I want to be an intelligent person. Many people I know want to be intelligent persons, and pursue this end with much energy, vigour, and enthusiasm…. my question is about the purpose of all this bustle. Namely: What is the point of being smart?

This is a question and challenge for all those who are interested in learning, in speaking or writing for a living, in teaching, or even in serving as “active men,” that is, pastors, or business or political leaders. All such folks devote portions of their day into increasing in knowledge, becoming more informed and useful in their chosen field… to put it simply, in “being smart.”

Is being intellectually capable a good in itself? Or is it a means to some other end, or some third thing? If you have no answer to these questions, perhaps having one is important.

“It is a good in itself,” you may say. If you have no reason to doubt this, and see no need for extensive justification, consider this:

Let’s suppose the truism is true, and “knowledge is power.” The smarter you become, the more powerful you become. And the most powerful, capable, efficient people are the most dangerous, the biggest risk of causing harm. Like a scalpel: it is useful only because it is so dangerous. If it were not sharp, it could not wound nor could it heal.

Have you considered that knowledge, then, might be one of those things that is only good if employed at the right time in the right way? Employed the wrong way, perhaps it is the means to greater damnation.

Do you want to be a person with knowledge, without the knowledge of where to put it?

Perhaps second-order knowledge, knowing what to do with knowledge, is more important than knowledge itself? If not more important, at least primary.

It is a great thing to know how to build a skyscraper. It is a greater thing to know when to build a skyscraper and why.

If you are someone who invests in your intellect, take a moment, alone, or with a close friend, to ask yourself if you are totally comfortable with your present understanding of what to do with “smarts” once you get them.

(And, of course, post your reflections, that we might all get smarter together!)

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Posted by Keith E. Buhler

11 Comments

  1. Keith,

    Let’s take an Aristotelian approach to knowledge. As rational animals, we have the ability to form intentions and deliberate about how to fulfill them. In your queries about the ‘point’ of knowledge, you seem to reduce all knowledge (or all worthwhile knowledge, to this practical kind of knowledge. But we also have the ability to search out first principles, to understand not merely the ‘how?’ but the ‘why?’ of things, and to theorize about what kinds of entities must exist in order to save the phenomena of observable data (things like universals, propositions, and God). Now, I know you well enough to know that you deem all of this worthwhile knowledge. And I also know you well enough to know that you deem all of this as having practical application. But this theoretical or metaphysical konowledge is not justified merely by its ability to make men good. It is worth knowing–full stop–and it also can make men wise. In other words, contemplation is an end in itself. In fact, I’d say that only when contemplation is an end in itself, can it form wisdom in the contemplator. So, back to your question, what’s the point of knowledge? The point of theoretical knowledge is contemplation; the point of practical knowledge is good action.

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  2. You ask some good questions, Keith. One thing that comes to mind is that there is this Biblical distinction between knowledge and wisdom — the first is raw understanding, the second a set of moral controls on the proper use to which that understanding can be put.

    In some places in Scripture, knowledge is equated with knowing God. If God is the source of all knowledge, then the pursuit of knowledge can also become a pursuit of God. We know ourselves well enough to realize, however, and Adam provides a caution here, that the pursuit of knowledge can tear us away from God. Pride and hubris can cause us to mistakenly believe that we do not need God, because intellect can seduce us into thinking that we are equal with God. Or even lead us to believe that there is no God.

    So, wisdom tempers knowledge. Wisdom is the bit in the horse’s mouth that tames and directs the application of that power.

    Gaining knowledge is easy, and if it does indeed draw us into a greater and greater appreciation for the awesome magnificence of our Creator, the pursuit of knowledge is a fine thing. But how does one gain wisdom? Perhaps wisdom is the humble acknowledgment that only God is wise, and I am a fool if I suppose that I can handle knowledge justly without God’s help?

    I’ll close with one related thought on a different tack. Our society has a bias towards intelligence. Almost without exception, smart people earn more, smart people rise to higher positions of authority and power, smart people wield more power in history. I heard a professor recently say that people with an IQ of less than 80 are a drain on all of society and should be euthanized. Thus, intelligence and knowledge can become a thing to be worshipped, and the lack of intelligence a thing to be despised.

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  3. This is a good question, Keith, and something I’ve been thinking about lately. You can read my thoughts here

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  4. Reply to Peregrine:

    Thank you for a thoughtful response.

    I have for several years been of the opinion that contemplation and contemplative “knowledge” is an end in itself. This is the very opinion I am re-examining. Here is the main concern for the moment:

    While “Practical knowledge” is a principle-oriented thing — we use to act well, instantiating principles into a variety of circumstances over time — theoretical or contemplative knowledge is singular, unique, almost experiential, and (to keep it distinct from practical knowledge) is inapplicable. These experiences takes place in the infinitesimal time-slices called “moments.” So contemplative knowledge takes place in moments. The concern is that even the knower who achieves discrete bits of theoretical knowledge is able to turn around and live poorly. She is able to live even more poorly due to having had this moments of contemplative knowledge.

    The ideal, then? Perhaps true contemplative knowledge undergirded and supported by practical knowledge… principle-oriented knowledge says that the wise man makes room for knowledge greater than the practical.

    Butt is still a concern that people become full of contemplation and live so terribly that they are worse off than if they had never learned at all.

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  5. A friend tried to respond but Blogger comments wouldn’t let her. Here is her (emailed) comment:

    “It’s interesting how rewarding feeling “smart” can be. Maybe it’s that
    moment when you are able to use a rare vocabulary word. Maybe it happens
    when a teacher or professor says, “Yes! You’re right! That’s correct!” Or
    that feeling could occur when you ace that test, finish that book, or write
    an amazing essay. Part of that delight may be rooted in our fleshly pride.
    Being smart makes us feel good about ourselves.

    However, I also feel that God has given us brains and that we should use
    them. In the parable where a master gives a certain amount of money to his
    servants to invest while he is away, the servants are to multiply what has
    been given to them. Many times, people interpret this to literally mean
    money or to mean any material resources. I think it can very well go beyond
    that. God has blessed us with brains, and I feel it is our responsibility
    to increase, challenge, and put to use those nogans. We are also told to be
    diligent. As a student, I always took this to heart. I wanted to give my
    all as unto the Lord…”

    -ST

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  6. Please note that, in my previous comment, when I used the word “butt” I was not referring to rear ends, but, rather, I was mispelling the conjunction “but.” Thank you.

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  7. If something you do is going to increase the probability that you will live in an eternity of pain, don’t do it.

    So, I think the pertinent question is whether pursuing knowledge will increase the probablity we’ll get eternal pain. As far as I can tell, we are either all predestined to our eternal fate, or we’ll just cease existing when we die, so obviously I think the answer is no.

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  8. Predestined, maybe, but does the individual know where their destiny leads until they’ve been lead there? Predestination unfolds. Slavery (to destiny) unfolds, all the while looking very conspicuously like freedom. In appearance, identical, in fact.

    So I may be predestined; I do not know which is my destiny, not until the end. In the meantime, I have some nuts and bolts decisions to make. To learn or not to learn, to sin or not to sin, to pray or not to pray…

    What say you, Eric?

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  9. Yeah, I realize that we do make choices in life. I was just responding to whether our choices have eternal significance or not.

    Anyways, if that’s besides the issue, then here’s how I see the pursuit of knowledge having a point in this life:

    The basic principle for living life is to maximise your enjoyment. The pursuit of knowledge can do this in two ways:
    1. Knowing certain things is enjoyable in itself.
    2. You need know how to achieve certain enjoyable experiences.

    Of course the trickiest part of this is determining what is enjoyable in life, and of course, not closing yourself off to other sources of enjoyment by becoming fixated on one thing, unreasonably. So, to follow your advice, the unknown here, for me, is what is the most enjoyable thing about life, and how do I achieve it?

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  10. On the other hand, if our choices do have eternal significance, i.e. we must work for our salvation, then obviously the primary purpose for pursuing knowledge is to secure our salvation. Once we have fulfilled that obligation, the secondary purpose for pursuing knowledge is to maximise our enjoyment on earth.

    Are there any other options besides the two I’ve laid out?

    Reply

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