Willful Ignorance (A Thought Experiment)

Estimated read time (minus contemplative pauses): 13 min.

Willful Ignorance vis-à-vis Belief and Identity

Imagine someone convinces you that they are you from the future. I don’t know how. Maybe they time travelled or are a computer-generated projection (even if only into your mind). The main thing is that you believe you’re talking to Future You.

Future You hands you a small piece of paper. Says, “You will one day come to believe B. And it’ll make you happier. I wish I’d believed B sooner. Here’s a list of readings that I’m sure will convince you of B. You’d have come upon and read them eventually. But now you can admire them much sooner.”

It’s impossible for you to imagine yourself believing B. You take for granted not only that B is false, but that the world, and history itself, would have to be very different than you thought in order for B to be true. You might have even long taken for granted that anyone who believes B is probably a bad, maybe even an evil, person. At any rate, you don’t see yourself as a B-believer sort of person.

You’re sure something must have gone wrong for any version of yourself to believe B. You think Future You must be mistaken about being happier in that condition. But you do take very seriously, and maybe even fear, the power of the reading list to convince you of B. Or at least to set you in the direction of believing it—of becoming Future You.

Do you seek out the sources to get it over with? Or to prove that you’re not as gullible as, or are not the person who, Future You thinks you are (or remembers themselves being)? If you seek out the sources, do you prepare yourself to withstand and refute them? Do you not seek them out and let time run its course, doubling down on readings and behaviors that confirm your current, not-B picture of the world?

(Did Future You also go through this? If not, how can this really be your future you?)

Or do you make a strong effort to avoid the readings and any talk of B all together? In other words, do you strive to remain willfully ignorant?

Is there a general principle for what to do? Would you need to know what B is before advising someone else on what to do in this situation?

You have the reading list. What’ll you do with it?

Willful Ignorance: Background Points to Ponder

(1) Are we all disposed to believe anything if the right series of buttons is pushed? Does this mean we in fact do have something like the above reading list?

(2) Much belief is passive. Look at your surroundings and then try to believe you’re not in those surroundings. We can’t turn all of our beliefs off and on at will. (Which is why I take the height of fascism to entail the establishment and enforcement of social norms that demand we literally believe a certain set of propositions, rather than merely behave as if we believe them.) But we might have some control over what beliefs are formed and sustained, over which buttons are pushed and in what order: e.g., if you never consume the readings on the list, they won’t push whatever buttons they pushed in Future You.

(There’s no “fate” here. If you lock yourself into a sensory deprivation tank for the rest of your life, you won’t spontaneously form the belief that B is true.)

That said, some people do seem to think people are responsible—morally responsible—for their most important beliefs. I disagree but won’t push it here. I imagine one’s opinion on this will influence their notions about willful ignorance.

(3) Willful ignorance is usually flung as an insult or moral failing. But what are we really accusing someone of when accusing them of willful ignorance?

(4) There’s certainly nothing wrong about willful ignorance in general. I sustain a willful ignorance of lots of things—like most of the books in every bookstore and library I’ve browsed, the details of most conspiracy theories, lots of areas of academic or intellectual study I don’t find particularly interesting, even more areas I consider to be pseudoscience or worse, and thousands of languages because I don’t have time to study them all.

I’m willfully ignorant of the utterances of many political and social provocateurs because I assume those utterances amount to mental pollution, or are at least a waste of time. I could be wrong about some of them, but it’s not feasible—not worth the time or mental health risk—for me to figure out which.

I’m willfully ignorant about anything I know I’ve forgotten but do not make an effort to remember.

(5) Willful ignorance is sometimes virtuous.

A friend once accidentally texted me a long message meant for their romantic partner. I willfully ignored its content by deleting it as soon as I noticed the mistake.

Examples are easily produced. Here are two more. Avoiding leaked sex tapes. Stopping your friends when they’re about to tell you someone else’s personal business.

(6) Wicked willful ignorance seems to involve a lot of non-ignorance. As when someone believes or suspects a proposition to be true, but would rather it not be true, or I would rather be able to maintain plausible deniability, so avoids learning facts about the proposition.

But this requires knowledge of some of the facts about the world that make the proposition true. If there’s any willful ignorance here, it’s only of those facts’ finer or explicit details.

For example, when there is explicit evidence that will settle a disagreement between two people, but one of them refuses to look at it because they believe it will prove them wrong.

Such (non-ignorant) willful ignorance tends to infuriate me, particularly when the facts are cut and dry. So whenever confronted with it, I reflect on Ted Chiang’s fantastic short story, “The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling” (from his 2019 collection, Exhalation: Stories), and am reminded that such maneuvers are often beside the point; digging too hard into them can go terribly.

(7) I think what we often really mean by “willful ignorance” is pretend ignorance. In other words, lying. The “willful” part, then, refers to the behavior of appearing ignorant, as well, perhaps, to the behavior of ignoring or dismissing or avoiding facts surrounding a proposition.

In other terms, and perhaps more subtly, it seems that to accuse someone of willful ignorance amounts to a claim that they harbor a low-level, nagging voice in their head telling them what the truth is, but that voice is being disregarded on some rationale or another (or maybe on no explicit rationale). This implies, however, that the person is, in a literal sense, not ignorant.

(8) “Willfully ignoring” and “willfully ignorant” are not identical. That is, I can willfully ignore someone whose trying to get my attention—i.e., I can pretend like I don’t hear them. Actually, this does not need the word “willful” in front of it (you don’t “accidentally” ignore someone; rather, you don’t notice them, which is not willful). So I take it that “willfully” ignoring involves something stronger, more pervasive—and more vague.

For example, in his book The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail—But Some Don’t (2012), Nate Silver writes:

We forget—or willfully ignore—that our models are simplifications of the world. We figure that if we make a mistake, it will be at the margin. (p 45)

It strikes me that Silver refers to a deep, systematic ignoring that you can do—in fact can do best—without being ignorant of the thing ignored. We ignore things all the time with models, which in fact is the point of a model. But what, to Silver’s point, we shouldn’t ignore is that a model is the map—or one of many possible maps!—and not the territory.

Seems to me such willful ignorance doesn’t just apply to forecasting or mathematical models. We see this in political ideology, in science, in the scripts that guide the handing of disputed sports calls, in how we categorize individuals and social groups, and on and on.

This is the stuff of every day living, often as a kind of much-needed lubricant. Often as a regrettable toxin.

(9) Catholic theology makes an interesting distinction between vincible and invincible ignorance.

From the Wikipedia entry on “Vincible Ignorance“:

…ignorance that a person could remove by applying reasonable diligence in the given set of circumstances. It contrasts with invincible ignorance, which a person is either entirely incapable of removing, or could only do so by supererogatory efforts (i.e., efforts above and beyond normal duty).

It’s worth also citing the Wikipedia entry on “Invincible Ignorance“:

Invincible ignorance is used in Catholic moral theology to refer to the state of persons (such as pagans and infants) who are ignorant of the Christian message because they have not yet had an opportunity to hear it.

This points to a long history of questions about moral culpability or blameworthiness in light of ignorance. That’s a complicated topic, with some ties, I think, to the difficult topic of moral luck.

I won’t get into that here except to say that it seems to me that, sometimes, by calling someone “willfully ignorant,” we are looking for a way to assign blame despite a person genuinely being ignorant. This is different than believing someone to not really be ignorant, only pretending to be. I think both things occur.

In other words, being willfully ignorant implies (moral) responsibility. But how?

(10) The above Catholic designation is the source of the so-called “Invincible Ignorance Fallacy,” which also has a Wikipedia entry:

…a deductive fallacy of circularity where the person in question simply refuses to believe the argument, ignoring any evidence given. It is not so much a fallacious tactic in argument as it is a refusal to argue in the proper sense of the word…

This is a broader, in some cases less cut-and-dry take on my earlier point about someone refusing to look at obviously dispositive evidence.

The broader Invincible Ignorance Fallacy, however, seems to be what we accuse someone of when they review the evidence that we are sure will sway them to our belief—i.e., to the “correct” belief—yet they claim not to be swayed. We must then wonder if they are being sincere or if they are lying, or if it’s something in between. Worst of all, and I bet the option of last resort, is the possibility that our own beliefs aren’t as rock solidly grounded as we originally thought.

Here’s a disgusting example. I’m certain that human excrement tastes awful. If someone swore to me that I’m in error, but that the question can be settled once and for all if I’d taste some, I would happily remain ignorant. Though what if I try it and the person claims I’m lying when I maintain my disgust at this experiment?

And, of course, what if it weren’t excrement? What if it were some cheese that smells like death?

There’s an excellent short story for this one as well. “How Monkey Got Married, Bought a House, and Found Happiness in Orlando” by Chuck Palahniuk, in his 2015 collection Make Something Up: Stories You Can’t Unread.

(11) There is also much to say about the legal dimensions of (willful) ignorance. Wikipedia has a brief entry “with multiple issues” (as of today, 5/6/20) called “Willful Blindness” that touches on this question in the context of drugs and file-swapping:

Willful blindness (sometimes called ignorance of law, willful ignorance or contrived ignorance or Nelsonian knowledge) is a term used in law to describe a situation in which a person seeks to avoid civil or criminal liability for a wrongful act by intentionally keeping himself or herself unaware of facts that would render him or her liable or implicated. In United States v. Jewell, the court held that proof of willful ignorance satisfied the requirement of knowledge as to criminal possession and importation of drugs.

I’ll look at two more sources before wrapping up.

(12) From the RationalWiki entry, “Willful Ignorance“:

Willful ignorance is the state and practice of ignoring any sensory input that appears to contradict one’s inner model of reality. At heart, it is almost certainly driven by confirmation bias.

This implies “ignore” in the sense of being aware of something but behaving as though you are not aware of it. The reference to confirmation bias implies that this can occur without explicitly noticing. But it does require consciously processed sensory input. Which is to say, some significant degree of awareness (i.e., non-ignorance) of the thing ignored.

Under this definition, you could read every book on a subject, and then be willfully ignorant of it.

Unless by “ignore” this definition really does mean to imply that I can, for example, take in the sensory input of the banana sitting in front of me, but somehow not allow it to go any further than my iconic memory, so that it is not incorporated in my model(s) of the world. I doubt this is the idea here.

(13) From a Psychology Today article by Mark Alicke Ph.D. called “Willful Ignorance and Self-Deception” (9/10/17):

Willful ignorance occurs when individuals realize at some level of consciousness that their beliefs are probably false, or when they refuse to attend to information that would establish their falsity.

People engage in willful ignorance because it is useful. …

People can sometimes be pulled out of their willful ignorance with a modicum of probing, or with contradictory data.

This definition strikes me as fairly in line with what I take casual usage of the term to often mean (see my aforementioned notion of harboring a nagging voice). I’m not sure what to make of the explanation for why we engage in it or several of the article’s examples, but fair enough.

The portrayal here of willful ignorance is a negative (and, I’m happy to say, compassionate) one. Is this to suggest that the other uses of “willful ignorance” I’ve discussed here—whether wicked or virtuous—describe phenomena that should be called something else? Is “willful ignorance” a term of art psychologists use consistently—or a concept they operationalize consistently—with respect to a specific behavior or cognitive activity/strategy? Or is the article just short?

Intentionally not reading a text someone accidentally sent me certainly counts as a literal instance of willful ignorance. But nothing like that is discussed in the article. Though it does make a distinction that I hadn’t yet considered (notice the phrase “sort of” in the first sentence; what is its function there?):

In contrast to this sort of willful ignorance, self-deception occurs when individuals believe false things with complete conviction. … consider the sports fan who “sees” the opponent commit a foul in a crucial moment of a basketball game, when in reality, it was the player on his own team, not the opponent, who committed the foul. Because this type of self-deception occurs at the perceptual level, the sports fan actually “sees” the opponent commit the foul, and no amount of replay or argumentation will convince him otherwise.

I’ve long been fascinated by the phenomenon of disputed fouls, which I alluded to above as a kind of willful ignorance, partially because I believe we demand this sort of mass delusion: imagine the violence a player would incur were they to concede a championship game by saying, “you know what, it was really me who committed the foul!.” I believe we do the same politically, and there is research to back this up, but I’ll save that for another day.

Back to the article. Alicke elaborates:

The difference between willful ignorance and true self-deception is subtle, but important. Willful ignorance tends to be more adaptive than self-deception. Willful ignorance is a cognitive strategy that people adopt to promote their emotional well-being, whereas self-deception is less controllable and more likely to be detrimental.

…The distinction between willful ignorance and self-deception has interesting implications for moral judgment. In general, we probably blame willfully ignorant people more for their actions and attitudes than those we suspect of self-delusion.

All right. Willful ignorance is not as bad as self-deception. But self-deception is not generally volitional or, at least, is less willful.* And so we’re likely to blame people more for willful ignorance than for self-deception; or, perhaps, accuse them of willful ignorance in order to justify blaming them for something more like self-deception (this is along the lines of what I suggested in (9) above).

[*Which raises interesting questions for what is meant by “self” here, compared to, say, in the term “self-flagellation.”]

This distinction comes down to whether we think a person “actually does know better,” as Alicke puts it. To go further into this thought would take us deeper into questions about how much we blame people for their beliefs—something I explored in detail in a post called “Four Dimensions of X-ism (and ‘Seminal’ Is Sexist).”

I won’t venture into that here. But will note that Alicke duly acknowledges that “if the distinction between willful ignorance and self-deception were this tidy, philosophers would have nothing to write about and psychologists would have less to research,” as well as the fact that we’ll blame for self-deception given that “in some instances of moral evaluation, we pay more attention to the motives that we believe drive people’s actions than we do to their awareness of those motives.”

This suggests to me that we can be willfully ignorant or self-deceived about the willful ignorance or self-deception of others. Rinse and repeat.

On further reflection, Alicke packs a good number of thought-provoking ideas into this short piece. Such as his claim that “it is usually better to confront reality than to avoid or deny it.”

I don’t know about that, but it recalls to mind the thought experiment.

(14) So. B is a proposition that you think only an evil person, or at least a highly misguided person, could believe. You are also convinced that, while you genuinely reject B, and are maybe even horrified by the thought of B, you are also disposed to believe it. What do you do with Future You’s reading list?

(I know how I’d answer.)

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