It’s Just Hard to Admit That We Don’t Have Answers — Even When We Don’t

There’s something human beings possess that’s proven awfully important for progress in science and technology, and even for advancing human cultures. It’s the need to understand, to discover answers to the questions we ask, and to continue to ferret them out in the belief that if we can just understand, then our species will be able to conquer everything that confronts us.

If it weren’t for that impulse — maybe an innate need — to understand, who knows where we’d be? It’s taken generations of people who’ve sought answers, after all, to get to where we are today.

Often that’s fueled by a basic desire to survive — to preserve our species by finding a new vaccine or a cure for a deadly disease, for example. At times it’s led us to new and improved ideas that fuel more inclusive ways to understand societal concepts such as equality. At other times it’s made our war machines more deadly.

But the results of those attempts to understand have also taken longer to gain wide acceptance because new understandings have come up that threaten the comfort of those who feel that they’ve already understood, that it’s settled. Refusing to accept that what we’ve understood and built our lives and institutions on is no longer the final truth, has historically been another human response. And it’s meant that much of science, morality, theology, and philosophy has been hindered, stifled, and even condemned.

Famously, Galileo’s challenge to the institutionally accepted science of the 16th century with his heliocentric and Copernican astronomy was condemned by the established Church as “foolish and absurd in philosophy, and formally heretical” in 1615. In 1992, that condemnation was recognized by the Papacy as an error. For some reason Church leaders felt that it was safe enough over 300 years later to admit that established Truth needed adjustment.

To believe that one knows the Truth in some absolute and unchanging form that’s unquestionable can be comforting. It enables one to feel safe and secure just because they know.

It also sees new attempts to understand as threats to that comfort and security, and reacts in “Truth”-protecting and self-protecting responses.

The two institutions worldwide throughout history that have most feared new knowledge as threatening are the governmental and the religious. With a few exceptions, neither has been able to admit that they don’t have all the answers or that new understandings should be welcomed with open arms.

That’s because it’s been both internally comforting and self-protecting in any era for governments and dominant religions to believe, propagate, and enforce by any means possible, that their version of government or religion is the final, absolute way it should always be. Neither has been good at living as if they’re in merely one passing historical moment that will be subject to the change that’s common throughout the larger timeline of history.

Neither institution has been comfortable with the possibility of living in ambiguity, for that is a difficult status for individual human beings to live in as well. We don’t want to say that we don’t know, that our ideas are subject to change, or, even worse, that we might never know the answers – especially to some of the bigger questions of existence.

To bolster established understanding, it’s common to retreat further into the comfort that we can actually protectively control reality around us with either/or thinking. To embrace nuance would mean that more and deeper thinking is required and that those easy answers we rely upon aren’t as helpful as we’d hoped.

It’s no surprise, then, that addictive thinking is fixed and controlling through either/or dualisms. Or that feminist scholars have pointed out that that kind of dualism is a mark of patriarchal thinking.

“Real men” in our culture are supposed to know, supposed to have all the answers, and are taught to be uncomfortable with ambiguity. And the corresponding definition of a leader as a male who convinces us that he has all the answers and will act swiftly, without taking time to weigh alternatives.

Transgender people embody the possibility that either/or categories such as male and female are more social constructs than fixed identities tied to genitals or tired gender roles. And they can, in our society today, end up as casualties of a desperation to play it safe and not upset ourselves by doubling down on unambiguous, absolutist dualistic thinking about gender that sounds like other facile dualisms that have been used to control the world such as: “East is East and West is West and never the ‘twain shall meet.”

I’m thankful for thinkers who are willing to throw aside certainty to step into the ambiguities of life. They’ve opened new possibilities for all of us.

I’m also thankful for those who’ve reminded us that at times we must live in terms of ambiguity – that there are things we don’t know, that there are possibilities yet to be explored.

There are times when we must choose to bet our lives on what we know so far — taking the word of the best and preponderance of science to choose to be vaccinated, for example. There’s a place for experts who have given their lives to study their fields.

And yet there are also times to find a comfortable place among the ambiguities of life.

You’d think that a religious studies professor who has studied, written about, and taught the world’s religions for their entire career would be easily able to answer the question: what is the afterlife like, for example. And I wish I could.

But I can’t, and so must live comfortably in ambiguity. When students asked me such questions, I reminded them that I’m a historian by training and that there’s much more to reality than what I know or have experienced.

But I know that whatever afterlife is like, it’s not my motivation for celebrating and promoting love, compassion, justice, and equality in this world. I don’t do good because I’m afraid of punishment if I don’t.

For me, I can’t bet my life on what I don’t know, and I’m fine living in that ambiguity. There are others who work for answers to such theological and philosophical questions, and I leave that to them and read what they come up with.

But there are personal and societal dangers in thinking we have the absolute truth about such things. Non-addictive religion is a journey, not a set tour with an itinerary.

And I’m convinced that one of the great challenges we have as human beings is the ability to admit that we don’t know — searching for and discovering answers when we can, while living in ambiguity while we do.