“I Don’t Know” Your Way to Greater Serenity

Once upon a time, there was a farmer. The farmer had a stallion, and one day it got out and ran away. All the neighbors said, “Alas, dismay! Your stallion ran away! Aren’t you unlucky?” The farmer replied, “Maybe yes, maybe no.”

The next day the stallion returned, followed by a filly. The neighbors said, “Huzzah! Hooray! A new filly today! Aren’t you lucky?” The farmer said, “Maybe yes, maybe no.”

The next day the farmer’s son was trying to break the filly, and she threw him and he broke his leg. All the neighbors said, “Alas, dismay! No help with your hay, in bed he’ll have to say! Aren’t you unlucky?” The farmer replied, “Maybe yes, maybe no.”

The next day the emperor’s army came through the countryside, conscripting all the young men for his army. But because the son had a broken leg, he was passed over. The neighbors said, “Huzzah! Hooray! Away from the fray, safe he’ll stay! Aren’t you lucky?” The farmer said, “Maybe yes, maybe no.”

* * *

We’ll consider this story presently. But first a little historical backstory….

When Alexander the Great (336–323 BCE) conquered the Mediterranean world, his empire extended east all the way to India. In Alexander’s retinue was the philosopher Pyrrho (“PEER-oh”). During this journey, Pyrrho encountered magi in Persia and gurus in India. After the military campaign, he went home to Greece and founded a philosophical movement. It wasn’t Buddhist, but it’s clear that some of his key ideas came from Buddhism — various parables and metaphors in the Buddhist literature appear almost verbatim in Pyrrho’s teaching. And their thinking parallels in quite a few places.

Nowadays Pyrrho is lumped in with a larger Greek school of thought called ‘skepticism’ but I’m not sure that’s fair. Around 387 BCE Plato founded an academy in Athens which existed until 86 BCE, restarted and continued until its final demise in 529 CE. Around 200 BCE we have the beginnings of Skepticism in Plato’s Academy — the idea that nothing at all can be known with certainty.

If we call that ‘hard skepticism’, Pyrrho would be more like ‘gentle skepticism’: we can know something (not as much as we like to think we do!). But, and here’s the key — on anything about which we don’t have enough evidence to decide, don’t have an opinion at all. And by freeing ourselves from all unnecessary dogma, on matters both big and small, we can lead more peaceful lives. By proclaiming “I don’t know” when we don’t, we can avoid internal and external drama.

The existence of UFOs is a good (and hopefully neutral!) example. Are there UFOs? It seems plausible to me that there could be: it’s a big universe, with uncountable stars and planets — if Intelligent Life arose here, it seems plausible to me that it could elsewhere too. But what little evidence I’ve come across for UFOs hasn’t been very convincing. Is ‘the government’ covering up the evidence? Maybe. But there seems to be scant evidence one way or the other for that either.

If belief is “asserting something is true in the absence of evidence,” then we have UFO proponents who ‘believe’ there are UFOs. Meanwhile, we have the contrary view that since we have no (convincing) evidence of UFOs, then they categorically don’t exist. That doesn’t seem right to me either: in 1919, cosmic rays (radiation from the Sun) were first detected. Before that, we had no evidence of cosmic rays at all. Does that mean they didn’t exist? Hardly.

This kind of ‘gentle skepticism’ will end up being very personal and unique to each of us. There are topics I personally have researched in some depth. You, however, know a lot about other topics. But the reality is that all of us know nothing about almost everything, despite our heroic efforts. Here’s why…

The University of California near me has about 2 million books in its collection. If I were to read a book a week (and I’m thinking it’s going to take me more than a week to get through Advanced Quantum Biochemistry), that means in a 50-year book-reading career I can read around 2500 books. That’s about 0.1% percent of the University’s collection. That collection only includes what humanity has figured out and recorded in books that have survived, on subjects of interest to universities. (Their section on how to shoe a horse is probably rather lightweight.) Vast oceans of currently unknown knowledge lie ahead and aren’t in any library! In other words, we’re all walking bodies of ignorance, with only a tiny sliver or two of hard-won knowledge out of the Infinite Ocean of Knowledge — Known and Unknown.

On top of that, a goodly chunk of what we think we know is mistaken. It’s interesting to read scientific literature from, say, the 19th century, in which we find dogmatic ideas like: “Newton has physics completely nailed,” “heavier than air flight is impossible,” and “humanity can never reach the moon.” How much of what we think we know today will be proven wrong or uselessly irrelevant in 10 years?

“It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so. “ — Mark Twain

Furthermore, on questions for which we simply don’t have enough information to decide either way, opposing factions will argue with each other forever — without any possibility of resolution.

I’m certainly not saying we shouldn’t pursue Knowledge. It may be true that “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing,” but none at all is positively deadly. What I AM suggesting is that if we can remember that we’re finite and fallible, it will be a whole lot easier to have compassion and patience for the finiteness and fallibility of our fellow humans — and ourselves.

And if we’re willing to honestly say to ourselves “I might be mistaken,” then it’s much easier for us to really listen to views different from our own.

And we can spare ourselves no end of inner drama. In the story of the Farmer, the neighbors are quick to jump to conclusions about what’s happening in the Farmer’s life: “Isn’t it wonderful?” or “Isn’t it woeful?” The farmer, on the other hand, knows that he doesn’t know. He knows that he doesn’t know tomorrow’s implications of today’s events. So instead of jumping to conclusions and joining in the Victim or Victor game with his neighbors, he simply waits to see what happens. As a result, he spares himself a lot of heartache.

Pyrrho is saying: when you know something from your own personal inquiry and experience, by all means run with that! But when you don’t, just say “I don’t know” — to others, but mostly to yourself — and stop there. It amounts to being very clear and truthful with yourself.

Sometimes in Life we have major insights that have an immediate and significantly positive impact on our lives. But speaking for myself, although big insights sometimes happen, mostly the process of personal growth includes identifying small ‘serenity leaks’ and plugging them. There is no end to them, yet eliminating them one by one slowly but steadily improves the quality of my life. With time, eliminating ‘serenity leaks’ pays off, and that includes the drama and confusion that goes with taking dogmatic stances on issues about which we don’t have enough evidence either way. When we just Don’t Know.

— William Zeitler

This article first appeared on SubStack.

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