Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Nicholas of Cusa

American History has a charming anecdote that the head of the US Patent Office once declared there was nothing left to invent. The background for this fable is explained here. Someone in 2010 said that we create as much data in 2 days as in all of 2003. Our ability to find and learn new things looks like it will never match the things there are to learn.

With the amount of knowledge being gained rapidly accelerating, why don't we know everything yet? Will we know everything?

Nicholas of Cusa (c.1400-1464) had an opinion on this. He outlined the problem in the opening remarks of his De Docta Ignorantia (On Learned Ignorance):
It so far surpasses human reason, however, to know the precision of the combinations in material things and how exactly the known has to be adapted to the unknown that Socrates thought he knew nothing save his own ignorance, whilst Solomon, the Wise, affirmed that in all things there are difficulties which beggar explanation in words;
He argued, however, that every living creature is
endowed with suitable faculties and activities; ... there is in them a discernment that is natural and in keeping with the purpose of their knowledge, which ensures their natural inclination serving its purpose and being able to reach its fulfillment.
If that is true, he says, then limits to our ability to know things must be built-in by our Creator for a purpose. And that purpose is that, at the end of our reasoning, when reason fails, we must turn to faith for the ultimate answers.

For this, Nicholas has been declared an anti-intellectual by at least one prominent modern scholar. But this misses his point: until we reach the limits of what we can figure out, we must travel as far as we can with reason. Just how far Nicholas of Cusa let his reason take him (and in ways that were appreciated by men like Bruno, Copernicus, Galileo and Kepler) I will explore this week.

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