Learning in Time and the Relativism of Knowledge

When I was in college, I had a friend who was a devout moral relativist. I was not. And we would always argue about it. To me, simple logic proved him wrong. To him, I was guilty of being ethnocentric, even though, at the time, I wasn’t committed to a Christian or a Western doctrine—although I did have a fondness for Plato. We finally came to a resolution when I was visiting him some time after college. We were having a discussion and he said something like, “I don’t care what you say, but a bricklayer knows about bricklaying, a carpenter knows about carpentry, etc….” And I said, “But that’s relativism of knowledge, not relativism of truth.” He said, “Oh. I didn’t realize that.” I’m counting that as a victory, even though it took me about five years to win it (and yes, I’m counting it as a victory—he was right about existential learning, but I was right about truth).

I don’t want to get too far in the philosophical weeds here, but the critical distinction is between knowledge and truth. They are not the same thing. Truth is that which makes knowledge, knowledge. Without truth, knowledge cannot exist. Truth connects the information of knowledge to Reality. Anyway, the important point to remember is that humans possess knowledge in roughly equal amounts. In terms of knowledge, then, humans are roughly equal. Of course, it is somewhat more complicated than that—some forms of knowledge aren’t as important as other forms of knowledge. For example, my knowledge of 2nd edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, although quite extensive, is not of comparable worth to knowledge of the current geopolitical situation in the Middle East. They’re both there. They’re both valid forms of knowledge, but I don’t think they are of equal value. I can entertain a few friends with my knowledge, but a government official can start or stop wars with hers.

Another important point my friend made to me was that there is a form of knowledge that is incommunicable; it is knowledge based purely on experience, not scientific experiment nor academic study. He called it “existential knowledge” because he believed it was the existentialist who first pointed this out. Anyway, I finally figured out what he was talking about. Unfortunately, because such knowledge is incommunicable, I can’t give you a precise example. But I can talk about it a little bit. It may be futile, but I will try.

As you live your life, you learn things, but you can’t share all that you have learned. Imagine that your life is represented by the following line:


The line (for person A) is read from left to right. Every dot represents one of these incommunicable tidbits of knowledge. Those farther to the left were learned sooner than those farther to the right. And as you age, the line grows adding dots on the right hand side as you learn. If you’re into physics, you can think of it as a kind of worldline, but that’s just an analogy. Anyway, other people have their knowledge lines, as well. Two such people would represented thusly:



What is important to realize is that, thanks to relativism of knowledge, even though the two lines are of roughly equal length, their content may differ. And although the dots may not be shared, acquisition of dots may be accelerated by calm discourse. I don’t know how the acceleration works, but I’ve experienced it at least once, when a friend opened and shared some things while feeling very vulnerable. He didn’t shout; he didn’t yell. He just talked. I was able to relate what he was saying to myself and learn from it. I acquired a “dot.”

Anyway, those are my ramblings for today.


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