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What We Do Know, and What We Think We Know

By Peter Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Apr 12, 2012

In the course of listening to political, philosophical, and theological debate over the past several years, it has struck me how little people know compared to what they purport to know. Some of the leading pundits take good care to be proficient in their areas of expertise, but many more do not. Often, through some sort of bias or predisposition, even those who do take an otherwise thorough approach ignore or miss important works, methods, and influences.

Beyond this, many experts state opinions as fact. This is particularly true when an expert within a field permits himself to be drawn into an area outside of his area specialty.

Adding to the confusion is an apparent difficulty many people have in distinguishing between an “expert” whose primary job is to entertain (such as many radio and television talk show hosts) and the expert who strives to discern the truth—often multi-faceted—and reveal it to others.

The point here is not to skewer experts, but to lead to another point: if it is critical for experts to understand and be honest about the limits of their knowledge and authority (a rare thing in society today), it is all the more important for Joe the Amateur political scientist, philosopher, and theologian to understand and be honest about his own limitations.

Honesty and humility regarding subject matter knowledge among all people is sorely needed at all times, but particularly when engaged in debate about important issues. The honest admission of limitation invites both a reciprocal admission and collaboration. If this response is not forthcoming, one is able to more rapidly discern where and when meaningful work may be accomplished.

I believe that arriving at this state of mind—a point of honesty about one’s knowledge (or lack thereof)—is accompanied by the realization that prayer and example are the preferred and most effective means of converting others, or changing their viewpoints. After all, we are commanded to both unceasing prayer and the removal of our own faults before we attempt to correct others.

At the end of the day, few of us truly understand the full complexity of the issues that we argue (which is no more to than to say “we’re no experts”), and because of this, as well as our sinfulness, most of us do not perfectly live our politics, philosophy, and theology.

So when we speak on a subject, we should distinguish what we do know from what we think we know—and perhaps just as importantly, not allow the fear of not knowing something to shape our impact. In this way, we will be more likely to use the words that God gives us, and comport ourselves with the demeanor of those who are heirs to a a kingdom of truth.

[Peter Mirus wrote this On the Culture entry because Jeff Mirus is unavailable this week.]

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  • Posted by: demark8616 - Apr. 20, 2012 12:48 PM ET USA

    Well said Justin8110..Guardian Angels must be the most neglected of God's gifts to us. A companion, guide and friend that "sees the face of God" - perhaps us humans can't quite wrap our minds around that! Asking them to enlighten us and those we talk with, e.g. St Francis de Sales, would go a long way to keeping us humble and grateful.

  • Posted by: demark8616 - Apr. 19, 2012 3:01 AM ET USA

    Thank you Peter...your article is a good reminder for us to reflect on how little we do know (this I'm finding out anyway bit by bit, as I get older - and just in case I'm not fully absorbing Life's Late Lesson.. I have 4 teenage children in the wings to prompt me) The point you made best is ".. and perhaps just as importantly, not allow the fear of not knowing something to shape our impact.' I like the spiritual dimension here, to practice humility, both privately & publicly is our challenge.

  • Posted by: jamesbell431857 - Apr. 18, 2012 10:03 AM ET USA

    I think there needs to be an addition to this article. The truth is intuitive. Therefore, it is accessible to the populace, "written upon their hearts." Reading Thomas Aquinas is often like having your suspicions philosophically substantiated. If only experts should weigh in on their area of expertise, we would live in an elitist society. Instead, Vatican II promotes a more populist vision of Catholicism with all empowered to live the intuitive truths of moral decision-making.

  • Posted by: John J Plick - Apr. 12, 2012 10:08 PM ET USA

    Interesting. You have just elucidated the "genius" behind "Vatican I," where it was left for "the priests" to do the "heavy lifting" and the laity simply to trust and follow. Even today there are few Catholic Christians who are willing to take the real time it requires to enjoy the freedom of Vatican II. Catholics can fall into the trap that it is simply "Christianity without rules" which it definitely is not. May the Holy Spirit honor the wise man.., and may the others be wise enough to follow!

  • Posted by: Justin8110 - Apr. 12, 2012 8:44 PM ET USA

    There are some excellent points in all this. I too have come to realize that prayer and example are really the best way. St. Francis De Sales used to pray that the guardian angels of each member of the congregation would enlighten them before he started his sermon and their was a famous monk on Mount Athos who used to tell others to always pray that those you speak to would be enlightened by the Holy Ghost first.

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