The Power Of Empty Spaces

One of my stronger, and lesser known, interests is a strong interest in geography. While I have blogged about this subject from time to time [1], there is an insight about geography that is not often well understood that presents major implications about our behavior in a wide variety of fields far outside of geography. If one looks at ancient or medieval maps [2], one tends to see the maps filled in with a lot of information to give the illusion that people understand everything that there is to know in the world. In maps of the early modern period of Europe, this certainty is replaced with a lot of blank spaces and with detail only where there had been verified exploration. What is so important about this change?

There are two major implications of this change that are worthy of discussion. The first implication is that it is a sign of strength and not weakness to admit ignorance. The illusion of knowledge is a comfort to people who do not want to face ignorance or admit a lack of total understanding. It is humbling to look at the face of a universe and to admit that one does not know all that one wants to know, even if one believes one has essential knowledge in various aspects of life. It takes as strong person to be humble in the face of that ignorant, to avoid pretending more knowledge than he (or she) possesses, and to deal with the uncertainty of living in a world that one does not entirely understand.

We might think that in the face of the massive ignorance of the world that this sort of strength would be more common, but that is not the case. By and large, humanity tends to think that the scraps of knowledge that we possess are all that needs to be known and that other types of knowledge that we do not possess are useless or even harmful. Some, who pride themselves on the possession of particular types of knowledge, may feel (even if they cannot express that feeling) that any admission of large areas of ignorance would invalidate their claims to the possession of certain useful knowledge. All too often our pride gets in the way and prevents us from gaining new and deeper insights or learning from the insights and investigations of others.

In reality, our admission of ignorance can be a sign of strength. There are times when such admissions are made for evil purposes, such as when they are used in order to pander to common errors and try to gain some sort of legitimacy with other ignorant people who have not accepted one’s knowledge. That said, it takes a considerable amount of strength to live in a world full of uncertainty. We ought to understand that this is the nature of our world. There is very little in this world that we can rely on; we are very fortunate if (as is the case with me) that we can rely on some trustworthy friends in times of trials and have at least some ability to cope with life’s pressures. In some sense, it seems intolerable for human beings to live in a state of permanent stress, which forces us to come to some sort of terms with the world around us or have some sort of faith that matters will not continue to be uncertain forever. To be able to persevere in times of great uncertainty is a sign of strength, while escape from that state through self-deception and illusion is a sign of weakness.

There is a second implication of the power of empty spaces on maps (whether these are geographical or conceptual maps, it should be noted). Admitting the existence of blank spaces and feeling dissatisfied with that state of uncertainty leads us to act in such ways as to increase our knowledge and understanding. Seeing blank spaces and not being content with blank spaces is a major spur to curiosity or exploration. By doing so we replace what might have been filled in the past with figments of our imagination with firm investigation and sound knowledge. By admitting our ignorance, we put ourselves on the first steps to a more secure knowledge than we could have gained merely through the powers of our own mind in the absence of a spur to investigate reality.

This may seem paradoxical, that ignorance would spur increases in knowledge, but there is a larger process at work here. If we believe that everything worth knowing has been discovered (and that we inherit that knowledge) and that everything worth doing has already been done, we have little motivation to learn or grow because are complacent in our present state, no matter how sad that state may be. It is our admission of ignorance, our knowledge that we have frontiers beyond our capacities and understanding, that spurs us to further personal growth and development as individuals, as well as larger institutional and societal growth. Growth is itself an admission that there is a way to go before we reach a desired institution. The level of ignorance and lacking in our lives are such that we may never reach the places we desire, but our efforts at growth may have consequences for the betterment of our lives and others that we cannot understand ahead of time or even be able to conceive.

In that light, it is perhaps telling that our maps in the present age show so few blank spaces. We appear to have reverted to medieval levels of certainty despite our continuing level of ignorance in areas of great importance. Whereas the cartographers of the Middle Ages drew maps showing dragons in the oceans and showing a world that was entirely discovered in their own eyes, the cartographers of the modern world show an uninterrupted flow between species in some imaginary evolutionary development, and show clear and well-defined international borders even in those areas where there is no legitimate government nor any sort of regime that can be dealt with in those territories. Our supposed knowledge of the world and its process is somewhat illusory, based on faulty principles, and it would be far better for our cultural and political elites to admit that ignorance so that they may learn, rather than pretending to know when they do not. For if we admitted we were blind, we would have no sin. But we say we see, therefore our sin remains.

[1] See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2013/05/05/cinco-de-mayo-the-intersection-of-history-and-geography/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2011/11/04/politics-and-the-tyranny-of-geography/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2011/06/05/on-the-architecture-and-geography-of-religion/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2013/01/05/a-lesson-from-bathymetry/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2012/05/12/let-slip-the-dogs-of-war-crisis-in-the-spratly-islands/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2012/04/26/why-piracy-matters/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2011/02/09/when-maps-lie/

[2] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in Christianity, History, Musings and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Power Of Empty Spaces

  1. Pingback: Push And Pull | Edge Induced Cohesion

  2. Pingback: Zones Of Disaffection | Edge Induced Cohesion

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