is there a limit to what we can comprehend

do you think there a limit to what we can comprehend?

Do you think the answers are out there we are just too simple minded to understand or see?

white crow,

Can you specify? Is comprehension the same thing as understanding? Don’t we often have trouble comprehending or understanding? Doesn’t that mean there is a limit?

I used to think the answer was no - we can’t comprehend everything - but as of late, I’ve been considering a new understanding of the nature of thought and comprehension such that maybe we can comprehend everything (at least in principle).

I used to think that there were certainly things out there over which we could have no understanding. I believe there is definitely some difference between the way things actually are and the way we experience and conceive them. Our minds are limited to experience and conceive things in only certain ways, and that real actual entities in the world can take on forms/structures/essences that transcend these limits. I only have to point out that we have no way of comprehending how a particle can spin both up and down at the same time, or that it can have a superposition of momentum (which is different from accepting it as a brute, but scientifically confirmed, fact).

But lately, I’ve been entertaining a new conception of thought - what it is to conceptualize something properly. I think there is an implicit assumption that in order to conceptualize something properly, or to experience it in any way (see it, hear it, etc.), the conception or experience (sight, sound, etc.) must be an exact replica of the conceptualized or experienced. If there is any mismatch, it is assumed, the concept or experience can’t be right - at least, not with perfect precision. But then I got to thinking - when is a concept ever an exact replica of the conceived? Think about it. When is an idea in the mind exactly the same thing as an object in the world? Even if you’re a materialist, you have to admit that neurons and chemicals in the brain, which you’re fond of reducing concepts and experiences to, are nothing like, in terms of substance and structure, the objects in the world that they represent or refer to (like rocks, trees, vehicles). The idealist/subjectivist is no less under the same pressure to concede this point. An object in the world, for him, is a sensory impression, or at least something non-cognitive. The typical idealist/subjectivist would probably deny this, claiming that all things real are ideas, but he still must account for the fact that we’re always able to distinguish between which of these ideas we classify as “sensation” and which “conception” - in other words, there must be a difference (personally, I prefer not to classify sensation under “ideas” as I believe their essential qualities are wholy different from ideas which I classify under “cognition”; they’re both still mental, but not all mental entities are of the same kind). Given that there must always be a difference between the concept and the conceived (or the experience and the experienced), the replica theory of understanding is inadequate, and furthermore, I maintain that specific differences are actually key to forming conceptions (or experiences) properly. What I propose is that the sort of difference that exists between a concept (or experience) and the conceived (or experienced), in order that they are properly formed, is the same sort that exist between a key and a lock. That is to say, a key and its lock rightly match each other not in virtue of their mirror identities to each other, but in virtue of their differences - key difference (no pun intended) without which the key simply wouldn’t work on the lock. So they can’t be the same, but they can’t be different in any arbitrary way either - they must be different in the right way in order to match. The same, I propose, is the case between properly matching concepts (or experiences) and the conceived (or experienced).

To bring this back full circle - i.e. what this has to do with comprehending everything - is that things in the world don’t have to be perfectly replicable in the mind in order to be understood properly. The above key-and-lock sense of “matching” allows us to entertain the possibility that for every entity or phenomena in the unverse, there is (potentially) some concept (some key) to match it. Though the question of whether the human mind is capable of arriving at such a concept (crafting such a key) is still up for debate, but I see no immediate reason to deny the possibility. Though even if it can’t, there is still the possibility in principle that such concepts (such keys) can be formed - perhaps, for example, by an alien species whose cognitive faculties far out strip our own.


Nice post. But I would not consider every concept that has key difference with some conceived thing to be proper understanding. First, might not more than one key fit the lock, and might some be the “wrong” key? Nor would I consider proper understanding akin to unlimited comprehension. If comprehension was unlimited, we would be able to immediately comprehend anything (whatever “comprehend” means). That’s what unlimited comprehension means to me. And that is the trouble with the OP, it specifies neither what we are talking about when we say “comprehension” nor when we say “limit.”

Why the immediacy? I take “unlimited” to mean simply that there is at least one potential concept to match each and every entity in or aspect of reality, but how we get to that concept may be by a long and difficult road.


Human beings have held many different conceptions of life and the world for example - philosophy is proof of this. All of these conceptions correspond to the world, some more fittingly than others, but experience is what gives rise to all human conception. I understand that there may be levels of understanding just as there are levels of magnification, but your definition of “proper understanding” seems too narrow. What do you mean that a concept must match reality? What qualifies as a match? What is comprehension and what is non-comprehension?

Surely, the fact that understanding is often a “long difficult road” is proof that it is limited. Think about two different people. Given the same problem, one solves it immediately and one takes much longer to find the solution, stumbling through several wrong answers before getting there. Isn’t the latter more limited in comprehension than the former?


I see that you’ve expanded on one of your posts. Let me address that first before addressing your latest one.

I suppose you could have more than one key for the same lock, just as more than one concept can fit the same entity in or aspect of reality. Each would be regard as a different way of thinking about it. I don’t see this as problematic. And certainly some keys could be wrong. Whether a key is right or wrong is a matter of whether we’ve got the right concept or not, and we can certainly have the wrong concept. Again, nothing problematic there.

These are precisely the questions I’m trying to answer. Let’s take an example. Say you had a visual experience of an exotic animal you had never seen or heard of before. Your mind will immediately go to work forming a concept of it. It is reasonable to assume, given that your mind is functioning properly, that it will form the right concept of it (the details may have to be filled in at a later time, but a rudimentary concept will do for now). This concept, if it is the right one, would have to be distinguishable from other concepts, say of other animals, for the concept you have of a dog, say, would be different from the one you form of the new animal standing before you. To apply the concept of a dog to the visual experience of the animal you are now seeing would be an example of a mismatch - just as much a mismatch as it would be to apply it to a cat or a bird.

I assume two things:

  1. that the manner in which the mind forms concepts was designed for, and therefore works best on, processing sensory experiences.

  2. Despite the latter, concepts can transcend the sensory form of our experiences. When it does so, we call this abstraction. Abstraction, by definition, applies to things which “transcend” sensory objects (or at least their sensory forms and qualities).

Not all abstract concepts will correspond to something real, of course. When we erroneously assume they do, they constitute malformed keys - or more appropriately, keys for which no lock exists. But even when we refrain from believing in their actual existence (for example, the concept of “possible worlds”), we might still find them useful towards certain ends.

The problem with abtraction, however, is that it is a much more recent development in the evolution of our brain/mind, and therefore not nearly as tried, tested, and true as concrete concepts, which, as I said, can be reasonably assumed to work sufficiently well on concrete (i.e. immediately sensible) objects (the example of the animal you visually beheld). Therefore, the question of whether abstract concepts are ever right (i.e. whether there is an exactly fitting lock out there) is difficult, if not impossible, to confirm. So when I say that everything in or about reality is potentially comprehensible, I by no means intend to convey that we would know when we have the right comprehension.

Yes, this is an indication that there are limits, but these aren’t the kinds of limits I’m talking about. These limits add difficulty to the attainment of the right concepts for the would-be conceived, but they don’t necessarily make it impossible. The kinds of limits I’m considering are those that make the conception of the would-be conceived impossible. The point, in the example you provided, is that they both arrive at the right comprehension eventually. Furthermore, I’m not saying that our cognitive abilities really are unlimited in the sense I mean to convey, I just mean that if I’m right, and concepts match the conceived in much the same way as a key matches a lock, then there is the possibly that our cognitive abilities might be unlimited in this sense.


Some more points about concepts, key concepts, and right key concepts. If some a key fits the lock but is not the “right” key, I would not say that proper understanding exists there. In mathematics a student might get a correct answer though he has gotten it by mistake or pure luck. This student’s conception of how to solve the problem is wrong, but nevertheless “fits” the problem. How can this be proper understanding - comprehension?

Say an animal you had never seen before looks just like a tiger, from all the details that are readily apparent to you, but you later discover that the new animal is actually significantly unlike a tiger because of unseen details, such that it is of an altogether different species. You first see the animal and you think it is a tiger, and anyone would because of the conditions of the first visual encounter, but you later realize it is something entirely different. I take it, you would say this concept is therefore not a key concept at all?

Isn’t the inability to know when we have right comprehension a limit of comprehension?

Also I fully agree with everything here:

So comprehension is limited in time and accuracy - but I think you are right, the OP was asking for limits on what we can comprehend. I’ll think more about what these may be…

…perhaps the universe, especially if it is infinite, will necessarily always elude comprehension?

I would make a distinction between his conception of the right answer and his conception of the means by which one derives the answer - two different keys for two different locks.

A couple points:

  1. I’m not claiming the concepts we form out of sensory experiences are guaranteed to be right - only that our conceptual faculties are best suited for these kinds of experiences. Mistakes can be made, and in the particular example you offer here, we would be quite susceptible to such a mistake primarily because, as a rule of thumb, when we’ve identified a particular object and classified it under a particular category, it is unlikely that a similar looking object would turn out to be wholy different. In other words, the reason our conceptual faculties work so well despite not having evolved to avoid mistakes of this kind is because the conditions for such mistakes would be rare in the environment we evolved in (and perhaps still live in today).

  2. To conceptualize the animal you see before you as a tiger is already to go beyond what you are actually experiencing sensually. The only way this wouldn’t be true is if a “tiger” was just defined as an animal that looks the way this one does (i.e. orange, black stripes, fangs, cat-like, etc.) in which case it wouldn’t be a mistake to call it a tiger. The alternative is to define “tiger” in terms of additional features that aren’t being immediately sensed in that moment - features like it’s internal anatomy, how it behaves to particular stimuli, its diet, its evolutionary history, etc. If that is how we define “tiger” then the mistake lies in the fact that we extending our conception of what we see beyond what we, in fact, see. When we do that, all bets are off as to the fitness of our concepts (though the betting might still be good on different grounds).

That’s more limit on knowledge.

To humans, perhaps, but I’m thinking more in terms of what’s comprehensible in principle (say by an alien species whose intelligence far out strips our own).

Yes; either the universe is finite or we are.


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