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The Path of Enlightened Ignorance Alfred North Whitehead and Ernst Mayr Strachan Donnelley We humans inescapably face a fundamental civic challenge: our longterm responsibilities to human communities and nature in all their complex , historical, and value-laden interactions. This is a dominant moral and practical problem for which we are culturally ill prepared. This volume and the original Ignorance-Based Worldview Conference explore the proposition that our best chance for successfully meeting our obligations to humans and nature is through “the way of ignorance,” that is, by owning up to what we do not know and perhaps in principle can never know. By such admission, we might at least avoid the blinding and dangerous hubris of claiming to know (and to control) what in fact we do not know. We would gain on the side of humility, flexibility, curiosity , and caution. Warning against such hubris has historically been at the core of philosophy, going back at least to Socrates and the Greeks. Here, I want to examine the way of ignorance in a particularly modern setting. I want to discuss two seminal twentieth-century thinkers: the mathematician-physicist-philosopher Alfred North Whitehead and the evolutionary biologist–philosopher Ernst Mayr. Their thinking bears directly and deeply on our cardinal issue of the interplay of knowledge, ignorance, and moral action. Whatever their differences, these two scientist-philosophers share much in common. They are both centrally interested in the nature and ultimate worldly significance of organic, including human, life. They both persuasively argue that dominant ideas inherited from the Western tradition block an adequate understanding and appreciation of organic 190 Strachan Donnelley and human life, including our civic and moral responsibilities to the earth and its residents. Both agree that, in overcoming the obstacles of the tradition, we in particular must renounce an abiding and pernicious cultural habit: the quest for certain, unassailable, final truth. (At bottom, this is the problem of dogmatism of all stripes.) The dream of certainty and final truth has animated Western thinkers and cultural communities from the early Greek Presocratics to today. We could quickly rattle off a notable philosophic all-star team: the Greeks Parmenides, Pythagoras , and Plato (in some of his moods); Descartes, Spinoza, and Leibniz of the seventeenth-century Age of Genius; Hegel and other nineteenthcentury idealists; and, finally, the twentieth-century hangovers, the positivists , who will countenance only “indubitable” knowledge. But what do thinkers have in the absence of this immemorial goal, the quest for certainty and final dogma?Arguably, we have, as an alternative, the way or path of enlightened ignorance. By enlightened ignorance, I mean accepting what limited and circumscribed knowledge we do have but recognizing explicitly that this knowledge is fallible, subject to revision , and interwoven with much that we do not know (our ignorance). How this basic human condition plays into the question of moral judgment and action is the question at hand and constitutes the relevance of Whitehead and Mayr. whitehead’s nature lifeless, nature alive According to Hans Jonas, himself a noted ethicist and philosopher of organic life, Whitehead, as an antidote to the failed tradition, was perhaps the most important philosopher of the twentieth century. Whitehead ’s philosophic cosmology or philosophy of organism is a major philosophic mountain, difficult to ascend and even more difficult to descend, that is, to explain to others. Characteristically, it is avoided by most philosophers, if not more courageous (or rash) theologians, whether because of its difficulty or because of its being out of contemporary fashion. But what are these philosophers and the rest of us missing ? Who is truly out of step and style? And why?1 Whitehead’s philosophic vision is highly original and is best approached with some care. At his most systematic (Process and Reality , 1929), Whitehead offers a general scheme of fundamental ideas in terms of which to interpret or understand the full range of human experience . He considers such philosophy our birthright, the romance of The Path of Enlightened Ignorance 191 rational thought, the speculative attempt to make sense of ourselves and our world, including the many-leveled values and importance of earthly existence. Whitehead’s endeavor is crucially animated by an underlying faith: the world or cosmos is coherent; things hang together, make sense, have their own significance, and can be rendered more or less intelligible. Whitehead’s method of philosophy involves both an empirical, critical exploration of human experience and an exercise of rational imagination. There are rigorous demands of coherence and consistency (rational...


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