Embracing the Unknown

Think about how much people – humanity, collectively – know today.

The base of knowledge, and what we can do with it, is impressive.

Yet we act as if it’s not; many great achievements of humanity go unnoticed or unappreciated. As Samuel Arbesman has noted:

Changes are happening so rapidly that we forget to marvel at how impressive our understanding of the universe – and our ability to harness it – has become. We forget how recently we gained the ability to render three-dimensional worlds on our screens, communicate instantly across the planet, or even summon decades-old television programmes with the click of a mouse. The knowledge that has made these changes possible too often fails to inspire wonder.

Our knowledge is also impressive from a perspective of complexity; many systems we use and rely on every single day are so complex that you or I don’t usually fully understand how they work.

You’re Not Alone

In fact, they’re so complex that nobody fully understands how they work.

To paraphrase Quinn Norton, there is no one person on Earth who really knows all of what even your smartphone is doing, let alone more complicated systems.

Not understanding something can be frustrating, but not being capable of understanding something is even worse.

Where that threshold, that thin red line between “I don’t understand this, but I can learn” and “I don’t understand this, and I can never learn” lies, varies.

But it exists for all of us. Individually, and, as it turns out, collectively.

And it’s okay. It’s okay to not know something, or even most things.

What is not okay is the celebration of ignorance, which can result from the frustration of hitting that line of being unable to comprehend something.

From anti-vaxxers to deniers of all flavours, we all see the results of this trend in the world today, and it’s not pretty. As Tom Nichols warns in The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters;

Populism actually reinforces elitism, because the celebration of ignorance cannot launch communications satellites or provide for effective medications, which are daunting tasks even the dimmest citizens now demand and take for granted. Faced with a public that has no idea how most things work, experts likewise disengage, choosing to speak mostly to each other rather than to laypeople.

Unable to comprehend all of the complexity around them, [people] choose instead to comprehend almost none of it and then sullenly blame experts, politicians, and bureaucrats for seizing control of their lives.

Even among experts, “I don’t know” remains one of the hardest things to say in many situations, so sometimes – even often – people pretend ignorance is knowledge. Too often it works, as a confident but potentially wildly inaccurate opinion easily overrides cautious but healthy doubt.

Get Used to Not Knowing

As uncomfortable as admitting not understanding something is, it’s an increasingly important skill. As our world grows increasingly complex, any one person understands an ever-diminishing part of the whole.

We urgently and collectively need to come to grips with that fact of life. To survive and thrive in a world that relies on specialized knowledge, we need increased levels of trust – not the breakdown of trust we witness today.

Don’t be put off by learning how much you don’t know. The darkness was always there, surrounding you; you just had no idea how vast it was until you began probing it.

Easier said than done, that.

Still, the realization that nobody else knows everything either should provide some solace. Another potentially comforting fact is that while our current knowledge is impressive, it’s equally impressive to realize how much we don’t know.

The More You Know, The More You Realize How Much You Don’t Know

An excellent book We Have No Idea: A Guide to the Unknown Universe sheds some light on the many, many things humans just have no idea of – starting from the fun fact that we don’t even know what the majority of the universe is made of. (Giving it a name like “dark energy” does not mean we know what it is).

Another great book, The Outer Limits of Reason: What Science, Mathematics, and Logic Cannot Tell Us, takes the concept of not knowing even further, and shows there is much that cannot be known and how reason, albeit powerful, is nevertheless a limited tool.

As a final bonus – or adding an insult to injury, depending on your point of view – comes Chuck Klosterman’s book But What If We’re Wrong?: Thinking About the Present As If It Were the Past.

He points out that there’s a (very) good chance we’re wrong about a lot of the stuff we “know” today. We’re reminded of this occasionally, too, when new discoveries break limits once thought to be ‘fundamental’. Quite probably we not as wrong as we were a couple of hundred years ago, but to think we’re somehow right about everything now would be delusionally arrogant.

Dealing With It

How does one deal with all the complexity that cannot be understood?

Returning to Samuel Arbesman, he offers some advice in his book Overcomplicated: Technology at the Limits of Comprehension:

We must work to maintain two opposite states: mystery without wonder and wonder without mystery. The first requires that we strive to eliminate our ignorance, rather than simply reveling in it. And the second means that once we understand something, we do not take it for granted.

We will always be left with some mystery, but that’s okay. As long as we neither fear nor revel in it, we can take the proper perspective: humility, even with a touch of awe.

It’s not that we should stop learning just because we can’t know everything – that would be celebrating ignorance.

It’s also not that we should actively distrust others’ knowledge because they could be wrong – but neither should we blindly believe everything.

It’s not that we should think of technology as magic – but that shouldn’t prevent us from being awed by it.

Instead, strive to be curious but humble;

Critical, but open-minded;

Proud of how far we’ve come, but still in awe of far we have yet to go.

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