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Why philosophers believe that we have reached the pinnacle of human intelligence


Despite the tremendous advances in science over the past century, our understanding of nature is still far from complete. Scientists have not only been able to find the holy grail of physics – combining the great (general 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 be missed. And there are other extraordinary puzzles, such as how consciousness arises from mere matter.

Will science ever be able to provide all the answers? Human brains are the product of blind and unbridled evolution. They are designed to solve practical problems that affect our survival and reproduction, not to tear apart the fabric of the universe. This understanding has led some philosophers to embrace a curious form of pessimism, claiming that these are things we will never understand. Human science will therefore one day hit a firm boundary – and it may have already done so.

Some questions may be doomed to remain what American linguist and philosopher Noam Chomsky called "mysteries." If you think only humans have unlimited cognitive powers – separating us from all other animals – you have not fully digested Darwin's insight that Homo Sapiens is a very large part of the natural world.

But is that argument really true? Note that even the human brain has not evolved to discover its own origins. And yet we somehow managed to do just that. Maybe the pessimists are missing something.

Mysterious arguments

"Mysterious" thinkers give a prominent role to biological arguments and analogies. The late philosopher Jerry Fodor, in his landmark 1983 book The Modularity of Mind, argued that there must be "thoughts that we are incapable of thinking."

Similarly, philosopher Colin McGinn has argued in a series of books and articles that all minds suffer from "cognitive closure" given certain problems. Just as dogs or cats will never understand basic numbers, the human brain must be shut down by some of the world's wonders. McGinn suspects that the reason why philosophical puzzles such as mind / body problems – how physical processes in our brain stimulate consciousness – seem inexorable is that their true solutions to the human mind are simply unavailable.

If McGinn is right that our brains are simply not equipped to solve certain problems, it doesn't make sense to even try because they will continue to confuse and confuse us. McGinn is convinced that there is, in fact, a completely natural solution to the problem of mind and body, but that the human brain will never find it.

Even psychologist Steven Pinker, someone who is often blamed for scientific hubris himself, sympathizes with the mystery arguments. If our ancestors did not need to understand the wider universe to spread their genes, he argues, why would natural selection give us the impetus to do so?

Indomitable theories

Mysteries usually raise the issue of cognitive boundaries in strict, black and white terms: either we can solve the problem, or they will defend us forever. We either have a cognitive approach or suffer from constipation. At some point, human testing will suddenly fall into a metaphorical brick wall, after which we will be forever doomed to stare at a blank misunderstanding.

Another possibility, often neglected by mysteries, is one that is slowly diminishing. Reaching the boundaries of an investigation can be less like hitting a wall than hitting a porch. We continue to slow down, even as we make more and more effort, and yet there is no discrete point beyond which further progress becomes impossible at all.

There is another ambiguity in the mystery thesis, which my colleague Michael Vlerick and I have highlighted in academic work. Do mysteries claim that we will never find a true scientific theory about some aspect of reality or, alternatively, that we may find that theory, but that we will never really understand it?

In Hitchhiker's Science to the Galaxy series, Alien Civilization builds a huge supercomputer to calculate the answer to the ultimate question of life, space and everything. When the computer finally announces that the answer is "42," no one has any idea what that means (in fact, they create an even bigger supercomputer to figure it out correctly).

Is the question still a "mystery" if you came up with the correct answer but have no idea what it means or can't wrap your head around it? Mysteries often link the two.

In some places, McGinn suggests that the problem of mind and body is inaccessible to human science, assuming that we will never find a true scientific theory that describes the attachment of mind and body. At other times, however, he writes that the problem will always remain "numerically difficult to think of" for people and that "his head is spinning in a theoretical mess" when we try to think about it.

This suggests that we may come up with a true scientific theory, but it will have a quality similar to 42. But then again, some people would argue that this already applies to a theory such as quantum mechanics. Even quantum physicist Richard Feynman admitted, "I think I can say with certainty that no one understands quantum mechanics."

Would the mysteries say that we humans are "cognitively closed" to the quantum world? According to quantum mechanics, particles can be located in two places at once or randomly pop out of an empty space. While this is extremely difficult to make sense of, quantum theory leads to incredibly accurate predictions. The phenomenon of "quantum strangeness" has been confirmed in several experimental tests, and scientists are now also creating theory-based applications.

Mysteries also forget how deeply outdated some earlier scientific theories and concepts were when they were initially proposed. Nothing in our cognitive composition has prepared us for relativity, evolutionary biology, or heliocentrism.