Zen and the Art of Critical Thinking

I had a little trouble when I went to write my rent check last month. My wife and I had some one-time expenses in our budget for May, and so as I watched my weekly paychecks come in, it was evident that the month-end total was going to be a tight squeeze in the checking account we use for it. To top it off, my direct deposit didn’t hit my checking account when I was used to seeing it, and it was the last one for the month. So I sent an email to the home office, asking whether there were any trouble signs. The reply, from a clearly frustrated HR rep, was that many people had inquired, technically it didn’t have to be there until tomorrow, there weren’t any problems she could see, and she didn’t know anything else.

I thanked her, reassured her I wasn’t going to be a jerk about it, and it got me thinking, that “I don’t know” is a perfectly honest answer. In any area of inquiry, our available pool of facts is limited, and nothing is ever known to an absolute certainty. (Unless you’re going on faith, in which case you’re taking “belief” and counting it as “knowledge” which is, at the very least, dishonest. More on that later.) Based on the HR rep’s reply, I was at least able to eliminate some hypotheses: that there wasn’t an error in my time reporting or in the payroll submission. Anything else is left to the vagaries of the electronic banking infrastructure, which I know from professional experience to be arcane and impenetrable–the money gets there when it gets there.

I think not knowing stresses people out–for most, “I don’t know” seems to elicit a reaction of DOES NOT COMPUTE. Where’s my direct deposit? How long until we get there? What am I sick with? What’s broke down on my car? Who’s going to attend the meeting? To many of these questions, it’s not even that we won’t ever know. Evidently, the span of time between not knowing and finding out is never short enough, and I think there are a lot of problems caused by that desire. People get harassed, harangued and henpecked to ruin someone else’s day–who also doesn’t know–to mollify someone for whom “I don’t know” isn’t good enough. Guesstimates and speculations are calcified into fact, and people staunchly defend their errors in the face of others who later come to know better.

Do you remember when Donald Rumsfeld, then Secretary of Defense, got no end of grief when he articulated that fighting the Iraqi insurgency is a complicated process? There are “known ‘knowns,'” he said, and “known ‘unknowns,'” and beyond that there are “unknown ‘unknowns.'” People thought he was dissembling, but I disagree. There’s a world of difference between a non-answer of ignorance and a non-answer of deceit. Now, arguably some of those really ought to have been moved up one or two categories before we went in, but the statement itself is laudable for its transparency. (Likewise, “you go to war with the army you have, not the army you want.” News flash to my fellow liberals: no military, government, corporation or individual ever has all the resources they want or all that they could use. Bill Gates comes close, but I don’t know that he’s ever tried his hand at regime change.) Unfortunately, people seem to expect more substantive answers when someone comes clean like that.

I’m weird–I spend a lot of time thinking about questions where the span of time between “I don’t know” and “Now I know” is at least longer than my own probable lifetime. What are those lights in the sky? I don’t know. But to some, the only possible answer is alien spacecraft. What made that sound? I don’t know. But to some, it’s a latent imprinted energy pattern left by a person who is now dead. How do Quantum Theory and General Relativity reconcile with each other? I don’t know. People smarter than me are working on it. Who was Jesus of Nazareth? I don’t know. But apparently all we have to go on is this bundle of outlandish stories, so of course they must be true. To paraphrase Kevin Smith, what I don’t know I could just about squeeze into the Grand freakin’ Canyon. I’d love to find out, and I’m glad people out there make careers out of inquiry, but I don’t lose sleep in the meantime.

So on days like today, I’m actually surprised at how a little thing like a missing paycheck disrupts my equanimity. It got me thinking about the things that really do grind my gears, because from time to time I can and do get so ticked off I can’t see straight. I think it often involves arrogant certainty on the part of someone who doesn’t know a burro from a burrow.

I spent a couple of weeks recently, arguing with a Christian blogger about the court decision that the National Day of Prayer is unconstitutional, and in the end it got pretty heated. What drove me nuts was his stubborn refusal to even discuss the matter intelligently–he hadn’t read the judge’s decision, he didn’t understand the constitutional issues, and didn’t revise his arguments when corrected on baseline facts. He described the case as some horrible blasphemy on the part of the Obama administration and Congress, seemingly (and later, stubbornly) ignorant of the facts that the case came out of Wisconsin, not Washington DC, with the Obama administration defending the NDOP. “Constitutional” seemed to mean “whatever does or doesn’t offend his Christian sensibilities” and that everything was permissible so long as nobody was actually forced to pray.

Substitution of one’s own belief for knowledge, I think, is even worse than not knowing. As Thomas Jefferson said, “ignorance is preferable to error, and he is closer to the truth who believes nothing, than he who believes what is wrong.” Put simply, if I don’t know, and you believe something false, neither of us is correct, but I’m less wrong than you are. And there’s usually more ways to be wrong than to be right–how sure are you, and why? Me, knowing I can be happy with “I don’t know” makes me a happier person–there’s certainly enough opportunity for it.

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3 Responses to Zen and the Art of Critical Thinking

  1. ken says:

    “What is known I strip away . . I launch all men and women forward with me into the unknown.”
    Walt Whitman

  2. Jay Pea says:

    A burro is an ass and burrow is to dig into the ground like a gopher, right? Am I smarter than a fifth grader? (probably not)
    Great blog! I prefer it when someone says they don’t know than to feed me some falsehood. I do find it irritating when someone says he/she doesn’t know but does it in a manner that is clear that they just cannot be bothered by trivialities right now.
    When my sister first started college a few years ago I gave her one piece of advise: “If a professor asks a question that you don’t know the answer to just say ‘I don’t know, but I can find out.'” I don’t know (there it is!) whether it helped her or not, but it served me well in college.
    This was a very well written blog and quite informative. Great job!

  3. Aleda says:


    I have had many of the same thoughts and conclusions you’ve given voice to.

    I’ve learned to cultivate a tolerance for unknowable unknowns. It’s very calming. What alarms and annoys me is when actually knowable things are withheld or ignored.

    Thanks for the great insights!

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