Sunday, April 3, 2016

What Is "Useful" Knowledge?


"If the skill could not be practiced by anyone, anywhere, then it was useless knowledge."

I read that last week in Walking With Grandfather.

The quote is made in the context of survival skills.  It goes on to say:

"So, for example, there are over twenty ways to make fire depending on the terrain and weather.  Yet if you know two basic ways you can make fire in almost any circumstance."

So here, what qualifies something as true knowledge (contrasted with useless knowledge) is the applicability and perfection of a skill in such a way that it can be learned and effectively put to use by almost anybody (again, keeping in the mind the context of survival skills).  So knowledge is not necessarily "I learned 20 ways to make fire."

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I think Hardin would characterize the journey described in his book as one of knowledge. So it got me thinking more generally, what is knowledge?  What is "useless" knowledge?

Is knowledge synonymous with ideas?  The more ideas that one has - the more facts one knows, the more points of view that one can effectively understand, the more up to date a person is with current events - is that "knowledge"?

I don't think that the answers to these question are without ambiguity.  It can be yes or no, which tells me that there is something deeper and more fundamental to consider.

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Perhaps the more fundamental thing is the role that "knowledge" plays in a persons life.  "Knowledge" is in service to what?  What is it's end?  Is it it's own end?  That is, what does this knowledge imply about what it means to be, and in what way does it impact my being?  Does it draw me into reality, or away from it?  To what or to whom does it point?  Questions not easily answered.

More thoughts from Hardin:

"Later I would learn still other fears.  My entire existence was one lived in fear, except for books.  The world of ideas was not a fearful one.  Until I became a born again Fundamentalist, then fear came back with a vengeance."

"I had to keep my heart closed; it was the way I learned to survive.  Later in life I would use alcohol and drugs to mask my feelings; and when they weren't available I had "my books and my poetry to protect me" (Paul Simon, I Am a Rock).

"I liked living in my head.  Ideas were much better than feelings.  Ideas could change the world; feelings were just subjective states to which I had never been."

I hear echoes of myself in this quest for certainty and objectivity and the driving force of fear.  Questions about "useless" knowledge isn't about "mere" ideas (as if there is such a thing), or how practical something might be, or books, or extroversion/introversion, or being friendlier or nicer, or avoiding solitude as if it's a waste of time at best.  Far from it.

Rather, it's about the degree to which knowledge cuts us off, perhaps leading us to believe that we are neutral observers.  It's about the way that the pursuit can snuff out the flame of wonder, mystery, and gratitude, closing us within an intellectual box observing a life that we aren't really living, observing a world that we aren't living in.

Interestingly, the subatomic world calls into question this idea of objective observation, arguing for the connectivity of all of life.  Sounds new-agey and dangerous?  Perhaps I'll explore that in a future post.

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There are a multitude of ways of speaking of knowledge within the scriptures:

We know that "We all possess knowledge." But knowledge puffs up while love builds up.
--1 Cor 8:1 NIV

But there is also:

In whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.
--Colossians 2:3 KJV

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Here is the aforementioned "I Am a Rock" by Paul Simon.

Lyrics:

A winters day
In a deep and dark December;
I am alone,
Gazing from my window to the streets below
On a freshly fallen silent shroud of snow.

I am a rock,
I am an island.

I've built walls,
A fortress deep and mighty,
That none may penetrate.
I have no need of friendship; friendship causes pain.
It's laughter and it's loving I disdain.

I am a rock,
I am an island.

Don't talk of love,
But I've heard the words before;
It's sleeping in my memory.
I won't disturb the slumber of feelings that have died.
If I never loved I never would have cried.

I am a rock,
I am an island.

I have my books
And my poetry to protect me;
I am shielded in my armor,
Hiding in my room, safe within my womb.
I touch no one and no one touches me.

I am a rock,
I am an island.

And a rock feels no pain;
And an island never cries.

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No Man Is An Island

No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend's
Or of thine own were:
Any man's death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; 

It tolls for thee. 

-John Donne

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Am I an island entire of myself, or am I not?  That is a question of "knowledge".

Yes?  Will it always be so?  Am I to be named by the finality and victory of my own failure to be that which I was called from nothingness to be?

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So how would I define "useful" knowledge?  Well.  I'd expect any definition to morph and grow and evolve.  But...

I'd define it as both a means to and an a participation in what is real; a reality that, terrifyingly, isn't centered around me, doesn't depend on me in any way, and doesn't ask my participation.  An existence that is pure grace.  The "useful knowledge" isn't separate from the participation.

The challenge isn't only to refine and perfect the definition, however, but to further live into the definition.

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To conclude, some Thomas Merton:

For the world and time are the dance of the Lord in emptiness. The silence of the spheres is the music of a wedding feast. The more we persist in misunderstanding the phenomena of life, the more we analyze them out into strange finalities and complex purposes of our own, the more we involve ourselves in sadness, absurdity and despair. But it does not matter much, because no despair of ours can alter the reality of things, or stain the joy of the cosmic dance which is always there. Indeed, we are in the midst of it, and it is in the midst of us, for it beats in our very blood, whether we want it to or not. 

Yet the fact remains that we are invited to forget ourselves on purpose, cast our awful solemnity to the winds and join in the general dance.

-New Seeds of Contemplation



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