“Volitional Ignorance”

What you know prevents learning. It’s a simple fact of life.

Those who “know” a lot of stuff, whether it is the batting averages of every Yankee from 1929 to now, or whether it is the history of the Civil War or the lexicon of art history, are all more or less comfortable in their comfort zones and if you ask them a question, they will answer from their store of knowledge. Hence, new knowledge is short-circuited.

If you want to be really smart, you have to learn to be stupid.

Now, I don’t consider myself to be particularly intelligent, but I have noticed when other people are, there are a few things they have in common. One of them is the ability to be blunt pig-iron stupid when they need to be.

What I mean is that intelligence can best be found in what I call “volitional ignorance,” or a willed erasure of everything you know.

People create for themselves a model of reality, or more accurately, many models. These models derive from experience. When anything new makes itself felt, it is immediately tested against the model most appropriate.

If no model is right, the new fact can be dealt with in one of two ways. More commonly, it is squeezed into the model like a square peg hammered into a round hole. The new is shaved and jiggered until it conforms with what we already know. In the end, we have learned nothing; we may only have renamed what we already knew.

But intelligence is what makes us throw out the old category rather than mangle the nonconforming fact.

Science is very good at this and the history of science is filled with people, like Einstein, willing to be completely ignorant. To start from zero and begin counting all over again.

And those who are genuinely brilliant throw out the categories before even considering the new fact. This is what I mean by “volitional ignorance.” It forces us to reinvent the wheel every single time and is the only way to discover anything genuine about the problem of wheels.

It means that you accept the experience fresh and start for your self rather than relying on the culturally accepted model.

I was talking of this with someone recently and he said, “You mean, like coloring outside the lines,” and because I am not particularly quick of mind, I agreed.

This worried me later.

For it is not like coloring outside the lines, not at all.

When he said that, he was in fact squeezing my square peg into his mental round hole, translating what I was saying into something he  already understood.

We all do this constantly, and I am not criticizing him for it. I am frequently guilty of the same thing. In fact, we cannot do otherwise without becoming yammering idiots. A certain amount of structure is needed to function in our daily lives: We cannot question the egg at every breakfast.

But still, intelligence is the ability to get past the quotidian. I call the ignorance “volitional” because it is something I make a choice about. Those who have no choice and are forced to see everything fresh at every second of their lives are called schizophrenic; they cannot edit the information coming into their brains.

Yet, we need to be able to allow ourselves to enter that state on cue if we are ever to learn anything new and genuine.

Coloring  outside  the lines implies a disregard of the structure of the drawing we are coloring. Intelligence doesn’t mean the mere disregard of structure, but the discovery of yet another structure, as if, looking up at the night sky, we were able to ignore all the constellations and create new ones, entirely our own and what is more, that the ones we create are better and truer than the old ones, just as the Big Dipper is easier to see than the Great Bear.

There are also several other aspects of intelligence that need mentioning, I think, although they are all related.

First is that intelligence can apprehend the similarities of disparate things. It recognizes in what way the horse is the same as the fork.  It makes us transcend the accepted categories of things and redefine the categories. Perhaps, instead of thinking of the categories “mammal” and “silverware,” we might discover that through human history, both horse and fork have been used as parts of the common category “tool.”

Or we might compare four legs with four tines.

I remember a segment on Sesame Street where they played the game, “Three of these things are kind of the same,” where they show us four items and ask which doesn’t belong, and which three do belong.

In this case, they had a red ball, a tomato, a green apple and a ruddy pear. Well, there are four different answers: The ball is different because it is inorganic; the pear is different because it is not round; the apple is different because it is not red; the tomato is different because it is soft.

The ability to see multiple answers is another sign of intelligence. Intelligence is not afraid of ambiguity.

And finally, intelligence understands things metaphorically, that is, it thinks in images and discovers in them reductions of complex thoughts in small, understandable packages that resonate emotionally.

Einstein first discovered his theory of relativity not in a mathematical equation, but in a mental picture. It gave him the insight he needed to later forge the math proving his insight. But the picture came first.

Speaking of one thing  while meaning another is the heart of intelligence. This is not a game, merely substituting one thing for another as in a rebus, but rather it is the recognition that our vocabulary is limited by what we know already. When we confront something genuinely new, we cannot speak of it in language we already have, we must speak of what it is “like.”

If we are awake in the world, we are constantly thinking, feeling and experiencing new things. If we speak of them in conventional language, they not only lose their newness, they become defanged.

In each case, we are trying to convey something of the complexity and subtlety of what we feel, not allowing it to die the death of the normal, the bland, the  banal. We are insisting that the particular emotion be understood and felt by the stranger to whom we are talking. We want exactness in our language and we can only reach it through inexactness. Metaphor is the means of doing it.

All our highest and best thoughts are metaphorical. All the most banal come straight from the dictionary.

The more precise a word is, the less it describes. Meaning depends on ambiguity.

Intelligence is the lightning bolt that arcs from one thought to another, fusing them together like glass.

All intelligence is a form of recognition.


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