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Tuesday, August 09, 2011

What good is accumulating knowledge?

I recently got a message from someone I don't know, who has been reading this blog. The reader had some questions, which were related to dementia, in someone dear to that reader. Here is one of them: "If our knowledge is in the end destroyed with our minds, then is it useful to accumulate it?"

This is my attempt at an answer:

Almost the same argument could be made for other human activities, such as, say, eating and having children. Nothing that most people do will survive much beyond their death, including the knowledge they have picked up. (A few will pass on some poem, or painting, or music, or some idea -- the latter often without anyone knowing where it came from.) Our children, or some succeeding generation, will eventually forget us, except for genealogy addicts, and even they won't really know much about us. But, in spite of that seeming futility, I believe that God has created us in His image, and part of that image causes us to want to learn, to discover.

Why did God do that? I can only guess. There is some potential for some of the knowledge that we have picked up over our life to be passed on to others, as in a book written, a new way of preparing food, an invention, or some other intellectual product. We may also make a living, using our knowledge. We may help to protect our children from danger, or make other people's lives better, because of the knowledge we have acquired. We also ought to glorify God through our knowledge. In my own poor way, that's what I'm trying to do with this blog.

I think we should have purposes for our lives, and collecting and dispensing knowledge can be a worthy goal, even if we know that that won't make a lasting difference.

C. S. Lewis preached a sermon, "Learning in War-time," in 1939, as the second World War was beginning in Europe. (The essay is published in The Weight of Glory.) In that sermon, Lewis said that each Christian "must ask himself how it is right, or even psychologically possible, for creatures who are every moment advancing either to heaven or to hell, to spend any fraction of the little time allowed them in this world on such comparative trivialities as literature or art, mathematics or biology. If human culture can stand up to that, it can stand up to anything."

He also said that "An appetite for these things exists in the human mind, and God makes no appetite in vain. We can therefore pursue knowledge as such, and beauty, as such, in the sure confidence that by so doing we are either advancing to the vision of God ourselves or indirectly helping others to do so."

So, if Lewis was right, and I believe he was, accumulating knowledge, in an unselfish, humble way, is part of what God made us, and wants us, to do, even though most of what we learn won't survive us, and a lot of it won't even last as long as we do, especially if we suffer from dementia.

I thank that reader, and hope that this further response is helpful.

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