On the limits of human knowledge

Response to a Quora Question


Anil Mitra

Link to my Website

The QuestionOur intellect might be too limited to understand some branches of study that are yet to be discovered. How will we know if we are missing out?

Disclaimer—the answer below first appeared on Quora. Their policy, which I presume is an agreement, is that they retain non-exclusive rights to answers by members. Changes made here but not made in the Quora answer are marked in differently colored font.


It is conceivable that there are things that are unknowable to any being whatsoever. If that is true, then it is not missing out.

It is also conceivable that there are knowable things that are unknowable to human beings. That might be missing out. But it might seem that there is no point in being concerned or worrying about it.

However, I suspect that the concepts of ‘unknowable thing’ or ‘unknowable to human being’ are ill defined.

More likely ‘unknowable’ probably includes ‘unknowable according to some conceptual kind and framework and at some level of detail’. Let’s explain the italicized terms.

1.       By conceptual kind I mean, for example, discrete vs continuous or, very roughly, digital or literally linguistic vs analog or intuitive. The advantage of the discrete is precision—but intuition may be deeper. In any case it ought not to be digital vs analog but digital and analog. Note that we already do this—in discovery in mathematics, for example, intuition is essential but must be complemented and by proof. Yet, the precise relation between proof and intuition may be emergent.

2.       By framework I mean, roughly, paradigm or world view. Materialism is one such view; idealism is another (idealism is the view that the universe is mental in nature). We tend to think those kinds of views are well defined but they are not. For materialism to be precise we probably want to resort to the latest physics; but the latest physics might not be precise (yes it is as far as we know but it may have boundaries just as Newtonian Mechanics has boundaries beyond which it has no purchase at all). On the other hand a philosophy based in the idea of Being as, simply what there is or existence has the following characteristics (i) because it refers to ‘what there is’ and not substance such as matter or mind it cannot be imprecise, (ii) ‘what there is’ is ‘all there is’ and therefore such a philosophy covers the entire universe, (iii) of course there is a precise to pay—we do not seem to know very much about Being, which after all might be a trivial concept. Well Being is trivial—but it is trivial in the sense of superficiality and not necessarily depth. It may turn out that a philosophy based in Being is possible and ‘deep’. The philosophy would be a program—the nature of Being and beings would be emergent.

3.       Regarding detail consider the question—How many Universes are there? It’s necessary to first define the term. Let’s define The universe as all that there is over all extension and duration (we are free to define it as we want provided we define and use the term consistently)! It now follows that there is precisely one universe. Next question. Why does the universe exist? It cannot be another being for there is no other. Thus we must seek a cause other than ‘material’ cause. Perhaps the cause is ‘modal’—i.e. it is possibility or necessity. But for the universe’s existence to be merely possible is the same as it being accidental. The modal cause if there is one must be necessity. As you can see we are already learning something seeking by shaking off our customary definitions and paradigms. If you want to learn about necessity as a cause I suggest reading my essay—The Way of Being  [1]. It’s scope is broader than the issues considered here and the demonstration of necessity begins in the section “The Universe is the greatest possible” (greatest does not mean best but only that if something is logically possible it is in the universe). The demonstration is more complex than necessary and I have a much simpler demonstration that is as yet unpublished.


So a reader might question how Being was pivotal above. This is how—if we had attempted to found the development in substance (e.g. matter or mind) we would be left with the questions already mentioned—Is our knowledge of the substance perfect? And, is if final—i.e., does it require further foundation? And the answer is We do not know for sure! In fact we suspect the answer to both questions is a definite No! That is because, in substance, we are looking for an explanation beneath the surface (of the phenomena). On the other hand Being is the surface. That is why we need look no further. That is why Being, though it wasn’t guaranteed, had the potential to be foundational. And we found it to be so. Readers of Heidegger will recognize his influence here. The difference between Heidegger’s and my thought is that he saw Being as deep; I see it as on the surface and containing whatever may be deep. Foundations ought to begin at the beginning—and we have found that beginning to be in Being.


You might also be interested in listening to the YouTube video of a talk by WVO uine on the limits of knowledge [2]:

Channel Philosophy Overdose [3].


[1] The Way of Being

[2] Quine - The Limits of Knowledge (1973)

[3] Philosophy Overdose