Is Ignorance Bliss?

Posted: May 24, 2012 in Uncategorized
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by Dr. Peter Stern, Philosophy Faculty

The old saw about living in interesting times—namely, beware of—came to mind after a friend remarked–rather matter of factly though, come to think of it, perhaps with some teeny hint of condescension—she remarked that I shouldn’t lose sleep over the outcome of the Greek’s current debt crisis and the possible demise of the Euro.  That in response to my comment about how the European mess augurs ill for the rest of the world, including us, i.e. the U.S.   From there we moved on to making Memorial Day plans.

But seldom one to take advice, whether bad or good, I found myself continuing to worry about the fate of the Euro.  Yet the idea that worrying about the Euro wasn’t necessarily making the best use of my time preyed upon me.  On the other hand, surely the issue of preserving the European Union deserved at least some attention; after all, many more people would be affected by the collapse of the Euro than would be excited or put out by my plans for Memorial Day.

Whereupon, to my surprise, I suddenly realized I wasn’t mulling over the Euro’s future; instead I was wondering whether it was true that ignorance is bliss.  For, dear reader, regardless of your view about the seriousness or lack thereof concerning the fate of the Euro, you must admit that the question of whether ignorance is or isn’t bliss affects each and every one of us on an almost minute by minute basis, and thus is an issue that far transcends in importance Ms. Merkel’s decision to finance or not finance the Greek’s ever growing debt.  

Surely no sane public spirited person would advise me not to worry about whether ignorance was bliss.  If we shouldn’t lose sleep over this, what should we lose sleep over?   I can’t imagine we (that’s you and me) have been put here on earth never to lose sleep over troubling issues of great pitch and moment.  I can see that losing sleep isn’t sleep’s chief purpose, but wouldn’t you agree it comes with the territory?  Of course you would. 

So….the question now is whether ignorance really is or isn’t bliss.  Truth to tell I seem to be of two minds on this one.   For I can easily see where the answer must be obviously yes, but I think I can also find occasions where the answer must be no.

On the many virtue’s of ignorance, we should all, by now, have considerable experience.  If I never figure out what exactly Kant meant the antinomies of reason, why should that make me unhappy?  Moreover, finding out what he meant might well make me miserable; if so, why should I have to force myself to learn what he had in mind when learning it will leave me horribly depressed?

 And if I’m going to have a heart attack in a month and there’s nothing at all I can do about it, how does knowing about it in advance improve the situation?  I can’t see that it does; realizing this leads me to conclude ignorance is bliss or, if you prefer, it’s much better than knowledge.  Moreover think about this:  I decide I don’t want to know my child’s gender in advance because I believe not knowing will make me happier rather than the reverse.   What has my ignorance cost me?   Answer: nothing.   I’m better off with it than without it.

But I can also appreciate that ignorance makes us dumb and who wouldn’t agree that behaving stupidly usually leaves us worse off.   This issue has gained some notoriety in medical circles around the question of whether to tell patients their true health status.  For example, should or shouldn’t a doctor tell his patient he has incurable cancer and will shortly die.  Current wisdom tells us that the doctor should let the patient know exactly where he stands.   The rationale for this approach centers on the idea that the patient can deal with his condition better if he knows what’s going on, rather than believing death is a ways away.  More generally the reason for preferring knowledge to ignorance involves believing that knowledge can improve whatever situation we find ourselves in.  Socrates is probably the most famous proponent/defender of the view that knowledge confers many benefits.

Nonetheless, something inside me—some quiet force within—tells me there’s “gold in them thar hills” meaning, don’t sell ignorance short.  Knowledge doesn’t always work and, thus, perhaps, ignorance really is bliss.  So once again finding myself on the horns of a dilemma, what will probably happen is that, sometime around 3 AM, maybe this week maybe next, I’ll wake up mulling over whether or not ignorance is bliss and, in the process, unfortunately, I’ll lose some more sleep.




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