You don’t know what an apple is

Naming is the origin of all particular things

The first verse of the Tao Te Ching is a pretty good taste of what’s coming: it’s confusing, and full of contradiction. Like a riddle, wrapped up in another riddle, wrapped up in a piece of translated Chinese poetry. The first time I read it I thought it was a bit boring and didn’t get what it was about. Now I’ve thought about it though – I think it’s immense. Possibly one of the most mindbendingly profound things you could ever think about. Here’s my take on it all…

Out of all those words the thing that I think is most interesting is that “naming is the origin of all particular things”. Bear with me if I get a bit wordy here, this is big stuff I’m trying to figure out. And my brain isn’t that powerful 🙂 Anyway… what I think is:

Naming something and quantifying it inherently means confining it, putting it in a box, limiting it. Squeezing it into a shape that you think fits but which really doesn’t.

The name you give something, even the concept your brain uses to think about it, is not ‘it’. It’s not the essence of it, it’s just an oversimplified label you’ve stuck on it to allow your limited human brain to use it.

You don’t know what an apple is. Seriously. You think you do. But you don’t.

As an example, think of an apple – when you hear the word apple your brain thinks it knows what an apple is. But what it’s really doing is patching together a mishmash of what you think an apple looks like, maybe smells or tastes like and feels like and then slapping a label on it that says ‘Apple’. But this concept is not capturing the full ‘appleness’ of an apple. Because it’s a stylized representation built out of memories and images with no ‘life’ to it: a sort of mental ‘Frankensteins Apple’ that you stitched together in the lab and then zapped with electricity.

You could decide you really want to work harder on figuring out what an apple is so you go one further – you talk to a horticulturalist, you read Wikipedia, you take it to a laboratory and do tests on it. You find out it’s the pomaceous fruit of the apple tree, species Malus domestica in the rose family (Rosaceae). The reason it is sweet is that it’s about 11% sugar and the reason one a day ‘keeps the doctor away’ is that it’s phenolic content is high and it increases acetylcholine production in the brains of mice. Last year Italian scientists cracked and completely mapped the genome – the basic genetic building block – of the apple. But does any of this knowledge give you half as much sense of what an apple is as just eating one? It doesn’t.

And here’s the real kicker – even that doesn’t give you the full story, because every apple is subtly different, and for all you know even the same apple would taste different to someone else.

Why this is important: If you don’t know what an apple is, you don’t know anything.

This is an apple we’re talking about. So given the complexity and profundity of an apple – how likely is it that you can really quantify, name and understand another person. Or an issue like climate change/gay marriage/the role of video games in teen crime. Or the economy. Or whether God exists and what he/she/it is? How likely is it that in fact you know anything about anything?

As I said before, the act of naming something, by nature means putting it in a box. And this is necessary / useful in order for our limited human brains to be able to process information around us and interact with it / combine it efficiently with other things that are in our world. You have a human brain. You’re never going to change this. Just be aware that you’re doing it, be conscious of it. Know that the moment you look at something or think of it, you are forcing it into your idea of what it is, not really seeing it. You’re basically missing the wood for the trees.

Accept you know nothing, and you’ll have a much happier life

If we’re talking an apple, this exercise is just an interesting mental game. But take this to its extreme: your opinions on the person sat next to you, your partner, your friends. You don’t know them fully and you never will. Be open to the fact that they have elements to them, complexities that you don’t understand. Don’t expect them to conform to what you think they are, and don’t think that your opinion on them is anything more than a projection of your own guesswork. If you think of people this way, then you are less likely to be disappointed by them, less likely to be offended by them, less likely to be prejudiced against them. You can take them for what they are – which is the kind of respect on which healthy relationships are built and which is what most major religions actually want (if not what religious people always end up doing).

And whilst we’re at it – frankly try and apply this to your opinions on other things: most people sound off (or at least have strong views) about things like religion, politics, society, the economy. Anyone who even tries to be objective can see that when we talk about these things none of us really ever know what we’re talking about. All we’re really doing is using a trigger [big headline in the papers, an election, the fact we’ve had a bit to drink] to wheel out all our hangups and prejudices and half baked opinions and beat other people round the head with them. Evidence seems to be that even economists don’t understand how the global economy works. Politicians don’t seem to have a great grip on things either. World religions change their stance on multiple issues all the time and they don’t have a clue. So how do I know what is the right way to run a country? Or which world religion is better than which? And why should my views be enforced on other people as if their views have no value? As we’ve discussed I don’t even know what an Apple is. What qualifies me to know anything about anything?

Accept this – you know nothing. All the things you think you know, you do not know. Accept this, and you can begin to accept people and things for what they are, and break out of the straitjacket of thinking you know how the world should be. Once you do this, you can experience things properly and appreciate them. But it all has to start with the acceptance of your own ignorance. As Lao-Tzu says:

Darkness within darkness; the gateway to all understanding.

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22 Responses to You don’t know what an apple is

  1. onlynow says:

    “Accept you know nothing, and you’ll have a much happier life” I enjoyed reading your post.

    • dougsan says:

      thanks! it’s nice to know someone’s reading. if I was truly taoist I would write this blog and not even care whether people read it or not. you know, I’d “do [my] work then step back – the path to serenity”. clearly i’ve got a little more work to do… 🙂

  2. I didn’t understand your post because I really don’t understand the meaning of your words. I only have a conception of what they mean. Your cognitive viewpoint is only understood by you and you alone. So, from what you are saying is I don’t understand what you mean from your cognitive viewpoint, but I understand from my own conception of the meaning of words that you used.

  3. Paul Reay says:

    It would seem Taoism draws some very close parallels to buddhism. The apple like everything else is purely a perception of the way most people choose to see it.

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  5. taoareyou says:

    I know that I do not know. I know I do not know that I do not know. 🙂 I enjoyed reading your post. I’ve added you to my reading list!

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  8. So true! I’ve been exploring the importance of bias and how to deal with it myself, along with many subjects from sustainable agriculture, to income inequality, origins, truth and bias.

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  13. grizyeti says:

    “Be open to the fact that they have elements to them, complexities that you don’t understand. Don’t expect them to conform to what you think they are, and don’t think that your opinion on them is anything more than a projection of your own guesswork.”
    Wow, I’m having an issue with this lately, and if I think about it like the way it’s written here, then maybe I can find peace of mind.
    Thank you for enlightening me.

  14. Ahh, you were right, my friend, I did enjoy this.

    I remember at a very young age, probably 11 or something, I said to my mum, after she’d berated me with a bunch of nonsensical words, “I already know everything cause I know I know nothing.” This was a smart aleck reply, cause she was explaining how, despite how “smart” – from a schooling perspective – I was, I didn’t know everything, and that I was a kid who’d a lot to learn. Needless to say, she didn’t take the comment well.

    Then I found out that Socrates understood these words, and had beaten me to making them. Then I discovered the Tao a few years after that, and found someone who seemed to “get me,” like no one else did. Then I made a blog and have found all sorts of weirdos, like your good self, who all seem to be riding the same wave. And it’s great.

    I’ve another post you might enjoy: … haha, couldn’t help it. But really, you’ll probably enjoy the write up / picture of Blake’s painting of Newton, and the story behind it.

    P.s, feel free to bombard my posts with as many links to your posts as you wish (within reason, of course) 😛 I’ve been lucky with my blog and gaining traffic, and I’m sure a lot of them would enjoy it over here.

    • Bob says:

      I’ll vouch for that! – I did enjoy this post, even if i did already know it 😉
      One tricky question though..?
      If you accept that you know nothing then how can it be true that the greatest wisdom is to ‘Know Thyself’?

      If you truly know thyself do you in fact know nothing – or by knowing yourself as nothing do you truly know?

      Words and their differing inflexions have such a way of clouding any issue – or at least making one think…

      • dougsan says:

        thanks for the comment Bob, and for reading. For what it’s worth the way I think of it is that knowing yourself / getting the Tao / achieving nirvana etc etc whatever you want to call it is like one of those 3D pics where the only way you can see the image is to look at it but not *actively* look at it. Does that make sense? I think Lao Tzu said a bunch of ways that it’s like the sediment settling in water, or that the harder you try the less you can grasp it etc etc.
        Alternatively, I think it’s like in Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy – where the core reality of human existence turns out to be a sum that doesn’t add up and can’t be solved.There’s something in me that kind of appreciates the irony of that thought.

      • Bob says:

        Thanks Doug, that helped! I then saw it as. First, you must know your self, then in order to see clearly you need to learn how to ‘forget’ that self – it is the self that prevents us from knowing – really knowing as opposed to making up a simulacrum – in order to fully know any thing ( bearing in mind we have a finite physical mind that cannot hold ALL of knowledge but can temporarily ‘contain/be in harmony with parts of what really is ( Nirvana id you will).

        I love Douglas Adams; humour/insights. As i recall though it was more that the Answer to the Ultimate Question was remarkably simple and unexpected – the problem was we could not really understand the question we were asking (it was never actually asked/stated correctly) and that Arthur (Man’s) attempt to recreate the q gave a different answer, or one that did not make sense in our (primitive) understanding.

        If that does not perfectly describe our search for enlightenment i don’t know what does!

        Cheers. Bob.

    • dougsan says:

      “Humans-are-intelligent-beings. Has our intelligence swallowed us whole?”
      What a great line, thanks for the link. Have to say your blog is a real inspiration. It’s so completely in tune with the way I look at the world and it’s reassuring to find I’m not the only person who goes down these ‘thought rabbit holes’ on stuff.

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