A while back, I discussed the discovery of discovery, the historical development of the idea that there were things to discover in the world, things the ancients didn’t already know. Harari flips this around, and points out that it’s actually the discovery of ignorance. Not the ignorance of any one person, but the idea that humanity, including all its deepest traditions, could be ignorant of important things about the world, that there are new things to learn, things nobody is yet aware of.
Similar to other authors, Harari sees Columbus’ voyage as a pivotal step in this development. Prior to his voyage, there was a medieval mindset that all knowledge, at least all important knowledge, had been known by the ancients. The writers of the Bible, ancient Greek philosophers, and the ancients in general, had been closer to creation and knew everything important. The pursuit of knowledge was an act of recovering what they had known. Ancient and medieval maps tended to have known territories blend into legendary ones, providing a pleasing appearance of full knowledge.
But with the discovery of the Americas, a new world had been found, one not hinted in any ancient traditions. It was a stark demonstration of how little the world was actually understood around 1500 CE. In the following decades, maps started to end after known lands, with just blank space beyond, an acknowledgement of what was not yet known, providing a jarring gap that compelled investigation.
The reliance on ancient wisdom was not unique to medieval Christian cultures. The vast majority of human cultures prior to 1500, and even most of the ones afterward, saw ancient traditions as the strongest authority, taking precedence over reason or observation. It appears to be human nature to favor the tried and true. For most of the existence of humanity, when things were mostly static, this was probably an adaptive trait.
Harari, like others, implies the ascendancy of empiricism and reason over authority wouldn’t have happened without Columbus’ voyage. I’m not so sure. As I’ve noted before, I think the invention of the printing press was a major enabler, bringing in a dramatic acceleration of knowledge sharing and assimilation. It’s worth noting rigorous observation and experimentation didn’t really take off until almost a century after Columbus’ voyage, and there were precursors to it in earlier periods.
Still, the consciousness raising aspect of Columbus’ discovery was undoubtedly important. Strangely enough, Columbus himself never accepted that he had discovered new lands. He was sure he’d sailed to the East Indies. Harari argues that his outlook remained medieval, and that the first modern man was Amerigo Vespucci, who actually figured out that a new continent had been found. He coined the term “New World”, and cartographer Martin Waldseemüller named that new world after him.
The knowledge of ignorance remains a crucial aspect of science today. Understanding what we don’t know is at least as important as understanding what we do. If we know we’re ignorant of a certain area, then we know it needs to be investigated. And ignorance awareness includes knowing that anything we think we know, at any point, might have to be revised on new discoveries. A clear view of the gaps in scientific accounts, and the willingness to revise those accounts on new evidence, are crucial to the success of science.
Many are tempted to fill in the gaps with traditional or non-scientific notions, missing the entire point of acknowledging those gaps. It shows just how natural the old ways were, and how easy it might be to fall back into them if we’re not careful.