Unknowability: How Do We Know What Cannot Be Known?

38th Social Research Conference April 4-5, 2019

From the earliest moments of humanity’s search for answers and explanations, we have grappled with the unknowable—that which we are unable or not permitted to know. What does the history of the unknowable look like? What are the questions once thought to be unanswerable that have been answered? Are there enduring unknowables? What are they? Are there routes toward understanding and knowing that are different from those used by scientists, and what is the status of knowledge gained in these alternative ways? Our conviction that this conference addresses a singularly important question is supported by a statement made years ago by our former New School colleague, Hannah Arendt, who said, “I believe it is very likely that men, if they ever should lose their ability to wonder and thus cease to ask unanswerable questions, also will lose the faculty of asking the answerable questions upon which every civilization is based.” (Thinking Without a Banister: Essays in Understanding, 1958-1975.)

The question of what it is we cannot know is not only an important question in its own right, but has taken on additional importance in light of the recent rise of misinformation and alternative facts. A better understanding of knowing whether something can possibly be known has the capacity to shape the direction of general knowledge, scholarly research, and public education. Furthermore, identifying what kinds of questions are unanswerable is of great intellectual and perhaps even political significance—to wit, Donald Rumsfeld’s now famous statement that “There are known knowns … there are known unknowns … and there are also unknown unknowns,” to which Fintan O’Toole added “unknown knowns.” This conference affords a rare opportunity for scholars from different fields to engage with each other and with the general public on this issue, particularly while we are living in what some might call a post-truth world.

This conference will look at the many ways in which the unknowable figures in multiple areas of inquiry and scholarship. Experts from across a range of academic disciplines will discuss the criteria used to determine what appear to be unanswerable questions in their field and jointly reflect on how and why these criteria may differ across disciplines. We expect that speakers will, where appropriate, address the different ways of knowing that are possible. There are, of course, the scientific procedures that are well established, but there are also other modes of knowing associated with the humanities and the arts and these too will be discussed.

At a time when the distinction between what is true and what is not has become increasingly problematic, focusing attention on how we know what we cannot know has become essential.

This conference is partially supported by the National Science Foundation

under Award Number SES 1837895



Day 1: Thursday, April 4, 2019

(All sessions held at: Tishman Auditorium, University Center, 63 Fifth Avenue, NY, NY)

Session 1: Humanities

3:00 - 5:30 PM

Marina Warner, On Stories and Mythology, British novelist, short story writer, historian, mythographer, and Professor of English and Creative Writing at Birkbeck College, University of London

Michael Scott, On History, Professor of Classics and Ancient History, University of Warwick

Zoë Crossland, On Archaeology, Associate Professor of Anthropology, Columbia University

Moderator: Jim Miller, Professor of Liberal Studies and Politics; Faculty Director of Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism, The New School


"Unknowable Unknowns"

6:00 PM - 7:30 PM

John D. Barrow FRS, Professor of Mathematical Sciences at the University of Cambridge; Director of the Millennium Mathematics Project

Keynote Interlocutor: Nicholas Humphrey, Senior Member, Darwin College, Cambridge University

Day 2: Friday, April 5, 2019

(All sessions held at: Room I-202, Theresa Lang Center, 55 W. 13th Street, NY, NY)

Session 2: Science and Mathematics

11:00 AM - 1:00 PM

Gregory Chaitin, On Mathematics, Professor, University of Buenos Aires; and Visiting Professor, Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro

Stuart Firestein, On Biological Sciences, Chair, Department of Biological Sciences, Columbia University

Gavin Schmidt, On Climate Science, Director, NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies

Moderator: Natalie Wolchover, Senior writer and editor, Quanta Magazine

Session 3: Psychology and Social Science

1:30 PM - 3:30PM

Nicholas Humphrey, On Consciousness, Senior Member, Darwin College, Cambridge University

Alan Fiske, On Anthropology, Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of California, Los Angeles

Linsey McGoey, On Sociology, Associate Professor, Department of Sociology, University of Essex

Moderator: William Hirst, Malcolm B. Smith Professor and Co-Chair of Psychology, The New School


John D. Barrow FRS is Professor of Mathematical Sciences at Cambridge University and Director of the Millennium Mathematics Project, a program to improve the appreciation of mathematics and it applications, especially amongst young people and the general public. He is a Fellow, and former vice-president, of Clare Hall, Cambridge. His research interests are in cosmology, astrophysics and gravitation.

He has received many awards, including the 2006 Templeton Prize, the Royal Society’s 2008 Faraday Prize, the 2012 Zeeman Medal of the London Mathematical Society, the 2009 Kelvin Medal and the 2015 Dirac Gold Medal of the Institute of Physics, and the 2016 Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society and the Academia Europaea. He has written more than 530 scientific papers, and 22 books translated into 28 languages; including Impossibility: The Limits of Science and the Science of Limits. His play, Infinities, directed by Luca Ronconi, won the Premi Ubu for best play in the Italian theater in 2002, and the 2003 Italgas Prize. He was Gresham Professor of Astronomy from 2003-7, and Gresham Professor of Geometry, 2008-11.

Gregory Chaitin is an Argentine-American mathematician living in Rio de Janeiro. He is a creator of algorithmic information theory, the discoverer of the remarkable Omega number, and the creator of the field of metabiology, which views evolution as a random walk in software space. Among his books are Algorithmic Information Theory (Cambridge University Press, 1987), Conversations with a Mathematician (Springer, 2002), Meta Math! (Pantheon, 2005), and Proving Darwin (Pantheon, 2012).

Zoë Crossland is an Associate Professor of Anthropology at Columbia University. Her research focuses on the historical archaeology of Madagascar, and on forensic archaeology and evidential practices around human remains. She is interested in exploring the tension between the archaeological ability to bring the past into view on the one hand, and the work of inference and practical activity by which archaeology conjures and evaluates competing claims about the past on the other. Crossland is working on a book, entitled The Speaking Corpse, which explores the evidence of the forensic corpse, the ways in which it is explained and delineated for popular consumption, and the history that lies behind the treatment of the dead as evidence.

Stuart Firestein is the Chair of Columbia University’s Department of Biological Sciences where his colleagues and he study the vertebrate olfactory system, possibly the best chemical detector on the face of the planet. His laboratory seeks to answer the fundamental human question: How do I smell? Dedicated to promoting the accessibility of science to a public audience, Dr. Firestein seeks to reach broader audiences through nonscientific writing, public appearances, and his support of science in the arts. Dr. Firestein also serves as an advisor for the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation’s program for the Public Understanding of Science. In 2011, he was awarded the Lenfest Distinguished Columbia Faculty Award for excellence in scholarship and teaching. Most notably, Dr. Firestein’s commitment to engaging the public in science can be seen in his TED Talk entitled “The pursuit of ignorance”, which has garnered 1.5 million views and counting. He is the author of Ignorance, How it Drives Science and Failure: Why Science Is So Successful.

Alan Fiske is a professor of anthropology at the University of California, Los Angeles. He is a psychological anthropologist studying how natural selection, neurobiology, ontogeny, psychology, and culture jointly shape human sociality. His research aims to understand what enables humans to coordinate in often cooperative, complex, culturally and historically varying systems of social relations. He studies social and moral cognition, motives and emotion; relationship-constitutive actions, experiences, and communications; motivations for violence; interpretations of misfortune and death; and links between psychopathology and social relationships.

Rebecca Goldstein is an American philosopher, novelist and public intellectual. The recipient of numerous prizes for her fiction and scholarship, including a MacArthur “Genius” prize, in 2012 she was named Humanist of the Year by the American Humanist Association, and in 2015 she received the National Humanities Medal from President Obama in a ceremony at the White House. She is the author of 10 books, the most recent of which is Plato at the Goggleplex: Why Philosophy Won’t Go Away and is currently a Visiting Professor of Philosophy and English at NYU and a Visiting Professor of Philosophy at the New College of the Humanities. In 2005, she was elected into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

William Hirst is the Malcolm B. Smith professor and co-chair of psychology at the New School for Social Research. He has written numerous articles and edited several books on memory, especially the social aspects of memory and the formation of collective memories.

Nicholas Humphrey, emeritus professor of psychology at the London School of Economics and former professor of psychology at the New School for Social Research, is a theoretical psychologist, internationally known for his work on the evolution of human intelligence and consciousness. He is currently Senior Member at Darwin College, Cambridge University. His interests are wide ranging: He studied mountain gorillas with Dian Fossey in Rwanda; was the first to demonstrate the existence of "blindsight" after brain damage in monkeys; proposed the now celebrated theory of the "social function of intellect"; and is the only scientist ever to edit the literary journal Granta. His books include Consciousness Regained, The Inner Eye, A History of the Mind, Leaps of Faith, The Mind Made Flesh, Seeing Red: A Study in Consciousness and Soul Dust. He has been the recipient of several honors, including the Martin Luther King Memorial Prize, the Pufendorf medal and the Mind and Brain Prize.

Linsey McGoey is an Associate Professor in social theory and economic sociology. She is recognized for playing a pioneering role in the establishment of ignorance studies, an interdisciplinary field focused on exploring how strategic ignorance and the will to ignore have underpinned economic exchange and political domination throughout history. Peer-reviewed articles appear in Economy and Society, Theory, Culture and Society, Science, Technology and Human Values, Politix, and the British Journal of Sociology. She is author of No Such Thing as a Free Gift (Verso, 2015) and The Unknowers (Zed, forthcoming, 2019). She is a founding editor, with Matthias Gross and Michael Smithson, of the Routledge Research in Ignorance Studies book series. She is on the Advisory Board of the Centre for the Study of Contemporary Solidarity, University of Vienna, the Editorial Board of Economy and Society, and the Editorial Advisory Board of Finance and Society.

Jim Miller is Professor of Politics and Liberal Studies at the New School for Social Research. He is the author most recently of Can Democracy Work? A Short History of a Radical Idea from Ancient Athens to Our World (2018), published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux; and also the editor of the new English translation of Diogenes Laertius, The Lives of the Eminent Philosophers, published by Oxford in 2018. Other books include Examined Lives: From Socrates to Nietzsche (2011); The Passion of Michel Foucault (1993); “Democracy is in the Streets”— From Port Huron to the Siege of Chicago (1987); and Rousseau: Dreamer of Democracy (1984). Twice a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle award for non-fiction, he has won three ASCAP-Deems Taylor awards for excellence in writing about music. His cultural criticism has appeared in Rolling Stone, The New Republic, and Newsweek, where he was a general editor from 1980 until 1990. From 2000 to 2008, he edited Dædalus, the journal of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences.

Gavin Schmidt is a climate scientist and Director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York and an adjunct researcher at the Columbia Earth Institute. He works on understanding past, present and future climate change and on the development and evaluation of climate models. He is the principal investigator on the GISS Earth System Model, which uses NASA High Performance computing facilities, and is working on improving data analytics to make the optimum use of the massive amounts of output data that this model and similar projects worldwide generate. His 2014 TED talk on climate modelling has been viewed over a million times.

Michael Scott is a Professor of Classics in the Department of Classics and Ancient History at the University of Warwick, UK. His research and teaching focuses on aspects of ancient Greek and Roman society, as well as ancient Global History. In 2017-8 Michael held a Leverhulme Research Fellowship to work on an ancient global history research project looking at the movement of luxury goods between the Mediterranean and China in antiquity. He is a National Teaching Fellow (the UK’s most prestigious award for teaching in Higher Education); Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy; winner of the Warwick Award for Teaching Excellence and Foundation Fellow of the Warwick Higher Education Academy. In 2015, Michael was also made an honorary Citizenship of Delphi, Greece – Επίτιμος Δημότης Δελφών – in recognition of his work related to the sanctuary of Delphi. Michael is also well known for his public engagement and outreach work as a speaker and broadcaster. He has written and presented a range of TV and Radio programs for National Geographic, History Channel, Nova, BBC & ITV. He has also presented a radio series for BBC Radio 4, ‘Spin the Globe’, written for national and international newspapers and magazines, lectured to schools and groups in the UK and Europe, and has taught in the UK, Europe, US and Brazil.

Marina Warner is President of the Royal Society of Literature and Professor of English and Creative Writing at Birkbeck College, University of London. Her books include Alone of All Her Sex: The Myth and the Cult of the Virgin Mary, Once Upon a Time: A Short History of Fairy Tale, Stranger Magic: Charmed States & The Arabian Nights, and a new essay collection, Forms of Enchantment: Writings on Art and Artists. She is currently working on a memoir of her Cairo childhood, and a study of Sanctuary and Literature.

Natalie Wolchover is an award-winning science writer based in Brooklyn, New York. She has covered the physics beat on staff at Quanta Magazine since the magazine's launch in 2013. Previously, she wrote for Popular Science, Seed, LiveScience, Make magazine and other publications.Natalie has a bachelor’s degree in physics from Tufts University. During her undergraduate career, she co-authored several peer-reviewed papers in nonlinear optics, gave talks at conferences and did summer research stints at the University of Bath and the University of Oxford.


Session 1: Humanities

Rebecca Goldstein "When Feeling Out of Sight: Philosophy’s Affinity for the Unknowable"

The mind-body problem. Free will and determinism. The nature of time. Personal identity. The status of the a priori. The grounding of morality. The meaning of meaning. To list the standard problems of philosophy is to plunge headlong into the unknowable. What kind of perverse field takes as its very subject matter all the questions that are left unanswered after all the relevant empirical data have been assembled?

Marina Warner "Unknowability & Pleasure: The Case of the Vanishing Referent"

From the Bible to Nursery Rhymes, much-loved stories and poems are filled with words, images and allusions which are baffling and resist exegesis. They may have once meant something that was generally known and understood or they may have begun as pure nonsense, but in either case, they have acceded to a state of unknowability (impenetrability). Yet these forms of literature, including fairy tales and proverbial phrases, deliver a frisson of mystery and/or absurdity that is often memorably sensuous and enticing. I shall explore this paradoxical state of unknowability as a source of literary pleasure, and bring in examples of vanishing or absent meanings (such as ‘Balm in Gilead’), and argue that they exhibit an intrinsic and valuable quality of imaginative literature, adding to its power to beckon beyond the horizon of existing knowledge.

Michael Scott "The Oracle at Delphi: Unknowability at the Heart of the Ancient Greek World"

One of the most important institutions in ancient Greek society was that of the Oracle at the Temple of Apollo at Delphi. For over 1000 years, people came from all over the Mediterranean (and further afield) to consult the Pythian Priestess (and through her the god Apollo) on key decisions – as individuals, communities and as nations.

Yet, for all the plentiful evidence we have about the sanctuary of Delphi, about the questions asked of the oracle, of the responses given, we do not – in over 1000 years of evidence – have a clear picture of how the consultation of the Pythian priestess actually took place. Some argue that this is because it was intended to be a closely guarded secret. Others that it was so well known, no ancient commentator felt the need to elaborate. But as a result, at the heart of this key relationship between human and divine, which in many cases defined the history of the ancient Greek world, is a void of unknowability.

In this talk, I look at how scholarship has reacted to that void over the centuries, and how it has tried to fill it. In turn, I show how our reactions to that unknown act as a mirror for our wider relationship with the past, and particularly our changing sense of modern superiority and cultural evolution compared to that of the ancients. Our inability to know about them, it turns out, tells us much about ourselves.

Zoë Crossland "Unknown but Not Unknowable: The Past and Its Semiotic Reality"

The archaeological past is an entity that is both unknown to any living human and yet knowable in its unknowability. Our knowledge of it is articulated through the material traces that we excavate and collect. As with any historical inquiry the archaeological past can only be known at a remove, through the signs we experience in the present, yet perhaps because most archaeological traces do not operate in the register of language the archaeological past can seem more distant and less familiar than those pasts that are mediated by historical texts. If the material signs that constitute archaeological evidence offer a point of attachment through which aspects of the past may be inferred, what is the logic of this inference? Precisely because archaeological traces are not of the order of language they offer insights into the mediated nature of all knowledge, past, present or future.

Session 2: Science and Mathematics

Gregory Chaitin "An Extreme Form of Unknowability in Pure Mathematics: The Halting Probability Omega"

Einstein disliked the fact that, as he put it, God plays dice in quantum physics. The Omega number shows that God also plays dice in pure mathematics. In fact, the 0/1 bits of the base-two numerical value of the halting probability Omega are a perfect simulation in pure mathematics, where all truths are necessary truths, of contingent truths, namely the outcomes of independent tosses of a fair coin.

Stuart Firestein "Getting to the Trooth"

In 1927 JBS Haldane famously wrote, “Not only is the universe queerer than we suppose, it is queerer than we can suppose.” This statement is often taken to suggest that we simply lack the cognitive capacity to even conceive of what we don’t know. But in fact, since 1927, we have imagined a great number of very queer things – from a host of quantum particles to epigenetics and microbiomes, nano-particles, dark matter and materials with unimaginable properties. Oh, and there is the internet. Perhaps we need to ask ourselves whether Haldane’s cognitive humility is really accurate. Perhaps this is not even the correct interpretation of Haldane’s statement. One could imagine that what he meant by it was to simply describe the current state of science and use that as a challenge to think beyond queer, if you will. That is, no matter how rapid progress appears, we should recognize there are things not yet even thought of. In fact that statement, the one that gets quoted all the time, was preceded by, ”I have no doubt that in reality the future will be vastly more surprising than anything I can imagine.” Haldane was looking forward to being surprised. This is a fundamental feature of science, specific to its particular brand of epistemology, that magically produces optimism from the unknown, and even from the unknowable. Unknowability is not a limit or a barrier, and an ultimate truth or a final solution, is not the goal of science. As long as science asks questions it will continue indefinitely. Thus, uncertainty, unknowability, never getting to the truth, are the reasons that science is an optimistic pursuit.

Gavin Schmidt "The Impacts of Chaos, Structural Uncertainty and Human Behaviour on Unknowability in Climate Science"

The limits to predictability in climate science arise through three distinct mechanisms. Chaos, or the sensitive dependence on initial conditions, is well-understood to preclude accurate weather forecasts for more than a few weeks, but it also provides a bound on what we can ever know ahead of time even were we to have perfect models and known emissions scenarios. But in practice, the unknowability of future climate states depends more strongly on the structural uncertainty in models that prevents us from distinguishing aspects of climate that are truly unknowable, from the aspects on which we merely ignorant. Finally, the fact that predictions of future climate states may drive societal changes that affect emissions and therefore the scenario going forward adds important non-linear interactions, that might prevent us (hopefully) ever finding out what would happen in an extreme global warming situation.

Session 3: Psychology and Social Science

Nicholas Humphrey "Consciousness: The Experience of the Unknowable"

Conscious experience would seem to be unknowable at two levels. The privacy of consciousness means we each know something no one else can know. The explanatory opacity of consciousness means we know something no theorist knows how to explain. These two issues are related, and perhaps neither is as problematic as it seems.

Alan Fiske "Knowability - One Way or Another"

What is not knowable in one way may be knowable in another. First, while it may be impossible to predict with perfect precision what will happen in the future, after the fact it may be possible to understand how and why something happened. Second, causal explanation of specific events may be impossibly complex because there are indefinitely many complexly interacting influences on any event, each influence in turn having indefinitely many influences. Nonetheless, causal explanation of aggregate patterns of events may feasible. For example, Durkheim (1897) pointed out that while it was impossible to know with confidence whether and why an individual would commit suicide, national rates of suicide were explicable and predictable. In short, where idiographic knowability is lacking, nomothetic knowability may be feasible. Third, there is the distinction that Merleau-Ponty (1945) made between impersonal objective knowledge and “praktognosia,” perceptually oriented toward objects as objectives of bodily action. Ryle (1949) made a similar distinction between “knowing that” and “knowing how,” while contemporary cognitive scientists distinguish between explicit or declarative memory and implicit or non-declarative memory. Within the explicit declarative category of memory systems there is the further distinction between semantic knowledge and event knowledge, where the knowledge of events is, I think, more or less narrative. So one may have practical procedural competence in skillfully riding bicycles, yet have very little conceptual knowledge – or even a false conceptualization – of the kinesthetics and physics of riding. Fourth, there is the distinction between what an individual can know – or be competent to do – and what a community can know or be able to do. No one knows how to make a bicycle from raw minerals in the earth, let alone how to make a computer form scratch, but communities of people do. No individual knows just how a computer works, but computer science as a field does know. Fifth and finally, “knowledge” is a construct used by Western academics; it does not map one-to-one onto concepts in other cultures. This specificity is not just a matter of lexical differences across languages; the issue goes far beyond translation. Different cultures have different taxonomies, practices, standards, and ideologies of capable thought. In this respect, as in the other four, what is knowable depends on what one means by knowing, and what validates something as knowledge.

Linsey McGoey "The Hierarchy of Ignorance"

Drawing on different post-enlightenment thinkers, including Paine, Wollstonecraft and Mill, this talk suggests that an important but neglected problem within political and social theory is the question of whether education increases knowledge. It’s a question that seems too absurd to pose. In popular culture and mainstream scholarship, the presumption that education leads to more knowledge has long displaced attention to counter-arguments. The three thinkers above, for example, each suggested in distinctive ways that education can unwittingly enhance ignorance rather than diminish it. The talk explores Paine and Wollstonecraft’s early discussion of phenomena later termed ‘confirmation bias’ and ‘elite ignorance.’ Then, drawing on both Mill’s work and his own life story, including his belated insistence that his wife Harriet Taylor co-wrote ‘On Liberty’ with him, I explore a number of methodological challenges to measuring the functions and utility of ignorance. In conclusion, I suggest that the imperviousness of ignorance to measurement may be its greatest utility, and that this observation has radical implications for the social sciences and political decision-making.

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