When I was younger, I possessed a certain confidence in the little bit of knowledge I had then acquired. I felt quite certain about that knowledge and second thoughts about it really weren’t necessary because of my certainty. But as I’ve gotten older and gained more experience and the knowledge that comes from it, I’ve increasingly come to the realization that what I thought I knew, and the certainty with which I thought I knew it, have been figments of my imagination. I’ve come to a growing awareness that although I have some knowledge, I really don’t know anything compared to what there is to know. I know nothing about something, if that makes any sense.
I suppose it’s like this for most of us as we get older and acquire experiential knowledge that can be joined to all of the theory we gain in our youth. And experience can be quite the iconoclast to the mental and emotional forms we’ve built around all of the theories we’ve amassed. What we thought we knew about a concept or idea, as time and experience come along and meet up with them, most of the time experience ends up changing our perspective.
Think about it in this way: theory is just conceptual knowledge. Experience is the reality of knowledge. Therefore theory must either match up to experience or be changed by reality.
For example, when I was younger, I was very much a strong proponent of the death penalty. Now, after all of the work of the Innocence Project in overturning unfounded convictions as well as revelations over the years of district attorneys more interested in obtaining convictions than the truth (one notorious example being Mike Nifong of Durham, NC and the Duke Lacrosse case) that iconoclastic reality has made me become much less a proponent of the death penalty and more of someone who believes in extending some mercy and using the death penalty sparingly. I now believe in treading very lightly when meting out the ultimate punishment. I now wonder if innocent individuals have been put to death for a crime they did not commit; I suspect some have.
My confidence in what I thought I knew about a lot of things is not as strong as it once was. I find that I’m not nearly as, let’s be honest, smug about what I’ve known and know. Although initially it can be somewhat disconcerting when my confidence about something is shaken, in the long term, it’s a good and comforting thing. Because when theory and experience are joined together the result is true knowledge. And that’s something in which to be confident.