Wednesday, July 18, 2012

A Defence of Ignorance

While this would have been a good topic for Far-Out Friday or Methodological Monday, I've decided that, much like real, actual science, this didn't feel like something that should be made to wait. We stand at an exciting point in our understanding of the world. Day by day, we learn new things about the very large and the very small. In every field of science and on every question being asked we grow a little closer to an answer day by day. The Ivory Tower grows a little taller, its foundations set a little firmer, the horizons to which it can see swell a little further day by day. But there are those among us who wish to qualify. Those who wish to say that there are questions which are not worth asking. Those who dismiss the question because they themselves do not find it interesting, nor does the answer affect their daily lives. The same people who declare that further investment in space-based technologies is a waste are among the first to complain when their GPS lacks the appropriate level of fidelity.  There is a tendency among many to call this willful ignorance.

A realization of one’s own ignorance is a healthy thing. It is as good for the mind to know what it knows as to know what it does not. It is humility, to admit we do not know. It is hope, to realize that is temporary. The best phrase a person can utter when faced with a question they cannot answer is “I don’t know, yet.”
For 100,000 years, the human condition has been a journey from ignorance. Ignorance impels us. It entices us to create new solutions, understand new conditions, and, in fact, improve our own way of life. The advancements of human knowledge, the creation of the Ivory Tower, have always been the milestones by which we marked the shifts of human history, and you know that by the names. The Bronze Age. The Iron Age. The Renaissance.  The Atomic Age. The Space Age.

But there is another age we speak of: The Dark Ages. We know these not for the advances that were made but for the opportunities that were lost. This was a time when the majority of the western world was mired in an attitude of intellectual arrogance, of willful ignorance that stemmed from the conviction that we knew everything. The things we didn’t know didn’t matter, and when the evidence for the new order of the things we did know contradicted what was gospel truth, opposition to these new ideas was vigorous and often violent. Some ideas were even lost as crusades, wars, and disease tore its way through both scholars and scholarship.

This was not the end of western academia, though it was a setback. The ideals of academic study, begat by the Greeks, survived in the libraries and universities of the Muslim world, and the fruitful thinkers of lands further east developed technologies that would become known to the west only after the opening up of trade between East and West. And eventually, the West would recover as well. And while we have grown beyond the Dark Ages in great leaps and bounds, recovering much of what we knew, learning new things beyond that. The dark ages were ages long past.

But we cannot, we should not, allow ourselves to forget the root cause. We already knew everything that was worth knowing, and we knew that with such conviction that the cognitive dissonance of being proven wrong made us violently repressive of the truth. We knew the earth was flat. We knew that the heavens revolved around it.
Imagine what we’ll know tomorrow. There’s lots of room left to explore. Just ask anyone with a passing familiar with the wild earth, the ocean deeps, and the vast, and not-so-empty space between the stars.

No comments:

Post a Comment