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.

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The etymology of unknowing

The word “unknowing” does not generally have positive connotations. It is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) as an adjective (though also used as a barely distinguishable present participle) meaning:

Not knowing; not possessing knowledge or understanding; ignorant; ill-informed; naive.

The sense in which I’m using it is almost the opposite of this. I’m talking about a letting go of the knowing that paradoxically makes us unaware and unwitting – that is to say, the knowing in which we reside most of the time. The words “unaware” and “unwitting” that I used in that last sentence to describe “knowing” are taken from Chambers’ definition of “unknowing”. What we’re dealing with is not a binary between ignorance and knowledge but an ebbing and flowing between knowing and unknowing, the boundaries between them hard to discern.

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The age of ignorance

We are, says Tim Harford, living in an age of ignorance. He refers to the work of Robert Proctor, a historian of science, who coined the term “agnotology” to describe the study of ignorance. Proctor’s insight, arising from his analysis of the tobacco industry’s efforts to create doubt about the adverse impact of smoking, was that ignorance is often culturally induced. “Ignorance is not just the not-yet-known,” he says, ”It’s also a political ploy, a deliberate creation by powerful agents who want you ‘not to know’.”

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Nobody knows anything

I’ve been trying to write something about the crisis for some time now. But every time I gather my thoughts, I realise that the sense I have made of things is lagging behind the pace of change. I am trying to figure out how to be useful while confined at home. But much of my energy is curiously consumed with the busyness of simply sustaining life. I could fill my calendar with well-intentioned Zoom calls from dawn until bedtime. But to do so feels like displacement. So I’ve spent the past couple of days deleting all such invitations the better simply to be with what is.

I’ve noticed that the day ends badly when I allow the evening to be consumed with news. Monday’s announcement that the Prime Minister was in intensive care followed this pattern. There were complex feelings. Much as I hold no brief for Boris Johnson, I wish him well as a human being, as the father of an unborn child and as the leader of the nation’s response to Covid. Beyond that, as Dominic Raab steps blinking into the pitiless spotlight, I reflect on the misfortune that the virus strikes at the time when the UK Government is in the hands of the most mediocre bunch of ideologues to inhabit Whitehall in living memory. Nonetheless, I have sympathy for these people who rose to power encouraging a belief (and perhaps believing themselves) that complex challenges could be met by vacuous slogans. You can see the fear in their eyes and the fatigue on their faces as they do their best to respond to destiny’s call. Who would want to be in their shoes? I have confidence in their intentions. But I wish Britain weren’t starting from here.

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