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The Price of Ignórance

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.

 

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When the Time is Right

Reasonable_PassionateWould you consider yourself more reasonable or passionate? Do you think things through before you act, or do your feelings inspire your actions? Is it a priority for you to maintain objectivity as you make your way through life, or is engagement with the moving stream of experience a higher value for you? Finally, do you more often plan and choose what you do next, or are you one who is moved by urgency and tends to see the options you had only in hindsight?

Most likely you will say “sometimes” to each of these, as well you should, since they characterize an inherent duality in the human brain. We are familiar with this duality as the opposition between thinking and feeling, and sometimes it’s hard not to divide the world into hard-headed thinkers and soft-hearted feelers. That’s when the inherent duality of consciousness breaks down and gets played out as a dualism in reality – no doubt the creative seedbed of mythology, religion, art, politics, and even a good deal of science insofar as it uses logic (as theory) to bring the mysteries of existence to light.

But “sometimes” doesn’t mean “equally,” and even a casual observation of yourself and other people will notice that each of us favors one of these more than the other. Just because I might be more reasonable doesn’t mean that I can’t be passionate. And if you are more the passionate type, this doesn’t necessarily imply that you can’t also be reasonable. It’s more true to say that reason and passion are inversely related, which means that more of one entails less of the other. Their dynamic opposition, and the inescapably paradoxical nature of experience as caught in their creative tension, is what makes it all so interesting.

Because I prefer being reasonable to being passionate – though, again, there are things I’m very passionate about – I’m going to analyze this opposition into two distinct personality types. I’ll refer to my own type as “high road,” and because I don’t want to suggest that passionate folks take the low road, I’ll name their type “deep stream.”

In the diagram above you should notice that I have not placed cognition (thinking) directly opposite to emotion (feeling), as popular psychology tends to do. Instead, the expressive urgency with which strong emotion drives us to act out is counterbalanced by the freedom to choose, in what is known as volition. For its part, cognition stretches across the system, although it intersects with (or intervenes on) the high road sooner in the process leading to action than it does with the deep stream. This is the distinction I was getting at when I asked whether you tend to weigh options beforehand (by planning and foresight) or more often become aware only later of what options you had at the time (in hindsight and review).

All of us are oriented by life itself on the specific challenges prompting us to act or react to the situations in which we find ourselves. The evolutionary idea of “fitness” refers to the way in which an organism’s behavior adapts to the conditions of its environment in order to maximize its chances of survival and reproductive success. If we loosen up our definition of behavior to include every kind of action, from physical movement of the body to glandular changes in the secretion of hormones, then it’s easier to understand how the quality, direction, and ultimate success of life turns on behavior.

If action is the ultimate outcome, then motivation is what moves us to behave in the ways we do. As we consider our own experience, we are aware that our motivation in a given instance might follow the high road of premeditated reasons, or be pulled into the deep stream of compelling passions – again in some combination, but stronger on one side than the other. Although my language makes it seem like it’s one or the other, I think we can all agree that volitional goals and emotional drives are intermixed in the action-path of our daily behavior.

Cognition, or conscious thought, gets involved sooner in the process along the high road of volition. When we are weighing our options and trying to determine which is more aligned with our longer aim, thought is assuming a vantage point above and outside the specific allure of the individual options themselves. This objectivity is critically important when we’re taking the high road, since it enables us to detach emotionally from something and make a rational appraisal of its value relative to our larger plan or purpose. It certainly is the case that much of our progress as a species is due to this ability for taking an objective view on the challenges and opportunities life brings our way.

But we aren’t just bloodless cyborgs calculating the probability of favorable outcomes according to preprogrammed logical algorithms. Our emotions are what make life really interesting, if also painfully complicated at times. Conscious thought typically shows up farther downstream for passionate types. Being “in the flow” of inspiration and spontaneous feeling is a higher value than trying to be so terribly deliberate about it all. But cognition does show up, and when it does, the quality of experience is not about objectivity but engagement. Thought at this level is metaphorical, fluid, and shape-shifting. To be engaged in what’s going on enables us to respond intuitively and empathically to more subtle signals. Think again about our progress as a species, and reflect on how much of it is the product of creative imagination, artistic inspiration, and spontaneous feeling.

All of this is not intended to pit one side against the other or force you to choose between them. There’s too much at risk when we glorify one side of ourselves and condemn the other, especially when our pathological divisions play out in the social realm. We elevate the favored part of ourselves to divine status and project the disowned part into our enemy, where it can alienated, vilified, and attacked.

We need to be reasonable and passionate, if we have any hope of being happy and healthy. There are times when we will benefit from taking a step back and working through our options with the big picture in mind. But there are also times when we need to jump in and let the spontaneity of life pull us from our well-laid plans.

Wisdom is knowing when the time is right.

 

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