Among the abilities that seem to be distinctly human are abilities for planning, designing and composing. These abilities are necessary components of abilities to produce or achieve whatever is planned, designed or composed.
Planning, designing and composing all involve innovation or creativity. They involve conceiving and envisioning something that meets a need or satisfies a desire. They thus represent a level of autonomy or self-directedness beyond an ability merely to choose from a fixed repertoire of learned or unlearned responses. All three, but especially planning, play a role in giving a purpose to life when there are visions of morally satisfying goals to pursue.
Planning consists of devising a course of action or creating a scheme for achieving an objective. A good plan is one that warrants a reasonable expectation of success. The plan must be set forth sufficiently far in advance and must be of the proper form to be reliably achievable. The persons or groups designated to carry out the plan must be capable of carrying out their assigned roles and have some willingness to do so. The scheme itself must call for the right actions in the right order to bring about the desired consequences while avoiding undesirable consequences.
Designing and composing are also matters of foreseeing results and ensuring that requirements are met, but the requirements may be aesthetic as well as practical. They are concerned with what is to be created rather than how it is to be created.
Knowledge and Belief
We have seen one kind of knowledge, the kind that involves a familiarity with things and with one’s own abilities and the abilities of other individuals and groups. This is a knowledge of how to do things. It is a knowledge that is acquired as abilities are acquired. It is a kind of knowledge that does not depend on having a vocabulary for describing what you are doing, on having a set of concepts in terms of which the activity is understood, or on knowing any general propositions about the matter at hand. This kind of knowledge is the foundation on which one’s understanding of elementary words and concepts is based.
There is a second kind of knowledge which does involve a vocabulary, a set of concepts, a set of general propositions and a body of particulars (concrete facts). In many cases, there may be somewhat different bodies of particulars known by different knowers, and the understanding of the concepts and vocabulary and the statement of the general propositions may be somewhat different also.
The normal upbringing of children and the normal education of students involves teaching the vocabulary, concepts and principles pertaining to particular abilities in order to teach the abilities themselves. Sometimes the teacher is not successful in teaching the underlying abilities, or does not even try. If the student understands the vocabulary, the concepts, and the principles but has not acquired the ability to apply them to actual situations, we say “his knowledge is all in his head.” He can converse intelligently about the subject but cannot use his knowledge in dealing with real circumstances.
On the other hand, often individuals or groups have abilities whose subtlety far exceeds their ability to describe what they can do, the craftsmanship or expertise they possess. In part the disparity may be due to having more subtle powers of judgment than they can articulate and being able to subconsciously recognize features of a situation that they cannot explicitly point out or describe. In these cases the individual’s or group’s knowledge may be said, without disparagement, to be intuitive. This is not to deny that knowledge becomes more useful when fuller descriptions of it become available.
A significant part of what has been added to humanity’s stock of wisdom in the last three centuries and been repeatedly refined and reconfirmed in the last century is the recognition that there is no sharp dividing line between knowledge that can be expressed in words and belief that can be so expressed. Belief is called knowledge by those who believe it. Knowledge tends to be what is widely believed to have been indisputably confirmed. Belief tends to be what is widely disputed. Except perhaps for some nonessential components, beliefs cannot be dismantled piece by piece. The essential core can be destroyed by being replaced by a sturdier and more comprehensive theory. Even then there must be a willingness to accept the new theory, or the old school must eventually die out.
It has long been recognized that it is not just the weight of objective evidence that causes certain doctrines to win and retain general acceptance. Interest groups not only try to put forward convincing arguments. They also try to exert social pressures and to apply social sanctions. Depending on the urgency that a group may place on the matter, the unconverted may be mildly ridiculed or may be tortured and killed as traitors or heretics. The converts and the faithful receive rewards that range between approving smiles at the low end of the scale to positions of great wealth and power at the high end.[iii] Now that the importance and pervasiveness of social pressures has been recognized, all widely held beliefs have become suspect, particularly where beliefs give obvious support to political or economic interests.
Just as it is difficult to separate beliefs from knowledge, there is no sharp dividing line between theoretical knowledge and practical knowledge. Theoretical knowledge tends to be knowledge that rests upon general propositions that may have been partially tested but have not been adequately tested in their full generality. As with beliefs, the distinction is somewhat a matter of perspective. One’s knowledge is practical to the extent that one is able to judge when to do something and how to fit the doing of it to the situation and is also able to perform the task in the chosen way. One’s knowledge is theoretical to the extent that one can describe in words how to make these judgments and how to perform the task without actually doing it.
Knowledge is reliable when, in practice, it produces competence.
[i].The idea of employing the methods of biologists to study human well-being and thereby to establish a naturalistic foundation for ethics is set forth in detail in the first chapter of James D. Wallace’s Virtues and Vices.
[ii].Throughout this paper the language used may often seem to be referring to individuals rather than groups. In particular, there is frequent use of the indefinite article, “one,” and the terms “oneself” and “others.” This language is natural in many discussions where the “who” of the matter is irrelevant. Except in a few quite obvious cases, however, these words are intended to possibly refer to groups as well as individuals. The total picture to be conveyed is of “actors,” individuals and groups of multitudes of biological species, that acquire and exercise abilities during lives whose duration and quality are highly dependent on the abilities to “assess” and to “act” of other such “actors.” Human awareness of this interdependence creates a moral order.
[iii].A thought-provoking early work on this subject was Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann’s The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge.