“The main reason knowledge is produced is to solve problems.” The following paper explores this statement, dealing with the premise that knowledge itself has an inherent purpose to solve a particular need, which is what motivates humanity to gain said knowledge. Areas of knowledge have their own processes for producing knowledge, from the objective analysis of the sciences to the subjective analysis of the arts. In essence, the purpose of finding knowledge is to solve the inherent issues that come with humanity and sentience – namely, discovering what our collective purposes are, and finding ways to address the unknown in order to resolve our fears. Knowledge is borne of the need to understand the answers to questions we have about the world, the universe and our place in it. Broadly framed, this is one of mankind’s biggest “problems,” and the only way to solve it is to learn more about ourselves and the universe around us. Knowledge can also be gained in ways that do not solve more pressing problems, and can often cause more problems for humanity than existed prior to the pursuit of said knowledge.
Exploring the nature of knowledge, and the purpose for its creation or discovery, is an incredibly important element of human nature and intelligence. Examining the premise that knowledge is created and discovered in order to solve specific problems, there is a lot of truth to be found in that statement. According to Immanuel Kant, “Man's greatest concern is to know how he shall properly fill his place in the universe and correctly understand what he must be in order to be a man” (Kant, 1904).
In essence, the purpose of finding knowledge is to solve the inherent issues that come with humanity and sentience – namely, discovering what our collective purposes are, and finding ways to address the unknown in order to resolve our fears. Knowledge is borne of the need to understand the answers to questions we have about the world, the universe and our place in it. Broadly framed, this is one of mankind’s biggest “problems,” and the only way to solve it is to learn more about ourselves and the universe around us.
Knowledge begins with doubt and uncertainty, in which an individual or community realizes it does not know something that it wants to know. Often, this gap in understanding comes about because of a need; for example, if someone is dying of a disease, people need to learn how that disease works and how to fight it, in order to solve the “problem” of dying from it. These problems make us aware of gaps in our understanding, which we then work to solve by gaining knowledge about it. This is typically done by exploring various areas of knowledge (AOK), from math and science to literature and history; each one of these areas has fundamental ‘problems,’ or gaps in our understanding that need to be filled (Lehrer, 2002). For example, the solution to mathematical problems, or discovering the processes behind biological functions, or tracking down the source for a particular historical cultural movement, are all instances of finding knowledge based on a question that has been asked.
However, there are some mild exceptions to this rule; not all knowledge is learned for the purposes of solving questions related to more than we know. Producing knowledge is also done for the purposes of expression and explanation of our thoughts and beliefs. This is most frequently shown in the arts, which can be considered a form of ‘knowledge.’ To be sure, there are certain differences in the purpose of knowledge from AOK to AOK, given the varying stakes of each AOK’s endpoint. While things like math and science help us fundamentally understand the objective world around us, arts and the humanities are far more subjective in nature. No amount of ‘knowledge’ in this area will apply equally to all human beings the way, say, the discovery of oxygen does in the sciences.
This is not to say the pursuit of knowledge in the arts is not valuable – in fact, it arguably contributes significantly to the finding of purpose in individual lives – but they do not reveal universal truths that apply to everyone on a logical and scientific level. Much of the possible knowledge gained in the arts and humanities is more about how culture and art have an effect on individuals and groups of people (and possibly history), rather than offering everyone a new collective understanding of the world at large.
AOKs can also differ in the process by which knowledge is created. Since knowledge is created through problem solving, the varying nature of the problems inherent to each AOK makes each process different. The arts cannot solve questions of objective logic or mathematical inquiry, such as geometry cannot properly explain why a piece of art is beautiful. In the case of literature, there is a unique blend of objective and subjective truth that can make the nature of knowledge murkier for some; while fiction books tell imaginative tales of things that did not happen, they can also tell more fundamental truths about the human experience through their themes and imagery. Likewise, non-fiction books can purport to reveal the truth of a particular subject, but its facts and perspectives can also be skewed and warped by the sources the use or the biases of the writer. In this way, the AOK of literature provides some of the most fascinating dissonances between knowledge and truth in the scope of human pursuit.
Furthermore, another fundamental riddle to solve is the idea of knowledge actually causing more problems than it solves. Often, the desire to learn or do more can be incredibly traumatic, as the truth turns out to be something highly traumatic and problematic. For example, the whistle-blowing of the last few years on the part of organizations such as WikiLeaks and people like Edward Snowden has revealed many uncomfortable truths about the NSA and the international intelligence community’s utter disregard for personal privacy; learning this information does not solve a problem, but creates one (Fowler, 2011). On the part of the intelligence community, the pursuit of knowledge actively harms as well – learning private information about people has a decidedly deleterious effect on those individual freedoms and their ability to pursue their own destiny and knowledge. The question then becomes whether or not we are sure that we are really solving problems by seeking knowledge, or simply causing more in the process?
The potential answer to this problem is ethics, which is said to be the thing that would most distinguish us from the animals. Often, we must start asking ethical questions by establishing a moral framework, which is typically personalized to the individual (though many of our values can be socialized into us). On the other hand, some believe that the tenets of logic and reason can help us create a fundamental and objective sense of ethics that largely apply to all of us: “our duties are not arbitrary and we can determine what they are in an objective way, by appealing to reason” (Kant, in Van de Lagemaat, 2011). Kant’s focus on ethics relies chiefly on our determination of what our ‘duty’ is and to weigh the various consequences of betraying or following your duty.
When you make a decision, you must decide whether or not you are all right with the consequences of those actions – not just to you, but to the people around you. If you, as a father, decide to spend your paycheck on luxury items rather than feeding your family, the more immediate personal pleasures are yours but you abandon your responsibility to your loved ones. Even the pursuit of knowledge must come about in some sort of ethical manner – when taking tests or doing assignments, the knowledge must be learned by you alone through the process of deduction and the honest use of class materials, not by looking at someone else’s assignment. To do this would be to give yourself the knowledge without the tools to discover it yourself, which is the ultimate abandonment of Kant’s perception of your ‘duty.’
Returning to the issue of the pitfalls of pursuing knowledge, Kant believes that knowledge must be discovered with a sense of wisdom, so that we may know how best to utilize them. If not, then the aforementioned scenario of knowledge creating more problems for ourselves may occur. This was the case with the creation of the atomic bomb; while it allowed for the short-term defeat of Japan in World War II, its creation sparked a fundamental fear of human extinction, and has led to many more wars and conflicts in the interim. To that end, the pursuit of knowledge absolutely requires the wisdom to wield what we discover, as the answers to our problems (e.g. the problem of World War II) can often have devastating consequences.
Looking back on the fundamental question of using knowledge to solve problems, however, it is necessary to discuss what constitutes a ‘problem’ in the first place. For instance, problems in the realm of science can involve real, immediate concerns, such as “how do we solve hunger?” or “what is the cure for cancer?” These are often solved through scientific inquiry and the scientific method, in which theories are tested in a methodical manner to discover whether something is objectively true. Biochemists test new materials to see if they have a desired effect on living tissue, or medical examiners dissect bodies in order to determine their cause of death. Computer scientists look for faster methods of delivery of information, or on improving the capacity of data storage.
However, arts ‘problems’ do not fit into the traditional definition of that term, as there is not something that is imminently beneficial to a person’s material well-being that would be solved by knowledge in that arena. Instead, the ‘problems’ of the humanities and art are more intuitive, emotional and personalized to the person’s outlook and perspective on the world. Knowledge of the arts does not help one eat (at least, not directly), but it can help cultivate a greater perspective on one’s own emotional state, how one relates to others, and how best to approach the other problems of the world in a more holistic way (Rescher, 1977).
The pursuit of knowledge in art is typically performed through art and literary criticism, in which others look at a work in question and examine it through a particular lens to see what findings they have (Davidson, 2001). The works of Georgia O’Keeffe, for example, are outwardly pictures of flowers and cow skulls, but through literary criticism, knowledge can be gained about each work’s contribution to an overall exploration of femininity and the way people look at and regard female genitalia (Abrams & O’Keeffe, 2009). These findings are not universal, and this knowledge is not accepted by everyone due to its status as interpretation. This is the fundamental difference between the pursuit of knowledge in the arts and sciences; one solves problems of an objective nature, the other provides subjective analysis of existing works of art.
When looking at the ultimate nature of knowledge, it is chiefly true that the need for knowledge is borne out of a problem that typically needs to be solved. Engineers look for ways to build a taller building, or chemists look for new antiviruses to solve the world’s deadliest diseases. These areas of knowledge help to create objective findings and truths about the world that are demonstrable, measurable, and acceptable to all (provided they subscribe to the generally-considered facets of scientific inquiry). The arts, however, is more holistic, with knowledge coming from the focused exploration of works created by humans to determine their meaning and overall significance, whether to personal psychology and taste or to human history.
These are two equally valuable, though decidedly different, points of view with regards to knowledge, solving “problems” that are just as important as the other. Knowledge is borne of the need to understand the answers to questions we have about the world, the universe and our place in it. Broadly framed, this is one of mankind’s biggest “problems,” and the only way to solve it is to learn more about ourselves and the universe around us. Knowledge can also be gained in ways that do not solve more pressing problems, and can often cause more problems for humanity than existed prior to the pursuit of said knowledge. While the sciences solve problems to keep humanity growing, surviving and thriving, the arts solve problems that allow people to gain greater insight into the deeply personal human condition, and helps to illuminate holistic truths about ourselves that are impossible to measure. Despite these differences, the pursuit of knowledge also comes about to help us solve these inherently difficult – and deeply human – problems.
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