Sometimes It Is Easier to Be Ignorant

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Arguably one of the most famous quotes attributed to Socrates is “The unexamined life is not worth living”. It is the type of quote we have grown to expect from such as deep and contemplative thinker. Is this truly the best advice for the average person? Not that I would ever veer into the territory of philistinism, but is every aspect of life worth examining? Better yet, are such intellectual endeavors even productive for the average person?  I would argue no. Not because I seek to celebrate ignorance, nor do I lack faith in the intellectual capacity of my friends and neighbors. Sometimes knowledge is more trouble than it is worth. Everyone is familiar with the colloquialism “curiosity killed the cat”. As simplistic and folksy as that old saying might be. It does contain a grain of truth. In the pursuit of knowledge, we risk becoming jaded and overwhelmed by some of the more unpleasant aspects of reality.

Do you remember the disappointment you felt we discovered Santa Clause wasn’t real? Even worse, your parents’ marriage was nothing more than a sham? These examples may seem trivial but applied to grander questions they can make someone very skeptical. Skeptical to such an extent it brings them to the brink of an existential crisis. If you have devoted your life to political activism and you come across a few Public Choice articles regarding voting, you will grapple with your sense of identity. Being told that your vote carrying any weight is nothing more than an illusion is difficult to pill to swallow. Especially much of your sense of self and principles are derived from believing you have sway over political issues. Therefore, it isn’t necessarily prudent to want to dissect all of the mysteries of the universe. Even if it is a lie, sometimes that one lie is what helps people cope with the difficulties of life.

Looking too deeply into an issue is generally counterproductive at most jobs. The ability to extrapolated basic logic is generally rewarded. To overthink an issue, will cost your employer and customer time and money. Utilizing reason to more efficiently perform a task is conducive to being a “good employee”. Pondering the large philosophical questions at work eats into productivity. Also, getting so philosophical that you question the entire veracity of the enterprise of your employer’s goals or metrics will not win you any friends. Overtly questioning your superior’s decisions in Socratic prose will award you with some unfortunate adversaries. Speaking of friends, you will not be making very many. Most of your co-workers will think you are weird for not accepting the prima facie assumptions of our world. In most cases, avoid you like the plague. For all the philosophy majors currently working retail, at call centers, offices, etc. I feel for you. Your love of wisdom and truth can effectively alienates you from your peers.

Outside of the pursuit of knowledge destroying your coveted illusions and making you something of a misfit, is another issue, you can never put the genie back in the bottle. Once you have seen the truth, it might be enlightening, but you never look at the world the same way again. I do not personally subscribe to the new-age movement, but many who do talking about opening their third-eye. In most instances, these individuals will tell you don’t open your third-eye if you like your life the way it is. Why?  Once you have become enlightened, it is a point of no return. You can’t unlearn the secrets of the universe. You will never enjoy the pleasures of binge-watching reality television after a bad day at work if you have learned it is nothing more than a farce. Speaking of your job, the stable nine to five, you might want to quit your job because you figure out it is pointless. Decided to take on the risk of becoming an entrepreneur in an attempt to find a meaningful vocation. This is a lot of disruption for one person, especially if they are more than content with keeping the status quo intact.

I have never attempted to open my third-eye. However, I love to study philosophy and political economy. Once you have opened Pandora’s box of uncommon knowledge you will begin to crave it. Much like tapping into a deeper sense of consciousness, you can never see the world the same way again. Leading to some conflicts. I find it more and more difficult to care about my day job. I am a proponent of capitalism and all, however, I know there are better ways to make a living. I will never have the same work ethic I had before my independent study of the large questions. It was much easier to keep my nose down and get my job done back when I was ignorant. Demonstrating that it can be maladaptive for some people to reflect upon vast questions such as the quiddity of existence.

The process of seeking wisdom is never easy. Whether the actual pursuit is what makes a man weary or it’s the consequence of not being able to cherry-pick the pleasant truths from the unpleasant ones. This is why it can sometimes be a lonely path. For those who are inclined to take up the challenge, it is the only path. Despite the downsides of pursuing truth, knowledge, and wisdom in an imprudent world, for some, this is their only true calling. They are the ones who seek daylight when everyone else opts to remain in the cave. It is important to remember that pursuing truth does have its pitfall beyond misconstruing it. One excerpt from Plato’s Republic that encapsulates this point beautifully. It was about Socrates’ telling of the Allegory of the Cave in the book:  

            Therefore, even if a person should compel him to look to the light

            Itself, would he not have the pain in his eyes and shun it, and then,

            turning what he really could behold, reckon these as really more clear

            than what had been previously pointed out? (p.235).

That is it. The truth can be inconvenient. The truth could even unravel the very fabric of our being. Especially if it is predicated upon a false sense of identity or a flimsy house of cards built upon numerous lies. Much like almost all of the other cave dwellers in Socratic allegory chose to ignore the truth. Most of society elects to do the same. Similar to the discomfort experienced when our eyes adjust to direct sunlight, it can also be uncomfortable to be confronted with the unadulterated truth.

We are all Ignorant and That is Okay- Wise Words from Socrates

 

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One of the oldest epistemological problems is how do we obtain true wisdom. To reach a state of wisdom we must amass a substantial amount of knowledge. How do we distinguish true knowledge from misconceptions and opinions in our pursuit of the virtuous ideal? I have often asked myself what is the difference between common sense and ignorant old “wives’ tales”?  Same principle different wording. Both inquiries reflect the larger premise. How do that the knowledge I have obtained is true knowledge?

 

The renowned classical philosopher Socrates believed he had the answer. That was to acknowledge the limits of your knowledge. However, he did this to the extreme. This principle has been enshrined in the Socratic Admission of Ignorance. Professing to know nothing being of the highest virtue. This is counter intuitive considering we would expect a man anointed as the father of Western Philosophy to have answers. Certainly, a man proclaimed by the oracle at Delphi as the wisest man on the planet would know something? (Silvermintz, 2020, P.11) [1]. Conversely, maybe it takes a supremely wise man to see his knowledge deficits. Rather than blithely putting on the pretense that he knows more than what he does. Reflecting upon the Hayekian Pretense of Knowledge. The hubris that has consistently foiled the plans and aspirations of central planners. Would Hayek have ever formulated such a concept without any Socratic precursors?

 

Perhaps, a truly wise individual sees the process of learning as a continual process. Not a linear destination, that once reached it cannot be expanded upon. It is an ongoing search. Especially when we are confronted with the fact that there is too much knowledge for one person to possess. Making education a lifelong process. We need to be open to this fact of reality. To some capacity, we need to humble ourselves and be honest about what knowledge we lack. In the example of the central planner, admitting that they do not know what the long-term impact of rent control will be on the housing market. Here is where the Socratic omission comes into play, acquiesce the fact that you truly do not know. Socrates claimed that we do not possess any precise knowledge other than that of our ignorance. This may seem somewhat gratuitous. Isn’t it enough to admit our ignorance on topics that we do not have any expertise?  Socrates was arguably an “expert” when it came to virtue yet he still claimed to be ignorant true virtue.

 

“ “I am wiser than this man,” as Socrates says of one of Athens’ respected politicians, “for neither of us knows anything fine and good, but this man thinks he knows something when he does not, whereas I, as I do not know anything, do not think I do, either” (Apology 21d). (Silvermintz, 2020, P.11) [2].”

 

This does seem like an outlandishly absurd thing for a man who has decided his life to morality to claim. It is important to note that while the truth isn’t fluid, what our perception of truth is. Old scientific theories are often debunked by new evidence. Social norms change in-lock step with the evolution of our social morality. For example, it is the abolition of slavery. A practice that was at one time viewed as being appropriate. Then years later was viewed as being immoral. However, was it ever truly moral? Through admitting to being ignorant of everything Socrates sidesteps this fatal error. Through claiming ignorance we have the freedom to reevaluate social practices without being labeled as a hypocrite. Beyond our reputation it also enables us the foresight to examine and abolish moral practices. If we believe we are on the moral high ground we are less apt to be critical of our current customs. By place an air of doubt around all knowledge we are enabling the flexibility for necessary revisions. Doubt is what gives malleability to the scientific claims. It also is what makes the U.S. Constitution a governing charter that grows with the country. Rather than keeping the U.S. held captive by the sins of the past. In my estimate, both the scientific method and the founding principles of the United States owes gratitude to Socratic thinking.

 

Socrates questioning the validity of everything helps delineate true knowledge from opinions (Silvermintz, 2020, P.11) [3] In our mind, we often conflate opinion with fact. How often is advocacy for political policies based on facts?  Infrequently. In the mind of the advocate, their position on the issue is the only correct stance.  This separation is an important one to make. It is a common fallacy to combine facts with opinions and to present opinions as facts. An increasingly prevalent problem in the area of news reporting. Whether a news outlet is right-leaning or left-leaning they do more editorializing than presenting the information. Making it impossible to be informed after watching the evening news. Rather we are inculcating ourselves with partisan talking points. Providing another modern example of why the Socratic Admission of Ignorance is still pertinent.

 

Over the years, people have taken liberties with ethics.  Some could argue since the advent of modern philosophy pragmatism has slowly come to supplant true ethics. People are starting to see morality from more of a subjective point. Per a 2015 survey, 74% of all millennials surveyed agreed with the only true truth is doing what works best for you (Silvermintz, 2020, P.11) [4]. Rejection of there being a true morality or ethics is profoundly problematic. Naked pragmatism can lead to a litany of reprehensible policies. Past regimes have utilized pragmatism to justify genocide. Morality is far from being black and white. However, that does not mean morality is relative. Treating morality as relative can be calamitous for humanity as a whole.