Have you ever seen a child looking into a kaleidoscope? The breathtaking array of pattern and color exploding from that little tube can leave one spellbound. It’s magical! A similar experience is gained from a pure pursuit of knowledge.
‘Knowledge for Knowledge’s sake’- That’s how it is and that’s how it is always meant to be. Recently, however, there has been a view gaining ground that knowledge has to be useful or add value. It has to be accountable to justify the tax payer’s money invested in it. The pursuit of knowledge for its own sake is elitist and leaves out the masses.
The ‘Utility’ theory states that Knowledge is good if it does good; meaning that Knowledge is not inherently valuable. This view seems right as application of knowledge for the benefit of the world is both desired and appreciated. There is no greater endeavor than the one that contributes towards society. The discovery of penicillin, electricity, gravity; the great compositions of Bach and Beethoven; artistic masterpieces like the frescoes of Sistine Chapel; the Internet, cellular technology, cloud computing…. etc. – they have all changed the face of the earth and made a huge difference in our lives; life is unimaginable without them. Another reason why this view is gaining ground is because people are disillusioned with the absolutely irrelevant research being done today – studies about Coca Cola killing sperms, the fact that the word ‘huh’ exists in every human language; analyses of ancient Egyptian toilets, a chemical recipe to partially un-boil an egg, dog fleas can jump higher than cat fleas, etc. This makes it feel justified to put knowledge to the test of accountability.
But is the worth of knowledge to be judged by its utility? In my humble opinion, it is a very unfortunate view to hold and reeks of a capitalistic and limiting mind set. Does one really think that better products, better technology or a more cost-effective way of working only qualify as ‘usefulness’? What about other benchmarks of evaluation like beauty, creativity, passion, sensitivity, curiosity? What about a better and higher order mindset that knowledge creates? Isn’t that usefulness too? Doesn’t the making of better human beings lead to a better world?
Case in point: the discovery of the Higgs boson in the year 2012 led to a major breakthrough in the field of particle physics and has changed the way we perceive the Universe. The boson, however, despite being such a great discovery, does not have any practical application; almost all of its uses are purely in the theoretical realm. Billions of dollars have been spent on the project and rightly so. The end result or achievement is priceless as it has unraveled one of the many mysteries surrounding our beautiful world. The scientific experiment has silenced all critics and advocates of the ‘Utility’ theory. What is an insignificant parameter like ’utility’ in the face of an amazing discovery!
The great desire to explore the unknown, to venture into uncharted territory, to discover new realities, that’s what man is made for and mankind should dream of. “A tiny leap for man a giant leap for mankind,” – that famous statement by astronaut Neil Armstrong when he set foot on the moon, is so true! It helps comprehend the wonders that the pursuit of knowledge does to mankind. Sadly, this is not the case today. Crouched by our fear that the outcome or result may not be as expected, or the resources required far greater than planned we’re afraid of venturing boldly into the unknown. The pressure of usefulness has restricted freedom of thought and stunted our growth.
Knowledge and Utility are interconnected. Their verbs ‘thinking’ and ‘doing’ are two sides of the same coin. A thinker will always be a better doer. A doer today will be a better thinker tomorrow. Knowledge, if not useful now, creates a toolbox for the wise which can be used later for new discoveries. Every piece of knowledge or learning or information therefore has value. No, knowledge is not a means to an end. It is not even an end. Knowledge is infinite. There will always be mouths to feed and bridges to be built and targets to be achieved. But let not the realities of today stifle our vision of tomorrow. Let’s not cage our scientists and artists into the domesticity of a householder, make them accountable, give them a to-do list and a budget! An open and free mind is the hallmark of knowledge and key to discovery and then of course …..utility!