PRINT September 1987


The known within the unkown within the known.

EVERY AGE HAS ITS MEN and women who want to go beyond the conventional wisdom, who want to know better. Through centuries, for example, everyone thought that the substance of things was composed of earth, water, air, and fire, and that ideally these elements would form four perfect spheres, with fire on the outside surrounding air, which in turn would surround water, which would cover the earth. Aristotelian theory essentially said that the behavior of the elements could be explained as their efforts to stay in the spheres in which they belonged: if a stone is thrown into the air, it falls back to earth; if water sinks into the earth, it returns to the surface as a spring, and if it rises into the air it falls back down as rain; air always lies above both earth and ocean, and flame always rises through air, as if striving upward. Everything seemed clear. Galileo, however, knew better.

By arguing that stones fall because the earth attracts them, Galileo challenged ancient philosophical and religious traditions, life experience and logic as they were understood at the time, and indeed the social system that rested on all these. His challenge was not welcome. Wasn’t it more or less the same thing to say that stones are attracted by the earth and to say that they seek their proper place there? How could Galileo have questioned the harmony and beauty of the Aristotelian universe for such a trifling distinction? Today, we understand the huge difference between the two statements, yet Galileo could not have known what the results of his ideas would eventually be. He was simply shocked by the fact that Aristotle and his followers claimed to understand the desire of the elements for their proper place. How could anyone know the motives of a stone? They only believed they did; they took it for granted that there were intentions behind the world. If one looked at things without that belief, one saw not motives but only motions and inertia. Galileo knew better than others, then, because he knew that he knew nothing about motives. He knew better because he knew he knew less.

What does “knowing better” mean, then? Aristotle asked “What do things move for?,” and this prevented him from really knowing about motion. By seeing that we can’t know the motives of motion, Galileo was able to ask a better question, “Why do things move?,” and got a better answer. Knowing better, then, is distinguishing better between questions. We are still learning about these distinctions. We have learnt that it is just as much of a prejudice, after all, to suppose a causality behind the world as to suppose an intention–just as much of a prejudice to ask “Why do things move?” as “What do they move for?” A better path of inquiry might be to restrict ourselves to the question “How do things move?” In doing so, we could for a moment think we have understood why science pursues better knowledge. For while we can never make it rain by asking “What does it rain for?,” by asking “How does it rain?” we open up the possibility of making it rain artificially, and thus of alleviating drought and changing the world. Yet to assume that better knowledge is knowledge that changes the world only serves another prejudice–the idea that knowledge has to be functional, that it is worthless in itself.

Let us return to Galileo, who, knowing that he knew less than Aristotle, knew better than Aristotle. But in some ways Galileo actually knew more than Aristotle–he knew that there are mountains on the moon, for example—and his greater knowledge helped him to see how much he did not know. Our great-grandparents believed that the world began in a single act of creation; we know better—we know that we know little of the world’s beginnings. As knowledge increases, the relationship between the known and the unknown shifts in favor of the unknown.

This space of the unknown tends to disrupt what was known before, creating gaping holes in the edifice of knowledge, holes that both rupture individual disciplines and separate them from each other. This introduces a new issue, the issue of specialization: men and women may all be pursuing better knowledge, yet may remain worlds apart from each other in what they know. Let us suppose that in 1492, when Columbus embarked to investigate the blank space that today is filled with the Americas, another mission set sail from China, and somewhere in the middle the two met. Columbus, on his return home, would have announced to the European monarchs that the blank space was more of China; it was, after all, inhabited by Chinese, and he had of course been expecting to reach the Orient. His Chinese counterpart, on the other hand, would have told the emperor that since he had met Europeans on his travels,the blank space had to be more of Europe. Both explorers would have also come up against Aztecs, Incas, and other NativeAmericans, but to Columbus, believing he was in China, these people would have seemed like curious Chinese, and to theChinese explorer like curious Europeans. If all this had happened, the Americas would not have been seen as a new discovery; they would have seemed only an extension of what was known before.

Consider now, in an analogous way, an expedition that contemporary scientists might send out (or tumble) into the gaping hole we call the origin of Earth’s life. Some explorers come in from genetics,others from molecular physics. The European explorers of genetics run into theChinese explorers of molecules and each believes they are on the other’s territory. Each expedition goes home with a few captured Aztecs respectively labeled molecules and genes, though rather curious ones; in fact they are neither. Any new knowledge that might have been gained is hidden in a gray zone of assumptions. This is just one example of how specialization may have rendered it more difficult for us to know when we are learning something new.

We might describe the history of knowledge as follows: first, we knew; then, we knew how much we didn’t know; then, we began to feel that we didn’t know what we had thought we knew; and now, perhaps,we can no longer be certain what we know. (And this we call the progress toward better knowledge.) If we can read this history without getting dizzy, it’s striking how much it mirrors the history of faith. First, we simply believed; then, we believed, though we knew that belief was not completely logical; then, we began to think that we didn’t believe; more and more lately we doubt that we do not believe. These two sequences in the vital realms of knowledge and belief are in part why we feel such collective anxiety, both because it really is impossible to know anything without believing in something, and because knowing without believing opens the way for incredible misuse of knowledge.

And so our sense of perspective is unhinged. There are those who respond by trying to get away, perhaps through membership of religious sects, or other kinds of denial. The danger is that we retreat from our situation, our disoriented perspective, rather than face it. Perhaps, instead, we should explore the idea that this unfixed perspective is itself a kind of better knowledge, a new space in which to live.

Vilem Flusser is a teacher of communications at Sao Paulo University and at the Ecole Nationale de la Photographie, Aries. He has written various books on modern communications.