Plato on Pop

Philosophy and pop culture

Heavy Metal, Heavy Knowledge

What can some heavy metal teach us about the possibility of absolute knowledge?

I love metal music, but I don’t always like the lyrics.  Fortunately, however, more and more metal bands are going beyond the stereotypical subjects of sex, Satan, and Saturday nights. Ethereal Collapse is a prime example. They are a minor name, but are successful enough to have released a couple albums and a few EP's. They even have a few songs on Rock Band 3. Their latest album, The Precipice of Failure, demonstrates nicely the band’s philosophical depth, especially the first track “Towards the Asymptote.”

For those who don’t know, an asymptote is a geometric concept—a line that a curve continually approaches but never intersects. In “Towards the Asymptote,” lyricist Ryan Klubeck argues that our quest for knowledge can be described by such a curve, where “absolute knowledge” is the point of intersection. In other words, absolute knowledge—complete infallible knowledge of the way the world is—is impossible. However, it is still something that should be striven for. It is something that we can ever approach, getting closer and closer to the truth, but never fully attain.

Whether this is true remains to be seen. Perhaps we will one day know everything there is to know—but I doubt it. And until we do, the quest for knowledge can be quite frustrating, as it seems to have been for Klubeck:

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“I lie behind the threshold of truth
Traversing infinity without a clue
Under the guise of enlightenment,
Uncertainty breeds
Leaving us to suffer
In epistemic purgatory”

I like this song because, not only is it good metal, but because it nicely illustrates the importance of understanding how knowledge progresses. Take science for example. Some have argued that science does not get us knowledge; instead, scientific theories are just collections of assumptions that become popular for a while, but then are later rejected in favor of some other theory. “Why would I believe what science tells me today,” someone might object. “In the past, scientists were just as confident in their scientific theories as today’s scientists are in theirs, yet we have now proven the past scientists wrong. Doesn’t it stand to reason that future scientists will prove today’s scientists wrong? So why would I believe anything they say?”

This objection, however, fundamentally misunderstands how science progresses. Take Copernicus for example. He discovered that the earth revolves around the sun—which is right. But his model placed the sun at the center of the universe—which we now know is wrong. Not only is the sun just one of billions of stars in our galaxy, and not only is it nowhere close to the center of our galaxy, but our galaxy is nowhere near the center of the universe; in fact, it turns out, the universe has no center—just like the surface of a sphere has no center. But simply declaring that Copernicus was wrong is too simplistic. Did he get everything right? Certainly not. But was he more right than his contemporaries that thought the earth was at the center of the universe and everything revolved around it? Most Certainly so. Although Copernicus wasn’t completely right, he got us closer to the truth. And we can continue to make further discoveries, and refine the model that Copernicus gave us—for example, we can discover that the planetary orbits are elliptical, instead of perfectly circular—but his theory will never be fully rejected. We will never go back to thinking everything revolves around the Earth.

Usually, when a scientific theory is “overturned,” this is how it goes. The theory wasn’t completely wrong; it got a few things wrong and was incomplete, but the basic idea was right. This is what happened when Einstein overturned Newton. Newton’s metaphysic about gravity was wrong, and there were a few things he couldn’t account for (like why light bends around the sun), but Newton’s laws of motions are still very useful. Newton got us close to the truth, and Einstein even closer.

Will Einstein be “overturned” one day. Probably. But he won’t be proven completely wrong. We will simply discover something that his theory can’t quite account for, or some way that his theory is incomplete. But we will never reject the whole of his theory. So, I’d be crazy to say that I know that Einstein got everything right, but that shouldn’t keep me from believing in Einstein’s theory.  Even though it is likely incomplete, it accurately describes reality better than any theory before it. At the least, I should favor it because I know that it is the best theory among the currently available alternatives. If I come across something that contradicts it, that should give me good reason to be skeptical about that thing.

We may never get there, but science moves us toward the asymptote of absolute knowledge—every advance gets us closer and closer. Will we one day be able to cure all disease? Probably not, but we can continually cure more and more. Will we ever have the full story of how every human trait evolved? Probably not, but Darwin’s theory of natural selection set us down the right path, and—just like Copernicous—new discoveries continually tweak our view to get us closer to the whole truth. Will we ever have a compete unified theory in physics? Probably not, but we can continually get closer and closer.

Even though we can’t get all the way there, the quest for more complete knowledge is worth it. But if we start out assuming we can get all the way there, the frustration of never attaining the unattainable goal will likely land us in “epistemic purgatory.” So in your quest for knowledge, be careful.

Disclosure: Although I am a huge fan of Ethereal Collapse, I must admit to a bit of a bias. Ryan Klubeck, the band’s lead singer and guitarist, is one of my former students. But, if you don’t believe me when I tell you they are an awesome metal band, check out their latest album, The Precipice of Failure, on Amazon.

David Kyle Johnson, Ph.D., is an associate professor of philosophy at King's College in Pennsylvania.

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