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Ignorance, Knowledge, and Confidence

04/08/2010 2 comments

Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.

This is one of my favorite quotes. It was said by Charles Darwin, but that doesn’t really matter:  the essence of the quote is by no means original to him. The essence or point of the quote is that the more you learn and the more knowledge you acquire, the less confident you become in making particular truth claims. But what sort of truth claims exactly? It cannot be just any truth claim: sometimes knowledge does beget more confidence than ignorance. For instance, the more I study a particular time in history–say, ancient Judaism–the more confident that I become that certain events transpired on such-and-such a date as opposed to another date (that the Second Temple was destroyed in 70 C.E).

Darwin’s quote is less applicable to narrow factual claims such as these and is more applicable to truth claims about broad theories. For instance, it is usually the ignorant and not the learned that think it is obvious that socialism is an evil or inadequate political theory. It is usually the ignorant and not the learned that think that humans obviously have free will or that “reality” just is “physical reality” or that utilitarianism can account for all of our moral intuitions. It is usually the ignorant and not the learned that think reconstructing particular events or individuals of the past is a straightforward matter. And although knowledge can often give us confidence that particular theories are false–six day creationism, astrological theories–it rarely gives us confidence in asserting general-sweeping truth claims about particular theories or questions.

There may be more than one reason why ignorance tends to breed confidence. I will suggest the obvious one.

One explanation is that individuals who are ignorant are those who have only been exposed, intentionally or unintentionally, to one particular set of data or one particular interpretation of the data. These individuals have a narrow view of a particular topic: they have not been exposed to (or have failed to take seriously) all particular viewpoints, their arguments, and their counterarguments. In this sense we may substitute “ignorant” for “narrow-mindedness.” To be ignorant is just to be narrow-minded. To be ignorant is just to lack awareness of particular positions and/or the arguments in favor of them. As a consequence of their narrow-mindedness, these individuals see it as obvious that one side of the debate–the only side they have been exposed to or the only side they have considered fairly–is correct. It thus becomes easy to acquire confidence, misplaced though it may be, that one’s view of things is correct.

Although ignorance is usually not something to be desired, it is often unavoidable. Given that resources and time are limited, we can only know so much. The physicist may be ignorant about biology and the biologist may be ignorant about ancient history. Although it wasn’t always the case, it is now impossible to be an expert in all fields of study. And it is for this reason that we ought to approach our intellectual endeavors with humility, or more specifically, epistemic humility (humility pertaining to our beliefs and our truth claims). And I do not think that this is merely what Immanuel Kant called a hypothetical imperative. I am not saying we ought to have epistemic humility just because it would be rational to do so (i.e. because it would help us achieve some goal). My claim, I think, is a moral and universal one (Kant’s categorical imperative): we ought to have epistemic humility just because it is the right thing to do, or in this case, have. Misplaced confidence often transforms into arrogance. But arrogance isn’t bad just because it thwarts our goals but because it is a bad character trait to have. Whether or not that is correct, I think on any ethical theory, humility will be something we ought to seek and arrogance something we ought to avoid.

It is because the learned have a broader view of things that they have much less confidence in any one particular position. They are always weighing and reweighing different arguments, leaving themselves open for new considerations. And while they often end up landing on one side of the debate, there remains within them a full awareness that their own intuitions might be mistaken or that they may have overlooked a piece of data or set of arguments. They understand full well that other individuals just as learned and just as intelligent have come to alternative conclusions. For these reason they may even opt out of taking sides altogether, settling into a bemusing agnosticism. Sometimes this agnosticism is temporary–slowly fading as one learns–and sometimes it remains indefinitely. However long the agnosticism remains, I suggest that it ought to be our starting point and ought to, perhaps, be our ending point more often than is customary. Perhaps just for rational considerations. But perhaps moral ones too.