Questionable Motives

September 26, 2011

Why is it okay to say “I don’t know?”

Filed under: Argument,faith-based beliefs,Knowledge,reality — tildeb @ 8:43 pm

Faith-based beliefs are extraordinarily common but their popularity is not a vote in its favour. From religions to pseudosciences, superstitions to conspiracy theories, faith-based beliefs feed their roots. But it doesn’t have to be this way. We can control our gullibility, our ignorance, and hesitate long enough to stop ourselves from taking that final step into believing assumption and assertions to be equivalent to trustworthy knowledge. When we come across something interesting and/or intriguing and have no answer to explain the effects we find, we have an opportunity to be intellectually honest and admit that we don’t know. As Steve Novella points out, in a post about a coroner taking that dishonest step into gullibility and reporting that an unknown fire was actually spontaneous human combustion, all of us are vulnerable of doing the same unless we make the effort to exercise critical thinking:

It’s therefore a good opportunity to teach critical thinking skills. People’s brains are clogged with myths and false information, spread by rumor and the media, and accepted due to a lack of having the proper critical thinking filters in place. It’s disappointing, however, when people who should know better, or whose job it is to know better, fall for such myths.

But he has a warning, too, that:

Knowing a lot of information about a complex subject area does not necessarily also grant critical thinking skills – knowledge of logic, heuristics, and mechanisms of self-deception. This is why scientists fall prey to magicians or con-artists, and sometimes even deceive themselves and take their careers down the rabbit hole of pseudoscience.

He suggests that all of us keep firmly in mind that:

For any frequent phenomenon there will be a certain number (a residue) of cases that defy explanation, just by chance alone, because there are quirky, unique, or highly unlikely circumstances. Very unlikely things happen all the time, given enough opportunity. It is therefore not only the argument from ignorance, but utter folly to conclude that such cases have a paranormal or fantastical explanation, rather than they are just unusual but still mundane cases.

And that is something we need to take to heart: that when we use these unknown effects to support our trust in some faith-based belief of supernatural cause, we have left behind our critical thinking and stepped fully into out own willingness to be gullible. Once we decide to accept some supernatural agent of causation to explain some natural effect, we have cancelled the natural universe to be our arbiter and substituted out belief in its place. This is the common recipe – the identical thread of bad thinking, a broken epistemology – for protecting the faith-based beliefs too many of us cherish that fuel religions to pseudosciences, superstitions to conspiracy theories as well as defend those beliefs from legitimate and honest inquiry based on evidence found in reality, in the natural universe. In all cases of faith-based beliefs presented as true in reality, the believer has taken one step too many away from critical thinking and honest inquiry that should result in an “I don’t know” and makes an illegal substitution (to borrow a sports term) of some untrustworthy belief to masquerade as a ‘different kind’ of knowledge… indistinguishable in all ways from delusion and ignorance. It really is okay for each of us to admit that sometime “I don’t know” is the best answer we have. And that’s the starting position all of us have shared. That’s the statement that begins honest inquiry and that’s the only answer to the unknown that starves the root of ignorance that nourishes faith-based beliefs. Unlike faith-based beliefs that clouds our vision into what is true in reality with our own imagined beliefs, “I don’t know” prepares the intellect for learning trustworthy knowledge about the universe we inhabit.


  1. I can’t resist:

    “Charles Dickens used SHC as the cause of death of a heavy drinker in his novel Bleak House (1852), fueling a popular belief that excessive drinking could lead to SHC. Responding to criticism that he was encouraging nonsense, in the second edition of Bleak House Dickens claims he knew of some thirty cases of SHC, but he mentions only two.”

    If Dickens says it’s true, it has to be true.

    Comment by Veronica Abbass — September 27, 2011 @ 9:29 am | Reply

    • That’s a terrific link and shows again that it’s easy to fall into this trap. Thanks, VA.

      Comment by tildeb — September 27, 2011 @ 9:50 am | Reply

  2. We can apply the same caution regarding anything, not just supernatural beliefs. What is the exact connection between people’s stated beliefs and their behavior? We don’t know. Would the human race suddenly become peaceful and cooperative if no one believed in the supernatural? We don’t know.

    Comment by Chuckk — February 6, 2012 @ 9:07 am | Reply

    • “We don’t know” isn’t quite true. We have a growing body of evidence to suggest that there is strong correlation between a reduction in religiosity in western liberal democracies and socially positive behaviours. The same correlation is also true for economic inequalities: the greater the inequality, the greater the religiosity, the higher the rates of socially negative behaviours.

      Comment by tildeb — February 6, 2012 @ 9:53 am | Reply

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