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.

57 thoughts on “Thinking about Thinking

  1. She has already spoken for herself, and her words were straightforward:

    What we call sentience seems to denote the capacity of a knowing-thing to understand itself as an agent of its thoughts and actions, and as the subject of its own experiences.

    Your reply doesn’t make sense as a response to her words:

    I’m not sure that happens with humans. We live our first-person lives and the vast majority of us give little thought to how that first-person experience emerges from neurones firing or not.

    Regarding yourself as an agent of your thoughts and actions, and as the subject of your experiences, is something we all do, and it doesn’t require us to know about neurons or to ponder how their firings give rise to subjective experience.

  2. Coming from the field of special education, I have an entirely different set of questions about brains.

    What I find most interesting is the question of competence.

    For example, my cat is competent as a cat, and cats were around before people were available to care for them.

    But there are people who are undeniably smarter than cats — able to understand language, for example— but who cannot care for themselves. People having no obvious structural or metabolic defects in their brains.

    The philosophical questions about minds brains and thinking generally assume an idealized person, but I find it more interesting to try to figure out simpler brains, and the evolution of brains.

  3. petrushka: I find it more interesting to try to figure out simpler brains, and the evolution of brains.

    Makes sense to me. I suppose that human brain studies have the advantage of first-person feedback from the subject. I find it challenging to work out what our cat is thinking sometimes. (She does manage to demand feeding unequivocally). And Wittgenstein tells us if cats could speak, we wouldn’t understand them.

  4. PS

    Regarding understanding cats, our cat was trying to tell me something that seemed like “feed me now” but there was food in her bowl. Asking my wife what’s up with the cat, she pointed out I had bought cheap supermarket own brand croquettes instead of the upmarket brand my wife usually gets. Picking up the correct brand has brought back serenity.

  5. Alan Fox,
    I’ve been predicting for some years that brain researchers would eventually start seeing brains as fundamentally analog, and this seems to be what’s happening.

    It’s not a particularly new idea, but it’s been overshadowed by computational models.

  6. Cats have a complex social life, but it is unlike that of dogs, because dogs are pack hunters and it took a minimum of selection for them to accept us as pack leaders. Bad things happen when they become confused about who is the alpha.

    Best I can tell, cat domestication infantilized them, and they consider us their mother. I’ve watched kittens attempt to keep this relationship with their actual mother, and she eventually tells them to shove off. Sometimes with harsh words and gestures. They do not voluntarily give up the food provider.

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