On Socratic Ignorance, Double Ignorance, and the Dunning-Kruger Effect

A lot of people nowadays think that what they know is the extent of what can be known.

Ustadh Ubaydullah Evans

Socrates was known for many things. He rejected the gods of the Greek pantheon and was a monotheist. He held contempt for Athenian democracy and supported the idea of a technocracy. And he was known for his ignorance. Let’s focus on that last one.

Socratic Ignorance

The oracle at Delphi told Socrates’ friend Chaerephon, “no one is wiser than Socrates” (Apology 21a). Socrates said he was not aware of any wisdom he had, so he went around Athens asking allegedly wise people basic questions to prove the oracle wrong. He first went to the politicians but found them lacking wisdom. He next visited the poets and found that, though they spoke in beautiful verses, they also lacked wisdom. Finally, Socrates found that the craftsmen had knowledge of their own craft, but that they subsequently believed themselves to know much more than they actually did. Socrates concluded that he was better off than his fellow citizens because, while they thought they knew something and did not, he was aware of his own ignorance.

Plato quotes Socrates in his defense at trial for “corrupting the youth” and “rejecting the gods of the pantheon:”

And in addition to these things, the young men who have the most leisure, the sons of the richest men, accompany me of their own accord, find pleasure in hearing people being examined, and often imitate me themselves, and then they undertake to examine others; and then, I fancy, they find a great plenty of people who think they know something, but know little or nothing. As a result, therefore, those who are examined by them are angry with me, instead of being angry with themselves, and say that “Socrates is a most abominable person and is corrupting the youth.”

Apology 23c-d

It’s interesting how the ignorant started blaming Socrates for exposing their ignorance. This is one of the signs of kibr: not admitting when you are wrong.

This awareness of one’s own absence of knowledge is called “Socratic Ignorance,” also called “simple ignorance.” This is in contrast to the double ignorance of those citizens Socrates was questioning. Simple ignorance is being aware of one’s own ignorance, whereas double ignorance is not being aware of one’s ignorance while thinking that one knows.

First Steps to a Cure

The first step to curing this is being humble and saying “I don’t know.” If you think you already know, you will never learn anything. Next is to seek knowledge from qualified scholars. Learn from a variety of scholars of different backgrounds to expose yourself to different viewpoints and compare them. Don’t just listen to what one side says about the other, which could simply be strawman arguments misrepresenting what they actually believe. Instead, go directly to each side and see what they have to say for themselves. Most ideally, settle on a teacher who has both tawadu’ (humility) and ‘ilm (deep knowledge). If someone lacks basic etiquette, but has ilm, something is wrong and you may just become corrupted. If someone has beautiful character but no ilm, then what will they teach you?

Of course, we also need to overcome the common situation where, informed of the signs of kibr, we simply shift to another fallacy: “I always admit when I’m wrong. I’m just not wrong right now.” And how are you so certain? Your certainty is perhaps a sign of your own double ignorance. Not to mention the double standard of expecting others to admit when they’re wrong, yet you yourself will never consider the possibility.

Dunning-Kruger Effect

The Dunning-Kruger effect is also related and quite an interesting phenomenon, where low-ability people are highly confident, not recognizing their own ignorance.

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