Thinking about Thinking

Metacognition as a ladder to enlightenment?

We humans are sentient beings. By some means or other, our species has ended up with, at least in our own opinion, with cognitive abilities that separate sharply from our closest living relatives, chimps and bonobos, with whom we share 99% of our genes. We have made huge advances in knowledge which we can store, share and use in scientific research, cultural development, building infrastructure, exploration, travel, transport. This huge explosion in cultural evolution needed and may be driven by that exceptional intelligence. Is there any limit to what we can achieve? I say there is.

Idly speculating, I wondered if humans – or any sentient being – were able to comprehend something of greater complexity than themselves. If it were possible, would we not then be open to the Terminator hypothesis. In the film, a computer defence system is developed by humans that is super-intelligent and takes over the world. If we were capable of creating entities more intelligent than ourselves, there is the runaway possibility that those entities could then create even more intelligent entities and so on without limit. With such God-like intelligence and power, these entities should have taken over the universe. That this has not yet happened is evidence that there is a limit to what any sentient being is capable of and that limit is understanding and creating an entity more complex than itself.

It turns out this is not a new idea, which scuppers my chances of publishing a paper on Fox’s conjecture, but it’s a consolation that it’s not such a daft idea that no-one else has ever considered it. I find myself in illustrious company. John Tyndall, the Irish physicist who, among many accomplishments, was first to scientifically study and demonstrate the greenhouse effect, wrote in 1871:

The passage from the physics of the brain to the corresponding facts of consciousness is unthinkable. Granted that a definite thought, and a definite molecular action in the brain occur simultaneously; we do not possess the intellectual organ, nor apparently any rudiment of the organ, which would enable us to pass, by a process of reasoning, from the one to the other. They appear together, but we do not know why. Were our minds and senses so expanded, strengthened, and illuminated, as to enable us to see and feel the very molecules of the brain; were we capable of following all their motions, all their groupings, all their electric discharges, if such there be; and were we intimately acquainted with the corresponding states of thought and feeling, we should be as far as ever from the solution of the problem, “How are these physical processes connected with the facts of consciousness?” The chasm between the two classes of phenomena would still remain intellectually impassable.

I lifted Tyndall’s quote from a Wikipedia article on cognitive closure. Noam Chomsky also wrote and spoke of a limit to human understanding but I see perhaps the most prominent proponent of cognitive closure is British philosopher Colin McGinn. (perhaps not so illustrious following sexual harassment allegations). McGinn:

A type of mind M is cognitively closed with respect to a property P (or theory T), if and only if the concept-forming procedures at M’s disposal cannot extend to a grasp of P (or an understanding of T).

McGinn’s stance is referred to as mysterianism and according to Wikipedia has several prominent proponents. Among them is not to be found Daniel Dennett who criticises McGinn for being too pessimistic in not allowing what might be achieved in the future. I hope Dennett is right but I guess we’ll have to wait and see.

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31 thoughts on “Thinking about Thinking

  1. “..our closest living relatives, chimps and bonobos, with whom we share 99% of our genes
    99%?!!!
    That’s probably more than my sons share with me…
    That must be another evolutionary miracle preventiing chimps and bonobos from going to school with my kids… 🤣

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  2. “We have made huge advances in knowledge which we can store, share and use in scientific research, cultural development, building infrastructure, exploration, travel, transport. This huge explosion in cultural evolution needed and may be driven by that exceptional intelligence.”

    This paragraph seems like it’s trying to say smth. Yet it’s confusing because of language choice. Two times “cultural” is used as an adjective. What is the difference in meaning of the two nouns they qualify, “evolution” & “development”?

    Not a few people believe “cultural evolution” theories are misnomers. The far more popular term for studying change (over time) of culture is “development.”

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  3. This all starts from a rejection of gods witness. we were made in gods image and thats the only reason for our intelligence. animals are all dumb and as dumb as each other. they are not just inferior to us but not superior to each other , at all, or enough to mention.
    The bible teaches we have souls. this is what does all the thinking except for our mind which is just a memory machine..
    the bible teaches we, like god, can have wisdom, understanding or knowledge.
    computers only can have memorized knowledge.
    Never will a terminator world happen. computers are dumber then animals.
    I think each person has fantastic ability to gain so much , the thre things, that we would all today be humiliated if we met those people. however we have so little time.
    origin issues also demonstrate problems in human thought. Too much error on both sides but a wee bit more on one side.

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  4. Gregory: Not a few people believe “cultural evolution” theories are misnomers. The far more popular term for studying change (over time) of culture is “development.”

    One might say cultural progress. I had in mind that by being able to control our environment we have reduced Evolutionary pressure on human populations. Death from disease, starvation and conflict is less in percentage terms than historically.

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  5. Robert Byers,
    Robert, do you regard your Bible as the only reliable source of scientific knowledge? When we can examine the world around us directly? A world where the climate is changing in ways that threaten our very existence.

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  6. J-Mac,
    Cite an alternative source that disagrees with the generally accepted figure and we can discuss methods and conclusions.

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  7. Alan Fox: Cite an alternative source that disagrees with the generally accepted figure and we can discuss methods and conclusions.

    Is it really necessary to link you to any source to solve this disagreement???
    Isn’t it obvious?
    How much more illogical the 99% claim of chimp and bonobo genome similarity to human could be? Do I really need to spell it out for you?

    This claim is an embarrassment to science, I don’t care how strongly someone wants to be to true…

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  8. Here’s a review of another book from McGinn on metaphysics and physics:
    [start of quote}
    “there is simply no way to do justice to the cringe-inducing nature of this text without quoting it in its entirety. But, in a nutshell, Basic Structures of Reality is an impressively inept contribution to philosophy of physics, and one exemplifying everything that can possibly go wrong with metaphysics: it is mind-numbingly repetitive, toe-curlingly pretentious, and amateurish in the extreme regarding the incorporation of physical fact”
    [end of quote]

    https://academic.oup.com/mind/article/122/487/813/1009459

    Here an exchange between him and Pat Churchland on McGinn’s mysterianism about the hard problem as expressed in a review of one of her books:
    https://www.nybooks.com/articles/2014/06/19/brains-and-minds-exchange/

    [start of quote]
    “Nevertheless, there are nostalgic philosophers who whinge on about saving the purity of the discipline from philosophers like me and Chris Eliasmith and Owen Flanagan and Dan Dennett. What do the purists, like McGinn, object to? It is that their lovely a priori discipline, where they just talk to each other and maybe cobble together a thought experiment or two, is being sullied by…data. Their sterile construal of philosophy is not one that would be recognized by the great philosophers in the tradition, such as Aristotle or Hume or Kant.”
    — Churchland on McGinn

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  9. BruceS: Nevertheless, there are nostalgic philosophers who whinge on about saving the purity of the discipline from philosophers like me and Chris Eliasmith and Owen Flanagan and Dan Dennett. What do the purists, like McGinn, object to? It is that their lovely a priori discipline, where they just talk to each other and maybe cobble together a thought experiment or two, is being sullied by…data. Their sterile construal of philosophy is not one that would be recognized by the great philosophers in the tradition, such as Aristotle or Hume or Kant.”

    Count me as being on Team Impurity.

    ETA: I hadn’t read that exchange before. I’m not shocked that McGinn is such a condescending asshole. And completely unable to see Churchland’s points.

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  10. BruceS: Here’s a review of another book from McGinn on metaphysics and physics

    Thanks.

    I read the full review (not just the part that you quoted). I found it quite entertaining. I already had a low opinion of McGinn, but it is now even lower.

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  11. J-Mac: How much more illogical the 99% claim of chimp and bonobo genome similarity to human could be?

    Molecular phylogenetics has blossomed because new technology allows whole genomes to be sequenced. The sequences are data. Sequences can be compared. These are facts not claims.

    Do I really need to spell it out for you?

    If you are trying to make a point, you might try. Up to you.

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  12. J-Mac: That’s probably more than my sons share with me…
    That must be another evolutionary miracle preventiing chimps and bonobos from going to school with my kids… 🤣

    Alan was just talking about himself. He also shares stuff with bacteria. Tell us, Alan!

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  13. Alan Fox:
    Robert Byers,
    Robert, do you regard your Bible as the only reliable source of scientific knowledge? When we can examine the world around us directly? A world where the climate is changing in ways that threaten our very existence.

    No. the bible only makes some boundaries on accuracy in origins. Mankind is to fill in the details. I don’t agree the climate is changing much less a problem or in any way related to human actions. its another hilarious myth of the establishment. At least they are not pushing us to fight in vietnam!!

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  14. Nonlin.org:
    Alan was just talking about himself. He also shares stuff with bacteria. Tell us, Alan!

    You share as much with bacteria as Alan and everybody else. If you don’t think so, then you don’t think at all.

    1+
  15. Robert Byers: No. the bible only makes some boundaries on accuracy in origins. Mankind is to fill in the details.

    That’s fine then. No need to bust yourself into a pretzel explaining the Earth”s age and geology. We can look at data and conclude from evidence.

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  16. Robert Byers: I don’t agree the climate is changing much less a problem or in any way related to human actions. its another hilarious myth of the establishment.

    What worries me that it is too late for it to matter. Even if tomorrow everyone became convinced we need to act collectively to counter climate change, the efforts we could muster may be already too little and too late.

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  17. Alan Fox: Molecular phylogenetics has blossomed because new technology allows whole genomes to be sequenced. The sequences are data. Sequences can be compared. These are facts not claims.

    I’m not really sure if you fully realize it, but this is not helping your case at all…
    The simple fact is, if chimps’ and bonobos’ genomes are 99% identical to ours, why are they not humans?

    Can you see my point made at the outset of this OP? Why don’t they go to school with our kids, so to speak?

    So, unless you continue to be biased, and ignore this very fact, as many evolutionary biologist have, your claim, or evolutionary claim rather, that our genomes are almost identical to chimps and bonobos makes no logical sense…

    There’s obviously a problem, but I doubt you, or anybody here for that matter, will be willing to address it…

    Alan Fox: If you are trying to make a point, you might try. Up to you.

    Back to you, then.

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  18. J-Mac: The simple fact is, if chimps’ and bonobos’ genomes are 99% identical to ours, why are they not humans?

    I stated a simple fact. How regulatory genes can have a huge effect on phenotype is a fascinating subject – the umbrella to look under is evolutionary developmental biology, evo-devo for short. There’s also cultural evolution. Modern humans were around from at least 200,000 years ago. It is only the last 10,000 or so when human civilization kicks in. No need to obsess over 99%, 1% can make quite a difference.

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  19. J-Mac: Can you see my point made at the outset of this OP? Why don’t they go to school with our kids, so to speak?

    So, unless you continue to be biased, and ignore this very fact, as many evolutionary biologist have, your claim, or evolutionary claim rather, that our genomes are almost identical to chimps and bonobos makes no logical sense…

    There’s obviously a problem, but I doubt you, or anybody here for that matter, will be willing to address it…

    This makes no sense.

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  20. J-Mac,

    Seems like you’re unable to understand that if we measure some similarity, then it’s been measured and we have nothing else to add. Questioning why we’re not the same species won’t change the fact. So, maybe, instead of questioning the fact, why don’t you try and make a more appropriate question?

    I’m very open to questioning how the measure was taken, I’m willing to see someone ask what’s meant by “sharing 99% of our genes” (which, taken literally, doesn’t mean having 99% identical genomes), but I’m not open to denying facts out of some mindless allegations about whether chimps should go to school with your kids. Facts are facts regardless of what stupid inferences some illiterate like yourself would make about them. So, ask the appropriate questions, if you are able to.

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  21. Alan Fox: I stated a simple fact. How regulatory genes can have a huge effect on phenotype is a fascinating subject – the umbrella to look under is evolutionary developmental biology, evo-devo for short.

    Pardon?!

    Alan Fox: There’s also cultural evolution. Modern humans were around from at least 200,000 years ago. It is only the last 10,000 or so when human civilization kicks in. No need to obsess over 99%, 1% can make quite a difference.

    Oh, no?! What’s the mechanism for that? 😉

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  22. Entropy: I’m very open to questioning how the measure was taken, I’m willing to see someone ask what’s meant by “sharing 99% of our genes” (which, taken literally, doesn’t mean having 99% identical genomes)…

    That would be much appreciated by me at least.

    1+
  23. J-Mac:
    I’m not really sure if you fullyrealize it, but this is not helping your case at all…

    I don’t know if you fully realize it but stating a fact is not some “case.” It’s stating a fucking fact. Period.

    J-Mac:
    The simple fact is, if chimps’ and bonobos’ genomes are 99% identical to ours, why are they not humans?

    That’s not a fact but a question. The answer, obviously, is that the samples were taken from chimps and bonobos, that they cannot just change magically, by the power of your illiteracy and lack of logical thought, into humans. That the measurement was 99% same genes doesn’t mean anything else but that such was the measurement.

    J-Mac:
    Can you see my point made at the outset of this OP? Why don’t they go to school with our kids, so to speak?

    That you’re lack logical thought? That you lack literacy? That you don’t know how to make an appropriate inference or question?

    J-Mac:
    So, unless you continue to be biased, and ignore this very fact, as manyevolutionary biologist have, your claim, or evolutionary claim rather, that our genomes are almost identical to chimps and bonobos makes no logical sense…

    It doesn’t matter what your poorly informed “logical sense” makes out of some fact The fact remains. Facts don’t change out of your disbelief or poor abilities in logical inference.

    J-Mac:
    There’s obviously a problem, but I doubt you, or anybody here for that matter, will be willing to address it…

    Alan and many others have tried to solve the problem and educate you, but seems like this problem cannot possibly be solved.

    Would you like to try, think, and then make an appropriate question this time around?

    J-Mac:
    It’s the obvious inference from your claims…

    What’s obvious is that you lack thinking abilities.

    The obvious inference is that 1% dissimilarity, however that was measured, is enough divergence to put chimps and bonobos apart from humans. The inference is made with the facts, not against the facts. The facts are: the samples were taken from humans, chimps and bonobos. The genes shared between humans and the others were found to be ~99%. If you want to actually challenge the facts, then you have to ask the appropriate question(s), instead of making a fool out of yourself.

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  24. Alan Fox: Mitochondria, shared by you and me and everyone else have their own DNA. It’s circular.

    Which makes you their close relative, amirite? You’re practically a bacteria then. And let’s not forget robots. You share many things with them too. Does that make you a cyborg, a clone, a drone? Volcanoes, hot vents? That’s right, you share the same minerals with them.

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  25. Nonlin.org: Which makes you their close relative, amirite? You’re practically a bacteria then. And let’s not forget robots. You share many things with them too. Does that make you a cyborg, a clone, a drone? Volcanoes, hot vents? That’s right, you share the same minerals with them.

    Singular of bacteria is bacterium.

    DNA stores genetic sequences that are translated into RNA and/or protein sequences according to a triplet code that is universal across living organisms. There are a few variations found in bacteria and…

    In human mitochondrial DNA.

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  26. Alan Fox: Singular of bacteria is bacterium.

    DNA stores genetic sequences that are translated into RNA and/or protein sequences according to a triplet code that is universal across living organisms. There are a few variations found in bacteria and…

    In human mitochondrial DNA.

    Plus omnipotent natural selection, cultural evolution with no known yet mechanism = Alan Fox

    BTW: The mechanism for possibility of a red/silver fox body plans evolving into Alan Fox to fit the pink dress is unknown but I have a few hunches what that could be… 😉

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