The Unknowable and the Unknown

I ponder the unknowable
I do it all the time
I introspect and navel-gaze
And most of it in rhyme
It gives me job security—
A niche to call my own—
Unknowables are permanent,
Unlike the mere unknown.

Unsolvable conundrums
Are my favorite sorts of stuff
Impossibly attractive, I
Just cannot get enough
They have no real solution,
So you can’t get too involved—
It’s really so much easier
Than solving the unsolved.

A question that’s unanswered
Is an open invitation
To poke around, to sniff for clues,
Begin investigation
I much prefer unanswerables
And have since just a pup
Cos none can know the answer, so
I get to make shit up.

A bit of context, after the jump:

PZ pointed out a New York Times article on Richard Dawkins, and I (as is my nature) have been reading the comments to that article. Oh, it’s not nearly as bad as reading the comments after some Fox News story on science vs religion, but much of it is predictable. For those of us who feed on this sort of thing, it’s a fairly substantial meal.

Anyway, I noticed a few comments that touched on a pet peeve of mine. They chastised science (or Dawkins, or each other) for not being able to answer the unanswerable questions about unknowable topics. Actually, sometimes they only thought they were doing this–they were actually pointing out their own ignorance of well-known answers. But sometimes, they were arguing for the superiority of religion in answering the unanswerables.

And I have a problem with “unknowable”, “unanswerable”, “unsolvable” and the like. They are not merely adjectives; they are conclusions. And while we know that there are limits to what we can know (and thus, “known unknowns”), these are not the things commenters were speaking of. Mysteries (or at least, mysteries to them) of biology, psychology, and physics should best not be termed “unknowable”, but “unknown” (assuming it is, actually, unknown, or perhaps it is simply “unknown to me”), not “unsolvable” but “unsolved”, not “unanswerable” but “unanswered”. The former in each pair is a conclusion, a dead end. The latter is an invitation. An adventure.

The downside is, if you just make shit up, you get called on it.


  1. zackoz says

    Well put, as usual.

    And so many things which were once thought to be unanswerable have in fact now been answered: eg where did we come from?

    We can always guess that certain things may prove unanswerable, but we don’t want to be too dogmatic about what they may be.

  2. Pierce R. Butler says

    Nancy Marsh, of Florida Citizens for Science, wrote what I consider one of the tidiest summaries of such questions:

    One of the reasons our teachers sometimes get into trouble extolling the virtues of science is that they do not know what science is NOT: truth, permanence, dogma, and the answer to all the questions humanity asks.

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