Knowledge Isn’t Valuable

There are often people who believe that they value knowledge or truth above all other values. This seems to be highly unlikely to be the case. Knowledge does not seem to be inherently valuable, although it is sometimes indirectly valuable. We are not curious for the sake of knowledge itself. Instead, we are curious because we are rewarded with instrumental utilities. It is like having a rich friend and saying you like them when you actually like their money. The curious people are actually gold-diggers. This post is essentially an argument for intellectual Machiavellianism (the personality trait), in the sense that the individuals who are Machiavellian might see social relationships as tools for secondary values, like befriending rich people in hopes of gaining access to their power. Curiosity may be mostly about the potential for secondary values, such as social status, power, security, and the hope for a hedonistic and harmonious reality.

We can consider that valuing knowledge is about resolving unknowns in our reality. It is about seeking to know the unknown. Knowledge of every unknown is not valued indiscriminately, though. Consider two choices you have: to know the last letter of the last word in a dictionary or to know whether or not long distance space travel is possible.

Which of these two draw your curiosity more?

Undoubtedly you are more curious to know whether long distance space travel is possible. Why do we not value knowledge indiscriminately? The value of knowing whether long distance space travel is possible comes from the utility of long distance space travel. There is not much utility in knowing the last letter of the last word in a dictionary, it is essentially arbitrary.

If we value knowledge itself above all else, then we should value arbitrary knowledge highly. One could argue that the value of knowledge is being co-opted with the value of space travel in this decision, whereas the knowledge of the last letter in a dictionary is only knowledge solely, so the first option comes with more value simply by including both knowledge and utility.

The value of arbitrary knowledge is actually quite low. So low in fact, that we have decided not to even check what the last letter of the dictionary is. It could be that we are constantly favoring situations in which knowledge is useful for its’ utility, but there are also cases in which we make choices to take actions that provide almost no knowledge. For example, most people, if provided the choice between a delicious familiar meal or looking up the last letter in a dictionary, would choose a delicious familiar meal over the acquisition of arbitrary knowledge. This at least means that we value consummatory pleasure over knowledge to some degree.

Is knowledge ever inherently valuable?

We often value knowledge because of the utility it provides. It isn’t knowledge itself that provides us with value. We value feeling happy, feeling safe, and our survival (assuming we are both happy and safe). We value knowledge because knowledge is one of the greatest tools to reach happiness, security, and helps us maintain our survival. We largely value how we feel above all else. Knowledge is a tool to manipulate how we feel. The fact that so much arbitrary and non-useful knowledge is around us and doesn’t capture our interest is a sign that knowledge itself isn’t inherently valuable, instead we assess its’ potential to be useful to reach other goals.

Often times there are individuals who believe that they value knowledge and truth above all else. This is nothing more than a religious ideation. People might say they value truth and knowledge above all else for the social roleplay they wish to manifest. They are playing a character who holds this value. They may even begin to value knowledge indiscriminately in order to remain ideologically consistent so that they can reap the social benefits of having this identity.

If humans valued truth and knowledge above all else, they might trade their lives or agree to eternal suffering in order to attain some knowledge or omniscience, because they value knowledge above life or wellbeing itself. Perhaps being alive isn’t inherently valuable either. It serves us the utility of allowing us experience further moments of pleasure. We value survival because it appears to offer more consequential incentives than death and the pathway to death seems to involve immense fear.

Knowledge itself isn’t inherently valuable to us but some knowledge can be instrumentally valuable. The value of knowledge is determined by its’ ability to provide secondary value in the form of rewards, control, happiness, pleasure, and reduction of fear or pain. Knowledge is occasionally valuable in an indirect sense, that it can help us attain what we value, much like paper currency. We don’t value paper money for its’ own sake. We don’t value money because it looks pretty or because it is green. We value money because of its’ ability to bring us what we desire more directly. It may be crucial to note that many things may be valuable in a secondary way, in an extrinsic way, but very little things are intrinsically valuable to us. Knowledge is not intrinsically valuable. Almost all values may be instrumental if dissected fully into their atomic parts, as per the consequential nature of reality. The mere fact that cause-and-effect seems to be the flow of events suggests that nearly all valued things are instrumental or secondary.

But it’s important to clarify that knowledge may not even be valuable in the sense of it bringing us pleasure to learn. Our motivations to learn may not be that learning is inherently fun. The same way gambling may be mostly fun because of the rewards that follow winning. Although, one could find alternative reasont to enjoy gambling that doesn’t even involve money too. There is a plethora of possible reasons one could find to justify the excitement of gambling. One may even be able to forge reasons that create motivations to gamble or to acquire knowledge.

Knowledge is a memetic currency.

One could consider how mostly none of us value paper money for its’ own sake. We value money because it gives us the utility of influencing our environment. Even if we buy a fancy car with our money, this fancy car is a kind of social currency. If one were to strip away the social value from the car, people may no longer value the car. You could imagine the car is suddenly deemed cringey, making it a negative social utility and driving people away from purchasing the car. This suggests that the physical car itself is not so valuable, but instead the car is a utility for social influence, which may further be a utility for some other instrumental purpose. 

In a loose way, there may be intrinsic value to pleasure or happiness itself and negative value to pain or suffering itself. What these are in any solid materialistic sense is not yet resolved. Many even believe that understanding these core values are at the center of the most important knowledge to discover of all time. The Utilitarians and consequentialists might be inclined to agree. We value knowledge, not because it is knowledge, but because it gives us the power to influence reality and shape it in ways that feed into our core desires. While knowledge may not be intrinsically valuable, it may be instrumental towards our intrinsic values. At the core, our intrinsic values may be something like feeling itself, hedonism, and avoidance of aversive stimuli.

It’s possible that curiosity can be a primary motivation for knowledge seeking. For me, I am highly curious about things that aren’t exactly practically applicable to my life in concrete ways. But I do find that these topics are still useful in bringing pleasure in ways that aren’t typically viewed as practical. For example, random knowledge can start fun conversations.

Curiosity leads us to what we may call arbitrary exploration of the unknown.

It is data mining, for intellectual gold.

Arbitrary exploration can lead us to useful discoveries. It is somewhat like gambling in that sense. People hope to excavate knowledge-treasures from this behavior. Those who have found treasure may remember this and have hope to find more later, which may lead to the tendency we call curiosity. It is excavation of knowledge in search for informational treasure. There is an excitement that exploring may lead us to find great utility or value in the knowledge we attain. This doesn’t need to be materialistic, it can also be abstract and invisible utility.

The motivations of curiosity may be highly complex. Even utility is quite complex. We can observe patterns in biology or abstract mathematics and apply this to social interactions in strange and unexpected ways. The golden ratio is popularly overused in our culture, with  many finding it in every corner of nature and art. Knowledge may give one confidence that they have perceived power over their environment or safety. The more that the world clicks into a predictable pattern, the more prophetic one may feel, the more that one can feel they can reach their desires, and the more one will feel good at the very notion that their goals are easier to reach.

sonicapophenia

Finding the golden spiral throughout media seems to be a case of apophenia.

You could imagine that the apophenics will often explore the environment hoping to confirm their biases, collecting as many aha! moments as possible. ‘I was right’ may be a common motivator for curiousity, for example, debates may stimulate Google searches with the aim of seeing if one can find the solution. 

One can become a knowledge feeder to their community, identifying as the curious one of their peers. This can be rewarding to curiosity, validating to one’s ego. This isn’t a bad thing, as ego often connotes. There are many other indirect ways that knowledge is useful to us outside of ego too. Social power, job opportunities, social identity, utility to influence the world in favor of our desires, and the ability to reprogram one’s mind for the better are a few examples.

Though, curiosity isn’t always kind to us. In fact, it can even harm us or leave us disappointed with unfruitful explorations. These disappointing adventures where nothing of utility or interest appears may even discourage future attempts at exploration of the unknown. Worse, one may even become hurt or even traumatized by exploring the untested realities. On the other hand, finding rewards will reinforce our tendency to explore in the future, much like gambling, which essentially exploits the curiosity dynamic. 

The notion that knowledge is valuable indirectly due to its utility invokes the idea that only practical knowledge will motivate us, but this isn’t so. If one believes in a religion that says we will live in eternal bliss by behaving well, then knowledge that helps one to do this, regardless if it is true or untrue, can alter our feelings. One can gain instrumental utility from social power that can come from even false knowledge, creating new religions, influencing people through religion or any other subculture.

In the comments on Reddit, someone noted that fictional works provide us value despite lacking any practical utility. This is not true. There is practical utility that comes from consumption of fictional content. There is usually entire cultures surrounding fictional content, a memetic ecosystem of sorts. This is often paired with an economy of collectibles or merchandise. This is similar to the fancy car, they may raise one’s status within the community and help find other members of the culture. If one knows a lot of the trivial knowledge within a fandom they can even create a YouTube channel and profit. Besides monetary value, they will be considered one of the higher ranking members of the culture simply by knowing everything about it. They will become the elite of the subculture. 

This isn’t the only value of fiction. Untrue and imaginary stories can provide us with the perspectives and insights of the creator. It allows us to adopt the memetic influences of the artist so that we can approach the world through a lens tinted by the author’s model of reality. The social dynamics we observe in fiction very often reflect on valuable observations of the real world, its flaws and the artist’s ideals. In this way, fiction can feed us with valuable utility in our daily lives. 

Another example given in the comments was the case of children being fascinated by dinosaurs, which was posited to provide no utility. This does in fact provide utility. It isn’t as overt as the other cases, but consider what might draw children to dinosaurs as opposed to any other random or arbitrary stimuli. Dinosaurs might be perceived as monsters, tough, powerful, and dominant. The powerfulness of dinosaurs may appeal to children because they wish to be powerful. They may wish to model themselves after dinosaurs and even playfully imitate them, pretending they have the power of the dinosaurs. Later, these children may idolize famous and powerful people, they may revel in the idea of owning a sports car. They may consume knowledge about the people they idolize, like famous entrepreneurs and seek to imitate their success.

Fiction may also provide us with heroes to idolize. In a strange sense, these fictional tales can function like self-help books, like mentors, or even fulfill the functionality of friends. Many of us have felt the kinship that Netflix shows attempt to exploit in order to keep us hooked on recurring episodes of friendship-like drama shows. We often feel attached to the characters, sometimes even crying when our favorite characters die. This character-attachment can also satisfy our loneliness.

Check out the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on the value of knowledge.

The last letter of the last word in a dictionary is exceedingly useless information and the point there is to reveal a kind of base value for knowledge, without its’ accompanying utility and consequence. 

Lastly, my friend sent me quote from Nietzsche:

But just let someone first accustom himself to translating every experience into a dialectical game of question and answer and into a purely intellectual matter; it is amazing how short a time it takes for a human being involved in such activity to wither up, for him to be reduced to a rattling skeleton. Everyone knows and perceives this; how, then, is it possible that, in spite of this fact, our young people by no means turn away in horror from such skeletal human beings, but instead go right on sacrificing themselves blindly, indiscriminately, and recklessly to scholarly pursuits? This simply cannot stem from the supposed “drive for truth” : for how could there possibly ever be a drive for cold, pure, inconsequential knowledge!

I’m not sure how I feel about this post just yet. I’ve been shaken out of my flow from moving cities and a few life transitions. The discussion may spark me into a mood that brings better content or updates to this article. I believe that floating this out to the internet may be a useful strategy to elate my mood enough to produce other content before my Summer courses begin. Hopefully the discussion provides you a similar stimulation.

Special thanks to the three patrons: Morgan Catha, Abhishaike Mahajan and Charles Wright! Abhi is also the artist who created the cover image for Most Relevant. Please support him on instagram, he is an amazing artist! I’d also like to thank Annie Vu, Chris Byrd, and Kettner Griswold for making these projects and the podcast possible.

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2 thoughts on “Knowledge Isn’t Valuable

    1. I especially love this phrase “inconsequential knowledge” as it really highlights that we value knowledge because of its consequences and not because of some deontological principle or dogma.

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