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Epistemology / Psychology

Theories and the Blank Slate

In my previous post, I explained that modern theories of the mind usually assume that the mind begins as a blank slate. But we cannot choose between various theories of the world if our mind is a blank slate. All of those theories already include our knowledge of appearances, so there is no evidence that would help us decide between them. But if our minds are not blanks slates, then what are they? Our minds are active, rational and not limited by rules.

There are two remaining ways to view the mind. The mind could have an infinite number of rules that will decide which theories are better. The other possibility is that our minds do not use rules to decide which theory of the appearances is correct.

Now rules can be understood in two ways. The first way is as a sentence: “If appearance X and Y occur, then theory Z is correct”. If there were such rules, then a person who had an infinite number of them would know everything. This is true because the rules would need to cover all possible combinations of appearances. Human beings do not know everything. So rules cannot be understood that way. The second way to understand rules is as dispositions. If X and Y are known, then the mind is disposed to believe theory Z. If there are an infinite number of such rules, then one’s mental instincts will always be infallible. Our mental instincts (intuitions) are not infallible. So this understanding of rules is not possible either. But in order for rules to explain theory choice, rules must cause theory choice. So there is no other understanding of rules that will work. Therefore, the mind does not determine theories by rules.

Theory choice could also be arbitrary. We might prefer one theory to another simply because we choose it. But if this is true, then our choice of theories has nothing to do with which theory is correct. In that case, there is no reason to believe that our theory is true. We might have chosen a false theory. If so, then skepticism is correct. Therefore, our choices cannot proceed that way.

So there is only one way to proceed. The mind is not a blank slate because it is not merely passive. It is also active. This means that the mind determines theories when these theories are being considered. Furthermore, the mind does not do this in an arbitrary fashion. It considers everything according to its relevance. Finally, the mind does not do this by means by any rules. It considers which elements are relevant by understanding what is relevant in each case.

This theory of the mind needs further elaboration. But before greater understanding is brought to the mind, it is necessary to further consider the knowledge of appearances. What is the nature of this knowledge? Is this knowledge unified? If so, then how is it unified?

Next time, I will consider those questions.

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