This essay is an excerpt from my book, “Why: An Agnostic Perspective on the Meaning of Life.”
KNOWLEDGE IS IMPORTANT FOR INTERNAL GROWTH
Look at your body in a mirror. It looks like one single object, but it can be broken down into organ systems, organs, tissue, cells, organelles, protein, DNA, atoms, protons, neutrons, electrons, hadrons, quarks, fermions, leptons, gluons, etc. Your body is a complex system that can be divided into ever smaller and more fundamental parts.
Your mind is the same way. Everything that makes up your mind: personality, thoughts, ideas, opinions, dreams, fears, desires, memories, skills, vocabulary, etc. are all made from different levels of progressively smaller building blocks. The most fundamental of these building blocks is knowledge. The more knowledge you have the more articulate and complete your personality, thoughts, ideas, opinions, dreams, fears, desires, memories, skills, vocabulary, etc. will be. The more mass your body has the bigger a person you’ll be, and the more knowledge you have the bigger your mind will be. Thus, the bigger of a person you’ll be.
This means that in order to grow up you need to learn. You can’t just get old and all of a sudden claim you’re grown up. If you stop systematically learning after graduation then it doesn’t matter how many years you age, you all but stopped growing after you quit going to school. Therefore, you never grew up.
Imagine the personality of a baby. Aside from emotions and instinct, a baby doesn’t have a personality or identity. All those cute/sad faces are the product of instinct, not personality.
Now imagine a ten-year-old. The child has a personality but pretty much everything about his personality is still naïve. He has naïve thoughts, questions, beliefs, opinions, dreams, fears, etc. Honestly, you can’t possibly spend a day with a ten-year-old without rolling your eyes at least once because of something naive he said or did.
Now imagine a regular grown man. He’s a blue-collar worker, has 2.5 children, practices religion but is no theologian, and manages his money responsibly enough that he doesn’t starve. This man doesn’t suffer too much mental distress and is capable of functioning in society. However, he’s never systematically tried to achieve self-actualization, and he doesn’t go out of his way to learn new things every day.
He’s really just on par with what a human is capable of becoming. His philosophy on life is basically to keep your head down, pay your taxes, celebrate holidays, watch television, and hopefully someday retire relatively comfortably.
This man will never truly understand the world around him. He’ll believe what he was taught in school, and after he graduates, he’ll only learn what knowledge he stumbles upon, which will be mainly limited to what’s on cable television. His thoughts will be limited to mainstream thoughts. His hopes and fears will be the same as his neighbor’s. He might not buy celebrity gossip magazines, but it won’t be entirely uncommon for him to take part in conversations about it.
The life of the average man doesn’t sound too horrible, but compare it to what his life could have been like.
Imagine anyone who has earned the title of one of the greatest minds in history. These people understood life deeper, made their own perceptive observations without waiting for other people to make sense of the world for them. They were empowered. They weren’t slaves to mainstream thoughts. They had logical thoughts, rational fears, brilliant hopes, articulate opinions/beliefs and personalities you could lose yourself in. Their minds were veritable galaxies. They experienced life more deeply than the average man even has the capacity to imagine.
Whatever factors can be used to explain the differences between an infant, ten-year-old, adult, and genius there’s one common denominator that’s always present: knowledge.
Imagine if everybody’s minds could be visually represented by the house they live in. A baby would be lying on a concrete slab. A child would live in a small slapdash shack. Your average person would live in a drab suburban cookie-cutter home. A genius would live in an elaborately customized mansion.
That’s an easy enough analogy to understand, but it’s easy to miss the depth of the message in it: that there are real internal rewards to gaining knowledge, and there are real internal consequences to being ignorant. This is who you’re going to be for the rest of your life. This is how you’re going to experience the rest of your life. By not learning you’re condemning yourself to a dull and confusing mental prison. You’re missing out on experiencing the fullness of life by not experiencing the fullness of yourself.
KNOWLEDGE IS IMPORTANT FOR EXTERNAL ACTIONS
Every interaction you have with the external world: driving, raising a child, working at your job, making friends, managing your finances, cooking, voting, self-defense, teaching, putting furniture together, managing employees, finding a mate, living with your mate, etc. Everything you do is the result of thoughts in your brain, and those thoughts are made of bits of knowledge strung together. The more knowledge you possess the more articulate and complete your thoughts can be. The more complete your thoughts are the better you can do anything. The quality of everything you do, from the most insignificant to the most life-changing action, is determined by how much knowledge you have.
Here’s a real-world example of this concept in action. The more you know about cars the better you can fix them. That’s obvious enough, but there are a few things implied in that simple statement that a lot of people don’t seem to understand.
The most basic implication of that statement is that you can learn about a car. It’s possible just as it’s possible to learn about anything. Is there anything you want to do but can’t? If so, it’s not because there’s something inherently wrong with you that will always prevent you from doing that thing. You just need to learn it.
Think about this. Everyone wishes they had superpowers. Why do we want superpowers? Because we want to be capable of doing more in life, and we feel limited by our feeble bodies. But it’s not really our bodies that limit us. Compare yourself to a plant, and you’ll see why this is true. A plant truly is stuck with the same abilities forever. Most plants can’t even move except to grow towards light. From a plant’s perspective not only can we move freely, but we have the ability to choose whatever kinds of roots, stems, leaves, flowers, etc. we want. We can choose our defense mechanisms (martial arts, marksmanship), root system (investment strategy, job skills), flowers (art, music, fashion), etc. Compared to a plant you already have superpowers, but more importantly, you can choose whatever other superpowers you want. So if you feel stuck in life and wish you had superpowers then go learn something.
Think about how the car analogy applies to ignorance. If you can’t fix your car you don’t stand around wondering why. You know why. You can’t fix it because you don’t know how, but with a broken car you don’t just sit around complaining about it. You accept the fact that it’s broken and take steps to learn how to fix it or hire somebody who can.
The same concept is true with anything you do. Think about any problem you’ve ever had in your life. Think about any failure you’ve experienced, any dream unfulfilled, any mistake you regret. Think about any tear you’ve shed. Any time you’ve shaken in frustration or anger. Have you ever sat around with your hands in your head wondering, “Why is this happening to me?” The next time that happens imagine yourself sitting behind the wheel of your car with your hands on your head feeling helpless and bewildered wondering, “Why doesn’t my car work?” Because that’s ultimately what you’re doing.
Would you get upset and defensive if someone told you your car is broken or running poorly because you don’t know how to fix it? Probably not, but everyday people refuse to take responsibility for their lives. They make excuses for the bad things happening to them by saying it’s not their fault. They try to find anything to blame their problems on except their own ignorance.
On the most fundamental level, ignorance is the root of all problems, and knowledge is the solution. If there’s a problem in your life there’s knowledge you can possess that will allow you to fix it or there’s someone with the knowledge who can help you if you’d only try to find them. If you don’t have that knowledge and aren’t trying to find it then it’s your fault there are problems in your life regardless of their original source.
Ignorance is even the root of all external problems too. If you were hurt by someone else it’s because they were ignorant. Even what insurance companies call “acts of God” can be prevented with appropriate applications of knowledge. Houses can be built above floodplains. Trailer houses can be made tornado proof. We can erect tsunami barriers along coastland. Buildings can be made earthquake-proof, etc. So if you’re ever looking for someone or something to blame you would always be correct to blame ignorance. And if your life sucks then go learn something. And remember, if there’s always more you can learn about cars then there’s always more you can learn about anything. Life can always be easier.
The last thing that thing that needs to be said about fixing cars is that there are only three ways you can learn how to do it:
1: It’s forced upon you.
2: You stumble upon it.
3: You seek out.
The same is true with all knowledge. People are forced to learn in school, but after graduating nobody forces them to learn anymore. That doesn’t mean they’ll never learn anything else though. They’ll stumble on a little more information here and there through the rest of their life but it’s not going to amount to anything truly empowering. And what’s the opposite of empowerment? Enslavement.
Most people only seek out the knowledge they need in the immediate present (like how to program their new electronic device). People generally don’t say to themselves, “There’s knowledge out there that will make my life better, but I don’t know what it is. So I’m just going to go learn as much as I can about everything until I find that knowledge that will make my life better.” People don’t do that. They just sit around and watch TV and assume they’ll learn everything they need to know in life from sitcoms, cartoons, and commercials. But that’s not going to happen, and nobody’s going to cram the knowledge you need down your throat your entire life. And why should they? That’s your job.
The fact is you won’t stumble upon enough knowledge to empower you above the status quo if you don’t seek it out on your own. So this is your warning or your wake up call. Seek out knowledge. Seek out as much as you can, but ask yourself what the most important knowledge you can learn is and seek that out most of all lest you waste your life acquiring relatively useless knowledge. And never stop seeking knowledge. Everything in your life (internal and external) depends on it.
If you enjoyed this post, you’ll also like these:
The Meaning of Life
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Knowledge and Learning
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