Knowledge is power, and ignorance is bliss.
These are truisms with which we are all familiar. We even use them to justify our decisions from time to time. It is when their truths clash, however, that justifying their use becomes inconvenient.
On May 18, the final episode of this series of the immensely popular British television show “Doctor Who” will be aired. This episode is called “The Name of the Doctor,” and the show seems to be setting up on an opportunity for the Doctor’s past to come to light.
For decades the Doctor has been a delightfully mysterious character who has been almost universally loved by the fan base. Some fans love the mystery so much that they are (sort of) protesting any revelation of the Doctor’s identity (obvious straw man photoshopping aside). It should also be noted nobody has any idea what it will mean to learn the Doctor’s name, or if we will actually learn it.
The Doctor is an important fixture in pop culture, particularly in Britain, but he’s more than that. In this case, he represents an opportunity to examine not just how we feel about knowing something we didn’t ask to know, but how we should feel about knowing such a thing.
Let’s examine the morality of knowledge by facing the epistemological dilemma faced by every Doctor Who fan: Do I want to know the name of the Doctor?
Why We Want To Know
The “knowing” side of the argument is simple: knowing makes it better. If there is knowledge about a thing which I care about, I want to have it in my brain because it enhances the value of the thing to me. Knowing the Doctor’s name will make my connection to him more personal. He will be more real to me than merely a glib and clever avatar for righteousness in the universe.
This is an argument that can really only be made on a person-by-person basis. One cannot definitively state that knowing a thing is better than not knowing a thing and apply that statement to human beings in general, even if we’re talking about so narrow a concern as the name of Doctor Who. As I’ll argue later, however, this is the only moral choice.
Why We Don’t Want To Know
The Doctor is a deliciously mystifying character: he’s alien, ageless, and a courageous avatar for morality and the human race. He is not a man, but something more. He does not need a name — or rather we do not need to know that name, because he seems to be above that sort of thing. There is only one Doctor, because no one else merits the simplicity of the title as a name unto itself. If we knew his name we could not see him the same way — the way we want to see him.
This is an understandable argument, particularly in light of the fact that I’m talking about a character from a television show. However, there is an enormous problem with this argument which I’ll discuss in detail.
The Problem of Willful Ignorance
While both arguments can be made effectively, they reflect different moral positions.
It is a fact that the Doctor has a name. At the very least he has a name within the framework of the Doctor Who universe, and it’s possible that the writers have given the name and know what that name is. Either way, the name exists, or the revelation that his name is something more than a name.
Therein lays the conundrum. If the Doctor has a name, then to not want to know it is to desire ignorance purposefully. The name exists; to deliberately avoid acquiring the knowledge of it will not erase the name from reality.
Think about what that means: not wanting to know the name of the Doctor means actively denying his name. When we consider that the reason for doing so is entirely based on our preferences, we must conclude that rejecting the knowledge of the Doctor’s name is a selfish act which we can only justify because there is no consequence to the person (the television character).
It may seem trivial to discuss purposeful ignorance as potentially immoral in the context of such a cosmically insignificant piece of information, but the choice is representative of a larger issue of whether or not we should want to know important things.
An Example To Illustrate
Fictional Fact 1: We can know without a doubt whether or not God exists.
Fictional Fact 2: There is a 50/50 chance that God exists.
Under these fictional circumstances, would you want to know whether or not God exists?
The answer, of course, should absolutely be an unequivocal, resounding “yes.” But there are many reading this — perhaps more than half — who would say “no.” Without debating the morality of the choice, we can say without a doubt that it would be selfish to not want to know, because the only reason a person could reject the knowledge (which, in our fictional universe here, exists) is because the person would not want to risk a challenge to the comfort of one’s own view of the world. If you believe God definitely exists or that he definitely doesn’t, but you don’t want to know for sure if the knowledge exists, you are making a selfish choice.
To not want to know the Doctor’s name is a similarly selfish choice. If you don’t want to know, it’s only because you feel it would harm your enjoyment.
The Moral Conclusion
Ultimately, it’s not necessarily immoral to deny the Doctor’s name. I say this not because ignorance is in fact bliss, but because in theory no harm can be caused by selfishly wanting the Doctor to stay the way he currently exists in one’s mind. On his most elemental level, the Doctor is a TV character and nothing more.
The implications of such selfishness can be far-reaching, however, if the same principles are applied broadly. We should not seek to deny knowledge where it definitely exists for nothing more than our own selfish purposes. Knowledge empowers us by giving us the ability to make informed decisions.
This principle applies even to the Doctor. The revelation of the Doctor’s name may reveal something about the character that makes me enjoy him less. Still, is it better to pretend that the Doctor is something he is not simply so I can enjoy him more? I say it is not. Such pretending would be deliberately ignorant, selfish, and immoral despite the lack of practical effect.
Knowledge is power, ignorance is bliss. Both are true, and both are not. I will take the power every time, even if it reduces the power that the Doctor’s story has over me.