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Introduction Taking Ignorance Seriously Bill Vitek and Wes Jackson How can we remember our ignorance, which our growth requires, when we are using our knowledge all the time? —Henry David Thoreau the question Since we’re billions of times more ignorant than knowledgeable, why not go with our long suit and have an ignorance-based worldview? A few years ago, some well-known scientists published a paper, followed by a book, in which they assigned a dollar value to nature’s services.1 The exercise doubtlessly has increased awareness of what ordinary accounting does not count, but we have no idea how such calculations can be reasonably made. We don’t even know the full role of any of the species that have been discovered, let alone those not discovered or never to be discovered. And then there are the physical forces at work on our behalf—global climate, for example—some of which we have clearly altered by our presence. This effort to assign a dollar value represents the current zenith of Enlightenment thought. It is our contention that a knowledge-based worldview lies at the very center of the Enlightenment perspective—our perspective—and both makes possible and drives the pursuits and principles that typically get all the attention: individual freedom, economic growth, scientific progress, and the rejection of thermodynamic, material, and moral limits . In a word, the Enlightenment perspective is all about liberty. But   Vitek and Jackson the central footing on which liberty rests and draws nourishment is a knowledge-based worldview. This worldview has a long history and many sources, from the theft of knowledge in the Genesis creation story or the theft of fire by Prometheus to the Greek emphasis on the powers of human rationality. But it is the Enlightenment that most successfully combined the scholarly pursuits of mathematics, science, and philosophy with the tools of engineers, architects, and physicians. It is what historians describe as the merger of techne (the everyday knowledge gained by experience and repetition with little regard for how and why) and episteme (the knowledge that comes from the rational pursuit of causes and first principles ). This perspective is mirrored and articulated in the work of many progenitors, beginning in sixteenth-century Europe, who, if we are feeling generous, may be excused for mistaking nature as infinite and infinitely malleable when humans were a scarce, weak species pursing their projects in the small clearings that culture made on our very sizable planet. From their vantage, Johannes Kepler, Nicolaus Copernicus, Michael Servetus, Benedetto Castelli, Phillip von Hohenheim (Paracelsus ), Galileo Galilei, John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, Francis Bacon, Baruch Spinoza, Isaac Newton, Voltaire, Pierre Bayle, Charles de Montesquieu , and others could scarcely anticipate the problems of scale that would arise when their ideas and programs were amplified into a human culture weighing in at 7 billion souls. Many of them did their work in Italy, England, Scotland, the Netherlands, and France, where social and intellectual conditions allowed thinkers to more easily begin to break free from the grips of Scholasticism, Aristotelianism (particularly in science), and the authoritarian powers of church and state. Each of these thinkers provided central pieces of a knowledge-based worldview and laid the groundwork for the revolutions to come. One of the earliest and most fundamental sources of Enlightenment thinking is the work of French philosopher and mathematician René Descartes. Descartes challenged himself to nothing less than putting the human capacity to know the world on an entirely new and—he hoped— foolproof philosophical footing. His work is emblematic of Immanuel Kant’s claim that the motto of the Enlightenment should be “Dare to Know.” Descartes describes his discoveries as a daylong meditation in a stove-heated room. His subject matter was dreams, the world, God, and, most important, the ability of the individual human mind first to Introduction  doubt all of it and then to reconstruct—on its own terms—every bit of it in a way that would guarantee truth. Descartes’ reward, and to date the modern world’s reward, is a knowledge-based bulwark centered on individualized human consciousness and, with it, the ability to make and unmake the world without limits. This Cartesian moment helped make possible the three revolutions that have been identified with the Enlightenment—scientific, political, and economic—as well as the many revolutionaries who came after and who made the modern world fully operational. Together these revolutions freed cultures to embark on pursuits that were heretofore forbidden or considered impossible: the...


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