The Man Who Knows Nothing

As for me, all I know is that I know nothing.

I have mixed feelings about Everett Bogue. I admired him when he was writing Far Beyond the Stars, a wonderful resource about minimalism and business, and I still admire the success he’s achieved as an independent presence on the internet. But when he self-righteously abandoned his label as a minimalist and started pontificating about augmented humanity and mental cybernetics, I grew weary. He took down Far Beyond the Stars, the blog that made him a role model for the minimalist community, and decided he was moving on to other things. (Fortunately, Far Beyond the Stars has been archived here, and I still recommend it to folks interested in learning more about minimalism.) I appreciate Everett’s courage and quest for personal growth, but his talk of cyborgs and cybernetic yogis was a bit much, so I too moved on to other things.

After declaring he would disconnect from Twitter and most other forms of social media, Everett recently decided to end his digital sabbatical — his resolutely-titled “” is now forwarded to his personal website — and has since decided to grace the internet with his presence once more. He’s been writing daily posts on his website, and I’m genuinely glad, because he still has plenty to offer us humans.

Part of Everett’s new approach to existence is explained in his post, Unlearning What the Internet Wants. He writes:

This is a new section on my site. Let’s call it: unlearning. Every week, until I decide to un-post schedule myself, I’ll be writing an intention to unlearn something for that week.

It is, characteristically, a bit melodramatic, but the notion of “unlearning” is intriguing, and in my opinion, it can have very valuable real-world applications. Let me explain.

The quote at the top of this post was introduced to me by my undergraduate philosophy professor, and it remains one of my favorites. The idea of knowing nothing seems paradoxical, but it can actually be a highly effective way to look at the world.

To put it simply, when you declare yourself to be an expert on something, whether explicitly or implicitly, you bring upon yourself a great deal of responsibility. People will demand answers of you, and you must deal with their reactions. You may have to deal with people who vehemently disagree with you and attempt to persuade them to see or acknowledge your point of view. Some people might love such a challenge, but I can’t say I do.

Everybody likes to be right, and most people believe their opinion is the right one, or at least the best one. But being right all the time takes a great deal of energy. This is especially true of larger issues, like politics, religion, and so on. In these areas, people are increasingly unlikely to change their point of view, regardless of how strong an argument you might present to them. This stubbornness can be frustrating when you’re passionate about your ideas.

That frustration is almost inevitable. When you claim to be an expert — that is, when you claim to know something — you become an authority, either in your eyes or the eyes of others. The more you claim to know something, the greater your attachment to your ideas and, most likely, the more determined you’ll be to make others agree with you.

For example, this evening I witnessed a lively political discourse about the state of the country between two people. Fortunately, the participants were on the same side and subsequently were able to enjoy repeatedly agreeing with one another. They both validated each other’s ideas.

If you were present for such a conversation and held strong convictions contrary to what was being discussed, it would likely be frustrating to hear your point of view being disparaged. As a result, you might feel compelled to interject your opinion and defend your ideas, especially if you’re convinced your ideas are the right ones. But initiating an argument, friendly or otherwise, probably wouldn’t result in either party changing their point of view. Acknowledging the opposing side, perhaps, but that would be an optimistic outcome. To put it bluntly, a conservative is not going to become a liberal over a conversation at the dinner table, nor is the converse any more realistic. This is true of any great social debate: atheist versus theologian, pro-choice versus pro-life, many guns versus no guns.

People who claim to know things — i.e. people who believe they have the right answers — are so attached to their ideas and so afraid of being wrong that they will go to great lengths to defend themselves, verbally or otherwise.

But the man who knows nothing will never experience this problem. He will never be angered by another’s opinion, and he will never feel compelled to force his ideas on other people.

You cannot be wrong if you know nothing.

To go back to the political example, I personally would never feel fully confident having a debate unless I was sure I had obtained my information from a neutral source (which in itself is a tremendous challenge) and read every article on the subject. And even then, I would have to sift through and evaluate hundreds of essays and reports, each potentially full of opinion or baseless claims. So, even if I could complete this infinite investigation, how could I ever be 100% certain my position is the correct one?

It’s an impossible task, and I simply don’t want to dedicate my life to reaching a point where I can confidently prove people wrong. It’s a waste of time and energy.

Everett gets it right here:

Whenever I think I’ve mastered something, chances are I’ve just achieved a false sense of entitlement. People with a false sense of entitlement I generally want to smack, unfollow, and put on my zombie wall.

The process of unlearning is an exercise in letting go. Letting go of preconceived notions. Letting go of the concept of correct and incorrect, of “you’re wrong” and “I’m right”. Knowing nothing is not about playing dumb; it’s about recognizing the absurdity of being attached to your ideas. When you know nothing, you can float above the din of people competing for the supremacy of their knowledge.

The man who claims to know something chooses to spend his life defending that idea. The man who knows nothing has no such obligation, and thus, he is free.

Update: A follow-up to this post can be found here.