What Are The Limits of Individual Knowledge?

By James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, December 2, 2014

This week I watched my favorite nature documentary, My Life as a Turkey for the third and fourth time – and never gets old. Joe Hutto was given 16 wild turkey eggs which he hatched with an incubator and then let the chicks imprint on him. Hutto spent a year alone with his brood in the Flatwoods of Florida, being their mother, and becoming a turkey. The more time Hutto spent with his turkeys, the more his mind adapted to the natural world. Hutto, a naturalist, had already spent much his life in nature, but at one point he said that normally he saw three rattlesnakes a year, but when he was with the turkeys he saw that many or more a day. He eventually learn over thirty vocalizations the turkeys used to communicate with each other. While he was with the turkeys reality revealed itself to him at a level he had never known before.


Now my point is not to talk turkey, but explore the capacity of the human mind. Hutto, by living with wild turkeys was able to see their minds were vaster than anyone ever imagined. He learned that animals live in the moment and see so much more of reality than we do, because our minds can’t stay focused on the present, and spend too much time dwelling on the past, or anticipating the future, places that don’t actually exist.

I am using examples from the natural world to think about thinking. The Inuit, the native people of the North American Arctic, were hunters who could traverse great expanses of frozen land and sea without maps or other navigational aids until they started using GPSes. The method of navigation by brainpower alone is called wayfinding, and the Inuit were highly skilled at it. I’m sure they also understood their prey like Joe Hutto understood his turkeys. Now that the Intuit use GPSes they have lost the capacity to live on the ice like their ancestors.

My guess is the maximum capacity of human brainpower is close to what humans experienced when living in nature and at the edge of survival. Becoming farmers, and then industrialized urban dwellers, provided us with ways to slack off. It’s only when we push ourselves to the extremes, in science, sports, mathematics, war, academia, business, do we get close to our operating maximum. Most people never push themselves in their day-to-day jobs, and watching television hardly taxes our abilities. It’s no wonder that video games are so popular, because they do push our minds to work harder.

We use machines and technology to make our lives easier, and even though we think we’re much smarter than those that have come before us, that might be an illusion. Our collective knowledge is greater, but probably not our individual knowledge. Just because I live in an era of computers and robots on Mars doesn’t mean I know how to create them, or even describe the science used in their creation.

We live in a time when everyone thinks they know everything, and the people who act with the most certainty seem to know the least. This is why I doubt the human race is smart enough to avoid extinction. I’m not being cynical about people, just trying to guess their real potential. I love computers, but I’m starting to think we’d be smarter without them. But I don’t think we should give them up either. It’s obvious the next stage of evolution is machine beings.

I think we need to invent ways to push our own brain capacity, and learn to amplify our individual knowledge by working together in new forms of social knowledge acquisition.  We see this in teams of inventors or entrepreneurs who apply their collective knowledge towards a common goal. We revere and praise the individual, but we might need to start recognizing great teams, and study how they work. Or how and why collaborative systems like open source software and Wikipedia succeed.

One example of that is climate science. Climate deniers tend to be individuals, but they are arguing against an army of scientists working together with billions of dollars worth of cybernetic minds  and scientific tools. It strange how often average citizens side with the deniers. Can any one individual ever understand enough to explain anything thoroughly about reality? We need to recognize the limitations of our minds, and how collective knowledge works.


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