The crucial knowledge of ignorance

This is part of an ongoing series inspired by my reading of Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind.

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.

16 thoughts on “The crucial knowledge of ignorance

  1. 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.

    I have a different hypothesis about why ancient tradition was seen as so authoritative. It was because “Reason and Observation” as we would think of them today – carried out by individuals or small associations – didn’t work well. Ancient traditions had been through the Darwinian grinder – not that people knew it, but it was still a fact. It made them pretty reliable. Boldly thinking for yourself could get you killed, early and often.

    I like your choice of the printing press as a game changer here. By uniting thinkers across vast regions connected by trade routes, the printed materials allowed Reason to encompass far more evidence and thereby make a big jump upwards in reliability. And that’s when reason actually started to favor Reason. (Yes I’m deliberately manipulating capitalization here; when I capitalize Reason it’s like putting scare quotes around the word.)

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    1. I agree, but don’t see your hypothesis as different from what I said about favoring the tried and true. For most of human history, it probably was the best move. And like you said, reason and observation are hard. The Greeks got close in a few cases (Archimedes comes to mind), but little of their speculation translated into practical benefits.

      Observation by early modern scientists was different. It required engineering knowledge. (Possibly more easy to acquire with the proliferation of books in the 16th century.) Tycho Brahe constructed measuring devices so he could make precise astronomical measurements. Galileo constructed a telescope. (He didn’t invent the telescope, but he constructed one specifically for astronomical observation.) William Gilbert developed experimental techniques. These guys were far more technical than the common natural philosopher of the period who spent most of his time reading Aristotle.

      Brahe, Gilbert, and Galileo had to publish their results in books. It was in the 17th century where this kind of thing really took off, with the development of scientific societies, such as the Royal Society in England. The heart of those societies were their journals, which further accelerated the knowledge sharing.

      Even with all that, you don’t really start seeing civilization changing benefits until late in the 18th century. The early scientific societies were pretty threadbare.

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  2. I don’t like to undermine or overestimate the teachings of the ancient world. But I’m with JBP on ‘Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater’ with respect to the significance in teachings and meaning associated with archetypes and meta-heroes of ancient stories. I imagine you have heard his first debate with Sam Harris and perhaps you were more attuned with Harris’ material-rationalist argument on that subject. I have heard that debate about ‘What is Truth’ more times than I care to admit, and I wrote a post about it
    In a sense Peterson’s argument resonates with yours in your article because if the discovery leads to the betterment of humankind then that’s something truly worth knowing. But if it (arguably the origin of the COVID19) is evidence that with technological advancement it being detrimental to the human race then it wasn’t ‘true enough’ because from the pragmatist Darwinian perceptive it was a false truth. Perhaps the same case could be made about the affect of social media on the psychology of all and sundry in the last 15 years.

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    1. I haven’t watched those debates, so I’m not sure how relevant my reply here will be.

      When it comes to truth, I lean toward pragmatist theories, but with the stipulation that truth must be useful for enhancing the accuracy of our predictions. (Even if those predictions are actually retrodictions of past observations.)

      I feel like that stipulation is necessary because some pragmatists, and I think I’ve heard that Peterson is in this camp, assert that truth can also be judged according to what provides comfort. I think that was a rationale from William James as well. I don’t agree with that kind of pragmatism. Or perhaps more accurately, I think it’s short sighted pragmatism, because what makes us feel good today can leave us unprepared for tomorrow.

      Of course, a James or Peterson might argue that that may be assuming too much about tomorrow. Ironically, that feeds back into my point about accurate predictions.

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      1. I don’t believe Peterson’s idea of Truth aligns with what provides comfort rather with Darwinian Evolutionary pragmatism – that if it isn’t / wasn’t for the betterment of our species, then it wasn’t ‘true enough’ to begin with. That might well include having to disclose uncomfortable truths in the process, which of course Peterson is no slouch in doing.

        Where he might contend with your Pragmatic materialistic idea of Truth is that if those scientific enquirers who sought to enhance the accuracy of their predictions didn’t do so by the highest moral and ethical measures then that Truth may well lead to unintended / diabolical consequences. So the search for Truth is in many ways dependent on and has embedded in it ‘Morality’ as it were. As an aside, so do ancient teachings and heritage and that’s where I came here tangentially from your post.

        I don’t want to shortchange Peterson or you for that matter and speak past one another. If you decide to listen to their debate and still feel inclined to discuss this further, then you know where to find me. As you know I am a big admirer of your wonderfully insightful posts and it means a lot that you respond with this innate curiosity to forge deeper into the issue despite whatever opinion may have the commentator. It’s a great testament to your character. Cheers.

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  3. If only the first Europeans to arrive in America had actually understood their ignorance, Mike… The world would perhaps be quite different today. There is ignorance about the structural bylaws of space-time and the map of the world, and then there is recognizing one’s worldview is inherently parochial. I think we are still struggling mightily with the latter. While the scientific process has certainly fractured some antiquated views, I don’t believe we’ve actually realized the full potential that exists in the statement, “I don’t know.”

    One of my favorite stories is that of Sitting Bull’s vision, prior to the Battle of the Little Bighorn. It’s a bit of counterfactual history, but nevertheless has always been intriguing to me. He had a vision during ceremony of three battles with the United States military, which presaged the Battle of the Little Bighorn. According to his vision, there would be three battles with the US cavalry, and the alliance of Native Americans had the potential to win all three. If they did, then a peace accord would be sought by Washington. But there were caveats: the Native Americans had to abstain from mutilating the bodies of fallen cavalry members, from taking scalps and body parts, etc. That was critical.

    The Battle of the Little Bighorn went largely as foreseen, and as we know, to the detriment of Custer and his regiment, but the efforts by the US Cavalry to chase women and children who were retreating from the battle so incensed the Native American community, they couldn’t help themselves. They returned and took out their anger and grief on the fallen American soldiers. This was reported after the fact, photographically and in no uncertain oratory terms, in newspapers back east, where at the time a sentiment was building that maybe this campaign to rid the west entirely of Native Americans was not a laudatory action by our nation. The portrayal of mutilated soldiers didn’t play well back east, of course, and reporting on attempts to kill Native American women and children by the cavalry was of course relatively nonexistent. The mutilations that ensued were in conflict with Sitting Bull’s vision, and the tide, which hung in the balance, was turned. We know the history from there. But one can imagine that if Sitting Bull’s instructions had been followed, it could, maybe, possibly, have gone differently.

    I certainly cannot speak for Native Americans, but I think that IF, in the true spirit of ignorance, the European culture and the Native American culture had traded ideas with respect and acknowledgment of the limitations inherent in one’s worldview, we would find ourselves in a much different, and possibly much better, place. It wouldn’t be place that precludes a scientific view, but it would be a place that holds that view in a council of views. What this has to do with the price of tea in China, so to speak, is that we still lack generally the ability to introspect about the formative biases and conditions that motivate the actions we take both individually and on the larger stage.

    I think science can be a force to counterbalance this, but I think we need a broad enough “window of ignorance” to accommodate a variety of worldviews in the discussion. The way Harari–whose writing I know only from your reporting–makes sweeping categorizations about religion, (to refer to your previous post), as if they can all be explained in terms of a few sweeping precepts, is profoundly flawed. As flawed as suggesting that all individual Americans might be summed up materially by two or three axioms. Such an analysis precludes the possibility of contemplating the wisdom of individuals, or individual traditions, and mops them up under an abstract umbrella. It is dismissive and arrogant. History is written by the victors, and this seems right in line. Until our ignorance reaches the point of genuine humility, which allows for the possibility that everyone may know something we do not yet, we will go nowhere, I’m afraid.

    That doesn’t mean I think we should all apprise ourselves of Native American life. Hardly. But we can be true to who we are, be true to our interests and proclivities, and still take part of the unifying ignorance that respects and appreciates the diversity in human history, and acknowledges the veracity of Shakespeare perhaps, when he notes that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of by our philosophies.


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    1. Hi Michael,
      That’s an interesting story about Sitting Bull.

      I think you might be giving too much credit to those Europeans. There certainly was ignorance, but I’m not sure knowledge would have made that much difference in what was essentially an act of conquest. They reasoned that the natives weren’t using the land efficiently and needed to yield to more modern societies, but the reality is the natives had land our ancestors wanted, so they took it.

      As I noted in the post, it’s not like the reliance on tradition didn’t work. It did, to an extent. It’s not that unusual to discover that an ancient ritual is actually an effective sanitation procedure, a valid irrigation technique, or a real preparation of a drug. But the principle of ignorance means admitting that we don’t understand the real reasons why they work, that the traditional stories behind them aren’t reliable knowledge. Indeed, they are usually hopelessly wide of the mark, and being satisfied with them can be an obstacle to progress.

      Which is to say, that the principle of ignorance doesn’t mean that all alternate stories are valid. Many of those alternatives or just alternate violations of the principle. Shakespeare was right, but “our philosophies” include not just western ones, but all human ones. Many of the surprises found by science were imagined by no tradition or philosophy.

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    2. Oh, forgot to mention, I do agree that Harari’s treatment of religion is too pat, too quick to lump too many things into it. He subsequently uses the word “religion” to refer to things like capitalism, or just about any ideology. I think the word “ideology” would have been better for all those diverse outlooks. Lumping them all together does seem disrespectful of both religion and those ideologies.

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      1. Hi Mike,

        I think in a way your statement here sort of makes my point, “…the principle of ignorance means admitting that we don’t understand the real reasons why they work, that the traditional stories behind them aren’t reliable knowledge. Indeed, they are usually hopelessly wide of the mark, and being satisfied with them can be an obstacle to progress.

        The assertion that one culture (our own) knows the “real reasons” and another is “hopelessly wide of the mark” is a statement devoid of the principle of ignorance as I would suggest it might be considered in a wider context. The transposition of one culture to another, as if this can be done with the perfect ease of a Laplace Transform, rests upon the dubious assertion that one mode of understanding may be understood perfectly well through the lens of another, even if the other does not contain the same elements of reality. This is a false equation. The necessary result of such a computation is that Native Americans are construed as very poor empiricists, but empiricists nonetheless—because what else could there be?—who hit upon certain beneficial practices by the strength of time, trial, and error. This is all that our culture is capable of imagining would have occurred. But I submit it is simply false in some, if not many cases.

        The principle of ignorance as I would frame it is that there are non-commutable elements of reality that exist between cultures, and that when we discover something, such as a ritual that also provides sanitation, it is an opportunity to understand how the two modalities of being converged upon such a realization. In doing so, each party may learn something not about sanitation, but about what those elements of reality are that exist in one and not the other. This would be a beneficial mutual exchange, as opposed to the one-way view that “our way is real” and “your way is ignorant.” It requires a certain humility to adopt such a willingness.

        I submit that your sense of a stark and obvious inequality between the two worlds, for lack of a better term, is simply because of how you frame what is valuable. I further submit that if there had been, or was today, a greater mutual respect for various worldviews, that there are elements of other views that would potentially enhance our own. The realization of such benefits hinges upon mutual respect and value, and the cultivation of shared aims. This cannot occur while the conversation proceeds as it has above.


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        1. Hi Michael,
          I think other cultures have a lot to offer and we should always be open to learning things from them.

          But while scientists certainly have biases arising from their culture, science itself is ultimately cross cultural. Regarding it as just our own culture’s viewpoint is far too postmodern. Science provides power. And I think history shows, for better or worse, western cultures had far more power than the cultures they conquered. I’m not saying that’s what should have happened, only that it did, and it showed that the winner had a better understanding of reality. Not all aspects of reality to be sure, but certainly a lot of them.

          And a key component of acquiring this better understanding started with acknowledging what they were ignorant of. Did the entire culture do it across the board? No. Did they do it consistently? No. But they did it more than any other human culture has. And it made a major difference.

          Does that mean Europeans were superior because it started with them? Not at all. In many ways, when and where it happened was an accident of history and geography. It could easily have started in China first, or India, or the Middle East.

          So I say let’s be respectful of other cultures. But let’s also realize that science isn’t arbitrary cultural preferences.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. Hi Mike,

            So might makes right?

            I think the notion that “the winner had a better understanding of reality” is quite a leap from noting that the culture that asserted dominance had greater technological advancement and a more hierarchical degree of social organization. No one would dispute the latter. But I view the former as an incorrect conflation of the possible extents of reality with a specialization in particular aspects of it. This insistence that reality is only those elements we can predict and control is concomitant with the cultural norms of the dominant party. You can argue that the particular perspectives you endorse are universal, but they quite simply are not.

            I think respect requires the admission of the possibility that humans who understand the experience of being human in different ways than others do, are not “less than” or “naively mistaken.”

            I acknowledge that you also wrote, “Not all aspects of reality to be sure, but certainly a lot of them.” And I don’t think you are consciously attempting to be disrespectful, Mike. I think you are well-intentioned. I think you care passionately about the ideas you value.

            So let me say that I agree the advent of the sort of ignorance you describe was a profoundly important stage in human development. I also agree the progress of science was profoundly important. I only argue that it is myopic in some areas, and that it operates on a slice of reality that is incomplete. Is it a slice that rewards such investment with a greater understanding of military technology? Yes. Is it comprehensive? No. Do other cultures have a greater understanding of some elements of reality? In my opinion, yes. Some of those elements do not obtain in the practices of the dominant culture, and so they are dismissed. But it is the luxury of the dominant culture to make this dismissal.

            That does not make it accurate, only the exercise of power.


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  4. You and I long for the Culture and sadly that still seems rather a ling way off. I am aware that on occasions I seem myself to be rooted in the past and in antiquity. The reality in my saner moments is that I long for a world where the light of science lays waste to the cloud of ignorance and unknowing and leads to a saner, kinder society where knowledge itself can play the role so often ascribed to mythical gods. Knowledge well used of course. Even in the universe inhabited by the Culture there was still ignorance and great evil. Sadly we all have a way to go.

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    1. Too true. It’s worth noting that to a hunter-gatherer from 15,000 BC, or a neolithic farmer, our world would probably be seen as wondrous as we imagine the Culture to be. They’d be startled that we were so unhappy with it. Expectations seem to quickly adjust to new baselines. I suspect if we found ourselves in the Culture, it would be heaven for a few years, maybe even decades, but eventually our baseline would adjust and we’d be pining for the Sublime, or whatever came next.


      1. Ah! The Sublime! How funny you should mention it. I have been writing on that very topic this morning. The ultimate ~ non material existence presumably not subject to the awful toll of entropy. I think Teilhard de Chardin had something like that in mind when talking of his Omega Point. Yes, I quite agree.

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