Materialism and the Contemporary Natural Sciences (page 8)

Robert Steigerwald

They start with the thesis that cognition is a biological activity and has to be treated as such. This is based on the assumption (first made in 1826 by Johannes Müller, not by the above scientists) that the specific quality of our sense organs is that they act on our perception. Müller had already combined this with a Kantian interpretation, saying that we therefore are unable to perceive the world outside of us in its objective being; autopoietics tells us the same thing. In Greek auto means self and poiein means to make; autopoietic systems thus are systems created by themselves.

The findings of neuroscience are new requisites for the reflection theory of knowledge. It is necessary to examine the results of their research in which it is clear that the nervous system responds in organized ways to the experiences of the organism as it acts in its environment, as for example, when a human does problem solving, or focuses on one or another set of visual stimuli.

Must materialism fail because of criticism of reflection theory? It would be foolish to combat the material discovered through research on the brain. But it is another thing to deal with conclusions drawn from the facts of the natural sciences to the field of epistemology.

Of course, the special qualities of our sense organs influence our perception. But cognition is not only based on the passive reflection of environmental stimuli. It is also a result of our activity within our environment. Activity and perception must not be torn apart. Reflections during activity are basic to the adjustment of the organism to changes in the environment as a result of its activity.

The organism “evaluates” the sensual information and makes changes in its activity to conform to the new information. The processes of integrating the reflections and the changes in the environment and the organism’s activity have evolved from those of unicellular (acellular) organisms in which the response to the environment is transitory and not integrated for later experiences and behavior, as in the amoeba, to the highly organized and integrated activity of the nervous system in humans.

I cannot with the best of will understand how the new brain physiology can sink into solipsism in relation to cognition.

Let us look at our own experience. Touching a hot stove brings a quick withdrawal from its surface. This takes place at first independently of our will and with knowledge of the possible ensuing pain and damage it becomes an established pattern. The laws that govern such activity are the same for all organisms: the intensity of the stimulus brings about a withdrawal. When the organism is organized with a nervous system that can integrate immediate and past experience and plan future activities, the activity of withdrawal becomes elaborated in new patterns.

Something other than the biophysical and biochemical laws were operative here, and they should not be forgotten or neglected in our attempts to understand organismic activity. Individuals do not react to the environment passively; they are active in it. Recognizing the differences in the level of complexity and developmental patterns, we see that each organism is continuously adjusting to internal and external changes. By studying those similarities and differences among organisms we may arrive at law-governed behavior.

There is a relationship between the sensual and the rational stages of human behavior. The path does not only run from the senses to the inner world of the brain, but also vice versa. We only perceive when our sensual perception already contains rational moments. The inner world of our brain is more and more taken out of its total isolation. We do not perceive as isolated beings. We are participants in a collective experience. And we observe what others do, beginning with the first moments of our life, asking ourselves why they do it, why this way and not another way, trying it ourselves, trying this and then something else, and we keep learning, learning, and learning. One can say that there is no behavior that is not theory-laden because of this social/societal experience.

The brain that has the capacity for rational activity evolved as a function of the millenia of hominid experience with members of its own species, with the animals and the environment in which they lived. However, the organization, the neural structures and functions that develop in any individual are unique and reflect the biochemical history of the specific parents and of the life lived by the individual. Studies based on the relationship between the material base of organismic structure and function and the material base of the social/societal processes that bring about the development of the individual are difficult to obtain. If the studies of this relationship are not based on dialectical and historical materialism, they swindle us, and contradict reality. We cannot fall back on Fichte’s words, “The worse for the facts,” but the facts will instruct us in a painful way about incorrect inferences of the products of the activity of our brain.

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Notes


1. Reference to a German poem by Christian Morgensternm “Die unmögliche Tatsache” (The Impossible Fact) in which a man named Palmström is run over and killed while improperly crossing an intersection. Upon contemplating the circumstances of his death, he reasons that the car that ran him over should not have legally been there. He then concludes that he is not dead because “what must not be, cannot be.”—Ed.


2. Translation of quotations from non-English sources in the Reference List were made by the translator.


3. In the discussion that follows, I do not deal with differences in the kinds of models or the difference between material and theoretical models.


4. The author is referring here to the historically dominant variety of critical realism in Europe, which is akin to a form of neo-Thomism. See Hörz, Röseberg, et al. 1980, 165-77).


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