The Nature and Limits of Human Understanding is the result of a unique collaborative lecture series conceived by psychologist Anthony Sanford, who invited five scholars from various disciplines to deliver two lectures each.
Cognitive psychologist Philip Johnson-Laird focuses on systemic problems in human attempts to understand language. Chapter 1 explores the mental models we create to represent our working interpretation of a sentence. Using a series of syntactical puzzles and model-taxing passages, Johnson-Laird shows how understanding goes wrong, largely because of faults in our modeling system. Chapter 2 considers why our attempts to arrive at a consistent understanding of a given problem so often fail. Johnson-Laird guides readers through another circuit of linguistic trials to illustrate our limited ability to discern inconsistencies and comprehend the concept of causation. Basic problems with our modeling system are again to blame: ‘The single biggest limitation on human understanding is the inability to construct correct models of causal relations’.
Linguist George Lakoff argues passionately in chapter 3 for a new philosophy of ‘embodied realism’. On this view, all human thought, even our basic structuring metaphors, derives from our embodied experience of the world. Drawing on research in linguistics, neuroscience, and cognitive psychology, Lakoff explains various ways the body figures in shaping concepts. In chapter 4 he attempts to make good on his call for a new philosophy by rethinking consciousness, the soul, mathematics, morality, and religion from the starting point of embodied experience and basic metaphors.
In chapter 5 philosopher Michael Ruse considers how Darwinian evolutionary biology contributes to the formation of scientific knowledge. He argues that both the general tools of reasoning and the specific epistemic values guiding scientific inquiry are ‘innate dispositions’ received in our biology. Culture too plays a role, with metaphors serving as a crucial ‘means’ in scientific advance. But some human problems may outwit our inheritance, and questions about ultimate reality are simply out of bounds. Ruse’s argument about Darwinian morality in chapter 6 follows a similar pattern. Natural selection has ‘hard-wired’ humanity with a capacity to work together that appears to us as an objectively grounded moral sense: ‘Morality is a kind of illusion, put in place by our genes, in order to make us good social cooperators’.
Philosopher Lynne Rudder Baker contests the view that all knowledge must be validated by science by arguing for two kinds of knowledge beyond its purview. She begins in chapter 7 with first-person knowledge, building her case around ‘the irreducibility thesis’, which holds that the kind of knowledge expressed in first-person sentences (e.g., ‘I know that I am St Andrews’) cannot be reduced to third-person knowledge—the mode of scientific knowing—without ‘cognitive loss’. In chapter 8 Baker argues that there is a knowledge-bearing ‘commonsense conception of the world’ that is temporally and conceptually prior to scientific understanding and cannot be assimilated by it. For one, the sine qua non of the commonsense conception is intentionality, which, though denied by the physical sciences, is presumed in everyday social, political, religious, legal, and, indeed, scientific practice. Even more, it countenances knowing-how as well as knowing-that, which allows it to go beyond the sciences in accounting for practical success in spheres of intentional activity.
Philosopher and theologian Brian Hebblethwaite argues in chapter 9 that metaphysical thinking is necessary because, in taking up vital concerns of thought and experience unaccounted for by the natural and human sciences, it adds greatly to human understanding and answers our incurable desire to order all the main elements of thought and experience in a holistic vision. In chapter 10 he suggests that theology remains queen of the sciences because it partially illuminates fundamental aspects of reality and human life that the natural and human sciences simply cannot see. Theology, like metaphysics, aspires to a holistic understanding of reality but ranges further and ventures more. While such venturing may expose theology to criticism by the strict evidentiary standards of the natural sciences, Hebblethwaite argues that theological views are open to rational scrutiny and a ‘looser sense of verification’.