A Problem with Knowledge

“Ancient people were full of superstition, believing the most ridiculous things because they didn’t have access to modern science and technology. Since the enlightenment, humans have become more and more knowledgeable and eventually religion will pass away.”

This fairly widely-held belief rests on a number of assumptions and requires a fairly extensive selection of factual and philosophical errors. Nevertheless, it is a powerful story that keeps being retold at various levels of intellectual (un)sophistication and believed by many.

Responding to the above criticism, one might provide evidence that ancient peoples were not necessarily superstitious, that they were far more knowledgeable than we might believe, that science does not teach us about what really matters, and so forth. I think there is something to say about each of these responses, but I’m going to focus on an issue that relates to each of the above responses, but may sound a bit strange: I believe that our focus on knowledge is (ironically) poorly thought out and even dangerous.[1]

Don’t get me wrong: There is tremendous value in knowledge, but it is a two-edged sword: It gives us the ability to fly to the moon, and to create weapons capable of destroying all human life. It gives us the ability to eradicate or severely limit the effects of certain diseases, but also the ability to weaponize strains of virulent disease that have the capacity to kill countless millions, even billions. Knowledge gives us the capacity to find greater comfort and ease, but also leaves us in a nihilistic objectivity in which meaning, purpose, value all disappear under the immensity of the universe and the enormity of time. You might say that we’ve sold our souls for an air conditioner and Netflix.

What’s worse, though, is the arrogance, the sense that we are the first to really understand life. Those who came before were hopelessly naïve. And yet our incredible access to information has not given us a better sense of the purpose of life nor has it offered us meaning. In fact, we seem to be more confused—or, for many, distracted—than ever before.

Is this because we have so much information so widely available? Should we eschew information and knowledge in order to acquire something else, something like faith?

I have heard this said more than once: A Christian must have blind faith, ignoring all the so-called information promulgated by an intellectual elite inimical to Christianity.

Such a claim seems to arise from a seed of wisdom, but is bent into this strange form through fear of the unknown. The wise seed is the recognition that there is something not quite right about obsession with knowledge and the flood of information that constantly draws our brief attentions from one thing to another.

In fact, this deluge of information is a well-known experience, I’m sure, for anyone who has tried to discuss the reasons for Christian belief with an unbeliever. You will receive the torrent of critique after critique (supported by link after link), and by the time you’ve finished giving a reasonable response to the first of the list, you’ve lost the attention of your interlocutor. And if you do manage to maintain the dialogue long enough to respond to a second critique, your debate partner will have already forgotten your answer to the first. Vanity of vanities.

Knowledge vs. Wisdom

Am I suggesting we give up offering reasons for our hope? That we reject information and intellect, and dive into a belief that rejects anything that smells of smarts?

Absolutely not. We should not aim lower, but higher. Knowledge is merely a step on the way toward wisdom. And wisdom should be our aim.

We all have a sense of the difference between wisdom and knowledge. The conflict between the two shows up in our books, films, and in our criticisms of others. But while we have a sense of it enough to criticize “book smarts,” we don’t really know with what to replace that knowledge.

How do we respond to our young people in high school and college who are continually taught things that bring the truth of Christianity into question? How do we respond to the influence of so many different worldviews on our children due to a world in which information and ideas are so easily exchanged?

We must begin with the sense that there is something not-quite-right about “pure” knowledge, and try to figure out what precisely that is. And to discover how knowledge, the possession of information,[2] relates to wisdom—the kind of wisdom that involves one loving God and neighbor.

To get started on this, let’s turn to a pre-Christian philosopher who offered the first critique of the first form of information technology (i.e. writing) almost 2500 years ago: Plato.

Remembering from the Inside: Plato on Information Technology

In Plato’s dialogue the Phaedrus, we find Socrates in a conversation with the eponymous interlocutor about love and speeches and the written word. To discuss the consequences of writing, Socrates relates a myth about its origin:

Among the ancient gods of Naucratis in Egypt there was…Theuth, and it was he who first discovered number and calculation, geometry and astronomy, as well as the games of checkers and dice, and, above all else, writing.

Now the king of all Egypt at that time was Thamus….Theuth came to exhibit his arts to him and urged him to disseminate them to all the Egyptians. Thamus asked him about the usefulness of each art, and while Theuth was explaining it, Thamus praised him for whatever he thought was right in his explanations and criticized him for whatever he thought was wrong.

…When they came to writing, Theuth said: “O King, here is something that, once learned, will make the Egyptians wiser and will improve their memory; I have discovered a potion for memory and for wisdom.” Thamus, however, replied: “O most expert Theuth, one man can give birth to the elements of an art, but only another can judge how they can benefit or harm those who will use them. And now, since you are the father of writing, your affection for it has made you describe its effects as the opposite of what they really are. In fact, it will introduce forgetfulness into the soul of those who learn it: they will not practice using their memory because they will put their trust in writing, which is external and depends on signs that belong to others, instead of trying to remember from the inside, completely on their own. You have not discovered a potion for remembering, but for reminding; you provide your students with the appearance of wisdom, not with its reality. Your invention will enable them to hear many things without being properly taught, and they will imagine that they have come to know much while for the most part they will know nothing. And they will be difficult to get along with, since they will merely appear to be wise instead of really being so.”[3]

Now Plato, though ancient, is an intellectual giant from whom we are still learning. This parable is no different and can be difficult to understand properly unless you’ve ready Plato widely (and well). But here we see a fundamental problem with knowledge-augmenting technology, like some of which is present already (e.g. Wikipedia) and some of which is on the horizon with transhumanism.

A recent article at First Things made an excellent point that improvements in human life, while helped by knowledge, are really grounded in the growth of our love for one another. Augmenting knowledge can surely benefit us greatly, but what really matters is that which cannot be solved through information technology and intellectual steroids. Ask yourself which you’d choose, given the choice: Brilliance and a cure for all diseases or universal love and kindness toward one another?

Even more, the author notes that it is perhaps those who are far less intelligent, at least in the sense that we seek to augment (and value), who seem most capable of loving. The author did not take the final tricky step: Perhaps more or too much knowledge can be a serious detriment to our capacity to love. Perhaps already our love is weakening further under the weight of too much knowledge.

This claim requires some clarification and explanation. To this end, let us begin to reflect on Socrates’ parable.

Knowledge vs. Wisdom (Again)

We all sense that there is a difference between knowledge and wisdom, though we’re not always clear on exactly what we mean. Knowledge is the possession of information. Perhaps wisdom is the ability to use that information appropriately? But that sounds like nothing more than a piece of knowledge with another piece of knowledge about where to use that first piece.

Wisdom surely includes knowing where to use knowledge. But it is more. Socrates gives us hints.

I’ve already referred to writing as the first (human created) information technology. It allows information to be disseminated more widely than the voice can do alone, to be maintained for far longer than even many human lives, and serves to help us check our memories to make sure we haven’t forgotten something. In addition, it allows us to absorb far more information faster and more conveniently than just listening to speakers. Should we not agree that Theuth properly evaluated writing?

Thamus, likely representing Plato’s own position, disagrees. Even though writing seems to offer a host of benefits, it will in fact promote forgetfulness and a lack of wisdom—a lack that takes on the appearance of wisdom and so makes people “difficult to get along with.”

Perhaps all information technology merely allows the further spread and deepening of this disease of false wisdom. Full disclosure: I’m no hater of information technology in itself. But as a teacher in both the church and university setting, as well as my experience of social media (which is, I’m sure, exactly like yours), I’ve discovered an audacity that arises from a glut of information married to a lack of wisdom—which makes people very “difficult to get along with.”

But why blame writing and other forms of information technology for arrogant foolishness? Isn’t the problem simpler: We should just be nicer and humbler people? In the following posts, we will begin to see more clearly the problem, specifically, how information technology may in fact hinder our capacity to become better people.

[1] This and the following related posts are a very loose adaptation of my chapter “A Vision of Transcendence: Monstrous Intelligence and Loving Understanding” in Mark J. Boone and Kevin C. Neece, Science Fiction and the Abolition of Man: Finding C.S. Lewis in Sci-Film and Television (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2016). I would recommend the entire collection of essays that the book holds if you are more interested in this topic. In addition, of course, you should consider reading The Abolition of Man and its story form version, That Hideous Strength, both by C.S. Lewis.

[2] If you have any background in epistemology (the study of knowledge), you realize that knowledge is something a bit more than the possession of information. It is technically warranted true belief (that avoids Gettier counterexamples). Nevertheless, knowledge, in practical terms, amounts to the possession of information—one obviously believes the information, and believes one has good reasons to believe it. I will not quibble about the laziness and sloppiness of anyone’s attempt to warrant their beliefs in this post, because whether such belief is warranted is beside the point of this essay. I will allow, unless the opposite is clear from the context, that those who possess information do in fact have knowledge that meets all the best criteria we’ve managed to discover.

[3] Plato, Phaedrus 274c-275b. All quotations from the Phaedrus are taken from the translation by Alexander Nehamas and Paul Woodruff in John M. Cooper, ed., Plato: Complete Works (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, 1997).

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Wm. Travis Coblentz

About Wm. Travis Coblentz