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The Virtues of Ignorance

The Virtues of Ignorance: Complexity, Sustainability, and the Limits of Knowledge

Bill Vitek
Wes Jackson
Copyright Date: 2008
Pages: 368
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  • Book Info
    The Virtues of Ignorance
    Book Description:

    Human dependence on technology has increased exponentially over the past several centuries, and so too has the notion that we can fix environmental problems with scientific applications. The Virtues of Ignorance: Complexity, Sustainability, and the Limits of Knowledge proposes an alternative to this hubristic, shortsighted, and dangerous worldview. The contributors argue that uncritical faith in scientific knowledge has created many of the problems now threatening the planet and that our wholesale reliance on scientific progress is both untenable and myopic. Bill Vitek, Wes Jackson, and a diverse group of thinkers, including Wendell Berry, Anna Peterson, and Robert Root-Bernstein, offer profound arguments for the advantages of an ignorance-based worldview. Their essays explore this philosophy from numerous perspectives, including its origins, its essence, and how its implementation can preserve vital natural resources for posterity. All conclude that we must simply accept the proposition that our ignorance far exceeds our knowledge and always will. Rejecting the belief that science and technology are benignly at the service of society, the authors argue that recognizing ignorance might be the only path to reliable knowledge. They also uncover an interesting paradox: knowledge and insight accumulate fastest in the minds of those who hold an ignorance-based worldview, for by examining the alternatives to a technology-based culture, they expand their imaginations. Demonstrating that knowledge-based worldviews are more dangerous than useful, The Virtues of Ignorance looks closely at the relationship between the land and the future generations who will depend on it. The authors argue that we can never improve upon nature but that we can, by putting this new perspective to work in our professional and personal lives, live sustainably on Earth.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-7286-6
    Subjects: Environmental Science, Technology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Introduction: Taking Ignorance Seriously
    (pp. 1-18)
    Bill Vitek and Wes Jackson

    Since we’re billions of times more ignorant than knowledgeable, why not go with our long suit and have an ignorance-based worldview?

    A few years ago, some well-known scientists published a paper, followed by a book, in which they assigned a dollar value to nature’s services.¹ The exercise doubtlessly has increased awareness of what ordinary accounting does not count, but we have no idea how such calculations can be reasonably made. We don’t even know the full role of any of the species that have been discovered, let alone those not discovered or never to be discovered. And then there are...

  5. Part One. First Cut

    • Toward an Ignorance-Based Worldview
      (pp. 21-36)
      Wes Jackson

      I want to try to complete the thought about “randomness” that I was working on when we talked the other day.

      The Hans Jenny paragraph that started me off is the last on page 21 ofThe Soil Resource[Jenny 1980]:

      “Raindrops that pass in random fashion through an imaginary plane above the forest canopy are intercepted by leaves and twigs and channeled into distinctive vert space patterns of through-drip, crown-drip, and stem flow. The soil surface, as receiver, transmits the ‘rain message’ downward, but as the subsoils lack a power source to mold a flow design, the water tends...

    • The Way of Ignorance
      (pp. 37-50)
      Wendell Berry

      Our purpose here is to worry about the predominance of the supposition, in a time of great technological power, that humans either know enough already, or can learn enough soon enough, to foresee and forestall any bad consequences of their use of that power. This supposition is typified by Richard Dawkins’s assertion, in an open letter to the Prince of Wales, that “our brains . . . are big enough to see into the future and plot long-term consequences.”

      When we consider how often and how recently our most advanced experts have been wrong about the future, and how often...

    • Ignorance—an Inner Perspective
      (pp. 51-58)
      Robert Perry

      Let’s pause for a moment and think about what we, as human beings, need to contend with regarding our profound ignorance of how the natural world, in its most expansive sense, works.

      At the collective level, an immense amount of information has accrued, particularly over the last century. However, it has done little to diminish humanity’s overall ignorance, largely because the information has generally occurred in the form of countless new bits, billions of facts that are not well integrated into a larger framework of understanding. Even so, if we consider the depth of human culture and history, we do...

    • Human Ignorance and the Limited Use of History
      (pp. 59-66)
      Richard D. Lamm

      Let me state up front my thesis. I believe that history has become of significantly reduced usefulness for human wisdom and for guidance in the management of the future. I believe that many of the great and wise sayings concerning the importance of history—like Santayana’s that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” (Santayana 1905, 284) or Harry Truman’s to the effect that the only surprises in the future are the history you don’t know—while still true for human events, do not give us guidance on our major environmental public policy challenges and can...

    • Ignorance and Know-How
      (pp. 67-78)
      Conn Nugent

      In order to demonstrate ignorance, of course, we have to proceed from what we think we know. After thirty years of ingesting books, papers, and presentations, plus general observation, I think I know some things about carbon fuels and their consequences.

      I know that modern societies rely—utterly, transformatively—on carbon fuels. I also believe that the consumption of those fuels will continue to increase for decades to come, that their prices and costs will increase more or less steadily, and that those prices and costs will eventually preclude the operation of economies as vast or as productive as the...

  6. Part Two. Second Cut

    • Optimizing Uncertainty
      (pp. 81-100)
      Raymond H. Dean

      We instinctively modulate our boundaries, expanding them to expose new options and contracting them to cull out poorer options. As boundaries expand, more accessible information raises the level of complexity, and we must pay more careful attention to understand that higher complexity. As boundaries expand beyond our ability to comprehend, danger increases.

      Wisdom tells us to set our boundaries so that we can just comprehend the accessible information within those boundaries. Weak or distant boundaries expose us to more information than we can digest. Poorly digested information is perverse ignorance. As boundaries expand, that perverse ignorance grows into a strange...

    • Toward an Ecological Conversation
      (pp. 101-118)
      Steve Talbott

      The chickadee was oblivious to its surroundings and seemed almost machinelike, if enfeebled, in its single-minded concentration: take a seed, deliver a few futile pecks, then drop it; take a seed, peck-peck-peck, drop it; take a seed . . . The little bird, with its unsightly, disheveled feathers, almost never managed to break open the shell before losing its talons’ clumsy grip on the seed. I walked up to its feeder perch from behind and gently tweaked its tail feathers. It didn’t notice.

      My gesture was, I suppose, an insult, although I felt only pity for this creature—pity for...

    • Ignorance and Ethics
      (pp. 119-134)
      Anna L. Peterson

      In his essay in this volume, Wes Jackson challenges us to take ignorance seriously in politics, science, and a host of other fields. Since we are so much more ignorant than knowing, he asks, why not go with our strong suit? This question opens up a host of intriguing possibilities for a variety of disciplines and fields. I concentrate here on the implications for social ethics, beginning with two questions. First, do our ideas about doing good and being a good person depend on knowledge we have or think we have? And, second, if we acknowledge that we have much...

    • Imposed Ignorance and Humble Ignorance—Two Worldviews
      (pp. 135-148)
      Paul G. Heltne

      There are at least two kinds of ignorance in the human world. These differ so dramatically that they may be seen as opposing worldviews. One ignorance worldview is built on the belief that one knows or understands a situation or a subject rather thoroughly, perhaps even definitively or absolutely, when, in fact, one does not. This sort of ignorance-masquerading-as-certain-knowledge often comes to us as whole systems of thought and work and with intellectual buffers that make its facts, claims, and practices beyond question. Its assumptions, often invisible or unstated, are thereby unassailable. You know that you are in the presence...

  7. Part Three. Precursors and Exemplars

    • Battle for the Soul of Ignorance: Rhetoric and Philosophy in Classical Athens
      (pp. 151-164)
      Charles Marsh

      For nobility and pathos, not many moments in the history of philosophy rival the apologia and death of Socrates.

      Calm, deliberate, Socrates stood before his accusers and—he who incessantly interrupted opponents throughout the Platonic dialogues—begged not to be interrupted.

      But his defense failed, as he knew it would. He wouldn’t play to the jury, scorning “the artificial language of a schoolboy orator” (Plato 1989a, 17c [Apology]). The jury’s sentence, we know, was death. The charges, Plato tells us, were corrupting youth and worshiping false gods.

      Of those charges, we might say, paraphrasing Professor Higgins ofMy Fair Lady:...

    • Choosing Ignorance within a Learning Universe
      (pp. 165-188)
      Peter G. Brown

      I had the good fortune in recent years to canoe down the Old Factory River in central Quebec with people who were experienced on and with the river and also steeped in the East Cree culture of the region. As I awoke each morning, I asked a number of questions so that I could think about and plan for the day. Here is how it went:

      Me: How many portages will there be?

      Response: Don’t know yet.

      Me: Are the rapids big?

      Response: Will have to see.

      Me: Is it likely to rain?

      Response: Sometimes does.

      My frustration grew as...

    • The Path of Enlightened Ignorance: Alfred North Whitehead and Ernst Mayr
      (pp. 189-212)
      Strachan Donnelley

      We humans inescapably face a fundamental civic challenge: our longterm responsibilities to human communities and nature in all their complex, historical, and value-laden interactions. This is a dominant moral and practical problem for which we are culturally ill prepared. This volume and the original Ignorance-Based Worldview Conference explore the proposition that our best chance for successfully meeting our obligations to humans and nature is through “the way of ignorance,” that is, by owning up to what we do not know and perhaps in principle can never know. By such admission, we might at least avoid the blinding and dangerous hubris...

    • Joyful Ignorance and the Civic Mind
      (pp. 213-230)
      Bill Vitek

      Advocating the virtues of ignorance is hard work. On the face of it, the proposition is preposterous to nearly everyone who hears it for the first time. People’s response is that the claim must be a joke. It is not. Or that it’s a spoof on the current political scene in the nation’s capital, particularly in the White House. It is not that either. In the end, most folks become angry and say that there is already too much ignorance in the world and that it’s making a mess of things. True enough.

      What, then, is being praised, and how...

  8. Part Four. Applications

    • I Don’t Know!
      (pp. 233-250)
      Robert Root-Bernstein

      I still have the copy of Gerald Ames and Rose Wyler’sThe Giant Golden Book of Biologythat I was given when I was eight years old. Two characteristics have made it dear to my heart. The illustrations by Charles Harper, highly abstract and stylized yet illuminating, appeal to my visual sensibility. Equally compelling is the concluding paragraph of the foreword by George Wald. “I knew I would like this book,” he wrote, “when I read on the first page: ‘Questions are just as important as answers.’ Science is a way of asking more and more meaningful questions. The answers...

    • Lessons Learned from Ignorance: The Curriculum on Medical (and Other) Ignorance
      (pp. 251-272)
      Marlys Hearst Witte, Peter Crown, Michael Bernas and Charles L. Witte

      What lessons can be learned fromignoranceand particularly frommedical ignorance?Lewis Thomas’s novel idea for a course on medical ignorance struck a responsive chord. As an example, consider the state of ignorance about AIDS. After more than twenty-five years of fundamental discoveries, multiple clinical drug trials, and frustrating efforts at prevention, there has been little dent in the burgeoning global pandemic, and the prospect of effective vaccine development remains elusive. While much has been learned about AIDS, we still suffer from our ignorance. Perhaps an admission of ignorance, symbolized by a few blank pages in the section on...

    • Economics and the Promotion of Ignorance-Squared
      (pp. 273-292)
      Herb Thompson

      For the past fifty years, there have been two developing trends at the core of the textbook neoclassical economic theory that is passed on to students. The first is that economists have become increasingly engaged in the formation of compelling, mathematically elegant hypotheses with little interest in their policy implications. The second is the reluctance of mainstream economists and their students to engage in conversations with alternative paradigmatic schools of thought (e.g., feminists, Marxists, or proponents of alternative economic models such as institutionalists or post-Keynesians). Because of this, economics (the mainstream theory taught in both secondary schools and universities) has...

    • Educating for Ignorance
      (pp. 293-306)
      Jon Jensen

      What is education for? On the surface, this is an odd question because few of us doubt that we know the goal or desired outcome of education. We may debate the particulars of a curriculum or whether a given school is succeeding or failing, but don’t all of us agree that knowledge is the goal of education? What would be the point of schooling if not to “learn stuff”? Even the often-repeated aphorism that education is about “lighting fires, not filling buckets,” is generally justified by the observation that students learn more, that is, acquire more knowledge, when they are...

    • Climate Change and the Limits of Knowledge
      (pp. 307-322)
      Joe Marocco

      We live in a time of a great, deep-seated optimism. With the explosion of empirical knowledge since the birth of modern science has come a widely held confidence in our unquestionable ability to transcend ignorance. What science cannot tell us today it surely will be able to tomorrow. All that stands between us and the truth is time and research money. In short, we ardently believe the secrets of nature are well within our grasp. Our dogmatic faith in the limitless capabilities of scientific inquiry is so ingrained that it has become a fundamental part of our worldview, silently, yet...

    • Can We See with Fresh Eyes? Beyond a Culture of Abstraction
      (pp. 323-334)
      Craig Holdrege

      The problem with biases is that we often don’t know we have them and aren’t aware of how strongly they inform the way we view and act in the world. I want to address one fundamental bias that infects modern Western culture: the strong propensity to take abstract conceptual frameworks more seriously than full-blooded experience. We so easily speak of the world in terms of genes, molecules, atoms, quarks, neural networks, black holes, survival strategies, or other abstract concepts. These are felt to be more “real” than the phenomena of nature we experience—the radiant, blue shimmering Sirius in the...

  9. Contributors
    (pp. 335-340)
  10. Index
    (pp. 341-360)