The Most Elusive Knowledge: Knowing What You Don’t Know

library study books knowledge epistemological humility

I am an expert on foreign policy with the most effective ways to respond to Russia after their invasion of Ukraine. Also, I have the best solutions for combating gun violence, inflation, climate change, supply chain issues, the spread of diseases and high gas prices. I can provide keen insight into solving policing and racial unrest. And I know theology better than your pastor and all the seminary professor. Oh, and I would make better play calls than the professional sports coaches on TV and run those players better than all the world famous athletes.

OK, I’m not any of those things. I do have a social media account, however, and that seems to be enough to assume you can posses the needed expertise in virtually every newsworthy topic.

Clearly, this tendency of assumed expertise is an issue. Everyone runs around claiming proficiency on subject matter they’ve hardly given a second of thought to, much less study of, prior to it being a popular topic of conversation. So how do we solve it?

To some, the solution is simply that people should gather more knowledge. Know more before you speak. In some sense, this is obviously true. Before you or I comment on an article, we should do more than scan the headline or the social media post promoting it.

So yes, having more knowledge on a subject grants you additional insights to share with others. And we should seek to learn more, especially about important topics. But you and I don’t always have the time or ability to become an expert on the various trending issues of the day. And even if we did have an infinite amount of time to gather all the knowledge that is at our fingertips, we still may not possess the wisdom to best apply that knowledge.

Too many on social media act as if they are experts on every trending topic. We need more people who know what they don't know. Click To Tweet

So, no, the best solution is not more knowledge of every possible area of discussion. The solution is more knowledge of the knowledge we don’t have. Too many people don’t know what they don’t know. We think we are, or can quickly become, an expert in every current trending topic. We need more epistemological humility. Let me explain.

Epistemology is the study of knowledge. It seeks to answer the questions: How can I know something and what does it mean to know something? Epistemological humility is the acknowledgement that we don’t and can’t know everything. We desperately need humility today, but of all the various types of humility that would benefit our culture, epistemological humility may be the most needed.

You cannot simultaneously be the expert on the situation in Ukraine and inflation in the U.S and gun policy and on and on. Can you have opinions about each and every topic involved in the national discourse? Of course. Can you have some knowledge in all of those areas? Possibly. Should you definitively share your thoughts about them all to a public audience? Probably not. Should you claim anyone who disagrees with you on any of your takes on all of those issues is an idiot? Clearly not, but that’s the summation of social media currently.

Our ability to communicate immediate reactions to any event around the world has become an assumption that we should communicate immediate reactions to any event around the world. Click To Tweet

Our ability to communicate immediate reactions to any event around the world has become an assumption that we should communicate immediate reactions to any event around the world. This has creeped outside of social media to everyday life. Our conversations become centered around the popular discussion matter and we assume everyone will be ready to give their thoughts.

As social media became an avenue to discuss popular topics and even more serious matters, people began feeling the freedom to pontificate on issues in which they lacked training or experience but had plenty of opinions. Hot takes became the language of social media. Now, not only do people feel free to offer their thoughts on an ever-increasing range of subjects, they feel pressure to do so.

Other social media users not only share their thoughts on the current cultural topic, they expect you to do the same. If you haven’t tweeted your solution for gun violence in America within an hour of a mass shooting, you must not really care. Self-appointed Twitter hall monitors check the accounts of their ideological opponents and track how long it takes them to respond.

What if we don’t have all the facts about the situation? Doesn’t matter.
What if we don’t have any expertise in that subject? Not the point.
What if we need more time to process what just happened? Too bad.
What if we are engaged in normal, in-person activities that pull us away from the time-consuming vortex of social media for a few fleeting moments? Sorry, that’s not allowed.

So not only do we assume we have all the knowledge needed for every possible subject, we assume others do as well. This is part of what can make social media, and by extension, every day conversations so toxic. We aren’t allowed to not know. Ignorance of the law that requires everyone to have the right opinion on everything is no excuse.

As more people grow frustrated with faux-experts and overwhelming expectations, the church could be a safe haven, a place of grace to catch your breath. Unfortunately, that's often not the case. Click To Tweet

As more and more people grow frustrated with the faux-experts and overwhelming expectations, the church could be a safe haven, a place of grace to catch your breath and find understanding. Unfortunately, this is often not the case for many Christians—especially the most vocal on social media.

Humility of all types, including epistemological humility, should be characteristic of Christians. Yet often, we are among those who display it the least. Why is that? There are inherent qualities of our faith that can tempt us away from epistemological humility, but there are also biblical truths that can ground our knowledge and remind us of its limits. We’ll explore those in the next post.

Part 2: Why Do Christians Think We Know Everything?

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