We Don’t Know What We Don’t Know

Why are we here? Rush roll the bones 1991

Because we’re here.

Roll the bones.

Why does it happen?

Because it happens.

Roll the bones. – Neil Peart

I recently rediscovered the 1991 Rush album Roll the Bones, and I’ve had the title track rolling around in my head the last few days. It seemed eerily appropriate as twisters ripped through Oklahoma again, less than two weeks after a massive tornado obliterated parts of Moore, Okla.

You can’t help but ask: why?

And when you do ask, people will answer. From zealots like Pat Robertson claiming disasters represent divine retribution, to opportunistic eco-warriors claiming divine retribution form Mother Nature, the faithful and the faithless will offer up a myriad of reasons.

But if you ask me, I’ll give you an honest answer.

I don’t know.

Humanity has a really hard time with “I don’t know.” Heck, I sure do. Our need to impose order on the world borders on obsession. It really comes down to control. If we can answer the big why, maybe, just maybe we can control it. If killer storms stem from man-made climate change, we can make policy changes and stop the carnage. If God sent the storms to punish this or that sin, we can change our behavior and stop the carnage.

If we…then we…

Notice the arrogance? It all comes down to we. And ultimately me.

We want to be in control.

I want to be in control.

Newsflash: I’m not.

We aren’t.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not a fatalist. As a Christian, I believe God really does have a plan. And I believe he ultimately has everything under control (Romans 8:28). But I long ago gave up the foolish notion that I can understand the complexity of the universe and absolutely attribute causation to events as they unfold. I recognize the limits of my own mind.

In short, I’ve developed a very comfortable relationship with “I don’t know.”

In that sense, you might call me a skeptic. When people start hanging their reasons all over seemingly incomprehensible events, I just shake me head. And when they start advocating policy based on their “understanding,” I get really nervous.

This need to brand every event with a reason, base future predictions on our “new understanding”  and then take steps to “prevent another tragedy” creates real problems for humanity, especially when coupled with confirmation bias. It leads to policies that will most likely do nothing to prevent the next tragedy and will likely lead to unintended consequences.

Don’t get me wrong. I believe in our God-given ability to reason. We can learn much about the world through empirical processes. But we need to recognize our limits. We don’t know nearly what we think we know, and our arrogance in believing we can somehow predict and control every future event represents a real danger that we can avoid.

The world doesn’t move along in this neatly ordered, predictable fashion we imagine. Our brains trick us into believing it does, but random events, exceptions to the norm and flat-out surprises litter the pages of history. How many years did people emphatically claim black swans did not exist?

After all, they’d never seen one.

“I know that history is going to be dominated by an improbable event, I just don’t know what that event will be.” – Nassim Nicholas Taleb

 

No comments yet.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: