knowledge is power

by James Pannucci

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Knowledge is power. We’ve all heard this, but what does it mean, and where did this concept come from? Historically, it is attributed to Francis Bacon, an English philosopher from the late 1500’s and early 1600’s. He was a key Renaissance philosopher making major contributions to scientific methodology and the topic of knowledge, in particular. The connection between knowledge and power seems like a concept as old as our species’ cognitive abilities. Knowing when to plant and when to harvest, when the river floods, how to track seasons by stars, and when and where the animals migrate highlight just a few examples of ancient knowledge that became powerful. Bacon gets credit for the knowledge-and-power connection because of the structure and formality of the dynamic that he described.

A very boiled-down summary of Bacon’s thoughts on knowledge-is-power is that new technical inventions and mechanical discoveries (i.e. knowledge) are the forces that drive history. Sails, iron, steel, engines, gun powder, agricultural machines, antibiotics and vaccines, and semi-conducting computer chips are each tied to a knowledge breakthrough that enabled great watersheds in human civilization. Bacon also clarified the difference between knowledge and its sources, which are facts and information. He categorized facts as subordinate to the structured thinking of philosophy and prescribed that knowledge has to be cultivated from facts. Information (a collection, portfolio, or database of facts) categorizes and supplies the fuel for the evolution of knowledge.

Knowledge is power, which means it provides its possessor the ability to act, accomplish, and achieve. Information is just potential. You can have a ton of information and much of it can be useless or perhaps of great future value, but it is not knowledge unless it empowers or becomes actionable. Information is worth collecting, but its value is fully realized only when it is made practical. Analogy: a log has the potential to keep you warm, but it does not produce heat until it is set on fire or, as it were, “put into action.” Information is the log, and knowledge is the fire. In physics, information and knowledge, respectively, are like potential and kinetic energy.

How does information become knowledge? Bacon answered this by describing three fundamental “faculties” of mind: memory, imagination, and reason. Memory is the simple storage of information in your brain. Imagination enables you to think about what the information might be or how it might be used. Reason is the shaping, testing, and refining of those possibilities into knowledge. This is a practical and elegant method of deriving knowledge and power from information.

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Knowledge is power, but what about money? Is money equal to power? The world mostly agrees that money doesn’t buy happiness, and we’re all familiar with money buying political favor and other of life’s shortcuts. What might Bacon say about how money becomes power? Money can be thought of as equivalent to information; a bank of potential that can be activated for a purpose and is therefore powerful. Even more so if associated with other knowledge such as who wants it, what it’s worth, and how best to invest it. Money and its associated power can certainly be used for both good and evil. The intention of money’s possessor determines that outcome. The deployment of money causes power to emerge, but this act is also information for someone else interested in knowing who is spending money and for what objective.

“Follow the money” is the adage of real and fictional detectives, as well as political strategists who want to know what’s up, why, and of course, “who dunnit?” Who is spending money on goods and services, especially in our pervasively online and digital world, is a crucial part of Big Data. Information is sold and converted into knowledge that drives marketing and advertising efforts everywhere on earth. We are even to the point where the mere clicking of web links is its own form of currency that is tracked, bought, sold, and drives the fortunes of thousands of internet based businesses. “Track the clicks” may now be more relevant than “follow the money”.

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Bacon was thinking and writing about knowledge and how our minds work centuries before the concept of cognitive biases were defined, but he was on the right track and wrote about jumping to conclusions and the human tendency towards wishful thinking. Certainly, this diminishes the power of knowledge as it sends you in wrong directions and decreases the value of the information you’ve collected. Wishful thinking (and worse, deciding) could be described as impractical knowledge or pseudo-knowledge. This kind of faulty or erroneous knowledge results in a person deceiving him or herself into acting in the wrong way, thinking they are about to exercise power, but really just making mistakes.

Society recognizes the value of knowledge and seeks it regularly. Governments want knowledge regarding domestic and international economies, resources, and capacities. Capabilities and the readiness of your nation’s armed forces is important knowledge to have, and the same is true for allies and enemies. This quest for knowledge to give your clan, tribe, or nation an advantage is also as old as civilization itself. Companies want knowledge of current and future business opportunities, supply chain security, market trends, and workforce availability. Social institutions, whether secular or religious, want knowledge related to membership, policy, legislation, and how they may influence stakeholders to achieve their objectives.

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Self-knowledge or self-awareness was recognized as important since ancient times. At the entrance to the Temple of Apollo at Delphi (ancient Greece, where the Oracle, Pythias, practiced) was the inscription: Know Thyself. What did the ancients mean by this? What did this instruction intend? Simply: success, achievement, solving or avoiding problems, all begin with one knowing oneself. Personal confidence and knowing how far you can push yourself is knowledge, since it enables action and your ability to achieve objectives. Strengths and weaknesses, the limits of your courage, and the source of your fears dictate how you function. Know these things and spend time reflecting, and more importantly, being honest with yourself.

Deceiving yourself, not admitting the truth, and being attached to what you wish to be true impairs your ability to know yourself, and consequently, you lose power as an individual. Do not fear identifying your weaknesses. Know them, own them, and work to turn them into strengths. You can succeed with weaknesses. Identifying and admitting them to yourself becomes knowledge. It is information you can act on and that equals power.

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Power can be described as the ability to act in a particular way or influence specific actions. In physics, power is defined as the rate that work is performed, which is calculated as work divided by time, where work is defined as the distance an object is moved multiplied by the force required to move it. If knowledge is power is taken literally, then knowledge is a rate, and is therefore the ability to move something or to make something happen.

In the form of an equation, knowledge (a rate, K) is information (i.e. input, I) multiplied by the impact (outcome, O) it has divided by the time (T) it took to obtain. The Knowledge Formula, therefore, is: K = (I x O)/T. Knowledge can be increased as information and impact increase, or the time it takes to obtain information or achieve an outcome is reduced. It’s simple math/logic; K will get larger when the top part of the equation gets bigger or the bottom gets smaller. Knowledge can be decreased if information or impact is lessened or if the time to obtain information or an outcome is increased. Conversely, K gets smaller when the top of the equation shrinks or the bottom grows.

This is a great way to think about the value of knowledge, the information required to produce it, and its associated use or impact. If obtaining knowledge requires a lot of time, it may not be very valuable unless compensated for by extremely useful information and significant impact. This means that some knowledge is not worth having and other knowledge may be more valuable than you think. Thinking of knowledge as a formula, even just in qualitative terms, could help you determine the value of knowledge and allow you to make judgements and decisions about investments of time and resources.

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I leave this discussion with some advice. Take inventory of the information at your disposal and determine whether it is enough to generate the power you need to succeed. Does your information contain the right content and is it derived from a reliable source? Next, work on the gaps you identified to make sure your information is sound and valuable. From here, you begin to cultivate knowledge and start making goals, ambitions, and achievements happen in your life.

James Pannucci is a scientist and amateur philosophy writer. His expertise is in microbiology, drug development, and global health. Regarding philosophy, James appreciates practical applications in personal and professional life, and enjoys epistemology.

4 comments

  1. The fact that the moon rotates once in every rotation around the Earth, always presenting its same side is purely information; only becoming “knowledge “ when and if it can be implemented as useful to some end. At a minimum, if I win a wager against someone who bets against this fact, does my information about the moon then elevate to the status of – knowledge?

    This may be a useful philosophical and in some other ways a meaningful distinction but, I don’t think most people view the word knowledge, in such a restrictive sense.

    However, did appreciate the metaphor of potential and kinetic energy and, the prescription for achieving one’s goals.

    1. I think that is sort of what Dan is getting at and it is a good point. Some knowledge is useless and seems to yield no power at all.

      I think this is an important part of what it means to be rational. Being rational is not just filling your head with beliefs that are more likely than not true and expunging beliefs that are more likely than not false. It is filling your head with beliefs that will help you “succeed.” As Dan said:
      “Take inventory of the information at your disposal and determine whether it is enough to generate the power you need to succeed.”

      I think one of the great divisions in how people think can be summarized as whether they think it is more important that their beliefs 1) are true or 2) that their beliefs help them succeed. Both are of course important but I tend to go with the latter. I value beliefs that I think will help me accomplish my goals of living rightly. So much of the focus in philosophy seems slanted toward the importance of scientific knowledge – what is. I hope this will change. I spend more time thinking about what beliefs might help me live better.

      https://trueandreasonable.co/2018/11/06/harris-and-fundamental-beliefs/

  2. My high school motto was “Savoir C’est Pouvoir”. So I appreciate your title.

    What I particularly like, is that you emphasize knowing how, rather than “justified true belief.” Perhaps that’s because both of us are from the science side of the house.

    In any case, thank you for posting this essay.

  3. A well structured essay covering the principle domains of knowledge. The neglected writing of Gregory Bateson on Learning is worth a look if you ever come across his ‘Steps to an Ecology of Mind’. He distinguishes between rote learning, learning how to learn, and alteration of context. (and the mysterious Learning IV) I believe he coined the expression ‘Information is a difference that makes a difference’.

    Knowledge only become salient when it is accompanied by understanding and as has been said you only understand something when you can explain it.

    The Pythoness would quarrel with the Buddhist on the possibility of knowing yourself and the Vedantin would say that the Self can never be a content of consciousness. It is consciousness itself which gives the constant sense of selfhood.

    Is memory really stored in the brain? That’s a physicalist assumption, monism of a kind. But how? Bergson has it that memory is virtual and does not exist until it is called up. He admits rote memory as a sort of reflex like muscle memory. The memory theatre of the ancients is this sort of memory combined with association.

    Glendower: I can call spirits from the vasty deep.
    Hotspur :Why, so can I, or so can any man;
    But will they come when you do call for them.

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