When Columbus discovered the Americas in 1492, no one thought that he had found anything new. Columbus thought he was in Asia, and he made it around the world. The foreign lands, characterized by new people and resources, were what he was looking for the whole time. It wasn't new. Why would it be any different?
This represents the thinking of the world in the fifteenth century: everything had already been discovered and there was nothing new to learn. However, when Columbus’s narrative began to fall apart, and people began to realize that he did not, indeed, reach Asia, the confidence in their wisdom dwindled. And it was this discovery, that the previous way of thinking could no longer be used, that revolutionized Europe.
Europeans started making maps unlike any made before. Whereas earlier maps showed the world in its entirety, these maps had large empty spaces, emphasizing the ignorance of Europe. The maps played right into the human desire for knowledge. How could one not be inspired to go discover the unknown? Knowing their ignorance encouraged them to explore it.
Before you know it, Europe became an imperialistic super-power. They exerted their control over the entire globe. Their secret? Embracing their ignorance: “European imperialism was entirely unlike all other imperial projects in history. Previous seekers of empire tended to assume that they already understood the world… In contrast, European imperialists set out to distant shores in the hope of obtaining new knowledge along with new territories,” (Harari, 283).
By acknowledging the fact that they didn’t know everything, Europeans jumped ahead of the rest of the world, using science to conquer new civilizations. And although imperialism came with severe issues, it illustrates the power of knowing the confined boundaries of your knowledge.
Finding and admitting one’s ignorance, however, is not in line with human nature. In fact, Europe had to be slapped in the face with the truth before they admitted that they were not omniscient. Daniel Kahneman, a winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics, argues that humans would rather stay in the bubble of thinking that they are right than actually being right: “Contrary to the rules of philosophers of science, who advise testing hypotheses by trying to refute them, people (and scientists, quite often) seek data that are largely compatible with the beliefs they currently hold,” (81).
We seek out information to confirm what we believe. This is dangerous. Just like the world of the 15th century, we can ignore the fact that we don’t have all the facts. Instead, we look for things that confirm our beliefs.
It’s a very human strategy. Instead of threatening our ideologies with new information, it is better to block out anything that disagrees with us. This strategy likely helped us when we were in small tribes. Clinging tightly to an ideology would help you maintain your status as you would appear wise.
Today, however, the world is different. With so much information at our fingertips, everyone carries different sets of wisdom. Holding fast to an ideology hurts you. It prevents effectively collaborating with your peers, finding better answers, admitting that you may not know how to solve problems, and learning from your mistakes.
Moreover, admitting that you are not the enlightened being that you would like to be can free us from the tribalism that dominates the political sphere. Today, we often engage in fights as opposed to arguments. The solution? Approach every conversation with the belief that they know something that you don’t. Your job is to discover new information and methods of thinking, not prove that you’re right.
Embracing this way of thinking is difficult, but it is necessary. As Montaigne told us so many years ago, “recognizing our ignorance is one of the surest and most beautiful witnesses to our judgment that I can find,” (23).
Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari
Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman
On Books by Michel de Montaigne. Translated by M. A. Screech