The Known

We all know the adage “scientia potentia est” — knowledge is power. Somewhere down the line, someone thought they’d be clever and mash it together with another fun phrase then expand on the result: “Knowledge is power. Power corrupts. Study hard. Be evil.” I can’t totally agree with the logic there, but it inadvertently highlights a certain stigma, I think. Many people do associate knowledge with some sort of evil, be it hubris, egoism, atheism, gossip, or something else. It doesn’t help that the smartest character in most movies and television shows is the villain. We’ve turned it into a stereotype: brains = baddie. I maintain this specious equivalence is one reason I was voted in high school both Most Likely to Succeed and Most Likely to Blow Up the World.

Scripture won’t let us go quite that far, but it doesn’t always portray knowledge in a positive light, either. Proverbs may teach us knowledge is born of the fear of God, but the very next book goes a different direction. Ecclesiastes, the great wisdom capstone of the cynical Solomon, offers us two key verses on the subject: “For with much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief” (1:18) and “Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body” (12:12). If ever I am tempted to argue with the Bible, 12:12 is the reason. As for 1:18, well, the studies are in, and those who score of average intelligence report being much happier in life than those with higher intelligence. (Ignorance really is bliss, it seems.) So maybe there’s something to the idea of knowledge and wisdom causing sorrow and grief after all.

But knowledge itself, well, I’ve never bought into the notion knowledge is intrinsically good or evil. Knowledge, to me, is moral Switzerland. Raw data are void of moral content. It’s only in the application, in the praxis beyond the theory, that knowledge and ethics can be properly juxtaposed. For example, knowing the significance of the carotid artery is trivia. Putting pressure on it to stop someone from bleeding out is heroism; deliberately severing it is murder. Knowledge may have enabled both actions, but it didn’t cause them. Actions still require volition.

Some may agree with me to a point and then declare specific data are good or evil, exceptions to the rule. I can appreciate the perspective, but I still disagree. Most would (rightly) argue that satanic rituals are evil. Knowing about them, however, is not. I could use the knowledge to perform one, yes, but I could also employ that information to recognize one in progress and put a stop to it. I know quite a bit about Gardnerian Wicca, but I’m not a witch. Knowing its beliefs helps me to argue against them from a Christian perspective. In both of those (extreme) cases, a neutral knowledge of an evil thing leads to good actions. Again, moral content is added in praxis.

At this point, I’m obliged to look at obligation. If I know Sweet Nell is tied to the railroad tracks and the 11:15 is due at her location any moment, doesn’t the information I possess obligate me to act according to a certain ethical standard and rescue her? Yes, it does. But suppose I adhere to another ethic, one which sees the elimination of the hero’s beloved as a worthy objective (assume I work for Evil, Inc.). Am I still ethically bound to save her from stream-driven death? No, not if we assume ethics are relative and human agency isn’t beholden to a moral absolute. The base knowledge (damsel in distress) hasn’t changed; all that’s varied is the moral implications, the sense of ought-ness connected to the actions arising from the knowing. The use of knowledge is governed by obligation at times and by morality always.

In the same way, learning — the acquisition of knowledge — is governed by an ethical framework and moral obligations. We’re obligated to learn as much as we can about God. We ought to find out where the baddie tied the girl to the tracks. We should stay away from the private matters of other people. If we cross those bounds and learn, the knowledge gained may have moral consequences. Whether it does or not, however, the information itself remains neutral.

I admit I’m biased about this. I like knowing things. Growing up, I soaked up useless trivia like a sponge (the reason my sister called me “Garbage Brain” — head full of junk). When asked which of the divine omnis I’d like to be — omnipotent, omniscient, or omnipresent — I always pick omniscient. An unslakable thirst for knowledge defines who I am. With that said, I don’t believe God, mysterious though He is, delights in ignorance. He created us with great intelligences capable of learning about the universe. It’d be a shame not to use them.

So study hard. Learn all you can. Just don’t use it for evil.

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