Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Knowledge & Egoism

Almost every able minded person in the western hemisphere has at least an intuitive understanding of the Socratic paradox that wisdom is knowing that we know nothing. In my own studies, I confront this piece of wisdom all the time. Whenever I learn something new, I sense another bit of knowledge that is still unattainable on the other side of a locked door. The answer to one question always seems to lead to a series of other questions. Understanding this allows us to stay humble and maintain perspective. However, there is a darker more dangerous side to the belief that threatens our liberty if we take the paradox too far. In Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand argues that this kind of thinking causes people to distrust their own judgment and turn their lives over to other people. When people lose faith in their ability to reason, they become easy prey for the State.

In the US, modern moderates seem to exemplify the belief that they know they know nothing. Most moderates I know are well-educated professionals, who are good at what they do. However, their education has not allowed them to develop enough of an ego to liberate them. They only sense their limitations and are not confident enough to reason beyond their area of expertise. On matters of politics and public policy, they shut off their critical reasoning skills and create illogical axioms such as “when deciding between two extremes the truth lies somewhere in the middle.” This axiom is dangerous because it allows others to frame the debate. For example, Democrats argue for 38% income tax for the upper income bracket, while Republicans want 34%. For moderates, Democrats and Republicans represent the two extremes, so without thinking about the issue moderates decide that 36% tax is best. They would never stop to reconsider that all income tax is harmful, because the idea is outside the framed extremes. Never mind that at one time, the very idea of income tax was itself considered extreme and what is extreme yesterday is moderate today and then extreme again tomorrow. Axioms cannot replace an individual’s ability to reason.

Another mistake moderates make is assuming that other people know more about the issues. They know they know nothing but assume others possess more insight. Without an ego, they stop making decisions, their minds go blank, and they shut down all their decision-making skills. They are willing to turn their lives and public policy over to public officials, saying, “I trust that the politicians in charge are more qualified to make these decisions, so they know what they are doing.” The fallacy of this logical is that the politicians are also human with the same limitations as everyone else. They are no smarter than anyone else is and do not have any special insight. If we are wise because we know, we know nothing, than so are they. If politicians truly believe they know more, than Socratic wisdom should suggest that they are unwise. The truth is, every individual has the ability to reason and use judgment. While their knowledge is limited, it is not more limited than other people’s knowledge.

We are wise if we understand our limits, but trust our abilities. Charles Barkley often says that when he played basketball, he always felt he was the best player on the court, because that type of thinking drove his success. His ego turned him into a proactive player who determined the outcome of the game. The same is true for life and politics. If we do not have confidence in our own ability to reason, we will become slaves. To successfully remain free we must be proactive thinkers with egos that drive our need to run our own lives. Who are we to think differently from everyone else? What makes us so sure we are right? We are individuals who are sure of our abilities to reason and act independently. Nothing is more foolish than blindly turning our world over to the State, so trust that we know enough to determine the outcome of our existence.


Blogger Vache Folle said...

Even if you try to be well informed, you will find that the MSM frames all debate within narrow parameters. No ideas outside the "mainstream" are ever even presented except as examples of pathology. It is necessary to become "disillusioned" in order to be free to frame issues in new and interesting ways.

1:26 PM  
Blogger Eric Lemonholm said...

August - I just responded to this post on my blog ( It's too long to attach here. Keep writing!

5:04 PM  
Blogger Dr. Lenny said...

appreciate the depth of thought that you put into this piece. the great oak forest is an awesome blog title - i welcome you to visit The Zone ( and see if we can find a fit.

lemme howdt poetry expressed this type of thinking, howdtside da baax. The mainstream framework is terribly suppressive, but we know that given time, things change. Wisdom is a healthy goal, truth for its own sake. i heartily agree with eric - keep writing.

7:44 PM  

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