Francisco Contreras – Unabashedly Skeptical

"The essence of the independent mind lies not in what it thinks, but in how it thinks." –Christopher Hitchens

Too Much Knowledge??

I am super excited to tell you that this blog has been met with mostly very positive feedback.  Here is a little snippet from an online conversation I had with a friend recently.

Q: Kierkegaard was fascinated by figures such as Socrates and Faust who were keen for new knowledge. But these figures both met a tragic end. Is the pursuit of knowledge ultimately a dangerous thing both for the individual and for society as a whole?  Can it be a bad thing?

 A: I think it is easy to succumb to a naive and ultimately errant view of the world by using the phrase “pursuit of knowledge” and ascribing it an evaluative qualification. Surely the accumulation of knowledge has given us the capacity for unprecedented destruction and mayhem — especially in these last two centuries– , as well as for good and progress. Knowledge is a tool that has been used by people in power, and as such its effect depends solely on its wielder.

Notwithstanding,  I hold to the proposition that an honest quest for truth has intrinsic value. That is to say, that the endeavor begets progress — moral and otherwise– in and of itself.  Among the many intrinsic benefits of pursuing truth, the most important is undoubtedly the resulting intellectual autonomy. Immanuel Kant phrased it as Sapere Aude (“dare to know”) and described it as the motto of the Enlightenment in his essay “What Is Enlightenment?”. This result alone should make the pursuit of truth more than worthwhile.

Q:  But The history of the last two ( 20th -21th) centuries shows us that with the accumulation of knowledge
came horrible destruction of the two world wars plus endless number of of the local wars. It is by chance or as a result of this pursuit of knowledge ?

A: The calamities and atrocities of recent centuries that you mentioned have come as a result of a blatant defiance of this very idea. I would argue that all of these regimes were not at all interested in the pursuit of truth. On the contrary, they held the belief that such pursuit was unnecessary because they already possessed absolute truth and their mission was in some way or another to propagate it. Furthermore, If one is to look at history and see the people who actually were interested in this pursuit, one would be met with the likes of Lucretius, Democritus, Spinoza, Einstein, Descartes, and Socrates himself. Please tell me when a society following the teachings of these men fall into fascism or genocide. I doubt one could ever point to such society.

In conclusion, I believe that the pursuit of knowledge (I would rather use the word truth instead, as I stated previously) is a dangerous thing if and only if it is done in a society that depends on an infallible hierarchical structure purporting to possess absolute truth. Such was the case with Socrates and Faust, and such has been the case in all theocratic and totalitarian societies. One need only consult the historical record to see the authoritative powers of unreason, credulity, and absolutism suppress and oppress the agents of skepticism and inquiry (eg: Galileo , Darwin, etc). However, I do see the grounds for establishing a society –and in some ways we have been collectively heading  that way– where skeptical inquiry is encouraged or at least tolerated. The Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution have been a good start, we just need to continue in that line of thought and never forget how little we actually know, being suspicious of anyone who says otherwise.

I would like to finish my post with some lines from a poem by Alexander Pope:

A little learning is a dangerous thing ;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring :
There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
And drinking largely sobers us again.

Please feel free to leave any comments or questions so that we may continue this wonderful discussion.

Further Reading 

Immanuel Kant’s essay “What is Enlightenment

The rest of Alexander Pope’s wonderful poem “A Little Learning



2 responses to “Too Much Knowledge??

  1. chakshuRA July 31, 2015 at 3:02 pm

    There is a very old Sanskrit saying which roughly translates as –

    The ignorant is easy to please; of scholars we can’t complain;
    The half-knowing and hot-headed, even God can’t entertain!

    An ignorant person with no preconceived notions is easy to deal with. It is even easier to deal with a scholar who has a deep understanding of the world. However, it is impossible to entertain a half-baked fool who, with a little knowledge, feels proud believing that he is a scholar. Thus even though an ignorant person may be in darkness, a person who has learned some and has pride about the knowledge is deeper in darkness.


    • Luis Francisco Contreras August 1, 2015 at 11:22 pm

      Very grateful for the Sanskrit saying. I think the notions of half-knowledge vs scholarly knowledge have surprising overlap with the Overconfidence Bias and your recent post about the admission of ignorance. Thank you for this brainfood!

      Liked by 1 person

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