You Know Nothing

One of my favorite things to do involves reading and listening to the opinions of others. This is great for me, because people and their opinions are everywhere. I derive pleasure from considering alternate points of view and even enjoy arguing against my own ideas. Whenever I think that I honestly know something, I try questioning it until I prove myself wrong or decide to try again later. It usually doesn’t take very long to realize that I don’t know what I am talking about.

For example, my wife recently asked me what I thought about global warming. After all, with a degree in Biochemistry and a solid understanding of the scientific method, chemical processes, and biological systems, I should have a decent opinion concerning the issue. So, after thinking about it for a moment, recalling my various experience with the relevant material, I was prepared to agree with the whole notion of global warming.

Before I could get the words out, my mind did its usual paranoid somersault, and I quickly questioned a few of my initial assumptions. After a few moments, it became clear that everything I had learned in college about global warming was in fact based upon the opinion of others. Thus, I was forced to respond to my wife’s question with a tentative, “I’m not really sure — it could be true, but maybe not.. what do you think?” Fortunately, my wife understands my critical mind and dismisses my frequent inability to respond to such inquiries with any degree of absolute certainty.

Given my propensity to eliminate worldly assumptions and presupposed notions of accuracy, it is easy to understand my disposition toward “not knowing” whether or not my opinions are true or false. Remaining open to alternate perspectives and ways of thinking requires a profound understanding that you don’t actually “know” anything. As soon as you decide that your opinion is absolutely correct, without even the possibility of error, you close the door to further understanding and mental growth. Even worse, if your opinion happens to be incorrect, it becomes virtually impossible to accept the truth.

Nevertheless, many sad people cling very tightly to their personal opinions and points of view. This becomes a real problem when people have not taken the time to thoroughly examine the issue at hand. Often, it is easier for people to simply regurgitate someone else’s opinion without testing it for themselves. How many times have you heard someone pipe up with an opinion on topic “x” or controversy “y” in serious, resolved tones, as if they actually know what they talking about. It’s just an opinion — fashioned after the thinking of others, which consists of what? More opinions.

Think I’m wrong? I may in fact be entirely off-base. However, I find a sincere understanding and acceptance of my own fallibility far better serving than any self-righteous, know-it-all stance about anything and everything that crosses my path. Realizing that you may be wrong about your various opinions is an excellent way to keep an open mind, seek for the truth, and explore new ideas.

The next time you hear someone (including yourself) spouting off their opinion about something, try asking them if the possibility exists that they are incorrect or that a better idea be available. If they respond “no,” then you might as well save your breath. Conversely, if they respond “yes” (btw, “yes” is the same here as “maybe”), then ask them why they insist on declaring and/or defending an opinion that may be false. If you’re lucky, and the person understands your point, you may have opened the door to an insightful, educational conversation.

Although it doesn’t happen very often, in-depth conversations about exciting, controversial topics have the potential to unfold when each and every participating party realizes and accepts the fact that they don’t really “know” the answers, but that it may be possible to advance understanding and insight by engaging in and pursuing an open-minded dialogue on the topic.