Saturday, July 18, 2015

The Subtle Narrowness of Human Concepts

Note: this was partly just messing around with writing—not necessarily the best way of communicating the ideas suggested here. They are ideas I care about though, so hopefully there'll be a more clear follow up one day.

Understanding is partially and significantly a generative capacity; and, being able to generate instances of our generic grasping, we feel ourselves to have some ambiguous command of reality. To look upon a house and consequently feel it recreated in the center of one’s self is surely a more profound act of possession than any deed could confer; but to extract from multiple unplanned viewings that which makes a house a house, and turn it around, and freely and fluidly construct never-constructed new variations, in that same most personal inner chamber—perhaps no form of ownership could be more complete. But what is the true value of this ability? In offering even a superlative commendation of the human capacity to know, one inevitably compares its worth against those of its contenders; an act of measurement, always comparative, necessarily precedes our praise. It seems, however, that we are too apt to mistake beating all contenders as furnishing proof of transcendent superiority, when really, as far as we know, the match was rather local and our champion would be devastated outside his hometown. There is a negative and a positive side to considering the situation thusly. The ostensibly negative side is that understanding begins to look more like our various other capacities—like, for example, the one which allows us to determine with our noses whether a shirt is unclean or not. The positive side is that we may attribute to reality—which, if we aren’t solidly a part of, what are we?—a dazzlingly less bounded potential, to say nothing of the general merits of taking a more realist stock of things.


For most of my life I'd assumed that human concepts were this limitless sort of thing capable of making fundamental connections to what's going on in the universe at some deep level. In more recent years I've come to consider them as almost like another sense: they are symbolic patterns consistently formed when we are exposed to certain stimuli (like our experience of smells consistently reappearing when exposed to similar molecules). Our conceptual faculty augments the pure pattern-correspondence of our more primitive senses in that the patterns can be associated with other internal patterns, and in that we can generate new patterns purely from existing patterns (using logical and analogical processes), which at some future time may be usefully associated with some never-encountered external stimulus. This is of course extremely useful—but we really must be falling into what should be an obvious trap of anthropocentrism in ascribing to them much more than that.

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