3000 years ago King Solomon, then considered to be the wisest man of his time, opined about the negative aspects of wisdom gained from a closer scrutiny and a broader outlook of the world he inhabited
“And I set my mind to know wisdom and to know madness and folly; I realized that this also is striving after wind. Because in much wisdom there is much grief, and increasing knowledge results in increasing pain.” – Ecclesiastes 1:17-18.
This seems troubling to me at first glance because I have always viewed knowledge as liberating and something that gives us power over others who don’t have it. But what Solomon was concerned about can be explained by a Josh Billings quote.
“It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”
What Solomon discovered as his knowledge of the world increased, the narrower views he was raised with became less consequential for him. He became painfully aware that there were holes and flaws in what he held to be true in his youth, creating conflict within himself. He became confronted with the decision to change and adapt to the newer revelations he had discovered or remain locked into a set of values and ideas that no longer stood up to close scrutiny.
This poses a problem for all of us who inquire beyond our basic learning as children. For most, when confronted with this dilemma, it becomes less conflicting to simply retain our cradle-born misbeliefs and not much more. And though this limited information stands in stark contrast to realities of the world, some have managed none-the-less to live most of their lives being confident about “something that feels to them like knowledge.”
Recall if you will back in the 2012 election year when GOP candidate Rick Santorum repudiated the higher education many young people were receiving in colleges and universities that came into conflict with Santorum’s view of the world. He called them “indoctrination mills” and stated “that 62% of kids who enter college with some sort of faith commitment leave without it.”
That in fact isn’t the case. A 2007 report published by the Social Science Research Council found that “those not attending college were more likely to stop going to religious services and to report they no longer had a religious affiliation than their college-going cohorts”. What the study by Mark D. Regnerus and Jeremy E. Uecker revealed was that “the young adult years of many Americans are marked by a clear decline in outward religious expression, which is widely thought to hit bottom during—and perhaps because of—the college experience.” But the authors noted that this changed later when young adults reaffirmed their faith as they got married and had children. Early adulthood they found was “a time in the life course when Americans are most open to religious change and growth”
I found this to be true in my own personal experience. The exposure to the poets and writers of another era like Thoreau, Bryant and Emerson expanded my strict religious context of the world and enabled an epiphany of sorts that gave me a religious fervor that I had never known.
But what ultimately occurred (that Santorum’s fears expressed) long after receiving my Bachelor’s degree was that as I opened more and more doors to the origins of my faith, increasing my knowledge about its development over time, I came to realize that Christianity was merely a plagiarized version of earlier faiths and that the so-called inerrant word of God many claim the Bible represents suffered many errors and inconsistencies.
It was this interests in the many details omitted in my upbringing that eventually led to my disassociation with the church. As my knowledge increased on such matters I came to see, as Solomon did centuries ago, that as our wisdom of such things expands, we have to make the painful choice to either remain as we once were or move beyond the trappings of the older versions and leave a part of ourselves behind. The greatest pain came from losing or weakening close relationships with those who held on to the older untested ways.
I came to view those who held on to the orthodoxy they were raised with less favorably over time and concluded they simply chose to remain ignorant. Santorum and his ilk would view that as academic elitism but it was simply a matter of accepting change that was inevitable in the light of new, valid information.
I would become puzzled and even disturbed by this tenacious devotion to traditions that no longer held fast in light of new evidence to the contrary. Especially by very bright people who themselves have Masters and PhD degrees. In order to do this it seems, people would create and buy into a litany of apologetics that consoled any conflicts with this new knowledge. It would also become common to simply dispute the new evidence by pointing out it lacked any “absolute” proof. A condition that the older views shared but was somehow ignored by the gate keepers of an embellished legacy.
Recently however I have come across some insights that better explains why people remain locked into views that clearly are disconnected in part at least with the reality of our times. Ignorance it seems, according to David Dunning, professor of psychology at Cornell University, is less a factor of being uninformed than it is of one of being misinformed. Though people often feel they know quite a bit about a subject matter there is far more that they don’t know, which is “all too often completely invisible. To a great degree, we fail to recognize the frequency and scope of our ignorance”, Dunning says
We often laugh and react with astonishment when extremists hold fast to their narrow views, especially when confronted with evidence that contradicts them. But if wisdom was merely based on what it should be – the observable evidence – then the ignorant would be shamed the instant they opened their mouth. But shame is only effective if people recognize the obvious facts. When people’s minds are cluttered with “irrelevant or misleading life experiences, theories, facts, intuitions, strategies, algorithms, heuristics, metaphors, and hunches” Duncan postulates, those who harbor such worthless accumulations regrettably view them as “useful and accurate knowledge.”
This is apparent with the recent revelation that found 25% of people today still think that the sun revolves around the earth. It’s probably safe to say that most who hold to this ancient view got it from their strict religious upbringing and to accept that the opposite is true would be to deny something that has guided their way of thinking all of their lives. To reject the wrong information regarding the sun’s path around the earth would be tantamount to rejecting the entirety of their faith.
To contradict [cradle-born misbeliefs] would call into question our very self-worth. As such, these [foundational beliefs] demand fealty from other opinions. And any information that we glean from the world is amended, distorted, diminished, or forgotten in order to make sure that these sacrosanct beliefs remain whole and unharmed. – Dunning
The same can be said about people’s political and social views. Raised most of their formative years by parents and like-minded neighbors and relatives, a child’s world view gets embedded early and for most stays that way with only modest modifications over time. It is so much easier to accept this conditioned knowledge we’ve gained in our short, early lives than to deal with the inherent weaknesses that exist with them. Better to castigate “the intelligentsia” as some out of touch elite than concede that what we have held to be true all our lives is in fact apocryphal.
So though Solomon was correct about the pain that comes from being the brightest egg in your circle of influence, it’s not the actual knowledge that leads to this pain but the other misinformed eggs you share space with that makes one want to declare that enlightenment for such folks is like “striving after the wind”.