The world is rational. We have explored the impact this assumption has made on western
culture since it was first enunciated in the sixth century before the birth of Christ. As we
approach the twenty-first century the west still holds to that assumption. But the world that is
emerging out of the collapse of the cold war will include more non-western peoples than
western cultures. Will this new world culture hold with the assumption? It may be difficult for
anyone who flies in a jet aircraft, or surfs the Internet to believe otherwise. It would be like a
jet pilot joining the flat earth society. Twentieth century philosophers have turned away from
developing grand philosophical systems. In fact Western Philosophy has become so esoteric to
our modern world that it is possible to get a PHD without ever taking a philosophy course.
Many schools don't even offer one beyond the basic introductory courses. Will the twenty-first
century bring us a new Descartes? Perhaps, but modern philosophers, particularly since
Descartes, have been looking for a path to truth through mathematics. The latest developments
in psychology and computer science suggest that this may be the wrong direction. I offer the
following comments as a possible look into the future. I am probably wrong. But not entirely.
The eye of a frog is without question a marvelous device. It is also an excellent example of the
limits of natural selection. It is capable of responding only to small, rapidly moving objects.
That, combined with the neural wiring connecting it with the frog's tongue makes it a perfectly
adapted machine for snagging flies.
Some years ago I was a technician in a plant producing very large electric motors. Among my
responsibilities was the maintenance of two robots called Jack and Jill. These represented the
state of the art of robotics for that time. Each robot consisted of a five axis arm that was
operated by an artificial intelligence computer system. The programs in the computers
simulated the neural networks in a simple brain like those of the frog. Like the frog's eye and
tongue each robot had a single task to accomplish. Jack picked up a segment, a piece of metal
about three feet long and about a sixteenth of an inch thick curved such that when eight of
these were placed end to end they made a circle 8 to 12 feet in diameter. When these were
stacked they would make the stator for a large electric motor. Jack would pick up the segment,
raise it up into the air where he would make a quick jog so that it would settle into position.
Then he would turn around and place it on a jig on the bed of a punch press. The press would
then chop out a series of slots that would eventually carry the stator wires. Then Jill, standing
on the opposite side of the machine would bend down and pick up the finished piece and place
it on an empty pallet.
The interesting part of this operation was that both pallets, the one that Jack picked up his
piece from and the one that Jill placed hers on, contained two piles of segments. Everyone who
watched these two robots in action was surprised because they expected that the robots would
alternately use one pile and then the other. But this was not the case. They would use one pile
for what seemed like a random number of times and then switch for an indefinite period.
What has this to do with frogs? The eye-tongue system of the frog was trained by thousands of
years of natural selection. The frog knew nothing about either flies or tongues. We can't even
say there was any knowledge at all involved in the life of a frog. Jack and Jill too knew
nothing about punch presses, segments, or piles on pallets. Being neural systems like the frog,
their operations were not programmed. They were trained. The operator used a control
pedestal to put the robots through an approximation of the sequence required to pick up a
segment from one place and put it on the other including the routes to both of the piles on the
pallets. However, a five axis robot is a highly complex machine and the task of determining the
most efficient path between the pallet and the machine requires a level of mathematics beyond
the capabilities of most mathematicians, much less a machinist. The path that the operator
would put the robot through would only be an approximation of the most efficient path. Once
Jack and Jill were put into operation they, without the assistance of the operator, would find
their most efficient paths. The thousands of years of natural selection required to produce the
magnificent fly catching mechanism of the frog has been reduced to a few practice movements
for jack and Jill. But the point is that the evolutionary method that produced both systems
were developed by practice and training, and not through knowledge and understanding.
There are two philosophical problems that modern philosophers have attempted to solve. The
first is the problem of assumptions. Assumptions made without recourse to direct experience
are considered too metaphysical, in the sense that it is not possible to prove them true or false.
But, the only assumption we are concerned with here is the assumption that the world is
rational, and it is an assumption they can in no way question. To question this assumption
would be to question the very possibility of reasoning. The second problem they have been
trying to solve is dualism, that there are two entities involved in human existence. The best
known example is Descartes' two substances, spirit, or soul which is incorporeal, and body
which is corporeal. But before we reject dualism out of hand we should examine the history of
We can begin with a review of the description of Parmenides poem that was developed by
Heidegger. As you may recall he developed his view through a phenomenological exegesis.
This phenomenological language brought out new facts concerning the meaning behind
Parmenides words. "The path," Heidegger said, "now indicated is that of doxa in the
sense of appearance." Sliding back and forth from one opinion to another, men lose themselves
entirely. But, the poem also made it necessary to know this path "...in order", as
Heidegger said, " that being may disclose itself in
appearance and against appearance." While all three paths are necessary for a complete
understanding of truth, each by itself has its own shortcoming. Heidegger thus concludes that;
A truly sapient man is therefore not one who blindly pursues the truth, but only one
who is always cognizant of all three paths, that of being, that of nonbeing, and that of
appearance. Superior knowledge--and all knowledge is superiority--is given only to the
man who has known the buoyant storm on the path of being, who has known the dread
of the second path to the abyss of nothing, but who has taken upon himself the third
way, the arduous path of appearance.
The Eleatic dualism was between what is and cannot not be and what is not and cannot even be
talked of. The world of coming to be and of passing away never is, yet in order to become
cognizant of what is, of the unchanging, one must first acquaint himself of the sensual world of
coming to be. This world is the world of experience, of the physical. The world of the
unchanging is not physical, it can only be known through reasoning. Plato's dualism included
the Eleatic what is and cannot not be in the unchanging world of the ideal forms. These,
because they were unchanging could be and could not not be. The world of the senses were
constantly coming to be and therefore could never be. But he too saw the problem of
Parmenides, that to understand the unchanging one must come to terms with the changing. If
we examine Plato's theories of knowledge more closely we find that like Parmenides he too saw
that knowledge of the unchanging was only possible through the world of the coming to be.
Remember, the mechanism responsible for gaining knowledge of the unchanging was
recollection, or being reminded of the unchanging forms by experiencing things in the sensual
world. Thus, even in this pure idealistic approach to dualism, learning can only be from
experience. But it is the body that experiences, and the body exists only in the world of the
coming to be. It is the soul that recollects, because it is the soul that had its origination in the
world of the pure forms. Of course Plato's language doesn't always reflect this attitude. But
consider this statement from the Republic.
When its gaze is fixed upon an object irradiated by truth and reality, the soul gains
understanding and knowledge and is manifestly in possession of intelligence. But when
it looks towards that twilight world of things that come into existence and pass away, its
sight is dim and it has only opinions and beliefs which shift to and fro, and now it
seems like a thing that has no intelligence.
It would seem, then, that experience far from being the source of all learning is an
insurmountable barrier. And it would be, if it were not possible to train the mind to see the
sense of the unchanging as recollections from the changing. Much of Plato's Republic was
involved in the procedures required to develop ideal guardians therefore he was forced to face
the problem of training. In the allegory of the cave Plato said that the escapee had to be forced
to look into the fire and to experience for himself the real objects that had caused the shadows
he had taken for real. When he returned to the cave and attempted to convince his fellows
there they castigated him and would not listen to what he was saying. Their minds had not
been trained to see the reality behind the shadows.
In Book VI of the Republic Plato described four stages of cognition each stage having a higher
degree of reality. The term he used for the lowest form was eikasia.
Cornford felt that the term "imagining" was the closest
translation. It is the "wholly unenlightened state of mind which takes sensible appearances and
current moral notions at their face value." It is the condition of the prisoners in the cave who
have experienced only the shadows.
The second stage pistis or belief, is the stage of belief in the reality of visible and tangible
things. Also the stage of correct moral beliefs without knowledge. This would be the stage at
the beginning of the training of the guardians because at this point they would be trained to
hold true beliefs which were sufficient as guides to action but were not secure since they were
not based on real knowledge.
By training the intellects of the guardians first in mathematics and then in moral philosophy,
they would be brought to the level of dianoia or thinking. In this stage the mind has
arrived at a level of understanding but falls short of perfect knowledge. The highest stage is
called episteme, or knowledge. This stage is reached only through dialectic, which for
Plato means a "technique of philosophical conversation (dialogue) carried on by question and
answer and seeking to render or to receive from a respondent and account (logos) of some ideal
Form. This would usually be a moral Form, in the republic it was justice." Once the
mind has risen to this stage then it has the ability to descend through deduction to confirm the
entire structure of moral and mathematical knowledge. So you see that in Plato's theory of
knowledge, the mind first must be trained to the point that it can assimilate the unchanging that
lies behind the changing. Once in that state knowledge is possible and not before.
Plato's most mature thought on the subject came in his
epistle, written in the last years of his life.
For every real being, there are three things that are necessary if knowledge of it is to be
acquired; first, the name; second, the definition; third, the image; knowledge comes
fourth, and in the fifth place we must put the object itself, the knowable and truly real
being. To understand what this means, take a particular example, and think of all other
objects as analogous to it. There is something called a circle, and its name is this very
word we have just used. Second, there is its definition, composed of nouns and verbs.
"The figure whose extremities are everywhere equally distant from its center" is the
definition of precisely that to which the names "round," circumference," and "circle"
apply. Third is what we draw or rub out, what is turned or destroyed; but the circle
itself to which they all refer remains unaffected, because it is different from them. In
the fourth place are knowledge, reason, and right opinion (which are in our minds, not
in words or bodily shapes, and therefore must be taken together as something distinct
both from the circle itself and from the three things previously mentioned); of these,
reason is the nearest the fifth in kinship and likeness, while the others are further away.
The same thing is true of the straight-lined as well as the circular figures; of color; of
the good, the beautiful, the just; of body in general whether artificial or natural; of fire,
water, and all the elements; of all living beings and qualities of souls; of all actions and
affections. for in each case, whoever does not somehow grasp the four things mentioned
will never fully attain knowledge of the fifth.
This letter was written partly to explain why he was not successful in converting Dionysus, the
tyrant of Syracuse, and partly to explain why the book on philosophy written by the tyrant
could not possibly be philosophical. Dionysus had only engaged Plato in a single philosophical
dialogue. There was no possibility that his mind could be trained to the level where he could
understand the highest level of knowledge in a single conversation. Thus you can see that
training, that is the direction of the actions of the mind, is a separate sphere from learning, or
the cognition of pure Forms. The former relates to the development of a special kind of
interaction between the mind and the images produced by imagination of the sensual world. It
is related to the kind of activities that made the frog's tongue and eye coordination so well
adapted to snagging flies, and Jack and Jill so well adapted to feeding a punch press. The
second relates to the cognition of the pure and necessary knowledge of the forms. Though the
senses may create the raw material for recollection, cognition takes it a step beyond into the
world of the unchanging.