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A Limit to Knowing

But, no matter how long the human species may survive, our model of ‘Nature’ will
neverbe complete. While ‘GOD’ has granted us the gift of knowing, we humans
cannot know

Korzybski’sPrinciple of Non-Allness

Alfred Korzybski1933called this limit to human knowing the Principle of Non-
17. Korzybski felt that knowledge of this ‘law’ of Nature was so fundamental
and important to all humans, that he developed a lesson especially for children.

“Children, today we want to learn allabout the apple.”

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He places an apple in view of the children, “Do you children know about the

“I do!”, “I do!”, “Yes, I know about apples!”

“Good” Korzybski moves to the blackboard. , “Come, tell me about the apple?”

“The Apple is a fruit.”, “The apple is red.”, “The apple grows on a tree.”

Korzybski would list the characteristics described by the children on the
blackboard. The children continue, “An apple a day keeps the Doctor away.”

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17Alfred Korzybski, Science and Sanity, 1933-48, ibid

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Korzybski continues listing the childrens answers until they run out of ideas
then he would ask, “Is that
allwe can say about the apple?”

When the children answered in the affirmative, Korzybski would remove his
pocket-knife and cut the apple in half, passing the parts among the children.

“Now, children can we say moreabout the apple?”

“The apple smells good.” “The juices are sweet.” “The apple has seeds.” “Its pulp
is white.” “Mother makes apple pie.”

Finally when the children had again run out of answers, Korzybski would ask,
“Now, is that
allwe can say about the apple?” When the children agreed that
it was all that could be said, he would again go into his pocket only this time
he removed a ten power magnifying lens and passed it to the children. The
children would examine the apple, and again respond:

“The apple pulp has a pattern and a structure.” “The skin of the apple has
pores.” “The leaves have fuzz on them.” “The seeds have coats.”

Thus Korzybski would teach the children the lesson of Non-ALLness.

Now we could continue to examine the apple—with a light microscope, x-ray
crystallography, and eventually the electron microscope. We would continue to
discover more to say about the apple. However, we can never know
ALLthere is to
know about anything in Nature. We humans have the power to know about Nature,
but not to know

Knowing is without limit, but knowing is not total. Universe is our human model of
Nature. Our ‘knowing’ can grow evermore complete. It can grow closer and closer to
the ‘Truth’, but it cannot equal the ‘Truth’. It must always be incomplete. We are not
‘GOD’. We cannot see and know

Harry Rathbun1976on the permanence of the unknown and mystery:

“The truly scientific spirit is one of openness to truth.It demands the

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18Charlotte Schuchardt Read, From private conversations with Ms. Read in 1980. Ms. Read worked
with Alfred Korzybski at the Institute of General Semantics from 1939 until his death in 1950.

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willingness to pursue truth relentlessly, and to follow wherever it leads at
whatever cost. The cost includes letting go our prejudices and preconceptions,
and especially the precious opinions and hypotheses that we believe to be fresh
and wonder insights into reality. The scientific venture demands the attitude
of detachment. We have seen that this is attainable only by commitment to a
value so high as to demand one’s total loyalty. In the case of science this value
is abstract
truth. a necessary accompaniment of that attitude is its corollary,
humility. This is the willing acceptance of the fact that we are totally subject
to something greater than ourselves. It also requires acceptance of the fact
that there are mysteries which presently are, and may always be, beyond our
human powers of understanding.”

The Uncertainty of Science

Richard Feynman1963again speaking at the University of Washington20.

“I come now to an important point. The old laws may be wrong. How can an
observation be incorrect? If it has been carefully checked, how can it be
wrong? Why are physicists always having to change the laws? The answer is,
first, that the laws are not the observations and, second, that experiments are
always inaccurate. The laws are guessed laws, extrapolations, not something
that the observations insist upon. They are just good guesses that have gone
through the sieve so far. And it turns out later that the sieve now has smaller
holes than the sieves that were used before, and this time the law is caught. So
the laws are guessed; they are extrapolations into the unknown. You do not
know what is going to happen, so you take a guess.

“For example, it was believed—it was discovered that motion does not affect the
weight of a thing—that if you spin a top and weigh it, and then weigh it when
it has stopped, it weighs the same. That is the result of an observation. But
you cannot weigh something to the infinitesimal number of decimal places,
parts in a billion. But we now understand that a spinning top weighs more
than a top which is not spinning by a few parts in less than a billion. If the top

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19Harry J. Rathbun, Creative Initiative: Guide To Fulfillment, Creative Initiative Foundation, Palo Alto,
California, 1976

20Richard P. Feynman, THE MEANING OF IT ALL – Thoughts of a Citizen-Scientist, HELIX BOOKS –
Addison-Wesley, 1998

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spins fast enough so that the speed of the edges approaches 186,000 miles a
second, the weight increase is appreciable—but not until then. The first
experiments were performed with tops that spun at speeds much lower than
186,000 miles a second. It seemed then that the mass of the top spinning and
not spinning was exactly the same, and someone made a guess that the mass
never changes.

“How foolish! What a fool! It is only a guessed law, an extrapolation. Why did he
do something so unscientific? There was nothing unscientific about it; it was
uncertain. It would have been unscientific notto guess. It has to be
done because the extrapolations are the only things that have any real value.
It is only the principle of what you think will happen in a case you have not
tried that is worth knowing about. Knowledge is of no real value if all you can
tell me is what happened yesterday. It is necessary to tell what will happen
tomorrow if you do something—not necessary, but fun. Only you must be
willing to stick your neck out.

“Every scientific law, every scientific principle, every statement of the results
of an observation is some kind of a summary which leaves out details, because
nothing can be stated precisely. The man simply forgot—he should have stated
the law “The mass doesn’t change
muchwhen the speed isn’t too high.” The
game is to make a specific rule and then see if it will go through the sieve. So
the specific guess was that the mass never changes at all. Exciting possibility!
It does no harm that it turned out not to be the case. It was only uncertain,
and there is no harm in being uncertain. It is better to say something and not
be sure than not to say anything at all.

“It is necessary and true that all of the things we say in science, all of the
conclusions, are
uncertain, because they are only conclusions. They are
guesses as to what is going to happen, and you cannot know what will happen,
because you have not made the most complete experiments.

“It is curious that the effect on the mass of a spinning top is so small you may
say, “Oh, it doesn’t make any difference.” But to get a law that is right, or at
least one that keeps going through the successive sieves, that goes on for
many more observations, requires a tremendous intelligence and imagination
and a complete revamping of our philosophy, our understanding of space and

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time. I am referring to the relativity theory. It turns out that the tiny effects
that turn up always require the most revolutionary modifications of ideas.

“Scientists, therefore, are used to dealing with doubt and uncertainty. All
scientific knowledge is uncertain
. This experience with doubt and
uncertainty is important. I believe that it is of very great value, and one that
extends beyond the sciences. I believe that to solve any problem that has never
been solved before, you have to leave the door to the unknown ajar. You have to
permit the possibility that you do not have it exactly right. Otherwise, if you
have made up your mind already, you might not solve it.

“When the scientist tells you he does not know the answer, he is an ignorant
man. When he tells you he has a hunch about how it is going to work, he is
uncertain about it. When he is pretty sure of how it is going to work, and he
tells you, “This is the way it’s going to work, I’ll bet,” he still is in some doubt.
And it is of paramount importance, in order to make progress, that we
recognize this ignorance and this doubt. Because we have the doubt, we then
propose looking in new directions for new ideas. The rate of the development of
science is not the rate at which you make observations alone but, much more
important, the rate at which you create new things to test.

“If we were not able or did not desire to look in any new direction, if we did not
have a doubt or recognize ignorance, we would not get any new ideas. There
would be nothing worth checking, because we would know what is true. So
what we call scientific knowledge today is a body of statements of varying
degrees of certainty. Some of them are most unsure; some of them are nearly
sure; but none is absolutely certain. Scientists are used to this. We know that
it is consistent to be able to live and not know. Some people say, “How can you
livewithout knowing?” I do not know what they mean. I always live without
knowing. That is easy. How you get to know is what I want to know.

“This freedom to doubt is an important matter in the sciences and, I believe, in
other fields. It was born of a struggle. It was a struggle to be permitted to
doubt, to be unsure. And I do not want us to forget the importance of the
struggle and, by default, to let the thing fall away. I feel a responsibility as a
scientist who knows the great value of a satisfactory philosophy of ignorance,
and the progress made possible by such a philosophy, progress which is the
fruit of freedom of thought. I feel a responsibility to proclaim the value of this

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freedom and to teach that doubt is not to be feared, but that it is to be
welcomed as the possibility of a new potential for human beings. If you know
that you are not sure, you have a chance to improve the situation. I want to
demand this freedom for future generations.”
—Richard Feyman

The Uncertainty of Human Knowing

Jacob Bronowski1976speaking in his famous public television series the Ascent of

“One aim of the physical sciences has been to give an exact picture of the
material world. One achievement of physics in the Twentieth Century has
been to prove that that aim is unattainable. There is no absolute knowledge
and those who claim it, whether they are scientists or dogmatists, open the
door to tragedy. All information is imperfect. We have to treat it with humility.
This is the human condition; and that is what Quantum Physics says. I mean
that literally.

“Let us examine an object with the best tool we have today, the electron
microscope, where the rays are so concentrated that we no longer know
whether to call them waves or particles. Electrons are fired at an object, and
they trace its outline like a knife-thrower at a fair. The smallest object that
has ever been seen is a single atom of thorium. It is spectacular.

And yet the soft image confirms that, like the knives that graze the girl at the
fair, even the hardest electrons do not give a hard outline. The perfect image is
still as remote as the distant stars.

“We are here face to face with the crucial paradox of knowledge. Year by year
we devise more precise instruments with which to observe nature with more
fineness and when we look at the observations, we are discomfited to see that
they are still fuzzy, and we feel that we are as uncertain as ever.

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21Richard P. Feynman, THE MEANING OF IT ALL, 1998, ibid
22Jacob Bronowski, The Ascent of Man, Little, Brown & Company, New York, 1976

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“We seem to be running after a goal which lurches away from us to infinity
every time we come within sight of it.

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“The paradox of knowledge is not confined to the small, atomic scale; on the
contrary, it is as cogent on the scale of man, and even of the stars. Let me put
it in the context of an astronomical observatory. Karl Freidrich Gauss’
observatory at Göttingen was built about 1807. Throughout his life and ever
since (the best part of 200 years) astronomical instruments have been
improved. We look at the position of a star as it was determined then and now,
and it seems to us that we are closer and closer to finding it precisely. But
when we actually compare our individual observations today, we are

Bronowski on Uncertainty
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