Touching The Limits Of Knowledge

Cosmology and our View of the World


Limitations to Philosophy and our Ways of Knowing
Marty Morrissey & Hannah Varn


Summary by Robert Holt

The night started off with a few definitions, and some setup of the history of philosophy. It was stated that the word “philosophy” is Greek for “a love affair with knowledge.” Philosophy began as the general study of all knowledge, but has evolved a great deal since the days of the ancient Greeks. It has branched to create the empirical sciences, which have limited the scope of philosophy somewhat.

One interesting limit that philosophy has is that it is a so-called “armchair endeavor.” That is, it is something that people do not by getting out there and experiencing things, but rather by talking to people, sitting down and thinking.

An important period in the history of philosophy is the so called “Age of Enlightenment,” which was a movement in Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries, characterized by a strong regard for reason. It was advocated that reason could establish a quantifiable rank or order for any subject, including ethics and art. For example, it was thought that how good a piece of music was could be quantified by something like a mathematical formula.

Naturally, there have been philosophers on both sides of this fence for some time.
Kant said: “have the courage to use your own understanding.” This statement has been called the motto of the Enlightenment. He was trying to show people his opinion on the capacity of knowledge: that a lack of this courage would be an impediment to further one’s own knowledge. He and Hume said, specifically on the knowledge of religion, that there was no way to know the true nature of God, so we should focus on what is capable of being known. Hegel, similarly stating his opinion on the acquisition of truth, said that history and philosophy are processes toward truth. On the subject of personal knowledge and relating knowledge, Nietzsche said that viewing the world in terms of one’s self is unavoidable, so ultimate truth is unattainable. He said that we should deal with the world in terms of ourselves.

It has been said that the limits of ways of knowing may have something to do with physiology. After all, there is only so much we can experience if we are confined to a body. Our bodies, then, are what will get in the way of our knowledge and our exchange of knowledge. Another limit on philosophy has been said to be our use of language. While some words must be interpreted as literally having the same meaning (or perhaps have imperceptible differences) to everyone, the use of metaphor is difficult, if not impossible to escape. There are definitely some words, phrases, and concepts that people see differently. This inhibits the exchange of knowledge because it shows the system of exchange is not perfect; only in a perfect system of exchange would we be able to exchange everything.

On the same page, philosophy is limited due to our ability to share specific aspects of our lives. For example, we will never be or be anyone but ourselves. Even though it is possible for two people to both say “I know what it’s like to be happy,” we can't show or tell someone what it is really like to be us.
Over the course of the night, people began to debate whether philosophy might be limited by our limited perception of the universe. On the one hand, if we don’t have the mental tools to perceive something, how can we ever know it? On the other hand, we see strong examples of people’s perception. Having an experience is not the same as knowing something – maybe everything – about that experience. Therefore, we do not need to be able to experience everything to know everything. For example, it was stated that Helen Keller could never know what Pink Floyd's "The Wall" was like. Dr. deVries makes the challenge of anyone to say what it was that she could not know about that movie. Importantly, she does not need to experience the movie itself to understand what it is about, or to have an in-depth conversation about the nature of the movie and its themes.

An important topic of discussion that night was the difference between physics and metaphysics. The question “does God exist?” is a metaphysical question because it will always be theoretical – we will never have empirical proof one way or the other. Metaphysics contains those things that can be called “extra natural.” In addition, Metaphysics includes the concepts of numbers and minds, because neither will be observed through scientific observation or experiment. For example, a five will never walk into a bar. We will never see what color a mind is. Behavior, on the other hand, is arguably an empirical study because it can be observed, quantified and predicted.

An important question was discussed as the night moved on. Is it possible to bring together science and mysticism? After all, in order to have a full appreciation for knowledge, it is important to understand multiple fields in outline along with your own. In addition, it is possible to draw concepts from one discipline and apply them somewhere where you might not expect. Erwin Schrödinger, for example, was very into eastern mysticism in his work on quantum mechanics.