“I don’t know” is the only true statement?

“I don’t know” is the only true statement the mind can make

– Nisgaradatta Maharaj

These type of pointers is meant as medicine.

In this case, it’s medicine for the tendency to take thoughts – or some thoughts – as true.

And as with any thought, it’s not entirely accurate. It leaves something out.

Mental representations are questions about the world, whether we notice or not. They are maps of the world and help us orient and function in the world. They are different in kind to what they are about. (Unless they happen to be about mental representations.) Reality is always more than and different from these maps. And they cannot contain any full, final, or absolute truth.

And that goes for Nisgaradatta’s statement as well. His statement also has limited validity, and there is validity in its reversals.

We can know certain things. We can notice our nature directly. (Our nature can notice and “know” itself in that sense.) We can know things in a provisional, limited, and conventional sense, although these are not final or absolute truths.

His statement is not the only true statement. It doesn’t hold a final or absolute truth any more than any other thought.

In general, I find it helpful to explore pointers in this way and especially pointers from the non-dual world. What are they meant as medicine for? What’s their validity? In what ways are they not so valid? What’s the validity of their reversals?

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The different types of validity in different stories

Each story has validity. The question is how and what the specific validity is for each story.

And whatever seems to make the most sense to us is always provisional and up for revision.

DIFFERENT TYPES OF VALIDITY

There are some general ways stories can be valid.

We can use any story as a mirror for ourselves. We can turn any story towards ourselves and find genuine examples – from the past and now – of how it’s valid.

A story can be more or less valid in a conventional sense. It can fit the data more or less well. It can be supported by more or less solid data and different amounts of solid data. It can work more or less well as a map and guide for our life in the world or for a specific area of life.

And a story is valid in the most basic sense that it is a story. We can recognize it as happening in our mental field, as mental images and words. It’s a mental construct. It’s meant as a provisional guide, at most, and not a full or final reflection of something in the world.

OUR ORIENTATION

What helps us discern the particular validity of any one story? 

Sincerity and intellectual honesty help us stay grounded and receptive.

Familiarity with the topic helps us with discernment and nuances. Experts generally understand a topic far better than laypeople. (And as all of us, they too have blind spots and biases and their views are provisional.)

Familiarity with valid arguments, soundness, logical fallacies, biases, media literacy, and so on, helps us avoid some common pitfalls.

It’s easy to go into lazy thinking and adopt the view of those around us or our favored subculture. It’s easy to get caught up in wishful or fearful thinking. It’s easy to deceive ourselves. 

EXAMPLES

Fairy tales have a metaphorical validity and are a mirror for psychological processes. They help us learn something about the world, society, universal human dynamics, and parts of ourselves and how they may relate to each other. This applies to any story – whether it’s in the form of a movie, book, news, a dream, a daydream, and so on. 

Science has a methodology that’s relatively universal. It mirrors how we go about learning about the world and ourselves if we are systematic about it and sincere and intellectually honest.

The content of science is more or less accurate in a conventional sense. It’s supported by more or less solid data, different amounts of data, is provisional, and is always up for revision. It will also always, to some extent, reflect our culture, worldviews, biases, what society sees as important, and so on. 

That we are a human being in the world is valid in a conventional sense. To others, that’s how it looks. It’s a story that works relatively well in our daily life. It helps us function in the world.

That we more fundamentally, and in our own first-person experience, is something else is also valid. Here, we may find we are capacity for the world as it appears to us. We are what the world, to us, happens within and as. This is something we can check and find for ourselves.

When I have stories about someone else, they may be more or less accurate when applied to that person. And even if a story seems accurate, we are always much more than and different from any story about us, and we can always receive more information that shifts how we see the situation or puts it in a different context. 

I can also turn these stories to myself and find genuine and specific examples of how they apply now and in the past. For instance, I can find examples of when I was angry, cruel, deceptive, brilliant, beautiful, and so on, and perhaps also how it applies right now in this situation. 

Does life continue after death? This is a question for science and there is some research on this topic. Also, when it comes to the different stories about what happens after death, we can turn them around and see if we can find the essence of what they point to here and now. 

For instance, what about near-death experiences? They often describe not being the body, a sense of bliss, life review, and so on. When I look for myself, I find the body is in me. In my own first-person experience, I am not most fundamentally this body. I can find a quiet bliss that seems inherent in what I am. And if I examine my mental representations of my past, I can review my life in different ways. 

When it comes to rebirth, can I find that too here and now? At this moment, my mind recreates its story and its mental representations of me. In that sense, I am reborn each moment. Also, this moment is always new, different, and fresh, and any past and sense of continuity are only found within mental representations. I can find rebirth in that sense too. 

If I have a specific story about a past life, it’s difficult to know how accurate it is in terms of something that actually happened. But it does say something about me now. I can relate to it as I would anything in a dream, find it in myself, and explore it in myself here and now. 

The conventional validity in these stories is a matter of science, and it’s an open question so far for lack of solid data and because of the small amount of data we currently have. (This can change, and probably will with more research.) And all of these after-life stories have validity in the sense that I can find what they point to in myself, here and now. 

Astrology is similar to much else. In a conventional sense, it may have more or less validity and that’s a question for science. (Although there is very little to no serious research into it, as far as I know.) And it definitely has validity as a mirror for ourselves – for psychological dynamics, archetypes, and so on. Everything described in astrology, no matter if it happens to explicitly be about our particular configuration or not, mirrors us and describes something in us.

Conspiracy theories tend to have a grain of truth in them, and what that grain is will depend on the story. In most cases, the rest tends to not be supported by very good and verifiable data so it’s best to put it on the “maybe” or “unlikely” shelf until there is more information. 

For instance, there are a couple of grains of truth in several vaccine conspiracy theories. Some people die from their body’s reaction to vaccines, just as some die from their body’s reaction to medications that are widely in use. (This is not a reason to reject vaccines since they overall do a lot more good than harm.) And the pharmaceutical companies developing and selling vaccines are in it for the money. They are not philanthropists. There are dirty dealings, and not everything around the medical or business sides is as transparent as what would be in the public interest. (Again, that’s not a reason to automatically reject vaccines and it doesn’t mean that they overall haven’t benefited humanity enormously.) 

Also, as mentioned before, I can turn these conspiracy theory stories about the pharmaceutical companies etc. back to myself and find how they are valid. I can find genuine and specific examples from my past, and – if there is any charge on them for me – here and now. 

The vaccine will kill people -> I will kill people. If I believe that story, I’ll likely get very angry and a part of me will want to kill the people behind the (supposed) conspiracy. I kill them in my mind.

The people behind the vaccine want to hide something –> I want to hide something. In this situation, if I strongly believe the conspiracy theories about vaccines, I hide from myself that I cannot know. And perhaps that, somewhere in me, I know just that. I know there isn’t any solid data.

[to be expanded]

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