Posted by: Jennie Z | March 30, 2009

The importance of “I don’t know”

Once upon a time, I gave tours of the brewery that I work for. Lots of different types of people would show up to go on these tours, but I could always tell the people that home brewed, because they would ask the best (and usually most difficult) questions. One day I had a fairly large group, and I was regaling everyone with tales of the great scientific extravaganza that is fermentation when one of the guys (total home brewer) asked me a question (I don’t even remember what it was now). I had no idea what the answer was, and instead of making up something that sounded plausible, I simply told him that I had no idea. Later, when we had finished the beer tasting and everyone was getting ready to go along their merry ways, that guy came up to me and told me that the most impressive part of my entire tour was when I admitted that I didn’t know the answer to his question. He told me that most people would have BSed their way through it instead of confessing that, in fact, they did not know everything. I was a little flattered by this (and also somewhat annoyed that he valued my ignorance more than my witty repartee and vast knowledge of beer and brewing). The point of the story is this…..

It’s ok to not know. What’s wrong with not knowing things? Why can’t we just admit that we haven’t the slightest idea? Why must we always feel so compelled to fill in the blanks and pretend that we have all of the answers, even when we don’t? It doesn’t make sense. I would even venture that it’s totally irrational to think that it could ever be possible to know everything about anything.

I realize that part of being human is having an insatiable curiosity to understand our environment and our existence and anything else that we can possibly think of. It’s what keeps us going, and more importantly, what drives us forward. At the same time, though, I think there comes a point where you have to say “I just don’t know.” It’s a perfectly valid answer, really, but not many people are willing to admit to it. For example, can you imagine Richard Dawkins saying that he (and/or science) didn’t (or couldn’t) have all the answers? Or for that matter, can you imagine what he would say if, in the course of a debate, you admitted to him that you just didn’t know? I wager he would laugh at you and be smugly content that he had won.

As I was doing the reading for tomorrow, I was struck by this sentence: “At its most profound, faith is not an answer to life’s questions, but a willingness to inhabit the darkness of knowing that there are some things we cannot know” (pg 171). I love this statement, especially where she says that it is willingness. It is an act of will to open yourself up and turn yourself over to the idea that you cannot know; to accept that there are things beyond your realm of comprehension, and to be comfortable with that. You almost have to completely set aside your ego to accomplish this, and I think it’s quite similar to the idea of humbling yourself to God and saying “Thy will be done.” Not an easy task at all.

So. While I think we should never stop asking questions, and never stop seeking the answers to those questions (insofar as this is possible), when it comes down to it, I think I’m going to have to side with Socrates and say “As for me, all I know is that I know nothing.”



  1. Good point Jennie! Interestingly, I think that fear of admitting that one doesn’t know something is oftentimes the root of rhetorical devices and other obstacles that enter into the way of good, open dialogue. If you look at the new atheists, it is obvious that there are some things they cannot explain (such as that big question of why there is something rather than nothing, why religion really is so popular amongst so many peoples, etc.). And in order to cover up these “holes” in their argument, the new atheists sneakily write around the subject and present the arguments they do have in such bold, confident, and loud fashion that the average reader is quickly distracted and/or convinced that no such holes exist. This strategy can only hold back the flood waters for so long, though. I know for a fact that my first read through The God Delusion cast initial doubt over some of the tenets of my faith, leaving me more than slightly worried that I may be challenged to the point of changed beliefs this semester. But, as I looked at Dawkins’ work more closely, and as we unpacked the material in class, I came to give less and less credence to what he was saying as a result of his manipulative and seemingly “immature” style. I agree with that man in the brewery: if Dawkins were to simply admit that he does not know everything and cannot explain the world and everything in it through purely biological terms, then I would take his atheist arguments much more seriously and would respect him more as an academic. In the meantime, his attempts to cover up his holes serve only to annoy me and push me away.

    Also, may I suggest a slight change? I am always bugged by the (perhaps imaginary) connection between saying “I don’t know” and giving up on a challenging task of figuring that something out. Instead, I really like saying “I don’t know right now” as that seems to push me to go figure that something out.

  2. I think that is an excellent change, Rae. I had been thinking about that, but got distracted and forgot to include it in my post. Maybe that’s another part of why people are hesitant to say that they don’t know – they think that it sounds like they are giving up.

    From here out this post is officially “the importance of i don’t know (right now)!”

  3. I sympathize with your last post a lot Rae. The God Delusion really shook up my faith too. Three months later I’m less mesmerized by Dawkins’ presentation but just because he has some shoddy arguments won’t erase that initial doubt I had at the beginning of the semester. I am a lot less confidant in my understanding of what the word “God” points at if there is a God. Unexpectedly, moments of “I really don’t know” have laid my soul bare to a reality my concepts of who/what God is had kept at bay. For the first time I really appreciate the apophatic tradition of not being able to say anything about God except to acknowledge I can’t say anything about God. Sooner or later I get back to theology, God talk (like right now) but it has added a new frightening excitement to this roller coaster ride called faith.

    I also see that turning this dialogue into a debate creates a lot of characters that have to pretend to know everything. I took debate in high school and what I learned is to give as little as possible to my opponent and modify, but never admit my arguments are wrong. Personally, it makes me feel really threatened because I don’t know everything and then doubt the little that I do know. It will be good for me to be aware of this as I wrap the class up with my paper.

  4. I really like the ideas being presented here, especially the idea of not fully knowing what or who God is. To me, a huge part of being truly alive is not having a handle on everything. In fact, I find myself a bit bored when I think I have everything figured out. Also, I wonder what good faith or religion would have if we could fully understand God. To me, the search, confusion, and rewards on the way to God, even while knowing I will never be fully satisfied, are what keep me searching.

    Here, and in the last couple of days, my thoughts have repeatedly returned to a thought in Dr. Robinette’s recent post. In it he stated, “being poised at the edge of chaos is just where I need to be.” How often I feel like this statement sums up my days, especially in regard to my studies, interactions with others, and faith life. But, I have come to realize that I wouldn’t have it any other way. What’s the fun in getting what you desperately want if you don’t have to work for it?

  5. “The one think I know for certain is that I know nothing.”

    This is a short comment but I wanted to add this wise quote an tell an anecdote about IQ testing. Toward the beginning of psychological research people were fascinated by IQ scores, many still are. These days you can take facebook quizes to tell you your IQ score but admittedly the margin of error is large. Also, what are we even measuring and are we doing it accurately? These questions are debatable.

    The point of my bringing up IQ tests is that in the beginning they did group IQ testing, specifically they separated ethnic groups in an effort to acertain relative intelligences. Sick and wrong nowadays to believe one race intellectually superior to the rest but this is what they set out to prove.

    The ethnic group that scored the lowest were Native Americans because unless they were absolutely sure of an answer they responded, “I don’t know”. Apparently you loose points for this, every other group just made shit up. I would propose that the Native Americans had more wisdom than all these other groups. It is the wise [wo]man who doesn’t claim to know what [s]he doesn’t, and an even wiser [wo]man to realize the vastness that stretches out before him/her.

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