Orders of Ignorance

Douglas P. McManaman
January 30, 2015
© 2015 by Douglas P. McManaman
Reproduced with Permission

Consider a local newspaper of a small town, like the Auroran or the Markham Economist & Sun. Read an issue and then consider just how much is going on in this small town that was completely outside the purview of your mind (i.e., I didn't know we had a world class singer among us, nor was I aware that someone is going forth with plans to open a heritage museum, etc.). And if you happen to read a story about someone or something you know rather well, consider just how much is left out of account; for you know that there is far more to the lives of those involved than what the story can hope to cover in a few columns.

There's a sense in which we can talk about a first and second order ignorance: you know that those who read a story about something you are familiar with "first hand" are only getting a fraction of what there is to know, which means they are, relatively speaking, left in the dark, or are perhaps being misled, for the story leaves so much space in between facts that it practically invites others to fill in the blanks and thereby construct their own narrative. And yet when we read a story about someone or something we are not familiar with, we are not explicitly conscious of the fact that we are getting only a fraction of what there is to know about those involved, but we are aware that this story and that initiative, etc., were outside our limited range of experience - we are surprised and perhaps delighted to learn of it. Compared to what we do know already, we feel we are given new light, even though we forget or are simply not aware that the light is scanty, thin, and probably misleading. The latter is what I would call a first order ignorance, the former a second order ignorance, known explicitly only upon further reflection.

This two-fold layer of ignorance can be multiplied, because the same principle applies to a major city's newspaper, such as the Toronto Star and the Toronto Sun. In fact, compare these two papers and you may notice that much is left out of one that the other retains, and vice versa. And once again, when a story is covered having to do with something we know well, like the school at which we teach or the parish we attend, or a person we know, etc., we notice again that much has been left out, so much, in fact, that the public simply cannot come to a sufficient understanding of this school community, parish, or person, etc., through this one story. Many will inevitably believe, however, that they now have a thorough grasp of what this community, parish, or person is about, etc., after having read the article. And yet most of what we read is unfamiliar; thus it is easy to walk away from a newspaper feeling informed and enlightened, for there really is a tremendous amount that was, just moments earlier, completely outside our personal range of experience.

A newspaper gives us a very tiny window onto a vast area; and on the glass of that window is a tremendous amount of dust and grime that prevents us from noticing so many important details. All we are left with - compared to the totality of what there is to know in the city - are tiny pieces of information from which we can infer very little with certainty. The temptation is always to bring closure to that state of ambiguity, to construct a narrative that brings coherence to those isolated and incomplete facts, and the resulting narrative is something we're not even aware was our own construct.

Now consider this two-fold order of ignorance with respect to a national newspaper. Our "unknowing" is multiplied once again, exponentially. There is so much that is going on in the nation that we simply do not and cannot know about - we have neither the time nor the capacity - , and what we come to know as a result of reading about it is thin and insufficient, again obvious only to those who know the facts from the inside.

This order of ignorance is further multiplied when we consider an international newspaper. Read it and consider just how much you did not know about what is going on in India, China, or Turkey, etc., and that what you now know is woefully incomplete, although it may not feel incomplete. Consider too that the window any of us are given is one framed by someone on the basis of what is more likely to capture the interest of the readership, or possibly what might further a cause, and not necessarily on the basis of what is genuinely important to know.

A student once asked me to help him write a short essay he was required to write in his application to a university program he was interested in. He was to reflect on the question: "Where is the world headed?" To answer that question is like trying to figure out where an individual person is headed while being given only tiny fragments of information on what is taking place on the cellular level of his body. Your guess is as good as mine. What is going on in my own relatively small school community of slightly over 1100 students is always more than what I currently know; so much is happening outside my awareness - something I discover with every school newsletter. What goes on in that small community school is even more than what those in "governing" positions know as a group; if it can be said that they have a more comprehensive grasp of what takes place among them, that wider apprehension is had at the expense of depth and detail - the wider one stretches an elastic, the thinner it becomes.

So much of what has happened and is currently going on in my own life is outside the awareness of my colleagues, and if there are 100 other such adults in the school, then the same principle applies to me 100 times over - leaving aside the students. In other words, in this small community, there is a veritable universe of which all of us, including myself, are virtually ignorant.

Consider as well those people that we only later on in life have come to understand, all because we had changed in some way (i.e., came into certain experiences, grew in maturity, etc.). We did not understand them before, but we have a better understanding of them now, albeit an incomplete one. Part of the reason we came to understand them better is that we have become more like them, in some ways at least. There are, however, a myriad of people we do not understand and will likely never understand adequately, because they will remain very much unlike us - perhaps better than us, or not necessarily better or worse.

Despite all that happens outside our knowledge and control, there is an order that unfolds. The large and small societies we live in are not a chaos, but each one is a cosmos within a larger cosmos ( kosmein : "to arrange, to adorn," from kosmos : "order"). And I know from within that I am not the cause of that order, nor is it under my control; I am in it, carried along in its current. No one individual or group of individuals (i.e., a bureaucracy) is the cause of that order, nor does anyone or any group have dominion over it; to have complete control of it implies it is understood in all its details, which is simply not possible. In fact, the more one tries to control this larger order, the more frustrated one becomes; to comprehend it is impossible because it is always exceedingly larger than the human intellect. Not even a teacher has complete control over a small society such as a classroom of students who have been entrusted to him; certainly he establishes the conditions necessary for an atmosphere conducive to learning, and in that sense he brings order, but he does not control his students, he has no dominion over their minds and wills, nor the circumstances of their individual lives (whether or not they get sick, their individual intellectual dispositions, the circumstances of their family, etc.). In creating optimal conditions, the teacher hopes for something to happen on its own that he is helpless to determine, as a farmer who does everything right, hopes for the best but does not determine the outcome, that is, whether there will be a good crop this year, which depends on many factors outside his control, like the weather, insects, his own health, etc.

Human knowing is profoundly limited, but widely dispersed. The fact of the matter is that there is only a very tiny sphere in which what is made available to an individual is sufficient to make valid inferences. That fact, however, does not seem to stop many of us from talking as if that tiny sphere is not so tiny after all, as if there isn't a larger order beyond our ability to comprehend. We have a tendency to believe that our understanding of the community, or the city, the nation, and the world, is sufficiently complete to offer a commentary and some detailed advice with a high confidence level.

One of the most important conditions most conducive to mutual understanding and human progress is the awareness of the profound limitations that matter and sense perception impose on human knowing. It is an epistemic condition that will allow people to think and speak more slowly and listen more readily.