What is “the Unknown”?

Every once in a while, these questions get abstract.

I stayed home from work yesterday, because my son had an ear infection and the doctor told us to keep him home from daycare for the first day. (That, by the way, is always a fun dilemma for two working parents.) He wasn’t feeling bad, so keeping him corralled was an interesting exercise. So we watched The Year Without A Santa Claus and Nestor the Long-Eared Donkey. And by then, much as I love the holidays, I was ready for a change. So I talked him into watching Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger. Chunks of it went right over his head, but he loved it.

There’s one sequence, though, that inspired some lovely discussion. Melanthius, a Greek mystic (played by Patrick Troughton, who’s about as Greek as I am) is discussing the reaction of the “troglodyte” to a sketch of the gate they’re looking for. He says “Like all primitives, he’s afraid of the unknown”. Unlike us modern, civilized people, who are utterly comfortable with the unknown…


“What’s the unknown?” my son asks. And it’s a good question, because I don’t think that’s a word he’s heard before. The problem I run into, as I try to explain it to him, is that he’s convinced that “the unknown” is a thing in the movie. I tell him “it’s something you don’t know”, and he says “is the door the Unknown?”

“No, son. The unknown is something you don’t know.”

“Maybe the unknown is a ghost!” he says.

“Well,” I guardedly allow, “it could be…”

“Or a dragon!” he continues. “Or a dragon that shoots ghosts!”

After a while, I think I got him to understand that “the unknown” isn’t a thing. But five-year-olds don’t do so well with abstract concepts. So, let’s go ahead and talk about it here.

What is the unknown? And why do we fear it?

To start with, Merriam-Webster defines the word as follows:

adjective un·known \-ˈnōn\

1: one that is not known or not well-known; especially : a person who is little known (as to the public)
2: something that requires discovery, identification, or clarification: as
a : a symbol (as x, y, or z) in a mathematical equation representing an unknown quantity
b : a specimen (as of bacteria or mixed chemicals) required to be identified as an exercise in appropriate laboratory techniques

The etymology of the word comes from the prefix un- and the word known. Un- is either a prefix of negation, deriving from the coming to us from the Proto-Germanic *un-, or a prefix of reversal, deprivation, or removal coming from the Proto-Germanic *andi-. Know derives from the Old English cnawan “to know, perceive, acknowledge, declare”, which derives from the Proto-Germanic *knew-.

(“Unknown” clearly uses the “prefix of negation” form of un-. But it’s an interesting mental exercise to think of what it would mean if you interpreted un- as the “prefix of reversal, deprivation, or removal” instead. “Unknown” would then mean something that was forgotten, possibly deliberately.)

So the unknown is simply something representing an unknown quantity, or something that requires discovery and/or identification. That doesn’t seem like something frightening, put like that. But… we do fear the unknown. Why?

The National Institute of Mental Health defines fear as “a feeling of disquiet that begins rapidly in the presence of danger and dissipates quickly once the threat is removed. It is generally adaptive.” Adaptive, of course, is referring to an “adaptive trait”, which is something that is evolved and maintained by natural selection. So fear is an evolved response, triggered by the “fight or flight response” (properly known as General Adaptation Syndrome).

From here on out, you’ll be reading my opinion.

Fear is an adaptive survival response – we’ve evolved from a long line of critters that had a healthy fear reaction. After all, the Juramaia sinensis() that didn’t have enough sense to be afraid of predators didn’t breed. And, from a “I don’t want to get eaten” perspective, being afraid of something you can’t see and/or don’t understand makes sense. That new animal might be a predator. That dark hole might be really deep. That strange, moving thing might try to kill you.

Humans have imaginations. We can visualize things that aren’t there. (Interestingly, though, it turns out that other animals – our close cousins the Chimpanzees and the Great Apes, but apparently also rats – can as well, based on observational and brain activity studies. So imagination isn’t a uniquely human trait.) Combine that ability with an instinctive fear reaction, and you get the ability to be afraid of things that are unknown. So while we should respect and listen to that fear as a way of staying alive, we shouldn’t let ourselves be ruled by that fear. After all, once we quantify and understand that unknown, it may very well not be dangerous.

Unless it turns out to be a dragon that fires ghosts. I’m all in on fearing that.