Scientia Potestas Est




The motto, “Knowledge is Power.” (Scientia Potestas Est), is slippery.*  Since its statement in Sir Francis Bacon’s Meditationes Sacrae (1597) it has been interpreted and applied in many ways, but generally implying political power—sometimes by political figures demonstrating their knowledge of “the mind of God”—as in (for example) 19th century naturalist theologians through  Stephen Hawking: “If we do discover a theory of everything,” Hawking wrote,…”it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason—for then we would truly know the mind of God.”

  • Knowing the mind of God a kind of empathy?   But we cannot neglect Isiaih 55:8—“My thoughts are not your thoughts”   and Job 38:4 (“where were you?”)   But the empathic impulse resonates with the Tikkun Olam, in my view “the healing of the world …  beginning with yourself and first explored by acquisition of knowledge–something for which are specifically adapted by our evolutionary history. (see “infovore“)
  • Esther Salaman’s memoir of her student days in Berlin related a walk taken with her teacher and friend, Albert Einstein.  She shared his thoughts, related to her as they walked: “I want to know how God created this world. I’m not interested in this or that phenomenon, in the spectrum of this or that element. I want to know His thoughts; the rest are just details.” (from Salaman 1955[i])   (later, Einstein said that “I soon learned to scent out what was able to lead to fundamentals and to turn aside from everything else, from the multitude of things that clutter up the mind.”—Einstein (quoted in https://history.aip.org/history/exhibits/einstein/great1.htm). 
    • This recalls Thomas Merton on clutter: “To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything is itself to succumb to the violence of our times. Frenzy destroys our inner capacity for peace.  It destroys the fruitfulness of our work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.” (Thomas  Merton, “Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander,” resonating with Einstein: “I soon learned to scent out what was able to lead to fundamentals and to turn aside from everything else, from the multitude of things that clutter up the mind.”—Einstein (quoted in https://history.aip.org/history/exhibits/einstein/great1.htm) and comments on abstraction in ART: “But nobody is visually naive any longer. We are cluttered with images, and only abstract art can bring us to the threshold of the divine.” (Dominique De MenilThe Rothko Chapel: Writings on Art and the Threshold of the Divine) and SCIENCE (“Scientific abstraction liberates us from the slavery of facts.”—Walter Kaufmann, 1961, Critique of Religion and Philosophy. Anchor, NY p.93) [I read this as scientific concepts “liberating” us from perceptual details as we move from percepts to concepts –much like abstraction in art (but that might be quite dangerous if some important percepts get lost in the process)]
  • In The Mind of God (1992) Paul Davies opines “the implications of Gödel’s incompleteness theorem, that “the search for a closed logical scheme that provides a complete and self-consistent explanation is doomed to failure.” [but I suggest that it is in the pursuit that we find the meaning of life]
  • Ancient astronomy:  “The group of structures known as the Thirteen Towers is found within Chankillo, a ceremonial center in the Casma-Sechín River Basin of the coastal Peruvian desert. Seventeen 14C dates fall between 2350 and 2000 calibrated years B.P.”  After a detailed description of the ruins—three concentric stone walls that circle a fortress complex and 13 towers on a nearby hill including “stone towers, which ranged from 6 to 20 feet in height, and the observation that they were spaced precisely to calibrate seasons, weeks, and days according to the changing position of the sun throughout the year.  Ghezzi & Ruggles (2007) proposed that “The Chavin’s ruling class, recognizing that knowledge is power, most likely built the towers to demonstrate their understanding of the sun’s behavior … and by controlling these stone calendars, they appeared to control the sun itself—and thus maintained their power.”  (Stephan Ornes (2007) reporting in Discover magazine based on Ghezzi & Ruggles 2007)
  • Science in royal Europe: “Between 1550 and 1750, nearly every European prince and sovereign amassed a vast and glittering collection intended to communicate power.”  From diary, Tuesday, January 7, 2020 … loved the Metropolitan Museum’s show of scientific instrumentation (https://www.metmuseum.org/exhibitions/listings/2019/making-marvels-science-splendor/exhibition-guide)… excerpts:  
    • Human knowledge and human power meet in one; for where the cause is not known the effect cannot be produced. —Francis Bacon, 1620
    • “’Knowledge is power.’  So goes the famous adage, and such were the priorities of European rulers during the Renaissance, Baroque, and early Enlightenment periods—a transformative epoch known as the early modern era. Between 1550 and 1750, nearly every European prince and sovereign amassed a vast and glittering collection intended to communicate power. The most exquisite decorative arts in these collections were as valued for their artistic and technological advancement as they were for their opulence. To bolster their reputations, rulers across Europe pursued science and splendor with equal vigor, forging a transcontinental culture of magnificence.”
    •  “The works on view here played a key role in complex strategies of courtly self-representation. Scientific and artisanal knowledge was equated with the practical wisdom, self-mastery, and moral virtue required of a successful leader. Rulers proclaimed their divine right to govern by assembling encyclopedic collections that demonstrated an understanding of nature’s secrets and by embracing practices meant to showcase their erudition and skill.”
    • “These powerful patrons demanded ever more sophisticated production processes, instruments, and display pieces for their collections from the artisans in their employ. This dynamic environment cultivated major inventions in the arts and sciences, the ripples of which are still felt today in our tablets, smartphones, and automobiles. The marvels in this exhibition are much more than their lustrous surfaces suggest. They also embody the enduring link between technological innovation and social prestige.”  



. .

Where is the Life we have lost in living?

Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?

Where is the knowledge we have lost in the information?

from T.S. Eliot,The Rock” (1934)

THE VALUE of KNOWLEDGEIt is reasonable to expect anything of power to be valued and commodified.  Knowledge management is a field of study and one focus is often the “…the DIKW hierarchy (as it came to be known),  brought to prominence by Russell Ackoff in his address accepting the presidency of the International Society for General Systems Research in 1989.” (Hypertextual 10 Dec 2012).  As information moves from data to information to knowledge to wisdom value is added at each level.

“An image speaks more than thousand words so here it is (thanks to Agile KM for sharing this) :

(pour les lecteurs français, je vous invite à lire l’éclairante description publiée dans la Master Thesis de Damien Boisbouvier, p.27 à 31).   (cited by (Hypertextual 10 ec2012l)




*e.g., José María Rodrígez García’s essay on Knowledge is Power: Francis Bacon to Michel Foucault (2000) DOI: 10.1023/A:1011901104984.

[i] Esther Salaman “was a student in physics in Berlin during the twenties, and the text she published after the death of Einstein reminds us of that period. Einstein said about himself: “I’m not much with people and I’m not a family man. I want my peace. I want to know how God created this world. I am not interested in this or that phenomenon, in the spectrum of this or that element. I want to know His thoughts, the rest are details.” And indeed, Einstein had the reputation of thinking to the very heart of the matter and he preferred the most fundamental problems. He wanted to capture the ultimate reality of nature. (quoting from Salaman,E (1955) “A Talk With Einstein”, The Listener, 1955, 54:370-371). Quoted & discussed briefly in http://itf.fys.kuleuven.be/~christ/pub/ENposters.pdf