بسم الله الرحمان الرحيم
Often on this blog, I talk about learning and the levels of knowledge in a subject. But an important ‘flip side’ to talk about are the levels of ignorance. They are incredibly important to know about, and while classical books have often stuck to a simple/compound ignorance dichotomy, I want to go much further here.
You have probably already seen some form of the famous Dunning-Kruger curve.
Much of this diagram here is self-explanatory (and it’s why I preferred this version over others). A learner or student in any subject or trade experiences roughly 4 levels of ignorance in their journey of learning:
1) The first level is a self-recognition of ignorance and one’s lack of competence resulting from a complete absence of knowledge. This is before we arrive at the ‘Of Course I Know Everything’ stage above.
In this stage, a person has extremely little to no knowledge about the subject they are speaking of. This is the simple ignorance, or jahl basīt, that classical Islamic scholars would write about. For people in this category, their humility is based not on realizing how little they know, but because they genuinely don’t know. Such a person may even be arrogant overall but still admit ignorance and appear ‘humble’ in their admission. As such, while their level of knowledge enables them to admit ignorance to themselves, they have not been ‘trained’ by their journey of learning to contend with arrogance and humility. Therefore, while it is good that people in this category automatically acknowledge their ignorance, ideally a person should still learn something to a relatively high degree so that they can undergo and appreciate the process of true intellectual humility.
It’s also worth noting that someone may be an expert and scholar in one subject, but then of this first level in their level of knowledge in another subject. Neither should the person themselves or someone observing them confuse their level of expertise in that one subject with expertise in a subject they know nothing about. But more on that later below.
While a person in this zone may seem relatively harmless, it is not always ‘good’ to be at this level. For instance if a Muslim knows nothing about their faith, even the core beliefs of their faith and what is obligatory on them in fiqh as a believer, then their very act of not seeking to learn is a sin. Also, in general overall Islam exhorts Muslims to learn and embrace knowledge.
Ideally, if someone is not an expert on a subject, they should force themselves to be mentally and spiritually acknowledge themselves at this level in that subject, even if they know something. This is to avoid the many problems that come with being at the second level of ignorance. It is better to remain an aloof student than a teacher of falsehoods.
2) Then follows a false level of confidence and an incorrect assessment of one’s own level of knowledge and expertise, resulting from knowing a little. This is the ‘Of Course I Know Everything‘ stage on the curve above.
You might wonder: what does it mean to know ‘a little’, or know ‘a lot’ i.e. to the level of expertise? I’ve spent much time reading and thinking about this question. My conclusion is that ‘little knowledge’ especially in the context we are discussing here, refers to either a lack of or incomplete structure in the person’s ‘knowledge’. True knowledge is structured, and to fully understand the breadth of a subject, one has to be able to grasp the knowledge structure of that subject, even if they don’t acquire all the knowledge in that subject. At the ‘Of Course I Know Everything’ stage, a person may have acquired some true knowledge but are unable to see the whole structure, so they think what they have is enough. Or they may not have true knowledge at all, and all they may have is information that is structured incorrectly and thus does not yield true knowledge. It is false knowledge, as it leads to incorrect beliefs. Such people believe they are not ignorant, but that they have sufficient knowledge, either because their shallow, incomplete structure has already been ‘filled’, or because they assume their incorrect structure to be accurate. This is the compounded ignorance, or jahl murakkab that classical Islamic scholars often wrote about.
The internet has made people of this level much more common. Information is in great abundance, but structure is not. One may acquire a lot of information from the internet, but very little in structure. How would someone go about acquiring structured knowledge online instead? The answer is simple in theory but complex in execution: curriculum. Curriculum allows for building true knowledge by layering information and its delivery within a structure constructed by someone who is already an expert in that subject. This is why learning a specific subject, say hadith, requires not just the study of hadith, but the classical sciences of the Arabic Language, Fiqh, Kalam and Usul etc, along with contemporary understandings of history and epistemology. This is what makes institutions of knowledge, vocational colleges and trade guilds so critical. A similar example would be understanding the spread of a viral disease like Covid 19 and its vaccine. It requires not just a simple understanding of basic germ theory or virology which any non-specialist medical doctor could possess, but for example microbiology, biotechnology, cell biology, biochemistry, epidemiology, immunology, and the economics and governance of healthcare systems. Even experiences, a type of knowledge, need to be structured. This is why fields such as medicine, law and other trades have apprenticeship systems for students to develop practical skills within a structure. This is also the basis for the notion of the Sufi tariqah, i.e. that an experienced scholar of tasawwuf can guide their follower through spiritual experiences.
If a person does not move on from this stage, they can develop harmful spiritual and psychological diseases such as arrogance, narcissism and false humility. They can also develop harmful intellectual habits like misunderstanding or under-appreciating the role of structure, authority, expertise and epistemology in the process of learning. If charismatic, they can also become teachers of falsehood, further amplifying the effects of their ignorance and affecting the rest of society. Social media puts such teachers of falsehood on an equal footing as experts with structured knowledge. Since these teachers of falsehood may still possess some structured knowledge, they may inadvertently deceive others into believing they are credible authorities, whereas they may be little but a neophyte in their level of knowledge. Their use of language, marketing or popular presence may further amplify this effect. If they are well-received by the public, they may even deceive themselves into thinking that they are an expert and on the 4th level of ignorance! See my article on identifying authorities in Islamic knowledge for more discussion on this point.
Lastly, it is important to understand that levels of ignorance are subject-specific. One may be an expert in one subject, but of a different level in another. We will return to this point when we discuss the last level, but someone can easily be an expert their own field, but someone who is arrogant and doesn’t recognize their limitations in another subject. I call this the Bleed-Over effect, where legitimate confidence in one subject can deceive someone into thinking they are competent in another.
3) The third is a period in which one recognizes their level of ignorance even if they have not reached the level of expertise. It starts at the point in the curve where it says ‘I May Never Understand This’.
Unfortunately, this level of ignorance is not discussed enough. A person at this level has now caught a glimpse of or seen the full structure, but has not yet filled it in with knowledge. They have finally understood how little they know and understand, but they have not yet moved further to compensate for that lack of knowledge and understanding. This person is usually not at risk of developing arrogance or false humility. They probably also loosely understand issues of expertise and authority. This person has finally realized that what they thought was black & white is mostly grey. It is natural to feel overwhelmed or confused at this stage, wondering what exactly to believe and what not to, and the difference between fact and opinion in a subject.
Contrary to what might be expected, a person at this level can still cause harm. How? Often, such a person will recognize that someone from the 2nd level of ignorance is a nuisance and harmful to themselves and the community. But they may also see someone from the 4th level as a threat because they assert themselves with their knowledge in a way that makes a person from the 3rd level feel uncomfortable. They may feel it is inappropriate or incorrect for a person from the 4th level to assert themselves because for them, certainty in such a conclusion is implausible. But they have not moved on to the 4th level themselves, and have not yet understood that for someone in the 4th level, that assertiveness and claim to certainty may be acceptable. They still have not moved past the point on the curve labelled ‘It’s Finally Starting to Make Some Sense’.
People at such stages can be compared to graduates of a Bachelors program or a 4-5 year seminary program. Such programs are usually designed to give students the tools to do research in their field, access primary works and understand references. But actual research is not conducted until a Masters or PhD program. Therefore while the graduate has the tools to think independently in their subject, they are still not equipped to handle complex problems in their subject that require extensive reading and research. This is why even for someone who already has a basic university or seminary education, it may not be enough. They may still need further learning and tutelage under a scholar to develop their learning further. I am particularly against such individuals being given the designation of a Mufti or a Shaykh (and obviously even more against those of a lower level of knowledge). This is a false authority given to someone who is still technically in a formative stage of learning. It deceives the public. Such a title should not given to someone unless they are capable of independent research & thought and knowledge production.
4) Then finally is the level of ‘expertise’ in which a learned person recognizes their high level of competence together with a detailed self-assessment of their ignorance and determines their confidence to much more a higher and precise resolution. This is the ‘Was It Easy? No! Was Is Complicated? Yes!’ point on the curve above.
This person has moved on from merely being able to see the structure of their subject as we discussed in the 3rd level. They have not just filled in that structure with substantial amounts of knowledge, but have filled in many connections in that structure, perhaps even expanding that structure.
They are also able to see beyond the structure of their own subject and glance into the infinite chasm of endless knowledge, knowing that it will never fully be accessible to them. For the Muslim, this is where one can glimpse what it means for Allah to have ‘infinite knowledge’. At this point, they retreat, realizing that the only productive way forward is to retreat back into their own structure and build a usable network of coherence out of that structure. This allows for a pragmatic level of understanding which can be used for research and teaching, while still acknowledging the open-endedness of that coherence network. This also gives the expert confidence in their own understanding. Sometimes this confidence is mistaken for arrogance in those from the previous levels of ignorance.
These scholars and experts usually realize the importance of networking with other experts in their own field and in other subjects, as they intimately appreciate their own limitations. They may perhaps borrow useful knowledge from other structures through consultation and cooperation with experts of those fields, and thus allow for interdisciplinary approaches to their own subject.
However, as with other levels, this is a level of ignorance, not knowledge. This person can still cause harm. How? One is by the Bleed-Over effect I mentioned above. A master, expert or scholar in one subject can overreach, overestimating their competence in another subject due to their high level of competence in their own subject. The extent to which an expert will overestimate their own abilities can depend on numerous factors, such as their ego, their access to power and influence, and their lack of interaction with experts from other subjects or those from their own subject who are of a higher level than them. The Bleed-Over effect can result in the expert making accurate conclusions in their own subject, but bundling those with inaccurate conclusions resulting from interactions with other subjects. This can be harmful, as those who already respect and appreciate experts can be deceived into thinking that even those inaccurate conclusions are correct.
Another harm that can result from someone of this level is the danger of over-specialization. Although specialization is inevitable and important, when an expert or scholar does not interact with experts from other subjects or does not acknowledge the importance of an interdisciplinary approach they can end up filtering not just their subject, but all of reality from the perspective of their own subject. This leads to biases and errors, and is unfortunately common in institutions or subjects where interdisciplinary approaches are not emphasized.
Lastly, another problem is when experts over-appreciate their own abilities and slip – sometimes unknowingly – into arrogance from confidence. So in the example of the Bleed-Over effect, a scholar may appear humble in their own subject, but arrogantly pass judgment and assert erroneous conclusions on the subjects of others. In the example of over-specialization, the scholar may become arrogant in their own subject, dismissing the conclusions of others as inadequate or erroneous when they are just as liable to make mistakes as others. Assessment of this type of arrogance can be difficult, as experts and scholars also possess a high level of confidence, so it should preferably be done by another person from this level rather than someone from the previous levels.