Is it possible to know everything there is to know? That’s a question which came to me while cooking dinner the other night. It part came from the world around me at that moment and part from movies where humans tap into unused brain space for limitless knowledge and skills.
No, we cannot know everything there is to know. Partly this is because we do not have the capacity to know everything. It’s just too much data to store in our minds. However, it is also partly because we can never know that we know everything there is to know.
This essay is going to explore this question based on my own thoughts and a few insights from philosophers old and older. It might not be the best or most comprehensive answer, but hopefully it’s a good starter.
Can we know everything? – Hotpot and sausage rolls
Let’s go to the world around me. It was a Monday evening in a shared kitchen. Two girls were cooking Chinese hotpot and I was making homemade sausage rolls and salad. Combined the meals possessed a range of knowledge points, but none of us possessed them all.
For example, I knew how to make the sausage rolls. In fact, I made two types. One was more traditional but with my own shortcrust pastry mix and the other was more of my own creation featuring Spanish cured ham and applewood smoked cheese (usually I go for Wensleydale with cranberries at this time of year).
However, I do not know how to make a good Chinese hotpot; especially a spicy one as I do not like spicy foods. They on the other hand, had no idea how to make sausage rolls. We all knew how to make a plain, basic, and boring salad though.
There will no doubt be people out there who can make both a spicy Chinese hotpot and yummy sausage rolls, but do they know the exact butter, water, flour mixture I used? Do I know? No I don’t, I just put it together until the pastry felt right.
I know that I know nothing
“I neither know nor think that I know.”
Apology 21d, Plato
Thoughts on our capacity to know everything usually goes back to Plato and the notion of the Socratic Paradox. First, let’s deal with Socrates’ most famous quote – “I know that I know nothing.”
This shortened phrase does not actually appear in any of Plato’s works. The longer one quoted above is more like it, but in the Apology Socrates does admit to knowing some things. In fact, Socrates is willing to die for knowledge.
Surely Socrates could not be the wisest?
Socrates felt he could not be the wisest man in Athens or the whole world. The notion came up after a conversation between his friend Chaerephon and the Oracle at Delphi. On hearing he was the wisest of all, Socrates set out to prove them wrong – he believed he possessed no wisdom.
He did this by going to speak to other people. Socrates held conversations with poets, artisans, politicians, and others – often offending them. His conclusion was that each man had wisdom and held knowledge, but was neither knowledgeable nor wise.
Therefore he concluded that his wisdom came from the fact he knew he knew very little or relatively speaking, nothing. Knowing one’s ignorance in fact made one wise.
From this we can attain that even the wisest have little knowledge. Instead that wisdom comes from understanding our limitations. Let’s take a deeper dive.
Is it possible to know everything?
To understand whether it is possible to know everything, we must divide the question into two parts. They are thus:
- Is it possible for all knowledge to be known?
- If it is possible, is it possible for humans to attain all knowledge?
For us to be able to know everything, we must therefore be capable of total knowledge and for total knowledge to be possible to be known. If either fails then a human quest for total knowledge is doomed to failure. Let’s look at each question in turn:
- Is it possible for all knowledge to be known?
For us to know everything it must be possible for everything to be known. If this is impossible, therefore, it makes the human pursuit of it also impossible.
So perhaps it makes sense to define what knowing everything means. Yes, I know it’s probably a bit late in the essay to do that, but let’s give it a try. How can we define knowing things? What does this include?
Let’s make a list of some (or all) of the things that might count:
- Complete understanding of metaphysics.
- Knowledge of the sum of all parts of existence.
- Knowledge of all ideas and concepts to ever exist.
- Knowledge of all actions and inactions to have ever existed.
- Awareness of every new one to pop into existence.
In short, we’d need to know everything of every single thing, ever. One question to answer here is whether this also includes that which has not happened?
I’d say no as I believe in the chaos theory of no great plan – of there being no weavers of destiny. However Calvinists and others who believe in predestination will no doubt think differently.
What stops anyone or anything from knowing everything?
The above list is pretty intense. And to be fair it seems impossible by itself, but let’s hammer it home a bit by considering all of the hurdles for that knowledge to be known:
- All concepts need to exist intact outside of time and space.
- The existence, place, and entropy of all things must be recorded.
- The actions of all things must be known.
- The thoughts of all things must be known.
- There is no such thing as a lost technology or concept.
- Knowledge is finite meaning there is an end to all things and all time.
Therefore, I would conclude that it is highly unlikely for everything to be known, but that it all happened (probably). Only an omnipotent and omnipresent being would be capable of that and as we have no direct evidence of such a being existing, it’s a matter of faith.
If it is possible, is it possible for humans to attain all knowledge?
This question itself requires subdivision into other questions. From that we can make an assessment as to whether the question is possible to answer and in which favour. These questions assume the answer to the first question to be yes.
- Do our brains have the capacity for total knowledge?
- Are we able to access sum knowledge in order to gain it?
- Do we have the time to take it all in as individuals or as a species?
- Are we capable of processing the data and being aware of what we know?
- Can we be aware of what we do not know?
Given the fact I’ve forgotten what I had for breakfast yesterday, I’d say our capacity for knowledge is limited. Our brains are wonderful biological machines capable of processing huge amounts of data. Yet I feel they are not infinite.
Our brains also work in mysterious ways when it comes to conscious and subconscious knowledge. If I wanted to recall my sum total of knowledge I could not. Furthermore there is knowledge that I cannot pluck out of my brain at will, but will spring to mind with the right trigger.
Perhaps as a species we could bring together as much knowledge as possible; especially with the use of machines. However, that would be from a set date onwards and would not be from the beginning of time.
Known vs. Unknown Knowledge
If Socrates felt himself wise for knowing he did not know things, then it follows humans require wisdom in order to understand what they do not yet know. That being said, to borrow phrases from Donald Rumsfeld of all people – there are known unknowns and unknown unknowns.
He was widely mocked for saying this and in context the mockery probably made sense. However, in the realm of knowledge, there are these 4 categories of knowledge awareness:
Known knowns – I had a tofu sandwich for lunch, made me want meat.
Unknown knowns – Sometimes trivia pops into my mind and I have no idea how it got there or how I knew it.
Known unknowns – Nobody knows what was in Greek Fire, but we know it once existed.
Unknown unknowns – We don’t know anything about this.
The fundamental fact of knowledge awareness is that the idea of unknown unknowns means we will never truly feel like we know everything even if objectively we’d found a way to know it all.
In conclusion, I suggest that we cannot know everything. As wonderful as our brains are and even if it were possible to know everything there is to be known, we do not have the capacity in terms of brain power, time, or space to acquire that knowledge.
The benefits of understanding our knowledge limitations
“A fool thinks himself to be wise, but a wise man knows himself to be a fool.”
As You Like It, William Shakespeare
This is not to be disheartened. The pursuit of knowledge is laudable for the most part; though not the knowledge which comes from amoral acts. There are benefits to the wisdom of our limitations.
Most of all, taking Socrates and the above quote from Shakespeare, we can attain humility and self-awareness from knowing we’ll never know everything.
It is utter arrogance to believe one knows everything of anything let alone everything of everything. The worst to me is people who believe they know all there is to be known about another person including their motivations. Such knowledge rarely exists.
No, we can avoid hubris by accepting our limitations. In doing so we understand others may know something of use or interest that we do not know – no matter who they are. We also learn the value of teamwork and communicating with different people; especially those with different experiences and modes of thinking.
Focus your knowledge
If we do not have the capacity to learn everything available to us to learn, whether we could learn everything there is to learn or not, then we need to focus our knowledge. It’s like a maxing out your phone’s memory – which photos, apps, and videos do you delete and which do you keep?
In his famous bestseller, The 4-Hour Work Week, Timothy Ferriss focusses one chapter on knowledge. In his Elimination section, he focuses on information dieting. That is limiting what data you expose yourself to. This runs from the news to people around you to books, shows, and social media (the book was written before social media).
This resonated with me because I’ve felt overwhelmed by information of late. I’ve always paid attention to the news, but now there’s information everywhere – Facebook, newspapers, YouTube, other apps, chats, and so on.
Information overload has helped to derail my projects and my work. By the time I’m done with my daily work for my main clients – during which I’ve digested half a dozen lectures or long-format chats/interviews on YouTube, I’m burned out.
Ferriss suggests we strictly limit our access to information. This is great advice because we cannot let our processing brains get bogged down. Furthermore, if we are creative people or have a problem, our brains actually need to stop absorbing new information and to spend time processing it in the background so we can have our ahah! moment.
Add things and lose things everyday
Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu divided known things into knowledge and wisdom. He suggested that we ought to gain knowledge by adding known things every day, but we should gain wisdom by losing known things everyday.
The Way of the Mind, therefore, should be based on discerning between valuable and useless information. We should seek to accrue useful information and to remove useless things. That being said, the lesson of the discarded item should be learned before it is removed.
We cannot gain wisdom if we forget the lesson learned from a discarded piece of information. If we do not learn this we may return to that information and pick it back up again. This is the curse of the twice fooled person.
To me it seems like we should explore the categories of what knowledge should be picked up and what needs dropping to gain wisdom. Does dropping a habit count? Learning from cautionary tales or discarding bad ideas? When picking up information consider its usefulness to you – does it add to what you want to achieve in the world?
So to finish, why not tell me what you added today to gain knowledge and what you discarded to gain wisdom. Even better, write it in your journal.