What You Learned Before You Were Born

In Plato’s Meno, Socrates makes the somewhat odd claim that the ability of people to learn things without being directly told them proves that somehow they must have learned them or known them in advance. While we can reasonably assume this is wrong in a literal sense, there is some likeness of the truth here.

The whole of a human life is a continuous learning process generally speaking without any sudden jumps. We think of a baby’s learning as different from the learning of a child in school, and the learning of the child as rather different from the learning of an adult. But if you look at that process in itself, there may be sudden jumps in a person’s situation, such as when they graduate from school or when they get married, but there are no sudden jumps from not knowing anything about a topic or an object to suddenly knowing all about it. The learning itself happens gradually. It is the same with the manner in which it takes place; adults do indeed learn in a different manner from that in which children or infants learn. But if you ask how that manner got to be different, it certainly did so gradually, not suddenly.

But in addition to all this, there is a kind of “knowledge” that is not learned at all during one’s life, but is possessed from the beginning. From the beginning people have the ability to interact with the world in such a way that they will survive and go on to learn things. Thus from the beginning they must “know” how to do this. Now one might object that infants have no such knowledge, and that the only reason they survive is that their parents or others keep them alive. But the objection is mistaken: infants know to cry out when they hungry or in pain, and this is part of what keeps them alive. Similarly, an infant knows to drink the milk from its mother rather than refusing it, and this is part of what keeps it alive. Similarly in regard to learning, if an infant did not know the importance of paying close attention to speech sounds, it would never learn a language.

When was this “knowledge” learned? Not in the form of a separated soul, but through the historical process of natural selection.

Selection and Artificial Intelligence

This has significant bearing on our final points in the last post. Is the learning found in AI in its current forms more like the first kind of learning above, or like the kind found in the process of natural selection?

There may be a little of both, but the vast majority of learning in such systems is very much the second kind, and not the first kind. For example, AlphaGo is trained by self-play, where moves and methods of play that tend to lose are eliminated in much the way that in the process of natural selection, manners of life that do not promote survival are eliminated. Likewise a predictive model like GPT-3 is trained, through a vast number of examples, to avoid predictions that turn out to be less accurate and to make predictions that tend to be more accurate.

Now (whether or not this is done in individual cases) you might take a model of this kind and fine tune it based on incoming data, perhaps even in real time, which is a bit more like the first kind of learning. But in our actual situation, the majority of what is known by our AI systems is based on the second kind of learning.

This state of affairs should not be surprising, because the first kind of learning described above is impossible without being preceded by the second. The truth in Socrates’ claim is that if a system does not already “know” how to learn, of course it will not learn anything.

Intelligence and Universality

Elsewhere I have mentioned the argument, often made in great annoyance, that people who take some new accomplishment in AI or machine learning and proclaim that it is “not real intelligence” or that the algorithm is “still fundamentally stupid”, and other things of that kind, are “moving the goalposts,” especially since in many such cases, there really were people who said that something that could do such a thing would be intelligent.

As I said in the linked post, however, there is no problem of moving goalposts unless you originally had them in the wrong place. And attaching intelligence to any particular accomplishment, such as “playing chess well” or even “producing a sensible sounding text,” or anything else with that sort of particularity, is misplacing the goalposts. As we might remember, what excited Francis Bacon was the thought that there were no clear limits, at all, on what science (namely the working out of intelligence) might accomplish. In fact he seems to have believed that there were no limits at all, which is false. Nonetheless, he was correct that those limits are extremely vague, and that much that many assumed to be impossible would turn out to be possible. In other words, human intelligence does not have very meaningful limits on what it can accomplish, and artificial intelligence will be real intelligence (in the same sense that artificial diamonds can be real diamonds) when artificial intelligence has no meaningful limits on what it can accomplish.

I have no time for playing games with objections like, “but humans can’t multiply two 1000 digit numbers in one second, and no amount of thought will give them that ability.” If you have questions of this kind, please answer them for yourself, and if you can’t, sit still and think about it until you can. I have full confidence in your ability to find the answers, given sufficient thought.

What is needed for “real intelligence,” then, is universality. In a sense everyone knew all along that this was the right place for the goalposts. Even if someone said “if a machine can play chess, it will be intelligent,” they almost certainly meant that their expectation was that a machine that could play chess would have no clear limits on what it could accomplish. If you could have told them for a fact that the future would be different: that a machine would be able to play chess but that (that particular machine) would never be able to do anything else, they would have conceded that the machine would not be intelligent.

Training and Universality

Current AI systems are not universal, and clearly have no ability whatsoever to become universal, without first undergoing deep changes in those systems, changes that would have to be initiated by human beings. What is missing?

The problem is the training data. The process of evolution produced the general ability to learn by using the world itself as the training data. In contrast, our AI systems take a very small subset of the world (like a large set of Go games or a large set of internet text), and train a learning system on that subset. Why take a subset? Because the world is too large to fit into a computer, especially if that computer is a small part of the world.

This suggests that going from the current situation to “artificial but real” intelligence is not merely a question of making things better and better little by little. There is a more fundamental problem that would have to be overcome, and it won’t be overcome simply by larger training sets, by faster computing, and things of this kind. This does not mean that the problem is impossible, but it may turn out to be much more difficult than people expected. For example, if there is no direct solution, people might try to create Robin Hanson’s “ems”, where one would more or less copy the learning achieved by natural selection. Or even if that is not done directly, a better understanding of what it means to “know how to learn,” might lead to a solution, although probably one that would not depend on training a model on massive amounts of data.

What happens if there is no solution, or no solution is found? At times people will object to the possibility of such a situation along these times: “this situation is incoherent, since obviously people will be able to keep making better and better machine learning systems, so sooner or later they will be just as good as human intelligence.” But in fact the situation is not incoherent; if it happened, various types of AI system would approach various asymptotes, and this is entirely coherent. We can already see this in the case of GPT-3, where as I noted, there is an absolute bound on its future performance. In general such bounds in their realistic form are more restrictive than their in-principle form; I do not actually expect some successor to GPT-3 to write sensible full length books. Note however that even if this happened (as long as the content itself was not fundamentally better than what humans have done) I would not be “moving the goalposts”; I do not expect that to happen, but its happening would not imply any fundamental difference, since this is still within the “absolute” bounds that we have discussed. In contrast, if a successor to GPT-3 published a cure for cancer, this would prove that I had made some mistake on the level of principle.

Place, Time, and Universals

Consider the following three statements:

1. The chair and keyboard that I am currently using are both here in this room.

2. The chair and keyboard that I am currently using both exist in January 2019.

3. The chair and keyboard that I am currently using both came in the color black.

All three claims, considered as everyday statements, happen to be true. They also have a common subject, and something common about the predicate, namely the “in.” We have “in this room,” “in January,” and “in the color black.” Now someone might object that this is a mere artifact of my awkward phrasing: obviously, I deliberately chose these formulations with this idea in mind. So this seems to be a mere verbal similarity, and a meaningless one at that.

The objection seems pretty reasonable, but I will argue that it is mistaken. The verbal similarity is not accidental, despite the fact that I did indeed choose the formulations deliberately with this idea in mind. As I intend to argue, there is indeed something common to the three cases, namely that they represent various ways of existing together.

The three statements are true in their ordinary everyday sense. But consider the following three questions:

1. Are the chair and keyboard really in the same room, or is this commonality a mere appearance?

2. Do the chair and keyboard really exist in the same month, or is this commonality a mere appearance?

3. Did the chair and keyboard really come in the same color, or is this commonality a mere appearance?

These questions are like other questions which ask whether something is “really” the case. There is no such thing as being “really” on the right apart from the ordinary understanding of being on the right, and there is no such thing as being really in the same room apart from the ordinary everyday understanding of being in the same room. The same thing applies to the third question about color.

The dispute between realism and nominalism about universals starts in the following way, roughly speaking:

Nominalist: We say that two things are black. But obviously, there are two things here, and no third thing, and the two are not the same thing. So the two do not really have anything in common. Therefore “two things are black” is nothing but a way of speaking.

Platonic Realist: Obviously, the two things really are black. But what is really the case is not just a way of speaking. So the two really do have something in common. Therefore there are three things here: the two ordinary things, and the color black.

Since the Platonic Realist here goes more against common speech in asserting the existence of “three things” where normally one would say there are “two things,” the nominalist has the apparent advantage at this point, and this leads to more qualified forms of realism. In reality, however, one should have stopped the whole argument at this point. The two positions above form a Kantian dichotomy, and as in all such cases, both positions affirm something true, and both positions affirm something false. In this particular case, the nominalist acts as the Kantian, noting that universality is a mode of knowing, and therefore concludes that it is a mere appearance. The Platonic Realist acts as the anti-Kantian, noting that we can know that several things are in fact black, and concluding that universality is a mode of being as such.

But while universality is a way of knowing, existing together is a way of being, and is responsible for the way of knowing. In a similar way, seeing both my chair and keyboard at the same time is a way of seeing things, but this way of seeing is possible because they are here together in the room. Likewise, I can know that both are black, but this knowledge is only possible because they exist together “in” the color black. What does this mean, exactly? Since we are discussing sensible qualities, things are both in the room and black by having certain relationships with my senses. They exist together in those relationships with my senses.

There is no big difference when I ask about ideas. If we ask what two dogs have in common in virtue of both being dogs, what they have in common is a similar relationship to my understanding. They exist together in that relationship with my understanding.

It might be objected that this is circular. Even if what is in common is a relationship, there is still something in common, and that seems to remain unexplained. Two red objects have a certain relationship of “appearing red” to my eyes, but then do we have two things, or three? The two red things, or the two red things and the relationship of “appearing red”? Or is it four things: two red things, and their two relationships of appearing red? So which is it?

Again, there is no difference between these questions and asking whether a table is really on the left or really on the right. It is both, relative to different things, and likewise all three of these methods of counting are valid, depending on what you want to count. As I have said elsewhere, there are no hidden essences, no “true” count, no “how many things are really there?

“Existing together,” however, is a reality, and is not merely a mode of knowing. This provides another way to analyze the problem with the nominalist / Platonic realist opposition. Both arguments falsely assume that existing together is either logically derivative or non-existent. As I said in the post on existential relativity,  it is impossible to deduce the conclusion that many things exist from a list of premises each affirming that a single thing exists, if only because “many things” does not occur as a term in that list. The nominalist position cannot explain the evident fact that both things are black. Likewise, even if there are three things, the two objects and “black,” this would not explain why the two objects are black. The two objects are not the third, since there are three. So there must be yet another object, perhaps called “participation”, which connects the two objects and blackness. And since they both have participation, there must be yet another object, participation in general, in which both objects are also participating. Obviously none of this is helping: the problem was the assumption from the start that togetherness (whether in place, time, or color) could be something logically derivative.

(Postscript: the reader might notice that in the linked post on “in,” I said that a thing is considered to be in something as form in matter. This seems odd in the context of this post, since we are talking about being “in a color,” and a color would not normally be thought of as material, but as formal. But this simply corresponds with the fact that it would be more usual to say that the color black is in the chair, rather than the chair in the black. This is because it is actually more correct: the color black is formal with respect to the chair, not material. But when we ask, “what things can come in the color black,” we do think of black as though it were a kind of formless matter that could take various determinate forms.)

Form and Reality II

This is a followup to this earlier post, but will use a number of other threads to get a fuller understanding of the matter. Rather than presenting this in the form of a single essay, I will present it as a number of distinct theses, many of which have already been argued or suggested in various forms elsewhere on the blog.

(1) Everything that exists or can exist has or could have some relationship with the mind: relationship is in fact intrinsic to the nature of existence.

This was argued here, with related remarks in several recent posts. In a sense the claim is not only true but obviously so. You are the one who says or can say “this exists,” and you could not say or understand it unless the thing had or could have some relationship with your mind.

Perhaps this seems a bit unfair to reality, as though the limits of reality were being set by the limits of the thinker. What if there were a limited being that could only think of some things, but other things could exist that it could not think about? It is easy to see that in this situation the limited being does not have the concept of “everything,” and so can neither affirm nor deny (1). It is not that it would affirm it but be mistaken. It would simply never think of it.

Someone could insist: I myself am limited. It might be that there are better thinkers in the world that can think about things I could never conceive of. But again, if you have concept of “everything,” then you just thought of those things: they are the things that those thinkers would think about. So you just thought about them too, and brought them into relationship with yourself.

Thus, anyone who actually has the idea of “everything,” and thinks about the matter clearly, will agree with (1).

(2) Nothing can be true which could not in principle (in some sense of “in principle”) in some way be said to be true.

Thesis (1) can be taken as saying that anything that can be, can also be understood, at least in some way; and thesis (2) can be taken as saying that anything that can be understood, can also be said, at least in some way.

Since language is conventional, this does not need much of an argument. If I think that something exists, and I don’t have a name for it, I can make up a name. If I think that one thing is another thing, but don’t have words for these things, I can make up words for them. Even if I am not quite sure what I am thinking, I can say, “I have a thought in my mind but don’t quite have the words for it,” and in some way I have already put it into words.

One particular objection to the thesis might be made from self-reference paradoxes. The player in the Liar Game cannot correctly say whether the third statement is true or false, even though it is in fact true or false. But note two things: first, he cannot do this while he is playing, but once the game is over, he can explicitly and correctly say whether it was true or false. Second, even while playing, he can say, “the third statement has a truth value,” and in this way he speaks of its truth in a generic way. This is in part why I added the hedges to (2), “at least in some way”, and “in principle.”

(3) Things do not have hidden essences. That is, they may have essences, but those essences can be explained in words.

This follows in a straightforward way from (1) and (2). The essence of a thing is just “what it is,” or perhaps, “what it most truly is.” The question “what is this thing?” is formed with words, and it is evident that anyone who answers the question, will answer the question by using words.

Now someone might object that the essence of a thing might be hidden because perhaps in some cases the question does not have an answer. But then it would not be true that it has an essence but is hidden: rather, it would be false that it has an essence. Similarly, if the question “where is this thing,” does not have any answer, it does not mean the thing is in a hidden place, but that the thing is not in a place at all.

Another objection might be that an essence might be hidden because the answer to the question exists, but cannot be known. A discussion of this would depend on what is meant by “can be known” and “cannot be known” in this context. That is, if the objector is merely saying that we do not know such things infallibly, including the answer to the question, “what is this?”, then I agree, but would add that (3) does not speak to this point one way or another. But if it is meant that “cannot be known” means that there is something there, the “thing in itself,” which in no way can be known or expressed in words, this would be the Kantian error. This is indeed contrary to (3), and implicitly to (1) or (2) or both, but it is also false.

People might also think that the essence cannot be known because they notice that the question “what is this?” can have many legitimate answers, and suppose that one of these, and only one, must be really and truly true, but think that we have no way to find out which one it is. While there are certainly cases where an apparent answer to the question is not a true answer, the main response here is that if both answers are true, both answers are true: there does not need to be a deeper but hidden level where one is true and the other false. There may however be a deeper level which speaks to other matters and possibly explains both answers. Thus I said in the post linked above that the discussion was not limited to “how many,” but would apply in some way to every question about the being of things.

(4) Reductionism, as it is commonly understood, is false.

I have argued this in various places, but more recently and in particular here and here. It is not just one-sided to say for example that the universe and everything in it is just a multitude of particles. It is false, because it takes one of several truths, and says that one is “really” true and that the other is “really” false.

(5) Anti-reductionism, as it is commonly understood, is false.

This follows from the same arguments. Anti-reductionism, as for example the sort advocated by Alexander Pruss, takes the opposite side of the above argument, saying that certain things are “really” one and in no way many. And this is also false.

(6) Form makes a thing to be what it is, and makes it to be one thing.

This is largely a question of definition. It is what is meant by form in this context.

Someone might object that perhaps there is nothing that makes a thing what it is, or there is nothing that makes it one thing. But if it is what it is of itself, or if it is one of itself, then by this definition it is its own form, and we do not necessarily have an issue with that.

Again, someone might say that the definition conflates two potentially distinct things. Perhaps one thing makes a thing what it is, and another thing makes it one thing. But this is not possible because of the convertibility of being and unity: to be a thing at all, is to be one thing.

(7) Form is what is in common between the mind and the thing it understands, and is the reason the mind understands at all.

This is very distinctly not a question of definition. This needs to be proved from (6), along with what we know about understanding.

It is not so strange to think that you would need to have something in common with a thing in order to understand it. Thus Aristotle presents the words of Empedocles:

For ’tis by Earth we see Earth, by Water Water,

By Ether Ether divine, by Fire destructive Fire,

By Love Love, and Hate by cruel Hate.

On the other hand, there is also obviously something wrong with this. I don’t need to be a tree in order to see or think about a tree, and it is not terribly obvious that there is even anything in common between us. In fact, one of Hilary Lawson’s arguments for his anti-realist position is that there frequently seems to be nothing in common between causes and effects, and that therefore there may be (or certainly will be) nothing in common between our minds and reality, and thus we cannot ultimately know anything. Thus he says in Chapter 2 of his book on closure:

For a system of closure to provide a means of intervention in openness and thus to function as a closure machine, it requires a means of converting the flux of openness into an array of particularities. This initial layer of closure will be identified as ‘preliminary closure’. As with closure generally, preliminary closure consists in the realisation of particularity as a consequence of holding that which is different as the same. This is achieved through the realisation of material in response to openness. The most minimal example of a system of closure consists of a single preliminary closure. Such a system requires two discrete states, or at least states that can be held as if they were discrete. It is not difficult to provide mechanical examples of such systems which allow for a single preliminary closure. A mousetrap for example, can be regarded as having two discrete states: it is either set, it is ready, or it has sprung, it has gone off. Many different causes may have led to it being in one state or another: it may have been sprung by a mouse, but it could also have been knocked by someone or something, or someone could have deliberately set it off. In the context of the mechanism all of these variations are of no consequence, it is either set or it has sprung. The diversity of the immediate environment is thereby reduced to single state and its absence: it is either set or it is not set. Any mechanical arrangement that enables a system to alternate between two or more discrete states is thereby capable of providing the basis for preliminary closure. For example, a bell or a gate could function as the basis for preliminary closure. The bell can either ring or not ring, the gate can be closed or not closed. The bell may ring as the result of the wind, or a person or animal shaking it, but the cause of the response is in the context of system of no consequence. The bell either rings or it doesn’t. Similarly, the gate may be in one state or another because it has been deliberately moved, or because something or someone has dislodged it accidentally, but these variations are not relevant in the context of the state of system, which in this case is the position of the gate. In either case the cause of the bell ringing or the gate closing is infinitely varied, but in the context of the system the variety of inputs is not accessible to the system and thus of no consequence.

A useful way to think about Lawson is that he is in some way a disciple of Heraclitus. Thus closure is “holding that which is different as the same,” but in reality nothing is ever the same because everything is in flux. In the context of this passage, the mousetrap is either set or sprung, and so it divides the world into two states, the “set” state and the “sprung” state. But the universes with the set mousetrap have nothing in common with one another besides the set mousetrap, and the universes with the sprung mousetrap have nothing in common with one another besides the sprung mousetrap.

We can see how this could lead to the conclusion that knowledge is impossible. Sight divides parts of the world up with various colors. Leaves are green, the sky is blue, the keyboard I am using is black. But if I look at two different green things, or two different blue things, they may have nothing in common besides the fact that they affected my sight in a similar way. The sky and a blue couch are blue for very different reasons. We discussed this particular point elsewhere, but the general concern would be that we have no reason to think there is anything in common between our mind and the world, and some reason to think there must be something in common in order for us to understand anything.

Fortunately, the solution can be found right in the examples which supposedly suggest that there is nothing in common between the mind and the world. Consider the mousetrap. Do the universes with the set mousetrap have something in common? Yes, they have the set mousetrap in common. But Lawson does not deny this. His concern is that they have nothing else in common. But they do have something else in common: they have the same relationship to the mousetrap, different from the relationship that the universes with the sprung mousetrap have to their mousetrap. What about the mousetrap itself? Do those universes have something in common with the mousetrap? If we consider the relationship between the mousetrap and the universe as a kind of single thing with two ends, then they do, although they share in it from different ends, just as a father and son have a relationship in common (in this particular sense.) The same things will be true in the case of sensible qualities. “Blue” may divide up surface reflectance properties in a somewhat arbitrary way, but it does divide them into things that have something in common, namely their relationship with the sense of sight.

Or consider the same thing with a picture. Does the picture have anything in common with the thing it represents? Since a picture is meant to actually look similar to the eye to the object pictured, it may have certain shapes in common, the straightness of certain lines, and so on. It may have some colors in common. This kind of literal commonness might have suggested to Empedocles that we should know “earth by earth,” but one difference is that a picture and the object look alike to the eye, but an idea is not something that the mind looks at, and which happens to look like a thing: rather the idea is what the mind uses in order to look at a thing at all.

Thus a better comparison would be between the the thing seen and the image in the eye or the activity of the visual cortex. It is easy enough to see by looking that the image in a person’s eye bears some resemblance to the thing seen, even the sort of resemblance that a picture has. In a vaguer way, something similar turns out to be true even in the visual cortex:

V1 has a very well-defined map of the spatial information in vision. For example, in humans, the upper bank of the calcarine sulcus responds strongly to the lower half of visual field (below the center), and the lower bank of the calcarine to the upper half of visual field. In concept, this retinotopic mapping is a transformation of the visual image from retina to V1. The correspondence between a given location in V1 and in the subjective visual field is very precise: even the blind spots are mapped into V1. In terms of evolution, this correspondence is very basic and found in most animals that possess a V1. In humans and animals with a fovea in the retina, a large portion of V1 is mapped to the small, central portion of visual field, a phenomenon known as cortical magnification. Perhaps for the purpose of accurate spatial encoding, neurons in V1 have the smallest receptive field size of any visual cortex microscopic regions.

However, as I said, this is in a much vaguer way. In particular, it is not so much an image which is in common, but certain spatial relationships. If we go back to the idea of the mousetrap, this is entirely unsurprising. Causes and effects will always have something in common, and always in this particular way, namely with a commonality of relationship, because causes and effects, as such, are defined by their relationship to each other.

How does all this bear on our thesis (7)? Consider the color blue, and the question, “what is it to be blue?” What is the essence of blue? We could answer this in at least two different ways:

  1. To be blue is to have certain reflectance properties.
  2. To be blue is to be the sort of thing that looks blue.

But in the way intended, these are one and the same thing. A thing looks blue if it has those properties, and it has those properties if it looks blue. Now someone might say that this is a direct refutation of our thesis, since the visual cortex presumably does not look blue or have those properties when you look at something blue. But this is like Lawson’s claim that the universe has nothing in common with the sprung mousetrap. It does have something in common, if you look at the relationship from the other end. The same thing happens when we consider the meaning of “certain reflectance properties,” and “the sort of thing that looks blue.” We are actually talking about the properties that make a thing look blue, so both definitions are relative to the sense of sight. And this means that sight has something relative in common with them, and the relation it has in common is the very one that defines the nature of blue. As this is what we mean by form (thesis 6), the form of blue must be present in the sense of sight in order to see something blue.

In fact, it followed directly from thesis (1) that the nature of blue would need to include something relative. And it followed from (2) and (3) that the very same nature would turn out to be present in our senses, thoughts, and words.

The same argument applies to the mind as to the senses. I will draw additional conclusions in a later post, and in particular, show the relevance of theses (4) and (5) to the rest.

The More Known and the Conjunction Fallacy

St. Thomas explains in what sense we know the universal before the particular, and in what sense the particular before the universal:

In our knowledge there are two things to be considered.

First, that intellectual knowledge in some degree arises from sensible knowledge: and, because sense has singular and individual things for its object, and intellect has the universal for its object, it follows that our knowledge of the former comes before our knowledge of the latter.

Secondly, we must consider that our intellect proceeds from a state of potentiality to a state of actuality; and every power thus proceeding from potentiality to actuality comes first to an incomplete act, which is the medium between potentiality and actuality, before accomplishing the perfect act. The perfect act of the intellect is complete knowledge, when the object is distinctly and determinately known; whereas the incomplete act is imperfect knowledge, when the object is known indistinctly, and as it were confusedly. A thing thus imperfectly known, is known partly in act and partly in potentiality, and hence the Philosopher says (Phys. i, 1), that “what is manifest and certain is known to us at first confusedly; afterwards we know it by distinguishing its principles and elements.” Now it is evident that to know an object that comprises many things, without proper knowledge of each thing contained in it, is to know that thing confusedly. In this way we can have knowledge not only of the universal whole, which contains parts potentially, but also of the integral whole; for each whole can be known confusedly, without its parts being known. But to know distinctly what is contained in the universal whole is to know the less common, as to “animal” indistinctly is to know it as “animal”; whereas to know “animal” distinctly is know it as “rational” or “irrational animal,” that is, to know a man or a lion: therefore our intellect knows “animal” before it knows man; and the same reason holds in comparing any more universal idea with the less universal.

Moreover, as sense, like the intellect, proceeds from potentiality to act, the same order of knowledge appears in the senses. For by sense we judge of the more common before the less common, in reference both to place and time; in reference to place, when a thing is seen afar off it is seen to be a body before it is seen to be an animal; and to be an animal before it is seen to be a man, and to be a man before it seen to be Socrates or Plato; and the same is true as regards time, for a child can distinguish man from not man before he distinguishes this man from that, and therefore “children at first call men fathers, and later on distinguish each one from the others” (Phys. i, 1). The reason of this is clear: because he who knows a thing indistinctly is in a state of potentiality as regards its principle of distinction; as he who knows “genus” is in a state of potentiality as regards “difference.” Thus it is evident that indistinct knowledge is midway between potentiality and act.

We must therefore conclude that knowledge of the singular and individual is prior, as regards us, to the knowledge of the universal; as sensible knowledge is prior to intellectual knowledge. But in both sense and intellect the knowledge of the more common precedes the knowledge of the less common.

The universal is known from the particular in the sense that we learn the nature of the universal from the experience of particulars. But both in regard to the universal and in regard to the particular, our knowledge is first vague and confused, and becomes more distinct as it is perfected. In St. Thomas’s example, one can see that something is a body before noticing that it is an animal, and an animal before noticing that it is a man. The thing that might be confusing here is that the more certain knowledge is also the less perfect knowledge: looking at the thing in the distance, it is more certain that it is some kind of body, but it is more perfect to know that it is a man.

Insofar as probability theory is a formalization of degrees of belief, the same thing is found, and the same confusion can occur. Objectively, the more general claim should always be understood to be more probable, but the more specific claim, representing what would be more perfect knowledge, can seem more explanatory, and therefore might appear more likely. This false appearance is known as the conjunction fallacy. Thus for example as I continue to add to a blog post, the post might become more convincing. But in fact the chance that I am making a serious error in the post can only increase, not decrease, with every additional sentence.


Knowing and Being

One of the most fundamental of philosophical errors is to suppose that since things are known by us in a certain way, they must exist in themselves in that very same way. St. Thomas raises an objection concerning the human mode of knowing:

It would seem that our intellect does not understand corporeal and material things by abstraction from the phantasms. For the intellect is false if it understands an object otherwise than as it really is. Now the forms of material things do not exist as abstracted from the particular things represented by the phantasms. Therefore, if we understand material things by abstraction of the species from the phantasm, there will be error in the intellect.

He responds to the objection:

Abstraction may occur in two ways:

First, by way of composition and division; thus we may understand that one thing does not exist in some other, or that it is separate therefrom.

Secondly, by way of simple and absolute consideration; thus we understand one thing without considering the other. Thus for the intellect to abstract one from another things which are not really abstract from one another, does, in the first mode of abstraction, imply falsehood. But, in the second mode of abstraction, for the intellect to abstract things which are not really abstract from one another, does not involve falsehood, as clearly appears in the case of the senses. For if we understood or said that color is not in a colored body, or that it is separate from it, there would be error in this opinion or assertion. But if we consider color and its properties, without reference to the apple which is colored; or if we express in word what we thus understand, there is no error in such an opinion or assertion, because an apple is not essential to color, and therefore color can be understood independently of the apple. Likewise, the things which belong to the species of a material thing, such as a stone, or a man, or a horse, can be thought of apart from the individualizing principles which do not belong to the notion of the species. This is what we mean by abstracting the universal from the particular, or the intelligible species from the phantasm; that is, by considering the nature of the species apart from its individual qualities represented by the phantasms. If, therefore, the intellect is said to be false when it understands a thing otherwise than as it is, that is so, if the word “otherwise” refers to the thing understood; for the intellect is false when it understands a thing otherwise than as it is; and so the intellect would be false if it abstracted the species of a stone from its matter in such a way as to regard the species as not existing in matter, as Plato held. But it is not so, if the word “otherwise” be taken as referring to the one who understands. For it is quite true that the mode of understanding, in one who understands, is not the same as the mode of a thing in existing: since the thing understood is immaterially in the one who understands, according to the mode of the intellect, and not materially, according to the mode of a material thing.

The objection basically argues that it is impossible to know things in a general way, since things do not exist in reality in a general way, but in a particular way. So if they are understood generally, they are understood falsely.

St. Thomas’s response is that it would be false, if someone were to assert, “tables exist in reality in a general way,” but that it is not false to have a general understanding of tables without asserting that tables are general things.

While error can arise in many ways, this kind of confusion between how things are known and how they are is one of the most basic causes of human error, both in regard to speculative and to practical truth. I will look at some examples in a later post.