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The Way of Ignorance Wendell Berry In order to arrive at what you do not know You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance. —T. S. Eliot, “East Coker” Our purpose here is to worry about the predominance of the supposition, in a time of great technological power, that humans either know enough already, or can learn enough soon enough, to foresee and forestall any bad consequences of their use of that power. This supposition is typified by Richard Dawkins’s assertion, in an open letter to the Prince of Wales, that “our brains . . . are big enough to see into the future and plot long-term consequences.” When we consider how often and how recently our most advanced experts have been wrong about the future, and how often the future has shown up sooner than expected with bad news about our past, Mr. Dawkins’s assessment of our ability to know is revealed as a superstition of the most primitive sort. We recognize it also as our old friend hubris, ungodly ignorance disguised as godly arrogance. Ignorance plus arrogance plus greed sponsors “better living with chemistry,” and produces the ozone hole and the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. A modern science (chemistry or nuclear physics or molecular biology) “applied” by ignorant arrogance resembles much too closely an automobile being driven by a six-year-old or a loaded pistol in the hands of a monkey. Arrogant ignorance promotes a global economy while ignoring the global exchange of pests and diseases that must inevitably accompany it. Arrogant ignorance makes war without a thought of peace. We identify arrogant ignorance by its willingness to work on too big a scale, and thus to put too much at risk. It fails to foresee bad consequences not only because some of the consequences of all acts 38 Wendell Berry are inherently unforeseeable, but also because the arrogantly ignorant often are blinded by money invested; they cannot afford to foresee bad consequences. Except to the arrogantly ignorant, ignorance is not a simple subject. It is perhaps as difficult for ignorance to be aware of itself as it is for awareness to be aware of itself. One can hardly begin to think about ignorance without seeing that it is available in several varieties, and so I will offer a brief taxonomy. There is, to begin with, the kind of ignorance we may consider to be inherent. This is ignorance of all that we cannot know because of the kind of mind we have—which, I will note in passing, is neither a computer nor exclusively a brain, and which certainly is not omniscient . We cannot, for example, know the whole of which we and our minds are parts. The English poet and critic Kathleen Raine wrote that “we cannot imagine how the world might appear if we did not possess the groundwork of knowledge which we do possess; nor can we in the nature of things imagine how reality would appear in the light of knowledge which we do not possess.” A part of our inherent ignorance, and surely a most formidable encumbrance to those who presume to know the future, is our ignorance of the past. We know almost nothing of our history as it was actually lived. We know little of the lives even of our parents. We have forgotten almost everything that has happened to ourselves. The easy assumption that we have remembered the most important people and events and have preserved the most valuable evidence is immediately trumped by our inability to know what we have forgotten. There are several other kinds of ignorance that are not inherent in our nature but come instead from weaknesses of character. Paramount among these is the willful ignorance that refuses to honor as knowledge anything not subject to empirical proof. We could just as well call it materialist ignorance. This ignorance rejects useful knowledge such as traditions of imagination and religion, and so it comes across as narrow -mindedness. We have the materialist culture that afflicts us now because a world exclusively material is the kind of world most readily used and abused by the kind of mind the materialists think they have. To this kind of mind, there is no longer a legitimate wonder. Wonder has been replaced by a research agenda, which is still a world away from demonstrating the impropriety of wonder. The materialist conservation- The Way of Ignorance 39 ists need to tell us how...


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