The above passage appears in the chapter “The Franciscan Schoolmen,” in Part II of Bertrand Russell’s A History of Western Philosophy. This is a book that I read in college in the mid-1990s and, last summer, challenged myself to re-read. (Five months later, I’m two-thirds of the way through.) This passage is part of a discussion of William of Occam, the man for whom Occam’s Razor is named.
Maybe I’m being snarky here, but as I read this passage, I couldn’t help but think of our current culture and politics. The first cause of ignorance, Russell tells us in explaining Occam, is to follow people who aren’t worth following. The second, to do what has been done previously because it has been done previously. Third, we mustn’t rely on the squawking machinations of peers who don’t know any better that we do. And finally, the worst one: pretending to know or understand something that we actually don’t, so we appear wiser than we are.
These harsh but inevitable truths, which come down to us from a 14th-century monk, affect our everyday lives. But before I go any further, I want to differentiate between ignorance and stupidity. Despite the common Southern usage of ig’nunt as an insult meaning stupid – as in “What’re you, ig’nunt or somethin’?” – the word ignorant simply means not to know. A person who is ignorant may well not be stupid at all. And in retort to the old adage that “what you don’t know can’t hurt you,” I would say resoundingly: yes, it can.
Ignorance can and does cause good people to make bad decisions. Around the world and across time, many plots in classic literature and modern films are built around the folly of ignorance. From Shakespeare’s Othello to Hitchock’s North by Northwest, these stories show us what can happen when, unaware of the truth, we unknowingly substitute falsehoods, trust charlatans, or take misguided action. The struggles and their attendant results are seldom or never positive.
I was recently talking to a family member about something I’ve wondered during the last few election cycles: how many people could articulate the facts or details about the supposed enemies? For example, what state is Nancy Pelosi from, or what are some bills that she has sponsored in Congress? As another example, what are the planks in the “liberal agenda,” who decides on them, and what are some of the negative effects that we’re worried about? These are questions of knowledge, not intelligence, and what makes me want to ask them are facts like this: back in early 2017, a survey revealed that about one-third of Americans didn’t know that “Obamacare” and the Affordable Care Act are the same thing:
In the survey, 35 percent of respondents said either they thought Obamacare and the Affordable Care Act were different policies (17 percent) or didn’t know if they were the same or different (18 percent). This confusion was more pronounced among people 18 to 29 and those who earn less than $50,000 — two groups that could be significantly affected by repeal.
And that was just confusion over the name— what about the specifics of the law, which has 20,000 pages of regulations?
I don’t begrudge any person his or her opinion. I have friends who are conservative, moderate, and liberal. I respect them all and hope that they respect me. Respect, not agreement, is the key to human relationships. Yet, for some strange reason, we’re having arguments in this country not only about ideals that we only vaguely understand, but about whether we should be civil to each other about our differences. Of course, we should be civil to each other! Division peppered with incivility never leads anywhere good— and neither does ignorance.
And there is only one cure for ignorance: education. Knowing better is our only hope, and that won’t come from Fox News or MSNBC or Breitbart or HuffPo or – Lord help us! – from Facebook shares. It’ll come from facts, the cold and hard kind. Because, even though some may say that “ignorance is bliss,” another old adage is far more trustworthy: “the truth will set you free.”