Touching The Limits Of Knowledge

Cosmology and our View of the World


Limits to the Knowable & The Theory of Everything
Lead: James Ledoux & Kevin Rehberg


Summary by David Schrier:


Limits to the Knowable & The Theory of Everything

James started off the discussion with explaining the Theory of Everything. The Theory of Everything is a theoretical unification of the 4 fundamental forces by physicists. The 4 fundamental forces are as follows:

Gravity - no explanation needed
Electrical and magnetic forces - phenomena in which electrical fields with produce a magnetic field and vice versa
Strong force - the forces, which hold atoms together in a bond
Weak force - the forces, which cause atoms to break down over time, beta decay

It was explained that if one mathematical understanding could be deduced from all 4 of these forces into one "equation" that there wouldn't necessarily be anything beneficial to come from this, but it would allow theoretical physicists a better "tool" to try and predict phenomena related to these 4 forces at extreme conditions, for example how these forces may have interacted during the big bang. A unification of these forces would also try and help a physicist locate more, or new, elementary particles in the universe. In theory, once the basic building blocks of the universe are located then everything else can be understood. Robin then brought up the point that this view is very similar to a philosophical reductionist view in which the parts can help explain the whole. An example for which the building blocks can help explain the larger picture is in predicting the weather. A fundamental understanding of what causes the weather to be what it is necessary for predicting what the weather may or may not become.

From there, the discussion began to focus on the limits of the knowable, that is, what are things that we may never know no matter how advanced our technologies become. James suggested that consciousness is something that we will never know about because each individual has his or her own consciousness that will probably never be able to be studied. It was then brought up that knowledge has certain hierarchical characteristics to it, and that some types of knowledge are more important than others. From there, another student suggested that maybe there is nothing that isn't knowable, but there is a random chance that we can know it. An example that was given was a lottery number. You might be able to guess what the winning lottery number is and therefore you know what the number is. It was then debated whether or not a guess about knowing something or random chances can qualify knowledge.

From there, a few more suggestions were brought up as to things we may never know about. One of these was death. It was suggested that we will never know, as living beings, what death is because once we are dead we are dead and will never be able to report to the living what it is like. We may, however, be able to know what it is like to be dying and be able to explain that to others. Another example of the limits of our knowledge was brought up by Josh. He mentioned that the limits of our mind will limit the amount of knowledge we can obtain. The example he gave was being able to imagine a 4D image in our mind. Another student then mentioned that one cannot have an idea about something unless they have experienced it for themselves so one will never be able to "picture" a 4D image in their mind since one has never seen a 4D image.

Val then suggested propositional knowledge by description vs. acquaintance and knowledge that is false. He described how an individual can believe that they know something, and it can be generally accepted that this person is correct, but the knowledge is in fact false. Conor then asked if we consider our knowledge only personal knowledge or general knowledge obtained by humanity. If personal knowledge was the only knowledge we had, he then said that limits to that knowledge would be our life span because we can only gather information for so long before we die. However, if knowledge is a collection of everyone's experiences, then someday we, as a species, can perhaps know everything due to written texts etc. Kevin then said that to know something is to experience something on an individual level. In response to that Tom brought up the point that prepositional knowledge can exist in a society where knowledge is justified believable and true, where truth corresponds to reality, and absolute truth is observer independent. An example to back this up was illusions seen by a schizophrenic. They may see things and believe them to be true, therefore knowledge, but their illusions are not real, therefore not true to society. In response to this, a student brought up the point that if knowledge is experience on a personal level then know one will ever know anything as a society because every individual sees things and hears things differently than someone else.

From there a discussion of the Uncertainty Principle was brought up. Essentially, knowing anything requires the observer to interact with the object of interest in some way or another, so that the object of interest will never be known apart from our interactions with it. It was then suggested that this is a very large limitation to the knowable. An example given to explain this was given by Kevin in which he showed an electron micrograph of a neuron, and explained that we can only see something as small as the wavelength of light being used, and that we may never know what exists at a microscopic level smaller than what our instruments can show us.

Near the end of our discussion, an old cliché was brought up how if a tree falls in the woods does it make a sound? From there a discussion on what exactly a sound is, was discussed. Some students felt that the tree generating sound waves as it fell was a sound, but others felt that the sound was the brains interpretation of those sound waves. From this comment, it was also brought up that a sound can be experienced qualitatively within one’s own mind without any outside stimuli such as thinking about a piece of music which may bring back certain experiences and feelings related to that piece of music. This again went back to the discussion of personal experience and knowledge. Tom brought up the point that if someone was deaf and went into the woods, they could deduce that the tree made a sound, but could not actually hear it. They would have the certainty of the sound, but not the experience, and it was then discussed if the deaf person would actually have the knowledge of that sound or not. As a final point it was brought up that some children seem to recollect past lives and experiences and what this means. One student then mentioned how children experience many things and try and tell their parents or other adults about these experiences, but they are often brushes aside because they are children, and that this limits our level of knowledge because we are eliminating experiences from a group of our society.