Originally Posted February 12, 2013
I’ve been a student of knowledge and truth for most of my life it seems. Sometimes I find something new, a small truth that is yet another piece of the larger puzzle I’m assembling in my mind of how and why the world works. Sometimes I’m able to assemble a group of those small pieces into a larger coherent idea that seems to be a breakthrough in knowledge.
As a part of a philosophical and scientific community of thinkers, I often see temptation (and am indeed tempted myself) to arrogantly consider ourselves as educated and enlightened above the general populace. I’ve learned that this pride isn’t restricted to the educated, but rather is common to the nature of mankind – all of mankind. Politicians build social structures that are guaranteed to work, scientists document networks of facts that point to an inescapable conclusion, zealots point the way to an obvious truth… We all tend to form ideas that make sense to us, ideas that we sometimes are willing to defend to the death (as in social conflict and war).
But how much do we really know? Criticism of epistemology often ends in the Skeptic’s view that truth is unknowable to man. I disagree with the purely Skeptical view of knowledge, but I do give credence to the fact that often we are not as knowledgable as we think we are.
This scene from Blake Edwards’ 1964 film A Shot in the Dark from The Pink Panther movie series is one of my favorites. Peter Sellers plays as the incompetent Inspector Jacques Clouseau, who is anxiously waiting (and rehearsing) to question a beautiful maid (played by Elke Sommer) for a murder. Clouseau’s sidekick, Hercule LaJoy (Graham Stark), brings the maid in for questioning at Clouseau’s request. The clip otherwise speaks for itself.
So what does this have to do with knowledge? Everything. We can laugh at the irony of Clouseau’s incompetence because we, as the audience, can clearly see all of what is going on. Yet from Clouseau’s perspective, the situation works out perfectly so that he remains oblivious to the others’ presence. It isn’t the fact that he’s stupid or unlearned – He’s actually being very keen in his observations. He’s simply missing just the smallest piece of evidence, which drastically alters his perspective of the big picture.
Human knowledge is like this, even if we don’t like to admit it. If we miss even the smallest of details, our knowledge, facts, and science become a stage for buffoonery. Further, we cannot even know if or when we have all of the details, which is reserved for the omniscient rather than limited human minds.
We, as limited human beings, can obtain a faint glimpse of truth I believe. But the arrogance that comes with it is certainly unwarranted. We would do well to consider whether or not we are simply playing the fool in the big picture.