More than 2,000 years ago, a Greek thinker, a “philosopher” is reported to have said that “panta rei” — that is, “everything changes.” Or another supposedly said, “You can’t step in the same river twice.” It was probably a shock to the people in those days.
In the English language there is what I consider a nice distinction between “ignorance,” meaning “not knowing what one should know,” and “nescience,” meaning “lack of knowing,” or “not aware,” of something.
In human history people knew what they knew from the experience they had and the knowledge available to them. For humans as hunters, fishermen and people who gathered what was around them to survive their local area was their “world.” For them, and for many generations, what they saw was that the “sun rises and sets.” As time went on, they coined the term for a body of water as the “Medi-terreanean”, that is the middle of all lands. When Copernicus and others said that the universe did not revolve around planet Earth, but that Earth was simply revolving, it was a shock and many rejected the idea. Now we know that is the reality.
There comes a point then when “nescience” becomes “ignorance,” that is when people realize that in light of new discoveries, that can be tested and verified, what they had accepted as true in the past was no longer true but refuse to accept the facts, they become “ignorant.”
Among human beings, we like to cling to what we have been told by those older and more experienced in life. We want to hold on to what we have come to accept as an explanation when we learn that our ideas are out of date. It is hard for us as humans to admit that “maybe I was wrong.” There are, of course, those who keep defending the old “wisdom” in the light of new discoveries, because they have a vested interest in keeping the “status quo.” They benefit from the way things are. It is often those on the fringe of society, the young, those who suffer and do not benefit from the system, who become open to change and new ideas, new ways of seeing things.
I am not saying that we must reject the “wisdom of the elders,” because there are some basic things that people have learned from experience about human life. When my old Tlingit friend Walter Williams told the story of how Raven created humans from the beach grass blowing in the wind, he sometimes said that explains why “Our leaders change their ideas, like the grass blowing in the wind.” Or, when the Book of Genesis in the Bible says that the temptation presented to Adam and Eve was that if they ate of the apple, they would “Be as God determining good and evil.” These are still concepts that apply to human behavior today.
And so for me, as I learn that our planet is just like a speck of dust in what we call the Milky Way galaxy, and that we are now learning that there may be trillions of similar galaxies, I realize that I was “nescient.” I just didn’t know these things. When we see a world population of 7 billion people, not just tribes or nations, I see that things are going to change around the world. When I see that our weather, our climate is changing, I have to admit that change is happening.
And so, I guess that puts me in the position of being a “liberal,” that is one with an open mind accepting the changes I see in life. I am also a “conservative,” accepting that there are some things we have learned from the past, from our ancestors, that are still the best explanations we have.
But is the idea that one has to be either a “liberal” or “conservative,” the absolute truth? Must everything be black or white with no possible middle ground? Or could it be that as change takes place we have to learn to accept and live with the real world around us?
We have to move from “nescient” to trying to understand things, without becoming “ignorant.” Our ancestors were not stupid nor ignorant; they were simply nescient.
• Olson, is a professor of anthropology (emeritus) at the University of Alaska Southeast.
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