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"Starting With What We Don't Know"
by Paul Von Ward
Beginning a trial, defense and prosecution attorneys can stipulate that a piece of evidence be accepted as "true," not disputed by either side. This is usually done when both believe objective observers (in this case, the jury) would agree to its veracity. Then the litigation can deal with items that one side or the other considers "not true."

In the physical and social sciences, psychology, metaphysics, and religion, I believe all discussions should begin with the opposite approach: Stipulation of the "unknown." If a jury representing differing traditions could not agree the evidence demonstrates the answer is "truth," all parties, in good conscience, should label it as belief, assumption, or hypothesis. Applying this standard, most of what we label "truth" would have to be considered as still in the "unknown" column.

When one conscientiously takes this approach, it quickly becomes clear the list of "what we don't know" far exceeds that which we do know. Following are a few examples of the many important questions for which we don't know the answers. Add your own as you read.

Anthropology. What was the first civilization? Who discovered higher mathematics? Who started the first languages? Why are they based in mathematics? Who domesticated cats and perfected crops for human consumption? Who discovered the medicinal values of herbs?

Biology/Chemistry. What started life on Earth, or anywhere? (In other words, how do we link physics and biochemistry?) How do different species form? How did different races develop? What is the smallest life form? What causes sleep? Where do directions for cell differentiation reside? What is the relationship of environment and genes to intelligence? What is the final point of physical death?

Cosmology. What is the origin of the universe? How and when did consciousness arise? Do conscious beings similar to humans exist? Have we discovered all the Sun's planets? What is the nature of reality outside this universe? How does a person's observing consciousness relate to the body?

Physics. Where does the universe's matter come from? What is dark matter? What is the smallest particle? What is the nature of antiparticles or sparticles? Are there unmeasured energy spectra? What is the subtle energy form seen by many to enter the body at birth and depart it at death?

Psychology. Where does the personality reside? What are dreams? Why do placebos heal? How do we perceive objects/events at a distance? What is the nature of non-human consciousness? Where are memories stored?

There is much human experience and accumulated evidence that point to the still "unknown" answers to all these questions, but the definitive "truth" still eludes us. (For some other examples, see Why Aren't Black Holes Black? by Robert M. Hazen and Maxine Singer. Anchor Books. 1997) For each unanswered question, many hypotheses and assumptions have been put forward, but few would be accepted by a "planetary jury." A unanimous vote is not required to define universal truth; only a consensus among competing epistemologies (ways of knowing) is necessary.

The misapplication of the labels "truth" and "unknown" results in prejudices, antagonisms, and wars. Asserting "truth" when honesty demands something be labeled "unknown" divides people. If we were truly honest about "what we don't know," it would be much easier to have a dialogue that identifies commonly accepted knowledge. In our search for truth or common ground, any thoughtful hypothesis is as good as any other as a starting point. As we learn more of the complexity of our universe, what is likely to be ultimate truth is beyond our wildest imaginations anyway.

After reaching agreement on "what we don't know" in a particular area, the discussion can quickly identify "what we do know," i.e., that upon which there is already general agreement. In most aspects of life that is actually very little; the "unknown" just about pervades all fields that we consider human knowledge. Apparently, to make ourselves feel less nervous about so much unknown, we have created the vast domain of our as-yet-unproven beliefs and called it knowledge. But what is this so-called knowledge?

To illustrate the variety of assertions about a few of the above unknown areas: There are several mutually exclusive hypotheses about the origin of the universe (random bang plus 15 billion years, God's one-week creation, off-shoot of another universe, conscious conception of great forces). Several explanations on how life started (lightning striking the primal sea, panspermia, activation by a creator's voice, seeded at birth of universe). At least three perspectives on how homo sapiens came to exist (direct creation, chance mutation, manipulation by more advanced beings). Why can't we sort out the truth?

Adherents to these various theories speak, write and act as if they already possess an exclusive truth. Why are they loath to admit they are only giving their best estimate or inspiration and are hostile to other hypotheses? Y.G. Kimura in The Cosmic Light (University of Science and Philosophy Quarterly. Spring, 1999) says "People are intolerant of others with differing viewpoints, because...deep down they are uncertain of the...validity of their own beliefs, not want to face the possibility...that they may not know the truth after all." Does this fear of not having enough certainty make people more adamant than they know the facts permit? Do some simply overstate their case because it gives them attention or power over others? These questions also exemplify "what we don't know." We know people stretch the truth, but we don't know why.

Whatever the reason for unwarranted claims to truth, the next leap in human progress requires more honesty about "what we don't know." Only with it can we be open to discover the "real truth." Open-minded scientists and metaphysicians have always been open to such a search. But, when dogma reigns, as it does in most of today's labs, sermons, classrooms, and media, there is little hope for profound breakthroughs regarding the place and purpose of humans in the universe.

(Paul Von Ward, MPA and MSc, researches and writes in the fields of prehistory, consciousness, and frontier science. His most recent publication is the book Solarian Legacy: Metascience & A New Renaissance. An Oughten House imprint, it is distributed by Medicine Bear Publishing and is available to individuals in bookstores, on, or by calling the publisher at 207/374-3831. Paul can be contacted at