The Will-to-Ignorance

There seems to be two moments within the process of “knowing.” In the first moment, the knower comprehends the thing being known, but this moment is followed by a second moment in which the knower responds to the knowledge. The moment of response is integral to knowledge itself.

Christianity and Platonism differ in this crucial nuance: Platonism takes the moment of knowing the Good to necessarily result in doing the Good, whereas Christianity maintains these two variables as separate. In short, knowing the Good is insufficient for doing the Good; one must also choose to not suppress this knowledge of the Good. We do not choose to “embrace” the truth, but rather we must will to “resist the urge to suppress the truth.”

Jesus placed the command to “repent” at the heart of his message. The notion of repentance highlights this second moment of knowledge where one not only knows but also responds appropriately to what one knows. Jesus offered forgiveness of past wrongs as he confronted the people of Israel with the message of the Kingdom of God and repentance, and only condemned those who did not respond to his message with faith. Their issues was not ignorance of the truth, but the suppression of the truth which they saw clearly demonstrated.

Platonism and Buddhism in different ways both locate the source of suffering in human life in the state of ignorance (lack of knowledge). In Platonism, the human is ignorant of the Good, and so they fumble through life making some better and some worse choices. Sometimes they get a glimpse of the Good, and move towards it, but other times they choose lesser goods which ultimately obscure the Good. They spend their time following shadows and illusions. According to Plato, the soul has forgotten its previous acquaintance with the Good, and thus suffers from a foggy memory. All evil is thus fundamentally ignorance.

Buddhism teaches that the source of human suffering is attachment to the illusion of a self which relates itself to a notion of external reality. All phenomena are just a constant flux with nothing behind them or explaining them, and thus nothing is real in the sense of “being substantial.” Humans suffer because they are continual forming expectations and having them broken. The only constant is change, and thus grasping is the only surefire way to disappointment.

The Buddhist attains enlightenment through the realization that all is nothing. Whereas Platonism maintains the distinct nature of the two moments of knowledge (knowing and not-suppressing), but theorizes the first as leading to the second, Buddhism collapses both moments into each other in a single moment of ecstatic realization. Enlightenment is a single punctual moment, utterly simple in its parts, and sui generis. In the moment of enlightenment, the practitioner directly is the One’s realization of itself.

In contrast to Platonism and Buddhism, Christianity articulates a novel theory of the entanglement of will and knowledge by introducing the notion of ‘sin’ as an explanation for why human life is full of suffering.

Christianity begins from the premise that ignorance is insufficient to explain human suffering, because ignorance-based theories of suffering like Platonism and Buddhism overlook the second moment of knowledge where the agent can choose to suppress what they know. A knower can come to clearly see the truth and its implications, and yet still choose ignorance. How does this choice to suppress emerge?

The Christian tradition has typically resorted to the notion of nothingness or absurdity to describe the emergence of this “turning away” from the truth that the human creature is capable of. This is sin, and all spiritual and material effects of this “turning away” are called evil. From Augustine to Barth, Christian theologians have described evil as a parasitic nothingness which preys upon life, introducing fractures and distress into the community of God’s creation.

While I think this notion is on the right track, it needs to be fleshed out deeper, more specifically how this nothingness emerges and how it functions. I think that Psychoanalysis begins to point us in a fruitful line of inquiry.

Psychoanalysis owes a debt to its Christian heritage when its theories employ and probe this insight of the two-fold moment of knowledge. Psychoanalytic theory articulates how the subject speaks the truth in the act of suppressing the truth.

Psychoanalysis developed as the practice of reading the external self-reporting of the subject as coded symptoms which indicate a knowledge which has been displaced. This displaced knowledge has been “sublimated,” and thus is not ignorance in the Platonic or Buddhist sense, but is rather a willed ignorance.

How shall we describe the origin of the impulse to will ignorance?

Coda:

I fear that I am at a loss here. This question is deeply relevant to my own life, and yet I do not have a satisfactory answer. Why do I continue to choose things which I know are against my interest? Why do I do things which I know will hurt me? Leave me weaker, sicker, more afraid, more isolated, and more anxious? I experience this will-to-ignorance as another agent at work inside my mind. I march to orders and drums which do not feel like my own, and yet their only origin seems to be from within me. Though I know the good, I do not do it. How does one come not simply to know the good, but to love the good? Rather, to do the good in love?

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