The Freedom of Don’t Know

We live in a knowledge-based society. Our early ancestors survived by hunting, then by farming, and then my manufacturing products in factories and warehouses. Of course, these activities required knowledge. Now, we live in the age of technology with the internet and constant communication. In the past our ancestors used knowledge as a tool. Today, we use it as a commodity. Knowledge is stockpiled, mined and traded. It is also widely disseminated for free through countless forms of public media.

Knowledge is essential for practical purposes. It prevents us from touching a hot stove, causes us to look both ways before crossing a busy street and prevents us from strolling off the side of a building. Practical knowledge is based on direct experience, usually resulting from a process of trial and error. Knowledge is the basis of all science. Scientific knowledge provides early warnings to those in the path of severe storms, cures us of diseases that would have been fatal to our ancestors and permits us to prudently invest our money for retirement. Whether practical or scientific, knowledge is based on the results of rigorous testing. Such knowledge can be proven. It is factual.

But how much of what we think we know is factual, and how much is really pseudo-factual? How much of our knowledge is not based on empirical facts, but is based on opinions and beliefs that we have come to regard as being true?

Human beings are constantly asking questions and constantly searching for answers. Many times, we cling to the first plausible answer we obtain, whether it is true or not. Once we adopt this answer, we tend to take ownership of it. It becomes difficult for us to trade our answer for another. It is even more difficult to simply abandon our answer as not correct if no suitable alternative exists, because that will leave us searching again.

Many of the questions we ask don’t have convenient answers, and many of the answers we do obtain are simply not factual. They are opinions, ideas that we have formulated and developed within our minds. We formulate assessments of our self-worth based on the opinions of others, or a few unexpected outcomes of our undertakings, but is that really a true assessment of our intrinsic value? We judge others based on the opinions we form concerning their behavior, but can we really know what another person is thinking or the motives behind their actions? We construct elaborate views about what happens after this life, but has anyone yet conclusively proven the existence of a heaven or a hell?

As we nurture our opinions, they grow into beliefs. Beliefs are strong internal assertions. Our beliefs combine to construct our worldview. We become our beliefs. And we gradually, imperceptibly, come to accept our internal beliefs as indisputable “knowledge.” Challenges to our beliefs, therefore, challenge our worldview. Attacks on our beliefs are tantamount to attacks on us, and  force us to defend ourselves. 

There is no need to defend fact-based knowledge, because the results of experiments can easily be reproduced and the facts can be proven. If you touch a hot stove it will hurt. To dispute this fact, you need only to place your hand on a hot stove and feel what happens. Beliefs that are not based on factual evidence cannot be proven, and need to be defended. By constantly having to defend our views, we become slaves to our opinions.

We accept this mental indenture to pacify a higher need — the need to control. The need to know feeds the need to control. If we understand our environment, we can control it. To control our interactions with other people, we formulate “knowledge” based on our guesses about the motives for their behavior, or what we assume are the beliefs of their associates. To control our destiny, we formulate knowledge based upon our conjecture of the origin of our existence, of an afterlife and of the forces responsible for everything that we perceive to be natural or unnatural.

When the beliefs that support our control are threatened by competing beliefs, the results can be confrontational and violent. At the very least, even when we “agree to disagree,” the differences between our opinions divide us. We struggle to maintain our illusion of control. But even our illusion of control is limited, because there are many questions that remain unanswered.

The Stoic teacher Epictetus, who was born a slave, instructed his students that happiness and freedom begin when we understand that some things are within our control, and some things are not. Relinquishing the need to control every aspect of our lives frees us from the tyranny of our opinions. There is much wisdom in the phrase, “everything happens for a reason,” not because it suggests that events are predestined, but because it permits us to stop trying to influence events that are outside of our control. The message of Epictetus is this: “It is what it is.” This is equanimity.

Equanimity permits us to relinquish the illusion of control. It allows us to not know, to stop searching for a definitive answer to every question. Indeed, it allows us to stop asking questions altogether in those areas that are outside of our control. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try to expand our influence in practical life. A certain amount of success in mundane affairs is necessary for the survival of ourselves and our loved ones. But acknowledging our current sphere of control, and living within its periphery, clears our mind and helps to establish what spiritual beings call mindfulness. We cannot be mindful if we are constantly clinging to our beliefs and opinions. 

Clinging to beliefs and opinions is attachment. Renouncing this attachment releases mental tension and opens our minds to endless varieties of spiritual practices, political independence and more effective social intercourse. Thoughts stop racing through our minds, fantasies and perceived insults fade away and we cease imbuing every action and event with significant meaning. This is what Zen master Shunryu Suzuki called, “beginner’s mind.” Suzuki told us, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.” This is genuine freedom.

Freedom and control are not compatible. Freedom requires that we relinquish control, so there is no need of the “knowledge” stored in our beliefs and opinions. We may resist discarding this knowledge because we fear that if we admit that we “don’t know,” others will think less of us. Society does not place a high value on an open mind, and its possessor is usually perceived as someone who is unintelligent and without convictions. We fear that “don’t know” will make us vulnerable to the world and may actually be harmful to us. On the contrary, “don’t know” is true wisdom. Beliefs and opinions provide only a false sense of control, one that is particularly tenuous when not based on facts. “Don’t know” shifts our area of control to a more realistic level. This is true strength.

The Tao Te Ching tells us that in the quest for knowledge, each day something is gained; in the quest for the Way, each day something is lost. What is lost are our assumptions, our beliefs — the pseudo-facts that we use to define ourselves.

The Chan Buddhist poem, Hsin-Hsin Ming by Seng-ts’an, begins:

The Great Way is not difficult,
for those who hold no preferences.
If you want to realize the truth,
then hold no opinions for or against anything.
Like and dislike
is the disease of the mind.


Can we truly live in this complex world completely free of opinions and beliefs? Yes. Knowledge is a commodity; opinions and beliefs are merely a form of entertainment.

Will a life without opinions and beliefs truly lead to freedom and happiness?

I don’t know. Let’s give it a try.


Creative Commons edition of the Hsin-Hsin-Ming


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