The art of not knowing

Tuesday, December 2nd, 2008 at 4:25 pm
by Borg

We live in a time of great uncertainty, and learning how to deal with that is perhaps the greatest challenge we face. It sounds like a dramatic cliché, but like many clichés there is much to it. What uncertainties are we facing that previous generations did not face? The rich affluent West face an abundance of material and life-style choices never seen before, and like Barry Schwartz points out instead of making us happier it often creates frustration. The happiest we can ever hope to get is whatever the marketing promises and whenever we have made a choice the options we sacrificed are more than ever before. Our high expectations create disappointment, and the amount of choices create doubts about whether we made the best choice.

The whole notion of having major choices to make about how to live life is in many ways a novelty. Previous generations largely inherited their role in society from their parents, and their faith was not optional even for the most sophisicated philosphers and scientists. Christianity has been obligatory for most Westerners and now more and more people wake up to the fact that Christianity was merely a fairy tale with 2000 years of state sponsored marketing behind it. Any myth with that propaganda power behind it is bound to penetrate the core of our being and we are still rubbing our eyes at the breakfast table, grasping for the coffee that will make us leave that dream behind.

Another related source of uncertainty that is a complete novelty in the history of mankind is the interchange of cultures that is an inevitable consequence of globalisation and indeed proper general education. It is harder for us to cling to our native values when we are being challenged by other religious, political and cultural values. When we are faced with contrasting alternatives we are forced to ask ourselves why what we have is superior.

This doubt in our own superiority over other cultures and our unique position in the universe has been dealt further blows by the so called “masters of suspicion“: Copernicus, Darwin, Freud, Nietzsche and Marx who each have deprived us of some consoling myth or other. We are no longer at the centre of the universe, not essentially different from other animals, not the masters of ourselves, and religion is an opium to keep us from seeing reality.

Having deprived us of the cushy religious certainties science would ironically pull the rug underneath itself. Discoveries in quantum physics made almost 100 years ago were so contradictory to our habits of thinking that we still have not been able to make sense of them. The Uncertainty Principle presented us not only with a logical puzzle and counter-intuitive empirical results but also an epistemological fence previously undiscovered – there was a sign post saying “you can know this but nothing more.” That Newtonian physics could be challenged at all left a deep doubt in the entire project of Modernity with it’s belief in science and technology as the panacea for all human problems. If we cannot find a foundation for our knowledge, an Archimedean point on which to base all knowledge, how is science superior to religion or any fashionable myth that may capture the popular imagination for a time but will inevitably be replaced? If inside science there can be conflicting paradigms with an apparent equal claim on the truth, how can science itself claim authority over other traditional belief systems?

This is why I think we live if times of unprecedented uncertainty, and that causes grave anxiety. I suggest that there are two dominating ways of coping with this anxiety, and they are two sides of the same coin. The first is classic denial erupting into irrational authoritarianism, and the other is a hands-off, laissez faire, post-modern relativism that either accepts NO authority or claims ALL authorities to be equal – “I have my truth you have yours”. We are very aware of the danger that ideological and religious certainties can cause and how they can serve those in power. By demonising an enemy one can consolidate a people, unite them under God and send soldiers to die “ad majorem gloriam”, but while the relativist “solution” is healthier and an admirable effort in diplomacy I’m convinced it is not ultimately a cure for the anxiety. It is a natural reaction to the horrors of totalitarian power abuse by the Church, the State and even Science, to fall into the attitude that we cannot know anything and that any guess is as good as any other, but we know that that is not really true. That we cannot have absolute certainty does not mean we cannot tell better from worse. It does not mean our approximations cannot be good enough for most practical purposes. I think the relativist rebellion against authority is based on the exact same erroneous notion of what human knowledge is. The assumption is that unless the knowledge is somehow final and definite it is not knowledge at all, and ironically by rejecting ALL authority the relativist placebo is trying to find a new certainty in the opposite extreme. Instead of clearing away delusions it seems to offer everyone an epistemological holiday to be delusional, each one in their own favourite way.

Many have pointed out that paradoxically, by trying to distribute equal authority to all, the relativist is still saving a special position for that particular doctrine. In a world full of people that do not believe that truth is relative, he who holds that view is granting himself more authority than the others. In so doing he is performatively proving himself wrong. This is pretty much how Socrates sliced Protagoras doctrine that “man is the measure of everything” to pieces in Plato’s dialogue Theaetetus 400BC.

Many relativists see the historian of science Thomas Kuhn as this (paradoxical) authority that has shown that science is just another type of religion. They think that his paradigm concept is the scientific equivalent of the church denominations, and like you have Protestants and Catcholics, you have String theorists and Multiverse physicists. Ironically Kuhn himself rejects these accusations of him being a relativist when writing “scientific development is, like biological, a unidirectional and irreversible process. Later scientific theories are better than earlier ones for solving puzzles in the often quite different environments to which they are applied. That is not a relativist’s position, and it displays the sense in which I am a convinced believer in scientific progress.”

Another irony is that while relativism may be motivated by a noble striving towards tolerance and diversity, if there is no neutral evidence based court in which to settle questions about truth there is nothing stopping totalitarian political powers to declare truth to be whatever serves their purposes. While the motivation is diplomatic tolerance it backfires and paves way for abusive authoritarianism, which is what Bertrand Russell argumented in the essay “The Ancestry of Fascism.”


Both the absolutist position and the relativist position are unsuccessful efforts of coping with uncertainty.

Hence both the absolutist position and the relativist position are unsuccessful efforts of coping with uncertainty. This leaves the mind very frustrated as uncertainty is an essentially emotional problem. This can be seen in how people live. Gradually as we grow older we try to eliminate as much uncertainty and risk as possible. The more we accumulate the busier we are struggling not to loose it. The mind wants to eliminate any type of uncertainty double-quick. The clever old Buddhists called this the grasping mind.

While it is true that on an absolute and ultimate level we cannot know anything for sure, on a practical level we must still make choices based on our best guesses. While some of those guesses could for all practical purposes be considered “true” the real question is why we feel such a need to convince ourselves that we are right? Why are we so hopeless at dealing with risk when in reality probabilities is all life has to offer? Essentially the Western world has never learnt how not to know. I say Western, not because it is an exclusively Occidental problem, but because Eastern philosophers such as Nagarjuna were well aware of the limits of thought way back when Christian hypocrites were simply paying lip-service to doubting Thomas.

Is it an absurd idea to have a course in unknowledge?

Another reason why we are so bad at not knowing is because what could be called “anepistemology” is a missing subject in our school curriculum. Anepistemology  would be the study of what we cannot know. Is it an absurd idea to have a course in unknowledge? Can you imagine a teacher sharing with the class everything they don’t know and things they have doubts about? Hard to picture, but I actually did a course in Quantum Physics and the Limits of Knowledge at Uni in Gothenburg when I was 19. That one course was perhaps the best I got from my five year philosophy studies.

The following small list of things we cannot know may serve as a starting point:

  • The future
  • Others’ motives
  • Our own motives
  • What, if anything, we are supposed to do on this planet
  • The answers to the big mysteries of the Universe
  • What it is like to be another being
  • How much there is to know and what proportion of that we actually know
  • Which of the ideas we now hold to be true that future generations will use as examples of our simple-mindedness

These some of the things we know that we cannot know with any high degree of certainty, yet every day we pretend we do. The role of education in this respect would be to teach about the limits of human knowledge and show that it is OK not to know. It is important to learn to make choices with insufficient information without reverting to false certainties. The future is not going to be any less uncertain and learning to take risks will be an even more important skill.

I also believe the practice of meditation can play an important role. One of the effects of meditation on the mind is the creation of a larger “inner space” in which opposing ideas can co-exist without creating a civil war. By observing ideas as if they were clouds passing by in one’s “inner sky” one can extract that emotional identification that can make one blinded by passion. A mind that feels safe and happy in the silence can navigate through the practical problems of every day life more efficiently. If uncertainty and fallibility is the starting point, the ground and context of every decision, one doesn’t need to fool oneself with false certainties nor despondently abstain from choosing. Accepting the unknown is not being ignorant. It is being sincere.

Accepting the unknown is not being ignorant. It is being sincere.

For a related Psychosynthesis exercise check out this article on disidentification.

PS. Google inadvertently just told me more stuff we don’t seem to know. I use the define:xxx function but before I typed what I was looking for it suggested some common searches people have done lately. Interesting that socialism, philosophy and pragmatic are among the top 10!

General ignorance

Intellectual sincerity

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8 Responses to “The art of not knowing”

  1. Ideation » Blog Archive » The Church of Oprah Says:

    […] « The art of not knowing […]

  2. Den nelesteecloto Says:

    First of all congratulation for such a great site. I learned a lot reading article here today. I will make sure i visit this site once a day so i can learn more.

  3. Ben Lowsen Says:

    Out of anepistemological curiosity, how did you happen on "anepistmology"? I did a forum post on it several years back ( and put it on the Wiki protologism site ( I think of it as my own progeny, although I'm happy to share. It's likely someone somewhere thought to use the term prior to the advent of the internet and database searching, so I may simply be adopting a nacent term anyway. You defined it a bit differently than I would have, but words without fixed definitions are hard to pin down.

    The biggest difference between our definitions and perhaps outlooks, I think, is that you see some things as inherently unknowable and use "anepistemology" to define them. I agree there are some things, but ironically I think what they are is also inherently unknowable. After all, might we not find ways of discovering the previously "unknowable"?

    As for your list, I would argue that we can already predict with reasonable accuracy others’ motives and our own, as well as the future in a general way.

    "What it is like to be another being" is rolled up with others' motives, which I think we pay close attention to in all sorts of fields. I would also point out that many people experience life with transplanted parts of other beings. The key element is imagination, with which God has gifted each in his measure.

    As for what "we are supposed to do on this planet", I would argue that the field of ethics is devoted to its study. My own opinion is that some combination of the Golden Rule and common improvement give a practical guide. Granted, it's not academic philosophy, but it's my own and it seems to work.

    "The answers to the big mysteries of the Universe" have already been discovered… many times over. Trouble is, they keep popping back up. Perspective plays a big part in the "mystery".

    "How much there is to know and what proportion of that we actually know" and "Which of the ideas we now hold to be true that future generations will use as examples of our simple-mindedness" are both very much perspective related. It seems best not to assume people are idiots until proven wrong definitively. There are reasons people think the way they do and reasons our world acts the way it does. Understanding these reasons can help us to understand what we ourselves have trouble "knowing", which to me is the essence of anepistemology.

  4. Ben Lowsen Says:

    I take back that I came up with it: it was already in print in 2005.

  5. Nils Borg Says:

    Ha, I know I'm not going to get out of this one. You see I just needed a word for the study of that which we cannot know, and especially that which even though we cannot know it with any high degree of certainty still affects us deeply. And since epistemology focuses on the knowable the opposite of that is naturally an-epistemology. It is the via negativa I am interested in, the shedding of certainties, and every concept once a concept tends to clog up the works. Epistemology can easily be construed as containing its opposite, but for me it doesn't question the root motive for knowledge. I feel epistemology has the underlying assumption of true realist knowledge as the holy grail, and I don't think that works very well psychologically or culturally. So anepistemology seemed the obvious opposite, (just like I would rather call me a non anagnostic than a plain agnostic. A nice triple negation that should confuse box-putting minds for a while.)

    So I thought I came up with the concept. Then I googled it and found it back at the protologism page where you had put it. The irony for me is that I had not only browsed that list a few days earlier, but I had even blogged about it! So I think I came up with it myself, but later found out that I might have seen the word in a list of new words. What is the truth? Can I know it? Can you know it? Is it a fact in the past? I think it is a rather beautiful example of how we cannot even know our own psyche with any high degree of certainty and how we can rewrite our own history. Partly because the subconscious is a murky multilayered land. Partly because we are the co-creators of ourselves.

    Re: ethics. I think it deals mainly with the Platonic Good, not the True or the Beautiful. What is good is not what is true per se but what we agree is good. It is an intersubjective convention, not something we can study like a rock. And I think history is paved with carcasses from cultures that did not recognize the anepistemological aspect of morality, people acting as if it was not a matter of crosscultural agreement and as if their Good was The True Good (read God). Your Golden Rule is great, but it is not "true" or "false" is it? It is an agreement we can reach when applying a global human perspective.

    Re: “The answers to the big mysteries of the Universe” have already been discovered… many times over. – Now that leaves me very curious! You must let me in on this one. I don't think I'm the only one that would love to strike it off the list.

    Re: being others and having their body parts. Do you really mean to say that having someone else's kidney would help to grasp what it is like being them?

    Re: imagination as the tool to understand others. I completely agree that it is our best means, and that we should try to imagine what it is like being someone else as much as possible. But this doesn't make it more than guesswork.

    The guesswork does not just apply to others I would argue. It extends to ourselves. It is an objective fact when anepistemology first appeared in print, but neither you nor I believe we were influenced by that before coming up with the concept. While my case is by far more suspicious than yours, how can you know that you did not overhear a conversation in a cafe from someone having read the book and then later forgot about it? Farfetched. Indeed. Possible. No doubt.

    Anyhow, thank you very much for commenting and it is an honour and a pleasure to coincide virtually.

  6. Ben Lowsen Says:

    Possible, of course. Knowing is always difficult. As for trading body parts vs. trading persons, it seems to me that actually being another person is an irrational concept when taken literally. After all, even if we could somehow be someone other than ourselves, we would still be that person, which would then be us ourselves and not "another person" at all. Gaining an understanding of another person in part on the other hand–whether it be having one of their body parts, having similar experiences, or best of all understanding how their experiences have affected them–can give useful knowledge of a person's motives; much better than mere guesswork. This is the type of imagination I mean.

    "Mysteries of the universe" I think are very much cultural features. Superstitious ancient Greeks need look no further than the pantheon for ultimate answers. Modern religious sects which reject science have answered universal mysteries in much the same way. Modern scientists seek verifiable evidence before assigning degrees of certainty to their answers. What all of these people and we as well have in commonis that we are limited by our own way of thinking. Biological, cultural, and environmental factors (among others) make up our worldview, and departing from it can be difficult.

  7. Nils Borg Says:

    Yes you are right about the illogicality of imagining being someone else in the sense that one would then no longer be oneself (however check out this serious new Swedish research on simulating body-swapping)

    The whole point of anepistemology for me though is learning to cope with uncertainty. Using imagination and dialogue are great ways of understanding another person, but if the person is lying to himself whatever he says would even come out true on a lie detector. Classical epistemology is dealing with truth, but when dealing with people the best we should hope for is truthfulness and fairness.

    I thought about your definition from wiktionary again:

    anepistemology: The study of what we do not know, answering the question, "What should we know?"

    It raises some questions for me, and I don't think we mean the same thing. Aristotle distinguished between episteme (theoretical knowledge), fronesis (practical judgement) and techne (know-how), and some philosophers like Gadamer feel that we have lost the fronesis type of knowledge. I wonder if that is not closer to what you are looking for, a practical judgement about what we should dedicate ourselves to.

    The question "what should we know?" is a bit ambiguous to me, and it seems to imply that we have a choice and that according to someone there are things we don't know but should know. There are many things we perhaps feel we "should" know, e.g. some feel it would be fair for human beings to know why they were born, but that we cannot know. And we cannot force the answer from the universe.

    The other aspect is like you have mentioned ethical, and I think it is very important to remember why we are studying and that if we forget why we might just be looking for certain but pointless knowledge for the sake of accumulating more. But, again I think this is more related to Aristotle's fronesis concept, than how to deal with the intrinsically unknowable.

    About the intrinsically unknowable…we know there are things we cannot know, e.g. how much we don't know, and no amount of new scientific achievments will change that. The point of my blog is that IT IS OK not to know, we just need to learn to live with it.

  8. Ben Lowsen Says:

    I agree it's ok not to know, but I'm less content to live with it. That's why I think being able to identify what it is exactly we don't is a useful tool (i.e. anepistemology). Looking at the definition, I also agree that "what we should know" needn't really be a part of that, although that's sort of the urge driving the discussion of what we don't know. For example, I don't know what time you last woke up, therefore I can consider that fact part of my own personal 'anepistemology'; but since there is no particular apparent reason for gaining such knowledge, pursuing it is more likely to be a waste of effort than, say, figuring out what time I need to wake up tomorrow. As you said, 'dealing with uncertainty' is the practical application of anepistemology.

    This practical knowledge may not be 'truth' to most philosphers, but I would ask whether the practicality of it–its ability to describe real world events accurately–might not make it 'true', at least in part. After all, a polygraph may not be 100% accurate, but a statistical study of what sort of people manage to fool the polygraph might well provide useful information as to the veracity of a person's stated motives. While not a practical certainty, this is I think at least a measure of truth.

    I half agree that it's impossible to know just how much we don't know, but I also think it's not a very well defined question. In other words, I don't think it has a literal meaning; there are simply too many things in the world and a potential infinity of creative directions and output in our inner space to suppose we might somehow 'measure' the extent of what we 'know'.

    You have, however, brought to mind an irony of unknowledge: the very act of understanding that something unknown exists is an essential step in gaining that knowledge. Therefore, whenever we gauge the scope of the unknown, in whole or in part, we are setting out new limits for our knowledge. What lies beyond those limits is temporarily unknowable, which is to say ultimately knowable.

    You are no doubt thinking of the H. Uncertainty Principle as an example of the unknowable, and this is certainly something that was drilled into my head in high school physics; but how do we know such knowledge is necessarily unobtainable? How do we know such knowledge is not simply irrational according to unknown universal laws? In that case, what appears 'unknowable' is simply something that cannot exist.

    Contrarily, this sounds a bit like saying 'God made it that way' and leaving the explanation at that. As long as we continue to ask and attempt to answer 'Why', however, we should be able to avoid dogmatic pitfalls.

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