Intuitions and a-priori knowledge

In a comment on my post on hypotheticals, Krishnamurthy asked:

When you say “Rationality means that man must instead find principles on which to base his actions “, the question arises about how to arrive at those principles. If he cannot use his intuition, and if he cannot do the complicated expected utility maximization, then he can only arrive at the principles by evaluating the outcomes of his previous actions. But to evaluate he would need some principles to begin with. (on second thought, even to do expected utility maximization, he would need to make some evaluations). how does a human being find the principle to base his actions on ?

I hold that knowledge can never be a-priori. To see why, consider these questions

Does a digital balance know how to measure weight?
Does a computer know how to add numbers?
Does my heart know how to pump blood?
Do my eyes and brain know how to distinguish objects from each other?
Does a parrot that recites 2 + 2 = 4 know that 2 + 2 = 4?

My answer to all these questions would be no. There is no knowledge involved here. Knowledge, in the sense applicable to a human mind, involves the exercise of free will. An entity that does not have free will cannot have any knowledge. It is like a machine that does certain things because that is its nature. Since no exercise of free will can occur before one exists, knowledge cannot be a-priori.

Now consider the human mind. I believe that the mind is built with the capacity to use logic, but not with the knowledge of the laws of logic. This is a subtle point. What I am saying is that the mind has an inbuilt ability to determine whether something makes sense. But active effort is required to use this ability. And further effort is required to identify why it makes sense. Men obviously have been using logic for millenia. But it took Aristotle to identify the laws of logic. The operation of the laws of logic is part of the nature of the mind but the knowledge of the laws of logic is not. It takes active effort to grasp the laws of logic – to realize that when something “makes sense”, it is because that something is consistent with the laws of logic. The faculty that is capable of doing this grasping is reason. Man is born with the faculty of reason. But it is the use of reason that results in knowledge.

Recollect the time when you learnt the truth table for “p AND q” where “p” and “q” are propositions. How did you grasp that the truth table was correct? I did so by substituting actual propositions for “p” and “q” and verifying the values in the truth table. This indicates that knowledge of the truth table was not a-priori but the ability to verify particular propositions was. The truth-table was <i>induced</i> from the ability to verify particular propositions. More importantly, this also indicates that in the absence of any particular propositions, I could not have induced the truth table for “p AND q”. This is another reason that knowledge cannot be a-priori.

The ability to understand and evaluate propositions and to induce principles is inbuilt. If you want to call this ability intuition (I call it reason), I have no problem accepting the validity of intuitions, provided effort is made to express the result of this “intuition” in terms of the laws of logic, observations and any other principles one has already validated. But I don’t think this is what anybody means by intuition. For example, the Merriam Webster dictionary defines intuition as
1: quick and ready insight
2 a: immediate apprehension or cognition b: knowledge or conviction gained by intuition c: the power or faculty of attaining to direct knowledge or cognition without evident rational thought and inference
Note the parts I have emphasized. They all indicate that intuition is knowledge achieved without active effort and without the use of reason.

Does this answer your question?

Advertisements

Nonsense masquerading as profundity

I do not read the Economic Times and so did not know that it had a column named Cosmic Uplink (What does that mean?). It recently featured an article by Mukul Sharma titled “There’s nothing less real than reality” that ended with

Zhuangzi, said one night he dreamt he was a carefree butterfly flying happily. After he woke, he wondered how he could determine whether he was Zhuangzi who had just finished dreaming he was a butterfly, or a butterfly who had just started dreaming it was Zhuangzi.

The Times of India has a similar column named The Speaking Tree usually featuring similar articles. All that is needed to refute such nonsense is to take it literally. Aristotle The Geek does that very well with

Let me chop off the index finger of your right hand. If you are dreaming, the finger will still be there when you wake up. If you are awake, the fact that you are awake will be confirmed and a finger is a small price to pay for such profound knowledge.

Such articles are inherently dishonest. What is Mukul Sharma relying on when he writes such nonsense? He is relying on the fact that his readers are capable of reading it and understanding it. And yet it is the roots of that understanding which his article intends to destroy. Some time back I wrote a little about a book called “Practising The Power Of Now”. It contained this gem

The essence of what I am saying here cannot be understood by the mind.

But Mr Sharma and Mr Tolle, I do understand what it is that you are trying to do. And I refuse to fall for it.

Specialization – Applied Philosophy – 3

In an essay titled “Why Nerds are Unpopular?”, Paul Graham writes that life in elementary school is warped and savage because it is isolated from reality and identifies specialization as the reason for the isolation.

“Teenage kids used to have a more active role in society. In pre-industrial times, they were all apprentices of one sort or another, whether in shops or on farms or even on warships. They weren’t left to create their own societies. They were junior members of adult societies.

Now adults have no immediate use for teenagers…
The cause of this problem is the same as the cause of so many present ills: specialization. As jobs become more specialized, we have to train longer for them…”
(Emphasis added)

Specialization and trade are the primary mechanisms of human progress. Todays industrial societies and the incredibly complex global economy would be impossible without specialization – without men who spend most of their lives working in a narrow field. Specialization has given us the sophisticated gadgets we use in our daily lives, the means to communicate with people across the globe, the opportunity to excel in our chosen careers. Specialization has given artists the time needed to create works of art and others the opportunity of enjoying them. Specialization has given sportsmen the time needed to perfect their skills and others the opportunity of being inspired by human perfection. In short, specialization has given us most of the things that we value in life.

Specialization has also caused innumerable problems. Specialization has made it very difficult for young people to make an informed choice of career or to change a choice of career once made. Specialization has made it difficult for people to adjust to economic changes. Specialization has created complex chains of dependencies among people. Specialization has made it difficult for people to understand fields other than their own. Specialization has made it difficult for anyone to understand the broader picture – the workings of the world. Specialization is atleast partly responsible for the large number of fallacious beliefs held by mostly reasonable people – particularly in economics and politics. Specialization is partly responsible for today’s rampant pragmatism – the lack of respect for abstract ideas and philosophy.

Perhaps the single biggest problem caused by specialization is the problem of knowing what to believe outside of one’s chosen field. Men have evolved a number of mechanisms to solve this problem – peer reviewed journals and techincal associations in science, the concepts of degrees and certifications in education, the concept of branding in advertising, independent rating agencies in industry, efforts like wikipedia, government regulatory bodies for everything, etc. While some mechanisms work better than others, it is clear that there can be no complete solution. The body of human knowledge is so vast and varied that it is impossible for anyone to establish trusted authorities in every field. The mixed success achieved in solving this problem is an important reason for the general lack of respect for abstract ideas and general principles. It also raises (well founded) questions about whether the entire system can sustain itself without directed effort. But the questions cannot be answered without abstract ideas and general principles, i.e without philosophy. Contrary to popular belief these are not merely questions of economics. They cannot be answered without an understanding of the nature of man, the function of his reason, the nature and structure of his knowledge and the reasons for his motives.

Specialization is a natural phenomenon. As long as men deal with each other, they have to trade. And as long as they trade, they will choose to spend their time on that which they are best equipped to do. In the absence of a catastophic disruption, a society will continue to grow in complexity. A system that constantly increases in complexity cannot be sustained without directed effort. Without that effort or with wrong efforts a catastrophic disruption is inevitable. Anyone who believes that the economy will continue to prosper irrespective of the social and political system is deeply mistaken. As the level of specialization continues to accelerate, the need for the right philosophy becomes ever more crucial.

%d bloggers like this: