Need for a humility based worldview

Posted on September 8, 2010


I’ve been reading a book that seems to have flown so far under the radar it has largely sunk without a trace, which is a shame as its message could be a game changer.   In The Virtues of Ignorance Bill Vitek and Wes Jackson (with many contributors from a research camp) argue that a “knowledge-based worldview is both flawed and dangerous”.

The best sentence in the book is probably the first:

Since we’re billions of times more ignorant than knowledgeable, why not go with our long suit and have an ignorance-based worldview?

The upshot of this premise is a whole different way of looking at the world:

What would human cultures look like, and how might we interact differently in the world, if we began every endeavor and conversation with the humbling assumption that human understanding is limited by an ignorance that no amount of additional information can mitigate?  How would we educate our children differently or engage in scientific research? Might we be more cautious and more willing to listen to others-and not just other human beings, but the whole conversation going on all around us?

In the introductory chapter, Vitek and Jackson trace the development of the knowledge-based worldview.    The Enlightenment perspective is one of liberty that

both makes possible and drives the pursuits and principles that typically get all the attention: individual freedom, economic growth, scientific progress, and the rejection of thermodynamic, material, and moral limits.

Stemming from the Cartensian belief in the individual human mind “first to doubt all of it and then to reconstruct – on its own terms – every bit of it in a way that guarantee truth”. This thinking has led to three revolutions – scientific, political and economic and has resulted in remarkable changes:

Together these revolutions freed cultures to embark on pursuits that were heretofore forbidden or considered impossible: the control of nature; the creation of economies and technologies that went beyond subsistence; the freedom of individuals from governments, religious and family traditions, and the past; and a belief in human progress that is separate from evolution and unencumbered by moral and spiritual beliefs

So what’s the problem?  Twofold: first the resultant damage (injustices, ecological disasters etc), and second, the response to criticism or threat:

But, each time an attack comes, the Western defenders rely on Descartes’ ace. Yes, we are told, there may be injustices in the world, or leaky factories, or shrinking oil freshwater and reserves, and abuse of animals. But the thinking mind-especially when linked with other thinking minds (the more the better!)-will overcome all these limits and problems. Just a little more time, or another Einstein or Edison or Salk or Gandhi or Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch, and the world will be made better for the world’s humans-and perhaps even for some animals and a few plants.

Worse, many of the solutions to these monumental challenges depend on the logic of plenty: finding more oil, increasing soil and seed productivity, promoting economic growth and material consumption, utilizing more land for human food production, and even increasing human population. Each calls forth a faith in the unbounded human spirit to rise to any occasion, to conquer any foe. The recipe for success is simple: unleash human ingenuity; utilize it to harness and commodify nature’s immense and complex forces; enjoy the new and improved world that results; repeat.

This means we have to “block the only myth that makes it bearable, namely, the belief that human knowledge is sufficient to get us out of the holes we’ve dug for ourselves and the world”.

The complex adaptive systems surrounding us (and indeed that comprise us) mean that much of our basic knowledge turns out to be wrong. Vitek and Jackson argue that we need to acknowledge our vast ignorance – an ignorance-based world view:

We call this view an ignorance-based worldview, and we predicate it on the assumption that human ignorance will always exceed and outpace human knowledge and, therefore, that before we make any decision or take any action, we must consider who and how many are involved, the level of cultural change that will be involved, and the chances of backing out if things go sour. In no way does such a view imply that we should not seek knowledge or that we are stupid or even wicked, but it does force us to remember things, cause us to hope for second chances, and provide an incentive to keep the scale small.

The ignorance-based world view is not defeatist, and also celebrates knowledge:

One can’t be content with existing knowledge because any long-standing problems are long-standing precisely because existing knowledge is inadequate to address them or caused the problems in the first place. One must therefore address ignorance as well as knowledge so that we know what we need to discover or invent. But discovery and invention do not occur in a vacuum-they always build on previous knowledge. Thus, the purpose in focusing on ignorance is to build knowledge in light of what we both know and do not know. And the building of more knowledge will reveal new forms of ignorance, ad infinitum. For me, knowledge and ignorance are the yin and yang of understanding. You can’t have one without the other, and when they are out of balance, the world is in trouble.

Wendell Berry provides a taxonomy of ignorance:

  • Arrogant ignorance: purposefully ignoring the other side or consequences
  • Inherent ignorance:

A part of our inherent ignorance, and surely a most formidable encumbrance to those who presume to know the future, is our ignorance of the past. We know almost nothing of our history as it was actually lived. We know little of the lives even of our parents. We have forgotten almost everything that has happened to ourselves. The easy assumption that we have remembered the most important people and events and have preserved the most valuable evidence is immediately trumped by our inability to know what we have forgotten.

  • Willful ignorance (or materialist ignorance): refusing to honour as knowledge anything not subject to empirical proof
  • Moral ignorance: “One of the purposes of objectivity, in practice, is to avoid coming to a moral conclusion”
  • Polymathic ignorance: false confidence
  • Self righteous ignorance: failure to know oneself
  • Fearful ignorance: People keep themselves ignorant for fear of the strange or the different or the unknown, for fear of disproof or of unpleasant or tragic knowledge,
  • Lazy ignorance
  • For profit ignorance: willfully withholding knowledge
  • Corporate, political and institutional ignorance:  This is a mind that is compound and abstract, materialist, reductionist, greedy, and radically utilitarian:

The corporate mind is remarkably narrow. It claims to utilize only empirical knowledge-the preferred term is “sound science,” reducible ultimately to the “bottom line” of profit or power-and because this rules out any explicit recourse to experience or tradition or any kind of inward knowledge such as conscience, this mind is readily susceptible to every kind of ignorance and is perhaps naturally predisposed to counterfeit knowledge. It comes to its work equipped with factual knowledge and perhaps also with knowledge skillfully counterfeited, but without recourse to any of those knowledges that enable us to deal appropriately with mystery or with human limits. It has no humbling knowledge. The corporate mind is arrogantly ignorant by definition.

Ignorance, arrogance, narrowness of mind, incomplete knowledge, and counterfeit knowledge are of concern to us because they are dangerous; they cause destruction. When united with great power, they cause great destruction.

Paul Heltne has a simpler take, arguing that there are at least two kinds of ignorance – differing such as to be considered opposing worldviews:

One ignorance world view is built on the belief that one knows or understands a situation or a subject rather thoroughly, perhaps even definitively or absolutely, when, in fact, one does not. This sort of ignorance-masquerading as- certain-knowledge often comes to us as whole systems of thought and work and with intellectual buffers that make its facts, claims, and practices beyond question. Its assumptions, often invisible or unstated, are thereby unassailable.

The other, humble ignorance:

Acknowledging that one does not know is a humble kind of ignorance, one that is, in fact, filled often with the joy of discovery and wonder at what is discovered. This is the kind of ignorance-based worldview that can help us fathom the messes we are in, articulate assumptions and processes, entertain questions and be enriched by them, and imagine new ways and new knowledge.

Richard Lamm argues that the lessons of history not only are useless but also teach us the wrong lessons

We cannot grow our way out of these problems, nor can we use history to put them in perspective. The lessons we have learned living on an empty earth are the wrong ones. We are still trying to “be fruitful, multiply, and subdue” an earth that now needs saving.

Robert Root-Bernstein argues that science is not a search for solutions but a search for answerable questions – it must become acceptable to say “I don’t know”

Science is a way of asking more and more meaningful questions. The answers are important mainly in leading us to new questions. So try to learn some answers, because they are useful and interesting, but don’t forget that it isn’t answers that make a scientist, it’s questions.”

Bernstein challenges educators to train student to raise answerable questions that no one has ever asked (and we’re not going to achieve that by always getting them to answer questions to which we already have answers).

In a chapter on Optimising Uncertainty, Raymond Dean argues that as boundaries increase beyond our ability to comprehend, danger increases. He argues against Friedman’s flat-earth (level playing field) model, instead suggesting we consider the world as a collection of interconnected leaky balloons. Dean suggests an approach of expanding and contracting physical and intellectual boundaries:

To solve a problem, expand or contract your thinking to find the critical region where it looks like there will be a few solutions-more than one but not a large number. Then, alternate between thinking “just within the box” and “just outside the box.”

So how should you deal with unavoidable ignorance of the outside world and unavoidable ignorance of whatever you’re managing? The key is to maintain appropriate boundaries. Practice respect23 for and be hospitable to the unknown, but also be wary of it. Don’t do things that might create problems with the unknown. Be prepared for confrontations, but, when they come, give the benefit of the doubt before fighting. never abuse the weak. Someday they may be stronger. Be courteous, friendly, helpful, kind, and generous, but avoid the presumption that you know better than others what’s best for them. In other words, don’t forcibly tear down their protective boundaries.

Steve Talbott:

Our inescapable ignorance mandates great caution-a fact that our society has been reluctant to accept. Yet we cannot make any principle of caution absolute. The physician who construes the precept “First, do no harm” as an unambiguous and definitive rule can no longer act at all because only perfect prediction and control could guarantee the absence of harm. Those of us who urge precaution must not bow before the technological idols we are trying to smash. We can never perfectly know the consequences of our actions because we are not dealing with machines. We are called to live between knowledge and ignorance, and it is as dangerous to make ignorance the excuse for radical inaction as it is to found action on the boast of perfect knowledge.

Talbott suggests the metaphor of a conversation:

We cannot predict or control the exact course of a conversation, nor do we feel any such need-not, at least, if we are looking for a good conversation. Revelations and surprises lend our exchanges much of their savor. We don’t want predictability; we want respect, meaning, and coherence. A satisfying conversation is neither rigidly programmed nor chaotic; somewhere between perfect order and total surprise we look for a creative tension, a progressive and mutual deepening of insight, a sense that we are getting somewhere worthwhile.

The authors say they were deliberately provocative with the title The Virtues of Ignorance. I think this was a mistake. While challenging, I think it unnecessarily so. I can’t help but suspect that book called The Virtues of Humility might have seen more sunlight.