On epistemological modesty, or knowing that you do not know

I’ve been reading David Brooks’ tome, The Social Animal, this week, I’m still not sure if it’s a book of fiction or a grand literature review of social science, psychology and behavioural economics. Whatever category I might file it under after I’ve read and digested and passed on and hopefully received back, it is a brilliant book. Maybe it is more than that, every now and then something comes along that transcends our genres and bridges the boxes we build to organise our life.

What he does is to show through the content as well as the style that the boxes we use are arbitrary and often place constraints on our thinking and acting. We think and act in a certain way in certain contexts because we think we ought to.

But this isn’t a review of the book, I’ve still got a third to read so that would be rather odd. Instead it’s a rift off a little phrase that Brooks drops into one of his own tangents that makes the book so special. Throughout he is telling the story of Harold and Erica and he does so by constantly peeling back the covers to show you what is going on below the surface, helping move them along and exploring the decisions that they take and what influences them.

In one chapter Brooks describes one of Erica’s colleagues as ‘epistemologically modest’, and by this he means that he knows that he does not know. And this is a strength rather than a weakness, it’s a bit like the old adage, ‘the more you know the more you know that you do not know’. It is understanding that in coming to terms with your lack of knowledge you open yourself up to learning much more.

It is knowing that knowledge will not answer all your problems. It’s not just an acceptance of how little you know, but an acceptance of how little you can know. It is an awareness that a vast amount of knowledge will remain outside of your grasp.

It is about seeing the world around you as incredibly complex and made up of so many different factors that cannot be boiled down to equations and rational expectations. It’s about scaling back our expectations of what we can predict and project. Because in the end we just don’t know.

I feel a lot like that sometimes. Amid a world of competing charms and vices, I feel lost among what I should know but I do not. I think that certainty is just a beyond my reach, that I can reach it if I just stretch a little more, or try a little harder. I imagine that if I retreat from the pressures of the day and find solace in my solitude, if I explore new surroundings to fire up my creativity I will land upon the answer that I’m searching for.

But the answers don’t come, and if they do they don’t satisfy. Because the barrage of new questions is relentless. It is not enough to know today what you wanted to know yesterday. Because today has questions of its own. Why would a man open fire on children in a Jewish school? Does a trending topic on twitter get God’s attention more than the quiet crying supplications of a loved one coming to terms with the suffering in their home?

Maybe as well as epistemological modesty we need some theological modesty.

Maybe we need to know that we will not know it all. That the answers to the questions that haunt us may well remain unanswered, that the cries of our despair will not always be resolved. That when we lie in the bath wondering if God really created the world, and whether Adam really existed, it is the strength of our faith coming to the fore rather than the depth of our doubts.

If we didn’t have doubts, what value would our belief have?

I wonder if it is essential that we do not know all that we think we would need to know in order to sustain belief, for that belief to actually be worth believing. Therefore, as well as accepting as a point of fact that we do not know the answer to all of our theological questions, we acknowledge that our lack of knowledge is a positive feature rather than the cliff edge of doubt that we could slip off and fall out of the fellowship of believers.

After all we’re not called to learn lots of facts and figures, or just recite theological doctrine, or even understand the trinity, or comprehend the atonement.

We’re called to follow Jesus and that’s what I want to do. Understanding can wait. 

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