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" 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?
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.
As philosopher Robert McCauley writes: "When first advanced, the proposals 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 counter-intuitive consequences of quantum mechanics. for us in the twentieth century. "McCauley's insightful observation provides reason for optimism, not pessimism.
Extensions of the mind
But can our crazy brains answer all imaginable questions and understand all the problems? It depends on whether or not we're talking about bare, unrestrained brains. There are a lot of things you can't do with your brain. But Homo Sapiens is a kind of toolmaker, and that includes a number of cognitive tools.
For example, our sensory organs cannot detect UV light, ultrasonic waves, X-rays, or gravity waves without help. But if you are equipped with some imaginative technology, then you are can discover all these things. To overcome our perceptual limitations, scientists have developed a number of tools and techniques: microscopes, X-ray film, Geiger counters, radio satellite detectors and so on.
All these devices extend the reach of our mind by transforming physical processes into some form that our sensory organs can digest. So, are we perceived "closed" to UV light? In one sense, yes. But not if you consider all our technological equipment and gauges.
Similarly, we use physical objects (such as paper and pencil) to greatly increase the memory capacity of our brains. According to British philosopher Andy Clark, our minds literally extend beyond 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 couldn't think of with our brains. For example, no scientist can hope to form a mental account of all the complex interconnected processes that make up our climate system. This is precisely why we have constructed mathematical models and computers to do the heavy lifting for us.
The most important thing is that we can extend our own mind to the thoughts of our colleagues. What makes our species unique is that we are capable of culture, especially cumulative cultural knowledge. The human brain population is much smarter than any single brain in isolation.
And par excellence cooperation is a science. It is understood that no scientist would be able to discover the mysteries of the cosmos alone. But collectively they do. As Isaac Newton wrote, he could further see "standing on the shoulders of the giants." By collaborating with their peers, scientists can broaden the scope of their understanding, achieving far more than any one of them would be capable of.
Today, fewer and fewer people understand what is happening at the very top of theoretical physics – even physicists. Combining quantum mechanics and the theory of relativity will undoubtedly be extremely daunting, as otherwise scientists would have long ago plunged it.
The same is true of our understanding of how the human brain gives birth to consciousness, meaning and intentionality. But is there any good reason to assume that these problems will remain inaccessible forever? Or that our sense of shame when we think about them will never diminish?
In a public debate I moderated several years ago, the philosopher Daniel Dennett made a very simple objection to the analogies of the mysteries with the minds of other animals: other animals cannot understand the issues. The dog will not only never realize that he is the biggest prime minister, but he will never even understand the issue. In contrast, human beings can ask questions of one another and themselves, think about these questions, and make it more and more refined versions.
The Mysteries invite us to imagine the existence of a class of questions that are in themselves completely understandable to humans, but the answers to which will remain forever unavailable. Is this term really convincing (or even coherent)?
To see how these arguments come together, let's do a thoughtful experiment. Imagine some alien "anthropologists" visited our planet about 40,000 years ago to prepare a scientific report on the cognitive potential of our species. Would that weird, naked monkey ever know about the structure of the solar system, the curvature of space-time, or even its own evolutionary origins?
At that time, when our ancestors lived in small hunter-gatherer collections, such an outcome might seem rather unlikely. Although humans had a fairly extensive knowledge of animals and plants in their immediate environment, and knew enough about the physics of everyday objects to know their way around and devise some clever tools, it was nothing like scientific activity.
There was no writing, math, artificial devices to extend the range of our sense organs. As a consequence, almost all of these people's beliefs about the wider structure of the world were completely wrong. Human beings had no idea of the real causes of a natural disaster, disease, celestial bodies, the crossing of the seasons, or almost any other natural phenomenon.
Our alien anthropologist may have reported the following:
Evolution has equipped this upright, walking monkey with primitive sensory organs to pick up some locally relevant information, such as vibrations in the air (caused by nearby objects and people) and electromagnetic waves within the 400-700 nanometer range, as well as certain larger molecules scattered in their atmosphere.
However, these beings completely forget everything beyond their narrow perceptual reach. Moreover, they cannot even see most of the single-celled life forms in their own environment, because they are simply too small for their eyes to detect. Likewise, their brains have evolved to think about the behavior of medium-sized (mostly solid) objects in low gravity conditions.
None of these Earthmen ever escaped the gravitational field of their planet to experience gravity, or artificially accelerated to experience stronger gravitational forces. I can't even imagine the curvature of space and time, because evolution has wire geometries of space of zero curvature in their ticklish brain.
In conclusion, we are sorry to report that much of the universe is simply outside their breeds.
But these aliens would be mistakenly dead. We are biologically 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 variety of other unusual things.
We also know about non-Euclidean geometry and the curvature of space-time, courtesy of Einstein's general theory of relativity. Our minds have reached for objects millions of light years from our planet, and also for extremely tiny objects far below the perceptual limits of our sensory organs. Using a variety of tricks and tools, people have greatly grasped the world.
Verdict: biology is not fate
The above thought experiment should be a tip against pessimism about human knowledge. Who knows what other mind-expanding devices we will try to overcome our biological limitations? Biology is not fate. If you look at what we have already achieved in the span of several centuries, any rude excuses for cognitive closure seem very premature.
Mysteries often pay lip service to the values of "humility" and "modesty", but when examined more carefully, their position is far less restrained than it seems. Make sure McGinn is convinced that the mind and body problem is a "final mystery" that "we will never solve". Making such a claim, McGinn assumes knowledge of three things: the nature of the mind-body problem itself, the structure of the human mind, and the reason why one can never encounter two. But McGinn offers only a cursory overview of the science of human cognition and pays little or no attention to the various mind-blowing devices.
I think it's time to turn the tables into mysteries. If you claim that a problem will forever elude human understanding, you must show in detail why no possible combination of mind-expanding devices will bring us closer to a solution. It’s a higher order than most mysteries have admitted.
Furthermore, by pinpointing why some problems will remain mysterious, the mysteries risk being drawn by their own firecracker. As Dennett wrote in his last book, "As soon as you ask a question that you claim we will never be able to answer, you have initiated a process that could prove you wrong: you are raising the topic of an investigation."
In one of his infamous memoranda on Iraq, former US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld distinguishes between two forms of ignorance: "unknown unknowns" and "unknown unknowns." The first category includes things we know we don't know. We can formulate the right questions, but we still haven't found the answers. And there are things that "we don't know we don't know". For these unknown unknowns, we cannot yet ask the question boxes.
It is quite true that we can never exclude the possibility that such unknown unknowns exist and that some of them will remain unknown forever, because for some (unknown) reason human intelligence did not live up to the task.
But what is important about these unknown unknowns is that nothing can be said about them. To assume from the beginning that some unknown unknowns will always remain unknown, as mysteries do, is not modesty – it is arrogance.
This article was republished in The Conversation by Maarten Boudry, a postdoctoral researcher in philosophy of science at Ghent University under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.
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