Toward An Ignorance-Based World View (LR81)

By Wes Jackson in Feature Articles - October 3, 2004

This is adapted from a talk at The Land Institute's 2004 Prairie Festival, published in The Land Report, Spring 2005, Number 81, Pages 14-16 and reprinted by permission.

At The Land Institute several of us get a great deal of joy from looking for the relatedness of the seemingly unrelated. Here is an example: In 1859 Charles Darwin's Origin of Species was published. The same year Colonel Drake drilled the first oil well in Pennsylvania. And John Brown was hanged at Harper's Ferry. Now let's connect the dots.

Darwin's idea of evolution through natural selection was sponsored by coal. If it hadn't been for coal and the infrastructure that gave slack to this country gentleman, the idea would have had to wait. Its refinement was sponsored further by coal, and by oil and natural gas. The important ideas in ecology really took off after 1859.

What about John Brown? Coal again. The industrial North could afford to be pretty self-righteous about opposing slavery in the much more sun-powered plantation South. Before the fossil carbon era, slavery of some form or another was widespread. The slack from energy-rich carbon pools is what has made civilization possible. First it was agriculture and soil carbon, later the cutting of forests. The king of Tyre struck a deal with Solomon for the cedars of Lebanon to build the temple. The Greeks had already done in thousands of acres of their trees. By the time of Charlemagne the onslaught against Europe's forests was well under way. Carbon pools exploited. So it went, and so it goes today. Our fossil fuel epoch — some 250 years old — is dependent on highly dense and vast pools of coal, oil and natural gas.

We tend to think that the ideas of humanity arise rather intrinsically. We seldom pay attention to their sponsorship, to the slack made available by our species skating from one energy-rich carbon pool to another.

Why is this a prologue to what I have to say about ignorance? Simply this: Before agriculture, long before the industrial revolution, we could afford to be very ignorant about what supported us. We didn't need to know about nutrient cycling and energy flow within the ecosystems of the ecosphere. We didn't need to know that the earth goes around the sun — and still don't.

Do we really need to know Einstein's equations? How much do we really need Newton's calculus? A harder question. As creatures of the upper Paleolithic we certainly didn't need Newton's calculus back then. We don't need to know about plate tectonics now, though I'm glad to know about plate tectonics. In fact, I'm glad to know what's come in from the Hubble telescope.

But as a consequence of scientific and technological tampering, we have created ignorance of things we now do need to know.

This is part of what led to a conference we held in 2004 called "Toward an Ignorance-based Worldview." The inspiration started with a letter Wendell Berry wrote to me in 1982. Here are parts of it:

I want to try to complete the thought about "randomness" that I was working on when we talked the other day. The Hans Jenny paragraph that started me off is the last on page 21 of The Soil Resource:

"Raindrops that pass in random fashion through an imaginary plain above the forest canopy are intercepted by leaves and twigs and channeled into distinctive vert space patterns of through-drip, crown-drip and stem flow. The soil surface, as receiver, transmits the "rain message" downward, but as the subsoils lack a power source to mold a flow design, the water tends to leave the ecosystem as it entered it, in randomized fashion."

My question is: Does "random" in this (or any) context describe a verifiable condition or a limit of perception?

My answer is: It describes a limit of perception. This is, of course, not a scientist's answer, but it may be that anybody's answer would be unscientific. My answer is based on the belief that pattern is verifiable by limited information, whereas the information required to verify randomness is unlimited. As I think you said when we talked, what is perceived as random within a given limit may be seen as a part of a pattern within a wider limit.

If this is so, then Dr. Jenny, for accuracy's sake, should have said that rainwater moves from mystery through pattern back into mystery.

To call the unknown "random" is to plant the flag by which to colonize and exploit the known. (A result that our friend Dr. Jenny, of course, did not propose and would not condone.)

To call the unknown by its right name, "mystery," is to suggest that we had better respect the possibility of a larger, unseen pattern that can be damaged or destroyed and, with it, the smaller patterns.

This respecting of mystery obviously has something or other to do with religion, and we moderns have defended ourselves against it by turning it over to religion specialists, who take advantage of our indifference by claiming to know a lot about it.

What impresses me about it, however, is the insistent practicality implicit in it. If we are up against mystery, then we dare act only on the most modest assumptions. The modern scientific program has held that we must act on the basis of knowledge, which, because its effects are so manifestly large, we have assumed to be ample. But if we are up against mystery, then knowledge is relatively small, and the ancient program is the right one: Act on the basis of ignorance. Acting on the basis of ignorance, paradoxically, requires one to know things, remember things — for instance, that failure is possible, that error is possible, that second chances are desirable (so don't risk everything on the first chance), and so on.

What I think you and I and a few others are working on is a definition of agriculture as up against mystery and ignorance-based. I think we think that this is its necessary definition, just as I think we think that several kinds of ruin are the necessary result of an agriculture defined as knowledge-based and up against randomness. Such an agriculture conforms exactly to what the ancient program, or programs, understood as evil or hubris. Both the Greeks and the Hebrews told us to watch out for humans who assume that they make all the patterns.

How'd you like to receive a letter like that? It took 22 years to digest it and to finally put together a conference.

As you can imagine, when we announced "Toward an Ignorance-based Worldview," it was a source of great mirth.

To get ready for this conference, I sent out sort of an invitation. Here's what it said: "Imagine an ignorance-based science and technology in which practitioners would be ever conscious that we are billions of times more ignorant than knowledgeable and always will be."

Now, if you know that knowledge is not adequate to run the world, what do you do? What do you do if you recognize that you are up against ignorance?

You ask before launching a scientific or technological venture: How many people will be involved? At what level of culture? Will we be able to back out? Scientists, technologists and policy-makers would be assiduous students of exits.

I have spent a fair amount of my life studying exits, starting with classrooms. How are we going to get out of here in case something goes wrong? Such students of exits would want to know not only how to exit, but also how to not leave irrevocable damage.

Knowledge seeking would not stop, but would, as Wendell Berry has said, "force us to remember things, cause us to hope for second chances and provide an incentive to keep the scale small." Acknowledging ignorance might be the secular mind's only way to humility.

Harvard's Dick Levins, a sort of a mathematical modeler ecologist, wrote, "Structured ignorance is a prerequisite for knowledge." Also, "Ignorance is not passive. It requires energy to sustain it."

By embracing an ignorance-based worldview, at least we go with our long suit. Knowledge and insight accumulate fastest in the minds of those who hold an ignorance-based worldview. Having studied the exits, their imaginations are less narrow. Darting eyes have the potential to see more.

At the conference, Wendell said, "Our purpose here is to worry about the predominance of the supposition in a time of great technological power that humans either know enough already or can learn enough soon enough to foresee and forestall any bad consequences." He said this supposition is typified by Selfish Gene author Richard Dawkins' assertion in an open letter to Prince Charles: "Our brains are big enough to see into the future and plot long-term consequences."

Wendell said, "When we consider how often and how recently our most advanced experts have been wrong about the future and how often the future has shown up sooner than expected with bad news about our past, Mr. Dawkins' assessment of our ability to know is revealed as a superstition of the most primitive sort."

Several people brought to the conference something Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said at a news briefing: "There are known knowns. There are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns. That is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns, the ones we don't know we don't know."

Believe it or not, some thought Mr. Rumsfeld was really right on. Mario Rizzo, an author of The Economics of Time and Ignorance, said Rumsfeld's distinctions are important: "I know that I do not know Rumsfeld's home telephone number. On the other hand, I may arrive in a foreign country and be completely unaware that there are books or directories available that will tell me where to find other English speakers." So as a result of this uncertainty the poor tourist doesn't know where to search for those English speakers or how long it's worthwhile to keep searching. You can see that soon he'll be wondering how to find the restroom — and studying exits.

The conference then took up a Harvard Business Review piece called "Wanted: A Chief Ignorance Officer." It said that ignorance management is arguably a more important skill than knowledge management.

What interests me the most about ignorance is the kind that The Land Institute is willing to embrace as we think about building an agriculture based on the way a natural ecosystem works.

I think I can help you understand by reading from an Aldo Leopold essay called "The Last Stand." It describes a forest in the Alps that had produced quality timber since the 1600s by selective harvesting. A contiguous forest of the same kind of timber was clear-cut in the 1600s and never recovered, despite intensive care. Here's what Leopold says:

Despite this rigid protection, the old slashing now produces only mediocre pine, while the unslashed portion grows the finest cabinet oak in the world; one of those oaks fetches a higher price than a whole acre of the old slashings. On the old slashings the litter accumulates without rotting, stumps and limbs disappear slowly, natural reproduction is slow. On the unslashed portion litter disappears as it falls, stumps and limbs rot at once, natural reproduction is automatic. Foresters attribute the inferior performance of the old slashing to its depleted microflora, meaning that underground community of bacteria, molds, fungi, insects and burrowing mammals which constitute half the environment of a tree.

The existence of the term microflora implies, to the layman, that science knows all the citizens of the underground community, and is able to push them around at will. As a matter of fact, science knows little more than that the community exists, and that it is important. In a few simple communities like alfalfa, science knows how to add certain bacteria to make the plants grow. In a complex forest, science knows only that it is best to let well enough alone.

What we are acknowledging here is the integration of nature's life forms over a long evolutionary history, and that the entropy law has forced the efficiencies inherent to those natural integrities. We can't keep track of this. We have not even named most of the fungi or bacteria. To plow this information-rich world and simplify it and then treat it as though there's only phosphorus, potassium, manganese, iron, calcium and so on, and then presume you can just keep on, is acting as though knowledge is adequate to run that world.

We live in a very exciting time, but we need a different way of thinking. That means we need a kind of house arrest on the destructively dominating thoughts from the architects of the Enlightenment and beyond, to the Greek and Hebrew dualists. For example, in the early 17th century Rene Descartes' Meditations on the First Philosophy said that we can remake the world in the interests of humanity with no discussion of negative consequences. Imagine if in the 21st century we could see the end of the idea that knowledge is adequate to run the world. This would cause us to feature questions that go beyond the available answers. We would learn patience, and we would enjoy a kind of yeastiness for thought. I think this also would do the absolutely necessary job of driving knowledge out of its categories.

I have an example. Several years ago in the New York Review of Books, Harvard zoologist Dick Lewinton told about how he and Carl Sagan visited a church related college to take the evolutionist view in debate with a creationist. The creationist had a doctorate in zoology from the University of Texas — not a creationist department, but he was teaching in the church school. Afterward they asked for a show of hands, and found that the creationist won overwhelmingly. Lewinton wrote that in the cab going back to the airport, Sagan said this was obviously a problem of education. Lewinton said it was about cultural and regional history. Then he told how Sagan spent his life trying to change things through education.

I've been around a fair number of universities, and I've witnessed friends and the children of friends from creationist homes go to college and graduate, some of them cum laude, and they're still creationists. Cultural and regional history overrode education.

I give this example because here is a question that goes beyond the available answers: Why? If cultural and regional history overrides educational power, what do we do? If education isn't good enough, what do educators do?

Well, maybe it's time to start with a certain amount of humility and say we're fundamentally ignorant about the way minds change. Acknowledging that we are fundamentally ignorant, we now can ask a question that goes beyond the available answers, and that's going to force knowledge out of its categories.

We would be fundamentally respectful of our original relationship with the universe. There might even be a more joyful participation in our engagement with the world.