Despite great advances in science over the last century, our understanding of nature is still far from complete. Scientists have not only succeeded in finding the holy grail of physics – uniting the very large (general relativity) with the very small (quantum mechanics) – they still do not know what the vast majority of the universe consists of. The coveted theory of everything continues to avoid us. And there are other outstanding puzzles too, such as how consciousness arises from pure matter.
Will science ever be able to give all the answers? Human brains are the product of blind and unguided evolution. They were designed to solve practical problems that affect our survival and reproduction, not to pick up the fabric of the universe. This insight has led some philosophers to embrace a curious form of pessimism, claiming that there are certain things we will never understand. Human science will therefore one day be hit by a hard boundary ̵
Some questions can be judged to remain what the American linguist and philosopher Noam Chomsky called "mysteries". If you believe that humans alone have unlimited cognitive powers – which sets us apart from all other animals – you have not fully digested Darwin's understanding that Homo Sapiens is very much a part of the natural world.
But does this argument really hold up? Keep in mind that human brains were not developed to discover their own origin either. And yet we somehow managed to do it. Maybe the pessimists are missing something.
"Mysterious" thinkers provide a prominent role for biological arguments and analogies. In his 1983 landmark book The Modularity of Mind, the late philosopher Jerry Fodor claimed that there really are "thoughts that we are not equipped to think".
Similarly, philosopher Colin McGinn has argued in a series of books and articles that all minds suffer from "cognitive closure" with regard to certain problems. Just as dogs or cats will never understand prime numbers, human brains must be shut down by some of the world's wonders. McGinn suspects that the reason that philosophical problems like the mind / body problem – how physical processes in our brain give rise to consciousness – turn out to be unmatched is that their real solutions are simply inaccessible to the human mind.
If McGinn is right that our brains are simply not equipped to solve certain problems, there is no point in even trying, because they will continue to confuse and confuse us. McGinn himself is convinced that there is actually a completely natural solution to the mind-body problem, but that human brains will never find it.
Even psychologist Steven Pinker, someone who is often accused of scientific hubris, is sympathetic to the arguments of the mysteries. If our ancestors had no need to understand the wider cosmos to spread their genes, he argues, why would natural selection have given us the brainpower to do so?
Mystics usually present the question of cognitive boundaries in sharp, black and white terms: either we can solve a problem, or it will forever defy us. Either we have cognitive access or we suffer from closure. At some point in time, human investigation will suddenly fall into a metaphorical brick wall, after which we will forever be condemned to stare into empty understanding.
Another possibility, which mysteries often overlook, is one of slowly declining returns. Reaching the boundaries of investigation can feel less like hitting a wall than getting stuck in an evening. We continue to slow down, even as we make more and more effort, and yet there is no discrete point beyond which further progress will be impossible at all.
There is another obscurity in the mystery dissertation, as my colleague Michael Vlerick and I have pointed out in an academic article. Do the mysteries state that we will never find the true scientific theory on any aspect of reality, or alternatively that we may well find this theory but never really understand it?
In the science fiction series The Hitchhiker's Guide to The Galaxy, an alien civilization builds a massive supercomputer to calculate the answer to life's ultimate question, universe and everything. When the computer finally announces that the answer is "42", no one has any idea what this means (in fact, they continue to construct an even bigger supercomputer to figure out just that).
Is a question still a "mystery" if you've come to the right answer, but you have no idea what it means or can't wrap your head around it? Mysterians often confuse the two possibilities.
Some places suggest McGinn that the mind-body problem is inaccessible to human science, which probably means that we will never find the real scientific theory that describes the nexus of the mind-body, but at other moments he writes that the problem will always remain "stunningly difficult to understand" for humans, and that "the head spins in theoretical disorder" when we try to think about it.
This suggests that we may arrive at the true scientific theory, but it will have a 42-like quality. But again, some people would argue that this already applies to a theory like quantum mechanics. Even quantum physicist Richard Feynman admitted: "I think I'm sure Can't say 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 in two places at the same time or randomly run out of empty space. While this is extremely difficult to understand, quantum theory leads to incredibly accurate predictions. The phenomenon of "quantum weirdness" has been confirmed by several experimental tests, and researchers are now also creating applications based on the theory.
Mystics also tend to forget how mindboggling some earlier scientific theories and concepts were when they were originally proposed. Nothing in our cognitive composition prepared us for the theory of relativity, evolutionary biology, or heliocentrism.
As philosopher Robert McCauley writes: "When the suggestion that the earth moves first, that microscopic organisms can kill people, and that solid objects are mostly empty, is no less contrary to intuition and common sense than most against the intuitive consequences of quantum mechanics has appeared to us during the twentieth century. "McCauley's clear observation gives rise to optimism, not pessimism.
But can our stupid brains really answer every conceivable question and understand every problem? This depends on whether we are talking about naked, unhelpful brains or not. There are many things you cannot do with your naked brain. But Homo Sapiens is a species that creates tools, and this includes a range of cognitive tools.
For example, our non-assisted sensing means cannot detect UV light, ultrasonic waves, X-rays or gravitational waves. But if you are equipped with some nice technology, you can discover all these things. To overcome our perceptual limitations, researchers have developed a variety of tools and techniques: microscope, X-ray film, Geiger calculator, radio satellite detectors and so on.
All these entities extend the reach of our minds by "translating" physical processes into any format that our sense organs can fuse. So are we perceptually "closed" to UV light? In a sense, yes. But not if you take into account all our technical equipment and measuring devices.
Similarly, we use physical objects (such as paper and pencil) to increase the memory capacity of our naked brains. According to British philosopher Andy Clark, our senses extend literally beyond our skins and skulls, in the form of notebooks, computer screens, maps and file boxes.
Mathematics is another fantastic extension technique, which allows us to represent concepts that we couldn't think of with our bare brains. For example, no researcher could hope to form a mental representation of all the complex interconnected processes that make up our climate system. That is exactly why we have designed mathematical models and computers to do the heavy lifting for us.
Most importantly, we can extend our own minds to our fellow human beings. What makes our species unique is that we know cultures, especially cumulative cultural knowledge. A population of human brains is much smarter than any individual brain isolated.
And the cooperating company is science. It goes without saying that no single scientist would have been able to uncover the mysteries of the cosmos on his own. But collectively, they do. As Isaac Newton wrote, he could see further by "standing on the shoulders of the Giants". By working with their peers, researchers can expand the scope of their understanding and achieve much more than any of them could individually.
Today, fewer and fewer people understand what is happening at the forefront of theoretical physics – including physicists. The unification of quantum mechanics and theory of relativity will undoubtedly be exceptionally frightening, otherwise researchers would have nailed it long ago.
The same goes for our understanding of how the human brain gives rise to consciousness, meaning and intentionality. But is there any good reason to assume that these problems will always remain out of reach? Or that our sense of confusion when we think about them will never diminish?
In a public debate I moderated a few years ago, philosopher Daniel Dennett pointed out a very simple objection to the mysteries' analogies with the brains of other animals: other animals cannot even understand the issues. Not only will a dog never find out if there is a major foremost, but it will never even understand the issue. However, people can ask questions to each other and to themselves, reflect on these questions and thereby come up with increasingly better and more refined versions.
Mysteries invite us to imagine the existence of a class of questions that are entirely understandable to humans, but the answers that will remain forever out of reach. Is this view really plausible (or even coherent)?
To see how these arguments come together, let's do a thought experiment. Imagine that some extraterrestrial "anthropologists" had visited our planet about 40,000 years ago to produce a scientific report on the cognitive potential of our species. Would this strange, naked monkey ever find out about the structure of its solar system, the curvature of space-time, or even its own evolutionary origins?
At that moment in time, when our ancestors lived in small relationships with hunter-gatherers, such a result may have seemed rather unlikely. Although people had fairly extensive knowledge of the animals and plants in their local environment and knew enough about the physics of everyday objects to know their way around and come up with some smart tools, nothing resembled scientific activity.
There was no writing, no math, no artificial devices to expand our sensory organ. As a result, almost all beliefs held by these people about the wider structure of the world were completely wrong. People had no idea of the real causes of natural disasters, diseases, celestial bodies, the turning of the season or almost any other natural phenomenon.
Our extraterrestrial anthropologist may have reported the following:
Evolution has equipped these upright walks with primitive sensory organs to retrieve some information that is locally relevant to them, such as vibrations in the air (caused by nearby objects and people) and electromagnetic waves in the range of 400-700 nanometers, as well as some larger molecules scattered in their atmosphere.
However, these creatures are completely oblivious to everything that falls outside their narrow field of perception. Also, they can't even see most life forms with a cell in their own environment, since these are simply too small for their eyes to detect. Similarly, their brains have been developed to think about the behavior of medium sized objects (mostly solid) under low gravity conditions.
None of these strawberries have ever escaped their field of gravity to experience weightlessness, or have been artificially accelerated to experience stronger gravitational forces. They cannot even imagine space-time curvature, since evolution has hard-driven zero-curvature geometry of space in their coarse brains.
In summary, we are sorry to report that most of the cosmos is simply beyond their ken.
But the extraterrestrials would have been dead wrong. Biologically, we are no different than 40,000 years ago, but now we know about bacteria and viruses, DNA and molecules, supernovae and black holes, the whole electromagnetic spectrum and a host of other strange things.
We also know about non-Euclidean geometry and space-time curvature, courtesy of Einstein's general theory of relativity. Our senses have "reached out" to objects millions of light years away from our planet, and even to extremely small objects far below the perceptual limits of our sensory organs. By using various tricks and tools, people have vastly expanded their grasp of the world.
The verdict: biology is not destiny
The thought experiment above should be an advice against pessimism about human knowledge. Who knows what other mind-altering devices we will meet to overcome our biological limitations? Biology is not destiny. If you look at what we have already achieved for a few centuries, all manifestations of cognitive closure seem far too early.
Mysteries often pay lip service to the values of "humility" and "modesty," but upon closer examination, their position is much less retained than it seems. Take McGinn's confident statement that the mind-body problem is "an ultimate mystery" that we "will never solve." In making such a statement, McGinn assumes knowledge of three things: the nature of the soul-mind-body problem, the structure of the human mind, and the reason why the twin should never meet. But McGinn offers only a superficial overview of the science of human cognition and draws little or no attention to the various entities to extend the mind.
I think it's time to turn the tables on the mysteries. If you claim that any problem will forever avoid human understanding, you must show in detail why no possible combination of device extension devices will bring us closer to a solution. It is a higher order than most mysteries have admitted.
Furthermore, by spelling out exactly why some problems remain mysterious, mysteries run the risk of being hoisted by their own petard. As Dennett wrote in his latest book: "As soon as you ask a question that you claim we will never be able to answer, you start the process itself which can very well prove that you are wrong: you bring up an investigation."  In one of his notorious notes on Iraq, the former US Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, distinguishes two forms of ignorance: the "known unknowns" and "unknown unknowns". In the first category belong the things we know we do not know. We can frame the right questions, but we haven't found the answers yet. And then there are things like "we don't know we don't know". For these unknown unknowns, we can't even frame the questions yet.
It is quite true that we can never rule out the possibility that there are such unknowns, and that some of them will remain unknown forever, for some (unknown) reason human intelligence is not up to the task.
But the important thing to note about these unknown unknowns is that nothing can be said about them. To assume from the beginning that some unknown unknown will always remain unknown, as mysteries do, is not modesty – it is arrogance.
This article is published from The Conversation by Maarten Boudry, postdoctoral scientist, Ghent University under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.