Friday, May 20, 2011

In praise of not knowing

Recently I had the occasion to tell my 10-year old an old secret: until I was into my forties, I had a strong belief that the rest of the people in the world knew something I did not know. I don't mean just about stuff I do not know, but about everything! It was unnerving, anxiety-provoking and self-defeating. Until one day I had the epiphany that most humans feel this way, not just me. So, be humbled by not knowing and move on.

Yet even more recently this line of self-examination has led me to the conclusion that I end up saying "I don't know" a lot. I read a definitive tweet from someone I respect, and I say to myself "I don't know"; I read a new paper in a journal and say, "Gee, I don't know", I hear a political speech, and I walk away saying, "I just don't know." Is it that I am an idiot, or intellectually lazy? Perhaps. But what is occurring to me more and more lately is that what we are convinced of today will be much less certain and obvious tomorrow, barring some truly sacred cows. This is called growth, and as far as I can tell is a desirable development.

On the other hand, saying "I don't know" sometimes means that it just does not make sense to take sides. I know that we have to apply current knowledge and not wait for perfect information, but I still do not see getting all polar about stuff. Most of the time we act like there are only two possibilities, and they are diametrically opposed to one another. Well these are false dichotomies promoted by our educational system, which drills into us the idea that there are only two answers to any question: the right one and the wrong one. What if this is untrue? What if we change the way we think about the world, and instead of seeing only the black and the white, the left and the right, the correct and the incorrect, we start really seeing the entire continuum of possibilities? What a fantastic variety of solutions we might stumble upon to our perennial questions!

A nice mind game could be trying to think about stuff without using words. Can we do that? It is thoroughly difficult, yet it is language that seems to bracket our conceptual understanding of the world within and around us. Take the word "race" or "gender", for example. These are human-made and defined terms, which are meant to distinguish rather than merge. Yet just think how uncomfortable we can be made by a person with an ambiguous gender identity, say. Why? Because he/she does not fit into our preconceived dichotomy? Uncertainty is uncomfortable, and dichotomies cure uncertainty. But I am not sure that nature is all that into dichotomies.

The human brain is wired for "belonging." I believe it is for this reason we gravitate to our respective extreme corners of thinking and being, instead of meeting somewhere in the isle. The isle is an uncomfortable place, yet that is where we must aim to be. All the borders we have created are imaginary separations. Instead we can reposition them as the glue that unifies that which lies to either side.

Here is to not knowing more!

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