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79. The Joy of Not Knowing?

Knowing is important to us. When we were at school, not knowing was an undesirable state of affairs. Failed exams and poor end of term reports tended to ensue. People who knew a lot were revered, won prizes and made teachers smile. Knowledge was something of a God to us, and still is. And yet brilliant philosophers like Montaigne, Socrates and the Sceptics, built their entire reputations on not knowing. So are we missing out? Inspired by Sarah Bakewell's book, 'How to live: a life of Montaigne in one question and twenty attempts at an answer', this week's reflection explores. 'All I know is that I know nothing' Socrates The words 'I don't know' are ones most people try to avoid. Shop assistants have been known to lie rather than say they don't know. Men, and I daresay women too, have been known to spend hours getting hopelessly lost rather than confess ignorance of their whereabouts. Of all the things dreaded by people giving talks, the worst is being asked a question they don't know the answer to. When we think we do know something, most of us hang on to it like grim death. If, for example, we say that Oslo is the capital of Sweden, and somebody is insensitive enough to say no, actually it's Stockholm, do we immediately roll over and say, yes of course, you're right? Of course not. We prevaricate - are you sure, no really, I'm quite sure it's Oslo, even as it is dawning on us that they are almost certainly right. We're invested in what we know, much of our sense of ok-ness is dependent on it. What would be left of us if we didn't know these things after all? There's a great sense of safety and self-worth in knowing, or so we believe, and we strive for it as we strive for other sources of safety and self worth. I hate to say this but doctors are prime movers in this. Whatever you do, don't go to see a doctor with your unexplained symptoms. They would rather set off on a course of investigations that could bankrupt the NHS than concede that they don't know what's wrong with you. And that's because they can't stand not knowing, and they have your complete cooperation because neither can you. So when the sixteenth century French philosopher, Montaigne, started to talk about not knowing anything as if there was nothing wrong with it, people were confused, even frightened. If Socrates said that all he knew was that he knew nothing, Montaigne would add 'and I'm not even sure about that.' He took the ancient Sceptics as his inspiration. Scepticism is usually taken, these days, to mean that you don't believe anything until it's proven. Sceptics typically scoff at paranormal events, God, basically anything that can't be proven. Originally, though, Scepticism meant that nothing could be definitely said to be right or wrong, even when apparently proven or disproven. Sextus Impiricus, one of the original Sceptics, said: 'To every account I have scrutinized which purports to establish something in dogmatic fashion, there appears to me to be opposed another account, purporting to establish something in dogmatic fashion equal to it in convincingness or lack of convincingness.' Montaigne picked up the baton. How could he be sure of anything, he would say, if something looked one way when he was feeling rested, or after a meal, and quite another when he was feeling tired or hungry? If animals see colours differently from us, he said (as we now know they do), how do we know if what we see is the right way? Maybe in order to see the world accurately we need, not five senses, but eight or ten? Nothing was certain, he concluded, not our thoughts or feelings or even what we experience through our five senses. So nothing was worth taking too seriously. If this is the case, and it can be if we step back and release that firm grip on what we think we know, then we can all relax. We don't know, there is no way of knowing for certain, and it doesn't really matter either way. As Sarah Bakewell says in her fabulous book, not knowing 'makes you laugh and feel better because it frees you from the need to find a definite answer to anything'. Admittedly, this may not work so well when it comes to capital cities, particularly if you're planning a trip to one, but it can be employed more widely than you might think. That argument you had last week, that conclusion you drew in your recent report, your criticism of someone's behaviour, even the scientific or theoretical principles that underlie your work. 'How puny is the knowledge of even the most curious person, he reflected, and how astonishing the world by comparison.' Sarah Bakewell, about Montaigne He made not knowing such a pleasure that, after reading him for a while, it is hard to understand why we would be so attached to knowing. Knowing provides safety, but as with so many crutches and supports that we use, it has its casualties: Curiosity. Possibility. Ease. It is hard to believe that Socrates was executed for his curiosity and uncertainty, but it just goes to show how threatening these things are, especially to people whose entire lives are invested in what they know. Try this: 1. What is your experience of knowing? 2. How important is knowing to you, and what is it important for you to know? 3. How do you avoid the experience of not knowing, and why? 4. When is it ok for you not to know, and what is that like? When error's waves are past How sweet to reach thy tranquil port at last, And gently rocked in undulating doubt, Smile at the sturdy winds which war without Thomas Moore, Irish poet. Have a great week. Love Anita