The virtues of ignorance

The 2014 film “Birdman” was subtitled “The Unexpected Virtues of Ignorance.” I have my own thoughts on that topic, but first I’ll  deal with the more obvious downside. Ignorance might be bliss for some, but it tends to lead to bad judgment and errors. There is individual ignorance and group, or shared, ignorance. In the political arena, ignorance on the part of voters or legislators leads to bad governance. Propagandists know that perception frequently trumps facts, and often cultivate public ignorance in service of their employers. The anticipated result of a successful propaganda campaign is orchestrated ignorance on a mass scale.

A general principle that I learned in grad school lodged itself in my brain and has helped me to think critcally ever since: “Beware the mono-factorial hypothesis” The mono-factorial hypothesis says that A causes B, ignoring other possible factors in tho equation.  On a graph this is a straight line correlation: for every additional unit on the X-axis, there is a corresponding movement on the Y-axis. Connect the dots and you get a straight line.

The mono-factorial hypothesis provides simple answers to complex questions. “He beats his kids because his daddy used to beat him.” If childhood abuse caused people to abuse their own children in adulthood, then everyone who was ever abused would go on to be an abuser. Not settling for a simple, mono-factorial explanation leads one to look for other factors and generate multi-factorial explanations. For instance, what are the other factors that explain why not all abused children go on to be abusive parents?

This may seem elementary, but in my years of clinical practice, I often saw people who were locked into mono-factorial explanations, such as, “He wouldn’t be an addict if he hadn’t stopped going to church.” Or, “Women are all alike.” Or, “Men can’t be trusted.” Such simplistic thinking also leads to Good Guy/Bad Guy thinking in relationships, as well as other over-simplifications of complex issues and situations.

In therapy groups, my “standard rap” (talk) on the virtues of ignorance went something like this. “I can’t take any credit for my intelligence; it comes from inherited genes. But I’m a pretty smart person who was lucky enough to get a good education and to earn a graduate degree. I read a lot and I know a lot about a lot of things. BUT, no matter how much I know, my knowledge will always be finite. It will always have boundaries, limits, shortfalls. No matter how much I learn, there’s no way to keep up with the explosion of knowledge. My ignorance, on the other hand, is VAST, limitless. It goes on and on. That applies to you, too. Knowing this, and living with a humbling awareness of all that you DON’T know is, I think, the beginning of wisdom.

Some of the worst mistakes are made when people think they know something that they really don’t. By paying close attention to your knowledge and beliefs, and trying to distinguish what you’re sure you know from what you think you know and what you have to admit you don’t know, you can avoid many mistakes. Keeping this mind-set has saved me from a lot of foolish decisions, based on thinking I knew something I really didn’t.” Since I often tried to inject some philosophy lessons into my group presentations, at this point I’d introduce the groups members to epistemology, the branch of philosophy that examines how we know what we know.

It’s not just our knowledge and beliefs that guide our decisions and our behavior, it’s also clusters of beliefs, called schemas: “this is what marriage is like,” or “this is what manhood/womanhood is about,” or “this is what I have to do to make it in this world.” Our personal schemas are learned from our families, religions and cultures. A man with a male-dominant schema for marriage (like the family he grew up in) is going to have a hard time if the woman he wants  to marry has an “equal partners” marriage schema. Some schemas are functional, and tend to promote love and harmony, while others are dysfunctional, and tend to promote hatred and disharmony – even violence.  The latter often stem from mono-factorial hypotheses and from the mistaking of beliefs for facts.

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