Human Concepts and Divine Ideas – Brain Theory

Last time I wrote about Levels of Being and the difference between consciousness and self-awareness. I have also written about mental maps and how we sometimes confuse our mental constructs (models of reality) with reality itself. I find it useful to think we have mental frameworks, but what do we actually know about how our mind creates concepts?

The answer is (like so much of what we think we know): Not much.

Science vs. Philosophy

Philosophy is the study of all knowledge about the essence of Reality and all that exists in it, including human beings. Science used to be called “Natural Philosophy.” It was a branch of philosophy that dealt with the physical nature of things. It is only very recently that the later term was dropped, and we call all things that we study about the physical world: Science. Further, it’s only since the early part of the 20th century that people began to think that science had developed far enough along that it could replace all of philosophy to explain all of Reality. By the time I went to college, philosophy was no longer a core subject of study. I think this is a mistake because without some understanding of philosophy it is difficult to formulate conclusions about what we see in the models and experiments that scientists conduct.  (See Bergson vs Einstein).

I believe that science can help inform other branches of philosophy, but when it comes to questions that border on the edge of our understanding, it helps to be familiar with the a broader philosophical approach that has developed over the centuries.  

What is a concept?

Philosophers separate the problem of concepts into 3 categories:

  1. Concepts as mental representations
  2. Concepts as abilities
  3. Concepts as abstract objects

The first approach says that our minds create a system of representation, like a map or model. We use this mental framework to store and manipulate internal symbols.

The second approach says that there is no mental image like a map or framework. In this theory, we may associate images and symbols with concepts, but the ability to think abstractly exists in us as an attribute or quality.

The third approach says the meaning of a thing is contained in language. Concepts are the ability to mediate between a word and the thing it refers to.  

It could be that these are three different ways of looking at the same problem. We could have a mental image (first approach) which we manipulate through some mental process (second approach) and then, through language communicate that concept to another person. However, the philosophers who champion each of the above options do not agree with a combined approach as they feel that would create a fundamental misunderstanding of what concepts truly are.

One of the disagreements that exists between these groups is that there are some philosophers who reject the reality of abstract objects and others which reject universals. Philosophers, who fall into either of these categories are called Nominalists.

What is Nominalism?

The word ‘Nominalism’, as used by contemporary philosophers in the Anglo-American tradition, is ambiguous. In one sense, its most traditional sense deriving from the Middle Ages, it implies the rejection of universals. In another, more modern but equally entrenched sense, it implies the rejection of abstract objects. To say that these are distinct senses of the word presupposes that universal and abstract object do not mean the same thing. And in fact they do not. For although different philosophers mean different things by universal, and likewise by abstract object, according to widespread usage a universal is something that can be instantiated by different entities and an abstract object is something that is neither spatial nor temporal.

Thus there are (at least) two kinds of Nominalism, one that maintains that there are no universals and one that maintains that there are no abstract objects. Realism about universals is the doctrine that there are universals, and Platonism is the doctrine that there are abstract objects.

Rodriguez-Pereyra, Gonzalo, “Nominalism in Metaphysics”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2019 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)

For further reading on these different approaches and their problems see:“Concepts”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy 

The Problem of Universals: Do they exist in any real way or did we create that concept?

As with all philosophical problems, it is always best to start with Plato. Plato put forth a theory that Ideas exist in some other realm than the one we experience and that we have access to these ideas before we experience them through our senses.  For example: When we see a cat, we know it is a cat. How do we know? Because it is an imperfect copy of a form of a true cat.  

This may seem silly to us today because most people in our culture do not believe in Plato’s forms. We recognize similarities to those animals we call “cats” and then we created a “universal” category called “cat”. We are taught this categorization of animals a children and by the time we are grown we “know” what a cat is. When we see a cat, we compare this particular cat to the universal concept of “cat” and conclude it is, indeed, a cat. It’s so simple, right?

In fact, Plato’s student Aristotle also thought his mentor’s ideas about forms were not correct.

Plato vs Aristotle

The inherent problems with Plato’s original theory were recognized already by Plato himself. In his Parmenides Plato famously raised a number of difficulties, for which he apparently did not provide satisfactory answers. Aristotle (384–322 B.C.), with all due reverence to his teacher, consistently rejected Plato’s theory, and heavily criticized it throughout his own work. (Hence the famous saying, amicus Plato sed magis amica veritas). [I like Plato, but I like the truth even more] Nevertheless, despite this explicit doctrinal conflict, Neo-Platonic philosophers, pagans (such as Plotinus ca. 204–270, and Porphyry, ca. 234–305) and Christians (such as Augustine, 354–430, and Boethius, ca. 480–524) alike, observed a basic concordance between Plato’s and Aristotle’s approach, crediting Aristotle with an explanation of how the human mind acquires its universal concepts of particular things from experience, and Plato with providing an explanation of how the universal features of particular things are established by being modeled after their universal archetypes.

Klima, Gyula, “The Medieval Problem of Universals”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2017 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.),

Problems of Empiricism

Aristotle believed we gained all our knowledge through experience. We call this approach to how we acquire knowledge empiricism and so this concept has been around for a couple thousand years and is the dominant concept when we think about how we acquire knowledge. However, to completely dismiss what Plato was trying to work out would is to lose something in our understanding of how we are able to think.

The concordance between Plato and Aristotle described raises the question that if we cannot form any concepts until we experience something, then how does that process of conceptualizing exist in us? Experience may be how we gain knowledge, but it does not tell us how we process that knowledge.

Although Platonism definitely survived throughout the Middle Ages (and beyond), in the guise of the interconnected doctrines of divine ideas, participation, and illumination, there was a quite general Aristotelian consensus,[27] especially after Abelard’s time, that the mundane universals of the species and genera of material beings exist as such in the human mind, as a result of the mind’s abstracting from their individuating conditions. But consensus concerning this much by no means entailed a unanimous agreement on exactly what the universals thus abstracted are, what it is for them to exist in the mind, how they are related to their particulars, what their real foundation in those particulars is, what their role is in the constitution of our universal knowledge, and how they contribute to the encoding and communication of this knowledge in the various human languages. For although the general Aristotelian stance towards universals successfully handles the inconsistencies quite obviously generated by a naïve Platonist ontology, it gives rise precisely to these further problems of its own.

Klima, Gyula, “The Medieval Problem of Universals”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2017 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.),

Deus Ex Machina

In our time, we use concept interchangeably with idea. But an idea is not exactly the same thing as a concept – at least not in the same sense that Plato was talking about. It is easier to explain Plato’s forms with material things as I did above with cats, but Plato was also concerned with those immaterial things we call “abstract ideas” such as beauty, love, difference, change, etc.

While Plato said that abstract ideas resided in some perfect realm, some modern day thinkers, who do not believe that abstract ideas – if they exist – reside in language or our own mental frameworks.

When we call something beautiful, is it because beauty is just a comparison of collected experiences we have perceived through our senses or does Nature impose that concept on our physical structure?

In the medieval ages, one solution offered was that of “Divine Ideas.”

Platonic Forms as Divine Ideas

Besides Boethius, the most important mediator between the Neo-Platonic philosophical tradition and the Christianity of the Medieval Latin West, pointing out also its theological implications, was St. Augustine. In a passage often quoted by medieval authors in their discussions of divine ideas, he writes as follows:

… in Latin we can call the Ideas “forms” or “species”, in order to appear to translate word for word. But if we call them “reasons”, we depart to be sure from a proper translation — for reasons are called “logoi” in Greek, not Ideas — but nevertheless, whoever wants to use this word will not be in conflict with the fact. For Ideas are certain principal, stable and immutable forms or reasons of things. They are not themselves formed, and hence they are eternal and always stand in the same relations, and they are contained in the divine understanding. [Spade 1985, Other Internet Resources, p. 383][15]

As we could see from Boethius’ solution, in this way, if Platonic Forms are not universal beings existing in a universal manner, but their universality is due to a universal manner of understanding, we can avoid the contradictions arising from the “naïve” Platonic conception. 

Klima, Gyula, “The Medieval Problem of Universals”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2017 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.),

Back to Plato

While this is a lovely theological solution, modern day atheists can only view this approach as a sleight of hand – a magical solution. They do not believe anything exists outside the physical world.

In order for an atheist to consider a possibility of some part of reality existing beyond the physical universe, one would have to show him his conception of reality, his mental framework is incorrect or incomplete by limiting reality to the physical universe. And there is the problem of resistance by the mind to accept something that one does not like. I think that belief in a deity might come down to more of an issue of personality and personal experience issue than a scientific one.

We have not resolved the questions Plato first set in motion with his proposition of Forms. They are still with us to this day – a problem for philosophers and scientists alike to ponder.