Aspects of the Seeker
In Averroës's Search, Borges tells the story of the Islamic philosopher Averroës trying, and failing, to understand Aristotle's writings on theater. Borges sums it up in the afterword:
In the preceding tale, I have tried to narrate the process of failure, the process of defeat. I thought first of that archbishop of Canterbury who set himself the task of proving that God exists; then I thought of the alchemists who sought the philosopher’s stone; then, of he vain trisectors of the angle and squares of the circle. Then I reflected that a more poetic case than these would be a man who sets himself a goal that is not forbidden to other men, but is forbidden to him. I recalled Averroës, who, bounded within the circle of Islam, could never know the meaning of the words tragedy and comedy.
History and literature offer many cases of ironically failed quests for knowledge.
Some phenomena disappear immediately once someone describes them. Douglas Adams wrote of a theory "which states that if ever anyone discovers exactly what the Universe is for and why it is here, it will instantly disappear". The modern world offers many such anti-inductive cases, above all in the movements of the stock market: successful trading strategies tend to stop working after they become known. On a civilizational scale, Malthusianism became irrelevant right at the time someone was able to articulate the idea, and it seems that the moment we are able to improve ourselves through genetic engineering, we will be wiped out by our artificial creations.
A second type of ill-fated seeker is one who finds what he is looking for, but his goal is also a punishment. William Beckford, categorically rejecting Ulysses' actions at the land of the Sirens (perhaps inspired by his own life, and perhaps commenting on all attempts to comprehend the universe) created the apostate Caliph Vathek whose obsessive quest for knowledge results in his damnation, and for whom Hell is both the object of desire and the punishment for that desire. There are those who argue that the libertine Beckford only adopted this biblical attitude against the Faustian spirit as an ironic orientalist façade, but the Caliph resists all attempts at interpretation.
Some seekers reach their goal, only to have it slip out of their hands. Scientists will occasionally chance on the right idea but lack the ability to prove it: Aristarchus of Samos was doomed by the apparent size of the stars and the lack of parallax. The Royal Navy discovered that lemons prevent scurvy, and then through terrible epistemic luck managed to lose that knowledge over the course of the 19th century: lemons were replaced by limes low in vitamin C, but nobody noticed because the ships were faster. The problem only reappeared when polar explorers started suffering from scurvy despite bringing lime juice with them—and the answer was only discovered by the miraculously good luck of experimenting on guinea pigs, one of very few animals that don't produce vitamin C on their own.
Finally the most ironic case of them all, that of the Dalmatian archbishop and heretic Marco Antonio de Dominis: a seeker who is able to find the answer, but is condemned to believe it is false. De Dominis, a contemporary of Kepler (who wrote in favor of the lunar theory of tides) and Galileo (who mocked it), was also an amateur astronomer and wrote a book on the tides titled Euripus.
The archbishop begins by presenting both empirical and theoretical arguments in favor of the thesis that the earth is a sphere. He then describes the luni-solar theory of tides: he (correctly) writes that tides are caused by the combined gravitational action of the sun and the moon, (correctly) predicts that high tide occurs simultaneously at antipodal points, and (correctly) shows that the cycle of spring and neap tides can be explained by the combined action of the sun and moon. He also (correctly) deduces that the diurnal inequality between tides will be greatest when the moon is above the tropic of Cancer or Capricorn. Finally, de Dominis explains (incorrectly) that since the two daily tides are always equal to each other, the theory must be false. The heretical archbishop died behind the bars of the Castel Sant'Angelo before his book could be published.