Reflections on Aphorisms #36

I got through a lot of miscellaneous writing, but nothing finished. I’m working on reflections on the Meditations, by Marcus Aurelius, and reviews of a couple books, plus things for the Loreshaper Games blog.

I also went for a fairly long walk, and I don’t think I anticipated how long it would take because when I finally got home I’d burned through most of the time I had been planning on writing. Oops.

Aphorism 59

Conscious ignorance, if you can practice it, expands your world; it can make things infinte.

Nicholas Nassim Taleb, from The Bed of Procrustes

The other day I wrote something that a lot of people responded to when I said “I believe in the immensity of the unknown.”

A lot of people took that in a different light than I meant it.

I don’t necessarily mean that there’s a vastly interesting universe around us full of exciting and novel things that aren’t common knowledge (though that’s certainly true too), but rather that what we know can only be a infinitesimal amount of the knowable.

Taleb’s point about conscious ignorance ties into this: you understand how what you know works, but you will never know everything.

This gives a learning attitude.

One of the things you learn in education college (though many of the things you learn in an education college are useless, so perhaps it’s better to use the fact that I can verify this with anecdotes) is that it’s better for a pupil to perceive themselves as knowing some things, but not everything.

This creates humility (and a desire to learn more) but doesn’t create the discouraging effects of knowing nothing.

When philosophically minded people express uncertainty in their knowledge, they don’t mean that they have base ignorance.

Rather, we’re (and I include myself here cautiously) self-aware enough to know that what we know can be wrong.

It’s actually okay to be certain. Convictions are not bad.

However, our brains work on heuristics and abstract conceptions, not reality.

What works is associated with truth, whether or not it actually is true. If divine favor brings healing, then God must smile upon cleanly people who recover much better from getting sick and avoid infections for diseases.

Of course, we can’t necessarily rule this out, but we’ve come to the conclusion in the modern age that germs cause disease and forestall healing, so the link between cleanliness and good medical practice is a result of germs being kept away, rather than the cleanliness necessarily pleasing God.

As someone who’s mildly obsessive about cleanliness (the prospect of hand-shakes and high-fives fills me with dread), I like to think that proper hygiene earns God’s approval, but that’s beside the point.

Knowing that we can’t know things leaves them mysterious, and fills us with hope.

Image courtesy of Pixabay.

This image stuck out to me among all of the images I was looking for. I was actually hoping to find an image of an aurora in the night sky, or else over-exposed stars that gave a cool vibe, but I find this image to be something that could illustrate this point.

We see through clouds (the apostle Paul’s “mirror darkly”), and only where those clouds do not exist can we see anything. Even then, we have limited sensory capabilities, and there may be things that we mistake for others (by mental or physical limitations) or things that we simply cannot grasp.

The movements of the unseen all around us are also difficult to track.

We like to make assumptions because we can’t see things, so we merely project ourselves into the void. For instance, we like to assume that every bad driver is a jerk, because when we drive poorly we’re probably being jerks (or at least that’s what I like to tell myself, since I prefer to think of myself as a pain in the butt rather than a bad driver).

What we can’t see is as much a defining factor in our lives, and as someone with religious conviction and a belief in free will (insomuch as there is no ordained course we must follow, though I also think that we generally respond to stimuli predictably and rarely exercise our will) I think that it’s in this unknown space that God lives.

As a youth, I often wanted to make everything knowable. I had formed working frameworks of everything, even if I had to make an assumption on partial evidence. To my credit, I was usually pretty quick to change in light of new information, but even so the lack of willingness to accept the value of conscious ignorance was crippling.

We can define four stages of knowledge:

  1. Not knowing something and lacking understanding of that. (Base ignorance)
  2. Not knowing something and having understanding of that. (Conscious ignorance)
  3. Knowing something and lacking understanding of that. (Practical knowledge)
  4. Knowing something and having understanding of that. (Deep understanding)

Conscious ignorance is the second stage of knowledge, and not particularly desirable in and of itself, but the great thing about it is that you can develop it simultaneously for everything which otherwise may be base ignorance.

The value of having conscious ignorance about the vast number of things which we cannot know (or cannot easily know, like mathematics for those of us who didn’t particularly care for the subject in school) is that it’s a great way to avoid the great harms that base ignorance can breed.

It also leads us to encounter the sublime. We know what we don’t know, and we know it when we see it. Lacking the self-awareness of one’s ignorance makes it difficult to see the wondrous and inscrutable.

Resolution

Peer into the clouds; there is a chance they may yield fruit.

Steer clear of base ignorance.

Work to turn ignorance into knowledge, but don’t overlook the value of humility.

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