A note on ignorance from Kant

Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason is a hugely impressive (but fiendishly difficult) treatment of our knowledge and ignorance.

One of its more clear and plainly-written segments comes in a Note to a section entitled: ‘The Transcendental Ideal’. In this, Kant writes:

The investigations and calculations of astronomers have taught us much that is wonderful; but the most important lesson we have received from them is the discovery of the abyss of our ignorance in relation to the universe – an ignorance, the magnitude of which reason, without the information thus derived, could never have conceived. This discovery of our deficiencies must produce a great change in the determination of the aims of human reason.”

There is a crucial point here for all of us, that the deficiencies in our claims to knowledge are as much if not more important than all our achievements.

Too often we assume that our knowledge is all-pervading or at least at some point in the future will be all-pervading. But there is no reason to assume this. Kant said (in 1781) that our ignorance of the whole nature of the universe constituted an “abyss”, and this is still true today, despite all the advances in science and technology. Any belief that we do, or can, understand reality in in its totality, is an act of faith on a par with a belief in God. We may believe it, but there is no reason to believe it.

This calls for a certain humility which is not easy to retain in our ‘fast-moving’ world of growing markets, moving peoples and the progressive colonisation of the natural world.

By trying to get on, just to get by, we can’t help but be a cog in the wheel of a system whose advocates claim ultimate right on their side, but with no ultimate justification – just self-justifying ideology. We have no reason to trust them just as we have no reason to trust the Marxists and Islamists and other ideologues who claim self-righteousness and moral superiority from spurious claims to ultimate knowledge.


  1. Very much agree. Imagine the leap in knowledge that will have to take place for us to understand the question "What came before the Big Bang?" let alone get anywhere near comprehension of an answer. We're still at the stage where just that question scares people into believing all kinds of unprovable (and non-disprovable) beliefs.

    Perhaps the way forward is to imagine a species elsewhere that has got closer to that level of intelligence, and imagine ourselves in a competition with them in which we're catching up. Maybe not, that only just came to me, but I like the idea.


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