Benjamin Franklin Rational Knowledge
Kennon-Green & Co. Global Asset Management, Wealth Management, Investment Advisory, and Value Investing

As investors, the better we understand the world, and the forces that drive it, the better the opportunity we have to generate a profit for our families or companies.  To that end, if you want to understand humanity politically, economically, socially, culturally, and historically, you need to realize that all humans see the world through one of two worldviews, which I refer to as revealed knowledge or rational knowledge.  Everyone, regardless of their race, creed, or nationality, approaches life through one of these two filters, to varying degrees.  

  • Revealed Knowledge: Certain behaviors, actions, philosophies, people, or items are ‘good’ or ‘bad’ based upon the authoritative word of some higher power.  Sometimes this higher power is an individual person or a group of people, such as the ‘dear leader’ who is worshipped by the North Korean proletariat.  Other times it comes from a supernatural entity, such as the ancient Israelites believing that God gave Moses tens of thousands of words governing personal conduct and society.  A nation that operates its government using almost entirely revealed knowledge is Iran.
  • Rational Knowledge: What is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ depends upon what you are trying to achieve, and specific rules, regulations, or laws must have demonstrable, provable, fact-based data to support conclusions.  A nation that operates its government using almost entirely rational knowledge is The Netherlands.

Someone who views the world through the lens of revealed knowledge has a belief, and then attempts to force all of the evidence to support the conclusion.  If it does not support the conclusion, is it either discounted or discarded.  Someone who views the world through the lens of rational knowledge would look at the evidence and either admit he didn’t know, or theorize on the most probable likelihood, accepting the possibility that he might be incorrect, meaning he may need to adjust in the future as more evidence is discovered.  In short:

Revealed Knowledge = A conclusion in search of evidence
Rational Knowledge = Evidence in search of a conclusion

More than 2,400 years ago, Socrates developed an interesting question to help his students understand which of the two camps they followed by posing what is now known as the Euthyphro Dilemma.  He asked: “Is something ‘good’ because God says it is good, making it dependent upon His will, or does God say something is ‘good’ because it is inherently ‘ right’, making goodness independent of His will?”

An illustration: Is murder bad because God says it is bad, or is murder bad because it is evil in and of itself?  Your answer to that will illuminate something very deep, and profound, about how you think the world is structured.  My answer can be found in the post I wrote a few years ago called What Is Morality?.  You must decide your own answer for yourself.

To someone who sees the world through a revealed knowledge framework, the highest ideals are obedience and blind allegience.  To someone who sees the world through a rational knowledge framework, the highest ideals are logical conclusions and independent thinking based upon demonstrable facts.

Revealed Knowledge Can Lead to Some Odd or Sub-Optimal Behavior in Society

Generally, the root of all revealed knowledge is a deep-seated anxiety about the world.  That is its own essay that is far too expansive to go into here.  

Revealed knowledge can lead to some interesting developments because there does not, by definition, have to be any rationality behind it.  Sometimes, revealed knowledge happens to be rational.  Many times, it is not.  Take an example in politics: I know an 80+ year old farmer who votes as a Democrat solely because, “my mama and daddy did it, their mamas and daddies did it.  We are Democrats.  We have always been Democrats.”  Yet, he can’t actually tell you anything the Democrats believe or stand for in elections.  He is relying on the presumed wisdom of someone else’s authority and judgment to determine how he behaves.

Benjamin Franklin Rational Knowledge

Benjamin Franklin is one of history’s most famous examples of a man who went through life primarily using a rational knowledge approach to public policy, government functioning, economics, and science.  In some areas of life, he occasionally tipped to the revealed knowledge side of the spectrum, by believing, for example, that the world was created by God, who then left it to run according to the laws of physics, mathematics, and cause-and-effect that He had established.

Let’s look at another example.  It’s fairly evident that there have been human societies around for 50,000 to 100,000 years or more, but we really can’t talk about what happened prior to 6,000 years ago because the Sumerians discovered writing at that time, leaving a record that we can study.

Since those written records began, historians have cataloged somewhere short of 4,000 supernatural beings, of which roughly 2,870 are considered gods by the last count I could find.  At various times, a majority of the civilized people on the planet have worshipped Ra, Hades, Zeus, Krishna, Vishnu, Mars, Thor, Odin, Brahma, Chac, Quetzalcoatl, An, Aruru, Enki, Nanna, Utu, ad infinitum.  Through the human priests who wrote down or spoke the ‘revealed’ knowledge, elaborate rituals were created, and social codes prescribed.  Chances are, you are an atheist in virtually all of these religions, unless you believe Ninurta is still hanging around the Middle East.

If you happened to live in a society that worshipped Quetzalcoatl, they truly believed, with every fiber of their being, that their god demanded human sacrifice.  They would slaughter one of their own and offer up the blood.  Someone who had a rational knowledge world view would look at the situation and say, “There is no evidence that blood results in a better harvest or greater prosperity, it harms the person involved, acclimates the rest of us to violent murder, and lowers the human capital of the civilization.  Therefore, I do not believe it to be in the best interest of society regardless of the fact that the priests say god revealed this information to us”.  To protect their own craving for confirmation bias through social proof, the revealed knowledge people would label the rational knowledge person a heretic, blasphemer, apostate, false prophet, or any other number of terms depending upon the particular belief system employed.

[mainbodyad]Revealed knowledge acts as the social equivalent of a graphics card in a computer; it outsources the processing to a different mechanism so the main processor (intellect) isn’t overwhelmed, either due to neural limitations or the pressures of merely surviving in difficult conditions.  Thinking isn’t required; follow the rules and all is well, whether that means a good harvest, eternal salvation, long life, or greater financial prosperity.  It has been this way as long as mankind has kept written records.  After all, parents sacrificed their children to Moloch, god of Fire, for the sake of their agriculture holdings.  In a rational knowledge framework, that is an absurd way to behave.

A Modern Example of Revealed Knowledge vs. Rational Knowledge

You see this distinction all the time in the modern world, as well.  The beliefs may have changed, but people have not.  Consider the case of Noah’s Ark.  It is believed that Moses wrote the first five books of the Bible somewhere between 1,400 and 1450 B.C., including the flood narrative. 

Today, there are millions of educated adults in the United States who were told the story of the great flood during childhood.   They never examine it, or question it, because of that early indoctrination.  Now, they rely entirely on revealed knowledge.  Young Earth Creationists believe that the flood actually happened, exactly as described in Genesis, despite the overwhelming considerations proving that it could not have occurred on a worldwide basis from a geological, biological, geographical, genetic, and chronological point of view.  Tracing the birth dates of the various characters in the Bible, the flood was supposed to have hit around the same time the Egyptians were building the pyramids.  If all of mankind were wiped out, the greatest, and only standing, wonder of the ancient world wouldn’t remain.  Animals would be distributed out from a center radius from the point of landing, which is not at all how life is disbursed throughout the world.  We could not have the marine life we enjoy because many types of fish require very specialized water sources to survive.  You could not have genetic diversity because a few thousand years of reproduction would not be enough for full race diversification of DNA; the entire world would consist of nothing but Jews and Arabs with no Caucasians, Blacks, Native Americans, Japanese, Chinese, Koreans, Pacific Islanders, Eskimo, or Vikings.  The list of comparable objections is overwhelming and expansive.  

These Young Earth Creationists also ignore the fact that Noah’s flood story was an adaptation of much older, and more famous, flood narratives from the dominant civilizations of the day.  

Noah After the Flood by Francesco Bassano

Any decent academic, theologian, or religious authority knows that the story of Noah is an adaptation of the much older Epic of Gilgamesh. The details are nearly identical and Abraham would have been taught this story during his childhood in Ur.

They are completely ignorant of the Sumerian story of Ziusudra, from several centuries before Moses’ time, a man warned by the gods to build a great boat to protect himself against a flood that the gods were going to use to wipe out mankind. 

They don’t know about the Epic of Gilgamesh, which Abraham would have known during his childhood in Ur.  In it, hero Utnapishtim is warned by Ea of the plans of the gods (Anu, Enlil, Ninurta, Ennugi, and Ea) to destroy mankind.  He is told to demolish his house and build a boat, regardless of the cost, to save himself and as many animals as he can.  The design structure of the boat is given to the man by the god and he loaded “all the living beings” that he had into it, including his relatives.  When the flood came, the god Shamash gave the order to the boat master to seal the door.  After the flood, the boat landed on a mountaintop.  Utnapishtim released a dove, which came back after having no place to land.  Later, he released a swallow, which, likewise, could not find a place to land.  Finally, he released a raven, which did not return so he knew dry land could be found.  He exited the boat, gave a sacrifice, the gods smelled the “sweet odor” of the animals, and promised to never flood the Earth again.  The story of Noah is a near perfect adaptation that was written much later in history.

Some people straddle the fence between revealed knowledge and rational knowledge.  There are a significant percentage of pastors and priests who consider stories like the Noah passages not to be literal historical fact but, instead, grand metaphors meant to teach us lessons about life, God, the nature of sin, the importance of repentance and obedience, judgment, and faith.  Thus, a rational knowledge approach to life does not preclude religion in and of itself, nor is it mutually exclusive with a belief in God.  Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson are perhaps two of the most famous examples of this.  These men were overwhelmingly rational knowledge adherents, yet they allowed for the possibility of a divine creation event and, in extension, a divine Creator.

Putting Revealed Knowledge and Rational Knowledge Into Context

When you understand that this dichotomy between revealed knowledge and rational knowledge is responsible for many of the splits you see in a given society, it becomes evident why the two sides of any particular issue grow exasperated with one another.  They aren’t actually debating whether, say, a woman should be punished for wearing lipstick or whether the flood of Noah was a literal event; these are symptoms of a worldview shift in which one party, the rationalist, is using intellect, and one party, the revealed adherent, is trusting on faith something he or she was told without any proof and, often, in the face of considerable counter-evidence that the belief is flat-out wrong.

Pay attention to the world around you.  You will now see the split everywhere.  You will notice it in politics.  You will see it in religion.  You will come across it in cultural practices.  You will observe it in economics.  It does more to explain the motivations and behaviors of people than many other models you may already utilize in your intellectual toolbox.