Knowledge as Power – And as Simplification

Knowledge as Power: Astronomical Telescope

Like any other type of knowledge, science uses metaphors in its discourse. ‘Attraction,’ ‘repulsion,’ ‘force,’ ‘energy’ – all these fundamental scientific concepts are metaphors; that is to say, they are terms borrowed from other domains where they had a meaning related to human experience which is now translated into domains that are foreign to that experience.

But since scientists must describe things that have nothing to do with human experience, and they lack a language in which they could do this without resorting to that experience, they are forced to do this. 

Intelligibility is based on relating things to previous experiences. This constantly happens in our daily life. We cannot understand someone else’s behavior if we do not relate it to something we are already familiar with.

Mathematical language does not help us to understand at all, as we can see in quantum mechanics where processes, although well controlled technologically and mathematically, defy any attempt to understand them. 

Is this metaphorical borrowing only a practice made in the absence of something better, or is it also necessary? I think it is necessary because, at the level of principles, each science uses what we could call ‘rational imagination.’ A very good example is the term ‘force’ used in Newtonian principles of mechanics.

This term cannot be understood if we ignore the human experience of acting on something and the effort we put into that action. Shall we remind ourselves that in ancient times gods were considered to be at the origin of any motion?

Scientists acknowledge the anthropomorphic tint of their language, but they claim that this characteristic cannot affect the objectivity of science. It is only a support for describing objective and regular processes. Science’s objectivity consists of the observer’s complete absence from the way the observed objects behave. (However, this ideal of objectivity seems no longer possible or at least very difficult to maintain when observing subatomic processes.) 

Now, let’s see what happens in a scientific description while using anthropomorphic language or terms like ‘force.’ When understood as a fact of human experience, ‘force’ involves an action exerted by a human, but also an intention, a goal. You use a ‘force’ to achieve something.

When used in a scientific context, ‘force’ is detached from the intentional component and taken only with the meaning of pure action, lacking any acting subject. Through this removal, science abruptly rejects a whole dimension of reality: the teleological aspect. 

In modernity, science operated a profound shift within the concept of knowledge: from understanding things in their teleology to understanding things in their passivity, always moved by external causes and not by internal reasons. This shift was possible through the success of the mathematical description of science; thus, real knowledge was considered only mathematical science.

(While you cannot measure intentions or tendencies, you can easily measure mathematically causal relationships between things, like how long it takes for water to reach the boiling temperature given a certain amount of heat – the latter, of course, being established quantitatively).

In this science, terms like ‘force’ were no longer used to understand processes but only to back mathematical descriptions, to allow these mathematical descriptions to take hold of the observed process. The intelligibility of the observed process consisted no longer of understanding the ‘inner nature’ of that process but only in its mathematical description.

‘Knowledge as power’ became the modern slogan. The meaning of knowledge shifted towards controlling things. This detaching, by science, of the terms it borrowed from human experience from their overall meanings became almost reflexive for scientists as well as for all of us, educated in schools to internalize this method and worldview of science. Today you look odd – to say the least – if you speak about ‘intentions’ in nature.

This is why in our knowledge today – the form of which is knowledge as power – everything boils down to a description of ‘phenomena,’ of how things look and behave. These things are devoid of any interiority for scientific knowledge; they are only ‘points in motion’ – as we were taught to think of a moving car, person, planet, or galaxy in the physics lessons back in our school days. This massive removal of all concrete features from the observed things best illustrates the scientific method. 

But how relevant is this removal for our discussion of free will? One could easily argue that the ‘inner nature’ that thinks of itself as being free and acting freely is, in fact, devoid of any freedom because we are able to predict its behavior mathematically. It is like Spinoza’s stone that thinks of itself that it flies due to its own will and not because someone has thrown it.

Of course, when you see that your behavior is accurately predicted by science, you are very much tempted to give up any belief in your free will. All your personality and their vastly diversified inner world are now reduced to a ‘point in motion.’  

But this is not true. Apparently, your behaviors can be predicted, like when you choose this or that product from the shelf of a supermarket. But what exactly does a mathematical model of human behavior do? It puts into a mathematical formula the way I reason in my mind. 

Thus, if I know that I need an aftershave lotion and if I know about myself that I like a certain fragrance, color, and consistency of a lotion, I will know beforehand what I will choose from the shelf. My decision is already a logical decision; that is to say, I can predict about myself what I will choose. 

The mathematical model considers a much wider pool of premises or aspects of my personality of which I am unaware and that manifest themselves in my consciousness as a totality in the form of an ‘impulse,’ a ‘drive,’ an unconscious tendency toward choosing something.

When scientists develop that mathematical model, they must count on my capacity to reason, make informed decisions, and ultimately, on my free will. As they do with any other approach to a natural process, here they start from the most common understanding of that process, which is an anthropomorphic understanding.

Then they detach it from its original framework and relate it to some kind of measurement, accomplishing the requirements of knowledge as power. Thus, when science denies free will, in fact, it presupposes it. 

The previous part of this article can be read here.

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