What’s the Point of Knowledge?

Rene Descartes, showing off his best Mona Lisa smile

The answer to this question (What’s the point of knowledge?) often comes back as if it was self-evident. The point of knowledge is awareness. The point of knowledge is a removal of ignorance. And certainly these are valuable tools. Though it seems obvious to me that human beings as biological creatures have limitations that prohibit constant awareness. A good example of this is Aldous Huxley’s book The Doors of Perception — where Huxley experiences psychotropic substances and details the way certain processes of human cognition were built specifically for our evolution as animals. The sober creature is always filtering information, on watch for danger. Which is also one of the problems with ignorance, as a word, it carries an agenda. For example; I might entirely understand another person’s point of view and yet still disagree. Our goals might not be in alignment. The other might accuse me of ignorance, but because I cannot literally be who they are, our perceptions will always be differentiated to larger and lesser degrees. Also, after this number of years of being alive — I’ve stopped judging willful ignorance. I am not here to be an enforcer of what people do or don’t want to know.

Of course it’s hard to form connections with people who’ve decided to imprison themselves in their own mind, but, honestly, we’re kind of in a prison anyway. Embracing that fact is like an exercise in freedom. But this is a metaphysical formula that I am not all that interested in exploring. On we go.

Does the word knowledge have an implicit value judgment? I think the answer is yes — isn’t it better to have more knowledge rather than less? How should this be measured? By a broad understanding of many subjects or a terrific amount of intricate detail about one subject? I think one can safely argue that these are not the same thing. While the amount of knowledge might be equal by volume the outcomes of specialization rather than generalization paint different daily activities. That’s the first problem of measurement. The second problem only gets stickier from here because now one can ask: does a person who has participated in a tragic event or felt the death of a close relation have more knowledge than someone who has never experienced something like this? The common parlance for a question like this is to say that this person who has experienced tragedy (or even simply travel) has acquired “worldliness.” It’s a type of knowledge that goes by many names. Experience is another one. In Platonic terms it might be called “knowledge of the composition of true belief.”

I’m going to call it personal knowledge. That is, knowledge that doesn’t give out diplomas or prove itself with social accolades. Personal knowledge is an arena largely dealt with by fiction writers who understand the tricky dichotomy of experience. Experience is often both general and specific. It’s general in the sense that we produce and expire in stages, and more often than not, those stages are repeated in similar patterns. Yet it is impossible to disprove the specifics of individual existence.

A few pieces of Socratic speech from Plato’s Dialogue ‘Gorgias’

“Does a person who teaches some subject or another persuade his pupils of what he’s teaching or not?

Is there something you call — to have learned? And also something you call — to be convinced?

Are these different? Here’s how you can tell that they are. If someone tells you that there is such a thing as true and false conviction you’d say yes, I’m sure.

Well now is there such a thing as true and false knowledge?

But truly those who have learned and those who have come to be convinced have been persuaded.”

I don’t mean to break down this dialogue — which is primarily an examination of rhetoric and oratory — I wanted to introduce Socrates’ words as a frame unto which, when I read them, their first popped into my mind this question of difference between personal knowledge and knowledge one acquires second-hand. One may at first be tempted to conflate all knowledge into the same category. The modern philosopher generally breaks knowledge down into three categories. Knowing that— knowing how — knowing by acquaintance. While I appreciate the fine distinctions that one can get into by categorizing knowledge this way — whole treatises have been written on defining knowing that alone — I want to set aside these categories. Mostly to give more favor to the personal, which seems often brushed aside compared to the clearer value positions offered by technology and medicine.

Whether or not one has “learned” anything from it, one cannot deny the immediacy of individual experience. The things that happen to you will always be, if even only slightly, differentiated from everybody else. I think here one can take a step and call this experience, knowledge. I call this — personal knowledge. Second-hand knowledge is something which one may or may not learn. Be persuaded of. There’s many different tactics that promote learning (tactile, auditory, visual etc) but there’s also a social pressure form of learning. Say if a teacher makes you stand and read in front of the class knowing full well that you have an ambivalence to the subject and have not done your homework. The teacher presumes this added social pressure will shame you into getting your act straight. While certain facts will become memorized, this form of learning is sub-optimal since it doesn’t really engage with why the subject was worth thinking about in the first place.

So here we have a windless sail in the realm of knowledge. Knowledge which one acquires without knowing why. I think with technology and the internet this is a problem which is only going to get more and more exaggerated. The increase of specialists means an increase in those who don’t understand why. Technology produces a basic estrangement from why. Think, for example, how many people would own a car if one of the basic requirements for their operation was to know how and why they ran the way they did. Operation of a computer or smartphone would be even less, surely, if one needed to know the why behind it. For modern technology to exist, second-hand knowledge needs to be the primary knowledge of discourse.

However, the creation of all second-hand knowledge comes from those who know why. These are people who are acting on their personal knowledge and then turning it into its communicable counterpart. Education, in a Socratic sense, needs persuasion. This is the way to turn personal knowledge into a thing that can be taught. Otherwise all knowledge would stay in the realm of the personal. This is to say; the explosion of second-hand knowledge has been a great feat. It has, I’ll repeat, become the primary form of knowledge. It is only right to expect that on any given topic there is probably a person who knows more about it than you. But this doesn’t necessarily suggest that they have learned how to think — learned how to transform their own personal knowledge into communicable second-hand knowledge. They may just simply be repeating something they’ve already heard second-hand. Yet by the act of transmission one can make an assumption that the knowledge presented has come from a true source. We should let this assumption stand as its the only way to keep this term, knowledge, meaningful. Obviously a person can try and transmit lies for personal gain or exaggerate the truth etc, but let us say that such actions have no bearing on true knowledge (though they obviously piggyback on the inherent value of knowledge).

If you’re with me so far, now we’re really going to get into the mire. We’re going to have to talk about value. Since, if you buy what I’ve said above; all second-hand knowledge comes from a place of personal knowledge. Yet there does seem to be a clear value system which currently gives more credence to this second-hand form of knowledge. But sublimating oneself to this knowledge doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the subject itself, though the knowledge has reached the optimal communicable pathway. (All personal knowledge becomes second-hand knowledge once it has learned to be communicated.) It is right to give second-hand knowledge value, but, I would argue, it is wrong to give it more value than personal knowledge.

I was always curious why college education needed to give out degrees. If you like learning and thinking you will keep doing this throughout a lifetime. It wasn’t until I dropped out of college that I heard an economics professor say that, “You get a degree so nobody can take it away from you.” I felt like I’d been slapped over the head. Obviously, you dummy. The knowledge needs stakes. For many people: that’s the point of the knowledge. This is one of the negative tendencies that we tend to favor in second-hand knowledge. If one is using their second-hand knowledge as a barrier or protective function they are far away from understanding the why of their subject matter — as far away as if they hadn’t learned the material at all.

On the other side however; it’s easy to recognize that most personal knowledge is meaningless. Meaningless in its capacity for communicable spread. There’s plenty of it that has value though, it’s just difficult to discover what exactly that may be. When Descartes decided to give up his position and go traveling — to meet a variety of people, he knew (at least unconsciously) that there was something to be understood in this personal knowledge space. What, exactly? That’s not so easy to pin down. But if I was to proffer a guess: hearing others’ personal knowledge helps you to understand thinking. It’s not about belief or having a position — you witness a variety of minds working and that helps teach you about the process of your own mind. Now obviously this does not make any single piece of personal knowledge meaningful. In order for that to happen it needs to be transformed into second-hand knowledge. Yet there’s an effect that happens in concert. It’s what is so fascinating about art — individual pieces creating a semblance of a whole. Because of this meaninglessness, personal knowledge does not come into competition the way second-hand knowledge does. This, I would argue, is its absolute value. Yet it often has no tangible social space for this to be expressed. Especially these days, where the sea of personal knowledge is so vast one needs a Vespucci like courage to even begin navigating the map.

One is not crazy to notice that second-hand knowledge has never been more stressed than it is these days. It has been imbued with social functions. I would put forth an argument that this is in no small part due to a hyper inflated valuation of second-hand knowledge. This hyper valuation also leads to a misunderstanding of knowledge which one wants to reinforce their own personal knowledge. If the primary value of knowledge is the tenacity of its communicability (part or parcel of what second-hand knowledge is) — one is incentivized to turn any piece of personal knowledge into second-hand knowledge. This in and of itself doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with technology. What does, what’s new is a kind of limitless availability. One can usually find the value of their personal prejudices somewhere. But again I must reiterate: those who know and are practiced communicants might not have even considered why they think they know what they know.

In this valuation I am making a categorical distinction between the consequences of inflation of second-hand knowledge and plain ‘ol lying. For it often seemed to me that the liar has to know when they are lying. And one of my favorite examples of one of the consequences related to the inflated value of second-hand knowledge involve those who are both experts and utterly misguided in their information. Of course here I am speaking about the recent boon of conspiracy theories. Over-valuation of second-hand knowledge creates an allure for the minority. Exceptionalism. The specialist and the expert. Perhaps this is necessary for the function of technology in society — but this seduction of having merit in an arena that only you understand; “I am one of the most educated people in the world on flat earth-bigfoot-chemtrails etc.” This is an overcompensation. These people absorb their second-hand knowledge and become “experts.” I actually hate to put expert in quotations because, in a way, they are experts. The presumption from which they start is obviously erroneous — but in the realm of second-hand knowledge they have absorbed the materials required for expertise. If the larger social system relies on merit to which they don’t have access; they take the value precept and magnify it to what they know. They create their own little microcosms of merit. Technology encourages this kind of specialization, though the social roots run deep as well. What would happen if people stopped standing up for themselves? I often find conspiracy theorists to be exercising a healthy impulse. Though there are much better ways to do this.

Not least of which is simply letting personal knowledge stand for what it is. In layman’s terms I’d call this — trusting yourself. Now obviously there’s problems here as well. The over-valuation of personal knowledge is an error that humans have been making for a much longer period of time. Here you find things like prejudice. An individual has a negative interaction with somebody outside their own class or race and a whole group of people become pigeonholed in the brain forever. I must accentuate this — absolutely — to give more credence to one form of knowledge over another is to commit an error. To ignore second-hand knowledge is stubborn and thickheaded.

But let us acknowledge for a moment that one cannot know the ultimate truth about everything. That acquiring all the knowledge is impossible. Recently I’ve become interested in social constructionism. This is a philosophical framework which argues that all knowledge exists because of the social need to express these ideas. If one had never heard a particular idea everything about their thought process would be different. One of the founding esoteric principles is one you’ve probably heard of before. If a tree falls in the woods and no one is there to hear it — does it make a sound? A social constructionist might expand this argument. Let’s say a human doesn’t hear it, but a bat does. Does it make the same type of sound? We’ve learned through technology that there are different ways to perceive universal excretions. We’ve built night vision goggles that help us understand energy expulsions that don’t manifest in Ultraviolet.

One can even go further. In the scientific argument of social constructionism there’s a notion that if we had made discoveries differently our entire science would be different. I know, I too initially found this difficult to get on board with. What’s the point of science if a quark isn’t a quark or an electron isn’t an electron? These things should fundamentally exist on their own. But let’s start with a more tactile example. What if we never discovered dinosaur bones? Would they still exist? Again, I would like to expand this train of thought. What if, for some reason, human inquiry was set back by a couple thousand years. And what if in that time, through tectonic movement or sedimentary build-up we discovered different things about dinosaurs. Let’s say we never discover large dinosaur bones — did they still exist? Would this change our general perception of evolutionary theory?

This is gonna get weird, here. What if, out in the universe you have a carbon atom floating in an ort cloud. What if after a certain period of time, say a couple million years, the atom takes on a small variation. A muon is replaced with a down quark (or something like that). Maybe it doesn’t fundamentally change the nature of how that atom operates — but can we really call it the same? And those who discovered it: have they not discovered something out of a cycle of which the knowledge we have is, cosmically (in the cosmic scales of time) always in flux?

I bring these social constructionist questions up to try and return to the question I asked in the title. What’s the point of knowledge? If you consider the social constructionist point — not only are we limited in our awareness, the measurement problem of knowledge can become infinitely complex. But, yes, I’m aware this is not most people’s primary concern. Maybe we’ve begun to favor second-hand knowledge because it has the highest efficacy for making our lives better. Technology that doesn’t do anything for anybody is soon discarded. Maybe it’s just about well-being. But as noted above, there’s a limit to this too. Many minds have begun to feel skeptical about humanity’s future. The invention of social media does not seem to be helping things. Out of the leftist side we have consciousness raising — which these days, to my mind, amounts to little more than brow beating and in-group bias. They largely seem to have run out of ideas and keep harping the same second-hand knowledge as if it was new. On the right you have over-indulgence in personal knowledge. Where everything that you can’t see in front of your face or you don’t want to believe is fake news.

Admittedly I don’t know how to solve this problem. But I do know that if our society gets entirely dependent on second-hand knowledge to solve all our problems this will result in stagnation and an ever growing misguided sense of knowledge. Who has it. The poetic answer of course is — everyone. Part of the point of knowledge is its pointlessness. My dad used to tell me that I should learn because, “knowing things is fun.” As I’ve gotten older I’ve begun to see that we have different conceptions of this “fun.” Since he often seems as convinced as anyone that knowledge has to mean something. Yet I’ve kept that phrase in the back of my brain and I give it to you now in a last ditch effort to try again to get some of the competition out of knowledge. Only then can you see the big picture and really ask why.