Knowledge is a terrible thing.
Truth is something we cannot know. However, Truth is a legion of many faces, each aspect of Truth being a testament to the universe. Through these aspects Truth may be known. Yet, the knowledge itself is a terrible thing.
Quite so. Once something is known, it cannot be unknown. The knowledge itself gains a consciousness in its perception. The knower gives the information their own life by spending time and calories thinking on the knowledge.
A terrible part of knowledge is when it allows the knower to become self-conscious. A belief held in ignorance contradictory to newfound information provides a stark contrast to what may have been a life in the ‘wrong’ or ‘false.’ Not many are ready to recognize their failings in this way, that their reality was a lie up to the knowledge gain. Thereby it is born a perfect situation to allow a knowledgeable person to suffer not only the pain of finding in themselves a false-self, but doubly the suffering of perpetuating the now insincere lie of their false belief.
But to live in the dark? To forego the possible suffering of exploring the unknown? Enjoying the bliss of ignorance makes sense if the benefit of knowledge could not outweigh its horrors.
Common nay-sayers to the progress of knowledge cite many of the troublesome topics of modern times:
Gunpowder, biological weapons, social stigmas, dogma, racism, factory farming, sweat shops, nuclear arms, weaponized pathogens, fuel waste, more addictive substances, inhumane architecture, spam email.
Yet, humans continue to push the boundaries of knowledge, to explore, to discover. Ill-content with the state of things, people have gained knowledge of, well, everything a mind can perceive and more.
Language, sparking fire, paper, printing, the raising of crops and livestock, penicillin, engines, mathematics, rocketry, clothing, environment control, the internet, vaccines, subatomic physics.
All-in-all, knowledge has proven terrible in its power for the Good reduction of suffering, and the contrary application of incredible suffering for meager gain. “Terribleness” cannot be said to be in-and-of itself a ‘bad’ thing. By any objective measure – poverty, life expectancy, opportunity, access to resource – knowledge has on the balance been a Good thing, making now the best time to be alive ever.
If the concept of knowledge were visual, knowing would be feeling around into the darkness of the world’s unknown. Some finds would be sweet and soft, treasures to make the journey worth the while; others sharp and deadly, tragedies there in the dark. Sometimes a truly terrible tool is found, a thing with the capacity for great reductions and increases in suffering, depending on its use.
Taking the ‘darkness’ example further, sharing knowledge might be visualized as a light cast on a place – a piece of knowledge. However, that light comes from one direction – the sharer of the knowledge. What may appear true and whole on one side may seem completely false on the other – a shadow cast. Therefore, partial light may play tricks and deceive for a time. Until further insights and investigations cast more light on the subject, knowledge and its sharing suffers from the parable of The Blind Men and the Elephant.
Light too, when shown to unprepared eyes, can be blinding. In this way, the illumination and knowledge can send a person reeling from the moment’s bright suffering.
So the distribution of knowledge may cause suffering, at least for a time. To pursue knowledge is one choice; to reveal information is another. Sometimes it’s best to not reveal true knowledge, as in the case of white lies, especially to the unexpecting. Sometimes knowledge will be shared with the express intent to cause suffering, e.g. black truths.
A truth that’s told with bad intentWilliam Blake
Beats all the lies you can invent.
Therein lies the terrible essence of knowledge. It gives and takes suffering from the world when gained by a person.
This has always been the case. Two-and-a-half millennia ago in East Asia, renown warrior-philosopher Sun Tzu based much of his The Art of War on knowing and keeping others from knowing. Niccolo Machiavelli wrote a half-millennia ago in the heart of Europe that success in life lay in knowing what to do with the power one had. Shortly after, Sir Francis Bacon put it bluntly: “knowledge itself is power.” Or as Susan Orlean puts it for today, “Knowledge is a beautiful thing, but there are a few things I wish I didn’t know.”
So pay respect to knowledge and its lack alike. Context plays a part in guessing whether knowledge gives or takes suffering away, but across time and culture, this remains true: Knowledge is a terrible tool to have and to wield.
What lights do you live your life by?