Life as Inductive

It’s strange how quickly we can form habits. For example, there is a certain apartment in the student apartment complex on campus that I have visited around 50 times this semester; 50 is not that large a number, yet whenever I’m in the vicinity I instinctively gravitate towards it. And I can even still feel the tug of the apartments and dorm rooms I often visited last semester, even though I don’t even know the people who live there now.

These sorts of habits are good evidence, I think, for my idea that life is inductive. What do I mean by that, exactly? It’s hard to explain, but basically, I mean that the mysterious process of sensory experience being translated into thought is one not of distillation, but of induction. We do not just boil down the complexity of everything we see into something manageable; rather, we take a finite set of data and extrapolate general laws that will explain that finite data set.

Look at language. I have read or heard any given word a finite number of times. The data set of the contexts in which I have heard the sound of the word or seen the sight of it is finite. Yet what I understand the word to mean, while based on those experiences, is not reducible to them; moreover, I could show those experiences to someone else who had never heard this particular word before and they might well achieve a different understanding of the word. I take this to mean that my understanding of the word is infinite – unable to be captured within a purely finite universe.

This inductive power, I think, is essentially what we mean when we say that humans are “rational animals,” and say that it is this rationality that makes us spiritual as well as physical. If our ability to conceptualize involves moving from the finite to the infinite, it means we transcend the physical universe through our reason.

Incidentally, I suspect that what I’ve written above is essentially what Thomas Aquinas was getting at with his own discussion of reason as necessarily immaterial. But since language is an attempt to communicate thoughts, which are infinite, through the physical world, which is finite, reading the words on the page is not enough; we still have to move from them to the infinite thought Aquinas meant to communicate. And often we can only do this through a process that superficially resembles mere rephrasing of what we have read.


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