The following is a re-articulation of an online dialectic I gave for the existence of concepts as part of the experience of 'thought.' It was given to an unusual audience of self-described material atheists and agnostics within a very casual forum. It is “just an introduction to my ideas of mind and concepts” to such an audience and I was not interested in pointing out the scientific (or unscientific) nature of the arguments given (in the sense of episteme in Posterior Analytics Bk. 1, 2). More specifically, I try merely to manifest, describe, and explain basic properties of a part of the conscious experience- touching on science but as a philosopher. Given the audience, the arguments are correspondingly somewhat atypical in form and matter for its subject, at least for those from the same school of thought, namely Thomism, as I the author. I am posting it with the hope that such like minds may provide their estimation of the essay’s veracity.

To begin, I will take the term ‘thought’ vaguely here, and am not in any way excluding it to humans or even primates (that issue is outside of my prerogative). Also, I want to leave behind certain arcane and stinging-sounding terms that for my purposes would be more of a distraction than an aid. I am here deliberately absconding from describing the phenomenon at hand as being 'of the soul.' 'Soul' for the Greeks really didn't commonly mean more that 'principle of living (or principle of any certain operation of life, such as thought) and it just doesn't mean the same nowadays, now it is something far more specific and kooky. I think there is a need to recognize the phenomenon of thought vaguely. So take thought here as merely the discursive process where the conscious 'mind' beholds something outside itself (or itself as outside itself). Let's begin with an example.

Think about a cat. Obviously you have some image of a cat. Was it fat or skinny? Say it was skinny. Does that mean a fat cat is not a cat? It would seem that you would still call a fat cat a cat. In fact, if I told you to think of, oh, five cats, one of them probably would have been fatter or skinnier that the other. Suppose, after a bit of reflection, we may see, at least for the sake of argument, that our thoughts about cats include a certain limit to their dimension. At this point we leave the cats behind. Consider that the range of size itself conceptualized does not have a greater dimension. A two foot thing is bigger than a one foot thing. But is a notion of 'two' a bigger one than 'one?' There would seem to be something nonsensical (pardon the double entendre) to about notions being a strictly measurable thing in the first place, and one notion would not measure the other as a notion with respect to size. These so called 'notions' or 'concepts' are the part of thought I am interested in.

This dialectic is certainly inconclusive but I think it also points to something described in another ubiquitously pragmatic neurological pretext as the "storage" problem. A 'concept,' just considering the meaning of the word, is a perplexing thing. They're abstract: 'two-ness' itself isn't simply found as 'two-ness' in any thing's definition. Further, they're common. Taking their meaning alone, their common or universal: "Two-ness" explains any case of 'two,' i.e. you can find them in any appropriately applicable case. How does would an abstract, common thing come from something that is has quite concrete operations, and is particular?

Some, as far as I can tell, mainstream neurobiologist seems to be open to the idea of concepts being at least a very unusual case (according to my neophyte understanding). It is true, that many particular cases of brain operations such as the neural processes behind discernment, reportability, perception, etc are rapidly being explained by neuroscience. But one example of the neurobiology papers I have encountered that notices the peculiarity of concepts (Semantic Memory and the Brain: Structure and Process, by Alex Martin and Linda Chao, found in Current Opinion in Neurobiology 11, 2001) states the problem this way:

Clearly it would be difficult, as well as unwise, to argue that there is a 'chair area' in the brain. There are simply too many categories, and too little neural space to accommodate discrete, category-specific modules for every category. In fact, there is no limit on the number of object categories.
If you think about this, if it is true, it is strange. The claim is that loci in the brain for categorical thought are limited by the fact that the brain itself is limited by what it is. Even more paradoxically, it seems we are able to know a potential infinity of categories of concepts, each category containing therein an infinite number of its own exemplars. Take as an example that there is no limit to how many geometrical figures one could learn, and one can easily imagine an infinity number of any one of those figures, as a case take a circle and continuously extend it's radius). In other words, there is no saying "my brain is full" like the Far Side cartoon. I think it is a sufficient to show that, but not why, there is really is such an infinite is a possibility of mind just by considering such aforementioned geometrical cases, or a case of infinite conjunction (there is something algorithmic about it, actually). See Noam Chomsky's comments on this "creativity" in Aspects of the Theory of Syntax, Ch. 1.

Another difficulty with concepts is from the property of simplicity that is found in certain concepts. Consider the first and most fundamental act of the mind, sometimes referred to as the simplex apprehensio. In this act the mind first apprehends merely that something is. Contextual examples or illustration is the only means of describing this concept. That is, seeing something as a "this" prior to any sort of defining. Suppose that a neuroscientist claimed to explain a concept 'black dog' via showing how the parts of the meaning were spatially distributed and correlated in different sectors of the brain; i.e. black is at location A, dog is at location B, and the relation (be it some mediation or overlapping cortical regions) between the two give rise to the concept of 'black dog.' Would the concept of unity understood in the unity of the words also be "overlapping?" I think with this explanation you run into a similar situation that Plato was criticized for in Aristotle's 'third man argument,' where an explanation leads the fact that another 'overlap' would be needed to distinguish how the 'black dog' and 'unity' are both 'one', et cetera ad infinitum. Scientifically speaking, how conceptualization may differ in kind from imagining, memory, or other related processes which, to my knowledge, has been shown to have a direct correlation to brain activity might be elaborated on by the argument above. I admit again, however, that my neurobiological knowledge is nothing really more than what I have studied on my own, and I imagine this isn't at all responding to other opposite positions regarding the status of mind in neurobiology.

Of course the greater historical dispute of how concepts seem to differ from other significant mental beings or processes, such as those often related to imagination, has long (even all the way back to the pre-Socratics) taken place is in the philosophical sciences. Hume, as you well know, was the main advocate of conflating concepts and images and making them the same thing fundamentally. I'd like here to provide a brief response to his position. First of all, it seems to me easy to see that, at least at first appearance, there is a difference in speech of 'a cat' and 'what it is to be a cat (whatever that may be)'. The difference is this: that in the first case there is only one example you can give, and in the second there is an indefinite. This can be seen even easier if you consider 'some two,' say two feet, and 'two' as something that is said of many. I am deliberate in using 'said' here because the case seems indisputable as a linguistic phenomenon. We simply speak this way. Moreover, what is understood when a word that can be said of many things is that (at least with the basic definition of the word being applied) it retains its meaning in any case it could be applied to.

Hume's reply is that this 'universalizing' is merely a linguistic convenience, useful for commerce and conversation, but what really is happening in the mind is merely a compiling of particular cases; lining them up, if you will. To me this somewhat misses the point (not to deny it has been developed to a more powerful position by analytic philosophy). To quote his Enquiry, Section 12, 1:
Let any man try to conceive of triangle in general, which is neither Isosceles nor Scalene, nor has any particular length or proportion of sides; and he will soon perceive the absurdity of all the scholastic notions with regard to abstraction and general ideas.
Actually, if there is to be any science at all that is not tautological generalization must happen. Algebra is a great example of how science per se in some way general. However, I think the better response is in the simple fact that thought doesn't ordinarily differ from speech. Our thoughts are in fact the source of meaning in the words we use, and we speak abstractly. Really, whose interior monologue is really different that how they speak?

The analytic philosophers here raise the more fundamental objection to abstract thought. They are permissive of my reply, but then ask coyly, 'but what makes the thoughts anything more than words?' The more despondent of the analytics (including, I think, the late Wittgenstein) end up thinking there is nothing more than words and their proported 'meanings,' which are also just words - amounting to scepticism.

There are a few different ways to counter to this argument. One way that I will not attempt here would be to appeal to the first principles of knowledge; such as the fact there is a self-contradicting incoherence in their claim (or non-claim, for that matter) that is meaningful that concepts are mere convention. This works for me, but the fleshed out argument is very involved, has gotten massive attention by most of the history of philosophy's 'big guns' whom I would be obliged to consider, and may come up anyway if and when we ever discuss Kant. Rather, I'd like to give an argument derived from a discussion Kripke has considering a problem first posed by Wittgenstein.

Suppose your math teacher asks you do a computation you have never done, say 68+57. Suppose further in adding you have never arrived at a solution over 57. You add and get 125, mathematically and metalinguistically correct; metalinguistically meaning just the '+' was the same function you intended the same meaning you always have when you add. But the skeptic classmate to your conclusion and insist that if you really had intended the same function you would have said 68+57= 5. Obviously this doesn't seem right. But the skeptic argues that you couldn't have given yourself perfectly explicit instructions that 125 is the answer here, by hypothesis. What you are doing is applying the rule you have used when adding in the past, and hence you have only instantiated the rule a finite number of times. Further, he continues, in previous operations, the function you were denoting by a '+' was actually a '£,' which will derive the sum x and y if x and y are >57, but will solve with a '5' if otherwise. So, he would conclude, you were not actually using '+,' you were using '£.' To clarify, the skeptic is not asking "How do you know that 68+57= 125?" Rather the question is "How do you know that in '68+57' the '+' used in the past will denote 125? Perhaps before, he will claim, you meant '£,' and so 68+57= 5. You know this is wrong and scour the past usages of '+,' all with sums less than 57. But you find that the facts of your past usages are compatible with either sign. This is when a different matter of fact occurs to you. You are able to articulate the rule of addition, without having to utilize in that definition any particular case. But in order for you to claim this, the fact must be apart from the particular instances you have done. This is not to deny you may have arrived at the fact in someway via dealing with cases of adding. But it also is to say that at some point you saw something behind the cases you had to deal with. The solution hence lies in the fact that we understand what we mean-- despite the fact that material cases of our thought do not disambiguate them from meanings distinct from, but close to, the thoughts intended. I think this is a big deal. The same physical structures instantiate different functions (Tangentially, super computer processes, have brought this more to light, with chess and other examples) but only via the usage of concepts does one disambiguate.

So if I were to summarize my points so far I suppose I would say that the phenomenon of concepts has unusual and distinctive qualities that require explanation. I think a lot of time could be spent disputing and defending even what I have said. Some of the conclusions that would follow from the properties of concepts I have elucidated are also quite contentious, as you probably can infer. It strikes me something like getting groceries at the market; you don't need to be in the market while having them just because you needed the market to get them in the first place. Perhaps such an explanation is needed for concepts too. I wish I knew science better. But now I'm rambling.


  1. ho mathetes said...
    Vincentius, as you can see I had HTML problems when attempting to create an expandable post summary. Can you let me know how to fix it, or can you give me your email so I can send the article for you to format?
    Frater Asinus said...
    The mode of procceding in this article seems that it would be effective in communicating your thoughts to those who are of a more "modern" (to use a very loaded term) background. Ho mathetes, how was this received?
    Vincentius said...
    As the blog owner, I can edit the post...the summary problem should be fixed.
    ho mathetes said...
    Frater Asinus-

    Funny enough, the email was well recieved, but then not much was discussed.

    Here's all that was said:

    Before I even attempt to respond - well done. This is clear, thorough and readable.

    One quick comment that jumps to mind (oh the puns could come think and fast in this topic...): Clearly it would be difficult, as well as unwise, to argue that there is a 'chair area' in the brain. There are simply too many categories, and too little neural space to accommodate discrete, category-specific modules for every category. In fact, there is no limit on the number of object categories.

    I think a more accurate understanding of memory and concept storage in the brain is that it is a collection of connections, or a pattern of connections, more than it is a particular "area". It is difficult to localize those patterns since they are slightly different in every person (the formation of synapses is a very dynamic and personalized experience), and the machines we use to localize neural activity (PET scanners) offer very coarse resolution in real-time. Further advances in imaging techniques may shed more light on the particular networks used to store concepts, but it seems more likely to me that a useful understanding may come from computer models of neural interaction.

    "Learning," in neurobiological terms, is described as "long-term potentiation" or the increase in the propensity of a neuron to fire given a particular stimulus. A series of these potentiations in connected neurons can create a "memory" of the pattern corresponding to the actual memory or concept, and when the pattern is triggered by a stimulus from another part of the brain, like the visual or auditory cortex, the pattern is "primed" and ready to go, activating the concept-pattern. In that there are trillions upon trillions of connections between neurons in the brain that can create a nearly infinite array of networks, yes, it is easy to see the lie in the Gary Larson joke.

    This is all that was said by either of them. I should mention that I suggested tying off other simultaneous discussions we were having beforehand, so its not like the discussion has ceased b/c they were confounded or suchlike. However I do hope it is picked up at greater length like certain other topics we are discussing, such as consciousness where we have collectively over a hundred pages of writing already, and counting. But we'll see. They both seen to think consciousness is a more materially inexplicable thing.

Post a Comment

Newer Post Older Post Home