The Right to Say “I Don’t Know”

About two years ago, I used to regularly get involved in long debates (normally over Facebook) about the existence of God and various other deep and philosophical issues. I tend not to engage in the same type of endless debate now, and I like to think that I did manage to learn something from those somewhat pointless discussions. One of the things that I look back on with regret is that no one involved, including myself, seemed willing to say ‘I don’t know’ in response to a tough question or tricky point. The consequence of this, at least for my own part, was answers full of improvisation and seriously lacking in thought. Looking back, those answers could actually have been more damaging than saying ‘I don’t know’.

Despite this, the fact remains that in a lot of conversations that I’ve had, saying ‘I don’t know’ is seen as a sign of weakness in your argument, that not knowing something means that your argument is worse than your opponents. Of course, in some cases you might not know something because that bit of knowledge doesn’t actually exist, but that’s not really the sort of ‘I don’t know’ that I’m thinking about here. I’m looking at those times when someone says ‘I don’t know’ because they lack expertise in an area, they’ve forgotten a specific detail, they don’t understand an issue as well as they could do etc. In these cases, it is highly likely that the correct information does exist, it just can’t be accessed for whatever reason. This is clearly not a sign of flaws in an argument. Perhaps you could say that the person who doesn’t know something shouldn’t have got involved in the argument in the first place, but in reality, you’re not always thinking about where an argument/debate may end up when you get into it.

I suppose that what I’m trying to ask is that people on both sides of a debate of this nature, and perhaps in all debates (though I don’t really want to broaden the scope of this post that much), would show a little understanding and consideration to their opponent, that people would be able to acknowledge that when someone doesn’t know something, it doesn’t invalidate their whole viewpoint. Let me put it this way, I don’t know nearly enough about biology to have a proper debate about the role of God in any evolution process, but does that automatically mean that my belief in God is wrong? I don’t think so! Equally, if an atheist doesn’t understand the melting pot of religious ideas around the time of Jesus’ death, does that automatically invalidate their argument? No! The problems start to arise if someone like me starts making assertions about evolution such as ‘the eye is irreducibly complex’ or someone else says ‘people in Jesus’ time would believe anything’. There are learned people out there who can explain the intricacies of both issues and unless we can bring their understanding into a debate, I think it’s far better to be able to say ‘I don’t know’.

If I’m being realistic, I’m not expecting everyone to research everything that could possibly come up in a debate before hand. Ideally, people should be able to base their claims on some sort of trustworthy authority. Problems start when people start blagging. Also, let me stress that I’m not suggesting that people always leave it at ‘I don’t know’. You could say something like ‘I don’t know, I’ll look it up for you’ or, ‘I don’t know, let me ask someone who does’. This allows the debate to continue once everyone knows what they’re talking about. I don’t think this is too unreasonable, and perhaps if people started to think like this, they would be more respectful in debates in general. I’m not trying to make people do anything drastic, I’m just calling for a little more respect and grace. I don’t think that’s too much to ask, but it takes a little bit of effort to make it work. Have a think about it, and see if it makes sense.

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