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On the limits of human knowledge

16 February 2012, 09:12

There is a school of thought that proposes that, as humans, we are bound by a 'phenomenon' called Cognitive Closure. In summary, it is said that we are naïve to assume that the human mind is capable of comprehending all things and that there are bound to be some universal explanations that will forever evade us, no matter how hard we try to find the answers.


It is not a terribly hard pill to swallow. Just as your favourite dog will probably never grasp Einstein’s model of the universe, there may well be laws and/or constants and/or explanations (whatever you choose to call them) that are just too complex for the human mind to compute. That is not to say that they (the answers) don’t exist: only that they will always remain beyond our reach. Examples (may) include the origins of the universe and the separation (or non-separation) of mind and body.  


Now, there are various ways that one could deal with this school of thought, presuming that you accept it. You could say, from the start, that a problem is too complex and that it is, therefore, a waste of time pursuing an answer … or, you could acknowledge that, if there is a limit to human understanding, we don’t yet know where it is and that we should keep pushing for answers until we discover the limit through trying.  


I am going to make two submissions.


The first is that the two “ways of dealing with this” are observable in attitudes, here on News24 (and elsewhere). In many debates, there are people who have given up trying, because they assume concepts to be too difficult, and there are those who are keeping up-to-date and trying to expand their minds, roughly in correspondence with the latest scientific developments. The latter crowd normally attempts to offer explanations and/or arguments, whilst the former crowd normally offers up only excuses for why they don’t want to try and think about what the latter has said.


My second submission is around which is the healthier attitude and, of course, this is my personal opinion, open to debate. You see, I am of the view that we should keep pushing the boundaries, until our limitations present themselves. We should not be closing our own cognitions, simply because we assume a limit to (somewhere) exist. This is because, translated, to me, it sounds very much like “it’s too difficult, so, I’m not going to even try”. You are losing the game by default and, if everyone had adopted this attitude, I’d venture to say that we’d be centuries behind the scientific development that we see today. It should not be us that sets ourselves limitations … if anything, it should be the actual limitations (if any) that hold us back.


So, what’s the point of saying all of this? Well, not a hell of a lot … I’ve noticed that, once people have accepted personal limitations, it’s often very difficult for them to pull themselves out of it. However, there may be one or two of you with niggling doubts, where you have read this and thought that you have, perhaps, set yourself Cognitive Closures, in which you would not forever like to be bound. Perhaps, you put off reading that book, because a trusted friend told you that it stretched the mind too far and bordered on speculation … that it was not worth reading? Perhaps, the difficult subject matter put you off, because you knew it would contradict an easy (outdated, even cherished) answer that you had already accepted? Well, I’d say read the book … take the course … watch the video. I’ve no idea where our limits lie, but, neither do you. Whether near or far, either way, what harm will come to you by exploring them?
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