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The Limitations of Human Knowledge and Understanding Critical Essay

In Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, Galileo Galilei discusses the limitations of human understanding and knowledge. The author focuses on the necessity to find an objective method of proving or disproving a certain proposition, but he acknowledges that this objectivity is often difficult to achieve. The passage that is going to be analyzed is the conversation between Salviati, Sagredo, and Simplicio.

These people represent different views on epistemological questions, especially, the certainty with which one can know the nature of things. The key argument that this work puts forward is that there is no completely objective way for the discovery of truth.

This is why scientists should reject intellectual arrogance, and the idea that they can know things with absolute certainty. This work is aimed at showing that human intelligence can achieve great successes, but at the same time, it will always have limitations. This is the main premise that Galileo Galilei strives to illustrate through various discussions.

The major theme of the passage becomes evident in Simplicio’s first comment, and it is the contradictory nature of human understanding. This character cannot understand how Salviati can praise the understanding or mental faculties of a “natural man” and at the time agree with Socrates who argued that “his understanding was nil” (Galilei, 103).

Simplicio is unable or unready to accept a premise that a human being can indeed display prodigious mental faculties and ability to discover the truth; however, human intelligence remains very limited. In his opinion, these two premises can hardly be reconciled with one another. To a great extent, Simplicio’s views on knowledge and understanding are very categorical which that he cannot accept two contradicting statements.

In response to Simplicio’s claim, Salviati who represents the author’s views on knowledge, makes a distinction between intensive and extensive knowledge (Galilei, 103). In his opinion, extensive knowledge can be interpreted as the intuitive understanding of many intelligible things, objects, or phenomenon, while intensive knowledge means a perfect or verified understanding of a certain question (Galilei, 103).

However, from his argument it is not clear whether such knowledge can be achieved. First, he argues that there are certain propositions that human beings can know with certainty, but agrees that they are “very ordinary propositions” (Galilei, 103). This character believes that mathematical sciences can guarantee some degree of certainly (Galilei, 103). Nevertheless, the tools of these sciences cannot always be employed.

The characters of his dialogue compare human knowledge to Divine wisdom. As Salviati argues God can know an infinite multitude of things in an intensive way, while human knowledge is essentially limited to a certain number of things (Galilei, 104).

Moreover, Galilei strives to illustrate the way in which God and human beings can understand the nature of things. Salviati says, “Our method proceeds with reasoning by steps from one conclusion to another, while His is one of simple intuition.” (Galilei, 103).

In this way, Galilei shows that human discovery of truth consists of multiple logical steps that are often difficult to take. In contrast, God can understand the nature of things in an instant. The author makes this statement to emphasize the limits of human knowledge. In part, it is a way of showing that intellectual arrogance is something that a scientist should reject.

The main problem is that sometimes even scientists can jump to conclusions and presume that they can instantly understand various objects or phenomena. This is the problem that existed not only in Galileo’s time, modern scientists and researchers can also act in such a way.

It should be taken into consideration that the author does not fully reject intuition as a way of knowing things. One of the interlocutors, namely Salviati says that intuition is God’s way of understanding the things “without time-consuming reasoning” (Galilei, 103).

In other words, this way of knowing is more suitable in those cases, when a person wants to make a generalization or a conjecture about a group of objects such circles or stars. Intuition helps a person understand the properties of many objects by looking at only one of them. Yet, intuition is hardly suitable for testing such conjectures because it is not based on empirical evidence.

It must not guide our reasoning; otherwise people may simply substitute theories for facts. Overall, Galileo Galilei emphasizes focuses on these issues in order to demonstrate that Divine intuition may indeed be perfect, but human intuition is not free from flaws. People, especially those ones, who attempt to discover the truth should remember about this limitation.

In such a way, Galilei acknowledges discovery of truth cannot always rely only on objective methods. The interplay of reason and intuition is demonstrated in Sagredo’s discussion of art and the role of artists. He believes that the discovery of truth can be compared to removing “the excess from a block of marble and reveal so lovely a figure hidden therein” as it was done by Michelangelo when he was working on the statue of David (Galilei, 104).

Sagredo’s praise for art is not a mere digression from the topic on discussion. It implies that a scientist cannot always predict what he or she will eventually discover. This person has to remove “the excess from a block of marble”.

Thus, the discovery of truth is often made through trial and error, rather than pure theorization. Secondly, art, itself is something that one cannot study with the help of mathematical disciplines. One can understand art with the help of both emotions and reason.

Additionally, the work of an artist is often based on intuition and method; this is why the author cannot entirely reject intuition as an approach to exploring the world. One has to remember that Sagredo participates in this dialogue in order to learn more about conflicting points of view on science.

He cannot be regarded as a spokesman of Galilei; however, his remarks and arguments are partly accepted by the author who acknowledges that absolute objectivity cannot be attained. Moreover, his claims have not been fully rejected by modern scientific community.

Overall, Galileo Galilei acknowledges that a human mind can be “clouded with deep and thick mists”; nonetheless, he refuses to believe that there is no way of overcoming ignorance (Galilei, 104). In his opinion, the best way of doing it is to seek intensive knowledge of things, in other words, the knowledge relying on empirical observations.

In such a way, people will be able to explain one phenomenon after another. Although this strategy will not enable people discover all mysteries of the world at once, it will ensure people do not make false conclusions about nature.

Yet, such progress can be possible only if there is a constant exchange of ideas, findings, conjectures, and so forth. This is why when the interlocutors of this dialogue discuss the greatest inventions of the humankind, Sagredo focuses on language, and especially written communication (Galilei, 104).

He says, “but surpassing all stupendous inventions, what sublimity of mind was his dreamed of finding means to communicate his deepest thoughts to any other person” (Galilei, 104). The thing is that writing enabled people to communicate ideas across place, time, and culture.

Without it any scientific progress would have been impossible. A person has to find a way of expressing his or her thoughts about art, literature, navigation, science, and so forth. At this point, language is the only way of doing it. Again Sagredo does not mere praise written communication.

This example illustrates human understanding of nature is often based on their people’s ability to express their thoughts. Moreover, language can be misinterpreted by a person, and it is quite possible that the so-called truths which were handed down from generation to generation, can prove to be false.

Overall, Galileo Galilei’s book can be viewed as a foundational document of modern science for several reasons. First of all, the passage that has been analyzed in this paper emphasizes the idea that complete objectivity in science is hardly possible.

Secondly, it shows that the discovery of truth involves a great number of steps such as theorization, trial and error, or even intuition. In every case, there is a possibility of mistake. This discussion indicates that there is a further necessity to develop scientific methodology to make sure that they are free from errors of the mind. These are the main problems that scholars have to struggle with even nowadays.

Works Cited

Galilei, Galileo. Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems. Trans. Stillman Drake. Oakland: University of California Press, 1967. Print.

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IvyPanda. 2019. "The Limitations of Human Knowledge and Understanding." July 9, 2019. https://ivypanda.com/essays/the-limitations-of-human-knowledge-and-understanding/.


IvyPanda. (2019) 'The Limitations of Human Knowledge and Understanding'. 9 July.

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