Feliks Mikhailov
The Riddle of the Self

3. The End of the Mind-Body Problem

Hegel's “dispute” with Russell still leaves many problems unsolved. Of course, the thesis that all the specific features, the very essence of the human mind are determined by the social forms of culture seems quite reasonable. But, for one thing, we see where such reasoning may lead us. Hegel postulated an all-generating spirit as something primordial and without any genesis of its own. The riddle of the human Self does not cease to be a riddle if we simply deduce that Self from the no less mysterious Universal Spirit. And secondly it is, after all, the individual that possesses consciousness, and what we have to understand is how precisely does the body acquire the ability to comprehend the world, to think, to know? Yes, the body, because the individual is born into the world as a body, as an organism. So how is the corporeal, organic physiological “transformed” into the mental?

In this turn of thought one sees not only the persistence of common sense, but also the natural urge to oppose the mysticism of Hegelianism with the facts of direct sensuous contact between the human body and the objective environment, facts that can be investigated by strict scientific means. So again we are faced with the mind-body (or mind-body-logic) problem.

In my introduction I suggested that the very principle of relating the mental to the physiology of the brain is not a very fruitful one. Of course, if certain physiological processes did not take place in the brain I could not acquire knowledge, I could not think or comprehend. But the content of my knowledge, what I think, feel and comprehend, that is, the content of my mental activity, in no way reflects what happens in my brain.

Thought is not the contacts of electrical impulses in the nerve centres, not the surges on the screen of an electro-encephallograph. It is always about something. Mental facts can therefore only be compared and correlated with that which they reflect, with the objective world itself. The relation between thinking and being, the reflection and what is reflected – this is what concerns philosophers when they try to define the content of such a philosophical category as consciousness.

On the other hand, attempts to consider the mental as a state of the nervous system on the same plane as purely physiological conditions is no better than their plain and simple identification. The comparison, identification and opposing of the mental to the physiological are in fact attempts to “solve” the mind-body problem.

One may study physiological processes, but the content of the sensation will be the very thing that is not covered in such a study. The organism sees no physiology, no nerve pathways. I have a constant sensation of something (which means that it is already not-I) and all the time my sensation is something external, something I experience.

All past experience, all past states of the organism, all ideas and feelings, sensations and emotions are constantly merging and are present, exist and determine the direct experience of the present moment. One could even say that it is not the body (as such, taken without reference to the objects of its life-activity), but the external world as retained in the memory, perceived and experienced, that reacts at any given moment to new impressions. The new idea is tested by the habitual, the customary; emotions control emotions, and all former sensations evaluate that which my senses are experiencing at the present moment.

If I wish to study the patterns of my changing mood, the causes of sorrow or joy, I must refer to the world of my life, to the world of my intercourse with other people and nature. The mind is opposed to the objective world because it is my way of treating the world determined by my biography. But the physiology of the senses and the nervous system is one (though by no means the only one!) of the mechanisms of life with which the organism becomes the body of a human being living and acting in a human way.

What was it that compelled scientists to contrast the mental to the physiological so persistently? What made them look for the causes of this or that emotion in the physiology of the nervous system? The same thing as in the case of Descartes. Man was a corporeal being and was surrounded by other corporeal beings, and there were no other facts in the field of empirical experience. So either they had to follow Descartes in declaring thought (which apparently turns human mind into an integral consciousness) a special substance, or else devote all their energies to looking for the mechanisms of the interaction of bodies that “produce” thought from themselves.

This approach confused the whole issue. Unversed in the subtleties of philosophy, the natural scientists (and some philosophers who preferred to follow them rather than trust philosophy, and who saw their task as “drawing philosophical conclusions from the discoveries of real science”) thought that the basic question of philosophy – the relation of consciousness to being, to matter – should be treated exclusively as a question of the relationship between soul and body, the mental and the Physiological. The philosophical problem was thus quietly replaced by a question that did not go beyond the specific Positive interests of natural science.

The study of the physiological mechanisms of reflection is important in the sense that it does a great deal to dispel the mystical fog surrounding the fact of man's having a consciousness. A certain physiological organisation, the laws of the higher nervous activity are a most essential condition of mental life, they form the material substratum of the mind. The proof of the fact that it is the body that experiences sensations, feelings, emotions is a vitally important scientific illustration of the views of the pre-Marxist materialist philosophers, who believed that it was not the divine soul independent of matter, but matter itself, organised in a certain way and entering into certain relations with the rest of the material world that acquired the ability to sense, feel and later to think. The mind was a product of the development of matter, one of its properties. Every new discovery in physiology confirmed this fact and showed that no state of mind was possible without the regular functioning of the nervous system.

The person who sees in the solution of the mind-body problem the possibility of discovering the essential nature of mind and thus solving the basic problem of philosophy forgets Lenin's profound philosophical warning:

“These views do not consist in deriving sensation from the movement of matter or in reducing sensation to the movement of matter, but in recognising sensation as one of the properties of matter in motion.” [Lenin, Volume 14 p. 47]

No, materialism certainly does not consist in deriving sensation from matter or reducing it to matter. Nor, of course, does it lie in closing one's eyes to the specific nature of the mental. All the questions that confronted the materialists in pre-Marxist philosophy hinged in some way or another on the one problem of how to build a bridge from insensible to sensible matter. How did such a divinely spiritual quality as sensation, and then thought, arise from the dead and insensible? The natural scientist tended to seek the answer to this question in the study of the material properties of matter. One had to find the something in matter that enabled it to think. Some special force or other property. Hence the attempts, on the one hand, to spiritualise all matter and, on the other, to treat the fact of sensation, of sensuous experience as the only thing that really exists, that is, to exclude from science the question of the correspondence between knowledge and reality.

Only one question of natural science was meaningfully formulated and it was not even a philosophical question (although it did have philosophical significance). The question was, what kind of organisation must living matter have and what kind of life must it lead for the organism to be able to sense external objects and experience its state and life-activity?

“Without the participation of motion our sensations and perceptions would not possess the quality of objectivity, that is, relatedness to the objects of the external world (emphasis added – F.M.), which is the only thing that makes them mental phenomena.” [Leontyev]

So the mental is not the stimulation of neurons, not the physiological activity of the matter of the brain as such.

The key to the mind lies in the relation of behaviour (motion) of an animal to the objects of the external world, in the constant assessment of the images of things by the behaviour, motion and needs of the organism.

Even from the purely psychological point of view one can understand why the mental stands in opposition not to the physiological, but to the objective world, although every movement of an animal obeys the laws of physiology. When we speak of the mental and the physiological, we are speaking of different things. I feel means I record, I reflect some external object, but the sensation itself is not the imprint of a seal on wax, not what happens in the neurons of the analyser under pressure from the object. Sensation is a need multiplied by the action of the whole organism, which actively seeks an external object and records that object in the seeking movement.

Even the most subtle investigators of the physiological substratum and its “mechanics” will never be able to explain the mysteries of the simplest mental act because physiological processes are not equivalent to even an elementary sensation or perception. The physiologist has studied the mechanism of temporary nerve connections, the processes of excitation, inhibition, and so on. He has explained how perception takes place physiologically, but his explanation does not cover the mental phenomenon itself. It does not explain the individual's vision of that which is perceived. The psychologist speaks of perception in quite a different key. For the psychologist perception takes place not “inside,” not in the nervous apparatus, but, strange though it may seem, “outside” it. Marx wrote: “The light from an object is perceived by us not as the subjective excitation of our optic nerve (physiological – F. M.), but as the objective form of something outside the eye itself (mental – F. M.).” [Capital, Vol. I, chap. 1 s. 4.]

Mentally, perception is always, as it were, taken out of the confines of the organism; it is always an idea or image presenting itself to the consciousness. The mental is in the external world lying before me, in the images I see, and in my emotional judgements and understanding of images. Naturally the psychologist does not identify the “outside” image with the objective thing that is actually outside my consciousness. That is why we speak of the mind when we evaluate the objective world that presents itself to us as a world we have perceived.

Yes, image of perception – that is what we have to think about now! If the process of perception consists in the passive reflection by the brain of the effect of external objects and phenomena on the organism, the situation would appear to be as follows. Before us we have an object (let us say, a lighted candle) and the brain with its plenipotentiary – the eye. What we have to find out is the location of that internal image of the candle that appeared when the retina of the eye was affected by light rays reflected by the candle and transmitted directly to the eye by its flame.

Why is it so important to locate this subjective image? Because the whole world of the mind is composed of such images. They are the meshes in the network of mental phenomena. So how and where is the image of the lighted candle to be found in the brain?

The ordinary notion of the process of mental reflection as a passive, contemplative act suggests something resembling the exposure of a photographic plate by the movement of a camera shutter. In strict accordance with the laws of optics the light rays reflected by the surface of the candle and radiating from the flame focus on the optical centre of the eye and project an inverted image (candle flame downwards) on to the retina of the eye. Then somewhere in the brain the image is again inverted and this is what we see, this is the image of the lighted candle. Where it is located and by what laws its original position is restored – all such questions will one day be answered by physiology. For the time being we simply have to believe that the image arises somewhere in the brain. As for the restoration of the object's normal position, it has been suggested by specialists that no “second” inversion takes place at all. This is done by the mind itself. The new-born child at first sees everything upside down and perceives the world as such until he begins to orientate his body in space. Corrected by the true positions of things, the inverted image on the retina suddenly ceases to prevent correct perception. The child becomes accustomed, as it were, to seeing everything “upside down” and thus begins to perceive the world correctly. I remember how astonished I was at school by the explanation of this upside down “trick.” And it was a lasting impression. “So the eye really sees everything the other way up and I simply get used to it! That's fine!” I thought then. “Fine it may be, but who is the 'I' that sees what he does not see, who sees everything the other way up?”

There is a great deal that we don't understand in the simple everyday act of seeing. But anyway sensation and perception from the point of view I have just expounded are a photograph developed on nerve tissue, it is the material trace of the effect of external objects.

But as one might expect, the more closely the process of perception was studied, the less hope remained of eventually discovering somewhere in the nervous system the imprint of the lighted candle. The first thing that emerged was that the eye cannot be compared to an optical instrument. As the physiologists sometimes say, it is a “bit of outboard cortex.” The light-sensitive nerve formations of the outer layer of the retina instantly transform the streams of light into purely physiological processes, into the excitation of neurons without giving them any opportunity to “imprint themselves” anywhere in the form of a picture. In other words, electromagnetic waves are turned into nerve impulses.

The eye is more like a television set, which turns the light streams from the object into the complex functioning of the radio-electronic apparatus of the receiver. And just as there is not a hint of a picture in all the complex processes in the television set, there is nothing of the kind in the head either. Admittedly the TV receiver is able to reproduce in its electron-ray tube changes in the distribution of bright or a luminescent layer which, when our vision is adjusted accordingly, we perceive as a repetition of the external attributes of the distant object from which the light was reflected. Has the brain any such capability? The excitation caused in the photosensitive nerve formations of the outer layer of the retina is transmitted to the central nerve cells. Simultaneously other sections of the retina receive impulses that come from the visual centres of the cortex, regulating by a feedback process the excitability of the various parts of the retina. We are thus confronted with the peculiar life of the nervous system, a mosaic of excitation and inhibition, irradiation, concentration, the mutual induction of nervous processes. Mysterious biochemical changes take place in the nervous system and not one of them or all of them together reproduce the image of the lighted candle in the head or in the visual receptor.

If we persist in believing that cognition is the mirror-like reflection of external objects in the head, in the brain, on the retina, then the physiological investigation of the processes taking place in the brain at the moment of perception provides the strongest argument in favour of the unknowability of the world. You can't get away from it! If there is nothing in the head but the specific life of the nerve cells, the biochemistry of nervous processes and no images whatever, then the mind is indeed only experience of the state of one's own neurons.

We are now faced with a choice. Either we continue to maintain that cognition is the reflection of the external features of objects in the brain and must go on looking for their subjective images in the brain, ignoring the authoritative testimony of present-day neurophysiology. Or else we take the side of physiology and have to discard the view of cognition as passive reflection of the effects of external objects. That is the alternative. And where there is an alternative there is bound to be an argument. Such an argument would probably run something like this.

“What do you mean by 'take the side of physiology'? The view of cognition as passive contemplation may not be scientifically rigorous, it may not explain the way the mental image is obtained very accurately. But after all, I do see an image! How does it arise before me? Where is it?”

“Where does it arise? in other words, where at the moment is the visible lighted candle that you perceive? That's a strange question! Where else could it be but on the table!”

“Are you making fun of me? You know perfectly well that I'm talking not about the real candle, but about the mental image of it. I see perfectly well that there's a real candle on the table. But where, in me, is its image?”

“Just a minute. You've just said, 'I see there's a real candle on the table.' What other candle do you want? What is this strange desire You have to duplicate the world at all costs – one candle in your head, the other on the table. Don't you realise that there never has been any 'second' candle! There is only the one perfectly real, objective candle. And that's what you see. That is what you call your visual image.”

“Are you serious?”


“I don't believe it. That's pure subjective idealism! Listen to him – my visual image is the actual object itself. That's what you said, isn't it, I'm only repeating your own words.”

“More or less.”

“And will I be saying the same thing if I reverse the subject and predicate of your statement: the actual object is my visual image?”

“No, formal logic deplores such operations. By no means every object is my visual image. They don't all come into my field of vision. But those that I see or have seen exist independently of my perception and for me to see an object it has to exist. But I repeat that the object of my perception is the external form of the given object. There is no other image.”

“Very well. Let's leave formal logic alone. Your idea leads to subjective idealism in substance if not in form. My formal (and I would emphasise the formal) mistake in formulating the statement has allowed you to demonstrate an eclectic combination of faith in the real existence of objects with Berkeleian subjective idealism. Your inconsistency does not surprise me. George Berkeley was not consistent either when he asserted that to exist is to be perceived. And aren't you saying exactly the same thing? I'm quite prepared to believe that you have no doubts at the moment as to the real existence of objects. But in what you just said about perception you practically identified the image of perception with the object perceived. In fact, you got quite emotional when you asked me why the world had to be duplicated. If there is no other candle but the one we perceive, then to exist is to be perceived! Long live Berkeley!

“It was this so-called 'doubling' that gave rise to the main question of philosophy: which is primary-reality or its ideal image in the consciousness? If, as you maintain, the mental image is the object itself, you repeat the well-known error of Joseph Dietzgen, having previously turned his argument inside out. Yes, Dietzgen did say that if the fact of consciousness (say, the mental image of the object we have been discussing) exists, it is just as real and objective as a table. You believe that a table is a fact of my consciousness. Dietzgen, the tannery worker who independently arrived at the basic positions of dialectical materialism but went wrong over some of his formulations, was mistaken in saying that thought is material. And Lenin's comment was that to call thought material was one false step towards confusing materialism and idealism. [2] At best you are making the same mistake when you take the object as the visual image that we have in the process of perception.”

“You've accused me of all the mortal sins but your charges are quite unjustified, I assure you. Now if you will consent to hear me out, I think we shall be able to avoid any further misunderstandings.

“I shall start from the point that prompted your accusations. When we look at an object, we see the object and not some other 'second' object that has taken shape in our heads. Of course, we don't see everything in the object and perhaps we don't see it as it is in reality. What I see in the object, and the object itself, are not one and the same thing. So I, like you, think it necessary to stress that the visual image of the object, and the object itself, differ fundamentally from each other on the philosophical plane, are epistemologically opposed to each other, and any attempt to merge them may mislead you into confusing idealism and materialism.

“The only thing I don't agree with is the presence of some 'second' objective image in my head.”

“I don't understand a thing! You've only just admitted that a visual image that differs from the object itself does exist! Well, that is the 'second' image. It can't be the 'first', the object itself! If it's not in the head, where is it?”

“It's just where the 'first' is, on the table ... Now wait a minute, let me finish! But perhaps the best thing we can do is to open this book I have here and read it together.”

The main obstacle to the correct understanding of the cerebral mechanisms of visual perception ... was the “receptor” theory of sensation and perception that hold almost undivided sway over psychology and neurology in the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries.

According to this theory ... sensation is a passive process caused by stimulation of the sense organs by external agents. The responses from the retina pass to the receptor centres of the cerebral cortex, where they become sensations; only later are these sensations united in perceptions, which in their turn are converted into more complex units of cognitive activity.

“You see what a specific scientific form the theory of knowledge that regards the acquisition of knowledge as a passive act of contemplation acquired in physiology and neurology. Having adopted these positions, even the physiologists were compelled to assume that sensations, perceptions and representations take shape as 'secondary' images in the receptor centres of the cortex. Note that the author calls this standpoint 'the main obstacle to the correct understanding of cerebral mechanisms'. This is yet another example of how contemplation, the notion of the process of cognition that we have been calling the 'pyramid', acted as a hindrance to scientific research. But let us read on.

The “receptor theory of sensations tended to regard the first stages of this complex path as the elementary and passive physiological processes and the later stages as complex and active mental forms of activity. This theory inevitably caused ... a gap between elementary and higher forms of cognitive activity....

A different approach to many of these phenomena is taken by the reflex concept of perception, founded by I. M. Sechenov and experimentally demonstrated by I. P. Pavlov. ...

The reflex theory treats sensations and perceptions as active processes distinguished by a certain degree of selectivity and including efferent motor elements. Sechenov pointed out that every act of visual perception comprised both centripetal (afferent) and centrifugal (efferent) mechanisms. In perceiving the objects of the surrounding world the eye actively “gropes” for them and these “groping” movements along with the signals from the eye motor muscles are elements of visual perception... So the investigation of visual perception under laboratory conditions shows that it has a complex structure, similar in principle to that of tactile perception, where the groping hand identifies a succession of attributes that only gradually unite into one contemporaneous whole (A. I. Kotlyarova, 1948; B. G. Ananyev, 1959). Genetic studies (Piaget, 1935; A. V. Zaporozhets, 1960; V. P. Zinchenko, 1958, and others) showed that the development of visual perception in the child also passes through the corresponding stages, first, the overall “groping” of the object by the hand and eye and only after this, the concentrated forms of perception. If the conditions of visual perception are made more complex, the process of orientation amid the separate attributes of the perceived object, and particularly the imagining of it, again broadens out and observation becomes a long “feeling” of the object by the moving eye. [A R Luria]

“Well, there is no need for us to go any deeper into the neurophysiological and psychological subtleties of the various stages of visual perception, but I hope you have grasped the main point: in its active, seeking movements the eye 'feels' the object. Yes, our organ of vision is more like a hand than the lens of a camera. Incidentally, you wouldn't think of asking me such questions as: where is the weight or where is the firmness, warmth, shape and other attributes of an object that can be sensed by movements of the hand? Here you will say exactly what I said about visual perception: the hand senses the real shape of the object, finds it by feeling or groping. So why did you react so violently when I said that the shape of the object discovered by the eye belongs to the object itself? Yes, the eye 'feels' the object, gropes over it like a hand (not literally, of course, but I am deliberately using a well-known analogy) and in its movement reproduces the shape of the object. Where, then, is the shape, the visual image? In the head? No, obediently obeying the orders coming from the cortex, the nervous apparatus of vision detects at a distance, by means of electromagnetic, light waves the actually existing objects, glides over, scans their surface and, as it were, reproduces their shape in the course of its extremely complex movement. So the visual image is the movement of the eye over the object. It is just as much in me as outside me, and without the external object, without its real shape detected by the sense organs there can be no special 'second' object existing only in me.

“Our candle that was standing on the table has not jumped into our heads because my hand found it in the darkness and lighted it and my eyes at once 'fixed' on it and saw it. This is what I meant when I said that the candle I see is on the table. Where is the subjective idealism in this? Won't you admit that you were too quick with your accusations.”

“Yes, I do admit that, particularly as I have only just properly understood how strong the influence of the traditional notion of cognition as contemplation is. I really did expect to be able to find some independently existing image in the brain, a kind of photograph of our candle. But what about the images of memory? What about dreams? In such cases I see with closed eyes an object that is not present. Where is the image of my memory or of a dream? That must be in me surely? But if it is possible for a memory image to exist in me, then. ...”

“No, strange though it may seem! When a person has a dream, his whole visual apparatus is in motion. The eye works and moves even under the closed lids, once again obeying the impulses from the cortex. And in this movement it repeats, as it were, the 'groping' that it did in a state of wakefulness when 'feeling' the surface of a real object. Similarly with memory. When we try hard to remember what an object looks like, we conscientiously move our eyes in the effort to reproduce its shape.”

But at this point we shall leave the two disputants.

Even the memory of an absent object brings it before us, as it were. And only subjective idealism, making capital out of the fact that the mental (sensation, perception, representation) exists as a projection of the image outside us, as experience of the images before us, identifies man's mental world with the real, objective world. Not for nothing do many of the arguments of past and present begin with the indignant exclamation: how can one distinguish the image of the real, existing and perceived object from the image that one sees in hallucinations or dreams? This question was asked not only in 1710 but even 300 years B. C. And here we have a quotation from Bertrand Russell's book written in 1948:

“It may be said that, though when dreaming I may think that I am awake, when I wake up I know that I am awake (that is, perceive actually existing objects and not merely experience the chimera of dreams created by my imagination – F. M.). But I do not see how we are to have any such certainty; I have frequently dreamt that I woke up; in fact once, after ether, I dreamt it about a hundred times in the course of one dream. We condemn dreams, in fact, because they do not fit into a proper context, but this argument can be made inconclusive, as in Calderon's play, La Vida es Sueño (Life Is a Dream). I do not believe that I am now dreaming, but I cannot prove that I am not. I am, however, quite certain that I am having certain experiences, whether they be those of a dream or those of waking life . . .” [Bertrand Russell, Human Knowledge. Its Scope and Limits]

We shall have more to say about dreams later. And then, perhaps, we shall return to the question of the possibility of distinguishing dream from reality. At the moment Russell's doubts interest us only in relation to the fact that we see the object “in its absence” (in dreams, hallucinations, and so on) also outside ourselves, that is, exactly as we see an object that is before us in reality. The mental image of perception (representation, and so on) “merges” with the objective external object. On this point Lenin wrote: “One asks, how can sane people having a sound mind and good memory assert that 'sense-perception [within what limits is not important] is the reality existing outside us'?” [V. I. Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 14, p. 115.] The real philosophical problem lies in finding the correct relation of consciousness, the mind (including “sensory representation”) to the “reality existing outside us,” and not in reducing sensation to the physiological or in finding direct relations between the state of the neurons and the images of the objective world. The latter is obviously not a problem but a pseudo-problem, generated by the thinking of those who can see only spatial interaction of ready-made structures where it is really a question of a “self-developing organic system,” the substratum of which is neither body nor environment taken separately, but the objective life-activity of the organism reproducing in its movements the objective peculiarities of external objects.

The basic defect of all materialism before Marxism was, as Marx said, its contemplativeness. The rigid and one-sided line taken by contemplative materialism compels the scientist to view the subject as something passive, responding to the stimulus of external objects. The object is the seal and the brain is the wax. To examine the properties and attributes of the imprint one must naturally study the wax, which, of course, merely copies t e shape of the seal. This is the logic of the inventors of the notorious mind-body problem!

But the brain is not wax and the organism is not a lump of matter on which the external world leaves its imprints. And not just because of the different scales of their material and structural organisation. What matters is the way in which the problem is theoretically formulated.

One has read plenty of science-fiction stories about people from Earth meeting beings from the civilisations of other planets. Authors have imagined any number of forms of “thought substance” – an “ocean” covering the whole surface of the planet, a fungus or moss growing on rocks and plants, and so on. But what feature have they in common? Probably only the authors' profound conviction that consciousness is a direct function of a corporeal structure organised in a certain way. The structure, of course, has to be highly complex, no less complex than the human brain. But if a body and its elements are organised for receiving, processing and producing information, that body can also begin to think by itself. Computers are not yet very complicated, but the principle of their organisation is cerebral, so to speak, almost the same as that of the brain. Of course, we don't have to rely on science-fiction to tell us about computers. There is plenty of ordinary scientific literature about them. Here is an extract from a book on the subject.

“... What, then, if a creature of similar behaviour (to that of a human being – F. M.) and intelligence wore to be fabricated from components of quite a different kind with a nervous system and brain based on electronic components instead of neurons, for example? Would it too possess consciousness and the subjective feelings that go along with it? For all we know today, surely this has to be considered to be a possibility. And how about existing electronic digital computers? Is it possible that, somewhere among their wires and transistors, there already stirs the dim glimmering of the same kind of sense of awareness that has become, for man, his most personal and precious possession? Fantastic? Perhaps . . .” [Dean E. Wooldridge, The Machinery of the Brain]

Perhaps it is fantastic as yet. But if we consider the proposition in principle, if we adopt Wooldridge's position, we can envisage the possibility of the rudiments of subjective, mental states even in modern computers. And if they become more and more sophisticated until they reach the physiological level, one day their cybernetic poet will be writing about them that they “make haste to live and cannot wait to feel.”

A scientist's belief is not only an indicator of his erudition and the depth of his positive knowledge. Like his knowledge itself, it tells us in concentrated form the direction of his theoretical researches, his fidelity to a certain logic, and his method of hypothesis about the target of his research. Dean Wooldridge is a well-known physicists And he does not conceal his dedication to his chosen method of studying man as an object of scientific research. I will quote almost without comment several excerpts from his book which testify eloquently enough to the author's opinion of his own method of theorising.

“In interpreting consciousness as a physical property of matter, we do not really need to go back 300 years to the time of Spinoza. We have no reason to associate consciousness with all matter – only with the brain. And only with part of the brain, part of the time.” [Wooldridge]

“As the deepest penetration into the field of mental phenomena that we will make, let us see how far the mechanistic point of view that characterises our approach to all such matters can carry us toward an understanding of the simplest type of concept formation – the establishment in the mind of a list of properties that together define a class of objects.” [Wooldridge]

The author goes on faithfully to reproduce the conceptualist notion of concept formation that we are already familiar with, and sums up as follows: “On our theory, the concept consists physically of a set of memory traces, in different and perhaps widely separated regions of the brain, one for each sensory modality that has been repetitively present during the learning experience. ...” [Wooldridge]

The idea that a concept consists of frequently repeated sensations of the common properties of objects of a certain class was well known to the medieval conceptualist nominalists and much discussed by them in their own way. Here our author obviously goes back quite a lot more than 300 years; a thousand would be nearer the mark. As I pointed out in my first chapter, the simple repetition of the same set of sensory impressions evoked by objects of one and the same class does not constitute a concept of that class. This is as true today as it was 700 or 800 years ago. One has only to look again at the works of Abelard, Roger Bacon, Duns Scotus, Occam or some of the other medieval philosophers to realise how much more primitive our contemporary physicist's view of the “mechanistic” concept is than their concepts were.

Today when we know that in the argument between the realists and nominalists the victor, historically speaking, was reflection – the profound self-consciousness of the reason, its critical and self-critical nature – we understand the agonising uncertainty that both schools must have experienced in trying to understand how “Something” that could not be reduced to external appearance suddenly spoke out proudly in the name-word and sign-word, revealing the single essence (universalia!) of a whole class of objects. The rationalistic ordinary notions of Reason and its concepts, far removed from any reflectional worries, are not helped out even by the reference to the latest findings of neurophysiology, since they too do not exist in themselves but are given meaning either by a reflective, self-critical reason or by an intelligence that is uncritical of itself.

So Dean Wooldridge's book attracted my attention for a very good reason. Its author, unlike some philosophers writing about the problems of neurophysiology, himself states quite precisely the main principle of his method of studying the object – the mechanism, the mechanistic standpoint. He is quite frankly interested in finding in purely spatial models of the interaction of elements of the nervous system and the cerebral cortex the mechanisms that generate mental processes as a direct function of these interactions. This is what his whole book is about. Following his own deliberately chosen logic, he (like Descartes 300 years ago) fully realises that “... the subjective phenomenon of consciousness – the sense of awareness that is more real to the individual than anything else (the Cartesian Cogito ergo sum – F.M.) has qualitative attributes that render it completely incapable of being derived from or accounted for by any combination of physical principles known today.” Only the faint hope that something of the kind may become possible in the future distinguishes Wooldridge's precise formulation from the Cartesian statement of the mind-body problem.

And here is yet another quotation from Wooldridge:

“... This inadequacy of currently available physical science to explain consciousness can be either catastrophic (for hopes of deducing mind from 'physical processes' – F.M.) or relatively insignificant in its implications as to the probable pertinence of mechanistic models of brain function. If the phenomenon of consciousness is an active and directly controlling part of the brain process under investigation, then mechanistic explanations are not likely to be in accordance with the observed facts of behaviour. If, on the other hand, consciousness is purely a passive property, a kind of window through which we can observe a small part of the workings of the brain without interfering with the orderly operation of the machinery we are watching, then we can hope for pertinence of our theoretical models to conscious as well as to unconscious activity.

“It is doubtless clear to the reader that we have been implicitly subscribing to the passive theory of consciousness. We shall continue to do so.”

And further:

“In what has preceded, and in what follows, we are considering consciousness in a similar way – as a sort of display device of unspecified calibration and distortion-producing characteristics, which is connected in an unknown way into the complicated circuit we are trying to understand, but which nevertheless provides clues that may help us find solutions to some of the mysteries with which we must deal. In the up-coming considerations, therefore, our concern with consciousness will reduce to the necessity of recognising its display-device features.”

Now that really can be called a consistent and honest position! The author realises that his method of approach to the phenomenon of consciousness is as inadequate to the phenomenon as the research media at his disposal. With Cartesian precision he places the mechanisms of the brain and the “subjective phenomenon of consciousness” on different and incompatible planes. Admittedly he hopes that in the course of time it will somehow become possible to align them. But in his present work he makes no attempt to hide their “incompatibility” and clearly limits the field of his research to the scope of natural science, and the consistently mechanistic method of this attempt to solve the mind-body problem (despite a clear awareness of the inexplicable yet fatal impossibility of such a solution) brings him to definitions dating back at least 330 years.

For Wooldridge now, just as it was for Descartes in his day, it is very convenient to consider animals as simple “natural machines” and confidently attribute all the peculiarities of their life-activity to the way their bodies are made. After all, Descartes said that to explain life he needed no other laws but those of mechanics. Judging by Wooldridge's book, the 19th and even the 20th centuries have introduced only one amendment to this statement. Namely, that the purely mechanical interactions are now supplemented by other spatial forms of interaction of “elements” of the living body – chemical reactions, electric currents, and so on. But the logic of treating the subject of study – in this case, man – has not changed one little bit. The whole field of our experience is confined to the structure of the body as such, as something with extent, and the other bodies with which it interacts in space. Whatever one says about the human body bearing the traces of previous “social” millennia and its being surrounded today by “culturally” organised objects, the logic, of the investigation inevitably retains the principles evolved by Descartes. This is the logic of the analysis of the spatial interactions of the elements of a “mechanical system.”

So the argument as to the possibility or impossibility of physiological (as well as physical, chemical, genetic, mechanical, etc.) interpretation of the “subjective phenomenon of consciousness” involves a clash not between certain natural scientific hypotheses or conceptions but between the ways of theoretically presenting the object of study. The fundamental point at issue is not whether physiological research into all these “mechanisms” of the higher nervous activity are necessary to explain how the conscious life-activity of the human body takes place, but whether the consciousness of human life-activity can be explained by any of the results obtained from the study of these mechanisms as such.

In 17th- and 18th-century metaphysics (that is, in the philosophy of the New Age) the mind-body problem formulated by Descartes states the question firmly and unambiguously, leaving no opportunity for sophistical manipulation of its essence. If the field of experience comprises only “ready-made” bodies having extent and spatial organisation and their interactions, then human thought is either one of such interactions or something beyond the reach of experience and hence non-corporeal, something that can neither be reduced to the interaction of bodies or deduced from them as such.

As we have seen, Descartes chose the second alternative because he fully understood the incompatibility between all possible definitions of thought and the definitions of bodily extension that follow from its spatial organisation (structure). Moreover, it is possible, once again according to Descartes, to allow the entirely independent existence of two first principles, two substances – extensional and thought. There was, admittedly, a third alternative: to treat thought, spiritual substance as the prime element and to regard the corporeal as something passive, as the material of the active workings of the spirit. This alternative was elaborated by the idealist philosophy of the New Age.

As for the first alternative, its propositions were elaborated by metaphysical materialism. What had this materialism to say about thought?

Thought as part of a reflex are, thought as electrical contacts in neuron circuits, thought as a process of the decoding, by special neurodynamic system, of external effects coded by the sense organs, thought as a secretory emission of the brain, and so on and so forth, or, to generalise, thought as the organism's experience of the states of its own nerves.

Feuerbach aptly described one such theory when he called it vulgar-materialism. The word “vulgar” usually suggests something crude, ignorant and unschooled. But Engels wrote of those whose views aroused Feuerbach's irate reaction – Vogt, Bühner, Moleschott – that they never went beyond the bounds set by their teachers, [See Karl Marx, Frederick Engels, Collected Works, Vol. 3, pp. 348-49.] having in mind mainly the French 18th-century materialists. The vulgarity of pre-Marxist materialism, of metaphysical materialism, lies in its uncritical acceptance of the uninspired empiricism of purely experimental science, which made do with the crudest kind of common sense, which sometimes serves us well enough in our domestic affairs but in matters of theory never rises beyond the simple devices of generalising and classifying objects as such.

So the mind-body problem is the problem of how thought is generated by an extensional, spatially organised physical body. And the question it asks – can an extensional body possess in itself the ability to think depending on some principle of interaction of its elements, or can it not? – has not changed since the time of Descartes. Behind it there looms a deeper problem, the problem of the theoretical presentation of man as the subject of cognition. And there is no way (even on the basis of the latest data of natural science) of avoiding the choice:

either man is an object, a body on whose structural peculiarities all its functions depend,

or man is the subject of historical action, a history-maker, a being who lives in time and not merely in space and who realises in his personal bodily life-activity the universal forms of historical development of the means of people's objective action, and who only for this reason is capable of setting goals, of thinking. [3]

If, however, we take the second approach to man, then the mind-body problem simply does not arise. The new, essentially dialectical method of theorising removes it. But why? How? This we shall discuss in our next chapter.

Here I wanted to demonstrate that with a purely empirical approach to man as a body organised in a certain way both the alternative solutions are unworkable. And the example of Dean Wooldridge has already partially shown us that natural scientists capable of considering their work philosophically fully understand this. Let us conclude this section with some quotations from a book by the well-known neuro-psychologist José M. Delgado. After what would seem to be every possible attempt to examine the causal connections between man's body and his behaviour, the author shows how deeply impressed he is by the argument that “human behaviour is oriented toward future goals and is not determined by past facts as in the physical sciences. . . .” He is no less concerned by the following fact, “. . the gap between neuronal physiology and mental activities is still immense. How can we relate electrical spikes or ionic changes in the cells with the reality of enjoying music, being in love, or writing a book? Are mental activities and neuronal physiology as unrelated to each other as the message of a painting and the chemical structure of colours and canvas? ...” And again, “Even if our methodology for recording electrical codes of transmitted signals were highly sophisticated, we would only be able to detect the carrier (of the information – F. M.), and not the meaning.” And finally, “The human newborn brain has, among other qualities, the capacity to learn languages, abstract thinking, and moral judgement, but not to create them.” What conclusions may be drawn from our criticism of the mind-body problem? Philosophically, the psychological theories of man's subjective world followed the empirical and rationalist definitions of human conscious activity. It is not hard to see that both these trends arose from a fixed idea about the “set of attributes” that man is supposedly born with. The empiricists, however, tried' to present these congenital attributes directly as the individual's natural abilities, his ability to see, hear, feel, smell, taste, and also to generalise all that he perceives, while the rationalists, though recognising the need for sensuous contact between the individual and the external world, looked to the reason for some special attribute associated with the laws of the external world of being that would account for the logical consistency and universality of the conclusions drawn by the individual. Both empiricists and rationalists, however, acknowledged the “natural light of reason” as an every-present instrument of internal mental activity, sent by God or nature to assist in man's existence.

In other words, both schools proceeded from the one principle that there is an internal world, a world of knowledge and experience, feelings and representations, desires and will, which constitutes the spiritual element in man, his soul, consciousness, “Ego,” the Self, and that there is also an external world, the world of things, objects, phenomena, the world of spatially extensional bodies. Between these two worlds there is only the relation which man with the help of his sense organs (but still only thanks to the power of his internal natural light, his reason) can and does have in himself, in his internal world in the shape of the images of external things, and also knowledge of their nature or essence. Ideas, knowledge belong to man himself, they are his birthright, they are in him or rather in his soul, in his consciousness, in his mind. They are the content of the mind, its essential characteristic. And this characteristic does not include extent, corporeality, or any of the other attributes of the materiality of the external world of things. The external world is the world of things, which has no mind, no feelings, no desires, no sensations, in short, none of the attributes that constitute the spirituality of the Self. So psychological research was orientated on the spirituality, the special nature of the inner world of the mind, on its being unidentifiable with and even opposed to the external, material world.

But what in that case is a mental image, the image of the external thing in my mind? How does it arise and exist there? What actually does psychology study? Perhaps, it studies images and feelings, will and knowledge, emotions and thoughts, the aesthetic and moral qualities of the soul – the beautiful and the ugly, good and evil? But where and how are they represented as objects of study? In the external object there is neither good nor evil, nor sensation, nor will, nor thought. And psychology then draws a clear line between the field of its research and the field of the sciences studying the external world: Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's, and to God, that which is God's. And this is where the unexpected happens.

Introspection – in this case the only logical method of describing and studying the internal world of the mind – turns out to be a quite simple and strictly logical manifestation of the vicious circle: what is to be investigated (my inner state) must at the same time emerge as the result of the investigation. In all the other possible cases (if we stick to the principle of “to God that which is God's”) the internal world of the mind, if it cannot be conceived in its natural form, is expressed only in its external manifestations, as the behaviour of an individual possessing a mind, as his bodily reactions to external stimuli, as the “state of his own nerves.”

And all these cases of reduction of the mental to the external, physical fact banish from existence the ephemeral spiritual quality, the internal subjectivity that forced us in the first place (along with Descartes and following him) to distinguish this internal world as a special world, fundamentally distinct from the physical world, as a target of purely psychological investigation.

But the individual's “inner world” is, in fact, the external world of spatially extensional objects detected by his organic “feelers,” his sensory organs moving over the physical exterior of the object; a world inwardly recorded precisely as the external world of his own life-activity; a world discovered and represented (placed before me) by my own life-activity. And no other inner world (acting out of itself) exists. The image of the thing is a thing outside me but perceived (taken into me) by me. Taken into me in so far as my life is not a separate relation with the given object taking place here and now, but a continuous, uninterrupted perception of the external world, that is, a perception that takes place in time.

Or to put it differently, every given moment of this continuity is a moment that lasts and preserves the past, a moment of discovering outside oneself the integral objective continuity of the external world.

So the “movement” [I mean not only their motor movements over the external outlines of the object. The vital actions of the sense organs in their biochemical and other processes also use the energy of the active environment to detect and record outside themselves the objects of the external world.] of the sense organs, their “external life,” does not bring the image of the external object into the organism, but presents, as it were, this object to the organism (the integrality of its life). The objectivity of the image is literally the image of the object itself, detected and described by movements or vital actions of the sense organs. Of course, it is not an object as such, existing somewhere outside and independently of the organism, which is able to find, grope for, “feel” it with the feelers of its sensory organs. It is precisely a subjective image of the objective world.” And for this there is sufficient reason in the fact that this is a found, “groped for,” felt world.

Here is a simple comparison. When an artist sketches an object, he reproduces its external appearance with, say, pencil, ink or water colour. It is “just the same” object that appears on the paper, but in colour it will nevertheless be different from what it is in pencil. And in the same way nature has given us its definite (limited) means of “drawing” the images of the external world. And the visible spectrum of electromagnetic oscillations is our seven-colour pencil which admittedly does not draw on paper or on any special “copying material,” but in immediate contact with the object itself. The objectively existing (only outlined by our movement) object is illuminated by the Sun's rays, its surface receives waves, infra-red, ultra-violet, even X-rays. How should we see it if our eyes could also cope with such waves! But we draw it for ourselves, gliding over its surface with only seven waves. And even in this subjective light we see not an image of the object somewhere inside us, but the object itself. And in the light of our “perceiving” movement over its surface it is already subjective, an object perceived by us.

Doctors sometimes use the expression “probing sense.” When probing the surface of the internal organs, the doctor uses a probe and his fingers to detect the resistance of invisible tissue. The intermediary, the probe, disappears, as it were, from the act of perception. The oscillations of the air or an electromagnetic field are the natural intermediaries of our audio and visual “probing” of external objects. With their help, but not feeling them as such, I present to the memory of experience (the integrality and continuity of memory that stores all my vital functions, all the movements I make in relation to the objects of the external world) yet another object that I have “groped for,” “probed” at this given moment. I thus present to the external world itself which I perceive and experience yet another of its objects. And the external world that I have already perceived as a whole “assesses” this new object belonging to it in my act of relating it to this external world. And since the “assessment” involves representing the perceived objects by means of universal (historically evolved, common to all people) definitions of their meaning, the perceived (externally “found”) objects acquire meaning, are perceived as something essentially meaningful, and thus become facts of ideal existence – cognised objects. Now they are a part, an element, a moment of the integral logic of the world of culture; they are fragments of the forms of truth, good and beauty that are inherent only in human beings.

Consequently the mind is certainly not what happens inside me and to me under the influence of external stimuli, but without them as such. Without them, that is, without correlation at every instant of my life-activity with the objectively existing world, my “inner world” cannot exist. That which happens inside me but has no objective representation outside me is not the mind. It is physiology, biochemistry, anything you like, but not my inner mental world! My “mental world” is above all the world of culture in which I live and act; it is the real existence of nature assimilated by man, every detail of which signifies for me that which it objectively represents. In other words, my mental world is, in fact, the being, the existence of which I am aware. And now let us return to the difficulty that Bertrand Russell experienced in finding a criterion for distinguishing dream from reality.

2. Incidentally, it is Russell, in describing Hegel's philosophy, who constantly emphasises his mysticism. Hegel, he writes, had “...from his early interest in mysticism ... retained a belief in the unreality of separateness” (History of Western Philosophy, op. cit., p. 757). And on the same page Russell cites one of Hegel's central ideas, which in Hegel's own eyes provides sufficient grounds for acknowledging both the essential definition of reality and the reality of the individual, the singular. For Hegel the reality of the individual object is not merely the fact of its presence. (Incidentally, Russell himself admits to having no means of distinguishing the real existence of an object of perception from the chimera of dreams). According to Hegel, the reality of the individual object may be determined only through the relatedness of this object to the basis (or essence) of the process which in its development gave birth to this object. The real existence of the object, understood as its reality, is always realised in real action (See Hegel, Science of Logic, pp. 160, 191). Russell treats Hegel's analysis of the reality of an object based on the assumption of the object's essence, as a banal, humdrum faith in “revelation” enabling one to become mystically aware of the whole before its parts are known (See Bertrand Russell, History of Western Philosophy, p. 770). Such a reproach would be relevant only if the whole is understood as the sum of ready-made elements, and each of these, in its turn, as an integral whole for other “smaller” parts. 'this “regress into bad infinity” can have no other outcome but doubt as to the grounds and objectivity of all our knowledge. And mysticism is indeed the alternative to such boundless scepticism. But for Hegel the whole is an integral self-developing process generating its own organs-parts. If a parson “grasps,” intuitively perceives or logically arrives at comprehension of this process, he is capable of foreseeing those of its “parts,” those missing organs, as Marx called them, that have still to be developed by the process (Karl Marx, Grundrisse der Kritik der Politischen Okonomie). This is the essence of man's ability to set goals and to predict, in which these is not the slightest mysticism.

3. For example, the problem of the possible correlation of certain acts of behaviour (and the subjective awareness of them) with the neurophysiological mechanisms involved in their performance may be a very interesting and relevant problem of natural science. It will however, be a mind-body problem (even in the 21st century) in one and only one case: if the “correlation” is purely verbal while what is really being discussed is the “responsibility” of the neurophysiological systems for the subjective phenomena of consciousness, that is, the inferring of thought from the spatial mechanisms of the brain. And then Descartes, not to mention Spinoza or Feuerbach (who dubbed such operations as vulgar materialism) will again be more modern thinkers than all the contemporary exponents of mechanicism taken together.

Contents | 4. Dreams of the Kurshskaya Sand Bar