The Big Giant Sparkling Question Mark

"How do we know?"

That's the question that has perplexed generations of the human race. Four words. Eleven letters. And a big giant sparkling question mark.

What makes it so difficult to answer? Well, it must depend upon the topic. The context. The situation the question is pertaining to at that very moment. But even in the moment, aren't there a billion other things it could pertain to simultaneously? I'm talking about something like this:

Sandy, an eight year old with a sharp mind and keen interest in the matters of the universe, approaches her 4th grade teacher Ms. Swanson and ask her why the sky is blue. Ms. Swanson, having explained this on several occasions, explains that the atmosphere is made up of different elements, and when the light from the sun passes through these elements in the atmosphere, the colour blue spreads across the sky. Ms. Swanson is proud of her answer, and thinks it will suffice for the time being. However, Sandy presses on. She asks, "but how do we know that the sky is really blue?" This throws Ms. Swanson for a loop. "What do you mean by that, Sandy?", and Sandy answers, "How do we know what BLUE is? Can we all see it the same? How do we know it's really there?" Ms. Swanson pauses uncomfortably. She has no idea how to answer this question. She feels her teaching license becoming increasingly more irrelevant, prompting something of an existential crisis. And all she can think about is what an absolute bitch Sandy is being right now.

This is an example of how the simple question of "how do we know?" can, at once relate to a specific question at hand - that is, the blue-ness of the sky - and also, more generally, refer to the entire purpose of or being and universe. The big "HOW", combined with the equally perplexing concept of "KNOWING", all and all, appears to be just one big massive mind fuck that the human race just can't get enough of.

You see, we ask each other "how do we know?" on a daily basis.

How do we know we are in love?

How do we know when someone loves you?

How do we know what we really want to do for a living?

How do we know that something is right? or wrong? This? Or that? Really, it's all one question, masked by different clauses. All we really want to know is what this all means. All of it. The sky and beyond. It's about feeling an anxiety with the present about what's just out of our sight.

We think if we know, somehow, it will be easy to deal with. This is how Ms. Cleo made her fortune giving essentially the same advice to everyone she talked to. As long as we have some idea of what's up ahead, it eases the discomfort of NOT knowing - even if that knowledge is ultimately flawed and non-existent.

The thing about knowledge is that we never REALLY know, do we? It's all introspection, assumption, educated guess, theory, hypothesis, justified true belief. But not quite knowledge. There is no objective future that we can talk about as if it exists and we can hear, smell and touch it. The future exists in the imagination - this communal playground; a petri dish of ideas that will spill over into reality in some way or some form, filling the empty space called the future. What this tells us is that, perhaps, we should just drop the "how do we know" question altogether. Or, at the very least, stop taking it so god damned seriously. It is very likely that we don't know anything at all, all of our lives. There are no certainties or guarantees. There are only feelings. Sensations. Inklings. And the wonderful unfortunate, yet fortunate, learning experiences that come with all the instabilities of this existence. All there is a big giant sparkling question mark staring us in the face at all times, and we just have to keep riding it into the sunset.

Arianne TongComment