Why I Fear a “Fear of the Unknown”

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Rich, lively conversations can be fun, energizing, and illuminating, but sometimes they can also get quite uncomfortable. This is especially evident when our conversations become more than a place for us to merely vent and get things off of our chests by “reporting the facts” (“Oh, he’s really nice;” “The lasagna  I had last night was totally banging;” “I’m going to file for a divorce”). Conversations push our comfort zones when they invite, or rather challenge, us to actually think beyond the so-called “facts.” To understand the kind of shift that can happen in one’s experience of a conversation, simply imagine the anxiety and defensiveness that can arise when someone asks a very simple and seemingly standard follow-up question. “Why?” At some point, discomfort and anxiety might surpass the threshold of conversational irritation and leave one ready to lash out: “All you ask is, ‘Why? Why? WHY?!?’ You’re no better than my three-year old!” (By the way, we should probably be less dismissive of the wisdom in our children’s inquisitiveness.) After teaching undergraduate classes in philosophy, the discipline that asks questions, I’ve learned a few fail-safe phrases from my students that can stop the discomfort and the conversation even faster than one can utter the words, “I don’t know.”

In four years I’ve taught 13 sections of eight different philosophy courses and thought along with about 400 students on a range of topics including love and sex, race and diversity, feminism, Asian philosophies, ethics, the good life, and (at present in my Healthcare and Medical Ethics course) the role of medicine. Every semester, regardless of the specific issues at hand, a few “answers” strike some students as always applicable and appropriate. When we continually push the boundaries of what we think we know by returning to the simple yet very difficult question, “Why?” – Why do we do the things that we do? Why do people believe what they believe? Why are so many aspects of our society so jacked up? – these “answers” typically reference things like “human nature,” “evolution,” our tendency to be “inherently self-interested,” “scientific knowledge,” and “a fear of the unknown.” When a student suggests any of the above as an explanation for why “x” is the case, my face turns into a grimace and then I tell them that, as a class, we are going to ban such things from being stated ever again for the rest of the semester.

My problem with these “answers” is that they are too quick, too loaded, too simple. But more than that, they effectively shut down the conversation. More than being wrong because they are false (which I think is the largely the case), these answers are problematic because of what they do. They stop our thinking. They suggest, “That’s that! There’s nothing more to investigate here.” And the implication is that there’s nothing we can do in terms of changing the status quo. “Too bad if you don’t like the way things are. And don’t look to me if you have a problem with it; you’ll have to take it up with ‘science.'” I’ve noted the problem with some of these “explanatory” appeals elsewhere, and today I want to specifically focus on this “fear of the unknown” that I’ve heard so much about.

The process typically goes something like this: Why don’t people respect others who are different from themselves? We have a fear of the unknown. Why are we unwilling to try new practices or change our public policies? We don’t know what would happen or what consequences might result if we did (after all, there’s no guarantee that it won’t bring about very undesirable changes) and, hence, we have a fear of the unknown. So, even if we concede that the status quo is not the best situation imaginable for a lot of people, perhaps even for ourselves, at least it is a known quantity.

Although appeals to a “fear of the unknown” are expected to function as the other “answers” do, namely, by offering a conclusive explanation for why things are they way they are, a “fear of the unknown” is slightly different. For one, it may not be wrong. I find it quite untenable to suggest that men and women behave as they do because they evolved into different gender roles, whereas I think it is very likely that we do have a fear the unknown (and this is yet to be explored below). Furthermore, the simple follow-up question-test illustrates a subtle difference between other “explanatory answers” and a “fear of the unknown.” If one asks, “So why do you think that men and women evolved into having different gender roles?” the conversation can continue to shoot down a path where explanations are (too) easy to come by. “For the preservation of the species.” It can be quite difficult to realize that such answers rely on the very assumptions that are being questioned. “Evolution,” or at least a paradigm that takes evolution to be fundamental, is easily taken for granted as the answer for everything. (The same can be said about “science” or even “God.”)

In contrast, to ask, “But why do we have a fear of the unknown?” is to invite a moment for pause, and it is in this moment when one can begin to get uncomfortable. Rather than referring back to some other framework that exists outside of ourselves like “evolution,” “God,” or “science,” the question turns the attention squarely back onto us. The typical answer also very readily reveals the circularity of our assumptions. “We have a fear of the unknown because we like to feel like we know.” “But why do we like to feel like we know?” “Because we have a fear of the unknown.” And so on and so forth until irritation, frustration, and discomfort bring the conversation to decisive end.

One might finally admit, “I DON’T KNOW (so stop asking me)!” But when this happens, and I hope this is evident, even the “I don’t know” here erupts from some irritation and becomes another conversation-stopper. In this case, “I don’t know” means “You want to know but I can’t help you, so stop bothering me and take you questions up with someone else.” Maybe science. Maybe God. That’s where you can find the answers.

There is, of course, another alternative. One could humbly admit, “I don’t know.” And rather than having this be the end of the story, one could say this and mean, “So let’s keep exploring.” Not to find easy answers. Not to know for sure. Instead, it suggests that we continue because the questions are worth asking, and in asking, we might be learning something of a different sort.

While grading a set of essays this week, one student conjured up the “fear of the unknown.” I grimaced at first thanks to my well-developed, knee-jerk response, but I was pleased to read on and see that she handled this “fear of the unknown” in a much more thoughtful way.

fear of the unknown

“It’s just masking the messy and confusing circumstances that we do not want to deal with.”

The alternative of a humble “I don’t know” illustrates how even if we have a fear of the unknown, this does not mean that we should cower behind our fear. Fear alone is not reason enough to avoid asking important questions. It does, however, point to why so many people find it too hard to grapple with very difficult questions: To genuinely ask a question is to already give a nod to the fact that there is something, or many things, that one does not know.

The typical fear and discomfort that surrounds an admission of not-knowing is precisely why I always note that to think philosophically, to ask genuine questions, to resist easy answers, is to possess a certain amount of courage. When we want or feel like we need to know, or feel too uncomfortable to admit that we do not know, or cannot fathom what it would mean to be okay with not knowing what we think we know, we stop thinking. We stop growing. We circumvent the opportunity for something new, perhaps something even better, to develop and emerge. We “know” too much, so we are stuck with all the violences, harms, and injustices of the status quo. And that, dear reader, is why I fear “a fear of the unknown.”

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2 thoughts on “Why I Fear a “Fear of the Unknown”

  1. Pingback: Why Truth?:Thinking Outside of the Box | Cori Wong

  2. Thanks for this interesting piece, Cori. I’ve definitely observed (and also felt) the awkwardness you described, when asking (or being asked) ‘Why?’ one too many times in a casual conversation. Surprisingly, this has even happened in the company of close and philosophically-minded friends. To borrow – and distort – a term from linguistics, maybe we all need to get more adept at ‘code-switching’ to slip more smoothly between the social norms of light banter and earnest inquiry.

    I do think there are other reasons why “we like to feel that we know”, aside from our fear of the unknown. Don’t we often just want to satisfy our curiosity? In my experience, curiosity rarely stems from fear.

    On the subject of our unwillingness to change public policy because we fear the unknown, I agree this isn’t a tenable rationale for accepting the status quo, particularly when it comes to issues where change is sorely needed (like dying with dignity, for example – an issue weighing heavily on me since I watched the powerful film ‘Amour’ recently).

    Still, it can be very hard to dispel fears in areas where more unknowns are at stake. I heard a really fascinating and provocative talk last week by the ethicist Julian Savulescu, in which he proposed genetic or neurobiological “moral enhancement” to help motivate us to improve ourselves. His controversial idea is that by using drugs, genetic selection or engineering, or neurological interventions that help us learn better, we might be able to overcome the moral shortcomings responsible for the great unchecked problems that imperil our survival – problems like climate change, terrorism and poverty. He considers our present situation so desperate that we simply must consider moral enhancement, despite the sinister risks of abuse or simply misuse due to our present moral ineptitude.

    Anyway, since Julian’s thoughts seem so pertinent to your post, I’ll quote a little from his blog at juliansavulescu.typepad.com/blog/2010/03/open-to-forbidden.html :
    “I believe we should be open to the forbidden. Open in the sense that we can articulate the reasons for why the forbidden is wrong. But ethics is about progress and reform, as well as justifying our intuitions. In many cases, rational reflection will cause us to revise our beliefs about what should be forbidden and indeed what we have moral imperative to do.
    It is by considering the controversial that we can get people to think, to exercise their ethical muscles. In that way, we discover our own reasons for action.”

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