What Is Unknowable?

Knowledge is ever increasing, and often it seems to increase by leaps and bounds. We know more today than we have ever known, and we add to that store of information every day.

The universe, our own genetics, manipulation of materials, the building blocks of matter — all are areas where we are learning more all the time. Sometimes it seems that we will be able to keep on learning and growing what we know indefinitely.

But even if we continue to accumulate knowledge, some things may be beyond our grasp.

It may be that some problems are just too large. For example, the number of ways an ordinary deck of player cards can be arranged is greater than the number of atoms on the earth. Writing them all out can’t be done.

However, some things just might be impossible to know. What is it like to live in five-dimensional space?

What is unknowable? How might we classify unknowable things? Which Intellectual Roundtable questions have unknowable answers?

Related questions: How do we know what we don’t know? How does creative expression help us to know ourselves better? Why are we fascinated with the unknown? What’s the most useful thing you’ve ever learned?

10 thoughts on “What Is Unknowable?”

  1. Known and Unknown

    There are some things we know for certain, and there are no questions about the truth. For instance, it is a certainty that the Earth is an imperfect sphere, Oprah Winfrey owns property on Maui, and eating dark chocolate makes Michael Dahl extremely happy. Such things are observable, documentable, and/or testable.

    There are other things that may be unknowable but of which we are fairly certain; in fact, they are highly probable. Case in point, there is widespread agreement that life exists elsewhere in the universe. We may never be able to prove this, however we may be able to say that the conditions for life are present elsewhere.

    Still other things are known for certain, but there are unresolved questions attached to them. For instance, we know there is some force propelling the universe to expand faster than it should considering propulsion of the Big Bang, the gravitational pull that should accompany all the observable matter, and the age of the universe. For now, we call this thing dark energy and believe is accounts for a little over 70 percent of the universe. Exactly what dark energy is made of is currently unknown. We simply know the force exists because of the impact it has on other things.

    There are some things which are unknowable and improbable. A trivial example of this is that if I had only bought a lottery ticket when it was valued at $1.6 billion in January 2016, I could have shared it with the three other winners.

    Lastly, there are things that will take some time to figure out. I hope we have that time. Right now, I wonder if the trajectory of climate change along with our intransigence on lifestyle changes will allow us to learn all that we can know.

    1. It’s not a very satisfying answer, but you could argue that there *has* to be something rather than nothing, because the question was asked. If there was nothing rather than something, the question couldn’t even be posited.

  2. I’ve always thought that what happens to us after we die is unknowable. I certainly have an opinion. Most people have very strongly held — and incompatible — beliefs. Yet knowing, definitively, seems like something that is beyond what we can gather evidence for or against (other than what we already have figured out, which isn’t much).

  3. What tomorrow holds.
    I’m certain that I will not be able to predict what will happen tomorrow.
    I may have an agenda, however will it go my way? Probably not. There are too many variables that I’m certain will affect my plans.

  4. These are great questions, very deep topics, and in lieu of a lengthy digression into the nature of knowledge and truth I would rather leave this quotation from Leo Tolstoy:

    “The most difficult subjects can be explained to the most slow-witted man if he has not formed any idea of them already; but the simplest thing cannot be made clear to the most intelligent man if he is firmly persuaded that he knows already, without a shadow of a doubt, what is laid before him.”

  5. After reading Karen Armstrong’s book The History of God, I would have said God is unknowable. That seemed to be repeated over and over again in her book. And yet, Jesus tells Philip (and us) in John’s Gospel (Ch.14) “whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” So to my way of thinking, God is not unknowable.

    Getting back to your question, “What is Unknowable?” the list is too long to mention here. Covid 19 is a good example; the last I heard they still don’t know exactly how it originated. Or, closer to home, I inherited something called “Essential Tremors” from my Mom’s side of the family. My hands shake when I eat. I’m trying to learn all I can about it so I can minimize their impact. To date, this hasn’t seriously affected me, but I don’t think anyone knows what causes them.

  6. Here are a few things that are unknown or unknowable:
    The size of the universe.
    How long will human beings exist on earth.
    How many grains of sand in the whole world.
    What will the cost of living be next year.
    Exactly how many people are living right this minute.

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