It is deceptively simple to say; “question everything” and think this simple axiom is sufficient to power and calibrate the lens through which we peer at reality. If we ask a question and earnestly look for answers it seems to follow that our knowledge will grow. From this we might think; to render a complete and accurate image, we simply need to ask enough questions and use them as the basis of exploration. Questioning everything might sound like a good starting place, but if we question the question itself, some uncertainties begin to emerge. One of the chief issues is how assumptions can be so deeply embedded in the context of questions they can be hidden from view.
Imagine starting adult life with a question like; “What do I have to do to become rich?” This question might be built on a hidden assumption about a connection between material riches and a satisfied life. Perhaps it was forged in the mind of a child who grew up in poverty and forged what appeared to be a logical connection between riches and satisfaction. An assumption like this could lead to a life devoted to tasks associated with acquiring riches that might never deliver the expectation of being satisfied. If the goal is the most satisfying life possible, a meaningful question might be “what leads to a fulfilling satisfying experience” before embarking on what to do to translate that vision to reality. In this case the question obscured more than it revealed because of the simplistic and hidden nature of the assumption. Most of us know a satisfied life must be cultivated on many fronts from resources to community to intimacy to self-worth and the like… Knowledge is like a biological ecosystem, there are predatory and parasitic forms of it as well as nourishing and essential forms.
By nature we limit our field of vision to those things which fit our assumptions. Assumptions are a focus mechanism for our ideological lens. They bring certain things into clear and detailed view, while blurring everything else out. Since assumptions collapse the field of possibilities to those which fit themselves, the visible field they render is self-confirming. It is also disconfirming of anything that does not fit the model. Things which appear self-evident to us may be a result of a hidden assumption. This can lead to a potentially sincere and inaccurate view. It can lead to inappropriate actions and unintended consequences. In effect, assumptions can dampen or destroy our capacity to navigate reality with effective intention.
Flaws, artifacts and inherent limitations in our ideological lens can also conjure up unreal ghosts that look convincingly real. Based on our perspective, we might be unrealistically fearful or fearless. We might devalue essential behaviors required to nourish ourselves or otherwise be unable to effectively cultivate a fulfilling life. Flaws, distortions, as well as hidden assumptions can produce a very convincing image that is completely incorrect and potentially destructive.
The same way radio telescopes reveal different images of the cosmos than optical telescopes do, the structural nature of our lens influences how we see our world. When we connect the general nature of lenses to our identity we see how we might form a self-reinforcing world view. We typically experience a social imperative to believe the norms of our native culture in order to be accepted. Because of our dependent state we can see the foundation for the general acceptance of cultural paradigms. We can also see the roots of the long term effects on vision these particular views imply. Where we start and what we use as detection equipment shapes what we see and this impacts where we can navigate and how we relate along the way. It is not news that some of us literally give our lives because of cultural points of view on nationalism, religion and the like. It is also not news that many people live well beneath their potential because of a self-inflicted or installed view, not because of any innate limitation. In these senses, what we believe really matters.
When we consider the inclusive and exclusionary properties of lenses in general and couple this with the effect of assumptions, flaws and artifacts we can see how questioning questions becomes a high value proposition if accuracy and high value answers is our goal. To illustrate the depths of these hazards more clearly we can look at some of the broader cultural questions humankind has historically grappled with: “Where did life come from?” is arguably a global question. Many different cultures have many different perspectives. If we’re not careful we might miss the fact that the question assumes life came from something at all. It might even seem ridiculous to consider any other possibility because from a perspective that life came from something it seems so obvious that life comes from something – but do we really know? Even more basic; Can we really know? Is it possible we just convince ourselves of the validity of our own biases as a result of the character of the lens through which we peer? This might explain why there are so many differing points of view throughout the world that are defended with such overt conviction and passion. This might also explain why any perspective differing from cultural norms are hotly contested as bunk unless it is carried in on a wave of rebellion, even among scientific communities.
Ideas are lenses. If we start from an ideological premise that biology comes from cosmic evolution we then look to the cosmos for causes. To be honest, we must first ask if an underlying assumption that life arose out of mindless cosmic bits of matter, energy, space-time and whatnot limits our field of view to this very possibility. If we start from an ideological premise that a divine or intelligent cause is involved in the cosmos and biology, we are likewise predisposed to see confirming evidence wherever we look. If we were even more honest than conventional cultural views typically embrace we might ask; “On what basis do we justify separating the cosmos from what we know as awareness and life?” The wider field of vision looks quite a bit murkier than the clarity that forms around a narrow band of assumptions.
The nature of a perspective is built on a relative premises and this carries with it a particular spectrum of vision, focus, range and the like. Everything from that point outward, including supporting logic, is then built on or viewed through those premises. The objects that appear as a result of a set of premises can look deceptively like an objective basis for confirming evidence. Once the elaborate empire of verbal abstractions grow from a relative premise, it becomes difficult to distinguish subject from object. Our logic can trace connective tissues within an abstract network of coherency that generates an illusion of objectivity. With this in mind we might legitimately question if everything we see as objective might be subjective.
To understand how deeply perceptual relativity shapes our lives even in academic circles we can look at the following: There is an open secret in certain academic circles that scientifically explore the question of life and its origin. From this strictly scientific perspective we cannot yet agree on a shared definition of the word “life”. This failure to perceive the boundaries of such a primary idea in the field has far reaching implications that profoundly affect the vision that flows from this primary lens. For instance; without a clear definition we cannot know whether there is a singular origin or multiple origins. We cannot understand the divide between life and non-life. Even if there was an agreed definition to the word life, we could not know if this definition would be the source of what we saw objectively as life. The entire discipline that deals with life origins might do well to ask an even deeper question; “What makes us assume that life came from the cosmos?” What if the cosmos comes from life? What if the cosmos is life?
The point here is not to make assertions as much as it is to illustrate the nature of our false certainty and point to some of the limits of knowledge itself. The reason this recognition is important is because before we can even phrase intelligent questions we must first understand that what we can know is relative to a frame of reference. Perceptual relativity is the key. We use frames of reference, but these can be challenged from other frames of reference. This makes perspective taking, seeking to understand each other from our individual perspectives, a paramount foundation to understanding beyond our own prejudices. Unless we can see from the frame of reference of another observer, we can never understand or uncover the value of the perspective they bring.
If we measure the value of a particular brand of understanding by its potential to contribute to our common experience of life we might easily miss the value of understanding our ignorance. How, we might ask, can understanding the profound nature of our ignorance be of value? How can it contribute to our shared experience of life? From this we can know how a sincerely erroneous view of reality can be formed and defended. This understanding can be a platform for tolerating what would otherwise appear from our individual perspectives as willful ignorance.
Another valuable vision that emerges from awareness of the range and limitations of knowledge is a corresponding understanding of how and why undeveloped minds tend toward blustery certainty while more mature minds tend to be more humble in their approach to certainty. This is because mature minds are more inclined to see across a spectrum of perspectives instead of the narrow confines of vision afforded by a narrow set of assumptions. Mature minds are also more able to differentiate the fuzzy nuances between levels of certainty and what is factual. Many a certainty can get shattered as we experience life over time. This has a tendency to forge a less brazen and more valuable perspective.
Understanding our ignorance has other beneficial implications – not the least of these is the fact that fighting each other over what we know is not a matter of logic. It is a matter of our values and these values can be destructive. One of the few things we can know with greater certainty among the otherwise ambiguous shadows our limited capabilities unveil is that despite our limitations, how we value each other does tangibly shape our experience of life. We can know that the more we value each other in a nourishing context of community, the more our common value rises, and the more we devalue each other the more our common value diminishes. It may be one of the many existential ironies that the clarity that arises from a premise of ignorance enables the broadest possible vision of all. Of course, some or all of this could be wrong…
 Since 1976, members of the Carnegie Institution of Geophysical laboratories have studied the origin or origins if life. They keep the field of researchers narrowed to those with a scientific perspective.
 For more information on this look up: “Dunning–Kruger effect” It refers to a bias that comes from the inability of the unskilled to recognize their lack of vision and conversely the ability of the skilled to recognize the limits of their knowledge.
 For more information on this look up: “Gödel’s incompleteness theorems” It basically says that there no consistent system of axioms whose theorems can be listed by an “effective procedure” like math, a computer program, or an algorithm is capable of proving all truths about the relations of the natural numbers. There are always statements about the natural numbers that are true, but that are unprovable within the system unless something outside the system is used as a mechanism for proof. The second incompleteness theorem, an extension of the first, shows that such a system cannot demonstrate its own consistency. This means the need for outside help continues.