Monday, February 21, 2011

Protect me from knowing that I decided not to know about the things that I decide not to know about

In my last post I mentioned agnatology (aka agnotology), which may be rendered as "the study of ignorance", geared toward answering the question of why we don’t know certain things. One of the lessons of this field is that ignorance is often intentional.

I was introduced to this field by a congregant of mine a few years ago, and it occurred to me that several areas of halachah depend on agnatology:
We are agnatological when a court opts not to hear testimony which might throw off the calendar, or not to accept testimony which might cost a defendant his life.
We use agnatology when a woman is told not to investigate a stain which could well be dam niddah.
Agnatology holds sway in kashrut, when utensils of unknown usage may be assumed to be lav bnei yoman, or when dealing with safek arlah outside of Israel, and in similar cases. Ignorance is halachic bliss (or, in Yiddish, shailah macht treif).

In a sense, theology incorporates agnatology as well. Many of us claim to be non-dogmatic, and to be interested in the rational analysis of our deepest beliefs, but we always reach points at which our reasoning must stop. “If Gd knows the future, do we have free choice?” “If Gd wants the best for us, how could He allow the brutal massacre of six million?” And so on – the statement of, “Only Gd knows” is fundamentally an acceptance of ignorance and a decision to investigate no further.

And let's not forget the realm of daily debate and discussion; how many Peace Now-niks ignore the rights of Israelis, telling themselves that there is no other side to the story? And how many on the right do the same, in reverse?

So how do we decide what not to know, or what to have others not know? Is it about practicality, or philosophy, or something else? An interesting question.

When I first heard of agnatology, I was reminded of a great passage in Douglas Adams's Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Volume 5. It’s available here, but I’ve decided to reproduce it here anyway, in case that site ever goes down. The most explicitly agnatological part is toward the end, but I believe that the whole piece is intended to be on that theme. It’s long, but it’s a great read:

The last village Arthur visited consisted entirely of extremely high poles. They were so high that it wasn't possible to tell, from the ground, what was on top of them, and Arthur had to climb three before he found one that had anything on top of it at all other than a platform covered with bird droppings.

Not an easy task. You went up the poles by climbing on the short wooden pegs that had been hammered into them in slowly ascending spirals. Anybody who was a less diligent tourist than Arthur would have taken a couple of snapshots and sloped right off to the nearest bar & grill, where you also could buy a range of particularly sweet and gooey chocolate cakes to eat in front of the ascetics. But, largely as a result of this, most of the ascetics had gone now. In fact they had mostly gone and set up lucrative therapy centers on some of the more affluent worlds in the Northwest ripple of the Galaxy, where the living was easier by a factor of about 17 million, and the chocolate was just fabulous. Most of the ascetics, it turned out, had not known about chocolate before they took up asceticism. Most of the clients who came to their therapy centers know about it all too well.

At the top of the third pole Arthur stopped for a breather. He was very hot and out of breath, since each pole was about fifty or sixty feet high. The world seemed to swing vertiginously around him, but it didn't worry Arthur too much. He knew that, logically, he could not die until he had been to Stavromula Beta, and had therefore managed to cultivate a merry attitude toward extreme personal danger. He felt a little giddy perched fifty feet up in the air on top of a pole, but he dealt with it by eating a sandwich. He was just about to embark on reading the photocopied life history of the oracle, when he was rather startled to hear a slight cough behind him.

He turned so abruptly that he dropped his sandwich, which turned downward through the air and was rather small by the time it was stopped by the ground.

About thirty feet behind Arthur was another pole, and, alone among the sparse forest of about three dozen poles, the top of it was occupied. It was occupied by an old man who, in turn, seemed to be occupied by profound thoughts that were making him scowl.

"Excuse me," said Arthur. The man ignored him. Perhaps he couldn't hear him. The breeze was moving about a bit. It wasn't only by chance that Arthur had heard the slight cough.

"Hello?" called Arthur. "Hello!"

The man at last glanced around at him. He seemed surprised to see him. Arthur couldn't tell if he was surprised and pleased to see him or just surprised.

"Are you open?" called Arthur.

The man frowned in incomprehension. Arthur couldn't tell if he couldn't understand or couldn't hear.

"I'll pop over," called Arthur. "Don't go away."

He clambered off the small platform and climbed quickly down the spiraling pegs, arriving at the bottom quite dizzy.

He started to make his way over to the one which the old man was sitting, and then suddenly realized that he had disoriented himself on the way down and didn't know for certain which one it was.

He looked around for landmarks and worked out which was the right one.

He climbed it. It wasn't.

"Damn," he said. "Excuse me!" he called out to the old man again, who was now straight in front of him and forty feet away. "Got lost. Be with you in a minute." Down he went again, getting very hot and bothered.

When he arrived, panting and sweating, at the top of the pole that he knew for certain was the right one, he realized that the man was, somehow or other, mucking him about.

"What do you want?" shouted the old man crossly at him. He was now sitting on top of the pole that Arthur recognized was the one that he had been on himself when eating his sandwich.

"How did you get over there?" called Arthur in bewilderment.

"You think I'm going to tell you just like that what it took me forty springs, summers and autumns of sitting on top of a pole to work out?"

"What about winter? Don't you sit on the pole in the winter?"

"Just because I sit up a pole for most of my life," said the man, "doesn't mean I'm an idiot. I go south in the winter. Got a beach house. Sit on the chimney stack."

"Do you have any advice for a traveler?"

"Yes. Get a beach house."

"I see"

The man stared out over the hot, dry, scrubby landscape. From here Arthur could just see the old woman, a tiny speck in the distance, dancing up and down swatting flies.

"You see her?" called the old man, suddenly.

"Yes," said Arthur. "I consulted her in fact."

"Fat lot she knows. I got the beach house because she turned it down. What advice did she give you?"

"Do exactly the opposite of everything she's done."

"In other words, get a beach house."

"I suppose so," said Arthur. "Well, maybe I'll get one."


The horizon was swimming in a fetid heat haze.

"Any other advice?" asked Arthur. "Other than to do with real estate?"

"A beach house isn't just real estate. It's a state of mind," said the man. He turned and looked at Arthur.

Oddly, the man's face was now only a couple of feet away. He seemed in one way to be a perfectly normal shape, but his body was sitting cross-legged on a pole forty feet away while his face was only two feet from Arthur's. Without moving his head, and without seeming to do anything odd at all, he stood up and stepped onto the top of another pole. Either it was just the heat, thought Arthur, or space was a different shape for him.

"A beach house," he said, "doesn't even have to be on the beach. Though the best ones are. We all like to congregate," he went on, "at boundary conditions."

"Really?" said Arthur.

"Where land meets water. Where earth meets air. Where body meets mind. Where space meets time. We like to be on one side, and look at the other."

Arthur got terribly excited. This was exactly the sort of thing he'd been promised in the brochure. Here was a man who seemed to be moving through some kind of Escher space saying really profound things about all sorts of stuff.

It was unnerving, though. The man was now stepping from pole to ground, from ground to pole, from pole to pole, from pole to horizon and back: he was making complete nonsense of Arthur's spatial universe. "Please stop!" Arthur said, suddenly.

"Can't take it, huh?" said the man. Without the slightest movement he was now back, sitting cross-legged, on top of the pole forty feet in front of Arthur. "You come to me for advice, but you can't cope with anything you don't recognize. Hmmm. So we'll have to tell something you already know but make it sound like news, eh? Well, business as usual, I suppose." He sighed and squinted mournfully into the distance.

"Where you from, boy?" he then asked.

Arthur decided to be clever. He was fed up with being mistaken for a complete idiot by everyone he ever met. "Tell you what," he said. "You're a seer. Why don't you tell me?"

The old man sighed again. "I was just," he said, passing his hand around behind his head, "making conversation." When he brought his hand around to the front again, he had a globe of the Earth spinning on his up-pointed forefinger. It was unmistakable. He put it away again. Arthur was stunned.

"How did you --"

"I can't tell you."

"Why not? I've come all this way."

"You cannot see what I see because you see what you see. You cannot know what I know because you know what you know. What I see and what I know cannot be added to what you see and what you know because they are not of the same kind. Neither can it replace what you see and what you know, because that would be to replace you yourself."

"Hang on, can I write this down?" said Arthur, excitedly fumbling in his pocket for a pencil.

"You can pick up a copy at the space port," said the old man. "They've got racks of the stuff."

"Oh," said Arthur, disappointed. "Well, isn't there anything that's perhaps a bit more specific to me?"

"Everything you see or hear or experience in any way at all is specific to you. You create a universe by perceiving it, so everything in the universe you perceive is specific to you."

Arthur looked at him doubtfully. "Can I get that at the space port, too?" he said.

"Check it out," said the old man.

"It says in the brochure," said Arthur, pulling it out of his pocket and looking at it again, "that I can have a special prayer, individually tailored to me and my special needs."

"Oh all right," said the old man. "Here's a prayer for you. Got a pencil?"

"Yes," said Arthur.

"It goes like this. Let's see now: `Protect me from knowing what I don't need to know. Protect me from even knowing that there are things to know that I don't know. Protect me from knowing that I decided not to know about the things that I decide not to know about. Amen.' That's it. It's what you pray silently inside yourself anyway, so you may as well have it out in the open."

"Hmmm," said Arthur. "Well thank you --"

"There's another prayer that goes with it that's very important," said the old man, "so you'd better jot this down, too."


"It goes, `Lord, lord, lord...' It's best to put that bit in just in case. You can never be too sure. `Lord, lord, lord. Protect me from the consequences of the above prayer. Amen.' And that's it. Most of the trouble people get into in life comes from leaving out that last part."

"Ever heard of a place called Stavromula Beta?" asked Arthur.


"Well, thank you for your help," said Arthur.

"Don't mention it," said the man on the pole, and vanished.


  1. FYI, the original Greek family name of Spiro Agnew was Anagnostopoulos.

  2. With all those N's in his name, no wonder he liked alliterating with that letter, as in "nattering nabobs of negativism"!

  3. Interesting to think about why we also have a concept of efshar levarer.
    Joel Rich

  4. The "nabobs" line was written for Agnew by Bill Safire:

  5. This is a more complete link on Bill Safire. The earlier link had some crude reader comments below it.