Thursday, 8 November 2012

The Boundary

A bit speculative this.

What happens if we assume our ideas are limited by what we are as human beings? It isn’t an uncommon or improbable idea, yet what are we supposed to do with it? Usually we seem to do nothing with it – as if it isn’t relevant.

However, it seems to me that there was a time when human limitations were better recognised than they are now - we knew ourselves to be limited beings. Maybe we overdid it as times and maybe it was socially and politically useful to the elite, but we were aware of our fallibility.

Not that we don’t know it now of course, but we appear to have forgotten how to take at least some notice of it. To begin with, let’s give it a modern name – the Boundary. The Boundary is where our intellectual evolution ceased evolving. Our collective glass ceiling.

What is beyond the Boundary? A logical void – obviously. The Boundary has only one side because the other side is by definition unknowable. Yet modern rationalism has tended to forget the Boundary, carrying on as if all is knowable. To my mind, this came about when we accidentally decided or assumed that the universe is the sum total of what is real.

Yes, multiverse theories attempt to go beyond our universe, but the multiverse is scientifically ridiculous – it has no observable consequences. On the whole, we take the Boundary as encompassing the whole universe.

So the whole universe was brought inside the Boundary and the idea that all is knowable, at least in principle, seeped into the scientific mind. Or at least it seeped into those minds not paying enough attention to their own assumptions. Maybe it dates from Newton, but I don't think one can be quite that specific. It does have a Newtonian flavour though. The universe is mathematical and we can do maths - that kind of flavour.

Yet it seems to me that there are numerous clues to the possibility and even likelihood that the Boundary is lurking within the universe, not beyond it. In other words, we live with the unknowable and become familiar with it, but not to the extent of understanding it.

It’s the elephant in the room.

Take something familiar such as our economy. We know our economy is complex, but suppose it is more than complex – suppose it straddles the Boundary. In that case our economy would be partially understandable, but it would do strange things we could never explain. 

This problem would be an aspect of our limitations as evolved beings. It would not be resolvable by further study, new theories or better computer models. These efforts would not make any difference, because  in our models we cannot include phenomena which lie beyond the Boundary.

This of course is a Kantian idea – or at least one he developed. The unknowable phenomenon beyond our ken – the noumenon

To deal with the Boundary, we have to simplify wherever we can, because that may help us keep things on our side of the Boundary. It may not of course - we can't tell except insofar as our understanding seems to be incomplete.

We have to work within our limitations, without quite knowing what they are. For all we know, our whole civilisation depends on it – and that’s the point. The danger posed by the Boundary is that we don’t know where it is or what it hides from us.

It will cause problems we don't understand, events we did not foresee, consequences we didn't expect, events with unclear causes.

A little more humility might help, but our leaders are not strong on humility. This lack of official humility may be a far more serious weakness than they suppose. It certainly has been in the past...

Ah but I forgot - we no longer learn from the past.


Roger said...

Interesting idea. Do some people see further into the void than others - certainly some claim to. I should think the boundary is fuzzy and can shift if enough effort is applied. Whether there are things to be 'known' that we humans absolutely cannot ever know I find troubling - what holds us back? Are there things that simply cannot be hammered into our brains however hard a celestial pedagoge tried? Personally I doubt it.

Then there are things naturally fuzzy - climate, economics, political policy. I just accept that clear and definite answers to 6 figures are not possible in these areas, I merely hope for an honest ballpark figure.

Demetrius said...

Perhaps we should have an Institute For Improbable Ideas.

A K Haart said...

Roger - I'm sure the boundary is fuzzy and it may be that our expectations of predictability are at fault. If so, that would open another can of worms.

Demetrius - we have, it's called the House of Commons!