It is not often that I get to read a book that makes me reconsider all the things I assume and take for granted in everyday life. Starting with the disconcerting statement that no knowledge is possible, in this book, Professor Fred Leavitt does exactly that from his position as a radical sceptic.
In If Ignorance Is Bliss, We Should All Be Ecstatic, Prof. Leavitt starts with a very simple, yet disturbing argument: nothing we think we know – NOTHING – is likely to be correct. Following the principles of radical scepticism, he explores the limitations of knowledge and argues that neither reasoning nor direct observation can be trusted because “not only are they unreliable sources, but they do not even justify assigning probabilities to claims about what we can know.” Whether answering the telephone, turning on the TV, talking with friends, or munching on an apple, we expect things to happen predictably. Radical scepticism is not new. This is a philosophical position that has intrigued philosophers since before the birth of Christ.
If your head is starting to hurt just by reading this, fear not, Prof. Leavitt’s writing is user-friendly, even when dealing with such complex issues. He supports abstract arguments with summaries of real-life examples from many and varied fields, which make the arguments much more convincing and compelling. He cites more than 200 studies from psychology, mathematics, chaos theory, quantum mechanics, evolutionary theory, history, the corporate world, politics, the military, and current news reporting. “I’m convinced that my reasoning is sound,” he states, “but would be happy if someone pointed out a flaw.”
18th-century philosopher Immanuel Kant argued that we are born with certain innate knowledge.
Well, although in my mind I can’t help but think that radical scepticism is more mental gymnastics than a formal way of reasoning, I have to admire Prof. Leavitt’s methodology and convincing argument. His analysis of the four pillars of knowledge: innate knowledge, religious faith, reason and last, empiricism, constitute the basis on which he builds his argument, taking the reader into a journey of exploration during which we are invited to question everything, from the way we think (inductive and deductive arguments for example) to all the tools we use in our reasoning to arrive at what we consider valid conclusions.
Prof. Leavitt puts special emphasis on empiricism, the belief that all knowledge is derived from sense-experience and shows us that actually, our sensorial perception is often fallible and distorted. I found it particularly interesting reading about how easy is to implant fake memories in anyone’s brain… not to mention manipulation of media, especially social media. He goes on to remind us that science is empiricism at its most sophisticated and that science and careful reasoning are often at odds with each other.
He spends some time explaining the mysterious world of Quantum Mechanics and even String theory… all of it to kind of make the point that the various ways we know of acquiring knowledge can’t really be fully trusted.
Quantum theory is the theoretical basis of modern physics that explains the nature and behaviour of matter and energy on the atomic and subatomic levels.
But you mustn’t think that this is a negative book or one inviting conspiracy theories, on the contrary, as the author states himself, “We live in a world of infinite possibility.”
Prof. Fred Leavitt has a PhD from the University of Michigan, has lectured psychopharmacology and research methodology at different Universities in the US and abroad for over 40 years. He is the author of six books.
Paperback $19.95. eBook $9.99
Words: Julia Pasarón
Opening picture by Oleg Mani