a priori (was Re:Contradiction in Rucker?)

Roderick A. Carder-Russell (rodc@shore.net)
Tue, 15 Jul 1997 09:15:15 -0400 (EDT)

On Mon, 14 Jul 1997, Eric Watt Forste wrote:

> As far as I'm concerned, a priori knowledge is stuff hardcoded into
> our brains by the genes, and it originates in the gene-pool's
> "perception" of the environment over millions of years.

I'm not certain that "hardcoded into our brains by the genes" is
quite correct. Certainly there are some types of knowledge that can be
had only by the intention of evolution (I use that loosely, I'm not
promoting a deterministic view), such as walking. We have the knowledge,
we could say, a priori, and just have to learn to utilize it. There are
some bodies of knowledge, however, that arise in us naturally and not
through sense data simply by the "structure" of the brain. Now given, the
brain is determined by biology, but the information that it percieves can
in some instances arise by the _very nature_ and structure of the brain,
not by the genetic information composing it. Mathematics is one of these
bodies of knowledge, I don't believe that it was written in our genes to
discover mathematics, but rather it arose naturally as a benefit of the
way in which our minds percieve. Seeing in three dimensions is another
example, if somewhat more "physical". It isn't "hardcoded", but rather is
by the very structure of our eyes and brain to percieve this way (imagine
percieving naturally in other dimensions...).

> But I
> prefer not to believe in knowledge that has no causal origin, and
> that's the only causal origin I can appeal to to account for what
> philosophers have traditionally referred to as "a priori" knowledge.

This is a very materialistic view, or perhaps I should say
biologically dependent view. A good deal of knowledge is not dependent
upon the biological entity percieving it. What Locke would call Secondary
Qualities, or Descartes Confused or Materially False ideas ARE dependent
upon the observer, this is sense data. But biological entities can have a
priori knowledge of eternal truths, eternal throughout our universe, not
by genetic intent (again, I'm not implying a telos) but by the very
structure of their percieving. In other words, we can have knowledge of
eternal truths by virtue of having the structure that we have, the genes
evolutionary purpose isn't necessarily to enable an understanding of these

> Regarding the direct intuitive perception of truth, as with the
> perception of the truth of a mathematical theorem after spending
> many hours playing with the axioms and lemmas that underlie its
> proof, this is still rather mysterious stuff in neuroscientific
> terms.

Douglas Hofstadter in "Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies"
promotes a view of innate pattern recognition. He does however discuss
actually developing these abilities as well.

> And I can't quite
> get away from the fact that phrases used by the mathematicians to
> describe the certainty of mathematical knowledge seems to map nicely
> to the vocabulary used by Buddhists and other mystics to describe
> the certainties arising in their holistic religious experiences.

*big grin*

"One would normally define a "religion" as a system of ideas that contain
statements that cannot be logically or observationally demonstrated...Godels
theorem not only demonstrates that mathematics is a religion, but shows
that mathematics is the only religion that proves itself to be one!"
-J D Barrow

> ...but the perception of the
> gene-pool is not the perception of an individual organism, who is
> born with the potential for the development and unfolding of this
> "a priori" knowledge but to the pure empiricist is still tabula
> rasa as far as a posteriori knowledge is concerned. And clearly
> the two interact: a priori "knowledge" serves as a structure within
> which a posteriori knowledge can be constructed, but might be a
> mere scaffolding that is not much use without being empirically
> informed, and actively developed by that other mysterious process
> we call "thinking things through".

This relationship is of course the cure to Locke's claim that the
mind is tabula rasa. Indeed, there _must_ be some innate or a priori
knowledge, to enable initial perception.

Roderick A. Carder-Russell
Student-Computer Science, Philosophy
Specializing in Man-Machine Symbiosis
Suspension Member-Alcor Foundation
Information Systems Consultant-Technology Syllogistics
www.shore.net/~rodc/home.html www.shore.net/~rodc/hcibci.html