Human Cognition 101

Ad-hoc explanations out of the air

We publish the parts of a bigger article which is being in elaboration now. As everything else posted at M&M, this text is going to consider several absolutely non-related issues, the only common point of which is human consciousness. Maximus&Magnus           

Tradition

“Gammel vane er vond å vende” [1] 

Norwegian proverb

One always hears about how valuable tradition is, but how detrimental it can be is often forgotten. If something has been thought about – and maybe also taught about! – a particular way for years and even generations, how difficult is it not to think about it differently! Not only must one’s own habit be combated, but a certain way of doing things is often accompanied by a belief that this is how it should be done. And beliefs are not something we easily trade…

If the object of this habitual way of thinking is something of importance to people and society, like religion, politics and human, then not only must the weight of one’s own habits and beliefs be lifted, but the pressure of one’s friends, parents, peers and community has to be overcome. The guilt and loneliness of contradicting one’s whole society and ancestors must be bore.

What is tradition then but a prison – a chain restricting one’s thoughts?

The potential value of tradition lies in why it was acquired, and when it comes to our understanding of Man society’s view did not develop according to honest investigation of our nature. One cannot find truth when convinced one already has it. To understand the human we have to leave all traditions behind, and dare to embrace the possibility that one’s own view and society’s view of humanity is wrong.

Biological Machines

We have confidently determined that all the animals are biological machines. Their current attributes are the result of evolution, and their behaviour is ruled by instinct.

Concepts like evolution and instinct are deep and complex at the same time as they are woefully trivial. For when one strips evolution down to its very core, it simply states that some “things” can adapt to their surroundings – but adaption is first and foremost a reaction. For seashore cliffs this reaction to the surroundings is called erosion, and for entities for which we have labelled as living organisms, the reaction is called evolution if some part of the organism carries the result of the reactions on.

Exactly how the organisms, or the cliffs for that matter, react may be beyond our understanding, but we do not search for the nature of evolution here – we need only understand that it is nature. We do not need to understand photons and electromagnetism to say that the sun shines, and we do not need to understand the laws of nature to conclude that the elements of nature are ruled by the laws of nature – it is simply a tautology! That nature’s laws can be disobeyed is logically incomprehensible. We observe that events in nature are not random, but in order not to be random an event must be determined by something. We may know no more about the laws of nature than that they are “something”, but that is enough.

Having placed animals solely in the realm of nature, they are in this aspect no different than the seashore cliffs, and everything by and in them must be determined by the laws of nature. A deer speeding away in terror upon seeing a predator is the result of a chain of reactions determined by these laws, like a tree’s swaying in the wind.

We may then say, that it is the instinct of the last domino piece in the row to fall over when the first is tipped over.

The Animal

When it comes to humans, all the same as with the animal has been admitted. We are the product of evolution, even having evolved from animals. We have instincts, which means little more than that the laws of nature apply to us: if you are pushed hard enough, you fall over.

We study the physical brain to learn about the mind. Thinking has been connected to nerve signals, feelings and states of mind to particular chemicals. No one have thought of even suggesting that the laws of nature do not apply inside the human brain.

Yet still, we are not animals. The animal is a machine, responding to input only according to the properties of its physical composition, and as free in its behaviour as a rock is free to react as it pleases to gravity. Humans, on the other hand, have consciousness; we can consider and decide. We can choose our actions. We have freedom.

It seems this radical freedom has so far mostly been used to choose to believe in radically stupid ideas.

Consciousness

There is perhaps no greater indication for our thinking not being free than the thought that thinking implies freedom. If reason was free, we would all surely see the lack of logic here.

Instinct can be defined as inherent behaviour not based on rational conscious thought [2] (reason and consciousness as they are commonly defined are not the same!). However, one does not by rational conscious thought decide to think, for the chain has to be started by something. Thus the act of thinking is itself an instinct, engaged by something outside our consciousness – and therefore outside the realm of our freedom. We have already decided that our instinctual behaviour is no different from that of a deer: decided purely by external forces and the physical makeup of our bodies. The most natural conclusion is that the thought itself is decided by what caused it.

If we should go by our experience, we do not, if we are honest, have the experience of deciding what to think. We only have the experience of thoughts occurring. The suggestion that we can consciously decide what to think is simply absurd; it implies that we know the thought in advance! Does one not say “an idea came to me”? If it was chosen, then why not choose to have great ideas every day…

When considering and weighing a decision, one somehow thinks that one is choosing, but if every single thought is by instinct, this can equally well be viewed as a chain of reactions no different from the chain of reaction caused in the deer by seeing the predator. Each thought leads to a new reaction, and the chain culminates in decision. But that any element of the chain could have been different while the preceding being the same is not at all a reasonable assumption. No more reasonable than assuming that when the pen dropped to the floor, gravity may equally well have pushed it into the sky.

What we do have is an experience of not knowing where the chain of thoughts will lead, from which we can deduce little more than our ignorance. To say that there are several possibilities for where one’s keys are when one cannot find them is to say that it is possible the keys are someplace different than they actually are. That it is possible the keys are on the kitchen table when they are in the pocket. Such a statement is as sensible as saying: this is an apple, but it is possibly a car. That we do not know something – be it fact, placement or event – does not in any logical sense imply that there necessarily are several possibilities for this something.

The Unreasonable Concepts of Reasoning

Concepts like possible do not have any logical sense to them in the way we use them, only an emotional sense; they describe how we feel things are. It does not require much analysis to extend the list of such concepts; the concepts of morality, ethics, consciousness, will, reasoning, feeling, instinct, personality; they are all soaked in intuitive, instinctive and emotional meanings.

If thinking is instinctual, giving too much weight to thoughts and reasoning can often be a blind alley. Rather, one should study by which instincts and biological drive was the thinking sparked. If the thought “X is immoral” comes from instinct, then it is no more than a subjective experience, like the thought “X is scary”. To claim that something is scary in itself, independent of the observer, is ridiculous.

Aristotle’s’ theory that everything seeks its natural place, explaining why solids fall to the ground while air floats in sky by claiming that their places are, respectively, the earth and the sky, may seem laughable to us today. One cannot simply take seemingly random ad-hoc explanations out of the air, unless one belongs to a mythological society. But have not the concepts of good and evil, justice, morality, value, dignity, respect all come by in the same way?

Aristotle saw that some things are heavier than others; some float, some fall and some fly – and he wanted to explain why. Unable to explain how gravity could pull on material or how light could travel, scientists came up with theories of aether; a medium that was not observed in any way, but simply made up to explain what we experienced. We are easily tempted to invent notions, terms and concepts to explain our experiences, and not exclusively the sensory ones.

There cannot, by our common definition of it, lie any emotional attachment or biological drive in cold reasoning. And we cannot deny, that we have an emotional attachment to the whole list of terms above. Before Aristotle’s theory or the concept of gravity, we experienced weight, and before the concept of morality was developed, we experienced an instinctive reaction to actions and events. This reaction can be described as feeling something is right or wrong, in the same way we are emotionally attached to morality and justice today.

Morality, justice and value can initially have been coined only as an explanation for why we have these instinctive reactions. The stone falls to the earth because it seeks its place; I experience a disdain for aristocracy because it is unjust. That a judgement of value can occur without an instinctive or emotional source is logically incomprehensible. The fact that we do not comprehend only by logic makes it difficult to comprehend that this is a fact.

We say that the deer experience the predator as scary by a biological drive. We say “I am scared” because something is scary to me – instincts are internal. It is time we admit justice, morality, value – the whole list of idealistic concepts – as being instinctive reactions, like fear. The abstract definitions and theories related to these concepts tell us as much about reality as studying aether without conducting experiments, or explaining the rolling of a stone by it seeking its place.

Aristotle’s theory has not yet been disproven, but one can easily imagine science being further behind than today if we had held onto it. Our understanding of humans, our behaviour, thinking, and of society is often better called a misunderstanding – and the reason why is clear.


1. “A bad habit is hard to change”
2. There are other definitions of instinct, of course. One generally thinks that we do not control processes which are independent of the consciousness, and it is this aspect we are interested in here. For instinct is also something which is not controlled by us, or we think it is only controllable by consciousness.

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3 thoughts on “Human Cognition 101

  1. Pingback: Human Cognition 102 | Interactive philosophy

  2. Pingback: Do not Imagine All the People… | Interactive philosophy

  3. Pingback: Split-brain and the Unnecessity of Consciousness for “Conscious” Behaviour | Interactive philosophy

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