The philosophy of “I don’t know”
Absolute certainty is something we yearn for but can never really achieve.
Therefore, our pursuit is filled with uncertainty.
We have developed adaptations to this in the form of belief systems and tribes. But, these come with trade-offs, as Thomas Sowell says of all solutions, “There are no solutions. There are only trade-offs.”
The positive trade-offs:
- Community, a sense of belonging, security, survival, and alleviating uncertainty
The negative trade-offs:
- Dogma, ideology, conflict, divisiveness, loneliness to those excluded, disdain towards new or opposing information
These trade-offs expose the paradoxical nature of belief systems and tribes — we can’t live without them but they can also be a detriment.
As we became “more civilized” and left our hunter-gatherer tribes, religions helped us adapt, but of course, they are not immune to trade-offs either. Minor differences can cause separation as seen by the 200 denominations of Christianity or the many denominations of Hinduism. This transcends religion and is commonly referred to as the narcissism of small differences.
Now, society is adapting again as seen by the continuous decrease in religious affiliation.
As R.E.M. once sang, we are losing our religion.
But, with or without religion, humans will always have a dormant need for a belief system and tribe.
One place we see this emerge is in science.
Have you seen the yard sign that says “In this house, we believe”, with a list of beliefs, and “science” is among them? Or, the hashtag #BelieveInScience on social media? The term “Believe in science” has erupted on Google Search since 2010.
Science is being used to proselytize ideas as absolute truths.
But, we’ve already established a premise that absolute certainty isn’t attainable.
Karl Popper explains:
“Science is not about identifying the truth. It’s reducing uncertainty.”
Even the word “science” is based on the Latin injunction ignoramus — “we do not know” — so, it’s ironic we are using it “to know” something.
Carl Sagan, one of the biggest advocates of science, articulates this:
“The history of science teaches that the most we can hope for is successive improvement in our understanding, learning from our mistakes, an asymptotic approach to the Universe, but with the proviso that absolute certainty will always elude us”
Done gracefully, science can help us inch our way towards the truth. Done incorrectly, as we’ve seen, science can be another victim of the negative trade-offs of belief systems and tribes.
Medicine is another area of emergence
How often do you hear a medical doctor say, “I don’t know”? It’s rare but this is a person who is intellectually honest. They don’t stretch their authority beyond the confines of their knowledgebase. They understand the elusiveness of absolute certainty.
When we become very specialized in any field, it cements us as an expert. But, this can enable overconfidence in proximal fields.
Only delusion can make us believe that we have understood a subject to its very bottom. -Michel de Montaigne
For example, in a doctorate program, nutrition isn’t a focus. Neither is preventative medicine, or the ecological environment, or the microbiome. You can check MD curriculums and find that the word “nutrition” might be mentioned once as an afterthought in a physiology course. Yet, every doctor will give their nutritional advice, which tells us that either all doctors are continuing their education or we are seeing overconfidence as mentioned before.
“Reflecting back on my medical training, I can see why he would question the current system. Most medical school courses rely on memorizing facts and regurgitating them back for exams, and once we specialize, we forget much of it. Learning to critically evaluate the quality of research and how to conduct good research are more of an afterthought.” -Katherine Bishop, MD
When we live in certainty, we are reluctant to seek out new information. But, new information is accruing faster than ever, so fast that it’s impossible to keep up with.
Scientific knowledge grows exponentially — that is, the number of published papers doubles at a fixed rate, just as money invested at a fixed interest rate does. In the case of global scientific output, the doubling occurs about every nine years. Today, to double our knowledge each nine years means to add new knowledge so fast that no human can keep up. In 2017, for example, there were more than three million new scientific papers. -Leonard Mlodinow, Elastic
And, the average age of a doctor is 51 years old, which means their curriculum took place ~20 years ago.
There have been many medical breakthroughs over the last 20 years:
- The microbiome’s role in depression
- The gut’s role in the large increases in autoimmune disease
- The synergistic roles of Vitamin D, Vitamin A, Vitamin K2, and magnesium
- Our understanding of the brain. In 2016, the NIH’s Human Connectome Project identified 97 new brain regions.
[Some states do require continued medical education, but the average requirement is 50 hours a year. Many people accomplish that amount of learning in a week.]
And, even if we are able to get past all of this, as some great doctors do, we may not have time. The average doctor has 2,500 patients, so they spend an average of 10 minutes with each patient.
When we don’t have time to learn, we will cut corners by outsourcing our thinking.
For doctors and scientists, this outsourcing goes to institutions. But, these institutions can be victims of those same negative trade-offs mentioned before. Here are a few examples:
- The American Heart Association (AHA) still says cholesterol isn’t safe despite the overwhelming evidence indicating that it’s okay.
- Saturated fat is still demonized by our medical institutions despite the evidence indicating otherwise.
- Salt intake is still widely avoided
- Then, there are conflicts of interest. 67% of medical research is sponsored by drug companies and a JAMA study showed that 59% of the experts participating in guideline creation have financial ties.
Here is a personal anecdote that illustrates some of this.
- A few years ago, my mother-in-law broke her ankle. It wasn’t healing so her doctor did tests and found out she had very low vitamin D. The doctor put her on Vitamin D3. After a few months, her Vitamin D levels didn’t change. The doctor increased the dose until she was taking 50,000mg. This is when I found out. First, I was concerned about the high dosage as these levels can be toxic. Then, I remembered learning about Dr. Weston A Price’s research. He discovered trends across primitive populations that caused them to retain health and vigor. That trend was the synergistic consumption of fat-soluble vitamins A, D, and K2. Dr. Price’s discovery spawned the creation of cod liver oil, which synergistically provides these fat-soluble vitamins. I quickly purchased some cod liver oil, and within weeks, my mother-in-law’s Vitamin D levels were back up. Subsequently, her ankle healed.
Does this mean I have more expertise than a doctor?! Far from it. Please don’t show up at my door if you’ve broken your leg, that’s what doctors were trained to do.
But, doctors could and should find trusted sources as I did at the Kresser Institute.
What is the way forward?
Not the lecture hall kind, the kind that is just a guide for living in the world. One that can include belief systems and tribes but simultaneously mitigate some of the negative trade-offs.
“Philosophy is a conversation between your current self and a future self that has reached their full potential.” -unknown
This type of philosophy isn’t a one size fits all. It’s just a loose guide for facing the world.
The philosophy of “I don’t know” isn’t novel of course. It is at least 3,500 years old.
Somewhere around 400 B.C., according to Plato, Socrates said:
“Although I do not suppose that either of us knows anything really beautiful and good, I am better off than he is — for he knows nothing, and thinks that he knows. I neither know nor think that I know. In this latter particular, then, I seem to have slightly the advantage of him.”
Aristotle followed up Socrates with:
“The more you know, the more you realize you don’t know.”
There is deep wisdom behind these philosopher’s conclusions, conclusions that took a lifetime of learning and self-reflection.
This is why they didn’t utter it until they were over 50 years old.
Now, 3,500 years later, we see this scientifically. Behavioral economist Daniel Kahneman discusses in his book Thinking Fast and Slow:
- Paradoxically, it is easier to construct a coherent story when you know little, when there are fewer pieces to fit into the puzzle. Our comforting conviction that the world makes sense rests on a secure foundation: our almost unlimited ability to ignore our ignorance.
This is the paradox of knowledge. The less we know, the more likely we can fall victim to thinking we know.
“It takes considerable knowledge just to realize the extent of your own ignorance.” -Thomas Sowell
Let’s escape from the illusion of absolute certainty and embrace a philosophy of “I don’t know.”