Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Quid Est Veritas? Part Two

Are you sitting comfortably?

What is under your butt? A chair? A couch? Or perhaps you're standing, reading this on your smartphone. What kind of floor is beneath your feet? What are you wearing on those feet? Shoes? Slippers? Are you barefoot? Why one thing, and not something else?

These questions are based on that first kind of knowledge I wrote about last time, the sensory or visceral knowledge. We don't have to be human to experience this type of awareness. It helps to be human to experience what I've just been asking about, though.

When I mention a chair, or a floor, I'm using words to go beyond the merely sensory knowledge, and attach names to things that are registering on our nervous systems. Moreover, I'm moving into a field of knowledge that requires a high order of mental processing, because we suddenly are dealing with abstract knowledge. We're naming objects and sensations, and we're beginning to develop relationships between various objects and the sensations they're related to.

I want to call this type of knowledge conjectural or propositional knowledge, from the fact that much of it is based on conjecture about the history of the objects around us, as well as the way they fit into the overall environment we find ourselves in.

In essence, we're telling stories about our environment, filling in blanks that appear when we move beyond the merely sensory knowledge we experience all the time.

These stories reach through space, because we are able to reason about the length of a wall, or the height of a tree, or the width of a road. They extend through time as well, because we begin to consider the age of objects, extending into the past, and the durability of objects, living and inanimate, as we consider how long they will last.

The vehicle for this knowledge is language, something that human beings understand instinctively, and something that may exist in some form in higher primates and in marine mammals like dolphins and whales.

It appears that language is a development that arose when early human beings began to associate certain sounds with emotions, with aspects of their environment that had life and death significance for them. Building on sounds associated with their own feelings and with objects around them, the language evolved to greater and greater sophistication. Over time our ancestors were able to express complex ideas in words. This incorporated relationships in the physical world, and relationships in their mental and emotional landscapes. They could use the product of all that evolution to begin to examine their own minds.

Associated with this was the development of a social dimension in humanity. Language means nothing if only one person uses it. As the Apostle Paul says, speaking in tongues without someone to interpret doesn't build anything up. Language must be a shared experience. Individuality is only valuable up to a point; beyond that point, the social aspect becomes of primary importance.

Yet, even as we use language to tell stories, describe unbuilt skyscrapers, write elegies, and narrate stories, we must fall back to the fundamental truth about it. It's based on a physical world that we experience through our nervous systems.

So, in summary, we have two kinds of knowledge, which can be considered two types of truth. We have the knowledge of the world around us, given to us through our nervous systems and the sensorium that it creates. And we have the knowledge that is generated when we use language to contemplate that world, to associate qualities and quantities to the physical and the emotional and the purely intellectual.

Yet this is not the end of knowledge. There is more to contemplate. We'll deal with that in our next excursion.

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