In Praise of Ignorance

“All men, by their nature, desire to know,” Aristotle wrote. Knowing that we lack knowledge, we seek it. In seeking knowledge we discover things which often make our lives more dangerous, but overall better. We have longer, healthier and more richly diverse lives than our neolithic ancestors, and it is thanks to our search for knowledge.

The search for knowledge stops, in the individual and in society, when there is a sense that all the answers are known. While the Greeks questioned everything, knowledge (and speculation, even if it didn’t lead to proof, certainty or fact) expanded rapidly. Coupled with Roman organization and engineering, there were enormous innovations in everything from underfloor heating, to urban water and sewer systems for cities of a million inhabitants, to the use of anesthetics in surgery, to the invention of the safety pin.

Ancient Roman engineering was superior to Britain's until the 19th century

The Greeks and Romans allowed for a diversity of religions, or for none at all, all of which promoted free inquiry. Then monotheism got a strangle hold on the Empire; Christianity provided Certainty and The Truth; scientific inquiry was crushed; and (not coincidentally, according to historians in the line of Gibbon) the Roman Empire collapsed. Western Europe had 700 years of the Dark Ages.

Meanwhile Islam came out of nowhere in the 7th century and expanded into different areas and cross-fertilized Greek and Indian learning. “Seek knowledge,” the Prophet Muhammad advised, “though it be in China” – which was the ends of the earth to him. As it turned out, China indeed had a wealth of knowledge to add to the mix. Islam was in the forefront of science for a thousand years. Western Europe came into contact through the Crusades in the 12th and 13th centuries, and Arabic culture and scientific texts kicked off the Renaissance. You can see it in the Arabic words that entered European languages as fresh concepts in the Middle Ages: admiral, alchemy, algebra… calipers, candy, chemistry, cipher, cotton… magazine, mattress, muslin… all the way to zenith and zero.

Arabic scientific advances led to the European Renaissance

And then Islam, being the most advanced, decided everything essential was known from the Qur’an… it provided Certainty and The Truth; scientific inquiry was crushed; and, not coincidentally, the various Islamic empires stagnated and were overrun.

And in both the US and the Islamic world today, the argument in several states is over who has the right to teach (Comparative) Religion and history in general… geology and biology and science in general… should it be those secular, agnostic or downright atheistic scientific types, or should it be those for whom Religion has provided Certainty and The Truth?

Let’s have a little more acknowledgement of our ignorance. Uncertainty and free inquiry have always produced better results than Certainty and divinely-revealed Truth.

5 comments on “In Praise of Ignorance

  1. well, said. I would only add though that I’ve seen some arguments (and evidence) that Islam crushed knowledge just as rapidly as Christianity did. There was something I read (now lost in time) that argued that while the first generation under Islam continued as normal, by the second the religious totalitarianism had taken hold and most knowledge other than the Quran was pushed out into the shadow. Said text indicated that the wealth of knowledge that rushed into Europe was from scholars trying to get texts out of the hands of fanatics working to destroy them, or were in fact mainly things from India that got through via the trade routes. How true any of this is, is hard to say, but looking at the patterns of the Church and how the Islamic nations worked in history…I do not find it implausible.

    Personally, I wouldn’t mind if some forms of intelligent design were taught in schools. That said, I’m probably on the bad list with the Creaties as the Atheists are, because I would want them to teach that it could have been done by multiple intelligences, rather than a single one. But then, I figure like the Romans, the more “answers” we have out there, the more reason people will have to question and seek knowledge 🙂


    • Regarding knowledge in the Middle Ages, many Christian scholars risked their lives going “to Toledo”, a small town on the border of Granada and on the road to the great centers of learning in Muslim cities like Cordoba and Granada.

      When the Christian Spanish finally expelled the Muslims (and Jews) from Granada in the Reconquest, those sources of knowledge went back across the Mediterranean to North Africa. But by then (1492, coincidentally) the European Renaissance was bearing fruit of its own, and the world was changing again.


  2. cometkazie says:

    What was the first city with a million inhabitants and when was that figure attained?


    • The general consensus is: Rome by the time of Augustus, end of 1st century BC; closely followed by Alexandria. Not clear if anything reached that size for centuries after, apart from medieval Baghdad.


  3. Oh, I love this! Unfortunately, you’ll be preaching to the converted. (If you’ll pardon the analogy) The idea of the ‘religious state’ is scary for many reasons, a theme found often in SF or fantasy, too.


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