Ignorance: (On the Wider Implications of Deficient Knowledge)

Copyright Date: 2009
DOI: 10.2307/j.ctt6wrb89
Pages: 160
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  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    Historically, there has been great deliberation about the limits of human knowledge. Isaac Newton, recognizing his own shortcomings, once described himself as "a boy standing on the seashore . . . whilst the great ocean of truth lay all underscored before me."

    InIgnorance,Nicholas Rescher presents a broad-ranging study that examines the manifestations, consequences, and occasional benefits of ignorance in areas of philosophy, scientific endeavor, and ordinary life. Citing philosophers, theologians, and scientists from Socrates to Steven Hawking, Rescher seeks to uncover the factors that hinder our cognition.

    Rescher categorizes ignorance as ontologically grounded (rooted in acts of nature-erasure, chaos, and chance-that prevent fact determination), or epistemically grounded (the inadequacy of our information-securing resources). He then defines the basis of ignorance: inaccessible data; statistical fogs; secreted information; past data that have left no trace; future discoveries; future contingencies; vagrant predicates; and superior intelligences. Such impediments set limits to inquiry and mean that while we can always extend our existing knowledge-variability here is infinite-there are things that we will never know.Cognitive finitude also hinders our ability to assimilate more than a certain number of facts. We may acquire additional information, but lack the facility to interpret it. More information does not always increase knowledge; it may point us further down the path toward an erroneous conclusion. In light of these deficiencies, Rescher looks to the role of computers in solving problems and expanding our knowledge base, but finds limits to their reasoning capacity.

    As Rescher's comprehensive study concludes, ignorance itself is a fertile topic for knowledge, and recognizing the boundaries of our comprehension is where wisdom begins.

    eISBN: 978-0-8229-7351-5
    Subjects: Philosophy

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctt6wrb89.1
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctt6wrb89.2
    (pp. ix-xiv)
    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctt6wrb89.3
  4. 1 The Reach of Ignorance
    (pp. 1-27)
    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctt6wrb89.4

    Cognitive ignorance is the lack of knowledge of fact. Error is a matter of commission. With error we have the facts wrong. Ignorance, by contrast, is a matter of omission: with ignorance we do not have the facts, period. By and large, error is thus worse than ignorance. As Thomas Jefferson wrote: “Ignorance is preferable to error; and he is less removed from the truth who believes nothing, than he who believes what is wrong.”¹ In a way this is true enough. Ignorance leaves us without guidance, error sends us off in the wrong direction. And frequently we are better...

  5. 2 Questions and Insolubilia
    (pp. 28-45)
    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctt6wrb89.5

    It is instructive to take an erotetic—that is, question-oriented—view of knowledge and ignorance. After all, someone knows thatpwhen (and only when) they cancogentlygive a correct answer to the question “Ispthe case?” and an answer is given cogently when (and only when) the giver has a satisfactoryrationalefor giving it.

    There are two possibilities for erotetic ignorance: (1) generic question-resolving incapacity (“There is some questionQthat one cannot answer”) and (2) concrete question-resolving incapacity (“Qis a specific, here-and-now identifiable question that one cannot answer”).¹ Even as there is concrete and...

  6. 3 Cognitive Shortfall
    (pp. 46-56)
    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctt6wrb89.6

    Ironically, one of the prime limitations of our knowledge is inherent in the very nature of language, its essential and most powerful instrumentality. Twentieth-century philosophers of otherwise the most radically different orientation have agreed on prioritizing the role of language. “The limits of my language set the limits of my world” (Die Grenzen meiner Spache bedeuten die Grenzen meiner Welt), says the Wittgenstein of theTractatus(at 5.6). “There is nothing outside text” (Il n’y a pas de hors de texte), say the devotees of French deconstructionism. But already centuries earlier Leibniz had taken the measure of this sort of...

  7. 4 Cognitive Finitude
    (pp. 57-66)
    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctt6wrb89.7

    First the good news. Generalizations can of course refer to everything. Bishop Butler’s “Everything is what it is and not another thing” holds with unrestricted universality. And once continuous quantities are introduced, the range ofinferentially availablestatements becomes uncountable. “The length of the table exceedsxinches.” Once known, this straightaway opens the door to uncountable knowable consequences. And fortunately, a case-by-case determination is not generally needed to validate generalizations. We can establish claims about groups larger than we can ever hope to inventory. Recourse to arbitrary instances, the process of indirect proof by reductio ad absurdum, and induction...

  8. 5 On Limits to Science
    (pp. 67-90)
    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctt6wrb89.8

    One sagacious commentator wrote that “the sudden confrontation with the depth and scope of our ignorance represents the most significant contribution of twentieth-century science to the human intellect.”¹ But are there matters regarding nature about which we willremainignorant? How far can the scientific enterprise advance toward a definitive understanding of reality? Might science attain a point of recognizable completion? Is the achievement of perfected science a genuine possibility, even in theory, when all of the “merely practical” obstacles are put aside as somehow incidental?

    What wouldperfectedorcompletedscience be like? What sort of standards would it...

  9. 6 Obstacles to Predictive Foreknowledge
    (pp. 91-122)
    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctt6wrb89.9

    The philosophical theologians of the middle ages, who loved puzzles, were wont to exercise their ingenuity regarding this question: “If he is omniscient, does God know what is happeningnow?” And they inclined to answer this question with the response, “yes and no.” Clearly an unrestrictedly omniscient God will know everything that happens in the world. And this means that he knows whatever is happening concurrently with the calendar’s reading 13 January 2001 and the clock’s reading 3:15 p.m. But this is B-series knowledge in McTaggart’s terminology—knowledge of events in the manner of before/concurrent/after. However, as a being who...

  10. 7 Can Computers Mend Matters?
    (pp. 123-139)
    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctt6wrb89.10

    In view of the difficulties and limitations that beset our human efforts at answering the questions we confront in a complex world, it becomes tempting to contemplate the possibility that computers might enable us to overcome our cognitive disabilities and surmount those epistemic frailties of ours. And so we may wonder: Can computers remove our ignorance and overcome our limitations? If a problem is to qualify as solvable at all, will computers always be able to solve it for us?

    Of course, computers cannot bear human offspring, enter into contractual agreements, or exhibit heroism. But such processes addresspracticalproblems...

  11. 8 Implications of Ignorance
    (pp. 140-152)
    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctt6wrb89.11

    The preceding deliberations have brought to light a considerable variety of types of fact that, on the basis of general principles, are bound to be unknown or even unknowable. The categories at issue here are first and foremost the following:

    Certain facts regarding our own ignorance

    Certain facts whose determination requires inaccessible data or impracticable measurements

    Certain facts involving information hidden in a statistical fog

    Certain facts deliberately kept secret by others

    Certain facts about the past that have left no trace

    Certain facts regarding the detail of future discoveries

    Certain facts regarding future contingencies

    Certain facts involving vagrant predicates...

  12. NOTES
    (pp. 153-164)
    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctt6wrb89.12
    (pp. 165-168)
    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctt6wrb89.13
    (pp. 169-170)
    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctt6wrb89.14