By Deepak Chopra, MD
We’ve all met people who shrug off their lack of knowledge by saying, “Ignorance is bliss,” but who takes that seriously? The modern world is built upon levels of understanding and knowledge. Our life isn’t blissful, but without a doubt the sciences and technology we base our lives upon represent mountains of knowledge and mountain ranges of data, experimentation, and research studies.
It is baffling, then, to consider a famous remark attributed by Plato to his mentor Socrates: “All I know is that I know nothing.” Why did the greatest Greek philosopher claim that his teacher said this? It makes Socrates seem to be anti-knowledge. In fact, he was, because the kind of knowledge Socrates opposed was specious knowledge. His philosophical antagonists, the Sophists, taught the better class of young men in Athens, and what they transmitted, if we translate it into modern terms, was the validity of objective facts. What Socrates taught was intuitive inner knowing. That’s why it is possible to say in the same breath, “Know thyself” and “All I know is that I know nothing.”
To unravel his meaning even more deeply, Socrates wasn’t claiming that intuitive inner knowing was superior to objective facts. As we all experience—and as scientists constantly remind us—the subjective world “in here” is capricious, changeable, unpredictable, and filled with imagination and therefore unreal things.
Setting aside subjectivity is the bedrock of science and its pursuit of objective truth—the Sophist position seems to have won out in the end. But unfortunately for that position, all-knowing occurs subjectively. You can know something that originates inside, like feeling sad or having a sore elbow, or you can know something that occurs apparently outside yourself, like the score of the World Series or the atomic weight of potassium. Either way, the knowing takes place subjectively, through the mind.
We can take it for granted that “Know thyself” points in the direction of this process of knowing things. Knowing things and making things go together. What we know—music, art, engineering, chemistry, etc.—turns into all the things humans make or do. What is so peculiar about the link between knowing and making is that no one has the slightest idea where knowing comes from, only that it is entirely necessary. The universe is engaged in a creative process at every level that produces something out of nothing, because at bottom, all physical objects are invisible ripples in the quantum field, which itself springs from a vacuum or void. (You might want to look at the last post “The Magic behind Creation,” where the inexplicable nature of creation was covered.)
Even more peculiar is the fact that our thoughts spring from nothing, in the sense that your next thought, whatever it is, isn’t built from previous ingredients the way a cake is made from basic ingredients combined according to a recipe. However a thought spring to mind, it is simply there, by itself. Humans can think logically, which strings thoughts together. We use language, which requires basic ingredients taught in school. But all the grammar and syntax in the world cannot explain why a thought actually means something.
In some way, the mind knows. It also knows that it knows. A doctor knows what he learned in medical school, for example, and he knows that he knows it. But it is nearly impossible to define what knowing is, pure and simple. This is the mystery Socrates was referring to when he said, “All I know is that I know nothing.” Like him, we are all immersed in knowing all kinds of things both subjective and objective, yet lacking a grasp of what it means to know.
This hole in the middle of human understanding turns out to have great value. If you investigate knowing, you are taken deeper and deeper into how the mind works. This is a unique journey, radically unlike any other. If you are a physicist and delve deep into the physical world, at some point “something” vanishes back into “nothing”—you have reached the void or vacuum state from which the physical universe magically appears. If on the other hand you delve into the subjective world, thoughts also vanish into nothing (i.e., silence), which is a kind of void also, from which the mind mysteriously appears.
But if you delve into knowing, no matter how deeply you explore, it never vanishes. To be conscious, it isn’t necessary to think, but it is necessary to know. Knowing is inseparable from consciousness. You aren’t conscious because you know X, Y, or Z but simply by being here, existing as a conscious being. At every moment in life we exercise our knowingness by applying it to X, Y, and Z. This mental activity is the job of knowing, you might say, but it’s one job you cannot be fired from.
Let’s accept that knowingness exists by itself, prior to any mental activity. The journey doesn’t stop there. Look deeper, and two things emerge: you can’t find out where knowing begins, where it came from, and you can’t locate it in the human brain. The brain knows how to organize itself, each brain cell knows how to organize itself, and the same knowing pertains to molecules, atoms, subatomic particles, and the quantum field. Knowing is indissoluble, and irreducible—it is everywhere in Nature.
Moreover, it is the same knowing wherever you look. A quark that knows how to organize itself isn’t inferior to an atom, molecule, cell, or brain. Every link in the chain must know not only how to organize itself, but how to seamlessly produce the next link in the chain. Without the quark, no brain. When “nothing” created “something,” it already knew what it was doing, not just in the visible universe but in the vacuum state before the visible universe was created.
Therefore, every level of Nature has in common the trait of knowing, which is applied to the major task shared by all things: self-creation. After all, if knowing is essential at every level of Nature, it is uncreated at any level. Knowing has to know itself before it can create anything. There is no reason to believe that self-knowledge and self-creation will ever stop, which is the same as saying that evolution is something else Nature knows how to organize.
If you look at yourself in this light, a great change occurs in your self-image. You are no longer an isolated speck in the cosmos that won a random lottery by getting a human brain. You stand at the center of the cosmic process of self-knowing, self-organizing, self-creating consciousness, which is constantly evolving. You are the knowingness that permeates everything.
My co-author, physicist Menas Kafatos, and I encapsulated this into a single concept, “You are the universe,” which then became a book with that title. Yet the important thing isn’t a concept at all. “You are the universe” is the dynamic state of knowing that occurs at every second, and this process constitutes who you really are, what you are doing, and why you are here.