About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Platonic ignorance

by Massimo Pigliucci

Plato famously maintained that knowledge is “justified true belief,” meaning that to claim the status of knowledge our beliefs (say, that the earth goes around the sun, rather than the other way around) have to be both true (to the extent this can actually be ascertained) and justified (i.e., we ought to be able to explain to others why we hold such beliefs, otherwise we are simply repeating the — possibly true — beliefs of someone else).*

It is the “justified” part that is humbling, since a moment’s reflection will show that a large number of things we think we know we actually cannot justify, which means that we are simply trusting someone else’s authority on the matter. (Which is okay, as long as we realize and acknowledge that to be the case.)

I was recently intrigued, however, not by Plato’s well known treatment of knowledge, but by his far less discussed views on the opposite of knowledge: ignorance. The occasion for these reflections was a talk by Katja Maria Vogt of Columbia University, delivered at CUNY’s Graduate Center, where I work. Vogt began by recalling the ancient skeptics’ attitude toward ignorance, as a “conscious positive stand,” meaning that skepticism is founded on one’s realization of his own ignorance. In this sense, of course, Socrates’ contention that he knew nothing becomes neither a self-contradiction (isn’t he saying that he knows that he knows nothing, thereby acknowledging that he knows something?), nor false modesty. Socrates was simply saying that he was aware of having no expertise while at the same time devoting his life to the quest for knowledge.

Vogt was particularly interested in Plato’s concept of “transferred ignorance,” which the ancient philosopher singled out as morally problematic. Transferred ignorance is the case when someone imparts “knowledge” that he is not aware is in fact wrong. Let us say, for instance, that I tell you that vaccines cause autism, and I do so on the basis of my (alleged) knowledge of biology and other pertinent matters, while, in fact, I am no medical researcher and have only vague notions of how vaccines actually work (i.e., imagine my name is Jenny McCarthy).

The problem, for Plato, is that in a sense I would be thinking of myself as smarter than I actually am, which of course carries a feeling of power over others. I wouldn’t simply be mistaken in my beliefs, I would be mistaken in my confidence in those beliefs. It is this willful ignorance (after all, I did not make a serious attempt to learn about biology or medical research) that carries moral implications.

So for Vogt the ancient Greeks distinguished between two types of ignorance: the self-aware, Socratic one (which is actually good) and the self-oblivious one of the overconfident person (which is bad). Need I point out that far too little of the former and too much of the latter permeate current political and social discourse? Of course, I’m sure a historian could easily come up with a plethora of examples of bad ignorance throughout human history, all the way back to the beginning of recorded time, but it does strike me that the increasingly fact-free public discourse on issues varying from economic policies to scientific research has brought Platonic transferred ignorance to never before achieved peaks (or, rather, valleys).

And I suspect that this is precisely because of the lack of appreciation of the moral dimension of transferred or willful ignorance. When politicians or commentators make up “facts” — or disregard actual facts to serve their own ideological agendas — they sometimes seem genuinely convinced that they are doing something good, at the very least for their constituents, and possibly for humanity at large. But how can it be good — in the moral sense — to make false knowledge one’s own, and even to actively spread it to others?

One obvious objection here is that many of the people I am referring to simply do not realize that they are ignorant. But that is precisely Plato’s point. When the Delphi’s Oracle admonished people to “Know Thyself” it presumably meant to know your own limits, as Socrates did. And I’m pretty sure that Jenny McCarthy, to go back to my previous example, knows perfectly well that she is not a medical researcher or a biologist. She just doesn’t care because she is under the delusion — reinforced by her inability to know herself — that her feelings about what happened to her son somehow trump actual scientific evidence about the (lack of) connection between vaccines and autism.

Perhaps, then, climate scientists, evolutionary biologists, pro-vaccine activists, and so forth, might consider adding a further argument to their arsenal: it’s not just that they are (as far as we can tell) factually right, it’s that their opponents are taking a morally reprehensible stance when they make themselves vehicles for transferring ignorance. After all, as Plato put it, “Ignorance [is] the root and stem of all evil.” Well, maybe not all, but certainly quite a bit of it.


* I am aware of Edmund L. Gettier’s famous critique of the Platonic definition of knowledge, but I will ignore it for the purposes of this discussion. I think there are good counter-objections that have been raised against Gettier’s critique, though I also consider the whole debate one more example of progress in Philosophy!


  1. So we go from "You're wrong, and here's why" to "You're wrong, here's why, and here's why it makes you a bad person". I think I like it. :-)

  2. I know of an old one-liner put down to be used
    in the course of an argument, which I think is
    kind of funny, namely:

    "I ADMIT that I am ignorant . . . and that puts
    me one step ahead of YOU!" :-)

  3. I imagine that Jenny McCarthy believes that scientists who argue against vaccines as a cause of autism are the ones being overconfident. I strongly suspect that she vaguely believes that something (philosophy, religion, "common sense") has shown that science doesn't really prove anything, and therefore scientists do no possess authority. Most of us don't think Jenny McCarthy has any authority but I doubt those who think she does don't think I have the authority to dismiss her. I'm not altogether certain how explaining there is apparently no such thing as knowledge will help in convincing people that Jenny McCarthy, whoever she is, is talking out of her expertise.

    Following the link to the progress in philosophy site led me to the Gettier argument. The Carey example seems to me to have a couple of problems. The minor one has to do with justified acceptance of authority. Television networks habitually broadcast sports events reliably. The Carey example has essentially introduced the problem of deception (in the guise of a "glitch") without justifying the notion of a deceiver.

    The more important problem is with "true." This so far as I know generally means corresponding to reality. The viewer deceived by the tape may coincidentally agree with a single true fact, the identity of the winner, despite the deception. But the deceived viewer does not cannot correctly describe the game. He or she only can describe the deceptive game broadcast instead of the real game. The truth is the whole thing, not just a single part. It seems to me that Carey's argument depends on an equivocation about what the truth in this case is, switching from the common version which means all the facts, to a polemical version that selects only a single fact.

    Further, I'm not altogether certain how any conception of knowledge can rule out the opinions of the live audience to the sporting event, instead of an abstract, disembodied ego. They have superior justification, therefore their judgments as to truth count for more.

  4. @ Massimo

    > it’s not just that they are (as far as we can tell) factually right, it’s that their opponents are taking a morally reprehensible stance when they make themselves vehicles for transferring ignorance. After all, as Plato put it, “Ignorance [is] the root and stem of all evil.” Well, maybe not all, but certainly quite a bit of it. <

    Define "evil."

  5. evil=grevious harm done to or by humans. not necessarily a complete definition but a decent first stab IMHO

    1. evil = grievous harm done to or by humans, INTENTIONALLY AND WITH NO REGRET.

    2. Unless you've done that to an evil human?

    3. No good/evil/right/wrong. Only socially adaptive/socially maladaptive.

    4. And I would argue that the widest possible definition of "society" will produce the best results for the most members.

    5. @ J. Knecht

      > No good/evil/right/wrong. Only socially adaptive/socially maladaptive. <

      > And I would argue that the widest possible definition of "society" will produce the best results for the most members. <

      If there isn't any good or evil, then why should we endeavor to "produce the best results for the most members"? IOW, why shouldn't I seek to look out merely for my own self-interest?

    6. It's in your self-interest to cooperate when it's not in your self-interest to compete, unless of course you are cooperating to compete with another group of cooperative competitors made up of ultimately self interested individuals.

    7. @ Roy

      > It's in your self-interest to cooperate when it's not in your self-interest to compete, unless of course you are cooperating to compete with another group of cooperative competitors made up of ultimately self interested individuals. <

      The point is that this assumes some kind of "good" - namely, the pursuit of self-interest.

    8. Not really. It's in our self interest to pursue the good. All philosophy at bottom tries to tell us what that good is, or can be, or should be, or if it is, it shouldn't be. It doesn't tell us to pursue self interest to pursue self interest.

    9. @ Roy

      > It's in our self interest to pursue the good. <

      That's the point.

    10. Which, either way you say that, is meaningless. It's in a scorpions interest for example to be a scorpion. You might want to tell a scorpion that it's not good to be a scorpion. It doesn't help it.

  6. The transferred ignorance concept seems close to (tho' maybe not quite the same as) Harry Frankfurt's idea (q.v.)of bullshit: claims made by those who don't really care and may not know whether their claims are even probably true; what they care about is that the claims tend to advance their agenda.

  7. A more complicated problem is that the ignorant will often point to some 'experts' who allegedly confirm their views - there will always be some doctor out there who is anti-vaccines, a climate scientist who claims that global warming is a lie, or a historian who denies the holocaust. This is where it gets more difficult - to explain to the ignorant why 'his' scientists are wrong and why he should believe the majority or the consensus.How would you do that?

  8. And consider the latest book on science and ignorance:

  9. Some time ago I read a wonderful article on this topic which has shaped my thinking ever since:

    Phillip G. Armour (2000), "The five orders of ignorance", Communications of the ACM, Vol. 43 No. 10, Pages 17-20.

    Armour defines the five orders as follows:

    1) There are things you don't know, but you don't know what they are, and you're not aware that you're missing something.

    2) There's something you don't know, and you don't know what it is. However, you are aware that something is missing.

    3) There's something you don't know, but you think you know what it is.

    4) There's something you don't know, but you're pretty sure what it is, and you're working on it.

    5) You are temporarily in a state in which you know everything you need to know. (And you know it.)

    1. Reminds me of the quote:

      " In some ways we feel that we are as confused as ever, but we think we are confused on a higher level and about more important things."

  10. If you weren't ignorant, you'd be dead. But I could be wrong.

  11. Massimo,

    I was once at a conference on W.K. Clifford & Evidentialism. In a discussion after a talk somebody charged Clifford's famous maxim (i.e. "It is wrong everywhere and at all times for anyone to believe anything upon insufficient evidence") as being too stringent, requiring too much of epistemic agents since too many of our beliefs are based upon insufficient evidence.

    My rejoinder was this: We ought not to believe all that we do in fact believe. Rather we ought to be agnostic about a great many more propositions than we are. We simply should not believe very much (relatively speaking), and what we do believe for good reason we should consciously hold as defeasible and subject to revision. As you argue, ignorance, if known, is a good thing, but the ignorance which results from wholesale adoption of beliefs contrary to the evidence is pernicious.

    1. The problem with ignorance is that none of it is known to be pernicious.

    2. Not true. For instance, we know that ignorance fuels the anti-vaccine movement, and that the anti-vaccine causes more than its fair share of harm. Likewise for science denial in general.

    3. Correction: "... that the anti-vaccine movement causes more than its fair share of harm."

    4. But are you sure you know that to be true, or that anti-vaccine in the end will never serve a greater evolutionary purpose? Your opinions always seem to have an air of certainty about them, which means you must know that you know all that you will ever know or need to know in the otherwise unknowable future.

    5. Roy,

      well, as you may guess, I think that "evolutionary purpose" is an oxymoron. But I don't claim certain knowledge of that, only a highly informed opinion...

    6. Roy,

      Given the data on the efficacy of vaccines, the lack of evidence & illogic upon which the anti-vaccers base their beliefs, and the epidemiological evidence which shows that abstention from readily available vaccines is correlated with increased incidences of death & health problems, my belief that the anti-vaccine movement is pernicious is justified, and any belief to the contrary is not.

      Now here you are picking out a particular sense of 'to know' that I am not using: I am not claiming that I 'know' with apodeictic certainty that the anti-vaccine movement will not, in the end, result in more good than harm; though, even if it does, the belief that it will is not justified by the evidence.

      But of course, outside of logics & mathematics, I do not 'know' anything with apodeictic certainty. Rather, in the sense in which I and most others use the verb 'to know' p means, at a minimum, (1) to believe that p is true, and (2) to believe that p is true because the available evidence makes p more likely to be true than not.

    7. Massimo, some day you may realize the difference between having a purpose and serving one.

      Eamon, "know," as p, doesn't mean to most others that, at a minimum, p is believed to be true. At a minimum it's an educated guess. Now, some are content to assume the maximum, putting truth as their first best guess. I'd say that reflects at least a minimum of ignorance either way.

    8. It occurs to me to add that if it doesn't have or serve a purpose, you shouldn't call it evolution at all. It would simply be the unstoppable process of sequential change.

    9. Eamon, I would simplify the issue by saying that our base-state is belief. We aim at knowledge. All future events are open to hypothesis, and hypotheses are beliefs that are as strictly conditioned as possible.

      Religious texts are full of belief and little relaiable knowledge. Consequently, if our aim is knowledge, we must extend our beliefs more into hypotheses than spirtuality. The base of belief remains open to all, to drive accumulation of knowledge, but one becomes mature at a certain point.

      Nevertheless, Atheism is a fallacy. It is illogical to negate beliefs of the private individual, the universal driver, except by logic, and if they say God is unknowable when cornered by logic, then say "I have no idea what you are talking about" and walk away to pursue knowledge.

      If one believes to get knowledge, then to believe one way or the other about God is illogical or lacks Parsimony. One should allow both private beliefs and an objective public world, but value the public world and totally ignore private Gods.

    10. This article made me think of Clifford as well. For those who haven't read his "Ethics of Belief," you can find it here: http://www.infidels.org/library/historical/w_k_clifford/ethics_of_belief.html

  12. What's the point of linking to the photo of McCarthy rather than, for example, her webpage or Wikipedia page? The only answer that I can see is mildly to moderately sexist -- since McCarthy was a Playboy playmate, she must not be a reliable expert on autism and vaccines.

    1. Humor? You can (obviously) do your own Wiki search on her...

  13. Sir, is this not simply the difference between a lie and a canard, intentional deception and mere quacking?

    I for one appreciated the link.

  14. Yes all are ignorant, Socrates is likely right. Didn't Plato highlight in the Republic how we can counter this pervasive ignorance by encouraging everyone to be just, meaning everyone should do their own job and let others do theirs. Let the scientist provide the scientific evidence while those who aren't scientists remain quite, preventing any harm from spreading out of their ignorance. But wait! This only works when people know what is just. But who in the public domain teaches what justice is? I know we go to a doctor to be instructed on how best to eat and live (most don't heed this advise), while we hire a carpenter to build our house and electrician to do our electrical work but who do we go to to learn what is justice, justice in a society and justice in ourselves? Is this most valuable skill taught in public schools? What happens when people neglect how to be just and moral but go on and obtain great skills in public relations, media, economics, science, politics, etc? Is it likely they will cause all kinds of mischief to themselves and society? Isn't this morally wrong to skip over what is just and content yourself with supposed knowledge, spreading this ignorance throughout the community?

  15. Don't worry about the myth and general strangeness of those times. Plato is great for one reason: his theory of Universals & Particulars.

    He distinguished a real world of particular examples and an immaterial world of their universal forms. That is the distinction between real feelings of our senses, and our ethereal thoughts as ideas attending them.

    In awareness, we create real qualities of vision, sound and so on by senses, and they are framed by ethereal ideas about them. Neuronal inputs flow from real cortices for each sense and into ethereal cortices shared between all senses.

    There is cortical processing for real qualities of facts as particulars (for that table over there), and it flows to cortical processing shared between all senses for shared properties that we recognize as 'that table over there'.

    Plato correctly identified the fundamental distinction between specific qualities (particulars) and their general properties (universals). This is the disntiction that exists in our creation of awareness by processing real factual qualities first, and then their ethereal properties shered between all senses (providing meaning as 'that table over there').

    Plato stands among the greatest contributors to human thought by that distinction alone, IMHO

  16. Yes, let's throw McCarthy in the slammer for 5 years for falling prey to post hoc ergo propter hoc. Fair expansion of the law will have kids in Logic class straightening up quick. Maybe 2 more for a hasty generalization.

    We will banish evil from the earth.


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