If learning stops

There is a sentence in Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations that has always freaked me out (actually, there are several). This particular one occurs in a discussion of rule-following and learning. He’s describing a student and he says something close to “The pupil’s capacity to learn my come to an end here.” The point is that a pupil, having learned several steps of some lesson, may not be able to learn the next step. It is beyond his/her capacity.

Now I taught myself calculus when I was in 9th grade, two years early. I didn’t think much of doing it– I wanted to do well at math to be a physicist so I figured I better get on with it. I have always enjoyed learning stuff, especially on my own. It raises my self esteem.

The idea that I could reach a limit and no longer be able to learn is scary. The Wittgenstein quote gives me a particular image. The pupil becomes a neuro-biological robot that has a finite range of functionality. We are no longer wonderful beings full of infinite potential. We can only go so far. And this limit may differ among individuals. So I may find myself the kid who can’t learn more. Adding to this anxiety is my early grade-school experience as the cross-eyed dyslexic kid in who always went off to the tutor. I was always worried that any day I’d reach my limit and become cognitively “trapped” against a ceiling to my abilities.

Now we all acknowledge our own limits in lots of ways. I’m not really into sports, and I’m not good at them. Am I not into them because as a material biological entity they exceed my capacities (e.g. in physical coordination)? Yes: I have bad depth perception due to my eye problem, and in grade school coaches always wrote comments like “Tim tries, but struggles with some skills because of his eye problem.” So yeah, obviously it’s all related.

But when we get to mental skills, it gets harder to see limits. We do not want to see limits. Personally, I find it pretty creepy to see people as having mental limits. Here’s a real-world example. I had a friend who lived in midtown Manhattan. She could not visualize the (to me, very straightforward) rectilinear system of streets and avenues. So she couldn’t figure out that to get to the restaurant we needed to go two avenues east and three streets south, for example. I found this a little frustrating. Why? Why didn’t I just think “her brain can’t handle this operation?” Because then in a sense “she would just be her brain.” It was dehumanizing by being objectifying. It annihilated her soul, and replaced it with an organ. With a physical limitation we don’t feel this way. E.g. “Tim, pal, you’ll never be a fighter pilot, you just don’t have the eyes for it.” That doesn’t creep me a bit.

Rather than beating up on my friend, let’s take me. I have for a while been interested in a thing called quantum nonlocality. Basically, it’s a phenomenon in quantum mechanics where two different events in space can seem to affect each other “instantly” with nothing travelling between them. It is frightfully interesting and subtle. I have studied it enough to be able to talk to theoretical physicists about it, to have my own point of view, and to be provocative. I think I understand it, in my own way, coming at it from philosophy and not straight physics.

Now a few times I have gotten a good start on working through quantum mechanics textbooks. The goal is to learn the full mathematical theory of quantum mechanics to help me better grasp nonlocality. But I always get bogged down. It’s a very abstract mathematical representation of the situation. It works very well to solve problems. But it doesn’t capture my imagination at all. It’s like learning an obscure language that you may never need. I lose motivation. Or do I? Could I be hitting my own mental limit? Couldn’t some people “in my position” easily learn the mathematical theory? So to not feel humiliated I make all these excuses about how I don’t really need to learn it?

Consider now generalizing my situation. First of all, we like to think that people end up where they are due to a blend of choice, chance, effort, etc. But what if a lot of the features of the world we see around us is people simply “operating at their limits?”
The “Peter Principle” says people in an organization rise until they reach a job they are just barely able to do. Then they don’t get promoted. So everyone is at their limit. So I’m just sort of generalizing this idea and making it neurological and materialistic and world-wide.

Now to get really provocative. I am not advocating what follows, I am just throwing it out there as possibility. I am saying the real world may be this way (what follows), not that I think it is.  It amazes me that our modern western world is the product of a few key inventions (i.e. the industrial revolution). Electricity is… a pretty important invention. Engines like the railroad or automobile engine. Flight. All of electronics, including radio and computers and thus the Internet. You could also throw in all of science, medicine, and social innovations like democratic government. These are all basically the product of dead white males from Europe or the US. What about all the other cultures of the world? Why aren’t they more creative in a practical sense? Well, maybe they were colonized by the west or are just poor or whatever and that holds them back. Maybe. Though you’d have to show how that affects innovation and creativity.  You would have to show they were forced into their state, not that it just arises naturally.

There is the freaky possibility that human capacities are genetic and different cultures or gene-groups create different capacities. I would like to think that if I took someone from a very different, less “advanced” (i.e. less like mine!) culture, I could still teach them anything. But what if it isn’t just a “lack of western education” or “a very different culture,” but also a “limit to ability to be educated”?

I’m not being White-centric here or anything… if the situation is reversed an average western person could have cognitive limits when they try to learn, say, Chinese. Maybe their brain doesn’t handle images the same way, so learning the thousands of Chinese characters is more difficult, and has an absolute capacity lower than an average Chinese person’s.

Obviously if this depressing situation exists it will be statistical so there will always be exceptions. So somebody from any culture could end up at MIT or Oxford. Thank God. But imagine how weird the world would be if limitations of different gene-groups were all known and recognized.  We would no longer have the idea that “everyone has infinite potential” if they have the motivation, etc. It would be more the way we think about mentally disabled people (e.g. “David can dress himself, use the toilet, but he can’t go out in public alone, “ etc.).  We could have this kind of detailed understanding of limits of… everyone. And if it’s genetic, whole populations could be known on average to be able to do X and Y but not Z. Now I would hope there would be lots of trade-offs, so no group would be “overall better” than some other. But we are talking nature here, why should it be so fair as to do that?

This dark vision lurks, for, me, in the back of Wittgenstein’s phrase: “The pupil’s capacity to learn may come to an end here.” Because there aren’t sharp lines in nature, I am inclined to think these gene-group-limits probably exist to some extent. I sure hope that individual variations in natural ability are much larger and thus more important. These creepy neurological limits could then be kept, as it were, down in the noise level of individual variation.

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