The Persistence of Ignorance
A young student asked me recently, « Mr. Winsor, do you think history is important ? » I said, « When I was growing up we heard that history is important to know so that we learn from the past and don’t repeat our mistakes. But now that I have lived seventy-two years I have to wonder about that. It seems to me we haven’t learned anything ; we keep repeating the same mistakes, so maybe history isn’t important. It is always subjective anyway, always written by the winners ».
The human community has been in trouble since the beginning and holds fast to that trouble despite a choking amount of information to help it out of that trouble and despite having the greatest tool to do that, the human brain itself. It has only been four generations since television was invented and spread around to almost every house. There was an expectation that this amazing invention would educate people and bring them out of ignorance. It hasn’t worked. Most people are lazy, it seems, and only want television to help them escape or have it tell them what they already believe and want to hear about issues. There seems to be no need to be challenged by new information, new ideas.
One of my friends is a doctor, an atheist, and an expert on evolution. He says, « The human brain is wired to be curious, to be seeking understanding, making discoveries. If that is not happening, there is something wrong with the wiring ». Based on what I said in the previous paragraph, it would seem there is a great deal wrong with « the wiring ». Either that, or evolution has screeched to a halt.
Another friend is an enemy of « left leaning liberals ». He is on what I would call « the rabid right », the alt right being the proper term ; not thinking, dangerous. But he is a loyal friend from childhood. I sent him a link to « The National Review » because it is a thoughtful, conservative « rag ». My friend is a CPA accountant, not a dummy. He wrote back, « I don’t read left-wing rags ». I said « The National Review is a conservative voice started by William F. Buckley ». He answered, « I know that. Never cared much for Buckley », by which I understood that he didn’t know that and didn’t bother to make two clicks on his I pad to find out about it, something that would have taken less than thirty seconds.
In researching this topic, I came across a thesis stating that our ideas are so deeply held as to be actually physical. Seeing new or opposing evidence just makes a person struggle harder to defend what he already believes. In other words, a considered good argument will have very little effect on changing a person’s thinking.
As we grow up and develop our personalities, a number of core ideas get bundled together and become an unassailable fortress against new information coming from the world. I suppose this makes things simpler. I came up with a phrase to help me explain this phenomenon : « Ignorant people want simple solutions to complex problems ». It provides them relief from what is otherwise a permanent condition of stress to make sense of a world that mostly does not make sense.
What will it take to change our thinking if we are totally invested in a set of ideas ? It won’t happen by argument ; that is clear. My own experience is that if I give myself a little distance from that bundle of ideas I carry with me, there is a chance I can accept another way of thinking about things. It is almost a spiritual technique of non-attachment or at least of loosening one’s grip on that attachment. Life is short ; we live in a mind-bogglingly immense universe that only seems to get bigger as our knowledge increases. How important can one’s political ideas actually be ? The humility that comes with this kind of thinking is liberating, actually pleasurable.
My atheist friend, the evolution expert, gets great peace from his acceptance of annihilation. « When you really understand evolution and DNA you don’t need religion ». About life after death he says, « They will never know how wrong they were (the believers). We become stardust, nothing more ».
The average person might not find comfort in this idea but he does. There is a sense that all the bruhaha about politics and social struggle is not such a big deal seen from the perspective of eternity. Any spiritual path, including atheism, can produce humility as long as it is not tied to politics and a political agenda. If it attaches to these things then all the comfort is drained away leaving only the irate fundamentalist who knows, without compromise or reason, what is right for everyone else.
Never has there been such access to information as there is now. We are in « the information age » or « the fourth industrial revolution » and it might be the most significant of mankind’s leaps thus far. The internet gives us access to knowledge from every corner of the world. But what difference will it make if people use it only to play games ?
Even poor people have smart phones. If they have a question it can be answered one way or another. There are free apps to learn languages, do calculations, know geography, read newspapers and books. But how many take advantage of that and try to pull themselves up out of ignorance by their bootstraps ?
My friend, the evolution expert, might be wrong that « the human brain is wired to be curious, to be looking for new answers ». Certainly, it must be true for some people or we would never have gotten out of our caves. We know the curious ones, people like Gates, Jobs, Wozniak, Musk, and Branson to name a few current ones, but how many are like that and how many just enjoy looking at the shadows on the wall created by the fire, the fire itself discovered by someone with a curious brain.
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