Cats, Toilets, and the Limits of Human Comprehension
I live in a house with a flushing toilet.
This does not amaze me, and it probably does not amaze you. It does, however, amaze my cat. To my cat, a flushing toilet (we have three!) is about the most ceaselessly amazing thing in the universe.
At the risk of seeming like a bad pet owner, I admit the following: It’s sometimes a struggle, while peeing, to keep my cat from sticking her head into the urine stream so she can get a better look at the soon-to-flush toilet bowl.
Funny anecdote – cats, bodily functions, etc. – but what’s my point? The point is: My cat is stupid.
She hasn’t caught on to how a toilet works, and she’s in no danger of doing so. I could teach her that the silver handle makes the toilet-flush happen, but even if she memorized that relationship in a Pavlovian sort of way, she’d never really “get it.” She’ll never have an ah ha! moment and recognize what that floating ball in the water tank is for, or what the chain attached to the handle does, or any of that “complicated toilet stuff.”
To a certain extent, we are all my cat – how many of us could explain a transistor, or a six-cylinder engine, or tell you the most efficient algorithm for a 2-elevator building to keep people on different floors from waiting any longer than is necessary? Yet these things are all around us, and we use them every day. We’re vaguely aware that we owe a lot to prior geniuses within our species, but basically we just expect stuff to work.
And yet, on the other hand… We are not at all like my cat. With proper instruction and some intellectual effort, you could figure out my toilet. You could learn how a transistor works, or an engine. Excepting those people with real shortcomings, be they genetic, nutritional, or maybe due to some brain trauma, most Homo Sapiens are capable of figuring out these complicated-but-not-intractable systems.
So while you might not exactly understand how your toaster works, you’re not threatened by this. Because you can honestly tell yourself, “Hey, if I ever put my mind to it, intellectual mastery of my toaster is my biological birthright.” And off you proudly go.
But I’m nervous about a future where this will no longer be true.
It used to be, back in the Enlightenment, if you wanted to be a world-level expert on most realms of human knowledge, it’d take some effort and access to the best books then-available, and probably a few years of time… But with those ingredients, you could essentially know everything there was to know about a broad subject. Like, for example, “Biology.”
This clearly isn’t the case any more. The envelope of human knowledge has radically expanded in the past few centuries. No one with any sense claims to be a world-class expert on a domain like “Biology” or “Engineering.” Our species’ best are experts within domains now, not on domains. A career can easily be spent just developing incomplete understanding of a single molecule — like, for example, nicotine.
(Quoth the Enlightenment-Era biologist: “What’s a molecule?”)
Of course, nature left us ill-equipped for studying distant pulsars or tiny microbes or weather-system models with our built-in tool set. We needed telescopes and microscopes and computer mainframes first. One could argue that we needed caffeine first.
Advancing technology has always been necessary to push forward our understanding of the world. Without it, we’d be in the predicament of my cat — caught under a low biological ceiling limiting comprehension of our everyday environment.
Nowadays, the tools available to intellectual envelope-pushers aren’t just tools of enhanced perception (telescopes, microscopes, etc.), they’re tools of expanded cognition. From a spreadsheet auto-calculating results tens of thousands of times faster than any human, to a biochemical booster-shot like caffeine, nicotine, or a Racetam, thinking tools are helping discoverers get further and further beyond old-school biological constraints on understanding.
This makes the things they’re learning are not only profound — but sometimes profoundly counterintuitive.
Luckily, metaphor and analogy help us out a lot here. “This is like that.” I explain SMS messaging to my dad as “It’s like email, only on your phone.” Someone in the 1980s could have explained a PC as “It’s like an electric typewriter that allows you to edit words before they’re actually typed.” These sorts of gross oversimplifications allow the cerebral superstars who actually figure things out to bring back intellectual meat for the rest of the tribe, and cook it up in a way we can digest.
But now, as boundary knowledge is increasingly generated not just by smart people, but by smart people amplified by thinking technologies, the things they figure out are going to be tougher and tougher to wrap mere-human brains around.
Relativity is a great example. It’s a fantastically complex realization Einstein had, and in 1905, armed with only a pen and a notebook, he changed the bedrock of our understanding of the universe. Yet now, over 100 years later, most humans can’t explain what relativity “means” in any more than an obscene, cartoonish bastardization of Einstein’s idea.
In other words, while Homo Sapiens can generally lay claim to intellectual mastery over their toasters… relativity is a different story.
With Einstein-level insights, the majority of us are more like my cat with the toilet: Permanently baffled.
Here’s the good news/bad news: We’re going to be seeing an upswing of relativity-like discoveries. But the far edges of human knowledge are getting so fantastically complex that it will no longer just be a matter of instruction and initiation to be able to follow along; a person will have to be pretty damned smart just to understand the dumbed-down analogy.
This, in large part, is why I’m interested in smartening technologies — smart drugs, brain stimulators, man/machine interfaces. I want to maintain an intellectual foothold in the world being built around us.
I want to maintain my relationship with my toilet. I never want to have my cat’s relationship with my toilet.