Various Thoughts on the Limitations of Human Knowing

Douglas P. McManaman
May 2016
Reproduced with Permission

Intellectual creatures possess a degree of self-understanding. The reason is that an intellectual creature is capable of total self-reflection. What this means is that "I know" the object of my knowledge, but I also "know that I know" the object of my knowledge, and "I know that I know that I know" it, etc. Intelligence involves the ability to transcend oneself, and it is by virtue of this self-transcendence that we are capable of metacognition. The role that this self-understanding plays in our knowledge of the world is difficult to nail down precisely, but what we understand in others is, as a rule of thumb, limited to what we understand in ourselves. Consider the expression: "We only see in others what we see in ourselves." The more experience we acquire in being wrong, the more we come to see the truth of the adage. We cannot see in another what we don't see in ourselves, and since nature abhors a vacuum, the mind will fill it, and the result is that we will often see in others precisely what we see in ourselves. In time, if we are lucky, we discover how wrong we were about this or that person.

That's how both the confirmation and availability heuristic biases work; a hypothesis is formulated, and that is now the element that is within me, and what I see in the field of evidence is what I see in myself (the hypothesis that I initially formulated); in addition, we have the tendency to conclude that what we see is all there is by virtue of this unconscious cognitive reference to what is in me, as well as a lack explicit awareness of those epistemic limitations.

So what exactly do I notice in the other? What I already know in myself. Initially at least, I do not expect to notice what I do not already understand in myself, either implicitly or explicitly. Indeed, I often encounter in others unusual behaviour, and I notice it precisely because it is particularly bizarre; such behaviour stands out precisely because it is difficult to understand; it fails to resonate with me, I cannot make sense out of it, which means I cannot see it in myself.

What I already understand is limited, but what I can understand is profoundly limited, necessarily far more limited than I realize--for it is impossible to measure the parameters of our ignorance. As Nicholas Rescher writes: "I can know about my ignorance only vaguely and generally at the level of indefiniteness, but I cannot know it in concrete detail." Certain epistemic conditions are necessary for me to understand what, without those conditions, I could not understand, and I have no idea what those conditions are until I acquire them.

An atheist friend of mine very much likes Pope Francis and believes he understands him. He sees the Pope as a humanist who desperately wants to move the Church towards a more humanist perspective, but Francis is inevitably running up against a solid wall of religious belief and other factors, i.e., centuries old habits of belief and religious tradition that have made it difficult for him to achieve his end, which is to move the Church to where my atheist friend thinks it ought to be moved. My friend, a devoted secular humanist who thoroughly ridicules religious belief, seems to have forgotten that Pope Francis is religious, and not a secular humanist.

My friend does not understand what he simply does not know, only what he knows, and that is why there is not a great deal of content to the narrative he has constructed of the current pope--it is made up of the little in the Pope's life that actually coincides with the mind of my friend.

A brute animal only notices what pertains to himself in some way, that is, what has a relation to himself. A cat will pay some attention to a religious icon, for example, not because it is work of beauty, but only insofar as it has some reference to his appetites; it contains egg tempera, something that has a relation to his sensitive appetite. It is not in the animal's capacity to apprehend the beautiful, because beauty is intelligible (supra-sensible), and intelligibles exceed the capacity of a brute animal.

The human person, on the other hand, is able to apprehend supra-sensibles; hence, he is able to understand what it means to be a work of art, something that is good for its own sake, regardless of how it affects his appetites. However, the human person tends not to pay attention to what lies outside of his limited sphere of interest, unless it is unusual or bizarre--in which case it becomes part of his sphere of interest insofar as it has a bearing on his safety or some other need. Although the human person grasps supra-sensibles, he nevertheless tends to notice that which also has a distinct relation to himself. To the degree that something has a greater relation to himself, to that degree it stands out to him. Hence, the reason we miss so much in our ordinary field of perception.

Examples abound in our everyday lives. A musician who has recently learned a new instrument will notice the solo breaks of that instrument in a way he never used to; someone who studies trees with greater precision will notice them in the neighborhood where he never noticed them before; purchase new car and you will notice those of the same make and model wherever and whenever they appear. What has been acquired are epistemic conditions that permit a greater awareness where there was little before.

A glance at the history of the Church and the canon of saints corroborates the point that the magisterium, made up of limited human beings, is equally subject to those epistemic limitations. How can it be otherwise? Grace does not eliminate or destroy nature, it acts on nature. Consider how many saints in the history of the Church are clerics or religious. If one is a cleric or religious, the holiness of the cleric or religious is much easier to notice; much harder it is to notice the devoted mother or father who spends years taking care of their autistic or Down's Syndrome child. What is it that clerics pay attention to? What stands out when they look out upon the life of the Church? That which they know or understand from within. We tend not to notice what has little resemblance to ourselves. This is not to suggest that any one of the officially canonized is not worthy of canonization; quite the contrary; but the conspicuously large ratio of cleric/religious to lay saints is probably, in part at least, a reflection of the epistemic limitations that are very difficult for human beings to transcend.

The kinds of questions we ask also reveal, from another angle, the limits that constrain human intelligence. Knowledge begins with the question. The word itself is from the Latin quaerere, which means 'to quest' or 'to seek, or 'to journey'. Consider the expression "to pose a question" (from Old French poser: "to set, place, put"). To pose is to position oneself, as we do when we pose for a picture; it is a spatial verb, for when we position or set ourselves, we do so facing a particular direction, and when we face one direction (i.e., north), we do so to the exclusion of another direction (i.e., south and south west and south east, etc.). I cannot perceive a group of people all at the same time; as I focus on one person, I do so at the expense of a precise perception of another. In other words, as I focus on this person, others are in the periphery, and although I can perceive them, my perception lacks precision. But as I begin to shift my attention and focus on another person before me, the previous perception loses precision and the object of my new perception gains a precision that was lacking a moment ago. When we pose a question, we position ourselves for a quest. In other words, to ask a question is to pursue a line of inquiry.

Note the spatial undertone surrounding the very idea of "questioning". Human knowing, although it is not reducible to sense perception, shares in the limitations that sense perception imposes, and of course all knowledge begins in sensation. The human person is situated in place; for he is corporeal. Furthermore, we only come to know "what things are" (their natures) through their activities, which is why coming to understand the natures of things is slow and gradual. But some people observe the activity of things from one angle, while others from a different angle. The angle is determined by the particular questions posed, and questions are rooted in specific interests and problems. Some people are interested in one kind of problem to solve, while others are interested in another kind of problem to solve. Some seek more precision (science), because they are interested in solving certain problems that require a very precise understanding of how something works; others show interest in a more general knowledge in order to proceed in another direction, such as a better understanding of the nature of the human person or the overall purpose of human life, or the nature of knowledge, as opposed to how the brain works.

Our access to the real is through the subjective - it is a knowing subject that knows real things, a subject who is situated in a particular place at a particular time and who is confronted with specific tasks to be done. Although mathematics is abstract and fairly universal (it abstracts from social context, from culture, and from the realm of the sensible), the development of the science of mathematics arises out of very specific problems; for example, the science of geometry began in Egypt out of a need to re-establish property lines after the flooding of the Nile, and astronomy arose out of Astrology and the problems it attempted to solve. It was the Greeks who studied the work of the Egyptians, but for its own sake, not for the sake of re-establishing geographic boundaries or for the sake of knowing what the future holds. Much of the history of science is like that - it has its roots in specific problems to solve, whether economic, or military, etc.

When we are focused on certain aspects of reality, other aspects are easily overlooked, for when we pursue a line of inquiry, aspects of reality that we encounter along that road are opened up to us, while alternative lines of inquiry and the aspects of the real that such lines would have opened up are closed to us, just as attention to specific tasks can blind us to things that are right in front of us. Two questions bearing on the same object but posed from slightly different vantage points and rooted in slightly different interests will open up two divergent lines of inquiry that in due time and after some distance will have diverged significantly from where they were initially. A slight turn on a road can lead one into an area of the city that one never suspected existed. A slightly different direction of attention is all one needs to overlook something that is happening right before our eyes, like a robbery or a kidnapping.

The limitations that matter and sense perception impose on us affect every level of human awareness and cognition. If we fail to appreciate the role that subjective epistemic conditions play in the genesis of our knowledge, we may end up believing that the epistemic model or conceptual framework through which we see and interpret the real is far more comprehensive than it actually is.