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The Only Thing I Know Is That I Don't Know Anything

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The statement: "Knowledge does not exist," is quite obviously contradictory.

Socrates said something like: "The only thing I know is that I don't know anything." Is this contradictory as well?

It seems Socrates was trying to say one thing about knowledge, yet said two, an intimated a 3rd. 1) "The only thing I know" , 2) "I don't know anything," and 3) "I know that I know these things.

So really, in saying that "the only thing I know is that I don't know anything," one is really saying three things. He knows that the only thing he knows is that he doens't know anything.

Is this a way of refuting his statement? Or is it extraneous, because when I say that I know there's a computer infront of me, I also know that I know that there's a computer in front of me, ad infinitum.

(or maybe I'm just not making sense altogether)

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Socrates said something like: "The only thing I know is that I don't know anything." Is this contradictory as well?

Yes, taken literally without context, this statement is contradictory.

This is an aporia, or the idea that it is better to assert that one doesn't know something instead of coming to the wrong conclusions. But having an aporia doesn't necessarily discredit all knowledge that you have.

The implied meaning is that we, as humans, can never out evolve ourselves. That is, there is always something new to learn and do. We realize what the "next step" is when we start to learn and do new things, and when we take this next step, we often feel lost... like we don't know anything.

This feeling of being overwhelmed is uncomfortable, but it is necessary for personal growth.

If you get to the point in your life where you "know everything," it means that you really don't know everything, and you are most likely soon to fail, which you will learn from, and keep evolving (hopefully).

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Socrates said something like: "The only thing I know is that I don't know anything." Is this contradictory as well?
[bold and italics mine]

If one doesn't know anything, that would imply that he doesn't know that he doesn't know anything either, because that is something. Thus, this statement is a blatant contradiction. That's the easiest way to refute this type of statement, and it's all you have to do in order to refute the whole skeptic repertoire evolved from this statement. [Edit: Even if Socrates had said, "The only thing I know is that I don't know anything besides that I don't know anything," the exact same proceedure would work, because he ends up saying the same thing. Thought I'd add that, because skeptics sometimes seem to think if they add just one more identical clause, the principle will suddenly dissapear, but it never does.] [2nd edit: But if he'd said, "The only thing I know is that I don't know everything," it wouldn't be explicitly contradictory, although that knowledge would necissarily depend on antecedent knowledge in order to be established as knowledge, so it would lead to a contradiction, too.]

Edited by Bold Standard

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"The only thing I know is that I don't know everything," it wouldn't be explicitly contradictory, although that knowledge would necissarily depend on antecedent knowledge in order to be established as knowledge, so it would lead to a contradiction, too.]

How? He allows the possibility of actual knowledge with that statement. He just accepts that his knowledge is finite. Sounds reasonable to me.

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I think the problem then is moved to the first part of the sentence: "The only thing I know is that I don't know everything." In order to know that he doesn't know everything, Socrates would first have to know that there is an "everything" out there to be known, i.e. that existence exists, not to mention having a notion of what knowledge is, etc. This, clearly, is knowledge of something other than the finiteness of his own knowledge.

I suppose one could argue, at this point, that all those other things are implied by "I don't know everything," and that his statement "The only thing I know..." clearly encompasses all the requisite underlying knowledge.

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Socrates said something like: "The only thing I know is that I don't know anything." Is this contradictory as well?
Socrates had a null CV; he (through his channeler Plato) was also a prankster and smartass, so you shouldn't take him literally. If you want a literal interpretation, the meaning of "only" if "there is an x such that P(x) and for all y, if P(y) then x=y". The meaning of "I don't know anything" is "For all x, ^(Know(I,x))". Then you get a contradiction from the "Ex" element of "only" and the "Ax^" element of "not know anything". So if Plato qua Socrates said such a thing, you should look at the context to see what his real intent was. He suggests in The Euthyphro that he knows nothing of the gods (this is basically about expert knowledge and objective standards). That's clearly not where this nugget came from. One of those "top 5 quotes" of Socrates is "The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing", which interestingly nobody seems to know the actual source of. Ya gotta love the internet. I could imagine Plato-Socrates simply saying that he knows nothing.

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I don't recall Socrates ever saying that, though his sentiment was roughly similar: He knows that he does not know the purpose of human life, which makes him wiser than all those who think they know but do not.

Dave, where in the Euthyphro does he say he knows nothing about the gods? As far as I know, he only suggests that 1) in tradition, the gods disagree and cannot be a standard of judgment and 2) if we can find goodness itself, we need not look to the gods.

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I don't recall Socrates ever saying that, though his sentiment was roughly similar: He knows that he does not know the purpose of human life, which makes him wiser than all those who think they know but do not.

Dave, where in the Euthyphro does he say he knows nothing about the gods? As far as I know, he only suggests that 1) in tradition, the gods disagree and cannot be a standard of judgment and 2) if we can find goodness itself, we need not look to the gods.

Socrates said that at his trial if I am not mistaken. It was a method of defense, because they were accusing him of heresy. He was saying that he didn't know whether the gods existed or not, and doesn't claim to know anything. He was only teaching the children of Athens to think about the gods before believing, not that they didn't exist. And if you have ever read any of Plato's dialogues you would know that Socrates always plays the fool until he corners someone who holds two contradictory beliefs.

Anyway, I think this statement if taken solely on its own without context is contradictory. However, using the context you can see why he said it. Secondly, in other contexts it is useful too. Humans can know things, but as we all know they are not omniscient. Since new things can always be created, knowledge is seemingly infinite. So at any given point of time, your knowledge compared to what knowledge you could potentiallly have is always an infinitely small fraction. So you can figuratively say 'you know nothing.'

Edited by nimble

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Dave, where in the Euthyphro does he say he knows nothing about the gods?
Perseus is being really crabby, so here's the paragraph, from the top quarter on the MIT page: "May not this be the reason, Euthyphro, why I am charged with impiety-that I cannot away with these stories about the gods? and

therefore I suppose that people think me wrong. But, as you who are well informed about them approve of them, I cannot do better than assent to your superior wisdom. What else can I say, confessing as I do, that I know nothing about them?"

As I say, Socrates was a real smartass and you can't take him seriously, out of context. In context, okay, and only at the very end. I'm pretty sure that Socrates didn't actually advocate a contradiction.

Edited by DavidOdden

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As I say, Socrates was a real smartass and you can't take him seriously, out of context. In context, okay, and only at the very end. I'm pretty sure that Socrates didn't actually advocate a contradiction.
I agree with this sentiment, though I would say "ought not" instead of "can't" take him seriously, out of context. Lest your statement be taken seriously, out of context.

Since new things can always be created, knowledge is seemingly infinite. So at any given point of time, your knowledge compared to what knowledge you could potentiallly have is always an infinitely small fraction. So you can figuratively say 'you know nothing.'

I don't agree with this at all. I'm not sure what you mean by "figuratively," but this sounds like Zeno's paradox, where you can never cross a room, because the space between the two walls is infinitely divisible, therefore can never be traversed. Besides, knowledge could never be infinite. At whatever point you choose to analyze it, it would still be finite in content-- an "actual infinite" is impossible. Skepticism isn't true, even "figurateively" speaking.

Whenever a philosopher utters a contradictory statement, it's rare that his motive is to advocate a contradiction as an end in itself. I've never personally read a passage in which Socrates utters this statement-- the only time I can specifically remember these words attributed to him besides this thread was in the movie Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure. Among the Skeptics whose ideas circulated up until the time of the Church Fathers, statments similar to this can be found from time to time. Among modern Skeptics, statements like this are more common, since moderns are much more eager than the Greeks to advocate blatant contradictions.

I think the problem then is moved to the first part of the sentence: "The only thing I know is that I don't know everything." In order to know that he doesn't know everything, Socrates would first have to know that there is an "everything" out there to be known, i.e. that existence exists, not to mention having a notion of what knowledge is, etc. This, clearly, is knowledge of something other than the finiteness of his own knowledge.

I suppose one could argue, at this point, that all those other things are implied by "I don't know everything," and that his statement "The only thing I know..." clearly encompasses all the requisite underlying knowledge.

Yeah, it moves to "only," because that excludes all knowledge besides "I don't know everything," including the knowledge necessary to establish "I don't know everything" as knowledge. "I don't know everything" can be established as knowledge-- and should be! But only on a verifyably valid epistemological foundation, requiring knowledge not explicitly contained in the proposition.

Edited by Bold Standard

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I don't agree with this at all. I'm not sure what you mean by "figuratively," but this sounds like Zeno's paradox, where you can never cross a room, because the space between the two walls is infinitely divisible, therefore can never be traversed. Besides, knowledge could never be infinite. At whatever point you choose to analyze it, it would still be finite in content-- an "actual infinite" is impossible. Skepticism isn't true, even "figurateively" speaking.

I'm not sure what the Objectivist stance on this is, but I don't care. Actual infinites are impossible only when speaking of physical objects or existants. When talking of non-physical objects or concepts, the possibilities can be infinite, and I believe ideas would fall in the intangible category. There is no scarcity of ideas, and if you believe otherwise please elaborate on what constrains the total number of possible ideas as to make it finite.

That aside, if you read my post you would notice I said seemingly infinite to avoid people like you nit-picking semantics. And it isn't skepticism to say that you know very little in comparison of all that there is to know. I believe that is exactly what could be implied by Socrates's quote, and I believe it is a smart thing to say. If you doubt this, I challenge you to see if the number of things you know is more than the number of things you don't know.

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Actual infinites are impossible only when speaking of physical objects or existants. When talking of non-physical objects or concepts, the possibilities can be infinite, and I believe ideas would fall in the intangible category.
The important distinction is that they are (now and forever) finite. Even summing up across time, there are finitely many idea or integers that can be formed. However, the method of forming integers or ideas, inter alia, is unbounded. I understand that what a person knows at any moment is a tiny fraction of the knowable, but I don't see how it is an infinitely small fraction, unless you meant that you know an figuratively infinitely small fraction of that which can be known.

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I recal reading that Socrates said something along the lines of: "If I'm the wisest man in Athens, it's because I alone know that I know nothing."

Literaly, the statement is contradictory, and therefore meaningless.

It can be interpreted that Socrates thought of himself as wise, because he was willing to admit his own ignorance. But that requires making assumptions not implied in the statement.

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It can be interpreted that Socrates thought of himself as wise, because he was willing to admit his own ignorance. But that requires making assumptions not implied in the statement.
Though surely nobody would suggest taking an isolated sentence from Plato and using that as a basis for inferring anything about the beliefs of Socrates. (BTW, it would appear that the "I only know that I know nothing" is not even from Plato, rather it comes from Diogenes Laertius's The Lives And Opinions Of Eminent Philosophers, who existed about 700 years after Socrates, and reports "He used also to say that the daemon foretold the future to him; and that to begin well was not a trifling thing, but yet not far from a trifling thing; and that he knew nothing, except the fact of his ignorance.")

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Though surely nobody would suggest taking an isolated sentence from Plato and using that as a basis for inferring anything about the beliefs of Socrates. (BTW, it would appear that the "I only know that I know nothing" is not even from Plato, rather it comes from Diogenes Laertius's The Lives And Opinions Of Eminent Philosophers, who existed about 700 years after Socrates, and reports "He used also to say that the daemon foretold the future to him; and that to begin well was not a trifling thing, but yet not far from a trifling thing; and that he knew nothing, except the fact of his ignorance.")

According to wikiquote, the following passage is from the Apology.

When I left him, I reasoned thus with myself: I am wiser than this man, for neither of us appears to know anything great and good; but he fancies he knows something, although he knows nothing; whereas I, as I do not know anything, so I do not fancy I do. In this trifling particular, then, I appear to be wiser than he, because I do not fancy I know what I do not know.
This is pretty much what I've always interpreted the 'i know nothing' quote to mean anyway.

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I'm not sure what the Objectivist stance on this is, but I don't care.

So, why did you bring it up?

Actual infinites are impossible only when speaking of physical objects or existants. When talking of non-physical objects or concepts, the possibilities can be infinite, and I believe ideas would fall in the intangible category.
Possibilities can be infinite, even when talking of physical objects. It's only an actuality which can't be infinite. You said (with bolds added for emphasis), "Since new things can always be created, knowledge is seemingly infinite. So at any given point of time, your knowledge compared to what knowledge you could potentiallly have is always an infinitely small fraction." At any given point of time, the amount of knowledge which exists is finite. The amount of knowledge you or I could potentially have is limited to the amount of knowledge we can aquire before our deaths. The amount of knowledge that could potentially be obtained by mankind is unbounded, but nobody would ever actually have infinite knowledge. [Edit: Not even Hegel. :D ]

There is no scarcity of ideas, and if you believe otherwise please elaborate on what constrains the total number of possible ideas as to make it finite.

If I have an idea, I have one idea. If I have 2693 ideas, I have that many ideas and no more, at that particular point in time. The total number of actual ideas possible is therefore always limited to a finite number of ideas in a finite number of minds. You must distinguish between the potential and the actual.

And it isn't skepticism to say that you know very little in comparison of all that there is to know. I believe that is exactly what could be implied by Socrates's quote, and I believe it is a smart thing to say. If you doubt this, I challenge you to see if the number of things you know is more than the number of things you don't know.

Okay, if Socrates had said, "One of the few things I know is that I know very little," I would be fine with that. Maybe that's what he really did say, before being misquoted by Plato, Diogenes Laertius, Bill and Ted, and everyone else. I'm not in any hurry to discredit Socrates. I think he was one of the Good Guys. I only meant to point out where the contradiction lies in the statement, "The only thing I know is that I know nothing," because I hear actual modern skeptics say that and mean it literally all the time.

And if Socrates did say that-- I think he was being sloppy. I don't think he would have let a Sophist or a Nobleman get away with saying something like that, so I won't let him get away with it, either. :)

Edited by Bold Standard

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I bet the next year of my life that what is ment is that there is so much you could know that what you know taken from the potential you have is 2-1.999... the wise man knows how little he knows.

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This is probably entirely off-topic and irrelevant, but this thread reminded me of a commercial what's been airing on local cable advertising up here. It's for the local community college, who conveniently have posted the commercial on their website:

Low Bandwidth Quicktime

High Bandwidth Quicktime

Low Bandwidth WMP

High Bandwidth WMP

Makes me want to tear my hair out. Is this what they teach in colleges now? Argh!

-Q

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Makes me want to tear my hair out. Is this what they teach in colleges now?
No, this is what they come in with: we have to find a way to change these people. Unfortunately, more and more teachers are pandering to this existing attitude -- it's to the point that you actually get penalised for not considering personal opinion and emotion to be valid forms of expression in class, on a par with fact and argumentation.

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The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing. Socrates.

This is Socrates quote although I’m not sure if this is the case here since it is phrased differently, although the meaning is alike.

It sounds like a contradiction at first sight, but is it really?

True it seems confusing but I always thought that this quote meant the following:

Assuming knowledge is an infinite process to believe we already know whatever the subject in question might be, we would be closing our mind to that specific knowledge. Why do we need to learn it if we already know?

That would actually keeps us away from knowledge and knowledge is what leads to wisdom.

It could actually make sense “The recognition I do not know is the first step to attaining knowledge.”

Recognizing what we don’t know allows us to find the information needed, the rest is a matter of time.

In essence by recognizing what we do not know, we know.

This might be what he was referring to, a tool for attaining knowledge instead of a contradiction.

And perhaps intended to people that did not have the opportunity of an education.

It is a fact that they feel inferior than the rest and as a defense mechanism they are ashamed to admit they do not know, not to feel foolish they will say “of course I know what this means!” when in reality a smart person will not hesitate to ask what it means, not to miss the opportunity of learning something new.

I witness that every day, and after all it makes sense these quotes are meant to be for the less fortunate who need it most, if everybody were wise there would be no need for them.

fede

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Assuming knowledge is an infinite process to believe we already know whatever the subject in question might be, we would be closing our mind to that specific knowledge. Why do we need to learn it if we already know?
There's a huge difference in what words objetively mean and what a person might have secretly had in mind to accomplish by speaking, especially if the person is a smartass and a prankster. Socrates didn't actually believe that knowledge is an infinite process, since he didn't believe that it was infinite or a process. As we also know, Socrates did not say that thing that is attributed to him. A more accurate way to express the valid claim wold be "Do not claim to know that which you do not nkow", which does not deny the possibility of actually knowing something. Or, with greater brevity, "Be intellectually honest".
It could actually make sense “The recognition I do not know is the first step to attaining knowledge.”
No, that just leads to ignorance and nihilism. You need to tune it up by referring to the difference between that which you know versus that which you don't know. In fact, observation is the logically first step towards attaining knowledge; then you might focus your observations based on what you know is unknown to you, specifically, the difference between the possible and the certain (see OPAR ch. 5).
Recognizing what we don’t know allows us to find the information needed, the rest is a matter of time.
Surprisingly, that is false. Man does not gain knowledge automatically -- he must act volitionally in order to expand his knowledge. This is in contrast to radioactive nuclei which go bad purely as a matter of time.

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The statement: "Knowledge does not exist," is quite obviously contradictory.

Socrates said something like: "The only thing I know is that I don't know anything." Is this contradictory as well?

Obviously. If he knows he knows nothing that is -something- he knows. Contradiction. If he does not know that he knows nothing then he contradicts the assertion than he knows he knows nothing.

Either way he contradicts himself.

Bob Kolker

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