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The Profound Limitations of Knowledge

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Fred Leavitt

The Profound Limitations of Knowledge explores the limitations of knowledge and argues that neither reasoning nor direct or indirect observations can be trusted. We cannot even assign probabilities to claims of what we can know. Furthermore, for any set of data, there are an infinite number of possible interpretations. Evidence suggests that we live in a participatory universe—that is, our observations shape reality.
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4. Certainty, Likelihood, and Probability

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CHAPTER FOUR

Certainty, Likelihood, and Probability

 

Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is absurd.—Voltaire1

Inquiry is fatal to certainty.—Will Durant2

Science fiction writer/chemist Isaac Asimov offered a rebuttal of radical skepticism.3 He argued that right and wrong are not absolute, that some things are more right than others. He gave an example of two grade school students asked to spell “sugar.” According to Asimov, “shuger” would be more right than “pqzzf.” He noted that Newton’s theories of motion and gravitation were very close to right; they would have been absolutely right if the speed of light were infinite, that is, if light took zero seconds rather than 0.0000000033 seconds to travel a meter. Einstein’s theory corrects for the speed of light, so it replaced Newton’s. Newton’s theory was wrong as all scientific theories are ultimately wrong, but only minutely. And when Einstein’s theory is inevitably overthrown, the correction will be even smaller.

Asimov conceded that scientists can never be absolutely certain. Still, he claimed that routine accuracy of more than 99% is achieved in many disciplines; and that, although specific predictions may turn out false, we can be certain about many broad classes of events. For example, the air we breathe is comprised of about 20% oxygen. Molecules move randomly, so all the oxygen molecules in a room could conceivably migrate to the ceiling and leave the occupants in a...

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