Discovery, Science, Technology, and the 'Illusion of Knowledge' PHILOSOPHY

By Peter Grier, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, January 2, 1992 | Go to article overview

Discovery, Science, Technology, and the 'Illusion of Knowledge' PHILOSOPHY


Peter Grier, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


THE fact of the matter is, Christopher Columbus didn't really know where he was going.

When he sailed from the mouth of the Rio Tento on the morning of August 3, 1492, he believed ocean covered only one-seventh of the globe, with the rest dry land - was that not the conclusion of orthodox Christian authorities? He believed the Western Ocean narrow, and that Asia extended further eastward than it does. After all, many of his carefully studied geographies said so.

After four trips to the New World he died believing he had been exploring the east coast of Asia. But his path of discovery eventually led Europeans to the knowledge that their certainties about geography had been false.

"The great obstacle of man is the illusion of knowledge," says Daniel Boorstin, distinguished American historian and Librarian of Congress emeritus. "The great significance of the voyages of discovery was their discovery of ignorance, of European man's ignorance of the world."

This thread, says Dr. Boorstin, links the voyages of Columbus with the modern explorations of another kind of new world: science and technology. From Newton to Einstein the history of science is a history of disproved thought. Take nuclear physics. The atom was once considered a unity, the smallest element of matter. The very word "atom" expresses that, as its Greek root "atomos" means "indivisible."

Today researchers are busy in labs showing how the boundaries of the known are, in fact, false. "It's a parable of the problem of science in all ages," says Boorstin in an interview at his Library of Congress office.

But Boorstin worries that over the last 500 years mankind has lost something. Once "discovery" meant something physical, a throwing of oneself into the unknown. Now it's something undertaken by someone wearing a white coat and worrying about tenure or promotion.

There is a real difference in the mindsets of inventors and what Boorstin calls "questors" such as Columbus. Inventors focus on something specific, Boorstin says, something meant to satisfy an identified need. They work on computers that will react to the spoken voice; cars that get 100 miles per gallon of gas. They work on the imaginable. Boorstin speaks somewhat disparagingly of Thomas Edison, who in the course of research on light bulb filaments discovered certain aspects of atomic physics he did not care to further explore.

"Edison was not interested in knowledge. He was interested in payoff," says Boorstin.

Questors, on the other hand, do not apply the rules of cost-benefit analysis, says Boorstin. They don't really know where their discovery will take them, and they don't care. Theirs is a sort of high-minded vagrancy.

"Space exploration is the obvious parallel today," he says.

Today's technological explorations also differ from geographical ones in their pace. It took centuries for the full impact of Columbus's encounter with the West to develop. The automobile transformed transportation in decades; the transistor, in years. The obsolescence cycles of some computer parts can now be measured in months. And of course the explosion of the atom changed the world in the blink of an eye.

With this speed comes unpredictability. The irony is that the very power of technology means those who unleash it don't have much control over where it goes. "Even when men think they have a why for their technological revolution, as indeed Albert Einstein . …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

Discovery, Science, Technology, and the 'Illusion of Knowledge' PHILOSOPHY
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.