The Counsel of Trent

writing is thinking

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

To Think or Not to Think?

Or rather, to think discursively or non-discursively. The two are not in inherent tension, but we can certainly focus too much on one kind or the other. For example, as a philosopher I definitely plead guilty of "overthinking" issues sometimes and ending up on "analysis paralysis" where I've thought myself into a corner and got stuck.

On the other hand... I've also had the following kind of experience so many times now it's scary (Grad school is valuable in part for bringing about these experiences quite regularly): some thesis is proposed and it seems exactly right, seems to address the problem in just the right way. I set down to defend this thesis in print and--adopting the standards of my profession--attempt to set out a short, clear, and precise logically valid argument for the thesis. In the process of doing this I discover--to my horror--that my intuitive line of reasoning was wholly fallacious. Indeed, I now see that the thesis *couldn't* be true. This always makes for a disrupting experience and a nice paper. It also teaches me the value of discursive thought as a check and balance on intuition.

There is a further related value to discursive thought. It's one thing to know and another to know that you know. Getting it right isn't always the whole point. One of the main things that separates humans from animals in the cognitive sphere is the ability to have what's called "higher-order" thoughts. That is, not only do we have beliefs, we have beliefs *about* our beliefs--for example the belief that my belief in God is justified.

This would be a "second-order" belief. The "first-order" belief is a belief about a "thing"--God can be a thing in this harmless sense of being an object of thought (think apprehension, not comprehention). The "second-order" belief is a belief about a belief about a thing (an n-order belief has n iterations of "belief"). Third-order beliefs are not that uncommon in philosophy: I believe that my belief that my belief in God is justified is not mere rationalization. Rather I believe that that belief is based upon reflection upon the standards of rationality.

Mere animals cannot have this experience. They don't think about their thoughts. And God and the angels don't *need* to. They know *everything* they know to the highest degree in a simple intuition. It is only we spiritual amphibians in the middle--ensoulded bodies, embodied souls--who can and need to think about out thoughts and how they match reality. It is our particularly human activity, part of what gives us our place in the Great Chain of Being.

These thoughts were occasioned by the recommendation of the book: Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind: How Intelligence Increases When You Think Less. For the record, I fully endorse the thesis that sometimes discursive thought gets in the way of what we know more directly. I endorse Aristotle's thesis that *all* knowledge starts in simple apprehensions of being and rational insight into first principles. I also endorse Polanyi's theory of Tacit Knowledge or Personal Knowledge and Maritain's concept of "knowledge by connaturality" (see James Taylor's book _Poetic Knowledge_). One just has to be very, very careful in how one applies them.


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