The First Act of the Mind: Understanding
Understanding (or "simple apprehension") is the "first act of the mind" for two reasons. First, it lays the foundation for the "second" and "third" acts of the mind and second, it is fundamental to the difference between truly human thought and the thought possible by the higher animals (e.g. dolphins, apes, whales) and the "thought" possible by "artificial intelligence," (e.g. a computer). What separates the way man thinks from even the highest of "mere animals" (i.e. non-rational animals, non-human animals)? Asking questions. Your pet dog might very well go to his toy basket and search for a particular "favorite" chew or lush ball, but he can't ask you why you haven't purchased him a second one of those or why you were so late in coming home that evening; his language is too primitive to even allow questions to enter his mind as thoughts. Likewise with computers. You might ask "Siri" what the temperature is, but it can't ask you anything back. In fact, asking "Siri" to ask you a question brings up the response, "I'm more of the answering type." It's no objection to claim that someone at Apple could program "Siri" to ask you how you are doing, because this isn't a real question, not one asked to gain information, it's just a piece of programmed code and"Siri" can't question its own programming.
People, on the other hand, can't stop asking questions, that is why we are all, naturally, philosophers (and why philosophy is, along with its specialized sister discipline, theology, the highest of the sciences, that on which all the other sciences, including the "hard sciences" depend). And the first question any person asks is "what is that?" The answer to this question, "what?" (quid in Latin), gives us the things essence or quiddity, its "whatness." The understanding of something's essence gives rise, in our minds, to concepts. A concept is an immaterial (sorry materialists, but you're wrong already), abstract, universal, necessary, and unchanging mental realities by which we understand the real world around us. When I see a triangle, for example, I only physically see a material, concrete, particular, contingent, changeable object. I don't physically see "triangularity" (i.e. the essence of "triangle-ness"). However, by asking that distinctly human question, "what is it," I can come to understand this essence. Once I've done so, I can then see other shapes and determine whether they too are material, concrete, particular, contingent, changeable examples of the immaterial, abstract, universal, necessary, and unchanging concept I have of the essence of all triangles. Thus, I can see a four-sided object and understand that it isn't a triangle, but see equilateral and isosceles, red and blue, big and small triangles and know that, as they all share the same essence, as they are all essentially the same thing (i.e. the answer to "what is that" is the same, "a triangle"), that they are each examples of a triangle.
Computers (and animals) can't abstract essences from concrete examples, as we do, thus they can't understand anything. A dog might be trained, by a human who understands, to fetch a three sided object when told to get a triangle, but can't distinguish between what makes this a triangle and that a square. Likewise, a computer, programmed by a human who understands, can "google" the word "triangle" and come up with pictures of triangles, articles about triangles, etc. but can't distinguish what makes one shape a triangle and another something else. This, then, separates all human knowledge from all non-human knowledge (even angels and God never ask "what is it," God because He already knows and angels because they behold essences directly from the mind of God rather than abstracting them from individual, concrete objects of which they must ask "what is it.")
A Few Important Further Points About Concepts
We might do well to pause for moment and distinguish what concepts are from what they are not and to take a little closer look at the fruit of the first act of the mind (i.e. concepts).
1) Concepts are not words
A word is something concrete, indeed as concrete as the object it is describing, concepts are abstract and immaterial. The word "triangle" is made up of either pen or pencil marks on paper, or sound waves reverberating through the air, or pixels on a screen, etc. The word is also changeable. We could, as a matter of societal convention, decide to call all triangles "squares" henceforth, yet the essence would remain unchanged - they'd still all have three-sides. Or, for another example, we could change the meaning of the English words "man" and "woman," so that all people with an XY-chromosome would, henceforth, be called "women," but they would still be unable to get pregnant. The object, then, and the word we use to identify the object are linked by the concept by neither is identical with it. We can have concepts enter our minds (not to be confused with our brains) precisely because they are immaterial. I.e. we can have the concept "apple" in our heads even though we can't put a physical apple in our heads. The same goes for the word "apple." I can think about an apple, I can even think of the word apple, yet the physical word is not "in my mind" in the sense that you could cut my head open and see it.
2) Concepts are not terms
I find that there is quite a bit of confusion over the difference between "terms," "words," and "concepts." We saw above how "concepts" are different from "words," let's take a second to distinguish both from "terms." A term, in philosophy and logic, expresses a concept. Concepts "live" in the private mind of individuals. I have concepts, you have concepts. We can speak together about these private concepts through the use of terms. Simply stated, then, terms make concepts public affairs. Terms differ from words by being unchangeable. Words, as we said above, are established by and can be changed through human convention. Terms cannot be changed. The existence of terms explains how we can translate from one language (i.e. one group of words) to another. Amore and love express the same term in two different, manmade, languages. The difference between a term and a concept can be harder to immediately grasp than the difference between a concept and a word, however the latter is more important for us here. Suffice it to say that terms can be ambiguous or unambiguous, while concepts are never ambiguous (although they might be confused).
3) Concepts allow for imagination
Have you ever imaged little green men living on Mars? Or what it would be like if men had wings? If so, you are using your power of understanding. We've never seen a "little green man," yet we can imagine them. How? By using the first act of the mind's power of abstraction. When an animal sees something green, all it sees is "green-grass" or "green-leaves" or "green-car." Lacking the first act of the mind and its ability to understand and abstract essences from concrete objects it lacks the concept "greeness" and thus can't apply it to non-green things, like imagining what it would be like if the sun were green instead of yellow or what a Martian might look like. Because concepts are abstract we can apply them in ways we don't find them occurring through sensation. Even the earliest, most primitive men have this ability, which is precisely why we see early man painting on cave walls and never see any art ever produced by any computer or animal (again, unless made to do so by a man with understanding).
4) Concepts provide certainty
Scientific knowledge, grounded as it is in inductive reasoning (i.e. it studies concrete, particular things, rather than essences), leads to probabilistic knowledge. Understanding, through the first act of the mind and thus knowledge of essences, leads to certain knowledge. For example, saying all swans are white (a declaration of empirical, scientific, and thus only probabilistic, knowledge) can be disproven by the discovery of a black swan (which actually happened when John Latham traveled to Australia at the end of the eighteenth century). However, all triangles have three sides (or all swans are birds) are conceptual knowledge and thus provide certainty. Any triangle we find, anywhere in the universe (including any triangle we can even imagine) will necessarily have three sides. Even God Himself, in His omnipotent might, can't create a four or two-sided triangle, although he could create (and we could imagine) swans of any color. The certainty provided by understanding concepts (i.e. knowing essences) allows us to reach definite conclusions, conclusions not dependent on seeing or experiencing everything that exists.
When I was discussing the Kalam Cosmological Argument for the existence of God with atheists, a few of them wanted to dispute the first premise of my presentation of this argument, that everything that begins to exist has a cause for coming into existence outside itself. One atheist asked for evidence for this, hoping for something empirical. While empirical evidence tells us that nothing we have experienced has ever been caused for no reason, not having experienced everything that comes into being we can't conclude that everything that comes into being has a cause. However, understanding the essence of what it means to be a "caused thing" or "a thing that begins to exist" can lead exactly to the knowledge that it necessarily includes having a cause. This knowledge is universally true, not because someone has experienced everything in the universe, but because anyone can understand the essence of "being-caused" to include, well, having a cause.
A classic example of certainty provided through knowing the essence of something is knowing that, one day, you will die, that you are mortal. You haven't experienced your own death, so we don't know of our own mortality through empirical science. However, by knowing that an essential part of human nature is to be mortal and by knowing that you are human, you know, certainly, that you will perish. We need not have experienced the death of every man to know "all men are mortal" is true and it isn't a tautology like "all black dogs are dogs" which we can know simply because the predicate is a part of the subject, rather we can know it through the first act of the mind - understanding.
The Least You Need to Know
To distill all this to its essence:
- Humans are capable of understanding what-things-are through abstracting essences from concrete objects.
- Computer and animal intelligences cannot do this.
- Divine and angelic intelligences need not do this.
- Understanding produces concepts.
- Concepts are logically expressed in terms and linguistically expressed in words.
- Concepts and terms, unlike words, are not changeable or manmade.
- Concepts allow for certain knowledge, even of things we haven't immediately sensed.
- To make a good argument terms need to be clear and unambiguous.