Ignorance as a virtue: the three most important words in the English language

No, it isn’t “I love you.” Love is universal, and voicing it is not always how we express it.

It also isn’t “I am sorry” or “I was wrong.” These are admissions of human error. We all know humans make mistakes.

No, the three most important words are: I don’t know.

These three simple words convey much more than just an acceptance of human error. They express an important epistemological position. We live our lives with partial and conditional knowledge. In a world saturated in information, this is even more true. In the vast catalog of human knowledge, I know almost nothing.

Most of what I claim to know is the result of inferences gleaned from partial knowledge from other sources – books, classes I have taken, experts whom I have reason to trust – and some very limited direct experience. Let’s visit both of these categories.

Indirect knowledge from a trusted source

I recently read a book about Gödel’s theorem, a mathematical concept that is important to the development of computers. At the time I was reading it, I felt I had a good understanding of what Gödel’s theorem was all about, why it was important, and how he arrived at it. But if I am more honest with myself, I was taking a lot of it at the author’s word. I studied a bit of mathematics but I am not an expert and I don’t have the training to properly understand Gödel. And now that it has been a few months since I read it, I can’t remember more than a few details that I picked up from the book. Instead, I have a general sense of what Gödel’s theorem is about, and a few anecdotal details I could use in conversation to reconstruct it for a friend.

I read a bunch of Nietzche books, but most of that reading was done in college, when I had severely limited life experience. I revisit Nietzche every once in a while, like stopping in to visit an old friend, and I always find that my prior impression was badly misinformed. I will forget details or confuse books. If I had to precisely define what Nietzche means by his “last man” analogy, for example, I will reach for my own definition, but I could not quote Nietzche or cite exactly what concept among his contemporaries he was criticizing. Rather, I have a general understanding of Nietzche bolted together over the years.

This is the case with almost everything I know. My knowledge is a patchwork of potentially misremembered information gleaned from trusted sources – books, teachers, documentaries, and so on. The concrete conclusions that I reach from all that partial information is arrived at through pragmatic abductive reasoning.

Why are these sources trusted? If we are honest, we realize that they are trusted because they are trusted. A teacher’s authority on a subject is conditional upon other authorities vouching for them.

Direct experience

I can claim some direct experience with a few subjects. I have knowledge of software development, having done it for my job, and thus accumulated many hours of experience. I have direct experience with boxing and jiu jitsu. I have direct experience writing.

This knowledge doesn’t rely on any external sources. It is arrived at through practice. Sure, I have taken classes on these subjects, but the class is supplemental to the real, lived experience. Though it may often seem that our society overemphasizes credentials, we value direct experience. It’s why we want medical practitioners to get so many hours of on the job experience before they are given a medical license. Whenever you go in for a job interview and the interviewer asks you pointed questions about what you worked on in your previous jobs, they are assessing your direct experience – they are not interested in what books you have read or what classes you took.

But direct experience is problematic as a basis for our knowledge. Lived experience alone is not often sufficient for the challenges we face. Someone may have a lot of lived experience in a subject area, but they may lack an understanding of broader concepts that allow them to make inferences outside of their direct experience. I have seen this in many self-taught programmers who become very adept at working with a particular framework but make severe design mistakes that could be avoided with a broader view.

There is another problem with direct experience. It is very limited. We only have so many hours in the day, and only so many days on this earth. We cannot hope to get much direct experience in more than a few areas during that time. If we only knew what we had directly experienced, our capabilities would be severely limited.

Ignorance as virtue

In short, we need both direct lived experience and broader indirect knowledge to be effective in our modern information-saturated world. In practice, 90% of what we experience day to day are novel situations, variations on what we have seen before, that we must somehow adapt to. Our success in the modern world is determined by how well we are able to adapt.

To be adaptive in this way, we must first acknowledge the situation we find ourselves in. We have severely limited direct experience in a complex world. We have access to a vast trove of information that is easily accessible to us now, between public libraries, eBooks, online courses, and so on. But even with all this information, the key component for success lies not in what we know, but our attitude.

If we believe that we know everything, we will be proven wrong. So when faced with an unknown, I encourage you to say: “I don’t know.” It is an admission of ignorance, yes, but more so, it is a starting point for expanding our knowledge. When you find yourself staring at a problem and thinking, “I don’t know what to do,” that isn’t incompetence. It means you have correctly identified the condition of your understanding, and now you can begin looking for a way to adapt to the new problem.

Pay careful attention to how often the people you interact with express their lack of knowledge. I find that the people who are the most overconfident are those that rarely express ignorance. By contrast, those who openly say “I don’t know” or put a lot of conditionals on statements (“We have to look into that”, for example) are the most effective. When someone says “I don’t know,” I am more likely to trust their judgment.

The question of control: Stoicism and radical optimism

Stoicism is a school of Athenian philosophy that emphasized the importance of managing our expectations. A central concept for Stoics is the dichotomy of control, in short, the separation of our concerns into two categories – that which we have direct control over and that which we do not have direct control over. Stoics then recommend that we ignore the second category. This sounds reductive and pop-psychological, but the things the Stoics considered in the latter category might be surprising to modern day armchair philosophers. Among those things that we should ignore according to Stoics are our reputation, the opinions of others, our health, and politics.

It is notable that the ancient Stoics did not create a third category to represent things that we have limited control over. He is an obvious critique of that doctrine: isn’t our level of control on a sliding scale? In that third category, we might place a subject like our health, over which we do not have direct control, but certainly some influence. I can choose to eat fast food everyday and not get up from my chair for a week, and that would certainly have an influence on my health. On the other hand, I cannot will myself to not have the debilitating allergies that I experience in central Texas. Modern re-imaginings of Stoicism have created a “trichotomy of control” to encapsulate this third category of semi-controlled variables. But according to the ancient Stoic tradition, you only get the two categories, and this is no accident.

I cannot directly influence my health. I cannot choose to be healthy. Nor can I choose to be unhealthy. Rather, I can choose only my behaviors adjacent to the question of my health. I can choose to cook my own meals at home with vegetables and lean meats, or I can choose to eat fast food. I can choose to go to the gym rather than stay at home and watch television. I can choose to take a job offer for a job that will have me working 80 hour work days, or I can choose to take a job that will give me ample time for exercise and eating right. These choices have significant impact on my broader health.

In this regard, the ancient Stoics had it right. The things under my direct control are limited to my daily choices, behaviors, and attitudes. Everything else – my reputation, my health, how that meeting next Tuesday is going to go – is completely out of my sphere of influence. The dichotomy of control makes sense when you root yourself firmly in the present, considering nothing except the current moment. In the omnipresent now, I have a limited set of choices, but they are numerable and clear.

The purpose of the dichotomy of control is to serve as just one tool on the toolbelt of the Stoic sage. A Stoic’s goal is happiness – not the momentary passions of a nightly bacchanal, but a sustained sense of well being and security in oneself. So we should see the dichotomy in that context.

Namely, the dichotomy offers us a tool for restricting the sphere of our concern. So instead of worrying about the outcome of a large endeavor, we instead focus on the daily decisions and tasks that must be completed in order for the greater effort to be realized. The Stoics teach that the source of our suffering – which modern condo-dwelling people might call “anxiety” or “depression” – is wanting something that we cannot have. In other words, life sucks when we want those things that are in the forbidden category of “stuff we can’t actually influence.”

We cannot control the emotional whims of the jilted lover. We cannot will our friend’s wife to think we are sophisticated. We cannot make our hairline grow back. And so on.

It is common sense, but common sense is not as commonly practiced as one might think.

Stoicism then takes a decidedly radical turn by inviting us to imagine our worst fears coming true. Not only are we forbidden from wishing and hoping to influence that which is beyond our control, we are encouraged to imagine everything going wrong. Suppose our reputation is ruined, our lover deserts us for someone better, and we get diagnosed with a terminal illness. Is it likely that a perfect storm of bad things will happen to us? Perhaps not, but it is possible. Can we imagine the worst possible outcome, and know that we would, in fact, be okay?

All too often, this is interpreted as a pessimistic attitude. In truth, it is yet another tool in the Stoic toolbelt designed to help restrict our concern to our immediate circumstances.

The modern, Oprah-esque self-help armchair philosopher may misinterpret Stoicism’s fondness for picturing negative outcomes as a desire for negative outcomes – a self-defeating attitude. According to the “law of attraction”, we can (somehow) summon tragedies by dwelling too much on possible negative outcomes. But in fact, it is anything but. Stoicism acknowledges the truth that none of us get through life without significant heartache, and it wants us to be prepared for the inevitable.

Visualizing negative outcomes allows us to train ourselves to handle tragedy, and limiting our concerns via the dichotomy of control prevents us from getting hung up on what we can’t change.

If there is any critique I have found in the Stoic way it is that it tends to discourage optimism. Very often I have found that the best way to endure daily struggles is to assume it will all work out in the end. I call this sort of perspective radical optimism and it is, in a sense, the complete opposite of Stoicism. Radical optimism means assuming that your unrequited love will someday be yours, even if the way forward is completely unclear. It means looking at global crises and trusting that eventually the situation will be worked out.

In contrast to Stoicism’s toolbelt, which seeks to narrow our concerns to the present, a radical optimist focuses on the big picture. I contend that this is not such an anti-Stoic concept. The distant future, after all, is so utterly beyond our control that to speculate about it could hardly impact our ability to cope with the present, so we may as well imagine an ideal future.