Not knowing is the key to knowledge


Wasn’t it Socrates who kept insisting “I am an ignorant man”? Knowing what you don’t know is the first step to achieving competence. The old line is that when we start at a new task we first are “Unconsciously incompetent” and then we began to recognize the incompetence. It’s the recognition that you don’t really know what you’re doing that drives our desire to learn how to do it better…

The same is true in science. As someone who’s taught in that area for years, the hardest thing to get across to the students is that scientific thought, physics in particular, is highly limited in what it actually “understands”. Which doesn’t mean there aren’t lots of successful models that let us make predictions, it’s just that we don’t generally understand them completely. Or much at all…

Stuart Firestone had much the same experience that I’ve had teaching science classes, but instead of blogging about this frustration, he decided to do something much more constructive. He wrote a textbook and created a college course:

“Dr. Firestein got the idea for his book by teaching a course on cellular and molecular neuroscience, based on a 1,414-page textbook that, at 7.7 pounds, weighs more than twice as much as a human brain. He eventually realized that his students must think that pretty much everything in neuroscience is known. ‘This could not be more wrong,’ he writes. ‘I had, by teaching this course diligently, given the students the idea that science is an accumulation of facts.

‘When I sit down with colleagues over a beer at a meeting, we don’t go over facts,’ Dr. Firestein writes. ‘We don’t talk about what’s known. We talk about what we’d like to figure out, about what needs to be done.’

He realized he was failing to teach ignorance, the most critical part of the scientific enterprise, which led to the creation of a course titled ‘SNC3429 Ignorance.’Dr. Firestein likes to tease students in the class about what kind of grade they want: Is it better to get an A or an F in ignorance?

In his book, Dr. Firestein writes that conducting science is something like searching for a black cat in a dark room — very difficult, especially when, as is often the case, it turns out there is no cat.

To explore scientific groping in the dark, Dr. Firestein invites university colleagues from various disciplines to talk to his students about what they don’t know.”

More here in the New York Times.

When I was a grad student, I remember my advisor, who was teaching advanced General Relativity at the time, telling us, at the end of the course, of all the places where what we had just learned failed. We didn’t really understand how mass links to space-time. We don’t really understand the mass energy equality, we don’t really understand in any way how to quantize the whole project.

And don’t even get started on the question of “time”.

There’s much we don’t know – but that’s the most exciting part of science. It’s the dream of pushing back the veil even a little bit that fires the imagination of every Nobel Prize winning wannabe.

So, why should this be any different in theology? Systematic theology reminds me so much of classical physics. A beautiful, self-consistent construct that works wonderfully within the bounds it’s designed to work within. But it’s so easy to ask it a question that it can’t answer.

This is not something to be worried about – it’s something to be excited by. It means that there’s a chance that we might, by the pursuit of the unanswerable question, find out something new (to us) about God and God’s purposes in Creation.

Maybe a little speculative theology – carefully labeled as such – would be good for all of us. Ask the hard questions in science or theology. The best stuff only comes by going down that path.

The Author

Episcopal bishop, dad, astronomer, erstwhile dancer...


  1. Esme Viviers says

    How accurately summed up! If a man lives to the ripe old age of 100 years and spent his entire life just to experience everything life has to offer, HE WILL DIE IGNORANT of most! There again the Bible gives the answer. It say’s even if a man lives FOREVER, he will not know everything!

    HOW AWESOME our Creator! He created man with an inquiring mind, to have goals and to strife to understand better, but just as one think you have an answer to a question, you find there is many more unanswered questions that arises! That is what makes live interesting!

    The truth also is, most people except the fact that they are old and don’t need to explore and pursue life any further! They live on only the nice memories of past successes. BUT unfortunately, there is NO FUTURE in the past! Then doctors don’t understand WHY some people’s short term memory collapse and eventually the long term memory too, until they are nothing more than living vegetables!

    The truth of the fact if, AGE is just a new beginning of a new ladder to advance knowledge and spreading ones wings to learn the next level of what life has to offer! Age need NOT be ones end! But it is SO dawned into ones mind that people must get old and die! That the faith people have in “age and death” is what cause premature death!

  2. My Calculus professor in college once said that the phrase “The more you know, the less you know” was the sign and definition of a good education.

    I agree with your point about theology, too. James Alison thinks that the “New Atheists” are doing theologians a big favor by forcing them to think things though in new ways. He thinks that it’s the dawn of a really interesting era in that regard….

    Nice post!

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