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by Richard Nilsen
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I am writing in praise of ignorance. I believe it is too often underappreciated, and I wish to underline its beauties and benefits.
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No, I am not being ironic. Erasmus was being ironic when he praised “Folly,” but here, I am dead serious. In his book, the Dutch humanist has the personification of Folly as a goddess who praises herself profusely, in ways that only underline her unworthiness. In my treatise, I am one who is profoundly ignorant who praises his own ignorance. And I am quite sincere.
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Of course, like many of us, when I was young, I knew everything. I certainly knew more than my parents, who were surprisingly clueless, considering they had been through the Great Depression and World War II. You would think they might have picked up a clue here or there, but no, when I was young, they were so far out of the loop, I had to make sure my friends were not too often exposed to them, for fear of horrible and miserable mortification.
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But as I have gotten older, I have come to know less and less. Or rather, the mathematical equation has changed. Yes, I have learned a great deal, both through book learning and through common experience, but while I have learned arithmetically, my ignorance has grown exponentially. The more I learn, the greater the percentage left to unknowing.
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Once, I might have believed that I had a handle on 80 percent of what was important to know (including which kind of shoes were cool), now the ratio has been reversed — and beyond — so that I would express it as one over infinity.
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The benefits of this are at least twofold.
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First, the recognition of my own ignorance has forced me into a state of humility. Being less sure of myself means I am less prescriptive to those around me. I have no business telling them what to do or think, when I am so clearly in the murk myself.
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My wife would chide me for this in later years. She asked me questions; when we were younger, I answered them lickety-split; in recent years, I often admitted, after a brief moment of pondering, “I don’t know.” This bothered her. “You used to know,” she would say, petulantly.
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Well, I used to think I knew. Now I’m not so sure. It seems as if all those factoids I rehearsed have been undercut as further research has made complicated what once seemed simple.
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It is certainty that causes most of the ills of the world, whether it is religious certainty or political certainty. It is certainty that put human beings through the gas chambers of Treblinka. It is certainty that hanged witches and that emptied the French city of Béziers in 1209 during the Albigensian Crusade when the leader of the attacking forces, unable to tell the heretic Cathars from orthodox Catholics declared, “Kill them all, God will sort them out.”
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In his report to the Pope, Arnaud Amalric, the abbot of Citeaux who ordered the massacre, wrote, “Our men spared no one, irrespective of rank, sex or age, and put to the sword almost 20,000 people. After this great slaughter the whole city was despoiled and burnt, as divine vengeance miraculously raged against it.”
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That’s what you do when you know for certain, when you believe you have a corner on knowledge. A little humble ignorance would have saved many lives.
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But ignorance has another important benefit.
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Before that, I should explain that I classify at least two types of ignorance. The first I call “pig ignorance.” This is ignorance that has no inkling of its nescience, but plows ahead in confident obliviousness. It is an ignorance of bluster and bullying — I think we all know who I’m talking about here.
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Donald Rumsfeld famously said, “There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.”
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The pig ignorant do not know that they don’t know. Social psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger published a famous study in 1999 that gave name to the Dunning-Kruger effect, i.e., that the ignorant do not recognize their lack of knowledge, but overestimate their abilities. (Conversely, the intelligent frequently underestimate their own abilities).
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This, of course, has been known for as long as there were people who scratched their heads over the confidence of the dumb. Shakespeare wrote in As You Like It, “The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.” Or, as Charles Darwin has it, “Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.”
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The most famous formulation is probably that of Socrates, who concluded, according to Plato’s Apologia, “I am wiser than this man, for neither of us appears to

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know anything great and good; but he fancies he knows something, although he knows nothing; whereas I, as I do not know anything, so I do not fancy I do. In this trifling particular, then, I appear to be wiser than he, because I do not fancy I know what I do not know.”

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This is the Socratic Paradox, more simply stated: “The only thing I know is that I do not know.”
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And that brings us to the second great benefit of ignorance — the Socratic ignorance, not the Trumpian ignorance. And that is, in this form, ignorance is synonymous with curiosity. Our ignorance prods us on to learning. We want to find out what we do not yet understand.The world is a great inviting and seductive quest.
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This is ignorance with open ears and open eyes — in fact, wide ears and wide eyes. It is a voracious ignorance that sucks up everything it can, knowing it can never quench its thirst or satisfy its hunger. There is always more, and the more it takes in the greater its capacity.
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This is the ignorance I praise. It keeps life perpetually entertaining, keeps its bearer engaged, and in discovery, not only of what others already know, but of what is entirely new to our species. It is a horizon constantly expanding outward to fresh lands and fresh seas. Pig ignorance is smug; curious ignorance is open and eager.
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This second, curious, ignorance is a prime vivifying benefit to the individual; the recognition of our ignorance, and its consequent humility is a prime benefit to the world at large. Fewer people die.
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And so, I praise ignorance, my personal goddess, after whom I quest in the darkness..
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Richard Nilsen inspired many ideas and memories at the salons he presented through the years when he was an arts critic and movie, travel, and features writer at The Arizona Republic.   A few years ago, Richard moved to North Carolina.   We want to continue our connection with Richard and have asked him to be a regular contributor to the Spirit of the Senses Journal.   We asked Richard to write short essays that were inspired by the salons.

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