My daughter had a mini-fit the other day while mentally wrestling with Punnett squares. When she stopped clutching dual hairwads, baring her over-sized permanent teeth, and flapping her slippers, she asked me why it was so hard to “get” genetics. Lacking an answer, I offered commiseration. “I know it’s hard, but unfortunately you can’t just inject science into your head. You have to work at it.” I know this misery. It’s like the knowledge is out there waiting to be grasped, but there’s a fog, and your hard-earned feeble steps feel like they get you nowhere.
Laying awake one night and thinking more clearly in the silence, I remembered something Mortimer J. Adler wrote in his book Angels and Us. Angels are minds without bodies, pure intellects. A “pagan philosopher” and end-of-life convert, Adler was also an accomplished Thomist. He thought everyone, believer or non-believer, should think about angels because doing so helps us understand our own intellect, thus the title, Angels and Us. He used the word “discursive” to describe how we gain knowledge in his commentary on “Angels as Knowers” (Chapter 8, Section 5). The explanation won’t make science any easier, but it does explain why it takes work to learn.
Angels have knowledge intuitively, but humans gain it discursively. Intuition means the knowledge is instilled, gained immediately, analogous to standing on a hillside and seeing the entire landscape all at once. Because we have bodies, the human mind gains knowledge through both sensitive and intellectual powers. Like animals, our brains process cognitively what we gather through our senses, but our minds can go further into abstraction and put the whole picture together. However, unlike angels, we can’t see the whole landscape all at once. True to the scientific method, we can only observe a little at a time and reason through it. The word “discursive” implies taking time, doing it in steps, proceeding by argument or reasoning rather than by intuition. Adler ends his book with something he called the “angelic fallacies.” We commit an angelic fallacy when forget we are human and expect to be like angels. Bingo!
I later explained the difference between the immediate and complete knowledge of angels, souls without bodies, and the discursive and partial knowledge of humans, souls with bodies. “That’s why science takes work to learn, not just for kids but especially for scientists.” She liked that, and so do I. It’s a good distinction to remember whenever you wonder why we long for theories of everything, but seem unable to achieve it all at once. We’re not angels. That’s why.