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Sci-Phi: The Placebo of Ignorance

An excerpt from "A Language of Metaphors" by J.D. Casnig


"Yet ah! why should they know their fate,
Since sorrow never comes too late,
And happiness too swiftly flies?
Thought would destroy their paradise.
No more; where ignorance is bliss,
'Tis folly to be wise."


Thomas Gray

From "Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College" 1742


Ignorance: n. [F., fr. L. ignorantia.]

1. The condition of being ignorant; the want of knowledge in general, or in relation to a particular subject; the state of being uneducated or uninformed.

2. (Theol.) A willful neglect or refusal to acquire knowledge which one may acquire and it is his duty to have.

                         Webster's Dictionary, 1913


Our life unfolds to reveal our ignorance. One's mind could be said to be confined by a perimeter of the unknown, and it is this unknown that defines the very psyche of the individual. Left unsatisfied, our ignorance remains in a state of question that is a constant hunger, which, once filled, paradoxically leaves a new void. This neuropsychological Peter Principle ensures a universal equality among all walks of life, young or old: we all rise in our state of knowing until we reach our state of ignorance. There we will sit, until promoted to a state of still higher ignorance.

Some will escape this perpetual maturation by hiding under a blanket of decision, whether through conformity or through prejudice. For them, growth will not be defined by the inclusion of new ideas, but by the further collection or comprehension of old ones. To question the authority they rely on is to remove the protection of the blanket.

But those who seek such protectionism are simply seeking surrogate parents for themselves, using such paths as religion, politics or fraternity to sidestep the uneasy road of independence.  Some may desire the leadership of a high-handed autocrat - that one-handed parent who can only spank or cradle at any given time. Others may wish for that Solomon appeal, a benign dictator who, though the last decisive word in all things, will first listen to both sides. Many will allow themselves to be led by sheer consensus. And there are those who will seek to divide the favors of the parents.

As society's surrogate parent, God is a mime, speaking in a language of gestures and symbols. On Sundays, He greets us, hands akimbo, and asks through his agent: "Where have you been all week...?" Our confessions are a humbling summary of our childish acts; His response is a punishment and a definitive closure. A heartless transaction, absolution is merely a "striking from the records" rather than a teary, Hallmark-esque tête-à-tête. But forgiveness and compassion were never really God's strongest suits - trump cards reliably dealt in spades by His maternalistic progeny, Jesus. As civilization grew up, so did its need for ideological space and boundaries, and Dad's corporal punishment was replaced by Mom's guilt: God commanded and smote; Jesus suffered and wept.

A philosopher will interrogate God, questioning both His power and his authority. A philosopher has risen from God's obedient child to God's rambunctious teen, and is preparing to leave the shelter and comforts of home for the harsh reality of the outside world. The philosopher will more likely discover and denounce the immaturities of God than that childlike follower.

Claiming turf in the new frontier of adulthood, a teen is a seedling egocracy - an independent state run by, and consisting of, a single person. Where and when to grow, who is friend or foe, what is right or wrong. We often consider good parenting to be that which infuses these policies into the individual, such that the "captain of one's ship" has predetermined ports of call throughout their travels in life. Whether that parent is blood kin, political or religious leader or corporation, they will need believability to have such enduring effects.

There are two basic types of belief: understanding, where truth is deemed immediately at hand; and trust, where a figure becomes the conduit to truth. This is not to say that truth is a mere beckon away; only that in both cases truth exists, with the latter requiring a spokesperson who will dose out truth, and the prior self-administered.

Facts are delivered to us throughout the course of our lives. Buried in half-truths and lies, we learn to discern, or are forever building sandcastles with dry sand. With workable material and know-how, we may rebuild models of this world, adding or changing at will with artisan expertise. Without a basis in working with facts, we are forced to trust.

Trust implies the unknown coupled with a belief in what is already known. We drop a ball and it falls; we trust that in the future this will also be true. The trite "If you don't trust me, see it for yourself!" shows that trust comes second to experience - and more importantly - our own experience.

"Who are you going to believe, me or your own eyes?"

                                                                       Groucho Marx

But there are many questions of life that fail the tests of experience. "Why are we here?", "Is there life out there?", or "Is there life after death?". For these questions, we rely on the stock answers "Just one of the many mysteries of life", "No one will ever know" or the classic "Heaven only knows". In each case we are given reassurance that our ignorance is satisfactory unto itself - a placebo, which cures the question not with a quantifiable rationale, but with a terminal sense of unanswerability that simply says "That's just the way it is."

We use the placebo of ignorance daily. It's a fast-acting panacea for those zillion questions that arise each day but that we really don't care to answer. Curing "I don't know..." with "...I don't care" or "...how should I know?!" The hunger to know quickly stuffed with a bland all-purpose filler of intellectual "hunger gaps". Easing the pain that we often find on the tip of our tongues when doing crosswords or playing trivia. Our anxious "wits end" needs either sating or sedating.

This should come as no surprise to neurologists. We know that the process of learning and thought releases a whole pharmacy of mind-altering drugs to the brain. Thought is a drug trade, from a neuron perspective. This placebo of ignorance is just one of many, and it may well be quite good for the economy of the brain, allowing a greater focus on the things that matter, while sedating the need to know of the greater populace of neurons.

"Religion is the opiate of the masses."

                                                                   Karl Marx

Could it be that the brain produces knowledge-blocking agents? This would certainly explain a few quirks of life, such as that "youthful hunger for knowledge" occurring at the same stage of life as "they never listen". Might "tunnel vision" have chemical walls?

[This would suggest that the many phases that we go through as we mature - and their respective trademark mindsets - are actually marked with a specific neurochemical shape. That the development of the knowledge structure of the brain after birth is also shaped by an endogenous chemistry rather than exclusively by life experience and consideration.]

As we grow up, we go through that classic teen rebellion, powered by a raging natural hormonal imbalance. Bouncing off the disciplinary walls or breaking through, we test many of our limits or risk going stir crazy. Difficult for most families, this is often particularly troublesome for religious families, where the teen is told by the religion to adhere to the rules of tradition and by nature to part with them. The Jewish culture uses a healthy dose of preventative medicine with the bar mitzvah and bas mitzvah ceremonies, which grant adulthood before it is seized through force. The classic temper-tantrums of teenagehood speak of expectation denied, as if to say that nature would have them grow up much quicker. It would seem that the part of the brain demanding independence is being denied one drug, while the section responsible for household chores is glutted with the placebo of ignorance.

A placebo is, in effect, a drug. It is, in fact, knowledge. Where a real drug sprinkled into a Mickey Finn will have a real effect, the unwitting victim of a placebo-laced version cannot react - they don't know they should. Like hypnosis, it is only our receipt of this bogus truth that makes the attempt to deceive effective. Which leads us naturally to Santa Claus.

Santa is a socially accepted childhood fantasy. The removal of this unprovable character from the theatre of a child's mind may come quietly and naturally, as they grow up, or be forced out, perhaps by a malevolent sibling. To topple Santa by force is to detox the placebo of ignorance cold turkey - with all the normal bells, horns and whistles of belief withdrawal.

Why is our bond with the fantastic so strong? As the X-Files dutifully reiterates "I want to believe". It's as if our developing imagination does not hunger for facts or truth, but rather anything but. Of course, we do need to know that "the truth is out there", but once again, we need something or someone in-between: a medium, spokesperson or surrogate. These are the pharmacists who specialize in administering the placebo of ignorance.

But despite all of the negatives that we may place on ignorance, we also regard it as bliss. This is because there is great comfort in ignorance - albeit, drug induced and supported. It serves a purpose: quelling the facts to aid in the formation of our imagination as children; soothing the conscience of teens as they abandon household responsibilities to enter society; crushing our fear of the unknown and unknowable as we age and realize our mortality, and that of loved ones.

Maybe, then, the purpose of the placebo of ignorance is not to save the mind, but to save the soul - that the duties of thought are nothing more than the dust-destined sweat of the brow of life that only distract the purposes of the soul. Answers, be they truth or pap, give the spirit rest. There is both a high road and a low road to Nirvana.

                                                                            J.D. Casnig


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