Ignoramus et Ignorabimus

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 book ‘On the limits of our understanding of nature,’ published in 1872.

In 1930, mathematician David Hilbert pronounced his disagreement with the maxim in a celebrated address to the Society of German Scientists and Physicians: ‘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! (‘We must know — we will know!’).’

Hilbert worked with other formalists to establish concrete foundations for mathematics in the early 20th century. However, Gödel’s incompleteness theorems showed in 1931 that no finite system of axioms, if complex enough to express our usual arithmetic, could ever fulfill the goals of Hilbert’s program, demonstrating many of Hilbert’s aims impossible, and establishing limits on mathematical knowledge. The idea behind the theorems is that some mathematical systems are not complete, despite our belief to the contrary.

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. Three of which, he declared, neither science nor philosophy could ever explain, because they are ‘transcendent.’: 1) the ultimate nature of matter and force, 2) the origin of motion, and 5) the origin of simple sensations. 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, but rather, ‘…it is in fact an incredibly self-confident support for scientific hubris masked as modesty.’ 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.

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