Is knowledge "good" or "neutral"?

Piotr Wozniak, October 2002

This article tries to argue that more knowledge leads statistically to more "goodness" and this holds true to most definitions of "goodness". This implies that knowledge can be a remedy against "evil" Even if you are the most evil of all sinners, you will cross over all evil on the raft of knowledge. Bhagavad-Gita (~2-3rd century AD, Chapter 4: Knowledge)



Even though I am no philosopher or religious scholar, I feel compelled to address the issue of "goodness of knowledge". My whole professional life has been spent on looking for ways towards faster and better learning. However, I heard some voices that better learning does not necessarily lead to more good or less evil. Exemplary opinions that sparked this article are: "If you help a terrorist learn faster, it will lead to more death and destruction" or "Your SuperMemo learning method only accelerates the rat race by raising the bar for students who are already on the verge of a breakdown". Comrade Joseph Stalin insisted: "Education is a weapon, whose effect depends on who holds it in his hands and at whom it is aimed".

Naturally, it is true that learning can lead to better weapons of mass destruction. It is also true that methods of accelerated learning will also accelerate the negative aspects of the race for doing more in less time. It is true that education may become indoctrination. However, in this article I would like to demonstrate that knowledge is "statistically good". 

Many people believe knowledge is neutral. Its goodness or badness is determined by the way it is used. The "neutral" view of knowledge, however, does not emphasize the important fact that the more we know the more likely we are to act and do good. In other words, knowledge can be used for both good and evil, however, if we employ the tools of statistics or probability we will easily show that knowledge is overwhelmingly "good". 

Goodness of knowledge

My claim that knowledge is good originates from this simple five-step reasoning: 

  1. there is one truth
  2. knowledge helps reveal the truth
  3. the truth about goodness is no different than other truths; i.e. with more knowledge we are more likely to agree what is true and what is good
  4. knowledge must therefore act as a universal unifier of value systems across all philosophical and religious systems
  5. knowledge is thus increasing the chances we will act "good" to the best of our understanding of what "good" is

Naturally, without a formal proof, the above thinking will easily be undermined by a misconceived use of G�del's proof, contradictory quotes from the scriptures, arguments of relativistic goodness, Moore's open question, non-cognitivistic theories of value, etc. Some people abhor globalization and homogenization of the mankind; however, the convergence of educated minds towards the only truth, including the truth about value, is inevitable (as shown formally by information theory). This convergence is a welcome way of minimizing social and national conflict. Reconciliation of the systems of value is good news for democracy and helps overcome its weaknesses. By getting into more explanations and examples, I run the risk of being compared to Hitler, Satan, Stalin or Osama. That risk comes along the sensitive nature of the subject where views differ drastically, and minor nuances of terminology lead to major outbursts of adrenaline. Philosophy of ethics is like political philosophy. For one person, communism is "murder everywhere always", and for another is the highest ideal of utilitarian attitude. One can see communism as an immoral way of the inept living off the competent. Another one can see it as the brain-like central control system optimizing redistribution of resources using the same criteria as the human body: more for those organs that need it more. When they hear the word "communism", some people visualize dead corpses of the Stalinist regime, others see their own family where parents and kids all share and work for the common good. In this short text, I can only hope to convey my thinking without ever convincing those who take a hard-line opposite skeptical view. Below I will elaborate in some detail on the concept of one truth, one goodness, and the convergence of the systems of values.

One truth premise

Instinctively we go through life by the premise that there is only one truth. If we see an elephant and someone else denies it, we assume he or she is confused, misinformed, or lying. The one truth premise is wired into the inductive powers of our neural networks who daily generalize experience and build a consistent model of the surrounding world. From birth, we build a set of theorems about the reality deriving it all from the hard-wired neural axiom that what we get on the input of our senses is more or less true. Naturally our model of reality can be false if our correct input axiom is false. Here are some examples where "our reality" might appear to be a "false reality":

Whatever the true reality is, we have currently no way of escaping the present one. In other words, we have no choice but to accept the correct input axiom and live as if our reality model was the correct one. 

"Our reality" presents itself as roughly the same reality to all of us. In other words, we (rational) all believe we live on the planet Earth that makes part of the Solar System in Milky Way. We are made of organs, tissues and cells. We feel and reason similarly. We preponderantly use the same rules of logic. Our logic tells us that if the Earth is closer to the Sun than Mars then the Earth cannot, at the same time, be further from the Sun. One correctly formulated statement on truth cannot be true and false at the same time. Liar's paradox is not "correctly formulated" and hence proves nothing against one truth premise. "This sentence cannot be proven correct" is self-referential and does not contribute to the set of true theorems about reality. "This sweater is red" might appear true or false if we consider daltonism or a simple matter of taste, however, the true spectrum of light reflected by the sweater can be measured. It is the spectrum that makes the truth not the perception of redness. 

If you disagree with one truth principle, you may now stop reading. The rest of reasoning in this article is based on the inescapable premise that we all live in the same reality where things cannot be true and false at the same time. We are able to acquire knowledge through our senses and predicate on the truth using the acquired knowledge. 

In terms of hermeneutics or algorithmic information theory, we are looking for reducing the distance between the two bodies of knowledge that might exist in the mind of two different people, social groups or philosophical systems. In plain language, we are looking for contradictions and logical basis of contradictory statements. For example, Jews and Muslims are forbidden to eat pork (i.e. the flesh of the filthiest animal). Christians on the other hand enjoy eating pork (with not so good an impact on their coronary arteries). It is easy to see that rationally carried pork debate will sooner or later be reduced down to the scriptures where the core contradiction must be found. Naturally, the debate will often rage as to which books or their translations make the word of God or even the ultimate word of God. Then a quote from Septuagint : Leviticus : Chapter 11 may surface and a Christian may question his or her own dietary habits. 

In other words, resolving hermeneutic debates will never be easy, but formally speaking, it is always possible. It is only the question of the debate discipline and time allocated. Incidentally, here comes the learning imperative: you cannot predicate on superiority of your own religion or philosophy without understanding the position of the others. 

Most people agree with the one truth concept; however, they often see one truth from quite a special angle: 

What is good?

Interpretation of what is good and what is bad depends on an individual. Some people believe GMOs are a threat to biological survival of the planet, others see it as a way of eliminating poverty. Genetic engineering will then be perceived as good or as evil depending on the point of view. However, we can extract some common underlying values. Human life and welfare are the core priority for a vast majority of both opponents and supporters of transgenics. The divide is bridgeable with knowledge via education and communication. However, humans also often differ as far as their core beliefs are concerned. Although well-established core beliefs are rarely subject to negotiation, they are also based on knowledge and experience. Here too, differences and contradictions can be alleviated by knowledge and communication. Even if an individual is impervious to arguments against his or her beliefs, the same beliefs may be molded over generations and incorporate influences from other belief systems.

It is helpful here to differentiate between instrumental good and intrinsic good. Instrumental good is a good that serves another good (e.g. learning chemistry is good as far as it helps pass exams to the university). Intrinsic good is a good that is good on its own without serving as a way towards another good. Depending on the belief system intrinsic good may be undefined, elected axiomatically, or elected on the basis of faith. Examples of intrinsic good in various belief systems: God, love, nirvana, human life, pleasure, reaching the paradise, economic growth, etc. (for more about the instrumental-intrinsic value distinction and an easy-to-read introduction to the value theory see: Value theory).

It does not take long to realize that there is no scientific method or instrument that can measure or certify intrinsic value. Recent stem cell research plans of Dr Ian Wilmut (father of Dolly the sheep) have been attacked on ethical grounds. However, where there is no consensus on intrinsic value, there is no definition of what is really ethical and what is not. Wilmut's opponents have to resort to emotions saying: "these are Dr Mengele experiments", "this is Frankenstein science", "Wilmut resorts to cannibalism" or simply "this is wrong". Dr Wilmut can strike back with emotional depiction of someone suffering from a heart or Parkinson's disease. He can then add that banning his work "is wrong". Only democratic, legislative and/or judicial mechanism can resolve the deadlock on "preponderance of ethical intuition". It is not possible to resolve the difference of opinion in a methodical manner.

The purpose of life and the question of value occupied philosophers for centuries without much progress in finding scientifically valid and non-circular definition of intrinsic good. The distinction between intrinsic and instrumental good certifiably dates back to Aristotle (see: Nicomachean Ethics). It forms the basis of David Hume's insistence that we can study "what is", but not "what should be". It is analogous to Kantian hypothetical and categorical imperative. This distinction is as old as human self-awareness. After all, we all must ask a question about the ultimate purpose of our existence. 

Systems of value

As soon as humans became capable of self-analysis, they must have wondered what is the ultimate purpose of their daily pursuits. Over millennia, three major systems of value developed. Each provides its own answer to the question of what makes the intrinsic value. I would like to go through these systems of value and see if knowledge promotes goodness within each system. Later we will also try to see if knowledge helps unify the concept of goodness between each of these systems. 

The three major systems of value:

It is easy to show formally that these three classes cover all systems of value. We can either accept drives begotten by the evolution or reject them as an invalid guidance of conduct. This distinction is as old as the contraposition of Epicurus' ethic of pleasure and the Stoic's ethic of duty. Once we elect to use the reasoning capacity of the brain to look for goals, we can either accept faith, intuition, and revelation, or exclude them as scientifically invalid. In other words, we can only follow our natural instincts (hedonism), use faith and reason (religion) or resort solely to scientific method (scientific axiology). There are no other options. Note that the terms used above need to be stretched to provide this all-encompassing quality. Hedonism may need to, paradoxically, include a sadomasochist who inflicts pain on himself or an altruist who greatly enjoys making others happy. Religion may need to extend beyond the usual understanding of the word and embrace spiritual philosophies, intuitionism (goodness defined through "moral intuition"), and the like. Even though Louis Cassels claims that everyone is religious and has some hypothesis of God, his concept of religion would roughly correspond to the presented term of the system of value. This choice of words would avoid labeling confirmed atheists as being religious. Scientific axiology is my favored term for a conglomerate of a number of non-metaphysical ethical theories that pepper centuries of philosophy books, where the same concept often crops up under different names in different epochs over and over again.

Although the conceptual division between the three value systems is rather crisp, we all make up a conglomerate of ethical beliefs that make it hard to pigeonhole anyone into a single category: 

Hedonism is based on the oldest and the most natural system of value. It is as old as the nervous system in most primitive multicellular organisms which date back several hundred million years ago. A dog does not ponder the meaning of life, it enjoys it; from low level fun of eating and copulation to chasing a ball or being stroked by "the master". Humans, as all animals, tend to behave along the program imprinted in their brain. This program is based on reward and punishment. Behaviors that served the survival of the species were usually reinforced through the reward system. Today, representatives of all systems of value are subject to the same reward and punishment mechanism in their brain. We (healthy) all are able to experience satisfaction of a good meal or good sleep. We all fear painful injury. Even the truest God-fearing believer will experience temptations of the flesh. Even the most methodical philosopher will scale down her mental soaring when deprived of food and water for long enough. In other words, hedonistic system of value will introduce a degree of interference even among those who scoff the pursuit of pleasure. Our brain reward centers make this world go around. When they fail, we may resort to suicide. Whatever the power of the ethical mind, when in doubt or in a moment of weakness, hedonistic impulse makes individuals go on with their lives. Mother Teresa included. 

Religion was the next stage of the development of value systems. Religious beliefs are as old as the human civilization. We might even claim that the birth of humanity dates to the establishment of the first religious explanation of human existence and purpose. Religion provided guidance and comfort to millions for millennia. Some 90-96% of people walking the planet today admit to being religious, worshiping or acknowledging one or more gods. In reality, we should rather admit that the vast majority of human population today represents sort of religious hedonism. Religiously hedonistic people claim to be religious but frequently deviate from their elected system of values to satisfy their needs, dreams and desires.

Scientific axiology is the youngest approach to determining value. The term scientific axiology or formal axiology is best defined as used by Robert S. Hartman. In this article, the term scientific axiology is used in the widest sense as the scientific attempt to predicate on value. As such, scientific axiology cannot be older that the scientific method itself. Nyaya school, Aristotle, Aquinas, Descartes, Galileo, Leibniz, Pascal, Kant, and countless others made the best use of their reason and knowledge to look for intrinsic value. Aquinas's attempt to reconcile religion with Aristotelian logic might be seen as a vigorous pursuit of scientific axiology limited by the scientific methodology available at his time. Descartes's amazement with the mind and his deductive proof of the existence of a benevolent God also fall into this category (even though his reasoning might proceed along quite different lines had he been informed about the role of the brain and the amazing detail of neuronal structure and function that we uncovered some three centuries later). Scientific axiology overlaps with he concept of consequentialism in which one should do action A iff A maximizes good. An effort to prove the existence of God with the help of science also overlaps with this category. Although scoffed at by atheists (see: "Unbeautiful mind"), Dr Polkinhorne's reasoning is a recent example: Religion in the Age of Science

Prevalence of systems of value

In today's world, a vast majority of individuals, independent of what they claim or even believe, follow the essentially hedonistic system of value. This system of value incorporates elements of religion (e.g. in tempering desires of the flesh) and pure game theoretical reasoning (e.g. where being nice pays better than being nasty).

A truly religious system of value is reserved to a small proportion of the religious elite. Far smaller than what statistics on the prevalence of religious beliefs show. The reason is very simple, religious system of value requires extensive knowledge and dedication that are able to override the powerful drives imprinted in the brain. If we could construct Religious IQ for the population to reflect the individual's predisposition and ability to faithfully follow a system of value based on religion, we might discover that people with rIQ below 120-130 are actually better pigeonholed as hedonists, and to reach the heights of John Paul II one would need an rIQ of well above 200-220.

Scientific axiology is probably the least popular overall. People who reject God and claim to use pure reason to guide their actions are in vast majority strongly influenced by the hedonistic system of value. The group of hedonists who claim pure reason motivations still includes many brilliant individuals who laid the foundation for today's civilization. This comes from the fact that hedonistic reasoning can be driven to quite sophisticated levels where the highest gratification comes from the top level of Maslow's hierarchy of needs: self-actualization. As science does not provide tools for measuring intrinsic value, many people believe that it is impossible to strictly follow scientific axiology without falling into contradiction or losing our "humanity". This is why scientific axiology is so little known or understood.

One of my favorite questions in getting to know people is "What is your ultimate goal? What is the purpose of human life?". From my non-scientific survey I come to believe that the distribution of the systems of value is roughly as follows: pure hedonists (30-60%), religious hedonists (40%-70%), truly religious people (1-5%), and followers of scientific axiology (less than 1%). I need to insist again that we are all a conglomeration of belief and value systems and cannot be easily pigeonholed into a single category.

Let us now see how knowledge affects goodness in each of the categories of value systems.

Hedonism and knowledge

Knowledge is able to make us less happy. A sated dog taking a nap may be happier than a sated human aware of the brevity of life. Some hedonist argue that a return to nature would make humans most happy (see: Primitivism for a comprehensive example). Return to nature would expose humans to deadly diseases and vagaries of nature, but we might remains blissfully unaware of the dangers, relish the beauty of the natural world, and experience more joy until death or disease struck. However, humans will also naturally tend to look for remedies against disease, for better tools, for better hunting methods, etc. Global trends work against the primitivists or neo-luddites. Someone noticed "You can't have a violin without civilization". It seems that the mankind leaves a hedonist little choice but to make the best use of knowledge to maximize pleasure and minimize pain, while adapting to the inevitable goldrush of progress. Today, illiteracy and poverty are strongly correlated with unhappiness. Unless the present trends of development are reverted, knowledge will play an increasingly important role in making us happy. Very few hedonists will intentionally want to dumb themselves down for the sake of a blind bliss. Many will pursue happiness without a major effort to improve their intellectual strengths. However, a sophisticated hedonist will seek a sophisticated and lasting state of happiness: eudaimonia. The happiest hedonist today is the one that is able to transcend lower level needs and find happiness in self-actualization, and contributing to the happiness of others. Statistically, knowledge should help a hedonist achieve happiness.

Religion and knowledge

Mythology, religion, and science come all from the same source: humans looking for answers. There isn't much methodological difference between the religious distinction of jiva and ajiva in Jainism, or Hippocratic humors: bile, phlegm, and sanguine. When Aristotle groped in darkness trying to define the soul, he was actually writing about life. He was not equipped with today's knowledge nor methodology. His explanations might seem metaphysical from today's perspective, but he was as methodical and precise in his thought as his contemporary means.

At times religion stood at odds with science and knowledge. Many deeply religious people refute selected facts of science. For example, knowledge of evolution is considered by many as "just a theory". Many see evolution stand in direct conflict with the scriptures. They believe that teaching evolution drives people away from God. To a degree this is true: awareness of evolution is able to undermine religious feelings in some cases. However, the same people will still consider learning and knowledge as paths towards higher wisdom. In other words, they do not consider knowledge as bad. All is bad is teaching knowledge which is "false". Not surprisingly, followers of one religion will often consider other religions as "false religions". Yet they will rarely deny the value and importance of learning. All major religions imply a learning imperative. This imperative is also an important factor of religion's survival through self-perpetuation. It may largely begin with studying the scriptures; however, knowledge and wisdom are a common denominator of all major religions. Religions survive by answering pressures, reconciling contradictions, and improving their "goodness". Pope John Paul II's call for the reversal of the condemnation of Galileo (a devout Catholic himself) is just one of many recent examples. As is the case with hedonism, many religious people make a minimum effort to enhance their religious and general knowledge. However, a true believer will always look for ways to better understand God, humanity and the surrounding universe. From the religious perspective, the search for the truth is among the highest objectives. 

Scientific axiology and knowledge

By definition, scientific axiology determines value through knowledge. As such, it is inherently knowledge-friendly. Scientific axiology can be traced under different names to innumerous philosophers and thinkers. For that reason, some reshuffle of terminology may be unavoidable. Some predecessors of scientific axiology can be found in ancient philosophies rooted in anti-clerical sentiment (e.g. nastika school of Carvaka from ancient India, around 6 century BC, was a reaction against brahmins advancing their own livelihood). However, these all predominantly gravitated towards using reason to justify hedonism (e.g. in Carvaka: "if there are no unseen forces and world is without a cause, we can only live by the inherent nature of things). The effort to explain value with reason intensified from century to century, and culminated in the 20th century with the crystallization of the formal approach to axiology.

When science is applied to determining intrinsic value, the following statements are possible as the outcome: (1) "Intrinsic value cannot be determined", (2) "Value can be derived only from value axioms", or (3) "We do not know if we will ever be able to determine intrinsic value". Here are the corresponding branches of scientific axiology (the choice of terminology is for the sake of clarity even though you will find other name tags elsewhere):

At another angle, dogmatic and agnostic scientific axiology will distinguish between these two forms of intrinsic value:

Dogmatic system of value may arbitrarily choose relative or absolute intrinsic value (e.g. Ayn Rand's objectivism elects axiomatic relative intrinsic value: own life). Axiological agnostics will claim that nothing is known about intrinsic values. As such, intrinsic value cannot be determined as to be absolute or relative.

The effect of knowledge on various branches of formal axiology will be different:

Existential thinking may be the most impervious to knowledge. If nothing has value, knowledge does not make value either. At the same time, existential thinking might be most flexible and tolerant. If nothing has value, it does not matter whose system value comes top. Nothing matters. Existential thinking is logically equivalent to ethical non-naturalism. G. E. Moore (1873-1958; no relationship to the father of Moore's Law) in Principia Ethica claims that the good cannot be defined due to the open question problem (i.e. the problem of infinite derivation of instrumental values in the absence of intrinsic value)

Dogmatic approach to electing intrinsic value will be affected by knowledge. After all, dogmatic values will always be questioned as to why they have been elected axiomatically, and not others. Formally, assuming axiomatically that pleasure is of intrinsic value would reduce dogmatic axiology to hedonistic approach, while assuming that God makes the absolute value will equate axiology with a religion.

Agnostic approach seems most knowledge-friendly. Probabilistically, the search for new knowledge is valuable. This comes from the fact that it cannot be stated with certainty that intrinsic value does not exist. Formally, value can be defined with the help of the concept of infinitely knowledgeable machine. Such an automaton should consistently show preference for selected choices if these choices were to be determined as more valuable than others. From decision theory we know that the value of choice equals the value of the goal multiplied by the probability of achieving the goal. Consequently, the choice of searching for value is always tagged with value greater than zero. Probability of achieving the goal will never be zero (as nothing in science is certain). Achieving value, by definition is valuable (as negative values can easily be normalized). In agnostic axiology, value is determined by the search for value and the seemingly perpetual inability to certify that value does not exist. In simple terms, if we do not know what makes value, the only thing we can do is to do our best to find out. 

In scientific axiology, knowledge is a direct path towards understanding goodness and acting good (even though we may not be able to determine intrinsic value today). In the light of scientific axiology, knowledge is good.

Clash of values

Whatever their target goals, humans prevalently benefit through cooperation and lose out on conflict. This simple truth can be demonstrated mathematically with the tools of game theory. For anyone in doubt, Robert Wright in his book "Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny" provides an excellent collection of examples that illustrate the math of cooperation, and its impact on the cultural evolution of societies. In game theoretical terms, information exchange is vital for maximizing total sum of wins in nozero-sum games. In simple terms, knowledge and communication help cooperation and maximize profits for all participating parties.

Accomplishing any goal requires a struggle with the second law of thermodynamics. Even destructive goals require constructive activities. Terrorists who planned WTC destruction had to precede their attack with meticulous planning that required communication, organization, cooperation, etc. The struggle against entropy requires compliance with the rules of game theory. Even mafia people stick to some rules of conduct or noble principles brotherhood and loyalty that ensure the coherence and survivability of mafia structure. Religions die out if they do not provide efficient tools for resolving conflict. For that reason major worldwide religions are preponderantly peaceful and love-promoting. Where they seem brutal, they do it for a higher level order (e.g. chopping off limbs to weed the population of evil element). They evoke military tones only for the sake of defending the religion itself, human life, community, etc. Naturally, history shows that those noble goals and exceptions can be perverted and turned into destructive forces. Destructive philosophies die out as do evil leaders that do not efficiently provide for the good of people (or at least the interests of the majority).

The logic of cooperation will therefore be the preponderant theme in showing that knowledge helps reconcile differing philosophies. Earlier I tried to show that hedonists, religious people and proponents of scientific axiology should overwhelmingly consider gaining knowledge as beneficial for themselves. However, will they also consider knowledge to be beneficial if it was to be gained by other representatives of the same value system? Is it good for a hedonist if his hedonist neighbor builds up knowledge? More interesting, how do we look at knowledge enhancing cognitive powers of those whose values differ? Is it good for a devout Muslim, if his atheistic neighbor grows more knowledgeable? For analytical scrupulousness, for n categories of value systems, we would need to consider n!/(n-2)!=n*(n-1) pair permutations. For that reasons, I will limit the considerations to the three major value systems mentioned above that will leave us with manageable number of six pairs to consider. Of necessity, we can only use prose and very general statements that will not be sufficient to convince those who take a hard line on irreconcilability of value systems:

hedonists vs. hedonists: At the lowest level, their goals are in conflict with each other as every man caters for himself. If we draw a distinction between pleasure and happiness to avoid the pejorative association with the lowly desires, we will delineate the sophisticated form of hedonism: eudaimonism. In more sophisticated hedonism, goals will be easier to reconcile: happiness from serving family, community, nation, humanity, etc. Informed hedonist will use game theory to maximize happiness and goodness available in the system thus maximizing probability of his own happiness (see: Game theory of marriage vows). Knowledge serves reconciliation of hedonistic goals.

world religions against each other: Many believers and scholars claim that there is no contradiction between religion and science. Others attempt to synthesize world religions, sciences and philosophy (see: Theosophy vs. theosophy). Unfortunately, many true believers adamantly reject syncretism. They insist "There is no divinity other than God and Muhammad is his prophet" or "I believe in Jesus Christ, the only son of God" or "Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One". They claim that these statements cannot be reconciled. However, it does not take long to see that inter-faith communication must look for ways to reconcile these truths. Either Jesus is God or a prophet or a false prophet or a mere mortal or a myth. No Christian doubts which is true. Yet representatives of other faiths will differ on that point. Could truths be relative to the place of birth (which is a major factor determining the denomination)? Religions avoid syncretism to avoid dilution which can threaten their survival in the long run. Would Jews walk this planet if they were syncretic in Babylonian captivity? Religions develop mechanisms that prevent syncretic dilution. This prevention is a key player in religious darwinism. Religious darwinism, a term considered offensive by some people, is a study of the birth, evolution and extinction of religious beliefs (as such it should not to be confused with a religiously promoted darwinism or with the law: "only the righteous survive"). Anti-syncretic mechanisms include strongly memetic commandments and creeds, scriptures "written in the stone", compliance with game theory, obligatory evangelism, gospel missionaries, covert proselytizing, church planting, prohibiting inter-faith marriages or sexual relations, the concept of blasphemy, censorship (Index librorum prohibitorum), severe punishment for renunciation, etc. Religious darwinism which looks at religions as memes or ideaviruses demonstrates that due to immutable characteristics of human social and cultural life, there are multiple common denominators across world's major religions. These characteristics are shaped by game theoretical principles of maximizing psychological welfare gain to the followers. The surviving religions with worldwide appeal are predominantly good from each other's perspective; at least as considered by open-minded religious scholars. This does not prevent Crusades, Hindus and Muslims slaughtering each other; Jews and Palestinians in a headlock of hate, or Franklin Graham declaring Islam a "wicked religion" (let alone Rev. Jerry Falwell's unprintable comments that resulted in riots and loss of life). However, the more enlightened and educated a believer, the more tolerance (s)he will show for other faiths. For example, compare Franklin Graham comments to the ecumenical bridge-building philosophy of his father Billy Graham. Knowledge helps. Scriptures might call for aggressive evangelism and militant opposition to syncretism, but knowledge helps to ease the differences and dilute potential conflict.

philosophers against each other: Followers of scientific axiology under its countless names are probably the most confused and the most confusing group. Willy-nilly, they have to acknowledge humanity's limitless ignorance in the area of purely rational interpretation of the purpose and the value. They are not able to measure, detect or rationally postulate intrinsic value. In those circumstances, they are more likely to join forces with other people to seek enlightenment. This may come for psychological reasons: a lonely philosopher might use community as an anti-dote to depressive awareness that sense and value are so elusive. This may also come for  purely rational reasons: together we are more likely to reach the truth. Philosophers will overwhelmingly elect knowledge to be good.

hedonism vs. religion: seemingly these two are irreconcilable. Basically hedonist serves himself and a religious person serves God. However, most hedonists and believers are far from being of a pure breed. Hedonists are often altruistic. Believers often bend the religious dogma to fit their own goals and desires. Knowledge makes hedonists less egoistic. Knowledge makes believers more tolerant. Knowledge helps them stomach one another. It brings them closer. It promotes goodness.  

hedonism vs. science: all humans are born hedonists and develop a degree of scientific outlook on life via education (even though at times pitifully scant). Knowledge brings a hedonist to a higher levels of awareness. Even though scientists often seem to be stronger on expertise than on morals, knowledge helps them understand the threats of doing science without looking for its sociological implications. Knowledge also helps the rest of the world understand science and its goals. Communication helps reconcile differences between hedonists and science

religion vs. scientific axiology: religion is a form of scientific axiology from the times where humans knew little of the scientific method. It was the first attempt of predicating on value. Religion has often been accused of stifling science, but its roots are in the learning imperative. The first words the angel Jabril said to prophet Muhammad was "Iqra" (~read). This command contributed to five centuries of Islamic excellence in science. Religious scholars often look for ways of reconciling scriptures with experimental and theoretical research. Beginning with Renaissance, science largely assumed life of its own. With time gone by, it became more and more skeptical of divine claims.  However, religion follows science and adopts its teaching to new findings about the universe. What seemed a heresy at first, became a component of religious teaching centuries later. Reconciliation between religion and science is awfully slow. It rarely takes a generation. It often takes centuries. The rift seems to be growing at times of scientific acceleration. Genetic engineering, for example, is univocally condemned by major religions and spiritual philosophies. For a Buddhist or a Jain, it contradicts Ahimsa (not harming), and is interpreted by some as impacting transcendence (potential for spiritual wisdom and liberation). For a monotheist, genetic engineering is plain playing God. For no direct religious reason, an African government can see GM-food aid as an obstacle on their country's way to fastidious European agricultural markets (see: Better dead than GM-fed). Yet positions tend to soften in cases where particular GM applications greatly benefit humanity. For example, where GMOs act as a blessing against poverty and famine. Many religious scholars claim that the rift between the revelation and the reason is long gone. For those who do not agree, it is easy to note that religion calls for love. If love cannot be proven valuable, scientific axiology calls for game theoretical cooperation. Both call for tolerance rather than conflict. Many scientists are deeply religious. Most believers acknowledge the validity of science. Understanding each other via knowledge and communication helps the common good. Knowledge is good again.  

Biased knowledge

Knowledge and communication can be biased. Three factors play the most prominent role in hampering human communication and the growth of true knowledge:

Knowledge and communication are the best tools for reconciling philosophical or political differences. Those who seek reconciliation must avoid the biasing impact of emotion and be aware of knowledge amplification. 

Can systems of value be reconciled?

Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) showed little trust for human nature: "Look at the unleashing of total war, the wholesale debasement and brutalization, the lunatic destructiveness, the piles of bodies -- you who believe men are suited to live rationally and peacefully together with a minimum of restraint, without stern and inflexible control!". Yet he felt compelled to provide a prescriptive analysis in Leviathan thus proving Robert Wright's contention that nonzero thinking is a powerful mechanism towards universal reconciliation. Hobbes rationalized moral rules using a secular argument as the means towards achieving "peaceable, social, and comfortable living" (hedonistic angle).

To show that all systems of value can lead to the best of human behavior and attitude, let's consider an example of a teacher standing in front of her class and thinking "I will do my best to help my students excel":

Knowledge is the best tool for reconciling differences between systems of value. Knowledge will affect the reasoning of all teachers representing different systems of value. Education, tradition, and experience will make the hedonistic teacher focus on seeing happy faces rather than waiting for the next pay that would put more or better food on his table. Knowledge will affect a religiously inspired teacher too. Instead of focusing on observance, rituals and dogma, he will look for core moral values and taught knowledge per se. He will be armed with tolerance. He might be a creationist but will not make a young proponent of evolution feel worse or ostracized or even think "my teacher is dumb". He or she will not impose his religious beliefs on those who might belong to another denomination. He might initiate an open discussion instead. 

Without complete reconciliation, representatives of different value systems can cooperate and present outwardly similar attitudes. With gradual learning and communication, they will be able to come closer to the final reconciliation as to their core values. Ultimate reconciliation on all imaginable ethical choices seems near-to impossible for their complex nature (see the next paragraph). However, human development indicates constant progress towards this elusive goal

Universal intrinsic value does not guarantee universal reconciliation

If we ever come to specifying precisely what makes the intrinsic value, we will lay a foundation for a universal ethical system of value. However, this will not end the problem with differences in moral judgments. As an example, let us consider the following rule of conduct: Do not kill. All major ethical systems come to the non-killing rule one way or another. For that reason, it can be called a nearly universal rule of conduct. However, we all know that the rule is imprecise enough to result in raging ethical debates in many societies. Most humans accept killing animals for food. Many support death penalty or war in Afghanistan. Here are some problems with the non-killing rule:

Even if we universally agree that killing is bad, we can still stand worlds apart as for moral judgments in individual cases. For one person, abortion is the trampling on the sanctity of human life while eating pork or beef is a natural course of nature. For another, killing a defenseless animal is an abominable crime while the act of abortion is seen as discarding a mass of cells devoid of self-awareness or ability to sense pain. Why does a British pork eater revolt against a Filipino eating dog meat? Why killing a dog is barbarous while killing a sad-eyed sheep is not? The bridge between the two can be drawn through meticulous analysis only if there is an agreement on the concept of intrinsic value. Still the analysis may be too complex for agreement to ever be feasible. 

The complexity of ethical analysis makes seemingly incompatible conclusions come from individual systems of value. A hedonist might try to apply Bentham's felicific calculus to formalize his statements on value. A scientific axiologist may try to use Hartman Value Profile. Yet ethics is far from being a hard science even if we stand on the assumption that the intrinsic value is known. For starters, how do we quantify intrinsic value?

Let's us analyze an interesting example. Daniel Pouzzner proposed a concept of innovism. Building upon innovism, he structured a universal innovist consitution compliant with his philosophy. In our classification of the systems of value, innovism would fall under dogmatic axiology, where the underlying value axiom elects the intrinsic value in the form of progress, development, evolution, innovation, cooperation, competition, and/or creativity. So defined pluralistic axiomatic intrinsic value would certainly find many followers in the present technically-minded society. However, Pouzzner goes on to derive a complex system of philosophical assertions that will surprise those who might agree with the underlying value axiom. While it might seem world government would be the simplest way towards the incorporation of all humanity in an effort to promote innovation and progress, Pouzzner opposes globalization and proposes isolation of non-innovist nations and war where "global good" (e.g. the state of the environment) is threatened. Elsewhere, Pouzzner devoutly promotes self-armament or surprisingly compares Richard Dawkins, author of "The Selfish Gene", to Hitler. Although you might believe that some forms of eugenics could be seen as progressive (e.g. genetic screening of spermatides as a form of preventing genetic diseases), Pouzzner writes: "Dawkins, with his proposal that 'we are in the unique position of being able to use our brains to work out together the kind of society in which we want to live', has simply restated the core premise of positivism - the philosophical stance responsible for the Holocaust". According to Pouzzner, Robert Wright's call to deontological altruisms leads to a terrain already "well-trod by many murderous religions". 

For similar reasons, other philosophies with a seemingly related core (human life as intrinsic value, objectivism, etc.) arrive at conclusions that vegetarianism is evil, or altruism is "malevolent", or that public schools are "the worst violations of individual rights in existence", or that America goes on the same path as Nazi Germany.

In other words, even if we agree on the core intrinsic value, we might still derive countless philosophical systems based on the same core. The difference will always rest on the differences in individual knowledge (wherever emotion or genes do not result in an additional bias). Two mathematicians can start with the same set of premises and derive entirely different set of assertions by the choice of derivation as well as through error. The same refers to meta-ethics; particularly that it is far less formalized than the calculus. 

Our search for universal ethical system seems like only beginning. Those examples show how far we are from a universal ethical reconciliation. Yet you will easily notice that knowledge is a remedy against the most extreme cases of departure from what we common-sensically or traditionally consider ethical.

Conclusion: knowledge and the sense of life

When staking a claim on what is valuable, we have to be aware of our tremendous ignorance in the area of value and morals. Although it has been nearly two centuries ago, what Pierre-Simon de Laplace said still holds true for axiology and science in general: What we know is not much. What we do not know is immense. That awareness should makes us spare no effort in the search for the truth. If we agree that statistically knowledge is good, we shall see no limit for further exploration.

On the way we may need to grapple with and dismiss skeptical positions such as:

Stephen Hawking in "A Brief History of Time" wrote a sentence that probably appeals to representatives of a whole spectrum of value systems: those who believe in science, those who believe in God, as well as those who simply find joy in human achievement. This ecumenical statement of value goes as follows: "If we do discover a complete theory [fundamental theory of nature], it should in time be understandable in broad principle by everyone, not just a few scientists. Then we shall all, philosophers, scientists and just ordinary people, be able to take part in the discussion of the question of why it is that we and the universe exist. If we find the answer to that, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason, for then we would know the mind of God


  1. We have no choice but to assume that (1) our senses provide input that can be validated by modeling reality, and (2) two contradictory things cannot be true at the same time
  2. Studying the only-available reality modeled on our sensory input helps us reveal the only-available truth. That truth also includes assertions on the concept of value
  3. As long as intrinsic value cannot be determined by the scientific method, we can use the concept of probabilistic value that can validate our actions. Value of choices is then probabilistically determined by the elusive hope of determining intrinsic value in the future through a radical change of our model of reality
  4. Knowledge carries probabilistic value as a tool of predicating on the truth and value
  5. Mankind's effort to search for the truth carries probabilistic value. This value translates into the support for global progress and development in education, medicine, science, technology, philosophy, etc.
  6. Knowledge helps reconcile philosophical systems: hedonistic, religious, deontological, existential, agnostic, skeptical, etc. Knowledge helps universal ethical reconciliation
  7. The main enemy of the truth is the negative emotion: hate, anger, envy, malice, etc. The greatest friend of the truth is broad, all-encompassing, open-minded education

In short: Knowledge helps us understand each other and look for the universal theory of value