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Unanswered Questions: Taking Comfort in Ignorance

By Bo Desmond

Five years ago, a friend of mine asked me a question that seemed simple at first: “If you could go back in time and stop the Library of Alexandria from burning, would you do it?” Of course, we could imagine myriad scenarios in which human history might tailspin into the void were any event to change, so an answer to that question requires a fair bit of guesswork. However, in an effort to avoid over-complicating the matter, we decided to keep our hypothetical outcomes as simple as possible: Would the outcome be good or bad?

We enjoyed dinner and several drinks which helped the conversation move along as we discussed the benefits such a vast library could have bestowed upon later generations. The library was famous in its day for housing between 200,000 and 400,000 texts ranging from poetry, medicine, technology, geography, drama, astronomy, mathematics, and many more. Since its destruction, historians and lay people alike have debated the effects that event may have had on human history. Most people believe the loss of such a wealth of information set humanity back hundreds or thousands of years. Perhaps we would have developed the first combustible engine in the 12th century. Maybe computers would be a thing of the past.

All these considerations are, of course, speculation. No one knows for sure the exact consequences of the library’s destruction. Most people who consider the question often imagine the benefits we would receive from the continued existence of the library. As an English teacher, I’m no different. Surely the world could use a little more poetry. For myself and my friend that evening, however, we followed a different train of thought: What kind of information would be helpful to humanity and what kind might harm us?

In this discussion, however, there is a hidden assumption: that more information is always a good thing. We send our children off to school at a young age because we are convinced that they need the information they will acquire there. We read as much as we can, watch YouTube videos, and listen to podcasts all so we can gain more information. After all, no one wants to be ignorant and ill-informed. I understand the sentiment and devote several hours of each day to gathering information.

That day in the restaurant, however, we began to question the assumption that information is always good. What if the knowledge contained within the library allowed the enslavement and destruction of others? What consequences would humanity face had we discovered the nuclear bomb much sooner? If it takes thousands of years to develop our mastery of the natural world, can we assume that it might also take us a long time to master what we do with that information? In other words, if we gain knowledge that gives us power but lack the moral clarity to restrain that power, the outcome could be devastating.

As we concluded our meal and began to leave, we both left convinced that the world would likely be a vastly different place had the library not burned. However, that alternate world may not be a nice place to live, especially if you are on the receiving end of immoral and untethered “progress.” This lengthy anecdote has led me to a hypothesis that I wish to explore more thoroughly in this essay — a question that I have heard some people considering before but without a moral focus. Is information always a good thing? And further, whether it is or not, what do we do with it once we have it? As Christians, what do we wish to accomplish with our information? Are we working towards the glory of God, or do we have our own interests at heart?

The Joy of Painting

I love painting — houses, though, not canvases. Since I was young, I have been working in various construction fields including carpentry, cabinetry, flooring, and painting. I receive deep satisfaction by problem-solving my way to a final product that is both beautiful and practical. While I mainly work as a teacher, my resume seems to swing on a pendulum between education and construction. I enjoy both fields a great deal, because they allow me to regularly interact with some of the most interesting people one could ever meet. Notice that the adjective ("interesting") is neutral. It can be either positive or negative.

Several months ago, I was painting a house for an acquaintance. He was in the process of moving in and had contractors, electricians, carpenters, and family members coming and going throughout the refurberation process. As the only painter on the site, I kept to myself, plugging myself into my headphones to listen to audiobooks or podcasts. From time to time, however, I enjoyed the near silence associated with running a brush along a piece of trim. It was during one of these headphone breaks that I overheard the homeowner having a conversation in the next room about the Bible, specifically eschatology — the biblical study of death and the end times.

Most theologians treat eschatology with great care. They read the texts we have in the original Hebrew and Greek, approaching them in their cultural and literary contexts. Theologians who study or teach eschatology are careful to remember Christ’s warning that “...concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only.” To this end, the vast majority of respectable theologians do not speculate about when the end time will be or what they will be like. That is the providence of fiction and fantasy writers who tend to approach the topic from a position of personal and political interest.

From the conversation I heard that day as I was painting, however, you might assume that the person speaking had a direct line to God. He knew the day and the hour of the end as well as the antichrist and several other characters who show up in Revelation. You may not be surprised to also learn that the United States took a central role in his interpretation. In fact, it took on a larger role than Jerusalem, which I find curious.

It is easy to look down our noses at ideas that sound foolish to us, but we must remember that false confidence plagues us all and is not confined only to those within “blue collar” professions. I have heard immensely well-read teachers make equally foolish claims. I have also experienced the humble brilliance of carpenters.

Inspired by the conversation I overheard that day, I began to reconsider my understanding of knowledge. How much information should we know? Perhaps more importantly, how much information can we know? While I believe that the individual I overheard that day is probably not right in his interpretation of the end times, in the interest of being humble, I could also say that he is probably about as right as anyone else, considering the topic.

This is a lesson I have had trouble learning throughout the years. I love being the person who knows it all. I love sharing the information I have with those around me. Perhaps that is why I became a teacher. If I’m being honest, however, my motives aren't always entirely pure. Often, I share information because I want to show others how much I know. The act of gathering and of sharing is performative; it is valued only in-so-far as it is seen. The old adage about knowledge and power seems appropriate here. When I have the information that others don’t, I feel powerful, in charge. However, no matter how much I fill my head with information, I am only minimally less ignorant than anyone else.

Having knowledge is fine, but believing that the information I have makes me special is a different matter. Too often in our information-addicted world, we acquire knowledge for our own benefit rather than those around us. In other words, we show off. Thankfully, God knows many ways to humble the prideful, and the best way God does that is through refusing to reveal everything to us. In fact, as I get older, I can’t help but conclude that God wants us to be comfortable in our ignorance. When we compare our knowledge with the cosmos, we should accept that our information-addiction is a babel-sized presumption. God intentionally designed us with limited minds, and He does not answer all our questions or reveal everything He is doing for a very good reason: to humble us.

Information Addiction

The trouble with information-addiction is that it can lead us astray. With the wealth of information contained in our world, as well as the easy access to it, we have overworked our data-collecting abilities. As we continually encounter more information each minute, our selection and filtering capabilities wear out. In consuming and processing any collection of data, what are the chances that a lie gets through? With so much information, what are the chances that our finite brains interpret something incorrectly? In 2009, researchers at the University of California in San Diego estimated that the average American consumes 34 gigabytes of data per day -- that’s about 100,500 words or a quarter of War and Peace. Also, keep in mind, that was in 2009. The iPhone first came on the market two years earlier. What are the chances that our data consumption has increased since then? Pretty good, I’d guess.

I used an idiom earlier that fits to demonstrate my point here. When I was talking about my friend and I discussing the Library at Alexandria, I used the expression “train of thought.” If we think about any small piece of information as leading to more information, a train is a perfect metaphor for what happens as we acquire information. The human mind follows the train tracks and makes conclusions based on the information we have. Hopefully those conclusions are logical. Rationality is one of our greatest abilities. In fact, we might argue that the ability to follow a logical pattern is our greatest asset. This power has led to the development of philosophy, science, the computer I am writing on, etc. But what if the information we start with is wrong?

One of the most common logical fallacies is the false premise. The false premise is particularly interesting because it can exist even when a person’s mathematical logic is flawless. It happens when the proposition or information that starts a logical argument is itself wrong. The logic could be perfect, but if it begins with false information, the conclusions will end up being false. Here is an example: animals have fur. Turtles are animals. Therefore, turtles have fur. Were you to read the first sentence (the premise) your mind may go immediately to your pet dog or cat or the squirrel you see in your yard. Because you did not spend enough time thinking about the premise, perhaps you would simply accept it as true. However, the conclusion is clearly false. Maybe it is true in some circumstances, but it is easily disproved with a little thought.

Consider the amount of information we consume on a daily basis. Do we stop to consider their validity? Do we always double-check the sources? If we are being honest, of course we don’t. We assume that information that confirms our pre-fashioned beliefs is true, but we are quick to scrutinize information that challenges our beliefs.

I was recently having lunch with a friend and the conversation came around to whether the minimum wage should be raised. We held similar opinions and used information we both had to support our beliefs. And then I used a statistic that I could only vaguely recall. I couldn’t even remember where I had heard it. With all the data constantly pouring into my head from every direction, is there a chance that information was wrong? Of course. In fact, I will go even further and claim that I should not have used that information because I do not know it to be true, and I do not want to unintentionally spread a lie.

Herein lies the main consequence of always needing answers to our questions. We can spread lies if we are too confident in the information we have. Everyone is wrong sometimes, and rather than assuming we are right, a safer approach is assuming we are wrong.

There is a danger that comes from too much information. In our feverish need for more answers, what are the chances that the information we have is incorrect? And if so, what could the consequences be?

As Christians, we must consider this question deeply. We must recognize that we do not have the cognitive powers to consume all the information that our technology gives us. We must humble ourselves into recognizing that we do not have a direct line to God and that God often refuses us the information we desire not only because we don’t need to know it but also because He knows it, and it would make no difference if we did.

A Problem of Faith

False information has moral consequences. An unrestrained desire for information can be arrogant and presumptuous. In desiring to always have more information and acting like we know without a doubt that our information is correct, we are assuming that we know the mind of God.

God has given us a great tool: thousands of pages and millions of words long, spanning several millennia, multiple empires, and three continents. The Bible is an excellent source of knowledge and inspiration. No book has shaped history, culture, philosophy, and politics more. With all the information in and about the Bible, we must certainly strive to consume and digest it all. If it is the Word of God, we must look there for answers to our moral and philosophical questions. However, while the Bible certainly contains a great many answers, will a greater knowledge of it give us answers to all our questions? Take the aforementioned conversation I overheard while painting. That man claimed unequivocally to have found answers to questions about the end times. He could quote scripture to argue his point. Without stating that he is wrong, I might instead suggest this question: Does the information he claimed to have change anything? In other words, how important is it for us to have answers to these questions? And does God intend for us to have those answers?

Concerning the end times (something every Christian seems to have an opinion on) even Jesus did not presume to know the mind of God regarding this matter. So why should we? Just read the book of Revelation (a book I am somewhat convinced God saw fit to include in the Bible to simply keep us humble.) Within just three chapters, we encounter a dragon from heaven (re. space) a seven-headed beast from the sea, another one from the earth, two fire-breathing messengers, etc. While most Christians would quickly interpret these images symbolically, our many interpretations contradict one another, and it does not stop many from interpreting other parts of Revelation literally, such as marks on our hands or foreheads. God could easily have provided clear statements regarding the topics that most confuse us. But perhaps that is not what God desires. God desires that we accept that not all the answers are easy, and that we do not always have them handed to us. Furthermore, we do not always need to have the answers to some questions. In fact, I would suggest that the need to have answers to questions God has not given us reveals a lack of faith in His control.

Perhaps this is why Christ so often spoke to his disciples in riddles, much to the chagrin of his merry band who envisioned Jesus literally tearing down the temple and building it again in three days. Take, as an example, his statement at the last supper. He took the bread and told his disciples that it was his body, take and eat. And the wine was his blood, take a drink. In time, they understood what he meant, but during the supper, he seemed to be speaking nonsense.

We have the advantage of our position in time. We know what came to be. We know why we practice communion. But had we been there, wouldn’t we have been just as confused and annoyed as his disciples? All this is to say that Jesus did not intend nor require for his followers to know everything. In fact, Jesus rarely called the most knowledgeable to follow him. While the disciples could read and write, consistent with a Jewish education at the time, they were far from the most knowledgeable when it came to the scriptures. In fact, it was the knowledgeable Jesus despised the most. Jesus did not hate the Pharisees because of their knowledge, however. He detested them because they were consumed by their knowledge. They assumed to know the mind of God. They presumed to have all the answers to their questions. Jesus did not want those who had all the knowledge the world had to offer. He called those who would follow in faith whether their questions were answered or not. An incessant need for answers to questions God has chosen to hide is not faith; it is folly and pride.

But if searching for answers is not always a bad thing, stay with me a bit longer, and I will hopefully convince you. Evangelicals today use a term inherited from Hebraic tradition: omniscient. From Greek, the word omnis means "all" and scientia (where we get our word science) means "knowledge" or "knowing" or "conscious." God is all-knowing. Juxtaposed against this understanding of God stands humanity. The generally accepted view of ourselves is limited, contained, finite or however you would like to define a species that spends billions of dollars each year filling ourselves with information. The fact we do this assumes we do not know all. Nor do any of us suggest we do. Rightfully so. With these understandings of God and humankind in mind, let me ask a question. If we believe God to be infinite and ourselves to be finite, how much knowledge of God can we contain? Keep in mind that if we try to divide infinity into its smallest part, we would still be left with infinity. How much infinity can our finite minds contain? I would say none at all, not even an iota.

Does this mean we know nothing? The jury’s still out on that one, but I would answer the question optimistically. We know as much as our infinite God is willing to reveal. How does an infinite God become finite? By becoming flesh in the form of finite man.

We know what God has revealed to us. The amount He has revealed could be a great deal, but is probably more consistent with Isaac Newton’s acknowledgement that “what we know is a drop, what we don’t know is an ocean.” This recognition may still encourage us to pursue more knowledge with even greater fervor. I wouldn’t be opposed to such aims. But we must always keep an eye on the mirror and remember how limited we are, how our entire understanding of a universe that is theoretically infinite is contained between a few inches of gray matter.

In returning to the discussion about the Library at Alexandria that I had with my friend, we should remember that there is information that we do not need to know. Perhaps we are not ready for it yet or perhaps it would make no difference if we did know it. Whatever the case may be, the answers to our questions will not give us greater faith. It will only lead us to seek more answers to questions that God already knows the answers to. If we are to grow in our faith, we must become comfortable with the limited nature of our minds and be thankful for the information we have. Remember this as we search for more understanding. And remember that sometimes God does not answer our questions because He does not want us to have them. Perhaps that is just fine.


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