Half Knowledge is Dangerous

There is a saying that half knowledge is dangerous.

If you have read the stories of Suppandi in the children’s magazine Tinkle, you will know what I mean. Once Suppandi’s master instructed him not to let anyone in the house while he was gone. Suppandi diligently followed the instructions and when his master returned, he did not allow even him to enter the house. Another time, some guests had come over to the house and Suppandi was asked to bring some Samosas. He brought them in his hand and was reprimanded by his master to bring everything in a plate. Next day his master asked him to bring his shoes and Suppandi brought them in a plate.

Image Credit: Tinkle

These stories illustrate in a funny way how half knowledge is dangerous. However, it is true in real life also. Cooking a new dish without knowing the nuances may affect the taste of your preparation. Writing a complex piece of code without knowing the entire context of the customer’s requirements will lead to unintentional bugs. Travelling to a distant city without accurate maps will lose you hours in getting on the right track. In the simplest case, if your knowledge is less than complete, you will get less marks in the exam. We can recognize innumerable such examples in our daily life.

If we really think about this, then whatever we know is always incomplete, always half. In fact the more we know the more we feel we know less about something. So at all times, our knowledge is half knowledge. We don’t know the entire story.

Just to clarify, when we say half, it is not exactly 50%. It means not knowing different facets of the subject. Whether you know 25% or 75%, it is still less than complete, therefore it is called half. You cannot say that someone who knows 25% is more ignorant than someone who knows 75% or the other way round.

So now the question begs itself. Is there a state of complete knowledge? If you keep on gaining knowledge, will you ever know everything? I doubt that.

New knowledge is always getting created and therefore it is an endless journey to gather complete knowledge. In the lifetime of an individual, it is not possible to acquire all the knowledge of all the things.

Since we all are in the state of half knowledge and we take action based on that, so we are all ‘dangerous’ people. Whatever action we take based on our half knowledge is less than optimum and will may create more harm than good in the long run. But that seems like a controversial statement. Obviously, we can do good for others and not all our actions are harmful.

At this stage, we reach a point where our understanding is limited by the collective understanding. It is possible that even though when the world says something is good, it may be harmful but you will know only when you get some more knowledge of the cause and effect of that action.

This discussion is taking us deeper into the meaning of knowledge, good and harm. It is not possible to conclude this at this level.

They say the Buddha had complete knowledge. In one of the suttas, the Buddha said to his monks that he knew far more than what he revealed to them, taking the analogy that he taught only a handful of leaves compared to all the leaves in the forest. According to the Buddha, we must focus only on the alleviation of suffering and not bother about who created the universe and whether it is eternal or not.

According to the Buddha, knowledge that helps in alleviation of suffering is superior to knowledge that may lead to increase in suffering or have no impact on suffering.

Vedanta philosophy points seekers to go beyond knowledge. It speaks of the ending of knowledge. Ved + Anta = Vedanta. The Vedas were considered to be the repository of all knowledge till then. But it was found by the wise that that knowledge was not conducive to emancipation or awakening. It merely was leading people on the path of rituals and worship.

Could it be that the clue to solving this conundrum is to get an insight into knowledge i.e. understanding the very nature and structure of knowledge.

That which we call knowledge is a consensus, a provisional conclusion, not ultimately real. It is something that helps you to get along in life, work with others and do things but none of that fundamentally is true, it’s not the substance of the universe.

Mathematicians will argue otherwise and speak of the perennial constants and universal ratios which are at the root of the laws of nature. But such laws are just the result of our universe being the way it is and mathematics a way to understand that through symbols. They are the truth only of our observable universe dependent on the way we have designed our science.

Knowledge, if we understand it as a description of the world whether in language of English or Mathematics, has inherent limitations, which cannot be overcome by gathering more knowledge.

Knowledge is the description of the world and description = words and words are symbols to represent what is. But ‘what is’ cannot be captured as symbols or in words and descriptions. Knowledge by its very nature is a representation of ‘what is’ and a re-presentation is not the real deal.

To know ‘what is’, knowledge must be dropped and only bare awareness must be retained. When you are able to look and hear what is with bare awareness without creating knowledge of that, then there comes a time when you can directly experience ‘what is’ and know directly, not through any representation of words and formulas.

Direct knowing is complete at all times. This is not gathered knowledge or applied knowledge. This direct knowing is new and fresh every moment. And action based on this direct knowing is the right action that is good, not harmful.

So it is not a question of half or complete knowledge, it is a question of direct knowing or indirect knowledge.

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