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Ignorance as a form of knowledge


“Systems of belief are the tracks that knowledge leaves behind. Questioning and open inquiry offer far more.” – Tarthang Tulku

In a world where making assertions, speaking with confidence, and having clearly defined beliefs is often associated with clarity and credibility, I feel the need to offer an apology on behalf of those who still dare to say “I don’t know” at a time when an abundance of information is mistaken for an abundance of knowledge.

Contrary to the assumptions of those who pressure us to “take a position” whenever we make them uncomfortable by our lack of allegiance to an easily identifiable belief-system, I offer the following proposal:

“I don’t know” IS a position.

It’s a position called honesty.

It’s the willingness to admit that one is unconvinced by the assertions and arguments of those who purport to know what’s really going on.

To say “I don’t know” is to say, “I find the evidence for those positions that claim to have the answer to be insufficient.”

To say “I don’t know ” is to say, “I know what good evidence looks like and I’m not seeing it.”

“I don’t know” does not arise out of a weak and passive state that feels too shy to take a position.

I don’t know arises from an attitude that refuses to fabricate answers as a way of coping with the tension of uncertainty.

Saying “I don’t know” takes courage, patience, and discernment.

The mind demands answers. Unfortunately, we sometimes seek to satisfy that demand at the expense of truth.

When Socrates said “wisest is he who knows that he does not know?”, I do not think he was being rhetorical.

I believe that Socrates was advancing the notion that the awareness of our ignorance is its own kind of knowing.

In order for one to know that he does not know, he must know how to distinguish good ideas from B.S. and he must know that being honest with himself about his own lack of knowledge is not a tragedy that he needs to avoid by believing anything that claims to offer him comfort and security.

I am not a skeptic in an absolute dogmatic sense. I believe that knowledge is possible.

I am also not a proponent of the idea that skepticism is more in vogue than knowledge.

I agree with G.K. Chesterton who said,  “Merely having an open mind is nothing. The object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid.”

Nevertheless, the path to knowledge must be paved by an intelligence that is capable of being honest about its own limitations.

if we wish to cultivate such honesty, it behooves us to abandon any prejudices that incline us to belittle or bemoan those who remind us that our cherished certainties are like islands rooted in, and surrounded by, the ungraspable and elusive waters of uncertainty.

This Post Has 6 Comments
  1. This posting makes an excellent point. In a world of increasing demand for “Google” answers to every problem, sometimes the most intellectually honest answer is “I don’t know.” Sufficient evidence sometimes requires time rather than resorting to “off the cuff” assertions. Thanks.

  2. TK I totally love your insights. People make assumptions and believe those assumptions to be truths. Actually, assumptions are what we make to fill in the blanks of our ignorance. But wanting to be certain that our world view is truth itself, we turn those assumptions into false gods that support and complete our perspective.

    1. Thanks Dave,

      I totally agree. And its a very tempting thing to do. It takes effort to develop a certain kind of peace/comfort in the midst of doubt, but I think the work is worth it. Cheers !

  3. So true: Wisdom lies in knowing what we don’t know, and knowing what we know.

    Not to “make assumptions to fill in the blanks of our ignorance. ” Then “turn them into false gods.” Indeed, the work is worth it.

    I believe a key element in all this is the endeavour to be autonomous—thinking for oneself—and the freedom to do so.

    Thus: “A better mental exercise is time spent digging for the truth rather than
    jumping to conclusions.” Besides, so much enjoyment in the process.

    Heard a very interesting question once: “Thinking? Or rearranging prejudices?”

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