“Perhaps we are more like dogs… than we’d care to admit,” writes SFI Professor David Wolpert in a new essay for Aeon magazine, in which he grapples with the limits of human intelligence.
Just as a dog probably can’t comprehend that the can holding his food is made from processed rocks, Wolpert asks what aspects of the universe would be beyond our human ability to comprehend through language, mathematics, and science— “our greatest cognitive prostheses.” Through a series of ten queries, Wolpert explores what is and is not exceptional in our biological intelligence, and what’s holding us back.
Tantalizingly, he ends with a suggestion for how we might possibly escape these limits through contact with alien intelligence, or the construction of a hyper-computer to investigate what lies beyond its creators’ abilities to comprehend.
Read the essay, “A sliver of reality,” in Aeon (September 5, 2022)
Read the reader comments, with replies by author David Wolpert
Despite his many intellectual achievements, I suspect there are some concepts my dog cannot conceive of, or even contemplate. He can sit on command and fetch a ball, but I suspect that he cannot imagine that the metal can containing his food is made from processed rocks. I suspect he cannot imagine that the slowly lengthening white lines in the sky are produced by machines also made from rocks like his cans of dog food. I suspect he cannot imagine that these flying repurposed dog food cans in the sky look so small only because they are so high up. And I wonder: is there any way that my dog could know that these ideas even exist? It doesn’t take long for this question to spread elsewhere. Soon I start to wonder about concepts that I don’t know exist: concepts whose existence I can never even suspect, let alone contemplate. What can I ever know about that which lies beyond the limits of what I can even imagine?