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Kinds of Knowledge

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Different kinds of knowing, each having their own veracity and value, are to be cultivated and used appropriately. However, there is one kind of knowing we should avoid as much as possible: belief.

In the study of magic, religion, history, and science I have developed a short form for understanding the quality of the data I’m examining. It varies by the degree of certitude available for each datum. The data go into the White box, the Gray box or the Black box. The white ‘box’ is for certainty, the black for the unknown, and the gray for the maybes. I find this a necessary distinction for understanding the world and for making plans.

The White Box is for those things of which I have the highest confidence or the closest to certainty that I, as a human, can manage. The primary content of the ‘box’ are the products of reason (e.g., A^2 + B^2 = C^2 or If A=B & B=C, then A=C, and so forth), and of experience (Look before you leap, Forbid insider trading, etc.). With the tools of reason such as logic, we can work out certain ‘truths’ such that so long as we stay within the bounds of the problem and have them defined correctly, we are highly confident we are correct. Likewise from experience, meaning usually lots of failure, we discover that certain things must or must not be done. Checking the water before we dive in, literally or metaphorically, repays with survival or success. Experience similarly shows that insider trading in, for example, the stock market is disastrous for the rest of the market. (We know how important this is by how well the market polices itself on this.) Other kinds of ‘experience’ with veracity are the findings of science, which we reckon as highly qualified due to measurement, repeatability, and peer review. Here lies all of that knowing that relies upon direct sensation. We may not always be clear on what it is but from the sensation we know that it is.

Starting to shade off into the Gray, but not quite, are those knowings that derive from understanding. Understanding is often a combination of reason and experience but what makes it different from simple knowledge is that it is the recognition of a pattern in the new thing that one has learned from a thing previously known: “I’ve seen this before somewhere else, under other conditions, but there is sufficient similarity to apply the same solution here.” We all know we are not to split up our group if we find ourselves in a horror movie.

There is yet another kind of knowing that is, perhaps strangely, both bright white certainty, and yet must also be held in the gray as well. These are the products of noisis, the intuitions of mind and the revelations of the Divine. Sometimes incorrectly called gnosis (which merely means knowledge, generally of the discursive variety), noetic knowing or intuitions are non-dual there is no ‘self-and-other’ in them. We suddenly realize a truth that has always been there. We can achieve or receive these without evident interventions of Divine Beings, but this is also how They communicate with us, such as when we suddenly know Their character or the right offerings or actions to make. Often, no reasoning will get us there, but Their gift illuminates and elevates us. At times we can even share the insight (Fig Newtons are a correct offering for Hermes), but there is no real way to prove it, even as we hold it in our hearts profound certainty.

Part of knowing is not knowing, what I’m calling here the ‘black box’. This is the realm of ignorance, of the data we don’t possess, of the questions we can formulate but not answer, of that which we don’t even know how to ask, of mystery. Needless to say, this is the biggest box of all as most of the world lies outside the small circle of firelight we humans live within. It is also the easiest to ‘shrink’ as learning, reason, and experience all reduce the amount of our individual and collective ignorance. There is another big bin in the black box that we hide under a word that I wish to redeem: stupidity. It is often conflated with ignorance in the sense of the non-possession of data. What I am discussing is different. Stupidity is the inability to process, understand, and apply knowledge. It happens to us when we are in a stupor, from which the word is derived. In the Buddhadharma, stupidity is the first and most fundamental poison, although it is usually translated incorrectly as ignorance. I want to redeem the word because often our problems are not from a lack of data, but from the inability to process it correctly due to the dullness or distractions of our minds. I am rather knowledgable, but under the wrong conditions, I can be frightfully stupid. I need a term like stupidity to explain how those who are otherwise intelligent can look at the data of, for example anthropogenic climate change, and deny it. I need a way to understand how when presented with reason, people fail to choose the rational response.

And then there is the Gray Box proper. Truly, this is the realm we most swim in. It is the realm of guesswork, where we have no where near enough data to make a decision but must anyway, so we dive in. This is just a fact of life. There is also the more formal kinds of guessing informed by reason and experience and qualified by experiment. These are what are called hypotheses. When they grow up with sufficient work and testing in science they become theories (like evolution). This is where the theory expresses the best we understand of the matter, knowing full well our understanding is incomplete. The great advantage with theories, and even more with hypotheses and guesses, is that they are changeable as new data or understandings emerge. And we expect to change them.

But there is another inhabitant of the gray box that is much less comfortable, even while comforting, and one in my view of negative value: Belief. There are, of course, a number of ways to use this word. In keeping with this essay, I mean it in the epistemological sense. I am not referring to belief as an assertion of value (I believe in democracy), nor of hope (I believe in the Red Sox), nor of futurity (I believe he will do this). Rather, I am discussing its credal use, such as “I believe in one God”, as the Nicene Creed begins. In this religious use, when ever we say “I believe thus”, (and the Creed is a wonderful example of this) we are making a statement about the world that we hold as true explicitly without evidence or in the face of countervailing evidence. For example, for a Christian of AD 300 to state this, it is in the face of the assertion and experience of all other peoples around them that there are many Gods. Intellectually, belief leads to confirmation bias as it sorts out as irrelevant any data that contradicts the belief. Spiritually, this becomes a real problem in that it reinforces what we expect to be true about the world and closes us off to all contrasting or contradicting experience. In this way I see that belief is the single greatest impediment to spiritual experience. Yet, historically, it was a brilliant maneuver of Paul of Tarsus to found his religion upon belief so that the Roman men could join without being circumcised. Christianity is unique in its focus on belief. Most if not all other religions require activity to express adherence and receive benefits. Also, beliefs are to be adhered to in the face of contradiction, rather than changing with the data and understanding. This can be quite dangerous.

Yet Belief is a mode of thought I find amongst some of today’s Pagans. They believe in their Gods. How sad. When the Gods are invoked they are experienced. We may not be able to say what They are, but there is no cause for belief; we know that They are. Belief is a deficient mode of knowing. It is a substitute for reason, experience, and intuition, and a poor one at that. In my own life, I examine my thoughts and assumptions about the world to see if they are based on knowledge, whether reason or experience or intuition, or it is a (hypo-)thesis that I am testing against the moment. Or have I let my mind dully descend into stupidity and merely believe a thing to be true. When I discover this, I rip out that notion and free the belief, freeing all of that attachment, subtle and gross. With the Vitriol of self-examination and disciplined commitment to the truth, I try the ore of experience and thought, and am left with the gold of veritable knowledge.

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Sam Webster is a Pagan Mage, one of the very few who is also a Master of Divinity, and is also currently a Doctoral candidate in History at the University of Bristol, UK, under Prof. Ronald Hutton. He is an initiate of Wiccan, Druidic, Buddhist, Hindu and Masonic traditions and an Adept of the Golden Dawn founding the Open Source Order of the Golden Dawn  in 2001. His work has been published in a number of journals such as Green Egg and Gnosis, and 2010 saw his first book, Tantric Thelema, establishing the publishing house Concrescent Press. Sam lives in the San Francisco East Bay and serves the Pagan community principally as a priest of Hermes.


  • Jamie
    Jamie Friday, 10 January 2014

    Mr. Webster,

    Thanks for another really interesting post. That is a bit of a trick, trying to unlearn the notion of 'belief' in the face of actual experience of the Deathless Ones.

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