γνῶθι σεαυτόν

“Know thyself” — the greatest philosophical motto of them all, supposedly inscribed in the forecourt of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi. What does it mean?

Whenever we think about anything, we apply our concepts to things. All of those concepts are our concepts — after all, who else’s would they be? But some of them are “thrust upon us” in an unambiguous way by the world we live in, while others are more the product of our minds’ intellectual work of “weaving” concepts. In other words, they were constructed via a creative process that we might never have embarked on, because they were not “thrust upon us” by the world we live in.

For example, if you are walking outside and it starts to rain, the droplets are literally “in your face” — they impact on your sensory surfaces, and trigger recognition. They fit a straightforward concept of “drops of liquid water falling from the sky”, a concept probably shared by any reasonably intelligent animal that evolved and walks on the Earth.

Contrast your awareness that it has started to rain with your lack of awareness of a sudden increase in radiation, say. Our concept of radiation (or rather concepts, plural, from alpha particles to gamma rays) is highly theoretical, and results from scientific speculation about the structure of atoms and the nature of electromagnetism. These elements of current scientific speculation differ from the speculation of the ancient Greeks, who did not have a similar concept of radiation. The world did not thrust our concepts of atoms (etc.) upon us, anymore than it thrust their corresponding concepts upon them. Abstract concepts like these are optional, so having them involves exercising options. They are the products of creativity, and acts of the imagination. Beliefs involving such concepts are much less certain than beliefs involving less abstract concepts, such as the belief that it’s raining. So we have to subject our more abstract, theoretical thoughts to more careful scrutiny. If possible, we should test them. Whether or not we actually can test them, we always have to think about the intellectual “weaving” process by which the concepts were constructed. That means thinking about ourselves, because we are the “weavers” of those concepts. In other words, we must strive to know ourselves.

It isn’t just physicists and philosophers who have to reflect like that. We all do our fair share of theoretical or abstract thinking, whether we are making moral judgements, aesthetic judgements, judgements of risk, or making “lifestyle choices”.

If we do not endeavour to know ourselves, we are condemned to make mistakes in all of those areas. For example, man is a religious animal. We may give up belief in God, but it takes much, much more than that to slough off the assumptions that are part of traditional religious belief. One such assumption is that the mind — “this I that I am”, as Descartes put it — is a sort of “ghost in the machine” of the physical body. Thus it may seem that our minds only trade in conscious experience, and that perception of the world is not direct, because in effect all we ever see is what plays out on the “cinema screen” of our own experiences. Next thing, we will be inclined to think that knowledge of the “outside world” is only possible when beliefs rest on the foundations of experience. This way lies foolishness, such as that of supposing that science is “based on data”. All because we did not strive to know ourselves, and missed the physical nature of the mind as a functioning brain.

Over the next few days and weeks, I hope to draw attention to various ways in which our failure to strive to “know ourselves” perverts our thoughts and damages our lives.