We’re happier being ignorant. We’re happier eluding ourselves from the truth…
Prior to reading this post, it’s helpful to read this fantastic essay by Errol Morris entitled The Anosognosic’s Dilemma: Something’s Wrong but You’ll Never Know What It Is. It’s long, but sure worth the read, as well as what the Dunning-Kruger Effect is.
First, some quick definitions and basic ideas:
For years, I have had my own version of the story of the expulsion from the Garden of Eden. In my version, God appears before Adam and Eve, and tells them that they have disobeyed Him. He admonishes them, and they will have to leave immediately. Everything will be completely grotesque, grim, ghastly and gruesome outside of Eden. God spares them no detail. Adam and Eve, both crestfallen and fearful, prepare to leave, but God, feeling perhaps a little guilty for the severity of his decision, looks at them and says, “Yes, things will be bad out there, but I’m giving you self-deception so you’ll never notice.”
When God created man (and woman), he gave them the ability to perceive the world, but withheld from them the ability to understand it. We could come up with one cockamamie theory after another, but real understanding would always elude us. It was mean-spirited on God’s part. And to make matters even worse, God gave us the desire but not the wherewithal to make sense of experience. One might easily foresee that this would lead to unending, unmitigated frustration and suffering. But here’s where self-deception, anosognosia and the Dunning-Kruger Effect step in. We wouldn’t be able to make sense of anything, but we would never be aware of that fact.
A process of denying or rationalizing away the relevance, significance, or importance of opposing evidence and logical argument. Self-deception involves convincing oneself of a truth (or lack of truth) so that one does not reveal any self-knowledge of the deception.
A physiological brain damage that solicits a deficit of self-awareness, a condition in which a person who suffers certain disability seems unaware of the existence of his or her disability. The word comes from the Greek words nosos, “disease”, and gnosis, “knowledge”, with an- or a- as a negative prefix.
A cognitive bias in which unskilled individuals suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly rating their ability much higher than average. This bias is attributed to a metacognitive inability of the unskilled to recognize their mistakes.
An explanation of what these ideas come to:
What Morris essentially brilliantly unmasks and digs into is the connection between these three ideas which he links together: Self-deception, Anosognosia, and the Dunning-Kruger Effect. His essay analyzes what these three things are, how they relate to each other, and how the three are all so similar yet so vastly different at the same time. One unifying theme throughout these three ideas, despite their psychological or physiological origins, is the overreaching idea of ignorance.
There are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say, we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don’t know.
— United States Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld
That’s what resonated and intrigued me the most. There are supposedly four ways we can understand things in this world:
- known knowns,
- unknown knowns,
- known unknowns,
- and unknowns unknowns.
But what about a fifth category? Jumping from the idea of Anosognosia, Morris suggests that there is that fifth state: unknowable unknowns. He writes, “An unknown unknown that must be forever unknown. An unknowable unknown. A disease that masks its own existence—one with pitiful and even tragic consequences… If you have it, then you can never know you have it.” An unknowable unknown can never be brought to light as an unknown and may never be known, yet it exists alongside the other four all the same. It haunts us, and may very well define our lives—yet we cannot do anything about it.
That, by far, is what we should fear the most. Right off the bat, all of this crap might sound like… well, crap, but think about how these apply to daily life.
- The known knowns are the things we know we know. I know that I know that 1 + 1 = 2. I also know that I know that Obama is the President of the United States, or that we are currently in the year 2013.
- Unknown knowns are those which we used to know but have forgotten. I used to know how to find a derivative, as well as I used to know how to fold a good paper airplane. These are things that I have forgotten, but once knew.
- Known unknowns are things that I have never known but also know that I do not know. I know that I do not know the exact figure of America’s debt at the moment. I also know that I do not know who the president of say, Italy, is right now, nor do I know how to fly an airplane. Yet these are unknowns that I can find out and make known.
- Unknown unknowns are those things that I do not know that I do not know and thus cannot pursue making them known. I do not know what there may be out there that I do not know I do not know. These unknowns may be brought to light to me by another person or the news, for example. What was previously an unknown unknown to me was that the British considered burning the Forbidden City instead of the Summer Palace in Beijing after the Second Opium War, yet my Chinese history professor brought this to light for me. Prior to that, I did not know that I did not know this piece of information, so I couldn’t have figured it out even if I wanted to pursue it—I wouldn’t know what I was pursuing.
- Unknowable unknowns take #4, the unknown unknowns, an extra leap forward. Not only do we not know that we do not know something, but there would be not way that it can be brought to light. So there would not exist any history professor to tell me anything in this case. Not only would I not know that information, I would never care to find out (as I do not know I do not know it), but there also is no person to ever tell me this truth.
Quick suggestion. If all of that confused you (it confused me by just typing it), read it aloud or mouth it. It helps.
My new ideas:
So the first four are all states of understanding that we deal with in our ever day lives, things we come across, overcome, forget, or never bother to figure out.
So this fifth one is what has completely fascinated me, as well as bring out some fear. Think about it. There exists some unknowable unknown out there that not only will we never know, and not only can we never go out to find it, we never know that we need to go out to find it. Imagine how breathtakingly large of a category this is. This information exists—and affects our lives to a certain extent, but not a single person knows about it.
Even huge topics, such as religion, death, or consciousness don’t fall into this fifth category. Take death. If you’ve read some of my previous essays, you’ll know how enthralled I am (and fearful of) the idea of death and what it really entails. But that only falls into the category of known unknowns, and on this ranking list of “importance” that I’ve created, it’s relatively tame.
So there’s something bigger than life or death out there somehow having resonating effects on our lives. I could speculate on what those things may be, but then those would automatically revert to being an known unknown—but even if it is something that I could speculate on, it would have never been an unknowable unknown in the first place.
But here’s the gist of what I want to suggest—do we even care?
Known knowns and known unknowns directly affect my life right now. Unknown knowns affected my pasted, and unknown unknowns presumably affects my future if it ever crosses my path. Who gives a damn? Do you care that there are things out there that you don’t know that doesn’t have a perceivable impact on your life?
Aside from being forced to sit in a science class in high school, does it really matter to me in the way I live my life on what composes an atom? Or the fact that an atom can be broken down? Or the fact that this is something that I’m taking up my time and seemingly wasting yours talking about?
You don’t really want to know that there are unknown unknowns or known unknowns in life, much less than you would ever want to know that there exists unknowable unknowns. Maybe that’s just it. Maybe we’re better off being more ignorant than we could be. Technically, if we amassed all the “knowledge” there is to be had from every single human mind on this planet today as well as in the past and future, there would be an incredible surplus of thoughts and knowledge that do not pertain to our lives. We can be born, grow up, live, grow old, and die without knowing probably 99% of that information.
I don’t want to know what those unknowable unknowns are, because they can only add more trouble to life, presumably. Every time humans have uncovered more unknowns, no matter what sort, we’ve managed to make life more difficult for ourselves. Apparently I’ve heard that there were people who’ve existed in the past not needing this technology thing nor something more substantial—how about government, science, and religion?
Sarcasm aside, it’s entirely possible to erase much of the known knowns in our minds and still live a perfectly decent life; decent being we are born, we grow up, we live, we grow old, and we die. That’s what life truly is, isn’t it? Death. The purpose of life, from a pessimistic, depressing point of view.
Yet my point here is that there is not only no need for us to know these unknowable unknowns, there is no reason for us to care about them. Anything that you may say we do not know or cannot find the answer to technically would be a known unknown. We do not know the key to immortality. We know that unknown. Can we find it? Probably not. But we know that it eludes us. (With the whole idea of singularity, however, it might be closer than we think. But that’s a whole other ball game.)
So what are you meant to take away from this ridiculously long essay?
Congratulations, ignorance truly is bliss. Whether or not we’re better off being ignorant is one thing, if we’re happier being ignorant is another.
With the Dunning-Kruger Effect, one may be perfectly happy being ignorant about some truth. With Anosognosia, we’re unconsciously, yet purposefully, being ignorant. With self-deception, we somehow know the truth is in us, yet we elect to ignore it.
But why do we do that? Why are these three things… “even a thing?” Why, as Morris puts it, has God given us the opportunity to perceive, yet never truly understand?
We’re happier being ignorant. We’re happier eluding ourselves from the truth. A child is more care-free and cheerful than an adult is. We look back unto our childhoods, wishing that we could relieve that bliss and be as happy as we were when we were children. Why is that? Because as children, we were ignorant (I’m generalizing here, but I hope you follow me for the sake of making this point). As children, we don’t have to worry about the petty things such as getting a job and paying taxes, nor do we have to worry about interpersonal relationships (for the most part), or about our own health (someone else does it for us!). Above all, we were ignorant enough to not need to worry about the future.
And not worrying about the future is a huge ignorance—and bliss—we can never avoid today.
We’re always looking to our past for a happier time, a time that will only consistently avoid us in our futures. We set the bar pretty high—nothing can really top ignorance (cue Buddhism and enlightenment).
Morris says that “something’s wrong but you’ll never know what it is,” but I’m going to take that a step further and say:
Something’s wrong, but you’ll never want to know what it is.
Errol Morris, “The Anosognosic’s Dilemma: Something’s Wrong but You’ll Never Know What It Is”
Wikipedia articles on: Self-deception, Anosognosia, and the Dunning-Kruger Effect.
Donald Rumsfeld, “Unknown unknowns” quote.
I spend a good chunk of this post taking ideas from Morris’s essay and breaking it down so I can insert my thoughts onto the matter, so it’s not meant to be plagiarism by any means—simply framing the context for which I can write.