The title of this article could equally well be “The limits of philosophy” or of theology, or of any intellectual endeavor. The question is: can we continue to learn indefinitely?
John Horgan at the inaptly titled Scientific American asked a similar question with his Is Science Infinite?
He thinks, and I agree, that it is “already bumping into limits”, as he wrote in his book The End of Science? (which I haven’t read). Those are our limits, and not the limits of things to know. God is boundless, but our intellects are not.
Horgan spoke to Martin Rees (ellipsis original).
Rees, speaking via Skype from Cambridge, reiterated points he made last month in “Is There a Limit to Scientific Understanding?” In that essay Rees calls [physicist David Deutsch’s book] Beginning of Infinity “provocative and excellent” but disputes Deutsch’s central claim that science is boundless. Science “will hit the buffers at some point,” Rees warns. He continues:
There are two reasons why this might happen. The optimistic one is that we clean up and codify certain areas (such as atomic physics) to the point that there’s no more to say. A second, more worrying possibility is that we’ll reach the limits of what our brains can grasp. There might be concepts, crucial to a full understanding of physical reality, that we aren’t aware of, any more than a monkey comprehends Darwinism or meteorology…Efforts to understand very complex systems, such as our own brains, might well be the first to hit such limits. Perhaps complex aggregates of atoms, whether brains or electronic machines, can never know all there is to know about themselves.
There is the danger here of scientists assuming philosophical problems can be answered via scientific explanations, and thus (of course) failing to answer them and so incorrectly announcing answers do not exist. As an example of this hubris, Horgan “asserted that scientists are running into cognitive and physical limits and will never solve the deepest mysteries of nature, notably why there is something rather than nothing.”
But excepting mistaking philosophy for science, we will still hit a wall. Barbara Tversky,
Professor Emerita of Psychology, Stanford University, hinted as such in her “last” question to Edge. “How do the limits of the mind limit our understanding?”, she asked.
Anybody who has spent any time with students knows that such limits exist, and that the limits are not just on a per-person basis, but exist for our race as a whole.
Each person has, say, forty, fifty productive years at best to learn all they are to learn, with most of that learning concentrated into half that period. It is clear that that which can be known is infinite; thus, given our built-in time limitation, we’ll never know everything. That what can be known is infinite is known to be true based on even a small experience with mathematics.
You may say that we can continue to build on what was known before, and so increase knowledge. This is true to a certain extent. But as that pile of prior knowledge grows, it takes longer and longer to get through it before one can learn new things. And even if we only have to learn part of the pile to continue advancements, any individual cannot know it all, and we as a species cannot do so forever. And forever is what is required.
Of course, I have no idea if we are anywhere near our capacity. We do at least seem near an inflection point in many sciences. But that could equally be the result of being beholden to stale ideas or the increasing politicization of various fields as a result of our lack of intelligence.
It is more than obvious that scientists need a healthy dose of philosophical training. That lack holds them back and sends them into blind alleys. Horgan:
In Switzerland I suggested that the riddle of consciousness is a synecdoche for the riddle of humanity. What are we, really? For most of our history, religion has given us the answer. We are immortal souls, children of a loving god, striving to reach heaven or nirvana. Most modern scientists reject these religious explanations, but they cannot agree on an alternative…We are clusters of neurons awash in chemicals, genes shaped by natural selection, egos keeping a lid on ids, software programs, nodes of information in a cosmic web, quantum wave functions…
It is precisely because we can never achieve total self-knowledge that we will keep seeking [the riddle of consciousness] forever.
Nope. The riddle about the what is well solved. The question of how is wide open. Not that we’ll necessarily figure it out.