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Is there a limit to what we as humans are capable of understanding? Is our capacity for complex thought limitless? Are our brains well-enough equipped to understand all the truths of the universe? Good morning, my name is Madeline Briddell and today I’ll be sharing with you my thoughts about the limits of human intelligence.

We live in an age of tremendous scientific success. We’ve mapped out grand schemes of how the physical world works on scales that range from the molecular machinery of cells to biospheres and from quarks to galactic clusters which span our known universe. These achievements are especially remarkable when we consider that our brains’ primary evolutionary goal was for survival on the African Savannah; not to ponder life and the nature of the universe. Considering that our brains haven’t changed much since our time on the Savannah, it is remarkable that we can grasp abstract and counterintuitive behaviors of the quantum world and the cosmos. Despite our advances in science, our understanding is far from complete and reveals how little we really understand. In the science community’s quest for the so called “Holy Grail of Physics”, the Theory of Everything that links all physical aspects of the universe, we’ve pointed our Artificial Intelligence Systems to a theory that the majority of the mass of the universe is made up of Dark Matter, but we have no idea what Dark Matter really is. Will science ever be able to provide all the answers? Are our brains from the Savannah even capable of understanding the answers?

As of now, we can only see a finite number of galaxies. Our horizon acts as a shell around us, delineating the greatest distance from which light can reach us. The volume of space-time within range of our telescopes, what astronomers have traditionally called the universe, is only a tiny fraction of the aftermath of the big bang. If we conceive the universe as the entire aftermath of our big bang, it could still be just one island, one patch of space and time, in a perhaps infinite archipelago (group of islands). There may have been many big bangs, not just one. Each constituent of this Multiverse could have cooled down differently and may be governed by different physical laws. From this hugely expanded cosmic perspective, the laws of Einstein and the quantum realm could be mere parochial by-laws governing our narrow cosmic patch.

At the cutting edge of physics, seemingly foundational concepts like space and time have long been disrupted. But it could be that our current concept of physical reality could be as constricted, in relation to the whole, as the perspective of the Earth available to a plankton whose entire universe is just a spoonful of water. A challenge for 21st century science will be to answer these questions like “Are there many big bangs rather than just one?” and even more interesting “if there are many, are they all governed by the same physics?”

But there is a deeper question still. Are there things that we’ll never know, because they are beyond the power of human minds to grasp? Are our brains limited to an understanding of all key features of our narrow reality? Only parts of the physical world are understood. They can be observed and described by theories—but much of it cannot. Human observation bumps up against these stark limits. While human reasoning may not be limitless, our ability for abstract thought allows us to consider countless possibilities for what might in principle be over the horizon. Though the answers to many current mysteries will come into focus in the coming decades, it’s possible that some key features of reality may be beyond our conceptual grasp. There may be phenomena, crucial to our understanding of physical reality and critical to our long-term destiny, that we are not aware of, any more than a monkey is able to comprehend calculus. If aliens exist, it is easy to imagine that they have developed a different perception of reality and have senses and brains that structure their consciousness in a fashion that we cannot being to conceive.

As daunting as our limited view of the universe may seem, our ability for abstract thought and self-consciousness has aided our comprehension of the universe beyond the world we see, and enabled humans to accomplish a great many things.

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Abstract thought has formed the basis for innovation and creativity throughout human existence and can be seen as one of humanity’s most defining features. This ability to think outside our immediate cultural setting and surroundings, beyond basic needs like eating, sleeping and reproducing, is indicative of a higher degree of thought. The ability to form hypotheses using abstract thought and test them in physical form characterizes scientific thinking; abstract thought also goes hand in hand with the development of technical innovation in the progression of human behavior through time.

One of the most striking aspects of human knowledge is the ability of the mind to bend back on itself completely, rendering us self-aware and self-conscious. Our consciousness is our awareness of ourselves and the world around us, and we are only really present to ourselves when we know something other than ourselves. When we know anything, we know that we know (furthermore, we know that we know that we know, and so on). It is this power that gives us the ability to know our limits, and we cannot transcend our limits without first knowing them. This same ability towards self-transcendence allows us to become aware of the profound limitations of human intelligence and our cognitive abilities in general. Will the true scientific theories of the universe ever be found, and if so, would we even be able to understand them?

In the science fiction book A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, an alien race programs a massive supercomputer to calculate the Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything. After seven and a half million years of calculation, the computer finally spits out the answer “42” and no one has a clue as to what it means. So, in this case, is a question still a mystery if it’s been solved but you still have no idea what it means? Think about how mind boggling some earlier scientific theories, from Galileo to Einstein were when they were initially proposed. Philosopher Robert McCauley writes: “When first advanced, the suggestions that the Earth moves, that microscopic organisms can kill human beings, and that solid objects are mostly empty space were no less contrary to intuition and common sense than the most counterintuitive consequences of quantum mechanics have proved for us in the twentieth century.”

Still – can our puny brains really conceive all the questions and comprehend all the answers? That’s where mind-extending technology comes in to play. Homo Sapiens are a tool-making species. For example, our unaided senses cannot detect things like UV light, ultrasound or gravitational waves, but with the right technology, we’re able to detect and record all of these things and more. In the virtual world inside a computer and with the explosion of Artificial Intelligence, astronomers can mimic galaxy formation, or crash another planet into the Earth to see if that’s how the Moon might have been formed; meteorologists can simulate the atmosphere, to forecast the weather or long-term climate change. As computing power grows, these virtual experiments become more realistic and useful. We use mind-extension technologies to represent concepts we couldn’t think of with our bare brains alone.

Equally important, we can extend our mind(s) by networking to our fellow human beings. The thing that makes our species so unique is that we are capable of culture, in particular, cumulative culture knowledge. What that means is that a population of human brains is far smarter than any individual brain in isolation. No scientist would be able to unravel the mysteries of the cosmos on her own, but collectively, we’re doing so. As Isaac Newton wrote, he could see further by “standing on the shoulders of giants”. Through collaboration, scientists can extend the scope of their understanding and achieve much more than any of them would have been capable of individually.

As I mentioned earlier, biologically, we are not much different than we were 40,000 years ago. But now we know about viruses and bacteria, supernovas and black holes, and a wide array of other strange things. Our minds have “reached out” to objects millions of light years away from our planet, as well as to extremely tiny objects far below our conceptual limits. A little over 100 years ago, nobody had the slightest idea that the quantum world even existed. Now it lies at the heart of our understanding of the universe. Today’s unknowns may become tomorrow’s great theories. A hundred years from now, perhaps we will understand how our cells form consciousness, or the nature of dark matter, or the nonlinear nature of time. Perhaps a thousand years from now we will more easily see the invisible hand of God, or be able to weigh love.

So, are the limitations on human knowledge? Possibly/maybe, but I look forward to piercing those limits.

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