Limits – Is every ceiling made of glass?

Humans are constantly evolving; they are continuously creating new ideas and developing new technologies in an effort to improve or better themselves. As humans, we seem never to be fully satisfied with what we possess or what we can accomplish. There is always something bigger or better to gain and limits to break. One of the key components to our evolution and our constant need to better ourselves is knowledge. It seems to be what separates us from other organisms.  Is there however, a limit to how much knowledge we as humans can absorb, or like Neo in the Matrix, is it possible for us to “upload” any information desired?  It would seem that knowing the limits of knowledge would be incredibly important and helpful to us. If we knew these limits we would know what research to target and to spend the most time on in order to not waste time or resources. There are many theories on this subject. It is a vast subject as no two humans are identical. Knowing these limits could be both advantageous or a barrier.  First, it is important to ask why knowledge is necessary and why the limits of knowledge are challenged. Second, it is necessary to examine theories of other philosophers to see what has been researched on this subject. Third, the psychological, and the more empirical point of view, should lead to the most definitive answers.

Need for competition

Knowledge is very important to humans in nature as well as in the society we create for ourselves. It is possibly one of the most useful tools people possess. Knowledge can be used to gain opportunities or advantages, such as jobs, or positions of power. Knowing your challenge, going into a threatening situation in the wild, or knowing your way around a subject is important so you can create a strategy to deal with your dilemma. Evolution has shown us that limits of knowledge are constantly pushed. Motivation along with need and competition are factors of evolution. Motivation is a factor in whether or not a person would attempt to gain more knowledge than they actually have. This motivation could be caused by either need or competition. This need could come from many venues including illness, either one’s own or someone else’s. An example in today’s society would be that of cancer. Many researchers working in this domain are attracted to the field for various reasons. Sometimes it is a friend or a family member who is ill. It is this person who motivates the researcher to continue to attempt and find some form of cure.  Another form of motivation is competition.  Universities and researchers compete for millions of dollars each year to make new discoveries. One of the best examples of knowledge being pushed through competition is the cold war. Throughout this war there was not much physical action, however in order to remain ahead of their rival, the two major countries involved made many technological advances that could not have been imagined prior to this rivalry of super powers. Along with the right motivation there are elements needed to go beyond the limits of knowledge. The right opportunities are necessary for a task such as this. If you are unable to learn and gain basic knowledge it is not likely you will succeed. Many well known philosophers that come from France, Germany or other countries that are well known for their higher education systems. This is an example of competition as they must defend their reputation by out duelling each other. Knowledge is a useful tool for humans; many accomplishments are successful due to some form of knowledge.

Standing on the Berlin wall


The acquisition of knowledge can be influenced by many factors. Each person’s experiences effects his knowledge. We perceive experiences depending on our surroundings and previous background. Environment such as a different country can cause a change of perception. For example, a person living in Canada would perceive farming differently than someone living in China. These two people would have different expertise of plants, earth and even how to conserve their seasonal crops. This knowledge will also affect the perception of other experiences, such as an infection of the crop. Previous experience has a great deal to do with perception, and therefore the knowledge gained from that experience is advantageous. An example of this would be drugs. It is impossible to have only good experiences with drugs due to the bad reactions some people experience. A person that has had only good reactions to drugs may think these drugs are great. However, a person that has had a bad experience will most likely have a different perception. As for the person that has not had any experience with drugs, they may be influenced by other people’s experiences.  What their judgment, as well as theory, says would be very difficult for a person without the experience to be convinced. As much as we would like to learn through our own reality, this is very difficult because once knowledge has been gained it is hard to forget.  In these cases people tend to look at their surroundings. Society is also influenced by knowledge. It is possible to have many “experiences” without actually having personally lived them. For example, being burned, as a young child most people learn not to touch fire. For some people this comes from experience, for others someone has told them and this is enough to be convinced. The influence other people have on knowledge can be very powerful. Teachers, parents, even Hitler may give direction to a person with little knowledge of a subject. Hitler was a man that had a lot of power and therefore was able to influence people in almost any way he desired. Because of how Hitler was perceived, he was thought to have knowledge. Perception is very dominant in the acquisition of knowledge.

The Hofbrohaus, where the Nazi party saw the first speeches of Hitlers
The Hofbrohaus, where the Nazi party saw the first speeches of Hitlers


Previously this subject has been approached by many philosophers. In empiricist words “limits are everywhere”. If no data can be found, no subject can be studied. On the contrary, rationalists have very few limits, in the sense that anything a rationalist could think can be studied and made sense of. Between these two camps there is a limit as well, seeing only the empirical side or only the rational side creates limits in itself. It is not possible to cover two extremities and study the subject entirely. This is where Kant seems to make some of his greatest points.  An important question to answer is whether or not knowledge is a priori or a posteriori.  Plato has a possible theory to answer this question. In Menos paradox, Plato says that knowledge is a priori. Plato’s theory is that inquisition is impossible. He states that either you know what you are looking for, or you do not know what you are looking for and therefore it is impossible to know. Plato would then be stating that there is a limit to what people know. If everything we can possibly know is already known to us there must be an end to it. In a sense Plato is right, it may be that certain knowledge is “remembered” and not completely learned for the first time, however the argument to Plato’s theory is that it is possible to know the question and not the answer.  Through this argument Plato helps to demonstrate that knowledge is a learned experience and is therefore a posteriori. Certain knowledge can not come without any experience. There are many factors that influence the acquisition of knowledge. Philosophers have studied knowledge for a long time, there are many different theories as to how knowledge can be influenced. Perspective is one of these factors.  Many Philosophers have described knowledge as some kind of levelled world.  Kants Numinal world and Husserls Horizons are among them.  Husserls Horizons are very much like Kants Numinal world, however they are developed into seven levels rather than three.  In Horizons, Husserl uses the metaphor of horizons to express his idea of knowledge as something out of reach, constantly moving away from us. Husserls idea of horizons demonstrates how much knowledge is influenced by perception and the way we see what we learn changes from person to person just as the horizon changes by the way each person sees it. Knowledge would then have no limits as people see and understand things differently. Kants Numinal world also describes this, showing that limits to knowledge are always evolving. Kant does not seem to think there are any true boundaries to knowledge as there will always be something in the “Numinal world”.  Kant and Husserl may come close to finding an answer in saying that knowledge is ever evolving as the limits to knowledge are also always evolving as we gain more knowledge. The limit to knowledge may be similar to a horizon, as close as it seems to be it can never be reached. Kant describes space and time as the only limits to knowledge. However depending on perception, these two aspects can be overcome. Plato’s “The Cave Allegory”, observing the “reality” of reality, also applies to limits. Limits, as shown in The Cave Allegory are also perceived to be very much real. This until they are completely shattered.

Kants Numinal world, In this case see reality as "limits"
Kants Numinal world. In this case, see reality as “limits”

Time and Space

If space and time are the only limits then the acquisition of knowledge comes down to a matter of time. Space can very certainly be a limit of knowledge, however in time even this can be overcome. Different spaces in the world can contribute different pieces of knowledge. As mentioned earlier, being in a place can allow you to acquire some knowledge, however you may miss that knowledge if you are not in the right space at the right time. For example, as in the Indian story of the four blind people touching different parts of an elephant, none of whom would be able to individually realize what they are touching in one particular moment. However, there are two ways to overcome this aspect of space. The first is time, the four people could spend some time walking around the elephant and after this time they would be able to deduce that this was an elephant. The second would be to communicate what they felt and this way they would also be able to deduce what they were touching. This may come down to a matter of perception as well.  Knowing this, the only reason space is a limit is that it is impossible to be in two spaces at once. This as well may only be a matter of time. Who says humans will never have the knowledge to create a technology to surmount this limit? This brings us to time being an important limit. It is not possible to learn things you do not have time to learn. Everyone dies eventually which can create a  problem in the acquisition of knowledge. A possibility that there is a “critical time” for learning has also been found. It is said that this “critical time” is the first three years for humans as it is the most important for neural development. For now this is a theory, it may be an important time but it is also possible to learn throughout a human life.  This theory may be considered an advantage if it is proved and can be used more frequently but people learn beyond the first three years of life. Time can also be a limit if there is a restricted amount of time to learn something. Evidence indicates that time restriction can cause anxiety which is bad for focus and learning. If possible, time restriction should be avoided. Time is really more of a restriction. Time can be overcome in many ways such as passing on knowledge and information. This may not help any single person to know everything, however as a group it is possible for humans to constantly raise their level of knowledge.

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Biology and motivation

Biology has a very big impact on the acquisition of knowledge. Learning, understanding and memorizing data is important to having knowledge.  There is a similar process people use to take in and learn information. This process begins with motivation. With the necessary motivation comes the attention and focus to complete a task. In this learning process, senses are a key component. Without senses it would be impossible to have the data sent to our brain to be processed, however our bodies have many senses and can adapt to losing one and sometimes even two. For example blind people still have the ability to learn, and acquire knowledge. This is made possible through other senses such as touch, smell, hearing, or even taste. Data getting through our senses to the brain is the first step. The next step is perception. Perception is a major contributor to what causes everyone to have different knowledge. Even in the same environment, seeing and hearing the same information, two people could perceive data differently. The teacher is also important at this step. In many cases the teacher does not want to have very much influence on how a student perceives data, however sometimes it is important for a teacher to know when to guide the student in the right direction. Once the information is perceived it is important for the information to be encoded. Encoding is the process in which this data will eventually be stored, it seems humans are able to encode anything however there are two main strategies for information to be encoded. These are blocked practice and random practice. Blocked practice is when someone attempts to encode information for long periods of time. For example, a soccer player would spend half an hour practicing his shooting, random practice is when a person is working in shorter, more varied blocks.  On the other hand, a hockey player could spend ten minutes on skating, ten minutes on shooting as well as five minutes on passing. These are both useful ways to practice.  However, random practice seems to have the best results. After knowledge has been encoded it is up to the memory to recall it. Memory is divided into two groups, short term memory, and long term memory. These two types of memory are useful in different situations. However, as the names indicate, if knowledge must be retained for long periods of time long term memory must be used. Simple data retained for shorter periods of time, such as remembering a phone number you are about to dial, are placed in the short term memory. Short term memory on average has a limit of seven characters. The short term memory can be improved by practice. Some people can memorize characters in groups or patterns. Familiar data is also easier to memorize than unfamiliar data. An expert in a field, for example a football player, could recognize and remember a known pattern faster than someone that is not an expert. However, once the patterns are unknown both the expert and the non expert will have the same results. The short term memory does have a limit. However, the long term memory does not have a limit. The temporal lobe, more specifically the hippocampus, is linked to memory. Unlimited memory would be a very useful tool for the acquisition of knowledge. Biology can be very restricting in certain circumstances; however certain parts of human biology seem to indicate that the acquisition of knowledge could very possibly be limitless if it could be done in a certain period of time.


Creating limits

Many of the possible limits are natural, biology and psychology can not realistically be influenced by humans. There are still limits that are artificially placed on the human acquisition of knowledge. Ethics, money and time are examples of these limits. Even in a society where knowledge is power many laws exist inhibiting the human ability to explore. The research of cloning for example has had many restrictions placed on it by different countries’ governments. A majority of people believe it would not be “right” to have the ability of cloning a person. Money is also a limit on knowledge created by society. Many people do not have the ability to afford the research they would like to conduct. Time is an every day limit, it is created by biology. However, it is constantly used in our society. Schools, offices and research laboratories all set time limits that create a restriction on the work being done.

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There are many factors that influence the human ability to acquire knowledge. Philosophy, psychology and biology are extremely useful in the research of whether or not knowledge is limitless.  Humans also restrict themselves in many ways. People are constantly evolving. There are always new ideas being created or new technologies being developed. With this rapid expansion of technology no one can know where the limits are. It is too early to tell for sure whether there are true limits to knowledge, however, today there do not seem to be many. Looking forward, technology seems to be more of a tool than a restriction. Kant and Husserl may be close in the way they examine knowledge. It is said that a limit can not be found unless already passed. Could this mean the only limits that exist are the ones humans put on themselves? Will people ever know the true limits to what they can know?

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