Half-Baked Philosophy: Questions on the Utility of Knowledge

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35 Responses

  1. Avatar Damon says:

    “How do you define utility in what you know and don’t know? Why do we think of certain pieces of knowledge as being useless if the knowledge is part of our development, biography, sense of self-worth, etc?”

    Celebrity news. I don’t care what Miley did/does/will do for example. I see it having zero value add in my life, therefore a waste.Report

    • Avatar Tod Kelly says:

      That’s funny. I initially read this as:

      Q: How do you define utility in what you know and don’t know?

      A: Celebrity news.Report

    • Avatar NewDealer says:

      I don’t know if I would consider celebrity news completely useless and I don’t really care for Miley or many celebs.

      However, a passing knowledge does let me look completely clueless in offices and places where people care about pop culture more and be purposefully obtuse, rude, or condescending by asking a ton of “who” questions. I’ve never seen Game of Thrones, Girls, Breaking Bad, but I know enough to nod along.

      Now I generally skip the sport pages so I have my own variant of what you are talking about.

      Or I can get sociological-philosophical and wonder why humans like and need pop culture/celeb news stories? What psychological purpose do they serve?

      Hence some utility.

      Perhaps I’m just the knowledge equivalent of a hoarder.Report

      • Avatar Glyph says:

        why humans like and need pop culture/celeb news stories? What psychological purpose do they serve?

        This helps us find our friends and people we want to associate with or will at least put up with us without malice.


      • Avatar Damon says:

        Good point, I forgot about sports news.

        I have passing knowledge of both sports and celebrity news because it’s so pervasive, but frankly, I avoid conversations about it now. I consider it vapid and a waste of time.

        “However, a passing knowledge does let me look completely clueless in offices and places where people care about pop culture more and be purposefully obtuse, rude, or condescending by asking a ton of “who” questions. I’ve never seen Game of Thrones, Girls, Breaking Bad, but I know enough to nod along.” I can see you point, but I don’t mind coming accross that way sometimes 🙂Report

    • Avatar Roger says:

      I accept the premise that our brains are wired in such a way that we enjoy catching up on and passing on gossip. It keeps us wired in to our tribe and thus has served a useful evolutionary purpose.

      In modern society, keeping up on the Kardashians seems to me to be the equivalent of eating a Hostess Twinky.

      To the extent either feels good, it is an evolutionary desire that is misfiring in an environment that is radically different from the one our brains were wired to thrive in.Report

  2. Avatar Mike Schilling says:

    He changed his name to Belmont because it sounded more French and less Jewish .

    I read that about three times thinking “wtf?” before I realized he didn’t change it from Beaufort. According to infallible Wiki, he was born a Schoenberg.Report

    • Avatar NewDealer says:

      Sorry was my writing unclear and correct.

      Edith Wharton is more indirect in describing these. She never calls Beaufort Jewish (despite being anti-Semitic). She just notes that he came from nowhere and “passed himself of as an Englishman”Report

      • Avatar NewDealer says:

        Stupid sentence. Was my writing unclear?Report

      • Avatar Mike Schilling says:

        What you said was entirely correct, but since you left out what he changed his name from, my eye grabbed at the nearest candidate.

        Re la Wharton, yeah, Sim Wossname from The House of Mirth was a pretty unpleasant social climber, wasn’t he?Report

      • Avatar NewDealer says:

        I am having a hard time telling about whether her views were extreme for her day or just typical.

        In someways Sam’s rejection of Lily Bart can be sympathetic or you can read it in a really horrible way and say that Bart has fallen so far that now even a Jewish guy won’t marry her.

        Have you ever read Our Crowd? It is a history of the well-to-do German Jewish families of 19th century New York and how they mirrored, worked with, but were also different and excluded from the Astors and other WASP elites. Goldman and Sachs were once very real people.Report

      • Avatar Mike Schilling says:

        I read it as pretty much the latter: she’s damaged goods who would hurt Sim’s status rather than raise it, and that’s all he cares about.

        Also, I remember my parents recommending Our Crowd, but I never got around to it.Report

  3. Avatar Kazzy says:

    “But this is unsatisfying and somewhat anti-intellectual to me.”

    Is it really anti-intellectual? To me, it seems more a matter of the hierarchy of needs and what not. If you don’t have the knowledge to keep yourself from getting killed, than you won’t have the opportunity to acquire or employ other bits of knowledge.

    And then you say this:
    “On another and deeper level perhaps this ability to make historical-literary connections will one day help me connect the dots in a case and make a winning argument for a client in front of a judge and/or jury? Perhaps I will know I found the right woman or set of friends based on whether they are impressed or bored by my knowledge of Edith Wharton novels and 19th century New York history? Maybe I will meet a partner at a law firm who is impressed by that knowledge and wants me to work with him or her?”

    Isn’t that still deriving the value of the knowledge from utility? You use your knowledge to gain, keep, or further employment; you use it to surround yourself with the “right” kind of people.Report

    • Avatar NewDealer says:

      Well those were just musings. Also it seems like a bit of an attack. Everyone probably uses their knowledge to surround themselves by the “right” kind of people. The latter part being subjective.

      I mainly just like being able to make the connections.Report

      • Avatar Kazzy says:

        Sorry, I did not mean “right” to be an attack. I was attempting to make a connection between “people who won’t kill you” and “people who like 19th century literature”. Presumably, one is less likely to be killed by people with similar interests. So, it could be argued that your desire to surround yourself with people with similar interests is itself a form of self-protection.

        I should have been clearer. My apologies.Report

  4. I think anything that deepens or enriches your understanding or enjoyment from life is intrinsically valuable. Even if it has no practical value, knowing interesting facts about great literature helps you glean more from reading it and broadens your appreciation of history and (in some small way) modernity, as well. (It’s much easier to appreciate where we are when you have a sense of where we once were.)

    Knowing the kind of inane factoid I highlighted in my post does none of this for me. (And, though I’m sure you know this, my post was meant in fun. It doesn’t really upset me to have my brain cluttered up with effluvia like this.) It may have offered some minor enjoyment back in the day, as I describe in my writing. But now, two decades later? Lint in the belly button of my mind.Report

  5. Ex ante and ex post are concepts that may help you.

    Some forms of knowledge are obviously useful ex ante. Consider the answer to the question: Will eating these berries kill me?

    Other forms of knowledge can’t be determined until much later, and the question is whether to seek them out at all. Consider the answer to the question: Do these berries contain chemical compounds that, if suitably purified, would have therapeutic value against cancer?

    You’ll probably think to ask the first question. You might not think to ask the second.

    But some ex post–type knowledge is knowledge that you already possess. You just don’t know that it’s useful yet, because the circumstances haven’t come up.Report

  6. Avatar Kazzy says:

    Is knowledge zero-sum? Does devoting part of my brain to Joe Orsulak anecdotes mean I have less space for other things?

    If so, it would seem that there indeed could be knowledge that is more or less useful than others (though whether anything could be truly useless is another question). If not, that might change the equation.

    Though, come to think of it, time is largely zero-sum. So if I actively spent time acquiring Joe Orsulak anecdotes, that would likely limit the time I could spend acquiring other bits of knowledge.Report

    • Avatar Patrick says:

      Is knowledge zero-sum? Does devoting part of my brain to Joe Orsulak anecdotes mean I have less space for other things?

      Depends on how you train your brain, I think. Caution: half-assed recollections inform the rest of this comment.

      Memory isn’t quite zero-sum, but it’s not entirely *not* zero-sum, either. Your memory is a construct of interlinked bits of data. The links that help you retrieve the data are sort of useful, the data itself not so much if you can’t recall it on demand.

      If you’re cramming your brain full of factoids that don’t link to anything else, you’re not necessarily increasing your ability to retrieve other knowledge on demand, and you may be damaging it. On the other hand, if you actively construct links between data, then it’s easier to retrieve both bits of data.Report

    • Avatar Burt Likko says:

      Knowledge may not be zero-sum, but opportunities for acquiring it are zero sum, as are nearly all things when considered from an opportunity perspective. Each of us only gets so much life. Each of us can only acquire so much knowledge, hopefully a lot of it even if it is, as the Doc succinctly describes, effluvia. Then we die, hopefully later rather than sooner. The inescapable curse of the human condition.Report

      • Avatar Kazzy says:

        Well, I very much enjoyed watching Mr. Orsulak’s misadventures in right field. Plus, I was only 9 or so at the time. So, I will consider the entire experience and any subsequent knowledge sufficiently useful.

        Plus, in the event that I end up playing right field in Citi Field, I will know to be mindful of the swirling winds and paper. Seeing as how I peg the odds of this happening as non-zero, it is quite important to hold on to.Report

      • Avatar Michael Cain says:

        Yeah, my concerns about my answer to Dr. Saunders’ stupid-Tuesday question pertain to opportunity costs. Could the time spent retaining my knowledge of APL — and like any programming language, it’s something that requires practice — and porting the APL\11 program to additional C compilers been better spent on something else, like PDL or Python? Or given that others have done better things starting from the APL\11 source code I liberated from AT&T many years ago, wouldn’t it have been better to go along with that rather than keeping the original running?Report

  7. Avatar J@m3z Aitch says:

    I don’t know how to define useless.

    If it doesn’t add to your bank account, win you bar bets, or help you pick up chicks, it’s useless.Report

    • Avatar Kazzy says:

      “…or help you pick up chicks…”

      Heteronormative AND sexist. A double whammy, Aitch. (HOLY SHIT I JUST FIGURED OUT WHAT YOUR NEW HANDLE MEANS)Report

      • Avatar J@m3z Aitch says:

        Sexist, maybe, but heteronormative? You just dissed every single lesbian!

        (And it’s cool if women use their knowledge to pick up guys; I mean, not that I’d know what it’s like to have a woman try to hit on me, but I’ve been told it’s pretty cool.)Report

      • Avatar Mike Schilling says:

        If you’re like me it’s happened, but you had no idea until someone explained it to you. (“Honestly? I thought she was just really interested in baseball.”)Report

      • Avatar NewDealer says:

        I concur with Mike on this one. I think it has happened to me in the past but I’ve had a delayed dinosaur brain type of reaction. A few hours or days later, I think “Wait a minute that woman was trying to flirt with me.”

        My current girlfriend is largely the one who initiated the relationship and I still find it startling.Report

      • Avatar LeeEsq says:

        I had the same experience more than a few times. Its embarrasing when your parents point out a girl is trying to flirt with you.Report

      • Avatar J@m3z Aitch says:

        My current girlfriend is largely the one who initiated the relationship and I still find it startling.

        Same here, except I’ve been married over 20 years and I still find it startling.Report

      • Avatar Kazzy says:

        Zazzy approached me, but we were both pretty drunk.

        But I have the opposite problem… I think every girl is flirting with me.

        “That woman just said hello to me out of the blue. I think she likes me.”
        “She’s the greeter.”
        “Sure. But she meant it when she greeted me.”Report

      • Avatar J@m3z Aitch says:

        Kazzy, I have a good friend like that. He thinks every friendly smile is a come on. He’s also a teacher, and he says, “all the girls in the class are always looking at my crotch!” My response is, “you’re 6′ 3″, and they’re all sitting down–any time they look straight ahead it’s going to look like they’re staring at your crotch, but really they’re just trying to avoid eye contact so you won’t call on them.”Report

      • Avatar Chris says:

        I don’t even realize it when I’m flirting. Which is a problem when you have a girlfriend, and she’s sitting next to you.Report

      • Avatar Kazzy says:

        Resisting every urge to make an inappropriate joke about my students and my crotch.

        The problem for me is that, at least once, the woman really WAS flirting with me. She was a bartender… and gorgeous… and worked at a bar where it wasn’t uncommon for the bartenders to get up and dance on the bar. I was a regular (moreso because the bar was around the corner from my apartment and sold 25-cent beers while I was in grad school than because of the bar dancing), so I got to know the entire staff pretty well. But this bartender was always friendly. For a long time, we just wrote it off to her being a female bartender and that being what female bartenders often do for tips with a bit of “I know he’s not a total creep” mixed in. But then she tried to flag me down on the subway, which I somehow missed. To “make up for it”, she bought all my drinks the next time in. Then she gave me her number. Unsolicited.

        I was in the early stages of seeing Zazzy at this point, so I never called. And have no regrets.

        But because it is so often the case that a woman is flirting with a man because it is more or less part of her job BUT THIS ONE TIME the woman seemed to have been doing it because she actually liked me, I extrapolate and assume that any woman any time who shows the least bit of kindness to me is madly in love with me.

        Oh yea… and I’m an arrogant jerk.Report

    • Avatar J@m3z Aitch says:

      And now I think I owe ND an apology, because my silly joke has totally threadjacked his legitimate question. Sorry, dude.Report