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Why Bother to Learn Anything At All, Anyway?

January 17, AD 2014 4 Comments

There are way more things to know in this Universe than you have the brain cells to record, and any one field of human study has probably by this point generated more data than a human mind, with a lifetime of study, could internalize.

We should feel small standing up against the ocean of numbers, names, dates, vocabulary words, genealogies, and scientific observations that human minds have recorded and passed down from the beginning of history. And that is just the bare facts. We should feel even smaller standing before the Frankensteinian behemoth of secondary sources, of analyses, theses, syntheses,  hypotheses, of theories and theora, of postulates and conjectures, the half-living, half-dead piecemeal that makes up all of our sciences. Enter the meta-philosophers, the cross-disciplinary geniuses, the historiographers, and the historians of ideas, and we have an even more imposing edifice before which the deflated individual mind may shrink.

But all of the above comprises merely those facts that humans have been able to accumulate over our few thousand years of history and our rational response to them. More than by all of this knowledge, we are dwarfed by our ignorance, by all of the facts that are still beyond our reach, and by all of the theories that would be necessary for us to make sense of them.

If we were supposed to come to know and understand all of reality in our 80 years, if knowledge as such was the purpose for which we were born, we would be utterly doomed to failure. The scientist, the philosopher, the mathematician, the literary critic, the historian, for all of their efforts, can only ever end their inquiries with yet more questions.

It is right, then, to suppose that the man who thinks himself bright has little to offer. There won’t be an intelligentsia in heaven, but the dimmest light in the Kingdom will know more than all the snobs of this age put together. Stephen Hawking knows very little in comparison to the knowledge a baptized, drooling, screaming infant would receive at the moment of death.

If such knowledge is to be ours, then why the search for mere facts here and now? Why the itching, burning desire to discover more and more? It’s a reasonable question for a Christian to ask.

There is, after all, a kind of gnawing doubt that is characteristic of this age, a prurient interest in all things contrary to our position, an addiction to polemic, the never-ending need for the rush of dialectical victory, the sweet sensation of a belief successfully defended, of re-affirmation. Do we claw after knowledge so as to cling to a faith whose substance is constant doubt deferred?

Do we learn merely so as to be of use, to learn new ways to suppress the vices and encourage the virtues, more effective ways to practice charity?

Rather, reality is of a piece, and everything is interesting. Everything we learn, at a minimum, gives us new ways to glorify God in the here and now, more opportunities to respond to His grace with thanksgiving, and so to remain on the path that will take us to full knowledge of and with Him in heaven. As long as we retain the hunger to learn, the yearning to know–and in large part we retain this by continuing to learn–we retain the hunger for the fullness of knowledge, for the Beatific Vision, and this hunger helps bend our recalcitrant wills heavenward.

Beyond this, knowledge is a good in itself, something whose full value we cannot appreciate until we possess it, and perhaps not even for some time after we have come into possession of it. Someday we, like Stargate’s Daniel Jackson, may find such arcane and apparently useless knowledge as fluency in Egyptian hieroglyphics critical to a matter of life and death, of national security. Or, indeed, in our case, critical to the salvation of souls.

About the Author:

Sean is a teacher of History, Latin, and Choir at the high school level and parish music director. He keeps his domestic church in ordered disarray with an equally beleaguered and altogether lovely lady and his little daughter.

  • Four comments come to mind:

    1) You are correct, there is way too much information (let alone data, let alone knowledge) for any person to learn, and yet knowledge is clearly good and can be an aid to faith. Philosophy is the handmaiden of theology.

    2) I think it was Fulton Sheen who gave the advice that any good apologist/catechist/evangelist/priest should know the works of St Thomas and should know moreover how to refute the great heresies and other false beliefs of the day. I might add the Bible and the Catechism to this, though if you know the works of Saint Thomas Aquinas, you probably have a pretty good grasp of both of those already.

    3) “The scientist, the philosopher, the mathematician, the literary critic, the historian, for all of their efforts, can only ever end their inquiries with yet more questions.” This will be true in any field so long as Goedel’s incompleteness theorems are true and truly applicable.

    4) “if knowledge as such were the purpose for which we were born” This is where the best of the pagan philosophers falls short. Aristotle might say that we were made to know and to love, but to know only the abstract, and to love via contemplation. Here we return to St Thomas, and to the Catechism, which improve on this by teaching that we are made to know and to love God, and (by extension) to know and to love ourselves and one another.

    There’s a lot to think about in your column, well done.

    if knowledge as such was the purpose for which we were born – See more
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  • HV Observer

    The most powerful and humbling thing that you can have is to know that you don’t know everything. As my favorite poet, Wislawa Szymborska, put it when she accepted the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1996:

    I value that little phrase “I don’t know” so highly. It’s small, but it flies on mighty wings. It expands our lives to include the spaces within us as well as those outer expanses in which our tiny Earth hangs suspended. If Isaac Newton had never said to himself “I don’t know,” the apples in his little orchard might have dropped to the ground like hailstones and at best he would have stooped to pick them up and gobble them with gusto. Had my compatriot Marie Sklodowska-Curie never said to herself “I don’t know”, she probably would have wound up teaching chemistry at some private high school for young ladies from good families, and would have ended her days performing this otherwise perfectly respectable job. But she kept on saying “I don’t know,” and these words led her, not just once but twice, to Stockholm, where restless, questing spirits are occasionally rewarded with the Nobel Prize.

  • Eric Jenislawski

    To this wonderfully concise article, I’d add two things. 1) The author touches a few times on what Aristotle observed at the outset of the Metaphysics: all men by nature desire to know. It’s one of the few places that “desire” appears in that text. There’s a pleasure in knowledge, more apparent if one rises above swinish pleasures, and one that gives a placid contentment little (but not completely) prone to excess. From a Christian perspective, the pleasure of knowledge is one of the few pleasures that endures beyond the grave. Socrates taught that shortly before taking the hemlock.

    2) John Wayne once said, correctly: “Life’s tough; it’s tougher when you’re stupid.”

  • Episteme

    In a world where one accepts the Socratic principle where even the wisest man knows nothing in the grand scheme of things, then all knowledge becomes Trivia — and Trivia is awesome and can be used for all sorts of fun when deployed at just the right moments.

    (This morning at church, the Head Usher joked that I should do some menial task because — as he joked with a wink in his eye — that he was king and could tell all the other ushers what to do. I immediately smiled, explained how we were in a church and that Suarez and Bellarmine among others had theologically disassembled the arguments of the Divine Right of Kings four centuries ago, hence he was no greater than any of the rest of us ushers. He immediately became exaggeratedly crestfallen at my trivia and joked that I probably just earned an Indulgence for knowing that…)