The (f)utility of knowledge

What is the use of knowing something? Certainly remembering that fire is hot can save us from pain and worse. Likewise, perched high above a concrete sidewalk, one seeks to avoid falling, keeping in mind Newton’s apple. Knowledge, then, can keep us safe from harm.

But what about simply knowing things about the world? If you read articles on climate change, for example, you may understandably become alarmed at the prospects for an uncomfortable future affecting your children and their offspring, not to mention thousands of species whose survival under warmer temperatures may be impossible. Or, if you should care about the plight of fellow human beings, knowing that many suffer from hunger, homelessness, and economic insecurity, you have much material confirming their misery.

But so what? What will you do in response to what you know? Better, what can you do?

Many on the left charge hell with their mouthfuls of spit chanting the Margaret Mead quote: “Never doubt that a small group of committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” The calculus is simple: if the world does not change according to your preferences, it’s your own damn fault. You chose to sit on your ass rather than marshal sufficient forces to right the wrong. Shame on you for allowing evil to triumph.

While there was a time in my life when my mouth was full of spit, when I joined this or that group in the hope, if not expectation, of making a (positive) difference, I am now overwhelmed by man’s inhumanity to man. Sad? No, just real.

Many publications land on my coffee table each week. The articles’ headlines scream problems here, there, and everywhere in between. By reading these articles I accumulate knowledge of a world in desperate need of improvement. But at this stage in my life, that expanding knowledge of untoward events yields paralysis rather than calls to arms.

I am suggesting, then, that knowledge of the world has lost its utility. Depressing? Perhaps. But what is most depressing is the collective electoral response: vote into office the people who will strive in earnest to make things even worse.

And so I take refuge in the Theater of the Absurd, and am now just a few rows from the front. Tragedy begets laughter.

There, I feel better.