Decisions as Predictions

Among acts of will, St. Thomas distinguishes intention and choice:

The movement of the will to the end and to the means can be considered in two ways. First, according as the will is moved to each of the aforesaid absolutely and in itself. And thus there are really two movements of the will to them. Secondly, it may be considered accordingly as the will is moved to the means for the sake of the end: and thus the movement of the will to the end and its movement to the means are one and the same thing. For when I say: “I wish to take medicine for the sake of health,” I signify no more than one movement of my will. And this is because the end is the reason for willing the means. Now the object, and that by reason of which it is an object, come under the same act; thus it is the same act of sight that perceives color and light, as stated above. And the same applies to the intellect; for if it consider principle and conclusion absolutely, it considers each by a distinct act; but when it assents to the conclusion on account of the principles, there is but one act of the intellect.

Choice is about the means, such as taking medicine in his example, while intention is about the means, as health in his example. This makes sense in terms of how we commonly use the terms. When we do speak of choosing an end, we are normally considering which of several alternative intermediate ends are better means towards an ultimate end. And thus we are “choosing,” not insofar as the thing is an end, but insofar as it is a means towards a greater end that we intend.

Discussing the human mind, we noted earlier that a thing often seems fairly simple when it is considered in general, but turns out to have a highly complex structure when considered in detail. The same thing will turn out to be the case if we attempt to consider the nature of these acts of will in detail.

Consider the hypothesis that both intention and choice consist basically in beliefs: intention would consist in the belief that one will in fact obtain a certain end, or at least that one will come as close to it as possible. Choice would consist in the belief that one will take, or that one is currently taking, a certain temporally immediate action for the sake of such an end. I will admit immediately that this hypothesis will not turn out to be entirely right, but as we shall see, the consideration will turn out to be useful.

First we will bring forward a number of considerations in favor of the hypothesis, and then, in another post, some criticisms of it.

First, in favor of the hypothesis, we should consider the fact that believing that one will take a certain course of action is virtually inseparable from deciding to take that course of action, and the two are not very clearly distinguishable at all. Suppose someone says, “I intend to take my vacation in Paris, but I believe that I will take it in Vienna instead.” On the face of it, this is nonsense. We might make sense of it by saying that the person really meant to say that he first decided to go to Paris, but then obstacles came up and he realizes that it will not be possible. But in that case, he also changes his decision: he now intends to go to Vienna. It is completely impossible that he currently intends to go to Paris, but fully believes that he will not go, and that he will go to Vienna instead.

Likewise, suppose someone says, “I haven’t yet decided where to take my vacation. But I am quite convinced that I am going to take it in Vienna.” Again, this is almost nonsensical: if he is convinced that he will go to Vienna, we would normally say that he has already made up his mind: it is not true that he has not decided yet. As in the previous case, we might be able to come up with circumstances where someone might say this or something like it. For example, if someone else is attempting to convince him to come to Paris, he might say that he has not yet decided, meaning that he is willing to think about it for a bit, but that he fully expects to end up going to Vienna. But in this case, it is more natural to say that his decision and his certainty that he will go to Vienna are proportional: the only sense in which he hasn’t decided yet, is to the degree that the thinks there is some chance that he will change his mind and go to Paris. Thus if there is no chance at all of that, then he is completely decided, while if he is somewhat unsure, his decision is not yet perfect but partial.

Both of the above cases would fit with the claim that a decision is simply a belief about what one is going to do, although they would not necessarily exclude the possibility that it is a separate thing, even if inseparably connected to the belief.

We can also consider beliefs and decisions as something known from their effects. I noted elsewhere that we recognize the nature of desire from its effect, namely from the fact that when we have a desire, we tend to bring about the thing we desire. Insofar as a decision is a rational desire, the same thing applies to decisions as to other kinds of desires. We would not know decisions as decisions, if we never did the things we have decided to do. Likewise, belief is a fairly abstract object, and it is at least plausible that we would come to know it from its more concrete effects.

Now consider the effects of the decision to go to Vienna, compared to the effects of the belief that you will go to Vienna. Both of them will result in you saying, “I am going to go to Vienna.” And if we look at belief as I suggested in the discussion to this post, namely more or less as treating something as a fact, then belief will have other consequences, such as buying a ticket for Vienna. For if you are treating it as a fact that you are going to go there, either you will buy a ticket, or you will give up the belief. In a similar way, if you have decided to go, either you will buy a ticket, or you will change your decision. So the effects of the belief and the effects of the decision seem to be entirely the same. If we know the thing from its effects, then, it seems we should consider the belief and the decision to be entirely the same.

There is an obvious objection here, but as I said the consideration of objections will come later.

Again, consider a situation where there are two roads, road A and road B, to your destination C. There is a fallen bridge along road B, so road B would not be a good route, while road A is a good route. It is reasonable for a third party who knows that you want to get to C and that you have considered the state of the roads, to conclude that you will take road A. But if this is reasonable for someone else, then it is reasonable for you: you know that you want to get to C, and you know that you have considered the state of the roads. So it is reasonable for you to conclude that you will take road A. Note that this is purely about belief: there was no need for an extra “decision” factor. The conclusion that you will factually take road A is a logical conclusion from the known situation. But now that you are convinced that you will take road A, there is no need for you to consider whether to take road A or road B; there is nothing to decide anymore. Everything is already decided as soon as you come to that conclusion, which is a matter of forming a belief. Once again, it seems as though your belief that you will take road A just is your decision, and there is nothing more to it.

Once again, there is an obvious objection, but it will have to wait until the next post.

Statistical Laws of Choice

I noted in an earlier post the necessity of statistical laws of nature. This will necessarily apply to human actions as a particular case, as I implied there in mentioning the amount of food humans eat in a year.

Someone might object. It was said in the earlier post that this will happen unless there is a deliberate attempt to evade this result. But since we are speaking of human beings, there might well be such an attempt. So for example if we ask someone to choose to raise their right hand or their left hand, this might converge to an average, such as 50% each, or perhaps the right hand 60% of the time, or something of this kind. But presumably someone who starts out with the deliberate intention of avoiding such an average will be able to do so.

Unfortunately, such an attempt may succeed in the short run, but will necessarily fail in the long run, because although it is possible in principle, it would require an infinite knowing power, which humans do not have. As I pointed out in the earlier discussion, attempting to prevent convergence requires longer and longer strings on one side or the other. But if you need to raise your right hand a few trillion times before switching again to your left, you will surely lose track of your situation. Nor can you remedy this by writing things down, or by other technical aids: you may succeed in doing things trillions of times with this method, but if you do it forever, the numbers will also become too large to write down. Naturally, at this point we are only making a theoretical point, but it is nonetheless an important one, as we shall see later.

In any case, in practice people do not tend even to make such attempts, and consequently it is far easier to predict their actions in a roughly statistical manner. Thus for example it would not be hard to discover the frequency with which an individual chooses chocolate ice cream over vanilla.

Mind and Matter

In Book III of On the Soul, Aristotle argues that the intellect does not have a bodily organ:

Therefore, since everything is a possible object of thought, mind in order, as Anaxagoras says, to dominate, that is, to know, must be pure from all admixture; for the co-presence of what is alien to its nature is a hindrance and a block: it follows that it too, like the sensitive part, can have no nature of its own, other than that of having a certain capacity. Thus that in the soul which is called mind (by mind I mean that whereby the soul thinks and judges) is, before it thinks, not actually any real thing. For this reason it cannot reasonably be regarded as blended with the body: if so, it would acquire some quality, e.g. warmth or cold, or even have an organ like the sensitive faculty: as it is, it has none. It was a good idea to call the soul ‘the place of forms’, though (1) this description holds only of the intellective soul, and (2) even this is the forms only potentially, not actually.
Observation of the sense-organs and their employment reveals a distinction between the impassibility of the sensitive and that of the intellective faculty. After strong stimulation of a sense we are less able to exercise it than before, as e.g. in the case of a loud sound we cannot hear easily immediately after, or in the case of a bright colour or a powerful odour we cannot see or smell, but in the case of mind thought about an object that is highly intelligible renders it more and not less able afterwards to think objects that are less intelligible: the reason is that while the faculty of sensation is dependent upon the body, mind is separable from it.

There are two arguments here, one from the fact that the mind can understand at all, and the other from the effect of thinking about highly intelligible things.

St. Thomas explains the first argument:

The following argument may make this point clear. Anything that is in potency with respect to an object, and able to receive it into itself, is, as such, without that object; thus the pupil of the eye, being potential to colours and able to receive them, is itself colourless. But our intellect is so related to the objects it understands that it is in potency with respect to them, and capable of being affected by them (as sense is related to sensible objects). Therefore it must itself lack all those things which of its nature it understands. Since then it naturally understands all sensible and bodily things, it must be lacking in every bodily nature; just as the sense of sight, being able to know colour, lacks all colour. If sight itself had any particular colour, this colour would prevent it from seeing other colours, just as the tongue of a feverish man, being coated with a bitter moisture, cannot taste anything sweet. In the same way then, if the intellect were restricted to any particular nature, this connatural restriction would prevent it from knowing other natures. Hence he says: ‘What appeared inwardly would prevent and impede’ (its knowledge of) ‘what was without’; i.e. it would get in the way of the intellect, and veil it so to say, and prevent it from inspecting other things. He calls ‘the inwardly appearing’ whatever might be supposed to be intrinsic and co-natural to the intellect and which, so long as it ‘appeared’ therein would necessarily prevent the understanding of anything else; rather as we might say that the bitter moisture was an ‘inwardly appearing’ factor in a fevered tongue.

This is similar to St. Thomas’s suggestion elsewhere that matter and understanding are intrinsically opposed to one another. I cautioned the reader there about taking such an argument as definitive too quickly, and I would do the same here. Consider the argument about sensation: it is true enough that the pupil isn’t colored, and that perception of temperature is relative to the temperature of the organ of touch, or some aspects of it, which suggests that heat in the organ impedes the sensation of heat. On the other hand, the optic nerve and the visual cortex are arguably even more necessary to the sense of sight than the pupil, and they most certainly are not colorless. Taking this into consideration, the facts about the pupil, and the way touch functions, and so on, seem like facts that should be taken into consideration, but do not even come to close to establishing as a fact that the intellect does not have an organ.

Likewise, with the second argument, Aristotle is certainly pointing to a difference between the intellect and the senses, even if this argument might need qualification, since one does tire even of thinking. But saying that the intellect is not merely another sense is one thing, and saying that it does not have an organ at all is another.

We previously considered Sean Collins’s discussion Aristotle and the history of science. Following on one of the passages quoted in the linked post, Collins continues:

I said above that Aristotle thinks somewhat Platonically “despite himself.” He himself is very remarkably aware that matter will make a difference in the account of things, even if the extent of the difference remains as yet unknown. And Aristotle makes, in this connection, a distinction which is well known to the scholastic tradition, but not equally well understood: that, namely, between the “logical” consideration of a question, and the “physical” consideration of it. Why make that distinction? Its basis lies in the discovery that matter is a genuine principle. For, on the one hand, the mind and its act are immaterial; but the things to be known in the physical world are material. It becomes necessary, therefore, for the mind to “go out of itself,” as it were, in the effort to know things. This is precisely what gives rise to what is called the “order of concretion.”

But how much “going out of itself” will be necessary, or precisely how that is to be done, is not something that can be known without experience — the experience, as it turns out, not merely of an individual but of an entire tradition of thought. Here I am speaking of history, and history has, indeed, everything to do with what I am talking about. Aristotle’s disciples are not always as perspicacious as their master was. Some of them suppose that they should follow the master blindly in the supposition that history has no significant bearing on the “disciplines.” That supposition amounts, at least implicitly, to a still deeper assumption: the assumption, namely, that the materiality of human nature, and of the cosmos, is not so significant as to warrant a suspicion that historical time is implicated in the material essence of things. Aristotle did not think of time as essentially historical in the sense I am speaking of here. The discovery that it was essentially historical was not yet attainable.

I would argue that Sean Collins should consider how similar considerations would apply to his remark that “the mind and its act are immaterial.” Perhaps we know in a general way that sensation is more immaterial than growth, but we do not think that sensation therefore does not involve an organ. How confident should one be that the mind does not use an organ based on such general considerations? Just as there is a difference between the “logical” consideration of time and motion and their “physical” consideration, so there might be a similar difference between two kinds of consideration of the mind.

Elsewhere, Collins criticizes a certain kind of criticism of science:

We do encounter the atomists, who argue to a certain complexity in material things. Most of our sophomore year’s natural science is taken up with them. But what do we do with them? The only atomists we read are the early ones, who are only just beginning to discover evidence for atoms. The evidence they possess for atoms is still weak enough so that we often think we can take refuge in general statements about the hypothetical nature of modern science. In other words, without much consideration, we are tempted to write modern science off, so that we can get back to this thing we call philosophy.

Some may find that description a little stark, but at any rate, right here at the start, I want to note parenthetically that such a dismissal would be far less likely if we did not often confuse experimental science with the most common philosophical account of contemporary science. That most common philosophical account is based largely on the very early and incomplete developments of science, along with an offshoot of Humean philosophy which came into vogue mainly through Ernst Mach. But if we look at contemporary science as it really is today, and take care to set aside accidental associations it has with various dubious philosophies, we find a completely wonderful and astonishing growth of understanding of the physical structure not only of material substances, but of the entire cosmos. And so while some of us discuss at the lunch table whether the hypothesis of atoms is viable, physicists and engineers around the world make nanotubes and other lovely little structures, even machines, out of actual atoms of various elements such as carbon.

And likewise during such discussions, neuroscientists discuss which parts of the brain are responsible for abstract thought.

When we discussed the mixing of wine and water, we noted how many difficulties could arise when you consider a process in detail, which you might not notice simply with a general consideration. The same thing will certainly happen in the consideration of how the mind works. For example, how am I choosing these words as I type? I do not have the time to consider a vast list of alternatives for each word, even though there would frequently be several possibilities, and sometimes I do think of more than one. Other times I go back and change a word or two, or more. But most of the words are coming to me as though by magic, without any conscious thought. Where is this coming from?

The selection of these words is almost certainly being done by a part of my brain. A sign of this is that those with transcortical motor aphasia have great difficulty selecting words, but do not have a problem with understanding.

This is only one small element of a vast interconnected process which is involved in understanding, thinking, and speaking. And precisely because there is a very complex process here which is not completely understood, the statement, “well, these elements are organic, but there is also some non-organic element involved,” cannot be proved to be false in a scientific manner, at least at this time. But it also cannot be proved to be true, and if it did turn out to be true, there would have to be concrete relationships between that element and all the other elements. What would be the contribution of the immaterial element? What would happen if it were lacking, or if that question does not make sense, because it cannot be lacking, why can it not be lacking?

 

Supreme Good

In Chapter 4 of The Divine Names, Dionysius says:

Now if the Good is above all things (as indeed It is) Its Formless Nature produces all-form; and in It alone Not-Being is an excess of Being, and Lifelessness an excess of Life and Its Mindless state is an excess of Wisdom, and all the Attributes of the Good we express in a transcendent manner by negative images.

Now this is not especially easy to understand. But Dionysius seems to be saying that God does not posses life or mind in a literal sense, but is rather above these things, much as held by Plotinus. Possibly somewhat in contrast, he seems to believe that “Good” is an especially appropriate name for God.

According to the account we have given of being and the good, this is correct. If the good is that towards which things tend, then a necessary being must above all be good, because it has such a deep tendency to be that it cannot not be. Likewise, insofar as the good is understood as a final cause of other things, and thus as an ultimate explanation, while the first cause can have nothing else explaining its existence, it must constitute the supreme good not only in relation to itself, but in relation to all other things as well.

The Sun and The Bat

Aristotle begins Book II of the Metaphysics in this way:

The investigation of the truth is in one way hard, in another easy. An indication of this is found in the fact that no one is able to attain the truth adequately, while, on the other hand, we do not collectively fail, but every one says something true about the nature of things, and while individually we contribute little or nothing to the truth, by the union of all a considerable amount is amassed. Therefore, since the truth seems to be like the proverbial door, which no one can fail to hit, in this respect it must be easy, but the fact that we can have a whole truth and not the particular part we aim at shows the difficulty of it.

Perhaps, too, as difficulties are of two kinds, the cause of the present difficulty is not in the facts but in us. For as the eyes of bats are to the blaze of day, so is the reason in our soul to the things which are by nature most evident of all.

I have a slight feeling of uncertainty about the argument I made yesterday. I do not see any flaw in the argument, and it seems to me that it works. But the uncertain feeling remains. This suggests that “the cause of the present difficulty is not in the facts but in us,” and that the reason for the feeling is that “as the eyes of bats are to the blaze of day, so is the reason in our soul to the things which are by nature most evident of all.”

Should I dismiss this feeling? One could argue that such feelings result from the imagination or from custom, so that if we do not see any flaw in the argument, we should just try to get over such feelings.

I think this would be a mistake, if the meaning is that one should try to get over it without making some other kind of progress first. In Plato’s Meno, Socrates talks about the fact that someone just learning something does not yet possess it in an entirely clear way:

Soc. And that is the line which the learned call the diagonal. And if this is the proper name, then you, Meno’s slave, are prepared to affirm that the double space is the square of the diagonal?

Boy. Certainly, Socrates.

Soc. What do you say of him, Meno? Were not all these answers given out of his own head?

Men. Yes, they were all his own.

Soc. And yet, as we were just now saying, he did not know?

Men. True.

Soc. But still he had in him those notions of his-had he not?

Men. Yes.

Soc. Then he who does not know may still have true notions of that which he does not know?

Men. He has.

Soc. And at present these notions have just been stirred up in him, as in a dream; but if he were frequently asked the same questions, in different forms, he would know as well as any one at last?

Men. I dare say.

The boy at first possesses the idea that the double square is the square on the diagonal as something which has “just been stirred up in him, as in a dream,” rather than in a clear way. And this is appropriate, because as we seen earlier, people can make mistakes even in mathematics. One reason that the boy needs to be “frequently asked the same questions, in different forms,” is that by doing this he will become much more sure that he has not been misled by the argument.

There is at least one objective sign that there may be a flaw in my argument from yesterday, namely the fact that it does not appear to be an argument that anyone has made previously, at least as far as I know. It may be implicit both in the theology of St. Thomas and in that of Hans Urs von Balthasar, in the discussion of the distinction between the persons of the Trinity as a source for the distinction of creation from Creator, but it does not appear to have been made explicitly. In general I think it is a mistake to ignore such a feeling of uncertainty, just as it would be a mistake for the boy to ignore the dreamlike character of his knowledge. That feeling means something. It may not mean anything about the facts, as Aristotle says, but it means that there is something lacking in my understanding. And if I manage to banish the feeling, to “just get over it,” that does not necessarily mean that I have actually cured that lack in my understanding. It may be present just as much as before.

This is similar to the situation where someone observes some evidence against what he currently believes to be true. His “gut feeling” will tell him that it is something that stands against what he believes, but he may attempt to remove that feeling by fitting it into the context of his belief. However, even if his explanation is correct, even if his estimate of the prior probability is mistaken, his original feeling was not meaningless. In almost every case, it really was evidence against his position.

When we have a conclusion and we want to make an argument for it, whether that is because we suspect that the conclusion is true and want to settle the matter, or because we simply want the conclusion to be true, there is a danger of claiming to know for sure that an argument works without really understanding it. And this danger seems to be especially serious when one is speaking about God or the first principles of things, because they are like the blaze of day compared to the eyes of bats. For example, I commented on a recent post by James Chastek because it appears to me that he is trying to take a shortcut, that he is trying to avoid the hard work of actually understanding. I have not yet continued that discussion because I suspect that neither he nor I actually understand the argument that he is making, and I would prefer to understand it better before continuing the discussion.

Do not ignore such vague feelings. Do not dismiss them as “just the imagination,” do not try to “just get over it.” They are telling you something, and often something important.

Intelligence Doesn’t Always Help

Suppose X is some statement, and you currently think that there is a 50% chance that X is true, and a 50% chance that it is false.

You ask two people about X. One says that it is true, and the other says that it is false. The one saying that it is true is somewhat more intelligent than the one who says that it is false. The evidence contained in these claims will surely not balance out exactly. At this point, then, is it more likely that X is true, or that it is false?

It is reasonable to say that at this point it is more likely that X is true. In fact, if we discovered that on average it would be more likely that X is false in such a situation, we should rename the thing we were calling “intelligence” and call it “unintelligence”, since it would not promote understanding but the lack of it.

But this is a question about what is true on average. It will not always be true once other factors are taken into account. And since belief is voluntary, and people believe things for other motives besides truth, under many circumstances intelligence can actually hinder the search for truth. For we can expect that a more intelligent person will on average be somewhat better at finding a way to attain his goals than a less intelligent person. Thus to the degree that those goals happen to hinder the search for truth, the more intelligent person will actually be less likely to come to the truth.

For example, several of the goals that people often have in believing things, or at least continuing to believe what they have believed in the past, is maintaining the appearance of stability, since instability is often seen as bad, and avoiding the shame of admitting that one was wrong. To the degree that a person has these goals, a more intelligent person will be more capable of finding ways to avoid changing his mind, even when his current position happens to be false. He will be more capable of finding subtle ways to defend his position, more capable of finding reasons to dismiss opposing arguments, and more capable of finding ways to avoid stumbling upon evidence against his current position.

Even apart from these two particular motives, there are of course any number of other motives which are potentially opposed to the search for truth in concrete cases. And to the degree that such motives are involved, intelligence will not be a help to the truth, but a hindrance.