When I was 14 and a half, I read Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder for the first time. It was a story of a young girl Sophie, who found herself on a philosophical adventure, and it was my first foray into the worlds of Socrates, Aristotle, Plato and many philosophical greats thereafter. Even now when I read the first chapter, I feel as drawn in and mystified as ever by the two very simple questions that Sophie finds in her mailbox at the beginning of her course: ‘Who are you?‘ and ‘Where does the world come from?‘
The cover of the book has a semi-quote from the godfather of philosophy; Socrates.
“Wisest is she who knows she does not know.”
A semi-quote of course, with the common quote attributed to Socrates being, “One thing only I know, and that is that I know nothing.” Socrates never left writings of his own, thus it is impossible to know exactly what he did say. However it is very much believed that Socrates went about questioning everything, as if he knew nothing, and this itself is the foundation of Western philosophy.
By my very nature I am curious. I am a questioner. Though I have found through experience, probably since the age I learned to talk, that this habit of asking questions can often lead to some form of trouble. Sophie is reminded of this by her mentor, the middle-aged philosopher Alberto Knox: “The most subversive people are those who ask questions. Any one question can be more explosive than a thousand answers.”
I doubt I’ll stop asking questions.
Another great mind who understood the power and beauty of ‘not knowing’ was Feynman, who so wonderfully described the way the world works through the lens of science. The short film and quote below remind us that we don’t have to be frightened by not knowing.
“You see, one thing, is I can live with doubt and uncertainty and not knowing. I think it’s much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong. I have approximate answers and possible beliefs and different degrees of certainty about different things but I’m not absolutely sure of anything and then many things I don’t know anything about, such as whether it means anything to ask, “Why we are here?” and what that question might mean. I might think about it a bit and then if I can’t figure it out then I go on to something else.
But I don’t have to know an answer, I don’t have to… I don’t feel frightened by not knowing things, by being lost in the mysterious universe without having any purpose which is the way it really is as far as I can tell possibly. It doesn’t frighten me.” – Richard Feynman
And if you like Feynman, I would highly recommend picking up this beautiful book by Jim Ottaviani and Leland Myrick. It is a charming biography, in the form of a graphic novel.