The know-nothing animal: Our costly addiction to willful ignorance

As philosophers have long noted, human beings are remarkable, in part, for being the sort of beings for whom the very fact of being matters. It’s an existentialist observation that sounds very lofty and celebratory until you consider that we are, simultaneously, driven to cover up and deny knowledge about existence, including suffering, destruction, and death. The same wiring that permits us to wonder about being permits us to become experts at hiding difficult knowledge, especially from ourselves.

And, as various religious traditions point out, eveyday life can effectively become perverted into a quest aimed at avoiding uncomfortable truths. Whether through rampant consumerism, workaholism, alcoholism, or obsessive, chronic busyness, the result is a turning away from our selves, a rejection of our perhaps distinctively self-reflective subjectivity. Non-human animals, who generally lack the philosophical or spiritual tendency to brood on the mysteries and tribulations of existence, also appear to be largely immune to the self-deception on which so much human culture and consumption is predicated.

But I do not mean to romanticize supposedly blissfully ignorant beasts. In fact, that is not how I would describe them at all. To be “ignorant” — from the same root as “ignore” — suggests that there’s knowledge of which one potentially could, and, therefore, maybe should, be cognizant. When we speak of ignorant humans, we often have in mind those who, due to some developmental or psychological lack, fail to access knowledge in the expected ways. The information is there, but something about these humans, maybe something they will outgrow or overcome, keeps them from assimilating it.

Non-human animals, though, simply don’t seem to be creatures for whom questions of aging, mortality, and death ever arise. This obviously doesn’t mean that they don’t care about living or have no feelings, but, rather, that existence itself doesn’t seem to be a problem for them as it often is for us. Their relationships to concepts such as time, perhaps even to conceptual thinking itself, don’t seem to make possible such future-oriented ruminations. And the fact that they don’t wax poetic about death or climate change isn’t something to admire or fault them for anymore that we should praise or blame the sky for being blue.

For human beings, though, the tendency to flee from incipient knowledge, though apparently a fact about as, as natural as sweating or singing, is, at some level, also sort-of chosen. Consider all the things one knows about without fully permitting oneself to know: a drug-addicted partner or child, a tsunami of debt waiting on the other side of Christmas, children sobbing in concentration camps, the burning forests and melting glaciers. That pernicious cough, the one that’s been hanging on for months. The one that’s probably nothing to worry about. No, it’s probably nothing at all.

The fact that, for so many of us, the list of partially known, forbidden bits of knowledge is so long should give us pause. After all, the only reason such denial is even possible is because we can hold in our minds hypotheticals, possibilities, conditionals, and non-existent, but unavoidable, future states. Our imaginative and discursive cleverness, at the root of so much humanistic glory, is also the source of our great existential dissembling. But thank god for our capacity to retreat into ignorant bliss, because who could, or would want to, live in a constant barrage of doomsday thoughts? And in the absence of some sort of awareness or mindfulness practice, being swept away by negative mental chatter may feel like the only alternative to self-imposed ignorance.

So, my ability to deceive and unknow may well be the natural flip side of my power to plan and create over time. But even if some capacity for willful ignorance is necessary and adaptive, like the human penchant for sweet foods, we pay a steep price for abusing it. Has it ever been clearer that this is an addiction we can no longer afford? Like the alcoholic who’s just lost another job and another set of friends, we’ve hit rock bottom. And those of us privileged by race, class and geography may now be shocked as well-armed white supremacists, smug plutocrats, and nature itself no longer permit us to ignore what has long been begging for attention: the battle cries, moans, and death rattles just on the other side of these paper thin walls.

One thought on “The know-nothing animal: Our costly addiction to willful ignorance

  1. For Sartre, self-deception seems to be simply part of the human condition. The attempt to be in “good faith” is itself an act of bad faith.

    Pursuing this line of thinking leads to all sorts of interesting questions about the nature of subjectivity!


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