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‘Usefulness of Uselessness’ and how it serves modern society

Wan Lixin

Wan Lixin

THERE is a fable about a huge tree that provided shade to thousands of cattle in Chapter Four of Chuangtzu, one of the foundational texts of Taoism.

While the crowds admired the tree, a carpenter took no notice of it.

Asked why he continued to ignore the tree, the carpenter said the tree was of no good to him — its wood was of poor quality. But seen from another angle, the “useless” tree, simply by just standing there and providing shade, served a very useful purpose.

I remember the number of times I expressed my aspiration to become a “useful man serving the country and the people” in school compositions.

With the hindsight of Chuangtzu I am not so sure. How do we define “usefulness”? The passage of time enables me to appreciate better the statement that “They also serve who only stand and wait” (John Milton’s “On His Blindness”).

On the face of it, usefulness seems more definable in the fields of science, where it can be expressed in theses, discoveries, inventions and products. But even here usefulness can be elusive.

In his article “The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge” (contained in the titular book by Abraham Flexner, with a companion essay by Robbert Dijkgraaf), Flexner (1866-1959) argues that “useless” knowledge can be a major engine of technological and societal progress. Flexner was the founding director of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton and the man who helped bring Albert Einstein to the United States.

The article starts with a conversation Flexner had some years ago with George Eastman, who meant to devote his large fortune to the promotion of education in useful subjects. When asked to identify the most useful worker in science in the world, he replied instantaneously “Marconi,” the inventor of coherer, the now obsolete receiving device. But Flexner argued in favor of Clerk Maxwell and Heinrich Hertz, whose theoretical breakthroughs in the fields of electricity and magnetism laid the ground for all future inventions. Hertz and Maxwell were geniuses without thought of use, while Marconi was merely a clever inventor.

Flexner further observed “throughout the whole history of science most of the really great discoveries which had ultimately proved to be beneficial to mankind had been made by men and women who were driven not by the desire to be useful but merely the desire to satisfy their curiosity.”

“Curiosity, which may or may not eventuate in something useful, is probably the outstanding characteristic of modern thinking. It goes back to Galileo, Bacon, and to Sir Isaac Newton, and it must be absolutely unhampered,” Flexner wrote.

In pleading for curiosity-driven research Flexner argued that the less deflected the institutions of learning are by considerations of immediacy of application, “the more likely they are to contribute not only to human welfare but to the equally important satisfaction of intellectual interest which may indeed be said to have become the ruling passion of intellectual life in modern life in modern times.”

There is a timeless relevance about Flexner’s words in this essay written 78 years ago, similar to Chuangtzu’s philosophical ruminations about 2,300 years ago. But what happened during the past 78 years did accentuate the need to distinguish between good use and bad use.

Beyond curiosity

Flexner tends to believe that the part played by science in making war more destructive and more horrible was an unforeseen and unintended by-product of scientific activity.

He cited Lord Rayleigh, president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, as explaining how the folly of man, not the intention of the scientists, is responsible for the destructive use of the agents employed in modern warfare.

But this is probably a lighthearted way to explain away the pandemic ecological degradations that cannot but be blamed on the unscrupulous use of science and technology, to say nothing of the killings of human beings with the use of weapons of mass destruction.

It would be simplistic to claim that “dynamite has been abused by politicians and soldiers,” while “scientists are … no more to blame than they are to blame for an earthquake or a flood,” or to conclude that it is men whose hearts were poisoned and whose brains were addled that turned airplane into an instrument of destruction. The state of the world would compel us to re-scrutinize the sanctity of curiosity-driven research. In whatever fields of human endeavors, researchers must first of all be guided by a purpose, moral compass, and should be held responsible for “unintended” consequence. Curiosity alone is not enough to justify research in genetic engineering, lethal chemical or biological agents, or more deadly weapons.

But Flexner was powerful when pleading for the abolition of the word “use,” for the freeing of the human spirit, and for striking the shackles off the human mind.

Flexner observed that with this approach the waste looks prodigious, but it is not really so, as “All the waste that could be summed up in developing the science of bacteriology is nothing compared to the advantages which have accrued from the discoveries of Pasteur, Koch, Ehrlich, Theobald Smith, and score of others — advantages that could never have accrued if the idea of possible use had permeated their minds.”

As Flexner concluded, “over a period of one or two hundred years the contributions of professional schools to their respective activities will probably be found to lie, not so much in the training of men who may tomorrow become practical engineers or practical lawyers or practical doctors, but rather in the fact that even in the pursuit of strictly practical aims an enormous amount of apparently useless activity goes on.”

He argued that a poem, a symphony, a painting, a mathematical truth or a new scientific fact all bear in themselves the justification that universities, colleges, and institutes of research need or require.

My son was asked in a recent school assignment to work out the amount of money we had spent on him in the past year, with the obvious intention of eliciting his determination to pay back our investment with high scores. After reading the pamphlet, I became less sure.

During the past decades, pragmatism has been recognized as the progressive and guiding principle in all spheres of our life. At the beginning of the reform, “useless” subjects like philosophy and Chinese were still the choice of top students. Now the desirability of a specialty is strictly calibrated in strict reference to future salary.

Hence the need for our educators to heed Flexner’s hope for the Institute of Advanced Study that “The Institute must remain small; and it will hold fast to the conviction that The Institute Group desires leisure, security, freedom from organization and routine, and, finally, informal contacts with the scholars of Princeton University and others who from time to time can be lured to Princeton from distant places.”

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