MonoRealism Philosophy Site

Immaculate Conceptions

Philosophical Reflections XXIV

Part A: Knowing

The mind is our means of survival, via its power to know the facts of reality and by knowing them, adapt them to our purposes. Thus the question of how we know things – how to make the most effective use of our mind – is crucial to our life and happiness. In the earliest Philosophical Reflections we looked briefly at this question. Now we return to analyse it in greater depth.

A Rose is a Rose is a Rose

To know anything, we first need to grasp the fundamental nature of reality. And that is, reality exists. It has an independent existence not under our conscious control: it is what it is and does what it does, whatever our wishes or prejudices. There can be no denying this. You confirm it in your own life in every breath you take, every time you open your eyes to see, every time you eat a piece of bread or drink a glass of water, every time you open a door, go to work, smell a rose or comb your hair. If you wish to deny it, I suggest you try to stop breathing. Your own body will soon tell you that reality exists and is not to be denied, and if you wish to continue fighting it you will soon leave it.

The next thing we can say about the individual things which make up reality is that a thing is itself. This is Aristotle's law of identity, expressed simply as A is A. It is the recognition that objects in reality have a nature, and behave according to that nature. Again, there can be no denying this: it is demanded in everything you do. You eat food and drink water, but avoid poison, fire and speeding cars, because of the known nature of your body and of food, water, poison, fire and hard objects. If you refuse to drink poison or put your hand in a fire, then you admit the truth of the law of identity. I accept no argument on this point unless you put your hand in a fire first! You cannot go on living without accepting that reality exists, and that the things in it act according to their nature: for without that acceptance, you'd never have any idea what to do. You cannot even put pen to paper or open your mouth to discuss it, without acting upon that assumption. Some philosophers, such as skeptics and Kantians, have gone to great lengths to evade this plain fact, but the proper response to them is simple: if a person manifestly doesn't believe their own words, nobody else should either. If someone tells you something they won't live by themselves (because nobody can), then they are liars with a hidden agenda – one which has nothing to do with the truth, with how they live their own life, nor with helping you live your life.

All knowledge comes from the fact that A is A. This is true both epistemologically, because it is the foundation of logic, and in reality, as it is the physical basis of our senses. If things weren't themselves – if rocks were sometimes snakes and light and sound changed their nature mid-flight – then we could see nothing and know nothing. Indeed, were they not basically reliable, something as complex as our senses could never have evolved. That they did, is itself a result and proof of the law of identity. If you wish to argue that our senses are invalid: see how long you can exist unaided with your eyes blindfolded, your ears blocked and your touch deadened. If your senses did not give you reliable information about the world, you wouldn't have them. Fish that have lived for generations in darkness are blind.

Because a thing is itself, it cannot contradict its own nature. Its nature might change with time – but only within the constraints of that nature. A rock might erode to sand, or a branch burn to ashes, but neither will turn itself into a rabbit and hop away before your eyes. Contradictions cannot exist in reality: if a thing is itself, it is itself, it has a nature and its nature is what it is. A thing cannot be what it is not, do what it cannot do, nor become that which it cannot become!

Contradictions can exist only in your mind and its understanding of reality. Since they cannot exist in reality, any contradiction in your mind indicates an error in your understanding. This then leads us to the first rule of knowledge: to be called knowledge, all you know must be consistent, without contradiction. Any contradiction means that you have misidentified the nature of something, partially or completely.

A Rose is a Flower is a Plant

In Philosophical Reflections 23: The Little People, I briefly described our primary process of learning: concept formation. This is the process of abstracting concepts from the individual things which exist in reality, and the further abstracting of higher concepts from lower ones. For example, we integrate our experience of individual roses into the concept "rose", and integrate "rose" with other similar concepts such as "carnation" and "tulip" into the more general concept "flower".

Concept-formation is the hallmark of a rational consciousness. We share with other advanced animals the acquisition of information about the world via our senses, and the automatic processing of sensory information into percepts: discrete objects. When you – or your cat – look around a room, your consciousness does not struggle through an undifferentiated wash of colour and sound, you see things, discrete objects already picked out for you: here a bottle, there a table, there a cat. This job is done for you by the nerves in your eyes and brain, before ever reaching your consciousness. Where we diverge from other animals is that our mind integrates multiple percepts of similar kinds into single concepts, identified by words, and integrates these further, without limit. While your cat sees a bottle as a discrete object, and might even recognise its nature in some way, only you think of it with the word and as the concept "bottle", placing it in a context of related concepts ("glass", "containers", "liquid-storage", "man-made", etc.) by which you understand its nature, purpose and place in the world.

Many philosophers, from Plato down, have stumbled on the relationship between concepts and reality. Are concepts valid? If so, why? The apparent difficulty is because concepts don't exist in reality. Only individual things and their properties and actions exist in reality. Concepts are purely mental constructs which unite multiple individual things into one idea. The erroneous interpretations of this fall into two main groups: that concepts do exist "out there" in some supernatural fashion, with individual objects being mere manifestations or shadows of this "ideal"; and a denial of the very validity of concepts, hence human consciousness is fundamentally flawed and unable to grasp "true" reality.

These are opposite faces of the same false belief: that the human way of knowing is defective. The things we see are not the things that are, or the things we think aren't the things that are. True reality is to be understood by some mystical means, not via our senses which deceive us – or true reality is not to be understood at all, because our very minds deceive us.

One Way

If such beliefs were true, then we would indeed be in a bad way. A human being – and for that matter, any rational being living in the real world – is by the nature of reality "limited" to gaining knowledge by applying reason to sensory information to generate valid concepts. That is, knowledge must come via senses, reason, and concepts – for the reasons following.

  • Senses: The only way you can obtain information about any other thing is by how some physical entity – itself, or an intermediary which was affected by it – affects you. That is what sensory information is – whatever sense you are referring to, be it sight, hearing, or one we ourselves don't possess (such as the sonar of a bat or the electric sense of some fish).
  • Reason: Your senses show you the surface appearance of things. But to understand what you are seeing requires reason, which means integrating it with everything else you know without contradiction – as there are no contradictions in reality. That is how you tell the difference between a hologram and the object it represents, between an oasis and a mirage, and between a man and his reflection. It is how you know that the desk you can see is made of atoms which you can't see.
  • Concepts: The necessity of a conceptual consciousness is less obvious, but in it lies our greatest power. The benefits of concepts are compression, predictive generalisation, and abstraction. Compression is extremely useful, predictive generalisation is necessary in some form for any higher form of life, and abstraction is essential for thought and civilisation, for knowledge, science and technology:
    • Any living thing is finite in capacity, and the more compressed its knowledge (in this case, by grouping a multitude of individual things into one concept), the more it can know. No matter how vast its intellect, to think about a single concept as a proxy for innumerable concrete referents will allow it to think and know much more efficiently than if it had to hold images of all those examples in its consciousness in order to think about them.
    • To survive in a world which can easily kill you, you must be able to predict the qualities of new existents based on what you know of other existents: a feat impossible if everything you encounter is a unique surprise, but child's play if it is just another example of a concept already in your head. (Animals rely on the primitive analogue and precursor of conceptual identification, perceptual recognition with learned or evolved responses).
    • The hallmark of intelligent life, capable of understanding the universe, making machines and reaching into outer space, is abstraction. If you can't integrate things into primary concepts, nor can you integrate primary concepts into higher concepts: and without this power of abstraction, you can never rise above the state of an animal. Without abstraction, without the ability to divine the essential nature of things, any form of science is impossible. Even mathematics is impossible: the notions of counting and number themselves are abstractions from multiple instances of specific concepts, which in the absence of concepts, are just a bunch of different objects (you can't have three "apples" unless you have the concept apple; nor even three objects without the concept "object").

Wishing for some kind of mystical knowledge, which just appears in your brain without physical cause or mental effort, won't make it so. What we have is a conceptual consciousness – and that is all we can have. And it is sufficient to rule the earth, and reach the stars.