We don’t know a millionth of one percent about anything.”
— Thomas Edison
I was thinking the other day about how we as people define ourselves. Many of us use our jobs, (plumber, race car driver) many our religion, (Christian, Buddhist) and many consider physical description. (white man, black woman) Often, geographical location is used as a definition of a person — people describe themselves as being of the place where they were born; American, German, Parisian, New Yorker. But while these things say what we do, who we worship, and what we look like, do they really define who we are? What kind of person we have created in ourselves?
I have another thought.
What happens to a person when they learn that boiling water is painful? They try not to come into contact with it. (In my case it was boiling grits, but the lesson was the same.) No matter what the variety of responses may have been before all those people learned that boiling water was ouchy, afterwards they all responded pretty much the same. It’s like the notions we imagine “everybody knows.” (For the record, I hate this phrase, as I usually hear it being applied to something stupid I have just done. “Everybody knows you aren’t supposed to mix bleach and ammonia together — and then smell it!”) The things that everyone knows about are also the things that everyone reacts the same way towards. Knowledge causes homogeneity. In fact, it is our ignorance which defines us, not what we know, what color we are, or where we were born.
But how is this? Are we in no measure defined by our successes? Our accomplishments? What about a doctor? He is a doctor, isn’t he? Isn’t that a definition? The answer is no, it is actually the opposite. A doctor isn’t a man with knowledge — he is a man who has given up a piece of his ignorance. Anyone can learn the things a doctor knows. The more we learn, the more the same we become. Ultimate truth leads to ultimate peace, cooperation, and conformity. Maybe it’s god, I don’t know. But I can tell you pretty assuredly that compared to today, it’d be boring.
So what does this mean? How does our ignorance define us? Well, if our knowledge brings us towards sameness, then our ignorance pushes us into conflict. One person is a Democrat, one is a Republican. They battle because neither can see the whole picture. If they both knew what the genuinely best paths were, there would be no fight. They are defined not by their ideas, but their ignorance. Muslims and Christians, pro-choice vs. anti-abortion, racial divides, styles of governance… pick any item on the agenda that folks like to fight about and it traces immediately to their ignorance. Sometimes it’s ignorance of the other side, sometimes it’s ignorance of themselves.
But why choose to be ignorant when there is an alternative? When people argue, ostensibly to enlighten those around them, they almost never seek a blending of ideas, of finding a greater truth than they walked in with. The arguer seeks to make his opponents submit before his truths, to force those who would disagree to abandon their own ideas in favor of the arguer’s ideas. The only problem here is that as human beings, we are very, very rarely possessed of ideas that are any better than anyone else. In fact, it is not our ideas over which we do battle, but our own unique positions of ignorance, defined by the things we don’t know, that we fight for. If we knew better there’d be no reason to fight.
People cling to their ignorance like a life raft. People who worship god walk out of the room when presented with evidence that their views are wrong. Scientists desperately twist results to fit their hypothesis, and politicians lie about themselves and their opponents… all to promote their ignorance, and keep fighting the stupid fight. Again, if everyone knew all the truths, there’d be nothing left to fight over.
I’m rolling this into my New Year’s resolution for 2008. No more fighting to defend my own positions of ignorance. The fact is that I know just north of nothing about anything, and I’m not afraid to admit it. I’m absolutely sure of it.
P.S. Thomas Edison didn’t invent the lightbulb either.