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h. Knowledge and Utility

Knowledge and Utility

Clearly, it is desirable for knowledge to be as close to objective reality as possible. However, there are practical limits on our ability to achieve this, many of which were explained in previous articles.

This is not something that I advocate, but it is an undeniable fact that people sometimes promote beliefs that are not necessarily true, beneficial to society or to the environment. Rather such beliefs may merely satisfy the personal needs of those who promote them. So long as we have individual volition, rather than a selfless hive mentality, this will always be the case. Again, I do not advocate the latter. Human success is based on maintaining a delicate balance between individuality and collectivism.

There are numerous examples of harmful beliefs in religion, commerce, and politics. They can cause immediate harm or, whilst having a short-term benefit, may be unsustainable in the longer term. Even scientists can sometimes prevaricate if they believe the paradigm on which their status or livelihood depends is at stake. Treating knowledge in this way is an inevitable aspect of human nature that we must learn to accept and manage.

The best that we are capable of achieving is schemata, memeplexes and paradigms that are consistent and have maximum utility. That is: schemata which optimise the individual’s chances of survival and procreation; memeplexes which do the same for society as well as satisfying its members individual needs; and paradigms which accurately represent any known objective truths, and which accurately predict phenomena. Here, the word “utility” refers to Utilitarianism, a philosophy founded by Jeremy Bentham (1748 – 1832). Utility is the ability of things to act as satisfiers of our needs or to prevent contra-satisfiers. Buddhist belief, for example, includes acting in a way which maximises utility, rather than acting solely out of kindness. This implies that some forms of behaviour must be opposed.

It is important to be critical of the knowledge we are presented with. It is also important to be critical of knowledge and beliefs we already hold, including unconscious ones. This can be achieved by asking the following questions of any item:

  • Is it consistent with everything else I know?
  • Is it consistent with other information I can research?
  • Is there evidence to support or refute it?
  • How reliable is its source?
  • What are the motives of the individual or group promoting it?
  • Would accepting it satisfy its advocate’s needs to my detriment, to the detriment of society, or to the detriment of the environment?
  • What would be my motives in accepting it?
  • Would accepting it satisfy my personal needs?
  • If so, does this over-ride my need for truth?

It is also important to be critical of our personal beliefs and attitudes, including those that we are not necessarily aware of. We can unearth them by questioning our actions as follows:

  • What need made me want to do that?
  • What belief or attitude made me choose that satisfier?

The more frequently we identify an unconscious belief or attitude in this way, the more likely it is that we hold it. However, we all carry a self-image and will vigorously defend it using various strategies described by Bartlett. For example, we may alter details, shift emphasis, include rationalisations, and make cultural alterations.  Some of the beliefs that we unearth may come as an unpleasant surprise, therefore. To challenge them, it is necessary to develop a degree of objectivity about oneself and to recognise that such beliefs and attitudes are an inevitable aspect of human nature.

Unconsciously held beliefs and attitudes can be positive, of course, but are not necessarily so. Having unearthed one, it is, therefore, sensible to question what type of satisfier it is. For example:

  • Is it a singular or synergistic satisfier that is benefitting me?
  • Is it an inhibiting or pseudo-satisfier that is not benefitting me?
  • Is it a violator that is causing me harm?

We can also assess whether it is harmful to the environment or those around us and for this I would refer the reader to a future article on ethics.

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