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Choosing Ignorance within a Learning Universe Peter G. Brown The Universe is wider than our views of it. —Henry David Thoreau I had the good fortune in recent years to canoe down the Old Factory River in central Quebec with people who were experienced on and with the river and also steeped in the East Cree culture of the region. As I awoke each morning, I asked a number of questions so that I could think about and plan for the day. Here is how it went: Me: How many portages will there be? Response: Don’t know yet. Me: Are the rapids big? Response: Will have to see. Me: Is it likely to rain? Response: Sometimes does. My frustration grew as I realized that I knew little or nothing more than when I started. I had trouble imagining how anyone could possibly be so uninformed about what was around them. It took me years to understand that it was actually me who was uninformed. I wanted to know things that could not be known yet. How many portages there would be depended on the speed and skill of the paddlers and the number of interesting diversions and mishaps that occurred along the way. The size of the rapids would depend on which rapids we encountered, and that would depend on which portages we made. I did not understand the 166 Peter G. Brown limitations of knowledge. I did not understand the wisdom of choosing a kind of ignorance based on respect. overview In this essay, I examine the fusion of scientific knowledge with an ethic of power. I argue that this conception leads, ironically, to increases in ignorance. It is, therefore, dialectical—bringing forth its own opposite. I then turn to an alternative prescriptive concept of the relation between ethics and knowledge derived from Albert Schweitzer’s concept of reverence for life. Here, we can ground a kind of ignorance that leads to true power and profound freedom. Knowledge as Power There are many kinds of knowledge: theoretical knowledge, traditional knowledge, knowledge of our bodies (“I have a toothache”), and sexual knowledge, to name just a few. Here, I concentrate on the consequences of the merger of scientific knowledge, its resultant technologies, and capitalism with an ethic of the quest for power over nature and, as it typically turns out, over other allegedly “lesser” peoples. This unholy alliance is now in full swing around the globe, extinguishing species at an accelerating rate, while further undercutting many ways of life more adapted to survival and flourishing than the presently hegemonic Western culture. It is important to make the main points of my thesis clear. My critique is not of science itself but of the belief systems in which it is now largely entwined. I do not argue for a science free of ethics, metaphysics , and theology. This is neither possible nor desirable. Of science, as of other human endeavors, it is always possible to ask, What is it for? The relation between science and ethics, metaphysics, and theology is reflexive: they mutually influence and shape each other. Science helps us understand who we are and where we came from; this understanding in turn shapes but does not wholly determine our inclinations, passions, and ideas about where we might and should go, our ideas about the nature of reality, and our proximate and ultimate commitments. Knowledge-Power and Ignorance In our pursuit of knowledge for power, we increase ignorance in six ways. I do not know whether there is a net increase in ignorance. That Choosing Ignorance within a Learning Universe 167 would be very difficult to figure out. My argument is that the kinds of ignorance generated account in part for humanity’s current and growing dysfunctional relationship with life and the world. First, this kind of knowledge is inherently unreflective about its own ethical, metaphysical , and theological assumptions. Second, it is inherently limited, even self-limiting, and is shifting from a generator of benefits to a distributor of risks. Third, as science has undercut its own legitimating narratives, it has rendered it more and more difficult to say what science in particular , and society in general, should do and which technologies should be developed and which neglected. Fourth, the abstractions that make up scientific knowledge inadequately foresee the consequences of its applications in complex adaptive systems. Fifth, the privileged knowledge of Western science often displaces the much more functional, but less theoretically complex, understandings of nature and culture of...


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