The Basis of Reasoning Instincts in Causal Intuitions about the Physical World

Our reasoning emerged in response to interactions with nature during prehistory and so have ties with hunter-gatherer lifestyles that prevailed for hundreds of thousands and, taking into account probable similarities to hominins, millions of years.  Our minds have of course transformed during that timespan in step with procession to large, complex societies and high technology, no doubt in some hardwired and nearly universal ways, but the environment’s structure as something we can define in terms of particulars and generalities is comparable, and many generalizings hold in both the most basic circumstances within which concepts are formed as well as the most modern and theoretical.  We exercise many of the same assumptions and processes of concept formation as did our distant ancestors, and these reasoning instincts are involved in abstraction and philosophy of even the most abstruse kinds.

a. Object classes

Humans categorize phenomena according to general type – particulars and classes of like particulars – which philosophical parlance defines as ‘tokens’ in ‘types’, and mathematics as concepts and ‘sets’ of concepts providing the structure of ‘set theory’.  This amounts to ‘generalization’: a simple instance  is recognition that mammals have four legs, and mammals tend to have higher intelligence than animals such as six-legged insects and eight-legged arachnids, so a four-legged animal is probably perceiving me in a complex way, and if it has fur and additional features of a mammal but a different number of legs it is either injured or mutated.  There are of course exceptions to every generalization, as in dolphins and whales seeming more like fish, and octupi with their eight tentacles being quite intelligent, or dogs more sociable and less solitary than housecats who have a resilience to greater levels of isolation, a divergent sort of intelligence.  All of these overlapping categories – ‘animals’, ‘mammals’, ‘aquatic mammals’, ‘insects’, ‘octupi’ – develop as we establish a coherent picture of the world, modified by personal experience as well as teaching and theorizing techniques, constantly reorganizing our hierarchies of conceptual association.

b. Wholes and parts

We see wholes as composed of parts: pieces, segments, sections, and in terms of the physical world, subatomic particles, atoms, compounds and molecules, cells, tissues, organs, organisms, ecosystems, planets, solar systems, galaxies, the universe, and the postulated multiverses of vanguard science.  We derive many insights about the world from this way of thinking: sand is very old, highly eroded rock; matter is divisible, capable of being reverse engineered for a mechanistic knowledge of its nature; we can theorize environments by applying systems of quantitative units; and similar conceptualizings.  

Knowledge is not ordinarily recognized as a history of analytical contexts that gave rise to particle intuitions, in fact we are predisposed to forget most of this background in the absence of careful documentation.  Instead, we envision a hierarchy of larger or smaller physical objects existing independent of conceptual evolution.  Though collected observations change, we tend without strong cultural impetus to view conceptualizings of the world and the world itself as existing without interposed uncertainty or major transformation.  

Thinking in terms of absolute structure, as if concepts are fixed like the perceptual patterns we experience as objects, which they label and are partially determined by, is a condition for progress that can only occur in self-contained increments as we carry out procedures aimed at specific goals.  This defining and parameterizing that is in effect during pursuits such as problem-solving, a simple example being the conceptual frameworks generated by reasoning through exercises of a math lesson, generalizes and abbreviates, and these reasoning shortcuts allow us to then incorporate more information within the free space created for our minds.  We consolidate concepts using structures, systems and techniques, a process which has a degree of arbitrariness in relation to bare percepts, but enables associations to be more succinctly reasoned about using metaconceptualizings implying broader contexts from out of similar resources, equal amounts of wording with wider reference, or procedures that employ simplifying assumptions.  This is essential for efficient thinking, but can sometimes make integrating unintuitive facts and concepts into entrenched intuitivities a grueling task of deconstructing implicit association.  Institutions fostering critical analysis are necessary to moderate the difficulty that inveterated truncation presents.

c. Mutually exclusive positions 

We perceive distinct objects as occupying different locations; for example, a moving billiard ball will displace a stationary one when they collide, and we anticipate outcomes such as this in myriad situations.  We extend this intuition to the invisible, conceiving diffusion of a gas as the product of collisions between particles that restrict and realign each other’s movement rather than passing through each other or mixing and morphing upon contact.  Theory itself does not preclude particle mutations, and in many cases suggests it, as in the dynamic equilibrium within our atmosphere between single atoms of oxygen gas, predominant O2, and O3 (ozone), or within liquid water, hydrogenated (H3O+) and dissociated (H+  and OH) ions in dynamic equilibrium as small proportions with the common form (H2O).  Of course we then interpret these fluctuations as rearrangements of subatomic particles, extrapolated to some fundamental unit.  When objects meld or divide we incline to think of them as discrepant substances, usually particles, instead of transition phenomena.  We ask “what is it” in contrast to or as identical with other things, not “what ‘activity’ is it”, though patterns are always fluxing relativities, with many of our particularity notions added onto phenomena as cognitive intuitions of structure.  Awareness of form assists in rendering causality intelligible and is materialism’s foundation.

d. Relatedness of objects

Abutting or simultaneous phenomena seem connected in some way: if multiple objects are in contact with each other, it is assumed they are in a force relationship of tension or support, and the cooccurrence of events suggests causal relatedness, becoming less plausible the greater the separation of time and space.  In science, this gives rise to concepts of causal interrelationship, and when a mechanism cannot be witnessed directly we seek an explanation to fill the void.  

Philosophically, this type of perceiving gives credence to notions of universal oneness, a mystical link many feel between objects, events, patterns separate in both time and space, an order and harmony amongst phenomena.  Whether this is an experience of unity in the cosmos or integration of the elements comprising our minds is contestable, but it constitutes the essence of cerebral spirituality or what the psychologically inclined might call ‘individuational’ inspiration, a sensibility for aesthetics which transcend the desensitization to unity amongst dispersity so characteristic of human awareness.

e. Objects maintain structural integrity when they disappear and then reappear

There is depth in our visual field, with objects that disappear from view maintaining their structural integrity as they pass behind other objects or are blocked by other objects.  We perceive continuity between all the trajectories and orientations of objects.  More cerebrally, patterns of all kinds are signs of this continuity independent of direct perception, with properties indicating natures, the attributes of similarity or relation, representing identities of both animate and inanimate phenomena.  This can be as concrete as a marking on an animal, as subtle as a scratch, as meaningful as a new piece of jewelry or a speech act, and abstract as a logical symbol or schematic diagram.  It is essentially a function of memory: perceptions are lodged within and tracked by the brain as well as synthesized to contrive a coherent view of the world.

f. Larger objects force smaller ones to move – material ‘power’

We recognize larger objects as exerting influence on smaller objects, forcing them to move.  An object rolling down a hill that instantaneously becomes stationary because of adhesive attaching it to a smaller object and bonding that smaller object to the ground startles us, gluing our attention just as strongly.  

Because of physical constants, such as gravity associated with Earth’s mass, the fixed mass of Earth’s atmosphere, and innumerable other factors in material contexts, we can quantify this phenomenon quite easily.  A larger object will fall at the same rate as a smaller object when they are released in a vacuum chamber because the effect of gravity on much smaller objects than the planet is nearly identical absent friction, such as in the famous demonstration performed with a rock and a feather.  However, our atmosphere produces drag on falling objects, so that two spheres of equal density but different sizes will fall at differing rates, with the bigger sphere having an even larger volume to surface area ratio and mass to surface area ratio that trumps friction.  At the same time, the atmosphere exerts opposing force on the falling object, with this gas being at such a density that it eventually trumps gravity as it compacts at an increasingly deep volume underneath accelerating mass, stabilizing the descent of larger objects at higher terminal velocities, with this resistance effect increasing in direct proportion to the density of a frictional medium, such as liquid water’s greater impedance than both water vapor or even our O2, N2 and CO2 laden air.  

The intuition of relative force is so convincing that it seems to almost possess our minds as a presumed principle of the natural order when our thinking becomes fixated on notions of control, political and social stability, power projection, units of military, material and economic force, and all such conceptualizings of the larger to the smaller, reified as the greater to the lesser in ways that are often disingenuous or half-baked.

g. Foundation and flux

We understand phenomena as grounded in fundamental substance, whether it be unstable entities and systems supported by a stable foundation, or apparent stability providing a temporary calm in what is generally turbulent.  The former case applies when we view sedentary objects such as rock features or plants: we look for how their positions are reinforced by a more stable base or an interpenetration of forces, which in the case of a plant is its root system fanning out beneath the ground and rigid constituents such as xylem of wood, and with a precarious stone we would also inspect for anchorage to the ground or distinctive shape in relation to its surroundings.  With wind or the flow of a river, we see stillness as unrepresentative of its essential nature, which is to be perpetually in motion or agitation.

Intuitions of stable medium enable us to perform feats such as engineering with stone, concrete or steel foundations, buttressing with supplementary force, and architecting extremely tall structures via the use of bases extending far underground.  With phenomena that appear to be in constant flux, we model them as dynamical systems, in terms of fundamental change, and predict their cyclical and constrained patterns.  In philosophy, cognizance of stability has produced notions that fundamental and timeless being or perhaps “infinite recurrence” is the root of all things, and transition states salient at moments like explosions or natural disasters have stimulated notions that all is flowing and mutating, with stability an illusion.  This is the tension between concepts of ‘being’ and ‘becoming’ that has pervaded metaphysics, epistemology and science.

A free download of the book Standards for Behavioral Commitments: Philosophy of Humanism, also available for preview below.  Topics covered include chemistry, biology, genetics, neuroscience, epistemology, the history of Western philosophy, cultural evolution, theory of cognition, ethics and much more.

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