Ecological Approaches to Cognition: Essays in Honor of Ulric Neisser

By Eugene Winograd; Robyn Fivush et al. | Go to book overview

Chapter 13
Five Kinds of Self-Ignorance

David A. Jopling York University

Ale, man, ale's the stuff to drink
For fellows whom it hurts to think:
Look into the pewter pot
To see the world as the world's not
.

-- A. E. Housman ( 1946, p. 88)

Is ignorance preferable to knowledge? Would it be preferable if the payoff were increased contentment? The Biblical philosopher Ecclesiastes ( 1962, 1:18) seemed to think so: "For in much wisdom," he wrote, "is much vexation, and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow." Responding to Ecclesiastes centuries later, Spinoza ( 1677/ 1992) denied that "ignorance is preferable to knowledge, or that there is no difference between a fool and a wise man. . . . [It] is necessary," he wrote, "to know both the power of our nature and its lack of power, so that we can determine what reason can and cannot do . . ." (Part IV, Prop. 17, Sch.).

Generally, people tend to side with Spinoza rather than Ecclesiastes. We value seeing things as they are, rather than through a veil of illusion, fantasy, or ignorance, and we are loathe to exchange a clear-headed awareness and knowledge of reality for deluded contentment.

But on what grounds do we value seeing things as they are? Is there any rational justification for it?

Take the evil demon of Meditation One, the most extreme form of skepticism Descartes ( 1641/ 1993) could imagine. The all-powerful demon pro-

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