Tuesday, May 24, 2016

If humans are designed for knowing, then ...

Aristotle says that man by nature desires to know.  Like all Aristotelian claims, this one is wrapped up in a view of nature at large.  For Aristotle one of the primary features of nature is that it is teleological—it is directed towards an end.  This doesn’t mean, like a car, that it its wheels are pointed in a specific direction and will go that way—but that, to use this metaphor, all of the features of the car are designed for the task of going.[1]  Similarly, if we want to know what humans are, we examine what they are and this tells us their end. The most dominant features, so the story goes, of humans include reason and senses (and presumably memory).  These features combine to make a being designed to know. 
This story should raise some questions, for those of us with the advantage of not being inculcated in the Christian tradition of knowledge.  For were we to take a longer view of human being—that is, both onto- and phylogenetically—we might witness long comically futile episode in which “knowledge” (what precisely this means should also be in question) is neither “kept” nor implemented into human activity.  What is more common in contemporary human life than the sin of akrasia, in which the person fails to act on what she knows?  The woman knows that smoking a cigarette is a risky behavior, but she nonetheless does it.  The man knows that others are not—by virtue of their ethnic association—stupid or smart or sexy, but still judges them as if this were so.[2]
One can explain akrasia in different ways, but the phenomenon still shows that humans bear knowledge that does not change their behavior.  And if one “knows” something but cannot act in accord with this knowledge, of what value is this “knowledge”?
So then let’s adopt the alternative, unsightly thesis: humans do not desire to know.  The human being desires this and that, but one does not desire to know.  If this is the case, how do we who have the unfortunate task of “teaching” them complete this mission?  For even if people do not desire to know, they still must be taught.  The child must wash his hands, he must learn about the Aristotelian concept of teleology, and he must be able to perform the mathematic operations allowing him to understand his wealth or poverty.

[1] A much more interesting and accurate analysis might develop here, were it not we were interested in talking about knowing, since cars are hardly designed simply for “going”!
[2] The phylogenetic view is more tragic, as human lives are expended and exhausted as a result of knowing but not implementing this knowledge.  For example, consider threats to public health that are ignored or suppressed because of their perhaps relatively smaller effects on politics or on the economy.

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