Home » History of Humankind » The Discovery of Ignorance

The Discovery of Ignorance


(Credit – esri.com)

This week we began the fourth and last part of this course, “The Scientific Revolution“.  It is dedicated to the scientific revolution and its political, social, and economic implications.  The first lecture in this part of the course is entitled “The Discovery of Ignorance“.  The process of human unification was completed during the last 500 years. At the same time, there has been an explosive growth in the power of humankind due, above all, to the discoveries of modern science. Humankind has become increasingly convinced that the only thing that limits its power is its own ignorance, and that the discovery of new knowledge can enable it to do almost anything.  This lecture looks at how the modern scientific tradition is different from all previous traditions of knowledge and what accounts for its sudden rise and unparalleled achievements.

Dr Harari from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem continues his lectures on the history of humanity by discussing these topics.  In this lecture he looks at the importance of the discovery of ignorance.

Here are my notes from his lectures on Coursera.org.  

The scientific revolution

Pieter Bruegel the Elder – The Peasant Dance (Credit – Wikimedia)

“The scientific revolution” refers to the phenomenal growth of human power over the last 500 years, which resulted from the discoveries and inventions of modern science. In speed and magnitude, nothing like it has happened before. A peasant who lived in the year 1000 AD would see few changes in the year 1500 AD. The world was very similar for peasants, despite many changes in technology, political boundaries, beliefs and so forth. On the whole it was the same world.  A person from the year 1500  would find a completely different world strange beyond comprehension at the beginning of the 21st century. They might think they were no longer on earth and wonder if this is heaven or hell.  Things which we take for granted, like nuclear bombs,  planes, vaccination, cellular phones, and computers were beyond the wildest dreams of people 500 years ago. Abilities which we take for granted, like talking on the phone with somebody on the other side of the world or reaching the other side of the world in 24 hours, 500 years ago were considered to belong to angels and gods. Talking to tens of thousands of students at the same time over the Internet would be impossible to explain to somebody living in the age of Columbus.  If we want light we simply press a button and there is light press the button again and the light disappears. For us this is trivial but explain this power and where it came from to our ancestors 500 years ago would be beyond their means of understanding,  even beyond their dreams and fantasies. Humans obtained these powers by investing resources in scientific research.


(Credit – prospect.rsc.org)

Until the early modern period humans invested little effort in scientific research because they doubted their ability to obtain new medical, military or economic powers. Kings and emperors certainly gave money to education and scholarship but the main aim of scholarship was to preserve existing capabilities not to acquire new ones. The typical king gave money to priests, philosophers, and poets in the hope that they would legitimize his rule and maintain social order. He did not expect them to discover new medications, invent new weapons or stimulate economic growth. In the last five centuries humans increasingly came to believe that they could gain new and more powers by investing money and resources in scientific research. This wasn’t blind faith, it was repeatedly proven in practice. The more power that it gave them, the more resources they were able and willing to put into even more research. The government of the United States have allocated billions of dollars in the last few decades, in studying nuclear physics. The knowledge produced by this research made possible the

(credit – chapter16project15)

construction of nuclear power stations, which provide cheap electricity for American industries. These industries now pay more taxes, to the United States government, which uses some of these taxes, to finance more research in nuclear physics.  Science needs more than research to make progress. Science and scientific research depend on mutual reinforcement between science, politics, and economics. Political and economic institutions provide resources, without which scientific research is almost impossible. In return, scientific research provides new powers that are used, among other things. to obtain new resources. Some of these new resources are reinvested back in research. This is the basic feedback loop of the scientific revolution. In order to understand the scientific revolution it is not enough to study just science. What Newton, Galileo and Einstein said is that you must also understand the bonds between science, politics, and economics.

The unique nature of modern science.

(Credit – Wikimedia.org)

At least since the cognitive revolution humans have always tried to figure out how the universe works. This is not something new of the last 500 years. Our ancestors, thousands and even tens of thousands of years ago put great deal of time and effort in trying to discover the rules that govern the natural world around them. Modern science differs from all previous traditions of knowledge in three critical ways. First and most importantly it differs in its willingness to admit ignorance. Modern science is based on the admission that we do not know everything. Even more importantly it accepts that the things that we think we know, could still be proved wrong as we gain more knowledge. In modern science no concept, no idea, no theory is considered sacred, and beyond challenge. The second unique characteristic is the centrality of observation and mathematics. Modern scientists try to obtain new knowledge. They do it by gathering observations on the world, and using mathematical tools to connect these observations into comprehensive theories. The third unique feature is that it aims to acquire new powers. Modern science is never content with creating theories and understanding how things work. Modern science uses these theories in order to acquire new powers, and in particular to develop new technologies. The real aim of modern science is not truth, it is power.

Let us now take a closer look at each of these three main characteristics of modern science.

Willingness to admit ignorance

Pieter Bruegel the Elder – Peasant Wedding (Credit – wikimedia.org)

In this sense, the scientific revolution has not been a revolution of knowledge as is usually the depicted, the scientific revolution has been a revolution of ignorance. The greatest discovery that launched the scientific revolution forward was the discovery of ignorance, the discovery that humans do not know the answers to the most important questions. Pre-modern traditions of knowledge like Islam, Christianity, or Buddhism asserted that everything that is important to know about the world was already known. The great gods, or the one almighty God, or the wise people of the past knew everything there was to know and revealed whatever we needed to know in their scriptures and oral traditions. If you wanted to know the answer to an important question all you needed to do was to read the ancient texts and understand them properly. It was inconceivable that the Bible, the Quran, or the Vedas were missing out on some crucial secret of the universe. A secret that must still be discovered by us modern people. Ancient traditions of knowledge admitted only two kinds of ignorance.

(Credit – wikimedia.org)

First, a particular individual might be ignorant about something very important, in that case all that he or she needed to do was ask somebody wiser. There was no need to discover something that nobody knew. If a medieval European peasant wanted to know how the human race originated, he and everybody else, assumed that the Christian tradition held the definitive answer. Maybe the peasant himself didn’t know that all he needed to do was to ask the priest, and if the priest didn’t know, then he asked the bishop or the pope.  They knew by looking at the sacred texts, and understanding them. Secondly, the other, option for ignorance in the world is that, not only one person, but all people might be ignorant of unimportant things. By definition, according to the traditional religions, whatever the great gods, or the wise people of the past did not bother to tell us in the sacred texts and traditions, was unimportant. If a medieval peasant wanted to know how spiders weave their webs it was pointless to ask the priest or the bishop or the Pope because they didn’t know and there was no answer to this question in any of the Christian scriptures.

(Credit – wikimedia)

This did not mean that Christianity was deficient. It meant that it  was unimportant. After all, God knew everything, including how spiders weave webs. If this was a vital piece of information, necessary for human prosperity and salvation, God would have taken care to include a comprehensive explanation of spiders in the Bible. Christianity did not forbid people to study spiders if they so liked. People engaged in the study of spiders had to accept their peripheral role in society and the irrelevance of their findings to the eternal truths of the Christian religion and society. No matter what a scholar might discover about spiders, that knowledge was just trivia.

In every age, even the most pious and conservative age, there were always people who argued that there were important things of which their entire tradition was ignorant. Yet such people were usually marginalized or persecuted or else they founded a new tradition and began to argue that they now knew everything that there was to know. The prophet Muhammad began his religious career by condemning his fellow Arabs for living in ignorance of the divine truth. Yet, Muhammad, himself, very quickly began to argue that, he knew the whole truth because it was revealed to him by God. The followers of Muhammad, therefore, began calling him the seal of the prophets, the last prophet, because after Mohamed, there was no need of further revelations. His revelations contained all the truth humanity needed to know. Modern day science is very unique because it openly admits our collective ignorance regarding the most important questions of all.

Charles Darwin (Credit – Wikimedia)

Darwin never argued that he was the ‘seal of the biologists’, the last biologist and that now he had solved, once and for all, all of the big questions of life. Even after centuries of extensive scientific research, biologists, physicists, chemists, and so on admit, that they still don’t have any good explanation, for example, for the way the brain produces consciousness.  Physicists admit that they don’t know what caused the Big Bang and they don’t know how to reconcile quantum mechanics with the theory of general relativity. So this is the first characteristic of modern science, its willingness to say, we don’t know, to admit ignorance. This willingness to admit ignorance has made modern science far more dynamic and inquisitive than any previous tradition of knowledge.  It does not stop there. Once it admits ignorance, it begins to seek new knowledge, and the second unique characteristic of modern science is the way in which it seeks knowledge.

Reliance on empirical observations

(Credit – medicine.osu.edu)

Once ignorance is admitted scientists begin looking for new knowledge.  They do this by collecting empirical observations and putting them together with the help of mathematical tools. Empirical is something that we can observe with at least one of our senses. . This, the second unique characteristic is glued together by mathematics. People throughout history have collected empirical observations, but the importance of these observations was usually quite limited because people, at least in most traditional societies, believed that they already had all the essential knowledge that humans ought to know in the holy scriptures and traditions. Everything people needed to know was already known to Jesus, Confucius, or Muhammad. The most important means for gaining knowledge was to study and practice the established traditions.  There was no need to waste precious resources trying to obtain new observations. As modern culture came to admit that we do not know the answers to some very important questions It became necessary to start looking for completely new knowledge that nobody previously had. Consequently the dominant method in modern research is to take for granted the insufficiency of old knowledge, we don’t already have all the answers. We can study what’s in the books and what people of the past said, but the emphasis must be placed on new observations and new experiments. Whenever present observation collides with or contradicts past tradition, modern science says that we should give precedence to the observation over the past tradition, no matter how venerated, and admired the people who established it are.

Manicheans (Credit -Wikimedia)

New observations alone do not equate knowledge. In order to understand the universe we need to connect many observations about the world and create from them comprehensive theories. Earlier traditions of knowledge like the big religions usually formulated their theories of the world in stories. Modern science is different it tends to use mathematics in order to build its theories of the world. If you look in the Bible, the Koran, and the Vedas, you will find very few equations, very few graphs and calculations because when traditional religions and mythologies tried to explain the world and to lay down general rules of behaviour, they were presented in narrative form and not in mathematical form. For example, the fundamental principle of Manichean religion, one of the most important duellist religions, asserted that the world is a battleground between good and evil. An evil force created matter and the body, while the good force, the good god created spirit and so humans are caught between these two forces and should choose good over evil. However, the founder of the Manichean religion, the prophet Mani, made no attempt to offer a mathematical formula that could be used to predict human choices or quantify the respective strength of these two forces. Mani never calculated that, for example, the force acting upon a man is equal to the acceleration of his spirit divided by the mass of his body or something like that. Hardly any traditional religion uses calculations and equations like that. In contrast modern science is full of exact mathematical formulas.

GodfreyKneller-IsaacNewton (Credit – Wikimedia)

In 1687, Isaac Newton published the book, “The Mathematical Principle of Natural Philosophy”, arguably the most important book in modern science and perhaps in modern history. Newton presented in that book a general theory of all movements and changes in the world. The greatness of Newton’s theory was that it wasn’t full of  people who said this or did that but it tried to explain and predict all the movements of all the bodies in the Universe from an apple falling from a tree  to a shooting star, using just three, very simple mathematical laws. Newton calculated in the second of his three famous laws of motion that the force acting on a body is equal to the mass of the body multiplied by its acceleration. After Newton anyone who wished to understand and predict the movement of an apple, a cannonball, or a planet, simply had to make measurements of the mass and the acceleration of the object and of the forces acting on it and use Newton’s equation to predict its future position. Not all phenomena in the world can be reduced so neatly to an exact Newtonian equation. We don’t have exact equations, at least not yet, to understand evolution, economics, or human psychology, but, in these fields too, scientists combine empirical evidence to form general theories by means of mathematical tools. The main difference between psychology and Newtonian mechanics in physics, is that psychologists use statistics and probability instead of exact equations. Their mathematical tools are from different fields.

Westerner and Arab practising geometry 15th century manuscript (Credit – Wikimedia)

If you wish to understand the growing importance of mathematics in the modern world you simply need to take a brief look at the history of education. Throughout most of history, in almost all cultures mathematics, was considered an esoteric field, that even educated people rarely studied at length. In medieval Europe, the educational curriculum consisted of logic, grammar and rhetoric. Teaching mathematics seldom went beyond simple arithmetic calculations and geometry. Nobody in Medieval Europe studied statistics. The undisputed queen of the sciences in middle ages was theology, not mathematics. Today in the world very few students study theology or rhetoric. Logic is restricted mainly to philosophy departments, few people in the biology department, or the economics department study logic.  More students in more departments are motivated or obliged to study more and more mathematics. There is an irresistible drift towards what is called, ‘the exact sciences‘, so called because they use mathematical tools. Even fields of study which were traditionally part of  humanities such as studying human psychology,  increasingly rely on mathematics. They use statistics  to present themselves as exact sciences just like physics or chemistry. Statistics courses are now part of the basic requirements, not just in the department of physics or biology, but also in the departments of psychology, sociology, economics, political science, international relations, and so forth. In  The Hebrew University  if you open the course catalogue for the psychology department you will find that the first required course in the curriculum is the course ‘introduction to statistics and statistical methodology in psychological research’. In the second year, second-year psychology students must take the course ‘Statistical Methods in Psychological Research’ which is a continuation of the first year course.

Knowledge gives power

(Credit – therem.org)

Confucius, Buddha,  Jesus and Muhammad would have been amazed, bewildered if you told them that in order to understand the human psych and cure it’s illnesses you must study statistics. The centrality of mathematics to modern science is one of the main reasons many people have such a hard time understanding science. The human mind is not adapted to thinking in numbers. For millions of years people did not need to deal with numbers in mathematics, so they’re not built for it. Out of the seven billion people today in the world very few really understand quantum mechanics, cell biology, or micro economics.  Science nevertheless enjoys immanence prestige, not because people understand it, most people don’t, but because science gives us immense new powers. Presidents and generals may not understand nuclear physics, but they have a pretty good grasp of what nuclear bombs can do. This is the third unique and important characteristic of modern science. Modern science is not interested just in formulating theories about the world. The real aim of modern science is to gain new power. In modern science the real test of knowledge is not whether something is true, but whether something empowers.  Scientists today usually assume that no theory is 100%. correct  Consequently truth is a poor test for knowledge. The real test for knowledge is utility.

(Credit -renaissanceman1.blogspot)

Something is considered real knowledge only if it gives us new powers and new technologies, and enables us to do new things. This connection between science and technology is so strong that people tend to confuse the two. We think of science and technology as the same thing. We tend to think that it’s impossible to develop new technologies without scientific research and that there is little point in doing research unless it results in some new technology. The close relationship between science and technology is a very recent phenomenon. Prior to around 1500 AD science and technology were totally different fields of activity. They became connected only gradually in the early modern era. They became truly inseparable only in the nineteenth century, in the last 200 years. Prior to that, even in the year 1800, most rulers who wanted a strong army, and most business men who wanted to be in successfully business, did not bother to finance research in physics, biology, or economics. They didn’t see the connection between scientific research and technological power.

There are of course exceptions to this rule. A good historian can find precedence to almost everything, an even better historian knows when these precedents are only curiosities that cloud the big picture. We should focus on the forest, not on the individual trees. Generally speaking, most pre-modern kings, merchants, bankers and so on did not finance research about the universe in order to develop new technologies. Similarly most thinkers and philosophers did not try to translate their findings about the universe into technological gadgets. Rulers did finance educational institutions like universities and monasteries, but, their aim  was to spread and preserve traditional knowledge for the purpose of supporting the existing order. New technologies did appear here and there. In the pre modern world they were usually the outcome of the efforts of uneducated craftsman using the methods of trial and error. They were not the outcome of scholars pursuing systematic scientific research.

(Credit – Wikimedia)

The very concept of a research and development department, which is very central today,  was alien to the mindset of early modern kingdoms, churches, armies, and businesses.  They had very little interest in development and saw little connection between development of new technology and research. Cart manufacturers manufactured the same model of cart decade after decade. They did not try to invent and develop new models.  A new model cart or a wagon may have been developed by some very good carpenter who came up with a new idea. It did not result from somebody in a university studying physics, or chemistry coming up with a new design. Similarly, most armies in the pre-modern era, even in the early modern era, had no research and development department, and were uninterested in science and technology.

Up until the nineteenth century  the vast majority of revolutions were a product of organizational, not technological changes. When alien civilizations met for the first time, like when Europeans reach America for the first time, technological gaps between them sometimes played an important role.

(Credit – Wikimedia)

Even in such cases, the technological gap was not intentional and very few generals or kings sought to deliberately create or enlarge it. Most empires in history did not rise thanks to a magic weapon of technological wizardry. The rulers did not seek to invest money in creating new wonder weapons.  The Arabs did not defeat the Sassanid Byzantine empire because they had superior bowls or better salts. The Seljuks had no technological advantage over the Byzantines. The Mongols did not conquer China because they had better technology. The vanquished, the Chinese, the Byzantines and the Sassanids  enjoyed better military and civilian technology than the victors, the Mongols,  Seljuks, and Arabs. The Roman army is a particularly good example. The Roman army was probably the best army in the world in its day. Its advantage rested only on efficient organization, iron discipline of the soldiers and huge man-power reserves. Technologically, Rome had absolutely no advantage over its rivals like Carthage or Macedonia.  Throughout centuries of existence the Roman army’s weapons were made more or less the same. Science was not seen as something that gives humans new powers. People believed that all the major discoveries had already been made, and that they knew everything important to know about the world. People did not believe in the possibility of progress.

The revolution of progress

(Credit – blog.ac-rouen.fr)

Once modern science argued that there were a lot of important things which we still don’t know and that new knowledge could be translated into new power, everything changed. People begin to believe in the possibility of progress everywhere in medicine, economics, politics, everywhere. This revolutionized the world. It revolutionized, not only science but also politics, economics, society, and culture.

If we follow the advice of the wise people of the past such as Jesus, Muhammad and Buddha, we might save the world from deterioration, but we cannot possibly overcome the fundamental problems of the world such as war or disease or poverty. If even Muhammad,  Jesus, and Confucius, who knew everything there was to know, were unable to abolish famine completely nor to solve all the diseases and poverty and war, how can we expect to do it? Many religions believed that, someday, a messiah would come and then the end of the world. All the wars, famines, and even death would be abolished. The notion, that ordinary people could overcome all these difficulties simply by discovering new knowledge, and inventing new tools was ludicrous. However, when people in the last few centuries in the modern age began to admit that there are many important things that we still don’t know, progress suddenly seemed much more likely or at least possible. If we can discover new important knowledge that can be translated into new powers, then maybe we can solve problems that have previously been thought about as impossible, as things that we cannot overcome.

West – Benjamin Franklin Drawing Electricity from the Sky (Credit – Wikimedia)

As science over the centuries really began to solve one unsolvable problem after another many people became convinced that human kind could overcome every and any problem simply by acquiring and applying new knowledge. Poverty, sickness, famine, wars, old age, even death are not the inevitable fate of humans, they’re simply the result of our ignorance. A famous example for the new belief in progress is the case of lightning. Many cultures in history believed that lightning was the anger of an angry god who used it to punish us sinners for bad things we did. In the middle of the 18th century however, lightning drew the attention of Benjamin Franklin, one of the leading, not only political but also scientific thinkers of America. In one of the most celebrated experiments in the history of science, Franklin flew a kite during a lightning storm in order to test the theory that lightning is simply electric current.  The empirical observations that Franklin made coupled with the knowledge about electrical energy and how it functions enabled Franklin to invent a new technology, the lighting rod, and basically to disarm the gods. Ever since we’ve had lightning rods no matter how sinful we are and no matter how angry the gods become, they have a lot of difficulty punishing us with lightning.

Getty Images

Another case in point much more important than  lightning, is the problem of poverty. Many cultures in history viewed poverty as an inescapable part of this world. Today it is more and more common to see poverty as a technical problem that can be solved. Most of us assume, that if we enact policies which are based on the latest findings in agronomy, economics, medicine, sociology, and so forth, we can eliminate poverty from our country and from the world in general. In many parts of the world today the worst problems of poverty have been solved. To many people this might sound outrageous. Throughout history, societies have suffered from two distinct kinds of poverty. There is social poverty which is a gap in possibilities between the poor and the rich. The poor are not given opportunities which are available to the rich. Social poverty is relative. The other kind of poverty is biological poverty, and this is not relative, this is absolute. Biological poverty means a situation in which the lives of individuals are at immediate risk of death due to lack of food and shelter.  Social poverty, because it’s relative, may be impossible to solve. Even if we have more and more wealth and power there will always be gaps between poor and the rich. Biological poverty, in many countries around the world, no longer in exists.

People in many part of the world no longer die because they are poor. Until very recent time, most people in most countries in the world lived very, very close to the biological poverty line which  is measured by the number of calories that a person needs in order to sustain life for a few more days. Very small miscalculations or misfortunes could easily push people below this line and cause them to die of hunger. If you, sold your field in the wrong season, or if a flood came and washed away your field, you and your family died from hunger. On the collective level, natural disasters and man-made calamities could cause entire populations to die from hunger.  In contrast,  most people in the world today have a kind of safety net to protect them from death, hunger and poverty. Individuals are protected from personal misfortune by insurance, by state sponsored social security and by other local and international organizations. When a disaster strikes a country or region, worldwide relief efforts are usually, (not always) successful in preventing the worst from happening in preventing the death of millions. People of course, still suffer from numerous degradations, humiliations and poverty related illnesses. But in most countries in the world nobody is actually starving to death, dying because they don’t have bread or rice to eat. Actually, today around the world, many more people are in danger of dying from eating too much than from starvation.

Can science solve death?

Gilgamesh as illustrated in The Chaldean Account of Genesis (Credit – Wikimedia)

The most important problem of all for scientists  is death. Before the modern era most religions, ideologies and philosophies took it for granted that death was the inevitable fate of humans. Moreover, most  turned death into the main source of the meaning of life. Just try to imagine Islam or Christianity or the religion of ancient Egypt with pyramids and mummies, in a world without death. They would make no sense. Traditional religions taught people that they must come to terms with death and not seek to overcome it and live forever. The best minds in most traditional societies were busy giving meaning to death,  This is the theme of the most ancient mythology, the most ancient epic that came to us from  Sumeria 5000 years ago, the famous story of King Gilgamesh of Uruk.  According to Sumerian mythology, he was the most powerful, the wisest, the most beautiful man in the world. He could do anything. He fought against giants and monsters and everywhere he went he gained victories and managed to do everything he wanted. Until one day his best friend, Enkidu, died of some disease that the gods sent to punish him.  Gilgamesh refused to believe that this was happening. He refused to allow the people to bury Enkidu’s body. He sat near the body for seven days and kept guard thinking that Enkidu was just sleeping and would wake up. After seven days Gilgamesh saw worms starting to fall from his friend’s nostril because the corpse was being eaten. When Gilgamesh saw this he was struck by a terrible feeling. He was horrified, not for Enkidu’s fate, but for his own. He realized  that what happened to Enkidu was going to happen to him too. He decided then and there that he would not let it happen. He would find a way to defeat death. He’d defeated so many monsters and giants and he would defeat death. He left Uruk and went around the world searching for a cure to death. Trying to defeat death. The epic tells of how Gilgamesh crossed oceans and deserts and mountains, and fought horrendous monsters and scorpion men and so forth. His quest ended in failure. After searching all over the world he could not find any cure to death. He came home, with just one thing, the realization that death is the inevitable fate of human kind. When the gods created men, they set death as the limit of men, and that’s it. The most powerful, wisest person in the world, has to accept it and has to learn to live with it. This was the only thing that Gilgamesh discovered in these in his quest.


True believers in scientific progress do not share the defeatist attitude of the Gilgamesh epic and of the many other stories and mythologies that people invented along the centuries to explain death. For men of science and those who really believe in scientific progress, death is not the inevitable destiny of human kind. Death is simply a technical problem like any other technical problem. Maybe more difficult, but not different in essence.  According to science people die not because the gods decreed that people must die, but due to technical failures. They die because of a heart attack, because of cancer, because of an infection. According to scientific wisdom, every technical problem has a technical solution. If the heart stops functioning well then you can stimulate the heart by implanting a pacemaker, or you can replace the dis-functioning heart with a new one. If somebody is suffering from cancer, you can kill the cancer cells with drugs or radiation. If dangerous bacteria are proliferating in then body, then take antibiotics to kill it. It is true that at present we don’t know how to solve all the technical problems that cause death, but we are working on it. The best minds in the world are no longer wasting their lives trying to find meaning to death they are busy investigating how the body works, and how DNA works, and trying to find cures for diseases and even for old age. We are developing new medicines, new treatments,  artificial organs, and other things that will lengthen our lives and may one day enable us to defeat death and live indefinitely.

Ellie’s medications required treatment for chemotherapy effects. (Credit – Daily mail)

Until recently you would not have heard scientists or anybody else speak so bluntly. Defeating death! People said, no, no, no, this is not what we’re trying to do. If you asked most doctors they would never have said that they try to defeat death. They would say we’re trying to defeat cancer, or tuberculosis, or to find a cure to Alzheimer. They avoided speaking about defeating death probably because the goal seemed to be too far away this would create unreasonable expectations that may not be fulfilled any time soon.In the second decade of the 21st century, we’re at a point when scientists and doctors are starting to speak more frankly and openly. Starting to say clearly that the leading project of the scientific revolution, of modern science is to give human kind eternal life. Not just to live forever, but to live forever young. Nobody wants to live forever ill in a wheelchair connected to tubes and computers. To defeat death and old age simultaneously. This is the big project of modern science, which some call The Gilgamesh Project. It is the project that King Gilgamesh  abandoned  and modern scientists have taken up and are going to make it true. How long the Gilgamesh project will take, nobody really knows some say 200 years, 100 years 1,000 years we don’t know.

Lasers can now treat just about any beauty problem – if you can afford it (Credit dailymail.co.uk/femail)

When we recall how little we knew about the human body just 100 years ago in early 20th century and how much knowledge we’ve gained in a single century it gives many people a lot of optimism. There are very serious thinkers today in the world that suggest that by the year 2050, less than 40 years from now, some humans, especially the rich ones who can afford all the treatments will already become ammortal by the year 2050.  Ammortal is different from immortal. Immortals cannot die. Ammortals can still die if say a truck runs them over. It means that if no big accident happens your life can be extended without limit. Every 10, 20 years you go to the hospital,  receive the necessary treatment and you get another 10, 20 years. When this passes you go again, but by then they’ll have even better treatments.  If you ask people if they want to live for a million years, forever, not many would like to live forever, but nearly everybody would want to live for just another 10, 20 years in good health. This is what some scholars say is what will happen by 2050. At least rich people will have the money to pay for treatment every 10, 20 years  which will extend their lives for another 10, 20 years.

(Credit -post.jagran.com)

What has been achieved in the last century or two was inconceivable in terms of what people knew and expected just 200 years ago. Today all kinds of pills and injections and sophisticated operations save us from illnesses and injuries that 200 years ago or 100 years ago would have dealt us an inescapable death sentence. There was no way to overcome these difficulties, and today we overcome them easily. New treatments discovered in the last century, not only against death, but also against countless daily aches and ailments and diseases which pre-modern people simply accepted as part of life. If your tooth hurt 300 years ago you went to somebody to  take your tooth out without anaesthetics because they didn’t have any. Today, even quite poor people can afford to go to a dentist who will give them an injection and take out the tooth without feeling anything because of all these new discoveries.

(Credit – thebabycorner.com)

Over the last century the average life expectancy of humans jumped from about 30 years to about 67 years in the whole world, and 80 years in the developed world. A baby born in the year 1900 was likely to die on average by the age of 30. A baby born today has a very good chance on average of living to be about 67. If this baby’s born in Japan or Sweden, or Australia, he or she is likely to live to be at least 80. Babies born today, in 2013 have an estimated life expectancy of over 100 at least in developed societies and born to the right class. Most of this jump in life expectancy is caused not by solving the diseases of old people, but by overcoming child diseases, and decreasing child mortality. If 500 years ago, you manage to reach the age of 20, you had still a good chance of living to be 70 or 80, but reaching 20 was very, very difficult. About a quarter to a third of children born in pre-modern, even in 19th century societies died before reaching 20. The biggest achievements in the fight against death over the last century was the result of curing childhood illnesses. To illustrate what life was like and how people raised families in the centuries and millennia before these triumphs a good example is the family of King Edward the First of England and his wife Queen Eleanor who ruled England in the late 13th century. Their children enjoyed the best conditions that could be provided in medieval Europe. They lived in palaces, had as much food as they liked, had plenty of warm clothing and the cleanest water available. They also had an army of servants and doctors that looked after their needs and health. The sources available mention 16 children that queen Eleanor bore her husband between 1255 and 1284. What happened to them is a good indication or example of what it meant to live and to raise a family in the age before modern medicine.

Family tree (credit – bl.uk)

The first child was born in 1255,  a daughter. We don’t know the name of the daughter, she died at birth and may not have been given a name.

The second child was again, a daughter called Catherine. She died either at the age of one or three, the sources are, are mixed on this.

The third another daughter Joan died when she was six months.

The fourth was their first son, John. He died when he was five.

Number five, another son, Henry, died when he was six.

The sixth child, a daughter called Eleanor, reached the age of 29 before dying. This is the first child that reached adulthood.

Seven an anonymous daughter who died when she was five months old.

Eighth was another daughter named  Joan who died when she was 35.

Nine was a son Alphonso. He died at the age of ten.

Tenth, a daughter Margaret, she died when she was 58.

Eleven. Another daughter, Berengaria, died when she was two years old.

Twelve, an anonymous daughter who died very shortly after birth.

The thirteenth was a  daughter, Mary, she died when she was 53.

The fourteenth was a son, we don’t know his name, he died shortly after birth.

Next came a daughter, Elizabeth who died when she was 34.

Edward was their sixteenth child.

Edward II receiving the English crown (Credit – Wikimedia)

Edward was the first of the royal princes who managed to survive the dangerous years of childhood and reach adulthood. When his father died he became the new King of England. To the best of our knowledge, Eleanor and Edward were very healthy people. They had no fatal hereditary illnesses that they passed on to their children. Nevertheless, ten out of these 16 children, 62%, died before reaching adulthood. Only six managed to live beyond the age of 11 and only three managed to live beyond the age of 40.  Eleanor may have been pregnant at other times and these pregnancies ended in miscarriage. Edward and Eleanor lost a child on average every three years, it was not uncommon at that time.

Whether or not the Gilgamesh Project really succeeds in completely defeating death, from a historical perspective it is fascinating to see that most late modern religions and ideologies have already taken death out of the equation.  Until the 18th century most religions considered death and what happened to you after you died as central to the meaning of life. Beginning in the 18th century religions and ideologies such as liberalism, socialism and feminism began to treat death simply as a technical problem and lost all interest in the afterlife. For example ask yourself what happens to a communist after he or she dies. In Islam and Christianity there is a very clear answer, but no communist is interested in what happens after death. Similarly with capitalism or feminism.  It’s pointless to look for the answer in the writings of Karl Marx, or Adam Smith, or Simone de Beauvoir. Nobody is interested in death except as a technical problem. The only modern ideology that still gives death a central role is nationalism. Sometimes nationalism promises that, if you die for the nation, then you would continue to live on in the memory of the nation. Even nationalists don’t really know what this means. With Christianity there are very clear answers, you die then your soul leaves the body and comes before God who judges your life and decides whether to send you to heaven or to hell. In nationalism, this idea of living forever in the memory of the nation. It is something so hazy, so difficult to understand, that even most nationalists don’t really understand what it means.

What science is doing today

Credit – Wikipedia)

We live  in a technical age. What our ancestors saw as political, ethical and spiritual dilemmas, for us are technical problems, we hope the scientists will work out a solution. The amazing achievements of modern science in finding solutions to lightning, to poverty even to death have caused more and more people to become ardent believers in progress, the ideal of progress. Many people today are convinced that science works for the benefit of human kind, that we can trust science whole-heartedly, we can let a scientist go on with their work and research and they will create heaven here on earth, not after death, but on earth in this life.

If you believe that science is simply working for the benefit of human kind, you don’t understand much about the history of science, or about what science is doing today. Many scientists are certainly motivated by the wish to help humankind, or by a pure scientific curiosity and the thrill of discovering new things. What governs the history of science is political, economic, and ideological interests. Most science is very expensive. Doctors and  biologists trying to understand cancer need test tubes, microscopes, lab assistants, electricians, plumbers cleaners, secretaries and so forth in order to do carry out research.

Louis Lumiere with microscope and test tubes (Credit – George Eastman House)

Economists try to understand what to do in an economic crisis for example and so needs to collect a lot of data about the economy. He needs helpers, computers to store the data, to develop sophisticated data processing programs. An archaeologist who wants to understand the behaviour of  hunter gatherers before the agriculture revolution, needs to excavate ancient ruins, travel to Africa or other distant lands, date fossilized bones and artefacts. All these things cost an awful lot of money. For thousands of years, there may have been many people who wanted to study diseases, or the laws of economics, or the lives of hunter gatherers, but without proper funding they couldn’t reach very far. In the last 500 years modern science has managed to achieve wonders, thanks largely to the willingness of governments, businesses, foundations and private donors to channel billions and billions of dollars to scientific research. Without this funding Galileo, Newton and Darwin would not have reached very far.

In academic circles, many are naive enough to believe that governments or businesses gives money to pursue whatever strikes the curiosity as interesting. Most scientific studies are funded because somebody believes that they can help attain some economic, political, or ideological goal. In the 16th century kings and merchants channelled enormous resources to finance geographical expeditions around the world. They gave no money to studying Child Psychology. They assumed that the discovery of new geographical knowledge could enable them to conquer new lands and set up trade empires. They couldn’t see any profit in understanding child psychology better. Similarly, in the middle of the 20th century, American and Russian governments invested enormous resources in the study of nuclear physics, but very little resources in underwater archaeology. They assumed that by understanding the secrets of nuclear physics they would be able to develop nuclear weapons. They didn’t see how underwater archaeology could help them win the Cold War or do anything useful.

Scientists are not always aware of the political, economic, or ideological interests that control the flow of money. Many  sincerely act from intellectual curiosity, however, it’s very rare that scientists dictate the agenda of science. The agenda is dictated by whoever gives the money. Even if we want to finance pure science, unaffected by other interests, it would be impossible,  because the resources of humankind are limited. Deciding what to do with our limited resources depends on what we consider more important, or what we consider to be good. These are not scientific questions, they are ethical question, only religions and ideologies give answers to questions about what is good, what is more important, what should be done.

(Credit – newstalkzb.co.nz)

If two biologists from the same department, who have exactly the same professional skills, both of them apply to get a million dollar grant, to finance their current research projects. One professor A, wants to study a disease that infects the udders of cows causing a 10% reduction in the milk production of dairy cows. The other, professor B, wants to study whether cows suffer mentally when they are separated from their calves, by the dairy industry. Assuming that the amount of money is not unlimited and assuming that both projects can’t be financed which one should receive the million dollar grant? There is no scientific answer the question has only political, economic, religious, or ideological answers. In today’s world, it’s pretty obvious that Professor A, has a better chance of getting the money than Professor B, not because udder diseases in cows are scientifically more interesting or more important than the mentality of cows, but because the dairy industry, which stands to benefit from this research, has much more political and economic power, than say, the animal rights lobby, which may like to finance the second project. The only way professor B might be able to win the grant is if she can show that her project could have economic benefits.

(Credit – messagetoeagle.com)

She may write in her grant application that, when cows are depressed it leads to a decrease in milk production, if we understood the mental world of dairy cows, we could develop new psychiatric medications for dairy cows to improve their mood and thereby raise milk production by say 10%, and I estimate, that there is an annual market of $250 million each year for psychiatric medications, for dairy cows. If she wrote such a thing then she has a good chance of getting the grant. Science is unable to set its own priority. There is no scientific way of deciding, which project is more interesting or more important. The priorities are always set by the political and economic system, for political and economic reasons.

Science also incapable of determining what to do with its discoveries. From a purely scientific viewpoint it is unclear what to do with our increasing knowledge of genetics. Should we use this new knowledge in order to cure, to create a race of genetically engineered supermen, or perhaps, to engineer dairy cows with super-sized udders. With exactly the same scientific discovery in genetics, a liberal government, a communist government, a Nazi government and a capitalist business, would use it for completely different purposes. There is no scientific reason to say that one usage, one purpose, is better than another purpose, because science does not deal with purposes, it has no morality of its own.  Scientific research can flourish only when it has found an alliance, with some religion, or some ideology. The ideology justifies the cost of the research and determines where the money should go and in exchange the ideology influences the scientific agenda and determines, what to do with the discoveries. In order to comprehend the cause of the scientific revolution it is not enough to survey the thoughts, lives and achievements of famous scientists like, Galileo Galilei, or Newton or Darwin. In order to really understand the development of science in the last few centuries, we have to take into account the ideological, political, and economic forces that shape the agenda of physics, biology, sociology, and archaeology and push them in certain directions, while neglecting others. Two forces in particular require our attention one is European imperialism and the second is capitalism. The feedback loop between science, empires, and capitalism has arguably been the chief mortar of history for the last 500 years.

If you enjoy reading my notes consider making a small donation to one of these charities. No donation is too small, you could change a life.

Related articles


  1. Louise

    I made a donation to ‘waterwise’ to say ‘thanks’ for these notes they really added a dimension to the lectures for me.

    And just wanted to thank you directly.



  2. Hilda Bahner says:

    fantastic work , thank you very much !

  3. Ian Niven says:


    Great notes. I find them really helpful, and am making a donation to Water Aid as a “repayment”.

  4. […] Lecture 11 The Discovery of Ignorance (louisecharente.wordpress.com) […]

  5. […] Lecture 11 The Discovery of Ignorance (louisecharente.wordpress.com) […]

  6. Dave A, Nokomis, FL says:

    You did an unreal job, I will keep them until I get enough ink and paper to print them out. Thanks, so much.

  7. […] comments reminded me of this interesting but long (*)  post, The Discovery of Ignorance, about the scientific […]

  8. […] Humility and insignificance: https://louisecharente.wordpress.com/2013/10/24/the-discovery-of-ignorance/ […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: