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As a child I was mostly interested in biology, poetry, physics and mathematics, as a teenager I got interested in history, religion, languages and (of course) computers. I was (am?) pretty much sure that in order to study religion I'd need a solid background in history, in order to understand physics I needed to know math and chemistry better, and so on so forth... Eventually I had to make a choice and it turned out to be Mathematics, but I always felt I was "missing" something by not studying biology, or physics, or chemistry, or poetry...

My question is: How to deal with the fact that you won't ever know everything, even inside your field of research? How to deal with the amount of complexity we've produced in the last centuries?

You know, in the old days of science people used to be mathematicians, physicists, chemists and even found time to do a little bit of poetry and painting...

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closed as primarily opinion-based by Hunan Rostomyan, iphigenie, virmaior, Matt, Joseph Weissman Aug 7 at 23:31

Many good questions generate some degree of opinion based on expert experience, but answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than facts, references, or specific expertise.If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

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To me, learning is more fulfilling than knowing. –  Deinonychus Aug 5 at 16:33
    
@Deinonychus hence why science is so fun :3 –  Supuhstar Aug 5 at 17:06
    
I would say with humility. You shouldn't expect yourself to learn everything about everything. Instead, meditate on what you learn, appreciate it, and be in awe. –  John Aug 5 at 21:23
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You will learn to cope with it when you will find out there is much more inside of you that you do not know. At that point all outside information will become irrelevant to you. And last but not least at some point you will notice that outside information is kinda all the same. –  Asphir Dom Aug 5 at 23:48
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Work on the singularity, and hope it is achieved in your lifetime. ;-D –  Adam Davis Aug 6 at 0:12

11 Answers 11

Not sure this counts as an answer but, I can relate to your dilemma. I'm a software developer. Inside of that enormous field are branches and branches and branches and I will never know everything about every language or technology for my field.

The question of 'how do I deal with this' is: I don't.

I have an understanding that knowing enough about what I need to know now, coupled with the ability (and curiosity) to learn what I need to know tomorrow, added to the sum of the information available (and ease of access to said info) computes to me knowing that if I ever need to know, I'll figure it out.

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Branches and Branches and nor do we know till when will they survive too. The technologies emerge like anything and goes out in no time. I regularly have these kind of thoughts , the best way I had found is to stick to one till it amazes me ( it never stops doing that and I'm never disappointed too ). –  Abhinav Gauniyal Aug 7 at 6:27

Below is how I approach this situation:

  • Life would be boring if we know everything. It is fun and exciting just because we don't know so much.
  • There is so much existing knowledge and there is lot of complexity there BUT I prefer to always be skeptical about existing knowledge. This is important to approach problems with a completely different point of view, which lead to new knowledge.
  • Learn to think (in general). I always try to spend some time thinking about anything that is not a part of my field of study. It gives you new perspectives and various theories to work with that may even be useful in your own field.
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Set yourself a goal and learn (mostly) what's required to reach it. That goal should be something that you can do (a skill).

I'm a software developer. My goal is to be able to create sophisticated applications that are relevant to customers. In order to reach that goal I only need a tiny amount of formal math. I don't even need much Computer Science. I need rigorous engineering skills. I need practice.

Do what's required to reach your goal.

You said you are interested in Mathematics. Your goal could be:

  1. Solve a famous problem.
  2. Be a respected researcher.
  3. Create lots of value as part of a company (as opposed to research).
  4. Have a fascinating hobby.

Each one of these goals commands a different strategy.

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Consider that what we already know so far and the complexity of the sum of human knowledge accumulated so far may pale in comparison to what lies undiscovered or is beyond the scope of human comprehension. In my view, ignorance is bliss. Striving to know everything is an existential crisis.

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The explosion of knowledge about the natural world has also been accompanied by a distillation of knowledge. People have found the right definitions. Dead ends have been marked off. There's more to know, but it's becoming successively easier for each generation of scientists to acquire knowledge. Maybe this is some consolation.

Also, I've always objected to the tree metaphor when talking about specialization in academics. To me its always seemed more like a river delta. In the course of your studies in math, you will find surprising connections between different "rivulets" of mathematics. If you talk to a number theorist, for instance, you will find that, to do research in this field, you need a strong foundational knowledge of almost every other area of math. Looking to other sciences, you may find that your algebra training comes with some free computer science background or that your differential geometry training comes with some free physics background. Indeed, physics and math give a good example of bifurcation and confluence in the river delta of science. "In the old days" they were more or less the same discipline. At some point they forked apart. But today mathematical physics is a burgeoning field and its practitioners may not have any preference between the titles of "mathematician" and "physicist."

So I guess I would just say go with the flow of the river delta :) It all flows into the ocean. Ok that imagery is a little over the top sorry.

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How to deal with the fact that you won't ever know everything, even inside your field of research? How to deal with the amount of complexity we've produced in the last centuries?

Prioritize. Ask yourself what is most important to you to know and then go from there. This can be based on various criteria, such as what do you like, how do you feel you should contribute to humanity, or what should a human being be doing. If you don't have a criteria, work on selecting one first. It can take a long time and that's normal.

If you are having issues prioritizing or simply think that all criteria for such priority are equvialent, it's probably because you are not yet fully aware of your own mortality and the fact that your time here is limited.

If you truly believe you are immortal and that life as you are living now will continue forever, or believe for whatever philosophical basis that lack of proof of mortality is sufficient to act as though you are immortal, then simply start learning everything. Any point will be as good as any other in that case.

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“The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.” ― Socrates

"You can't have your cake and eat it."

"The only hope you have is to accept the fact that you're already dead. The sooner you accept that, the sooner you'll be able to function as a soldier is supposed to function: without mercy, without compassion, without remorse. All war depends upon it." ―Capt. Ronald Speirs

I'll let you read between the lines of those quotes for yourself. Here's my two cents: Take solace from the fact that your understanding of the cosmos is better than all those long gone poetic painting scientists.

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I have to agree with the implication that it is a little annoying that even within a single discipline, knowledge grows faster than one can absorb it.

So we tend (are forced) to specialize in order to have a sufficient knowledge to be able to contribute to a field. Let me suggest that the more established a field, the more narrow one's focus needs to be in order to contribute. [ Exactly how narrow also depends somewhat on one's aptitude for the chosen field. ] Whatever this is, one might call your "day job" - sounds like maths in your case. One hopes to add meaningfully to that field of knowledge.

That does not stop one also learning about other fields, possibly very different to the day job. One might reasonably hope to be highly knowledgeable without reaching the level of being a contributor. Put another way, you might be across what has been written in a field without ever having been at a level to (at least potentially) have written anything in it yourself. To me, this is a critical distinction.

There are progressively lower levels of knowledge one might have in other fields.

Having accepted this, does it follow that knowledge outside one's specialization is purely for entertainment? I'd say not. Broader knowledge can give insights into one's own field, or possibly allow you to bring insights from your field to outside areas. In reading broadly you have the potential to synthesize ideas from multiple fields.

In relation to this, you might find that as you read a book in one field you think about how the ideas might apply in your day job. You can actually make a point of doing this consciously.

Summary: You cannot know everything, but despite that everything is still worth knowing. There is surely value in making an effort to learn about other fields.

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The way to NOT know everything, is accept that you never will know EVERYTHING. You just have to be ok with that. To be any use to anyone you have to learn how to say the phrase "I don't know." Once you get good at that and are willing to tell someone that you don't know something, you will have a whole life of learning things and asking interesting questions. You will start to really value certain friends and surround yourself with interesting people.

A friends husband works for a cell phone company and he was tasked with keeping cell towers active and online in a certain area. I always have so many questions for him because it facinates me to hear about how this incredible technology works. He always laughs, claiming I'm the only person he talks to that cares about his job.

My willingness to admit I don't know something and my willingness to ask questions of people means I get to learn interesting things all the time.

That said, I'm not a psychologist or a philosopher, I don't really know anything about it.

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I consider myself a "Renaissance man", a philosopher/scientist/mathematician/physicist/engineer/computer scientist/educator/artist. I choose not to specialise in any field. If you like, my speciality is as a "big picture" man. So everywhere I turn, I am made aware that there is much I don't know. And it is difficult at times.

Here's how I deal with it:

  • I have no reservations about learning something new! I never let "it's not my field" or "I don't have the background knowledge" stop me. I just dive in.
  • I consider the knowledge I don't know as "details". Often it doesn't really have much impact on the big picture. The trick is in learning when the details are important and when they aren't.
  • While you can never how much use a particular fact will be to you in the future, some of them stand out as really powerful ideas, and these are the ones I seek out. "But what if one of the ideas you don't learn could have been really useful?" Well, life is full of uncertainty. Sometimes a gamble is the best we can do, and there's no sense having regrets or blaming yourself if you did the best you could.
  • I have faith in my ability to make good judgements about areas where my knowledge is limited.
  • I accept that one human has limited capacity and we each have our role to play. When I feel confronted upon discovering a new topic area (frequently on Wikipedia) that's full of knowledge I will never have time to learn, I try to remember how glad I am about the knowledge and skills I already have and what I can do with them.
  • Since my work is interdisciplinary it isn't practical for me to be an expert in all the areas I cover. I've received a lot of negativity, skepticism and criticism from experts in certain fields, which was demoralising and painful. But after I learned more about what they were saying, I always found that I could justify my ideas in "their language". This just confirmed for me that often it's not necessary to understand "the details" to come to sound conclusions.

But here is some more general advice:

  • If you make your happiness depend on an impossible condition, you will never be happy.
  • Look for happiness in the realistic, the practical, the everyday.
  • If knowledge brings you pleasure, take pleasure in the knowledge you have.
  • If learning brings you pleasure, take pleasure in all the learning you do.
  • If you feel a strong drive to learn beyond your "chosen field", maybe your calling in life is not to have a "chosen field" at all, to be something of a Jack-of-all-trades. It may not be an easy road, but it can be done.
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This relates to what I think is one of the greatest problems of philosophy, the problem of specificity. Why does the world have the form it has? Why is pi 3.14159...? Why are you the person you are, in the place that you are, with the lifespan you have, with the limits on your knowledge that you have? And, more to the point of your question, how should you respond to the specificity of your life?

I think the right answer is to embrace the specificity, but to also bring it back in to relation with the social and the universal, as follows: Work on developing your unique talents and interests in the ways that will best serve the world at large, and pursue all the fields of study that appear to directly advance that goal.

In this way, although you will never encompass all knowledge, or even a very large percentage of it, you will know that you have encompassed all the knowledge most personally relevant to your purpose in the universe to the limit of your ability to identify and acquire it.

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