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.