Dialectical Materialism (A. Spirkin)
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The Material and the Spiritual

The brain and consciousness. The human brain is an astonishingly complex formation, a nervous apparatus of tremendous subtlety. As a subsystem of the system of the whole organism it regulates the organism's internal processes and relationships with the external world. By means of the brain we see, hear and think, distinguish the ugly from the beautiful, the bad from the good, the pleasant from the unpleasant. In other words, the brain is the vehicle of what we call our "spiritual life". A normal mentality is impossible without normal functioning of the brain. Its reflective and constructive ability depends on the subtlety and complexity of its organisation. Human consciousness develops as the brain develops. An undeveloped brain results in various forms of mental deficiency, weakness of will, etc. In old age the nerve cells of the brain begin to atrophy, leading to senile decay, loss of memory and total confusion about the sequence of events. The pathological disturbances of the subcortex cause hysterical fits of anger, fear, and so on, accompanied by cries and shrieks. Structural damage to the frontal lobes of the brain renders the victim incapable of having or retaining complex intentional ideas, or perhaps any stable intentions. Such a person is easily distracted. He quickly loses the power of rational self-control of his emotions, thoughts and actions. Initiative and self-discipline are also weakened and there are breakdowns in logical thinking and in the general coordination of behaviour. Lack of emotional restraint takes the form of explosions of laughter, outbursts of irritation and anger. And what strange patterns of images and thought are woven by the sick imagination of the schizophrenic! Absurd fears and overpowering manias and desires torture his clouded reason. He may perform strange and even monstrously absurd actions, dangerous both to himself and to society. Social, psychological, biochemical, biofield and other factors also play a part in mental disorders. But they can disorder the mind only by causing malfunctioning of the brain. There are no purely mental or purely physical disorders of the sections of the brain that are responsible for the condition of a person's mentality, but there are neuropsychological changes. In short, mental disorders are based on changes in the state of the brain, either functional or organic.

Successes in brain anatomy and also physiology, particular ly electrophysiology, neurology, neurosurgery, neuropsychology, have shown that the brain is an extremely complex and sophisticated system. The various forms and levels of mental activity are associated with certain units of its elements. At the same time all units and elements of this system are manifestations of the operation of the system as a whole, the processes of both imaginal and logical thought being effected in the cortex, the brain's highest level. The cortex is the grey matter, a delicate layer of convolutions on the cerebral hemispheres. Different forms of mental activity are distributed between the two lobes. It has been proved, for instance, that in most people the left lobe is responsible for logical thought while the right takes care of images; but in left-handed people, the opposite is the case. The cortex consists of approximately 16,000 million nerve cells or neurons. If strung out in line, they would form a chain 5,000 km long. Every nerve cell by means of appendages of various length is connected and interacts (through the inter-neuron membranes) with all the others, thus forming a lacework structure with outlets through the corresponding nerve fibres to the nerve endings of the organs of sense, the feelers of the brain. When these feelers are excited, they react, and this reaction is transmitted in the form of nervous energy to the cerebral cortex, where certain neurodynamic, biochemical, electrical, electromagnetic, biofield processes arise, irradiate, concentrate, interact and are inducted. And it is on the basis of these processes and in unity with them that our mental conditions, our sensuous and conceptual images and ideas are born.

The cortex operates as a complex system which is incorporated as a subsystem in the life and general system of the organism with all its anatomical and physiological processes—humoral, nervous, and bioenergetic. These processes inform the cortex of their condition and it responds to their signals.

In human activity there are several information systems, which transmit, receive, store and circulate bioinformation, the information required to regulate and guide the activity of the organism. The first of these systems may be termed "genetic", programming the forms of activity peculiar to the species and, to some extent, the individual forms. The next is the "meridional", bioinformation system, which takes part in the distribution of bioenergy, its harmonisation, the self-regulation of the organism, ensuring the "dovetailing" of all its elements, both intellectual (spiritual) and material. An impor tant role in the life of the organism is played by the external sensory information-signal system, which operates in the form of sensuous perception of things, their properties and relations, and this provides a necessary condition of the regulation of the behavioural acts of animals and human beings. The next level is the psycho-bioinformation interaction between people through the subconsciousness, which transmits bioinformation, bypassing the usual sense organs. All his life a person receives information through historically formed linguistic channels, which may be termed the sign-symbol information system. This system provides the means for the dialogue that proceeds between the individual and world culture as a whole. And finally, very tentatively one may outline the contours of the prognosticatory bioinformation system, which provides knowledge of the distant future by means of various intuitive pictures.

Thus, the material substratum of mental activity is the neurophysiological bioenergetic activity of the brain. This is proved by the fact that beneficial intervention in physiological-bioenergetic processes can restore certain functions of the brain. Normal mental activity presupposes that the brain is waking and active, a condition which is brought about and maintained through afference, that is to say, the brain's reception of countless nervous impulses from the sense organs. If afference is lacking (when the brain is artificially isolated, for instance), the brain does not produce any mental phenomena.

An important role in maintaining the brain's waking state and thus regulating the power and clarity of consciousness is played by the so-called reticular formation, which ·is connected with the mechanisms of attention, the bioenergetic readiness of the cortex for active responses.

Study of the reflectory nervous mechanism of mental phenomena has shown that mental activity is a system of activity shaped by the influence of the facts of the external world. I. M. Sechenov demonstrated that all acts of conscious and unconscious mental life are, from the mechanical point of view, reflexes. They begin with perception of the irritant, continue with the nervous processes of the cortex, and are completed by various forms of response from the organism, mostly muscular movements. "Whether a child laughs at the sight of a toy, or Garibaldi sneers when he is persecuted for his unbounded patriotism, whether a girl trembles at the first thought of love, or Newton proclaims universal laws and writes them down on paper—everywhere the ultimate factor is muscular motion."[1]

The aim of Pavlov's research was to identify "the mechanism and vital function of that which is increasingly attracting man's interest—his consciousness, the pangs of consciousness".[2] Pavlov showed that conditioned reflexes, that is, temporary neurodynamic connections, are formed on the basis of unconditioned reflexes (nutritive, sexual, defensive, etc.) in the process of animal or human experience.

An important principle in the reflectory activity of the brain is the principle of reinforcement. A reflectory activity comes to stay when it is reinforced by the achievement of results, in the form of satisfaction of organic needs: Reflexes are reinforced by means of feedback. When a muscular, glandular or other organic system is set in motion by a reflex, the impulses thus stimulated return to the cerebral cortex, to the central link of the reflex, and report not only on the functioning of the given organ but also its results. This makes it possible to adjust the process and achieve an adequate performance of intention. The purpose of feedback is to keep the brain constantly informed of what is going on in the system it controls. Information about reinforcement lends the conditioned reflex a relative purposefulness by triggering in the brain a mechanism for assessing both the course of the action and its result. The brain's activity is a process of signalling. On the basis of the formation of temporary connections signals from the external and internal environ ment become precursors of an approaching need—for food, sex, defence, and so on—or its satisfaction. The principle of signalisation is of decisive importance in animal and human life. The effect of the signal prepares the organism for a forthcoming act of satisfaction of some need or for the struggle to survive. This anticipatory reflection of approaching reality takes place in animals in elementary forms of mental activity — sensations, perceptions, representations, and think ing in terms of situations or images. Pavlov called these sense impressions the first signal system. In the human being, anticipatory action takes place, so Pavlov tells us, through the interaction of two signal systems, the second of which, the speech system, is predominant. According to Pavlov's theory the first signal system in man is elevated to a qualitatively different, socially conditioned level.

As a control system of great complexity the brain is designed not only to receive, store and process information but also to prognosticate, to plan action, to exercise active control of behaviour intended to cope with practical or theoretical tasks. Cerebral, bioenergetic processes are deter mined not only by accumulated experience but also by hereditary programming (including instinctive impulses), not only by the current factors of the internal and external environment, but also by future, forthcoming events, which do not yet exist but which have a determining influence on the brain's activity. The future thus determines present action. The brain performs not only a reactive but also a probabilistic, prognosticating function, which makes it capable of controlling behaviour.

Such is a brief summary of the material processes that generate mental activity, consciousness, but these material processes should not be identified with the content of consciousness. The world of consciousness is a spiritual, intellectual phenomenon.

Consciousness as an ideal phenomenon. In ancient times the concept of the mental was not yet singled out as something qualitatively different from the material. Some thinkers regarded the soul as a state of fire, others, as the motion of atoms. The concept of the ideal, admittedly in a mystical form, was first enunciated by Plato, who spoke of the soul and an objective realm of pure thought and beauty. The concept of the ideal in absolutised form (as spirit, as god and the soul) then emerged in Christianity, and on the philosophical plane, in Descartes, who treated the spiritual principle as an independent essence.

Mental phenomena are primarily reflective; their idealness is derivative.

The surgeon sees the brain not as a spiritual flame but as grey matter. He is confronted with morphological structures and physiological processes. The mental tends to disappear from his field of vision, just as a word seems to disappear when we ignore its meaning. This is not to say, however, that consciousness is bodiless, incorporeal, ideal: it is something that exists not in objective reality but only in perception, in representation, in imagination and thought. The ideal is fundamentally different from the material. In fact, it may even be regarded as its opposite. If we only think or imagine something, it does not mean that it is already a reality.

The material has an absolutely independent existence and development. The existence and development of the ideal, however, are only relatively independent. This indicates that thought exists not by itself but in close connection with and dependence on its object and subject. The "soul" suffers, but it is the brain that is treated. This does not, of course, rule out the significance of psychiatric therapeutic treatment.

Since not every reflection is mental, the ideal does not characterise every reflection or all mental activity in general. The surface of a mirror reflects light rays. But all such physical or chemical forms of reflection contain absolutely nothing ideal. They are not subjective forms and they are thought of without any concept of the ideal. Ideal phenomena are the objective content of the neurophysiological, material processes of the brain, reproduced as images or ideas, representing the existence of an object as it is perceived by the subject and allowing him to make free use of them for purposes of thought.

The dualistic world-view regards consciousness as some thing extra-physical, enveloping the brain or filling its "pores", as a mist envelops the earth, or honey fills the comb, or even as an active being that uses the brain as an instrument for the realisation of its aims. Some philosophers say that since no natural scientist has ever discovered in the brain anything but nerve connections, it is time we realised that mind is not to be found in any cell taken separately or in the brain taken as a whole. From this, they say, we should conclude that consciousness is not a property of matter. Otherwise, how are we to explain the fact that a person can know and assess himself, and experience, be aware of his various needs? There must be certain nervous faculties, instruments, which receive messages from another spiritual world. So man's spiritual world is alleged to have no material roots in the activity of the brain and is related to a quite different sphere of existence. This argument closes the door to any objective, scientific cognition of mental phenomena. And, indeed, faced with the fact that certain nerve processes are accompanied by subjective processes, some scientists maintain that the nature of this parallelism is out of range of the natural sciences and, quite possibly, beyond the bounds of any human comprehension.

Such dualism as a way of explaining the mental and physical was opposed by Sechenov, who believed that one should not break up into parts something that is organically connected and forms a unity, that is to say, one should not divorce consciousness, the conscious element from its beginning, from the external impulse, or from its end, the action; one should not take the middle out of the whole, set it apart and oppose it to the rest, as the mental to the material.

Dialectical-materialistic thought aims at overcoming the two extremes of dualism and identification of the mental and the physiological.

Some scientists, carried away by analysis of the physiological processes forming the basis of mental phenomena, are inclined to regard these processes as the ultimate basis and essence of the mental itself. They imagine that the study of consciousness can be limited to analysis of the physiological aspect of the problem. In the history of science numerous attempts have been made to get rid of the category of the ideal. If thought is inseparable from thinking matter, and is its product, ran the argument of vulgar materialism, then is not thought merely a form of matter? Another school of vulgar materialism regarded the mental as a particularly refined energy that hovers about somewhere in the universe. Some of them have even assumed that all energy is of a mental nature, that the world of the mind with its subjective form of the ego is merely a form of universal energy. This is how some people try to explain "parapsychological" phenomena, not taking into account the fact that although mental activity does possess the element of energy it cannot be reduced to that one element.

One also encounters the argument that the category of the ideal is a left-over from the religious-idealistic way of thinking. Attempts have been made to prove that the existence of consciousness is nothing but an illusion, which arises from the fact of distinguishing and cognising things: what we call consciousness of colour, for example, is in fact nothing more than colour itself. Consciousness thus becomes something entirely fictitious and thoughts, which exist in the concrete, are made of the same substance as things.

The methodological weakness of the vulgar-materialist position lies in its treatment of the brain as a storage tank of ideas and thus separates the functioning of the brain both from objective reflection and from the socio-historical conditions that determine its functioning.

Consciousness is a reality, but it is a subjective reality. Can one tell from the structure of the brain and the character of its physiological processes what a person is thinking about, what intentions arise in his mind, whom he loves and whom he hates? If we study only the structure and physiology of the brain we cannot get anywhere near to explaining why people of tribal society thought differently from those in the Middle Ages and why people of today do not think the same as their ancestors did two centuries ago.

The difference between the material and the ideal is also expressed in the fact that the laws of thought and, in general, of all spiritual processes do not coincide with the laws of the physical, chemical and physiological processes that take place in the brain and constitute the material basis of conscious ness. These laws are studied by different sciences. For instance, the logician who studies the techniques and laws of thought may have nothing whatever to do with any of the material mechanisms of thinking.

Consciousness is always connected with neurophysiological processes and does not exist outside these processes. But they are not what constitutes its essence. Science will undoubtedly one day "reduce" mental phenomena to the biochemical and energo-informational processes in the brain. But this will not explain the essence of consciousness, although the connection between the spiritual and the material will be understood in greater depth and subtlety. It would appear that the building of sensory and conceptual models in the human brain, when it reflects what exists or constructs what should exist, that is, sets an aim, is connected with bioenergo-informational phenomena. In its material fabric mental activity is bioenergo-informational and at the same time it is a spiritual image of existing or potential reality. This is why it can perform not only its reflective-constructive but also its regulative role in the system of the organism and in the relations between the organism and the surrounding world.

In relation to the physiological processes of the brain the ideal is their informational and evaluating content. Conscious ness is not a special super-refined motion of matter, but a subjective image or picture of the world. The image of an object is the ideal form of the existence of that object in a person's mind. The object, let us say, a tree, as we experience it, is something ideal; our experience cannot be reduced to the tree itself, which exists outside the person who observes it, nor can it be reduced to the physiological processes taking place in the brain and forming the basis of this image. Since the image is subjective (belongs to the subject, observer, knower), it inevitably bears the imprint of an individual or social group, reflects the individuality of their life experience, interests, principles and social positions. It depends on the development of the brain, on the condition of the organism as a whole, on the wealth or poverty of the individual's or society's experience, on the level of human culture.

It would probably be inaccurate to define the ideal as simply a subjective image. The ideal is one of the properties of an image and not the image in the full sense. It also possesses different dimensions of existence, for example, its energo-informational structure, the degree of fullness to which it reproduces the object, its regulative vital function.

The subjectivity of an image implies incomplete reflection: an image reflects the properties of a thing to a greater or less degree of approximation. Finally, from the psychological point of view, subjectivity also has the negative aspect of being tendentious, biassed, exaggerated, purely personal and delusive. Delirious ideas and hallucinations are examples of pathological subjectivity. The image cannot be reduced to the material and as something ideal is even opposed to it. But this opposition is not absolute. It may be conceived only in the limits of the philosophical, epistemological question of what is to be considered primary and what derivative. Beyond these limits, according to Lenin, it would be a mistake to regard as absolute the opposition between matter and spirit, the physical and the mental. Consciousness is not the substance of matter; it is a function of matter organised in a certain way, and as a function it cannot be opposed to that of which it is a function. The world of the phenomena of the consciousness is something ideal, but "...the ideal is nothing else than the material world reflected by the human mind, and translated into forms of thought".[3] Here, of course, "translation" does not mean the moving of the material components of the things themselves into the matter of the brain. It describes merely the fact of the ideal reproduction of the object by the subject, which presupposes creative processing, transformation of external impressions and the building of a certain concept or aim.

When given objective existence in a system of speech symbols, thoughts acquire a relative independence in relation to the individual and circulate in the form of spiritual culture. The brain decays but the thoughts it has evolved may live on for centuries. But all these thoughts, ideas, emotions, acts of will have only a relatively ideal character: they are ideal only in relation to the subjects, the people who decode their meaning.

The ideal may be defined as a presentation of the object to the subject in which the image of the object appears to the subject directly, in what one might call its pure form, separated from its material substratum. In other words, we are directly presented not with the physiological states of our brain but with what they produce as subjective images of the object. A person is influenced by certain things which evolve a storm of electrochemical, energo-informational processes of which he has no suspicion, but as a result of which he sees things that exist outside him. This givenness of an external object to the subject through cerebral processes is, in fact, an image possessing the property of ideality, of subjectivity. The neurophysiological processes are, as it were, hidden from the subject. They are not directly given to him: the ego perceives and knows itself as thought, or feelings, and does not perceive or know itself as brain.

The separation of the ideal from the material substratum is of cardinal importance in life. The subject's activity is guided not by the neurophysiological processes themselves, but by the images and ideas that they convey. Actions are planned, programmed by ideal forces in unity with material forces. And this sometimes generates the illusion that thought is a force in itself capable of influencing the body and setting its organs in motion.

Mental activity possesses the property of ideality not only at its highest level but also at the lower stages of its biological development, in animals. When an animal sees an object, imagines it or dreams of it, it is given the information content of its neurophysiological cortex processes. And this is in fact an image with the property of ideality.

We are aware of the images in our heads as things existing outside us. This power of intentionality, objectification, reference arose as a result of evolution of the animal world and the socio-historical practice of mankind. The fact is confirmed by observation of those who are born blind, just after they have been given sight by a successful operation. At first they think of what they see as being not where it actually is but as directly "in their eyes". And only later, after practice do they learn to objectify their images correctly. The objectification of images may be astonishingly vivid, for example, in dreams and hallucinations.

It is precisely the relatedness of cerebral processes to the objective world that makes these processes ideal. If a thought arises in a person's head it must be a thought about something. There can be no thoughts "about nothing".

To sum up, the ideal is a special mode of existence of an object, its presentation in the world of the mind.

Dialectical materialism allows us to overcome the narrow limitations of the two approaches to the problem of the ideal that have taken shape in the history of philosophical thought, one elevating the ideal to primordial essence and the other ignoring the uniqueness of the ideal and reducing it to various material phenomena. In the material world regarded as an integral whole the ideal appears not as some special first principle but as a system of real relations between objective phenomena that are independent of consciousness and will, and living beings capable of reproducing these phenomena and transforming them both practically and theoretically. Although derived from the material, the ideal acquires a relative independence and becomes a stimulus of life-activity. It arises at a high level of the organisation of living matter, acting first in the form of a sensory image. This image serves as a necessary factor regulating behaviour in accordance with the conditions of the organism's existence. These conditions are "idealised" in an image, which is by no means a mere duplicate of physical or physiological processes, although without them it cannot exist. It is thanks to the image that the act of behaviour is formed. It belongs to the subject and is inseparable both from the life of the subject and from the object, as reflected in its other-being.

With the rise of human society this reflection assumes a fundamentally new character thanks to the transforming activity of human beings. By changing nature they change themselves, becoming the subjects, creators of culture. Various forms of the ideal develop in the system of culture and thanks to the products it creates, the instruments of labour and communication, art, religion, science, morality, law, and so on. The sensuous fabric of consciousness is transformed, mental images, plans and operations are created, a wealth of values and ideals take shape. Though assimilated and created by individuals, these forms of the ideal do not depend on individual consciousness, but they cannot exist outside the activity of a human brain that is capable of perceiving and creating them. Arising and developing in social practice, the ideal is not only generated by the material but is also capable of actively transforming it. This is true both of social and historical events and of personal relationships.

The unique thing about the ideal is that it always has a material vehicle, which is not only its substratum of nerves and brain, but also the phenomena of culture, as the embodiment of the ideal, that have been evolved in the process of historical development. Specifically, these are language and other semantic and symbolical systems.

Reality comes to us not directly but in ideal, "transmuted", incomplete, even illusory forms. For example, the real relations between people in society may be comprehended according to class interests, in inadequate ideological forms. At the level of philosophical consciousness one of these forms is idealism, which perceives the ideal as a fundamental principle of thought, thus absolutising the ideal, disuniting it from objective reality, the historical process, people's real activity, and the brain as an organ of this activity.

In the first classical system of idealism created by Plato the ideal took the form of immortal, incorporeal essences, which were the prototypes of all things and had priority over everything material. This view determined the subsequent forms of objective idealism right up to its contemporary versions.

In other idealist conceptions the ideal is identified either with that which is directly given to the consciousness as a special substance (Descartes) or with the activity of an absolute spirit (Hegel), or with the data of sense experience beyond which there is supposedly no reality (subjective idealism). Inadequate notions of the ideal derived from attempts to understand its dependence on material processes are expressed in various reductionist conceptions, which reduce the ideal to nervous, energetic and informational processes in the brain, to biofields and dynamic codes.



I. M. Sechenov, Selected Works, Moscow, 1953, p. 33 (in Russian).


I. P. Pavlov, Collected Works, Vol. 3. Book 1, Moscow-Leningrad, 1951, p. 39 (in Russian).


Karl Marx, Capital, Afterword to the Second German Edition, Vol. I, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1974, p. 29.

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