Not-knowing as a path to being happy (Part 2)

2/11/2022 ☼ risknot-knowinghappinessuncertainty

tl;dr: Happiness results from being curious about the world around you, being free to take action, being effective in the actions that you take, and being content with what you achieve. Thinking clearly about not-knowing is essential for these four states of being. This is part 2 of 2 (part 1 is here).

Untitled accidental phone photo #213 (New York, 16 Mar 2019)

In part 1, I argued that cultural and social conditioning teaches us that we should respond to situations of not-knowing by either pretending that they don’t exist or treating them as a specific form of not-knowing that we call risk. 

Being conditioned to avoid thinking about not-knowing is a form of learned helplessness. This is because being happy comes from being curious, being free to act, being effective in our actions, and being content with what we achieve — and thinking clearly about not-knowing is essential for these four states of being.

Being curious 

Wonder and curiosity require being in a state of not-knowing. The natural condition of being a child is being much freer of the chains of experience, history, and social convention that eventually wrap themselves around adults. 

Children are naturally curious and the reason for this is that they haven’t developed the many barriers to simply admitting that they don’t know things and have no expectations of them. 

The child or beginner mind of Buddhism is this state of no-expectation and not-knowing, and it allows curiosity and exploration. It simply isn’t possible to be curious about anything without first admitting that you don’t know how it works or what it is. 

To be curious about how sourdough bread is made, or how to make a more efficient battery, or how to start a business providing a service no one has provided before, the only precondition is being willing to admit to yourself that you don’t already know how to do those things. 

To be clear: Even a master sourdough baker (or battery engineer, or startup founder) can be curious if they don’t assume that they already know everything. In other words, you can be curious even as an expert if you consciously leave room for not-knowing despite your depth of knowledge — sometimes this is called open-mindedness. 

Being free

Clearer thinking about not-knowing helps us be free in three ways.

First, it frees us from much of the fear of not-knowing. Our fear of the unknown is an evolved physiological reaction. It was probably very helpful millennia or even centuries ago when deciding to travel into an unknown forest was something that required many second thoughts. It probably made sense then for our visceral reaction to not-knowing to be strong enough to stop us from doing an unknown thing without thinking very hard about it. 

Modern life is very different. Which means now we have a fear complex about the unknown and we don’t even have the words to really talk about it — which makes the fear worse. Thinking clearly about different kinds of not-knowing gives us those words and frees us to explore the unknown. We have to name the beasts to tame them. 

Second, it’s essential for truly free action. I am free” to buy as much plastic as I want and can afford. But I want to propose (with many philosophers) that this way of thinking about freedom” as unlimited capacity is wrong. Instead we should think about true freedom as the actions we can take when we understand clearly what we do and don’t value. 

When I recognise that buying plastic harms things I value much more than I value the convenience of cling-wrap or disposable containers, I can make truly free choices — such as choosing to stop using single-use plastics even at the cost of some minor inconvenience and rearrangement of routine. Thinking clearly about not-knowing helps us understand what we do and don’t know, and this includes what we value more and what we value less.

Third, it frees us from expectations that don’t match reality. Not thinking clearly about not-knowing means not seeing the world clearly — having a worldview that is inconsistent with reality. When we have a rosier view of the world than is warranted, we are disappointed for no good reason. When we have a more pessimistic view of the world than is warranted, we miss opportunities for improving our situation. Thinking clearly about not-knowing gives us greater freedom because it gives us expectations about the world that are consistent with what the world can provide. 

Being effective

Being curious and being free (in the three ways I describe above) allows us to be more effective. 

I am effective” when what I do in the world has the effects I hope for. My actions bear the fruit I expect when I’m effective. They aren’t pointless or, worse, counterproductive. 

The only way to reliably act on the world so that the results are as you expect is to see the world as it really is. This means that is it crucial to recognise and acknowledge that some parts of it are not-known or possibly not-knowable, so that you can take appropriate action and have appropriate expectations about the outcomes of those actions. 

Thinking clearly about not-knowing is essential to being able to truly see the reality that exists, and to accepting this reality so that you can act on it in ways that are effective. 

Being effective isn’t just a nice-to-have in the pursuit of happiness, it is a need-to-have. The punishments we mete out to sentient beings are often anchored in removing their capacity for being effective. Examples are numerous and range from prison and death sentences, to seizing property, to not being allowed to go out to play.

The reason punishments like these work is because we cannot realize our potential, develop our abilities, or live a full life without being effective in choosing what direction to go in and then being able to move in that direction. Being effective is fundamental to achieving self-actualization, which lies at the top of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. It isn’t a coincidence that self-actualized people are realist and accepting of reality. 

Being content

One source of particularly unnecessary unhappiness is when don’t get what we expected to get (even when we shouldn’t have expected it), or when what we’re entitled to is taken away (even if we haven’t received it yet). This is the endowment effect, and it has been studied for decades. 

We can use thinking to get over the emotional fear of admitting that there are things we don’t know. This frees us to explore and be curious, which gives us the ability to learn new things. It also frees us to see the world realistically because our vision is not clouded by what Marx would probably not call false consciousness. 

When we see the world clearly, we have much better expectations of what will happen to the world and to us as we live in it. When we are able to leave room for not-knowing, we can see things and opportunities that would be obscured by preconceptions that come from certainty. We are more content when we can see more opportunity,  are more effective in achieving our expected outcomes, and are more realistic about what those outcomes might be.

Being content is about avoiding the unnecessary unhappiness of expecting more than you are able to achieve. Thinking clearly about not-knowing is what allows us to both be more realistic and more effective about actions and outcomes, and we’re more likely as a result be content because we get both what we want and what we expect. 

The push and the pull

Thinking clearly about not-knowing is important both because the world we live in is unavoidably uncertain, and because being self-actualized — realizing our potential and having the ability to develop appreciation for life — depends on acknowledging not-knowing.

This article is part of a project on not-knowing. 🙏 to Chatham Sullivan for commenting on a draft and suggesting that I use adorable dogs getting zapped to frame this idea, and to Yoann Joyeux for a conversation about the real obstacles to talking about not-knowing. I’m entirely responsible for any remaining poor thinking.