Without Real-World Application, the Value of Knowledge is Much Diminished. Discuss.

Published: 2023/07/06 Number of words: 2086

1 Introduction

This paper looks at whether the value of knowledge is greatly diminished if this knowledge does not have any application in the real world. Thus, if a concept or theory does not have any useful pragmatic application, then it might be said that its value is questionable. In order to consider this idea though, two areas of knowledge will be explored in order to illuminate this discourse – these being intellectualism (which refers to pure reason derived from the mind) and physics (and particularly the study of the mechanics of the universe). Both of these types of knowledge then, often include very abstract concepts with debatable practical application. The discussion shall therefore begin with a brief overview of the terms to be used, and some definitions; before looking more closely at knowledge that has no real-world application, with this focus being on intellectualism and physics, and whether this lack of practical use diminishes its value. Finally, some tentative conclusions will be offered with regard to this complex and multifaceted subject.

2 A Brief Overview of the Terms to be Used: Epistemology, Intellectualism, and Physics

2.1 Defining ‘Epistemology’

This discourse then is an epistemological study (Alston, 1989; Audi, 1998; Eames, 1969). The word ‘Epistemology’ comes from the Greek episteme, meaning ‘knowledge’, and logos, which means ‘study’. Therefore, from a linguistic point of view, the word epistemology is referring, in the most literal sense, to the study of knowledge (Horrigan, 2007). However, Horrigan (2007) elaborates upon this somewhat, and states that epistemology is: “the science of knowledge studied from the philosophical point of view” (p. vii). This then, succinctly nails down what this term refers to.

Popkin & Stroll (1969) argue that epistemology is one of the most important branches of philosophy, and that: “Philosophers have attempted to discover the means by which our knowledge is acquired, the extent of our knowledge, and the standards or criteria by which we can judge the reliability of knowledge claims” (p. 204). Indeed, much knowledge that has been acquired throughout human history has already been overturned. For example, it seems preposterous that humans once believed the Earth to be at the centre of the universe (often referred to as the geocentric model of the universe, or the Ptolemaic system), and this supposed knowledge has now been overturned by the heliocentric model that scientists have since discovered and verified. However, new scientific discoveries are constantly creating new paradigms of belief, and epistemological studies aim to find agreed upon standards for claims of knowledge, to determine the basis of such knowledge claims (Popkin & Stroll, 1969), and the value that they hold. As such, the nature of science is that new paradigms emerge and routinely replace old ones, and so current knowledge in the sciences is simply made up of what we, as humans, know now (rather than absolute truths that might stand the test of time).

2.2 Intellectualism and Physics: Clarifying Terms

Halliwell & Rasmussen (2014) note that some academics use the term ‘intellectualism’ synonymously with the term ‘rationalism’. However, Patterson (2012) takes a more straightforward approach, and explains that intellectualism is the philosophy or theory that knowledge is wholly or mainly derived from pure reason; or it involves someone who is “limited to the brain and its thinking” (Patterson, 2012, p. 64). Thus, pure reason alone is used by the intellect, with any notion of intuition or insight (which is likely the result of unconscious thought processes) being dismissed. As such, for the intellect, only the conscious mind is utilised in order to come to reasoned decisions. However, the question of whether intellectualism in its purest form has any real practical use is very much up for debate.

Physics, of course, refers to the knowledge that people have of nature (Pickover, 2011; Mohindroo, 1991), and particularly the study of matter and how it moves through space and time. On a small scale then, this could involve the study of life on Earth and is part of the natural sciences, but more broadly, it includes the study of the mechanics of the universe – which has much less practical application; at least for the time being; and again, it could be questioned as to how much real-world application such knowledge actually has, particularly as new findings continue to emerge with regard to quantum physics and ideas about the universe possibly being digital in nature. Thus, whilst these are fairly radical ideas, at present, new science naturally replaces the old, with quantum computing now having real world application, despite the old paradigm of physic still being used, and the world of quantum physics still not being comprehensively understood.

3 The Value of Knowledge Without Real World Application

When it comes to knowledge and the value of it, Hegel (1977) has provided an overview of such discourses, and refers to a priori knowledge, which refers to a type of knowledge which is accessed by an individual before some kind of experience occurs. Moreover, according to Kant (cited in Hegel, 1977), a priori knowledge can be what he calls synthetic or analytic, with the synthetic variety – as the name suggests – referring to the synthesis of two notions, while the analytic variety is in reference to logic and reason. Nevertheless, there are other kinds of knowledge too, such as a posteriori knowledge, with this type of knowledge being found in the field of science, and which can be gleaned through the tried and tested scientific methods of observation and experimentation. As such, this represents a more robust type of knowledge, which is more rigorous and valid, and open to testing and verification. It is a pragmatic type of knowledge, and so many in the field of science look at a priori knowledge, in contrast to the more scientific a posteriori knowledge, as being largely insignificant, due to a priori knowledge not being underpinned by logic and reason. However, this is potentially divisive, as religious knowledge does tend to be largely a priori in nature and has no real-world application or use. Nevertheless, it should also be noted that just because some form of knowledge is currently of the a priori variety, this does not mean it will always be so, and in fact it could be verified at a later date and used accordingly.

In addition, there are various kinds of knowledge, some that is based upon reason and science, and others that are based upon beliefs and instincts. For example, many people believe in a god. While for some, this is purely an instinctual belief that is based upon faith and religious scriptures, for others, it also has a scientific basis (with the ‘big bang’ theory pointing to, in the opinion of some, the existence of an omnipotent creator). However, for intellectuals, instinct and blind faith have no place in the creation of knowledge, and only logic and reason are the guiding lights. Nevertheless, if this intellectual knowledge has no practical application, then the usefulness of this knowledge has to be put under the proverbial microscope as well. Moreover, Stanley (2005) points out that knowledge is also, on an individual level, often the result of practical interests, as people’s knowledge is often the product of what interests them—which is often a fragment of the total knowledge that human beings have amassed. Moreover, in science itself, there is always an element of researcher bias, as scientists also have their own specific interests, and may be guided by these interests in their research. Indeed, Jager & Winfried (2012) also discuss the practical implications of knowledge and suggest that certain knowledge is created when there is a strong reason to discover that knowledge. For example, if a disease is decimating a population, then it is more likely that the disease will be understood, and a cure will be found. However, if it is not really a problem, then it is less likely that a cure will be found—due to having less funding and scientific will. Therefore, in this sense, practical application and need very much drives science.

However, the study of intellectualism and physics often has very few real-world applications, and this therefore puts into question their value. While physicists would vehemently argue that physics has many real-world applications, there are certain sub-fields of it that perhaps do not – at least not at the present time – such as the study of black holes or theorising about the big bang. These then, are ideas that might not at present have any direct impact on people’s lives – other than in science fiction films and books – and have very little real-world application. Indeed, the same can be said for much intellectual endeavor, which is often rooted in pure reason and logic, and has no existence outside of the mind. In fact, Bengson & Moffett (2011) question whether epistemology is even compatible with intellectualism – and whether intellectual data can be considered to be knowledge in the strictest sense.

However, Gibbons, et al. (1994) go on to say that: “The production of knowledge is advancing into a new phase” (p. 19). Perhaps this then, is indicative of the next stage of the evolution of the human brain—a part that will moderate advanced thinking and control—and Pollock & Cruz (1999) note that sophisticated thought is what already separates human beings from the rest of the animal kingdom. Indeed, it is ideas and theoretical knowledge that is often the catalyst for science and knowledge that does have practical application. Nevertheless, research looking at alternative dimensions (Vilenkin, 2011), mini-black holes (Zyga, 2015), wormholes (Woo, 2014), or a theory of everything (Hawking, 2005) in the field of physics, for example, may have to wait centuries or more before any real-world application can be made. Therefore, it might be argued that this diminishes the value of such research, as there are other more pressing matters in the world today that do require immediate attention (such as climate change, or poverty) – and so such pursuits could be considered to be, in many ways, a waste of valuable time and resources.

4 Conclusions

In conclusion then, this relatively brief discourse has shown that the value of knowledge is perhaps directly correlated to its usefulness and practical application in the real world – and that strands of knowledge in intellectualism and physics could be argued to be a waste of time and resources given current crises such as climate change, poverty, and even political conflicts. However, the temporal aspect of knowledge also has to be considered – as current knowledge that has no real-world application right now might have a very important role to play in the future. Therefore, perhaps the potential for practical application also has to be considered in this equation.


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