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.

The Absolute on Absolutes

One of the biggest paradoxes in Western culture is the prevailing perception of truth. It seems as though the notion of absolute truth has fallen by the wayside — except when it must be adhered to at all costs.

Let me explain. We have two very popular epistemological assumptions, one broad and one narrow, which must be believed in order to be a good citizen of the twenty-first century. The problem is their direct opposition to each other — a fact which is entirely ignored. On the one side is scientism/empiricism. To be true, something must be capable of being verified under direct observation à la the guidelines of scientific inquiry. Of course, the core tenet of scientism fails its own test (the statement “all things must be empirically verifiable to be true” is not itself empirically verifiable and therefore can’t be true in its own system), but that hasn’t stopped anyone from promoting it as a foundational paradigm. On the other side, and in direct conflict, is moral relativism. What is right for you may not be good in the eyes of someone else, and so you can’t enforce your own moral code anywhere but on your own personal behaviors. I say this conflicts with scientism because without core moral absolutes, morals degrade entirely; they cannot be verified in any way and therefore cannot exist. (Consider, for example, if we cannot agree on what precisely constitutes murder, theft, or rape; if we can’t match the activity to an absolute definition, then it could be argued the activity doesn’t exist according to empiricism. All that exists are uncategorized behaviors devoid of moral content.) Yet we’re bound by social convention to believe they do exist, just not in the same way for everyone. At best we’re left with some ephemeral type of something called “morality”; at worst, we hold a rather large contradiction in our heads because of social mandate.

I realize that probably comes across as splitting hairs or a weird reductionistic stance to some people, so let me broaden the second element from moral relativism to a relativism of all truth. Again, truth must be verifiable to be true; science says things are in fact verifiable; therefore, truth, absolute truth, must exist in the scientistic schema.

But we don’t want to believe that, schema or no. People say that what is true for you may or may not be true for me or anyone else. Absolute truth doesn’t exist — but when people tell me that, I typically laugh and say they’ve just made an absolute truth claim, so they clearly believe absolute truth does exist. (Seriously: if stating your position requires you to contradict it, you might want to get a new position.) We don’t want to believe that, though. Absolute truth creates moral absolutes, or least opens the door for them.

And that’s uncomfortable.

Consider the far-ranging results and implications of the absence of absolute truth. Science, and therefore scientism, fails. Everything based on the acquisition and manipulation of data fails: science, mathematics, history, anthropology, all of it. Even the arts break down once we remove necessary definitions for things such as “blue,” “Middle C,” and “square.” If those no longer exist, what about language? Architecture? Love? Yes, that’s a bit on the reductio ad absurdum side, but other things aren’t.

Scientific fact: humans come with twenty-three pairs of chromosomes in each cell, each chromosome comprised of genes linked together as either an X chromosome or a Y chromosome. (Exceptions are made for gametes and those suffering from rare genetic disorders.) They can only combine in one of two ways, resulting in an individual being limited to one of two biological sexes, an XX chromosome pairing for females and an XY pairing for males (again, extremely rare cases of things like hermaphroditism exist, but I’m talking about the other 99% of the time). These are absolute truths. There is no room in this truth for things such as transgenderism, non-binary genders/sexes, otherkin, etc. There are a number of people putting themselves in wheelchairs, casts, braces, etc. who are medically fine; they simply identify as “transabled,” a disabled person in a healthy body. Adults declare themselves to be children and wear diapers, or, worse, turn themselves into animals simply for sexual identity and gratification. These sorts of things are only permissible if we abandon absolute truths (here offered by biology) in favor of relativism. If we are free to reject what is real for what we want to be real, if we accept a sort of functional subjective metaphysical antirealism, we lose our very selves in the process. In short, self-destruction is the final end of relativism gone rampant.

The logical question to follow this isn’t “is truth absolute,” but, rather, “who determines what is absolute.” Here again our contemporaries offer up science and empiricism as the mediators of the absolute — but remember my earlier caveats. Some people believe such truths are obvious, available freely to anyone with ears to hear, but that leads to a subjective form of truth. After all, we might disagree on a few things due to differences in our sensory perceptions, and then who gets to break the tie? An individual is insufficient to establish absolutes, and those who try actually represent the guiding force of relativism (namely, my word against yours). A related warning: if we do know absolute truths to be absolute, we cannot let them make us arrogant, contemptuous, cruel, or callous. (This is why so many dislike Christians: we speak the truth, but we fail to do so in love, instead offering condemnation for those who fail to live up to our versions of the absolutes.)

What is the source of absolute truth and moral absolutes? To the theist, it is deity; to the Christian specifically, it’s the Triune God. We see this repeatedly in Scripture:

  • Psalm 33:4, “for the word of the LORD is right and true”
  • Psalm 31:5/Isaiah 65:16, “the God of truth”
  • John 1:14, “full of grace and truth”
  • John 14:16, “I am the way, the truth, and the life”
  • John 16:13, “he will guide you into all truth”
  • John 17:17, “your word is truth”
  • 1 Timothy 3:15, “pillar and foundation of the truth” [referring to the Church]

As Christians, we accept the authority of the Bible, and thus we see God as the sole source of absolute truth. If anything is true, it is of God; if anything is false, it is from Satan, the father of lies (John 8:44).

With an external, objective source of moral and truth absolutes, we can make legitimate truth claims. Blue is blue because it possesses the qualities of blueness, not because I personally think it a bit different shade from green. Right becomes right, wrong becomes wrong. Biological fact remains as immutable as all fact is, and deviations can be diagnosed so the one suffering can be helped. We call things what they actually are, not what we wish them to be.

For our wishes are subjective, relative. But truth, like the One behind it, is absolute.