Saturday, August 13, 2011

More Secular Miracles

Thumbing through my highlights in Steven Pinker's The Stuff of Thought, I came across this passage:
The conceptual metaphors we met in chapters 2 and 4 were rooted in substance, space, time, and causation (itself rooted in force). These concepts were certainly within the ken of our evolutionary ancestors. In the preceding chapter we saw experiments by Marc Hauser and his colleagues showing that rhesus monkeys can reason about cause and effect (for example, they know that a hand with a knife can cut an apple but that a hand with a glass of water cannot).  In other experiments Hauser has shown that tamarin monkeys have a rich understanding of the spatial and mechanical relations we express with nouns, prepositions, and verbs. When given an opportunity to reach for a piece of food behind a window using objects in front of them, the monkeys go for the sturdy hooks and canes, avoiding similar ones that are cut in two or make of string or paste, and not wasting their time if an obstruction or narrow opening would get in the way. Now imagine an evolutionary step that allowed the neural programs that carry out such reasoning to cut themselves loose from actual hunks of matter and work on symbols that can stand for just about anything. The cognitive machinery that computes relations among things, places, and causes could then be co-opted for abstract ideas. The ancestry of abstract thinking would be visible in concrete metaphors, a kind of cognitive vestige. (p. 242, emphasis mine).
One of the attractive features of the Catholic Faith for me is its philosophical transparency. You must believe some hard-to-believe things, certainly, such as resurrection from the dead and the Real Presence in the Eucharist. But rather than hiding these doctrines in some obscure corner of the faith, they are put front and center; in fact they are celebrated weekly in the Mass. There are no surprises in the Catholic Faith in the sense that, after studying it for months or years, you won't stumble across a doctrine that is magnitudes more difficult to believe than the ones with which you are already familiar. The hard-to-believe doctrines are met directly and early on; from then on, everything gets more believable rather than less.

The opposite tends to be the case in secular philosophy. It initially sounds plausible: It is only after studying it for some time that you find yourself confronted with doctrines far more unbelievable than anything you have heard so far. Worse, secular philosophers often fail to recognize the implausibility of their doctrines. They spend book-length time proving the essentially trivial while accepting the outrageous in passing. They strain on a gnat while swallowing a camel.

The passage highlighted above is such a camel. There is a world of philosophy hidden in Pinker's casual suggestion to imagine neural programs cutting themselves loose from matter and working on abstract symbols. It is the fact that such a thing is unimaginable, and in fact inconceivable, that led classical philosophers to conclude that man's intellect must be immaterial - for only an intellect abstracted from matter could understand abstract symbols. The classicals were perfectly happy to allow that feelings and states of mind could have a purely material origin, and even that something passing as reason (e.g. the animal cleverness cited by Pinker) could be material in origin. Where they drew the line was at the understanding of universals, or "abstract symbols." Monkeys can reason about cause and effect, that has been shown. But there is no evidence that they can reason about cause and effect as such; that is, the notions of cause and effect abstracted from any particular instance and considered universally. That is the reason monkeys can reason about cause and effect in particular cases, but have no monkey culture that develops a science or philosophy based on universals like substance, accident, and being, or force, mass and acceleration. Each instance of cause and effect is sui generis for the monkey, whereas for us, each can be an example of the universal classes of cause and effect.

The quote from Pinker at least has the value that it tacitly admits that the transition to a truly intellectual reason is not merely an evolutionary innovation of no more significance than any other. It is one thing for a monkey to evolve a new trick for gathering food; quite another for the monkey to evolve an intellect that is capable of understanding "food gathering tricks" as an abstract universal applicable to all his prior activities. The former monkey is merely an animal in an environment; the monkey with the intellect is a rational being in a world. Surely this passage merits more than a passing mention; it really should have a place in secular thought analagous to the place of the Resurrection or the Eucharist in Catholic thought.

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