Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Knowledge, community and eternity

When I figure out or learn something, I typically find myself with an urge to share it--with family, friends or blog readers. The new knowledge just pulls me to sharing. Some of the pull is vanity. But I don't think it's all vanity. Even if I had to share the knowledge anonymously, without ever having the satisfaction of knowing if anybody ever appreciated it, I would still feel the urge to share it. This isn't a decisive argument that it's not all vanity, but it is evidence. I think I am not alone in this.

While some goods can be enjoyed alone almost as well as together with others, much of the value of knowledge seems to be the value of communal knowledge--and when I talk of "knowledge", I mean to include here "understanding", "insight" and the like. It is natural to share knowledge--that is in large part why we have language. (Self-concealment correlates with psychological and physical problems, but apparently there is insufficient evidence at present to determine what the causal relationship if any there is here--see The Psychology of Secrets by Anita Kelly. And in any case, when I talk of what is natural, I am talking of a normative naturalness, not a statistical normalcy.)

Even those who want to have an esoteric secret doctrine tend to want to have a community of cognescenti with whom they can share it. Or at the very least, and most annoyingly, they want others to know that they have secret knowledge that no one else has.

The good of knowledge is, then, incomplete when the knowledge is solitary. Likewise, the good of knowledge is incomplete when the knowledge is evanescent. While eating a chocolate can be satisfactory even though the chocolate disappears in a few seconds, and the memory fades in minutes to hours, to know something for a short bit of time and then forget it completely is to miss out something important about knowledge. Knowledge is supposed to be a stable and lasting good. We see this in Plato (though he drew from this the wrong conclusions about what can be the object of knowledge, in large part because he was an A-theorist). Suppose we were to learn the answer to some difficult scientific problem, and if we were to about to die and live never again (of course, I believe that death is not the end of life, but this is a hypothetical question), and we could pass the answer to no one. This could be quite tormenting, and it might almost have been better not to know the answer. And, no, this is not just about bragging rights.

One of the things I have wondered about is how much of the meaning of our lives would remain if death were the end of life, and all humanity were to return "again to the nebula" (to use Russell's phrase). Perhaps some valuable things might not lose that much of their savor under that hypothesis. But knowledge, I think, would be much impoverished if it were all coming to an end. One reason for that is the structure of human knowledge. Finding things out always opens more new questions, and so knowledge points to more questions which in turn point to more knowledge--Nicholas Rescher talks about this really nicely. But I think there may also be something about knowledge itself, about the connection between knowledge and eternity.

The good of knowledge, thus, seems to point to community and eternity, being incomplete without either.

For the Christian, this reflection might point to the Trinity (God's self-knowledge is essentially shared between three Persons who have one intellect), the Incarnation and beatific vision (this self-knowledge is graciously shared with us), and eschatology (our knowledge will, indeed, last--and even our bodies will rise again, so even the kind of knowledge we have as embodied beings will return). Love is greater than knowledge (in its fullness it includes knowledge but goes beyond it), but knowledge (or at least understanding, and justified true belief) is theologically significant as well. After all, Christ is Logos and Sophia.


Apolonio said...

Suppose I go to the beach and count the grains of sand there. Does that have any value? What is the good in that?

I do believe you have a point about communal knowledge. I was writing a paper for Ernie Sosa's class on epistemic disagreement and one of the things I have learned is that we desire not simply individual flourishing but social epistemic flourishing. To convince someone is a virtue. Virtue epistemology consists of being credited for knowledge. With regards to, say, testimony or argumentation, credit belongs not only to the receiver but the transmitter of knowledge. Credit is given to the transmitter only when through her argumentation she convinces the other.

Mike said...

Really interesting post, Alex. You might have noted that most of what we share--especially on blogs--is far short of knowledge! Most of the time we advance something that just seems intuitive, don't we? We don't think it's a piece of knowledge. Other times, (speaking for myself) I post something because I feel someone has been uncharitable or unfair to some view that I think is false anyway. The desire to contribute to the community is sometimes the desire to share what we believe is a bit of knowledge. But sometimes it is just responding to what we think is a highhanded attitude or bad argument, even if the attitude or argument is in the service of what we think is true. Of course there are other bases too for the desire to contribute.

Alexander R Pruss said...


There are possible circumstances under which this information would be useful.

But, yes, I think there is a good in knowing the answer here. Suppose you were imprisoned in a sandy jail cell. You might pass the time by counting grains of sand. Is what you're doing of no value? I think it has both intrinsic and extrinsic value (intrinsic: knowledge; extrinsic: keeping oneself from insanity). (This example is adapted from a very similar one Mark Murphy once mentioned.)

To convince someone may be the exercise of a virtue, provided that one is convincing her in the right way, under the right circumstances, and in regard to the right thing (namely, the truth).


Maybe. An interesting thing is that ion the things that fall short of knowledge, the social component can be even more important. For while I may not be able to make anything of it, someone else might, and that someone else might get knowledge, or at least justified true belief, out of it--the knowledge might be of the proposition I have entertained, or some similar proposition, or it might be knowledge that the proposition was false.

But I think there is some knowledge to be gained from most interesting ideas, if only knowledge of the form: "If p, then q", or "The consequences of p would be far-reaching", or "Thesis T is not as crazy as it might have seemed at first sight."

P. M. Rodriguez said...

Given God's omniscience (and given that He knows particulars), can knowledge as such be lost? Is knowledge a good in itself, or only a good (when it is not instrumental, or at least not intended to be) insofar as its possession brings us closer to God? Knowledge of some kind is always being lost to us, by ordinary forgetting—thus knowledge is valuable not just for being true, but for being illuminating—and is it useful to regard knowledge as pasing away, when it was never created, when our gain of it was only a reflected light from God's light?

It is worth nothing that it was only through Archimedes's Sand-Reckoner, wherein from sheer mathematical bravura he calculated the number of grains of sand necessary to fill the universe, that Aristachus's theory of a heliocentric cosmos survived.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Mr. Rodriguez,

Good point. But knowledge can be lost to an individual, or to an earthly community. And if atheism were true, knowledge could be lost altogether.

Apolonio said...


as much as i want to believe that counting the grains of sand has intrinsic value, it seems that it doesn't. even in the prison situation, it may be that counting the grains of sand makes you sane, but i don't see how knowing that there are 1,202,959 grans is of any value. but that seems to be just simply practical. false beliefs can do the same: someone tells me that i left my baggage in the car. well, he was lying. yet, because i believed him, i did go to the plane which just exploded. one might say, well, knowledge is intrinsically valuable. but that's just the debate. is it? or it depends on whether it is a kind of knowledge that satisfies our desires or interests? i lean towards intrinsic value because i'm a Catholic. maybe it is a signpost to God's majesty. but i gotta admit, i don't know how to see or argue that it is intrinsically valuable, especially in a secular school.

as for convincing someone as a virtue...i think the actual word i used for the paper was "articulation." Articulation seems to be oriented to social virtue, if not, it is social in its nature (athough I can see a mathematician trying to articulate things for himself). i do lean on articulation being a virtue if it leads one to knowledge. however, here is a scenario. sally is confronted with a robotic snake. now, billy knows that it is a false belief that if she runs, a snake will not go after her. sally knows that she should not run. however, in his creativity, he manages to convince her that snakes don't really go after those who run. sally runs. the robotic snake did not run after her. so creativity seems to be a virtue in itself.

Vlastimil Vohánka said...


"Even if I had to share the knowledge anonymously, without ever having the satisfaction of knowing if anybody ever appreciated it, I would still feel the urge to share it."

I do appreciate. Thanks.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Well, let's see if I can make Murphy's example into slightly more of an argument. Prisoner A picks up a grain of sand, says the next number in the count, puts it back down, and repeats until she has gone through all the grains. Prisoner B picks up a grain of sand, says "Woogle", puts it back down, and repeats until she has gone through all the grains. It seems that what A does is somewhat more meaningful and valuable than what B says. So there is some meaning to counting. Maybe there are other explanations of that besides knowledge, though.

Observe, also, that it is less controversially intrinsically good to know some of the things that follow from there being 1,202,959 grains there. For instance, it seems intrinsically good to know that there is a lot of sand there. With some added premises, one can infer that grains of sand are small. One can form estimates of their size, which seems like a valuable thing to do. Given estimates of their size, one can form hypotheses about the mechanisms by which they were formed, and this is valuable. So there is certainly instrumental-like value there. But this isn't just instrumental value in the usual causal sense. For knowing that there are 1,202,959 grains of sand isn't just a means to knowing that there are a lot of grains of sand. Rather, knowing that there are 1,202,959 grains is as it happens partly constitutive of your knowing that there are a lot of grains of sand.

Nightvid said...

If death is what it appears to be, then no, "meaning" doesn't last forever, if by "meaning" you mean how a sentient being interprets something. But according to that definition of "meaning", that in no way means that there is no "meaning" in anything now.

And if death is not what it appears to be and God exists, then God is deceptive. And if God exists and inspired the Bible, as well as creating the natural world, then he is deliberately confusing: in one case claiming that death isn't the end and in the other making a *really really compelling* appearance that it is...

Alexander R Pruss said...

It seems odd to say that death "appears" to be the end, given that so many don't think death is the end.