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What is knowledge?

If I asked you at this very moment to make yourself aware of everything you know, what exactly would happen in your mind? Would all the thoughts you hold suddenly come bubbling up? Would your consciousness hurriedly attempt to capture every last one of them, miss nothing? Or would you rather be forced to acknowledge that at this very moment, without any given context, you know absolutely nothing? And that any attempt to capture everything you know is futile?

At this very moment, make yourself aware of everything you know.

Now that you are aware of everything you know, I ask you a question.

What did you work on last year?

Before I asked you the question, were you aware of the contents of your memory that are now accessible? Was the answer to this question already a part of your conscious mind? That is, were you aware of the existence of the answer in your mind before I asked for it?

What is knowledge? What do we know?

And more importantly: When do we know?

When we are not currently thinking about something, can it be said that we know about it?

Is knowledge like information on a hard drive that is saved the first time we perceive it and then readily accessible?

That would imply that if we read a book about red cars, a memory about that book will be created in our subconscious until some outside stimulus brings it back up.

And yet, we forget.

So if somebody asks us about red cars a week after the lecture, we will clearly have something to add to the discussion. And yet, if somebody asks us ten years later, we may very well have forgotten anything but the existence of a book about red cars. We may have forgotten even that.

Thus one could ask: Before accessing our knowledge, can we even know if it is still there?

Can we have confidence in our knowledge if we are not aware of its existence?

Let us assume we learn the answers to a hundred predefined questions and know for certain that no other questions will be asked. To pass a test, we have to answer merely one of them, chosen randomly.

Now, before the question is asked, in that very moment of awaiting it, are we already consciously aware of all the answers and thus also of the answer? Or have we merely learned to trust that our subconscious will, once the question is asked, deliver the right answer? Or do we anxiously await the question like a sprinter awaits the gunshot, hoping that our organism will be able to deal with the challenge?

How much control do we really have over our memories? How much do we know about the process of accessing the right memory at the right time?

I dare say we know nothing. We receive a stimulus and our minds produce connections. We have absolutely no direct influence on which thoughts come up. And if we had that influence, how would we use it? Would we decide what we will think? But how can you decide what to think when you are not consciously aware of everything you know?

No, we are just passive observers. We are not in control of our knowledge. In a real sense, we are blind marionettes of our subconscious, always hoping that the next thought to enter our mind will be right.

And is this not where confidence comes from? Is true confidence not the trust that any thought that will enter your head, any feeling that will enter your organism, will be okay and acceptable?

What will I think?

If our mind was really working like a hard drive, we would have a clear and complete overview over all the thoughts in our head. And yet, before a particular context elicits particular thoughts, it is as if we had never heard of them. We are not aware of their existence.

Before we begin a conversation with a cute girl, we are not aware that she will say something that will in turn elicit a long forgotten memory in us that our minds will automatically turn into a smart and dirty remark.

In a way, we are constantly rediscovering and forgetting who we are and what we know. Before we consciously remember something, it is as if it had never existed in our minds. At any given moment, we can basically marvel at what our minds will come up in the next moment, always open for a surprise.

But what if we do not want surprises? What if some memories or thoughts are too painful or unacceptable? One can see how one would need to fight these thoughts then. How one would create redirections to better, more tolerable thoughts. And if enough redirections stack up, one may start dealing with obsessive thoughts.

Are we really these incredibly skilled administrators of knowledge and ideas?

I say no. I say that the pride we take in our knowledge is a gross form of vanity, like any authorship we claim over our subconscious. We are not administrators and owners of knowledge as much as we are curious observers of a constant stream of ideas and perceptions that come and fade. Many of which we do not even deeply understand the meaning of. And what is understanding?

What do we really know? And when do we know it? If we are not aware of a thought at a certain point in time, can it be said that we know it at that time? If we are to never become aware of it again, have we ever really known it?

If we memorize a list of a hundred items, and then begin writing it down, we are following a chain of connections, one after the other. And yet, as we approach the tenth item, it is very likely we have already lost awareness of the first.

The freedom of the moment

If we are outside, enjoying ourselves in the park, what do we know in that moment? In that moment, what do we know about the taxes we paid last week? Nothing. In a way, that person in the park is not even the same person that paid the taxes. That person has different feelings, different thoughts, different priorities.

Should that man in the park be frightened? Frightened, because he is not aware of the person he was one week ago? Frightened about the miniscule and small amount of knowledge he is acutely aware of while staring into the sun, no matter how deep and full of marvel the ocean of his subconsciousness? Frightened that the next time he tries to think of anything more than nothing, he will not be able to? Frightened that after this moment of bliss and ignorance, after this moment of not being aware of who he was a week or even a minute ago, he may never be able to be that person again? That the next time he sits down at his desk to do his work, he may no longer remember how to, because his subconscious will not once more deliver the necessary knowledge at the right time? If his life depended on it, could he make a guarantee that it will?

And if that man manages, just for a second, to be completely free of any conscious thought and at the same time aware of this absence of thought, then a very shocking thought may enter his mind: He does not know who he is. And he does not even know what it means to know that. Whatever anchors he has in this world vanish in the moment he loses awareness of them – ideas, friends, loved ones, memories, visions, places and even time. And in this moment, he knows that he is alone. He knows that he knows nothing because there is nothing to know. He just is. And that is fucking scary.

He will, of course, forget about this feeling, once he returns to his anchors. Once he sits down at his desk, he is reassured that he can still work. Once he meets his girlfriend, he is reassured that he can still love. Once he meets other people, he is reassured that he can still interact with other human beings. The comforts and stabilities of his life, the rotes of his human existence will push that anxiety out of his awareness, make it as if it had never existed. The rituals of his survival will once more saturate him and distract from the absurdity of the moment. And if the absurdity of the moment never enters his mind, we can – by my already proposed logic – argue that he is not aware of it, does not know of it. Only knows of it in that short moment.

Yet all he can do in that shocking moment of  freedom is to have trust. To have trust that his subconscious and soul will – always – lead him exactly where he needs to be, do what he has to do, think what he has to think. If he does not have this trust and is at the same time acutely aware of his absence of control and absence of conscious knowledge – he must despair and lose his mind.

Another interesting question is, of course: If we are, at this moment, not aware of the thoughts that we like to think, the thoughts that keep us alive, then how many thoughts and memories do we hold that we have learned to avoid? What thoughts do we avoid when we do not speak to the hot girl? What thoughts do we avoid when we avoid conflict? How many chains of thought are there that we have decided to never revisit and then forgotten about that decision? How many repressed memories, hidden in plain sight, kept from us through habitually shrugging off and avoiding any of their triggers? How many parts of our personality are we unaware of? How many skills? How much magic?


Is our knowledge really akin to a structured folder with concise ideas? Or is it more akin to a tank of water into which we throw a little stone to observe the ripples it produces? And have we, in this tank, installed little boundaries around the places we do not want the ripples to protrude into? But what if a stone drops into one of those areas?

One could try to shape that tank of water into a structured folder, of course, but one would have to do so with painful discipline and a lot of self-denial. One would have to become anxious about one’s watery nature, anxious about one’s intuition, anxious about the thoughts that may come up and not seem organized at all.

And for what? What do we need to be a folder for? If anything, we need to be a folder when other people need us to be folders. Or when it serves the purposes of our own denial to be folders. But I would say that – as far as our general lives are concerned – our watery nature serves us just fine.

Take care.

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  • Smokingjacket

    Interesting post. It touches on the idea that we’re constantly re-inventing our self from one conscious moment to the next. The self would by such a definition be something that’s indeed watery and always evolving or devolving into a more defined or less defined manifestation of its own self identity over time. Theoretically this means my sense of self this moment will be different to that sense I had when I was 5 or when I’m 75. However, the question is, how different? I would say, perhaps not as different as what people may assume and the reason for this is our body. The body is the one constant frame of reference for our mind when it comes to knowledge and identity. If we were pure mind, bubbling along from moment to moment without this constant reference point then I’d agree and say that our knowledge of ourselves and the world would be entirely passive and subject to forces that never allowed knowledge to become solidified into habit which our bodies constantly do.

    The idea about not knowing what thoughts will arise in any given moment is similar to the way we use language, especially in a verbal context, where we can speak with perfect clarity about a very complex thought without having to think about the language we use. It just works organically even if we’ve no experience to base the thoughts upon on which we speak, so, in a sense knowledge and understanding and the use of language can be based on ideas and intuitions that are in parts of our consciousness that are somehow stored here in reserve. I wouldn’t necessarily equate this hidden consciousness with the classical sub-consciousness of Freud and Jung. I think the above is something quite different.

    • I think that the sense of self is an emotion and indeed fixed. But that sense of self is more akin to an identity. This feeling of ‘me’. But it is not related to hobbies, interests, knowledge, looks or anything like that. It is just the fact that one is conscious. The sense of self is sensing itself.

      That we constantly reinvent ourselves is not exactly what I had in mind. I purposefully called it a rediscovery. Something you can try to understand my point is a simple experiment: In this very moment, ‘zone out’ a bit and distance yourself from all your emotions and thoughts. Then imagine that you, just in this moment, have started to exist. That half a second ago, you were just nothing and suddenly you are in the body you are in. Half a second ago, you felt nothing. And now you feel your self.

      I have come over this experiment by accident and I do not remember how. I am also not sure if my explanation is adequate, but you may be able to understand, since you also had experiences with psychedelics and those primordial places of the mind.

      My point is, if you had just arrived in this body and then wondered who you are, you may be more critical of the answer you get. If you ask ‘Who am I?’, your subconscious may bring up some sentence like ‘I am a traveler and writer’, maybe more detailed. But is that truly a full and accurate rendition of your personality? Can words even describe who you are? Can an image? Because in the end, anything that your mind produces – be it an image or language – is in itself only a tiny miniscule part of who you are. Just a little generated output. That is: Your self-description in itself is only a tiny part of who you are. How many parts of you have you forgotten or were not consciously aware of while you wondered who you are? You probably just thought about your most common traits and habits, like your job. But in reality, trying to define yourself by anything else than existing as the person you exist is like trying to define an ocean by taking a fish out of it.

      When I say subconscious, I simply mean that which is not conscious. The example of talking about a complex matter is not good, because then the complex matter is already a thought of yours, merely accompanied by and expressed through verbal means. But if you indeed stop thinking about anything, then there is no concept or thought in your head. You just are. An undefined entity – soul – that happens to be observing this moment from the perspective of this body.

      If that makes any sense to you.

      • Smokingjacket

        Yes, it makes sense. I think a lot in musical manners. When I do what you describe, when out walking, I’ll sometimes just stop like I did recently near an old oak tree that was almost naked and it branches were just blowing ever so slightly. It branches stretched over the edge of the seashore a little and behind it as I watched was the outline of the mountains in the distance, and beneath the grey lethargic waves broke rhythmical one after the other against the pebbles on the shoreline. In one instant the whole meaning of Greig’s Lyric suite with its late Nordic romantic tone and feel become fully knowable in my mind. I knew through this almost accidental phasing that allowed me to somehow “understand” something that I had not prior intuition about, by a naked tree on a December day, events quite unrelated in any empirical and historical sense, by the mere fact that I was consciously there at this point, and could somehow open my mind and perhaps soul to the potential knowledge in the world that’s usually obscured by the narrowness of our own everyday selves.

        • That is not exactly what I meant, but it is definitely also a very profound experience that you put into gorgeous words. Which reminds me that I ought to listen to Grieg again, because I am getting a picture before my eyes.

          • Smokingjacket

            Yes, I think you meant something different. It’s interesting when you spoke of knowledge existing in our world and whether any of our own self knowledge is ever lost. I would take a very subjective opinion of this and say, no, knowledge in its own right doesn’t exist in our world until some type of conscious entity, maybe animals, humans, or something else brings the raw experiences of the world into the realm of something “knowable” by their conscious grasping or apprehending of what it is they perceive.

            I don’t think any of our knowledge is ever lost- it just doesn’t exist in our frontal everyday view of the world mostly. Without this knowledge being put into a state of non-temporal non-existence we wouldn’t be able to function as our minds would be filled up with interesting, if largely useless knowledge that would hamper our very well-being.

            I agree, and perhaps I didn’t make this clear earlier that I don’t believe these “folders” as you rightly describe them having anything much to be with the subconscious, rather they are parts of our consciousness that need not exist in our everyday conscious experiences, unless evoked, by for example my experience of the naked tree which gave me an insight in a piece of music by Grieg.

          • I listened to the Peer Gynt suite directly after having read your comment. Boy, that was a nice experience.

          • Smokingjacket

            Glad you enjoyed it. I love his music as it somehow encapsulates the Nordic spirit so succinctly, with its references to the expansive fjords and mountain ranges that share the coast with the relentless vastness of the North Atlantic. Additionally, there’s loads of references to the woods of that land which in his music plays homage to the rich mythology of his country- dwarfs, trolls, goblins, gods and demons. The pagan culture of Norway is something I find fascinating, the Ragnarök series of heroic tales which tells of the mighty battles between the forces of good and evil in the universe inspired the likes J.R Tolkien to write his Lord of the Rings books.

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