Friday, August 04, 2006

"The knowledge of a thing is not one of that thing's parts"

Take a simple principle: "The knowledge of a thing is not one of that thing's parts" and try applying it to various objects. That quote probably comes from C.S. Lewis.

Is the knowledge about a cup of coffee a part of that cup of coffee?

Of course not. The coffee doesn't know about its country of origin, or its properties and aroma. The cup does not know anything about ceramics or the meaning of the silly slogan written on its side: "Instant human: just add coffee".

The cup of coffee just is, and has no knowledge of itself.

Suppose you are a good "people person": you can get a good feel for a stranger within seconds after meeting him. Excellent managers and military officers are able to correctly judge the strengths and weaknesses of their subordinates in order to form effective teams. But the knowledge of a subordinate is not a part of that subordinate.

Now apply this to yourself. What do you know about yourself? Are you sure? Do you have, at different times, wildly varying opinions of yourself?

But remember the principle "The knowledge of a thing is not one of that thing's parts". Your knowledge of you can't be a part of you, but where else would that knowledge be? This is not just a paradox. You may know a lot about your toe or finger, or if you are hungry or not, but how about your knowing your own knowing? Logically, this kind of knowledge is meaningless or nonexistent.

Certainly an athlete can know about his own physical performance, since that is objective, or about the pain in various parts of his body, because although subjective, it is normally based on objective nerve impulses from the body. But the highest part of the self—the intellect—is unknowable.

The Scientific Method

Suppose you are a scientist and want to have accurate knowledge of objects with the use of measuring instruments. Since you believe in the scientific method, you take repeated measurements under carefully controlled circumstances, and you are very careful to accurately record your results. Suppose you want to know the mass of a rock: you can take repeated measurements, and if you are clever, you can compensate for various factors, like humidity, to gain accurate knowledge of that rock's mass.

A scientific scale or balance can accurately and repeatedly give excellent approximate measures of an object's mass. Other scientists can use their own scales to measure the mass of the same rock, and the knowledge of that rock (and the knowledge of how to get that knowledge) increases dramatically. That is why the hard sciences have been wildly successful: they provide a means to knowledge, as well as a means to improve the gaining of knowledge.

Now turn your scientific method onto yourself, using your own mind as the instrument. Your scientific instrument is attempting to measure itself. Since we are attempting to do something meaningless—remember Lewis' principle—the measurements we get will also be meaningless. Each measurement will be like the roll of a die: there is no meaning in the results. We may try very hard to control for various factors influencing the result, but the results will still remain random, and hence meaningless.

It would be scientifically disastrous if we see illusory patterns in the measurements, and make false conclusions regarding the influence of various factors. In this case, the mental state of the self-analyzing scientist is bound to become unstable and chaotic.

Watching someone else making this self-experiment can be alternately hilarious and pathetic, and often they are extremely predictable, not at all like the roll of dice. It's painfully obvious that the self-experimenter just doesn't get it, and we have the urge to give that person some strong advice or even to knock some sense into them. And this advice wouldn't be merely the subjective opinion of the observer, since nearly everyone else would probably make similar recommendations.

The scientific method is not provably true, so we have to avoid its application when it logically can't possibly apply. And one circumstance where it can't apply is the self-analysis of our own intellect.


This confusion about ourselves is perfectly natural; in fact, it is logically certain to be normal if we are mentally healthy. People who are absolutely certain about themselves are often pathological, especially if we objectively consider the facts about the person: if he certainly believes that he is Napoleon, then that is objectively pathological. On the contrary, a person who measure themselves against external, objective standards, will not have this pathology.

The modern scientific psychological sciences have been very successful with treating pathologies. But so much of modern psychology deals with people who have the normal confusion about themselves, and the results have been, predictably, chaotic.


Modern psychology often encourages people to be self-absorbed, by encouraging them to come up with their own conclusions about themselves. Add to this the relativistic rejection of objective standards, and you end up with people being completely rootless, with society chaotic.

A normal person can have any opinion about themselves, from extreme self-pride to self-loathing, and if they are self-absorbed they will likely have all of those varying opinions strongly influencing their behavior.

Suppose you are told to always have high self-esteem. Your internal self-esteem detector of course will give meaningless results: it will give unpredictable answers, because the self can't know the self. You, then, will arbitrarily always at some time have low self-esteem. The danger to this is when psychologists and others tell us what we must do if we have low self-esteem: buy something expensive, find a new lover, blame society for your ills, etc. This ends up being a means of social control. It's easy to influence other people's feelings, and if they are self-absorbed and well-conditioned, you can then also influence their behavior. Remember that modern psychological therapies have their roots in psychological warfare techniques.

The traditional means of getting out of this dilemma is by being selfless, that is, having no opinion about yourself. How are we to best handle social situations? Be yourself is the ancient advice; don't be self-conscious: instead, be concerned about the other person, and be a good listener. Imagine a very self-conscious person in a social situation: they will be funny to watch because they will make one faux pas after another. You may recall the episode of Fawlty Towers called The Germans, where a highly anxious Basil Fawlty tells his staff "Whatever you do, don't mention the war," and then proceeds to make an absolute fool of himself by doing exactly the opposite.


This modern problem of being self-centered (instead of selfless) is extremely evident in our dating behavior. Self-conscious people will often end up trying to be someone they are not. Put two of these people together, and both pretend to be someone they are not, attempting to get the other fraudulent person to like them. Objectively, there may be physical attraction, and even subjective (but still explainable) chemistry between them, but intellectually they are complete frauds. We end up with horribly incompatible couples, and this incompatibility is painfully obvious to everyone except to the persons involved. What does she see in him? is the common complaint of friends and family. And I might add, "been there, done that".

A traditional solution is matchmaking by friends and family, where a number of people know both the man and woman well. Considerations of chemistry comes after a match is made, not before. The second traditional means of avoiding self-centered, self-delusional, bad relationships is to avoid starting the relationship until after you get to know the person well, that is, when each party consistently acts in a selfless way (or fails to do so). The Catholic Church requires a six month waiting period before marriage for this very reason: it also allows the passions to cool before making that big decision.

In Orbit

Scientists and artists nowadays have problems with self-centeredness. Atheism, moral relativism, and psychology are big parts of the lives of these moderns. The dogmatic application of the Scientific Method to everything gives the scientist a feeling of godlike superiority over the cosmos because he feels above the cosmos, as though he were observing it from afar. Unfortunately, the scientist must come back to Earth, and often he is beastly: why should a god not act as he pleases? The "Mad Scientist" is not just a stereotype. We can contrast modern scientists with the some of the giants of previous centuries: Louis Pasteur loved God and his fellow man and remained selfless.

Likewise, the artist, who does Art for Art's sake, ignoring God and Man, is equally self-centered, because he thinks that he is the creator-god of his own world. Artistically dependent on his ever-changing and unknowable self, instead of on external objectives, this kind of artist produces works that are as meaningless as is his self-knowledge. Consequently, artists without roots resort to promiscuity, lack of stability, alcoholism, and suffer depression, because their relationship to others is lost. In former times, an artist would have to meet certain standards and requirements in his job; but he would finish painting for the day, and then go home for a pleasant dinner with his family.

Western society is conditioning us to be selfish and to rely on our emotions and impulses, probably in order to control us. God help us to reclaim virtue!

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