Posted 15 August 2000 to the <Humanists@uua.org> discussion list.
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Hello Truth and Meaning contributors!

In the beginning was the WORD - - - and we need a conceptual leap to get out of that trap!

We have evolved a language capability in a few million years that makes humans the most devastating of life-forms.  We have inherited the earth whether we like it or not.  Our capability to communicate and cooperate has been so powerful that we have developed the subtleties of Reason in that context, and we are not aware of any other.

But today we understand that Reason, the deduction of consequences from a conceptual scheme that we use to understand reality, is only a part of the scientific process.  We can create ideas ad lib and those conceptual leaps are intuitive processes we are not consciously aware of.  We must choose the ideas that are good for something by comparing their consequences with real experience.  We can accumulate and teach a body of knowledge which is a social artifact that has survived the critical judgement of many people.

And we know that the practical experience of problem solving is necessary to the learning process.  We must learn to combine the sequential, step by step pattern of reasoning with the intuitive leaps that guide the way.

However our awareness of ourselves and our surroundings is the result of neurological systems that work in parallel - many pieces of the picture being realized simultaneously by so many associative pattern-recognition processes that we could not possibly be aware of them all.  Instead we use our creative faculties to imagine what is out there, and fill in the blanks as needed by selective attention to the relevant sensory inputs.  When the new information does not fit our picture we forget what was wrong and continue with the new without being aware of the change.

So the Scientific Method has evolved, on its own merits, in the cognitive faculties that we, and other life forms, have had long before language capability.  We theorize, from past experience, what reality is like; we extrapolate, by imagining what to expect; and we compare our idea with further observation to correct it as we go.  The massively parallel neural processes of visual imagery and kinesthetic sense enable us to catch a fly ball, or throw a basket, without knowing Newton's laws of motion.  In the context of practice-makes-perfect we learn the corrections to improve our performance with a parallel-processing awareness of the whole picture, and the mistaken perceptions are forgotten because they are replaced with better information.

Our awareness of knowledge, however, is cast in the mold of language that we would use to describe our knowledge to someone else!  Our conscious understanding of a physical or biological process is articulated in the sequential pattern of words that would express in cause-and-effect steps, the working of a system that in fact is continuous.  The realms of Reason and Meaning and Truth are embedded in the sophistication we have evolved to use words!

Because of the serial nature of speech sounds we must keep in mind many syllables before assigning meaning to each one, with subtleties that depend on context.  The serial-to-parallel conversion of understanding speech launches our thoughts in a pattern intended by the speaker, and the wealth of other meanings that might-have-been are forgotten.  Similarly the speaker does a parallel-to-serial conversion when choosing the words to express ideas in the very narrow audible, or written, data path.  But the meanings that can be shared take on a life of their own because they are a social phenomenon!  They can be confirmed, denied, asserted, doubted, believed, and made the basis of communal understanding and action.  They become building blocks in a conceptual edifice we call civilization!

We are so blinded by the power of communication that we think that all thought has the self-conscious character that we call Reasoning - our awareness of the effect our train of thought would have on an audience!  We don't appreciate the fait-accompli nature of the cognitive capabilities that we share with other animals.  Like our bodily functions they are self-motivated and they call our attention only when necessary.  Our awareness usually extends only to the end result of sensory and intuitive mental processes, and the massively parallel nature of these associative systems precludes our attending to them in greater detail except by using highly contrived experimental techniques.

But we know, and the behavioral psychologists tell the advertisers and the political campaigners, that human motivation is a psychochemical process that is subject to manipulation.  Rationale is usually after-the-fact of commitment, for less conscious reasons, to a course of action that is justified by expediency.  We don't often have the luxury, as we do in scientific work, of reserved judgement.  Yet we do it all the time in our awareness of our surroundings and our own active, willful participation that adapts as we go forward.

So the bottom line of this harangue is not a Post-Modern nihilism about the use of Reason, but a plea for a wider horizon.  We must give credit where it is due, to the life-processes that proceed on their own merits without the self-consciousness that we use to communicate with others.

I don't claim any originality for the above, except for threading together ideas that I think represent a broad consensus of contemporary understanding that is called "cognitive science".  I won't try to give credit to sources because there are so many, and because the popular writings are often, for philosophical consistency, an extrapolation from the confusion of details that are accessible to experiment.

The ultimate conceit, taking responsibility for my own conclusions, has the built-in humility that I know what they are based on, and how they must be tentative pending more experience, my own and that of the world community of investigators and creators of theoretical understanding.  Thus the open-ended mode of living has its comforts.

Those who invoke a Higher Authority for their self-justification have a false humility that comes from hiding, from themselves and others, their own responsibility for their choice of Authority, and chapter and verse, and for application to practical situations.  They live in fear that their basis of faith will not stand the test of reality because they rely on a mystery, a narrowing of their viewpoint for the sake of self-consistency.
 

Glen Sandberg

http://gsandberg.info/Essays/Index.html



A note of clarification from a later post, 23 August 2000:

My point was that the functions now called "cognition" - awareness of our environment and our own purposeful actions in that context - are evolutionarily ancient, along with the other parallel-processing features of bodily functions.  What is new is the kind of self-consciousness that is needed to use language, where we must see ourselves as others see us in order to communicate our thoughts and intentions so that they will understand.

The power of language is so great that we forget the non-political nature of most of the reality we deal with, both internal and external, and we can't help personifying every issue.  Morality is reduced to taking sides in a tribal conflict, with Good and Evil the human leaders.

But now we can - and should - do justice to a wider horizon of knowledge about human motivations, as well as the physical consequences of our actions.  Our philosophical understanding must catch up to our utilitarian behavior in Religion and Politics and Advertising and Economics.

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