The Rationality of Being

By Halper, Edward C. | The Review of Metaphysics, March 2015 | Go to article overview

The Rationality of Being


Halper, Edward C., The Review of Metaphysics


IT SEEMS OBVIOUS that the mechanisms or strategies deployed by thought to arrive at knowledge of the world are not the same, nor even of the same sort, as the physical processes thought aims to grasp through them. This gap does not depend on any particular understanding of thought.

The mechanisms of thoughts have been variously conceived. Frege took logic to enunciate normative "laws of thought," "the most general laws, which prescribe universally how one ought to think if one is to think at all," and he contrasted it with the psychological, descriptive "laws" of how people generally do draw inferences. (1) Gilbert Harman, on the other hand, lumps the laws of thought together with the empirically determined mechanisms of inference and contrasts both with logic, which he takes to study truth-preserving implications from formal systems of language. (2) Assuming logic is also a thought process, we can take these three classes, namely, (1) the formal laws of thought, (2) the psychological laws, and (3) logic, to span the range of mental mechanisms, even while allowing for the possibility that they cannot be distinguished without overlap. In contrast with them, consider the mechanisms among physical objects: one body impacts another, a charged particle attracts or repels another particle, and so on. None of the mental mechanisms is a physical mechanism. Whether thought (or language) corresponds to the world has been much discussed. My point here is different: there is no obvious correspondence between the mechanisms at work in the one realm and those that manifest themselves in the other. In consequence, there is no reason that the result of some thought process should signal the result of a physical process, however the thought process is conceived.

More specifically, (1) philosophers who referred to logic as the "laws of thought" meant to contrast logic with the laws of the physical world. Whereas the laws of thought are a priori and necessary, the laws of nature are empirical and defeasible. How could a logical deduction express a physical mechanism? Likewise, (3) philosophers who understand logic as a formal language take it to be a system with its own rules of inference, rules that are, again, necessary and independent of content, whereas physical mechanisms would seem to be regular sequences of like events. Again, how could logical necessity express physical causality? On the other hand, (2) those philosophers concerned with human rationality, that is, the casual, loosely linked inferences people actually draw from their experience of the world, as distinct from the implications drawn from the formal linguistic systems that are the province of logic, face the opposite sort of problem. At first glance, the sequence of thoughts might seem parallel to the sequence of natural events and, thus, just the tool to grasp nature. However, there is a striking lack of regularity in the connections and transitions between one thought and another as well as in the conclusions people actually draw, and this makes the stream of actual thought unsuitable to grasp the regular operations of nature, those regular sequences of events in respect of which nature is said to be "law-governed." In short, thought seems either too rigid or too loose to grasp the functioning of nature. It would seem to fail, intrinsically, in respect of an essential difference between it and nature.

Given the obvious discrepancies, we might wonder why anyone would suppose that mechanisms of thought would align with those of nature. How could the functioning of a mind express the motions of physical things? Why would the principles that govern minds also govern physical phenomena? Such questions never get off the ground unless there is some initial connection between mental content and the world.

Perhaps a thoroughgoing materialist will want to answer that the same material operations that are at work in nature underlie our reasoning. …

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