Some Thoughts on Vincible and Invincible Ignorance

Douglas P. McManaman
Talk delivered to Catholic Students of McMaster University
March, 2016
Reproduced with Permission

I was asked to say a few words on vincible and invincible ignorance. This is an interesting topic. In fact, ignorance alone is an interesting and profoundly important topic. One of the most important points to appreciate in the theory of knowledge or epistemology, that is, one of the most important truths for students to get a handle on is the profound limitations that constrain human knowing. In fact, a fundamental problem today is that most people are profoundly unaware of these constraints, that is, of the ignorance that conditions our natural intellectual state of affairs. Most of what is in our heads is not knowledge at all; most of it is belief. More than 95% of our life is based on natural faith, in the sense of trusting what someone tells you because you have evidence that the speaker is informed and credible. We throw around that verb 'to know' quite frequently when it comes to most of what is in our heads, but most of it is anything but knowledge in the true sense of the word.

Consider a few every day examples. If I'm given a prescription by my doctor, I trust him, I have faith that he has my best interest at heart. I don't "know" whether or not what he has prescribed will help me, and I don't know whether or not what my pharmacist gave me will help me or kill me; basically, I trust her.

For years I was under the impression that I walked out of my history of philosophy classes with knowledge; but strictly speaking, I didn't "know" that what they were teaching me about this or that thinker was really the case - if I did, I wouldn't need to be in the classroom. Rather, I chose to believe them. I trusted them. And to this day, not everything they said was corroborated; in fact, more than a few were eventually falsified, and so much of what they taught me remains a matter of natural faith.

When I order a pizza and it is delivered to my door, again, I don't know whether or not the pizza has been laced with cyanide; I believe it is edible. The vast majority of our day to day reasoning is probabilistic. I reason that it is highly unlikely that my pizza is laced with cyanide on the basis of conditional and frequency type probability [P(H/E) & P(E/H)]. But I certainly cannot claim that I know it is not; I believe it is edible, and such a belief is, at this point in time, reasonable.

Knowledge is difficult enough to achieve in our own specialized fields of study; it is very difficult to achieve in fields that are not our specialized area of study, and in most cases, it is practically impossible - in most cases, it is someone else who has the knowledge, we simply have either a well - placed trust, or a not so well - placed trust. Most of what we do is grounded in belief; for there is a massive cloud of ignorance that surrounds the little that we do know, but we seem to be more aware of the "light" of what we know than we are of the clouds of ignorance that constrain us.

What makes knowledge so difficult to acquire is our material nature. As Aristotle said: "Nothing is in the intellect that is not first in the senses". It is our spatial conditions and historical nature and the faculties of sense perception that impose profound limits on human knowing. We discover the natures of things gradually, by observing their activity, but their activity is always situated in place and in time. Because activity is situated in place and time, we see things, at any given moment, from a limited angle; the result is there is much about the object of our knowledge that we are ignorant of. I only know my students from the angle of a classroom teacher, not a parent or relative. I only know the neighborhood surrounding the school at which I teach from the angle of the third floor, at the south end of the building; I have never seen the houses outside my classroom from the front nor from the inside.

One day I picked up a local newspaper and began reading it; I was pleasantly surprised at a number of things happening in the very town that I've lived in for more than 20 years, things I never would have expected. And then I thought: that's just the small town of Aurora. What about all that's happening in the small town of Richmond Hill to the south or Newmarket to the north? How much is going on there that I am not even slightly aware of and would be astounded if I were made aware of it?

Consider now a city newspaper, like the Toronto Sun or the Star. I can read these two papers and at the end of an hour feel the weight of information that I now carry away with me. And yet, how much is covered in the Sun that was not covered in the Star, and vice versa? Furthermore, how much is happening in the city of Toronto that both of these papers simply did not cover?

We can carry out this same experiment on the national level by reading only two national newspapers, such as the National Post and the Globe and Mail. Once again, how much is happening in Canada or the United States that the papers simply did not include? And why haven't the papers covered it? One reason is that there is simply not enough space, but most importantly, the decision to cover a story is not grounded in whether it is true or important, but whether it is likely to get others to buy it. Which is why a great deal of what is really important and newsworthy is not reported, and much of what is absolutely unimportant is reported. Watching CNN for an evening is enough to corroborate this point. What I found striking about the Republican debates this year was how much I learned about what the other candidates actually thought - and some of what they were saying was very interesting. But I had to ask myself: "Why doesn't CNN provide detailed coverage of what each of these candidates really think?" Instead, news coverage was by and large limited to a full day repetition of the latest insult delivered by Donald Trump, or other trivial matters. News is rarely about informing the public and more about drawing them to the channel; ideas don't seem to attract people's attention. And so we are left in the dark with regard to much of what is really important in the country or in the minds of others.

Take this thought experiment to the international level; read an international newspaper, like the India Times or Al Jazeera, and we become aware that so much is happening in these countries that is beyond anything we could have expected. And how much was left out of the news for lack of space, if nothing else?

A few months later, however, I picked up that same paper in the small town of Aurora and read a story about something I knew from the inside, things that were outside the purview of the ordinary citizen. After reading the story, I thought to myself: "They got it wrong. This is misleading. We've been lied to. Someone is not interested in the facts." And yet the reader will walk away feeling well informed about what is going on at the local parish, just as I often feel informed after reading other stories. This was a narrative construction, and the narrative was for the most part a fiction - some of the facts were true, but details were left out and the rest were weaved into a narrative which was nothing more than an interpretation, a series of inferences that were coherent, but on the whole untrue. Anyone reading the story was walking away misinformed without realizing it.

At this point we can wonder how much of what I read earlier - stories about which I knew nothing from the inside - was for the most part misinformation? When I put down the paper, I feel relatively informed, but perhaps I am just as misinformed as those who read the story I was familiar with from the inside. Not only do I not know what's going on in this town, city, and country - I'm too limited to take in all the information that's out there - , but neither do I know whether what I've been told is genuine information or misinformation.

The disconcerting piece in all of this is that although we are surrounded by clouds of ignorance, most of us are unaware of it and we speak with tremendous confidence. This is why Plato's dialogues are so important. I remember my first year at Waterloo plodding my way through his dialogues, only to get to the end with the issue or question completely unresolved. It took me years to realize what Plato was doing. He understood that people were too filled with prejudice to be able to learn anything at all. It was said that there was no one wiser than Socrates, at least according to his friend Chaerephon who consulted the oracle at Delphi. But Socrates was certain of two things: 1) God does not lie, and 2) he (Socrates) had no wisdom to boast of.

So he had to resolve this problem, and to do so he interviewed all those most reputed for their wisdom: the poets, the politicians, the Sophists, etc., until he eventually realized that indeed there is no one wiser; for he discovered that everyone he had met who had great reputation for learning and wisdom really knows nothing, but they don't know that they know nothing; Socrates, however, knows nothing, but he knows that he knows nothing, and it is in this that he is wiser than the rest.

Plato knew that only at the end of the dialogue are people ready to learn anything at all; at that point, given that they stayed with the discussion, they would have been delivered from their prejudices of thinking they knew something. Now they know that they do not know what they thought they knew at the beginning of the dialogue, and that is the most important epistemic condition for acquiring wisdom.

Most of our day to day reasoning is inductive. We reason on the basis of what we see, on the basis of the evidence before us. But inductive reasoning is intrinsically uncertain. The conclusion is always more than what is contained in the premises, and so from a deductive point of view, it is always invalid. But that's all we have, so we have to forever subject our hypotheses to testing. Our sample of evidence must be representative, and it must be large enough, but it rarely is, because it takes work and patience to withhold judgment until a more substantial body of evidence is in. Scientists know this in the lab, but some tend to forget it when they are outside the lab. The same is true for professional statisticians; outside the classroom they commit the same number of statistical errors as everyone else when it comes to day to day statistical reasoning.

But most people today, those who are not familiar with the rigors of the scientific method, are not aware of the uncertain and precarious nature of the conclusions they draw every day from limited evidence. And of course Sherlock Holmes does not help at all, especially the latest version starring Benedict Cumberbatch, which depicts him rapidly inferencing to explanations that have nowhere close the degree of necessity that he attributes to them. In real life, it takes years to solve a case, because clues have myriad possible avenues leading from them to a variety of possible hypotheses that can account for the evidence.

Unfortunately, what happens today with most people is that if a hypothesis makes sense out of the data, they readily accept it and attribute to it a much greater degree of certainty than is warranted. This is epistemic overconfidence, and we see it all the time.

On my calendar, at the end of March, I have it written that Donald Trump will, by this date, be a political non - entity. I added it there after reading an article by Margaret Wente in the Globe and Mail, who predicted as much. I wanted to remember the prediction as one more example of epistemic overconfidence. David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker, last summer said that Donald Trump was running for president to "promote his own brand", and he said the "whole con might end well before the first snows in Sioux City and Manchester." James Fallows, the national correspondent for The Atlantic, wrote with great confidence: "Donald Trump will not be the 45th president of the United States. Nor the 46th, nor any other number you might name. The chance of his winning the nomination and election is exactly zero." My point is not about Donald Trump, but about our inability to predict. Every year provides fresh examples of this inability, but we never seem to learn from past mistakes, because we forget about them almost instantaneously, only seconds after discovering we were wrong.

There is a distinction between sensation and perception. The latter is a theory laden sensation. To give you an example, I remember having a discussion with a professor of philosophy about the kinds of students that currently frequent the universities. A large number of them taking introduction to philosophy are overly credulous, easily taken in by the latest ideological trends, and unmotivated to think and study. It was not pleasant news, but I was quite happy with the kinds of students I had. After a while, however, I got to wondering whether or not I've been deceiving myself. Perhaps on some level I am refusing to see who the students before me really are. He suggested I try offering them money as a reward for discussing the big questions and see what happens. I had all this in the back of my mind when I had returned to Toronto. By that time, I had decided that my students were unusually good and dismissed my fears. But I found myself in class one day, trying to get the students to discuss a philosophical matter, but they were simply not in the mood to discuss, to question, to challenge a point, etc. They sat there, as sometimes happens. One student at the back of the class, however, looked bored and began to sigh. I was bothered by the sight of him sighing, but decided to pay no attention to it; but he continued to sigh and his look of boredom only intensified. I finally had had enough and told him in no uncertain terms, in front of everyone, that if he was bored and needed to be entertained, he could leave at this very instant. He appeared rather shocked at my sudden change in demeanor.

When the bell rang, I decided to ask him what his problem was; for I still felt the anger in my body. He apologized and told me that ever since he woke up that morning, he has been feeling sick, as if we was going to vomit. In other words, he wasn't sighing of boredom at all. My perception was a theory laden sensation that, ironically enough, I always exhort students to be very careful of; it was a sensation colored by an unarticulated hypothesis that I had even rejected explicitly. Just having it in the back of my mind was enough to influence how I perceived a situation.

Science employs models, such as Lewis structures, or the billiard ball model of a gas, or the Bohr - Rutherford model of the atom, the Gaussian - chain model of a polymer, the Lorenz model of the atmosphere, the double helix model of DNA, evolutionary models in the social sciences, etc., and science revises those models when it is discovered that the model does not fit the data. In other words, reality is larger than the models we construct to interpret it. So too, we see the world through an epistemic model, made up of a number of principles, facts, habits of thought and beliefs that have varying degrees of probability, and the model is in constant development, unless we are rigid dogmatists who refuse to learn and expand. Over time, certain epistemic conditions are acquired that permit us to see what we simply did not see before, and that is when we should come to the realization of how overconfident we were years earlier.

Intelligence is not really the glory of man; intelligence is the glory of the angels. Angels are immaterial substances of a rational nature, they are unencumbered by sense perception and time, and as a result they are far superior to man intellectually. The clue of man's glory is in the word 'human' itself: from the Latin 'humus', which means soil or dirt. Our glory is humility. We can't outdo the angels in intelligence, but we can outdo them in humility if we want to.

But these intellectual limitations and the clouds of ignorance that surround us are really avenues to God, so we should learn to cooperate with our profoundly limited intellectual nature, for the sake of our own spiritual well - being. Physicist Richard Feynman referred to science is an ever expanding frontier of ignorance; the more that is discovered, the more it is discovered how much more there is to discover: hence, the ever expanding frontier of ignorance. Bernard Lonergan recognized that each particular act of knowing takes place within the heuristic context of what can be further known; every answered question will give rise to more questions. The reason is that the mind is not satisfied until it possesses the sufficient reason for everything that is. We want "to know everything about everything." This implies that the mind is aware, at some level that reality is unconditionally intelligible - otherwise we would not strive for complete understanding. But the cause that renders all of reality completely intelligible is none other than the First and Ultimate cause, the unconditioned reality that God is; in other words, science is ultimately a search for God.

But how much of our ignorance are we responsible for? How much of it is willed? Vincible ignorance, or a willed ignorance with respect to what we know we should know, cannot become a route to God; quite the contrary, it is a decision to proceed in the opposite direction. There is real comfort in the feeling of certainty. The problem, however, is that knowledge is very difficult to achieve, which is to say that certainty is difficult to achieve. But something becomes vividly manifest when we are in the process of learning something new, and that is our radical finitude, our own limitations. We notice those limits because we are in the process of transcending them. That is a good feeling for those who are open to learning, but for many people, it is a painful experience. There is a tendency in us to believe that our grasp on reality is far more comprehensive than it really is. It is in fact very small. Most of us are able to speak with some degree of confidence within a very small area only; a few steps outside of that circle and we are helpless.

When we come to see and appreciate that fact, only then do we begin to appreciate the radical need we have for other people to learn from and to show us the way. But that's not a feeling that most people seem to be comfortable with; most insist, preconsciously at least, on the feeling of having an all - encompassing grasp on reality, regardless of the fact that such a thing is a delusion. It is much like the illusion of Romantic love. The feeling of being "in love" is oceanic, for there is a temporary loss of ego boundaries. Eventually, however, those ego boundaries snap back into place and we realize that the person we fell for is a human being like everyone else, and reality sets in; then the difficult work of genuine love must begin. There is a similar experience that people are addicted to when it comes to knowledge, and it is just as delusional.

If we hate the experience of our own finitude, we'll choose not to have anything to do with it. And that is a tendency in us that is rooted ultimately in the wounds of Original Sin, which is essentially the sin of the first parents of the human race to exceed the limitations of human nature; it was a choice to be one's own god, to be the measure of what is true and good.

So we can choose not to know something. Self - deception, according to American philosopher Alfred Mele, is rooted in a desire to believe what we want to believe, and at the heart of self - deception are emotions and motivations that affect the way we assess evidence. He speaks of confidence thresholds; we have very low confidence thresholds for things we want to be true, and very high confidence thresholds for things we don't want to be true. These confidence thresholds have to do with the evidence we demand before we allow ourselves to have confidence in the truth of the proposition or claim.

I see this in myself: if the Fraser Institute comes out with a study on Fracking or some other issue that I already support, I tend not to demand that much evidence before I believe the results of the study; but if some other organization were to come out with a study that contradicts a belief I currently hold dearly, I'd be skeptical and would demand much more evidence before I entertain the possibility that the study is sound. I trust the Fraser Institute. I think it is a reasonable trust, but it is a trust nevertheless. But there is no doubt that I have not erected the same confidence thresholds for every issue. I don't think it is possible, and it is not always unreasonable to have different confidence thresholds, but confidence thresholds are precisely the conditions that make self - deception possible.

I hope I am not deceiving myself, but it is difficult to know. As Aristotle pointed out, "as a person is, so does he see". Our character, the moral identity we have established as a result of the moral choices that we have made, is a fundamental epistemic condition that either permits us to see what would otherwise be overlooked or prevents us from seeing what we otherwise would have seen. More importantly, it is even more difficult to know if others are deceiving themselves in a way that they are responsible for. I've had arguments with colleagues over the years, and I know that some of them have simply turned their heads away from the evidence that undercuts a claim they've been making for years. I have witnessed this, and it is perhaps understandable in that so much has been emotionally invested in the positions they have taken; giving them up would be painful indeed; one would have to admit to having been wrong all these years, and some people will simply not entertain that possibility.

But can I say that they are responsible for their ignorance? That it is vincible ignorance? Not with certainty. How can I when I don't even know with certainty whether I am deceiving myself with regard to certain positions I hold on to. I know I continue to study and am learning new things all the time, and after exploring a brand new area of which I know virtually nothing about, I will have exhilarating moments when I realize I really do know nothing at all. Perhaps this is a good sign. It is nevertheless very difficult to know whether or not at some level, I am the victim of my own self - deception; there are hidden layers in our own psychology that we are not always ready to see at the moment. Sometimes years later we are ready to see something, and then we realize that we took a wrong turn. There is, however, too much we need to know that is forever outside the purview of our minds to be able to determine a person's responsibility for what they don't know. Like a probability distribution, all we can say is that self - deception is a real possibility, that it is widespread, that people are generally overly credulous and not critical enough, readily believing what is popular, and that many are uncomfortable with the awareness of their limitations, but precisely who we are talking about cannot be determined.

I am convinced we need to foster a new attitude towards failure. Consider that the history of science is a history of errors, a history of failed hypotheses and inadequate models. It is, in short, the history of failure. And yet consider how much better our lives are as a result of the progress of science; think of this in the area of medicine and health care, communications technology and engineering. The scientific method is messy, time consuming, frustrating; it's laborious, and yet the fruits of the methodology would not be ours unless some people in this world were willing to face these and their own limitations. Similarly, a necessary condition for human progress is precisely this willingness to ask new questions about new things and old things, about things we've believed for years and things we have refused to believe. We might just discover that our opponents in debate are not the monsters we had imagined them to be, which at the very least might make this world a more pleasant place to live in. But most importantly, our own individual lives are very much like the history of science; a series of failures, and for the vast majority of the time we have been walking in the dark; but that series of failures remains the very means of success. If this is a difficult thought, we can take consolation in the last words of Jesus from the cross: "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do".