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Upon The Unknown And The Unknowable
Oct 1, 1999

The process of knowing occurs with the interaction of three components: the person who knows (subject), that which is known (knowledge or information), and the method of acquiring or learning information. When we classify information according to its nature, various subgroups appear: concrete and abstract, religious and secular, physical and metaphysical, material and spiritual. Each type of information can be learned by a style unique to itself. Thus, people can learn a subject only if the appropriate method is used.

For instance, those seeking scientific information limit themselves to concrete and physical knowledge. Furthermore, they have to form the mechanisms of causality from natural causes and then refine the resulting knowledge through a sieve of doubt. Likewise, those who seek religious knowledge, which mainly depends on belief, must learn the pillars of faith by searching and then using their minds and logic, rather than mere imitation, to check the information's authenticity by consulting the primary sources. Religious knowledge is gained through belief and using the principles of reason and logic, rather than experimentation and observation, to analyze the resulting knowledge.

Human knowledge that can be known can be divided into three subgroups: that which is unknown, unknowable, and known. If we subdivide these further, the following classes emerge: the knowable that is known; the knowable that is unknown; the unknowable that can be known thorough the use of various means; and that which will never be known by humanity. This classification is based on having the means to acquire and learn information, as well as the type of information demanded.

There is other knowledge that belongs only to God, and that can acquired only via revelation (wahy), divinely inspired Prophets, and divinely revealed books. As the bulk of such knowledge has absolute meaning, its application, validity, and meaning can be acquired only after appropriate education and training. Since most religious information is like medicine, it must be applied at the appropriate place and taken in the proper dosage to give the greatest benefit. Otherwise, this information could lead people astray.

In today's information age, useful communication is possible if we know what information we want and how to obtain it. Adherents of scientific ideologies and societies that view scientific and religious-moral information as contradictory and mutually exclusive should realize the differences and boundaries between the knowable, that which remains unknown by scientific methods, and the unknowable. We must understand that information seen as contradictory and mutually exclusive is actually complementary, for nature's diversity reflects the principle of the "unity and entirety of differences." Only this understanding will ensure peace and security among the different parts of society that represent the different types of information.

Scientific and religious (faith-related) information represent different types of information gained by various methods. At the same time, however, they form a "meaningful unity" in human life. The critical task is to synthesize these two types of information and then apply the results to one's daily life.

The boundaries and characteristics of unknowable, long-time subjects in philosophy and epistemology have been (and still are) debated by philosophers for centuries. Based on this understanding, we will discuss the meanings of the unknown and the unknowable concepts of modern science.1


In 1931, logician Kurt Godel shocked scientific circles with a new discovery: some basic mathematical propositions and premises, the common language of science, cannot be proven or refuted. He called this the Theorem of Uncertainty. In the 1980s, British mathematician Alan Turing used a digital computer (the Turing Machine) to prove that one could not give a correct answer before posing an abstract problem. Do these two discoveries tell us something about the place and grade of the unknowable in science?

Science seeks to explain and understand all of the universe's elements and happenings. Scientific questions can be very general or very specific: Will the universe expand continuously? Will human activity engender large-scale change on the Earth? There is no prior knowledge or premise on which to base answers to such questions. Science, which uses mathematics as a means, is different from mathematics. All discoveries are made in mathematical fields by using models formed by manipulating symbols. Can we apply all appropriate mathematical findings to other sciences?

Ralph Gomery, head of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, states that we can understand science by dividing it into three parts: the known part of the scientific universe, the unknown, and the unknowable. The subjects taught in schools and universities form the known part of science. At the same time, exhibits in science museums and elsewhere are summaries of what has been discovered. Scientists and researchers feel the excitement of searching the unknown in order to make it known. According to Gomery, that which is now unknown will be knowable in the future, and the unknowable will remain unknown forever. The limits of science are determined by the subtle lines between what is unknown and what is unknowable. According to some, these boundaries are very rigid, predetermined, and cannot change (i.e., the boundaries of science and religion). Following are some unknown "facts" and questions that might be known and answered in the future.

Models that can forecast the Earth's dynamic functions, and thus predict the currently unforeseeable nature of earth quakes, might be successfully developed. What negative ecologicial changes will be wrought upon the Earth through human production and consumption, and how can they be prevented or mitigated? Is there intelligent life in outer space? If so, how and by what means can we communicate with it? How does human consciousness develop? What is the relation between free will and the brain's physico-chemical reactions? How can a national or global economy be kept stable without driving it into chaos? Can we prove which of these questions are unknowable?

According to Joseph Traub, Godel's theorem only limits the power of mathematics; it has nothing to do with whether or not a scientific question is answerable. Traub believes that there are causes in science that make some questions unanswerable. Examples are insufficient archeological and historical data, as well as the first appearance of language; the fact of coincidental events and simultaneous discoveries, which make these events indistinguishable and hence their explanation harder (e.g., we cannot distinguish the cause-and-effect relations between events that took place isochronally in the first appearance of life); and insufficient sources, methods, and experimental designs to test the correctness and validity of today's prevalent theories.

We must be careful when claiming that something is unknowable, for doing so without exposing the reasons may hinder scientific progress and development. On the other hand, many scientists accept the presence of that which is unknowable and unanswerable by science, and view science as trying to solve and understand the knowable universe.


In America, scientists from various branches gather in periodical meetings at the Santa Fe Institute in an attempt to model a prototype university of the 21st century by drawing lines between the unknown and the unknowable. They emphasize that scientific truth and reality have five different aspects: the reality of the physical and concrete universe, the reality based on the mathematical modeling of the preceding reality, the reality produced and interpreted based on the depictions and descriptions of the preceding models, the virtual (cyber, imaginary) reality produced in a computer environment, and the reality produced by simulations in computerized environments. Thus, "reality" and "models of reality" are not identical.

Some researchers claim that there are only two worlds of reality: the physical universe (or nature) and computers. They also state that these two different worlds should be modeled differently. From this aspect, which reality or model is of interest becomes an important issue when scientists try to classify what is unknown and unknowable.

Let's concretize these distinctions. Every living organism consists of proteins, which should be folded in a specific three-dimensional form to become functional. One or several of these possible foldings are functional; the rest are meaningless. The formation of folding in a living organism takes a few milliseconds. But scientists, even if they use the best supercomputers in existence, cannot simulate this process. Since the theories and algorithms of the computer environment are insufficient, there is no conformity between the model and reality, for the living system folds the amino acids properly. We do not have enough knowledge to model this amino acid structure in a computer environment, because there is no one-to-one correspondence between reality and the perception and visualization of the reality in the mind.

Niels Bohr summarized what could be done: "I cannot grasp reality, but [I can] produce a mathematical model that can predict reality." This opened new doors to philosophy. Albert Einstein believed that there is a reality that can be defined by mathematical models. Today, a similar debate continues in scientific circles between Stephen Hawking (who defends Bohr) and Roger Penrose (who defends Einstein).


The main argument of those who state that science has come to an end is as follows: The basic discoveries about the physical reality of the universe have been made. All that remains is to fill in its content. For example, subatomic particles have been discovered. Molecules that code life have been discovered, and hence new genes are being produced. The basic theories that enabled space technology have been developed. Perhaps future technological innovations will be limited to improving existing ones, rather than making new discoveries. Besides, science alone could not solve humanity's problems or prevent bloodshed, although it received a considerable amount of financial support. Thus from now on, these sources should be used to discover the real nature of humanity and the sciences (e.g., social, religious, and moral) that ensure human welfare and well-being, for solely scientific information is not everything. It seems that we need religious and moral knowledge to use our scientific findings in the best interests of humanity. Today, ethics is a compulsory course in Western universities, and some scientists believe that research should focus on more concrete, answerable, and functional topics.

On the other hand, others believe that science has not ended and that many things remain to be discovered. They point out that scientific discoveries are not so numerous, and that new research areas appear by intermingling physical sciences with themselves and the social sciences. They stress that until now, scientific findings have been reached by deduction. Now, however, the dominant scientific paradigm is being transformed into systematic thinking, and the interaction of all things will be studied in database networks. This will engender new views of science and the universe. They also claim that those sciences that focused on the information of the particles will begin to focus on systems and understanding the nature of their interactions.


  1. "Modern science" signifies scientific information about the universe that is gathered by one's five senses, observation, experimentation, and mathematical modeling and explanations. It does not include religious studies and knowledge.


  • Horgan, John. The End of Science: Facing the Limits of Knowledge in the Twilight of the Scientific Age. New York: Helix Books, 1996.
  • Traub, Joseph. "The Unknown and the Unknowable." The Third Culture. Interview. 1998.
  • ---. Information and Complexity. N.p: Cambridge University Press, 1998.