An American Mystagogue

Knowing Isn’t Enough


You walk into a room. It has bare white walls, scuffed linoleum floors and in the center of the floor stands a cheap metal table. Ghostly fluorescent lights give the room an odd atmosphere, and a nondescript metal door closes behind you with an audible slam. Putting one foot cautiously before the other, your body feels light and unstable; are you shaking, or is it in your head? When you get to the side of the table, you see a lined sheet of notebook paper with a single question hastily scrawled in graphite over its surface. It reads;

“Is a sledgehammer a tool, or a bird?

The moment your eyes scan the question, something happens to you, somewhere in your mind. You are experiencing the split-second ‘knowing’ that a sledgehammer is a tool, and not a bird. Even if you decide to go all post-modern and say “Oh, well I think its a bird.” it still requires that you first knew what it is the correct answer was to give a snarky one. This is ‘knowing’, the active process of it. If you ever want a demonstrable, popular way to explain what exactly ‘knowing’ is, simply ask yourself or a friend a question like the above.

The only way to really get a good grasp on  reflexive/automatic functions of the psyche are to also observe their counterparts, the volitional/willed functions. To give you a first hand, experiential understanding of the difference between ‘knowing’ and other actions of the mind, we will contrast it to a volitional action;

“Please imagine a way that you could make a better toaster.”

If you actually take the time to try to imagine a better toaster, you will be using active ‘image re-mixing’ (visualization) faculties that we can call the ‘active imagination’. Whereas whether or not the sledgehammer was a tool or a bird was ‘known’ instantaneously, for all conscious intents and purposes. So one is reflexive, and one is volitional. It is not hard to find parallels throughout most twenty-four hour days.

So, why talk about this at all? Who gives a shit, right? Well, think about it like this, how many times have you been on either side of a situation like this one;

Two people are standing around an office. One is the manager of the other, and the door is closed. The manager is speaking harshly to the employee, who is being disciplined for not doing things by the standard operating procedures, which has led to a monetary loss of damaged equipment. The manager repeatedly tells the employee what he did wrong, and the employee keeps nodding his bowed head and saying “I know, I know.” The manager gets irate and asks “If you knew, then how did you fuck up so badly!?” The employee DOES indeed know the things the manager says, as the manager says them. He ‘knows’ each and every thing, but as soon as the meeting is finished it takes the employee a relatively short amount of time and he starts to forget aspects of the standard operating procedure, and is completely ignorant that he is failing to uphold them.

Again, the reader should try to find parallels in their lives or encounters they’ve observed to see if they can recognize this phenomena. Another example.

A crowd of people are standing  around a podium where a presenter is giving a speech on the impact of landfill methane gas on the atmosphere due to anaerobic conditions of the landfills and piled garbage. You are in the audience and as the speaker explains each individual facet of the problem, references other professionals from related fields and goes over statistics  quite thoroughly. It all makes perfect sense and you are quite entertained. By the time you are walking back to your car, after the presentation is over, you feel the information slipping out of your mind. What were those stats again? Who were the people she said she consulted? You can’t remember at all, but you know that you agreed with her and still do. You KNOW she was right.



And here we see the tricky, contextual nature of ‘knowing’. One can easily know something when someone points it out, or mentions it, or some other kind of external catalyst arises. Its just as fair to say that someone asking whether a sledgehammer is a tool or a bird leads to ‘automatic knowing’ as it is to say that two people who believe the world is controlled by evil Illuminati Reptilian Shapeshifters ‘know’ that such is the case, and engage in that faculty if you ask them if its true. Because knowing is not knowledge, knowing is a reactive faculty of the mind, and has nothing to do particularly with accuracy. This should be fairly obvious if you’ve spent any time here on Earth around humans.

However, ‘knowing’ something  is not only automatic (unwilled, non-volitional, and suspect) but also necessary. I don’t intend to paint ‘knowing’ as some sort of entirely evil thing. Using ‘knowing’ in its right place and attributing the fair value of the function is of utmost importance for the discerning mind. The sacrifice of a volitional action, for a reflexive one tends to bequeath speed to the action at hand. Reflexive actions are survival mechanisms for a noisy world. But like a vehicle, which is a useful tool, one has to respect the power of the thing, lest they be crushed by its misuse. Keep your ‘knowing’ on its leash, understand that it is not objective, its not even (generally) particularly fair or accurate in many situations.

What should concern a person more than the reaction of ‘knowing’ (which is an ‘active’ mental process) is ‘knowledge’ (which is a ‘static’ compilation in the mind) and the pursuit of more accurate or more pragmatic knowledge. If knowing is the process of cutting down lumber, knowledge is the lumber. Once can learn to accept that our ‘knowing’ is always suspect for bias, fallacy or inaccuracy, we can focus on searching for, isolating and synthesizing ‘knowledge’ that is actually useful or accurate utilizing ‘rationality’ (which is not the same process as knowing), instead of using our ‘knowing’ to validate our ‘knowledge’. Knowing isn’t enough.

~ Seth Moris

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