Episode 10: Taoism - You don't know me! Some things cannot be known or measured. Focusing only on "knowable objects" comes with the risk of losing touch with the unknowable mysteries at the heart of our existence.

Episode 10: Taoism: “You don’t know me!”

Ryan D Thompson Ancient, Complexity, Skills, Taoism

Key ideas

Not all things can be known, quantified, or named. Focusing too heavily on objective facts can blind us to the unknowable mysteries at the heart of our existence.

  • Humans have learned more about the world in the past 500 years than in the 200,000 years of the existence of Homo sapiens. However, is there a limit to our knowledge? Taoism would suggest a resounding “yes.”
  • The first verse of the Tao Te Ching states that “the Tao that can be named is not the eternal Tao.” In other words, there is a fundamental aspect of the universe that defies reason or objective understanding. The Tao is an unknowable mystery.
  • Taoism presents many seeming contradictions, dualities between “things that can be named” and those that cannot. Modern society focuses heavily on things that can be named or studied — but at the expense of experiencing or respecting the unknowable.
  • While our quest for accurate knowledge brings many benefits, we might also benefit from recognizing the limits to our knowledge. Doing so might encourage us to take a more humble view and a lighter touch.


How much can we really know? How well can we understand the world we live in and the social interactions that drive our species’ ability to survive and thrive? On the one hand, we possess the most powerful tool for learning in the known universe — the human brain. But on the other hand, we’re immersed in a web of complexity so multilayered that it’s hard to believe we can ever fully comprehend our own lives, no less our societies, our planet, or our universe.

For the better part of the past 500 years, humans — the western world in particular — have set out to do just that. Through science, we’ve gained a deeper understanding of the world than ever in human history. But is there a limit to our knowledge? And beyond that, is there a point where “more knowledge” isn’t the answer to our problems?

In Taoism, the answer to these questions would be a resounding “yes.” 

This episode is part of a series looking at the idea of complexity and how it relates to wicked problems. I’m going to explore some fundamental concepts of Taoism that can potentially offer insights into how we can approach solving complex problems. Or perhaps more accurately, how we shouldn’t approach these problems. Because as we’ll see, the Taoist view runs counter to the dominant governance and leadership approaches of the day.

This short podcast is not the place for a detailed examination of Taoism. But really, Taoism doesn’t place much stock in detailed explanations.

The opening verse of the Tao Te Ching, the first and foremost Taoist text, captures this idea:

The tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be named is not the eternal Name.

In other words, we can’t use words to understand the Tao. The moment we start to try, we lose sight. This “Tao that cannot be named” predates heaven and earth. It exists before and beyond everything in the universe. Verse One continues:

The unnamable is the eternally real. 
Naming is the origin of all particular things.

Other translations have a colorful alternative for the fourth line, saying instead, “The named is the mother of the ten thousand things.” We can already see the seeds of complexity arise in these lines. Once we give a name to the Tao, it soon splinters, giving birth to “the ten thousand things,” which, of course, isn’t a literal number but just represents “all things.”

So already from the first four lines, we get a sense of what Taoists think of the quest for knowledge. In essence, the most fundamental thing/non-thing in the universe cannot be described or understood. And in trying to do so, the situation immediately gets messy, with the “one” becoming an unfathomable number of things.

To conclude the first verse:

Free from desire, you realize the mystery. 
Caught in desire, you see only the manifestations. 
Yet mystery and manifestations arise from the same source. 
This source is called darkness. 
Darkness within darkness. 
The gateway to all understanding.

Clearly, it’s not so easy to dive into these poetic but undoubtedly cryptic words. But as we unpack the verse, we can already start to see in these opening lines the profound paradoxes at the heart of Taoism. We see dualities between “things that can be named” and those that cannot. Between being free from desire and caught in it. Between unknowable mysteries and observable objects. Between darkness and light.

The last line in this verse, indicating that “darkness is a gateway to understanding,” is a critical idea in Taoism. Perhaps especially in the modern Western world, we primarily concern ourselves with things that can be measured, quantified, or otherwise described. We study these things because we can know them but lose sight of the unknowable mysteries at the heart of our existence. We emphasize physical objects, ignoring the space around or within them. As Taoists describe, it is the emptiness of a cup that provides its utility. Objects can only exist where there is empty space that can hold them. Light is only light relative to the darkness it arises from.

There are things that we can know. But some essential things will always elude our capacity to understand. We tend to focus a significant portion of our personal and societal effort on the former while perhaps trying to pretend the latter isn’t true.

How does this help us in addressing societal problems?

For one, it might encourage us to take a more humble view and a lighter touch. We can perhaps accept that we simply cannot understand every problem, no matter how sophisticated our methods and tools might be.

I grapple with this challenge daily in my work. The field of sustainable development today heavily emphasizes evidence and knowledge to drive policy — and for a good reason. Too many programs for too many years were based on unrealistic or impractical approaches. Programs were continued for the wrong reasons, without good ways of knowing what works and what doesn’t. So placing an increasing emphasis on evidence has helped encourage better strategies.

But sometimes, I wonder if we aren’t overcorrecting. We’re swimming in an ocean of reports and studies, so much it feels at times like we’re drowning. Most people I know in this space appear overwhelmed by the volume of information flooding our inboxes. We generate more knowledge each year on sustainable development alone than perhaps all the libraries of the ancient world combined. 

And yet, despite this volume of knowledge, it doesn’t seem we’re that much closer to solving many of the issues we face. This could be mildly heretical, but sometimes I wonder if we’re putting too much emphasis on gathering knowledge. Taoism tells us there are some things we simply can’t understand. This insight could point us towards a middle ground between “insufficient knowledge” and “more knowledge than we can realistically ever make use of.” We could pause to reflect on when we have “just enough” information. To not let the perfect be the enemy of the good, as they say. 

As with all of these problems we face, finding the middle ground isn’t easy. However, in doing so, maybe we could invest the right effort at the right time in the right way. Since there was a lot more about Taoism I’d like to explore than could fit in just one episode, I’ll pick this idea up again in the next episode. I’ll explore how Taoism can also support us as leaders with the concept of Wu Wei, or “non-doing.” Like much of Taoism, Wu Wei is slippery and elusive. But I think it can offer a valuable mindset for impact leaders.

That’s all for now, be sure to subscribe for more episodes. And please share this with a friend if you think it will be helpful to someone. Until the next time, be well!


In this episode, I quoted the Stephen Mitchell translation of the Tao Te Ching, which is an excellent introduction to this profound text. It’s more recent than many translations and presents the Tao with a modern voice. I also referred to translations by ​​Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English and by Jonathan Star.

Podcast soundtrack credit:

Our Story Begins Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com)
Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0 License