‘A satisfactory philosophy of ignorance’

Candle in the darknesI’d never heard of Richard Feynman when I picked up a book of his in the late 1990s. It was the title that attracted me: The Meaning of it All. Anyone who could call their book that had to have a sense of humour, which I subsequently found was true of Feynman. But I also found that he didn’t choose the book’s title, and that he had, during his lifetime, declined to print these lectures, given at the University of Washington in 1963 under the humbler but less intriguing title, ‘A Scientist Looks at Society’. It was in the posthumously published transcriptions that I first came across the idea that ignorance was more than an obstacle to be overcome. Here’s what Feynman says about it:

‘I feel a responsibility as a scientist who knows the great value of a satisfactory philosophy of ignorance, and the progress made possible by such a philosophy, progress which is the fruit of freedom of thought. I feel a responsibility to proclaim the value of this freedom and to teach that doubt is not to be feared, but that it is to be welcomed as the possibility of a new potential for human beings. If you know that you are not sure, you have a chance to improve the situation. I want to demand this freedom for future generations.’

A satisfactory philosophy of ignorance – what a brilliant idea. Not a new one, of course. Socrates had outlined, during his trial for disrespecting the gods and corrupting the young, a philosophy of ignorance, saying, among other things:

‘This man, on one hand, believes that he knows something, while not knowing (anything). On the other hand, I — equally ignorant — do not believe (that I know anything).’

But it was liberating to read a recipient of the Nobel Prize for physics express such a principled and humble assessment of the scientist’s need to recognise their ignorance precisely because non-scientists such as myself often have an idealised belief in science as a source of knowledge. Feynman, like Socrates, tells us that knowing that you don’t know – not even knowing what you don’t know – is a secure foundation for thinking. It is Donald Rumsfeld’s ‘unknown unknowns’ that we must remember, (with Slavoj Žižek’s prompt about ‘unknown knowns’ – the deliberately or unconsciously cultivated ignorance of what we actually do know).

‘It’s black cats in dark rooms’

There are other scientists who follow Feynman in challenging the lay person’s idea of scientific method. At Columbia University, the neuroscientist Stuart Firestein teaches a class on ‘Ignorance’, at the start of which he asks his students what grade they hope to attain – an A or an F. In his book on the subject, he says this about science:

‘It’s not facts and rules. It’s black cats in dark rooms. As the Princeton mathematician Andrew Wiles describes it: It’s groping and probing and poking, and some bumbling and bungling, and then a switch is discovered, often by accident, and the light is lit, and everyone says, “Oh, wow, so that’s how it looks,” and then it’s off into the next dark room, looking for the next mysterious black feline.’


When I read this, I found myself thinking about how well it describes the creation of knowledge in the arts and humanities. Quite well, I think, at least as far as the process goes, but the result? There is something definite, literally black and white, about the metaphor of finding a light switch that doesn’t seem right where art is concerned. Indeed, perhaps it doesn’t even work for science.

The alternative image is that of artists striking matches – a brief flare of illumination that allows us to see a little of where we are before it fades, sputters and dies. The great artists might get a candle lit, giving us more stable and longer lasting light. But even they reach only so far into the mystery of existence, and only for a while. We will always need new artists, writers, philosophers, musicians – humanists – to strike new lights that help us see something we didn’t understand or have forgotten.

The difference is in how we imagine progress. For Stuart Firestein and Andrew Wiles, it’s a journey through a series of puzzling rooms: there’s always a light switch and there’s always a door into the next dark room. For me, there’s only one room, so vast that any light able to reach all of it at once would blind us. The best we can do is strike our small, warm, human lights and share what we see because they will fade and any progress we can make will depend on memory, shared knowledge and the capacity to strike new lights. Knowing how little we know, and that what we saw in a past light may no longer be the same or even be there, we can try not to walk into walls more than we must.

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