Knowledgeable Ignorance

I just spent a couple of days totally absorbed in a book that celebrates ignorance.  Even better, it celebrates ignorance in science!  Or to be a tad more precise, it’s about what the author, Stuart Firestein, a Columbia University neuroscientist, calls “the exhilaration of the unknown.”

So ignore the way the cover makes the book look ominous and boring.  It’s anything but.  In fact it’s a delight.  Because of course Firestein isn’t talking about willful stupidity, that “callow indifference to facts or logic that shows itself as a stubborn devotion to uninformed opinions.”  Not that at all.  He’s talking about “a particular condition of knowledge:  the absence of fact, understanding, insight, or clarity about something.”  This he calls “knowledgeable ignorance.”  Also known as “perceptive ignorance” or “insightful ignorance.”

Essentially, Firestein’s book is a celebration of mystery.  That is, of uncertainty, doubt, and unknowability – terms which apply as much to my agnostic inquiry of religion as to his equally agnostic inquiry of science (which originally meant ‘knowledge’).   Some scientists call his approach “agnostology” – a coinage that makes me laugh out loud and imagine a bunch of angels dancing like crazy on the head of a pin.  Me, I call it accidental theology.

Knowledgeable ignorance, says Firestein, is the kind that leads you to frame better questions.  And not with any single answer in mind.  “One good question can give rise to several layers of answers,” he says.  A perfect image:  layers of answers, like layers of clouds, each one shaped and influenced by the ones above and below it, each one distinguishable and yet part of the whole most of us dismissively shorthand as “sky.”

And then this:  “Being a scientist requires having faith in uncertainty, finding pleasure in mystery, and learning to cultivate doubt.  There is no surer way to screw up an experiment than to be sure of its outcome.”

“Having faith in uncertainty” — if I believed in perfection, that would be a perfect definition of agnosticism!

3 Responses

  1. I love that there is an author willing to make such claims. There is no need to be absolutely certain about everything in one’s life. That’s part of life’s mystery. But authors like these have also taught me an important lesson: science is a wonderful tool but it has not uncovered anywhere near a majority of what is explorable. Great post.

  2. ” From the cowardice that shrinks from truth;
    From the laxness that is content with half-truth;
    From the arrogance that thinks it knows all truth;
    O God of Truth Deliver Us!”

    A prayer by a great-grandson of the Prophet.

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