What Is Knowledge For?
By way of celebrating excellence in the pursuit of knowledge, I thought we should challenge ourselves today with the following question: What is knowledge for?
Some audiences would think this question too easy. To them it is obvious that knowledge is for getting grades, and thereby for pleasing parents, deans of college admissions, and future employers. This illustrious audience, however, will wisely desire a few moments to come up with a better answer. While you are doing so, I want to talk about dogs.
My teacher, the artist Mary Holmes, observed that, besides man, the dog is the only creature with a conscience. Of all the animals, only a dog can be trained by its master’s approval or disapproval implied in the use of phrases like “good dog” and “bad dog!” By contrast, just try saying “bad horse!” or “bad parrot!” or “bad kitty!” and see how far you get.
Mary Holmes mythically depicted the origin of the canine conscience in a painting of Adam and Eve. The painting records her conviction that “after Adam and Eve ate the apple, they threw its core on the ground, and the dog checked it out, as dogs always do, and ate the core. And so all dogs recognize good and evil.” It is perhaps upon this kinship in the knowledge of good and evil that all the loving relation of mutual help, affection, and fidelity between us and dogs is founded.
However, despite the dog’s morally supreme place in the animal kingdom by virtue of its unique relation to man, there are some obtuse and cruel human experimenters in cosmetic, cognitive, and biomedical research who every day pay human jobbers to procure for them what they outrageously call “junk dogs.” Such potential best friends to man these human beings then subject to hideous tortures for the sake of knowledge. This betrayal of man’s calling to husband well the garden of the world raises my question: What is that knowledge for?
Other kinds of scientific experiment raise the same question. The infamous psychology experiments performed by Stanley Milgram at Yale in the early sixties were constructed to demonstrate whether wholesome Americans, like Germans during the Nazi Holocaust, could be made to inflict murderous torture in obedience to authority. The experimenter set his subjects the following task: They were to give commands to someone in another room and, if the person resisted those commands, to prod him with electric shocks whose voltage they controlled.
Dressed in a white lab coat, the experimenter did his best to persuade the subjects to increase the voltage of the jolts despite the cries of pain of the supposed victim. The person being electrically prodded was in fact an actor, pretending to disobey, then to suffer agonies, finally to fall silent in response to the punishing shocks. The obtuse Professor Milgram was himself shocked to discover that the majority of his subjects were very easily talked into inflicting what they believed to be lethal doses. Those miserable human guinea pigs had to live the rest of their lives knowing that under the banal conditions of a university psychology experiment, they had, morally speaking, become murderers.
Since almost any significant artistic, social, or religious tradition in the world could have informed Professor Milgram that not only Germans and Americans but all men, including Yalies, are capable of evil when deprived of the conditions that foster good in us, of what value was that experiment? What did Milgram think knowledge was for?
What was knowledge for to the Nazi medical experimenters who, among many worse experiments I won’t mention, broke the bones of human beings in the same spots over and over to discover how often human bones would knit up again? Needless to say, when the human subjects of those experiments ceased to be useful, they were tossed into gas ovens and thence into incinerators. Surely medical knowledge gained at this cost is infinitely worse than any disease.
Now some of you will falsely imagine that I am attacking scientific experimentation itself. It isn’t so. Why would I take so absurd a position, when my life and others as dear to me as mine would before now have been lost without it? It is not experiment that I am opposing but experiment that in the name of knowledge abandons all other values.
My question “What is knowledge for?” applies as much to the humanities as to the sciences. In college I knew an English professor who professed that the villains of Shakespeare’s King Lear were the real heroes of the play and the virtuous characters were boring. He thought he was being clever and original. To him power-hunger was real and virtue was a preachy old platitude. In using his extensive knowledge of Shakespeare and the authority it conferred on him to promote these ideas, he was in fact doing his best to rob his students of their natural and true responses to one of the world’s greatest works. What did he think knowledge was for? Was it for producing a society of power-hungry cynics?
In the colleges and universities you will be attending there will be professors—avoid them if you can—whose knowledge in their fields of art, language, literature, history, and government will be marshaled into the service of blindingly narrow political or social agendas: whether the race, class, and gender follies of the left or the vainglorious Social Darwinism of the right. There will be others for whom the pursuit of knowledge is merely a disguise for the pursuit of career advancement. You may even come upon a professor who imports all the apparatus of historical and rhetorical knowledge (except honesty) to prove that Abraham Lincoln was the enemy of the slaves or that the Nazi Holocaust never happened. Here bits of knowledge are pressed into the service of big fat lies.
I don’t mean to sour you on the idea of going to college. There will be true and good pursuers of knowledge teaching there too. But you must seek them out with discernment; then “Grapple them unto thy soul with hoops of steel.”1
There are many reasons, historical and moral, that our culture has forgotten to ask what knowledge is for. Even if I were sure I knew them all, I wouldn’t have time to go into them today. But I will mention the unquestioned assumption, which we inherit from the Enlightenment, that the progress of human reason is linear, forward, infinite, and inevitable, and that with every bit of knowledge we add to our store and lose nothing. As Wendell Berry describes the situation, “Nobody . . . is attempting to figure out how much of the progress resulting from this enterprise is net. It is as if a whole population has been genetically deprived of the ability to subtract.”2
We might be corrected about the assumption that knowledge automatically equals progress both by some knowledge of history and by even the slightest attention to the meaning of the Genesis story about the Tree of Knowledge. But having been told by our culture, rather paradoxically, that the facts of history are not relevant and that Bible stories are not historical, we have ignored both.
As a result, we have drifted into what Jacques Ellul calls the Age of Technique, in which we are superb at asking how something can be done but terribly bad at asking whether it should be done.3 How can we send a man to the moon and bring him safely back? That question we have brilliantly answered. But who bothers to explain to us why we should do so?
So what is knowledge for? Have you come up with a good answer? Perhaps most of us would start with “to satisfy curiosity” and then add “to better the human condition.” But what do we mean by “better”? Have we spent any time and energy on gaining that knowledge?
Here is my own answer, subject to correction, of course. Knowledge is for two kinds of purpose: On the one hand, knowledge is for satisfying our natural human curiosity, enjoying intellectual adventure, fulfilling our divine gift of reason, improving practical living conditions for ourselves and others, and appreciating the wonders of creation. On the other hand, knowledge can be used to gratify our lust for wealth, power, and all the forms of self-aggrandizement.
These two sets of purposes are usually intermixed, but the difference between them can be discerned. That difference does not lie in the content of the knowledge itself. Both the biochemist and the Shakespeare scholar may be evil or good or both. The difference between the two kinds of purpose lies in the extent to which the pursuit of knowledge comes under the government of principles that are higher than knowledge.
In John Milton’s Paradise Lost, the angel Raphael tells the yet unfallen Adam that
. . . knowledge is as food, and needs no less
Her temperance over appetite, to know
In measure what the mind may well contain.4
That is, the desire for knowledge, like the desire for food, must be governed by the virtue of temperance. As it is possible to go astray by not caring to know anything, so it is possible to go astray by trying to know too much or to know things forbidden or to know things not worth the cost of the knowing.
Shall we intellectualize and experiment in order to gain knowledge about the future, or love, or God? Well, yes, up to a point. But beyond that point we will be trying to reduce to mere knowledge what can give meaning to our lives only by being more than knowledge. That which is greater than we can comprehend only retreats further away when we try to grasp it as knowledge. Consider the knowledge Masters and Johnson gained about sexuality by attaching electrodes to body parts. Was it worth what was lost in such experiments? What is knowledge about sexuality for when we banish intimacy, modesty, and love in order to get it?
I challenge you to ask what knowledge is for because if you don’t, you will be tempted either to abandon all pursuit of knowledge or to sacrifice for it what is more valuable than knowledge: You will be tempted to sacrifice virtue. But, as Dr. Otto Mower reminded us not long ago in this building, nothing—not even knowledge—is equal to virtue.
Knowledge is profoundly worth having where it is gained in accordance with justice, patience, courage, fidelity, temperance, kindness (including kindness to animals), and all the kinds of love (including love of truth). These qualities are what make knowledge itself valuable. It is for their pursuit of knowledge in accordance with virtue that we honor our new Cum Laude members today. And the more knowledge promises personal pleasure, money (including government or corporate grants), professional advancement, power, or fame, the more we must ask not only “How can I gain this knowledge?” but “What is this knowledge for?”
We must ask “Am I pursuing this knowledge in accordance with virtue?” even when what we seek is that vague distant good, “the betterment of the human condition.” It is good that we should strive to better the human condition, but not at the cost of making particular human beings worse.
Knowledge is precious. But it is not for setting up as an idol to be worshipped for its own sake. If to gain a piece of knowledge you must pretend that dogs or even rats are junk, if for the sake of knowledge you treat human beings as merely means to your ends5 and not as neighbors whom we are to love as we love ourselves, if your pursuit of knowledge corrupts your loyalty to goodness or to that greater truth of which knowledge is only a part, then the pursuit of knowledge has become evil. Far better to drop out and be the witless beggar of your worst nightmares of failure than to succeed by gaining such knowledge at such a price.
Now, if I may paraphrase the Book of Proverbs: May the Giver of all knowledge cause wisdom to enter our hearts and knowledge to be pleasant to our souls, discretion to watch over us and discernment to guard us, to deliver us from the way of evil, that we may walk in the way of the good and keep the paths of the righteous.6
1 Hamlet, I.iii.63.
2 Wendell Berry, Life Is a Miracle: An Essay against Modern Superstition (Washington D.C.: Counterpoint Press, 2000), p. 21.
3 See The Technological Society
4 John Milton, Paradise Lost, VII.126–28.
5 Cf. Immanuel Kant, Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals, 2nd Section
6 See Proverbs 2:6–20
For Further Reading:
William Shakespeare: Hamlet, King Lear
John Milton: Paradise Lost
Immanuel Kant: Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals, Second Section
C.S. Lewis: The Abolition of Man
Martin Buber: The Way of Man According to the Teaching of Hasidism
Jacques Ellul: The Technological Society
Wendell Berry: Life Is A Miracle: An Essay against Modern Superstition; What Are People For?; The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture