Extinct humans and human limits

I’ve been reading  Yuval Noah Harari’s best-seller Sapiens and I think it is very good. My own forthcoming book Prehension is in the same area, though I deal with human evolution before culture got started. One thing he emphasizes is that H. Sapiens once shared the planet with several other human species–Neanderthals, H. Erectus, Denisovans, and others. These are all, sadly, extinct. This is a great pity for many reasons, one of which is that we can never investigate their psychology. Would we find various cognitive limitations in our fellow human species? Might they exceed us in some areas? It seems likely that we would conclude that some areas are off limits to their understanding–that there are mysteries-for-Neanderthals. There is certainly no guarantee that all these species would be intellectually equal. Maybe they would conclude that there are mysteries-for-Sapiens! In any case, the question of mysteries and cognitive limits would be much helped if these species had not gone extinct. As it is, it is easy for us to see ourselves as quite discontinuous with other species intellectually–and hence nurture illusions of omniscience.

2 replies
  1. Giulio Katis
    Giulio Katis says:

    The ability to make maps that depicted the boundaries between the known and the unknown (but knowable) was brought up in Sapiens as one reason why the West dominated much of the world. Obviously this was a skill some people discovered, and not others.

    Is there a logical reason we could not identify the boundaries of what is humanly knowable and not knowable?

    Perhaps a more fun question: suppose in a sci-fi story a people discovered how to identify such a boundary, what could they do that others couldn’t? Would it bestow much greater power on them?

    • Colin McGinn
      Colin McGinn says:

      Being able to draw that boundary indicates advanced self-awareness and directs efforts usefully, so it is likely to have good effects. I seen no reason that we couldn’t know what we can’t know.


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