We can appreciate a great piece of music without understanding music theory, and can even generate pleasing sounds with various instruments and our voices without understanding music theory or the notes or rhythms we may generate. It’s quite incredible really, and I think this example challenges both the theory of the brain and the excessive weight and value given to intellectualism, particularly in the West over recent centuries.
It’s hard to categorise functions of the brain because I think they’re so intertwined, but contemplating why or how we are able to do something can be distinguished from actually doing something. (And maybe doing and then contemplating, or acting and reflecting form an interesting philosophy of learning?) Attempting to theorise or intellectually understand how we can move or sing or express emotion is just a part of what the brain can offer, which perhaps more impressively can coordinate incredibly complex movements in sport and dance, generate intricate and adaptable sounds synchronously in groups, and connect to each other emotionally and elaborate thoughts on the fly verbally but also communicate without words.
I vaguely remember an article years ago talking about Wayne Rooney (often viewed as both stupid and an amazing footballer…) effectively being able to solve quadratic equations in his head when he took a free kick, finding the point of intersection of the goal line and the trajectory of the kicked football. I don’t believe we control movement in such a calculative way, but I do believe such motor skills displayed by sports people are evidence of incredible brain ability. And of course, to return to the opening argument, we can perform such movements without understanding how movement is controlled – in fact, dedicated researchers are still trying to understand how human movement is controlled!
Similarly, as theologian NT Wright argues in his book The Day The Revolution Began, people can understand the significance and importance of Jesus dying on the cross without necessarily being able to provide a model or theory as to why Jesus died on the cross. And again, theologians are still arguing about this now (though perhaps thought has been corrupted throughout the centuries since Jesus’ death, mostly due to the church’s proximity to power and money…), so it’s surely a good thing we can engage with things without having a representational theory of.
Saying all of that – why do we then ask why? What’s the point? Why do we need to? Well as NT Wright argues, it’s important as least someone is challenging the knowledge. Over time, beliefs and behaviours can stray off course. It’s important that we challenge ourselves and reflect on actions and beliefs we learn and express without intellectually understanding. Over time that intellectual understanding becomes important as a slower form of feedback and reflection. A job that someone needs to do…