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Two-level ignorance

July 23, 2009

I touched upon ignorance and knowledge in a previous post, “Is knowing better than not knowing?” and also in a recent comment at Mormon Matters, but now I’m kinda scaring myself here. To preface, I am not a doctor. I am not a philosopher. I have no right to be talking about big-time stuff like epistemology and when they find out I am, they’ll come for me.

…It seems to me that we don’t know a lot of stuff. Even worse, we can’t even be comfortable enough to know we don’t know a lot of stuff. This leads me to think of a two-level concept of ignorance. First, a fun quotation:

There are known knowns. There are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we now know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we do not know we don’t know.

And yet, I’m not sure. Even this categorization system seems light. I would add a new category: unknown knowns…and suggest that this is where many of us live. Rather than things we know that we know, we have things that we don’t know that we know.

It’s about pride and humility. A known known represents to me the greatest fault of pride. It is a surety that we prize legitimately if we have truly earned it…but the problem is, we may not have.

But still, the known unknown is another fault of pride. Saying that we definitely don’t know anything is a knowledge in itself, so it becomes a new pride statement (and not to mention, it becomes self-defeating in certain cases…for example, to say “we don’t know anything” is a knowledge statement. Whoops!)

Let me back up and try to explain (but I probably can’t…it’s a knot or an ouroboros at best.)

First level ignorance is first level (LOL, how descriptive). It is unadulterated ignorance or knowledge. If I say, “God exists,” this is a first level knowledge claim. If I say, “God does not exist,” it is first level knowledge. And if I come to admit that, heck, I don’t know if God exists or not, then I have admitted to first level ignorance.

And yet, these claims raise questions. How do I know “God exists” or “God doesn’t exist”, if I make those first-level knowledge claims? Or how do I know I do not know God exists?

And then BAM, we fall into the hole of second level ignorance. This second level is the meta-ignorance that questions the first. How do I know God exists? Any answer I conceive, mind you, reaches up to the first level…because any answer will assert a basic knowledge statement. I might say, “I know, because of spiritual experiences.” Presented that way, it seems like a second level answer…but it actually reduces to the first-level claim, “I know that spiritual experiences provide meaningful evidence of God.” And THAT can be scrutinized with the second level claim: how do you know that?

Same for “how do I know God doesn’t exist?” or “how do I not know whether he exists or not?” This makes the second-level ignorance question scary…because it may not have an answer that doesn’t simplify to a first level claim (where it can be attacked again at the second level.)

And that’s the really fun part. Ignorance is frightening. Dreadful. We are stripped of comfort of knowing or even the comfort of knowing if we don’t know.

Because even while you are doubting your spiritual experiences or your empirical evidences in philosophical skepticism…what you aren’t certain of is if that doubt is justified. It could be that you do know, but simply can’t find a way to convince yourself of that in a satisfactory way. This is the unknown known.

I think there are a few “solutions” to the problem of ignorance, each of which actually doesn’t solve it.

The first is objective pride. Ignore the ramifications of the second-level ignorance question. “What do you mean, how do I know my spiritual experiences are true? They simply ARE!” “What do you mean, how do I know everything is naturalist…it just IS!” “What do you mean, how do I know we don’t know? We simply DON’T!”

The second is faith or hope. I’m not sure if this is the same faith as religious faith (and I’m leaning toward thinking it isn’t, so I’ll simply call it hope)…but it is saying, “OK, I don’t KNOW if I know…but I hope I do, in fact, know.”

And the third is objective humility. “I don’t know if I know, so I will remain cautious and not assert an objective reality.” Objective humility defers the consideration to some kind of subjective reaction. Some people subjectively collapse. A healthier reaction is a subjective construction, I think. This is where people de-emphasize the objective reality and forge ahead with the subjective experience, regardless of the possibility that they could be “forging ahead” with something that is objectively wrong (but since they don’t know, why care?)

I think everyone engages in a blend of the three, but each affects a person (and his consideration of his or others’ worldviews) differently.

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