Tao Living

The Knowledge Trap

by Derek Lin

Our July installment, "Tao and Knowledge," turns out to be another hot topic similar to "Meet the Meat." Some readers rave about it, while others indignantly voice their opposition against any perceived denigration of technology. A few even take personal affront that I dare challenge the sanctity of science. "Surely the irony has not escaped you," they write, "that you are using a web page, the modern pinnacle of computer science, to denounce science!"

By far the most common theme in such messages is the notion that knowledge is a tool, and like all tools is absolutely neutral. The effect it causes is entirely dependent on the intention of the wielder. How can we put a value judgment on it and rank it as less than intuition, when this concept called "knowledge" has no intrinsic value?

They often use the ax as an example to make the point. An ax is a good tool when we use it to chop firewood, but a bad tool when we use it to harm or kill someone. Usage is the crucial determinant here. The ax itself cannot be good or bad; the manner in which it is used makes that distinction. Wouldn't you say that it is exactly the same with wisdom, knowledge, intuition and logic? Aren't they also mere conduits of human intention?

My first response to the above is that Tao philosophy is not against science per se. The true Tao cultivator does not discourage the intellectual pursuit of knowledge. If the July installment gives that impression, it is entirely due to the inadequacy of my writing skills. I can completely agree that concepts like knowledge and wisdom are completely devoid of positive or negative values in themselves. That idea is so commonplace it has almost become a platitude. It is, in fact, the point at which most conventional thinkers stop, but Lao Tzu and other Taoist sages go much further.

The exact analogy used does make a difference in this discussion. For instance, in view of the tremendous power of knowledge, I might in all fairness claim that a gun is better than an ax as an analogy for knowledge. A gun is also neutral in itself, but consider that whatever your intentions are when firing a gun, good or evil, if your aim is accurate you are going to either maim or kill. Therefore, when you have a gun (knowledge) you want to use it carefully and responsibly.

The above is not to say that a gun is the perfect analogy for knowledge, but simply to point out the major flaw in the contention that tools are intrinsically neutral. Of course they are; this is something most people can agree to without a degree in philosophy. The problem is this: the point is an oversimplification that does not address the ease with which some tools can be misused. An atomic bomb is neither good or evil too, but no matter how pious your intentions are, when you drop one you are going to cause an incomprehensible amount of human misery.

So, is knowledge something that can be easily misused? We can all see the incredibly good things knowledge has accomplished and we should not take them for granted. At the same time, consider the thousands of lawyers who, on a daily basis, use their considerable knowledge to twist the truth into whatever pretzel shape they desire. Consider legitimate research in the area of human intelligence that somehow becomes justification for racist views. Consider the impressive intellectual prowess that went into the formulation of, and subsequent writings on, Marxism (surely one of the most singular causes of human misery known to man, in the hands of those who seek power). Consider the literal ton of Nazi reasoning, logic, and justification behind the Holocaust.

On a personal scale, the most common negative effect of knowledge is arrogance. We see this in people all the time. Maybe even in ourselves. The Knowledge Trap is insidious and pervasive.

The major symptom of the Knowledge Trap is the loss of one's connection with basic reality. Without the guidance of wisdom, knowledge can do funny things to your ego and distort your perceptions without you being aware in the least. Arrogance is so commonplace precisely because when we are mired in the pursuit of knowledge, we easily forget our true insignificance - a human animal, one of billions, living on a tiny mud ball at the edge of a galaxy which is itself one of billions and of no particular distinction whatsoever.

In the past, I have often observed examples where young men and women acquire considerable education but fail utterly as human beings. These are the children of immigrant Asian parents who toil endlessly to send them to institutions of higher learning. Such parents insist on advanced degrees and will make any sacrifice to ensure that their children go as far as possible. They are shocked when their highly educated offspring regard them with undisguised contempt and embarrassment. In fact these young scholars go to great lengths to avoid being seen with their "ignorant" parents. When they cannot avoid talking to them, they speak in patronizing ways. Heartbroken, the parents lament: what exactly is the use of multiple doctorate degrees when these kids can't even figure out why they should respect their own elders?

I am a big fan of John Gray and his "Men Are from Mars" books, but I can't help but notice the irony that he is divorced from his wife of two years, Barbara DeAngelis. Barbara, like John, is also a well known expert on relationships. How is it possible that two people who are so knowledgeable about relationships end up failing to maintain their own? Perhaps knowledge alone is not enough?

Speaking of books... the other day I was at the local Barnes and Noble when I saw two people come in and sit down at the next table. They were obviously brilliant men, the stereotypical college professor type in manner, speech intonation and dress. This was not too surprising, since we were fairly close to Cal Tech and its surrounding intellectual community.

They carried on a lengthy conversation about various philosophers from history and how the beauty of science outshone religious dogma. Both held forth as if they were giving a lecture. One of them asked the other: "Have you read Spinoza? What do you think of his views on God?"

Before he could answer, his cellular phone rang. He picked it up, talked for a bit, and then told the other gentleman it was a friend. They wanted him to join them at the bookstore, so the friend asked where they were. Neither one knew, so they turned around and asked the people in adjacent tables. "Barnes and Noble" was the answer from an incredulous girl. She, like myself, could not believe that these two had no idea where they were, after walking past several giant signs proclaiming the name of the bookstore.

That, my friends, is the perfect illustration of the Knowledge Trap.

Why has "Tao and Knowledge" become the center of our little controversy? How is it that an article pointing out the limitation of knowledge touched on such a raw nerve? Perhaps it is because we live in a science-dominant world, where technology has taken center stage and knowledge has literally become an object of deification. When we show science to be less than sacrosanct, we have wounded the sacred cow.

In this sense, the view of knowledge as a neutral tool is inconsistent. If it is truly is a tool - albeit a powerful one - it should be treated as such. A tool is meant to be used, not put up on a pedestal. I take no personal affront when someone tells me his pen is better than my pencil. I may even decide to switch to a pen, if it suits my purpose better.

When one worships a tool, one crosses the line between utilization and fetish. Reverence and fervor about science, carried to an extreme, is every bit as foolish as disrespecting and disparaging science.

What we advocate, to spell it out as clearly as possible, is a balance between book knowledge and intuitive wisdom. Knowledge is great, but it is simply insufficient by itself. You always need the human touch. In the final analysis, it is the ultimate determinant of how well or poorly we human beings wield our most powerful and potentially destructive tools.