Part 2 – Excerpts from the book “The Virtues of Ignorance – Complexity, Sustainability and Limits of Knowledge” this article highlights how “ignorance” might teach us how to behave with greater sensitivity, and in fact may not be a handicap to advancement, as we call it.

By Robert Perry

Second Meditation: Recommended General Behavior

Maybe it makes some sense to take a closer look at how we might want to behave, given our stunning ignorance. This is a particularly good moment to consider such a thing, given the global changes presently taking place as a result of our stumbling around in ignorance.

Even so, we notice that countless generations—billions of people— acting in and through their ignorance over millennia, somehow managed to survive. Those few among them who possessed wisdom saw that they were operating within a great sphere of ignorance. Consequently, they acted (and urged others to act) with sensitivity, humility, with caution, and, most often, with reverence, understanding that, if they assumed too much or thought of themselves as the ultimate wielders of power because of what they thought they knew, they would inevitably overstep their bounds and invite misfortune, if not outright calamity. Humanity finds itself in that position right now, having experienced multiple disasters

in the past century owing to enhanced, but very partial, knowledge: knowledge without the accompanying humility and reverence needed to interact with one another and whole-planet ecological systems.

Perhaps one of our biggest problems is that we forget from time to time just how little we know, and then we have to suffer the consequences. At present, however, it is not just humanity that suffers the adverse outcomes of its ignorance but virtually all forms of life on the earth.

Let us use an example of how we might choose to behave in light of our colossal ignorance. Children, being curious like most human beings, sense that they know little. Still, they forge ahead in the great chain of experiments that we call growing up. And, in that process, they learn a great deal. By the way, our efforts to learn should never stop at either the individual or the collective level, for those efforts are never in vain. Childhood, adolescence, and much of early adulthood constitutes an extended period of trial-and-error learning. Science is something like that too—but more formalized and layered with many rules. For those whose insight tells them that science is nothing more than child’s play, they are correct. And, if they say so in the right spirit, they demonstrate wisdom.

Children, then, seeing that they know little, do several things: they remain curious and eager to know, so they experiment and test, an approach that reflects an appropriately cautious, sensitive method of acquiring knowledge. Sometimes this method results in injury, as when a child puts her finger on that hot stove burner “to see what will happen.” This also occurs with adults, but with far less caution, with a great deal more hubris and arrogance. We set off atomic bombs to see what will happen. Will they ignite the atmosphere? Will they penetrate the planet’s crust? Metaphorically speaking, these things did happen. Everyone saw just how much pure energy was packed into matter in order to create what we think of as “solid” reality. This understanding continues to make many pause, as it helped reveal a fundamental understanding: that nothing really exists here in our physical reality save energy, albeit packaged in a wide variety of forms. Humanity put its hand on the hot stove burner to see what would happen and got badly burned. For a short while after, it tried to proceed with greater caution. But now the stove tops have multiplied. They are all around us. And that proliferation is occurring in part because people have forgotten—or simply never understood—the effect of uncontrolled conversion of “matter” into energy. We are moving forward blinded by our astonishing ignorance.

That caution of the child at the stove top, and of humanity with atomic energy, is appropriate and  necessary, but it is insufficient given the pace at which our ignorance is bringing about ecological chaos.

Biologists especially have become intensely aware of the destruction of life-forms under way around the planet. An additional ingredient is needed, then, in the mix of behaviors needed to cope with our ignorance: respect, and perhaps even a deep affection, for that which might be lost if humanity’s experimenting (or, worse, its sense of sufficient knowledge) becomes too predominant. This is why the ethos of experimental procedure has evolved and, perhaps, why ethics in general has developed with such great depth and intricacy. When people begin to assume that they know the “right” thing to do, they are not infrequently wrong, so we have gradually cultivated laws to moderate individual and collective behavior, particularly when given the fact that people generally operate within a sphere of immense ignorance. At present, this broader understanding is fueling a move toward wider recognition and adoption of a “precautionary principle” in the conduct of human affairs. It is an excellent idea.

Humanity, then, should modify its behavior in the following ways, given its vast ignorance:

• Admit its great lack of knowledge and understanding with regard to nearly everything and slow down.

• Encourage curiosity and its individual/institutional expressions (trial-and-error learning, science, religion) as long as any conclusions drawn are understood to be tentative. That is, while it is true that knowledge builds on previous knowledge, the original or fundamental premises are often revised. Consequently, any conclusions drawn from them should have the status of opinion rather than fact. The enterprise of science, at its heart, embraces this understanding. Religions would do well to follow suit.

• Understand that humanity is part of a far greater whole—that we are not separate from the rest of the cosmos. How humanity behaves, therefore, matters greatly. Consequently, it should proceed sensitively, with humility, respect, and affection regarding the planet on which it resides, including all its inhabitants.

• Educate itself (especially its children) about what it does not know in addition to what it purports to know. Most of what humanity thinks it understands now will change dramatically over the next few millennia. This may help diminish humanity’s arrogance and situate its accomplishments within a far larger, integrated framework…

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