Knowledge is Power
There is an old adage that knowledge is power. People being able to acquire facts and information gives them power over those who wish to control them. This is the cornerstone of first amendment rights in the United States. Preventing the government from having arbitrary power over the people by way of knowledge about the private lives and thoughts of people is the cornerstone of fourth and fifth amendment rights in the United States. Other governments – places like Nazi Germany and those in the Communist bloc – attempted to disempower their people by banning certain books and speech critical of their ideology or governing regime; by controlling people’s right to assembly (ie banning other political parties); by regulating or persecuting certain religions; by controlling and censoring the press; by spying on their people; and by forcing people to testify against themselves through torture and indefinite detention. The Khmer Rouge, for example, feared a knowledgeable populace so much that that would condemn and even kill people who wore glasses because ‘intellectuals’ were considered to be corrupted by modernity.
The point being, knowledge is generally viewed as a good thing in a liberal democracy. It allows us the opportunity to make informed decisions about who governs us and then hold them accountable. But is there knowledge which should not be known? Knowledge that could potentially be harmful if it gets out?
This is an argument as old as time, but a particular instance comes to mind – the Bible. For much of the Church’s history, the Bible was read only by the clergy (and other higher status individuals), who could read Latin. The teachings could then be interpreted by the clergy and taught to their parishioners. This allowed for a single orthodoxy to be run by the Church bureaucracy. In the first 1500 years of Christianity, there was only a single schism in the church (not counting the Western schism, which was more political than theological). However, vernacular translations of the Bible in Greek by Erasmus and in German by the likes of Martin Luther were printed, helping to ignite the protestant reformation, the result being that the Church split into numerous churches. During those early days of the printing press, it was hotly debated whether it would be a good idea to let the people have access to the Bible. There are still those who think it was a bad idea.
A more contemporary source of perhaps forbidden knowledge is the internet. Conspiracy theories, fake news, and other such nonsense aside, the internet is arguably the greatest means of spreading knowledge to come into existence since the printing press. The biggest obstacle one might find in their way online are paywalls and subscription fees, and even those are usually easily bypassed or avoided. But what about information like how to make bombs or 3D printed guns? Sure, most people are probably responsible enough to either not use this information, or even if they do, use it for benign purposes. But if that information is available on the internet, it is available to everyone – even those who would use it for malicious or self-serving purposes. I am not trying to make a political argument for banning these things, but generally a more philosophical argument – would humankind be better off if this information had never become available in the first place? Or is there something intrinsically good about such information being available – ie knowledge is power?
What about hacked or leaked information of a private or personal sort, like pictures of a politician doing something we might find disgusting, like cheating on their spouse or doing drugs? Does our knowledge of this lapse in character or poor judgment outweigh the privacy of the individual perpetrator? What about leaked classified information about government wrongdoing that could damage national security or put agents in the field in danger? This argument is made just about any time information about government wrongdoing is made available to the public, whether it damages national security or endangers field agents or not, which further demonstrates that the government is afraid of people becoming knowledgeable. But what about in cases where public knowledge is demonstrably dangerous, even if the government is in the wrong about something? Where is the crossover point, where the information becoming public knowledge becomes an unacceptable risk?
There is knowledge of a different kind on the internet – pornography. Social conservatives often argue that access to pornography has a deleterious affect on people’s minds and morals. There may be merit to this argument. Pornography can cause addiction, isolation and unrealistic expectations about romantic love. And what about the fact that after a terrifying experience, such as the false alarm about a missile strike in Hawaii, people seem to seek comfort in pornography? So, should pornography be included in the category of knowledge that humankind would be better off without? Or is it part of the knowledge as intrinsic good? Even if we argue that pornography is not harmful, psychologically or sexually, is there an argument for it being good? Or perhaps there is a cutoff point – pictures of naked people alone, or video of people having missionary position sex, is acceptable, but people doing other sex acts is not. Maybe if it’s only shown with people having safe sex – like the proposed condom law that failed in California – then it is acceptable. Once again, I’m not trying to make a political or civil liberties argument one way or the other, but I’m asking, philosophically speaking, would humankind be better off (psychologically, sexually, morally) if pornography didn’t exist, or if only certain types of pornography existed?
Opponents of Political Correctness contend that it is a form of censorship that stifles society from having important conversations. Political Correctness is defined as “…the avoidance, often considered as taken to extremes, of forms of expression or action that are perceived to exclude, marginalize, or insult groups of people who are socially disadvantaged or discriminated against.” However, Political Correctness is often used as a way of shutting down conversation. For instance, bringing up crime and race, race and intelligence, or that men and women might have differences in preference when it comes to career path choices (as opposed to systemic barriers to entry in certain careers dependent on ones sex or gender identity) are often hot-button issues. I’m not making any claims about the truth of falsity of these topics, but Political Correctness dictates that even bringing them up is taboo. People who bring these issues up will often find themselves on the receiving end of criticism, and sometimes even threats of violence. Opponents of Political Correctness will say that if these subjects aren’t even up for discussion, then there is no way to find whether the claims are true or not, and if true, find the causes of these problems and be able to work out solutions. As a result, the problems will persist and get worse while people continue to pretend that they don’t exist. The truth value of these claims is not based on reason, facts, or evidence, but on how the topics make people feel. Things that are uncomfortable to discuss then become, essentially, forbidden knowledge. Do these subjects belong in that category, or should they be up for discussion?
The issue works the other way, too. There are plenty of people who would prefer not to have LGBT issues taught to children, while proponents of Political Correctness are often in favor of doing this. Whether one believes that sexual preference or gender nonconformity are choices, pathologies, or just part of the spectrum of human experience, they are still phenomena that occur in the real world; they are still impulses that dictate the lifestyle of real people. Refusing to teach people about these issues will not prevent them from being exposed to them, and will only leave people less knowledgeable about real world issues. It is a form of political correctness that attempts to pretend that something isn’t real, which stifles dialogue and does nothing to weigh truth claims about causes, effects, and society based on reason, facts, and evidence, but once again based only on how the topic makes people feel. Thus, not teaching people about the LGBT phenomena is relegating these issues to the realm of forbidden knowledge. Are people better off not knowing about these issues, or is knowledge still power in this case? Does knowledge necessitate acceptance – if a person is taught about LGBT people, will that person necessarily be accepting? Does acceptance necessitate knowledge – can you not accept someone’s lifestyle if you are ignorant of it? And, if this should not be forbidden knowledge, at what age should people be taught about LGBT issues? What is the best way to teach them? And what exactly should be taught, as there are competing theories?
I think probably the place where the most people will accept that some knowledge may be better left unknown is when it comes to the potential end of the world. Nuclear weapons are the first thing that come to mind. During World War II, there was a concerted effort by the United States and Britain to develop atomic weapons. Doing so opened up a Pandora’s box that still affects us to this day – the doomsday clock was just recently reset to 2 minutes to midnight (doomsday). When the Soviet Union tested their own nuclear weapons in 1949, the term Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) soon came into vogue. Would it have been better if humankind had never learned how to develop nuclear weapons in the first place? What about the argument that Mutually Assured Destruction has prevented cataclysmic wars between major powers, as was the case in WWI and WWII before humans split the atom? Does that make knowledge of atomic weapons a net positive for the human race, even if the potential destruction of civilization as we know it as the hair-trigger whims of a few powerful people?
Nowadays, we also have to worry about possibly an even more insidious weapon of mass destruction: biological weapons. What makes this even more dangerous is that they are so cheap and easy to develop (particularly compared to nuclear weapons), a single person could do it in a DIY lab in their garage. It’s so easy a person could develop or release it on accident. Instructions on how to do it could easily be made available online (and probably are in some dark corners of the web). And once the disease is out, it will not distinguish between friend and foe – at the very least, an atomic weapon could potentially be contained to a single geographical location. This, of course, brings up the question of whether it has been a good thing or not that humankind has acquired knowledge about how genetics work – with knowledge of genetic manipulation, it’s not that difficult to make a dangerous pathogen. Our understanding of genetics and genetic manipulation has yielded amazing things for humanity, but if it ultimately spells our downfall, was any of it worthwhile? Or would humans have been better off never knowing?
And now, possibly in the not to distant future, we might have to worry about Artificial Intelligence. As it is often popular to say in AI circles, Artificial Intelligence could be the last thing humankind ever invents. So, does that mean that AI technology should be forbidden knowledge? Is humanity better off not discovering Artificial Intelligence? What if developing AI is the only way we can actually ensure that we don’t wipe ourselves out via other means? Unlike most of what I’ve talked about here, AI is knowledge that we have not yet acquired – it is still theoretically within our power to keep this knowledge forbidden, whereas other things I’ve discussed are already available. It may be that development of AI is inevitable, but it could be that we would have been better off never even considering it.