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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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10. Reason and Science in Opposition

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CHAPTER TEN

Reason and Science in Opposition

 

Science, at bottom, is really anti-intellectual. It always distrusts pure reason and demands the production of objective fact. —H.L. Mencken1

The common sense view is that reason complements our senses to make the world comprehensible. But common sense often does not apply. Philosophers have recognized that we perceive only appearances and have no way of evaluating their correspondence with the real world. Thus, rationalists argue, reason is necessary to organize and interpret our sensory worlds. Without certain beliefs that precede experience, such as “Every event has a cause,” existence would consist of constant meaningless, undifferentiated, sensations that signify nothing.

Rationalists claim that we know a great deal independently of our senses. For example, we accept mathematical and logical truths such as “All squares are rectangles” and “5 + 5 = 10” because of our conceptual abilities, not because of sensory information. But the previous chapter showed that rationality does not lead to certain knowledge about the external world. Furthermore, rationalists have been mistaken about seemingly obvious conclusions, as when some Middle Ages rationalists used reason to “prove” that vacuums could not possibly exist. Aristotle maintained that women have fewer teeth than men. He apparently did not think it necessary to verify this conclusion by examining any mouths. Mathematics is rationality in its purest form, but even the best mathematicians have on occasion claimed to have proved something that later turned...

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