What if "the truth" about any concept (consciousness, reality, religion,physics, etc.), turns out to be a complex idea such that our brains can't simply process it in a single lifespan.

For example, a large complicated operation can take years for a small processor to compute. Perhaps so much time that its components (metal parts, plastic enclosures, etc.) break down before the computation is done.

Human knowledge is increasing and every day new things are discovered. Kids are learning concepts earlier in school: What Newton once discovered in his adulthood is now taught in secondary school.

There could be a time in the future when what's now cutting edge technology is going to be taught in basic school (like quantum theory).

But what if this isn't possible and we simply can't learn that quickly to be at the very edge of current knowledge and understanding in a given field.

Given that someday we might reach this limit where one has to dedicate his/her entire life to a given field just to keep up with current knowledge, making it impossible for new discoveries to be made.

Are there any references where I can find more on the topic: limits of knowledge?

  • Hi, welcome to Philosophy SE. Please visit our help center on how to ask questions here. Unfortunately, your question in its current form is likely to encourage opinion based responses that we try to avoid here. You could rephrase it by asking for references to philosophical discussions of "limits of knowledge" instead.
    – Conifold
    Commented Apr 12, 2017 at 23:44
  • May I point out that a skeptic would argue that we cannot know "the truth." So what if I flip this around: what if we are already at the point where you cannot get to "the truth" in a lifetime?
    – Cort Ammon
    Commented Apr 13, 2017 at 0:16
  • @CortAmmon You are right: anyone could argue we cannot know "the truth", but we are definitely not at this point yet as every year there are numerous discoveries in many fields. I'll rephrase my question anyways.
    – Tabsickle
    Commented Apr 13, 2017 at 1:32
  • 1
    Are you interested in some metaphysical theoretical issue with running out of human productivity, or a more real one? In particular, what would be your opinion about whether it counts as "making new discoveries" if, in fact, all you do is rediscover things that had been discovered before but lost to time? There could be a natural steady state where we discover things as fast as we forget them.
    – Cort Ammon
    Commented Apr 13, 2017 at 1:42
  • @CortAmmon I'm interested in the metaphysical issue, where it becomes pointless to prosper because humans are aware that regardless of the field, no new knowledge will be obtained. True, there could be this natural steady state of retaining so much information that it eventually gets lost, but there are ways around this issue (Endless databases to avoid rediscovering old concepts, new concepts relying on fully understanding early more basic concepts)
    – Tabsickle
    Commented Apr 13, 2017 at 6:00

4 Answers 4


In "The Fabric of Reality", David Deutsch noted that the most fundamental ideas about how the world work are more unified than at any previous time in human history. To understand each of those fundamental ideas properly you have to understand the others. But this doesn't make knowledge harder to understand because having a unified set of ideas means there are fewer fiddly details to remember.

It is true that in any particular field there may be lots of fiddly details, but these are not relevant to understanding the underlying explanation. They are just facts about some particular kind of situation. As such, it is possible to mechanise the process of dealing with all those details using tools like databases, computer programs and so on. See "The Beginning of Infinity" by David Deutsch, especially chapter 2.


What if "the truth" about any concept (consciousness, reality, religion,physics, etc.), turns out to be a complex idea such that our brains can't simply process it in a single lifespan.

I believe this problem is already here (or almost here): Computer-generated or computer-assisted proofs of certain math problems may become too complicated (or simply too long) to be totally understood by humans. We may still convince ourselves that the proofs are "real proofs" (even though we may need computers to help with the verification), but proofs could also become unscrutable for us at some point. Can we be said to understand a theorem if we don't fully understand its proof? (From an intuitionist point of view, surely, we cannot.)

This situation is a bit analogous to computer programs playing games (like Go) and acquiring superhuman abilities. At some point the AIs cannot learn more from human play than they've already learned and humans can no longer win because we cannot comprehend the AI's strategies anymore (they may appear too chaotic, random, too "creative" or "daring"). It's remarkable, I think, that even though we're not completely there yet, AlphaGo has had some influence on the way both professional Go players and amateurs play Go. But at some point we will/may also no longer be able to learn better strategies from an AI.

  • 1
    "At some point the AIs cannot learn more from human play than they've already learned" AlphaGo Zero fascinatingly is completely self-taught.
    – J D
    Commented May 23 at 15:16

This is a very important question. In past eras, an educated person could have read the entire available literature in all fields. Now fields are so expanded, one generally needs to be very specialize to contribute or comment. (Although that doesn't stop most of us;) With that said, there are now scholars who call themselves "generalists", with the idea being to survey and entire field of knowledge, or several fields, instead of specializing in a single area.

In terms of expansion of content to the point of meaninglessness, I'm not sure that's an issue, in and of itself, because there is a hard distinction between what is meaningful and what is not (as was reiterated to me the other day on Linguistics.)

When you look at a field like mathematics, which has exploded in the past couple centuries, it can be daunting, but it's all based on the same general foundation. (It's more nuanced than that, but it's expedient to be reductionist in this case.)

What I find astounding is how very complex concepts become common knowledge, or at least the foundations for those concepts. I was explaining the difference between Aleph-O and Aleph-1 to a ten year cousin the other day, and the child had no problem grasping it.

It's possible algorithmic intelligence will facilitate navigation of the issue you raise. (Also possible they will preempt homo sapiens in this regard.)

In terms of grappling with the infinite, you might find the issues of Computational Complexity Theory elucidating.

In terms of being able to continue to make scientific advances, as far as I can see that is merely a problem of observation capability and tractability.


All the second (and some of the third) chapter of Zhuang Zi is about the limits of knowledge. Some sentences:

From Lin Yutang translation:

"Human life is limited, but knowledge is limitless. To drive the limited in pursuit of the limitless is fatal; and to presume that one really knows is fatal indeed!"

"(...) that knowledge which stops at what it does not know, is the highest knowledge."

From Burton Watson translation:

"If by moving from nonbeing to being we get to three, how far will we get if we move from being to being? Better not to move, but to let things be!"

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