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What is the limit of human intelligence if any?

  1. Jun 11, 2004 #1
    Do you feel that humans will ever reach a point where they just won't be able to understand something? Will we ever peak in our intelligence and if so how far into the future.
  2. jcsd
  3. Jun 12, 2004 #2
    Hi guys, this is ludo_z from the Old World, pleased to join this forum.

    I believe that the way us humans understand the world is through the use of models and through language in general. By model I mean a theoretical system of some sort which structures the world according to its rules. The laws of physics give us a model of the world. We usually think of the world through the laws of physics we know, so when we do things like looking at the stars or seeing things fall we conceive them through the categories of modern physics (or sometimes not-so-modern depending on the subject). That is we don't think of the stars as fixed points, or as falling objects as containing a "live force" that lets them move. We also think of economy and the social sciences through models. Understanding phaenomena described by a model means to fully understand the model.

    There are some situations which are so complex which cannot be grasped by a "simple" model. For example I do not have a model for life, human behaviour which is accurate enough to make me feel I really completely understand it. In these cases I am still able to give meanings to phaenomena but not to undertand it. For example I know what "violence" is, but I do know always know why there is violence.

    Models operate through language, where by language I mean some sort of symbolic representation. Also mathematics, music and gestures are languages in this sense. Language operates through representation. So I think that to answer to the initial question it is necessary to understand what the limits of representation are.

    Another point is that we can never be sure that our models are correct. We may be pleased my sufficiently accurate models, for example of the economy, which make us think for a while fat we actually understand what is going on. Then one day there might be an unexpected crisis which invalidates the model we use. This happened for example when relativity arose. In other words I don't think that we will be ever capable of knowing if we are at the peak in our intellingce or just at the beginng of the road.
  4. Jun 12, 2004 #3
    What would the percieved limitations of it's own intelligence seem like to a monkey, and how might it percieve human intelligence?

    My guess is that to a monkey humans would seem really boring and painstakingly overly attentive to every slight detail, not to mention that they spend ridiculous amounts of time building things that will never last when all that's really important is the moment- it might take a monkey a year to learn how to drive nails with a hammer if at all, they may not have the complex neural tissue and drives necessary to learn this task in a timely manner and probably couldn't see the benefits of it at all beyond a few extra peanuts, and in a way these same limitations are in humans in a relative context so that for a human to learn how to "drive nails with a hammer" or some other highly complex mental feat would seem like a pointless undertaking with very little return for the absurd energy expenditure and have virtually no perception of the long term benefits likely until long after the effort given, like cigarettes are mostly addictive because the chemical reward is within a second but some behaviors are more rewarding but the effects are within 10 days and are hardly ever noticed.
  5. Jun 12, 2004 #4
    Well lemme think...i see this in a pretty simple way...we have brain, which is enclosed in skull.

    so, physically, it is limited. So, unless the mind is really above matter, our intelligence is limited.

    Perhaps more appropriate question would be, wether can the enclosed mind in our skull grasp and understand everything that is outside of our mind.

    well that depends on wether universe is infinite. our brain is physically limited, and we use it to shape and understand the physical world around us.

    so if the physical universe is infinite, it is probably unlikely that a physically limited brain or some other physical form would be able to grasp it.
  6. Jun 12, 2004 #5
    on the contrary, the physical universe could be smaller that our brain capacity and capabilites to understand it, thus, we would have the *feeling* that our intelligence is unlimited.
  7. Jun 12, 2004 #6
    with your first post poce do you feel we could know everything about the universe before requiring a brain that that would equal its size
  8. Jun 12, 2004 #7


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    the only limit is the one we place on ourselves...
  9. Jun 12, 2004 #8
    Well that doesn't really follow. Intelligence does not exactly have extension, in a sort of disparate sort of way yes, but on the whole it does not have extension therefore cannot necessarily be limited by those kinds of means. A person's brain may be enclosed in a skull in Tucson, Arizona but it has no problem making an intelligent decision about a problem in Sydney, Australia. As well, if someone cannot understand a math problem it is not because the barrier, or skull, in that person's head is too strong. Maybe you can clarify this but as it stands now I do not think it follows.
  10. Jun 12, 2004 #9
    But don't psychologists say that we have an unlimited long term memory capacity?
  11. Jun 13, 2004 #10
    Well it is true that the word "unlimited" would in fact have boundaries. Nothing is really unlimited that is physical. However it is just unlimited compared to what we use.
  12. Jun 13, 2004 #11


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    We're never going to know exactly how a bat (or any other creature that uses echolocation to "see") experiences the world, which is a limit placed on us by evolution, not one we placed on ourselves. It is one of many.
  13. Jun 13, 2004 #12


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    evolution or biology? :smile: echolocation has to do with the senses, not intelligence. for all the senses we have, using them to the best of our will shows intelligence. biology has not granted the ability to see in ultraviolet light, however we understand it exists. same with echolocation, we understand it is there, although our biololgy does not allow us to have the ability to use it.
    Last edited: Jun 13, 2004
  14. Jun 13, 2004 #13
    as a poker player i like the proposition that if i believe that my intelligence is unlimited, i increase the odds of being more intelligent. If i believe that i am limited in anyway, i increase the odds that my abilities will be limited.

    i prefer to accept the probability that the universe is infinite and so are my options (including ultimate knowledge).

    olde drunk
  15. Jun 13, 2004 #14
    Well as for this particular example loseyourname has given, I would have to say you are correct Kerrie. This echolocation, I think, pertains to sense perception, which is axiomatic, therefore it would be category mistake to compare it with something that maybe cognized about to a point of deriving a conclusion, which is what understanding is. However, if we were discussing knowledge and not understanding this would in fact be a "limit," if you want to refer to it as such.
    Last edited: Jun 13, 2004
  16. Jun 13, 2004 #15


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    You guys are missing my point. It is beyond our intellectual capacity to envision the experience. While it is also beyond our sensory capacity to echolocate, that isn't what I was saying. That would indeed be a category mistake. The author of the thread asked "Do you feel that humans will ever reach a point where they just won't be able to understand something?" My answer is yes, and one example is that we won't ever understand what it's like to be a bat.
  17. Jun 13, 2004 #16
    loseyourname, I agree with your conclusion, of course. I simply also agreed with Kerrie's criticism of your example. =) Although to continue with the bat example which you clarified, I am still not convinced that that is an epistemic limitation, although it may be yes. Obviously we cannot have the experience of an identity that is not our's, but I am not sure if that is a limit of understanding. By extention, I cannot know what it is like to be you nor Kerrie nor anyone else, though the precision with which I can ascertain what it may be like to be you is much greater, I suppose, than that of the bat, I still am limited in that I cannot actually know what it is like to be you. This may or may not be an epistemic limitation, but I feel it may be a trivial one if it is. Although, let me say again I completely agree that we are limited, of course.
  18. Jun 14, 2004 #17


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    intelligence is the ability to utilize what one already has. to compare our abilities to a bat is to compare car to a bicycle. each are modes of transportation, but is one better then the other? only in specific instances. a car is much better at long distance travel, however a bike is much better at not polluting our environment and lower maintenance.
  19. Jun 14, 2004 #18
    This is an easy one.

    1. The human brain consists of a finite number of particles and energy states.
    2. This matrix of particles and energy states is less than what exists in the cosmos.

    Ergo: The human brain has insufficient capacity to contain a matrix containing the total map of all the particles and energy states that exist in the cosmos.

    Ergo: A human's knowledge is limited.


    All of the humans that exist, or will ever exist, will always comprise a subset of the cosmos; Ergo, the collective knowledge of humanity is also limited.
  20. Jun 14, 2004 #19
    That isn't convincing. All you have shown is there is not a one to one ratio of particles in a human brain and the sum of the universe. This isn't an indication of epistemic limitation. Although, I agree we have epistemic limitations.

    Circulus in Demonstrando. You are assuming your conclusions. You are hinting, but not so obviously, at the assertion that existence implies epistemic limitation.
  21. Jun 15, 2004 #20
    is my mind my brain??

    i submit that my brain is what is necessary for my physical activity. my mind goes beyond the limits of my brain. needless to say, there is no way to prove this point, however, we have seen savants with limited brain power do unbelieveable mental feats that your rank and file geniuses could not.

    i prefer to believe that my mind is limitless.

    olde drunk

    ps: with an expanding universe, i will never know all.
  22. Jun 15, 2004 #21

    I agree that my previous argument does not hold unless one concedes that a fundamental particle is the minimum unit of information storage (assuming we could 'read' such a particle); that such particles represent the upper bound for information storage in a given system; and that the information on all of the particles in the cosmos (variously estimated between 10^72 and 10^87, perhaps higher) might be compressed into a storage space consisting of the average 1350g human brain.

    Rather than delve into information theory, here is a separate argument:

    Assuming the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle is correct, one cannot "know" the momentum and position of a fundamental particle. If we cannot "know" this information, then this indicates an epistemic limit. Ergo, human knowledge is limited.

    Let's say a magic device is invented that defies Heisenberg (I don't know of any such evidence that such a device could exist). The speed of light presents us with another limit on knowledge, assuming one agrees that particles in a gas behave in a non-deterministic way.

    Here is a thought experiment: a jar contains particles of a gas. You have an instrument that is capable of taking a snapshot of the positions of all of those particles. Place this jar and the instrument on a spaceship and get it out to a far-away location--let's say, Proxima Centauri, for fun. The spaceship will beam you the information on the position of all those particles. However, a person on the Earth wants to "know" the position of those particles at the present time (not the 4.22 year-old data). This is not possible because we can't get the data fast enough, and we can't predict the motion of chaotic particles. Thus, a human being's limitation on the speed of data acquisition presents an epistemic limit.

    There is no evidence that the human mind can collect data faster than the speed of light, or compress cosmos-scale volumes of data into a finite space, nor even do something as "simple" as design an instrument capable of measuring the momentum and position of a fundamental particle. All of this points to a limit on human knowledge. One could say that these limits are incredibly high, or even that they are irrelevant, but they are limits nonetheless. There appear to be many ways to demonstrate that knowledge is limited--but much harder to define exactly what that limit is.

    Olde Drunk:

    Everything we know about the brain suggests that the functions of memory, intelligence, reasoning and whatnot are conducted by the neurochemical and electrical states that exist within the cells of the nervous system.

    The fact that some people with brain damage or deficiencies can perform some of the same functions as a normal person (or in rare cases, functions of a genius person) can be explained biologically, and doesn't tell us anything about the mind having some special power that transcends the gray matter itself.

    I'm skeptical of any claims that the mind is embodied by any type of unmeasurable quantity outside the domain of our biology, but I'd be interested in hearing evidence or arguments to the contrary.
  23. Jun 15, 2004 #22
    Jradoff, assuming all those examples are true then I would concede those indicate epistemic limitations.
  24. Jun 15, 2004 #23
    very well done. how do you explain the cases where people have been declared 'dead', no brain waves. later, they awaken in the morgue and give very interesting reports of what they experienced. these are not physical experiences, they are 'dreams?', 'halucinations?', whatever. BUT, they are something that the mind witnessed.

    how, if the brain was dead? zero brain waves. what makes my brain active and that lump in a solution of formaldehyde a mass of inert tissue?

    olde drunk
  25. Jun 15, 2004 #24
    I don't follow your logic. How do reports of near-death experiences pertain to limits on intelligence? Are you suggesting that these reports are proof that intelligence exists outside the body, and is therefore unlimited?

    I agree that the mind is known to experience things that are separate from our sense receptors. That's the basis of dreams, imagination, psychotic episodes and other ordinary phenomena that don't require supernatural explanations. People who suffer from schizophrenia report many strange experiences, yet in the modern day we understand this to be a neurochemical illness (before the onset of modern psychiatry, many people believed that these people were posessed by demonic spirits).

    As for reports of near-death experiences, the simplest is that these people experience a dream-state or hallucination in the period of time before brain death occurred, or perhaps during the process of resuscitation.
  26. Jun 15, 2004 #25
    well as for the brain being enclosed in a skull...

    lemme put it another way so there won't be any more misunderstandings (somehow i think there'll be even more heh)...NO i am not proposing the brain has to be equal size of the universe in order to understand it. gee.

    it must be capable, at least as COMPLEX as what it tries to understand. we can, at least partly, understand some ecosystems, some human systems (economy) and other stuff, and our brains are not as large as an ecosystem or economy, they're just capable of understanding them. But they can't understand some rare occurences in them, because the factors behind these hard to predict occurences come from either outside the system, from a greater system, or there are simply too many indicators to compute in order to predict the occurence (?probability mathemathics?, computers).

    but cosmosystem is much larger, and if it is physically infinite, we would need a physicall tool (brain), that is able to follow the infinite universe's unimaginable dynamics...but remember that it is not just the OUTER universe to consider. We always find new particles inside old particles, and within those, we find yet smaller particles. it it as possible that the universe is infinite in the opposite side, too. So perhaps our brain is so delicate and complex that is indeed capable of development into it's own infinity.

    but if our brain has less dynamics and is less complex than the system it attemtps to understand, there is a limit for humankind in being able to understand the universe. and as intelligence is kind of a tool that helps us understand the world, we would not have the feeling it is "unlimited".
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