Sunday, March 23, 2014

The Categorical Imperative

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy......................Hamlet, Act I, Scene 5

You probably know that the Prince of Denmark was not talking to or about Immanuel Kant - he hadn't been born yet. Despite the title, I'm not either. I have in mind the thought that we humans quite naturally sort things into categories.

In their book, Philosophy in the Flesh: the Embodied Mind & its Challenge to Western Thought , George Lakoff and Mark Johnson note that categorization is a fundamental characteristic of life. Every time an amoeba decides to move toward what it senses as food, or a bacterium turns on some enzymatic system in response to a change in local chemistry, it is, in effect, making a decision, characterizing or categorizing its environment. For creatures with brains and nervous systems, the categorization can be made more explicit. Our eyes, for example, have about a million sensory cells, but only 100,000 fibers projecting to the brain. Visual experience has been presorted and categorized before it ever gets to the brain. Every stage of sensory processing includes a similar sorting and discrimination.

Obviously, the same sort of thing happens in every animal. Like us, a bird or a bee doesn't "see" a pattern of light and color, it sees a flower. Lakoff and Johnson make the point that our intellectual processes are clearly in a continuum with those of other animals, and shaped by the same evolutionary pressures. This fact, and others flowing from modern cognitive science, pose fundamental challenges to the ideas of conventional philosophy, both academic and folk.