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This question has its origin in a debate/thread about gods, mysterious ways and "gods plan" as in "can god communicate his plan to humans".

This is not a question about a single individuals ability to comprehend but rather a question wether human brains are incompatible with any conceivable type of knowledge, information or wisdom.

Is it conceivable that a senior alien race or other non-human intelligence, if contacted, would be unable to communicate and explain to us all of their experiences and knowledge?

  • Assumed: No knowledge is inaccessible.
  • Assumed: Language barriers can be bridged.
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Yes! Not only is such knowledge possible, it is even reasonable to assume the existence of such knowledge.

My argument extrapolates from the evolution of species:

One cannot teach even the smartest dog undergraduate mathematics. The dog will neither understand nor learn the reasoning. Why should members of the human species be capable of understanding or learning all possible insights about our world?

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  • Im not sure understanding is a requirement for knowing. For example, I would contest that no human understands how many stars there are in the universe, our brains simply cant imagine such large quantities, but we still know (estimate) how many there are. Im also dubious about the dog comparison...
    – Alonda
    Jan 26 at 18:08
  • @Alonda perhaps the point is clearer if we imagine alien intelligences from whose point of view our level of development is primitive? Or perhaps our contemporary experience of scientific discovery -- learning new things every day -- suggests that there are whole domains of knowledge maybe not inaccessible to human inquiry as such but for which we haven't yet developed the tools, frameworks and subtle wisdom to really make very much definite progress yet
    – Joseph Weissman
    Jan 26 at 18:29
  • @Alonda Please let me know your concerns about the dog comparison. Possibly, then I better understand your point.
    – Jo Wehler
    Jan 26 at 19:08
  • @JoWehler I doubt dogs can learn math as simple as 3+6, humans on the other hand have reached a level of understanding of math, reason and logic where (my own arrogance) it feels like no knowledge would be unable to be revealed to us by another higher intelligence.
    – Alonda
    Jan 26 at 21:52
  • @Alonda What's the difference between knowing and understanding? Seems to that it's just a stack of knowing: if you know enough things supporting another thing then you understand that other thing.
    – DKNguyen
    Jan 27 at 0:04
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I make the case here it's about what our conceptual models allow us to meaningfully interact with: Is it possible to visualize higher dimensional space?

A lot of our capacities link to specific technological cultures, and just like having bards and monks in a preliterate world allowed The Axial Age to occur, the transition from sacrifice focused religions that were primarily about spectacles, to ethico-philosophical traditions. Similarly we have gravity-wave observatories and weather satellites, and it shifts what model of the world we can interact with, resituating not only our physical cosmology but our mental and social one too, discussed here: Which philosophers and philosophies discuss "worldview epistemologies"?

Wittgenstein said "If a lion could speak, we could not understand him". Nagel suggest in What Is It Like To Be A Bat? that our intersubjectivity is limited by qualia. We know dolphins are smart, but we still can't speak to them, bolstering this view (though that they communicate in holographic pictures has only recently been discovered, a key insight was needed.

Real knowledge, implies to me that some being exists that knows it. Can we understand any random being's mind, and knowledge? We still don't understand Linear A cuneiform from Crete; we need a 'Rosetta Stone' to cross communication gaps.

Or, to link a human (mind) to another being's mode of life and live like them or them live like us: a lion, a bat, an octopus, a dolphin, a parrot, a corvid, an elephant. If something about the mind of a knower means that is impossible, such as them being more advanced technologically than humans but uninterested in communicating, likely full communication may never be established. The classic scifi Roadside Picnic that the film masterpiece Stalker was based on explores such a disconnect.

The consilience we expect to experience with aliens, like sharing mathematical ideas as put on to Voyager, is founded in sharing modes of life, eg solid bodies, readily perceiving spatial dimensions, only moving through time in one direction. The 'journey of unification' science has been on (see Is the idea that "Everything is energy" even coherent?) can be taken to imply all the experiences and phenomena that humans have and choose to share can be integrated together, linked into one language embedded in overlapping experiences. But the bare-bones phenomena of maths & and science contain very little of our 'what it' s like to be - ', our qualia. They are like only understanding the letters in an alphabet, not how elements of experience can be combined.

We need a lot more to understand emergent phenomena than bare physics (ie the mathematics of experiencing situations with 'simple' symmetries - see the unreasonable ineffectiveness of mathematics in biology), and make it tractable to understand. Comparatively biology is like literature, which trivially we can say is 'unified' with an alphabet, but really that tells us very little about being a being.

We have to share minds with a writer, to engage with literature, and we need bridges to get there, a shared language founded in overlapping modes of life.

Similarly with the minds of aliens, and beings beyond our imagination like sentient neutron stars (proposed as plausible in relation to OrchOR). We cannot know much about thoughts in the mind of a sentient neutron star, not without becoming at least somewhat like one, eg using some vast AI cyborg addition to a human mind ('inhumanising' it).

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  • "If something about the mind of a knower means these things are impossible..." Except that part of the ability to communicate is the ability to phrase things in a way which the other person can follow. Even dogs can do that (bark at the door for "I want to go outside"). Humans are perfectly capable at scaling down the detail of explanations to what less-developed minds can handle - that's the definition of education. So by definition, if anything can communicate at all then it can communicate with us. It might need to educate us initially, but it can do it.
    – Graham
    Jan 27 at 15:01
  • @Graham: It might need to change us beyond recognition (2001 style). My point is there will be things a conscious neutron star can understand that will be meaningless or incomprehensible at human resolution. Dolphins are clever, humans are clever, we can't talk until we can share enough of our modes of life, so intellect isn't the only barrier. Your certainty seems unwarranted.
    – CriglCragl
    Jan 27 at 17:23
  • @Graham: Have tried to clarify my points.
    – CriglCragl
    Jan 29 at 19:10
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Such a topic naturally stretches the limits of our words. Questions like "what qualifies as knowledge" start to show up. Questions like "if a human knows 'God's plan,' are they still human" become interesting. In the end this leads the question to be undecidable at best. At worst, it becomes one of my favorite words from the East, mu. Teachers would utter that one word (a negation word) when a question has no answers which do not lead to suffering.

It would be easy to construct a pantheon where the plan is easily understandable by humans. It is also easy to construct a pantheon where it is incomprehensible. The trick is that it's hard to argue against either position because the concept at hand is so gargantuan that just pinning down the words of any proof thereof is tricky.

Perhaps the most useful concept I would bring to the table is dao (道). It may be useful because it is a less loaded term than "God's Plan" in such debates. It is glossed as "the way," although SEP has a huge article describing all the nuances therein. But of particular interest is a translation of a particular phrase: "The dao that can be spoken is not the Eternal Dao." It's been translated several ways, so feel free to research it, but it points to the idea of a concept that cannot be known in words. This points to the need for that concept of understanding to extend beyond words, and that gets into murky waters quite quickly. It can be hard to get people to agree as to what such knowledge is. Concepts like "I know it is true in my heart" start to show up, and they can get tricky in such debates.

I would argue that this concept of the Eternal Dao is knowledge humans cannot have because it is written to suggest that and all of the experts I have seen or read from agree. Some, however, would argue that there is no meaningful concept of "knowledge of the Eternal Dao." That would weigh heavily in your argument, as we presuppose the thing we are interested in is, indeed, "knowledge."

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This is an important question in the world of physics, as follows.

Throughout the history of the field, there has always been some point in the explanation chain for some phenomenon where physics runs out of answers, and the physicist then abandons the unanswerable to god.

Then, as the years pass and the insights of the particularly gifted practitioners accumulate, physical explanations are found for the previously inexplicable and god's domain of the unknowable shrinks in response.

When will we then reach that point where even the most perceptive and gifted human runs out of intellectual horsepower and can go no further? That is, is there a human limit to our capacity to make sense of our universe?

Note here that 1) the universe we inhabit is under absolutely no obligation to make sense to us, and 2) in fact, the only thing in the world of physics that is absolutely required to make sense is something we in the field call a graduate student.

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  • Just because we can't discover the knowledge doesn't mean we can't be shown or taught the knowledge. By whom? Aliens, as the questions suggests, or an advanced AI perhaps
    – Blueriver
    Jan 27 at 1:12
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Suppose there is an actual infinite. For example, our own universe might well be infinite in spatial extension. Or it might be the case that there is no such a thing as the smallest element of reality.

If so, given our most rational beliefs about ourselves, we could not conceivably acquire any knowledge on everything that exists in an infinite universe.

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    but if there was a method to investigate, the knowledge could be obtained
    – Alonda
    Jan 26 at 18:11
  • Being finite beings, we cannot know infinite things. Considering an infinite knowledge (though I think physicists don't agree on that one), the "knowledge of everything in our universe" would be "a knowledge", and it would be infinite, and it would be something that we, as finite beings, cannot know. I love this answer!
    – Blueriver
    Jan 27 at 1:20
  • @Alonda "but if there was a method to investigate, the knowledge could be obtained" Either it will rain tomorrow or it will not rain tomorrow. Jan 27 at 11:47
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This is a topic that Marcus du Sautoy explores deeply in his book "What We Cannot Know".

Du Sautoy has lenghty (and didactic!) explanations about why several topics are unknowable. If my memory of the book serves right, those topics include:

  • Chaotic systems. The final state of a chaotic (yet deterministic) system, like a random dice roll, cannot be known due just to the sheer complexity of such a system.
  • The brain. A system can only "know" a system of lower complexity.
  • Quantum mechanics. It's impossible to know the final state of an unobserved quantum system, because a quantum system needs to be observed in order to collapse. This in is the nature of quantum systems.
  • Anything beyond the observable universe. There are things so far away from the planet earth that any information from them (at light speed) hasn't reached us yet. For that matter, anything travelling away from the earth at the speed of light is also unknowable.

These limits are not about the human brain, but rather about the limitations of the laws of physics in our universe (and how those laws information information theory). The only conceivable way to make any of these unkownables into knownables would be to change (or break) the underlying laws of physics.

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I would pose it depends on the meaning of "exist".

Other universes with physics we are incapable of even imagining have not been proven to not exist, and it seems logical that, if we can't even imagine what such a universe looks like or how it works (and I mean to the point of it not being describable by our math), then it's very likely that we would be incapable of knowing the knowledge that beings in that universe know.

Of course, I'm relying on the possibility of other universes existing, and possibly an infinite number with infinite differences to our own. Most current multiverse theories would agree that, if such universes exist, then they exist outside of our universe. Consequently, this unknowable (by us) knowledge would also exist outside of our universe.

Do you count knowledge outside of our universe as existing, for your question?

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