The Practice of Ignorance

I know the word “ignorance” can be emotionally charged but I want to write about its value, or at least the value of recognizing when and where we are ignorant.

I’m not writing about willful racists or bigoted attitudes, that is not the type of ignorance I am going to discuss. Instead, I want to consider ignorance in the sense of a lack of knowledge on a subject. The etymology of Ignorance is from Old English, “in” (“not”) + gnarus (“aware, acquainted with”). So ignorance is “not to know”.

The smartest people I know talk the most about how little they know. One of the benefits of their knowledge in their field of expertise is that they have some idea of just how little they actually know and how little can currently be known about their field of expertise. They are often slow to speak and make strong statements because they realize how tenuous such statements are. If a subject is really important it is often very difficult to make definite statements concerning the subject. on the other hand, I find that the people who often know the least about a subject are the ones who often speak the most and more easily make the strongest statements concerning the subject.

It’s the novices that seem to talk about how much they know. I believe much of this talk comes from us as novices not having any idea of what we don’t know and what can’t be known, at least at this time, concerning our subjects. This is why we make the most definitive statements when we are novices and why experts often make the most cautious statements. Because one doesn’t know enough to know how little they actually know, and the other knows enough to make a few declarations as possible.

In my case there are various subjects I’m talking about concerning this. I used to “know” so much more about God, the Bible, and people, because I didn’t actually know enough to know how little I knew. I had enough knowledge to puff me up but no where near enough to produce humility concerning what I didn’t know. I was sure I had things figured out. Now I recognize much more mystery because I have a slightly better idea of how little i know.

This doesn’t mean I don’t know anything or change the authority of statements I can make. Actually, if anything it gives my statements greater reliability. When I say something definitively now, there is a greater likelihood that it actually is a definitive statement. Having some idea of my own ignorance is a great thing.

Reading “The Practice of the Presence of God” got me to thinking about other things to practice.

So why did I title this “The Practice of Ignorance”? Well, because I believe our natural tendency, or at least my natural tendency, is to assume we/I know more than we/I do. Some of this is probably because we/I want to look smart in front of other people. Part of this is probably that expressing ignorance on a subject involves vulnerability or can imply weakness and that is something that we/I usually want to avoid. Some of this is probably because we/I often think too highly of what we/I know and don’t realize how much we/I don’t know. I’m sure there are tons of other reasons.

If I am right that it is our natural tendency to assume we we/I know more than we/I do, then we only break the tendency by purposefully practicing breaking that habit. We/I need to practice assuming we know less than we/I think we/I do. That’s how we get better at it, and getting better at assuming we know less than we think we do will make us better learners and wiser people. So this month I am going to practice assuming I know less than I think I do.

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