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June 21, 2018

5/30/2018 5:13:00 PM
Room for a View: Living with Not Knowing
By Charles Wilkinson

The most intelligent people I know are those who acknowledge that there is much they do not know and, even more so, recognize that there are many things they cannot know. Think about it. While there is something almost golden about knowledge, whether trivial or mind-bending, why is there always a pinch of shame when we have to say, “I don’t know”? Fact is, most realize there are some things mankind has not yet discovered and other things mankind cannot ever know. How we live with the knowable and unknowable can be both a test and a measure of our integrity.

The knowable is more of a challenge than a problem. Each individual’s task is to grow in knowledge gained by experience, education and persistence as well as intellectual curiosity and unembarrassed questions. There should be no shame in saying, “I don’t know, but I’ll find out.”  But there should be disappointment at least about those who are complacent or indifferent and choose to let others do their thinking for them and remain uninformed or ignorant.

The unknowable defines what we want to know but cannot. Rather than inducing shame, the unknowable should evoke an awareness and acceptance of the human self. Owning up to what one does not or cannot know is an important part of personal integrity. One may need to apologize for what they should know but don’t, but certainly not for what they can’t know.

Individuals tend to deal with the unknowable, e.g., the Uncaused Cause, the origins of the so-called God particle, or whether there is life after death, in one of two ways. They either live with persistent curiosity and questions, searching relentlessly for answers despite the realization that the unknowable is just that or, for whatever reason, settle for unquestioning certainty and “answers” that aren’t.

Any scientist or intellectual without curiosity does not deserve the label while any believer without questions shortchanges self and misunderstands belief. The former may be driven by not knowing but never settle for not wanting to know while the true believer, whether  political, religious, nationalist, racist etc., knows it all or enough, sadly, to embrace a false certainty. They need to realize that an open mind is the highway to enlightenment.

Intellectual integrity is a measure of one’s character.  Living with not knowing need not sabotage the human quest for wholeness. Even the unknowable keeps most still wanting to know, believing that answers exist somewhere beyond our human abilities.

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