The love, and control, of knowledge.

The word “philosophy” supposedly means “the love of wisdom.” But what does it mean to love wisdom? The way I interpret it, wisdom encompasses our understanding of how to acquire knowledge, how to use knowledge, and how to express it. So you can look at two extremes, one being the hoarder of knowledge who has no idea what to do with it (the over-educated), and the other being a very thoughtful and reasonable person who knows so little that he cannot understand the world (the under-educated). In our society, most people are in the former category.

How do we get to wisdom and knowledge, and what stands in our way?

Man was created by Nature in order to explore it. As he approaches Truth he is fated to Knowledge. All the rest is bullshit.
Solyaris (1972)

At the starting point of this process lies the human being as epistemic agent. During our first few years of physical and mental growth, we gain the cerebral and conceptual tools we need to understand the external and internal worlds. Babies are quite literally the most proficient scientists that exist: in a few years they gain a full understanding of the functioning of the world around them, with the help of their developing brain and its structures devoted to language, perception, the sense of self, and so on. They go from being purely reactive creatures to agents with a high level of competence.

The individual is an a priori because knowledge is generated by human minds, which are only found in individuals (I am not, by the way, excluding the possibility of other organisms or machines generating knowledge, merely that we know human minds do so and that I restrict myself to humans).

But there is only so much we can discover by using only what is observable. True, a great deal more than people think, but still only a fraction of all the knowledge available to us. A person can’t fulfill his mental needs without other minds any more than he can fulfill his physical needs without society. To find knowledge and truth to a level that makes human life rewarding, we must rely on other people, either through writings or getting information from people currently existing.

But people have various reasons to lie to us. Herein lies (no pun intended) the problem. As I’ve discussed in the past, people try to control each other, and control and lying are intricately linked. We lie to control others or to evade their control, and we cannot control others without lying to them. In a hypothetical perfect society, no one would try to control anyone else, but this is obviously not a perfect society and we have to deal with lying and deception on a daily basis.

As I’ve said before, lying about things we can directly observe is pointless, but there’s always room for lying about things we can observe but have to interpret, and things we can’t observe personally at all. In fact, a person can hypothetically lie as much as they want about the latter and there’s literally no way for us to know otherwise (typically the explorers of far away lands were prone to gross exaggeration, for instance).

Not only that, but there is the problem of control over the dissemination and preservation of knowledge itself. Our curriculum-controlled schooling system is obviously the most prominent obstacle to the free dissemination of knowledge. How can you wish to disseminate that which you know nothing about, and have been indoctrinated to believe is not important? You may be able to do so (especially thanks to the Internet), but you won’t have any motivation.

In most hierarchies, you are lied to until you rise through the ranks, and in this process you are taught how to deceive others and have no scruples about it. The general rationalization used is “people don’t know what’s best for them.” Always implicit in this is the premise that man is innately evil/corrupt and needs to be directed by his betters. One may credibly argue that to gain status in our society means more or less to become a better liar.

In fact, it is the most skilled liars who tend to be admired the most and become our “heroes.” There are, of course, fortunate exceptions: when a truth becomes so accepted in a given society that refuting it becomes impossible, the people who fought for it become heroes as well, even though they were formerly despised by that same society. But this is a much more difficult process.

Scientists are critically important in this process, since they represent the main hoarders of knowledge in our modern societies, and are imbued with the most legitimacy in that regard. Sadly, the domain of science is now mostly supported by hierarchies (governments, either directly or through universities, corporations, and so on), and thus scientists increasingly serve to legitimize power. In doing so, they must necessarily deceive. The systemic deception revealed by Climategate is merely the most recent example in a long list of deceptions perpetrated against the general public for the sake of concentrating power.

But how can they do this, when they have to follow the “scientific method”? (I put this term in quotes, not because I think it is contradictory, but because there is not one singular “scientific method” that all sciences adhere to) The long successions of science scandals have given us a good idea of how this is accomplished. Data can be falsified or outright fabricated. Studies can be suppressed when they give undesirable results and whole ideologies can be altogether barred from scientific journals. Scare tactics and the deliberate omission of qualitative evaluations (how important is this threat compared to others?) may be used to focus attention on a single policy issue and strengthen the party line. One may use one or two positive studies, omitting to mention dozens of negative studies (of course, if the opposing view has been successfully suppressed, this is not needed at all).

Finally, and this is perhaps the most important method to use in dealing with the mass media, findings can be misrepresented or simply ignored in favor of fabricated conclusions. The latter is the most common method used by the scientific establishment in order to maintain its party line, and is used universally.

All of this is part of the construction of what we call “consensus science,” although it has nothing to do with science. “Consensus science” basically means that whatever result must be promoted by the scientists is portrayed as being universally agreed upon, and thus irrefutable. There will always be scientists who oppose the “consensus,” but they can easily be silenced or stereotyped by the majority.

The mass media is complicit in this process, and there’s no reason for them to question what they are given. They don’t know any better than the rest of us, and their role is to attract readers, not think critically. It certainly works: even most Anarchists trust scientists on issues of public policy, of all things. This really shows the appeal of the “value-neutral, highly-educated researcher” stereotype. Any ideological attack can be veiled under the pretense of impartiality and higher education and fool most people, because those are attributes we’ve been indoctrinated to respect.

That’s always been the role of the intelligentsia, which is composed of mostly well-off males whose livelihood depends on the money and status they get from the system. Their job is to rationalize future policy and make it acceptable to the general public. They, and their supporters, only believe in science in its most primitive form, as a tool for enforcing beliefs.

Since in most cases we don’t have access to the evidence, as individuals, our only defense is ideological. We have to carefully consider who we trust: people who are committed to truth and freedom, people who aren’t following the consensus for its own sake, people who share our basic premises about the world and human beings. To trust people who have a strong interest in lies and deception, and who have done so in the past, is criminally naive.

4 thoughts on “The love, and control, of knowledge.

  1. David Gendron April 13, 2010 at 16:25

    “That’s always been the role of the intelligentsia, which is composed of mostly well-off males whose livelihood depends on the money and status they get from the system. Their job is to rationalize future policy and make it acceptable to the general public. They, and their supporters, only believe in science in its most primitive form, as a tool for enforcing beliefs. ”

    And that’s the case for almost all economists, unfortunately…

  2. Francois Tremblay April 13, 2010 at 16:26

    Absolutely agreed.

  3. David Gendron April 13, 2010 at 16:51

    And I’m more and more aware of that because I’m a student in economics right now…

  4. Francois Tremblay April 13, 2010 at 16:59

    You have my fullest sympathy. Read some Sraffa and other anti-marginalists if you want a relief from all the bullshit anti-concepts and invalid equations you’re “learning.”

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