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Question of the Month

What Are The Most Important Things To Know?

The following answers to this question of wisdom each win a random book.

The most important things to know are the meanings of signs. This is fundamental for linguistic communication, for cooperative behavior, and for survival. In fact, without knowing the meaning of signs, we wouldn’t even be able to know what the question ‘What are the most important things to know, and why?’ means, nor would we be able to decipher any answers to that question. Our failure to know what signs mean would turn our books, articles, text messages, and conversations into, as William James might put it, a ‘blooming, buzzing confusion.’ Or suppose you took ‘What are the most important things to know?’ as meaning ‘your copy of Philosophy Now is going to burst into flames any minute.’ A probable response to this is very different from the normal response to PN: you would likely throw your copy away and cancel your subscription.

One might object that while not knowing language might render much of human behavior inchoate, it wouldn’t render all behavior nonsense, and it isn’t too big of a problem for nonlinguistic creatures. This is why the most important things to know are the meaning of signs generally, and this is more fundamental than knowing what particular words or sentences in a given language mean. For example, suppose you are asleep and awaken to the smell of smoke: the smell of smoke is not a part of a language, but it is a sign of something, i.e. fire; and being able to correctly interpret that sign as fire can mean the difference between being burned alive in one’s pyjamas and living another day. And so, while not every animal knows a language, it is critical to the survival of all animals that they know the meaning of at least some signs. For a cat who fails to distinguish between the pitter-patter of scurrying prey (a mouse) and the howl of a predator (a coyote) may not dine, but be dined upon.

David W. Agler, Pennsylvania State University

The most important thing to know is how to know, by which I mean how to acquire true beliefs and be assured that they are true. Beliefs must be true to be knowledge, but knowledge is more than simply having true beliefs, as Plato suggests in the Meno. There he likens mere belief to the magical statues of Daedalus, which move around if not fastened down. If you don’t tie them down, they are worthless, because they wander away. But if you do tie them down, you get to enjoy their magnificent beauty. Similarly, if you have true beliefs but don’t know what makes them true, you are at risk of losing them. Someone might come along with a plausible but false argument against them, or someone who seems to have authority might misinform you. But if you know how you came to your beliefs – if you know what led you to believe them, and can retrace your steps of reasoning – then you can withstand the wiles of those with glib tongues. Your beliefs are tied down.

Plato considers the tie to knowledge to be through recollection of an immutable realm of Forms from before we were born. Today we can take the tie to be a chain of reasoning and/or evidence. The point is, if you know how you came to your beliefs, then you can retrace that chain of reasoning whenever you need. Your true beliefs are both more stable in your mind and more worthy of your confidence in them.

Stability is important because of what knowledge is for: to guide our actions in the world. Without accurate knowledge we cannot succeed in doing what we intend. We need to observe reality carefully and to assess our evidence critically in order to tell whether what we think we know is true or not.

Knowing is one of the things we humans do best. By paying attention to our own thinking we learn to think better. Without accurate knowledge we risk believing what is false, and failing in our endeavors. Hence, knowing how to know is the most important thing to know.

Bill Meacham, Austin, Texas

There are three reasons why I believe Socratic Wisdom – knowing that you don’t know – is the most important thing to know.

First, the search for truth begins, and continues, when we know that we don’t know. After all, why question, if we already know everything? Indeed, over-confidence often impedes the search for truth. One only needs remember the resistance to Copernicus’s Heliocentric Theory or Mandelbrot’s fractal mathematics to understand this. Of course, our search may end in ignorance, just as Socrates’ searches often ended in ignorance. However, this end-state of ignorance is better than the beginning state, because we can now explain why our previous answers were insufficient, encouraging us to continue searching.

The second reason Socratic Wisdom is important is because it helps us overcome the harmful vices of fanaticism, egoism, dogmatism, and other ‘narrow forms of thinking’ (Bertrand Russell). Socratic Wisdom opposes these vices because it is aware of ignorance, whereas these vices are founded on claims to privileged (ie unjustifiable) knowledge. Notice that these claims arise when we identify with beliefs and then defend them in rhetorical debates that limit perspectives instead of enlarging them. The Socratic Method, on the other hand, is the continual process of stating beliefs, finding exceptions to them, and refining our beliefs based on those exceptions.

Of course, we can narrowly cling to methodologies (e.g. science, the Socratic Method, mathematics, introspection) just as we narrowly cling to specific ideas. Fortunately, the humility and questioning associated with Socratic Wisdom helps us avoid this fallacy of examining reality without questioning the lens through which we see it. In short, Socratic Wisdom is the antidote to the vice of clinging to beliefs and methodologies.

The third reason Socratic Wisdom is important is because it is beautiful to find people who exemplify the qualities of rigorous thought, intellectual humility, and an open-mindedness that considers all opinions without necessarily assenting to them.

Paul Stearns, Blinn College, Texas

To ride a bike, we don’t need to know that angular momentum is conserved. The sculptors of the ancient world who created magnificent works of art out of bronze knew nothing of the atomic properties of copper and tin. For most of history, humans have created meaning and artefacts without knowing a fraction of what we know. This is just as well, since knowing everything is impossible, and getting more impossible by the minute. The piling up of facts makes answering this question of the month all the more pressing. My suggestion for the most important thing to know is simply that we’re fallible. We can be wrong about what we think we know. Knowing this, we must make every effort, both individually and within any scholarly community, to check we are not mistaken in our beliefs. Knowledge isn’t knowledge if it isn’t true, and strength of belief is no guarantor of truth. Knowledge of fallibility, however, is not much use without also knowing the many ways in which we can be mistaken. Logical fallacies invalidate arguments and render conclusions unreliable. Fallacy-free arguments don’t necessarily produce true conclusions: the premises must also be true. The psychological mechanisms involved in forming beliefs can also be distorted in various predictable ways by biases.

Jon Wainwright, London

Another way to put the question is, ‘What are the most important things to learn?’ This in turn leads us to ask, ‘What are the aims of education?’ I suggest that the aim of education is to enable us to function well in this world. Thus, the most important things to know are not ‘things’, that is, facts: the most important knowledge is ‘know-how’ rather than ‘know-that’. Life consists of activities which may be done well or not. Our aim is to do them well.

The most fundamental skill is communication, which begins to be learned in the crib and may require a lifetime to master. Its manifold manifestations include getting and giving information, interviewing, entertaining, expressing feelings, persuading, reporting, negotiating, soothing… Communication is the sine qua non of knowledge and of functioning well.

The next most important skill is thinking. Thinking’s manifold manifestations include detecting and avoiding fallacies, using logic, organizing and classifying information, critical thinking, problem solving, imagining, analyzing, judging, synthesizing, and inductive reasoning. I also think statistical thinking is important for citizens in developed countries because so much information is provided through statistics.

The third most important skill is calculating. The ability to calculate should minimally include being able to handle personal finances – discounts, percent increases/decreases, taxes, banking, investments, and loans. I believe that the majority of people will do quite well with no more calculating ability than this. Many professions, of course, require much more.

Thus, here we have my latter-day trivium: communicating, thinking, and calculating, all necessary for our functioning well.

John Talley, Rutherfordton, North Carolina

The process of self-discovery is important because what you learn from experience helps you to understand what you want to get out of life. Although this process is never-ending, it is most important when you go through a major period of self-discovery. The most important areas in my life are psychology, counselling, philosophy and music, because these are the areas of self-discovery I have found to be the most rewarding.

It is also important to approach things from all angles, because people should come up with their own interpretations about the world, and not just rely on others’ views. Philosophy can provide people with a more balanced, independent and critical approach to thinking. For instance, how can you be sure that something is true? or How do you know if it’s good thinking to have?

Empathising with people’s experiences is important too, because it enables you to relate to their ideas and feel part of their world. Knowing how to communicate with people is vital in building relationships and adding to your understanding of them, and also of yourself, and of how we function, individually and as a society. Having strong empathy for others gives a stronger sense of what is morally right or wrong. Moreover, I think it is important to be open, honest and genuine; also to recognise when you are being yourself and displaying these qualities, to ensure that other people know where they stand. Also, knowing that you have the capacity to process information is important, because self-knowledge gives you free will. Other important things are a realisation that you may have a particular talent – that if you put your mind to something, work hard for it and believe in yourself, then you can do whatever you want. And why are we here, what’s our purpose, and finding meaning in our lives, are vital too.

Rebecca Sherwood, Cambridge

The most important things to know, or at least hope to know eventually, are the answers to the questions ‘Where do we come from? Who are we? Where are we going?’

We now know that we evolved from ape-like beings, and that all modern humans had a common ancestor, perhaps as late as sixty thousand years ago. Furthermore, there have been other species of human, perhaps sometimes living alongside and mating with Homo sapiens. Like us, and other great apes, they had complex social lives, and they left evidence of spoken languages. Consequently, answering the first question has existential and ethical implications for the second and third. It shows human beings do not stand apart from other organisms, and are not unique. It also calls into question concepts of ‘race’, ‘ethnicity’, perhaps even ‘species’, and what our on-going attitude to the natural world should be, and whether other species might have capacities once thought to be unique to humans.

Jonathan Tipton, Preston, Lancashire

The most important things to know are your presuppositions: those things that set you up to know everything else that you … uh … know. A standard definition of knowledge is justified true belief. I know that Kent is taller than Graham because I believe that he is, I can give reasons for this belief, and Kent actually is taller than Graham. There is another often-used sense of the word ‘know’, though: if I say “I know Kent,” I’m not saying that I believe in Kent or that he is something I can justify. He’s not really true or false. He’s just Kent. This other meaning of ‘know’ is Awareness. I am aware of Kent and know things about him. This knowing-as-awareness provides the ‘know’ of my answer to this Question of the Month.

You will have some way of apprehending the world – some way of making sense of things. This framework for understanding is your worldview. Worldviews fall into the categories of religious (Christian, Islamic, Hindu, etc.) or secular (Humanistic, Nihilistic, etc.). Each of these worldviews is built on axioms, often called presuppositions, that provide a starting-point from which the rest of the worldview flows and by which new ideas are evaluated. The Muslim presupposes that the Quran speaks the truth, the Christian likewise with the Bible. Many people base their worldviews on reason. But you can’t really prove that reason yields truth – you just start with that idea, and go from there. Moreover, you can’t use reason to prove scriptures, because that presupposes the ultimate authority of reason, not the scriptures. These presuppositions, then, are the most important things to know. Justification separates knowledge from mere opinion; but your basic ideas are what allow you to justify your opinions.

Matthew Hewes, Edmond, Oklahoma

What are the most important things to know? How about the manifold, wide-ranging practices and beliefs referred to as Religion? It is common, especially for non-believers such as myself, to trivialize Religion as reserved for ‘fundamentalists’ or simply an unjustified system of beliefs. Yet after more than ten years of study I have to admit that religion is much more.

More than being about beliefs, Religions are about identity, discovered in giant webs of relations created through organized networks and long held practices, complemented by writings ranging from origin stories, to law, ethics, and history. Religion is a dynamic force that has helped humanity survive and grow with determination and purpose. Yes, this determination has many times been the seedbed of belligerence and bigotry, fuelling the destruction of civilizations and peoples. Yet, if it’s all bad, why have religions failed to wane, especially in America? And even if religion ‘infects’ people, what about the infectious presence of patriarchy in society? What about the harm done to people simply because of the basic psychological need for leaders to tell them what to do? At worst, religion fails in the same ways that modern, secular communities fail.

Also, rather than suppressing individualism, Religion has provided a foundation for deep thought. From the existential songs of the Book of Psalms to the disciplined practice of meditation, Religion has offered many opportunities to analyze and criticize the self, as well as to reveal its sufferings.

Religion finds a way to seep through the typical categories of self and other, the individual and community, the general and specific. It covers and touches everything we build.

Religion is the largest window for understanding humanity. By ignoring it, we risk losing our sense of self and what it means to be human. So, we must help it evolve – so that we, as a global community, will evolve. Essentially, we accomplish this through listening. Religion speaks in many voices. Hear its song.

Teig Schneider, Chicago

The most important things to know are objective truths – or to be precise, the knowledge that objective truths are possible.

In our post-modernist world the notion of truth has taken a battering in favour of relativism. But part of the problem with relativism is that its proponents are unable to assert that their own argument is true (or indeed not true), because to do so would be to stake a truth-claim that fatally undermines the relativist argument that there is no such category as truth. No matter that post-modernists cannot argue for their position, this hollowed-out theory continues to corrode society with the grim tenacity of a zombie, forever rising from the dead.The extent to which post-modernism has become the dominant ideology is worrying, because it means that at the heart of our society is a logical black hole down which reason, argument, evidence and objectivity disappear without trace.

Yet apart from its logical problems, does the rise of post-modernism matter? After all, it is often claimed that no longer having to worry about evidence or rational argument is liberating from overly-authoritarian academic discipline. I would argue, however, that post-modernism is not liberating at all. In fact, it is quite the opposite, because it means that those factions that shout the loudest – the most powerful, or the demagogues with the best rhetoric – win the day, not the most rational. Thus post-modernism provides a haven for factions such as Creationists and Climate Change Deniers. First, they cherry-pick any evidence that supports their cause and ignore the rest, then they question the motives and the integrity of opponents, exaggerate potential harm, and appeal to intellectual freedom.

It is remarkable that a clumsy great ape has evolved to understand and appreciate ethics, aesthetics and physics – and above all the beauty of seeking truth. Thus post-modernism is humanity denying the very thing that justifies its existence and best counters its destructive tendencies. So post-modernism is not only false; it undermines the highest achievements of humanity. Only humans could be so stupid.

Dick Bellringer, Salisbury, Wiltshire

To seek what it is most important to know is an irrelevant goal, for one cannot know anything. Not oneself; certainly not others. Neither can one know anything empirical or transcendent; nothing good or evil; nothing affirmative of existence or of the basic nature by which things may be said to exist. One cannot even know whether or not one can know. Something like knowledge can certainly be experienced – faith perhaps, or maybe opinion – but these are merely the constructs of humanity – subjectivity attempting to possess universality. Knowledge, however, attempts the impossible by trying to place a subjectively perceived and contextually constituted consciousness beyond itself – upon the perspective of an unbiased, objective Archimedean point that cannot exist, for its existence would itself require knowledge (of the right perspective). Yet, ironically, I cannot even prove this point, for proof requires truth, which implies knowledge, which I cannot claim to possess.

However, you may begin to focus your attention on attainable goals: the practical; the conventional; the contextual; the relational. You may begin to experience the world as it can actually be experienced, no longer clinging to any hope of actually knowing it; or you may begin to live and enjoy life without worrying about its extrinsic value, for all the desire for value does is accumulate worry. No longer guided by principles, you may accept change without hesitation; and no longer guided by truth, you may categorize the world without the need for certainty. In such a world, such terms as have been discussed may attain new meanings: ‘truth’ may become what is perceived as constant; ‘morality’ may become what is perceived as ethical; and ‘knowledge’ may become ‘perception’ – and nothing more.

Michael Dufresne, Jacksonville, Florida

Next Question of the Month

The next question is: How Can We Eradicate Poverty Whilst Avoiding Environmental Destruction? Please give and justify your plan for global salvation in less than 400 words. The prize is a semi-random book from our book mountain. Subject lines should be marked ‘Question of the Month’, and must be received by 10th April. If you want a book, please include your physical address. Submission implies permission to reproduce your answer physically and electronically. Thank you.

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