Acknowledgement and knowledge of ignorance was perhaps the single most influential factor that lead to the advancement of human achievement in the last 1000 years. I got interested in the history of humankind when Bill Gates talked about it on his website about a year ago and I took a course on ‘A Brief History of Humankind‘ by Dr. Yuval Noah Harari. This was by far the most fascinating and curiosity generating course I have ever taken and that course led me to learn about many related topics from the past. This post is a summary of what I have leant from various sources about just one topic – Ignorance.
Look at this graph below that shows the cumulative accumulation of computable knowledge in the world and you will see an inflection point at around 1000AD. The speed and magnitude of scientific advancement we have seen in the recent past is unprecedented in the known human history.
So what caused this sudden change?
It is more important to understand what did not occur until 1000 AD. In ancient times, the understanding of the world around us was primarily driven by what was written in the religious books. People assumed God knew ‘everything there is to know’ and God told us ‘everything we need to know’. Reading the ancient texts was the only source of truth and people assumed all knowledge existed in these books. If something was not included in the scriptures (e.g. how spiders build their webs or why apple fell down not up) then it was assumed that such knowledge was unimportant for mankind and therefore should not be pursued.
At around 1000 AD, for the first time in human history, both emperors and scholars in Europe started to grow curious about what’s on the other side of the sea, they wanted to know what could be found in far off lands. Things that were not written in the scriptures that could exist out there? For the first time, these European men of power and resources wanted to understand the world that God did not tell them about and this curiosity to explore the unknown funded voyages and expeditions to far off lands.
As you can see above, the voyages started at about 1000 AD and these voyages helped Europeans acquire new powers to rule over other lands and gave them access to massive wealth and exotic commodities. Knowledge of Geography was the first very important scientific knowledge that helped the Europeans be the rulers of the world.
With discoveries in Geography, Europeans started to realize that there were many other profitable knowledge out there that they do not know about. Something that is not written in the scriptures or any known books or oral traditions. Thus started the explosion of knowledge base in human history.
Curiosity and acknowledgement of ignorance was very profitable
Acceptance of ignorance, curiosity for new knowledge paved way for flooding of investments to exploit new frontiers not only in Geographical terms but in also other fields such as Physics, Metallurgy, Chemistry, Biology, etc. For the Kings and Noblemen (the investors), these were very profitable ventures. The discoveries and inventions helped them generate more wealth, accumulate more power and maintain good health of their people.
The Pursuit of Ignorance
As Socrates says “I know nothing except the fact of my ignorance” and as Confusions says “The real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance”, I am convinced that the pursuit of knowledge should necessarily involve pursuit of ignorance as well. One without the other seems incomplete. The very definition of science as Karl Popper argued is based on the notion on ‘Falsifiability’ – In its basic form, falsifiability is the belief that for any hypothesis to have credence, it must be inherently disprovable before it can become accepted as a scientific hypothesis or theory. For example, if the accepted theory is “all swans are white”, then all it takes is to find one black swan to prove the theory false. Theories should be structured to be falsifiable through observation and experimentation.
This TED talk is very enlightening on the topic of Ignorance.
My favorite quote – “We have to develop curiosity of the boundaries, what is outside the boundaries of known”
Shades of Ignorance
Bhartrihari a 5th century Sanskrit scholar writes about Ignorance in the second verse of Nitishataka.
The verse / saying roughly translates as –
It is very easy to teach an ignorant person who has no preconceived notions
It is even easier to teach a scholar who has a deep understanding of the subject matter.
However, it is impossible even for Brahma (the creator of the world) to teach a half-baked fool who, with a little knowledge, feels proud believing that he is a scholar.
Thus even though an ignorant person may be in darkness, a person who has learned some and has pride about the knowledge is deeper in darkness.
Happy Guru Poornima
In the Indian culture, full moon this week is dedicated to the Guru (Guru Poornima). The word Guru in Sanskrit translates into Gu=Darkness, Ru=Dispel i.e. Guru is the one who dispels the darkness of ignorance. In the celebration of Guru Poornima, we recognize that the pursuit of knowledge starts with acknowledgement of ignorance and we seek the help of the Guru in dispelling our ignorance. I have been blessed to have great teachers, mentors and leaders that I have worked with and continue to work for and thank them for progressively making me realize how less I know and how much more there is to know.
Knowledge of ignorance pays rich dividends!
2 thoughts on “The Profitable Pursuit of Ignorance”
I have also long been an admirer of the work of Dr. Harari, that course was enlightening in many ways.
My first observation is that it is interesting to note the sharp spike in the computational knowledge chart. Makes one wonder if the sharp growth is just the natural progression of growth or if it is a “phase transition”-type tipping point. If it is the latter, one could extrapolate some meaningful insights on the nature of the scientific discovery. Could this tipping point be better explained through a percolation or a contagion diffusion-type model? What would this tell us about that particular formal system? Very interesting grounds for speculation. I would like to hear your thoughts on this, friend.
Your post has also made me ponder on the meta-teleological drive for scientific discovery. You described the status quo prior to the huge burst in scientific advances (one of religious dogmatism and the rejection of skeptical inquiry), and then attributed this burst mainly to geographical curiosity. No doubt that played a big role to fuel scientific enterprises, but I am inclined to think that scientific advancements had a more significant motivation: the means and tools of warfare.
There is an extremely interesting book called “The Making of the Atomic Bomb”, in which the author explains the sudden burst in interest in the theoretical sciences (mainly particle physics) with the arms race of the early 20th century. I think there is enough evidence to apply the same principle to the major bursts of knowledge all throughout history. One would only need to study the places where these sharp increases of scientific enterprises occurred and then look at what their military was doing. “Follow the money”, as they say.
I will also leave you one of my favorites videos on Karl Popper’s falsificationism. Maybe you will get as much value from it as I have over the years.
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It is surprising to see how common our sources and interests are :). I love the entire Feynman series of lectures that were released recently.
I agree with you. As Dr. Harari says, ‘Utility’ and not ‘Truth’ was the true test of knowledge. Given power was mainly driven by warfare, and wealth was seen as a means to grow power – again through warfare, one can definitely argue, the need to grow and maintain power fuelled advances in scientific enterprise. I am also a fan of Leonardo Da Vinci and his work… even during his times, one of the true test of knowledge was ability to build the tools to win wars. This letter from Da Vinci to the ruler of Milan is very enlightening and illustrates the fact – http://www.lettersofnote.com/2012/03/skills-of-da-vinci.html
Obviously one or handful of factors cannot be considered as causation for the major spike in computable knowledge. I incline more towards the Percolation model to explain the cause and do not think this phenomenon can be seen as a tipping point. This exponential growth I am not sure was caused by some small incremental change to be considered as a tipping point phenomenon. I would also speculate the power of Networking Model, mainly contributed by the advent of printing press, may have accelerated the growth in science / computable knowledge. It would be interesting to overlay the graph above with the growth of number of printing press to see potential correlation.
Thank you for the book referral. I will add that to my reading list. Love the engagement with you and look forward to learning more from your comments / posts.
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