On Not Knowing, Part 2 of 3

Part 1 closed with the suggestion that our becoming familiar with this state of not knowing is an important aspect of being human. Perhaps I should go a step further, however, and suggest that our not knowing actually defines what it means to be human. Now, that might have some of you wondering about my choice of focus. Why choose to focus on the negative when we humans are the most technologically advanced animal on the planet – the one that knows more than any other animal? Why not characterize our human existence in terms of our knowing instead of our not knowing?

Actually, I would say that the difference between our level of knowledge and that of any other animal is merely a quantitative one. We just know more stuff. Mice know how to forage for seeds and crumbs; cats know how to catch mice; homo sapiens know how to protect themselves from man-eating cats; and homo sapiens sapiens know how to put cats in sealed boxes equipped with cyanide capsules that break open when and if some radioactive isotope contained therein ever “decides” to decay. Okay, I haven’t lost it. I’m merely trying to bring to mind the infamous Schrodinger’s Cat thought experiment – one intended to reveal how bizarre it is to try to think about quantum mechanical events in terms of our ordinary ways of looking at the world. Our brains have evolved to process events taking place at the macroscopic as opposed to the subatomic level of reality. Our system of logic, as well, has arisen in response to our experience of this macro level reality. In other words, we have an inherent inability to understand the workings of our world at its most basic level – or at least the most basic level of which we currently have knowledge.

Readers unfamiliar with Schrodinger’s Cat might be interested in knowing that it is essentially the same as Maku’s Toad (see Part 1) – the exception being that Maku’s Toad isn’t subject to the vagaries of any quantum mechanical trigger poised to deliver its coup de grace whenever the universe, in all of its probabilistic uncertainty, might “want” it to be so. Just as Maku’s Toad exists (for me) in a state of being both alive and dead until I decide to dismantle my 'shrine to not knowing' and look inside, so Schrodinger’s Cat exists in an indeterminate state (for us) until the box is opened. By the way, if such issues of modern physics viewed through the lens of Eastern Philosophy are of interest to you then you might enjoy such groundbreaking books as The Tao of Physics, by Fritjof Capra, or The Dancing Wu Li Masters, by Gary Zukav.

Now, you might be saying to yourself that, ultimately, it’s entirely within our power to open up the box (or dismantle the shrine) and know. You might also be saying to yourself that, while we might presently be incapable of comprehending our subatomic reality, it is not beyond the realm of comprehension that we could actually evolve the ability to understand it over time as we expand our powers of observation and experience. Well, I would simply respond by saying that advancements in human knowledge have taken us through paradigm shift after paradigm shift with respect to how we view the world, and yet we still haven’t put a scratch in either of those diamond-like queries: ‘What am I?’ and ‘Why am I here?’ Yes, science advances in leaps and bounds, accumulating knowledge in such quantity and at such a rate that no single person can even comprehend it all; and yet, with respect to these fundamental questions, we remain trapped inside this state of not knowing like insects fossilized in amber.

It’s not that I’m anti-science. I’m not. I actually think that the world would be better off if we humans would all start to think a little bit more logically, rationally, and scientifically about how we behave. Perhaps what we really need is to begin valuing science more for its process than for its products. After all, if we take a step back and look at the net effect of all of the “progress” afforded humankind by the products of scientific discovery, it’s actually quite debatable how much better off we and the world have become. The industrial revolution, for instance, was going to provide us with jobs and the products necessary for a civilized life, and yet it took people out of more healthy and natural rural environments and left them laboring long hours in unhealthy and dangerous conditions – conditions that people then had to fight to overcome. Yes, and then the chemical revolution, with its motto of “better living through chemistry,” was going to drastically improve the quality of our lives by allowing us to manipulate the molecules of our world to suit our needs. Since then, however, we’ve had to deal with one unforeseen consequence after another, from disease to environmental pollution to birth defects to all of the casualties caused by errant chemical releases. The nuclear age, likewise, was supposed to usher in a world where electricity would be “too cheap to even meter,” but that was before it ushered in the specter of global annihilation instead. Oh yeah, and then computers and robotics were going to create a world of such leisure that most of us would end up being paid not to work because so few living beings would be required to actually produce anything. But, instead, we’ve ended up with a world in which computer skills are increasingly necessary in order to work at all. And, yes, you’d still better find yourself a job. Hmmm, for some reason I find the words to John Prine’s Living in the Future going through my head. The chorus goes like this:

We are living in the future.
I'll tell you how I know.
I read it in the paper
Fifteen years ago.
We're all driving rocket ships,
And talking with our minds,
And wearing turquoise jewelry,
And standing in soup lines.

So, it seems fairly clear to me that virtually every advancement in human knowledge has walked into our lives in lock-step with a cadre of unforeseen consequences. And yet that doesn’t stop us from jumping on each and every technological bandwagon that promises to absolutely, positively change the world for the better. Genetic engineering, anyone? Yikes! I know, I know, we need it in order to help feed the world’s ever-increasing population, right? Hmmm.

Once again, I’m not anti-science. It’s just that our supercharged, hyper-technological culture has become more a celebration of our knowing than a realization of our humanity. We’ve gotten so distracted by all that we can do and invent and manipulate and subjugate that we’ve virtually forgotten (or maybe we’ve repressed) the fact that we don’t know. We’ve got a wealth of knowledge, but we’re living at the poverty level when it comes to wisdom. What is wisdom, after all, without a healthy helping of ‘I don’t know’? In this regard, perhaps the world would be better served if science were to be coupled with something akin to the Native American philosophy that, prior to a decision being made, due consideration should be given to the impact on those living seven generations in the future. In other words, decisions related to whether or not to incorporate new technology into our lives (like genetic engineering) would be guided by reflection and analysis rather than the speed-to-market approach that we presently have. Of course, the underlying wisdom of such a philosophy is that we don’t know – that we need to reflect deeply prior to acting. What may seem like a good idea now might actually lead to suffering later on. We just don’t know.

I’d better stop here and catch my breath for a moment. All this ranting is wearing me out. And besides, I suspect that some of you are patiently waiting to get a word in edgewise on this issue. Perhaps you’re simply dying to interject that, notwithstanding my previous comments, it is neither the knowing nor the not knowing that lies at the heart of human experience. Rather, it is the ‘knowing that we know’ and the ‘knowing that we don’t know.’ Indeed, our capacity for metacognition – thinking about thinking – may be unique to our species. However, I would respond by saying that, true as that statement might be, it only describes the functionality of our hardware, so to speak – the fact that we have a complex enough brain to be able to actually monitor our thought processes. But that’s like describing the functionality of a two-seater sports car in terms of its horsepower and torque and turning radius without ever getting into what it’s like to drive with the wind in your hair along a twisting and turning seacoast highway! In other words, it is the experience of driving that sports car that is important to us. Thus, I must downshift and ease this conversation back to the matter at hand. The metacognition made possible by the grand complexity of our brains invariably brings us back to the realization that we just don’t know. The experience of not knowing, the state of not knowing, indeed, defines what it means to be human.

In an earlier post I spoke of karma as Rosan Yoshida speaks of it – as habit energy. You can see this habit energy playing out each day as world events unfold. We know that we need to wean ourselves off of oil consumption, but this juggernaut of an economy has an insatiable thirst for cheap fossil fuel. We know that nuclear war is sheer madness, and yet our fear of each other compels us to prepare to wage it anyway. We know that our world population has grown too large to be sustainable, and yet we can’t even bring ourselves to discuss the issue anymore. We know that, with China and India growing in affluence and aspiring to the consumer lifestyle of the West, an unprecedented level of industrialization will be required with commensurate energy consumption and pollution and global warming, and yet we just keep watching as the juggernaut chugs onward into oblivion. This is the global problematique - the interconnected web of problems faced by our species and the world. This is our shared human karma. And we just don’t know what to do. We just don’t know. And yet, for some reason, I am still hopeful. Why? Because within the realization of our not knowing resides our humanity, as well as our salvation.

Living in the Future, written by John Prine, appears on

Bruised Orange – his 1980 release on Asylum Records.

The images on this page were created by the author. The raw images are photographs of huge coils of rusting reinforcing steel taken in the bright sunlight of a clear autumn day. Developed images were then copied and pieced together into something resembling mirror images of each other. These composite images were then scanned into a digital format and manipulated with Adobe Photoshop. There, now you know!

Copyright 2011 by Maku Mark Frank


  1. Hmm... I'm all for equanimity and science, don't get me wrong. But where does feeling and/or emotion fit in here? Part of being human is about emotional reactions to situations or other people - at least, I think so. But maybe that's just the highly sensitive introvert in me rearing its head. I don't know. :)

  2. Hello K! Thank you for reading my post with such reflection. You bring up some excellent points. I hope that I can do them justice in what, by necessity, must be a brief response. First, let me clarify that when I suggested that we could benefit from more scientific, rational, and logical thinking, I wasn’t suggesting that we move in that direction to the exclusion of our more feeling, passionate, and emotional selves. I’m not seeing these two ways of being as mutually exclusive. They are merely different aspects of who/what we are. (Ultimately, of course, there is no heart/mind duality.) The key, as I see it, is to approach each situation with the totality of who/what we are, utilizing heart and mind in proportions appropriate to the circumstances. The ability to actually see a situation clearly – including seeing clearly our emotional (heart) reactions to it and our intellectual (mind) processing of it – requires us to know ourselves with great intimacy. I’m thinking that you already know the method that I would suggest to get to know yourself that well!

    I think it is easy to see that neither heart nor mind is inherently “better”. Each way of being has the potential for wisdom and each has the potential for cruelty and destruction. For instance, the Holocaust was perpetrated with great intellectual, scientific, legalistic, and “rational” precision, but there is not a single positive word to be said about it. Similarly, allowing our “heart” to rule our actions will not result in any positive benefit when our heart is filled with anger, hatred, desire for vengeance, etc.

    Equanimity is an extremely important thing to cultivate. (I bet you also know the method that I would suggest to cultivate it.) Just moments ago someone sat down at the table across from me here in one of my favorite coffee shops and proceeded to trim every last one of his fingernails. Yes, all ten of them. And it took him multiple passes to complete the task to his satisfaction. It was fairly cringe-worthy at first. By my way of thinking this is one of those private grooming exercises best done somewhere other than a public place. For that reason I found the snip, snip, snip incredibly distracting! Being no stranger to the practice of equanimity, however, I simply tried to recognize the ultimate reality of the situation: the act of trimming one’s nails is essentially empty of any particular meaning. My reaction to it is all about my own expectations, values, etc. Thus, I chose not to say or do anything in response to that annoying event. Now, had the man pulled a weapon and begun to threaten someone, I would not have sat quietly trying to cultivate equanimity. I would have reacted to try to protect everyone involved. At least, I hope that’s how I would have reacted. But that wouldn’t necessarily mean that my actions are devoid of equanimity. Equanimity might still be present – equanimity as to whether my attempt to protect everyone will be successful or not, or whether it would compromise my safety or not.

    In closing, then, I would say that as important as equanimity is it needs to be considered wisely and in context. After all, why would I take the bodhisattva vow to save all beings if I were ambivalent as to whether all beings needed saving or deserved saving, etc.?

    I hope I’ve said something of benefit here!

    Thanks again!

  3. Thank you! This is one time where your comment is actually better than the original post! Everything makes more sense now that I know where you're coming from, so to speak.

    Here's a totally unrelated question: did the coffee shop grooming actually happen? (Don't answer that - the stories I could tell you about similar incidents would make you sick to your stomach.) Because if I didn't know you as well as I do, I would say you're making that up just to illustrate your viewpoint. But I know you wouldn't do that, now would you? :)

    Sorry to keep bringing up equanimity - it seems to be my new favorite word these days. :D

    Another, somewhat silly question: do I deserve saving? ;-)

  4. I'm glad I could help, K!

    Yes, the coffee shop incident really did happen... and right as I was drafting my reply. Real life offers us an abundance of material to work with, eh?

    Are you feeling unworthy of being saved? Please don't. Think of all the beings you still have to save!


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