The Primacy of Thought

A few recent blog posts have raised the issue of the primacy of thought, particularly these two:

John Loftus at Debunking Christianity quotes James East in this post.

Mike D at The A-Unicornist on this post.

The problem for me with theism, and some philosophy, is the primacy given to the mind and a failure to appreciate how humans, and all animals, are inherently constrained by our senses: Thought v Experience.

The trouble with ‘thinking’ is that by the time we humans started to do it reasonably well a lot of evolutionary water had passed under the bridge, but we had no clue about our sensory non-thinking heritage, so our point of view was skewed. It’s as if we came into the world as a fully formed thinking entities or souls, that just happened to reside in a corporeal body. The mental awakening of an individual human as they grow from childhood to adulthood is also a metaphor for the awakening of the species. So, quite naturally I think, we discover we can think and presume this is our greatest capacity, and not knowing its limitations we come to think the mind has some powerful ability to discover knowledge all on its own. Our very familiar relationship with our own minds, our subjective experience, is so overwhelming that it clouds our view so that we see it as the be-all and end-all of knowledge acquisition. This is the source of our conviction to the primacy of thought.

Here’s James East expressing this very experience (as quoted by John Loftus. My emphasis):

I was a Christian for nearly 20 years – starting as a young teenager, after being raised in a “very Christian” family. By the time I was able to think for myself, I basically believed everything already, so it was only natural to accept the salvation that was on offer when it finally clicked.

And here’s Articulet’s reply (my emphasis again):

Yes – boy can I relate! And don’t feel ashamed for falling for Christianity – probably most of your favorite people have – and most of the smartest people you know. But these are the memes that have survived through time.

In the extreme we have characters like Alvin Plantinga who suppose, for no good reason I can see beyond the persistence of ‘memes’, that we have mental capacities that are reliable routes to truth, when really we have no idea what ‘truth’ is.

Science has a limited practical interpretation of ‘truth’, which basically is the degree of correspondence between our various methods of discovery – so even in that sense ‘truth’ is not the all-or-nothing truth of logic. Epistemology is a mess because it is supposed that there is some real achievable certain ‘truth’ to be found, some absolute certainty out there waiting for us to discover, perhaps in the mind of God, that imaginary essence of truth itself, by virtue, maybe, of our sensus divinitatis.

I remain surprised that some otherwise bright people cannot grasp the link between our acknowledged fictions, and cannot recognise religious thinking for what it is: imagination allowed to run free and unconstrained by the senses.

Our thinking ability is more limited than we tend to think. Some of our recent ancestors will have had an even more limited capacity to think (and we see that in many of our existent cousins); and distant ancestors would have had no nervous system at all. But all of them, right back to the simplest celled organisms, have had a sensory interface with the world, even if it’s a simple chemical boundary. We are still, biologically and evolutionarily, sensory beings. Our evolutionary upgrade, a thinking brain, is an enhancement I’m sure; but a recent one that we are still learning to use. But it is useless in its own right, when acting alone. Try growing a brain in a child deprived entirely of senses and see what happens. Empiricism rules: we are sensory beings with an added capacity to analyse what we sense, to recognise patterns, to plan, to predict, to test again.

Common sense experience alone should be sufficient to tell us our senses and our reasoning are flawed. Our naturally developed faculty, our human knowledge acquisition system, our empirical nature, is only improved by the rigour of science. Even where science is still justifiably criticised as flawed, it’s still the best we can do. Science is, after all, practised by a flawed empirical system – the human being. All claims to ‘other ways of knowing’ have no foundation beyond wishful thinking. There’s only this one way of knowing, succinctly described as empiricism, but more rigorously practised as science. We can do it poorly or we can do it well, but that’s all we can do. We have no other faculties available to us that we know of.

We all acknowledge the human faculties of intuition and insight, but those that would put such faculties above science still don’t really get where these faculties fit in. Science uses them – that is scientists use them. They are part of the whole human knowledge acquisition system. But these faculties are also known to be suspect. The point being that science, the rigour of science, is the application of methodologies that weed out the useless intuitions and explore and expand on the good ones. In contrast to this approach the religious in particular, and some philosophers, are content to accept their intuitions without question, or at best only with questioning that also lies within the framework of their dogmas and schemas. They insist on this primacy of thought.

I feel that the failure to recognise this is why many theists and philosophers have been historically, and still are, so committed to the mind and the imagined capabilities attributed to it: reliable logical reasoning, freedom from bias and emotional drives to believe what we want to believe, a capacity to transcend the skull through thought alone, the ability to communicate with an imagined super being, the reliance on notions like faith. Until they grasp this view of what we are, our empirical nature, they will remain stuck thinking they have some pure, and possibly divine, route to knowledge through the mind alone.

Of course we could deny this empirical nature of ours, but to start down that road we would have to deny first the evolutionary theory that tells us this is how we got here from pre-thinking ancestors, and how this is the type of being we are. And once on that path, eventually, any significant contribution of the senses can be ditched. If the mind is really the route to knowledge, then the end of the line is solipsism. I can’t refute the solipsism hypothesis, but I’m content with not needing to.

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9 thoughts on “The Primacy of Thought

  1. This comment might consist of ramblings.

    I looked at your post, then went to the linked pages to try to get a better idea of what you are talking about. At the Loftus page, he mentions “OTF”, but I haven’t been able to work out what that means.

    Next, I looked at the linked a-unicornist page. He mentions two foundational assumptions:
    1: I exist;
    2: My senses generally provide me with reliable information

    and it occurred to me that I am not making those assumptions. I’m probably not assuming the primacy of thought, either, whatever that is supposed to mean.

    When I started thinking about human cognition, I took the stance of pretending that I was a Martian, investigating biological systems on Earth, and wondering what might have been the evolutionary path. So I am taking a third party view of cognition. Thus it is not about me and my thoughts, so my existence is not a required assumption. And because I am taking a third party view, I am more concerned with how an organism might get useful information, than about its sensory experience (which I cannot share).

    Back to the cited a-unicornist page. He has a section “How mathematics is based upon empirical evidence” and I mostly disagree with that. I see the paradigm cases of sets as being sets of numbers, and those are not from empirical experience. And I also disagree with him on logic, and where that comes from.

    As I said, this is rambling. Perhaps it gives you a better idea of why I think differently about traditional philosophical issues. And this brief exercise has given me a better understanding of why philosophers are so confused (or seem to me to be confused).

  2. Hi Neil,

    The assumptions you take the a-unicornist page to be making can be derived from experience:

    Contingency of Knowledge

    By peeling everything back to the Cogito there are two basic directions we can go in:

    Solipsism – which doesn’t really tell us much, because once we start imagining this scenario we can imaging anything, and we have no other criteria against which we can compare our imagined scenarios. I say I am a brain in a vat and you don’t actually exist, you say we are both part of a bigger cosmic consciousness; I say tom-ay-to you say tom-ah-to. We’re both guessing and our ideas are just opinions with no means of corroboration.

    Empiricism – which is an attempt to combine our apparent sensory experience with our apparent rational experience. Both mechanism are apparent, contingent, because individually we have no means of verifying either is right, and we sure have enough examples of each being wrong, when compared over time and instance.

    Note that under solipsism I could imagine that my sensory and rational experiences are the products of pure thought – i.e. that solipsism subsumes empiricism. This is why solipsism, and many of the half-way houses that rely on this ‘primacy of thought’ (the notion that thinking alone is a route to truth) are logically plausible, but unproductive.

    So, I can reach the two premises (1) I exist, (2) My senses generally provide me with reliable information, but only as contingent result of empiricism. This is, as I say, a contingent position. And it is circular to some extent in that I am relying on my rational assessment of my reasoning capacity and my sensory experiences.

    Some philosophers demand an absolute route to ‘truth’, and insist that there must be real truth out there, and if we can’t get at it our philosophy is no good. But it’s my contention that humans don’t have the capacity to get to the absolute truth. For one, we don’t know there is one to be got. And for another, even if there is and we get there, we have no means of being certain that what we have found is the truth.

    But that’s OK. I can live with this coningency. All of our science lives with and benefits from the acceptance of this contingency. Science in the hands of scientists just gets on with the job and solves immediate problems to the extent that a solution, even if not the absolute one and only best and true solution, is still a step forward.

    “When I started thinking about human cognition, I took the stance of pretending that I was a Martian”

    But you’re already assuming so much here that you don’t have access to. You have no idea what an alien mind would be like, or even if there is such a thing, of even if there could be such a thing. You are using a thought experiment, pure thought, to try and imagine what human cognition would be like from some other perspective. But that’s what each and every one of us does anyway when we imagine what’s going on in the heads of other people. It’s what we do when we try to imagine what’s going on in our own heads. Our view of human cognition is always third party.

    The Martian idea is just a smoke screen that fools you into thinking you have some different perspective. You haven’t.

    “And because I am taking a third party view, I am more concerned with how an organism might get useful information, than about its sensory experience (which I cannot share).”

    OK, so how does an organism get useful information without sensory experience? All our experience comes through our senses. We have to be clinical here and consider all the details. Even what we might consider our innate capacities are derived ultimately, through evolution, from experiences experienced by our ancestors, right back to the first forms of life.

    And we know that depriving infants of sensory experience prevents them acquring knowledge, information. Life, all life, is a dynamic process that goes on in a sensory experienced interaction with the world. Deprive any life form of experience (e.g. deprive a bacterium of food) and the life processes will stop. Life needs food, energy, which is information. Break down all our sensory experiences, including respiration, and at the bottom you will see energy crossing boundaries. This is life’s sensory experience in action at the lowest levels of chemistry and physics. The human rational brain s just another component in one particualr life form, and it follows the same basic rules of biology, chemistry, physics. That it can compute, process, reason, is a particular information processing mechanism at work, which together with all the sensory data it receives makes humans, as systems, empirical beings.

    So, our human mathematics is part of that experience. We are tempted to think that the stuff of maths exists out there as some cosmic truth wiating to be discovered by humans, but we have no evidence to support that view. It’s just another view that relies on the primacy of thought – as if what we think is the case is actually the case. We don’t know what the case is in this case. Perhaps mathematics is an intrinsict part of the cosmos that we discover; or maybe its just stuff we make up in our heads. How can we tell the difference?

    “I see the paradigm cases of sets as being sets of numbers, and those are not from empirical experience.” – How do you know they are not?

    1. The assumptions you take the a-unicornist page to be making can be derived from experience

      The inference method (the “derived from” part) amounts to making stuff up.

      I’ll probably do a full post on this at my blog, but that will have to wait until I have completed grading for the semester.

      You mention two alternatives, solipsism and empiricism. But you have made the indistinguishable.

      You have no idea what an alien mind would be like, or even if there is such a thing, of even if there could be such a thing.

      Right. And that’s the point. It means that I avoid making unwarranted assumptions.

      OK, so how does an organism get useful information without sensory experience?

      I suppose that depends on what you mean by “sensory experience”.

      My computer seems to get a lot of useful information, without having anything that I would call “sensory experience.” For that matter, so does a thermostat.

      And we know that depriving infants of sensory experience prevents them acquring knowledge, information.

      I don’t know that. It isn’t particularly clear that a newborn infant even has anything that I would call “sensory experience.” For sure, a newborn infant is reactive, but so is a mouse trap.

      “I see the paradigm cases of sets as being sets of numbers, and those are not from empirical experience.” – How do you know they are not?

      I would have thought it obvious that we don’t have empirical experience of numbers. At most, our empirical experience is limited to numerals (pencil marks on paper, etc).

  3. Hi Neil,

    “The inference method (the “derived from” part) amounts to making stuff up.” – That’s a fair assessment, that then must be applied to all human thought, including any you are making in this post. That’s where the contingency comes in, and that contingency applies to everything. We can’t be certain of any of this. All we have to go by is the degree of correspondence between our ideas and our experiences – science. And we know that this isn’t perfect. There’s rgeat correspondence between Newton’s laws and experience, until Einstein points out that Newton is incomplete; and then Quantum Mechanics tell us Einstein’s General Relativity isn’t the whole story either. This is all we have. So, yes, we make stuff up. But we make stuff up in the merry go round of experience, rationalising about our experiences, causing us to direct our experiences further to test our ideas, and so on – empiricism.

    “You mention two alternatives, solipsism and empiricism. But you have made the indistinguishable.” – Yes, from the perspective of thought alone they are indistinguishable. The choice we make, which we should use as a working model for reality, is arbitrary. I choose empiricism simply because if I choose solipsism I’m also open to persuasion about any universe human imagination can come up with. Empiricism, while still flawed, inclomplete, non-absolute, does give a consistent system of explanation.

    “Right. And that’s the point. It means that I avoid making unwarranted assumptions.” – All our assumptuions, ultimately, are unwarrented. That’s the nature of assumptions.

    “I suppose that depends on what you mean by “sensory experience”. My computer seems to get a lot of useful information, without having anything that I would call “sensory experience.””

    Then you have a limited, perhaps anthropomorphic view of sensory experience. Sensory experience generally is just a means of information flowing into a system. Computer control systems use ‘sensors’; they consist of transducers that convert one type of information into another. The control system collects the information and processes it. That’s all our sensory experience is. We sense the external world, collect the information, process it.

    “For that matter, so does a thermostat.” – Precisely. Of course we are not just passive systems. Your thermostat example doesn’t go far enough. Neither is your fridge passive. It uses its thermostat input to issue motor control signals to control temperature. A simple system to be sure.

    “It isn’t particularly clear that a newborn infant even has anything that I would call “sensory experience.”” – A newborn infant doesn’t have a nervous system? Doesn’t receive information from its surroundings? And yes, an infant is reactive. Whether the infant has, in adult terms, conscious knowledge of what it is doing it is actually a dynamic interactive system that tests its environment, discovers, learns form sensory feedback, etc.

    There are many experiments that show in animals that if you deprive certain senses for specific periods in development the brain function that uses those senses does not develop. Child development: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2006/05/060517083309.htm. There are loads of studies like these that show how deprivation stunts intellectual growth. Even adults that have well developed cognition, inflicting sensory deprevation on them for a significant periods (http://topdocumentaryfilms.com/alone/) can suffer real effects on their cognitive capabilities. So, what if you take a new born infant and deprive it of all senses, say with just sufficient food to actually prevent starvation. What sort of brain would result? We are sensory beings.

    There are many life forms that live quite well without a brain. Plants sense their environment. So do bacteria. All life on earth consists of sensory systems that respond to their environment. Imagine a bacterium with a completely impermiable membrain. How would it feed, grow, live? Animals that have nervous systems have simply refind these very same mechanisms of electro-chemistry to interact with the environment in a more dynamic way.

    “I would have thought it obvious that we don’t have empirical experience of numbers” – No, it’s not obvious. For one, claiming the obvious isn’t a good move. But with regard to numbers we do experience them. That’s how we start to come to know anything about number. It may be that, given our evolutionary past, that there may now be some genetic factor that causes brains to have the capacity to deal with number, but that just goes to show that number use develops over time through sensory experience, even if that’s evolutionary experience.

  4. Your thermostat example doesn’t go far enough. Neither is your fridge passive. It uses its thermostat input to issue motor control signals to control temperature.

    The kind of information that will be used by the thermostat or the fridge is fixed by its design. The kind of information that will be used by humans is not fixed. We are often identifying new types of information to use. However, the empiricist account leaves that out.

    When we identify new types of information, we develop standards and we develop reliable ways of using such information. I am disagreeing with the need to assume reliability as a starting point, because I see the starting point as earlier and I see the reliability as something that we ourselves assure in the way that we access and use such information.

    On another issue – I think I now have a better idea of what you mean by “Primacy of thought”. It is a point that was brought up in a discussion of Is Any Form Of Atheism Rationally Justifiable? by participant William J. Murray. It came across as a desperate attempt to salvage his position, when he had no supporting evidence.

  5. “The kind of information that will be used by the thermostat or the fridge is fixed by its design.”

    The kind of information that will be used by an ant is fixed by evolution and its current natural environment. Of course a fridge doesn’t have an evolved central ervous system for moving and surviving in the world, but that’s a matter of the degree of the capacity adapt. The basics of there bing an interface with teh world at the core of a fridge being able to control temperature, or a human being able to survive, is still the same principle of data acquisition.

    “We are often identifying new types of information to use.”

    How can we do that if we don’t know anything about the availability of such data. The very fact that our theories tell us there should be some as yet unexperienced data (e.g. the existence of an as yet unobserved planet) is possible only because of other data we have already acquired.

    “However, the empiricist account leaves that out.”

    It very specifically does not. Empiricism as used by humans includes reasoning about the data we have acquired and the application of that reasoning to the search for new data. Can you quote *any* literature that says this is not the case?

    “I am disagreeing with the need to assume reliability as a starting point”

    Then what is your starting point? All your descriptions of what you do so far do assume some reliability.

    “because I see the starting point as earlier”

    But in practice it doesn’t work that way. We come a long way, as individuals and as a species, in relying on our senses and reason. Only then do we sart to notice that they are not perfectly reliable, so we investigate further – but still using our senses and reason to do so. This is the evolving state of empiricism at work. We take our faculties as reliable, discover they are not, and then go on to invent more rigorous methods to support our senses and reason, but still go on to use our senses and reason in that very process of refinement.

    “I see the reliability as something that we ourselves assure in the way that we access and use such information.”

    We can only assure ourselves that we are improving our methods, by empirical means.

  6. Pingback: Ramblings

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