Three philosophies: Knowledge, wisdom and… money?

money-or-somethingI’ve talked before about Nicholas Maxwell’s criticism of current practice and philosophy of science. I’ve written about it in Finnish here and here; here is the website of the group dedicated to this idea.

To put it shortly, Maxwell’s idea is this: Science commonly takes the idea of objectivity too far and in the wrong direction. Its underlying philosophy is what he calls the philosophy of knowledge. This emphasizes that only empirically testable claims have a place in science, as opposed to metaphysics or values.

This may sound like a good idea, and it would be, given the right interpretation. But it’s being given the wrong interpretation. Values or ideologies must not affect the results obtained from science, but they should guide what resources are spent on. When you are not allowed to consider values even at this point, you often end up spending resources on something useless or harmful. So developing countries may have much more need for new technologies or researched solutions, but there’s more money in solving first-world problems. Similarly, metaphysics must not be more important than empirical results, but every theory has background metaphysics anyway, so acknowledging those would allow scientists to understand better what they’re doing.

(Obviously, this is argued much better in From Knowledge to Wisdom and other books by Maxwell.)

Maxwell’s own alternative, the philosophy of wisdom (or “wisdom inquiry”), aims to be more rational by explicitly aiming to the achievement of humanly valuable goals and by explicitly examining methodological and metaphysical background assumptions. He believes that both science itself and humanity in general are being held back by the wrongheaded limitations of the philosophy of knowledge. The result is that science is the most reliable way of obtaining factual knowledge — but it could be even better, and it is not so good at producing humanly valuable solutions.

There’s another modern discussion that intersects with Maxwell’s division. It’s very common to hear that our modern society has an unhealthy fixation with money and profit and unwisely seeks to measure everything in terms of money, disregarding other important things. Naturally, this pertains to science too: we hear, and it’s probably true, that politicians and whoever are regarding science too much as something that should also exist to make a profit.

This makes for an interesting triangle. If we compare them to this “philosophy of money”, the philosophy of knowledge and the philosophy of wisdom are pretty much the same side. Both hold that the value of science should not be measured in the narrow terms of money. The philosophy of knowledge can even agree partly with the philosophy of wisdom about how science can produce other humanly valuable things besides profits. Here, their difference is more in how one gets to those useful results; the philosophy of knowledge will assume that just seeking some knowledge or other is the way to get useful knowledge as well, the philosophy of wisdom says all the goals need to be thought of from the beginning.

However, the philosophy of wisdom and the philosophy of money do have something in common. They can both oppose the philosophy of knowledge in the sense that they see the mere search of knowledge as an insufficient goal. Both would say the knowledge needs to be humanly useful as well. Of course there’s still a difference. The philosophy of wisdom would never take money as the only goal that is assumed to lead to every other good; it would question that idea at least a much as it would question the philosophy of knowledge.

The philosophy of knowledge and the philosophy of money are also opposed and yet similar. Both concentrate on maximising one thing — wrongly, the philosophy of wisdom would say — and assuming it will lead to other good things. Where they disagree is obviously what that something is, knowledge or money. Yet they both hold a kind of narrow stereotype of certain fields. For the philosophy of knowledge, it’s that science searches for knowledge, period. For money, it’s that businesses need to make money, period. And to some extent, not only is everything being thought of as a business, but everything is also being thought of as a “science”, like religion to those who insist on its literal truth. In addition, as was briefly noted above, the limits of the philosophy of knowledge also leave it vulnerable to being led by the philosophy of money, as when research focus is determined by funding or profit.

The philosophy of wisdom is different from both of the other two in that it’s not defined by a narrow focus on one specific goal. Instead, it explicitly examines its goals and aims at the humanly valuable ones — whatever they may be, and by whatever means turn out to work. There’s nothing wrong with looking for knowledge or looking to make money, but neither of those can be done at the expense of everything else.

It has been widely recognised that science like everything else is being hurt by the current exaggerated focus on money and business. What should be recognised in addition is that the good science we should aim for instead does not have to follow the philosophy of knowledge — which indeed makes it vulnerable.

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