Doubting One's Mind
A central topic of philosophy throughout the ages has been whether human beings can trust their minds, including their sensory awareness and thinking. Skepticism about this has been a major challenge and many from Socrates to such recent and current thinkers as Ayn Rand and John Searle have responded with more or less elaborate arguments defending our capacity to get things right about the world.
These days a new source of skepticism has surfaced, from within the field of neuroscience. In a review essay of several books on the topic, "How the Mind Works: Revelations," published in The New York Review of Books (6/26/08), Israel Rosenfield and Edward Ziff write, "In fact 'external reality' is a construction of the brain." Several of the authors they discuss argue this point. As the review notes, "In general, every recollection refers not only to the remembered event or person or object but to the person who is remembering," meaning that memory is not about an objective reality but of some mishmash of subjective experience and external influence.
In essence, then, what one understands about the world and oneself is really not what actually exists but what is constructed by one's mind with the use of other cognitive tools. The problem with this is that it makes no sense in the end because what the researchers are telling us would also be covered by their claim and so it is also just some mental construction, which then is also some further mental construction, ad infinitum and ad nauseum. But that cannot be. At some point the researchers would have to accept that what they are telling us about the human mind is actually so, not also just a construct or invention.
In any case, why would there be so much interest in discrediting the human mind, of writing elaborate tomes that argue that our understanding of the world and ourselves is fabrication, not objectively true? Why when questioning the mind is itself done by human beings with human minds who, presumably, are confident that their own questioning has merit?
Some folks say that to questions like those, one needs to answer by following the money – that is to say, checking who is gaining from these so-called findings. I am not such a cynic. As far as I can tell, some of these scientists, philosophers and the reporters who seem to be so gleeful about what this skeptical work produces may well be sincere. Yet I also suspect there is something fishy afoot here and my suspicion is that there is a tendency on the part of many of these experts to come up with findings that assign to them a special role in the world. They are, in effect, the only people who have a clear handle on how things go with human beings. They are the only reliable source of facts – as Rosenfield and Ziff say, "In fact, 'external reality' is a construction of the brain." You and I are not up to snuff about the matter; we are deluded and misguidedly think that when we see a red coffee cup on the kitchen table, there really is such a cup there. But Rosenfield and Ziff and the scientists they are reviewing will inform us that "there are no colors in the world, only electromagnetic waves of many frequencies."
But if you just think for a moment, this is nonsense. It is like saying there is no furniture in my living room, only chairs and tables and sofas. Well, but it is those chairs, tables and sofas that are the furniture. It is, then, the electromagnetic waves doing certain work that are the colors, so colors do indeed exist in the world.
Thus, telling someone that there is a red cup on the kitchen table when that is what a healthy mind is aware of is exactly right! It may not tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth about what is there but few people need to have that in order to cope quite well with the world around them.
The same problem faced some physicists who claimed that there is nothing that's solid in the world because everything is composed of atoms and atoms, in turn, are mostly empty space with only very tiny bits of material substance swirling within them at enormous speeds. Ergo, solidity is an illusion. But this is to drop the context of discussions where the distinction between, say, solidity and liquidity comes up. It is misguided to make the leap from one context to another where the focus is quite different.
When we ordinary humans notice the world around us, learn to identify what it contains, begin to understand the forces at work in it, if we pay attention we can get it right for the purposes that we need this understanding. To try to undermine this confidence based on highly specialized research is misguided, ill conceived and misanthropic to boot. It appears to assign to some people some special status even though, by their own accounts, no one ultimately can figure anything out correctly.
Tibor Machan is the R. C. Hoiles Professor of Business Ethics & Free Enterprise at the Argyros School of Business & Economics, Chapman University, Orange, CA 92866.
Posted by Alananda1 on 12/19/12 12:30 AM
East met West in "philosophy" well before I was born. Dr. Machan no doubt himself encountered such luminaries as Yogananda, Alan Watts, perhaps even Ram Dass -- in print, perhaps, if not in person. Yogic traditions laugh at Western constructs, awkwardly reconstructing, re-engineering conceptually "the mind". I heartily recommend Yogi Bhajan's compiled lectures "The Mind" -- easily found through the good offices of GOOGLE, as are all extant writings, at least for now.
Educated and trained as a "pharmacologist" (earned the Ph.D.), I abandoned the field per se out of disgust with the prevailing paradigm, namely, that "molecules move men". I found that even Ernest Holmes' major work, "The Science of Mind", hedged on answers to the question "What is mind?". Yogi Bhajan nailed it. Highly recommended to those readers of this blog who ask the same question.
Posted by kbterry on 12/17/12 04:15 PM
Fantastic! Thank you, Mr. Machan. I think you are right on the money. This
body of ideas that is rampant in the New Age and consciousness and 'enlightenment' movements seemed suspicious to me and although I realize there is more out there than what I or anyone observes, we are certainly capable of seeing much of what passes before us.
Posted by rossbcan on 12/17/12 02:49 PM
"Think about it."
I have no issue with being a self defining tautaulogy, free to define myself, both the chicken and, the egg, from which all else springs.
When you think about it, life is pretty awesome, despite the harpies.
Posted by Friend_of_John_Galt on 12/17/12 02:23 PM
Rossbcan: I think, therefor, I AM.
Ayn Rand: I AM, therefor, I think.
Think about it.
Posted by Friend_of_John_Galt on 12/17/12 02:22 PM
The Rosenfield and Ziff argument defeats itself. If their premise is true, then their book is meaningless and not worth reading, as it only reflects a view of reality that can't ever be discerned. Of course, the general argument of the book is also used by those multiculturalists to presume that there are no "bad" cultures, that all cultures reflect a communal truth as that culture views it -- and we dare not condemn any culture just because it has aspects that our culture does not approve of -- such as denial of all human rights to women, etc.
Of course, this is one of those things that anyone, using just a bit of reason, can discount. There is an objective reality which we can perceive, though, at times, we must apply our ability of reason to get past emotional response and understand that objective reality. We may call the coffee cup "red" because we (as a culture) have agreed that a particular frequency of reflected light is red. In sound, we have agreed that 440 cycles per second is the note "A above middle C." We could just as easily called the coffee cup blue and the note "middle C." That's only a substitution of names for the same physical phenomena that we can objectively understand.
As a proof of the arbitrariness of _names_ for certain physical manifestations is that some orchestras have assigned 442 cycles per second to "A above middle C" to give the impression of a "brighter" sound. Most people can discern pitch differences of around 3 cycles per second (below 1000 cycles) and differences of about 10% in higher frequencies within the range of hearing. Some people have "perfect" pitch and can name the commonly assigned notes when tones of various frequencies are heard. Most people have "relative pitch" aptitude, where they can tell higher or lower pitch notes from one another, but can not name exact notes (as they are commonly assigned).
This shows that humans have the capacity to observe objective reality and then, for convenience, we often assign names to frequently encountered physical phenomena (such as "red" or "middle C").
Posted by victorbarney on 12/17/12 12:31 PM
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Posted by seer on 12/17/12 12:12 PM
Posted by chad2 on 12/17/12 11:56 AM
The mind is only as trustworthy as the spirit that guides it. You have the Good Spirit and then you have the bad ones. The Good Spirit leads the mind to learn amazing truths and to see the world accurately. The bad ones lead one in all sorts of deception. Why do you think liberals embrace what they do? Gays for instance seemingly don't get natural law! haha! But you see the spirit that they has tells their mind that perversion is good. Then there are those that say, O, my spirit is superior as I see that to be gay is against natural law... But perhaps the spirit they have simply leads them to another deception? GOP, I don't think lower taxes will save us... haha! They don't have the right spirit either and so they should trust their minds. Find the Good Spirit and then you'll have a sound mind.
Posted by IndyLyn on 12/17/12 11:44 AM
Mr. Machan... priceless! The Mind, perhaps the last bastion of freedom ... if it can hold out against the enemy controllers.
Posted by RED on 12/17/12 11:26 AM
Well stated! Which is why you are one of my favorite contributors.
The coffee cup to which you refer does appear red because the exterior is aborbing all of the other color wavelengths and is reflecting "Red". Our eyes are designed to perceive these color wavelengths and it is very useful. It is a perfectly valid observation. I could make use of a spectrometer that would tell me exactly the same thing. (Yes I am aware of the apparent "dual nature of light to act as a "particle" as well as Quantum Mechanics, but that is beyond the scope of this discussion).
If the cup were full of hot liquid, it would also be emitting electromagnectic waves in the Infra Red Spectrum. Another equally valid observation.
Yes there are other other parameters that can (and some that perhaps cannot)be measured relating to the cup under question, but this does not invalidate the legitimate observable data.
These so called "researchers" of whom you speak are the typical Arrogant Pseudo-Intellectuals that I have had the displeasure to meet from time to time. I suspect that review of the "thesis" upon which they were "granted" their "higher" degrees would be more a source of Derision than Accolade. Their "P.H.D." truly stands for "Piled Higher and Deeper"!!
Keep authoring your Observations!
They are enjoyable and instructive.
Posted by 1776 on 12/17/12 10:47 AM
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Posted by rossbcan on 12/17/12 08:45 AM
my aeroplane analogy above reminds me of an old joke.
Q: what's the last thing a bug sees as it splats on your windshield?
A: his a$$hole:)
Posted by rossbcan on 12/17/12 07:19 AM
"In fact 'external reality' is a construction of the brain."
Clearly, we cannot hold all of infinite external reality in our finite brains. What we can do is hold representations (models) of reality. So, the above statement is true, but the argumemts around it are subverted leading to the false conclusion that we cannot factually perceive or deal with reality.
LIARS will (and are) thrive if the situation of "cannot PROVE TRUTH" is socially / legally tolerated.
What our "curious monkeys" species / ancestors have done is establish, by observation what the physical principles of observable, testable, experimetally verifyable reality are. We have defined concepts (language) to describe observable phenomena and, discovered the natural rules of logic based on the proven FACT there is no such thing as "something from nothing" and logical propositions (arguments, relationship between established facts) must "add up".
Our brains deal with "models of reality", based on the building blocks of language constructs. If the language constructs are TRUE (match reality), our brains correctly perceive (model) reality. If the language constructs / concepts are false, well, it is "garbage in, garbage out".
We made great progress, as a species and civilization, until "scientific method" became a FACT with undisputed "value", displacing primitive mysticism as "models of reality". This became a social FAITH, the unquestioning BELIEF in all that is presented as "scientific" and, the POWER (don't dare dispute) of those who claim to be "scientific".
This created a great opportunity for the subverters, those whom misrepresent themselves as truthful and intelligent by misrepresenting the meaning (misdefining, backed by force) of key concepts upon which higher level knowlege (the PROVEN relationship between action and consequence) is based.
Subverted: "Corruption of and/or misrepresenting basic underlying concepts used to create higher level conclusion or knowledge. For example, changing the meaning of words such as equality thus subverting all legal knowledge.:
so, Tibor, go forth and smite these LIARS.
Posted by rossbcan on 12/17/12 06:31 AM
I think, therefore I AM.
... and, it is REALITY I think about:
Click to view link
Scientific method can answer this, experimentally. Are there exceptions to the rule? Cast all doubters out of an aeroplane at 30 thousand feet. They can ponder the veracity of their perceptions / experiences / existance on the way down and, WILL KNOW, when the journey ends.
The POINT of casting doubt on YOUR perceptions and the "value" of YOUR existance is to DELAY / AVOID any responsive / defensive actions YOU may ponder as your predators close in and, the trap is sprung.
Posted by amanfromMars on 12/17/12 12:57 AM
Bravo, Tibor. Now we're cooking with gas, and on the right wavelengths.
"It appears to assign to some people some special status even though, by their own accounts, no one ultimately can figure anything out correctly." ... .. Correctly enough for that present moment in time and space is all that is one is required to understand and accept, Tibor, for tomorrow will offer other views to assume which are equally valid and exciting and quite perfectly positioned for some of those special status people to take full advantage of that fleeting moment and fleeting moments which are passed by us in space to become the Past the instant they are Presented for the Future.