Monday 23 May 2022

Are There Limits to Human Knowledge?

By Keith Tidman

‘Any research that cannot be reduced to actual visual observation is excluded where the stars are concerned…. It is inconceivable that we should ever be able to study, by any means whatsoever, their chemical or mineralogical structure’.
A premature declaration of the end of knowledge, made by the French philosopher, Auguste Comte, in 1835.
People often take delight in saying dolphins are smart. Yet, does even the smartest dolphin in the ocean understand quantum theory? No. Will it ever understand the theory, no matter how hard it tries? Of course not. We have no difficulty accepting that dolphins have cognitive limitations, fixed by their brains’ biology. We do not anticipate dolphins even asking the right questions, let alone answering them.

Some people then conclude that for the same reason — built-in biological boundaries of our species’ brains — humans likewise have hard limits to knowledge. And that, therefore, although we acquired an understanding of quantum theory, which has eluded dolphins, we may not arrive at solutions to other riddles. Like the unification of quantum mechanics and the theory of relativity, both effective in their own dominions. Or a definitive understanding of how and from where within the brain that consciousness arises, and what a complete description of consciousness might look like.

The thinking isn’t that such unification of branches of physics is impossible or that consciousness doesn’t exist, but that supposedly we’ll never be able to fully explain either one, for want of natural cognitive capacity. It’s argued that because of our allegedly ill-equipped brains, some things will forever remain a mystery to us. Just as dolphins will never understand calculus or infinity or the dolphin genome, human brains are likewise closed off from categories of intractable concepts.

Or at least, as it has been said.

Some among these believers of this view have adopted the self-describing moniker ‘mysterians’. They assert that as a member of the animal kingdom, homo sapiens are subject to the same kinds of insuperable cognitive walls. And that it is hubris, self-deception, and pretension to proclaim otherwise. There’s a needless resignation.

After all, the fact that early hominids did not yet understand the natural order of the universe does not mean that they were ill-equipped to eventually acquire such understanding, or that they were suffering so-called ‘cognitive closure’. Early humans were not fixed solely on survival, subsistence, and reproduction, where existence was defined solely by a daily grind over the millennia in a struggle to hold onto the status quo.

Instead, we were endowed from the start with a remarkable evolutionary path that got us to where we are today, and to where we will be in the future. With dexterously intelligent minds that enable us to wonder, discover, model, and refine our understanding of the world around us. To ponder our species’ position within the cosmic order. To contemplate our meaning, purpose, and destiny. And to continue this evolutionary path for however long our biological selves ensure our survival as opposed to extinction at our own hand or by external factors.

How is it, then, that we even come to know things? There are sundry methods, including (but not limited to) these: Logical, which entails the laws (rules) of formal logic, as exemplified by the iconic syllogism where conclusion follow premises. Semantic, which entails the denotative and connotative definitions and context-based meanings of words. Systemic, which entails the use of symbols, words, and operations/functions related to the universally agreed-upon rules of mathematics. And empirical, which entails evidence, information, and observation that come to us through our senses and such tools like those below for analysis, to confirm or finetune or discard hypotheses.

Sometimes the resulting understanding is truly paradigm-shifting; other times it’s progressive, incremental, and cumulative — contributed to by multiple people assembling elements from previous theories, not infrequently stretching over generations. Either way, belief follows — that is, until the cycle of reflection and reinvention begins again. Even as one theory is substituted for another, we remain buoyed by belief in the commonsensical fundamentals of attempting to understand the natural order of things. Theories and methodologies might both change; nonetheless, we stay faithful to the task, embracing the search for knowledge. Knowledge acquisition is thus fluid, persistently fed by new and better ideas that inform our models of reality.

We are aided in this intellectual quest by five baskets of ‘implements’: Physical devices like quantum computers, space-based telescopes, DNA sequencers, and particle accelerators. Tools for smart simulation, like artificial intelligence, augmented reality, big data, and machine learning. Symbolic representations, like natural languages (spoken and written), imagery, and mathematical modeling. The multiplicative collaboration of human minds, functioning like a hive of powerful biological parallel processors. And, lastly, the nexus among these implements.

This nexus among implements continually expands, at a quickening pace; we are, after all, consummate crafters of tools and collaborators. We might fairly presume that the nexus will indeed lead to an understanding of the ‘brass ring’ of knowledge, human consciousness. The cause-and-effect dynamic is cyclic: theoretical knowledge driving empirical knowledge driving theoretical knowledge — and so on indefinitely, part of the conjectural froth in which we ask and answer the tough questions. Such explanations of reality must take account, in balance, of both the natural world and metaphysical world, in their respective multiplicity of forms.

My conclusion is that, uniquely, the human species has boundless cognitive access rather than bounded cognitive closure. Such that even the long-sought ‘theory of everything’ will actually be just another mile marker on our intellectual journey to the next theory of everything, and the next one — all transient placeholders, extending ad infinitum.

There will be no end to curiosity, questions, and reflection; there will be no end to the paradigm-shifting effects of imagination, creativity, rationalism, and what-ifs; and there will be no end to answers, as human knowledge incessantly accrues.


Anonymous said...

The boundless optimism of the essay matches the boundless capacity of the human mind to forever ask more questions and search for more answers. The one begets the other as you write "ad infinitum".

Thomas O. Scarborough said...

The philosophers Wilhelm Kamlah and Paul Lorenzen wrote, ‘We pay a heavy price above all for the very progress of knowledge itself’. Our form of knowledge is itself is deficient, apart from its application. The reason for this is that we continually think in terms of closed systems, in the midst of a global or even open system which is the universe. The more intelligent our closed systems become, the more havoc we shall cause outside them. This is a serious limit to human knowledge. That knowledge is in itself self-defeating, and dare I say, articles like this seem to me to deepen a sense of doom.

Keith said...

You say, Thomas, the following about knowledge: “We pay a heavy price above all for the very progress of knowledge itself’. ‘Our form of knowledge is itself deficient’. ‘The more intelligent our closed systems become, the more havoc we shall cause outside them’. ‘Knowledge is in itself self-defeating’. ‘Deepen a sense of doom’.

Of course, I don’t share your nihilistic, even dangerous, view of knowledge. No secret on that score, I suppose, given what I’ve said in this and in previous essays on the topic of knowledge. But, to the point of your comment, it made me wonder what, then, that negativism about knowledge bodes for the information and viewpoints your upcoming book on metaphysics attempts to convey to readers. Do you view your upcoming book as the exception to the notion that ‘our form of knowledge is itself deficient’?

Martin Cohen said...

Rather a waspish response to a comment, there, Keith! The whole point here is to challenge and expand views and perspectives. If Thomas offers a contrarian perspective, that's only in the oldest philosophical tradition of antithesis to thesis (the original post). Perhaps we explore how the views can be "synthesised" in the comments.

I was reading a draft book on metaphysics which argued something along the lines of Thomas's "Jeremiah" philosophers… it seems that Aristotle sent us off into binary distinctions even as reality refuses to fit them. There's a whole alternative tradition of thinking that pushes back on the very most basic notion of modernity" the is/ is not distinction too…

Keith said...

Yes, Martin, I too have a soft spot for Hegel’s dialectical model of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. In the ideal, it would seem to work, with synthesis as potentially quite revealing of a greater truth. In practice, however, it seems a different story – at least, from what I’ve observed. By that I mean thesis (point) and antithesis (counterpoint) seem to come to people the most naturally and easily, and are part of daily debate in many spheres of human activity. Whereas synthesis, despite its theoretical attraction, strikes me as much rarer, even in the dialectics of philosophy. Hegel might have been quite frustrated today, seeing the model’s real-world application commonly truncated after antithesis.

Thomas O. Scarborough said...

Thank you, Keith. There is an almost universal sense that something is badly wrong, in our personal, social, environmental (and so on) spheres. The Doomsday Clock stands at 1 minute 40 seconds to midnight—the closest it has been to midnight since they set the clock running in 1947.

The big question is: is knowledge itself deficient and at fault? or should we attribute our troubles to something else? Which is to say, is knowledge in principle and a priori at fault? or may we blame engineering, technology, human nature, contingencies, and so on.

My view, that knowedge itself is deficient and at fault (in its present form) is a view that many have held, although it still may be shocking to many. Kamlah and Lorenzen put it quite plainly, that knowledge itself is at fault—more exactly, ‘the very progress of knowledge itself’, which seems to me to be more radical still. Many have expressed this same notion more vaguely, for example Needleman and Appelbaum, ‘Unless scientific progress is balanced by another kind of enquiry, it will inevitably become an instrument of self-destruction.’

This is not to say that knowledge does not have great benefits, or awesome results. However, we have not yet understood the problem clearly: that our knowledge, by and large, represents closed systems. When it is assessed in terms of closed systems, it is alluring, but that deceives.

Keith said...

Thank you, Thomas, for expansion and clarification of Kamiah, Lorenzen, Needleman, and Applebaum's philosophical thread on the matter of knowledge. I suspect I may not entirely agree with their take, but certainly curious and thoughtful grist for the mill.

Thomas O. Scarborough said...

Returning to the question of pessimism in my forthcoming book (Everything, Briefly: A Postmodern Philosophy)—as you put it, nihilism and negativism about knowledge. In my book, I propose that our point of deepest disillusionment shows that we have come to understand the world. This gives birth to new hope. In various aspects, my book is deeply pessimistic, yes—but not really. Pessimism is the bridge to optimism.

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