Caramel coffee, Panda Dung tea, and gaining aesthetic and ethical knowledge

It is strange how your memory works and the way you connect specific Knowledge with experiences, even if they are entirely unrelated. My wife bought me a series of Chrismas coffee pods calendar for our coffee machine as a homemade advent. Each morning I come down to the kitchen and see a plate with two coffee pods and some other treats to mark one day closer to Christmas day.

This morning one of the pods was a caramel flavoured coffee that was distinct enough for me to stop my working and enjoy the hot cup of joy. While drinking it, I was transported to a sleepy bus ride in Thailand a few years ago between an airport and a ferry on the way to Koh Samui. I had fallen asleep listening to the Homo Deus audiobook by Yuval Noah Harari and woke up to a story about tea.

Take tea, for example. I start by drinking very sweet ordinary tea while reading the morning paper. The tea is little more than an excuse for a sugar rush. One day I realise that between the sugar and the newspaper, I hardly taste the tea at all. So I reduce the amount of sugar, put the paper aside, close my eyes and focus on the tea itself. I begin to register its unique aroma and flavour. Soon I find myself experimenting with different teas, black and green, comparing their exquisite tangs and delicate bouquets. Within a few months, I drop the supermarket labels and buy my tea at Harrods. I develop a particular liking for ‘Panda Dung tea’ from the mountains of Ya’an in Sichuan province, made from leaves of tea trees fertilised by the dung of panda bears. That’s how, one cup at a time, I hone my tea sensitivity and become a tea connoisseur. If in my early tea-drinking days you had served me Panda Dung tea in a Ming Dynasty porcelain goblet, I would not have appreciated it much more than builder’s tea in a paper cup. You cannot experience something if you don’t have the necessary sensitivity, and you cannot develop your sensitivity except by undergoing a long string of experiences.

Yuval Noah Harari, Homo Deus

The author was describing the need for an alternative approach to the scientific method of empirical data and mathematics for gaining knowledge about ethical and aesthetic things. The humanist approach suggests Knowledge = Experiences x Sensitivity. Experiences are subjective and require a mixture of sensations, emotions, and thoughts. Sensitivity requires you to pay attention to your senses and then allow these sensations, feelings, and ideas to influence you. In this way, knowledge is built up with cycles of experiences and actively practising sensitivity to your reactions. This type of knowledge is not from a book but a practical skill gain by continuous iterations towards enlightenment. 

Harari writes that ‘The highest aim of humanist life is to fully develop your knowledge through a large variety of intellectual, emotional and physical experiences.’ Close your computer, make a coffee, sit back in your chair and close your eyes, and start your journey to aesthetic and ethical knowledge.

Pick up a copy of Homo Deus: A brief history of tomorrow and contact me on Twitter once you have read it.