Being Honest About What We Don’t Know

The truth is we don’t know a lot of stuff. We don’t really know why we dream, what’s on the bottom of the ocean, how the first spark of life started, and what, specifically, triggered the big bang. But if I learned anything from Jim Holt’s fascinating and challenging book (I had to renew it from the library three times to get through it) Why Does the World Exist?, it’s that even though our world’s greatest philosophers, scientists, and theologians disagree on a lot of stuff about the nature of our existence, they sure have a good time thinking about it all. My takeaway as a parent and teacher is a renewed commitment to being open with my kids and students about all the things I don’t know. Instead of telling young people rote answers about philosophy and science and the big questions of life, we need to let them in on the fun part: trying to figure it all out. What We Don’t Know is a printable classroom or kitchen table activity that will encourage young and old to have fun contemplating some of the great mysteries of our world.

When it comes to big questions about God, life’s meaning, and the origin of our world, we want our kids to think we know it all. But when you take a refreshing moment to dive into the current thinking about the exact nature of our world, even our greatest minds admit that there’s a lot of unknown. I just finished two bestsellers that tackled what many consider to be the essential existential question: Why is there something rather than nothing? By far, Jim Holt’s existential detective story Why Does the World Exist? was the refreshing one. Why?  Because he struggled with all the different opinions he got, from Oxford philosophers to our world’s greatest physicists and writers. In fact, the entertaining part was listening to these great minds contradict, debate, and challenge each other from their ivory towers. Less entertaining was A Universe From Nothing by Lawrence M. Krauss, precisely for the opposite reason.  Instead of taking the attitude of a seeker, Krauss often appeared smug. He sounded like a parent or preacher who claimed to have it all figured out.

In reading both, I took the attitude of a child.  First, because some of the logic, proofs, and physics were way beyond the scope of the “physics for poets” class I took in college. I had to read with a child’s humility all the stuff I could barely understand. But second, in reading the books, I noticed the difference I intuitively understood as a child when one adult was trying to help me understand something they themselves struggled with versus another adult who rigidly claimed to know everything.  Kids, of course, are the world’s best bullshit detectors. I felt the sincerity of Jim Holt’s questions and confusion as equally as I felt the smugness of Krauss.

Kids need to learn that the unknown part is the fun part. Really, how boring would our world be if we had it all figured out, we knew the map, the key, the secret to everything? Of course, kids need to be certain that you love them and that you’ll take care of them no matter what. They need to know they can trust you. But they don’t need to think that you have everything figured out. You should share your beliefs with your children, but also share your doubt, the times in your life when you were less certain. Otherwise, what happens is kids eventually grow up and realize that the solid facts you said were immutable were really your own feelings, opinions, and ideas.  This can lead to distrust. Why didn’t you tell me this part?

One of the most refreshing moments of my life was the day I opened up to my devoutly religious mother that I had doubts in God’s existence. Instead of chastising me, she encouraged me. She admitted to having her own times of doubt. She encouraged me to enjoy the fun part, the search, the growth, the questions. She helped me find people I could talk to. My father did the same, both offering me the great gift of safety, security, and room for uncertainty.

By the way, some of the philosophical possibilities for why our universe exists as proposed by our world’s greatest thinkers (at least the ones we pay at our best universities to think about this stuff) include options like: we are part of a cosmic brain, we’re the spawn of an endless stream of multi-verses of unknown origin, we’re a program on some genius hacker’s computer, we’re trapped in a cave looking at shadows cast on a the wall from the real world behind us (that was some guy named Plato’s contribution). And, of course, many people believe God did it all (but that still does not answer how and why?). This eclectic range of ideas should give us all pause before we shoot down anything a child says.

Lao Tzu said “living things are flexible and tender while the dead are brittle and dry. Those who are stiff and rigid are the disciples of death. Those who are soft and yielding are the disciples of life.” I believe firmly that to stay truly alive, we need to remain flexible and open (you hear that Congress). And this includes being open and flexible with our children. So don’t be afraid to engage your kids and students on some of these topics, giving them a chance to come up with their own ideas, as well as expressing some of yours. Check out the fascinating website Things We Don’t Know as a way to remind yourself of how much we still are unsure of. And take a look at our new classroom or kitchen table activity What We Don’t Know.  Here are some of the unanswered questions touched on in this activity:

  • What is the universe made of? The stuff we detect in our universe, the atoms and cells and junk, only accounts for 5% its mass. The other 95% is a mystery. Dark Matter? Dark Energy? What the heck is out there?
  • How did life really start? So we know about evolution. But how did the first life, the first cell, the first spark, happen? A soupy mess of chemicals on a volcano or a meteor?
  • Are we alone in the universe? Is there somebody else out there? We know now that there are planets out there that could support life. But did it happen?
  • What makes us human? We share 99% of our DNA with a chimpanzee. In fact, 60% of our DNA is the same as a fruit fly. So what makes us human and special? iPods and Google?

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Tall Trees Grow Deep is devoted to growing awesome humans through the creation and sharing of contemplation, motivation, and inspiration resources that work in the classroom or around the kitchen table. Subscribe to get ideas and updates sent to your email (and we’ll throw in a mini e-book of some of our new resources). Explore our growing page of free, printable contemplation activities for home or school.