The topic presented examines “the possession of knowledge” and whether or not it presents an “ethical responsibility.” The word “possession” means the act of owning or the ownership of something. By using this term, there is an underlying assumption that knowledge itself can be possessed. This essay will explore this assumption and the ethical responsibility attached to this assumption in relevance to three areas of knowledge: science, history and ethics.
The prescribed title claims that we can possess knowledge. Is that a valid claim? To what extent do we own knowledge? One can argue that knowledge cannot be owned. Knowledge exists as an entity individual of the consciousness. Only through discovery does knowledge exist from our perception. Using this analysis, the “possession” or “ownership” of knowledge would only be temporary, as the knowledge exists separate from our being.
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To further explore the possession of knowledge, we must first examine the processing of knowledge through thinking. If knowledge exists as an entity separate from our consciousness and discovery is how we obtain it, we can map out how knowledge travels. The first and initial step would be discovery. After the discovery, we take the new information and process it through our minds, incorporating bias and opinion and intertwining previous knowledge with the new knowledge. Then, we decide whether we should share the knowledge or retain it within our minds.
Thus, we can interpret the “possession” of knowledge as the time frame between “discovery” and either the sharing of knowledge or the end of consciousness, also called death. For example, Isaac Newton created the concept of “gravity” in 1665. However, gravity existed previous to the discovery. We now know that we can exist in the state we do today because of gravity. Upon the discovery and publication of the Laws of Gravity, the general population now retains this information. Thus, Isaac Newton shared his concept with the world, ending the material possession of the knowledge he once “owned”.
However, gravity existed before and after our time of consciousness. If the apocalypse were to occur as we speak and all of humanity was destroyed, gravity would still exist as absolute truth, but not as a truth we have in our realm of knowledge. An individual would then have to “reclaim” the ownership of such knowledge through rediscovery. Using this interpretation, we can postulate that the ownership of knowledge exists from the initial discovery. Sharing knowledge and leading someone to discover knowledge that you previously “possessed” can then be seen as the relinquishment of ownership. The new person then shares the same rights you previously had over the knowledge. To what extent do we carry the responsibility to share knowledge?
Some people would argue that we have the responsibility to share knowledge with everyone – to give up our own and share what we know. However, this does not always lead to positive consequences. For example, Albert Einstein’s discovery of the famous equation “E = mc2” led to the invention of the atomic bomb. Even though Einstein never wanted – even opposed his science being used for warfare – he wanted peace. At one point in time, He possessed the knowledge that would eventually lead to the making of atomic bombs and the death of a lot of people. Although he never intended harm, he has indirectly caused countless causality.
Even with positive intentions, Einstein carries a certain amount of guilt for the deaths caused by the destruction caused by the atomic bombs. Using this example, we can conclude that sharing knowledge can potentially lead to harm. Using this conclusion, can we then state that we are justified in retaining knowledge to ourselves? While sharing knowledge can be dangerous, as proven in the previous example, some may argue that retaining knowledge within our consciousness can be just as harmful. For example, we can look at the quest to discover “El Dorado” or “the Lost City of Gold” in New Spain. The native people in South America told the Spanish Conquistadors tales of a city filled with gold. Still, they neglected to enlighten them with the knowledge of the location of the alleged riches.
The tale captivated to interests of Europeans and caused mass migration from Europeans striving to discover such a city. Upon their arrival, tens of thousands of natives suffered disease, death, and slavery due to the arrival of the foreigners. Furthermore, the merging of the cultures caused social clashes, wars, overthrown empires and the spread of smallpox and other harmful diseases. This conflict was caused by a lack of knowledge. Using this example, we can then conclude that retaining knowledge can also lead to negative consequences.
If both sharing and retaining knowledge within our minds can lead to negative consequences, to what extent should we retain the possession of knowledge? Both keeping knowledge to the individual and sharing knowledge can be dangerous, as proven above. To make this decision – to tell or not to tell – first, we must examine the weight of the decision being made. Using the previous examples, we can also claim that we also carry the temporary possession of power with our temporary possession of knowledge. Upon discovering new knowledge, until we decide whether or not we decide to relinquish such information, we receive power through our capability of choice. An example of this that comes to mind stems from personal experience.
Upon the discovery that my friend committed malpractice on an assignment, I held power to either turn him in to the authorities or to keep to knowledge to myself. Regardless of my decision, for a period of time, I held immense power in my hand. From this, it can be stated that the obtaining of knowledge in certain situations can come with the obtaining of power. After establishing the power that can be potentially obtained through knowledge, we can then ask ourselves how this power presents a burden to our ethical values. As stated above, after the initial discovery of knowledge, there is a phase of interpretation where we process the information.
During this process, we undoubtedly incorporate our own personal opinions and biases into the information. When, or if the knowledge is presented to another individual, the presentation of the knowledge would then be a reflection of both the original information and our own individual way of interpretation. This means that second-hand knowledge will always carry a biased opinion. Is it then unethical to give up our possession of knowledge – to present information to another individual, knowing that our own biases will be interlaced with the raw data?
To answer this question we can look further into the concept of knowledge itself. While sharing biased information from one individual to the next, each incorporating their own opinion into the raw information can be a dangerous process, the biases themselves are forms of new knowledge. If we relinquish our possession of knowledge, we also produce new knowledge in the form of personal interpretation. Therefore, when we give up our ownership of knowledge, we not only surrender the initial information acquired, but we also indirectly surrender information about ourselves to the listener.
Using this analysis, we can then claim that the ethical responsibility attached to the possession of knowledge not only lies with the individual with the knowledge but also to the individual receiving the knowledge. The possession and the relinquishment of knowledge carry a significant amount of ethical responsibility. When we obtain knowledge, we obtain power, and with power, we carry the burden of making a decision. It is our ethical responsibility to make an informed judgement on whether or not to relinquish our initial possession of knowledge.