Because you are reading these printed words, I can safely assume that you are a human, not a chimpanzee. What is the difference? What is the defining characteristic of humans? Can humans be defined as “hairless apes”? That might be true, but it is not the defining characteristic of humans. The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle, in 350 B.C., defined humans as the “rational animal.”
Humans can “reason” while chimpanzees and every other animal cannot. Our rational faculty forms and retains abstract ideas called “concepts.” Our conceptual level of consciousness is higher than the perceptual level of consciousness of animals. How we form and use concepts is at the center of what we mean by “human intelligence.” We must understand this clearly to understand what is happening in our society and understand how we might someday create human-level artificial intelligence. Most importantly, we must understand the functioning of our human intelligence if we want to be better able to guide our lives.
Concepts are ideas formed in our minds. The word we assign to it represents each concept. A concept can be “concrete” or “abstract.” Examples of concrete concepts would be the words “chair,” “table,” and “chest.” We consider these concrete concepts because we can point to actual chairs, tables, and chests.
However, the concept “furniture” is an abstract concept that groups chairs, tables, and chests together based on their similar usage in a house. We can point to a chair, table, or chest, but we cannot point to a “furniture.” A concrete concept integrates a multitude of existing real things, based on some essential attribute that they share, into a single abstract thing held in our mind to represent the group. The word “chair” becomes a unit in our mind, an abstraction, representing the multitude of actual chairs that ever existed or will exist. A concept is our mental method of identifying and dealing with things in reality, but it is not the things themselves. They exist independent of us and the word we assigned to them.
We can then integrate multiple concrete concepts into a single higher-level abstract concept based on some attribute that the concrete concepts share. “Chairs,” “tables,” and “chests” become “furniture.” We can continue integrating into ever-higher abstractions—“furniture,” “appliances,” and “vehicles” become “personal property,” which then combines with “house” and “savings” to become “assets.” A highest-level abstract concept that can be followed down through the chain of lower concepts to point to concrete existents is true—“connected” to reality. If we cannot connect it to reality, we call it a “floating” abstraction, for example, a “unicorn.” Imagination has a vital role to play that we will cover later. The critical point is that to survive and live our lives entirely according to our nature as humans; we must be “rational.” We must base our decisions and actions on concepts that are connected to reality—true. To do otherwise is to be irrational.
Since Aristotle’s time, some philosophers, observing that man has not consistently acted rationally, have rejected Aristotle’s definition of man as the rational animal. Unfortunately, Aristotle did not adequately explain how man’s rational faculty works. Aristotle was the first to identify man’s rational faculty as his essential characteristic. He formulated the correct definition principles and believed that only concretes, not abstractions, exist in reality. However, Aristotle did not correctly identify the process by which man’s mind isolates the fundamental characteristic of similar existents and forms an integration of those multiple existents into a unitary concept. In other words, Aristotle correctly identified that reality is real and that our mind is competent to grasp it, but he did not explain how our abstract concepts connect to reality.
Lacking an explanation of how “reason” connects abstract ideas to reality, professional philosophers have historically sought to define man in many ways other than Aristotle’s rational animal. They either rejected man’s ability to grasp reality, or they rejected reality itself. The result was that they cut off their abstract ideas regarding such things as ethics, justice, truth, or love from reality. They were floating abstractions—fantasies of imagination with no basis or definition rooted in reality. Sadly, this describes most of today’s professional philosophers and is why they do not consider philosophy an actual “science.”
The unit reduction theory of concepts did not appear until the mid-twentieth century along with the explanation of “volition.” Unlike animals, man can choose to focus his mind and think or to unfocus it and suspend thinking, which explains why some men, at times, are rational and some are not. I will cover both the unit reduction theory and volition in more detail in later chapters.
Throughout history, each man has had to learn to use his rational faculty. In the pre-science ages, people were mainly irrational, believing that gods pushed the sun around the Earth and caused disasters such as pestilences and draughts. These “gods” were floating abstractions not connected to reality, but early man had no other way to explain what he saw. Men like Galileo discovered that the Laws of Reality exist and are knowable. People working in the physical science fields learned what it means to connect abstract ideas to reality. However, philosophers and other professionals working in the humanities and social sciences have mostly rejected the need to connect abstract concepts to reality. They still prefer to live their lives guided by floating abstractions. We will address this again later.
The twentieth-century unit reduction theory of concepts and description of volition have explained how our rational faculty works. It is time to reassert Aristotle’s definition of man as the “rational animal.”
[Excerpt from the book, "INTELLOPY: Survival and Happiness in a Collapsing Society with Advancing Technology" by JJ Kelly https://intellopy.com/ ]