The Beauty of “I don’t know”

The militant theist will tell you “I know that there is a God and I know that God created the universe”.  The average Christian will tell you “I know that the Bible is the true word of God”.  The devout Muslim will tell you “I know that Allah is the one true God”.

Count on the religious to know everything there is to know about existence.  Count on them to know the origin of the cosmos or the purpose of life.  “I know there is a heaven.”  “I know that God is this and God is that…”  Science does not thrive in the overconfidence of “I know”.  What we do know, we know only on the basis of testable and repeatable evidence.  And for what there is no (or incomplete) evidence, then we simply say “I don’t know” or “We’re still working on it”.

The Religious Method

But don’t get me wrong.  There is nothing wrong with “I knows”, given that there is good evidence to back up your claims.  “I know God is real”, but where is the evidence? “I just know this because I can feel him.” 

I don’t know how the universe came about.  I have thoughts and educated speculations.  I don’t know exactly when or how life originated on this planet.  I have some scientific explanations which are testable.  Owing to repeatable evidence, I know that descent with modification is a fact, but I don’t know if natural selection is the only major mechanism that drives evolution (few other mechanisms have been proposed and tested, such as genetic drift and sexual selection, etc.)  I don’t know what the geometry of the universe is; general relativity tells us that it is likely to be either open, closed or flat.  I don’t know what caused the Big Bang; I am not a cosmologist or a physicist and I have not the slightest inkling.  I don’t know if a god exists, but reason forbids me to claim that God must exist, for there is no evidence — it is as simple as that.

The Scientific Method

“I know”, if based upon religious faith and/or personal preferences, is, in its very essence, an intellectual dead-end.  If I were to say “I know that the earth is flat because the Bible tells me so”, I would seem very arrogant indeed.  “I know that the earth is 6,000 years old because the Bible tells me so” is just-as-much an irrational statement.

Science does not seek to replace “I don’t knows” with “I knows” on the basis of unsubstantiated guesses.  Zeus isn’t a scientific explanation to lightning, and Yahweh is certainly not a scientific explanation to the cosmos; at least, not until scientific evidence is produced.  Science does not base itself upon folklore or scripture.  Science observes nature, collects the evidence and makes testable explanations.  And science does not claim to be infallible, but it has proved itself to be self-correcting, constantly changing its mind on the basis of newer evidence.  There is no absolute truth in science.  Sadly, Christianity 500 years from now will still cling to the same book.  “Jesus is coming soon.”  1,000 years later?  “Jesus is still coming soon.”  2,000 years later?  “Jesus is coming soon… soon… soon…”  Creationism over the century hasn’t learnt anything apart from “God-did-it”.  Oh, but they really learnt how to piss scientists off.

“I don’t know” is a beautiful thing.  Not only is it humble and honest, it keeps us searching for answers.  The true joy of science doesn’t necessarily come from what we already know, but instead, from the anticipation of getting to know more about nature, and our place in it.  The unknown is not something to be afraid of.  It is something to cherish, and to explore with open minds.  And guess what?  The people who claim to know everything, on the basis of zero evidence, might just turn out to know nothing at all.