Unraveling Reality {42} The Limits of Knowledge

The Limits of Knowledge

“There’s something wrong with the world. You don’t know what it is. But it’s there.” ~ Morpheus, in the movie The Matrix (1977)

Intellectual fallibility is intrinsic in the life of any sentient being. This is by design.

“We may regard the present state of the universe as the effect of its past and the cause of its future. An intellect which at a certain moment would know all forces that set Nature in motion, and all positions of all items of which Nature is composed, if this intellect were also vast enough to submit these data to analysis, it would embrace in a single formula the movements of the greatest bodies of the universe and those of the tiniest atom; for such an intellect nothing would be uncertain and the future just like the past would be present before its eyes.” ~ Pierre-Simon Laplace in 1814

Pierre-Simon Laplace was one of the greatest scientists of his time. Peculiarly, Laplace’s work on probability led him to certainty – a conclusion which became known as Laplace’s demon: that omniscience would render existence entirely predictable for all time. This was the first published articulation of scientific determinism.

In crowning causality as the sovereign of science, the deterministic demon proved inspirational to the scientifically minded that followed in Laplace’s wake. It was a sophistic siren.

Deep in the deluge of knowledge that poured forth in the 20th century were ironclad limits on what can be known.

In 1926, addressing what might be learned about the qualities of elemental quanta, German theoretical physicist Werner Heisenberg discovered inherent uncertainty. The primordial constituents of matter were inescapably probabilistic at best. Since then, Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle has been proven an unshakable pillar of certitude about Nature’s ways.

In 1931, Austrian American logician Kurt Gödel argued that, for any formal mathematical system to be useful, it is impossible to use the system to prove every truism it contains. Mathematically speaking, truth involves faith at some point. Gödel’s incompleteness theorems are indispellable.

In 2008, American mathematician David Wolpert logically proved that all knowledge of any possible universe is beyond the grasp of any intellect that might exist within it. So much for omniscience.

Wolpert put the last nail in the coffin of Laplace’s demon. But he did more than that. In determining the “physical limits of inference,” Wolpert showed that there are facts about phenomena which cannot be phenomenally known, by either experiment or computational prediction. Hence, empiricism can never unravel existence, and so cannot provide a correct scientific worldview.

“All knowledge resolves itself into probability.” ~ Scottish philosopher David Hume