Some-niscience: Why It’s Smart To Be Ignorant

Getting rational about bounded rationality

Posted Jan 03, 2014

“You’re ignorant; an ignoramus. If you don’t know what that means look it up.  It means you ignore things.” 

“And what do you ignore? You wouldn’t know, would you? 

I know what you ignore. You ignore what I happen to think is important.”

Ignoring has a mixed reputation. We think of it as natural. You can’t pay attention to everything.  You have to ignore lots. 

We even encourage people to ignore things. “Walk it off; ignore the pain.” Or “If your sister is bothering you just ignore her.”

But call someone ignorant? That’s cold.  Ignorant originated as the present participle of the Latin “ignorare "not to know, to be unacquainted; take no notice of, pay no attention to."

We insult each other saying “You’re bad since you ignore what I think you should attend to.” Will Rogers said, “We are all ignorant, only on different subjects.”

Ignoring—a natural, necessary healthy thing you would never want to be accused of doing.

They say God ignores nothing. He’s omniscient, the opposite of ignorant. 

We can picture ignoring nothing.  Advocates of mindfulness sometimes define it as just that—being attentive to absolutely everything.

We can picture attending to absolutely everything; we just can’t do it. We have to ignore. Our attention is limited, bounded, we say in the social sciences. We have bounded rationality. All organisms do. We are all some-niscient, attending to some things, ignoring the rest.

We know what organisms attend to by their responses. Pinprick a sea slug and it withdraws.  Talk to a sea slug and there’s no change in its behavior. Judging by its lack of response, it’s ignoring our words.

Organisms pay attention to the information they need to, prioritizing what they sense and ignore.  Not everything is information to everyone. Information is in Gregory Bateson’s definition “a difference that makes a difference,” which is actually three differences since that second difference is a pun.

1. A sensed difference (pinprick the sea slug)

2. Makes a response difference (it withdraws)

3. That makes a difference to whether one keeps sensing and responding (the sea slug protects its skin)

Evolution and learning are all about tuning in and out to the right things. If we attend to and ignore the wrong things, we’re goners.

That omniscient God is on a lot of people’s minds. I wish they would ignore him for moment and visit the likelier interpretation. The universe didn’t start with an omniscient being. We didn’t fall from omniscient grace; we rose from slime. Some-niscience started very slowly sprouting at the origin of life. 

In a way it’s good news. Relax, it’s not like we missed the mark. We’re not more ignorant than Gods, angels, channeled spirits or any other fictitious characters we can imagine. In a way it’s bad news. You’ve got no lifeline to the omniscient. We seem to be relaxing into this state of affairs. Our new pope, attended to by 1.2 billion Roman Catholics has dropped the whole “I’m infallible” thing.

The Bible sometimes makes ignorance sound like a good thing. We fell by eating from the tree of knowledge. When people tried to build the Tower of Babel to get a God’s eye view, God thwarted them by making them speak different languages.

Language is the tree of knowledge. Our use of symbols—words like these—is like super-fertilizer extending the branches of our knowing further and wider than in any other creature.

In the beginning wasn’t the word, just in the beginning of humankind, our ability to use words to describe things more elaborate than any other creature can imagine, judging by their behavior. We humans are so informationally branchy, we can pay attention to much more than we need to. We attend to things animals wouldn’t, the welfare of distant people’s, visions of a better life, traumas from our past, the minute details in fictitious texts, the fussy particulars of technical fields, nightmare scenarios real and imagined. Still we prioritize, paying attention to the difference that, right or wrong, we bet make a difference.

We don’t know the half of what we ignore. Most of what we ignore we don’t ignore actively. Out of sight; out of mind. Descartes argued that we should doubt all of our assumptions.  Another philosopher, Charles Sanders Peirce countered that we can’t possibly doubt all of our assumptions since most of them are so assumed we don’t even know we assume them. Other people might counsel us against certain assumptions we don’t realize we’re making, calling us ignorant for not attending to assumptions they bet we should attend to. Still there are the assumptions our whole social network makes blindly. You’ll get no counsel to attend to those. 

Some things we ignore more actively, for example a nagging doubt or bothersome sister we learn to ignore so we can get on with our lives.

It’s true that rationality is bounded, but it’s also multi-leveled, as when we attend to decisions about what to attend to, or, a level up, we attend to decisions about what rules to apply in deciding what to attend to. 

For example, suppose you decide you need an education in a new career. Before you decide which teachers and textbooks to attend to, you step back to decide more generally what rules to apply in deciding what kind of career you need, deciding how to decide. Then you decide on the career and how specialized to be within it, what you have to attend to and what you can afford to ignore.

Early research into decision-making was all about how to optimize decisions using all available information. More recently it’s been about how we really make decisions given our finite or bounded attention, with social psychologists and behavioral economists cataloguing the heuristics (shortcuts) and bias we use given our rational limits. The difference between heuristics and biases lies primarily in outcomes. Heuristics are successful ways of ignoring the details. Biases are unsuccessful ways of ignoring the details.

We make rational decisions about what to be rational about and what to ignore, what’s a live “who knows the answer?” yes/no question, and what’s a “who knows? who cares?” question worth ignoring. 

Like ignorance, rational has a mixed reputation. Just as we think it’s good to ignore things but bad to be ignorant, we think it’s good to be rational but bad to rationalize. If we don’t like your reasoning, we can call it rationalizing.

If being rational is attending to “who knows the answer?” differences that make a difference, and ignoring is not attending to “who knows, who cares?” differences that don’t make a difference, it makes sense that both terms would have their positive and negative connotations. Be rational but don’t rationalize. Ignore things but don’t be ignorant. As a language-endowed some-niscient being, your job, if you choose to accept it, is placing good bets on what to attend to and ignore.