Despite the tremendous advances in science over the past century, our understanding of nature is still far from complete. Not only have scientists failed to find the Holy Grail of physics – combining very large (general relativity) with very small (quantum mechanics) – they still do not know what the vast majority of the universe consists of. The required Theory of Everything continues to surprise us. And there are other extraordinary puzzles, such as how consciousness derives from simple matter.
Will science ever be able to provide all the answers? Human brains are the product of blind and unlimited evolution. They were designed to solve practical problems that affect our survival and reproduction, rather than discovering the fabric of the universe. This realization has led some philosophers to adopt a curious form of pessimism, claiming that there is an obligation to be things we will never understand. Therefore, human science will one day reach a strong limit – and it may already have done so.
Some questions may be doomed to remain, as he called "mystery," by American linguist and philosopher Noam Chomsky. If you think humans only have unlimited cognitive power – they separate us from all other animals – you haven't completely swallowed Darwin's insight that Homo sapiens is very much part of the natural world.
But does this argument really work? They believe that the human brain did not evolve to reveal its origin. And yet somehow we managed to do just that. Pessimists may lack something.
"Mysterious" thinkers play a significant role in biological arguments and analogies. In his feature book 1983 Modularity of Mind, the late philosopher Jerry Fodor argues that there must be no "thoughts we are not ready to think".
Similarly, the philosopher Colin McGinn claims in a series of books and articles that all minds suffer from "cognitive closure" in relation to certain problems. Just as dogs or cats will never understand the prime numbers, the human brain must be shut down by some of the wonders of the world. McGinn doubts that the reason why philosophical considerations such as the problem of the mind / body – how physical processes in our brain generate consciousness – have been proven to be indecent is that their true solutions are simply inaccessible to the human mind.
If McGinn is right that our brains are simply not equipped to handle certain problems, it makes no sense to even try, as they will continue to confuse and confuse us. McGinn himself is convinced that, in fact, there is a perfectly natural solution to the mind-body problem, but the human brain will never find it.
Even psychologist Stephen Pinker, who is often accused of the scientific hubris himself, is sympathetic to the arguments of the mysteries. If our ancestors didn't need to understand the wider cosmos to spread their genes, he argues, why would natural selection give us the brain power to do so?
Theories of mind
Mysteries usually raise the question of cognitive boundaries in strict, mono-white terms: either we can solve a problem, or it will defy us forever. Either we have a cognitive approach or we suffer from closure. At some point, the human probe will suddenly sink into a metaphorical brick brick, after which we will be forever doomed to stare blankly.
Yet another possibility that the mysteries often overlook is that the yield is slowly diminishing. Reaching the limits of inquiry may feel less like hitting a wall, than getting stuck in a hassle. We continue to have fun, even as we invest more and there is still no discrete point where further progress becomes impossible.
There is another ambiguity in the mystery thesis that my colleague Michael Valeik and I have highlighted in academic paper. Do the mysteries claim that we will never find the true scientific theory for some aspect of reality, or, alternatively, that we may find this theory but never understand it?
In the science fiction series Fitcherher's Galactic Guide, an alien civilization builds a huge supercomputer to calculate the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything. When the computer finally announces that the answer is "42", no one has a clue what this means (in fact, they continue to build an even larger supercomputer to figure that out).
Is the question still a "mystery" if you've got the right answer, but have no idea what it means or can't wrap your head around it? Mysteries often conflict with these two possibilities.
In some places, McGinn points out that the problem of the mind and body is unavailable to human science, which probably means we will never find the true scientific theory that describes the mind-body nexus. At other times, however, he writes that the problem will always remain "necessarily difficult to think" of human beings and that "the head turns in theoretical unrest" when we try to think about it.
This suggests that we may get to the real scientific theory, but it will have a 42-like quality. But then again, some would argue that this is already true of theory as quantum mechanics. Even quantum physicist Richard Feynman admitted: "I think I can say for sure that no one understands quantum mechanics."
Would the mysterious people say that we humans are "cognitively closed" to the quantum world? According to quantum mechanics, particles can be in two places at once or by accident appearing out of space. Although this is extremely difficult to grasp, quantum theory leads to incredibly accurate predictions. The phenomena of "quantum oddity" have been confirmed by several experimental tests, and scientists are now developing applications based on the theory.
Mysterians also tend to forget how they think about previous scientific theories and concepts. Nothing in our cognitive makeup has prepared us for the theory of relativity, evolutionary biology or heliocentrism.
As the philosopher Robert McCullough writes: "When they first advanced, the suggestions that the Earth was moving, that microscopic organisms could kill human beings and that solid objects were mostly empty space, were no less contrary to intuition and common sense than the most intuitive consequences of proved to us in the twentieth century. "McCauley's experienced excitement gives rise to optimism, not pessimism.
Extensions for the mind
But can our brains really answer all the imaginable questions and understand all the problems? It depends on whether we are talking about nude, unmistakable brains or not. There are many things you cannot do with the naked brain. But Homo sapiens is a type of tool creation, and this includes a series of cognitive tools.
For example, our unwanted sense organs cannot detect UV light, ultrasonic waves, X-rays or gravitational waves. But if you are equipped with some fancy technology, you can discover all those things. To overcome our perceptual limitations, scientists have developed a set of tools and techniques: microscopes, X-ray film, Geiger counters, radio satellite detectors and the like.
All of these devices extend the reach of our minds by "translating" physical processes into a format that our sense organs can digest. Well, are we in the "closed" perception of UV light? In a sense, yes. But not if you take into account all our technological equipment and measuring devices.
Similarly, we use physical objects (such as paper and pencil) to vastly increase the memory capacity of our naked brains. According to British philosopher Andy Clark, our minds are quite literally stretched out over our skins and skulls in the form of notebooks, computer screens, maps and file drawers.
Mathematics is another fantastic mind-expanding technology that allows us to present concepts we could not think of with bare brains. For example, no scientist can hope to form a mental picture of all the complex blocking processes that make up our climate system. That is why we have designed mathematical models and computers to make the heavy lifting for us.
Most importantly, we can expand the minds of those of our fellow beings. What makes our species unique is that we are capable of culture, especially cumulative cultural knowledge. The population of the human brain is much smarter than any single brain in isolation.
And, a collaborative enterprise, excellence is a science. To say that no scientist could independently reveal the secrets of the cosmos. But collectively, they do. As Isaac Newton wrote, he could be seen further "standing on the shoulders of the great." By collaborating with their peers, scientists can extend the scope of their understanding, reaching far beyond what any of them could be individually.
Today, fewer and fewer people understand what is happening to the highest theoretical physics – even physicists. The unification of quantum mechanics and the theory of relativity will no doubt be extremely frightening, or else scientists would have nailed it long ago.
The same is true for our understanding of how the human brain generates consciousness, sense, and purpose. But is there a good reason to assume that these problems will stay away from us forever? Or that feeling of confusion when we think of them will never diminish?
At a public debate I moderated several years ago, the philosopher Daniel Dennett pointed out a very simple remark on the mysteries of mysteries with other animals' minds: other animals cannot understand the questions. The dog will not only never know if he has the greatest prime minister, but he will never understand the issue. In contrast, human beings can ask questions to each other and to themselves, to think about these issues, and thus to develop better and finer versions.
The mysteries invite us to imagine the existence of a class of questions that are perfectly understandable to humans, but the answers to which will stay with us forever. Is this idea really reasonable (or even coherent)?
Let's see how these arguments come together, let's do a thought experiment. Imagine that some extraterrestrial "anthropologists" visited our planet some 40,000 years ago to prepare a scientific report on the cognitive potential of our species. Would this strange, naked monkey ever discover about the structure of its solar system, the curvature of space-time or even its own evolutionary origin?
At that point, when our ancestors lived in small groups of hunters, such an outcome might have seemed unlikely. Although humans had a vast knowledge of animals and plants in their immediate surroundings and knew enough about the physics of everyday objects to know their way and come up with some clever tools, there was nothing like scientific activity.
There was no writing, no math, no artificial devices to expand the range of our sense organs. As a consequence, almost all of these people's beliefs about the wider structure of the world were wrong. Human beings have no idea of the true causes of natural disasters, diseases, celestial bodies, seasons, or just about any other natural occurrence.
Our extraterrestrial anthropologist may report the following:
Evolution has equipped this upright, walking with monkeys with primitive sensory organs to gather some information locally relevant to them, such as air vibrations (caused by surrounding objects and persons) and electromagnetic waves in the 400-700 nanometer range, such as as well as certain larger molecules scattered in their atmosphere.
However, these beings are completely unaware of anything that does not fall within their narrow range of perception. In addition, they cannot even see most forms of single-celled animals in their own environment because they are simply too small to detect the eyes. Also, their brains have evolved to think about the behavior of medium-sized (mostly solid) objects under light weight conditions.
None of these earthquakes ever escaped the planet's gravitational field to experience weightlessness, or was artificially accelerated to experience stronger gravitational forces. They can't even imagine the curvature of space and time, because evolution has the hard-wired geometry of the zero-curvature of space in their tiny brains.
In conclusion, we are sorry to report that most of the cosmos is simply above their fur.
But those aliens would be dead wrong. Biologically, we are no different than we were 40,000 years ago, but now we know about bacteria and viruses, DNA and molecules, supernovae and black holes, the full spectrum of the electromagnetic spectrum and a wide range of other strange things.
We also know about non-Euclidean geometry and the curvature of space and time, the politeness of Einstein's general theory of relativity. Our minds have "arrived" at objects distant millions of light years from our planet, and also at extremely tiny objects far below the perceptual limits of our senses. With the use of various tricks and tools, people have broadened their understanding of the world.
The verdict: biology is not destiny
The thought experiment above should be advice against the pessimism of human knowledge. Who knows what other mind-boggling devices we will come up with to overcome our biological limitations? Biology is not destiny. If you look at what we have already achieved over the course of several centuries, all the cognitive closure statements made seem premature.
Mysterians often pay lip service to the values of "humility" and "modesty," but upon closer examination, their position is far less restrained than it seems. Take McGain's assured statement that the problem of mind and body is an "ultimate mystery" that we will never find out. In this assertion, McGinn presupposes knowledge of three things: the nature of the mind-body problem itself, the structure of the human mind, and the reason why Twain will never meet. But McGinn only offers a superficial overview of the science of human cognition and pays little or no attention to the various mind-expanding devices.
I think it's time to turn the tables on the mysteries. If you claim that a problem will remain in human understanding forever, you must show in detail why no possible combination of mind-extending devices will bring us closer to a solution. That's a higher order than most mysteries admit.
In addition, explaining exactly why some problems will remain mysterious, the mysteries run the risk of being raised by their own personal Peter. As Dennett wrote in his latest book: "Once you have asked a question that you claim we will never be able to answer, you have initiated the very process that may prove you wrong: you are setting the subject for investigation."
In one of his infamous memos on Iraq, former US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld distinguishes between two forms of ignorance: the "unknown unknowns" and the "unknown unknowns". The first category includes things we know we do not know. We can ask the right questions, but we haven't found the answers yet. And then there are things we "don't know we don't know". For these unknown strangers, we still cannot ask the questions.
It is quite true that we can never exclude the possibility of having such unknown unknowns, and that some of them will remain unknown forever, for some (unknown) reason human intelligence is not up to the task.
But the important thing to note about these unknown strangers is that nothing can be said about them. To assume that some unknown persons will remain unknown from the beginning, as the mysteries do, is not modesty – it is arrogance.
This article is published by Conversation by Martin Budri, a postdoctoral researcher in the philosophy of science, Ghent University under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.
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