Chapter 3

Understanding as spiritual

But now, having established that understanding is a distinct act, the question arises whether it is immaterial (with an energy-"dimension") or spiritual (without one). Clearly, since it is conscious, it must be at least immaterial.

Let us first establish what is entailed in being conscious of what a relationship is between parts of a sensation. This will show that such an act must be spiritual in at least one "dimension" of itself.

First, you have to define which parts of the sensation are to be related (i.e. which parts of the total polymorphous act of sense consciousness are the "images" (or, of course, percepts) associated which form the termini of the relationship: the "objects" connected by the connection).

Second, to do this, you have to already know that there is a relation of some sort between them, or they merge together into the one complex sensation. Hence, before knowing what parts are connected by the relationship, you must already know that there is one, which would, of course, involve knowing what sort of relation it is (i.e. similarity, position, causality, etc.). Obviously, the different types of relations will determine what parts of the conscious act are to be interrelated. So this "step" can't really be second; it must have already occurred in order for the first step to be possible.

Still, you can't just have a relation and hunt around for relata or termini; you would have to know what it is that is related before you knew what the relation is; so this step, which has to occur before the first step, also presupposes the first step--but at the same time is subsequent to it.

I think you can see why I said that this kind of an act must be spiritual. But there is more.

Third, you can't know what sort of relation you understand between two images until you know what aspect in each image is the foundation for the relationship. For instance, how could you know that the two pages are similar without knowing that they were similar in blackness? Knowing that they are similar makes no sense unless you know in what respect they are similar. Plato mentions or implies something like this in his arguments for Aspects as realities. His contention is that you can't know whether something is courageous unless you know what courage-itself is--which sounds reasonable enough. Hence, the aspect in the images by which the relationship is possible must occur before you can know any relation at all--which means that it must occur before the first step, because you can't know what parts of the act of consciousness are related without knowing the relation, which presupposes that you already have picked out the aspects of each part by which they are related.

But of course, how could you pick out the aspects if you didn't already know what kind of a relationship you were dealing with? The two pages are related to me as their cause; but how could I know the being-affected of the pages (the in-itself contradiction involved in their not having printing on them and then having printing, given that neither of them grows print) and my writing that caused them--if I didn't know that it was causality that I was dealing with? I happen to be wearing shirt that is mostly white at the moment, and the pages are mostly white; so there's that relation between them and me; but this is similarity, not causality, and it presupposes entirely distinct aspects. So I would have to know that I was dealing with similarity to pick out those particular aspects. But until I know those aspects, I can't see what the relation is.

Similarly, I would have to know what parts of the sensation are the parts to be interrelated before I could pick out the aspects of the relationship; but in order to single out just these parts of the sensation, I would first have to know that they are to be related somehow; but I can't know that unless I see some relationship, which, as I said, presupposes that I see some aspect by which they are related. Even in the pictures above, you would have to understand them as a set of objects to be related (i.e. as parts of a puzzle) in order to find another relationship among them; hence, you have to know some aspect of them before you can find an aspect of them.

If you are confused, this is because the act of understanding cannot take place in three steps; they must all occur together in one act, or knowing the relationship is impossible.

Hence, having a grasp of what a given relationship is can only be done by a conscious act, which contains itself within itself and knows itself while it is doing what it is doing.

And this, of course, is what Plato missed in his argument for the reality of the Aspects as such and our "prior" knowledge of them. It would seem logically that in order to know whether something is a tree, you have to know what "treeness" is first; but in fact, to know "treeness" you have to know that all these objects are the same--if "treeness" is (as I think it is) the foundation of a relationship. But the point I am making is that, in knowing relationships, logical priority is meaningless. When the first person who thought of trees got the first concept of "tree," he understood in one and the same act that these objects were all the same in this aspect; and the aspect came together with the relationship when "the light went on" in his head and he understood.

Of course, when we understand something like what "tree" means, we are dealing with a concept that has been used for millennia by people from bricklayers to botanists; and for most people, the concept of "tree" is not very clearly understood.

But what can "clearly understood" mean, if the act is spiritual and has no quantity as conscious? It really doesn't mean that the concept itself is vague. What happens in an "unclear concept" is that a person who understands a concept expressed by a word everyone else uses (like "tree") sees an aspect, but is not sure if this aspect applies to all (the things other people call) trees and only trees. That is, he might understand "tree" as "large leafy plant," because all the ones he has seen are large and leafy. But then he sees conifers, and realizes that the "leaves" can be needles, and be evergreen; and if someone shows him an ombu, that Argentine bush that can grow fifty feet tall, but has many "trunks" instead of one, his concept becomes more refined of the aspect itself: that all trees have a single woody stem, whatever their size. In this sense his concept is clearer. It is not that the original one was unclear, exactly, but that he might have picked out an aspect (clearly known) that he wasn't sure was the right one for the set of objects that everyone else calls trees.

Hence, what are called "unclear ideas" mainly refer to figuring out what the meaning of a word is; that is, trying to make sure that the relationship-aspect you understand is the same as that of other people who use the same word. But again, this belongs to the subject of language and its relation to understanding and to the real world, which will come later; I just wanted to clear up the problem of understanding's spirituality and unclear ideas.

In any case, given that being able to grasp what a relationship is entails this presupposition (and therefore logical priority) of "steps" that logically have to come later, we can immediately draw this conclusion:

Conclusion 2: Computers cannot understand or think. They never could, and they never will be able to.

That is, those who talk about "artificial intelligence" might be able to make computers mimic animal intelligence and learning (which consists, as far as we know, of nothing more than [conscious] connecting, without knowing what the connection is), but will never be able to mimic human understanding. There is no way any electrical connection can "double back on itself" while it is connecting two somethings, so that it can identify what it is doing while it is doing it.

True, programmers may make the computer connect things because they understand what the connection is supposed to be, and in this sense the computer can mimic human understanding--i.e. it can mimic the results of human understanding. But this is a far cry from being presented with a set of objects and discovering a totally new relationship among them, one that you were not programmed to look for, and seeing new aspects in them that you hadn't any previous awareness of.

This sort of thing can't happen, if our reasoning above is right, unless the confrontation with a multiplicity triggers an act that "reads into"(1)

it a relationship and so "discovers" a new aspect in the objects; but it can't do that unless it knows what it is doing while it is doing it, or is self-transparent.

So "Hal" in 2001:A Space Odyssey is an interesting conceit of the author; but, though computers were able to "talk" by 2001, and though the programs may be self-correcting and "learn" from mistakes, they still won't think. The leaps of children who have just begun to talk and who invent new words to deal with the new concepts they have discovered is infinitely beyond what any computer can do--and in fact infinitely beyond what any animal we have so far observed can do, as the experiments with chimpanzees brought up with children attest. The chimps learn quicker for the first few months, when learning is a question of acquiring data and fitting it into preestablished slots; but when new insights begin to occur in the child, the chimp is left far in the lurch.

So those who are searching for "artificial intelligence" in computers would be better advised to concentrate on complex linkings that can be corrected when a certain input ultimately results in something that the programmer puts in as "undesirable" along some scale of "undesirability," as in the loss of a game of chess. The computer would search back through the game for the move that brought on the loss (and there are ways of programming this), and then delete that particular response as an option when confronted with that move by the opponent in the same situation. Needless to say, such a program would be hideously complex; but it is, I think, in principle possible. The point here is that doing this sort of thing is not understanding or thinking. The relationships are all given to the computer, not discovered by it.

I might add here that people like Karl Marx and many evolutionists, who hold that thought is an epiphenomenon of language, which itself is the result (in Marx) of using tools and being together with others (and so trying to dominate them), have theories that just don't hold water. Such theories naively assume that there is a kind of one-for-one correspondence between a word and an "object" (or in the Wittgenstein of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, an "atomic fact," which he apparently takes to be a definite aspect of some object), when our analysis shows that this can't be the case; they refer to relations between objects, which don't exist as such at all, and are thus not, as I have been stressing, something which is just the "conscious dimension" of something material.

In that sense, the later Wittgenstein was right in calling language a "game"; because it has a certain arbitrariness, since words mean whatever the person who invented the word (or the society in which it is used) choose to make it mean--that is, they stand for and refer to the relationship the inventor "picked out" of the infinity of possible relationships. But it isn't totally a game, because there is a relationship that the word means. Granted, which set of sounds you use to stand for this relationship is arbitrary, but the point is that language is only superficially like a game of chess, where the knight's move is what it is not only because the inventor of the game decided that it would be the knight that moved in this way, but because the move itself could be anything, and was arbitrarily chosen to be this. But again, we haven't seen the relationship of language to thought yet.

Besides, we haven't ruled out that understanding might be in itself spiritual, but have an energy-"dimension" and be a different sort of immaterial act from that of the sensations other animals have.

But actually, we have. If you go back to the discussion on specific negative concepts, you will see that, not only don't they have a connection, they can't have one. There is no "link" that could correspond to "not as black as," as I was at pains to point out. And, of course, if a concept (a relationship understood) is to be immaterial, its energy-"dimension" would have to be some kind of nerve pathway.

Therefore, we can draw the following conclusion:

Conclusion 3: Understanding is a spiritual act; it has no energy-"dimension" at all.

This, however, does not mean that understanding has no relation to energy, because it uses the conscious "dimension" of sensation as the relata or termini of the relationship-aspect understood; and, of course, the sensation has an energy-"dimension."

The Scholastics say that understanding has no intrinsic relation to "matter," but only an extrinsic one, for the reason I just gave above. The (immaterial) act of sensation (which, as you will recall, in Scholasticism has "the conditions of matter" without the matter itself) is used as the "material cause" of the act of understanding. By this is meant that the sensation (which they call only the "phantasm" or the "expressed appearance" [the conscious form] of the act of imagination) is the data that understanding uses for its own act. For them, as for me, the sensation does not cause (in the sense of efficient cause) the understanding; understanding acts on the "phantasm." But it has to act on some sensation in order to understand at all--at least in this life, when God does not miraculously take over the "intellect" in the mystical experience.

The only real difference between this and my position is what is implied in the definition of "immaterial." For the Scholastic, materiality is not the same as energy (i.e. with a quantity), but only connected with it; and so the immaterial act doesn't have a "material" (quantitative) aspect to it--which for them would mean that it actually had a size and weight--but only copies, as it were, the individuality and position and so on of material objects. For me, of course, the sensation is spiritual but with an energy-"dimension" in one of its "reduplications" of itself.

My view is that understanding (a purely spiritual act) uses--as the range within which it can understand--the spiritual "dimension" of the sensations, ignoring their energy-"dimension" altogether. Thus, the act of understanding is totally conscious, because all it contains is itself (spiritual and conscious) and the conscious aspect of the sensation which provides it data to see the relationship in. In this sense, it is "intrinsically" spiritual and "extrinsically" related to quantity or "matter."



1. This is a translation of the etymology of the Latin intelligere, which is that language's word for "to understand."