Monthly Archives: May 2012

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.