Doubting One’s Mind
Tibor R. Machan
A central topic of philosophy throughout the ages has been whether human beings can trust their minds, including their sensory awareness and thinking. Skepticism about this has been a major challenge and many from Socrates to such recent and current thinkers as Ayn Rand and John Searle have responded with more or less elaborate arguments defending our capacity to get things right about the world.
Just now a new source of skepticism has surfaced, from within the field of neuroscience. In a recent review essay of several books on the topic, “How the Mind Works: Revelations,” published in The New York Review of Books (6/26/08), Israel Rosenfield and Edward Ziff write, “In fact ‘external reality’ is a construction of the brain.” Several of the authors they discuss argue this point. As the review notes, “In general, every recollection refers not only to the remembered event or person or object but to the person who is remembering,” meaning that memory is not about an objective reality but of some mishmash of subjective experience and external influence.
In essence, then, what one understands about the world and oneself is really not what actually exists but what is constructed by one’s mind with the use of other cognitive tools. The problem with this is that it makes no sense in the end because what the researchers are telling us would also be covered by their claim and so it is also just some mental construction, which then is also some further mental construction, ad infinitum and ad nauseum. But that cannot be. At some point the researchers would have to accept that what they are telling us about the human mind is actually so, not also just a construct or invention.
In any case, why would there be so much interest in discrediting the human mind, of writing elaborate tomes that argue that our understanding of the world and ourselves is fabrication, not objectively true?
Some folks say that to a question like that one needs to answer by following the money--that is to say, checking who is gaining from these so called findings. I am not such a cynic. As far as I can tell, some of these scientists and the reporters who seem to be so gleeful about what this work produces may well be sincere. Yet I also suspect there is something fishy afoot here and my suspicion is that there is a tendency on the part of many of these experts to come up with findings that assign to them a special role in the world. They are, in effect, the only people who have a clear handle on how things go with human beings. They are the only reliable source of facts--as Rosenfield and Zinn say, “In fact. ‘external reality’ is a construction of the brain.” You and I are not up to snuff about the matter, we are deluded and misguidedly think that when we see a red coffee cup on the kitchen table, there really is such a cup there. But Rosenfield and Ziff and the scientists they are reviewing will inform us that “there are no colors in the world, only electromagnetic waves of many frequencies.”
But if you just think for a moment, this is nonsense. It is like saying there is no furniture in my living room, only chairs and tables and sofas. Well, but it is those chairs, tables, and sofas that are the furniture. It is, then, the electromagnetic waves doing certain work that are the colors, so colors do indeed exist in the world. Thus telling someone that there is a red cup on the kitchen table is exactly right! It may not tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth about what is there but few people need to have that in order to cope quite well with the world around them.
The same problem faced some physicists who claimed that there is nothing that’s solid in the world because everything is composed of atoms and atoms, in turn, are mostly empty space with only very tiny bits of material substance swirling within them at enormous speeds. Ergo, solidity is an illusion. But this is to drop the context of discussions where the distinction between, say, solidity and liquidity comes up. It is misguided to make the leap from one context to another where the focus is quite different.
When we ordinary humans notice the world around us, learn to identify what it contains, begin to understand the forces at work in it, if we pay attention we can get it right for the purposes that we need this understanding. To try to undermine this confidence based on highly specialized research is misguided and perhaps ill conceived. It appears to assign to some people some special status even though, by their own accounts, no one ultimately can figure anything out.