If you don't know, say so
Three of the hardest words for many people to say are: "I don't know". In fact, many of the problems in human history have been caused through our aversion to these words.
How come? It's not really that difficult to admit a lack of knowledge.
One of the core weaknesses of many people is their inability to admit they have weaknesses. And lack of knowledge is often seen as lack of intelligence. But I think this is just silly.
It's impossible for us to know everything, or even most things. Even in areas where I have a lot of knowledge, such as information technology, there are all sorts of things I simply don't know.
The amount of facts you can possibly learn even in that one subject are so vast, that it's simply impossible for anyone to know all of them. Yet I meet people all the time who try to blag their way through pretending they know what they clearly don't. They'll go into detailed, lengthy explanations, when it's obvious they have no idea what they're talking about. Why can't they just admit that they don't know?
Humanity has always been uncomfortable with its lack of knowledge. You can see examples of it throughout history. On many of the most important questions posed to us, we simply have no answer based on any kind of objective evidence. But that hasn't stopped all sorts of people trying.
Here are some examples of the types of questions I'm talking about:
All sorts of answers have been provided over the years to these questions, none of which have a single scrap of hard evidence to back them up. Thousands of religions have sprung up to try and fill in these gaps in our knowledge - from today's Christianity, Islam, Atheism, New Ageism and Buddhism to the Ancient Greek, Roman, and Pagan Gods. Billions of people take the answers provided very seriously, despite having no objective evidence whatsoever to back up their beliefs.
- Is there a higher purpose to our lives?
- Is there life after death?
- Is the world only physical, or are there some kind of other spiritual forces at play?
- Is there life before birth?
- And so on.
Instead, they replace evidence with intensity of emotional connection. The idea seems to be if you believe seriously and intensely enough, then evidence is unnecessary. If you're willing to become angry or even violent to enforce your ideas, that's somehow supposed to make up for the fact that you're unable to provide any kind of objective proof.
This is a very common tactic in the "truth wars" on all sorts of subjects. There seems to be some sort of hard-wired tendency in us to substitute emotional intensity for evidence-based knowledge. You can see it in the aggressiveness with which some people defend their answers to the big questions above right down to the computer professional who won't admit he doesn't know the answer to some technical question. The threat of anger is supposed to make up for a lack of proof.
There seems to be a widespread faith that if you believe something hard enough, it must be true. This is a very difficult characteristic to shake off.
Personally, I think this attitude is just silly and dishonest. It's obvious to anyone who cares to think about it that there's all sorts of things any one of us can't possibly know. Even on topics we have hard evidence, there's so much knowledge any one person can't hope to gain it all. And it's also clear there are all sorts of questions to which we have no way of providing any sort of evidence-based answer anytime soon.
If you don't know something, just say so. Be honest and admit it to yourself. Don't allow the emotional intensity of others sway your thinking away from the need for adequate proof.
Don't be suckered by the hope that believing something hard enough will make it come true. No matter how intensely I believe I can fly unassisted, I'm still going to face serious consequences if I jump off the Empire State Building. Any fool can see intensity of belief is no substitute for an honest assessment of what you do and don't - can and can't - know.
Don't join those who hope and wish this simple fact weren't true.
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