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Thursday, May 01, 2008

On the Intellect

A long while ago, I took a stab at trying to defend the irreducibility and existence of the intellect as a defining feature of human beings, which amounted to only a sort of spelling out what I meant without providing a reason to accept it, as (a fellow forumite at ABC Forum) Hal at the time readily and disappointedly noted. I want to try again, this time focusing more on the defense of the faculty. Still, my defense is going to be circumlocutory, (an A.D.D. trait) the basic strategy being to retrace the steps in the dialectic between the three great fathers of western thought; Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. I won't be directly commenting on their works though, just briefly giving my own take on their thought.

To understand is to be able to reduce the plurality of facts to their essential principles and thus make sense of them. Assuming that is possible, how could it be so? Do we first know what things count as examples of what principles and then abstract the principles? But sometimes we realize that we have mistakenly identified things with the wrong principles and sometimes we disagree about which things are to be identified with which principles (especially in cases of morality and religion).

Assume for the sake of argument that we must somehow know the principles already and thus use them to identify the facts and things which exemplify them. But this leads to the following dilemma; If I already know the principles then I don't need to investigate them. If I don't already know the principles, then I cannot investigate them, since they, by assumption, have to be known in order to recognize them in their true examples. Of course, I either know them or I don't. Therefore, either way, investigating principles is unmotivated. But this would mean the end of all reasoning and discovery and the task of understanding is finished before it begins. This cannot be right since in my experience and in the experience of the race, we seem to make genuine progress in understanding through systematic efforts of inquiry and even in particular cases one who has had no education can make discoveries of some universal truths, such as mathematical truths.

How can that be possible, given our dilemma? Well, suppose that knowledge is ambiguous. Suppose that there is some sense we know and some other sense that we do not know what something is or what principle applies to it. Just suppose for the sake of argument, that we knew the truth of something and had forgotten it, but we recalled it through our efforts to investigate which led us to something that served as an inadvertent menomic device, like "a string tied around one's finger". Of course, to make that avoid the dilemma in every possible case, we would have to say that there was a time that we knew everything and that must be some time before any actual day in our life. We must have known it before we were born, forgotten it, but life and investigation bring it back to mind.

This would explain the apparent experience of "discovering truth on our own", which argues that this way of things might be the case. It also avoids the dilemma by showing it to be a fallacy of equivocation; What does the dilemma mean by "I know"? If "I know" means "I knew it before I was born", then my "knowing" does not mean I can't find out about it, since I might have forgotten it, and may still remember it. On the other hand, if "I know" means "I remember it from before I was born", then my not "knowing" it does not mean i cannot find it, because I could have known it from before I was born and not remembered it. So given this theory that identifies discovery as remembering and the two senses of "knowledge" it involves, there is no way to read the dilemma that does not make one or another of its premises false. So if the doctrine of remembering is true, then the dilemma fails, and we can go on investigating and seeking understanding.

Is this doctrine true? We can see it has some explanatory value as a possible way to explain cases of individual discovery of universal truth, but that does not prove it to be true, just that it is prima facie rationally possible. Still, even if that is the best we can do, that means it is not necessarily the case that the dilemma is sound. So even if we can not provide a sufficient theoretical justification for it, we have good reason on prudential grounds to accept it. Extrinsically, many great things have been accomplished through the pursuit of knowledge which would not have if we had followed the consequences of the dilemma. But perhaps even more importantly, the rigor and discipline of study has made us better people in the use of our faculties so that are better people for it. So even if uncertain, it is better to have the fruits of study even if it turns out that study is ultimately hopeless, than if study would be actually rewarding but we choose not to pursue it because of this dilemma. Since we cannot be certain whether the doctrine of remembering is true or false, it is still rational to risk that it is true rather than otherwise.

So we have prudential grounds, if not theoretical grounds, for accepting the recollection view of knowledge. In accepting the risk that our inquiries are not muted by the dilemma above, we must accept that we are risking at least that the world is objectively such a place that such a dilemma is unsound. A recollection world is just such a world. But once we have decided that such a risk is reasonable and accept it, we can ask if a recollection world is the most reasonable account that avoids the dilemma mentioned. We have good reasons for finding a better solution. For example, to redefine what in our experience is discovery and learning as a kind of remembering makes false our normal intuition that when I learn I learn something I didn't know before, that is, it makes false our ordinary judgments about learning and replaces them with something else. In that sense, it seems to be guilty of changing the subject as a way of dealing with the question. Is this really necessary? Further, as a way of explaining inquiry, it seems to make things more complicated than simple. If to understand is to reduce to principles, this theory seems to multiply the phenomena to be explained and does so by introducing hypothetical entities (like pre-existing souls). Also it seems to be redundant. We explain learning -- an encounter between a mind and a truth -- as a form of remembering some previous encounter of a mind and a truth. Why not use whatever works in the supposed prior encounter for the one you are trying to explain? These principles -- don't multiply facts unnecessarily, preserve the appearances, and avoid redundant or regressive explanations -- seem to be principled reasons for preferring one explanation over another. But notice that along with these desiderata is the principle that the explanation should avoid the dilemma above because a view which does so is more prudent than otherwise.

So instead of postulating a mythical prior encounter with the truth, postulate that the resources for understanding are already available in the context of the present encounter you are trying to explain. That means that rather than locating the universal apart from the concrete facts, say that the universal is present with the facts. Rather than postulating a mind prior to the body of the person encountering the facts, say that the mind is present with and as an essential part of the person encountering the facts. Finally, rather saying that the perception of the facts is a mere memento that reminds of a prior encounter with the truth, postulate that the mind directly encounters the universal in the facts as the person focuses on the facts, thus getting a progressively clearer account of what the universal is. This fits better with the principles above and it avoids the dilemma by diagnosing the equivocation in it not be priority in time but by priority in the natural order of cognitive functions. We discover the principle when we discover the fact, since the principle is there with the fact, but that principle is not clear to us until we think hard about what it could be, yet it may be sufficiently clear to us to discriminate between the things that exemplify that principle and the things that do not. It is possible we could be mistaken about that but it is not necessary. And if we have a mind that is developing by use, we may come to reasonably rely on it.

Which means we have good reason to replace the original assumption we started with -- that we have to know the principles before we can know the facts, if "know before" means "know prior in time". We can start with the facts and reason to principals in the sense that the facts already bear the principles and thus present them directly to the mind while the facts are mediately presented to the senses, not because of an arbitrary memory association but rather by the explanatory relationship that exists between the principles and the facts. Of course, this adaptation between the mind and the principles must be no mere accident but find the same principal of explanation in both in a common cause, most particularly finally and formally but also necessarily ultimately efficiently ("and this we call 'God'"). And this mind that is caused and causes knowledge we call the intellect, about which more could be said to follow, such as the immateriality of the intellect and so on, but that's for another time.

So the argument for accepting the doctrine of the intellect is this:

(1) The doctrine of the intellect explains how inquiry is possible. (Inquiry being the task of reducing the diverse facts to their ultimate principles.)

(2) The doctrine of intellect is a better explanation than the doctrine of recollection (or any other rival that tries to show how inquiry is possible, as far as we know).

(3) It is better to accept the doctrine of intellect and continue to pursue inquiry, than it is to reject the doctrine of the intellect and stop inquiry (because we and society will be better for doing so).
(4) Therefore, we should accept the doctrine of the intellect as true.

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