The end of inquiry? How to overcome human cognitive limitations

Abstract

The human brain is the only object in the universe, as far as we know, that has discovered its own origins. But what, if any, are the limits of our understanding? Epistemic pessimists, sobered by our humble evolutionary origins, have argued that some truths about the universe are perennial mysteries and will forever remain beyond our ken. Others have brushed this off as premature, a form of epistemic defeatism. In this paper we develop a conceptual toolbox for parsing different forms of cognitive limitation that are often conflated in the literature. We distinguish between representational access and intuitive understanding. We also distinguish different modalities of cognitive limitation. If the scientific endeavor ever comes to a halt, will this feel like slamming into a brick wall, or rather like slowly getting bogged down in a swamp? By distinguishing different types and modalities of human cognitive limitation, we soften up the hypothesis of ‘cognitive closure’ and ultimate ‘mysteries’. Next, we propose specific mechanisms and strategies for overcoming our innate cognitive limitations. For a start, it is uninformative to think of the limits of a single, bare, unassisted brain. One of the central features of human intelligence is the capacity for mind extension and distributed cognition. We have developed various technologies for extending the reach of our naked brains and for pooling their cognitive resources, as witnessed by the history of science. We then discuss different cognitive mechanisms for overcoming the limits to our intuitive understanding, and argue that these are combinatorial and open-ended. In light of all these possibilities for extending the limits of our understanding, we conclude that there is no good reason to suspect the existence of an outer wall of human comprehension.

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Michael Vlerick
Tilburg University

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