“I Know” / “I Know Not”

Recognizing the boundaries of our knowledge is an important element of self-awareness and a prerequisite to wise decision-making.

Nephi opens the Book of Mormon with a testimony of its truthfulness:

I know that the record which I make is true; and I make it with mine own hand; and I make it according to my knowledge.

1 Nephi 1:3, italics added

But in an editorial note near the beginning of his record, he acknowledges that he doesn’t understand why he had to make two sets of plates:

The Lord hath commanded me to make these plates for a wise purpose in him, which purpose I know not.

1 Nephi 9:5, italics added

When an angel asked Nephi if he understood the condescension of God, Nephi responded: “I know that he loveth his children; nevertheless, I do not know the meaning of all things” (1 Nephi 11:17, italics added).

As Alma taught his son Corianton about the resurrection, he identified some things that he knew, others that he didn’t know, and one thing that he had an opinion about, but didn’t know for sure. (See Alma 40.)

Mormon wrote that he didn’t know whether the three disciples of Christ were mortal or immortal after being transfigured. But he subsequently prayed and learned the answer to his question (3 Nephi 28:17, 36-40).

Moroni testified that future generations would read his words, but he acknowledged that he didn’t know how long he would live. (See Mormon 9:30, Mormon 8:5.)

What impresses me about these examples is their specificity. These prophets not only affirmed their limitations in general; they identified specific gaps in their knowledge. Some of those gaps could be closed by further study and prayer, while others might never be resolved in this life.

I wrote yesterday that we should be receptive to all truth. Being willing to receive the truth is not the same as being able to do so. “Ye are little children,” the Lord said in an 1831 revelation, “and ye cannot bear all things now; ye must grow in grace and in the knowledge of the truth” (Doctrine and Covenants 50:40). Two days earlier, He clearly identified two things that Joseph Smith and his associates did not know: the timing of His Second Coming and the identity of certain “holy men” whom the Savior had “reserved unto [Himself]” (Doctrine and Covenants 49:7-8).

In meetings at work, I periodically hear people say, “We don’t know what we don’t know.” I think this is a useful reminder to be humble, but it’s not always accurate nor desirable: sometimes we do know what we don’t know or we can know what we don’t know with a little effort, and that awareness can be beneficial. It can help us prioritize our learning efforts, seek assistance from experts when needed, and set goals that we have a reasonable ability to achieve.

Today, I will strive to emulate the epistemological modesty and clarity of Nephi, Alma, Mormon, and Moroni. I will strive to clearly identify what I know and what I don’t know, so that I can make wise decisions and use my time effectively.

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