Being known versus knowing

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“In a spiral galaxy, the ratio of dark-to-light matter is about a factor of ten. That’s probably a good number for the ratio of our ignorance-to-knowledge. We’re out of kindergarten, but only in about third grade.

— Vera Rubin, groundbreaking astrophysicist who discovered evidence of dark matter in the 1970s (and who died in December 2016 at age 88)


As a creative writer, I would love to think that the 85 billion humans who have lived on this planet over time are adding … consciousness … to the universe, person by person. If I were a sci-fi writer, I would use this scenario to explain why the universe is expanding. I’d make Vera Rubin the matriarchal goddess, reminding us that we have a long way to go to replace dark matter with lightness, ignorance with knowledge.

Of course, in real life, it might be nice to simply remember that there is more mystery to the way the universe works than there is certainty, to the power of ten.

Knowledge can be a warm thing. It can make us feel secure. It can make us feel superior. It can warn us of impending environmental doom ( It can attempt to thwart human rights and nationalistic disasters.

Biologist Rupert Sheldrake said in a video interview that he does not — contrary to my creative fantasy above — think our evolution of human consciousness is expanding. We are acquiring great quantities of information and data on a global level, he said, but we seem to be losing our ability to put them into any storytelling context, as traditional cultures might do with elders.

“We are gaining in knowledge,” Sheldrake said, “but falling short in wisdom.”

A member of my Conscious Conversations circle at Lake Harriet Spiritual Center recently suggested that consciousness might not be something we have as much as something we participate in.

“It is not just about knowing but also about being known,” he said.

I’ve been ruminating over that idea since.

What are the women’s marches and the Black Lives Matter protests and the town hall gatherings to defend healthcare and the rallies for science and immigration rights but powerful statements to Be Known. We can share factual data with like-minded friends on Facebook or Twitter, but in the end, I believe it is not about convincing more people to share our knowledge that matters to us — though it helps — but the sense of safety that comes from believing we are being heard and seen.

Whether we’re concerned about transgender rights or Muslim bans or gun policies or media access or police brutality or water safety or sexual assault, what makes us fearful and threatened and angry is being misunderstood, ignored or outside the circle of attention. (And many of us have not felt displaced from the ‘inner circle’ with these issues, and are now recognizing that we can no longer be complacent, but need to be part of the solution.)

It is collective thought — the emotional vibration of community — where we build movement. As local Humanist minister Rev. David Breeden put it recently, the marches of today are not led by one charismatic leader, like an Emma Goldman or Martin Luther King Jr., but by networks of concerned people joining together.

James Burke, who created and narrated the wonderful “Connections” BBC series decades ago, showed us in each episode how one idea leads to a group think leads to an innovation leads to an invention leads to a discovery leads to a new way of life. Whether it is scientific achievement or moral values, we feed together.

Our human mistake — at least our frustration — might be in thinking we can arrive in the same place. Even when we agree over basic standards of how to live in community and how to gain in intelligence, no two people share the same knowledge or the same story of how to be known.

As cognitive scientist Dan Sperber said recently in an extensive interview on “Communication is not a replication system. When I communicate to you, you don’t get in your mind a copy of my meaning. You’ll transform it into something else. You extract from it what’s relevant to you. It involves both understanding and misunderstanding. But even if you’re understanding me perfectly, your goal will not be to have a copy of what was in my mind, it will be to extract from it some thoughts of yours which will have been usefully informed by mine, but which will be relevant to you.”

Maybe “being known” is an imperfect science — and certainly knowledge is a group effort — but I do believe the opportunity of this current era is to remind us about the value of collective speech and the hum of interaction. It might be the best way for each of us to get to know ourselves at a deeper level: What do we care about? What motivates us? How do we feel in synchronicity with others?

And that, Vera Rubin might agree, could graduate us into the fourth grade.


— Mikki Morrissette is developing the Attainable We website and book to explore the science and story of what connects us.