Friday, April 4, 2008

Knowledge limitations

"Ode On A Grecian Urn"
John Keats

Thou still unravished bride of quietness,
Thou foster child of silence and slow time,
Sylvan historian, who canst thus express
A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme:
What leaf-fringed legend haunts about thy shape
Of deities or mortals, or of both,
In Tempe or the dales of Arcady?
What men or gods are these? What maidens loath?
What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?
What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?
Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;
Not to the sensual ear, but, more endeared,
Pipe to the spirit dities of no tone.
Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave
Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare;
Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal---yet, do not grieve;
She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss
Forever wilt thou love, and she be fair!
Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed
Your leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieu;
And, happy melodist, unweari-ed,
Forever piping songs forever new;
More happy love! more happy, happy love!
Forever warm and still to be enjoyed,
Forever panting, and forever young;
All breathing human passion far above,
That leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloyed,
A burning forehead, and a parching tongue.
Who are these coming to the sacrifice?
To what green altar, O mysterious priest,
Lead'st thou that heifer lowing at the skies,
And all her silken flanks with garlands dressed?
What little town by river or sea shore,
Or mountain-built with peaceful citadel,
Is emptied of this folk, this pious morn?
And, little town, thy streets for evermore
Will silent be; and not a soul to tell
Why thou art desolate, can e'er return.
O Attic shape! Fair attitude! with brede
Of marble men and maidens overwrought,
With forest branches and the trodden weed;
Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought
As doth eternity. Cold Pastoral!
When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say'st,
"Beauty is truth, truth beauty"---that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

Suppose you wake up tomorrow morning and turned on the radio to hear that everything about the universe had just been discovered while you were sleeping. What immediate and long range significant impact would it have on you? Would you be out of a job? Would the riddle of the universe become crystal clear? Would science now dictate your daily movements? Would you crave chocolate anymore? Would all human activities be altered? Would religious concepts change?

In a broader perspective perhaps these questions and points of view should be addressed. I suppose that it is characteristic of mankind to always ask “why” and seek those nearly unanswerable questions such as a gods existence or our relationship to the universe--are we alone? The empiricism of science would fully like to solve the questions and quantify everything even right down to the makeup of every individual. There is an assumption underlying the notion that knowledge of the universe CAN be quantified: That ONLY science can and should reveal the beauty and complexity of the universe. The assumption is biased and not necessary true for the universe may well be beyond the realm of human understanding--total knowledge of everything might impossible and we should merely be content to learn what we can and enjoy what we learn.
Perhaps the structure of the questions is just as important and actually finding the answers--sort of keeps the wheels of inquiry moving/always inquisitive. This would imply, of course, boundaries on the acquisition of knowledge and may not be totally bad thing.

The perpetuation of the notion of a single theory may be wishful thinking by many scientists and a reflection of a sociological/psychological characteristic of mankind: The quest for total completeness. There comes to mind two examples and, in no way, should a leap be made to correlate these examples to the notion that mankind yearns for completeness. Why do some people collect certain things to the point that they will part with any amount of cash to complete the whole collection. They must have the complete extant manuscripts of, say, Goethe’s writings or from the simple everyday encounter: There is offered a ten volume set of "funnel spiders". Volume one is nearly free [minus shipping and handling]. There sits volume one [maybe volumes two and three] and the “desire” is to have the whole set--the definitive collection of the "funnel spider". Frustration grasps the individual because it is incomplete...must have “all” ten volumes--then I will know everything about the "funnel spider". Maybe such mentality exists for those that promote and seek the single ultimate answer for the universe.

Prior to the establishment of a correct methodology of scientific investigation, it was common knowledge that a body of a very few could tap into the mysteries of life [the “Elixir of Life”] and the pursuit of the illusive transmutation of base metals into gold. These were the alchemists whose most notable representative was Nicholas Flammel. These were the first scientists and despite the graphic representations of the likes of a “Merlin the Magician” and old breaded guys sublimating mercury from gaseous retorts, they did establish a beginning of a genuine codified methodology of scientific investigation. Six hundred years later science is king of knowledge and technology. One wonders if society as a whole can keep up with science or whether science will [or must] slow down [cease]--reach a plateau and allow society to catch up. The wealth of knowledge may be too much for society to understand and extrapolate into the fabric of that society. It appears that gone are the days of an individual embracing the entire realm of science and that individuals who do science now are focused on one specific feature. And the thousands who are focused supply so much new knowledge that for many it is difficult to incorporate into societal body of knowledge. The cult of scientific knowledge can be overwhelming for many and perhaps the quantity of knowledge may be self limiting--an overflowing box of knowledge that no one can integrate. Doomed by our own success?

For further inquiry:

"Can We Really Understand The World?"

"Scientists Are Confronting the Unknowable"

"The Limits of Science"

"The Limits of Scientific Knowledge"

"The Limits To Science: If we demand certainty from science before setting policy, we ask too much of science and too little of policy makers"

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