The Good Know Nothing

A quote by novelist Paul Auster rang so true, I used a phrase from it as the title of my current Tom Hickey novel in progress.

“Only the good doubt their own goodness, which is what makes them good in the first place. The bad know they are good, but the good know nothing.”

The best minds are too small to consider all the complexities around us.  The most objective are driven by emotions, needs and passions they can barely begin to understand, let alone control.  Surely all our beliefs might be illusions.

We claim to know so that we can feel secure, or to create a useful platform from which to further our particular agenda.  Churchgoers aren’t likely to admit to the extent of their doubts.  The wealthy commonly believe poverty equals laziness.  And so on.

When I passed along the Auster quote to my son Cody, he thought it through then came back with, “But Dad, if that’s true then the good must be ineffectual, because they don’t have the certainty about anything to make a stand.”

Here’s my answwer:

Those of us who can’t be satisfied with a meaningless life are by definition called to make an existential choice, to decide between alternatives and dedicate ourselves to a guiding belief.

As a path toward recognizing the best choice, Kierkegaard argued the value of subjectivity.  The highest and deepest truth, he contended, is discovered by an inward journey rather than by observation of external reality.  By searching inside ourselves, in solitary, devoted, open-minded exploration; by preferring the instincts of the artist to the over-confident ways of science or philosophy, we can discover realms beyond the external and objective.

Those who have chosen to believe but admit that they are choosing on the basis of subjective experience can draw a distinction between knowledge (in an absolute sense) and belief.  Then they can make a stand with dedication and passion, yet retain a lightness of heart and mind, a portion of humility.  With these they can avoid the defensiveness or arrogance of the know-it-all.



  1. Hi Professor Kuhlken,

    This post is definitely what I like to call ‘thought soil’—where thoughts can grow. Similar thoughts have been occupying me lately on my solo morning walks. What’s the difference between knowledge and belief? Is ‘how do you know it’s true?’ a valid question? How can humility dwell in unwavering conviction? What’s not a belief?

    Kierkegaard’s solution to choosing a path leading out of meaninglessness, as you mention, is to value subjectivity. Subjectivity is the haven of believers of all kinds, but I think this is the very reason beliefs are so often attacked with insults like “so what you’re saying is that I can ‘believe’ there’s a pink elephant on my roof and everyone should respect that?” Respect wasn’t even in the discussion of belief, but we do require it to get along and feel like we’re living with others who value rationality and logic.

    Perhaps the problem lies in what it means to know and to believe. As you’ve said, it is important to the existence of humility to admit reaching conclusions through subjective means. Belief almost always has an implication of irrationality and arrogance which has so bothered me for a long time. But, I can know that the sky is blue and not believe it or doubt it; to know that it is blue is to simply look at the sky, while to believe this is to trust the two visual apparatus I used to derive this knowledge.

    If my criterion for truth in this matter is that my eyes perceive blueness, then this can be classified as truth; but if my criterion for truth in this matter is that I have passed a test indicating my judgment of colors are precise, then this may be classified as doubt. Of course, this implies that I am not questioning the test itself—I trust it.

    This suggests that the arrogance one sees in scientific fundamentalism is indeed not the product of the quality of knowledge derived but rather the belief that science’s criterion of determining what is true is deemed better than all other criterions of determining truth. It is the best criterion, but not for everything—and this is essentially the argument between theists and atheists ever since both started sharing this planet, or, for that matter, between people who trust one method for everything and people who don’t.

    Therefore, the question believers are often asked: ‘how do you know it’s true?’ really are two questions:

    1. How do you know? (where did you/can I find this knowledge?),

    2. What was your criteria in classifying this knowledge within truth? (how did you/would I decide it’s true?).

    I think the question is only valid when freed from its implication of lacking any method, which is an essential element of insanity.

    Humility is the most important concern in my view, for at times I see it as its own entity that leaves the second it feels unbecoming in its dwelling place. Nevertheless, I do not think that entertaining doubts is the way to keep humility, for one has the right to set one’s criteria for truth, falsehood and doubt and stick with it so long as it satisfies one’s established criteria for truth. What wipes out humility, I believe, is the belittling of the criteria others have set to determine their truths, falsehoods, and doubts. More importantly, humility is not only relevant in one’s relationship with others but also one’s relationship with oneself. For if one deeply believes something is true but rejects it anyway, I believe this is also a state of absent humility for humility is the giving of oneself to what is true and the valuing of other human beings above ourselves in our treatment and opinion of them.

    I’m sorry, I have a great lack of skill of being concise and drawing thoughts together. In any case, thanks for giving me such healthy soil to grow my thoughts. Loved the post!

    1. Hi Ines.

      Thanks for you thoughtful comments. It makes me feel good about writing all this, as my goal is to encourage people to think about concepts like truth, knowledge, and humility and perhaps draw conclusions that will inspire them and others.

      Onward, Ken