The Gospel of Ignorance

March 7, 2024   |   Tags:

The good news about ignorance? Yes, and emphatically yes.

The good news about ignorance is that it sets us free from mental chains. Now, to be clear, what I’m talking about here is accepting and admitting our ignorance. This is essential if we want to actually know things, as opposed to making a show of knowing things. And I can tell you from personal experience that it really works. I gained the habit of admitting my ignorance (almost advertising it) back in the early 1980s, and that habit has helped me toward more understanding and discovery than I’d be able to itemize.

The School Model

Most people pull back from admitting their ignorance, and while the roots of the problem are probably very old, I’m convinced that it has been supercharged by factory-style schooling; that is, by the government schools nearly all children are forced to attend.

The universal model of schooling over the past century has been “memorize and repeat.” And so expressing the right answer has become grounds for praise and expressing the wrong answer has become grounds for ridicule.

In fact, getting the wrong answer in school very often spawns public ridicule, from other kids or from the teacher. Bear in mind that public ridicule is among the harsher blows a young psyche can take. And so the instinct to avoid such blows sticks. People are wildly evasive of being shown wrong.

Because of this, people stay far away from admitting ignorance. That’s a silly thing to do, of course – we’re all ignorant of a great many things – but emotional damage tends to override reason.

This, however, locks us out of further inquiry. When we see a situation steering us toward possible ridicule we shut it down; all that matters is getting away. And thus learning is evaded right along with the possibility of pain.

The Lust For An Ultimate Ruleset

Just behind the terror of ridicule comes a quest for an unassailable ruleset. And while I won’t take the space to dig deeply into this, I will make one essential point:

We cling to rulesets because they save us from responsibility. The ruleset becomes the responsible party, saving us from exposure and the possibility of blame. And once this is in place, our lives descend into unending arguments over which ruleset is right.

Please re-read that a few times and give it some thought.

We’re probably millennia away from anything resembling a perfect ruleset, if such a thing is possible at all. Pretending to have such a ruleset, however, locks us into it, and locks us into defending those parts of it that are either partial or wrong… and at this stage of human development every ruleset will be full of such things.

When we latch on to a dogma – a doctrine, a political movement, a metaphysics, whatever – we cut ourselves off from proper humility and we erect barriers to further knowledge.

We need to get past this.

What We Once Had

Political ideologies have become weaponized rulesets in recent times. By rejecting your rules (and vocabulary) the other party becomes wrong, crazy, deranged, and so on. The foundation of Western civilization, however, was very much otherwise. Here’s how professor Carol Quigley explained it:

Western Civilization… might be summed-up in the belief that “Truth unfolds through time in a communal process.”

This is a great core of Western civilization, if not the core. Westerners use phrases like “we know that…” or “we have no information on…” Every time we use such words, we presume that truth is built, that all of us may contribute to it, and that we will certainly have more truth in the future than we have now.

But if the final truth is yet to be discovered, who can say that he or she has full knowledge?

By becoming clear on the fact that we don’t know ultimates and ends, we both consolidate what we do know and open a door to learning… moving toward the day when we can properly conceive of ultimates and ends.

Western civilization was never pure, of course, but this belief went a long way toward bringing us forward.

Say It Loud And Say It Proud

So, when something comes up that you don’t know, say it loudly and clearly:

I don’t know.”

I’m ignorant about that.”

By doing this you open your mind and tell the world (as well as yourself) that you’re strong enough to portray yourself honestly… that you’re no longer terrified of being wrong.

It’s the sensible thing to do, and it works.


Paul Rosenberg