Knowledge is power?

Not so long back I wrote a rather involved comment on another’s blog. One of these business motivational guru sorts, who had clocked Bacon’s most famous utterance and was making the point that power is nothing without execution.

Naturally, I pointed out that there was an error here. Bacon did write Scientia potestas est, and he did so almost twice: once in 1598, then again in 1620. Typically for Bacon, each referred to a different sort of knowledge. The first (from Meditationes sacrae) concerned the match or mismatch between God’s foreknowledge and his power; the second concerned human knowledge and our ability to make things do what we want them to. Both very different points.

In the first, Bacon seems to have been a pretty good Calvinist, and a determinist – that is, it was God wot done it. This is what he wrote, when discussing heresies:

The third degree [of heresies which deny the power of God] is of those who limit and restrain the former opinion to human actions only, which partake of sin: which actions they suppose to depend substantively and without any chain of causes upon the inward will and choice of man; and who give a wider range to the knowledge of God than to his power; or rather that part of God’s power (for knowledge itself is power) whereby he knows, than to that whereby he works and acts; suffering him to foreknow things as an unconcerned looker on, which he does not predestine and preordain; (Meditationes sacrae (1598) in Works VII, p. 253).

The point is that for God, knowing and doing are one and the same thing.

22 years later, he published his magnum opus, Novum organum, which included a similar phrase (Scientia & Potentia humana in idem coincidunt), but this time wrapped up in some contextualising words:

Human knowledge and power come to the same thing, for ignorance of the cause puts the effect beyond reach. For nature is not conquered save by obeying it; and that which in thought is equivalent to a cause, is in operation equivalent to a rule. (Novum organum, 1620, Bk I, aph. 3, OFB XI, p. 65).

That is, if we know how it works, we can hope to reproduce it.

Obviously, this isn’t a post about Bacon, but about the relationship between knowledge and actuality. That is, how well does our knowledge map onto reality?

Now, I have no desire to start rattling on about fate and all that, though sometimes there is an inexorability about events which defies logic as much as it defies any attempt to alter its course. The irresistible force meets me. Me loses.

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing, it seems. There is simply never enough knowledge to allow us to overhaul our instinct or predilection towards making decisions about what is going on, and then simply cherry-picking the pieces of information we need to support our views. And these views may be positive or negative.

But Bacon has a good point here – the only way to conquer nature (and this includes our nature), is to obey it. Obedience allows for comprehension, and acceptance helps to stop us raging against the dying of whatever light we are raging against at the time.

Suppositions based on the sorts of imperfect knowledge that we now see flying throughout our worlds – twitter, facebook, wordpress, SMS, email – leads to little but distress. Sometimes no knowledge is considerably preferable.

In fact, the more knowledge we have, the less we have to exercise power. Power is potential, and it becomes debased when it is exercised – exercised power necessarily debases both the exerciser and the exercised upon.

Knowledge is power. It’s just not quite the power we think.

3 thoughts on “Knowledge is power?

  1. Happier being a blockhead, if only occasionally. If power corrupts, then according to Bacon’s equivalence, knowledge corrupts. You’re right, of course, the cultivation of an attitude of acceptance is the only way of delaying the onset of middle-aged, or other kinds of otherwise ineluctable grumpiness.

    However, information, which is the gig that knowledge claims to have a back-stage pass for, is the DNA of everything. Information theory proposes an interesting equivalence between information and entropy, (that awkward law of thermodynamics), which suggests that a system’s entropy is a measure of all the possible information about a system. Since Stephen Hawking and Jacob Bekenstein demonstrated that a black hole’s entropy can be determined not by its volume, (as physics would generally lead us to expect, impossible in the case of impenetrable celestial weirdness), but by it’s surface area, or “event horizon”, the idea of the “holographic principle” emerged..At which point, a reality of any number of dimensions can be encoded on a two dimensional surface, which you might propose is equivalent to all the possible information about that system.

    Avoiding questions of the phase interference of light waves etc, that allowed Gabor to produce three-dimensional holograms from two dimensional surfaces, the idea that relatively simple, binary, two-dimensional information, is the ultimate key to any reality that we might think we perceive, seems to lead to an interesting Platonic-sounding version of Kant’s “thing in itself”, and the idea that information is equivalent to reality, which is not that far removed from “knowledge is power”.

    I love it when intellectuals try to pronounce Kant’s name in an appropriately German accent.

    • Interesting, indeed Merls.

      Bacon did, interestingly, suggest at least one situation in which knowledge corrupts, namely the works of the ancient authors such as Aristotle and Pliny:

      I do obserue neuerthelesse, that their [the received authors’] workes and Acts are rather matters of Magnificence and memorie, then of progression and proficience, and tende rather to augment the masse of Learning in the multitude of learned men, then to rectifie or raise the Sciences themselues.

      Knowledge corrupts! He also noted the ‘contract of error’ between teacher and pupil:

      For as Knowledges are now deliuered, there is a kinde of Contract of Errour, betweene the Deliuerer, and the Receiuer: for he that deliuereth knowledge; desireth to deliuer it in such fourme, as may be best beleeued; and not as may [be] best examined: and hee that receiueth knowledge, desireth rather present satisfaction, than expectant Enquirie, & so rather not to doubt, than not to erre: glorie making the Author not to lay open his weaknesse, and sloth making the Disciple not to knowe his strength.

      His take on forms is rather more complex, but with regards information being equivalent to reality, just hark back to the Adamic language, where a word was not a sign but something far, far more powerful. After all, God said let there be light, and there was.

      Oh, those silly Kants.

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