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Oppenheimer Cites Limits Of Human Self-Knowledge


"Any order which man achieves in the study of himself through the coming years will be a partial order," J. Robert Oppenheimer '26 told a capacity Sanders Theatre audience in his final William James Lecture last Friday. The atomic physicist received a standing ovation at the conclusion of his talk.

He said that the world's greatest hope was that there would be no tyranny which might prevent the free flow of knowledge, and predicted that the freedom of thought and communication which characterizes our society would spread throughout the world. The developments of quantum theory on which Oppenheimer spent almost half of his lectures were emphasized, he said, to illustrate how man takes old knowledge, re-examines it, synthesizes it and finally transcends it in new, more complete statements of reality.

The complementarities which finally confront the atomic scientist will probably confront the scientist of man as he attempts to develop a single, coherent theory of man.

This prediction led Oppenheimer to state that man, in studying himself, will be forced to accept a "partial order," realizing that the very "character of the knower determines what, how, and how much he knows."

The physicist brought his concluding statements to bear on the problem of the limits of knowledge, and declared that the only limit placed on what man knew was man's life span. He said, however, that we must realize and appreciate our own and others' ignorance, for it is impossible to ever accumulate any great amount of knowledge in a lifetime. "The recognition of the inherent necessity of ignorance is the beginning of a sort of wisdom," he said.

In the process of striving to learn, though incompletely, man will be faced, in studying himself, with the mutual exclusiveness which pervades modern atomic theory, and this will lead to the acceptance of a partial order, inherent in the knowledge of ourselves.

He closed by saying that we all have a dual obligation--"faithfulness in the things which are our arts and sciences, and a duty to others to learn as much as we can." These are the duties which lead toward a partial order.

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