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Do you think there are things forever beyond our grasp?

  1. Jul 31, 2015 #1
    I read about a Bonobo named Kanzi today, who's learned how to make fire (with a little help from human technology) and I started thinking about our own evolution and wondering about the various levels of intelligence we had throughout.

    I've always been interested in other primates and other intelligent animals in general and their relative intelligences. Koko the gorilla and Alex the parrot are really cool.

    I also watched a documentary on the history of our own understanding of mathematics and how it evolved from the greek's word problem like world to the level we've taken it to now. It made me especially think about the fact that humans are terribly poor at coming up with new ideas but once those ideas are there, large numbers of people can expand on it. True genius and paradigm shifts were few and far between. And the difference between knowing math and understanding math.

    I started wondering about much Kanzi could possibly understand. Not has the desire to understand or the attention span. Assuming an unlimited attention span, the desire to learn, and hell, an infinite amount of time, and the proper teaching methods, would there be a limit to her ability to understand abstract thoughts? I know all primates can do very simple pattern recognition, and abstract numeric thoughts. I'm fairly certain it could pick up addition and subtraction, and probably multiplication and division too. I think it could probably grasp that mathematical formulas can represent the physical world and I think she'd understand to some degree Newton's laws. But I don't think she could learn relativity or quantum physics. I think it's too weird and abstract.

    Assuming that we omit the future possibilities of extending our intelligence with AI or genetic engineering, do you think there are concepts that some alien species has figured out that simply can't be taught to any human being no matter how intelligent? I'm positive that at least a handful of us could follow any mathematical formulas of any advanced laws that we don't currently know of, but that's not the same as actually understanding it.

    I'm not talking about things we can't figure out because we can't test something, I'm talking purely about our ability to understand something.

    Do you think we have limits, or is our mind flexible enough to adapt to learn anything given enough time? Thoughts?
  2. jcsd
  3. Jul 31, 2015 #2
    I think only humans really have the capability to grasp mathematics at the level of algebra, trig, and calculus.

    It is unclear to me where the limit of human thinking ability might be. Much higher than we usually see, I suppose.

    Perhaps the developments in the past 500 years are an indication of what might be possible in the next 500.

    That's pretty impressive.
  4. Jul 31, 2015 #3


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    Given that animals have clear limits I find it reasonable to believe humans do to. It seems unlikely that we've evolved to the point that our brains are theoretically capable of understanding anything given time. An interesting question is if we would be able to recognise a problem we can't understand.
  5. Jul 31, 2015 #4
    You're not married, are you?
  6. Jul 31, 2015 #5
    That's a very interesting thought indeed. I can't quite answer that. I want to say that we'd be able to come up with the problem, but then again, if it's so abstract an beyond our understanding, would we even consider it a problem or is that just "how it is?"

    As someone who's getting married in December, this is my favorite response on PF yet.
  7. Jul 31, 2015 #6


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    Lol no not married but appreciate the sentiment. Coming at this issue from another direction: it's actually very easy to think of things the human brain can't comprehend, at least at the first degree. Any system behind a very small number of interactions is virtually impossible to comprehend at once. For example: it's not possible to hold in your mind a dynamic metabolic reaction of several hundred different chemicals. But whilst that's a hard limitation we get round it through reductionism. Complex phenomenon are broken down into their components and sub components and we focus on learning them. Then after understanding those rules we gain insight into the larger system. This goes beyond individuals, a team of people each understanding a component of the system can be said to understand it at the collective level.

    On that basis your question becomes is everything amenable to reduction?
  8. Jul 31, 2015 #7
    I once hypothesized that any system can only "understand" systems simpler than itself.

    One might understand a simplified model of something more complex than oneself, but then one has only really understood the model.
  9. Jul 31, 2015 #8
    Basically yeah, your example is more a limitation on the human ability to remember than our ability to comprehend it. Not being able to keep track of something isn't the same as not being able to understand it. Each individual reaction can be calculated and the results extrapolated from there, we understand how to do that and why it works.

    My question wasn't if you think there are things that can't be reduced, are there reductions that human being simply don't have the intellect to see, even if it were explained to us. If some being billions of years old came to you and described to you the laws of the universe as it knew them with it's eons of scientific method. We would have to learn it all gradually like children, but is there a point at which it would be like trying to explain relativity to an ant, or does our flexibility give us the ability to learn anything given enough time, previous knowledge, and experimentation with learning it?

    I see no reason to believe that there aren't things beyond our grasp forever, not because it's not discoverable but because we lack the creativity to do it.
  10. Jul 31, 2015 #9
    Looking over your posts I'd paraphrase your question as to one that seeks to identify the capacity of what the brain is able to achieve. Without having an exact mechanical (or quantum mechanical) model for how the brain works, then this is not possible to answer. But we certainly have limitations, no matter how smart we think we are. For example, we can't perceive 4 or 5 or 6 dimensions. That would seem to be a limiting factor due to our biology. But we can perceive 3 (spatial) dimensions. Why is that? That seems a limitation. And contrary to popular belief, non-human primates/ mammals do not have any confirmed capacity for any even rudimentary or "proto" grammatical construction or mathematical ability, even basic arithmetic. This is a long-running debate with many published studies, but no real progress has been made since the seminal article by Euan McPhail, so I refer you to that:

    http://www.researchgate.net/publication/231885378_The_comparative_psychology_of_intelligence [Broken]

    As far as this statement:

    Do you really believe that? Do you think a chimp has a concept of what a mathematical formula is? Do you think that a chimp, or a dolphin, or an African grey parrot for that matter is able to understand what F=ma means?

    We, as humans, have plenty of creativity, this is indeed what distinguishes us from all the animal life on the planet, but that doesn't mean that there are not things that are beyond our grasp forever. The sad truth is that, at the end of the day we are limited by our biology. But the good news is, though, is that we won't know what that limitation is because we don't have the capacity to understand it o0)
    Last edited by a moderator: May 7, 2017
  11. Jul 31, 2015 #10
    I also object to that kind of characterization, as in a recent article someone posted saying babies understand Newton's 3 Laws. What babies and animals sometimes grasp is more like, "When I do this, it does that." That's very rudimentary compared to being able to understand the phenomenon can be described as quantities governed by a formula. Indeed, the instinctual ability to sharpen the "this" that one does to control the "that" that results, without putting any numbers to it at all, is quite remarkable, but it is a different activity altogether than the cerebral abstraction that is F=ma.
  12. Jul 31, 2015 #11
    A question that some of these posts seems to raise is: Might some animals be capable of understanding concepts which we humans cannot grasp? For instance, could it be that a microbe could develop ability to visualize five dimensions because this skill enhances its ability to survive?
  13. Aug 1, 2015 #12
    can they understand the abstract meaning behind roman characters and mathematical symbols

    obviously not

    do (some) animal brains work in ways that allow them to process complex information to calculate and predict motion and forces of objects, the consequence of motion etc.

    obviously yes

    animals brains do very complex processing of physical "problems".

    there are lots of humans that have no concept of a mathematical formula or what F=ma is.
  14. Aug 1, 2015 #13
    I'm not sure exactly what you are trying to say here...
  15. Aug 1, 2015 #14
    Animal brains are carry out very complex 'calculations'
  16. Aug 1, 2015 #15
    Ah, ok, thanks. Well, the brain doesn't know a calculation from a hole in the ground or a supermassive galactic black hole. So it does no calculating. It's a chaotic system that is just falling on physical laws to generate particular patterns that drive behavior and thoughts. The word "calculating" is a human created term relating to the uniquely human task of writing down and performing operations on written characters that we've also created. The "complex processing" you attribute to human or any other mammalian brain is no more intentionally sophisticated or directed than the pattern of rivulets than run off a hill during a rainstorm. Everything is just following the path of least resistance.

    As far as your comment, "there are lots of humans that have no concept of a mathematical formula or what F=ma is," I beg to differ with you. I think most people understand at least that 1+1=2 and 2x2=4, in whatever language they speak, and understand that this implies some sort of weighted equality. A non-human animal has no concept of that.

    As far as what F=ma means, any non-organically compromised Homo sapien sapien has the capacity to understand what that means, given the time and the effort to learn it. A chimpanzee will never understand it, no matter how much time and training you give it.
  17. Aug 1, 2015 #16


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    That is also important for Kanzi. He can make fire using human tools, yes - but does that count as some deeper understanding of the concept of fire, or is it just following procedures humans showed him? He certainly does not understand it at a level we humans do - chemical reactions between the wood and oxygen in their air and so on.
    Most, but not all.
  18. Aug 1, 2015 #17
    In fact, the majority of humans who make fire don't understand the chemical reactions. We know that people as mathematically sophisticated as the Greeks considered fire to be some kind of divine magic, stolen from the gods by Prometheus. The mere ability to learn "When I do this, it does that," can accomplish wonders way beyond our ability to understand what's happening.
  19. Aug 1, 2015 #18


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    Same goes today: you ( most of the population) drive a car , watch t.v., fly in planes, surf the web, use cellphones , use electricity in genera,l without understanding how any of it works.
  20. Aug 1, 2015 #19


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    Sure, but there are humans that do. That's not my point. You can make fire with different levels of "understanding". Kanzi will not reach the level some humans reached.

    My computer can show me millions of pages of text that contains a huge amount of knowledge - that does not mean the computer understands the text. It just repeats what humans wrote into it.
  21. Aug 1, 2015 #20
    Agreed. If you were able to teach a chimp to count, could you teach it to add? If you could, could you teach it to subtract? To multiply and divide? Suppose you could. Could you then get it to understand that non-objects, things like forces, can be quantified? Could you teach it to quantify and measure acceleration? The more sophisticated the concept, the less likely it seems a chimp could grasp it.
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