In praise of (my) ignorance


The truth – the whole truth – lies beyond the reach of the human race.  God may perceive all of reality at a glance, but the rest of us are doomed to a point of view.

Science, the modern form of revelation, deals with a limited set of facts and relationships.  Its truth is esoteric, partial, and passive.  Research can deliver a life-saving vaccine:  but caring about human life is a moral proposition, unprovable by scientific methods.  The brilliant scientists of Nazi Germany perfected the jet engine, rocket propulsion, and the mass production of murder at Auschwitz.

Truth isn’t up for grabs, of course.  It isn’t socially constructed or invented by evil white men.  If you believe that, stand for just a fraction of a second in front of an onrushing truck.  The world can kill you.  We learn that lesson early, or we are crushed by it.

Truth is perspectival.  I can see you only from where I stand – never as you see yourself, never as others see you, never totally, never absolutely.

Being human, I perceive truth under a specific aspect:  that of my perspective.  So I know a bit, but I miss a lot.  Manhattan from the top of the Empire State Building is a radically different experience from street level.  In each case, we think we know what we’re looking at, but we miss a lot.

To speak with absolute certainty is to strike an affectation.  I find this to be the comic failing of our moment in history.  A great revolution in information and communication has placed all authority in crisis, yet people tend to speak in dogmatic assertions, as if they have access to the whole truth.  They concede that you and I are blinded by a point of view, and miss a lot:  but not them.  Since “them” means us, any discussion quickly takes a sour, theological turn.

The translation of the Bible into the vernacular spawned a host of sectarian prophets who insisted they alone understood its message.  In our time, the unprecedented dispersal and democratization of information has had a similar effect.  Facile minds are amazed by how much they know, and find easy patterns, and preach to the multitudes the one true way in politics, or economics, or war and peace, or food consumption, or social relations.

Latter-day sectarians think they own the lever with which to move the world.  But the reality is, they don’t.  They believe they can ordain the future.  But they can’t.  Failure is inevitable but always interpreted as betrayal.  Truth then becomes something ordinary people can’t handle:  a murky conspiracy, the rule of secretive vampires.

Much of the anger consuming our public debates pours out of a conviction that truth really is up for grabs – that nothing exists unless powerful people wish it so.  As an explanation of the world, this is largely self-refuting:  every accusation must be understood to be a manipulation, around and around.  But as an exercise in shifting blame for failure and moral inertia, it’s emotionally satisfying.

An age of affectation feigns to see through the truth:  but we are still clueless children playing games in the street, while that truck, loaded with randomness, bears down on us.

Accepting that truth is perspectival doesn’t entail wobbliness of any sort.  It entails humility.  It’s a sharp reminder of the human condition.  Every day I must wrestle with the angel of doubt.  On every question I am forced to measure, dismayed, the vast abyss of my ignorance.

I’m an analyst.  I spout assertions all over the place.  Should I hem and haw and qualify?  That would be indigestible.  Should I assume the mantle of authority?  That would be dishonest.  Is there a middle ground?  Probably, but it would mean absorbing as many different perspectives on the subject as my limited mental bandwidth can hold.  That’s time-consuming and hard.

Is the payoff worth it?  Much of the time, the effort seems disproportionate to the output.  I labor mightily to get at truth, but deliver a point of view.

Yet all this turns out to be healthy:  possibly for me, certainly for us.  Humility is the beginning of true science, the foundation of what Karl Popper called the open society.  Ignorance invites tolerance:  I want to get to where I’m going, and your directions, though contrary to mine, may actually take me there.

I don’t need a mystical feeling of fraternity to hear you out.  I just have to remember that the world is very large, and that I am small.

Failure, too, becomes a source of enraged cynicism only if I presume a right to God-like infallibility.  Failure is information plugged into the one process that has ever propelled the human race forward:  trial and error.  This method isn’t called “trial and glory” for a reason.  In human affairs, most things fail.  We then have a choice:  learn and advance toward the light, or scratch the itch of wounded vanity and blame the world’s injustice.

Nor is this choice in any sense determined.  If ignorance is infinite, so are the paths that lead to truth.  We decide on direction.  As an analyst, I decide.  Reality contains an element of freedom, and for this reason acquires a distinctly historical flavor.  (The universe, without changing a single atom, resembled a clockworks in the eighteenth century, a folded sheet in the twentieth, a crazy dynamic system today).

Truth comes with a history and a genealogy.  Those who aspire to an unchanging realm of perfect certainty misunderstand the human adventure, which is a great migration into the unknown.


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