Eric Dietrich Ph.D.

Excellent Beauty

On the Virtue of Not Knowing

Science, religion, and the limits of knowledge ... plus Dirty Harry

Posted Nov 24, 2017

Because he is a famous biologist and atheist, Richard Dawkins gets quoted a lot.  One of his well-known quotes is: “I am against religion because it teaches us to be satisfied with not understanding the world.”

This isn’t what Dawkins actually said, though.  What he said was: ". . .one of the truly bad effects of religion is that it teaches us that it is a virtue to be satisfied with not understanding," (see his book, The God Delusion, 2006).

The original is much better because of the word “virtue.”  It is not just that religion teaches us to be satisfied with not understanding, but that it teaches us that not understanding is a virtue.  So, not understanding is something to be sought, pursued, longed for, desired, praised, and rewarded.

If we follow logic and swap “not understanding” with “ignorance,” we get: ". . .one of the truly bad effects of religion is that it teaches us that it is a virtue to be satisfied with being ignorant.”   Now, it is obvious to all how bad religion is.

But is this correct?

Note, that Dawkins’s statement implicitly assumes or suggests that science answers all questions — how else to explain his set-up contrast between science and religion.  It is a certainty that Dawkins’s doesn’t believe this (he would agree with 1–4, below), but he does come across as not pleased that science can’t answer all questions.  Perhaps he even wants to downplay this fact.  But that science cannot answer all questions is one of the deepest and most beautiful things we know about science.  So, there’s a problem now . . . a complexity.  Yes, ignorance is bad, usually.  But there is also a certain amount of wisdom that comes from knowing and accepting our limitations.  To quote Dirty Harry: “A [person’s] got to know [his or her] limitations.”

Science and Its Limits

Science and mathematics have proven that certain knowledge limits exists.  Here are the five star players:

1. The Big Bang.  We cannot know what happened “before” the Big Bang.  So we cannot know what, if anything, “caused” it (or even if it was caused).

2. The Halting Problem.  We cannot write a computer program that will tell us if any other computer program will solve a problem or not.  In general, to know if a program will solve a problem or not, we just have to run the program and see. 

3. Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem.  We know that arithmetic contains truths that are not provable.  Furthermore, we can explicitly point to specific unprovable truths.

4. The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle.  We cannot accurately know both the position and momentum of a subatomic particle.  Accurate knowledge of one decreases knowledge of the other.

5. We cannot know what consciousness is, how it is produced by brains (assuming that it is, which is a big assumption), nor how anything physical could even be conscious.

We have to be sanguine about these limits.  We have to gracefully accept not knowing in each of these, for the adequate reason that in each of these cases, we cannot know — this is provable.   It is a hallmark of wisdom to accept what you must accept.  There is this, though: In cases 1–4 above, we know (at least fairly well) why we cannot know, why the limit exists.  This is something, and we can live with it.  To use Dawkins’s phrase: It is a virtue to be satisfied with ignorance in these cases.

1'. Time started at the Big Bang.  All causation has to occur in time.  So the Big Bang is a hard limit to knowledge.

2'.  The proof of the Halting Problem reveals a central contradiction that sets up knowing any program’s halting point as a hard limit.

3'.  The proof of Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem does the same: it reveals a potential contradiction avoidance of which is why there are true statements we cannot prove, and so why full arithmetical knowledge stands beyond a hard limit.

4'.  The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle emerges perfectly reasonably once one realizes that learning information about a subatomic particle requires bouncing another subatomic particle off of it.  How hard would it be for police to determine the speed of an oncoming car if they only had recourse to bouncing another car off the oncoming one?  So, size is a hard limit.

5'.  But consciousness remains utterly and deeply mysterious.  We have no idea why we cannot understand it.  We don’t know why consciousness itself is a hard limit.  We merely know that it is.

Now, here are some things we are deeply puzzled about.  These are possibly solvable and we should therefore not be content to be ignorant of their solutions ... until and if we prove that solving them is not possible, like in the first five, above.

6.  We don’t know how life got started on planet Earth.

7.  We don’t know in much detail, how humans’ great intelligence evolved.

8.  We don’t know how common life is in the universe.

9.  We don’t even know how common solar systems like ours are.

10.  We don’t know how the brain works. 

11.  We don’t even know how the brain encodes a single thought, let alone how the brain produces a entire mind.

12.  We don’t understand the inexorable tug of religion.

13.  We don’t know why facts are so useless in persuading someone to change his or her mind on any fundamental issue.

14.  We don’t know how to fix global warming.

And so on and so forth.

We should not embrace our ignorance concerning 6–14, we should not be content to not know.  And that is precisely because it seems like we can know (there seem to be no hard limits in 6–14), and because it seems like we should know the answers to these questions.

Dawkins Got It Backwards

1–5 above show us some of science’s hard epistemic limits.  6–14 show us some of science’s difficult current limits.  For the former, as I said, it is a virtue to be satisfied with not understanding them, with ignorance.  In the latter, it is not virtuous to be thus satisfied.  We might put this as: Science teaches truly not knowing – it shows us that we know that we don’t know, and in certain cases, it teaches us that we cannot know.   So much for Dawkins’s claim that it is not a virtue to be satisfied with not understanding.  And so much for his claim that only religion teaches that not understanding is a virtue.

And now, back to religion.  It doesn’t really teach us that not understanding is a virtue.  Religion teaches us that someone or something knows, just not us.  God (which ever god you favor) knows all.  If God would but deign to tell us, we’d know all, too.  And since (for many readers of this blog) there is a heaven, one day, we will know all because God will tell us when we get to heaven.  So religion really teaches us to be patient with not knowing all now, because in some distant future, we will know all. 

Eventual full and total knowledge.  That’s the real bad effect of religion.