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Is Knowledge Valuable for Its Own Sake?

Updated: Feb 23, 2022

Do we value knowledge for itself or just for the benefits it brings?

Sensory neurons in the dorsal root ganglion of a rat containing substance P (red) and mu-opioid receptors (green).
Sensory neurons in the dorsal root ganglion of a rat containing substance P (red) and mu-opioid receptors (green). Confocal microscope image by the author.

Ethical systems and the question of the intrinsic value of knowledge

Lately, I have been intrigued by the idea that the existing systems of ethics do not properly answer the question of whether some things have intrinsic value. First and foremost among these things is knowledge. Do we value it as an end or as a mean?

  • Many religions consider the acquisition of knowledge as an act of hubris or as appropriating something that belongs to God. Thus, in Christianity the Original Sin was eating from the Tree of Knowledge, which seems to be a metaphor for learning something that we shouldn’t have learned. Later, the Tower of Babel was considered as an act of hubris that needed to be punished by confusing men - withdrawing knowledge from them.

  • Deontology does not establish any particular duty regarding the acquisition of knowledge, although it does condemn lying about something that we already know.

  • Consequentialism, and Utilitarianism in particular, are based on maximizing happiness for the larger number of people. More knowledge may, or may not, makes us happier. For example, knowing that we are just a speckle in the vastness of the cosmos, and that the duration of the human species is less than a heartbeat compared with the expanse of Deep Time, it is more likely to lead to despair than to happiness. So, according to this systems of ethics, not only knowledge does not have an intrinsic value, but it may not be good at all.

  • Virtue Ethics is concerned with the moral development of individuals. For it, knowledge has instrumental value as a way to reach wisdom, prudence and other virtues. Hence, it views knowledge as a means, not as an end.

Therefore, if things like knowledge, a work of art, or a species, have value in themselves, this seems to require a new system of ethics. We would need to compare their intrinsic value with the value we assign to happiness, Virtue, or the fulfillment of duty.

The practical relevance of this question

This is not a moot question. Modern societies are confronted with practical decisions that depend on whether knowledge has intrinsic value or not:

  • Is it right to invest enormous amounts of money in space exploration, particle accelerators or experiments in astrophysics, when their practical application is dubious at best?

  • Is it right to use animals for experiments that would only increase our knowledge, without any clear practical application?

  • Should scientific knowledge be disseminated to the entire population, risking that some individuals or states would use it to do harm?

The practical versus intrinsic value of knowledge

The benefits of modern civilization would not have been possible without the large amount of knowledge accrued by science. There is a general agreement that investment in scientific research is justified by the technical innovations that science brings.

World War II and the Cold War taught us that the country with superior scientific and technological knowledge will have the upper hand militarily. Hence, to be powerful, a country must invest in science.

From the economic standpoint, science brings new inventions that contribute to the wealth of the nation. Hence, governments try to invest in the aspects of science that are related to public health, economic development and military might. But scientists constantly warn them that it is impossible to know which parts of science will contribute to new inventions, so there has to be investment in basic science.

However, when they say that, scientists are not being completely honest. Most of us scientists feel in our hearts that we do science because we want to acquire knowledge for its own sake. And it’s not just scientists who feel that way. The sciences that most resonate with the general public have little or no utility: astrophysics, particle physics and evolutionary biology, for example. Pictures taken by the probes on Mars are truly awesome, but of little practical significance. Even if colonizing Mars was not a pipedream, doing so would be of little benefit for life back here on Earth. The truth is that we are inspired by discoveries in these areas because they fill us with awe. Many people feel that science is a valuable thing in itself.

The dangers of knowledge

Not only is knowledge no always beneficial, it could downright dangerous.

There is no guarantee that continued scientific discovery will always work for the good of humanity.

Some people argue that the reason why we don’t find other civilizations in the stars is because every civilization eventually makes a discovery that dooms it to extinction. Nuclear bombs provide a good example - we now have the power to destroy ourselves and much of the life on Earth. Biotech is making increasingly easy to develop new diseases, even with limited means. Imagine if future discoveries made it possible to create a black hole that swallows the Earth. Or a nanomachine (“gray dust”) that turns into itself everything it touches. Or a life form that eats the whole biosphere and becomes the sole species in the planet.

The desire for knowledge is an essential part of being human

And yet, we feel in our bones that learning about the world and ourselves is our destiny. Science has given us the technological marvels that make possible our comfortable societies but, most importantly, it liberated us from our ancestral fears. We no longer fear the lightning, the wind or the crashing waves. We know that they are the manifestation of basic physical laws, not of the whims of some deity that needs to be appeased. Yes, natural phenomena can still kill us, but knowing what they are gives us a measure of control over them.

History has taught us that knowledge means power, comfort and freedom. But, going deeper, we are the first species that has conquered the entire planet, and we have done that because our gigantic brains allowed us to understand the world. Craving knowledge is in our DNA. Is what makes us human.

I would even say that to value knowledge because it’s useful is to get it backwards. What if what makes humans valuable is our ability to gather knowledge?

In our endless quest for meaning, we may find it in knowledge. Because it’s what we leave behind when we die, for others to enjoy. Or perhaps because knowledge has meaning in itself.

Copyright 2021 Hermes Solenzol

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