Aristotle famously claimed that human beings have a natural desire to know. Decades of college teaching have led me to understand that is not to say we all have a natural desire to learn. Nonetheless, the idea that we would construct ignorance seems odd, even perverse. Why would we try to create ignorance? Isn’t ignorance simply there, lurking in the epistemic background? We construct knowledge; we merely recognise ignorance.
Those two activities are linked, of course – as in the cliché: “the more you know, the more you know you don’t know.” When van Leeuwenhoek peered through his simple microscope and saw “cavorting, wee beasties”, he began the construction of microbiology, even as he revealed a vast domain of ignorance. But he didn’t construct this ignorance; his intention was to gain knowledge.
And yet we can and do construct domains of ignorance in this sense: we act deliberately to prevent knowing and protect not-knowing, either by others or by ourselves. Such intentional ignorance does not flow from the content of new knowledge; and although it is often questionable or merely inevitable, sometimes it is good, even morally obligatory. Let’s use the term nescience for intentional ignorance.
To explain these claims, I will sketch five different forms of nescience. They are distinguished primarily by one’s motives for not-knowing.
The first is usually called rational ignorance. Sometimes the investment in learning something is not worth the benefit of knowing that thing – and one makes the reasoned choice not to know. So: Anna clicks on “Agree” rather than study the long user agreement that comes with her downloaded software. Thus: Paul thought it would be fun to learn all the Latin names for the plants in his large garden, but quickly decides it’s not worth the time. We are finite creatures and – given how much there is that one might learn – we must make choices.
Strategic ignorance is also calculated, but in this case the intent is to use ignorance as an advantage. Think of the politician who, to protect “deniability”, doesn’t want to know how his aides will accomplish a task. Or the barrister who asks her client not to tell her certain facts, thus preserving the widest latitude for defence without risking deliberately misleading the court or suborning perjury. Such cases often seem to be attempts to “game the system”, to prearrange an excuse, like holding a Get Out of Jail Free card. A sunnier example is the reader who prefers not to read reviews or spoiler comments about a juicy, new mystery novel.
Wilful ignorance is yet another form of self-imposed ignorance. Typically, a person is wilfully ignorant who persistently ignores salient information or evidence about a matter, who resists learning about it and rejects the testimony of those who have the knowledge. Both the level of one’s awareness and the vigour of one’s resistance may vary, but note that this form of nescience is more a matter of will than of reasoned calculation. We hear explanations of wilful ignorance everywhere, from “I don’t want to know because it’s too upsetting” to “mainstream journalism is fake news”. It seems to be the social diagnosis of the moment: critics find it implicated in viewpoints that are prejudiced, fundamentalist, ideological, privileged, and captured by conspiracy theory.
This is not epistemic laziness. The psychological energy that is often required for wilful ignorance is directed toward the preservation of some cognitive or value structure – a set of beliefs, a relationship, an image of oneself. It may defend false knowledge, cherished illusions, or delusional claims. It likely involves self-deception. When cornered, the wilfully ignorant may appeal to the right to “believe whatever I want”.
Though most wilfully ignorant people would deny both the intention and the ignorance, this is a form of nescience because the wilful resistance to learning belies their claim.
The fourth variety of nescience is found in a cluster of practices: privacy, confidentiality, and secrecy. These concepts involve the imposition of ignorance on others. The right to privacy erects a barrier around certain matters and denies others a right to know. Confidentiality is the formally restricted sharing of private information. Secrecy, however, keeps others ignorant of a matter whether they have reason or right to know or not. Lies, disinformation, and other forms of deception involve the imposition of ignorance because – when successful – they always involve a secrecy. (Though not all secrets involve lies.) Collusion – a concept in the headlines recently – involves more than cooperation; it is secret cooperation.
Privacy and confidentiality are worthy ethical and legal concepts, and even secrets can be benign (a surprise party or an anonymous gift, for example). Lying is a contested matter: Immanuel Kant sternly rejected all lies, no matter what the situation.
Nescience also takes the form of forbidden knowledge. Taboos, banning or censorship of information or works, proscriptions against learning certain subjects, suppression of research or inquiry – these are practices in which an authority imposes ignorance on a population. The motives are diverse: the authority may view the topic or information as dangerous or immediately harmful to those who would know, defiling or disgusting, subversive of the authority itself, or unworthy of study and assimilation. An iconic example is the Vatican’s Index Librorum Prohibitorum. A familiar example is the long history of forbidding and making shameful the knowledge of sex, especially of female sexuality and homosexuality.
Occasionally, such restrictions are justifiable. There is one striking instance in which scientists themselves erected a zone of forbidden knowledge: at the Asilomar Conference of 1975, an influential agreement was reached to restrict certain forms of recombinant DNA research. Now, some scientists are calling for a similar conference to limit research using the new gene manipulation tool, CRISPR.
While we construct ignorance deliberately in these ways, we also construct our ignorance without direct intent. As we prosper and technology advances, we weave our own “information cocoons”. Preference-based information delivery is increasingly common for what we read, hear, experience, and purchase. In such “echo chambers”, only our preferences and past patterns determine the input we receive; anything challenging, new, contradictory, or uncomfortable is filtered out. We don’t even know what we don’t know – so no continuous exertion of the will is required to fend off even a hint of the jarring world outside our gated epistemic community.
Unfortunately, this effect is not confined to political partisans. The process I’ve described is not dissimilar from that of specialisation in research, scholarship, and professional expertise, which often produces closed communities of knowers who share interests and beliefs and have little interchange with others. It is, I believe, equally dangerous as well.
At a deeper level, those who believe all knowledge is a social construct, enabled by our languages, our conceptual frameworks, our paradigms, would also assert that our ignorance – insofar as we can articulate it – is also constructed.