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A "Don't Know" Attitude

(This was written in response to one of my spiritual friends' question why what we believe shouldn't matter much.)

I happened to turn on the radio one day and listened in to a physicist in the middle of a discourse with a group of college students. I don’t remember now what the subject was about, but I was struck by a repeated assertion that the scientist made.

He said that the correct answer to any scientific research, until it’s proven with the empirical evidence, is a “don’t know.” It doesn’t matter how much data is collected and how convincingly the body of data is pointing to a particular direction and that a trained scientist could reasonably draw to a conclusion. Yet, the correct answer to the hypothesis is that you don’t know and have no credible answer to the question, until it is empirically verifiable.

What if we apply this well-heeded definition of scientific study to other aspects of human life that are inherently difficult to produce empirical evidence? Like our feelings, our sense of right and wrong, social and ethical norms, our religious, social, and political beliefs? How could we measure these subjective materials?

Of course, social scientists have applied the same scientific method of careful observations and have developed empirical probability as a way of validating their theories. But in daily life, we don’t filter our opinions through scientific observations or empirical validations. We have no such patience, nor do we see any needs for it. If we make even a dubious assertion loud enough and just frequently enough, it seems to get accepted as a fact by a large segment of society.

Economists are well known for touting empirical probabilities while they offer competing and often wildly contradicting theories on the same economic phenomenon.

Religious leaders assert their sense of right and wrong as if they were etched in stones from the beginning of humanity (some literally believe that!).

Political leaders change their minds all the time on what is true or false and yet present their theories as if they are fool proof.

Ordinary people apply all sorts of belief systems which cannot be empirically verifiable but nonetheless want to force them upon others. They are tricked to think that their beliefs, no matter how arbitrary they might be, are true and immutable.

When it comes to the realm of human feelings and emotions, we are reluctant to apply empirical methods. It might as well because it’s an impossible task. Feelings are notoriously fickle by nature. It’s not a result of character flaws.

Brain scientists tell us that our emotions arise (and perish) in every nanosecond from environmental stimuli. It is physical. Our quick reactions to any threats and pleasure, and everything in between, are coded in our genes. In other words, we cannot help but react to something to like, dislike, or neutral. That is given.

These three types of initial emotions will inevitably lead us to feelings.

Imagine our body reacts to a threat. We feel threatened. We become fearful. We want to fight back or withdraw. Or imagine our body reacts to a pleasure. We feel joyous. We want to linger in that feeling and yearn for its recurrence if it’s gone.

This rather simplified image is how our emotions and feelings work together. If our emotions are physical in nature, our feelings are mental interpretation of what’s going on in our body when we meet emotions.

We are not a clean sheet of paper when we encounter emotions. We’ve lived our lives and have accumulated lots of memories and have processed and assigned all kinds of mental associations and meanings to certain emotions and have formed many beliefs. All these happen mostly subconsciously. How could we measure them, let alone obtain empirical validations?

I want to go back to that physicist’s assertion that the correct answer is a “don’t know.” What if we try to develop this “don’t know” attitude and stay on at a point where feelings originated? Is it even possible to observe that precise point? If not, could we delay the onset of a chain of feelings or interrupt its course? Just long enough to witness how our feelings weave and finally create pitfalls we didn’t anticipate?

If we practice this “don’t know” attitude and hold off our judgment long enough, what would happen?

We’ve all heard about one unchanging universal truth: everything is moving and nothing stands still. From the beginning of the universe, things happen because something else happened before and that everything interacts and aligns constantly. A single contact elicits a chain of events and that in turn elicit more far reaching reactions. Everything is in motion.

Instead of mindlessly creating a chain of reactions, what if we afford this “don’t know” mind long enough to produce somewhat mindful response? A “don’t know” mind would tell us basically “not to go there yet.” I don’t know and thus I delay my judgment and reaction. This attitude would create a neutral space where we can observe the beginning of a chain of reaction. That is where neither prejudice and nor belief systems exists, at least not yet. It is empty of all that. Yet, it is where everything is originated. In other words, it is where we could observe how things actually are, in their original and true forms, before they become disfigured and mangled through our subjective imaginations.

I think we got it all wrong and, as a consequence, we find ourselves where we are at the moment. Just look around and see what is happening.

All the sages have told us, however, that it’s never too late. A “don’t know” attitude is as close as we can get to a clean sheet of paper, figuratively speaking. That should be our saving grace.

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Banner: Late October in a mixed stand of hickories, oaks, and American beech at Fountainhead Regional Park, on the northern shore of the Occoquan River, in Fairfax County, Virginia. Photo by Chris Bright. 

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