The Need to Know; And The Fear Of Not Knowing

The truth is that we cannot avoid uncertainty. This not knowing is part of the adventure. It is also what makes us afraid.   Pema Chodron

Abraham Maslow once said: We have a need to know and a fear of knowing. He was speaking about self-knowledge, knowing oneself. However, when it comes to other knowledge, it seems we have a need to know and a fear of not knowing. But we don’t know we have that fear, so we believe what we want to know.

What we really need is to accept the well known conventional wisdom: “The more you know the more you realize you don’t know”. Knowledge is not a fixed sum, in which the amount we know subtracts from the amount we don’t know. We have all read about how much data we keep adding every day. For example, we now produce as much data in two days as was produced in all of history till the year 2003 — and the amount of data is doubling every two years.

At one time knowledge was power; and therefore humans developed the well known “need to know”. Knowledge was related to the availability of information. Those who had information had power. Today however, we are overwhelmed with information and much of it is unreliable; some of it is intentional falsehood, and we can’t possibly know it all. However, the need to know has persisted and caused people to believe what they want to believe, and to know what they want to know, and to ignore what they don’t know.

Not knowing is a dilemma because we don’t know what we don’t know — and we don’t know what we can’t know. Murphy’s Law explains: Some things are impossible to know, but it is impossible to know these things.

Not knowing is also a dilemma because it is not always a bad thing; sometimes it is helpful. It is said, “ignorance is bliss”. Many people have said that most of what they know they owe to their ignorance (not knowing). Not knowing is not as bad as the illusion of knowledge. Remember Mark Twain’s famous quote. It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you in trouble, it’s what you know for sure that ain’t so.

My point is that the fear of not knowing is worse than not knowing. Of course, the decision making strategy of positive uncertainty helps you avoid knowing for sure (absolute certainty, dogma, closed-mindedness). This is the benefit of doubt.

The greatest obstacle to discovering the shape of the earth was not ignorance but the illusion of knowledge. Daniel Boorstin






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3 Responses to THE NEED TO KNOW

  1. Gene Unger says:

    For sure,! I don’t know about this posting! One could drown in this puddle of “knowing confusion” . Let’s keep it simple, as Sargent Schultz used to say” I know nothing”. Your knowing will always be different than my knowing so, lighten up on the known , examine the unknown ,then keep it all to your self as you are probably wrong anyway. I am certain about this “I know nothing” God knows everything. I’ll trust Him to guide my Knowing. Grumpy old Gene

    Sent from my iPad


  2. Jim Cassio says:

    This resonates with me as much as anything I’ve ever heard from you, HB. I see the problem everyday in that people, including everyone from myself to the President, know things that aren’t so because, in our need to know and our fear of not knowing, we aren’t willing to be in a vulnerable, unknowing position while we seek a true understanding. Better to know what ain’t so than be taken for an unknowing fool! Because of the growth of technology and civilization, there’s the temptation to assume that we’re advancing in our knowledge. But I’m not so sure. Maybe in the macro. But in the micro worlds that we all live in, we’re still as likely as our ancestors to be half full of lies and misunderstandings.


    • hbgelatt says:

      Thanks Jim for the positive response. I agree that modern technology may be making the problem worse.
      As you know I am a quotation nut. Here is an old one you might enjoy.

      Man’s natural state is not doubt, but credulity — a combination of suggestibility in the face of whatever
      is clearly and strongly presented, and the will to believe whatever is personally or socially congenial.
      Harold Larrabee in Reliable Knowledge,1945

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