Not knowing is a defining condition of life

A premise of unknowing is that, while not knowing is a defining condition of life, we mostly behave as if we know.

At its most basic level, our not knowing is a truism. While each of us functions from our own individual base of knowledge, an inescapable facet of existence is that we do not know what the future holds. Perhaps not even the next moment. Much of our knowing is nothing more than pattern recognition. We hold a rough model in our heads of what reality is like and this is good enough to enable us to function efficiently most of the time.

But this pattern recognition can blind us to the novelty we navigate every day of our lives. Even when we encounter situations that seem similar to ones we have seen before, we tend to forget that each unfolding of a familiar event is unique in its own right. Our knowing forms amid a broader canvas of not knowing.

In fact, such knowledge that we do have is socially based. Any given individual knows hardly anything at all. Humans might be the knowing species but this applies at the collective level. Individually, each of us likely has a level of expertise with regard to a narrow range of knowledge. But beyond that, our sense of knowing comes from understanding that humans as a whole know lots of things.

Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach call our impression of knowing “the knowledge illusion”:

“The knowledge illusion occurs because we live in a community of knowledge and we fail to distinguish the knowledge that is in our heads from the knowledge outside of it. We think the knowledge we have about how things work sits inside our skulls when in fact we’re drawing a lot of it from the environment and from other people. This is as much a feature of cognition as it is a bug. The world and our community house most of our knowledge base. A lot of human understanding consists simply of awareness that the knowledge is out there. Sophisticated understanding usually consists of knowing where to find it. Only the truly erudite actually have the knowledge available in their own memories.”

Sloman and Fernbach argue that humans get by through a division of cognitive labour so that different sections of society become responsible for different aspects of its knowing.

This is a good enough strategy most of the time. We trust experts to service our cars or deliver electricity to our homes. But what happens when the knowledge illusion leads us to rely on capabilities that experts possess only in our imagination?

For example, because our species has a history of applying technical inventiveness to challenging problems, we may assume that people who are clever with physics will create a fix to the problem of climate change. Since the Second World War, those of us who have enjoyed a largely orderly and predictable world are conditioned to “know” that somehow everything will be all right. But what happens when the experts who know about these things keep sending messages that this confidence is misplaced yet, in our knowing, we don’t hear them. This time, there may be no technical fix and we might have to unlearn the kind of lifestyles we have enjoyed all our lives. In this case, the experts we need may not be clever technologists but supercharged sociologists who know how to organise a radical, rapid and sustained transformation of society. And where would we find them?

The only analogue we have is the recent experience of global lockdown in response to the coronavirus. This tells us that societal changes of behaviour are easier to bring about than seemed imaginable before the pandemic. And that maintaining them for the long haul is incredibly difficult.

This points to a paradox with not knowing. In order to navigate novel and complex challenges, we have to recognise that our reflexive, conditioned knowing may not be of much use – that, in fact, we don’t know the way forward. But we are averse to letting go of our conditioned knowing because it is all we know about how to deal with life.

Our knowing is equivalent to our identity and how can we let go of that? We carry within our psyches the instinct of Stone Age humans to fend off existential threat. Coronavirus aside, most of us these days do not face routine threats to our lives. But developments that we perceive as threats to our identity elicit the same reflexive instincts.

We take this so far that defence of one’s identity has become constitutive of it in this age of culture war. Across the political spectrum, activists seem in thrall to an identity politics by which they actualise their own sense of self through opposition to perceived wrongs – hardly noticing, in their emancipatory stance, how they become oppressive.

Our cleaving to knowing and the polarisation it elicits is not healthy for democracy, to put it mildly. In a 1948 essay, Albert Camus – who was a close student of the myriad ways freedom dies – asserted the imperative link between democracy and not knowing:

“The democrat is modest. He admits to a certain degree of ignorance and recognizes that his efforts possess characteristics that are in part risky and that he does not know everything. And because he admits that, he recognizes that he needs to consult others, to complete what he knows with what they know.”

For those not enamoured by polarisation and division, hope is to be found in noticing and trying to temper one’s own attachment to the identity performance of knowing.

But we aren’t helped by inhabiting a linguistic realm which construes the world in terms of dualities. As Stephen Batchelor has observed in After Buddhism, we have a predilection for characterising things as “it is this” and “it is not that”. This is reflected in a moral realm of dualistic certainties that define right and wrong, and a culture of codified ethics in which nuance is marginalised. Batchelor advocates holding these certainties lightly, trying instead to cultivate doubt. Put simply, this means seeking more often to ask questions than to solidify one’s mind around knowing:

“To pose a question with sincerity, you need to suspend all expectations as to what the answer might be. You need to rest in a condition of unknowing, vitally alert to the sheer mystery of being alive rather than dead. In this way, you cultivate a middle way between ‘it is’ and ‘it is not,’ affirmation and negation, being and nothingness… The point, therefore, is not to reject dualities in favour of a hypothetical “non-duality” but to learn to live with them more lightly, fluidly, and ironically.”

Batchelor argues that to open to unknowing is to be “on guard against seductive ideas, compelling ‘images’ of the world that seem to explain everything, and beliefs that provide heart-warming consolation.” He maintains that those who cultivate doubt in this way end up occupying a different kind of moral universe. Instead of subcontracting their ethics to an external arbiter who is presumed to speak for one’s tribe, they will investigate the ethics of a given situation with curiosity:

“Not being tied to a code of conduct devised by others, they will respond in unpredictable ways to whatever moral dilemmas they encounter. They will do so with empathy, intelligence, and compassion, not by first checking with a moral rulebook to see what is allowed. They will recognize how each moral dilemma arises out of a unique blend of complex conditions. Their ethics is thus situational rather than legalistic. They are willing to make what they consider to be an appropriate response, fully aware that they might get it wrong and make things worse. They are no longer ‘tied’ by moral rules but have embraced an ethics of care and risk.”

This implies a preference for an ethics of “being with” over the ethics of “being against” – based on a willingness to hear and understand the concerns of those with whom we disagree, to inhabit the minds of others and imagine what it might be like to hold their concerns (and joys). It is a far cry from the reflexive othering and demonising that prevails in political discourse.

Not knowing, it turns out, is more than simply a condition of life. It takes courage to embrace not knowing and let one’s own constructs and values be challenged. There is an intimacy to not knowing that is well understood in the Buddhist view of it. Perhaps the most intimate thing you can do is be with someone in mutual not knowing – sharing in what Batchelor calls “urgent perplexity” and allowing a softening of one’s fixed ideas about how one’s own journey should unfold.

To cling to knowing is to defend one’s idea of one’s self. But we persist in doing this even when our identities are quite limiting to us as individuals, and when to do so may create adverse social impacts that outweigh the individual benefit. Not knowing creates openness and possibilities. Perhaps in this space we may more likely find ways, that currently elude us, of dealing with the challenges we face as societies and as a species.

4 thoughts on “Not knowing is a defining condition of life

  1. Thanks for this Martin. I resonate especially with the ethical implications of not knowing, how, when we can free ourselves from how things ought to be, we can be with what is here, in this moment, rather than what the rule book tells us. I find myself more able now to embrace not knowing as I feel less bound by the shoulds and oughts of my socialised mind. Therapy has helped me see the constraints of my childhood story, and helped me free to be in my story as it unfolds each day. This piece has introduced me to a new appreciation of this topic as a whole.


    • Thanks, Fiona. I like what you say about becoming more free in your story. Thanks for your enagement with this site.


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