I’ve been fascinated by Taoism in all its breadth for nearly three decades. Under this umbrella you’ll find philosophy, medicine, folk religion, meditative practices, and plenty of accumulated and purged bullshit. You’ll also find some interesting thoughts on knowledge that are thought-provoking – or just provoking.
The philosophical classic the Tao Te Ching has sections that seem to question the value of knowledge while praising the values of simplicity and emptiness. Taoist battles with Confucians – famous for rules and rites one must memorize – are legendary and sometimes hilarious. Taoist mystics both craved understanding and secrets on attaining the Tao, but also loved simple lives and avoiding complication. Taoism in general seems to ask the question “hey, is knowing things always a good thing?”
As a person who craves information these writings and riddles and tales often bedeviled me. I loved learning new things, but also could see how pointless rituals and rules could mire one in unreality. I craved to know but also saw how one’s head could be the equivalent of a messy room.
I mean I got the iddea of meditating and avoiding over-stimulation. But questioning knowledge? Well that I sort of got – and sort of wondered if Taoists overdid it or if some of it was just famous Taoist humor that I didn’t get.
Then this year, while reading a translation of the Tao Te Ching I hadn’t seen, I suddenly “got” that yes, indeed, knowledge can be bad in some circumstances. For that I would like to thank various podcasts on conspiracy theories and mystical bullshit, and of course, a good chunk of the internet.
How many people fill their heads with conspiracy theories, elaborate nonsense that solidifies both their bigotries and ignorance? Ensnared in complex falsehoods (often promoted by grifters), they “know” what is right and can easily commit, assist, or ignore atrocities. Their “knowledge” means they know less than someone ignorant of their twisted beliefs.
Some people pick up religious and spiritual practices from assorted scammers and self-deluding messiahs. Diving into “ancient” practices invented a handful of years ago, they occupy themselves with spiritual exercises that are neither. Their “knowledge” takes them nowhere – and is in fact, a weight that holds them back.
And finally there are the people with heads full of information where, shall we say, they overestimate it’s value. If you’ve ever watched people in a battle of fandom trivia or obscure facts, you get the idea. Some of this knowledge may be fun, but people take it way too seriously – which distorts the more important fun part.
Some knowledge isn’t all that, well, knowledgeable.
Sure, we may know about bad things like the above. I find great value in studying conspiracy theories to understand people and to understand dangers. But this is a kind of selective knowing, a knowing that is guarded.
So now, in part, I get the Taoist ideas that knowledge isn’t always something that’s good. One has to consider the value of the information, of the space it takes up in one’s head, and what one does with it. Just knowing isn’t always a benefit, and in some contexts is an outright negative.
And yes, I appreciate the irony of contemplating the value of knowing means I know the value of not knowing. Which, come to think of it, does fit the famous irony and humor of the Taoists, so I’m good with that.