i don't know

The significance of saying ‘I don’t know’


I am going to approach this in two ways. The first will be a scientific approach and the second will be a philosophical one. The reason is that while I am focusing on the power of the statement “I don’t know” there is a need to build a setting in which one would use this statement, or rather should. To do this I will use every day situations where saying I don’t know would be more accurate, like that of when people speak of memories or of the concept of god as fact.

To begin making the case for the significance of saying I don’t know, we should examine what we call knowledge. Can we truly say with confidence that what we think we know we actually do? You can always test our believed knowledge given the chance. However, we are not always given the chance. In fact, when are we ever in every day life? Nearly never. The reality of the situation is that we exist day to day on the memory of knowledge, on what we think we know.

The scientific approach to knowledge.

We, as a people, value knowledge. However, with this value of knowledge seems to come a disdain of the term ignorant. The mere idea of saying ‘I don’t know’ when so many believe they do strikes them as absurd. Why is that?

Saying ‘I don’t know’ is an acknowledgement of ignorance. Yes, this is true. So, shouldn’t having knowledge, then lessen one’s ignorance? Well, what if I said that it didn’t? What if I said we exist within a perpetual state of an ever increasing acknowledged ignorance?

Shall we ask a question and see what happens?

Welcome to ‘The Dark room’.

A thought experiment I came up with some time ago called the dark room in which you never move past the threshold. This is the gateway to knowledge and the acknowledgement of ignorance.

You ask a question of the unknown and in that instant a door appears in front of you with the question asked on one side and the answer on the other. Upon opening the door, the answer is received, but with the reality that the answer itself brings with it more questions. That information has brought you the knowledge of the amount of what you do not know concerning the original question. You now stand there peering into the room of ignorance due to receiving an answer to a question. Consider, for every question there is a door for which opens to yet another room of ignorance and so on and so forth.

Now, let us say you have asked your question and opened your first door. You have gained knowledge. How do you recall this knowledge? That is the issue at hand. You use this knowledge by remembering it. Can you remember everything? Probably not. Even if you could, how accurate is your memory?

The Science behind the reality of what you think you know.

The accuracy of memory.

Many people believe that their own memories are more accurate than not. Even in the light of others who were present for the event remembering differently do not sway people from this belief. What does this mean? This could mean that this one event that the two of you were a part of actually took place differently for the two of you. Or, could it be that you each are simply remembering it differently?

Clearly the latter is far more likely. But, what does that mean? Is our memory just a fiction? The answer is not so simple. While I am inclined to say no, it kind of is. Well, not entirely. The real issue is how reliable is memory. Many people assume all too often that their memory is not false and believe it as true. But just how true is the memory and just how false is it? A better question might be do we suffer from a tendency to overestimate the reliability of human memory?

Well, the short answer is yes. Several studies agree that around two thirds of people believe memory to be similar to that of a camera. Now, if that seems silly, good. Because it is. Our brains are not cameras. They do not capture images, but react to stimuli. The exact method in which each person’s brain reacts is not fully understood as of yet. But, what can be known is that our memories can be wrong. At times, they can be outright wrong and the outcomes of the mistaken memories can have devastating results.

What if you were convicted of murder and sentenced to death and this outcome was based largely on the testimony of eyewitnesses? Having served a number of years in prison, DNA testing proves you innocent. You are free to go. The memory of you having done the deed is very real for many people who have heard this event and or read about it in the news. This is sadly no mere example, but a real life reality. Before DNA testing, eyewitness testimony was a key aspect of court considerations and upon its advent, those released faced a very hard life readjusting in a reality where people believed they had committed murder.

Why does this happen?

According to some recent surveys, most jurors place a large importance on eyewitness testimony when deciding if a person is guilty or not. This means that when people say “I know what happened. I was there. I saw it.” it is taken uncritically. It is understood that when people say such things it is generally true. This stems from a misunderstood concept of what memory is. Memory is not a perfect recall, but more an extremely complex weaving of notions, feelings, actual events and people, and stimuli in or around the area in which it took place to form a tapestry of imaginary believed as reality. Psychologists discovered that memories are ‘reconstructed’ rather than having perfect playback or recall. The memory is more like a puzzle and finding pieces that fit can be a very difficult task. All this means is that memories are imperfect.

Memories are imperfect, but did you know that memories can also be falsified?

A rather famous study done in which the subjects were given a written account of four events, three of which they had actually experienced. The last event was completely fabricated. Upon being asked to recall the events, one third of the subjects said they could partially or fully recall the false event. According to two follow ups with the subjects, 25% still retained the false memory. What they and others have found out is that a false memory is nearly if not completely indistinguishable to real ones. How is this possible and why does this happen?

Now, what if I told you that we do this to ourselves every day? What if I told you that not only can memories be falsified, but that they themselves are false? It is true. Each and every time we recall a memory, we do a reconstruction of it which further falsifies the memory. Like a puzzle, over time the edges of each piece get rounded and some pieces even go missing. For some puzzles, they will be combined in the same box for the ease of storage. We are adding new puzzle pieces or moving preexisting pieces from one box to another every time we recall any memory. This is how our memory functions. Memories are conceptualized notions of past realities.

At times, a memory of something else attained from an outside source can be recalled or thought of as a new idea and believed as the person’s own idea. This is a very real and very troublesome phenomenon called cryptomnesia. One that Helen Keller personally experienced when writing her book ‘The Frost King’.

“The Frost King” and “The Frost Fairies”

In “The Story of my Life” Part one, chapter 14, Helen Keller talks about a book she wrote, “The Frost King”, and its similarities to another book written before hers,“The Frost Fairies”. The similarities were so close Helen believed her’s to be plagiarism.

“I have ever since been tortured by the fear that what I write is not my own. For a long time, when I wrote a letter, even to my mother, I was seized with a sudden feeling, and I would spell the sentences over and over, to make sure that I had not read them in a book.”

“It is certain that I cannot always distinguish my own thoughts from those I read, because what I read become the very substance and texture of my mind.”

“Everything I found in books that pleased me I retained in my memory, consciously or unconsciously, and adapted it.”

Helen Keller


Helen concluded that she must have been read the book “The Frost Fairies” when she was a young child and simply did not retain the memory of it. However, the basic storyline and many details of the story stayed with her. Over time, these memories of one book eroded to later form what Helen believed was her own notion for a book. Upon reflection, she called it a “mental gymnastics”. It was through, in her own words, “assimilation and imitation” of the information we take in that this can happen.

The subjectivity of reality.

Experiences are subjective, meaning you and I can go through the same thing and have different experiences. Our memories are at times at the whim of our stimuli. These stimuli are dependant upon our environment and so our experiences and each of our memories form uniquely. Therefore, experiences are not proof nor are they together evidence for the support of an idea. However, experiences are used by religious people to confirm an idea for which they already believe. They now place their belief under the title of knowledge. It is at this point in which saying ‘I don’t know’ would be far more accurate as well as intellectually honest.

Upon attempting to explain that their beliefs taken from experiences may be misplaced and misunderstood can be a very difficult endeavor. We humans suffer from subjective reality which states that each person sees the world from a unique perspective. So, each of us experience life completely differently. That unique perspective compiled with the willingness to trust yourself and your memories comes together to form a believed knowledge of reality. This is true whether you believe in god or not.

Is there a way around the reality of subjectivity?

No. However, we have a tool to aid in seeing the truth through illusion. Science is our tool to view the world as it truly is and not how we perceive it to be. Where you see god, I see Newton’s third law and so on. God is an idea, real as any other, but an idea nonetheless. At this current moment, there exists no evidence to support belief in any gods. Since no evidence exists for any gods, gods exist only in the mind.

So, why do so many people not only say they believe in god but back it up with a personal experience and then call it knowledge? Actually, it is very simple and honest. They trust themselves and how they perceive the world. What is trust? Trust is the ability or lack thereof to appropriate a level of reliance in a very subjective reality. At this point, we have established that reality is subjective and that memories are not to be fully trusted. So, what is knowledge if we can’t trust ourselves to remember it accurately?

The philosophical approach to knowledge.

The world is made a better place when we question what we think we know. Before we had such a fantastic method of discerning truth, we had

“knowledge is a subset of beliefs” Plato and “The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.” Socrates and “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” Aristotle.

Plato concluded that if there was no way to back your belief, it was a weak belief. Socrates concluded that you can never truly know anything. Aristotle concluded that while everything is held as a belief, while weak or not, since we cannot know anything we should entertain every thought but without accepting it for that is clearly contradictory.

It wasn’t until the golden age of Islam some 1,300 years later that we finally get something near the modern version of the scientific method. Ibn Al-Haytham, a natural philosopher, put forth a set of criteria to answer his questions concerning his study of rays of light in 1021 A.D. Ibn Al-Haytham’s set of criteria was as to test ideas by both experiment and observation and to build on the ideas that pass the tests. To Reject the ideas that didn’t and to following the evidence where ever it lead. His final and most important criteria was to question everything.

According to philosophy and the very foundation of scientific inquiry, all that is known is not actually known, but believed and so should be questioned and continually tested as the results should be questioned as well.

Is it time to reenter the Dark Room? Or, do you believe you know all you need to? Charles Bukowski rather famously said “The problem with the world is that the intelligent people are full of doubts, while the stupid ones are full of confidence.” The power of doubt should tell you to re-enter the dark room. However, if you understand the room, you never left the doorway.


“The saddest aspect of life right now is that science gathers knowledge faster than society gathers wisdom.” – Isaac Asimov

That may be part of the problem. To me, the larger issue at hand is respect. People want respect and by extension believe that their beliefs should be respected as if them. At times, people demand that you respect them and their beliefs or people do not respect entire populations due to a belief held. Being tolerant of the intolerant is intolerable. You are more than welcome to believe what you like and I will fight for the right to do so. These people believe wholeheartedly and their faith in the unknown, in an idea, is more powerful than scientific endeavors. So, they will deny any evidence or new discoveries that contradict their faith. We need to speak out more often and using the right method. Tact is key.

Tactical civility.

Tact can be a great tool in anyone’s tool belt when addressing another person’s long held beliefs over whatever. Whether they are beliefs over experiences, memories, or concepts, it doesn’t matter. Tact should always be shown. That said, tact should also be shown from those holding to these personal beliefs when sharing them. They are personal and may benefit both parties involved if the beliefs were left unsaid.

One philosopher, Epicurus, came up with a set of questions and provided us with his answers. Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?

The reason is because people want to believe the same way they do when it comes to their experiences and memories. Saying I believe is great because it acknowledges it as a belief held. Saying I know is making a claim of knowledge. The real issue with religions and religious people is that they don’t just believe, they have knowledge. But such ‘knowledge’ is personal and so a subjective truth. The fact is, there is no evidence to support any religious belief, but that of personal testimony.

Where is much of this testimony to be found? Within the power of prayer. How is that you might ask? To answer this, we are going to drop philosophy for the moment and pick science back up.
Psychology and cognitive science tell us something very interesting about our world.

The result of subjective reality in a very real world is that prayers work. How? Confirmation bias. Confirmation bias is the tendency to view new evidence as confirmation of one’s beliefs. So, how does this work with prayer, the misinterpretation of experiences, and the fallibility of memory? They work together. In everyday life, people who believe in a god at times prayer or invoking the Deity. When they do this there exists an exact three possibilities for when anyone prays for anything.

1) They get what they asked for
2) They get something different
3) They do not get anything

The bias is found in the method one interprets the results.
1)’God’ heard me and gave me what I asked for.
2)’God’ heard me and gave me what I needed.
3)’God’ heard me and knew I never needed anything at all.

The result of subjective reality in a very real world is that it bolsters socially accepted delusions and our paradigms. It is only through the empirical, objective eye of science that we are able to perceive the world as it truly is rather than how we’d like to see it.

When people say “I believe” I agree and show respect. When people say “I know” they are ignorant of the reality of knowledge. They, in the moment of making the claim of knowledge, unwittingly walked into a forum of back it up or change it up. That is the world of science. Your belief is either a strong one or a weak one and that is the world of philosophy. You either have the evidence to back it up, or you do not. It is either an evidence based idea moving towards knowledge, or it is a belief lacking evidence. When you speak of facts, knowledge, and evidence, you place yourself on a soapbox. If you dislike scrutiny, criticism, and ridicule, choose your words with more care.

What is worse is the perpetuation of myths and theologies as factual realities. If you find that your claims cannot withstand the scrutiny, criticism, and ridicule, it is not an issue with the scrutiny, criticism, and ridicule but with your claims. You should either leave your beliefs at home or learn the significance of saying ‘I don’t know’.

There is an elegance about the simplicity and honesty of these words, “I don’t know”. When people say ‘I don’t know’ there seems to be an understanding of ignorance which is taken as a negative. This shouldn’t be the case. We are each impressively ignorant and we have simply yet to learn how much. You will never know the true extent of your ignorance. However, you do not need to perpetuate beliefs as facts no matter what. There is a huge importance in saying I don’t know and in that is found the significance. In a world that has a value of knowledge, in a reality that it can only ever have a strong belief in it, admitting to a lack of knowledge is significant and should be as a positive. It expresses an openness to be wrong and an eagerness to learn.

“So, the universe is not quite as you thought it was. You’d better rearrange your beliefs, then. Because you certainly can’t rearrange the universe.”
Isaac Asimov