Limits to Knowing

Adapted from Cultural Maturity—A Guidebook for the Future

In the end, we confront fundamental limits to knowing itself, at least to knowing absolutely. Modern psychology and psychiatry teach us about the impossibility (and undesirability, even if it were possible) of realizing the Enlightenment ideal of bringing experience fully into the light of awareness. Many theorists would make knowing’s limit even more absolute. Physicist Max Plank expressed the extreme interpretation this way: “We have no right to assume that any physical laws exist, or if they have existed up to now, that they will continue to exist in a similar manner in the future.” We could debate whether going that far makes sense (the concept of Cultural Maturity suggests it does not, at least functionally—it argues for the importance of understanding order in the new, more systemic ways), but the need to better appreciate limits to knowing is essential.

Effective risk assessment is impossible without such acceptance of ultimate limits—certainly to what we can predict and control. Fail to acknowledge such limits and we will fail to not just to arrive at effective answers, but to even ask the questions effective decision-making will require. For example, a culturally mature analysis the health care delivery describes how any effective solution must include a newly mature relationship to death. To accept death is to accept also that it lies forever not just beyond our control, but also beyond our understanding. (Religious beliefs through time have all provided us with answers to the question of what death brings. So has science, though what it offers—that our ending is just that—lacks a certain poetry. But in the end, we don’t get to know (or at least we have to wait to the end to know).)