What constraints are there on the pursuit of knowledge?

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The main constraints on the pursuit of knowledge are ethical constraints on what may be done to acquire knowledge, particularly if others may be harmed in the process.

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On some level, there is an economic boundary that sometimes limits the pursuit of knowledge. We often hear, for example, about various human illnesses which scientists would like to research if only they could gain funding for their work. Scientific research is often quite expensive, and without needed funds, there are many areas of human understanding that remain unclear or misunderstood.

The common values of a society also limit the pursuit of knowledge. While no one complains about scientists who perform various experiments on bacteria, people do tend to be more vocal about the use of live animals being used for scientific exploration. Can scientists learn about the human body and various human conditions by performing similar experiments on animals? Certainly. However, using animals for such experiments is not viewed favorably by at least a segment of society, and the pursuit of knowledge is therefore limited by societal values.

The pursuit of knowledge is also limited at times by an ethical obligation to consider the outcomes of those pursuits. This requires a bit of forethought for those involved in the exploration of new ideas to weigh the benefits against the consequences. All knowledge is not equal, and there are innate risks involved in even attempting to pursue certain kinds of knowledge. Consider, for example, a person who wants to learn how to teach people to effectively discriminate against others on a wide scale. This clearly violates a human code of ethics, and with even minimal forethought, it is evident that the pursuit of this knowledge could have horrific consequences. Such pursuits are therefore limited because of their potential destructive impact on humanity.

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Constraints on the pursuit of knowledge abound. One example is in politics. When Barack Obama was president of the United States, his foreign policy was supposedly summed up simply as not doing anything stupid. This purportedly smart policy revealed many limitations. Among other things, it did not prevent Obama from continuously bombing Muslim-majority countries. In 2016, his last year as president, Obama reportedly dropped three bombs every hour, 24 hours a day, on Muslim-majority nations.

Another constraint on knowledge involves the political arena. Knowledge is not always appealing to the general public. In 2016, the Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton was marketed as the most knowledgeable person in the race. According to Obama, “[T]here has never been a man or a woman more qualified than Hillary Clinton to serve as president of the United States of America.” Yet Clinton’s knowledge was constrained. She lost the 2016 race to Donald Trump.

In philosophy, knowledge demonstrates constraints as well. Socrates’s pursuit of knowledge in Ancient Greece left him vulnerable to punishment. For his constant questioning and interrogating, Socrates was put to the death by the state.

Finally, Avital Ronell, a contemporary scholar, might say that the constraints of knowledge involve its paradoxical intimacy with stupidity. In her 2002 book, Stupidity, Ronell argues that the boundaries between insight and idiocy aren’t as clear as some presume. When pursuing knowledge, one must invariably be on the alert lest they slip into folly.

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When thinking about the pursuit of knowledge, it might be easy to assume that there are no limitations or constraints to this pursuit at all. However, when looking at this question more closely, you will find that in fact there are some constraints that impact on the successful pursuit of knowledge. Let me highlight some of these constraints for you.

Firstly, you might want to look at practical constraints. Someone might want to increase their knowledge about a certain topic, but they might not have the actual physical means to do so. For example, they might not have the equipment needed to do the research they would like to do. Perhaps the necessary equipment hasn't even been invented yet, therefore limiting the success of this research severely.

You could also mention financial restraints. Whilst it might be very interesting to pursue the answer to a certain question in order to increase one's knowledge, one might not have the financial means to finance the actions needed in order to undertake the required research. In this case, it is an option to try and find a sponsor to help with the finances, but if this search for a sponsor is unsuccessful, the pursuit of knowledge will not be able to go ahead in this instance.

Lastly, you might want to mention ethical and moral limitations. For example, whilst it might be tempting to experiment on humans to find answers to some pressing medical questions, there is a limitation to the extent to which this kind of research is ethically and morally justifiable. Anything that puts a person's health or life at risk is clearly not acceptable practice for ethical and moral reasons, which could therefore also pose a limitation to the pursuit of knowledge.

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The most important (and some might say the only) constraint on the pursuit of knowledge involves ethical limitation of the means by which knowledge may be pursued. Scientists who perform experiments on animal or human subjects generally have to obtain ethical clearance, the standards and procedures for which vary from country to country.

Famous experiments such as Stanley Milgram's work on obedience to authority and Philip Zimbardo's Stanford prison experiment might well be disallowed today on ethical grounds. Experiments conducted by Henry Murray at Harvard to observe the effects of destabilizing subjects' egos may have had permanent serious psychological effects on student volunteers, including the Ted Kaczynski, later known as the Unabomber. These experiments involved causing harm to study the effect of that harm, clearly unethical conduct in medicine and generally regarded as being so in wider scientific studies.

It is uncontroversial to state that there are ethical constraints on how knowledge is pursued. More contentious is the question of constraints on the type of knowledge sought. Some people regard the work of Charles Murray on race and IQ as falling under this heading. Putting aside for a moment the accuracy of Murray's research, the ethical question is this: If IQ does vary between races, do we want to know about this, and if so, why? If you regard this as worth knowing, you will presumably still draw a practical line on the type of knowledge that should be pursued. This line is likely to be at the point where acquisition of the knowledge could lead to significant harm to others.

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