Will We Ever Be Superhuman?: The Limits of Our Knowing

When I was a kid, I could swim five lengths of our backyard pool underwater without taking a breath. Almost six. Let’s call it five-and-two-thirds. I thought that was pretty cool, almost Olympian. When my friends and I competed in Hold-Your-Breath-Underwater contests, I usually won. I had a superpower.

Maybe at my best it was something over a minute. Which is nothing. Stay under for another minute and you start to breathe water into your lungs. A little bit longer and you’re unconscious. In something well short of five minutes, you’re dead.

It’s a tight limit on the fragility of the human body. Just a top-of-the-hour television commercial break without oxygen and you pass on.

That got dark quickly. Sorry about getting into mortality so quickly. That’s not really where I’m going.

Instead, I’m more interested in thinking about the limits on our human condition. Not just oxygen, but other limits as well. Discussing human limits is still a sobering topic, but hopefully not entirely macabre. While some may seem obvious or ridiculous, here’s a quick list for consideration:

  • existence in three dimensions
  • sensory input: binocular vision, binaural hearing, limited smell, taste, touch
  • one brain with two hemispheres and limited (if any) multitasking capabilities
  • one life in a fragile body – soft tissue, multiple major blood vessels capable of puncture or injury, skeletal frame unable to withstand fall of more than a few feet
  • land animal – no wings, unable to breathe oxygen in water
  • food, water and sleep requirements (fuel)
  • excretion requirements (urine, feces, sweat)
  • environmental restrictions (pressure, temperature, gravity)
  • can you think of others? leave a comment

Creatures exist in our world that are generally better than humanity in almost all of these areas. Fish survive underwater, some sea creatures withstand enormous pressure at deep ocean depths. Birds and insects fly effortlessly far over our heads, breathing thin air in a less dense atmosphere. There are animals that have better senses, survive longer with sustenance, and never sweat.

All creatures seem to exist in three dimensions. That we know of.

The one area where we seem to have all other creatures beat is the brain. We have the upper hand on gray matter. And so we consider ourselves intelligent life, the superior species, homo sapiens, and the top of the food chain.

That we know of.

Because of our vast intellect, we seldom pause to consider just how stupid and limited we might be. Sure, compared to all of the other creatures that we encounter, we are the grandmasters, the valedictorians in a world full of short-bus species. It’s easy to take for granted our status and assume that our brain capacities already define the upper limit.

But what if they don’t? What if they don’t even come close?

Isn’t it possible that, combined with our limited senses, we are bereft of the capacity to fathom more than a small percentage of the information around us? What if we just don’t have the right inputs, or the computing power, or the right processing units to fully understand what’s going on all around us all the time?

What if our intellectual limits have us drowning in a foggy reality where we can only be informed by similar cognitions of the same fog? In other words, the blind leading the blind, to the best of our sightless ability, through a multi-faceted and truth-filled world where we are only catching hazy glimpses.

We think we’re so smart. Almost Olympian. But what if our human limits set an upper boundary to understanding? Will we ever be superheroes?

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