We are defined by our ignorance
What defines us as human beings? All sorts of things. But one key quality stands out above almost all others - our complete and utter ignorance. It's the human condition - we know so little about who we are and how the world works, that it almost cripples us.
Of course, anyone looking around today may conclude that we're pretty smart. Check out at all the great things we've built and the wonderful discoveries we've made. Look at our millions of books and billions of webpages. Surely all that is a sign of wisdom?
Wisdom relative to what?
Sure we've figured out more than the monkeys, rats and cockroaches. We're more in control of our destiny than any of our ancestors ever were.
But when it comes to the amount of stuff we'd like to know - we need to know - we've barely scratched the surface. As individuals, and as a species, we're just fumbling around in the dark. The distance between us and true enlightenment is so vast, that it might as well be infinite.
Consider the following questions:
This list could continue almost forever. I could probably spend the rest of my life writing it, held back only by the limit of my own imagination and not by the scope of relevant questions. Even on a personal level, life is more often confusing than we'd like to admit. Here are some questions you may ask yourself sometimes:
- What are we doing on this planet?
- Who are we?
- What happens to us after we die?
- Are we alone in the universe, or are there others?
- Why do we so often seem to fall into wars?
- Why are we often kind when we've no good reason to be?
- How can we solve poverty?
- How can we cure cancer?
- Will it be raining or sunny this time next month?
And so on. Once again the questions could stretch out into infinity.
- Does that person really like me or are they just using me?
- Have I made the right investment decisions?
- What should I do with my career?
- Why does my back hurt?
- Why is that person looking at me funny?
- Have I made a terrible mistake?
One measure of our ignorance is our terrible vulnerability. Here we are clinging to the surface of this tiny planet, with no way of permanent escape. Any random event could wipe us out and that would be that. A meteor strike, volcanic eruption, severe climate change, extremely successful disease or any other number of things could kill us all without a second thought.
Everything we've achieved - Shakespeare, the theory of relativity, our great cities, our hopes and dreams - all gone in an instant. Presumably there is a way to get ourselves out of this terrible predicament, but currently we can only speculate as to what it might be and how we might implement it.
And would there be anybody to mourn our loss? We don't even know the answer to that.
We humans are smart enough to appreciate, at least under the surface and with a bit of thought, how ignorant and vulnerable we actually are. And it feels terrible. So we go into a state of denial, and build a reality around us where we don't feel so uninformed and exposed.
We build fast-food restaurants with predictable menus the world over, train timetables accurate to the minute, and computers which do exactly as we tell them. Of course, all these things serve other purposes also, but there's no denying they fill a deep need to be able to understand and control what's going on.
Perhaps that explains why we get so angry when what we ordered turns out different from what we expected, the train is ten minutes late, or the computer screws up. These events shatter the illusion of knowledge and control we've so carefully built around ourselves.
The artificial world most of us live in is a big step up from that our first ancestors had when they were unceremoniously dumped naked in the dust. But it's not as rational as we like to kid ourselves. One of the most psychologically important needs our modern world fulfills is its relative predictability. We've built it, so we can predict, to some degree, what's going on. Nature rarely affords us that luxury.
Another key way we deal with our frightening ignorance is to deny it completely. Most of the questions we can come up with have some sort of answer provided by somebody somewhere. Think of all the theories for what happens to us after we die. There are many of them, passionately believed, none of which has the slightest bit of evidence to back it up.
I wouldn't presume that all religious beliefs are wrong, but seeing as many of them contradict each other, I can confidently predict that the majority of them must be. And yet people cherish such beliefs deeply. They build their entire lives around them and may even be prepared to kill to defend them.
It's pretty clear, in all sorts of fields, that most people are more happy to have any answer to the questions that face them than no answer at all. Even if that answer is ludicrous or based on no evidence, it's seen as better than nothing.
Yet this is a crazy position to adopt. Our desperate need to know the solutions to the problems that face us do not mean we should accept any solution as better than none. Think of the damaging cures that have prevailed in the history of medicine, or the mass-murdering solutions to poverty and economic problems that dominated the 20th century. We would certainly be better off without those solutions offering to fill the vacuum of our understanding.
The right answers are certainly a valuable thing. But no answer is better than any old answer. At least knowing that you don't know will lead you to investigate further. An arrogant and false knowledge can only damage you.
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