Not-knowing discussion #2: Not-knowing as a path to happiness (summary)

19/2/2023 ☼ not-knowingiiiisummary

This is a summary of the second session in the InterIntellect series on not-knowing, which happened on 16 Feb 2023, 2000-2200 CET.

All session summaries.

The third session is about the complicated interconnections between how our bodies react physically to situations of not-knowing and how our minds perceive and interpret them. It’ll be on 16 March 2023, from 2000-2200 CET. More information and tickets available here.

Second session readings:

  1. Not-knowing as a path to happiness, Part 1;
  2. Not-knowing as a path to happiness, Part 1; and
  3. (Optional) Alan Watts, The Wisdom of Insecurity.

We began with the idea that we are stably conditioned to relate to not-knowing in ways that particularly obstruct us from being curious, free, effective, and content. These four states of being are each part of being happy. Our conditioned relationship to not-knowing has therefore become a barrier to happiness now that the world is so unavoidably filled with different types of not-knowing.

Conditioning and the unavoidability of not-knowing

Our environment conditions us to respond to stimuli in particular ways. Environment” here is all the context we grow up and live in. Friends, family, school, culture we are exposed to, work colleagues and organizational practices — that’s all environment, and it shapes us whether we are aware of it or not. One way it shapes us is in terms of how we relate to not-knowing. Often, we are conditioned to relate to it with suspicion, fear, or intentional ignorance.

The world we live in is increasingly and unavoidably filled with different types of not-knowing. Sometimes, not-knowing can be beneficial or even enjoyable if we acknowledge it. Not-knowing almost always needs to be acknowledged rather than ignored.

When conditioning is very stable, even when the conditioning stops being appropriate, we continue to behave in the conditioned way. This is what’s happening with us and not-knowing. We’re conditioned to fear, avoid, or ignore it — and this conditioning is hard to break.

Happiness and not-knowing

Being tolerant and willing to engage with not-knowing and stay with it is an essential precondition for being curious about things. Being curious opens up opportunities to discover new ways of being and ways to do thing: it increases freedom to act. Being more curious and free to act makes it possible to act in more effective ways. And being willing to engage with not-knowing makes it easier to have creative and realistic expectations and have them be met, which makes it easier to be content.

A willingness to engage with not-knowing is crucial for each of these four states of being (curiosity, freedom, efficacy, and contentment), and these four states of being are in turn intertwined with being happy.

Being conditioned to fear, avoid, or ignore not-knowing gets in the way of being curious, free, effective, and content — and so it makes it harder to be happy too. (The two-part reading linked above covers this in more detail.)

Discussion highlights

  1. Not-knowing is hard because it violates the need to be in control. This need feels like a basic human need related to the need for security, and it expresses itself both intellectually and emotionally.
  2. Being able to have an active relationship with not-knowing is connected to double-loop learning. Learning how to break conditioning (about not-knowing) is a form of double-loop learning. For individuals and groups, double-looping is hard because it requires conditions in which assumptions can be made explicit and challenged and difficult questions asked (e.g. psychological safety, norms of continual improvement, holding space for questioning). Some groups don’t double-loop enough (get very good at solving the wrong problems) while others double-loop too much (and can’t execute successfully on any solutions).
  3. The capacity to not-know is connected to child mind or beginner mind (in Buddhism).
  4. Not-knowing is necessarily defined in terms of knowing. To know” is to have a belief in a state of the world. These beliefs about states are broadly groupable (so far anyway) as answers to four questions: What actions are possible?”, What outcomes are possible?”, What are the relationships between this action and the outcomes that result?”, and How much do I value this outcome relative to other outcomes?” — there are probably going to be more types of questions! Not-knowing applies to each of these four types of beliefs, and may apply to other types of beliefs as well (including beliefs tacitly held; for instance, somatic tacit knowledge). Note: I unpack the four types of not-knowing a little more in the introduction to not-knowing.
  5. It’s hard to bridge the gap between people who work in not-knowing and people who are very uncomfortable with not-knowing. Bridging is important because resources (money/people/time) are often controlled by people who aren’t comfortable with not-knowing. Some possible strategies to deploy, none of which are totally reliable:
    • Experiments of increasing size. Each experiment validates key ideas/assumptions and can be used to justify funding the next bigger experiment. This also happens to look like iterative prototyping, but has a different motivation.
    • Pretending that things are more certain than they really are (= lies). This works until it doesn’t.
    • Perspective-taking. Understanding what kinds of certainty are needed and providing those (e.g., limits on maximum spend, or periodic stage-gating for release of resources).
  6. Is the ability to deal with not-knowing stable or plastic, specific or generalizable? Prompted by observations that people tend to be good with not-knowing in some domains, not all domains. This observation raises more questions than it answers:
    • Do we have a fixed amount of not-knowing capacity at any given time?
    • Does not-knowing capacity grow with specific practice and/or general exposure?
    • Can not-knowing capacity developed in one area be applied to other areas?
  7. My view: The ability to deal with not-knowing is plastic and generalizable on long timescales and with directed effort. idk was specifically designed to do this by gradually strengthening the association of positive valence with the embodied stress response to not-knowing (like mithridatism for not-knowing). Anecdotal feedback suggests that it works…
  8. Experiencing not-knowing is not the same as suffering from not-knowing. Many similarities to the differentiation between pain (caused by an event which cannot be avoided) and suffering (the changeable interpretation of the event causing the pain).
  9. The most important things in relating to not-knowing are stories, language, and emotion.


  1. Is trying to know more about not-knowing internally contradictory? I’m not sure it is. My own view at the moment (I’m sure not universally shared) is that having more of a framework for understanding not-knowing is what will help me develop a more textured relationship to it. More on this as things develop.
  2. An individual/subjective relationship to not-knowing is needed. I agree completely. To be clear: This project to understand not-knowing is not about creating some kind of universalising, one-size-fits-all approach. I’m not sure what this project will end up being, but the general direction is to generate tools (writing, approaches, practices, communities) that support people in building their own subjective ways of relating to not-knowing.