If the Human Brain Were So Simple That We Could Understand It, We Would Be So Simple That We Couldn’t

Lyall Watson? George Edgin Pugh? Emerson M. Pugh? Ken Hill?

brain09Dear Quote Investigator: The European Union has launched a ten year scientific venture called the Human Brain Project to build a large-scale neural simulation of the brain. Google has hired the top computer scientist and inventor Ray Kurzweil who has espoused a strategy of reverse-engineering the brain to help build systems with artificial intelligence. These goals are audacious, but I am reminded of a logic-twisting skeptical remark:

If the human brain were so simple that we could understand it, we would be so simple that we couldn’t.

This notion has been attributed to new age biologist Lyall Watson, physicist George Edgin Pugh, and his father Emerson M. Pugh. Would you please search for its origin?

Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence known to QI appeared in the 1977 book “The Biological Origin of Human Values” by George Edgin Pugh who was a nuclear physicist and the president of a company called Decision-Science Applications. The statement was used as a chapter epigraph with a footnote that specified an ascription to Emerson M. Pugh who was the father of the author. Both the father and son were physicists, and Emerson was a professor at The Carnegie Institute of Technology: 1

If the human brain were so simple
That we could understand it,
We would be so simple
That we couldn’t.

Emerson M. Pugh *
* Author’s note: Quote from my father around 1938.

The claim in the footnote pushed the date of the quotation’s formulation back to the 1930s, but QI has not yet found any published evidence before 1977.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading If the Human Brain Were So Simple That We Could Understand It, We Would Be So Simple That We Couldn’t


  1. 1977, The Biological Origin of Human Values by George Edgin Pugh, (Chapter 7: Mysteries of the Mind, epigraph and footnote), Quote Page 154, Basic Books, New York. (Verified on paper)