29 January 2008


In my youth, when I knew nothing and wanted to know everything, I wondered why anyone would ever want to not know something. I could understand sometimes wanting a delay in knowing things - for example surprise parties, spoilers to stories (movies, tv shows, books, etc.). But not why someone would want to never know something at all; that concept was inconceivable.

In mid-adulthood, I begin to understand. Every time a new piece of knowledge comes in, it requires processing time. Sometimes it means altering what's already known to make the new piece fit. Sometimes it means throwing out what was there before, when older pieces turn out to be obsolete or completely wrong. Sometimes whole worldviews drastically shift - and when the dust settles, entire paradigms have crumbled and new ones formed.

Assimilating new knowledge requires time, energy, and effort. Sometimes it requires chaos and pain. The more pieces of knowledge already there before, the more of them might need to be altered, discarded, or shifted. Learning new things has a cost, and the longer someone has been alive, living, and learning - the more already known - the greater that cost can be.

I can understand sometimes wanting a delay in knowing things - until the full cost can be borne. And I also understand now that sometimes the potential gain of knowing is not worth the cost at all.


Michelle K said...

Actually, even as a child I think there were things I knew I didn't want to know.

The private lives of movie stars for one.

But then I was an avid reader, and was always struck by this passage:

`You appear to be astonished,' he said, smiling at my expression of
surprise. `Now that I do know it I shall do my best to forget it.'

Then again, I am still trying to learn everything I can, whether my brain gets full or not.

Sorry. I don't think that was where you were going.

But I do try to be open to new ideas and positions.

Shawn Powers said...

Only as I get older do I truly understand the saying, "Ignorance is Bliss."

I think, however, for many people, like myself (and I think you too), the pain of learning is often worth the effort.

I don't think you can truly appreciate the beautiful simplicity of a daisy, unless you know the terrible complexity of a rose.

(That should be on a coffee mug or something... lol!)

Tom said...

"A daisy is a daisy in and of itself, not by comparison with anything else."

But, Shawn, I do love your phrase "the terrible complexity of a rose."

I mostly want to know. Often I don't need to know.

Janiece Murphy said...

I'm with Tom - wanting to know and needing to know are very different.

I have an insatiable intellectual curiousity, but in my case, the "terrible complexity of the rose" is usually related to my own emotional state or to relationships.

John the Scientist said...

My advisor used to call that process when your experiment give shte unexpected result as "getting your head rewired by reality". It can hurt, but as contribiting memebr of a democracy, you have to welcome that process, pain or no. People who don't are dangerous. I met a lot of those kind of people in the USSR.

Nathan said...

Its not that there are things I don't want to know, but that I know my limitations. I'd love to know how radio telescopes work and how astronomers are able to extrapolate all of the information they get from what seems like vague data. I haven't got the math or the science for it, so I'm never going to really get it.

I'd love to understand how paleontologists look a a pile of bones and figure out what kind of hide/hair/feathers were on the outside.

I'd really love to see just one piece of future tech that if it existed now, our smartest scientists would look at it, scratch their heads, and officially declare it to be magic. (Sort of like if you handed my laptop to Isaac Newton).

So, its not that there are things I don't want to know, its that I know my limitations and I can live with them.

MWT said...

I wasn't really talking about the kind of knowledge along the lines of "ocean sunfish are plankton too, because 'plankton' has nothing to do with size." I meant stuff that's either more personally meaningful (such as: do I really want to read my sister's scathing email tonight when I'm down, or should I put it off until tomorrow after some sleep), or things like a certain XXX phrase on Whatever last summer (summary of my assessment of that one: potential gain nil, potential cost high, therefore reading the wikipedia text descriptions was plenty sufficient). (I'd appreciate if nobody repeats that phrase here; I don't want it in my list of google hits. o.O)

Jeri said...

I love your cryptic posts, MWT. :)

Like Janiece, I am also insatiably curious. My downfall is that I'm also impatient, and if a given concept or body of knowledge requires too much prep work to get to, sometimes I give up. (Like on 2/3 of the articles in SciAm - not good!)

My subordinates at work, especially those in technical roles, get quite annoyed when they're exposed to the behind-the-scenes political maneuvering that constitutes project & technical management. They truly do NOT want to know, they just want to focus on their switches & code.

Nathan said...


That stuff from Scalzi's site? I don't have the background to figure out how that works either.

::grin and ta-da::

Michelle K said...

Well Nathan,

I've heard...

(is instantly beaten down by all other commenters)

Janiece Murphy said...

I can't afford another plane ticket to Alaska to visit Jim, so I am not going there again.

::Sticks fingers in ears::


Tom said...

E-mail will keep. If there's a reason not to read it, don't. I am way to good at procrastinating not to be able to put something off at will.

But I heard the "when I'm down," and that felt bad.

I'm very lucky my remaining family doesn't do anything but love me. I'm unlucky in that my sister and brother are all that's left, but we're good for each other. The worst I've had in a long long time was my sister crying because she thought she was doing me wrong. She wasn't, by the way.

I wish you were as lucky as I am.

Anne C. said...

I'm in a very interesting friendship with a person who is not really interested in analyzing things. It's challenging, because as an intellectual, I'm interested in the "why" things happen the way they do. I am also aware that this is my personal choice, and so I often have to work at existing in the friendship without knowing. Sure every once in a while I question, but one cannot be a true friend if one is always pushing the other to change/be different.
Anyway, I do appreciate that sometimes it is better not to know.
I also recognize that the intellect does not always know. It fills in the blanks with educated guesses.