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(On the Wider Implications of Deficient Knowledge)

Nicholas Rescher

Publication Year: 2009

Nicholas Rescher presents a broad-ranging study that examines the manifestations, consequences, and occasional benefits of ignorance in areas of philosophy, scientific endeavor, and ordinary life. Citing philosophers, theologians, and scientists from Socrates to Steven Hawking, Rescher seeks to uncover the factors that hinder our cognition. Rescher categorizes ignorance as ontologically grounded (rooted in acts of nature-erasure, chaos, and chance-that prevent fact determination), or epistemically grounded (the inadequacy of our information-securing resources). He then defines the basis of ignorance: inaccessible data; statistical fogs; secreted information; past data that have left no trace; future discoveries; future contingencies; vagrant predicates; and superior intelligences. Such impediments set limits to inquiry and mean that while we can always extend our existing knowledge-variability here is infinite-there are things that we will never know. Cognitive finitude also hinders our ability to assimilate more than a certain number of facts. We may acquire additional information, but lack the facility to interpret it. More information does not always increase knowledge; it may point us further down the path toward an erroneous conclusion. In light of these deficiencies, Rescher looks to the role of computers in solving problems and expanding our knowledge base, but finds limits to their reasoning capacity. As Rescher's comprehensive study concludes, ignorance itself is a fertile topic for knowledge, and recognizing the boundaries of our comprehension is where wisdom begins.

Published by: University of Pittsburgh Press


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p. vii

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Chapter 1 The Reach of Ignorance

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pp. 1-27

Cognitive ignorance is the lack of knowledge of fact. Error is a mat-ter of commission. With error we have the facts wrong. Ignorance, by contrast, is a matter of omission: with ignorance we do not have the facts, period. By and large, error is thus worse than ignorance. As Thomas Jefferson wrote: “Ignorance is preferable to error; and he is ...

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Chapter 2 Questions and Insolubilia

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pp. 28-45

It is instructive to take an erotetic—that is, question-oriented—view of knowledge and ignorance. After all, someone knows that p when (and only when) they can cogently give a correct answer to the ques-tion “Is p the case?” and an answer is given cogently when (and only There are two possibilities for erotetic ignorance: (1) generic ques-...

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Chapter 3 Cognitive Shortfall

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pp. 46-56

Ironically, one of the prime limitations of our knowledge is inherent in the very nature of language, its essential and most powerful instrumentality. Twentieth-century philosophers of otherwise the most radically different orientation have agreed on prioritizing the role of language. “The limits of my language set the limits of my ...

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Chapter 4 Cognitive Finitude

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pp. 57-66

First the good news. Generalizations can of course refer to everything. Bishop Butler’s “Everything is what it is and not another thing” holds with unrestricted universality. And once continuous quantities are introduced, the range of inferentially available statements becomes uncountable. “The length of the table exceeds x inches.” Once ...

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Chapter 5 On Limits to Science

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pp. 67-90

One sagacious commentator wrote that “the sudden confrontation with the depth and scope of our ignorance represents the most significant contribution of twentieth-century science to the human intellect.”1 But are there matters regarding nature about which we will remain ignorant? How far can the scientific enterprise advance toward ...

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Chapter 6 Obstacles to Predictive Foreknowledge

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pp. 91-122

The philosophical theologians of the middle ages, who loved puzzles, were wont to exercise their ingenuity regarding this question: “If he is omniscient, does God know what is happening now?” And they inclined to answer this question with the response, “yes and no.” Clearly an unrestrictedly omniscient God will know everything that ...

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Chapter 7 Can Computers Mend Matters?

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pp. 123-139

In view of the difficulties and limitations that beset our human efforts at answering the questions we confront in a complex world, it becomes tempting to contemplate the possibility that computers might enable us to overcome our cognitive disabilities and surmount those epistemic frailties of ours. And so we may wonder: Can com-...

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Chapter 8 Implications of Ignorance

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pp. 140-152

The preceding deliberations have brought to light a considerable variety of types of fact that, on the basis of general principles, are bound to be unknown or even unknowable. The categories at issue here are • Certain facts whose determination requires inaccessible • Certain facts involving information hidden in a statistical ...


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pp. 153-164

Bibliography and Index of Names

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pp. 165-170


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E-ISBN-13: 9780822973515
E-ISBN-10: 0822973510
Print-ISBN-13: 9780822960140
Print-ISBN-10: 0822960141

Page Count: 184
Publication Year: 2009

OCLC Number: 610606830
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Ignorance

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Subject Headings

  • Ignorance (Theory of knowledge).
  • Knowledge, Theory of.
  • Cognition.
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