Existence as a prerequisite
The nature of knowledge and its structural limitations has been discussed in pages of this site. A few key points are briefly covered here.
The essential point is the problem of our existence, which is obvious, but which we do not understand. Existentialism theorizes that but this can leave us unsatisfied, because it may seem a way of evading the question. In fact it just states that the question has no meaning since to ask it one must exist. The same goes for the existence of atoms and fundamental physical laws that are allowing our existence
The nature and value of knowledge has been studied since antiquity (e.g. Plato with the allegory of the cave) and then has been at the heart of the philosophical debates of the classical era, when, less constrained by religious dogmas, a free philosophical debate may really begin.
Knowledge and Truth
An essential point was the relationship between knowledge and truth.
Thus Kant declared:
« The two strains of human knowledge, which perhaps start from a common root but unknown to us; sensitivity and understanding; by the first the objects are given to us, by the second they are thought »
Note: By sensitivity, we must understand what is accessible to us through our senses.
Kant also stated (among others)
« Truth consists in the agreement of knowledge with the object. According to this simple definition, my knowledge must therefore agree with the object to have the value of truth. But the only way I have to compare the object with my knowledge is that I know it. So my knowledge must confirm itself. But this is far from enough for the truth. For since the object is outside of me and knowledge is within me, all I can appreciate is whether my knowledge of the object agrees with my knowledge of the object. The ancients called diallèle such a circle in the definition….. »
(quoted in « Le plaisir de pensée- de A. Comte-Sponville, éd. Vuibert)
We see that the study of the relationship between knowledge and truth leads to a self-relationship from which nothing can be deduced from true!
Moreover, it is pointed out in other articles that knowledge of an object clashes with the complexity of the object, all aspects of which are generally impossible to grasp. The general opinion is that knowledge can only be, at best, a part of the « truth ».
The scientific revolution of the 20th century
While classical science thought it had reached a perfection at the end of the19th century, the emergence of relativity (special and then general) and quantum mechanics would call everything into question.
The role of experience will change.
Before, experience was seen as a question asked to the physics about a preconceived hypothesis formulated by our understanding. Indeed the experimental device is designed according to the result that we expect (which makes as some say that an experiment is a materialized theory).
Note that a response in accordance with expectations does not validate a theory, because nothing prevents that a following experiment will invalidate it, but a non-conforming answer eliminates it.
The elimination is final, the qualification is only a reprieve. This makes knowledge acquired more by a series of errors (eliminations) than successes.
Note that, if you are lucky, you can also get an answer that corresponds to a question other than the one asked and that may be of interest (serendipity).
This process presupposes that our understanding is capable of conceiving nature, but that we simply do not yet have the precise knowledge of the particular phenomenon we are studying. Humans are masters of the game in this process, the science of simply exploring and discovering, as they go along, the different aspects of nature, as unknown lands have been discovered throughout history.
For the new theories of the 20th century, relativity get rid of the concepts of time and space and the quantum mechanics of determinism (at this point, one wonders what remains…).
In other words, as we apprehended theories through these concepts, which are themselves at the heart of our very existence and especially of our understanding, nature then turns out to be « inconceivable ». Under these conditions, it is difficult to submit to the nature preconceived assumptions.
Reversal of situation, it is nature that is now master of the game and it is up to the human to adapt his understanding to develop theories that describe these phenomena of which some aspects are always inconceivable to us (spacetime allowing temporal paradoxes for example, indeterminacy, contra-factuality, EPR paradox …).
These points having been discussed in other pages of the site.
The materialist point of view
These general considerations being recalled, another more modern enigma is that humans, considered, from a materialist point of view as a structured assembly of atoms in accordance with the permissible structure of this assembly by the laws of quantum mechanics, can develop a faculty of analysis and get knowledge of these laws.
It is a meta-phenomenon, including a consciousness, whose emergence is still debated.
These points have also been debated in the pages of the site and in the book, and it appears that modern theories (relativity and quantum mechanics) include aspects that we cannot conceive of such as, for example, spacetime destructive of space and time in relativity, quantum indeterminacy, contra-factuality (possibility of knowing the presence of a detector in a quantum experiment, without it being activated) and the famous EPR paradox, among others.
It is nature that dictates its law
By formalisms developed for this, constructed by a structural and formal « morphism » with the strange laws that we observe, mathematics allows us to represent them rather correctly!
Nature has dictated its law to us and has led us to an empirical approach. The positive point is the heuristic power of the process.
It is the inconceivable that is the key to salvation!
This leads us to consider that what is most important is what we do not understand, because this is where there is a possibility of going beyond our usual thought patterns. This has been partially done, as indicated, but is far from being achieved.