The Argument From Ignorance: "I Know I'm Ignorant About Most Things, Silly, and You Are Too!"

Part 1

This is an argument I've used before but needs some further explication.

I am ignorant. I'm ignorant about so many things I don’t have the time to write them out here. My own ignorance stuns me. I could walk into any college classroom on most any subject and be as ignorant or more so, than any of the students taking that class and reading the textbooks. (Think: Chemistry, Math, Meteorology, Geology, Biology, World History, Forensic Science, Computer Science; Rocket Science, Neurology, and so forth, and so on).

I know a small fraction of what can be known. And I know this. I know that I know only a very small fraction of that which can be known. How do I know this? I know this because of how much I have learned. Since I have learned a great deal I know how little I know. I know there is a great deal of knowledge left for me to learn. Only the ignorant will claim they know a great deal. Why? Because only the ignorant have not learned very much; their knowledge is limited; they don’t yet know how much knowledge there is left to learn.

If you've ever heard truckers or factory workers talk to each other it’s interesting. You'll hear a few of them talk like they have all of the world’s problems solved. They solve them with just a few sentences too: “All the republicans have to do is….” or, “All we have to do in Iraq is…” or, “To solve our drug problem all we need to do is…” or, “To help our economy there’s just one thing we need to do…” [Fill in the blanks].

It’s black and white for them. They know the answers; most all of the answers, even though I can tell from their answers that they have never had a good education. (Hint: Most problems are more complex than simplistic solutions can afford). They are ignorant and don’t know they are ignorant because they've never learned or thought of the complexities of the issues they speak of. If I were to question some of their answers they might probably look at me like I was some kind of Communist or Homosexual (and that’s bad you see).

Socrates said it best: "As for me, all I know is that I know nothing. I am the wisest man alive, for I know one thing, and that is that I know nothing."

Granted, Socrates knew a lot of things. That's not the point. Everyone does. We all know a lot of things. It's just that when compared to the sum total of things to be learned, none of us know much of anything at all. Since what any one of us knows is but a drop in the bucket to the total knowledge available we know nothing comparatively. This describes us all no matter who we are.

So with understanding say with me, "I know nothing" [Think Schultz on the 70's show Hogan's Heroes if you have to! ;-)] Say it again: "I know nothing." Can't do it? You can't say it because you don't believe it? Really?

Then you are truly ignorant!

Unlike Socrates you are ignorant about your own ignorance!


Brad Haggard said...

Well, John, agreed. Life wouldn't have much purpose if there wasn't more stuff to learn.

Unknown said...

Reminds me of a blog entry I made about saying "I don't know." Great entry, and I agree with it 100%. Beware the person who is certian they have the answer. They are either deluded, or trying to rip you off (or in many cases, they are both).

Anonymous said...

I've always liked this one:

"We're all ignorant, only in different areas."

I once stared at my stepfather in disbelief when it became obvious, during a conversation about President Bush, that he knew nothing whatsoever about the Constitution (and I'm not exaggerating -- I mean nothing). I wasn't so smug, however, when I needed him to tell me what was wrong with (and fix!) my car -- an area I know nothing about (and I'm not exaggerating -- I mean nothing).

feeno said...

Eric made me laugh.

Peace out, feeno

Luke said...

Agreed. Every time I learn something, it almost necessarily makes me aware of 15 other things I didn't even know I didn't know. In every subject. Every day.

Chuck said...

This is great and once again a reflection of my personal experience pursuing truth. My deconversion began when a passionate fan of William Lane Craig and the Discovery Institute implored me to educate myself on both. I was ignorant of both so I started reading Craig's debates and various articles on the Discovery Institute and ID. I found that both offended my sense of humility and intellectual honesty. Craig's debate with Ehrman where Craig asserted that the critical-historical method was unnecessary in weighing the hitoricity of the resurrection exposed him to me as nothing more than a desperate polemicist and inspired me to become a fan of Professor Ehrman. And my investigation of the Discovery Institute informed me of RJ Rushdooney, Howard Ahmanson and the Domionist pursuits of the neo-Calvinists which offended my American Libertarian sensibilities. My Christianity was based on my ignorance but when I looked to quiet my ignorance I discovered that my Christianity was morally ignorant. Dr. Craig needs to obfuscate to assert the validity of his truth and The Discovery Institute flatly lies when creating their alternative scientific perspective. My investigations also led me to this site and a new wealth of philosophical thought. I now am confident in asserting that, "I don't know" (unlike my previous "enlightened" Christianity which presupposed hidden and profound truth made available by the exclusive in-dwelling of the Holy Spirit).

Anonymous said...

Keep in mind that this is just Part 1 of the Argument From Ignorance. The other shoe will drop soon enough.


Anonymous said...

I'm just a node in a complex system of inputs and outputs that make up a fabric of interactions.

I'm an intersection in a web of interactions, and I only know about what touches me. Most of it doesn't touch me. So I don't know about most of it.

I'm one of the dots in the middle in there somewhere.....

Anonymous said...

it looked better in the editor, no wonder asci art is dead.

John Radke said...

I like your overall point, but the part disparaging truck drivers and factory workers made me cringe. There's plenty of nuanced views out there among the non-college-graduates, and there's plenty of simpletons with degrees on their walls.

I don't intend to concern-troll, since your thesis is sound, but I don't see why the color of one's collar needs to be brought up.

Anonymous said...

John, I said "a few of them..." not all of them, but typically that's where many of the uneducated will be found, no?

And I myself own a mom and pop carpet cleaning business, so I'm sort in the same boat, the service industry.

John Radke said...

Sure, but I guess it's been my experience that that'll happen in just about any group of people, not those types in particular.

Ryan Peter said...

Hey John,

You're saying some great things here, but I still find myself a little perplexed, given your atheist position.

For starters, when a Christian says "I don't know why there's evil in the world", for example, the atheist will often shake their head at this kind of answer, saying it's not a good enough answer to the question.

When a Christian chalks things up to 'mystery' they're often accused of being blind, not really seeing the truth, giving themselves up to sentimentalities, not being objective etc. etc.

Yet, it's okay for an atheist to say "I don't know"?

Well I agree that it's okay, it should be okay for a Christian to say "I don't know" either, but why is such an answer looked at so badly by atheists?

ismellarat said...

I've always thought that this was one of the strongest arguments for libertarianism (classical liberalism).

No one really knows what's going on so perfectly that they have any business telling other people how to run their lives/allocate their resources, who are much closer to their situations.

The latest estimate I've read of the price of this folly is $100 trillion (about $1 million PER HOUSEHOLD). Congresspeople typically don't even have the time to read the bills they vote on, let alone think about all their implications. But it all feels sooo good while it lasts, much like knowing that God is on your side...

Chuck said...


I don't dispute that there was a guy we construe to be Jesus but, I don't think he was divine.

My problems with Tacitus are the following:

No early Christian writers refer to Tacitus even when discussing the subject of Nero and Christian persecution. Tertullian, Lactantius, Sulpicius Severus, Eusebius and Augustine of Hippo make no reference to Tacitus when discussing Christian persecution by Nero, however the Tacitus text itself demonstrates that it may be a good resource for Christians to refer to since the text derides Christians and Christianity thus proving it to be free of later tampering by Christians.

Pontius Pilate's rank was prefect when he was in Judea. The Tacitus passage mistakenly calls Pilate a procurator, an error also made in translations of a passage by Josephus. (However, Josephus wrote in Greek and never used the Latin term.) It should be noted that after Herod Agrippa's death in AD 44, when Judea reverted to direct Roman rule, Claudius gave procurators control over Judea. This was made possible when he augmented the role of procurators so that they had magisterial power. Tacitus, who rose through the magisterial ranks to become consul and then proconsul had a precise knowledge of significance of the terms involved and knew when Judea began to be administered by procurators. It is therefore a problem that he would use "procurator" instead of "prefect" to describe the governor of Judea prior to the changes that he tells us Claudius brought in.

The passage implies that the Christians may have been guilty of setting fire to Rome, another argument against veracity, for Tacitus was attempting to lay the blame of the fire on Nero by aspersion.

Another ancient writer, Suetonius, mentions Christians being harmed during this period by Nero, but there is no connection made with the fire.

None of my points or yours will automatically lead to a proof point but, as I said, I agree with you that Jesus existed. I just don't think he was divine and even if I accept your intepretation of the Tacitus passage there is nothing there that indicates he was.

Be well.

Anonymous said...

"*My problems* with Tacitus are the following...None of *my points* or yours will automatically lead to a proof point..."

Your problems? Your points? Dude, you just plagiarized the wiki entry on Tacitus on Christ! You should've indicated that you were quoting all that directly from wiki. And I note that you didn't provide any reasons the wiki article gives for thinking it's authentic. Also, the fact that you're using wiki as a source doesn't give me much confidence that you've researched this issue seriously.

Chuck said...

Oh and Eric are you Brad?

Chuck said...


You are correct I did copy and paste that article from Wikipedia but first checked out the sources and felt they represented better claims to history than Brad's opinion. I thought you respected the process of passing information from one source to another. Isn't that how the Christian story is spread? You should love Wikipedia then, it is an open source system where evangelical true believers share their perspective on a given subject. There is of course moderation soft-ware to ensure the claims being made are actually verifiable (a technology I don't think existed in 30-90 CE) but still, I thought you were all about the truth claims made by one person to another.

Unknown said...

John said...

"Sure, but I guess it's been my experience that that'll happen in just about any group of people, not those types in particular."

That's simply not true. The people that TEND to hold un-nuanced, black/white, true/fase positions are likely to be less educated. As on any bell curve, you get leakage on both sides. Go into any evangelical church (particularly known for that kind of worldview), and will find a lower percentage of college degrees, than in a similarly sized gathering of, say, humanists or liberals.

Sebastian said...

To Ryan Peter:

I feel that the difference is something like the following:

When a theist says "I don't know the answer" or "Nobody knows the answer", the statement usually is said in a tone conveying the message "This is probably the way god meant things to be, it might be meant for us never to know this". In this way religious belief might stifle, even inhibit genuine inquiry and acquisition of new information. Religious indoctrination of children relies on teaching the virtue of being content with simple black-and-white answers to complex issues. I believe someone once said that the bible contains "simple answers for simple people".

Also, since intricate theological questions like "Why does god allow evil in the world?" that you mentioned presuppose the existence of something unverifiable and undemonstrable (god), that makes these questions non-sequiturs and not worth spending time pondering over before the premises are verified and demonstrated. It's like trying to find out the answer to "My holy text says that the invisible and undetectable pink elephant is mostly sad. What makes the pink elephant so sad? Let's study this extensively and write a book about the possible reasons for the pink elephant's sadness." without even trying to determine the very existence and actual degree of sadness of the pink elephant first. Theological debates about the properties or personality of god are in my view a lot of hand-waving and hot air about essentially nothing.

On the other hand, when an atheist says "I don't know the answer" or "Nobody knows the answer", it is said in the tone "But let's work together to try to find out the answer to this". Almost all questions that naturalists answer "I don't know the answer to that" are to questions that relate to our physical universe and the natural sciences. "Where do we come from?" -> Biology, Evolution, Abiogenesis. "How were the continents formed?" -> Geography, plate tectonics. "How did the universe form?" -> Cosmology, Big Bang. Etc.

To summarize: The "I don't know"s of an atheist are to questions that actually can sometimes be answered, given the time, technology and effort since they are about physical entities in our universe that actually can be studied. The "I don't know"s of a theist are abstract questions about an abstract being, and the answers to the questions are as much up in the air as are the premises for the questions.

cognitive dissident said...

"If I were to question some of their answers they might probably look at me like I was some kind of Communist or Homosexual..."

...or even worse, an intellectual!