The word “agnoiology” is said to mean “the science or study of ignorance, which determines its quality and conditions” or “the doctrine concerning those things of which we are necessarily ignorant,” and it is said to describe a branch of philosophy studied by James Frederick Ferrier in the nineteenth century. I employ expressions such as “said to be mean/be” to suggest that I am not an authority on the topic and hence I do hold accountable for its correctness, reliability, and the difficulties such statements might entail. Similarly, “agnotology” (formerly “agnatology”), a neologism coined by Robert N. Proctor, Stanford University professor, specializing in the history of science and technology, is said to be “the study of culturally induced ignorance or doubt, particularly the publication of inaccurate or misleading scientific data.” More generally, the term is also said to highlight “the increasingly common condition where more knowledge of a subject leaves one more uncertain than before.”
My interest here is mainly whether we can speak of a “Buddhist agnoiology,” and to a lesser degree, whether we can speak of “agnotology in Buddhism.” I think we sure can. One may define “Buddhist agnoiology” as the “the science or study of ignorance from a Buddhist perspective.” Just as we may talk of “Buddhist epistemology” or “Buddhist gnoseology,” we can well talk of “Buddhist agnoiology.” I like it. Some venues for exploration would be the ideas of “nescience” (avidyā: ma rig pa), “disorientedness” (moha: gti mig), “lack of knowledge/cognition” (ajñāna: ma shes pa). How have these terms been defined or understood or used? What types of ignorance or nescience can we trace in Buddhist sources? What are lhan cig skyes pa’i ma rig pa (i.e. “innate non-cognition”?) and kun tu brtags (or btags?) pa’i ma rig pa (i.e. “acquired non-cognition”?)? This distinction, though not quite clear to me, seems important. It seems to suggest that there are types of ignorance we are born with and other types we acquire through indoctrination. What about ma rtogs pa, log par rtog pa, and phyogs tsam rtogs pa? What about the idea of duḥprajñā (shes rab ’chal ba)? What about ’dres pa’i ma rig pa and ma ’dres pa’i ma rig pa? Are all kinds or degrees of ignorance or non-cognition obstructive or impedimentary to the attainment of vimokṣa or vimukti? The Mahāyānic answer seems to be in the negative. This is suggested by the idea of jñeyāvaraṇa (shes bya’i sgrib pa), a kind of obscuration that hinders one to know all objects of knowledge. One can possess such a subtle kind of ignorance or nescience and yet one could attain the state of an Arhatship. To become a buddha, however, one must eradicate all traces of nescience, for a buddha is said to possess omniscience. (Note, however, that there seems to be several concepts of omniscience in Buddhism.) Such a subtle nescience can be due to the spatial remoteness of the object of knowledge, or, due to the temporal remoteness of the object of knowledge, or, due to the infinity-cum-transcendentality of the object of knowledge (e.g. qualities of a buddha), or, due to the subtlety of the object of knowledge (e.g. causes and conditions necessary for giving rise to a single multi-colored patch of a peacock’s feather). Tibetan Buddhist sources would describe the idea of the “four causes of non-cognition“ (mi shes pa’i rgyu bzhi) that even a traditional arhant is said to be subject to. Of course, to understand “Buddhist agnoiology,” we will have to understand the reverse side of the coin, namely, “Buddhist Epistemology” and “Buddhist gnoseology.” Buddhist logic and epistemology would reveal a great deal about the Buddhist concepts of non-perception, non-cognition, misperception, misconception, perceptual and conceptual errors, and syllogistic fallacies of various kinds.
And what about “agnotology in Buddhism”? Can we talk of a kind of culturally induced ignorance in Buddhism? Perhaps we can but only to a certain extent and in certain contexts. Some Buddhist masters might discourage acquiring knowledge that is not of direct relevance to the attainment of Arhathood or Buddhahood. That is to say, they might indirectly encourage certain form/degree of ignorance. Some Tibetan Buddhist masters are said to discourage or even prohibit their disciples, especially young monks and nuns, to study, with the argument that they would not remain in the monastery if they were to study. In other words, such masters prefer that their disciples remain ignorant! Should this turn out to be true, it would be a case in which an effort is made by some sections of the society to induce ignorance so that the status quo can be maintained. Although I can neither sympathize with these masters nor can I conscientiously endorse such an attitude, I must, however, mention that Buddhism does recognize the existence of knowledge or cognition that is considered useless, for example, the knowledge about the number of worms in the world. Also investigations and treatises such as those dealing with the “analysis of crows‘ teeth” (bya rog so brtag) are considered to be totally futile.
What about the idea that “ignorance is bliss”? Usually in Buddhism: “Ignorance is suffering/painful” (mi shes pa ni sdug bsngal lo). On the other hand, we do find some sources which suggest that “ignorance can be bliss.” If I am not mistaken, Āryadeva has suggested that if a common person were to know or see the sufferings of the entire world, he or she would die then and there. That is to suggest that if we do not know or see the suffering of the world, we tend to be naive and happy. Why? My explanation is that we cannot often psychologically cope with the reality or truth! This would bring us to the Buddhist idea of kṣānti. It is often rendered as “patience” or “tolerance,” but if we take the entire semantic range or spectrum of the term, “patience” or “tolerance” does not seem to work. Particularly consider the expression: mi skye ba’i chos la bzod pa. It seems to make no sense to understand “tolerance with regard to the phenomena which is characterized by non-arising.” Thus I am tempted to understand kṣānti in Buddhism as the intellectual and psychological capacity or readiness of the mind to confront reality or truth (no matter how painful, dreadful, unpleasant, subtle, or profound). To cope with reality, truth, or knowledge or cognition, one would require the necessary courage to confront it. Buddhist sources speak of “fear for emptiness,” that is, comparable to horror vacui or kenophobia. In my view, it is because of the phobia for reality, truth, knowledge, or cognition, that people induce or resort to ignorance, rejection, and denialism.
What about the idea of docta ignorantia in Buddhism? I would suppose the idea of “learned ignorance” would be cherished by the wise/learned ones in Buddhism as a very useful convention. Usually people in the society transact on a conventional level and those conventions adopted by the wise and the learned are said to be preferable. For example, the distinction between “good and bad,” or, “wholesome and unwholesome” is occasionally said to be whether or not something is found to be “irreproachable or reproachable by the wise/learned.” If a fool knows or does not know something, it may not mean much or anything! If a learned/wise person does not know something, it would mean something! So much for now on Buddhist agnoiology and agnotology in Buddhism.