Childhood: Conditioned to Pretend to Know

 New Yorker cartoon by the late Charles Barsotti
When I was a young child, I would look at my parents and other adults interacting with each other, with a mixture of bewilderment and amazement. “Surely”, I thought to myself, “they don’t really believe what they’re saying. It must be like an act, like the adult form of playing — they’re just pretending to know what they’re talking about, ‘playing’ at being adults.”

I was always a ‘slow learner’. I didn’t mimic adults’ behaviour like a lot of kids. I had been conditioned to try to understand what was going on, and why it was happening, before emulating anyone. And I was conditioned to always speak the truth, no matter what, which meant waiting until I thought I had some idea of what the truth in a particular situation really was. In many situations I never did have any idea what the truth was, so my conditioning drove me to stay open and assert no opinion — which drove other children and adults crazy.

So lots of kids learned ‘social graces’ — like how to behave in ritual situations (church, parties, school), and how to converse (what was permissible and advisable to say, and not permissible or advisable to say, to certain classes of adults, to get their approval, regardless of what one really believed). Not me.

I never learned how to sweet-talk, how to coerce, how to ridicule, how to deceive, how to persuade. Why would one ever want to learn and practice such dishonest skills? So I didn’t talk much, and largely withdrew from social contact both with other kids and with adults. I couldn’t understand their behaviour, and didn’t much want to learn it, even if would make my life easier.

Looking back at those days now, I can see that I was largely correct in my impression that most adults were/are role-playing, pretending to know what they’re doing, because it’s considered a sign of weakness not to know what you’re doing, or not to have an opinion on some ‘important’ issue. And those adults were (perhaps inadvertently) modelling and teaching that same conditioned, pretending behaviour to their (and others’) children. We condition our children to pretend to know, to ‘fake it til they make it’, and to believe that parents really know what they’re talking about. Until their children are convinced (and have convinced each other) that they too really know what they’re talking about.

When Julian Jaynes wrote The Origins of Consciousness about the newly-evolved (over the last few dozen millennia) ‘entangled’ human brain, the point he made was that, until this entanglement evolved, part of the brain had evolved the capacity to imagine something that didn’t really exist, while another part of the brain had evolved to ‘make sense’ of (ie conceptualize) the body’s perceptions. (These areas are often erroneously simplified and described as the ‘right’ and ‘left’ hemispheres of the brain respectively.)

In most creatures, he explained, imagining and sense-making were and are entirely separate functions. But uniquely, in the newly-entangled human brain, it was now possible to imagine something that didn’t really exist, and then to believe that that imagined something (eg a spirit or a demon) was real and true. This entangled function is essential to our capacity to develop tools (most notably abstract languages, the concept of the separate, ‘responsible’ self, the concept of linear time, and the concept of money), and to persuade and condition others to use them together. Other creatures can’t do this, not because they’re ‘not smart enough’, but because their brains are incapable of ‘confusing’ what they imagine with what is true. Their brains ‘see’ the world as it is, not as they might be able to imagine it to be. This entanglement of the human brain has enormous implications for how we have conditioned each other ever since.

How do children ‘learn’ — how do they ‘acquire knowledge’ and develop the capacity to ‘make sense’ of the world, and especially to make sense of abstract concepts? They role-play, playing ‘house’ or ‘doctor’ or ‘parent’ or ‘worker’ or ‘teacher’. The adults they live with and meet seem to have knowledge, and seem to know how to make sense of things like money and God and morals and history and illness and ‘making a living’. By playing and pretending, children learn to mimic and pretend that they have that knowledge too. Until soon enough they believe they actually have that knowledge.

But in fact, no one ‘has’ knowledge. What we call knowledge (beyond mere technical know-how of how to deal with mechanical things) is what we have been conditioned to believe, nothing more. It is a consensus of opinion, that has developed in what is largely an echo-chamber of people who have conditioned each other to believe the same things — to agree that this is knowledge and that is not. And it all started with pretending. And in a way, it is always just pretending — the term etymologically means to stretch, to profess, claim or allege something to be true, to ‘hold out’ that it is true. We even use pretentious to describe an exaggerated ‘pretence’ that something is true. Children, debaters, theorists, and the rest of us all ‘hold out’ something as being true, to see essentially who salutes. We pretend it’s true until we are reassured by others’ conditioning that it is, or is not, ‘in fact’ true. Then, we think, we know.

In an earlier article, I made the argument that if ‘free will’, which almost all of us learn to pretend is real and then come to believe is real, does not actually exist (and an increasing number of scientists are coming to that view, or at least ‘pretend’ to), then the separate ‘self’, something that we pretend is real and is in control of and responsible for the beliefs and actions of the creature the self presumes to inhabit, cannot actually exist either.

I think the same argument can be made for human ‘knowledge’ (again, referring to ‘know-what’, not mechanical ‘know-how’). If what we pretend to know is merely the collective consensus of people conditioning each other, then we actually don’t know anything. We just either agree with the consensus of others conditioning us (and call that ‘knowledge’), or we don’t. What we call ‘knowledge’ is just opinion. We only just pretend to know things.

And we pretend that what we ‘know’ is the basis for what ‘we’ decide to do, which is wrong on two counts. What we think ‘we’ ‘decide’ to do is merely the rationalization for what our conditioning has already prompted us to do. Or more accurately for what our conditioning has already prompted our body (including its brain) to do, irrespective of what ‘we’ might ‘know’, or think.

You probably know where I’m going with this: Perhaps we would be better off if we stopped pretending that we ‘know’ anything, and stopped pretending that ‘we’ have any say in what ‘our’ bodies do, which renders all our ‘knowledge’ useless anyway.

We might, then, actually be kinder to other people, and to ourselves, if we acknowledged that “nobody knows anything”, and that it’s our conditioning by others, rather than anything to do with ‘us’, that determines our beliefs and our behaviours.

(Of course, we could only do that if it’s consistent with our conditioning.)

Recently, the political historian Aurélien, who ironically writes a blog whose very title is How to Make Sense of the World, wrote an article suggesting that perhaps we try too hard to make sense of our staggeringly complex world:

Most people now have a sense of living in a world in which satire is irrelevant and in many ways impossible, where every news report or morning RSS feed brings not just new horrors, but completely inexplicable and surreal turns of events, in a world in which nothing makes sense, and nothing seems to be logically connected. I actually sympathise with, and largely share, this view, because I think it is broadly true. We live in a world which we can no longer pretend makes sense, and we do not know how to deal with it.

Most of us, he goes on, cling to religions or other ideologies that serve both as a framework to make sense of what is happening, and a fallback to shrug it off when we cannot (‘the gods work in mysterious ways’). But if we stopped pretending, we would have to accept “that nothing is connected and nothing makes sense… that the world is indeed fundamentally meaningless”. He concludes: “We all, in the end, live in a world in which there are no whys, and it would be best if we got used to it”.

As if we could. What would we do if we could do that? If we could just accept that nothing is knowable, or needs to be known, explained, or ‘made sense’ of? This is, after all, the very essential function of the entangled human brain. Could we, even theoretically, possibly bear to accept that nobody ‘knows’ anything, that nothing is (or has to be) explicable?

And so we come full circle, back to the small child, before they start to begin every second sentence they speak to their parents with the word Why? I can (vaguely) remember times before I was conditioned to be preoccupied with knowing things. (At least, I think I can — maybe this is all just wishful thinking on my part.) I remember being absolutely fascinated with everything — the movement of water on the river, the colour of a leaf in the sun, the pattern on the grating of a heating duct. These things just were. There was no obsession with understanding why, with ‘making sense’. I was always intensely curious, but before it was subverted to a search for understanding and meaning, it was just unadulterated (hah!) curiosity.

And now, curiously enough, in my burgeoning dotage, I seem to be returning my attention to that same innocent curiosity. The word ‘curious’ originally referred to paying heed and attending with care, rather than ‘attempting to understand’.

Round and round in circles we go. Just paying attention. Then conditioned to try to make sense of everything, because we somehow believe that making sense is important and helpful and useful, even though it’s all just rationalization that has no impact on what we actually do. And then, realizing that, futilely trying to ‘stop making sense’ of things, when that’s all our poor entangled brains are good for.

It makes absolutely no sense. Fortunately, it doesn’t have to.

This entry was posted in How the World Really Works, Illusion of the Separate Self and Free Will, Our Culture / Ourselves. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Childhood: Conditioned to Pretend to Know

  1. Theresa says:

    “In my burgeoning dotage”. I’m gonna steal that line.

  2. Siyavash Abdolrahimi says:

    Wow, Daoudjan! I should only wonder how this post would land for a prepubescent child!

  3. Renaee says:

    Really appreciated this post = esp this para:
    “These things just were. There was no obsession with understanding why, with ‘making sense’. I was always intensely curious, but before it was subverted to a search for understanding and meaning, it was just unadulterated (hah!) curiosity.”

    I always remember the time when my child gradually started to ask ‘why’ a lot – and how strange that struck me in trying to give explanations, and to witness the building of this edifice of self. Or being asked what this word means, and explaining it does not really mean anything other than another word.

    I learnt how to play the game quite well at a young age – doing debate team at highschool sums up the whole story of pretendng to be a person who *really* knows stuff and has got some serious opinions that need to be heard. This kind of programming can still be triggered some times :-)

    But underneath this I was mystified at how other people seemed to know what they wanted to do (and it really looked like they were sure) – and there was that sense of how did they know – where did this knowing come from.

  4. Vera says:

    A lot of it comes to the lust for certainty that our culture encourages and feeds. Recognize it for the dysfunction it is and a lot of BS and pretense falls away.

    To spout certainty is just another way to lie.

  5. Jack Alpert says:


    There are two kinds of behavior.
    1. behavior you hope will make things better
    2. behavior that you know will do serious damage.

    In “Childhood: Conditioned to Pretend to Know” you have suggested that both can have no validity.

    The behaviors that can make things worse are not affected by most of the processes you describe in your article. Behaviors that can do damage have biophysical standing independent of all the noise you suggest nullify improvement behaviors.

    Civilization’s: “Running out of gas” story.

    Jack Alpert PhD Director:
    Stanford Knowledge Integration Laboratory
    600 word summary of Jack’s work

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