[lit-ideas] Popper: In Praise of Ignorance

  • From: Jlsperanza@xxxxxxx
  • To: lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx
  • Date: Thu, 26 Dec 2013 07:12:25 -0500 (EST)


In a message dated 12/24/2013 7:45:44  P.M. Eastern Standard Time, 
donalmcevoyuk@xxxxxxxxxxx writes:
Newtonian  physics is studied, I think (though I am not a physicist), for 
more than  historical or pedagogical reasons. It is studied in part because, 
though  strictly false, it is still a stupendously successful physics in 
that it passes  many, many tests. It also sets the ground for understanding the 
physics that  advances upon it.What Eddington’s results appeared to show 
was that the  Newtonian physics under test was false. That meant that physics 
was false even  in the myriad cases where it was proven consistent with the 
experimental  outcome. .. Now that is something with potentially 
revolutionary impact on the  direction of scientific theorising, testing and 
research. 
It also had a  revolutionary impact on philosophy via Popper's philosophy of 
science and theory  of knowledge.  

Hear, hear!
 
Or as Geary's spelling prefers:
 
"Here! Here!" (Geary submits that it's the deictic element that permeates  
the 'auditory' use of 'hear': "It's me, here, claiming that you should 
_hear_  this or that" which becomes the central implicature.
 
It may do to reflect on McEvoy's points above, vis-à-vis these other by  
Walter O. and Omar K. Walter had written:
 
"I submit that the idea of "false knowledge" is self-contradictory. If I  
k-that
P, then P can't be false. If P is false, then I don't/can't k-that P.  
(Although
I can of course k-that P is false.)"
 
So let us focus on:
 
I know that p is false.
 
I submit that we need an operator, which is the converse of Frege's  
'assertion' sign:
 
⊢p
 
for 
 
i. I assert that it is raining
 
Conversely
 
-/ p
 
ii. I deny that it is raining.

More importantly, while one seems to ENDORSE what one knows to be true  (or 
what one knows, since 'to be true' I hold, with Ramsey, to  be 
_redundant_), one has a DUTY to reject what one knows to  be false.
 
In his reply to Omar K., McEvoy elaborates on verosimilitude, and again  
stresses the importance of falsiability in Popper's philosophy of science. One 
 important episode here being the
 
Newton/Eddington
 
interface. To requote McEvoy:

"Newtonian physics is studied, I think (though I am not a physicist),  for 
more than historical or pedagogical reasons. It is studied in part because,  
though strictly false, it is still a stupendously successful physics in 
that it  passes many, many tests. It also sets the ground for understanding the 
physics  that advances upon it.What Eddington’s results appeared to show 
was that the  Newtonian physics under test was false. That meant that physics 
was false even  in the myriad cases where it was proven consistent with the 
experimental  outcome. .. Now that is something with potentially 
revolutionary impact on the  direction of scientific theorising, testing and 
research. 
It also had a  revolutionary impact on philosophy via Popper's philosophy of 
science and theory  of knowledge."
 
We may need an elaboration, then, on operators, not just like 
 
Kp
 
for Agent knows that p.
 
But something for 'Agent ignores that p'.
 
We may consider that 'to ignore' (literally, to un-know) corresponds to  
'not-know', and would, in symbols, incorporate
 
~
 
-- i.e. the negation sign.
 
So, we may want to identify the theses (or propositions), since as Omar K.  
notes, they may be various, as held by Newton to (wrongly -- if you excuse 
the  split infinitive) hold. This set we may label "Newton's IGNORANCE".
 
By stressing on this Popper ends up indeed offering a praise of ignorance,  
in an 'early' modern manner. "Praises" seem to have been a typical genre by 
then  in early modern philosophy. Cfr. Erasmus's praise of folly (1509).

Erasmus's praise essay is filled with classical allusions delivered in  a 
style typical of the learned humanists of the Renaissance.
 
Folly parades as a goddess, offspring of Plutus, the god of wealth and a  
nymph, Freshness. 
 
Folly, Erasmus claims, was nursed by two other nymphs Inebriation and  
Ignorance, her faithful companions include Philautia (self-love), Kolakia  
(flattery), Lethe (forgetfulness), Misoponia (laziness), Hedone (pleasure),  
Anoia (madness), Tryphe (wantonness) and two gods Komos (intemperance) and  
Eegretos Hypnos (dead sleep). Folly praises herself endlessly, arguing that 
life 
 would be dull and distasteful without her. 
 
Note again the identification of Folly's nurse, Ignorance.
 
Ignorance Popper should possibly locate in W3 -- his parlance for "World  
3", the world of 'objective' products of humanity (including what we, in his  
manner, may regard as 'false knowledge').

Strictly, ignorance is a state of being uninformed (lack of  knowledge).
 
I submit, to follow Walter O., that we should distinguish between  
ignorant-that and ignorant-of. Further, I submit that the IMPLICATURE (but  
_never_ 
logical implication) of 
 
"He is ignorant of p" 
 
is that 
 
p
 
does hold.
 
It's only Eddington (and after him, his followers) who can point what  
Newton was ignorant of. 
 
It would be antimoral to pose that Newton held a certain proposition 'p' as 
 part of his pride in being ignorant about p. Only in the 'light' of 
knowledge  can a proposition 'p' be dubbed a piece of an agent's ignorance.
 
So, ignorance is both a state and a propositional attitude -- of  sorts.
 
The word "ignorant", in English, is best used as adjective describing a  
person in the state of being unaware. While it is often used as an insult to  
describe individuals who deliberately ignore or disregard important 
information  or facts, this should not be so. To allow for VOLITIONAL 
ignorance, we 
need a  further state of mind, or propositional attitude, "W", for will.
 
For if Newton deliberately disregards important information and defends his 
 ignorance, the logical form seems to be something like
 
nW~Kp
 
-- where 'n' is short of 'Newton'. Surely Eddington never criticised Newton 
 for this. So, the weaker ascription, to the effect that Newton _ignored_  
(simpliciter and even involuntarily) this or that seems a more charitable  
approach.
 
On top of that, "ignoramus" is commonly used in Ireland and other places as 
 a term for someone who is willfully ignorant. Strictly, there is a 
plurality in  the construction ''--mus" (modern Italian, -"mo") that may have 
Popperian  implicatures: it may be held that if subjects A and B are ignorant 
of 
p, and  willfully so (and they both say in unison, 'ignoramus') they may 
construct a  'belt' to protect their false beliefs (or absence of truth 
beliefs) against  possible justification. 
 
Ignorance, it should be pointed out, should be distinguished from what  
English authors refer to as "stupidity", although both can lead to "unwise"  
acts, in G. E. M. Anscombe's use of 'act'.
 
Ignorance, to echo Pynchon, is not thus just a blank space on a person's  
mental map. 
 
Pynchon, if not Popper, notes that Ignorance may have  contours and 
coherence, and what Pynchon goes on to call "rules of operation" as  well. 
 
Pynchon, if not Popper, goes on to note that as a corollary to the advice  
of writing about what we know, maybe we should add getting familiar with our 
 ignorance.
 
Eddington in this sense may be said to have put in clear evidence (for all  
to see) what, after Pynchon, we may dub the 'rules of operation' of 
Newton's  ignorance.
 
There is, incidentally, a "legal", as it were,  principle, appropriately 
formualted in Latin (from a time when lawyers  studied Roman law and followed 
Lit. Hum. courses at Oxford): 
 
Ignorantia juris non excusat.
 
While the object of 'excusat' is merely IMPLICATED ("ignorance of the law  
is no excuse"), the principle can be genearlised to non-legal cases:
 
Ignorance not excusat.
 
-- as, mutatis mutandis, curiosity did not excuse the cat of his death. 
 
The legal principle (often uses in pieces of legal reasoning) stands for  
the proposition that the law applies also to those who are unaware of it. In 
the  more general application, 
 
"Ignorance is no excuse"
 
the corollary would seem to be that, say, the laws of physics apply even  
for those who are UNAWARE of them, as Newton was. 
 
I.e. Newton cannot stick, wilfully, to his ignorant beliefs (or lack of  
true beliefs) ONCE Eddington, at a later time, proved Newton 'ignorant' of the 
 (true -- redundant) facts of things.
 
One corollary of this is that individuals with what we may informally dub  
"superficial knowledge" (if not partial knowledge) of a topic or subject may 
be  worse off than people who know absolutely nothing. 
 
It's because Newton attempted a system of physics, rather than his  
neighbour back in Lincolnshire, who just _farmed_, that led Newton to errors,  
but 
not his neighbour.
 
Indeed, we owe to Charles Darwin (the inventor of natural selection) the  
apt observation: 
 
"Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge."
 
He was referring of course to his arch-enemy:
 
Samuel Wilberforce, the English bishop in the Church of England, third son  
of William Wilberforce, was, for some reason, known as "Soapy Sam".
 
One of the greatest public speakers of his day, he is probably best  
remembered today for his opposition debate with Huxley.
 
Wilberforce asked Thomas Henry Huxley whether it was through his  
grandfather or his grandmother that he claimed his descent from a monkey.
 
Huxley rhetorically replied:
 
"I would not be ashamed to have a monkey for my ancestor [implicature:  
either from the maternal or paternal said; further implicature: Wilberforce's  
request for specification here belies ignorance], but I would be ashamed to  
be connected with a man who used his great gifts to obscure the truth."
 
While Huxley never STATED this, it is assumed that we wanted to "IMPLICATE" 
 (in Grice's use) the Reverend Wilberforce in the proceedings.
 
In short, what Popper may seem to be stressing in his copious writings, is  
that Ignorance can stifle learning, especially if the ignorant person 
believes  that they are not ignorant. 
 
There is a logic to this:
 
~K~Kp
 
The agent does not know that he does not know that p.
 
This should be clearly distinguished from 'ignorant' Socrates's  dictum:
 
K~Kx
 
(I know I know nothing)
 
(cfr. Geach, quoting, "Plato is an enemy of mine, but falsity is a  greater 
enemy").
 
A person who falsely believes he or she is knowledgeable will not seek out  
clarification of his or her beliefs, but rather rely on his or her ignorant 
 position. 
 
And it would NOT be surprising that this person ends up writing "In praise  
of ignorance". This is NOT Popper's case. Popper seems to see a virtue in 
the  REFUTATION of past ignorance by present wisdom. There seems to be a 
regressus in  that, since knowledge is never infallible, such a refutation is a 
constant  possibility.
 
Unlike cases mentioned by McEvoy, like
 
2 + 2 = 4
 
we have more substantial claims like
 
e = mc2
 
which the future (or SOMEONE in the future, more strictly) may prove to be  
an item of the 'ignorance' of physics.
 
The willful ignorant may also reject valid but contrary information,  
neither realizing its importance nor understanding it. 
 
Again, this rejection may be either willful or not, and the cases call for  
subtleties in the application of the adage, 'ignorantia not excusat'.

For example, one may _ignore_ 'ignorantia non excusat' or challenge it,  in 
a meta-linguistic fashion.
 
This concept of meta-linguistic replication of ignorance has been somewhat  
elucidated by Justin Kruger and David Dunning in their brilliant:
 
"Unskilled and Unaware of It: 
How Difficulties in Recognizing One's Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated  
Self-Assessments," 
 
where they identify what they call, "for lack of a better, wiser, label",  
the Dunning–Kruger effect.

In Vedanta, avidyā, is a concept that requires  eluciation.
 
It is opposed to Vidya, knowledge. 
 
Literally, Avidya is not knowledge. But metaphorically, it may be something 
 else -- even something good.
 
As Thomas Gray once said, 
 
Where ignorance is bliss 'tis folly to be wise.
 
The phrase, from Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College, is Grice holds, 
 possibly one of the most misconstrued phrases in English literature in 
terms of  its 'conversational implicature'.
 
Gray is not promoting ignorance at Eton, but is reflecting with nostalgia  
on a time when he was allowed to be ignorant, his youth (more or less: circa 
 1742, while attending Eton).
 
By transitiveness, he may be implicating that his Eton tutors were  
ignorant. Or not.
 
General Ignorance, the final round of the BBC Quiz show QI is aptly  called 
"General Ignorance" (an irony on "Common knowleddge"). "General  ignorance" 
which focuses on seemingly easy questions which have obvious but  wrong 
answers -- such as "Does God exist?"
 

The Encyclopaedia of General Ignorance (now in paperback) is a  derivative 
from the BBC QI Quiz show . 
 
The encyclopedia aims to address the comprehensive and humiliating  
catalogue of all the misconceptions, mistakes and misunderstandings in 'common  
knowledge'.
 
Popper turns Fallibilism into the philosophical principle that human  
beings could be wrong about their beliefs, expectations, or their understanding 
 
of the world, and yet still be justified in holding their incorrect  beliefs.

Ignorance management, a knowledge management practice that addresses the  
concept of ignorance in organizations.

Innocence, a term sometimes used to indicate a naive lack of knowledge  or 
understanding. Blake does this, while realising that "He is innocent",  and 
"He is ignorant" may trigger diverse (he does not use the term)  
implicatures.

Jahiliyyah is the Islamic concept for "ignorance of divine guidance".  The 
phrase has a restricted use, and, as Geary notes, "it presupposes that of  
divine guidance, most of us are ignorant of, anyways". 
 
Finally, what some 'ignorant' philosophers call "rational ignorance" is a  
voluntary state of ignorance that can occur when the cost of educating 
oneself  on an issue exceeds the potential benefit that the knowledge would 
provide. 
 
Cheers,
 
Speranza
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