A Modest Conjecture

Thinking the unthinkable



TUCSON (A-P) — That there are some thoughts, perhaps thinkable to aliens whose travels are currently limited to the Andromeda galaxy, that are unthinkable to Earth's bipedal apes, is one of the few certainties we could chisel in stone. Of course, no examples can be given of such alleged thoughts. That we are no more able to understand some things than dogs understand calculus seems likely, but merely that. The unthinkable-thoughts claim is immodest as no evidence can be offered.

A more modest proposal is to claim that some thoughts are unthinkable by normal humans. The "some" allows for the possibility that some thoughts are thinkable to a few from whose perspective there are indeed unthinkable thoughts as evidenced by near universal failure of humans to think them. For this claim, evidence can be presented, but if the conjecture is true, virtually all who could be made to consider the evidence will predictably dismiss it. If evidence is offered that readers do demonstrably understand, then that disproves the conjecture.

Most of us would acknowledge that we have nothing to say of the second equate in the seventh term on page 112 of Wiles's proof of Fermat's last theorem. That most of us have little to say of non-locality as it relates to quantum chromodynamics is not an interesting claim. The modest conjecture is of interest only if there are thoughts that are clear enough, straightforward enough, that average humans are able to understand them, but that fall through the cracks of the human mind. Lecture goers may answer questions, make correct inferences, yet their understanding is actively opposed by their primate brain such that denial, of both evidence and reason, is compulsory. Of special interest would be those thoughts that are critical to species survival that nevertheless appear unthinkable. If thoughts provable by simple arithmetic remain unthinkable, then humans may have cognitive limitations worth noting.

Many possible examples could be mentioned, but to not go on at book length, I'll pick one. Professor Albert Bartlett somewhat famously gave the same lecture (not to his physics students) 1,742+ times over a 36 year period to audiences world-wide, from CEO gatherings to high school classes; average attendance was about 80 so nearly 140,000 total attentive listeners heard it, not including those that have merely watched the videos of his lecture. The one-hour lecture, "Arithmetic, Population and Energy: Sustainability 101" may be, as a few claim, "the most important video on YouTube." Al Bartlett is certainly a model of perseverance, but he had to start each talk with the statement, "The greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function."

He did not say, "some members of the human race" nor "fully understand." Most could follow his masterful efforts, could follow what he was saying, his logic, his reasoning, his simple arithmetic, but could not grasp the implications, the ramifications as they relate to life as they "know" it, or believe it to be. If at the end all present could say, "Yes, Dr. Bartlett, we understand" and pass a test, their failure of thought would be evidenced by their adding, if only in the privacy of their own minds the next day, one more word to the "Yes." The "Yes" was morphed into "Yes, but....," into yes comma but dot dot dot, and all grasp of what he had said was lost.

Some unknown percentage of his listeners got it, but what of it? He could at least keep giving the lecture and entertain some element of hope. Those who "got it" could hardly expect to do better in explaining "it" than he had. They could on occasion repeat a few points and hope others might watch the video, but if they did see the implications, what could they do? Some didn't need to hear his lecture as it's points were self-evident to those paying attention. Some could write books or appear on NPR. Bartlett started giving his talk in 1969. This was two years before Odum published "Environment, Power, and Society" and three years before "Limits to Growth" became an international best seller that was also given the "yes, but...." treatment and so effected no changes.

Issues that were common knowledge within the science community were aired on global media by David Suzuki in his 1985 "A Planet for the Taking." Hundreds of top scientists, a majority of Nobel laureates, signed a warning message to humankind in 1992 to coincide with the fine words of the Rio Summit that effectively marked the end of the "environmental movement." History before and since has been a history of business-as-usual. Collectively, a total disconnect, a failure to think well by those who would rather believe than know. If it feels good, we believe it, we do it, no questions asked. It may be in our evolved nature to do so. The explanatory efforts made, sometimes to standing ovations, appear to be water off our collective duck's back.

To add a few more nails to our collective coffin-like minds, consider E.O. Wilson's, “People would rather believe than know.” I'm guilty of misquoting him. On several occasions I quoted him as saying, "Most people....." There may be exceptions, but we typically say "humans have two eyes and ten digits on two hands" even though there are exceptions. What is "normal" or characteristic is of more significance, and that humans are believing animals, not knowing animals, is both telling and has consequences.

The "marketplace of ideas" meme is an Americanism, a product of our business-as-usual on steroids society. In the Consumer Society of the Oversold, ideas are a commodity. You can sell "The Impossible Dream" meme, sing it, make a movie of it, but try selling a "Descent Now" meme. You can publish anything you want so long as it is sellable. Any claim can be made and depending on the time and who is making it, books featuring the unthinkable may be best sellers and some speakers garner standing ovations before being dismissed like yesterday's chewing gum. Try selling other people's used chewing gum. Go ahead, it's a free society, you can put anything on the market. You can give the same lecture 1,742 times.....


If humans are hardwired to think every endeavor, personal or civilizational, has a positive outcome, that going into the cave to evict the cave bear so one's extended family may be more likely to survive the blizzard is a good idea, then that is an adaptive limitation. Deeply held beliefs may have been adaptive, though delusional, and may lead to species extinction of the over-empowered animal—another unthinkable thought.


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