Ignorance & Knowledge
We tend to think ignorance is the opposite of knowledge. But is that really true? We can explore this via Pico Iyer’s TED Talk The Beauty of What You’ll Never Know.
Iyer professes that he now feels he knows far less than he thought he knew three decades ago. Okay, three decades is a long time. Do we really lose knowledge as we pursue knowledge? Or is something else going on here?
We gain a curious insight about knowledge as we age: that the more we know, the more we see how little we know. Is there power in such a perspective? Socrates would say so. Proclaimed the wisest man in Athens by the Oracle of Delphi, he responded that he’s only the wisest to the degree that he knows that he doesn’t know. So, why could that be true and more powerful than knowing?
Iyer says that when we plunge into new environments we also have the opportunity to take an internal journey into ourselves. We venture into uncertainty, ambiguity and fear. Everywhere in life we’re reminded that the nature of reality is that it’s largely unknown.
Knowledge helps us grow, but at some point, it loses its usefulness.
For example, moments in life when you fall in love, but don’t know why. Or, a friend dies and you don’t know how to put it into perspective for living your life. Or, you have an argument with your partner and you don’t know what they mean because they just don’t make sense. Such events take us into ourselves, out of what we “know,” to where we can find out more of who we really are.
Ignorance isn’t bliss and science gives us a lot of knowledge. These are two aspects of the same continuum. Increase knowledge and ignorance diminishes. The opposite of knowledge isn’t ignorance, it’s mystery, that which either hasn’t been discovered yet or can’t be discovered no matter how much we parse it apart.
Readiness to Surrender
Things we don’t know expand us more than the things we know. They connect us with a wider world. It’s through that connection that we can know ourselves as part of something larger, as part of an inextricable whole. Knowledge parses reality into parts; mystery moves us toward experiencing an integrated whole. We give up trying to know everything and allow ourselves to just be present.
Honoring mystery is thwarted by the way our mind thinks. After 60 years of studying human behavior, Daniel Kahneman concluded that we are much more confident in what we think we know than we should be. We have an unlimited ability to ignore our ignorance. Think about that. How do we create world peace? What is the best way to raise children? How do we improve climbing performance?
What actually gives us reassurance is being able to say “I don’t know.” Iyer says “You’re only as strong as your readiness to surrender.” It’s in surrendering what we think we know that we can begin knowing anything new. Saying “I don’t know” softens our knowledge defenses and lets new light shine through. That can let in the mystery without having to feel certain of what it means. We can surrender to the mystery and simply enjoy being in it. Then we can integrate into the world to get ideas on creating world peace, better ways for raising children, or how to improve climbing performance.
Look around you. Isn’t it a mysterious world that fills you with wonder? One parting thought: Knowledge is a priceless gift; but the illusion of knowledge can be more dangerous than ignorance.
Practice tip: “I Don’t Know.”
How many times can you say “I don’t know” today? Experiment with not sharing your opinion and simply saying “I don’t know.” You can follow up with “Tell me more.” Then ask more questions. Pretty soon you’ll realize you know less than you thought you did and maybe the other person in the conversation will too.