Cognitive Closure

In philosophy of science and philosophy of mind, cognitive closure is the proposition that human minds are constitutionally incapable of solving certain perennial philosophical problems.

Neurobiologist Owen Flanagan calls this position ‘anti-constructive naturalism’ or the ‘new mysterianism’ and the primary advocate of the hypothesis, Colin McGinn, calls it ‘transcendental naturalism’ because it acknowledges the possibility that solutions might fall within the grasp of an intelligent non-human of some kind. According to McGinn, such philosophical questions include the mind-body problem, identity of the self, foundations of meaning, free will, and knowledge, both a priori and empirical.

According to McGinn in ‘Problems in Philosophy: The Limits of Inquiry’: ‘It cannot be simply taken for granted that the human reasoning faculty is naturally suited for answering philosophical questions: the questions and their subject matter are one thing; and rational faculty, as a human trait, is another. From the fact that it is the best faculty we have… for doing philosophy it does not follow that it is a remotely good or adequate faculty for that purpose.’

He continues: ‘When human minds interact with philosophical problems, especially those of the form ‘How is X possible?’, they are apt to go into one of four possible states. Either (i) they try to domesticate the object of puzzlement by providing a reductive or explanatory theory of it; or (ii) they declare it irreducible and hence not open to any levelling account; or (iii) they succumb to a magical story or image of what seems so puzzling; or (iv) they simply eliminate the source of trouble for fear of ontological embarrassment… The topics on which it imprints itself, and which I have discussed in some diagnostic detail in the aforementioned book, include: consciousness and the mind-body problem, the nature and identity of the self, the foundations of meaning, the possibility of free will, the availability of a priori and empirical knowledge… Basically what we find, quite generally, is the threat of magic or elimination in the face of the theoretical obduracy of the phenomenon that invites philosophical attention. The phenomenon presents initial problems of possibility… Free will, for instance, looks upon early inspection to be impossible, so we try to find some conception of it that permits its existence, but this conception always turns out to be dubiously reductive and distorting, leaving us with the unpalatable options of magic, elimination or quietism… so we hop unhappily from one unsatisfactory option to the next; or dig our heels (squintingly) into a position that seems the least intellectually unconscionable of the bunch… Science, then, might be aptly characterized as that set of questions that does not attract [these] options – where our cognitive faculties allow us to form the necessary concepts and theories. The distinction between science and philosophy is, on this view, at root a reflection of the cognitive powers we happen to possess or lack, and is therefore creature-relative: it does not correspond to any interesting real division within objective reality… It is not beyond the bounds of possibility that our brains would have to be made of something other than neurons in order for us to have the kinds of cognitive powers needed to solve the problems philosophy poses; at any rate, this is the sort of diagnosis [transcendental naturalism] offers for our philosophical retardation… The hardness of philosophy is thus an upshot of the particular way that natural selection has built our thinking organ, not an objective trait of the subject-matter of philosophical questions.’

For Austrian-British economist and philosopher Friedrich Hayek, ‘The whole idea of the mind explaining itself is a logical contradiction’… and ‘takes this incompleteness—the constitutional inability of mind to explain itself—to be a generalized case of Gödel’s incompleteness theorem… Hayek is not a naturalistic agnostic, that is, the view that science currently cannot offer an explanation of the mind-body relationship, but in principle it could.’

Physicist John Tyndall wrote in ‘Fragments of Science’ (1871): ‘[The] passage from the physics of the brain to the corresponding facts of consciousness is unthinkable. Granted that a definite thought, and a definite molecular action in the brain occur simultaneously; we do not possess the intellectual organ, nor apparently any rudiment of the organ, which would enable us to pass, by a process of reasoning, from the one to the other. They appear together, but we do not know why. Were our minds and senses so expanded, strengthened, and illuminated, as to enable us to see and feel the very molecules of the brain; were we capable of following all their motions, all their groupings, all their electric discharges, if such there be; and were we intimately acquainted with the corresponding states of thought and feeling, we should be as far as ever from the solution of the problem, ‘How are these physical processes connected with the facts of consciousness?’ The chasm between the two classes of phenomena would still remain intellectually impassable. Let the consciousness of love, for example, be associated with a right-handed spiral motion of the molecules of the brain, and the consciousness of hate with a left-handed spiral motion. We should then know, when we love, that the motion is in one direction, and, when we hate, that the motion is in the other; but the ‘Why?’ would remain as unanswerable as before.’

Linguist and cognitive scientist Noam Chomsky argues that the cognitive capabilities of all organisms are limited by biology and that certain problems may be beyond our understanding: ‘A Martian scientist, with a mind different from ours might regard this problem [of free will] as trivial, and wonder why humans never seem to hit on the obvious way of solving it. This observer might also be amazed at the ability of every human child to acquire language, something that seems to him incomprehensible, requiring divine intervention.’

As argued in Kant’s ‘Critique of Pure Reason,’ human thinking is unavoidably structured by Categories of the understanding (Quantity, Quality, Relation, and Modality). These are ideas to which there is no escape, thus they pose a limit to thinking. What can be known through the categories is called ‘phenomena’ and what is outside the categories is called ‘noumena,’ the unthinkable ‘things in themselves.’

In his (famous) essay ‘What Is It Like to Be a Bat?’ Philosopher Thomas Nagel mentions the possibility of cognitive closure to the subjective character of experience and the (deep) implications that it has for materialist reductionist science. Owen Flanagan noted in his 1991 book ‘Science of the Mind’ that some modern thinkers have suggested that consciousness will never be completely explained. Flanagan called them ‘the new mysterians’ after the rock group Question Mark and the Mysterians. According to McGinn, the solution to the mind-body problem cannot be grasped, despite the fact that the solution is ‘written in our genes.’

Emergent materialism is a similar but different claim that humans are not smart enough to determine ‘the relationship between mind and matter.’

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