– President John F. Kennedy
Question: Where is the universe expanding to?
The honest answer is that nobody is entirely sure. According to Einstein’s theory of general relativity, the spacetime continuum cannot remain stationery and must either expand or contract; and, since there is no indication the universe is currently collapsing upon itself, it is believed the universe is expanding. But this begs the obvious question posted above: What is our universe expanding into?
One leading theory encourages people to think of the universe as an expanding balloon with its billions of galaxies as dots on the outer surface of the balloon. From this perspective, it might appear as though the galaxies are moving away from one another but actually they remain in the same relative position (i.e. the same longitude and latitude on the balloon) and it is only the fabric which is expanding.
It is, to say the least, an unsatisfying answer and it may even be proven to be wildly off base at some point in the future. In fact, some string theorists believe there may be 11 or more dimensions and our universe is but one “balloon” in a weird and sortied pack of “balloons.” Not withstanding this possibility, the notion of an expanding universe is a fitting metaphor for unlearning.
As the quote from President Kennedy that started this chapter—and which he spoke in his famous speech declaring it America’s goal to place a man on the moon and safely return him—the idea that our ignorance is unfolding faster than we can acquire knowledge is a cold-hard fact.
This sounds like a depressing statement and, perhaps, it is; but it is one that anyone serious about unlearning must embrace. To understand, consider that the sheer growth of scientific and technical knowledge. As smart, intelligent or knowledgeable as any person or organization may be about continued advances in information technology, biotechnology, nanotechnology and the countless other fields and disciplines that populate our world, it is impossible to keep abreast, let alone, make sense of all of this new knowledge.
In other words, even as our knowledge increases, it is a sure bet our ignorance—or that which we don’t know—will grow even faster. And it is a certainty that contained within this growing category of unknown knowledge will be new knowledge that will require unlearning that old knowledge which has become obsolete.
The challenge was wonderfully captured in this quote from Henry David Thoreau, who once said, “How can we remember our ignorance, which our growth requires, when we are using our knowledge all the time?”
The answer is that we needn’t stop using our knowledge. That’s not only impractical, it’s foolish. Rather the solution is to keep our ignorance—our growing ignorance—top of mind. We must always strive to be intellectually humble and remain cognizant of “what we don’t know.”
And what precisely is the benefit in acknowledging our ignorance? It may real knowledge. Over two thousand years ago Confucius said, “Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance.”
It may even be wisdom. Olin Miller, a veritable quote machine but about whom little else is known, once quipped, “If you realize you aren’t so wise today as you thought you were yesterday, you are wiser today.”
More simply put, by acknowledging all that you don’t know today, you may just become wiser tomorrow—and well into the future.
Homework Assignment: What do you think Lao Tzu meant when he wrote: “To attain knowledge, add things every day. To attain wisdom, subtract things every day”? Now, find one thing to subtract today—and continue to do so every day into the future.”