Dismiss Notice
Join Physics Forums Today!
The friendliest, high quality science and math community on the planet! Everyone who loves science is here!

Is the pursuit of knowledge selfish?

  1. Jul 6, 2007 #1
    Why do some of us constantly pursue knowledge? Probably because attaining it, or part of it if you want to get technical, is a satisfaction in itself. Are we not, then, pursuing knowledge for the sole purpose of satisfying ourselves? We can say that the knowledge we obtain and share might be useful for others, making the pursuit ultimately selfless, but the question is not there; at the individual level, I suspect that only few of the people who pursue knowledge do it to serve anyone or anything other than themselves. I'd like to learn about your views on the question.
  2. jcsd
  3. Jul 6, 2007 #2
    Indeed I do partake on the constant pursue of knowledge for self satisfaction, but there is nothing wrong with that. But I can use that knowledge for the benefiet of others.
  4. Jul 7, 2007 #3
    All living things have goals of survival of some sort as is dictated by their biological makeup via chemistry. Selfishness is just a manifestation of this physical condition. In some species members would sacrifice themselves for the benefit of the group they may be part of. i.e bees die after they sting an object. However they would still sting if they believe something is of threat to its colony.

    Hunter gatherers may live less selfishly than in some of today's capitalist countries because they depend on each other more. So the group as a whole is selfish but not necessary each individual.

    I have the impression that academics are able to work more independently than people in other large organisations like the government or large corporation. So in this way there is less depenence on others so academics who by definition constantly pursue knowledge tend to be more selfish. Soley because it is more often a solitary acitivity then otherwise.

    Or you could look at it another way. The professionals of pursuiting knowledge the academics are often underpaid. i.e For the amount they work, they could be earning much more in some other organisation. Money satisfies so if they willing to trade money for something else that something else must also be something that satisfies. That something is the pursuit of knowledge. I don't think it is because they like the teaching because most academics seem to not like it as much and would rather spend the majority of their time on research.

    They do share the knowledge that they find. But the underlying reason is because that is how they are paid and also to show their peers what they are capable of. The indirect result is that other people are able to have that knowledge but that is not what motivates them.

    Feynman may have summarised everything "Physics [possilby any discipline as viwed by the respective academic] is like sex, there may be useful consequences but that is not why we do it".

    Here is another one from him "So, ultimately, in order to understand nature it may be necessary to have a deeper understanding of mathematical relationships. But the real reason is that the subject is enjoyable, and although we humans cut nature up in different ways, and we have different courses in different departments, such compartmentalization is really artificial, and we should take our intellectual pleasures where we find them."
    Last edited: Jul 7, 2007
  5. Aug 19, 2007 #4


    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Science Advisor

    Is eating food selfish? Well if I fed only myself without concern for others - then perhaps yes.

    Not for the sole purpose. I eventually share a lot of what I learn with others - professionally, academically and otherwise.

    There is perhaps some knowledge which I keep to myself because it would be of no interest to anyone else. I can be fascinated by the most trivial things. :biggrin:

    Besides, I'm inherently and insatiably curious. My mind is like a lint collector, and it's full of stuff.

    Many of my colleagues share what they know. That's why we have conferences and meetings.
  6. Aug 20, 2007 #5
    Have brain, will use. After all, use it or loose it.
  7. Aug 20, 2007 #6


    User Avatar
    Gold Member

    Pretty much everything we do is selfish. That's why being fair works so well. Of course, sometimes you have to enforce fairness.
  8. Aug 20, 2007 #7

    Ivan Seeking

    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Science Advisor
    Gold Member

    In the most practical sense, we pursue knowledge so that we can make a living, honor our responsibilities to our families, be more valuable as employees, and to help solve problems that affect others. That doesn't sound very selfish to me. There is also value in gaining a well rounded perspective, so studies need not be specific to a particular endeavor in order to have value.
    Last edited: Aug 22, 2007
  9. Aug 22, 2007 #8

    Ivan Seeking

    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Science Advisor
    Gold Member

    Is it surprising that modern society requires that we act in ways that are fundamental to our nature?
Share this great discussion with others via Reddit, Google+, Twitter, or Facebook