On Intelligence, Knowledge, Ignorance and Wisdom

Intelligence is a very complex concept to pin down, but loosely, it aligns with the ability to acquire knowledge. Similarly, knowledge is difficult to define but broadly refers to the facts, skills and information we obtain. Ignorance, considered the opposite of knowledge, is defined as a lack of knowledge. Using the above definitions, there is a sort of sliding scale from ignorance to knowledge, with the more knowledge you acquire, the less ignorant you are. And intelligence would be the skill that makes It easier and quicker to gain more knowledge.

However, I feel that there is a more subtle relationship between these concepts and that this impacts how we use these terms. For example, one could be highly intelligent but ignorant in that they possess the ability to gain knowledge but choose instead to pursue other goals, remaining ignorant. They may value the pursuit of pleasure higher than the pursuit of knowledge – for them, ignorance may well be bliss.

Also, paradoxically, gaining more knowledge can reveal more ignorance. For the more you learn about a field, the more you realise there is to learn and the more ignorant you are exposed to be. The Chinese Philosopher Confucius put it best when he said, ‘Real knowledge is to know the extent of one's ignorance.’

If we go back to our sliding scale from ignorance to knowledge – as you gain more knowledge, the scale itself increases, revealing how much more there is to know. Many intelligent people can be blind to this subtle truth. They may possess the skill to acquire more knowledge but never truly see that it reveals more ignorance.

Intelligence can be very seductive and trick you into believing you are vastly more knowledgeable than you really are. It leads people to fail to interpret the knowledge they have acquired accurately. Instead, it fools them into believing they have justified true beliefs in areas they are more ignorant than they realise. The culprit here, as in many areas of our internal world, is the ego, which can create an arrogance which inflates as more knowledge is acquired.

This is a trap which many fall into. History is littered with people far more intelligent and knowledgeable than many of us will ever be, yet who believed things that seem absurd now. Alfred Russel Wallace, a contemporary of Charles Darwin who independently came up with the theory of evolution, was one of the most esteemed biologists who ever lived. Yet he believed that he could use seances to communicate with ghosts and was tricked into believing that a spirit photographer had taken a photo of him with his deceased mother. Jack Parsons, one of the fathers of modern rocketry, was a devout believer in the occult and used sex to try to summon a Goddess called Babalon into existence.

And we don’t even have to look into the past to see this – it is everywhere, even today. Christopher Langan has one of the highest IQs ever recorded and can claim to be one of the most intelligent people ever. His IQ test was literally off the charts, and at an early age, he taught himself advanced mathematics, physics, philosophy, Latin and Greek. He could also learn languages incredibly fast, having a solid understanding by just skimming through a textbook. Yet Christopher Langan has many abhorrent, incorrect, and absurd beliefs. For example, he believes 9/11 was orchestrated by George Bush. He is an antisemite, is opposed to interracial relationships and is championed by Neo-Nazis. The list here goes on and on – there are countless examples of highly intelligent people who believe appalling, contradictory and clearly wrong things.

So why do so many intelligent people have such faulty beliefs? One answer is that their intelligence reinforces mistaken beliefs, acting as a lawyer and finding the best possible defence for them. As mentioned earlier, when knowledge is acquired, arrogance forms and the ego begins to cloud clear judgement. The intelligence is then used to defend your position rather than consider it may be wrong.

It would seem, therefore, that intelligence is less desirable than it appears to be. True, it allows for the gaining of knowledge more easily, but it is no guarantee that that knowledge is being used for doing good. I find a far better barometer of someone is, ironically, when they fully accept how ignorant they are, are genuinely humble about what they know and can suggest ideas whilst being wary that they may not be entirely sure about them. Most of all, when they are happy and willing to say, ‘I don’t know’.

Yet the opposite is often the case. There are many people whose idea of themselves becomes inflated by the success their intelligence and knowledge have bestowed upon them. They become lauded for aptitude in a particular field and then begin to speak confidently on subjects they are nowhere near as familiar with. I find this a widespread and dispiriting phenomenon in today’s media landscape.

We should all be humble in what we know, and we should all know that we are ignorant of so much. I am regularly humbled by how little it is that I know. As part of my morning routine, I will read a factual book, make notes, and summarise it. This regularly illuminates my ignorance and encourages me to revise my beliefs constantly. It has meant that I am far less certain in areas than in my 20s but also more comfortable that others are correct. This is an ongoing process that hopefully gets me closer to having justified true beliefs. The process, however, never ends.

Ultimately, there is a word which encapsulates what it is that we should desire most. It is not knowledge nor intelligence but wisdom. Wisdom involves the skill of recognising your ignorance, of possessing that rarer form of knowledge, knowing what it is you don’t know. Being wise means we should always be open to being wrong. In fact, we should celebrate those moments as bringing us closer to the truth. It involves using good judgement, factoring in our own experiences, and applying this to our knowledge to help interpret it. It requires that you always think with humility. I have come across many knowledgeable people in my life, but very few truly wise people. It is wisdom, not intelligence or knowledge, that we should all aspire towards.

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