Knowledge and the Desire for Power

Written by on September 27th, 2013. Subject: History. Filed in Epistemology, about technology

|||Copernicus, Nicolaus. On the Revolution of Heavenly Spheres. Amherst, New York: Prometheus books, 1995.|||

Les toits And when I consider how absurd this “lecture” would be held by those who know that the opinion that the Earth rests immovable in the middle of the heavens as if their center had been confirmed by the judgments of many ages–if I were to assert to the contrary that the Earth moves; for a long time I was in great difficulty as to whether I should bring to light my commentaries written to demonstrate the Earth’s movement, or whether it would not be better to follow the example of the Pythagoreans and certain others who used to hand down the mysteries of their philosophy not in writing but by word of mouth and only to their relatives and friends–witness the letter of Lysis to Hipparchus. They however seem to me to have done that not, as some judge, out of a jealous unwillingness to communicate their doctrines, but in order that things of very great beauty which have been investigated by the loving care of great men should not be scorned by those who find it a bother to expend any great energy on letters–except on the money-making variety–or who are provoked by the exhortations and examples of others to the liberal study of philosophy but on account of their natural stupidity hold the position among philosophers that drones hold among bees. Therefore, when I weighed these things in my mind, the scorn which I had to fear on account of th newness and absurdity of my opinion almost drove me to abandon a work already undertaken. p. 4

The centuries leading up to the post-modern period, that of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, were characterized by the singular need to dominate nature, and to bend nature to man’s will. This thought originated at the end of the Renaissance and flourished in what we would later call the Enlightenment. We hear first Sir Francis Bacon say, “for the end which this science of mine proposes…[is the effect] to command nature in action” and then later, in imitation, Rene Descartes, “and thus render ourselves, as it were, masters and possessors of nature”1 The fruition of that thought is the progression of human technology, which was driven by the need to see the effects of our knowledge in action–and such wonders were produced, especially as the nineteenth century came and passed! But what had not been thoughtfully considered, neither by Bacon nor by Descartes (nor afterwards for some time) was the full and serious consequences of such advance. The world, as it were, lay open, and man, through his intellect, could achieve all things by his own power–nothing now seemed impossible. The wonder of Alchemy had been achieved not through incantations but through the proper admixture of chemicals and knowledge.2 And man was faced with the very real Faustian proposition of giving up his soul for its advancement, the advancement of which was accompanied by belief in the myth of progress whose battle cry was progress at any cost. But as with all bargains with the devil, time would come to own up to the consequences of each action. Such a time was the early twentieth century.

As the progression of technology became incomprehensibly complex, its effects seemed all the more miraculous and absurd. The simpler machines of the late 19th century gave way to the complex machines of the 20th, and although the general population had accustomed themselves to its wonders, they had not yet come to understand the principles by which these machines operated. More importantly, even those who knew and who had mastered such machines continued to amaze themselves with new and profound discoveries. It is no wonder then, that the general sentiment which pervaded man at the time was not the fiery confidence of the Greeks as they proved geometric proofs, nor even the quiet pride of Europe when they finally conquered Aristotle and Ptolemy3, but the despair of helplessness in the face of an unconquerable enemy.4 Man did not understand the world as it transformed around him, and, having lost his confidence in his knowledge, he began to suppose that the world was absurd and irrational.5

Art at this time reflected the opinion that the external world was unknowable. The early twentieth century artist turns inward to express his own fleeting vision of the external world and what it has become for him: form within the art is secondary to a sort of imaginal prison erected because of an inability to reconcile the outer world with his understanding of it. Consider, for example, the evocative pantings of Matisse or of Picasso whose bright colors and bold shapes follow none of the more rigid patterns of the natural world, but which nevertheless are deeply felt (rather than understood), as dreams are deeply felt after a heavy sleep.

There are many more instances of art transforming or altering reality. In each case, however, the world which is altered or transformed is ours only by semblance and association; there is nothing logically similar between them. The cause of such a shift in art and literature is due primarily to the disassociation in thought of the world and our understanding of it–the world may or may not be as it seems, and there is really nothing we can do about it. Such thinking was caused in part because of a shift in the purpose of knowledge from an understanding of the world as something in which man partakes, to the use of knowledge to subject the world, and in part, also, because of the exponential increase of the effects of that knowledge without the general dissemination of such knowledge among the population. We believe in “Science” these days, it seems, in roughly the same way that we accuse older generations of believing in magic, or in witchcraft–the characteristic similarity being the belief in the irrational and the disassociation of our thought from reality.6 The need to understand and express experience is a primary instinct among men, the natural fruition of which is art and technology. When the connection between our intellect and the world which we sense is severed (or is thought to be severed) it is no surprise that the result is the eradication of reason and knowledge from our art and machines, and with it our judgment as critics between what is harmful and what is beneficial.

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  1. The full context of these quotes are worth noting. Bacon: “The next point is to equip the intellect for passing beyond. To the second part, therefore, belongs the doctrine concerning the better and more perfect use of human reason in the inquisition o things, and the true helps of the understanding, that thereby (as far as the condition of mortality and humanity allow) the intellect may be raised and exalted and made capable of overcoming the difficulties and obscurities of nature…For the end which this science of mine proposes is the invention not of arguments but of arts; not of things in accordance with principles, but of principles themselves; not of probable reasons, but of designations and directions for works. And as the intention is different, so, accordingly, is the effect; the effect of the one being to overcome an opponent in argument, of the other to command nature in action.” And Descartes: “For these notions made me see that it is possible to find a practical philosophy, by means of which, knowing the force and the actions of fire, water, air, the stars, the heavens, and all the other bodies that surround us, just as distinctly as we know the various skills of our craftsmen, we might be able, in the same way, to use them for all the purposes for which they are appropriate, and thus render ourselves, as it were, the masters and possessors of nature. This is desirable not only for the invention of an infinity of devices that would enable one to enjoy trouble-free the fruits of the earth and all the goods found there, but also principally for the maintenance of health, which unquestionably is the first good and the foundation of all other goods of this life…” i.e. the purpose of knowledge is to create technology by which we are able to alter our ‘natural’ state, the ultimate goal of which is, to use a colloquialism, to find the fountain of youth. 

  2. Consider that Isaac Newton wrote as much on magic as he did on “Science.” Consider also “Because there’s an element of magic to it. You fire a neutron at the nucleus of a uranium atom and it splits into two other elements. It’s what the alchemists were trying to do—turn one element into another.” (Fayn, p 12) 

  3. Tycho Brahe, Galileo, etc.By the conquering of Aristotle and Ptolemy I simply mean the progression of the knowledge Astronomy. 

  4. Consider the American folk-tale of John Henry and his inability to overcome technology. 

  5. It is my opinion that the disassociation of philosophy from reality, rather than the devastation of two world wars, is the primary cause for despair among the west (which is characterized long before the two great wars by authors such as Dostoevsky, Turgenev, Flaubert, etc). 

  6. I suppose I must clarify: I do not mean by “Science” the gathering of scientific knowledge, but rather the exploitation of knowledge for power, and especially power gained from esoteric knowledge.