11 February 2021

The Limits of knowledge


The Limits of knowledge - topic by Luis


Essay by Lawrence



Natural language can easily lead philosophers into contradictions or quandaries. The concept of infinity excludes the possibility of knowledge being limited. Unless, that is, infinity stops when the physical universe stops. But wouldn’t this mean that infinity does not mean forever without coming to an end?


Moving on from this conundrum we need to establish what we mean by the issue of the topic. Do we mean the limits of what we can know? Or the limits of what can be known? We can exclude the option that the limits of knowledge are the limits of what humans can know. In effect what we know is a part of what is knowable, and by our standards what is knowable is practically limitless.


For example, this definition of what is knowable does not seem to contradict the Heisenberg uncertainty principle. In other words knowledge must have the condition of having knowable properties. Can we therefore say that in the two slit experiment it is not knowable where the particle is between the particle launcher and the photographic plate behind the two slits? Contrast this with infinity coming to an end when the universe stops.


The two slit experiment seems to imply that since we cannot account for the whole trajectory of the particle then there is a gap in what is knowable that does not follow the chain of causality. An objection or two might be that the two slit experiment applies only to the quantum world whereas what is knowable has to be in the macro world (Newtonian physics) otherwise we wouldn’t be able to perceive it. Alternatively there is always the element of scepticism with our methodology on how we account for the quantum world. Maybe our mathematics is deficient or has limits in what we can account with it. The letter argument reflects the objection that if nature abhors a vacuum then surly it abhors the “nothingness” between the launcher and the photographic plate: there must be something going on but we don’t know what it is.


I have already argued that the meaning of such concepts as infinity is itself limited. The problem is not that infinity by definition means forever and ever, but rather we now know that sometime in the future the universe will either suffer a Big Crunch, that is it will stop expanding and collapse on itself (maybe becoming the mother of all black holes). Or the universe will keep on expanding leading to a Big Yawn. Either way information about what is knowable cannot become independent of the big crunch or information is too scattered to be meaningful to convert into knowledge.


Another key issue is that the word “knowledge” is just a language word and what we can learn about this word is very limited and totally uninteresting. Thus when we speak of knowledge we need to imply the question, knowledge about what?


And this question implies that the information and data we have about something (perceptions) can be converted into knowledge. From the human perspective knowledge must be in the form we can convert to human perception. In our case information must take a physical form that can be stored in our memory. For example we see colours when we look at flowers, but today we know that bees see in the ultraviolet spectrum and therefore they don’t see what we see when we look at a flower. With the help of our understanding of the energy spectrum and our ability to build devices and tools we can “see” what the bees see. Of course, I doubt that bees can imagine let alone experience flowers in the colour spectrum.


Thus there is knowledge about flowers that bees cannot know about let alone have knowable information about flowers. They do not know about colours and cannot have knowledge about the colour of flowers. Until bees can device an instrument that can show them the colours of flowers that knowledge does not form part of the “bee knowledge” compendium.


I am not saying that just because we cannot see something then it does not exist, but rather unless we can see (or understand) something we are not even cognisant that such knowledge exists. Indeed what is important for us is that we can understand that something exists or might exist. Thus our capacity to understand the world around us puts us in a privileged position of what we can know without direct experience of it. With this capacity of understand and experience our compendium of knowledge in much greater than what we can possible know as individuals and as a collective. Our capacity to understand such mental tools as “what if…”, “A if and only if (iff) B”, “A or not A”, “what do I/we have to do to have A?” gives us a conceptual edge over other forms of thinking.


In 2010 Scientific American published an article (1) by Paul Reber answering the question about the memory capacity of the human brain: “For comparison, if your brain worked like a digital video recorder in a television, 2.5 petabytes would be enough to hold three million hours of TV shows.” This figure reflects the potential of what neurons can achieve by networking and not the physical capacity of neurons in the brain.


What is important for us is that we have the capacity to hold a huge amount of information in our brain, but our knowledge can sometime also be manipulated into more efficient forms. For example we can just remember Pi() to ten decimal places 3.141,592,653,5 or we can use a practical formula for Pi, 22/7, or we can interrogate our nearest calculator to give us Pi, or even look up the value on the internet. At each level of information we need a more complex set of knowledge but the accuracy and functionality increases dramatically.


As far as facts about the universe are concerned objective knowledge is endless or at lease enormous enough to keep us busy for a long time to come. As I said knowledge is also the term we use to label what we know; surely we cannot label something in the universe that we do not know it exists. But this definition of knowledge, the philosophical definition of knowledge, is qualified by what we have access to and what is knowable. So just because something works it does not mean we have all the knowledge about that something; we may or may not have full access and yet what we know is enough for our purposes. For example Pi equals 3.141, is not as robust as the Pi formula 22/7 but still weak for certain purposes in science and architecture.


To conclude, the limits of knowledge or what can be knowable, is limited by events of the universe and by our limitations to describe and obtain such knowledge; the infinity argument. And just because we do not know certain things it does not follow that there isn’t more knowledge out there; the bee example. Given that the purpose of knowledge is for us to use it (e.g. Pi) our capacity to convert information about the universe into perceptible physical events means that we may or may not have full access to knowledge. Basically there is a good chance that some knowledge is lost in the transition from being knowledge out there to knowledge in our brain that may limit the scope of our knowledge.


For a footnote our imagination is not a source of knowledge not only because of the Private Language argument but also because our imagination is a function of our brain.



(1) What Is the Memory Capacity of the Human Brain?



Best Lawrence






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