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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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11. Pillar 4: Empiricism

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← 100 | 101 →

CHAPTER ELEVEN

Pillar 4: Empiricism

 

Imperfect Processing

Consider another syllogism: Tia is taller than Eli. Eli is taller than Rosie. Therefore, Tia is taller than Rosie. If Tia, Eli, and Rosie are fictional individuals, then the syllogism tells nothing about the world. If they are real, then the two premises—Tia is taller than Eli and Eli is taller than Rosie—are based on some sort of observation. All reasoning starts with premises that are either abstract and lead to abstract conclusions; or concrete and based on observation.

All our knowledge has its origins in our perceptions.—Leonardo da Vinci1

Empiricists believe that everything we know comes through observations and inferences deduced from them. Our sensory systems are limited in several ways (see below), but they are our contacts with the world, the portals through which knowledge enters. Empiricism seems hard to dispute. Denial is an affront to common sense. In the 17th century, George Berkeley issued a denial. He said that only thoughts are real and matter does not exist. Samuel Johnson answered by kicking a large stone and saying, “I refute him thus.” Johnson’s response is often cited as an effective rebuttal. Not hardly. ← 101 | 102 →

Empiricism takes many forms. I “know” that:

Despite the many sources, most of our “knowledge” comes from observations that are second- or third- or tenth-hand. Few people have walked on the moon...

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