Limits to Knowledge

While knowledge can be limited by our own personal abilities and resources, this is not the primary focus of this essay. For it will be argued that philosophical knowledge, both theological and scientific , is also limited in its ability to explain both ‘purpose’ and ‘causality’ at work within the universe. As indicated, we are starting from a premise that both theology and science are also a form of philosophic knowledge, which attempts to explain ‘purpose’ and ‘causality’ respectively. This said, we possibly need to make some justification of this position by tabling some questions.

What is knowledge?

Let us start with the diagram above that provides some initial indication of the broad scope of knowledge. We might then ask how, and by what means, was this breadth and depth of this knowledge acquired. While we might reasonably assume that this acquisition of knowledge was based on both experience and study, it does not quantify whether all this knowledge has been empirically verified by observation. If so, then aspects of both theological and scientific knowledge may be predicated on what are essentially philosophical assumptions grounded in two types of logic.

So, what is different about philosophy?

Traditionally, philosophy has encompassed the study of anything and everything, such that it might question the causes, principles and even the purpose of existence through a process of logical reasoning. In broad terms, this logical reasoning may be ‘deductive’  then going from premise to conclusion or alternatively ‘inductive’ when going from observation to conclusion. However, if the issue in question exists beyond empirical observation, then deductive logic alone may proceed on a false premise, such that this perception of knowledge may be equally false.

So how might theology be a philosophy?

While theology encompasses the study of religion, it is not necessarily constrained to the beliefs of a specific religion and may therefore expand to be more philosophical in scope. If so, then within this wider framework, theology has the scope to consider the issue of purpose within the universe without necessarily assuming the role of an intelligent creator. Of course, for many, this idea leaves the question of purpose unresolved or, at least, open to other ideas. However, even within this wider scope, it might be argued that theology has never been in a position to verify any deductive premise about purpose within the universe with empirical evidence.

And how might science be a philosophy?

Historically, natural philosophy was essentially an intellectual study of the nature of the physical universe long before the various branches of modern science were established that did not, or could not, verify all its logical premises. Equally, in these earlier times, it was often simply accepted that the issue of purpose was a theological matter to be resolved in terms of whichever religious scriptures dominated a given society. However, over time, science was given more freedom to start investigating the day-to-day world of physical causality, even though what was unknown was often deferred to some ‘guiding hand’. In this respect science has often been confined to deductive logic, such that the idea that all scientific knowledge was, or is, empirically verified needs to be questioned further.

But does this description still apply in the modern world?

While the institutions of the modern world have possibly changed beyond all recognition, it is not clear that basic human nature is so different. Of course, humanity has never shared a single nature, such that people of different cultures, abilities and resources may seek answers to apparently unresolve questions within a worldview based on theology and/or science. In this respect, a multitude of philosophical premises within both theology and science still play a role when attempting to answer the ‘big questions’ we might have about purpose and causality within the wider universe without necessarily questioning the limits to this knowledge.

So, what are the limits of this type of knowledge?

Let us consider the idea that knowledge may exist in three basic forms, beliefs, logic and facts. While we might weight these forms towards theology, philosophy and science, they can apply to all. For an unproven premise without reference to empirical evidence is possibly not that different to a belief and is certainly not a verified fact. So, while theology may extend beyond religious belief, it is still constrained by the limits of philosophical deductive logic when a premise cannot be verified. If so, any theological discussion of the ‘purpose’ at work within the universe remains essentially conjecture. In contrast, science may argue that its methodology is grounded in both inductive and deductive logic, such that any deductive premise has to be verified against inductive logic supported by observations. However, it might be recognized that many aspects of theoretical science operates beyond the threshold of the observable universe, both large and small, which can be verified by direct observation. If so, then science like theology has also reached a limit to its knowledge beyond which causality also remains conjecture.

What are the dangers to these limits of knowledge?

In truth, humanity has always existed, and survived, without necessarily understanding any purpose at work within the universe or the fundamental principles of causality that might explain its workings. While developments suggest that the collective knowledge of humanity has increased exponentially through spoken languages, the written word, printed books and computer processing, none of these developments have necessarily excluded some knowledge being based on a false premise. In fact, many of these developments may have only compounded the issue of a false premise by allowing ideas to be propagated more widely as authoritative knowledge. In this context, the danger inherent in our limited knowledge is not the limit itself, but whether we collectively recognize where this limit exists.

What are the limits of theological purpose?

While it has to be accepted that many people may need to believe in some a guiding purpose, both in their own lives and the wider universe, for both psychological and emotional reasons, the premise of this belief may still be false. The failure to accept this limit has not only resulted in many dying for their beliefs, all of which could not have been true, but undoubtedly resulted in even more deaths of people, who simply did not share their beliefs. This is not an argument for atheism if it is accepted that beliefs may play a fundamentally important role in the lives of many and may be a very necessary solace in times of grief. However, beliefs imposed on others with fanatical certainty has never been good for humanity as a whole.

What are the limits of scientific causality?

It might be argued, at least within the context of classical science, that physical causality is based on the inductive premise of observed cause and effect. While the development of relativity and then quantum physics may have muddy the waters in respect to physical causality, it is still generally accepted that the classical premise holds true. Of course, there is another concept of cause and effect that is not directly physical and lies within the ability of powerful institutions of society to causally affect the world in terms of politics, economics and social norms. While this idea appears to be drifting away from the issue specific to scientific causality, history tells us that science does not work in a vacuum separated from the rest of human society. For science is a human undertaking and many scientists may continue to consider the role of science from within the confines of their own worldview or the cultural worldview in which they live. So while many may like to believe that the enlightenment of the 17th and 18th century freed science to pursue physical causality, recent developments in the 20th and 21st century might question this belief. For today, we often hear of an apparent consensus within science, even though history has repeatedly rejected the ideas held by a consensus. However, a consensus may hold sway over both public and scientific opinion, such that the knowledge pertaining to physical causality can be side-tracked by a false premise. Of course, even if not constrained by the consensus of opinion, the premise of physical causality may still be based only on deductive logic, such that a hypothesis or theory remains unchallenged because empirical verification lies beyond the limits of science.

Is there a way to mitigate the limitations outlined?

Yes, but it is not obvious that an easy solution is possible if the issues outlined are rooted deep within the human condition. While the concept of the human condition is complex and multifaceted, we might consider the idea that self-interests may drive the action of not only individuals, but the powerful institutions within society. If so, then we possibly need to frame the previous question above in a different way.

So, how might self-interests have come to influenced both theology and science?

In the context of the question tabled above, we are considering the validity of any philosophical premise within theological and scientific knowledge, if biased to meet the self-interests of individuals and collective groups. From a historical and theological perspective, it might be accepted that many creation myths were developed in the absence of any real knowledge of purpose or causality at work within the wider universe. However, it might be recognized that these myths possibly reflected a psychological or emotional need for some sort of answer. This said, over time, others possibly came to recognize a wider advantage to themselves, if they spoke with authority on the nature of creation in which the issue of causality could be effectively subordinated. Over even more time, the scope of various self-interests became subsumed into evermore powerful institutions: theological, political and economic, which were first protected by the force of arms and then by the control of a social consensus. Initially, any consensus in science was subordinated to a theological authority on the issue of purpose, but which then imposed limits to knowledge in respect to physical causality, especially in the early science of celestial mechanics. However, even when freed of direct control by theology, science was not free from the influence of the self-interests of powerful institutions and the people that control them.

Note: This idea is not being forwarded as some form of Machiavellian conspiracy, but simply a statement of how human society works. Adam Smith recognized the influence, and corruption, of self-interest in his seminal work entitled ‘ The Wealth of Nations’ when he stated that ‘the proposal of any new law or regulation comes from men, whose interest is never exactly the same with that of the public, who have generally an interest to deceive and even oppress the public’.

In the context of today’s complex world, the self-interest highlighted by Adam Smith is not just confined to monetary matters, as it now manifests itself in the acquisition of power and influence across all aspects of society, as suggested by the diagram below. This diagram might be linked to Maslow’s more basic hierarchy of human needs, which has been extended to show the more complex interrelationships between various self-interests framed within the institutions of society, i.e. politics, economics and social, which in-turn might be guided by a worldview influenced by some combination of philosophy, theology and science.

But where does purpose and causality exist in this model?

If we consider this question in terms of just human survival, as described by Maslow’s three most basic needs, then the first need is physiological and relates to the physical need for warmth, shelter and food. The second need relates to safety, both in terms of the physical security from dangers and the suppression of psychological fear. Finally, the third need relates to social dependency in the sense that groups may better satisfy both physical and safety needs plus the additional psychological need for family and friends. In the context of these basic needs, any wider purpose may be reduced to a simple sound-bite: ‘eat, survive, reproduce’ without reference to any metaphysical purpose within the world, let alone the wider universe. Of course, within the development of social groups, numerous creation myths took root, where the social needs of survival invariably required conformance to the beliefs of the group. Later, these earlier creation myths were often replaced by the idea of a monotheistic theology based on Judaism, Christianity and Islam, where failure to conform had some very obvious implications on personal survival. However, the need for conformance still exists in the modern world, where the hierarchy of power and influence now extends far beyond the original authority of theological institutions.

Note: With reference to the previous diagram, it is argued that the blue half-circle contains the primary institutions of society, where each has its own hierarchy of self-interests and power. Likewise, the green half-circle contains the primary ideas that may underpin a given worldview, which also has its own hierarchy of self-interests and power. In such a system, the sum total of self-interests that control a society may be far from obvious.

In part, the control alluded to in the note above might be likened to a Ouija board, where the outcome is not necessarily controlled by any single person. However, if we set aside any paranormal influences, then we have to question whether any meaningful result can be pure chance. In this respect, the control imposed on any society may be the net sum of all the powerful self-interests suggested, where the issue of any deeper metaphysical purpose to life or fundamental causality at work may be subordinated to numerous competing self-interests in the everyday world.

So, where do these ideas lead us?

The conclusion that there are limits to human knowledge will be unsurprising to most, although the consequences possibly need to be highlighted. If knowledge is predicated on a deductive premise without empirical verification, then any conclusions remain questionable. However, even if knowledge is predicated on inductive observation, then any conclusion might still be questionable. In this respect, theology based on only deductive logic has to be classified as unproven philosophical knowledge, while a scientific hypothesis that extends beyond verification has also to be classified as unproved philosophic knowledge. On this basis, humanity does not have proven knowledge of any purpose at work within the wider universe or necessarily understands causality at work within either the cosmic or subatomic universe. However, it might also be argued that most of human knowledge is further limited by humanity itself through the imposition of self-interests within its institutions of power. While such limits have always been imposed throughout human history, it is possible that technology now allows the information underpinning knowledge to be manipulated on a scale that was previously unimagined – see Brave New Worlds. Today, powerful self-interests in the form of political, economic and social institutions are increasingly using mainstream and social media to distort information to influence, if not, control public opinion. In the future, developments in AI will compound this situation through its ability to generate ‘fake news’in the form of sounds, pictures and videos, such that the reality of everything we see and hear may also become increasingly questionable – see Scope of Propaganda. If such developments are integrated into social credit systems, as already being developed by China and other governments around the world, then the ability of those few individuals who even care to speak out about the loss of personal freedom may effectively be silenced – see The Great Disinformation Hoax  or more details.

George Orwell: “Every record has been destroyed or falsified, every book has been rewritten, every picture has been repainted, every statue and street building has been renamed, every date has been altered. And that process is continuing day by day and minute by minute. History has stopped. Nothing exists except the endless present in which the party is always right. And if all others accepted the lie which the Party imposed, if all records told the same tale, then the lie passes into history and becomes truth. Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past”.