The Limits of Reason: Cognitive Psychology, The Epistemological Crisis, and Epistemic Humility, #6.

Mr Nemo
18 min readFeb 5, 2024

By Joseph Wayne Smith

(Palazzi, 2023)



1. Introduction

2. Background: The Cognitive Limits of Rationality

3. Cognitive Blindspots

4. The Myth of the All-Seeing Eye: The Limits of Perception

5. The Epistemological Crises

6. Conclusion


The essay that follows is being published in six installments, one per section; this is the sixth and final installment.

But you can also download and read or share a .pdf of the complete text of the essay, including the REFERENCES, by scrolling to the bottom of this post and clicking on the Download tab.


The Limits of Reason: Cognitive Psychology, The Epistemological Crisis, and Epistemic Humility, #6

There is a crack, a crack in everything

That’s how the light gets in. (Cohen, 1992)

How would we feel if science came up against experimental and intellectual brick walls, so that after centuries of trying, man finally concluded that the world was constructed — if upon intelligible principles at all — upon principles so bizarre as to be perfectly undiscoverable or unfathomable by the human mind? What if [humankind] became totally convinced that the world simply could not be understood, that the world is and always must remain an intellectual surd? Science might then continue at it pertains to technology, but not as it pertains to theory. What if all hope of theoretical understanding were permanently lost? (Davis, 1987: 293)

Only those who stop at the right moment prosper in philosophy, those who accept the limit and the comfort of a reasonable level of worry. Every problem, if one touches the bottom, leads to bankruptcy and leaves the intellect naked: No more questions and no more answers in a space without horizons. The questions turn against the mind which conceived them: It becomes their victim. Everything becomes hostile: [their] own solitude, [their] own audacity, absolute opacity, and the manifest nothingness. Woe to [that person] who, having reached a certain point of the essential, has not stopped! History shows that the thinkers who climbed to the limit of the ladder of questions, who laid their foot on the last rung, on that of the absurd, have given to posterity an example of sterility, whereas their peers, who stopped half-way, have fertilized the mind’s flow; they have been useful to their fellows, they have passed down some well-crafted idol, a few polished superstitions, a few errors dressed up as principles, and a system of hopes. (Cioran, 1949: pp. 115–116)

6. Conclusion

One of the main research hypotheses to be investigated in future essays, which is strongly suggested by the work about cognitive blind spots and errors, is that is that there exist cognitive/neurological limits to the human mind, that render it an imperfect instrument for the seeking of truth at the deepest level about reality. Colin McGinn has proposed, for example, that humans did not evolve for philosophical and scientific exploration, because there were no specific selective forces acting to favour these qualities (McGinn, 1993). Rather, these cognitive abilities arose as a broader spin off, and unintended consequence of survival and gene replication. Consequently, the human brain is good at navigating the physical world, and reproduction, but not so good at exploration of abstract realms, or for dealing with multi-dimensional, non-linear “wicked problems” such as the ecological crisis, let alone fundamental explorations of the nature of ultimate reality (Balcomb, 2014).

McGinn sees the intractability of foundational philosophically-based problems as arising from the limited cognitive capacity of the human mind, while other philosophers, such as Thomas Nagel see the intractability of such problems as arising from the clash between the subjective and objective points of view (Nagel, 1986, 2012). Eric Dietrich (Dietrich, 2011) has argued that the approaches of both McGinn and Nagel are based upon points of view, whereas McGinn argues that humans lack the appropriate cognitive point of view to solve philosophical problems. Nagel postulates three points of view, the subjective, objective, and a third view that sees the subjective and objective views as equally valid, with intractability arises from the inability to resolve this:

From Nagel’s point of view, the subjective/objective divide is unbridgeable, and is the font of all philosophy and its intractability. From McGinn’s point of view, there is a point of view from which the problems of philosophy are solvable, indeed solved. (Dietrich, 2011: p. 340)

Dietrich believes not only that we cannot know which of these positions is correct, if either (Dietrich, 2011: p. 340), but also that both positions show that philosophy cannot progress, because “crashing points of view are ineluctable, and their existence is the only truth (Dietrich, 2011, 341). But even this creates a self-referential problem, as Dietrich’s own account is a philosophical account, subject to the critical arguments of others, so even the claim may that philosophy does not progress will not be known.

The position taken here, from this review of literature, is that the limitations of human reason are more than just a conflict between subjective and objective perspectives, although this is one relevant factor. It is more likely that there are cognitive and neurological limits to the human mind, more widespread than relating to philosophical inquiry, as important as that is. As such, while that alone does not lead to epistemological skepticism, it does support the position of epistemic humility, a position adopted in various forms by many philosophers from Socrates (“For I was conscious that I knew practically nothing …” Plato, Apology, 22d) to Kant. Rae Langton in Kantian Humility says, regarding Kant’s idea that we can never have knowledge of mind-independent things-in-themselves, that this is a position of “epistemic humility,” the recognition that there “are inevitable constraints on what we can know, inevitable limits on what we can become acquainted with” (Langton, 2001: p. 2).

It has been shown in this essay that considerations from cognitive psychology, and the epistemological crises, strongly support this doctrine of epistemic humility, a matter which will be further discussed in future essays, examining other fields, including mathematic, statistics, and physics.


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Mr Nemo, W, X, Y, & Z, Monday 5 February 2024

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Mr Nemo

Formerly Captain Nemo. A not-so-very-angry, but still unemployed, full-time philosopher-nobody.