by Andreas Saugstad
“How grimly Rogosjin had spoken that morning about ‘losing his faith’ The man must suffer terribly …Rogosjin wasn’t just a passionate soul , he was a warrior… Yes! To believe in something! In someone!” (Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Idiot)
Man is a cognitive being. Some thinkers and scientists have denied this fact. Philosopher Paul Churchland claims that everything that exists is the material. In his theory, called eliminative materialism, there is no room for the mental aspect of motivation. Everything, so Churchland thinks, is material and to believe in cognitive states is an illusion that modern science can save us from. In psychology, similar theories have been constructed. Most radical is perhaps B.F. Skinner’s behaviorism.
According to Skinner, the famous Harvard psychologist, man can be explained as a stimulus-response animal, and everything we do conforms to the laws of condition that Skinner described in his psychology. In addition, a number of philosophers, like those named reductive materialists or logical behaviorists, believe that our concepts of the mental simply are primitive, and that all mental concepts can be translated into a language of either neurophysiology or behavior.
Gilbert Ryle spoke of the dualism of Rene Descartes as a theory of “ghost in the machine.” Instead he proposed a theory the mental language as something which is logically equivalent to the language of behavior. According to Gilbert Ryle man is not essentially as conscious being, but a behavioral being, and he tends to think on the inner man as something like “mythology”. Similarly, philosophers like Armstrong or Smart follow Churchland’s line of thought, although in a somewhat less radical way. Armstrong claims that “man is a physical object, having none but physical properties.”
Churchland & Armstrong
The difference between Churchland and Armstrong is that while Churchland wants to eliminate the whole talk of the mental, Armstrong wants to reduce it to the physical. In both cases, however, it is tempting to claim that the most precise access to man is through the physical vocabulary, and that when we speak of “the mind”, it would perhaps be more plausible to use physical terms. Thus both materialists and behaviorists have tended to emphasize the physical nature of human beings, whether the important aspect is the human brains functioning or it’s overt manifestations.
The materialist attitude is still prevalent in the Anglo-American world, and in scientific communities world-wide. But one important thing to notice is that this view of man is criticized from within the intellectual milieus. One such critical thinker is the psychiatrist Aron T. Beck. Beck is perhaps first of all famous for his work on depression, but has also inspired work on a more general model for understanding human empirical problems. The basic feature of Beck’s model is quite simple. Beck suggests that man is a cognitive being, i.e. what I think, determines what I feel, my reasoning determines my motives, my intellectual judgment, determines my approach to reality.
The cognitive approach to man may by some thinkers be connected with materialism, but once it is realized that what we think is something meaningful, something which has value, that all things mentally appear as something, we will see that the mental has certain characteristics that the physical does not possess, and thus it cannot be reduced. But Beck is not alone in his challenge of anti-cognitivist idealogists. His views may easily be combined with those of the philosopher John Searle.
John Searle in his book “The Rediscovery of the Mind”. challenges the materialist and behaviorist approaches to human life. According to Searle these theories in reality leaves out the mind, and cannot explain why we perceive ourselves as mental beings. Searle proposes an alternative account of human cognition.
According to Searle, human beings are parts of nature, just like animals plants etc. But humans have a property or feature that is different from for instance dead material. Man has a mind. According to Searle the mind is product of the physical, i.e. brain processes, but nevertheless the mental cannot be reduced to the physical. Searle uses the notion “emergent property” to explain his views. This is a notion taken from science. Take for instance the relationship between physics and chemistry. In physics one studies atoms and their laws, while in organic chemistry one studies substances which are products of the elementary particles such as atoms.
Nevertheless the organic material, being the subject matter in chemistry, cannot be reduced to the subject matter in physics. What happens is that in nature more complex structures are produced by combinations of that which is more simple. But these more complex structures cannot be reduced to that which is simpler. This goes for the mind too. According to Searle the mind is a product of brain processes, but it must be emphasized that the mind can not be reduced to that which is physical.
One of the arguments against the materialists is that the mind has certain characteristics that the physical does not possess. If one thing has a property that another thing does not have, the two things cannot be identical. One of those things which makes the mental distinguishable from the physical is that only mental beings require meaning.
A stone, for instance, is not in search for the meaning of life. In order to function as a good stone, it does not need special thoughts or motives. The sea will go on being water independent on complex cognitive structures, like thought and reasoning. But for man, the situation seems to be different. Some famous experiments by Alloy and Abramson, show us that depressed people perceive situations different than “healthy people.” What these experiments show us, is also that depressed people seem to be more realistic than non-depressed individuals. But another point connected to this research is that man’s situation as a whole is connected to what he thinks.
The Mental Edge
Handling situations thus may be connected to the mental, the essential part of being a human is to develop advanced cognitive strategies for coping with life. Happiness is not something out there, it is something in you and in me, dependent on how we respond to that which is out there. You may be a great looking actress or a brilliant professor of a famous university, but still you may not be happy.
On the other hand, you may have a low-status job, and not being successful in the eyes of this world, without being unhappy. To be a human is to possess a quality which is sometimes denoted as qualia, and this is the fact that to be a human is to have experiences, thoughts and opinions. The world is not just a collection of objective third-person facts, it is also something where we find persons, that which raises above the material and is capable of thought and emotions from a first person perspective. The term “the world” may be used as an expression for the totality of objective facts or things, but it may also be something which is understood as my representation.
If human life is mental and human success is dependent upon the mental, we must seek wisdom about the mental. Who possesses this wisdom? Many sources may give us wisdom about the mental life, and how we may develop mental strategies. All this cannot be collected into a single article. Cognitive therapy tries to get insight into how we may change our modes of thought in order to change our lives.
When our cognition changes, our world changes. When I change my cognitive perspective, I change my world in the subjective sense. But I may also change the world in an objective sense — thoughts enables me to act differently, and to make a change to the better in my surroundings. It seems to me that the idea of mental causation is extremely important. My experience tells me that I get an idea, and then I act. Sometimes I act and then get an idea, but most of the time the idea comes prior to and causes the action.
Both in philosophy and literature the need for cognitive strategies have been investigated. Dostoyevsky investigated man’s need to live for something. In “The Idiot” one of main characters, Rogosjin, looses his faith, and then becomes capable of doing anything. Rogosjin ends up murdering the beloved of “the Idiot.” The only way to handle such a crisis, according to Dostoyevsky is to find something to live for. The man who looses his faith, looses his reason to act in any special way. One of the problems Dostoyevsky faced in Russia in the 1860-ies and 1870-ies, was nihilism, i.e. the the view that there are no values. Dostoyevsky’s response to this philosophical and political challenge was to search for the ultimate meaning — the Christian God.
Born 23 years later than Dostoyevsky, the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, claimed that he had learned all his psychology from the Russian author. Nietzsche, a man of suffering and bitterness, could not accept Dostoyevsky’s religion. Nietzsche in his writings being extremely aggressive in his attitude towards religion, could for instance not accept that a God of love would condemn to hell. But Nietzsche may have picked up an important point in Dostoyevsky, namely that we as human beings are in search for meaning.
While stones and trees may be said to function well or bad, man separates from this things in his search for meaning. If we don’t feel that there is any meaning to our sufferings, we must project some meaning into the situations we are going through. As mental beings we have strategies for coping with problems and resistance, and we must find things that we may use as goals for living. I suspect this is what Nietzsche did when he was traveling around in Europe and hiking in the Swiss Alps.
Nietzsche became professor at the University of Basel only 25 years old. But he had health problems, and his headaches became so intense that he had to resign from his post ten years later. But Nietzsche developed a philosophy of life where one must develop a perspective on reality that makes even those hard times possible to overcome. If you can explain why something happens, you can manage to live through everything.
Man is a being living in a constant relation to his surroundings. As German phenomenology tells us, we live in a constant relation to the Umwelt, there is a deep insight that man is not completely autonomous, i.e. the human subject is engaged in the world, directed against the things in this world. But -as cognitive beings- difficulties may appear to us in different ways. The problems in the material world may sometimes seem meaningless and even brutal, but when facing these challenges we may as thinkers develop strategies for overcoming the difficulties.
We may try to project a meaning into that which seems meaningless, and we may use our cognitive and mental abilities to construct a perspective from which life becomes a joy and something which definitely is worth living. So when the hard times come — try to use your cognitive abilities, and it may all be worth going through.