Ignorance that isn’t bliss

Without awareness of our ignorance, we are condemned to stay ignorant, no matter how much information we collect. The Internet enables this more than anything else in the past

Updated - December 02, 2016 12:31 pm IST

Published - October 31, 2016 01:33 am IST

We have been brought up with the hubristic and misleading belief that >knowledge makes us truly human. It doesn’t, on its own. What makes us truly human is our knowledge of our ignorance. We seem to be on the verge of forgetting this in our Internet age, with its misleading surfeit of ‘knowledge’ — as the brasher ‘new atheists’, opinionated trolls, Hindutva radicals, Islamist ideologues, Trump die-hards, climate change deniers, and many others prove.

All complex beings have knowledge of different sorts. Birds can navigate their way thousands of miles in the sky and many species of fish can do so in the ocean. Squirrels know when to hoard and where to dig. Many birds and animals know when to seek each other and when to run: the small bird doing its dentistry in the lion’s or the crocodile’s jaws, the large fish being cleansed of parasites by a sea bird.

These are all kinds of knowledge, and some are beyond the capacity of human beings. We explain away our species deficiency by talking of instincts and so on, but the fact remains that we are still talking of ways of knowing.

Knowledge of ignorance One can argue that at least all complex organisms think in some way or the other. Birds do, animals do. Some animals, apes for instance, may think more like us than some other animals. Eduardo Kohn even argues in his book How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology Beyond the Human that forests “think”. Perhaps plants too. But birds and animals definitely have knowledge of things — where to nest, how to build, where to dig, how to stash for the winter, when to run, when to bluff, and so on.

No, it is not knowledge that distinguishes human beings from other complex organisms. What we have and what they do not seem to have is knowledge of ignorance. Human beings do not just know what they know; they also have a fairly good idea of what they do not know. Non-human beings too know what they know, but there is nothing to indicate that they are aware of what they do not know.

Twinkle, twinkle, little star, how I wonder what you are? Thus runs the nursery rhyme. What it conveys is not just wonder, which all complex beings have, but also knowledge-ignorance. A dog looking up at something twinkling would wonder too, as wondering grows from simple curiosity. But only the child can wonder about that twinkling as what is known to be a star and as stars we remain vastly ignorant of.

It can be argued that the truly educated are distinguished not by the extent of their knowledge, but by a greater and more nuanced awareness of their areas of ignorance. Actually, the two go hand in hand: true knowledge comes only with awareness of one’s ignorance, which is something that neither >Internet trolls nor religious fundamentalists have fully understood. It is knowledge of ignorance that makes us truly human, and it is this that I am afraid we are forgetting with the rise of the so-called information society.

Now, information is not the same as knowledge, but there can be no knowledge without information. As such, there is an unspoken myth that individually and collectively we have more knowledge of things and ourselves now than ever in the past. After all, we have the Internet, cyber-linked libraries, 24-hour TV, whatnot.

Interestingly, what unites all Internet trolls — whether they are Hindutva fanatics screaming about how every scientific discovery has taken place in ‘Vedic’ India, Islamists claiming that their version of Islam is the most perfect system ever, Trump supporters insinuating about conspiracies and rigging — is the fact that they surf only for information that confirms their ‘knowledge’ and does not challenge their ‘ignorance’. The availability of information is not sufficient. It is outright misleading when we are convinced of our own knowledge, and not willing to challenge it.

Without awareness of our ignorance, we are condemned to stay ignorant — no matter how much information we collect. The Internet enables this more than anything else in the past, as it enables a solitary, selective, isolated, hidden, unabashed-of-ignorance search for ‘information’, and its instantaneous, too-fast dissemination.

Books and the Internet You might claim that so did books to some extent: after all, one could read books in isolation, shut up in a room. This is true, but only if one confined oneself to a narrow book and its strict acolytes: something that fundamentalists — religious or political — have done and still do. The Nazi reading only Mein Kampf and Nazi commentaries is no different from the religious fanatic reading only one sacred text and its ‘true’ commentaries. In this sense, we are not faced with an entirely new danger.

But there is a difference. The moment one starts reading books in general, one is forced to encounter opinions and information that do not necessarily fit one’s world view. It seems easier to avoid such encounters on the Internet. Moreover, in a world of books, knowledge was by definition beyond any set of covers, any fixed reading. Knowledge in that sense was always partly elusive. This seems to have disappeared with the rise of cyber culture because the myth has arisen that all knowledge is now at our fingertips. All we need is the right search machine.

This is reflected not only in our tendency to Google medical treatments but also in the inanity of many cyber reviews, where reputed classics and complex books are dismissed with a line like “I found it boring”. It is reflected, above all, in the screams of Internet trolls, all of them seeking and disseminating only ‘information’ that suits them.

Can there be any knowledge without a humble awareness of ignorance?

Tabish Khair is an Indian novelist and academic who teaches in Denmark.

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