Thursday, February 15, 2018

Daniel R. DeNicola's "Understanding Ignorance"

Daniel R. DeNicola is Chair and Professor of Philosophy at Gettysburg College and the author of Learning to Flourish: A Philosophical Exploration of Liberal Education.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his latest book, Understanding Ignorance: The Surprising Impact of What We Don't Know, and reported the following:
From page 99:
…[I]t is not always the coming-to-hold-this-belief that is the problem; it is the reflective maintaining of such beliefs along with the refusal to disbelieve or discard them that may be voluntary and ethically wrong.

If the content of a belief is judged morally wrong, it is also thought to be false. The belief that one race is clearly inferior or not fully human is not only a morally repugnant, racist tenet; it is also thought to be a false claim—though not by the believer. The falsity of a belief is a necessary but not sufficient condition for a belief to be morally wrong. Neither is the ugliness of the content sufficient for a belief to be morally wrong. There are morally repugnant truths, sadly, but believing them does not make them so. Their moral ugliness is embedded in the world, not in one’s belief about the world.
One of the virulent forms of ignorance is willful ignorance. Its flat rejection of challenging evidence and ideas is often bolstered by false knowledge. In nearly all cases, the willfully ignorant are engaged in the protection of some prior belief or value commitment, an ideology or doctrine. It masks ignorance with false knowledge.

Those who refuse to know, when cornered, sometimes assert a right to believe whatever they want. It is a hollow claim. My page 99 quotation, which is drawn from a section on the ethics of belief, asserts our responsibilities regarding our beliefs. Perhaps we seldom “choose to believe,” but we do have epistemic responsibility for what we believe. Some beliefs are morally repugnant; some are ridiculous and demonstrably false or unjustified; and some are merely stubborn refusals to assent to uncomfortable truths. Some believers think they are wisely skeptical of mainstream “truths”; that they have special access to the “real truth”—usually a conspiracy theory of some sort. Ironically, these misguided attempts to honor the “real truth” are little more than ignorance in elaborate disguise.

Today, we have unprecedented access to vast human knowledge and real-time information. There has never been a better time to learn. Unfortunately, our society is also being engulfed by a culture of ignorance that is characterized by widespread, reprehensible ignorance of matters that affect our ability to live together; by the rejection of expertise in favor of ideology and populist opinion; by the willful ignorance of partisanship, religious intolerance, and privilege. As a result, our society spends far too much time, energy, and capital coping with the willfully ignorant and their impact on policy and practice.

At the heart of this problem is the urgent need to respect the truth. I do not mean that we need to act as though we possess the Truth. That is, in fact, the problem with those who refuse to recognize their own ignorance, the possibility of error, or the potential justification for altering their beliefs. Rather, I mean the ideal of truth, the search for the truth, must guide us; only that permits genuine deliberation, genuine inquiry. Beliefs are factive; they aspire to the truth. It is wrong to use them as epistemic pillows to comfort us in our prejudices.
Learn more about Understanding Ignorance at The MIT Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue