Spirituality for Today – August 2013 – Volume 18, Issue 1

Knowing We Don't Know

Rev. Raymond Petrucci

A photo of a daisy

Possibly, there is nothing as frustrating as not knowing something that you need to know. Imagine being a patient in the hospital and not knowing what is wrong with you. You feel sick, but test after test reveal nothing. Symptoms indicate a number of possible causes, but none prove to be present. This state creates tension for doctor and patient alike. Although feeling better, some totally exasperated patients have been discharged without ever knowing what condition put them in the hospital.

Questions arise about the authenticity of things that experts tell us exist or function in a certain way, or are the predictable effects of a series of causes. A review of the article, Trials and Errors by Jonah Lehrer in Wired illustrates this point: "Scientists are prone to perceptual short cuts, misapprehensions, or oversimplifications. Take chronic back pain. The common treatment use to be to do nothing, a slow but effective palliative. Then magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) revealed that many suffers had severely degenerated spinal discs, and patients underwent surgery to have them removed. Researchers later discovered that the seemingly obvious causal relationship did not hold up: Some people with injured discs never experienced back pain. Now doctors are advised to skip performing MRIs on patients with the complaint; the additional information confuses more than clarifies. This example is reminiscent, somewhat, of the story of a man who only saw the street outside his window; he noticed that when it rained, people always walked with opened umbrellas and he concluded that umbrellas cause rain.

We are hungry for knowledge and wanting to know how everything fits together. The reality is that we know very little. Throughout human history, philosophers and theologians have struggled with the idea of knowing. Those familiar with Thomistic thought recall Saint Thomas Aquinas' efforts to prove the existence of God by rational concepts such as: Prime Mover, Uncaused Cause, Necessary Being, Greatest Being, and Intelligent Designer. One or more of these rational definitions may be sufficient for some, but never all. The impulse in human nature to seek, to define, to understand, to express, to value, to create, and to worship speak loudly of the presence of God in us. But for many, all of these concepts would be inadequate as a proof for God's existence.

Is the meaning of knowing merely the accumulation of an ever increasing mountain of facts, or using facts to create instruments for human use? What of the knowledge that produces prose and poetry? Are they to be judged of lesser value? Do we possess enough ethical knowledge to assess the moral implications of what we create? Do we grasp the complexity of human reason and emotion well enough to evaluate our motivations and our destinies?

Know then thyself, presume not God to scan;
The proper study of mankind is man.
Plac'd on this isthmus of a middle state,
A being darkly wise, and rudely great:
With too much knowledge for the sceptic side,
With too much weakness for the stoic's pride,
He hangs between; in doubt to act or rest;
In doubt to decree himself a god, or a beast;
In doubt his mind or body to prefer;
Born to die; and reas'ning but to err,
Alike in ignorance, his reason such,
Whether he thinks too little, or too much:
Chaos of thought and passion, all confus'd;
Still by himself abus'd, or disabus'd;
Created half to rise, and half to fall;
Great lord of all things, yet a prey to all;
Sole judge of truth, in endless error hurl'd:
The glory, jest, and riddle of the world!

– Alexander Pope, An Essay on Man

In the final analysis, we must bow before the mystery of the universe around us and the universe within us. We not only live within a world of mystery, but also we are a mystery. In the face of mystery, we come to a stage where acknowledging that we do not know actually increases knowledge.