Wednesday 8 August 2012

Expanding the Frontiers of Ignorance

The television obituary for the astronomer Sir Bernard Lovell, who died yesterday, included a wonderful, too brief, clip from a late interview with his fellow astronomer and Sir, Patrick Moore. Lovell said something like this: Twenty years ago, we thought we had a virtually complete picture of the Universe and how it works, but 'now we know almost nothing'. This, we should always remember, is what true science does - not establish certainty but constantly expand the frontiers of ignorance. Perhaps the final achievement of science will be to discover that, after all, we know nothing. But how would we know?


  1. Good point! And I'd like to add and to elaborate, how would we know we know we knew nothing? And how would we know that?!! Maybe we already know nothing and the quantity of nothingness is constantly increasing. If you've ever had a head trauma / anaesthetized and been rendered unconscious, that's when you truly know and experience nothing. In that state, time can pass by unnoticed. Take away time and space and what is left is nothingness. Perhaps the final achievement of science will be to discover that we know nothing, but we'll all be dead so nothing will matter.

  2. Clearly (well, IMHO) knowledge includes knowing the extent of things that exist and that one does not really understand.

    But, as the extent expands, of the known unknowns, the total sum of knowledge increases (ie WRT to the previous unknown unknowns).

    This is, importantly, different from guessing at the existence of unknowns - because guessing is not the same as knowing. [But probabilistic knowledge (ie something might exist/be true - or might not) is knowledge, and can be measured by the entropy change from equal probabilities (ie no knowledge beyond a guess).]

    Additionally (well arguably), for Toby: (i) knowledge transcends (individual) death; (ii) whether nothing matters past death is a known unknown (at least to/for some of us); (iii) whether human-acquired knowledge would transcend the extinction of the species is a known unknown.

    Best regards