Ignoramus et ignorabimus

Emil du Bois-Reymond (1818–1896), promulgator of the maxim ignoramus et ignorabimus. (Heliogravure of a painting
by Max Koner

The Latin maxim ignoramus et ignorabimus, meaning "we do not know and will not know", stood for a position on the limits of scientific knowledge, in the thought of the nineteenth century. It was given credibility by Emil du Bois-Reymond, a German physiologist, in his Über die Grenzen des Naturerkennens ("On the limits of our understanding of nature") of 1872.

Seven World Riddles

Emil du Bois-Reymond used ignoramus et ignorabimus in discussing what he called seven "world riddles", in a famous 1880 speech before the Berlin Academy of Sciences.

He outlined seven "world riddles", of which three, he declared, neither science nor philosophy could ever explain, because they are "transcendent". Of the riddles, he considered the following transcendental and declared of them ignoramus et ignorabimus:[1] "1. the ultimate nature of matter and force, 2. the origin of motion, ... 5. the origin of simple sensations, a quite transcendent question."

Hilbert's reaction

David Hilbert suggested that such a conceptualization of human knowledge and ability is extremely pessimistic. We can find answers to many of these questions, and by considering them unsolvable, we limit our understanding.

In 1900, in an address to the International Congress of Mathematicians in Paris, Hilbert suggested that answers to the problems of mathematics are possible with human effort. He declared, "In mathematics there is no ignorabimus.",[2] and he worked with other formalists to establish concrete foundations for mathematics in the early 20th century.[3]

On the 8th of September 1930, Hilbert elaborated on his view in a celebrated address to the Society of German Scientists and Physicians, in Königsberg:[4]

We must not believe those, who today, with philosophical bearing and deliberative tone, prophesy the fall of culture and accept the ignorabimus. For us there is no ignorabimus, and in my opinion none whatever in natural science. In opposition to the foolish ignorabimus our slogan shall be: Wir müssen wissen — wir werden wissen.[5] ('We must know - we will know.')

Answers to many of Hilbert's Program of 23 questions have been found in the following hundred years of the 20th century. Some have been shown to be impossible to answer with mathematical rigor. Some have been answered definitively, and a few remain yet open to be solved. For Hilbert's 23 questions, see Hilbert's problems.

David Hilbert suggested in his 1930 speech[4] that we should instead adopt as our motto:
"Wir müssen wissen — wir werden wissen."[5]
"Our motive must be to learn. We shall this way greatly achieve."

Sociological responses

The sociologist Wolf Lepenies has discussed the ignorabimus with a view that du Bois-Reymond was not really retreating in his claims for science and its reach:[6]

it is in fact an incredibly self-confident support for scientific hubris masked as modesty

This is in a discussion of Friedrich Wolters, one of the members of the literary group "George-Kreis". Lepenies comments that Wolters misunderstood the degree of pessimism being expressed about science, but well understood the implication that scientists themselves could be trusted with self-criticism.

See also


Hilbert, David, audio address, transcription and English translation.</ref>

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  1. William E. Leverette Jr., E. L. Youmans' Crusade for Scientific Autonomy and Respectability, American Quarterly, Vol. 17, No. 1. (Spring, 1965), pg. 21.
  2. D. Hilbert (1902). "Mathematical Problems: Lecture Delivered before the International Congress of Mathematicians at Paris in 1900". Bulletin of the American Mathematical Society. 8: 437–79. doi:10.1090/S0002-9904-1902-00923-3. MR 1557926.
  3. Gödel's incompleteness theorems showed in 1931, that answers to some mathematical questions cannot be answered in the way we would usually prefer.
  4. 1 2 3 4 Hilbert, David, audio address, transcription and English translation.
  5. 1 2 3 4 5 "wissen" refers to the term "wissenschaft" and educator Wilhelm von Humboldt's concept of "bildung." That is, education incorporates science, knowledge, and scholarship, an association of learning, and a dynamic process discoverable for oneself; and learning or becoming is the highest ideal of human existence.
  6. Lepenies, Wolf (1988). Between Literature and Science: the Rise of Sociology. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. p. 272. ISBN 0-521-33810-7.
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