Disentangling Knowing from Belief

It appears simple: we know something because we are told of it and the sum of what we know becomes our body of knowledge to be held in books and in memory.

What if this does not describe knowing at all, but simply belief?

There is another kind of knowing: pitching a strike over the outside corner, sailing a straight course in fluky winds and cross-currents, drawing a likeness in charcoal, riding a bicycle.

This kind of knowing has nothing to do with data or facts. It can be present or lacking independently of any beliefs we might have surrounding the task at hand. In these tasks we can accumulate experience but what we learn will not fit in an encyclopedia.

The common understanding of knowing is that it resides firmly within Thought. Thinking, the movement when insight or the intent to act occurs, has hardly any place in this conception of knowing. What matters is what is entered into a body of belief; circumscribed by a system of Thought. From within this view, lit by these assumptions, thinking and knowing as active engagements between an embodied mind and its situation has no place.


It’s been ten years since the first Dark Mountain Festival. At that time, outside those rarefied precincts laid out below a ruined, fortified hilltop in Llangollen, Wales, it felt impossible to name the threats to…, well, the continuing existence of life on Earth.

It has long been a habit, when rhapsodizing philosophically for public intellectuals and pundits to – beyond clamoring over the usual plots and threats of war – to spend their and our attention on things like the remote, astronomically remote, chances of an asteroid strike in the next few years; to wax rhapsodic on whether humanity will be able to survive the Sun swallowing the Earth when, after another few billion years, it swells to a Red Giant. All these speculations are bewilderingly stupid and surrender no hint of any understanding of deep time or the life-cycle of species. These contortions of logic and sense are warnings that the common view has grown more and more unmoored from reality: Crazy, insane, delusional.

The dangers, what I’ve come to put under the heading of our Enormity, have become harder to ignore. Very few still go about insisting everything is fine. Still, even those claiming the most dire prognostications do so by focusing on one or two of the dangers we face, taking some subset of our Enormity: the climate, plastic, population, tyranny; and making ultimate claims of how our catastrophe will unfold. What is still quite impossible is to find anyone willing to take all of the factors impinging upon us into consideration and do a reckoning of the whole of our predicament.

In one sense this appears a gruesome exercise in overkill, a thankless task with no reason for attempting it since all it can lead to is a compounding of our despair. But, you see, the trouble with – and most probably the reason for – our current mayhem, peppered with partial reckonings and hyperventilated warnings, is to allow room for all those who continue to believe what is by now a totally delusional status quo can still be doubted and argued over.

Implicit in all the public claims of impending doom is an array of symptoms of displacement and an allegiance to an irreality that has more in common with the deniers than anyone dares admit. There is in these claims, these poses, a dare, “Go ahead. Argue with me! Engage me in a debate. Do anything but allow anyone to let the Enormity sink in.”

Cassandra was a tragic figure. Not because she made dire warnings, but because she did so ineffectually. Our current cacophony of critical voices all play this same role.

To study, to look in depth at the way all of our problematic conditions intersect and interact destructively with the entire web-of-life on Earth is to go to another place. It is truly to ask, “What do we do when we stop pretending?” It is a discipline, a practice. It entails not just telling ourselves scary stories until we are thoroughly frightened. All the while waiting for “the grownups” to talk us off the ledge.

Despair is a luxury of the privileged. A pose taken on when looking at our true condition and situation threatens to spoil our disposition, inconvenience our agendas.

We continue to want to have one foot firmly supported by our past sense of certainty and security while we dip the toes of our other foot in the disquieting waters of disaster rising about us. This drives the dynamic leading to our continued lack of imagination. This keeps us stuck.

For much of the world disaster is not down the road. It is here. Those displaced by the fatal disruptions we have set in motion to establish and prolong our bubble of perceived security are labelled migrants, refugees, illegals. They are either pitied or hated. What we dare not do is see them as part of a greater us. All that separates us is a matter of time.

They do what they must. Their misery is direct and immediate. They react or respond as best they can. They die in great numbers and they live at the mercy of forces beyond their understanding.

We hold onto habits of privilege – and here this is not another salvo in some tit-for-tat academic “Culture war!™” No matter what our politics those of us who have known a level of perceived security and insulation from consequences all share an inability to imagine ourselves without agency.

In this our partial, piecemeal views of potential catastrophe arrived at or avoided, share in a shred of the continuation of what is now no more than a fantasy of continued agency. We go on planning for the future. We go on maintaining a normalcy totally at odds with our predicament in a manner that would appear sheer lunacy to us if we were to look straight at – not what is coming for that is truly unknowable – But what has already been set in motion.

We consume projections of calamity in the same way we consume any of the confections our culture of distraction throws at us.

Anything big enough seen from far enough away appears to happen in slow motion. My entire life has been a witnessing of enormous catastrophe from a position near enough to those with their hands on the levers, yet still too far from away to have been able to change anything. It is beginning to become clear that even this view, that there are people in control, has been no more than a consoling fiction. No one is in a position to stop what is happening by moving some lever. That was never a possibility. The Edifice of Thought has worked on and through all of us to produce this catastrophe. This might be its most salient characteristic, how it hides agency and functions below the surface.

What we’re exploring today is how we might begin to expose the dynamics of our situation and by doing this – not save anything, that is currently beyond our grasp – but gain some modicum of clarity. A clarity that might help us to have – not control, a fatal illusion – not even influence over how things will unfold; but, perhaps to go into the maelstrom with our eyes open.

We resist such a call out of desperation. Our reaction is to push aside despair, insisting that despair is something more than just a pose, a delusion in its own right.

The one “argument” I have to counter this resistance is that clarity might lead us to avoid continuing to compound the world’s misery with the consequences of our decision to go on suffering. For this is what our despair amounts to.

Populating this proposition with plausible predictions is just another displacement reaction intended to soothe our discomfort. It suffices to understand that incoherent flailing turns misery into suffering, etc. Just as all we need to know about gravity while clinging to a precipice is that if we lose our grip we will fall.

My ongoing meditations on some notion of a shoal hope have gone on for almost twenty years now. In that time my concern with the problematic surrounding conventional notions of hope and despair have continued to take me into shallower water and ever more broken seas. Shoals that appeared at first covered in frothing foam now are swept by hollow, breaking crests dimly visible through spindrift and driving snow. I’m afraid – a term of politeness here – this has brought me to this point:

Despair is a pose.

Hope is an excuse.

Clarity has value even in extremis.

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