Informed Ignorance, Spinoza and Science

Sunday September 2, 2007


You know that the rigours of being on the road – the sleeping in different beds every other night, the endless scrutiny of bus and train timetables, the hours of standing by the side of the road with your thumb out hoping for a lift, the absence of the prospect of a decent cappuccino for several days – are getting to you when you walk into a bookshop and think that a copy of Baruch Spinoza’s Ethics might be a good, fun read. But that is what I did yesterday when I arrived in Sofia. And last night, I took myself out for a solitary meal, to spend the evening communing with the long-dead shade of history’s most famous lens-grinder.

As a result, I somewhat foolishly want to write a blog post about our friend Spinoza. Foolishly, because whilst I am sure that Spinoza buffs have plenty of other things much better to do than read this little blog of mine, at the same time, once I write something about Spinoza, it is almost certain that some expert will track me down by one means or another and hold me to account for my total ignorance. And I must confess that in matters Spinozoic, we are indeed talking about almost Total Ignorance. This is in contrast to what I think of as the Informed Ignorance that I have on various other topics. Informed Ignorance is a wonderful thing. What distinguishes it from Total Ignorance is that when somebody much more learned calls you to account, you think, ‘Hmmm! I have a vague and inchoate idea that they may even be right, even if I lack the mental apparatus to ascertain why,’ rather than thinking ‘Yegads! What are they blathering on about? Where’s the Fire Exit?’ Through long and patient struggle, there are a few topics upon which I have attained to the lofty heights of Informed Ignorance – some backwaters of 20th Century Continental philosophy, how to cook a good curry, and, of course, Buddhism – but there are a great many more which I would, in more cautious times, avoid: methods for the effective breeding of newts; international finance; and our friend Spinoza.

I have often found that the best thing to do if you simply must discuss something about which you are Totally Ignorant is to ignore the Main Point and to go straight for something smaller, simpler and easier to grasp. And as I read through the Spinoza, this is exactly what I found myself doing, if not as a conscious strategy, then as a means of self-preservation. And here – in the margins of Spinoza, so to speak – it has been extremely interesting.

The first section of the work, called Of God, is one that I would find myself normally somewhat allergic to. The long fascination in the West with the idea of God is one that simply doesn’t make sense to me, and it really never has done. But when one makes allowances for the fact that Spinoza’s language is tangled up with in this long-standing meme dream, what he has to say is remarkably pertinent. I was particular is his robust assault in the appendix to this section on those who claim that “the understanding of nature” – which is, I think, perhaps both a rather gentle and a rather insightful way of thinking about science – is a form of impiety.

the man who endeavours to find out the true causes of miracles, and who desires as a wise man to understand nature, and not to gape at it like a fool, is generally considered and proclaimed to be a heretic and impious by those whom the vulgar worship as the interpreters both of nature and of the gods. For these know that if ignorance be removed, amazed stupidity, the sole ground on which they rely in arguing or in defending their authority, is taken away also.

For me, for all of Spinoza’s talk of God, I find myself closer to him than I had expected in the thought that what is crucial to human life is the understanding of nature. And the purpose of such an understanding? Not the removal of amazement, to be sure, but the removal of amazed stupidity. Here, I think, stupidity is not the same as ignorance. Indeed, it appears to me that the stupidy to which Spinoza refers is much worse than ignorance. Ignorance, as I have argued earlier, may not be in the end entirely separable from understanding. But stupidity is, I think, a different matter, because this stupidity of which Spinoza writes seems to be a commitment to an idea, a commitment that is so intense that it refuses the crucial work of investigation and inquiry. And this, I think, is what is to be resisted: this refusal to investigate. It is a refusal of the possibility of understanding, an unwillingness to step, even lightly, upon so-called ‘hallowed ground’, a determined guarding of mysteries that support dubious authorities and that occlude the possibility of reaching any real understanding in which our ignorance might become, at very least, a little more informed.

Stay tuned for further Spinozoic speculations, as I make my way through the rest of the book…

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#1 · Dave

2 September 2007

…Or as we like to say here in central Pennsylvania, “I may be dumb, but I ain’t stupid!”

#2 · Mathias

2 September 2007

A very nice distinction between Ignorance and stupidity. Ignorant is good (at least if you know you are ignorant), whereas stupid is, well, just stupid…

#3 · John

2 September 2007

Nice observation, thanks. I don’t visit your blog every day, but when I
visit your blog I enjoy browsing through your old posts and try to catch up
what I have missed since my last visit.

#4 · Allan

4 September 2007

I laughed out loud at this post! I love the explanation of Total Ignorance vs Informed Ignorance. I think I may incorporate this into a post of my own if you don’t mind me citing you as a reference :)

#5 · Peter Clothier

14 September 2007

How relevant to our current situation in the U.S., where public policy in viurtually every area seems to be based on arrant stupidity. And how we suffer for it! And how we make the world to suffer, too! Good post, thank you!

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