Friday, July 02, 2010

The clods of unknowing

In the final part of a series of articles about anasognosia, Errol Morris asks "aren’t there some tasks where we’re all incompetent, where humanity itself is in the bottom quartile, so to speak?" And he quotes Noam Chomsky:
We are after all biological organisms not angels . . . If humans are part of the natural world, not supernatural beings, then human intelligence has its scope and limits, determined by initial design. We can thus anticipate certain questions will not fall within [our] cognitive reach, just as rats are unable to run mazes with numerical properties, lacking the appropriate concepts. Such questions, we might call ‘mysteries-for-humans’ just as some questions pose ‘mysteries-for-rats.’ Among these mysteries may be questions we raise, and others we do not know how to formulate properly or at all.
There may be something to this. Great scientists are often modest about the limits of what can be asked, what can be known. [1]

I enjoyed Morris's series and will continue to try to get to grips with issues it raises. But I wonder if he underestimates the ability of humans working together to (gradually, faultingly) get closer to long as they use an appropriate method. [2], [3]

The more we learn about consciousness, perhaps, the more we learn about its limits, but isn't that actually quite a useful thing? Just because consciousness is limited does not mean that it is necessarily 'futile'.


[1] In Runaway World, the fourth of his Reith Lectures, Martin Rees quotes Charles Darwin on religion: "The whole subject is too profound for the human intellect. A dog might as well speculate on the mind of Newton. Let each man hope and believe as he can."

[2] Consider, for example, Problem-solving: chapter 3 in The Fabric of Reality by David Deutsch, which champions Karl Popper's concept of evolutionary epistemology.

[3] For example, through good field work and careful analysis, Daniel Everett and others may have made useful advances beyond Chomsky et al. in the understanding of language.

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