Our cognitive faculties (CF) are a crucial component to our conscious experience of both the world and of ourselves. Without these faculties we would simply not possess the capacities to engage the world, form beliefs, know anything about the past, or even be able to exercise rational thought.
Distinguished philosopher and epistemologist Alvin Plantinga, known not only for his reformed epistemology but also for his argument against naturalism which argues that given naturalistic evolution there is little chance (a very low probability) that we could ever trust our CF to form true beliefs, provides a good framework through which we can understand the concept. Plantinga includes several components that constitute our CF, namely, [i] individual’s memory, [ii] perception, [iii] logical intuition, and [iv] induction (1). He also explains that most of us assume that these faculties are reliable given that they produce within us true beliefs or at least more true beliefs than false beliefs.
Memory – Memory is basic to all of us. We use it to remember facts and concepts we learn for our tests and exams, and when we engage with our friends, peers, and family. We simply cannot avoid using our memories to recall information that we believe to be true of the past. Alternatively, we can sometimes be deliberately deceptive by lying about past events or retelling a story that does not do justice to the actual events that occurred. More technically, memory is the way information is encoded, stored and retrieved (2). Encoding is taking information from the external world and converting it into mental representations which is then stored in three “locations”: sensory memory (info that is held for a few milliseconds with most info being filtered out), working memory (meaningful info transitions from sensory memory to working memory), and long term memory (info that is deemed really important that can be held for a lifetime). Memory functions in that it allows an individual to know something that happened in his or her past.
Perception – This is how an individual knows facts about the world through the use of his or her senses. This includes knowledge about the world derived through the individual’s hearing, seeing, touching, smelling, and tasting capacities (3). Some philosophies have based their entire epistemologies on this premise, such as the likes of empiricism and positivism. We tend to exercise our perceptive faculties in two major ways: towards that of our [i] immediate and [ii] distant environments. The former consists of facts we know about our close environment such as within it are people, chairs, tables, and cups. The latter consists of what we think we know about distant environments, such as the sun, stars, and celestial objects that exist many billions of light years away from us.
Logical intuition – This is an individual’s mental state in which a proposition seems true. I would think that our logical intuition presupposes the three classical Laws of Logic. For example, it is intuitively obviously that a statement/proposition is either true or that its negation is true (law of excluded middle). Either the proposition that the cup is on the table is true or it is false. It is intuitively obvious that a table possesses all the characteristics of being a table and is therefore not a coffee cup (law of identity). It is also intuitively obvious that contradictory statements cannot both be true in the same sense at the same time (law of non-contradiction). It is intuitively obvious that there are no such things as three sided circles, round squares, and married bachelors. I needn’t have had to examine all our the squares in the world to know that no squares are circles etc. These beliefs about the world seem obvious almost beyond reasonable doubt.
Induction – This is how we learn something about the future based on past experience (4). For example, an individual knows that an apple nourished him after eating it, and he uses this experience to form the belief that the next time he eats an apple it will similarly nourish him. This, also known as an inductive inference, is inferring from the observed to the unobserved, or to general laws.
Furthermore, would like to add another component here, namely, Consciousness. It seems clear to me that our CF as listed above would be useless if we were not conscious beings. In fact, every component is made sense of in light of the notion that we are conscious agents. So, although all these components are crucial, it is consciousness that is the unifying principle of them all.
1. Plantinga, A. An Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism. Available.
2. ThePeakLearner. 2015. What is memory? Available.
3. Lyons, J. 2016. Epistemological Problems of Perception. Available.
4. Henderson, L. The Problem of Induction. Available.