“Don’t know, don’t care.” (UCTAA)
“DO care –but still don’t know.” (Alan Parfitt)
by: Alan Parfitt
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One thing that distinguishes man from beast is the human capacity for wonder. We look at the world around us and fail to understand how it works. Unlike cats, ants, elephants and microbes this causes us concern. WHY does the sun come up? HOW do seeds turns into plants? WHAT makes us tick? Etcetera. We want to know!
This curiosity has helped us discover many things, e.g. heliocentricity, Mendelian genetics, psychotherapy. And all of that is good: we now know a hell of a lot more than we used to.
But still, we know a lot less than we would like. The same probably applies to cats, ants, elephants and microbes, but they have retained the capacity to shrug their shoulders and accept their ignorance and impotence. We, unfortunately, have not. We seek, demand, need explanations for everything. And so, rather than accept ‘don’t know’ as an answer, we construct an explanation and call it truth.
An example of such truth is that the sun god drives a fiery chariot across the sky every day, because it’s the only way we ancient Greeks can explain daily solar cycles.
Another example of truth is that miserable man is condemned to rebirth upon rebirth into miserable circumstances unless he learns decency, in which case we stone-age Buddhists promises him a happy release: genuine death rather than yet another sad rebirth.
A third example of truth is that God created the whole shebang in six days, because ancient Jews were unable to find a more plausible beginning to the iterative question: where do we come from?
The fourth, and possibly most popular truth, is that Santa Claus –one of the more recent superhumans- rides reindeer through the skies and drops gifts down chimneys: how else can their presence around the hearth be explained to the inquisitive but credulous children of prosperity?
As we grow up, or learn more, we are in general prepared to replace the most glaringly idiotic ‘truths’ with more enlightened successors, as we continue our quest for knowledge. Apollo makes way for Kepler, reincarnation is turned into a promise rather than a threat, Santa’s reindeer becomes a website, etcetera. The only constant in all this is: we remain unable to accept ‘don’t know’ as an answer to life’s more intriguing questions. What came first, the chicken or the egg? I, for one, don’t know -or in this instance, care. Similarly, I don’t know whether there is such a thing as an afterlife. I think I would probably prefer it if there were, but that is scant reason for presupposing it or building a complex epistemology around the idea. It is so much better to accept: I don’t know –even if I do care, like in this case.
Accepting ‘don’t know’ certainly makes more sense than following a temperamental, sadistic and frequently downright deranged Old Testament God who makes Genghis Khan look like a wimpy pacifist, or to follow the New Testament version who apparently died for my sins before I ever had a chance to commit them (which at the very least is shoddy bookkeeping), or to believe literally the ramblings of an illiterate tribal chief who, by all accounts, was a pretty effective tribal leader if not always a very consistent or convincing prophet.
Looking at it from the other, more scientific side:
- Darwin never claimed he knew the ultimate answers to life, the universe and everything(1). Does that make his discoveries vile untruths? Of course not.
- Einstein never managed to formulate the Gand Unifying Theory to everybody’s satisfaction (importantly including his own). Does that mean that relativity is nonsense? Of course not.
- I am unable to describe what happens when you die. Does that make me an idiotic liar? Of course not.
The point is, that scientists, wise men, discoverers, inspirational leaders and ground-breaking intellects have always flourished as a result of not claiming access to ultimate truth. It is only the religious that claim such access, and distort any evidence around to suit their quicksand beliefs, rather than to challenge them. Only the religious embed in societal laws what the populace must believe (e.g. Islamic countries now, Europe in the 16th/17th century, Japan pre-1945, Calvinist Holland and Switzerland, the US where God is even written into the constitution and onto the coins. (The Catholics are probably the Champions in this dubious competence: in the past they forced Galileo to publicly deny his beliefs that he –unlike they- could prove. Today, they grant ultimate authority on AIDS and contraception to a guy who can, at the very least, not lay claim to any real-world experience of the issues involve, and demand celibacy(2) from their priesthood without any Biblical foundation for such an unnatural lifestyle).
Personally, I find the following frequently used quote very inspirational. It goes like this: “I used to be uncertain, but now I’m not so sure.” It is, or should be, the motto for everyone interested in increasing human knowledge rather than legitimising and sanctifying the lack thereof.
- Readers of Douglas Adams know these answers. Their uncertainties concern the question…
- In fact, priestly celibacy is a Mediaeval invention designed to keep church possessions in the church, rather than allowing them to be inherited by the priest’s secular spawn. By effectively outlawing such spawn, all candlesticks, chalices and holy foreskins were preserved for the clergy, or at least: for the church.