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Useless Knowledge

October 31, 2010

As you probably know, I love “useless” facts. For instance, did you know that pregnant women only need to eat more in their third trimester, and even then they only need an extra 200 calories a day? That’s equivalent to a single mars bar. None of this eating for two…

I’m also a big fan of Bertrand Russell. I spent this morning combining these two interests by reading Russell’s essay “Useless Knowledge”. I think that the basic message that he tries to put forward (in this and another essay, “In Praise of Idleness”) is excellent.

Russell was writing in the 1930s, but I think the basic message remains the same. He suggests that knowledge is praised because it is useful. There is a general lack of praise for knowledge for knowledges sake. People who spend their spare time merely watching sports, or running around keeping busy are ignoring “useless” knowledge. What are the implications of this?

…while the trivial pleasures of culture have their place as a relief from the trivial worries of practical life, the more important merits of contemplation are in relation to the greater evils of life, death and pain and cruelty, and the blind march of nations into unnecessary danger.

Russell argues that we should embrace the pursuit of “useless” knowledge as it encourages a “contemplative state of mind”. In fact, he says that this the most important advantage of “useless” knowledge.

Curious learning not only makes unpleasant things less unpleasant, but also makes pleasant things more pleasant.

This contemplative state of mind has a more important use though. In science, the scientific method encourages us to think about other views and why they might be right or wrong; it also provides us with a method for deciding which belief is the correct one to hold. What about day-to-day beliefs? If, as Russell argues, society is happy for us to spend our lives running around in the ‘cult of efficiency’, we will not have the time or ability to think about other beliefs. It is only if we have opened ourselves up to the delights of “useless” knowledge, and the utility of the contemplative state of mind, that we will be able to think about and be tolerant towards other beliefs.

By finding the time and inclination to appreciate knowledge for the sake of knowledge, we may be able to better ourselves and society as a whole. I think the following sums up nicely what Russell saw as his central point:

…action is best when it emerges from a profound apprehension of the universe and human destiny, not from some wildly passionate impulse of romantic but disproportioned self-assertion. A habit of finding pleasure in thought rather than in action is a safeguard against unwisdom and excessive love of power, a means of preserving serenity in misfortune and peace of mind among worries.

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