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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Our Feeble Minds

[Man] is very small, very simple, very little capable of insight.
His knowledge of the great orb of things is but a fledgling's knowledge.
His admiration is a nestling's admiration for the things kindly to his own small nature....The music of the spheres passes over him, through him, and is not heard.

Olaf Stapledon, Last and First Men

Let us consider the human brain. Should we give it high marks or low marks for its various abilities? Looking at the matter from an earthly perspective, it would seem that the human brain should be ranked very highly indeed. No other animal has nearly as much intelligence as a human being.

But when we look at the matter from a galactic or cosmic perspective, we may get a very different outlook on the human mind. Consider the question of galactic civilizations. A civilization on another planet could have arisen any time during the past billion years. Extraterrestrial species may have had millions of years to evolve intelligences vastly greater than ours. Minds on other planets may be as far above our minds as our minds are above the minds of our dogs or our goldfish.

Having looked at the matter from such a perspective, we are ready to take a fresh look at the different mental abilities of our minds. Like an elementary school teacher, let us grade each of these abilities on a scale of A to F. We will use a scale in which A is the highest ability we can reasonably imagine for an intelligent creature in the universe, and F is basically a complete lack of a particular ability.

Memory: Humans have two types of memory: short-term memory and long-term memory. Our short-term memory is very weak, with only about the capacity of a few index cards. Give someone ten minutes to memorize a page of 40 names, and he will be very unlikely to do it. Our long-term memory is much better, but still extremely limited. A laptop or I-Pad with the right software can do a much better job at recalling the cities of the world (or the thousand most important events of world history) then a human will ever do. Our long-term memories are also subject to decay and degradation. We sometimes create memories of things that did not actually occur, a process called confabulation. Another weakness of our memory is how slow it takes for facts to transfer into our memory. It is as if there is a bottleneck which prevents us from ever memorizing more than a small number of facts on any particular day.

Grade: D+.

Numerical Ability: The human mind is very poor with numbers. There are watch-sized calculators that can do multiplication and division hundreds of times faster than almost any human. We have a hard time even remembering numbers. The average person can't remember the phone number he was using before his current phone number. We also have a hard time understanding principles that involve numbers. Consider a principle such as the law of large numbers, which effectively means that in general the longer you spend gambling at a casino on any particular day, the higher the likelihood that you will go home with less money than you had when you came in. Most people have difficulty understanding that principle, which is one reason casinos make so much money. There are numerous other cases in which people act as if they had a poor understanding of probability rules.

Grade: D-

Language Ability: This is the one area where the human brain gets a grade higher than D. When humans are very young, they have a remarkable ability to learn new languages. However, the ability quickly fades, and by the time someone gets to be a college student, it becomes very difficult to learn new languages.

A grade of C- seems fair, because it is easy to imagine more intelligent beings that could learn a new language in only a few weeks.

Grade: C-

Multitasking: Many people think they're good at multitasking, meaning doing multiple things at the same time. But that's actually a misconception. When people think that they're multitasking, they're almost always just rapidly switching back and forth between different tasks. You may think that you are doing your homework and checking Facebook at the same time, but at any one time you are actually concentrating on one of these things or the other. "People can't multitask very well, and when people say they can, they're deluding themselves," said neuroscientist Earl Miller in this NPR piece entitled “Think You're Multitasking? Think again.”

But for years computers have had a real ability to multitask. On any dual-processor laptop you can run one program that performs 3D graphics calculations while another program does financial calculations, with each running full-blast.

It is easy to imagine extraterrestrial minds which might have a true multitasking ability. For example, an extraterrestrial might be able to read a book at the same time as he writes an analysis of what he was reading, going full blast at both activities at the same time.

Grade: F

Imagination: Humans have a limited amount of imagination which sometimes leads to works of arts such as novels or screenplays. But our imagination is weak. To even imagine in depth a world a little different from our own usually takes a writer weeks or months of laborious effort. It is almost impossible for us to imagine some reality very different from any reality that we have previously learned about or read about or seen depicted in a movie. For example, try to imagine in depth a civilization a hundred times older than our civilization, in which everybody is a hundred times smarter than any of us. Such a thing is pretty much impossible. We don't even have a very good ability to imagine what it would be like to be someone living in a different country on our planet, following a different religion. If we were better at such a task, there would not have been so much bloodshed in wars, because we would find it much easier to empathize with the people we are fighting.

Grade: D+

Insight: One example of insight is the ability to deduce an underlying truth or pattern from a large set of observations Another example of insight is to deduce a possible method of solving a problem. Humans do not have very much in the way of insight. Ask yourself – when was the last time you had a discerning insight about yourself or about life or about mankind? For humans, discerning insights are few and far between. When we look out at the vast universe beyond our little planet, our insight fails us, and we come up blank. But it is easy to imagine a superior mind who might have dozens of brilliant insights every day.

Grade: D

Reasoning: Humans are capable of doing an abundance of reasoning. But our reasoning is all too often riddled with fallacies. We fall for the same old logical fallacies again and again. Moreover, when we should be logically reasoning in a dispassionate and objective manner, we let all kinds of subjective thinking and emotions and prejudices and wishful thinking enter our minds, causing us to reach invalid conclusions and make inappropriate assumptions. We should put our emotions and hopes and hatreds and fears in the closet while we reason, but instead we let these things rule our minds while we reason.

Grade: D

So there is a report card on that weak, feeble thing known as the human mind. We have no real insight into how weak our brains are, because we lack the mental ability to vividly imagine a state of mind far surpassing our intelligence. We are like those born blind, who never fully understand what they are missing. Perhaps a better analogy is this: we are like those born blind on a planet in which everyone is blind, and no one realizes what they are missing.