Pursuit of ignorance seems to be a modern phenomenon
I woke up last night and got to ruminating, and one topic was thinking about my earlier post on the deliberate pursuit of ignorance—the one that comments how wrong Aristotle was in saying that all men by nature desire to know. I imagine that he was generalizing based on all the men that he knew at the time, and Greece in the Classical age was indeed marked by constant investigations and innovations in knowledge.
But until the modern age—after the rise of the scientific method—what people debated and fought about was matters of belief rather than knowledge: the killing of heretics, the wars against the heathen, the conflicts over what rights people possessed: those are less matters of knowledge than of belief, which is why wars are fought: there is no objective measure with which to decide, nothing one can use to establish which view is correct other than killing all those who disagree.
But with science, as Galileo Galilei legendarily demonstrated at the Tower of Pisa, we suddenly have a way to discover an objective truth that does not involve the exercise of power or of arms: look to see what experience tells us—i.e., look at the universe and see what it is doing independent of our beliefs.
Of course, when this method first appeared, it was opposed with power, as Galileo’s trial and punishment at the hands of the Catholic church shows. And it depends on people wanting, in fact, to know: the Catholic religious refused to look through the telescope to see whether he was correct so that they could preserve their beliefs—which is an admission, more or less, that they do not trust their beliefs to be consistent with observable reality.
Once people began doing experiments, then we see the desire for ignorance arise. Beliefs could fight with beliefs, but experimental evidence doesn’t fight: it just sits there, showing what the universe in fact does. So if you like your beliefs and you think they will not withstand a reality check, your best course is to seek ignorance: to shut your eyes, put your hands over your ears, and sing “La-la-la” for so long as you want to maintain a belief that you know or suspect is contrary to reality.
To my mind, this is an astonishing response, since I tend to think that people really want to know what is real. But as the GOP has shown, many people will try to suppress any information or findings that challenge their belief, and to keep others from seeing those as well—willful ignorance as public policy.
And I think this has happened (in the large, not in the simple sense of fighting to keep something secret—cover-ups have always been with us, I imagine) only with the rise of the scientific method. That is, people have always tried to conceal certain things (criminal acts, location of treasure, useful knowledge, and so on), but to turn away from reality as a public policy: that’s new.
UPDATE: See comments for a brief discussion of important truths that are not in the bailiwick of scientific investigation: truths such as the human rights a person has. Such rights are an important question, but not a scientific question. That is, I certainly cannot think of an experiment to determine exactly what rights a person has. A more open question on which there is disagreement, as pointed out in my comment below, is regarding animal rights: what rights does an animal have with regard to captivity, slavery, killing, and so on? This is not the sort of question to which science offers an answer, as I think should be obvious. This is not to say that the question lacks importance, just that science doesn’t deal in this sort of thing. Science can, of course, contribute to the discussion: determine whether animals feel pain, the range of their consciousness, the feels that (for example) mammalian mothers have regarding their babies. That sort of information can be helpful, but ultimately this is a belief/ethical/moral question, and those fall (in general) outside the sphere of science.