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Morphology of Human Intellect - By Asif Zaidi

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We all know, whether it be the execution of a policy, the determination of the price of commodity, the optimal use of space, or the pursuit of a degree, knowing is always a phase of life and action in environment cast on a certain occasion.

Man’s thought, therefore, emerges as a result of his interaction with the environment in which his lot is cast. As soon as man realises that he is something other than what he sees around him, he feels the need to devise action helping him to adapt himself to his environment. What his senses perceive at a given moment is supplemented by his thought’s ability to recall what he has sensed before and thus helps him reconstruct the picture of the total environment to which he must adapt in order to survive. This constitutes man’s initiation in the art of living. What enables man to reconstruct this picture of his total environment is the faculty of his rational thought. Rational thought starts with a resolute attempt to think clearly about man’s total environment so that he can devise the most appropriate action.

 

At one time, when man’s powers of rational thought were not so developed, he looked up to the prophets and the seers for the picture of his total environment. Prophets’ reports are preserved in the various institutions of religion. All devotional literature attempts to describe the total environment of which man is a tiny part. There have also been other seers who invited people to fulfil the potential of their relationship with total environment. They urged man to know his place in the overall scheme of things in order to be able to act properly. It appears, as if the religion was made responsible for bringing about a general progress of man up to a level where he can take up the matter of his growth in his own hands. The age of revelation is gone and this is the age of realization. Man no longer has to wait for new way been shown, it is now up to him to walk in the light of his reason. Man is now free and must do his walking by himself by resorting to his faculty of rational thought. Today man must study, investigate, and reflect as his own guide.

Intellectual progress is not an end in itself; it has to serve the purpose of life. The discoveries of modern psychology and genetics have made it very clear. We are not the slaves of our thinking; instead thought is the slave of life and has been created by life with a view to gain power over its environment with the help of our senses. All conceptual thought is an act of judgment followed by believing. All belief is ultimately a plan of action, its veritable test. Every idea is an addition to the reach of our personality. For example the centre of earth’s sphere is known beyond doubt to exist, whether or not it has been seen or reached. This is how our cognitive power lends wings to what is introduced to us by our senses. The evolution of our thought-life is a process of fine-tuning of our power of perception. It makes the world of unseen as real as the world revealed to us by our senses and a significant part of life’s processes has a direct involvement with the unseen world. This renders our perception of the physical world possible. As Kant explained, it is in the marriage of percept and concept that the understandable world arises for our powers of cognition to study and get pleasure from.

Appealing to pure reason, Kant attempted to set the boundaries of human knowledge. He showed the limits within which the powers of pure reason were on hand for gaining knowledge. Inferring from the operations of human mind as revealed in the act of knowing, Kant showed that without some empiric content provided by our senses, the knowledge of phenomenon is not possible. While there have been a number of objections to his views, the main thesis of Kantian epistemology has not yet been successfully challenged by anyone since him. However, having so ably described the operations of normal consciousness, Kant did not proceed to investigate that the consciousness itself can be deepened and existing level of life –of which consciousness is a mere reflex- can be transformed into something higher and, hence, the limits of reason can be removed upon the change in the character of the consciousness. When the level of one’s life changes, its capacity to know also increases.

Human thought has two important aspects: one, it functions as an intellectual reporter of an external object and two it delivers expressions that are independent of and are not furnished by our senses. What we perceive refers to the psycho-physiological mechanism by means of which we perceive it. Any change in that mechanism by cultivating the powers of concentration of or by using drugs, for instance, will transform the object itself. The power of reason transcends the frontiers of psychophysical environment. Whether or not the use of intellect furnishes accurate and certain information does not so much depend on our intelligence or the perfection of our reasoning as on our ability to exclude other motives that pollute the deliverance of our intellectual faculties. The cognitive bent in man looks for pleasing and sugar-coated beliefs. Our rational faculties must always be on guard against embracing the attractive, gratifying, and endearing falsehoods – often coated as God’s own truth or sacred traditions.

I am not in agreement with the thought advanced by William James and many others that human intellect forms an insufficient basis for understanding the truth of religious experience. The main argument for this school of thought is that conceptual process can classify, define, and interpret facts, but it does not produce them and that there is always an element which feeling alone can account for. This distrust of intellect is based on the premise that intellect cannot shape the essence of religious and mystical experience into a conceptual structure. The fundamental flaw in this thought is that it fails to distinguish between symbol and its object. It is right that the experience of life’s quality, of time as lived, of emotions as felt cannot be adequately represented by conceptual processes, no matter how advanced. However, as the discoveries in psychology and biology have shown, intellect is increasingly able to develop cursors to the reason and meaning of human experience. We are ever more able to define what engenders feelings and what they suggest. All criticism of intellect is thus out of kilter. With time intellect is able to decipher the elements of experience which earlier could not be represented as concepts. As any intelligent person knows, all criticism of intellect is, unwittingly, carried on by the intellect itself. The real difference resides in being rational or irrational.

Intellect’s role is to distinguish in its experience the sign of experience that is not present and the success and the nature of its activity is regardless of success or failure in its endeavour. It proceeds by trial and error. Some beliefs are easy to verify but the beliefs that lie beyond the realm of experience are not easy to verify. Cognition, true or false, cannot transcend experience. While there may be differences in the states of our cognition, the truth remains unaltered. We often fancy that we are at liberty to shape our ‘Truth’ because we won’t be proven wrong through verification. That’s not right. All false beliefs are taken to task one day. As Robert Briffault explained, “the consequences of the big lies are exactly of the same kind as the consequences of little lies—they are found out.” For example, what subjecting religion to modern intellect can achieve is to transform its definitions from local to universal and remove dogma and historic inaccuracies showed up by science. The religious constructions must be confronted with the results of science and the doctrines proven scientifically absurd must be discarded. The remaining conceptions can be dealt with and tested as hypotheses. Intellect can thus refine the innocent extravagant beliefs and unrealistic symbolism. This can lead to more consensual belief systems. In order to continue to be of use, religion has to abandon metaphysics for criticism and logic and transform itself from theology into a science – science of religion. The modern man must think, reflect, criticize, and appraise his thoughts on a logical scale before even the formation of a belief in the existence of a metaphysical can at all happen. Non-rational forces of primitive belief must be defeated by the forces of a well-articulated intellectual life. 

The rational mind has faith in contemplative, investigative, and discursive knowledge and, unlike the spiritualist, goes beyond achieving communion with reality in endeavouring to discover its relationship with the appearances. The mystic, on the contrary, seeks the fulfilment of his emotional life more than the cerebral and uses the language of inventive imagery suited only for an unanalysed and directly experienced awareness. Therefore, mysticism has never succeeded in furthering human knowledge as its experience and awareness can be directly lived but cannot be transferred. The mystical literature of the world is a narrative of power and not an account of accurate information that can be transferred. The ancient mystics of India and elsewhere may have realized a higher state of being but there was no transferable medium to communicate the intensity of feeling and depth of experience associated with their realization. Hence their intuitions and realizations perished with them without being of any use to the pool of human knowledge. Whereas, the intellectual knowledge can be transferred to anyone who wants to learn and it can be recorded and passed and improved from generation to generation. As compared to a scientist, a mystic is satisfied with a lower type of intimacy of experience whereas a scientist knows that it can be analysed into simpler components and then reintegrated into a superior type of intimacy. A scientist like Einstein achieves this superior type of proximity of experience through the investigative and questioning approach he takes on towards that intimacy of experience with which a mystic is satisfied.

The primary function of knowledge is to anticipate the probable experience in order to gain direct experience of reality. “To know is to transform” is as true as “to know is to conquer.” Biological evolution dictates that man is in a transition, making his way to ever more evolved life by assuming the load of satisfying the possibilities of his being. Hence, intellect in man cannot be rational unless it is made co-extensive with life as the power of rational thought itself has developed in reply to life’s demand for action. The taking of correct action in all life’s experiences is made possible by making intellect co-extensive with life instead of merely regarding it is as a faculty in the service of practical concerns of life. The world of the soul is not another world, this very everyday world in which we live and work can become the world of soul by transforming the plane of awareness from which we look upon it. The more we gain access to our deeper self and derive our sustenance from the essential forces of life, the wider becomes the range of world we can consciously engage with. The real salvation lies in achieving cosmic consciousness by raising oneself to a higher level from where one can command a view of the total cosmic order of things – like a Tolstoy or an Einstein.

The decisive spiritual power in this age, to me, is not religion but science – it is life expressed as understanding. Science entails the direct experience of the profoundest depth of life on which all existence inwardly depends. Science constantly endeavours to reach that depth. Science makes the auxiliary constructions of intellect such as mysticism unnecessary by transforming the man who seeks truth through exploring and investigating. Science helps intellect break free from its parasitic moorings and become the life’s ruling centre. Truth cannot be concocted in the crucible of devotional belief, but has to be discovered and verified using all sensual and intellectual faculties at man’s disposal. In science what is achieved by one or a few becomes common property of whole race of mankind to share in the days that lie ahead. The progress of science is increasingly recreating and reconstructing life on the plane of understanding. ‘Bliss it is to be alive’ in this age of realization.

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