we know; and where our limited opinions are nurtured. We feed on each others’ sameness, creating a life of comfort and security, safety from the “other” (an insidious form of symbolic cannibalism). That which we do not know is scary. Politics and religion build empires on fear mongering. Do we want to know what it is that we don’t know? Probably not, and so we anchor ourselves within our bubble of comfort and security, familiarity and indifference hoping that we never have to venture out into the scary world of mystery and difference, paradox and otherness. So we tend to slam our box shut, sufficiently ending any possibility of venturing into this world of the unknown.

Circling back to that which “we know that we know,” often we don’t even test what we know to discern truth. Is what we know simply a second-hand knowledge that has been handed down, downloaded from external sources, whether people or larger cultural influences (conformity to the world)?

Or do we really know?

How do we know that we know what we know?

There is no authentic “knowing” outside the context of relationship or direct experience.

For me, truth is that which resonates deep within my bones.

But this “knowing” comes only through the inner work of the discernment of relationships and the confirmation of life experiences.

Confirmation Bias

Confirmation bias, also called confirmatory bias or myside bias,[Note 1] is the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms one’s preexisting beliefs or hypotheses.[1] It is a type of cognitive bias and a systematic error of inductive reasoning. People display this bias when they gather or remember information selectively, or when they interpret it in a biased way. The effect is stronger for emotionally charged issues and for deeply entrenched beliefs.

We can see only what we seek for,

We seek for only what we want to see.

We can see only what we are looking for.

We cannot see what we do not want to see.

We can see only what we want to see.

Our ability to see (to understand) is limited by our comfort zone

… by our self-defined bubble.

We can hear only what we are listening for.

We cannot hear what we do not want to hear.

We can hear only what we want to hear.

Our ability to hear (to understand) is limited by our comfort zone

… by our self-defined bubble.

Why do I consistently choose to listen to certain news stations?

Why do I read the books that I read?

Why do I gather with a specific group of friends?

“We find comfort among those who agree with us…

growth among those who don’t.” (Frank Clark)

See also,

The Backfire Affect:

Why facts don’t change our minds:

The Bubble of Indifference: