Despite great advances in science in the last century, our understanding of nature is far from complete. Not only have scientists failed to find the Holy Grail of physics – they have combined the very large (general theory of relativity) with the very small (quantum mechanics) – they still do not know what the vast majority of the universe consists of. The sought-after theory of everything continues to elude us. And there are other outstanding puzzles, such as how consciousness arises from mere matter.
Will science ever be able to provide all the answers? The human brain is the product of a blind and unsolved evolution. They should solve practical problems that affect our survival and reproduction and not unravel the fabric of the universe. This realization has led some philosophers to embrace a peculiar form of pessimism, arguing that there must be things we will never understand. One day, human science will come up against a hard limit ̵
Some questions may turn out to be what the American linguist and philosopher Noam Chomsky called "mysteries." If you believe that only man possesses unlimited cognitive powers – which sets us apart from all other animals – you have not fully digested Darwin's insight that Homo Sapiens is an integral part of the natural world.
But does this? Really stop argument? Bear in mind that the human brain has not evolved to discover its own origin. And yet we somehow managed to do just that. Maybe the pessimists are missing something.
"Mysterious" thinkers attach great importance to biological arguments and analogies. In his seminal 1983 book The Modularity of Mind, the late philosopher Jerry Fodor claimed that there must be "thoughts we can not think about".
Similarly, the philosopher Colin McGinn argued in a series of books and articles that all heads suffer from "cognitive closure" in relation to certain issues. Just as dogs or cats will never understand primes, the human brain has to be isolated from some of the wonders of the world. McGinn suggests that the reason that philosophical riddles, such as the body-mind problem – how physical processes in our brain stimulate consciousness – can not be solved, is that their true solutions to the human mind are simply inaccessible.
If McGinn Is It Right That our brain just is not capable of solving certain problems, it makes no sense to even try, as they continue to baffle and confuse us. McGinn himself is convinced that there is indeed a completely natural solution to the mind-body problem, but that the human brain will never find it.
Even the psychologist Steven Pinker, who himself is often accused of scientific hubris, is sympathetic to the Mysterians' argument. If our ancestors did not have to understand the wider cosmos to spread their genes, he argues, why would natural selection have given us the spiritual power to do this?
Mysterians typically ask the question of cognitive boundaries in strict black and white terms: Either we can solve a problem or it will defy us forever. Either we have cognitive access or we are under lock and key. At some point, human research will suddenly come up against a metaphorical wall that will forever condemn us to stare incomprehensibly.
Another possibility that Mysterians often overlook, however, is a slowly decreasing return. Reaching the limits of the investigation might feel less like bumping into a wall than getting stuck in a swamp. We are getting slower and slower, even as we make more and more effort, and yet there is no discrete point beyond which no progress is possible at all.
In the thesis of the Mysterians, which my colleague Michael Vlerick represents, there is another ambiguity and I have pointed this out in a scientific paper. Are the Mysteries claiming that we would never find the true scientific theory of an aspect of reality, or alternatively, could we find that theory good, but never really understand it?
In the science fiction series The Hitchhiker's Guide to The Galaxy, a foreign civilization builds a giant 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," nobody knows what that means (in fact, they're building an even bigger supercomputer to find out).
Is a question still a "mystery" when you come to the right answer, but have no idea what it means, or can not put your head around it? Mysterians often combine these two possibilities.
An In some places, McGinn suggests that the mind-body problem is inaccessible to human science, which presumably means that we will never find the true scientific theory that describes the mind-body relationship, but in other moments he writes that the problem for humans will always be "difficult to understand" and that "the head turns into theoretical disorder" when we think about it.
This suggests that we may well come to the true scientific theory, but they On the other hand, some people would argue that this is already true for a theory like quantum mechanics, even Q uv physicist Richard Feynman admitted, "I think I can say with certainty that no one understands quantum mechanics."
Would the mystics say that we humans of the quantum world are "cognitively closed"? According to quantum mechanics, particles can be in two places at the same time or jump out of the empty space randomly. While this is extremely difficult to understand, quantum theory leads to incredibly accurate predictions. The phenomena of "quantum craziness" have been confirmed by several experimental tests, and scientists are now also creating applications based on theory. Nothing in our cognitive equipment prepared us for relativity theory, evolutionary biology or heliocentrism.
As the philosopher Robert McCauley writes, "When he came to the idea that the earth is moving, that microscopic organisms can kill people, and that solid objects are largely empty spaces, this was no less a contradiction Intuition Common sense, as the most contradictory consequences of quantum mechanics, has emerged for us in the 20th century. McCauley's astute observation gives rise to optimism and not to pessimism to understand all the problems? This depends on whether they are mere brains or not. There are many things you can not do with your naked brain. Homo Sapiens is a tool-making species that includes a number of cognitive tools.
For example, our sensory organs can not detect UV light, ultrasonic waves, X-rays or gravitational waves without support. However, if you are equipped with a fancy technology, you can see all these things . To overcome our perceptual limitations, scientists have developed a number of tools and techniques: microscopes, X-ray films, Geiger counters, radio-satellite detectors, etc.
All of these devices extend the reach of our minds by translating physical data into a format that transforms physical data digest our sense organs. So are we perceptually "locked" to UV light? In a way yes. But not if you consider all our technological devices and measuring devices.
Similarly, we use physical objects (such as paper and pencil) to significantly increase the storage capacity of our naked brain. According to British philosopher Andy Clark, our mind literally goes beyond our skins and skulls in the form of notebooks, computer screens, charts, and file drawers, concepts we could not think of with our naked mind. For example, no scientist could hope to maintain a mental representation of all the complex interrelated processes that make up our climate system. That's why we've designed mathematical models and computers to do the heavy lifting for us.
Most importantly, we can extend our own minds to those of our fellow human beings. What makes our species unique is that we are culturally capable, especially cumulative cultural knowledge. A human brain population is much smarter than every single brain in itself.
And the collaborative enterprise par excellence is science. It goes without saying that not a single scientist would be able to unravel the secrets of the cosmos on his own. But together they do it. As Isaac Newton wrote, he was able to continue seeing "standing on the shoulders of giants." By working with peers, scientists can broaden the scope of their understanding and achieve much more than any of them can achieve individually.
Today, fewer and fewer people understand what is happening at the cutting edge of theoretical physics – even physicists. The unification of quantum mechanics and the theory of relativity will undoubtedly be extremely daunting, otherwise the scientists would have already done so long ago.
The same applies to our understanding of how the human brain produces consciousness, meaning, and intentionality. But is there a good reason to assume that these problems will be forever unattainable? Or that our sense of confusion, when we think about it, never fades?
In a public debate that I moderated a few years ago, the philosopher Daniel Dennett pointed to a very simple objection to the analogies of the mystery with the thoughts of other animals: other animals can not even understand the questions. Not only will a dog never find out if there is a biggest prim, but he will never understand the question. On the other hand, man can ask himself and ask each other questions, think about them and develop ever better and more refined versions.
Mysterians invite us to imagine the existence of a class of questions. This is perfectly understandable to man himself, but the answers remain forever unattainable. Is this term really plausible (or even coherent)?
To see how these arguments come together, we conduct a thought experiment. Imagine that some extraterrestrial "anthropologists" visited our planet some 40,000 years ago to produce a scientific report on the cognitive potential of our species. Would this strange, naked ape ever learn anything about the structure of his solar system, the curvature of space-time, or even his own evolutionary origins?
At that time, our ancestors lived in small groups of hunters. Collector, such an outcome seemed quite unlikely. Although man possessed a vast knowledge of the animals and plants in his immediate surroundings, and knew enough about the physics of everyday objects to be familiar with them and to develop some clever tools, there was nothing that resembled scientific activity.
No writing, no math, no artificial tools to extend the reach of our sensory organs. As a result, almost all of these people's ideas about the structure of the world were completely wrong. People had no idea of the true causes of natural disasters, diseases, celestial bodies, the changing seasons, or almost any other natural phenomenon.
Our alien anthropologist may have reported the following:
Evolution has equipped this upright walking monkey with primitive sense organs to gather some information that is locally relevant to it, such as: B. Air vibrations (caused by objects and people in the vicinity) and electromagnetic waves in the range of 400-700 nanometers and certain larger molecules are distributed in their atmosphere.
These creatures, however, perceive nothing beyond their narrow perceptions. Moreover, they can not even see most unicellular life forms in their own environment, as they are simply too small for their eyes to recognize. Likewise, their brains have evolved to ponder the behavior of medium-sized objects (mostly solid) at low gravity.
None of these Earthlings ever escaped the gravitational field of their planet to experience weightlessness, or was artificially accelerated to experience stronger gravitational forces. You can not even imagine the space-time curvature, because evolution has wired the zero-curvature geometry of space into their meager brains Ken.
But these aliens would have been absolutely wrong. Biologically we are no different than 40,000 years ago, but now we know bacteria and viruses, DNA and molecules, supernovas and black holes, the full spectrum of the electromagnetic spectrum and a host of other weird things.
We also know non-Euclidean geometry and space-time curvature, thanks to Einstein's general theory of relativity. Our mind has been looking for objects that are millions of light-years away from our planet, and also for extremely small objects far below the perceptual limits of our sensory organs. With various tricks and tools, people have significantly expanded their view of the world.
The Conclusion: Biology Is Not Destiny
The above thought experiment was meant to be a piece of advice against pessimism about human knowledge. Who knows what other mind-expanding devices we will encounter to overcome our biological limitations? Biology is not a destiny. If you look at what we have already achieved in the last few centuries, all the premature statements about cognitive closure seem premature.
Mysterians often pay lip service to the values of "humility" and "modesty," but closer examination makes their position far less restrained than it seems. Take McGinn's confident assertion that the mind-body problem is "an ultimate puzzle" that we "never resolve". In this assertion McGinn assumes that three things are known: the nature of the mind-body problem itself, the structure of the human mind and the reason why the two should never meet. McGinn, however, provides only a cursory overview of the science of human cognition and pays little or no attention to the various instruments of mind expansion.
I think it's time to turn the tables. If you claim that a problem escapes human understanding forever, you need to show in detail why no possible combination of mind-extension devices will bring us closer to a solution. This is a bigger assignment than most mystics have admitted.
In addition, Mysterians risk being hoisted by their own petarden by pinpointing why some issues remain mysterious. Dennett wrote in his last book, "As soon as you formulate a question that you claim we can never answer, you're setting in motion exactly the process that might prove wrong to you: you raise an investigation topic." 19659052] In one of his infamous memorandum notes on Iraq, former US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld distinguishes two forms of ignorance: the "known unknown" and the "unknown unknown." The first category includes the things we know that we do not know. We can formulate the right questions, but we have not found any answers yet. And then there are the things that "we do not know, we do not know". For these unknown unknowns, we can not even frame the questions.
It is quite true that we can never exclude the possibility that such unknown unknowns exist, and that some of them remain unknown forever, because for some (unknown reason) human intelligence is not up to the task.
What is important about these unknown unknowns, however, is that nothing can be said about them. To assume from the beginning that some unknown unknowns will always remain unknown, as mystics do, is not modesty – it is arrogance. The Conversation "width =" 1 "height =" 1 "class =" lazy "src =" https://counter.theconversation.com/content/124819/count.gif?distributor=republish-lightbox-basic "data-lazy = "true" />
This article was republished from The Conversation by Maarten Boudry, Postdoctoral Professor of Science Theory at Ghent University, under Creative Commons license.