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Is Knowledge Power?

by Larry Barnett

Having taken the Sakyong’s suggestion about becoming experts on society and understanding the nature of self, I’ve been immersed in re-reading Western philosophy and exploring the roots of our western conceptions about self and society. Accordingly, the shift towards a materialist view that took place alongside Europe’s Age of Enlightenment has largely defined the way western culture and society developed, and stands in contrast to many of our Shambhala teachings.

The defining character of the modern age is its relationship to acquiring knowledge: the idea that knowledge is power, specifically power over nature and others. This orientation distinguishes modernity from antiquity’s belief in knowledge as its own reward and wisdom ultimately found “in here” not “out there.”


Editor’s Note: We are currently on hiatus from publishing new articles; in the meantime, please enjoy this classic item reprinted from our back issues.


Viewing knowledge as power has transformed the natural world. Knowledge of physics, chemistry and mathematics has accelerated quickly since the 17th century, the beginning of the modern era. Accordingly, both planetary ecology and human society have been radically altered in positive and negative ways by transportation, medicine, agriculture, and communications. Warfare and technology walk hand-in-hand, resulting in ever more powerful weapons of mass destruction, literally endangering all life on earth. At the same time, our understanding of the universe extends 14-billion light years into the past, and at the opposite scale ever more fundamental sub-atomic fields and particles continue to reveal themselves.

Knowledge as power underlies everything about modern civilization. This truth came into sharper focus recently as biotechnology researchers successfully created an airborne and lethally infectious version of a Bird Flu virus for “research” purposes. This event has reignited debate about the use of knowledge, namely is our ability to do something reason enough to do it? In other words, is the power of knowledge worth every risk? Those who answer “no” to this question fear such knowledge will fall into evil hands, but there is a deeper issue at play: saying “no” subverts our conception and attachment to what we moderns call “progress.”

Confronting our attachment to progress places us face-to-face with the basis of our search for power: power over death. Our fear of death propels us to relentlessly seek knowledge to overcome mortality. Thus we perform Bird Flu experiments to create a deadly virus so that we may learn to defeat it. Though we don’t readily admit it, we are so afraid of death we repeatedly invent and overcome our own methods of destruction. Any objection to “progress” feels to us like surrender, yet the materialism of knowledge as power betrays our innate natural wisdom that all things born must die.

The modern path of knowledge offers material transformation that undeniably brings pleasure, but little lasting benefit of true wisdom. Our lives, filled as they are with gadgets, gizmos and out-of-season grapes from Chile, cannot ultimately replace the inevitability of death nor the profound sense of peace and comfort that comes with accepting it. The ancients knew this, and understood that not power, but wisdom itself is the perfect fruit of knowledge.

Long ago I lived next door to an old man, 101 years old. Fred would spend his day sitting in a dark shed splitting wood with a hatchet and a hammer. Fred was deeply spiritual; born in 1868 he’d contemplated knowledge for a long time. One afternoon in 1971, I asked this man born in the age of carriages what he thought about men landing on the moon. “Oh well,” he said in his high-pitched, sing-song voice, “men must have their toys.”

Perhaps playing with “toys” is just the lingering innocence of modern cultural childhood and Bird Flu experiments merely the result of misunderstanding the truth of knowledge. We may yet grow up, but it better happen fast, for we are not playing with toys, we are playing with fire.

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6 responses to “ Is Knowledge Power? ”
  1. Jonathan Hanna
    May 6, 2012
    Reply

    Thank you for this wonderful, thought provoking inquiry into the nature, origins, and implications of ‘materialism’ as the Vidyadhara spoke of it. May this inquiry be continued and deepened by all those who wish that Shambhala may flourish within this world!

  2. Robert Paul
    May 7, 2012
    Reply

    Immediate red flags arise when the word ‘materialism’ is used to categorize Western philosophy in the ‘European Age of Enlightenment’. We have been trained to look on this work as representing the enemy, to be vanquished with spiritualism. Rather, the turn that occurred with the Renaissance and then Descartes was a turn away from looking inward–called rationalism–towards looking outwards–called empiricism, hence association with ’empirical knowledge’. Indeed, the author recognized the distinction by labeling antiquity’s belief in knowledge to be found ‘in here’, not ‘out there’.

    Indeed, empiricism has to do with the belief that what we think is the case (knowledge in here) must be tested in the world, and not simply believed. All of our Buddhist philosophy that we have ever learned relied on empirical testing–practice–in order to achieve realization of the truth of what we were told. A rejection of the empirical method is a rejection of meditation practice. This is a problem.

    Further, the author associates modern Western philosophy with ‘knowledge as power’ (and all the bad things that come of that, like war machines–although none of the thousands of good things like, say off the top of my head: prevention of polio and extension of life expectancy from 40 years to 80 years were mentioned.) One of the premises of Buddhist teachings is that we suffer because our thinking–rational thought found ‘in here’–includes the assumption that all we need to do is work hard, follow our desires and we will be happy. Buddhist teachings say that is not the case. The world just doesn’t work that way. Rather, we need to align our thinking to the way the world actually is. Only then can suffering decrease, when our understanding of the world matches the truth of the world and our conduct and view coordinate accordingly, so we don’t keep pushing the rock uphill all day, only to watch it fall back all the time. This is empirical knowledge in its fullest test–changing our minds to accord with actual reality rather than imagined reality. This is truly knowledge as power, which is our goal, not our enemy.

    There is, I conclude after my own review and new view of Western philosophy, not only that there are many important consistencies between Western philosophy and practice–long denigrated by some in our community–and Buddhist philosophy and practice, but there are valuable insights to be gained from the former that assist the latter. Western philosophy forms the core of our culture and society, and we therefore can benefit from understanding how it analyzes, coordinates and integrates with Buddhist philosophy.

    There is a theme in the application of Western society which the author is addressing–the desire to apply knowledge to control our environment. This is the theme that cured polio and extended life, and also causes problems. It is a problem, and needs to be addressed. Yet, that attitude also gave us strip mining (and resources) and oil spills (and the ability to drive to a store instead of bicycle, which is a good thing most days in Halifax). However, the problems and approaches to mastering our environment need to be tempered by wisdom of living as part of our environment, not by rejecting the many positive aspects of knowledge as power, but by integrating them with other kinds of knowledge as power that we gain from lack of clinging and fixation on ego’s own needs that we gain from practice. Don’t toss the baby out with the bathwater.

  3. Thanks for your thoughtful comments, Paul. Clearly you have spent considerable time thinking about this topic. Obviously, there is much more to be said about knowledge, wisdom and power. I write short essays that are not intended to be to be comprehensive, but are intended to stimulate thoughts or feelings.

    Certainly, the western approach to knowledge has produced many benefits, and I did touch on that, briefly, in the article. My greater focus, clearly, is in bringing attention to those ways in which western views tend to objectify the world, including the land, animals and people. Both Hobbes and Locke made significant contributions to this objectified view, separated man (even as it pertained to gender) from nature, and instigated a reductionist approach to the analysis of “reality” that continue to enjoy widespread acceptance.

    That modernity has brought benefits to society is unarguable. At the same time, as you point out, those same benefits create other problems, and attention needs to be paid to that. This theme appears in books such as Neil Postman’s “Technopoly” and in current articles questioning whether technology is bringing us together as society or promoting loneliness and fragmentation.

    That my article stimulated you to comment is terrific, and I appreciate you taking some time to share your thoughts.

  4. Nice essay. Can you point me to the actual text or video of the Sakyong encouraging us to ‘become experts on society?’

  5. Martin Fritter
    May 10, 2012
    Reply

    You appear to assume that “Western Philosophy” is one thing and that it all agrees that “knowledge is power” is true and is also good. What about the ongoing critique of modernity, starting, say at a minimum, with Nietzsche? What about Walter Benjamin? What about “The Question Concerning Technology?” What about Stiegler? What about Foucault? What about Freud, for that matter? Goodness, Max Weber? And on and on.

    Personally, I blame Correggio, not Descartes. Or maybe Petrarch.

  6. Larry I liked the question with which you started to reflect on ‘knowledge’. I was told once by a guy in a business meeting ‘knowledge is not power’, it is only potential power. Knowledge applied becomes power. Sakyong talks about the power of ruling through wisdom.

    The main weakness of Western Science and Philosophy comes from not knowing or asking what happens after death. How to work with this void before birth and after death. There is this underlying phychological tension or insecurity that comes in modern secular society that has uprooted us from some spiritual support that comes from faith in a fatherly God. So knowledge is very limited to the timebound objective five sensory world, mind matter duality and self-other dichotomy. Also ego has been very overextended with over-reliance on rational discursive thoughts (survival of the fittest) called than gentler intuitive heart’s intelligence.

    Buddhist path to knowledge (jnana-prajna) through Middle way is about closing this gap or dichotomy between subject and object through stilling of formations in the mind-body by making it quiet. Isn’t that wonderful way to gain knowledge and true power that makes you and everyone around you happy and peaceful? I think it is much more sophisticated than any power you can gain in a shifting impermanent world. Peace


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