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Knowing What We Don’t Know

Knowing What We Don’t Know

We humans appear to be the only life form on the planet that fusses about truth. As far as we can know, oak trees and wolves don’t spend much time considering whether the understanding of the world that guides their actions is true; it appears that oak trees and wolves go about their business in the world without reflection upon the nature of truth. We humans may at times wish we were a bit more like oak trees and wolves; this quality we call consciousness is, as that cliché goes, a blessing and a curse.

This struggle for truth is at least in part rooted in the fact that when we modern humans with the big brain look out on the world, we see incredible complexity that dwarfs our ability to catalog and analyze. The world we see is chaotic, especially in the modern era when we can see (or, at least, see a representation of) so much of the world through mass media and have a direct experience of (or, at least, brush up against) so much of the world because of relatively rapid transit. But the cleverness we humans have developed to control many aspects of our environment is a bit of a trap; it leads us to believe we can understand the world, but then the world inevitably proves too complex for our understanding. It’s as if we are the victims of a cosmic bait-and-switch scam—we know just enough to seem to be able to control the world, and then the world reminds us of our limits. We build nuclear power plants and then wonder what to do with the deadly waste. We dig for coal and drill for oil, then scratch our heads as the planet heats up.  

Wes Jackson, a planet geneticist who left conventional academic life to co-found The Land Institute to pursue projects about sustainable agriculture and sustainable culture, suggests that we would be wise to recognize this human condition—our basic ignorance. His point is that whatever our technical and scientific prowess, we are—and always will be—far more ignorant than knowledgeable, and therefore it would be sensible for us to adopt “an ignorance-based worldview” that could help us understand these limits.

Acknowledging our basic ignorance does not mean we should revel in the ways humans can act stupidly, but rather we should be spurred to recognize that we have an obligation to act as intelligently as possible, keeping in mind not only what we know but how much we don’t know. Such humility is implicit not only in the dominant faith systems today, but also in traditional and indigenous systems. Humility is also the key lesson that we should take from the Enlightenment and modern science—a contentious claim, perhaps, given the way in which modern science tends to overreach. The crucial Enlightenment insight, however, is not that humans can understand everything in the universe through reason, but that we can give up attempts to know everything and be satisfied with knowing only what we can know. That is, we can be content in making it up as we go along, cautiously, aware that we often will be wrong. That is the real lesson of the scientific revolution, and one of the tragedies of the modern world is that too few have learned that lesson. The conception of God-as-mystery is a healthy corrective to human arrogance, providing theological support for the ignorance-based worldview that Jackson prescribes.  

We should remember that this lesson also is at the heart of the Christian creation story. Following Jackson’s analysis, we might consider reading Adam and Eve’s banishment in chapters two and three of Genesis as a warning that hubris is our tragic flaw. In the garden, God told them they could eat freely of every tree but the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. This need not be understood as a command that people must stay stupid, but only that we resist the temptation to believe we are godlike and can manipulate the complexity of the world. Human arrogance of that type is epitomized by a boast made in 2000 by Richard Dawkins, one of the “new atheists.” As a scientist, he certainly understands the contingent nature of scientific inquiry, yet he made the claim that “our brains … are big enough to see into the future and plot long-term consequences.” Such a statement is a reminder that human egos are typically larger than brains, which highlights the dramatic need for humility.

Nothing in this view argues for giving up on the idea of truth or humans’ capacity to know the many things that we can trust that we know. It is not a plea to abandon science and seek answers purely on non-rational grounds, but rather a reminder that we should understand our limits. Nor does this view demand that we give up our struggle to know the mystery that is beyond our rational capacity. It is not a plea to abandon spirituality and confine ourselves only to what can be safely known through science, but rather a reminder not to create answers simply because we want answers.

As we sort through this, we also must never forget our moral obligation: We are limited, but our limits don’t relieve us of our duty to act in the world in ways we can defend as ethical, as consistent with human flourishing in harmony with the non-human world. Our intellectual and spiritual limits don’t mean that the suffering of others is irrelevant because we can’t be sure how to alleviate it. Nor does it mean that we can turn our backs on the obligation to live in harmony with the rest of the planet, even if it appears that we have intervened in the ecological health of the planet in a fashion that may have gone beyond the point of no return.

Robert Jensen is a journalism professor
at the University of Texas at Austin and board member of the Third Coast
Activist Resource Center in Austin, TX. He also is the author of
Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity (South End Press,
The Heart of Whiteness: Confronting Race, Racism and White
Privilege (City Lights, 2005); Citizens of the Empire: The Struggle
to Claim Our Humanity (City Lights, 2004); and Writing Dissent:
Taking Radical Ideas from the Margins to the Mainstream (Peter Lang,
2002). Jensen can be reached at [email protected] and his articles can be found online


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