We know for a fact that the pesticides we spray on our crops end up in our grocery stores. We know that rampant consumerism is unraveling the delicate web of life on our planet. We know that collateral losses of civilian casualties make wars criminally unjust. We know that teaching students what to think and not how to think is sterilizing their innate curiosity and creativity. And we know that exploiting the time and labor of our working class is eroding society from within.
But we do these things anyway.
When we go ahead and do something that we know is damaging the living systems we depend on for health, happiness, and a better future, we are demonstrating a willful disregard for the greater good. Alan Watts called it ignórance – where the accent signifies a deliberate intent to act (or not act) when we are fully aware that the consequences are (or will be) detrimental to the well-being of others and even of ourselves.
Genuine ignorance is when we don’t know what we need to know. Ignórance is knowing what we need to know but acting as if we don’t.
And yet, it must also be that something essential – some critical degree of understanding – is absent from the active knowledge set informing our way of life. Maybe this missing element is less about a comprehension of facts than an intuition of something else. I’m using intuition here as referring to understanding gained by direct insight rather than through a discursive process of logical reasoning or drawing inferences from available facts. To see into something means to grasp its inner essence or its place in some greater whole. Such intuition is spontaneous, and the insight it brings typically changes how we see everything else as well.
Our age is unprecedented for the amount of knowledge we possess – or at least for the amount of information we have access to. We can get facts on just about anything by searching the cloud with a smart phone. Whereas not long ago our questions would have stirred curiosity and wonder, maybe inspiring us to imagine what the answer might be or do some research ourselves, today we can get 160,000,000 search results in less than a second. 160,000,000! Who really needs to think anymore?
We’re at a place, however, where our ignórance is sending us, together with the entire planet, to the brink of disaster. Toxic chemicals in our food are switching the genetic code of our bodies and programming them to self-destruct. Byproducts of consumerism are choking the atmosphere, poisoning rivers and oceans, burning rich topsoil into sand, melting the ice caps, swamping seashores, and disrupting global weather patterns. Standardized testing and the industry of turning students into graduates has turned many students into depressed failures instead.
We haven’t been doing these things forever, but it’s as if we can’t not do them now since the landslide of consequences is moving too fast to jump off.
Behind our ignórance are convictions, beliefs about ourselves, others, and the nature of reality that are so closed and rigid as to hold our minds hostage. Something inside us knows that these cramped quarters are far too limited to contain the whole truth, not to mention what can’t even be rendered in language because it’s too fluid, dynamic, and impossible to pin down. But we’ve already made the agreement to trade away our access to reality for the security that convictions promise. The problem is that they can’t deliver on this promise, and no matter how tight and small our convictions become, the insecurity persists.
My diagram illustrates the four strands of human intelligence, what I name our Quadratic Intelligence. These strands come online during distinct critical periods, with physical (VQ) development leading the way, followed closely by the awakening of emotional (EQ) and then, later on, intellectual intelligence (RQ). A fourth strand of spiritual intelligence (SQ) is held open as a possibility, but depending on how things go at earlier stages, many of us may never enjoy the inner peace, creative freedom, and higher wisdom it makes possible. The reason for this will help us get beneath our convictions – which, remember, lie (sic) behind our ignórance.
The first challenge of existence was for our nervous system to match our external conditions with an internal state. A safe, stimulating, and resource-rich environment was matched with an internal state of security, confidence, and curiosity. Conversely, a harmful or resource-deprived environment was matched with an internal state of anxiety, which made our nervous system reactive and hypervigilant. This match of internal state to external conditions is all about calibrating sensitivity and motivating behavior that is adaptive. Anxiety motivates avoidance behavior, reducing exposure to danger and risk, which is nature’s way of helping us stay alive.
When the nervous system is set at higher levels of insecurity (i.e., anxiety) we tend to be overly sensitive to signs of threat. What might otherwise be a display of normal behavior in another individual is misperceived as guile, pretense, or aggression. An adaptive response in this case would be mistrust and suspicion, keeping distance and always ready to head for the exit.
For obvious reasons, an anxious nervous state severely affects the early development of emotional intelligence. We tried to manage our insecurity by clinging to things and people that made us feel safe, pushing away what was unfamiliar and different.
The above diagram depicts an in-turning spiral between the physical nervous system and our emotional intelligence, sucking the psychic energy of consciousness off its intended upward path and into a strangling vortex of insecurity. In some cases the anxiety can be so intense that we are sure our extinction is imminent. But most of us are just insecure enough to work hard at keeping our attachments close by.
So what happens when a large portion of our energy and attention is tied up in the things, people, and life arrangements that help us manage our deeper insecurity? The answer is that we form strong beliefs around them. Beliefs so strong, in fact, as to prevent us from thinking outside the box. Thinking is concrete, binary (either/or), and inflexible, crimping down on latent abilities for abstraction, paradoxical (both/and), and inclusive thought.
But then, in order to carry on with our mind in its box of convictions, we have to learn how to willfully disregard all evidence, logic, and common sense which suggests that what we’re doing is causing harm, or at least is counterproductive to what, deepest down, we really want for ourselves, our children, and the human future.
That’s the price of ignórance.