How do we know that we don’t know?

Our knowledge is stored in memory, classified, at least partially interpreted and ready to be used to predict future outcomes. But how do we know that there is something we don’t know, that something is missing?

I know the basics of how a car engine works, but I ignore the details. I am aware of my ignorance because I cannot provide a full rational explanation of how the engine works. I am also aware that I largely ignore the history of Australia, for instance. But this implies that I know at least that car engines and Australia exist, I acquired that knowledge at some point. I know enough about them to be conscious of my ignorance, even if I cannot be sure of how deep this ignorance is (possibly very deep).

From early in our lives we know that something is missing in us. A part of us or, rather, a missing part. Let’s call it The Void. Where does this knowledge come from? It’s not that we see the shape of a continent and realise we need to fill the gap with facts. It’s more like a feeling of incompleteness. We’re missing a piece (at least). But how do we know this if we did not learn it?

I don’t remember being aware of this hole when I was small. It must have appeared later, which would mean it was acquired or developed, or maybe it was there from the start and I was just unaware of it. And then it was there forever.

We know of the existence of The Void through perception. We perceive this hole and we intuit what is inside. In fact, we know it: nothing. Obviously, we act as we would if a hole had suddenly appeared in our garden. After the initial puzzlement, we try to fill it. So we consume facts, store them in our memory in an interpreted manner and try to explain the hole. In our mind, knowledge = security, as it reduces uncertainty and allows to predict the future to a certain degree. We try to use this approach to deal with the Void, to understand it. It doesn’t work.

Understanding comes through being aware of what is. To know exactly what is, the real, the actual, without interpreting it, without condemning or justifying it, is, surely, the beginning of wisdom.

Jiddu Krishnamurti, The First and Last Freedom

The hole, The Unknown, The Void, The Abyss… our main source of frustration and despair. We were so happy in the Garden of Eden, but we ate from the Tree of Wisdom – we acquired a rational mind – and we were expelled from Paradise. So here we are gazing at it, after realising that we cannot fill it with facts, with knowledge. It does stare back at us, as Nietzsche would put it…

What if the hole was an inverted image? What if the hole were real, the known, and everything else, which I have considered the known, were little more than my own projection? The Unknown cannot be known. At best, we can perceive its shape. We are aware of it. We come to terms with it. We let it be.

I want to throw a coin in it. It’s a ridiculous and irrational practice, but I can’t help myself. The coin will not come back. The Void will not care. I will be contaminating the uncanny hole with the quintessence of materialism. It will just absorb it as if nothing had happened. Does it have a bottom? If it does, it is not infinite; if it doesn’t, it is a tunnel. Our need to classify, to understand… we can’t just accept it as it is. Because… how is it? If I am to accept it, what am I actually accepting? An unknown of which I can barely know its existence and part of its contour.

To sit down, to wait and to look attentively is possibly the only thing I can do at this stage. I am going nowhere. What an interesting word nowhere, no-where, now-here.

…your tranquil yes to the changing over
into the formless void of the unlimited.

Hermann Hesse, The Seasons of the Soul