Journal Entry – Thu Nov 19

I am struggling today! I don’t even want to talk to you right now! But I showed up! (sigh!) Did you hear the one about the five penguins that walked into a bar? Neither did I. 

I’m just going to get straight to the lecture before I change my mind. This started off rough for me but ended well.

Lecture 16: Varieties of Ignorance

Are there things you would prefer not to know? I don’t know if I’d want to know what my children say about me behind my back, but I would need to know if my partner was cheating. Most thinkers don’t view ignorance in this way. They find it deeply problematic because ignorance may very well be the root cause of wrongdoing and suffering. Dispelling ignorance is essential to becoming a good person, finding happiness and liberation from the darkness of the human condition.

The next time someone tells you ignorance is bliss tell them to go to heaven!

The 8th-century Hindu philosopher Shankara, remembered as one of the greatest champions of the Advaita (~ non-secondness in Sanskrit) Vedanta school of philosophy, acknowledged the Upanishads’ authority (a group of texts that commented on and developed the earlier Vedic texts.) Shankara sees his work as closely related to meditation. Through meditation, we achieve genuine insight into brahman or unconditioned reality. Specifically, for Shankara, meditation has nirguna brahman as its object – Meaning brahman without qualities, or the unqualified real. (What!?)

We can characterize nirguna brahman in two ways:

  1. Negatively as in “not this.” or “not that.” (Remember neti neti?)
  2. Saccidananda (being (sac), consciousness (cid), true bliss (ananda) – (OMG! I thought nirguna brahman is supposed to be without qualities)

Eliot Deutsch addresses this seeming duality by saying that saccidananda is a symbol of brahman that’s been formulated by the mind translating its brahman experience. So, consciousness and bliss aren’t a quality of nirguna brahman but the result of experiencing nirguna brahman. According to Shankara, the world is one with nirguna brahman, and nirguna brahman is pure unity, without distinctions or qualities. This means that the world as we experience it is merely an appearance, not reality itself. However, we will only realize this when we become enlightened and see that our everyday experience is, in a sense, like a dream, which is undermined and replaced by wakefulness.

Shankara thinks something causes us to miss what’s ultimately real. That something is maya (the force of illusion or appearance). Maya brings the world as we experience it into existence. Maya has no beginning because time exists only within it; it cannot be thought because it constrains thinking; it cannot be described because all language depends on it. As a result, maya is and remains mysterious, lying outside the bounds of reason in much the same way that brahman does. 

The 12th-century Hindu philosopher Ramanuja has several sophisticated arguments against Shankara’s account; his most interesting and powerful idea focuses on Shankara’s understanding of ignorance itself. He recognizes that Shankara wants to understand ignorance not as a property of something but as a negation. Ramanuja thinks Shankara’s “theory of ignorance is altogether untenable.”

Ramanuja notes that there are actually two ways of understanding ignorance as a negation. The first is “non-knowledge of the true nature of brahman.” The second is “the [mistaken] view of the reality of the apparent world.” According to Ramanuja, however, both options cause problems for Shankara.

BTW – All this talk is reminding me of The Matrix (1999)

The first option fails because enlightenment and ignorance have different intentional objects—enlightenment is about brahman, while ignorance is about maya. This is a problem, Ramanuja claims because ignorance can be the negation of enlightenment only if they refer to the same object. (Meaning we can only be ignorant about something. For example, I can know what I had for breakfast but be clueless about the weather. My cluelessness about the weather is irrelevant to breakfast because my knowledge and ignorance are of two different objects.)

In the case of the second option, ignorance and knowledge do have the same intentional object. Both enlightenment and ignorance are about brahman. The problem with this understanding of ignorance, according to Ramanuja, is that once we remove what’s getting in the way – namely, maya – we don’t reveal the essence of brahman. Instead, we simply get rid of maya. To delve into these arguments further, imagine this scenario: A person wakes from a dream and sublates her dream experience. In doing this, the dream world completely dissolves, and she comes to realize that this world is real, not the dream world.

I’m slightly confused, but it’s ok. I can know and not know while, at the same time, I can do or not do nothing with the knowledge of non-knowledge that I don’t have. I hope you understand!

The Roots of Ignorance

It might be worth explaining ignorance as something produced by psychological and social factors, rather than merely saying individuals are ignorant because they lack knowledge.

It is natural to think of ignorance as the product of social structures or practices that routinely blind us to the truth. This is perhaps part of the story about why it was so hard, for instance, to move from the geocentric astronomical model to the heliocentric model (earth center vs sun center universe). Related to this, however, is a more problematic sense of social ignorance.

This is related to what the philosopher Miranda Fricker calls testimonial injustice. Testimonial injustice happens when someone doesn’t receive the credence they deserve because they belong to a marginalized group. People from marginalized groups suffer from this kind of social ignorance in many ways. They are harmed because their ability to communicate information and impart knowledge is undermined in a way that degrades them as human beings. They are also harmed when they are treated harshly and unjustly as a result of having their testimony dismissed.

Gaslighting: One type of harm that results from testimonial injustice is related to the phenomenon of gaslighting. The term gaslighting comes from the 1944 movie Gaslight. In that movie, the character Gregory manipulates his wife Paula into believing that she’s going crazy. In acts of gaslighting, the gaslighter not only refuses to give someone’s testimony the proper credence. The gaslighter causes the person to question their own beliefs and knowledge. In cases of gaslighting, people are harmed by being made to feel ignorant when they are not.

Understanding the Dark Side of Human Nature

In cases of testimonial injustice, ignorance is a complex and harmful social phenomenon. To counteract this kind of ignorance, we have to uproot prejudice, empower the marginalized, and work hard for social change. This task can be tackled in various practical ways. For example, the philosopher Hilde Lindemann Nelson has suggested that we use counter-stories to offset the master narratives that make testimonial injustice and gaslighting possible. Counter-stories are narratives that we can construct as correctives to the flawed representations that harm marginalized and oppressed people.

Nelson considers the case of a group of nurses whose identities were partly determined by the stories the doctors told about them. These stories suggested that the nurses’ work was “touchy-feely” while the work of the doctors was “technical.” This touchy-feely narrative minimized nursing work and marginalized the nurses, causing damage. In response to this, the nurses countered these destructive stories with stories of their own.

Counter-stories are a powerful way to counteract ignorance, but counteracting any ignorance is complicated by some psychological tendencies we have. One of these tendencies is the Dunning-Kruger effect. This is a cognitive bias that makes it very hard for incompetent people to recognize their incompetence. As researcher David Dunning puts it:

An ignorant mind is precisely not a spotless, empty vessel, but one that’s filled with the clutter of irrelevant or misleading life experiences, theories, facts, intuitions, strategies, algorithms, heuristics, metaphors, and hunches that regrettably have the look and feel of useful and accurate knowledge.

Understanding the Dark Side of Human Nature

Good to know!

This means that ignorance can often feel like expertise in a way that makes it very hard for people to recognize their mistaken views. One way we might counteract these erroneous views, as Dunning suggests, is to try to disarm people’s misconceptions by asking questions, pointing out misbeliefs, and helping the ignorant come to see the error of their ways.

The problem with this way of counteracting ignorance is that it falls afoul of another psychological tendency – the backfire effect. When confronted with facts or evidence or arguments that conflict with what we already believe, our beliefs often don’t weaken in response to this information; instead, our potentially mistaken beliefs actually tend to get stronger. Ignorance about things we care about is incredibly hard to counteract with arguments and facts – the tools philosophers often employ. 

(Source: The Great Courses – Understanding the Dark Side of Human Nature)

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