Knowing too much, but not enough

Alexander Pope wrote, in An Essay on Criticism, that “A little learning is a dangerous thing.” These words tend to be somewhat misremembered, but not as badly as many quotations. I think it’s more notable how they are misunderstood. Pope’s point is not that learning in general is so perilous that even a little is dangerous. His point—and he was aiming his ire, as the title of the essay suggests, at critics—is that knowing a little, but not enough, leads people to do foolish things.

A related idea has long intrigued me: it is that ignorance and learning can lead to similar conclusions as each other, while a little intelligence or learning can mislead and take people to different conclusions altogether. An example of this, I think, is the question of moral relativity. I think the average person who hasn’t given morality much thought (which, before a certain age, presumably includes all of us) would be of the opinion that there are things we can definitely call right and things that we can definitely call wrong—moral absolutes. Many intelligent people, however, come to the realisation later on, often in adolescence, that the foundations of morality that they took for granted are actually pretty shaky. Different cultures have different ideas of what is right and what is wrong; deities may not exist, and—even if they do exist—may be as morally questionable as human beings. Matters of morality thus start to look a lot more like matters of taste, and it starts to seem wrong to impose one’s own ideas of morality on other people. This is moral relativism, and I think it’s a stage most intelligent people reach in their philosophical development.

The thing is that it’s wrong. Certainly, I believe you’d be hard pressed to find a serious philosopher who identified as a moral relativist. There are several reasons why it doesn’t work, which I won’t go into in detail here, though I find it interesting to note that the average moral relativist seems, in spite of everything, to give consistency (with one’s own views) something of the status of a moral absolute. Moral philosophers, who can probably be said to know more about morality than most people, tend in my experience to be of the view that there are things that are right and wrong, and that it’s not all a matter of taste. It’s just not quite as simple as people might naively believe who haven’t thought enough on it. In other words, a little intelligence and learning leads people away from a view they held in ignorance, but which was closer (though certainly not identical) to a view that they may yet come to hold through the application of greater thought and learning.

There are things I’m ignoring here, like the reasons adolescents tend to be attracted to ideas that do away with authority—which is relevant to the particular example I’ve chosen. But there are other examples. I think you see similar things with prescriptivism in language, free will and determinism, and other questions, large and small. The point, I suppose, is that you can be correct for the wrong reasons and incorrect for the right reasons. It seems to me that, if we were to discover clear evidence tomorrow that life on earth is in fact the product of creation rather than evolution, many (probably most) creationists would still, in a certain sense, be wrong. They might have got to the correct answer, but they took a poor route to it.

2 Comments

Filed under Thoughts and rants

2 responses to “Knowing too much, but not enough

  1. One of my professors, Jon Mathews, once observed that 'obviousness is often an oscillatory function of brightness'.If one is very dim then nothing is obvious. If one is a little bright then one may see a clear pattern. Brighter yet and one might see a special case in which one can not glibly apply the pattern. Still brighter and one may see that the pattern is neverthless true. And so on, and so on.

  2. Sorry, I read through quickly, misunderstood, posted, reread, deleted….

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