Redressing The Crises of Ignorance

03 June 2021 in Resource Center.

Buckminster Fuller discussed problems of ignorance in multiple contexts. His most dramatic usage was as a crisis of ignorance referring to our failure to recognize our abundance of solar, tidal, and geothermal energy causing the illusion of an “energy crisis”. In this resource we abstract and interpret several crises of ignorance inspired, in part, by Bucky’s thinking. We start by revisiting Bucky’s idea of mistake mystique and Stuart Firestein’s thinking on ignorance and science. Then we explore Bucky’s essay “The Wellspring of Reality”. Finally, we expand on some visionary ideas from Bucky’s essay “Education Automation”.

This exploration is organized around four critically important crises of ignorance and how we might redress them. This should reveal new ways to see the importance of our comprehensivity, our “wanting to understand all and put everything together” as Bucky explained it in his book “Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth”.

The First Crisis of Ignorance: Mistake Mystique

In the resource Mistake Mystique in Learning and in Life, we learned from Bucky that all our lives begin in ignorance:

By cosmic designing wisdom we are all born naked, helpless for months, and though superbly equipped cerebrally, utterly lacking in experience, ergo utterly ignorant.

— Buckminster Fuller, in “Mistake Mystique” (1977)

Bucky goes on to emphasize that

[W]hatever humans have learned had to be learned as a consequence only of trial-and-error experience. Humans have learned only through mistakes.

— Buckminster Fuller, in “Mistake Mystique” (1977)

Bucky further explains in “Mistake Mystique” that all learning comes out of a navigational process of steering first too much to port (toward the left when looking toward the bow or front of a boat) followed by a course correction to starboard (toward the right). Through this process of ever more effective cybernetic steering (the regulation of systems organized around purposes), we can often reduce the gap between our errors and our objective like an expert steerswoman.

The key realization is that there is always a gap: whether between our knowledge and the full Truth (the truth gap), between our communications and what we mean (the ineffability gap), or between our actions and the outcome we intended (the design outcomes gap). Since none of us are gods, none of us is perfect and there is no way to eliminate these gaps. Diligently minding the gap so as to minimize it is our epistemic virtue of mistake mystique.

Cybernetics, which Bucky explained as “the Greek word for the steering of a boat” is the art of steering a purposeful system. He further explained that Norbert Weiner coined the term feedback to refer to the error-identifying control process. Mistake mystique is the practice of actively attending to the system feedbacks to manage the gap between our hypotheses and truth, between our communications and what we mean, between the results of our efforts and what we intend. Good navigators can minimize these gaps with incisive and frequent adjustments to stay on course. All purposeful systems require this kind of on-going management. Our lives are purposeful systems. Mistake mystique is a crucial art for our cybernetics of living.

Is mistake mystique a crucial guide for our knowing, for our communications, for our actions, and, in general, for our governance?

Does the lack of awareness of the profound importance of mistake mystique constitute a crisis of ignorance?

The Second Crisis of Ignorance: the Hypostasis of Knowledge

In the resource on mistake mystique, we also examined Stuart Firestein’s idea that what we don’t know, our ignorance, is more important than our knowledge.

Knowledge is a big subject. Ignorance is bigger. And it is more interesting.

— Stuart Firestein, “Ignorance: How It Drives Science” (2012)

Firestein suggests that knowledge and ignorance co-define each other, like inside and outside. This is correct: assertions and hypotheses always come to life in a sea of questions and wondering. Marina Warner suggests that even fantasy, fairy tale, and myth are a kind of inquiry: they are hypotheses offered to help us wonder. All our assertions are, in fact, veiled questions; they are hypotheses. Properly understood, all our knowing is characterized by a structure of hypotheses standing in a field of ignorance. This is the underlying foundation, the hypostasis, of our knowing.

Peter Galison seems to corroborate this view:

If you go back to one of the great Old English origins of the word “understanding,” under doesn’t mean beneath, it actually meant “among.” “Standing,” was different forms of standing. It’s almost like you’re standing in a grove of different trees. That sense of being among these different ways of grasping the world—some predictive, some mathematical—… that ability to stand among these different things might be something that we want….

Peter Galison, in “Epistemic Virtues” (2019)

I think it amounts to this: understanding is about how our ignorance and our hypotheses stand among each other. The questions and the assertions are both crucial to organizing our understanding, steering our conversations, and guiding us in effective design. It is an inherently comprehensive view: how do all our questions and facts stand together?

Is the basis for knowledge necessarily organizing our experiences, our ignorance, and our multiple hypotheses into an integrated understanding?

When we fail to appreciate the importance of experience, ignorance, and hypotheses in forming our knowledge, is it a crisis of ignorance?

The Third Crisis of Ignorance: Generalized Principles

Buckminster Fuller provides another rationale and definition for our comprehensivity in his essay “The Wellspring of Reality”:

General systems science discloses the existence of minimum sets of variable factors that uniquely govern each and every system. Lack of knowledge concerning all the factors and the failure to include them in our integral imposes false conclusions. Let us not make the error of inadequacy in examining our most comprehensive inventory of experience and thoughts regarding the evoluting affairs of all humanity.

— Buckminster Fuller, in “The Wellspring of Reality” (1975)

With this preface, Bucky defines science as “the attempt to set in order the facts of experience”. Sometimes Bucky attributes this to Arthur Eddington; in “Wellspring” he attributes it to James Jeans. I suspect both attributions are spurious. I have been unable to find the origin of the quote. The sources I find in WikiQuote and in other searches trace back to Bucky. Perhaps, Bucky read these authors and imaginatively inferred the quote from his meditation on their accounts of science? I do not know. The definition may be Bucky’s synthesis from many sources including Eddington and Jeans.

Bucky’s definition of science as setting our experiences in order adds an empirical basis to the original meaning of science as “knowledge” (in Latin as scientia). A strength of Bucky’s definition is its accommodation of not only the most hard-nosed materialist view, but also mystical, religious, and spiritual experience. In fact, we can now see how each of Humanity’s traditions of inquiry and action can be seen as a “science” because each has its own way of putting in order the experiences it identifies and values.

Bucky highlights the important role of generalized principles for science:

The word generalization in literature usually means covering too much territory too thinly to be persuasive, let alone convincing. In science, however, a generalization means a principle that has been found to hold true in every special case.… Mind is the weightless … faculty that surveys the ever larger inventory of special-case experiences stored in the brain bank and, seeking to identify their intercomplementary significance, from time to time discovers one of the rare scientifically generalizable principles running consistently through all the relevant experience set.

— Buckminster Fuller, in “The Wellspring of Reality” (1975)

Bucky thinks that the abstraction from special-case experience to generalized principle is the key idea. He is right: the value of all learning and all education is applicability beyond any particular special case experience, the ability to effectively address new situations.

However, later in the essay, when Bucky insists on calling the generalized principles eternal, he overlooks an important insight first identified by David Hume: there is no operation of reason nor of the mind which can guarantee that any hypothesized generalized principle, not even one which has applied in every special case through today, will also apply tomorrow. David Hume’s famous example is the generalized principle that the Sun will appear in the Eastern sky tomorrow morning. Of course, Hume realizes the Sun will probably make its customary appearance, but there is no principle that can prove it.

Our realization that through all our experience a proposed property holds true, permits us to call our hypothesis a generalized principle. Even if an exception is found, we know that our proposition agrees with some subset of our experience data. But even the most learned comprehensivist does not have access to all human experiences: there will always be some traditions that we have not yet incorporated into our thinking. Some tradition somewhere might know how and why our generalized principle is limited in applicability or, perhaps, even wrong. So it behooves us to consider it merely an hypothesis.

Recent examples beg us to heed this important truth. The best science predicted that Hilary Clinton had a 71.4% chance of winning the 2016 US Presidential election. That tomorrow never came, instead the outcome with a 29.6% percent likelihood became certainty. More recently, the dawning realization that the hundred year old theory that infectious respiratory diseases spread by droplets is probably wrong. That mistake may have significantly exacerbated our response to the COVID-19 pandemic as Zeynep Tufekci notes. These kinds of failures are normal in science. Science frequently gets the facts wrong. Stuart Firestein writes in “Ignorance”, “all scientists know that it is facts that are unreliable.” We need to thoroughly understand the ignorance surrounding a fact to truly assess its trustworthiness.

There is another critical point to recognize about Bucky’s notion of generalized principles: the vital importance of our comprehensivity. Recall that Bucky said, “mind … surveys the ever larger inventory of special-case experiences … [to discover] one of the rare scientifically generalizable principles”. In order to identify generalized principles, we benefit from having access to large collections of experience data. Our comprehensivity, our inclination to comprehend our worlds broadly and deeply, tunes us into Humanity’s vast cultural heritage which gives us access to a significantly larger inventory of experiences than specialists or isolated enclaves might consider. This gives us many more opportunities to find generalized principles and their exceptions. These are similar to the advantages Angela Oguntala found for thinking in alternatives. Our comprehensivity permits us a broader and more incisive access to Humanity’s inventories of experiences and generalized principles.

The main thesis of Bucky’s “Wellspring” essay may be seen in this condensed quote:

The wellspring of reality is the family of weightless generalized principles….[Which can] lead all humanity into omnisuccessful survival as well as entrance into an utterly new era of human experience in an as-yet and ever-will-be fundamentally mysterious Universe.

— Buckminster Fuller, in “The Wellspring of Reality” (1975)

I interpret Bucky to mean that the inventory of all Humanity’s identified generalized principles provides us our clearest possible sense of the source, the wellspring, of reality. Bucky acknowledges that this highly informed perspective will still be fundamentally mysterious: our ignorance will always encompass our facts as Stuart Firestein also emphasizes.

In addition, Bucky is saying that only through the generalized principles can we come to “omnisuccessful survival”. I think this is because in our cybernetic steering to omnisuccess (“omni” means all, so “omnisuccess” means success for everyone) the availability of a large inventory of proven generalized principles helps us minimize the mistakes we make. That is to say, the generalized principles are useful because they empower our mistake mystique.

There is a threat to the great potential that the generalized principles offer to Humanity. Bucky explains,

Unguided by science, society is allowed to go right on filling its childrens’ brain banks with large inventories of competence-devastating misinformation. In order to emerge from its massive ignorance, society will probably have to rely exclusively upon its individuals’ own minds to survey the pertinent experimental data—as do all great scientist-artists.

— Buckminster Fuller, in “The Wellspring of Reality” (1975)

This reminds me of the earlier part of his essay that warns about overspecialization, our failure to attend to comprehensiveness. This is our failure to cultivate our comprehensivity. Bucky seems to think it is causing us to overlook our options for omnisuccess.

The crisis of ignorance which Bucky seems to be warning us about is our failure to integratively accommodate Humanity’s already vast inventory of experiences with our treasure trove of generalized principles from all our great traditions of inquiry and action. I think Bucky is suggesting that each of us ought to more conscientiously practice our comprehensivity by surveying the enormous inventory of available experience data and the vast collection of hypothesized generalized principles to separate the misinformation from the more reliable generalized principles so we might better improve our options for omnisuccess.

Is our failure to conscientiously and comprehensively review Humanity’s vast inventories of experiences to distill out the most effective generalized principles for our omnisuccess, a crisis of ignorance?

When we fail to realize the importance of our comprehensivity in assessing our inventory of generalized principles so we might better contribute to Humanity’s omnisuccess, is it a crisis of ignorance?

The Fourth Crisis of Ignorance: Education Automation

In Buckminster Fuller’s 1962 essay “Education Automation”, he imagined how “two-way TV” might revolutionize education by “Freeing the scholar to return to his studies” as the subtitle of the essay puts it. Here is one of his most prescient futures from that essay:

I am quite sure that we are going to get research and development laboratories of education where the faculty will become producers of extraordinary moving-picture documentaries. That is going to be the big, new educational trend.

— Buckminster Fuller, in “Education Automation” (1962)

By 2012 Coursera, quickly followed by EdX, FutureLearn, and many others, started offering massive open on-line courses (MOOCs) with multiway-Internet, instead of Bucky’s two-way TV, and with spaces for interactivity and other feedbacks for learning. As a result, Bucky’s once visionary idea has become a bit quaint.

I have taken more than 100 courses from MOOCs or their less structured antecedents in the open educational resources movement. These courses provide access to many of our most prominent traditions of inquiry and action. As such they provide a treasure trove of resources to help us develop our comprehensivity. However, too many of these resources include the taint of arrogance in seeing their particular tradition as superior to others. This can discourage our comprehensivity, our inclination to understand our worlds in a way that is “macro-comprehensive and micro-incisive” as Bucky put it in “Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth”. How can we do better?

Recall that in “Wellspring”, Bucky said, “society will probably have to rely exclusively upon its individuals’ own minds”. By the late 1940s, Bucky included students in his exploratory projects. Daniel López-Pérez, author of the 2020 book “R. Buckminster Fuller: Pattern-Thinking”, suggested that Bucky’s process of incorporating students in his exploratory research may have emerged from the long established design studio tradition in architecture and design schools. The addition of new ideas, new questions, and new perspectives from his students’ own individual minds may have empowered Bucky’s breakthroughs in prototyping the geodesic dome and tensegrity structures. For example, it was Bucky’s student Kenneth Snelson who first demonstrated Bucky’s principle of continuous tension and discontinuous compression in a physical model. So collaborative engagement with many unique minds might be the crucial tool for effective development and research activities.

As we now disemploy [people] as muscle and reflex machines, the one area where employment is gaining abnormally fast is the research and development area. Research and development are a part of the educational process itself. We are going to have to invest in our people and make available to them participation in the great educational process of research and development in order to learn more. When we learn more, we are able to do more with our given opportunities.

— Buckminster Fuller, in “Education Automation” (1962)

These thoughts lead us, perhaps, to identify our most consequential crisis of ignorance: how ought we go about automating our educational systems so that everyone can, on an on-going basis, acquire knowledge of the various traditions of inquiry and action in support of their individually articulated but collaboratively coordinated efforts to design a more desirable future? This is my abstraction and reformulation of Bucky’s vision for education automation. It is my attempt to address Bucky’s 1972 New York Times call for “Education Revolution: The Highest Priority of All”.

Is our failure to fully engage all the citizens of Earth in an on-going lifelong educational process to apply all our diverse minds to distill and apply the learning from all Humanity’s traditions of inquiry and action in support of collaborative development and research initiatives for civilization’s omnisuccess, a crisis of ignorance?

When we fail to organize effective on-going full-lifetime educational systems to foster comprehensive thinking and the regenerative design of the world for omnisuccess, is it a crisis of ignorance?

The Importance of Our Comprehensivity

In each of the four crises of ignorance above, our comprehensivity, our inclination to understand our worlds ever more extensively and ever more intensively, is an important means to redress the crisis. Observe:

  • Our comprehensivity can inform our mistake mystique as it strives to identify, anticipate, and minimize “the gap” in our cybernetic steering,
  • Our comprehensivity can make us aware of multiple hypotheses and alternative lines of inquiry to better see how our ignorance and hypotheses stand together in forming our knowledge,
  • Our comprehensivity can help us find more generalized principles and their exceptions to better understand the wellspring of reality, and
  • Our collaborative comprehensivity may be the guiding practice to best support our revolution for education automation.

It seems to me that only through the breadth, depth, and creative integration of our comprehensivity can we hope to redress these crises of ignorance. Fostering our comprehensivity may be the imperative for our times.

This essay was written to provide ideas in support of the 9 June 2021 session of “Comprehensivist Wednesdays” at 52 Living Ideas (crossposted at The Greater Philadelphia Thinking Society).

Addendum: 2h 42m video from the 9 June 2021 event:

Read Other Resource Center Essays

Posted by CJ Fearnley

Explorer in Universe.

1 comment

George Smiley

informed intuition gives science its direction.

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