Euler diagram representing a definition of knowledge**
Bertrand Russell poignantly captures how philosophy aids our humility regarding knowledge while undermining our intellectual certainty,
Philosophy … while diminishing our feeling of certainty as to what things are … greatly increases our knowledge as to what they may be; it removes the somewhat arrogant dogmatism of those who have never travelled into the region of liberating doubt …
So good thinking entails the realization of our fallibility—any idea we have might be mistaken. Limitations on knowledge are further supported by Godel’s Incompleteness theorems in mathematics and the Heisenberg uncertainty principle in quantum mechanics.
But note. It’s the ignorant who are most sure of themselves:
“Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.”
~ Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man, 1871.
“The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.” ~ W. B. Yeats, “The Second Coming,” 1920.
“The fundamental cause of the trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.” ~ Bertrand Russell, “The Triumph of Stupidity,” 1933.
It seems all three men anticipated the Dunning-Kruger hypothesis.
Reflecting on knowledge, one of his great passions, Russell said “a little of this but not much I have achieved.” Consider that for a moment. Perhaps the greatest philosopher of the 20th century, perhaps the greatest logician of the 20th century, one of the greatest mathematicians of the 20th century, and a Nobel laurate in literature expressing such intellectual humility. Contrast his attitude with the certainty of so many ignorant people.
All of this reminds me of some lines from Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure,
But man, proud man,
Drest in a little brief authority,
Most ignorant of what he’s most assur’d;
His glassy essence, like an angry ape,
Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven,
As make the angels weep.
My own limitations on what I know and can know confront me daily as my time runs out. There is so much I want to learn, but so little time. Here’s are simple examples. I receive daily notifications on academia of articles I want to read but I simply don’t have time. I also get daily emails from people suggesting books and articles that I’m interested in, but I don’t have time to read them either. I scan the New York Times, Washington Post, Vox, Salon, Slate, Aeon, and many other sites but I simply can’t read it all.
Oh to be like Mr. Data on Star Trek and just immediately download it all into my brain. (Another reason for intelligence augmentation, a global brain, artificial intelligence, neural implants, etc.) For now I’ll just have to slog along with the brain I have. But if I can’t have a better brain, I wish I could have more quality time so that I could learn more. That would be worth more to me than the world’s riches.
This is not to say that all claims are relative. For example I am extraordinarily confident about the basic theories of modern science—quantum, atomic, gravitational, evolutionary, heleocentric, etc. as these are our most certain pieces of knowledge, supported by overwhelming amounts of evidence. Regarding all claims I proportion my assent to the evidence.
Still I admit, to quote Shakespeare again, that (probably)
There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
– Hamlet (1.5.167-8), Hamlet to Horatio
** Knowledge as justified true belief is controversial because of the Gettier problem.