Into the Unknown – Why we should fall in love with saying ‘I don’t know’

We are now six months into the pandemic and those six months have been interesting on top of everything else.

From hoarding toilet paper (or wine and condoms in France), lock-down humor and videocall marathons up to conspiracy theories and heated debates on the origin of the virus and the appropriateness of taken precautions —especially those last two aspects have made this a testing time for families, friendships and even relationships.

I go on social media and the first thing I usually see in my newsfeed is some shared article or blogpost or website or document that is meant to prove some point. Followed by quite a few comments — some strongly agreeing, some strongly disagreeing. There are insults, there is name calling, there is generalization, defamation, patronizing and a lot of smart-assery. Sheeple versus conspiracy theorists.

I for my part don’t believe in a global conspiracy regarding this pandemic. It just seems not very likely, especially if it involves blood thirsty Hollywood stars or 5G poles. Or lizard people. Not that I don’t like wacky theories (they are an excellent exercise for fostering imagination) but keeping something a secret among such an amount of people over such an amount of time just doesn’t seem quite doable. There are other theories that are probably more likely than a global conspiracy but what do I know?

The thing is, there is yet so much we don’t understand about this virus. Scientists all over the planet are researching it and trying to make sense of it all. There are new findings all the time, some confirming previous hypotheses, others contradicting them. There seems to be a study, a statistic, a survey for every possible viewpoint. People cherry-pick whatever proves their theirs and slam their discoveries in each other’s faces instead of acknowledging the sheer variety of scientific approaches. My feeling is this isn’t helping anything or anyone at all. Maybe it’s time to admit how little we know and share with each other how uncomfortable that makes us.

The unknown and the unknowable

As a species we have come far (well, it depends on the perspective I guess). We have figured out quite a lot of stuff. And yet there is still so much we don’t know, we cannot know even. The American philosopher Thomas Nagel wrote about the limits of human imagination in his widely cited and passionately discussed paper What Is It Like to Be a Bat?

As humans we might never know what it’s like to experience magnetism like some birds do. We might never know how it is to have a sideline organ that lets us feel the proximity and movements of our flock. But these are only the things we know that we don’t know. What about all the other Unknowns and Unknowables? Acknowledging how much we don’t know and how little we have under control can potentially be somewhat scary but at the same time, if you open yourself up to that thought it can also be pretty helpful and actually quite relieving.

The Pyramid of (Un)Knowing

Falling in love with saying ‘I don’t know’.

In fact what my heart is longing for most — especially in times of uncertainty (which basically means always): hearing people say ‘I don’t know’. One might think it would be the opposite, that listening to others stating things with confidence would likewise spark confidence, but to me that’s not the case. Listening to others ‘knowing’ the answer, the solution, the way out makes me uncomfortable because it seems like mockery of our world’s complexity and a lack of humbleness.

The famous neuroscientist and entrepreneur David Eagleman has said it beautifully:

I really don’t know anything. I’m just trying to figure it out. Science is really just the understanding of the vastness of our ignorance.

We need a new vocabulary for our complex world

Instead I believe we need a different vocabulary to get away from rigidity, from absoluteness, cause-relation, separation and mechanistic thinking:

Emergence, Ambiguity, Synchronicity, Serendipity, Complexity, Connectedness, Tendency, Intuition, Surrender and Humility are just some of the words naming phenomena we are surrounded by and always have been. The stuff our world is made of and the attitude needed to deal with it.

I’ll be speaking about uncertainty and dealing with the unknown at Catalyzing the Future, the global conference on foresight, antifragility, resilience and the possible futures of humanity (Sept. 30th 2020).

Uncertainty Expert | Future Thinker | Blue Water Sailoress Hallo I’m Rike. When I’m not thinking about uncertainty and randomness, I sail the oceans.