Some unpublished text by B. C. Vickery

Information science methodology [2005]



Brian Vickery


In recent years, in a well-argued book (Hjørland, 1997) and subsequent papers (e.g. Hjørland, 2004), Birger Hjørland has criticised various aspects of information science methodology, and linked their defects to faulty philosophical beliefs. I often find myself agreeing with his criticisms of the methodology, and with his opinion of the philosophies, but am never convinced of the linkage between the two. I do not think he would claim that someone employing a particular methodology is consciously working within a particular philosophical tradition, of which indeed he/she may be ignorant, but I am often doubtful whether even the link made by analysis is justified.

My doubts arise for the following reasons. First, if one looks at the methodologies of the sciences in general, I do not think that each can be related closely to a particular philosophical approach. I believe that scientific method is far more wide-ranging and flexible. A particular philosophical approach - say, empiricism or rationalism - arises from abstracting certain elements of scientific and other forms of practice, refining them and exploring their consequences. Each such approach is therefore a limited, one-sided account of one aspect of the much richer reality of practical method. Second, if one looks at methodologies in information science, I believe that their defects arise, not from a faulty philosophical basis, but from a too limited application of scientific methodology. In what follows I will discuss the first issue only briefly (since this does not aspire to be a philosophical paper), and then consider examples illustrating the second.

Some philosophical theories

Everyone except a solipsist (if such there be) will agree that there is a world external to himself; that activities and events in that world result in physical impacts on our sense organs; which give rise to sensations, images, percepts; that in the mind there are named concepts (e.g. table, collision) that we attach to such images; and also more abstract concepts (e.g. support, thing, interaction, event) by which we group immediate concepts; and various kinds of linkages between concepts (propositions, relations, laws, deductions, theories). Different philosophical approaches offer different views as to the status, origin and relationships of these various elements.

External      ->   Physical   ->   Image,   ->   Immediate   ->   Abstract   ->   Linked
  world       A      impact    B   percept  C      concept    D     concept   E   concepts

According to Hjørland, in empiricism “the scientific process is viewed as the collecting of verified observations and as generalising from such a collection by induction; […] sensations and experiences are regarded as ‘given’, what we see is independent of our theories, conceptualisations, culture and political interests” (Hjørland, 2004, p.134). In the diagram above, empiricism thus sees step B as arising simply as a result of step A, independent of whatever may already exist in our mind, and further sees step C as induction, an activity of the mind that forms an immediate concept from assembling a set of similar percepts.

Again according to Hjørland, rationalism “does acknowledge the role of observations […] as chemical-physical stimulations of sense-organs”, but “looks at our concepts as inborn structures, which match and classify our perceptions […] Rationalism tends to use a ‘top-down’ analysis in the processing of information, i.e. to approach a given set of data from some pre-established categories” (ibid., p.135). In the diagram, therefore, rationalism sees step C as one with the arrow reversed: concepts are “inborn” in the mind, which uses them to match and classify percepts. Instead of induction from data, “pre-established categories” are used to group perceptual data, the categories deriving from some preconception of what classes might or could or should exist in the external world. (I am not going to explore here just what “inborn” might mean, e.g. created from a source of knowledge other than the external world?)

Yet again according to Hjørland, for logical positivism, “knowledge can be reduced to private immediate experiences. Or, rather, it may be reduced to [or constructed from] verbal reports about immediate experience” (ibid., p.137). Theories must be translatable into such verbal reports. Now it is evident that a verbal report about percepts must be expressed in the form of concepts. In the diagram, therefore, the derivation of concepts in step C is presumably the activity of induction. Steps D and E are allowed to be meaningful only if such abstract concepts and the theories into which they are linked can be reduced to inductively established immediate concepts.

Discussing these three viewpoints as a whole, Hjørland states that they share the assumption “that concepts are formed in the individual mind and that perceptual processes are mechanical processes that process chemical and physical stimuli. Critics have pointed out that our perceptual processes are influenced by our language and culture, […] that our most primitive sensing is already ‘theory-laden’” (ibid., p.144). In terms of the diagram, this criticism implies that the forward arrows in steps B and C should be replaced by arrows pointing both ways - that the formation of both percepts and concepts is an interactive process between the external and internal worlds, both contributing to what we perceive and what we conceive.

Relation to scientific methodology

The viewpoints discussed above might, between them, be said to include a number of assertions, for example:

Though I do not propose to demonstrate it by example and quotation, I believe that all these assertions are compatible with scientific methodology. This methodology includes observation of the external world, experimental control of the external situation in order to focus observation, collection of selected data about the external situation, analysis and manipulation of that data, interpretation of the results of data analysis in the light of already existing concepts, laws and theories, creation of new concepts, generalisations and theories that may be used to explain the observed data (pulling hypotheses out of any area of our total experience), application of these new conceptual structures to existing and newly collected data, and so on. At some stages in research, an investigator is behaving as an empiricist, at other stages as a rationalist, sometimes concerned solely with perceptual data, sometimes solely with abstract concepts, at times he is concentrating on an individual experience, at other times he is exploring the widest of generalities. When unexplained data drive the development of a new theory, the investigator is using a bottom-up approach. When he employs the theory to organise a new structure for a field of knowledge, he is using a top-down approach. The essence of scientific method is that all these aspects are interrelated and integrated. It is philosophers who, by isolating particular aspects and giving them pre-eminence, disrupt the process of research into incompatible elements.

The status of information science

Information science is basically concerned with facilitating the transfer of knowledge from one human mind to another through the medium of documents recording knowledge and associated retrieval mechanisms.

Knowledge      ->      Documentary      ->      Retrieval      ->      Knowledge
  in mind 1                    record of                   system                   in mind 2
                                   knowledge                 delivery

The knowledge transferred is conceptual, recordable in some “language” (natural language, mathematics, chemical and other symbolism, diagrams, etc). Information science therefore has nothing to do with steps A, B and C of our earlier diagram. Its raw material is conceptual knowledge - most often, indeed, verbalised knowledge. How concepts are derived from percepts is not relevant to its activities. Strictly speaking, therefore, what philosophical views about perception and immediate concept formation an information scientist might hold should not affect his professional activities. On the other hand, he may well be interested in steps D and E of the earlier diagram, i.e. in the relationships in the mind between concepts, since part of his work is to make use of conceptual relations in retrieval systems.

So let us now look at some examples of information science methodology that have been criticised by Hjørland.

Knowledge structures

My first example of a methodology in information science arises from Hjørland’s comment: “The facet-analytical school of classification founded by Ranganathan […] is seen as a rather strong example of a rationalist philosophy. It is a position that does not consider the empirical basis (or testing) of systems very much. It is strong, however, in providing clear definitions and rules. Systems such as thesauri or classifications based on this approach often display a high degree of structure and clarity, which is lacking in systems developed by other traditions” (ibid., p.144). I will not be concerned with faceted classification as such, but with the wider issue of structured retrieval languages.

All subject retrieval is based on matching a tag associated with an information request with tags associated with documents, the tags purporting to represent the subject of the request or document. A “subject” is a concept, usually expressed as a linguistic word or phrase, which itself may be used as the “tag”. A tag is either extracted from the request or document, or assigned by an information professional (IP) such as an indexer.

A retrieval system such as an Internet search engine simply extracts every word in a document or request and uses each of them as a tag. But many retrieval systems are based on the assumption that something more is needed than bare extraction or assignation of a tag. It is claimed that a searcher often finds that the tag in his initial information request does not lead to the delivery of potentially relevant documents, and that he or she would welcome system guidance from his initial tag to others that are held to be usefully related.

That such guidance is indeed useful has been abundantly demonstrated by the results of the TREC retrieval experiments. Sparck Jones reported that “query expansion […] whether done in a conventional way before searching, via a thesaurus, or after searching, using [relevance feedback] from retrieved documents” did improve performance, in fact it was “the most critical factor in retrieval” (Sparck Jones, 2000, p.33). But, as to what strategy of query expansion worked best, or best in particular circumstances, she reported that “there are no solid conclusions to be drawn“ (p.34).

So, given this situation, the issue facing the IP creating a structured retrieval aid is: what conceptual relations between tags should be selected and presented to searchers for use in query expansion? In principle, there is perhaps an indefinitely large number of other concepts that can be regarded as related to any individual concept. Should the IP attempt to identify all of them (or as many as can be discovered) and present them all (say, in browsing mode) to every searcher? This is, in effect, what a universal ontology such as CYC is attempting (Vickery, 2004, p.388). Or should the IP assign a particular conceptual tag to one or more subject domains, and present to the searcher only those relations that are found within a particular domain? This policy is followed by CYC in its use of the domains it calls “microtheories”; it is also used in retrieval systems that limit their scope to a particular domain, or use “scope notes” to limit the application of individual tags.

Another way of limiting the number of relations presented to the searcher is to present only relations of a certain type. Traditional classification first allocates concepts to domains (“main classes”), and then presents only hierarchical class relations between concepts in those domains, plus an assortment of ill-defined “cross references“ between classes. Faceted classification narrows the domains to facet categories within main classes. Most thesauri are limited to a domain, and present hierarchical, whole/part and ill-defined “related terms”. Some experimental thesauri are seeking to expand the last group into a set of more definite relations (Soergel, 2004).

Any partition of the universe of concepts into domains, or use of a restricted set of conceptual relations, necessarily involves a “top-down” approach: the domains and relations used are decided in advance of actual tagging, even if preceded by extensive study of existing documents (“literary warrant”). In the documentary record, from which concepts are ultimately derived, new juxtapositions and interrelations among the things conceptualised are continually occurring, so that any preconceived conceptual structure becomes increasingly ill-fitted to cope with the new relations being engendered. The problem of keeping retrieval languages up-to-date is all too well-known. For this reason, they are inherently likely to become defective.

I agree with Hjørland that the systems now used, such as classifications and thesauri, that severely restrict the types of conceptual relation displayed, may well be particularly defective. Are the relations they use in fact the most useful to the searcher? The evidence from the TREC retrieval tests was inconclusive. As far as I know, no analysis has been undertaken within TREC of the causes of individual “retrieval successes”, comparable to the analysis of “search failures” in earlier tests such as MEDLARS (Vickery, 2004, p.278), so TREC provides no clues as to what particular types of conceptual relation (if any) are more helpful in search.

Even if we can, by research, identify the more useful conceptual relations to present to the searcher, and offer a wider range of them, can we avoid a “top-down” approach? Indeed, should we try to? Earlier I have noted that scientific method does not. Is a “bottom-up” approach (presenting every possible relation to be found) realistic and useful in practice? These are not rhetorical questions. They could, hopefully, be answered by further research. But in any event, I do not see them as philosophical questions. They pose exactly the same problems as indexing a book: should the index pick out the most “important” words and topics (according to some preconceived idea of what is important), or should it be a concordance to every word in the book? This is a practical issue.

Relevance research

Hjørland states that “thousands of studies on relevance in information science have failed to advance our knowledge of the underlying mechanisms in the production of non-relevant items in information systems”. In the preceding section I have also written of the production of relevant items, equally in need of further explanation. Hjørland sees this failure as an example of positivism in action - “positivism neglects the stratified system of causes” (Hjørland, 2004, p.147). It may be true that some people who have positivist views neglect causes, though their basic philosophical standpoint, as described by Hjørland, does not seem to necessitate this, and other accounts of positivism do not assert this. In any event, this does not imply that all who neglect causes are influenced by positivist philosophy.

It is a commonplace of research methodology that there are three types of question that investigations can address: descriptive (this is what happened), relational (when the relations - usually quantitative - between two or more aspects of the situation described are studied), and causal (when attempts are made to determine whether and how some aspects of the situation determined other aspects). It is also a commonplace that causal studies are the most demanding of the three.

Let us look at the procedure used in the TREC retrieval tests (Vickery, 2004, p.310). Sets of test documents are assembled; for each set, a list of appropriate information requests is assembled; associated with each request are judgments as to the relevance of each document in the set to the request; each participating investigator in the test creates his own retrieval system, with its particular characteristics A, B, C, etc; he uses the system to retrieve documents from a document set for each of its associated requests; the set of retrieved documents is sent for independent evaluation; performance (based on precision and recall) is measured. The performance of a number of different retrieval systems used with a particular document set can then be related to their characteristics A, B, C.

As can be seen, the TREC tests are relational investigations. To go beyond them to causal analysis would be a very strenuous undertaking, though I agree that this is what is now needed. I would like to see some investigations along the following lines. Taking the results of particular test runs, to examine each document retrieved, and the search steps by which it was retrieved, and to ask: if relevant, why and how was this document retrieved (success analysis)? if it was judged not relevant, why and how was it retrieved (failure analysis)? For relevant documents not retrieved, to ask why not (more failure analysis)? Tests such as Medlars already gave some clues concerning failures (ibid., p.278), so the important new aspect here would be the success analysis. Yes, a heavy task. But it would be the beginning of causal analysis, that could give us clues to the design of retrieval systems. Once again, I do not see this as a philosophical issue. It is a methodological issue - to go beyond relational analysis to the more demanding but ultimately more rewarding causal analysis.

Individual and social

Hjørland criticises the standpoint of “methodological individualism”. In information science, he states, “the point of departure for this view was the idea that psychological studies of human beings might provide the basis for the design of information systems”. He advocates “more sociologically-oriented approaches” (Hjørland, 2004, p.148). Later he states that “relevance research is typically positivist in its tendency to psychologise criteria for what is relevant, and thus seeking the secrets of relevance in the individual rather than in scientific norms” (ibid., p.149). (I regret that I do not understand what the reference to “scientific norms” here means.)

Hjørland continues by listing his own set of seven possible causes for the retrieval of non-relevant documents. One of these relates to indexing procedure (false drop), one to semantics (multi-meaning), the other five to individual judgments made by the searcher. Judgments based on the searcher’s state of knowledge might or might not be called “psychological”, but they are indubitably individual. Conceivably, the study of individuals, and the “reasons why” they made certain judgments, could throw light on “the secrets of relevance”. This is a policy that Hjørland elsewhere recommends for the study of indexing (ibid., p.146).

What would be a more sociological approach to relevance research? Certainly, there must be awareness that a searcher’s reaction to, interpretation and relevance judgment of a document might be due to his general cultural and social experience rather than to the document’s specific knowledge content. Similarly, in the study of indexing, Hjørland points to a need to take into account an indexer’s “interpretations, subject knowledge or world-views” (ibid., p.146).

But beyond that, surely sociological research seeks to establish generalisations that apply to groups of individuals in types of situation, and to identify social causes (i.e. causes that are common to all members of a group). Hjørland seems to criticise the tendency “to provide abstract or generalised models of users”, urging the need to take “domain-specific” views in information science, so he appears to be arguing for a sociological or group approach at an appropriate level of group, a level at which we might hope that user behaviour is sufficiently uniform to be generalisable. Whether being concerned with the same “subject domain” is the appropriate level is of course a matter for empirical investigation. Studies of information users and uses have in fact suggested many other variables that might affect user behaviour and so potentially define an appropriate level for generalisation (Vickery,1973).

My view is that both individual and group studies of information behaviour may throw light on the design of information systems for particular groups of user, and that to denigrate one or the other approach on philosophic grounds is not helpful.

To conclude. I believe that Hjørland’s insights into and criticisms of information science practice are often well founded. But I do not consider that seeking to associate defective practice with particular limited philosophical views adds to either the clearness or the cogency of his criticism.


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J.D.Bernal: science and social development  [2006]




by Brian Vickery



bernaljd (99K)


While at university I read a book published in 1939, The social function of science, by J.D.Bernal, and his writings and activities became and remained an important influence in my life.


John Desmond Bernal (1901-1971) was undoubtedly the most important of the "Western" scientists who, during the twentieth century, accepted the Marxist view of social development. He did more than "accept" it: he tried to sketch the whole history of science from a Marxist viewpoint; he wrote a number of articles explicitly expounding his view of the relation of Marxism to science; and from his student days he played an active role in Communist politics. He has been criticised: during his lifetime, for too readily accepting official Soviet policy, whether relating to society or to science; since his death, for having been too ready to hope that his vision of the use of science for human ends could be implemented by capitalist societies; and at all times, for an allegedly simplistic faith in science as the salvation of mankind.


Bernal and science

Bernal was born in 1901 in Tipperary, Ireland. In his early ‘teens, he conceived the idea "to use science and apply it to war to liberate Ireland". Even before he knew much science, he saw it as his vocation, and also saw it as an agent of social change. In 1918 he went to Cambridge University, discovered socialism, and for the rest of his life was linked to socialist and communist activities. He worked as a scientist at the Royal Institution, at Cambridge University, and eventually at Birkbeck College London, and was elected Fellow of the Royal Society in 1937. He helped lay the foundation for what is now known as molecular biology. Throughout his busy life, apart from his many scientific papers he wrote articles and books expounding his general views about science and society. Most of the time he interpreted "science" as the natural sciences, though in later years he made a not altogether successful attempt to come to grips with the social sciences. He died in 1971.


Bernal’s recurrent theme was "what science does and what it could do". Science is now "doing" mightily: it has interpenetrated technical innovation so greatly that in some areas the two have merged; it has become "big science", with powerful equipment and large teams of workers absorbing large resources; it has become overwhelmingly financed – and some would say controlled – by industry and government. Yet despite – or perhaps because of – these achievements, there is much fear and distrust of science, and attacks on its very nature. Bernal’s faith and hope in "what science could do" in the service of man is no longer shared by many. His optimism was part and parcel of the Marxist optimism that humanity could take control of its future, could plan and act cooperatively to build a better way of life.


Marxism has traditionally approved of science – indeed, has taken pride in claiming itself to be a scientific analysis of social development. When the Marxist analysis was first formulated, natural science was contributing little to technical development. Only towards the end of the nineteenth century did science begin to permeate the older craft industries and agriculture, and give rise to major new industries – chemical and electrical – based upon it. What was the Marxist attitude to science?


Marx expected that eventually all the sciences would be pressed into the service of capital, and invention would become a business, with science applied directly to production. His critique of the application of science to production lay in this: that within the capitalist system "all means for the development of production [...] become a means for the domination and exploitation of the producers […] They alienate from the worker the intellectual potentialities of the labour process in the same proportion as science is incorporated in it as an independent power" (Capital). It was therefore the manner in which capitalism applied science to production – as a power that used workers as mere "appendages of the machine", minimising their intellectual input – that aroused his anger.


Yet this potential misuse of science seems to have been divorced in Marx’s mind from the activity of science itself. There is an interesting footnote in Capital: "Science, generally speaking, costs the capitalist nothing". Presumably, Marx envisaged science as produced by academics (or men of private means like Darwin) and published by scientific societies, thus being freely available to all who could make use of it, as was indeed true in the mid-nineteenth century. In itself therefore, for Marx, science, like all reliable knowledge, was good, even if the use made of it was perverted.


Marx, it seems, may have accepted what has been called "the Legend" (John Ziman, Real science, 2000). Scientists have generally seen themselves as a largely autonomous community of people dedicated to the disinterested search for understanding of nature, who give full recognition to the achievements of their predecessors and contemporaries, cumulatively building up the structure of scientific fact and theory, and whose reward for originality is prestige in that community. Scientific standards are maintained by prompt and full publication of all research, peer review, free and democratic discussion of it, mutual criticism, and the rejection of shoddy or biased work. There is plenty of fierce competition in science for recognition and prestige, but this intellectual clash is precisely the mechanism that maintains the standards of the community. Pure science has been summed up as being communal (freely sharing knowledge and skill), universal (equally open to all regardless of status or any other social difference), disinterested (not biased by personal or group interests) and original (giving highest credit to the creation of new knowledge). While science remained outside the control of government and industry, the reality was not too far from the ideals of the Legend – though individual scientists fell short of the ideal, collectively science adhered to it. Many scientists still cling to these principles. Even though their theories might at times be ideologically blinkered, they feel that their hearts are pure.


Yet scientists live, as do we all, in a world in which they are subject to concentric spheres of influence: their immediate work environment (the laboratory or institution where they perform their research); their colleagues in the scientific field in which they specialise (as found, for example, in the meetings and publications of their professional society); the scientific community as a whole (of which they are aware through their education and their wider reading); the particular national community in which they live; and whatever of wider world culture they may have imbibed. Every sphere exerts its influence on the way that each scientist thinks and acts.


Scientific activity is open to influence at each stage of the research process. For example, the problem situations that a particular scientist recognises are those that occur in the limited areas of "nature" and human activity which he can observe or have brought to his attention, and are likely to be those that relate to his own area of expertise. His estimate of their "significance" to the development of his field of science will be influenced by his knowledge of the prevailing "state of the art" in that field, and in particular by the current interests of his laboratory or 'school of thought'. His idea of what is a "feasible" project will depend on what methods, techniques and tools he can employ. The kinds of explanatory concept that he puts forward may be limited to those that are currently conventional in his field or in science generally. The same factors apply to the process of public assessment: the journal editors and professional referees who consider a research report may assess the results, or even the whole project, to be "not significant", or "unsound" in methodology, or "unconvincing" in its explanations, and in this assessment can be influenced by their social contexts. At every stage, there is one material factor that influences what problems are selected for investigation: resources. If an individual scientist, or laboratory, or institution, or society, cannot or will not find the resources to fund the work time, the tools, the materials, the accommodation and so on needed to carry out a project, then it cannot be carried out.

For all these reasons, even if the Legend can be given credence, science can be distorted by social influences. With vast expansion in funds and human resources, scientists today have been able to mount grandiose cooperative projects involving large teams and expensive equipment, for example high-speed "colliders" to explore elementary particles, huge telescopes, the human genome project. As science has merged with innovation to become R&D, large product-oriented "missions" have been developed – starting with the Manhattan project to build an atomic bomb, going on into space exploration, communications satellites, pharmaceuticals development and so on. These missions are increasingly transdisciplinary – the teams involved are made up of specialists from many sciences and branches of technology. Research is now rarely the work of a "lonely seeker after truth". It is teamwork, with division of labour, technical support staff, instrument designers, software engineers and other specialists. All this specialised division of labour narrows the outlook of the individual specialist.


Compared to traditional academic science, the key difference in the situation today is that most scientists either work directly for an industrial or governmental organisation, or are funded by one. The "influence spheres" within which they live have altered: their immediate work environment is already shaped by its wider institutional setting. In contrast to the traditional principles of scientific activity (communal, universal, disinterested, original), Ziman sees the new social environment of science to be proprietary, local, authoritarian, commissioned and "expert". It often produces, not communal but proprietary knowledge that is not necessarily made public; it is often focussed on local technical problems rather than on general understanding; industrial and government researchers mostly act under managerial authority rather than as individuals; their research is commissioned to achieve practical goals, rather than in the "pursuit of knowledge"; they are employed as expert "problem-solvers", rather than for personal creativity and originality. In less than a generation, wrote Ziman in 2000, "we have witnessed a radical, irreversible, world-wide transformation in the way that science is organised, managed and performed".


The key problem is, who now sets the research agenda? Traditionally, science has assumed that research problems arise basically out of the internal development of science itself (though acknowledging that practical and social issues can stimulate development) and that therefore the agenda for research has been and should be set by scientists themselves. But in research controlled ultimately by industry and government, "problems" are defined in technological or social terms, to which science is expected to make a contribution, "on tap but not on top". In this situation, the research agenda is set basically by those who fund science, with scientists only able to act as "advisers".


When science could be regarded as primarily an autonomous self-organising social activity, as in the days of the Legend, there was no more reason for the rest of society to question its agenda than for society to question the agenda of artists or composers. But when science came under the financial patronage of the government (as, for example, astronomy did quite early), and still more when much research has come under the direct control of government and industry, then we may query: are the scientific problems now being addressed those which are most relevant to social needs?


This raises the more general issue: what do we want from science? What ends should be served by the scientific search for rational understanding? We need knowledge if we are to act successfully, but what actions do we value most? There are innumerable activities going on in the world to which scientific knowledge might contribute – how do we prioritise them? Which most deserve the expenditure of effort and resources to provide them with the knowledge that they need? Against what social values should we judge the current research agenda? We may well decide that some research carried out by scientists is of little social value - and indeed may result in social harm. These questions in turn raise the whole issue of our assessment of government and industry as arbiters of social values.


There are many different approaches to science and technology today. Both have vastly expanded during the twentieth century, and closely interpenetrated each other. Many of the millions of research and development scientists and engineers in the world today are well satisfied with their sphere of work. It gives them employment, it is often very interesting, and they feel that in general it is of service to humanity. But among people in general, opposing views are often held. Some may see science as exciting, pure "natural magic", a cornucopia of new gifts for mankind, but to others it may be seen as incomprehensible, and even as a waste of time and resources – who needs all this vastly expensive study of a "big bang" universe, of invisibly small elementary particles? To some, genetic science even seems sacrilegious – tampering with a human essence that should be sacrosanct. Views of science are often coloured by views of the technology with which it is now so closely coupled. To some, technology is providing ever new and delightful gadgets, ever more cures for disease, but to others it seems irresponsible, doing more harm than good with the pollution that it spreads, the weapons that it fosters, and the dehumanisation of work and loss of jobs that ever-increasing automation brings about. There are ill-defined fears of the scientists, or the computers, taking over our lives.


Among intellectuals, there are many varieties of "anti-scientism". The so-called "postmodernists" are disillusioned with the very idea of honest inquiry, of truth-seeking. Views are expressed that truth should cease to be a primary aim of science, and even that talk of truth may make no sense; that truth is just what can survive all conversational objections; that truth is neither intrinsically nor instrumentally valuable, and that a belief is justified if it supports whatever the believer values; that "good scholarship" just means being able to convince your funders to continue their support.


A more subtle attack has been mounted by so-called "radical science" (this is a politico-philosophical stance, not one within science). It is argued that we live under capitalism, so we have capitalist science. Modern science and modern capitalism arose from a single worldview in which fact and value are separated and upon which modern society and its scientistic foundations were erected as a single edifice. This, the "radicals" maintain, will have to be dismantled, brick by brick, including and especially those metaphysical foundations which generated the ideas of truth, objectivity, progress, rationality and human nature with which science has operated. Bernal is criticised as "positivistic" and "scientistic", naïve in his view that science – as it has developed through ancient, medieval and capitalist societies – has built up knowledge which, though always provisional, is a reliable foundation for action; that scientific knowledge is, indeed, the essential foundation for action. Capitalist science, so the critics claim, can only benefit capitalists.


What is undoubtedly true in all this, as already noted, is that scientists can only investigate matters for which they can get funding, which is now largely controlled by industry and government, so that "capitalist science" may indeed be failing to investigate matters relevant to human needs. But knowledge that is unreliable is of no more use to the capitalist than to anyone else, so the science that does get done is potentially of use and benefit to all, even though capitalism may be misapplying it. As Bronowski put it (in Identity of man), "the findings of science are ethically neutral, the activities of scientists are not". We may accept science as reliable knowledge, and at the same time criticise and even condemn the activities of those scientists who work on projects harmful to society.


Bernal’s central message was this: The world as currently organised is not meeting human needs. Technically, with the aid of science, it could do so. "With the knowledge and experience already at our command we could build a world that would provide for every single person in it". What is required is a great human effort to achieve the cooperation and collaboration in the application of science and technology that will ensure a better world. "The only alternatives now are world domination by force or world cooperative organisation. The setting up of a working productive organisation, consciously directed to the satisfaction of human needs, is the primary social aim of this time. It implies first of all the negative work of crushing all social forces that tend to check the development of the new productive forces or to divert them to destructive or limited ends. On the positive side it implies the actual planning and putting into operation of a vast interrelated set of schemes for raising productivity to new levels, and for directing that productivity at every stage so as to satisfy human needs and enlarge human capacities."


"Man must now for the first time accept the responsibility for running his world in a sensible way. It is especially the scientist’s responsibility because he is the first to see what can be done, but it is none the less everyone’s responsibility. We have now one world: we must see how to run it. The world won’t run itself any more. It is for us to think out afresh what kind of a world we want and how we are going to get it [...] The running of the world in a conscious way is going to be such an enormous and complicated job that we shall need to make use of every scrap of intelligence, every scrap of goodwill, every scrap of initiative that every person in the world possesses".


This great effort will require political action, social and ethical decisions as well as technical ones. Some of the technical decisions will prove faulty – the new technology may have unwanted consequences – and will have to be corrected, but this is an inevitable feature of life. The essential underpinning to give us the technical tools to do the job is continued support for science.


His message rested on the profound conviction that the data, the facts, relations and laws of science, cumulated over the centuries, are at any one moment the most reliable guide to what human action can achieve. All attempts to denigrate the methods of science only hold back our use of science for human betterment, and our improvement of scientific knowledge. Knowledge (data, facts, laws) about the natural world, about man-made artefacts, about technological processes, and about people and their needs and activities, is a necessity if we are to take any action. "In so far as we do not know, we also cannot do, and any freedom we have is illusory".


He was also profoundly convinced that what man can achieve, man will achieve: since we now have the science and technology to build a better world, we will find a way to create that world. His was a philosophy of hope. "That hope is not a mystical one, nor one founded on belief in any 'automatic deliverance'. Hope is based on experience: the experience of man’s years of bitter, often defeated, but ever more successful struggle for a better life".


He did not ask people to accept unquestioned each proposal that the technologists make, whether about the disposal of radioactive waste, genetically modified crops, or any other potentially hazardous enterprise. He wanted everyone to have his and her say. But he hoped people would base their views on scientifically established facts, not on opinion and prejudice. In his day, his attack on the distortions of science was usually directed against its militarisation. He paid little attention to environmental pollution, or to what has been called "the degradation of work" (books calling attention to this last – such as Braverman’s Labour and monopoly capital, and Terkel’s Working – were not published until 1974).

There was a danger that he did not foresee. As already noted, the merging of much of science and technology to become R&D funded by government and industry means that much research now contributes directly to large product-oriented missions. These "missions" - for example, "Star wars", genetic crop modification, energy resources - are concerned with very much more than scientific results. They have wide and often unforeseen and unintended technical, environmental and social consequences. Because the driving forces behind the missions are industrial profit or governmental policy, inadequate attention and research may be directed to these consequences. The answer to this is not less science, but more - the scientific study of the technical, environmental and social consequences of the application of science.


Bernal was not a practical politician. When considering how "the great transformation" to a better world was to be made, he rarely said more than "the conscious organised effort of the people themselves". He envisaged that leadership would come from socialist movements. He lived during the period of the "Cold War" between the Soviet Union and "the West", and retained a hope that the two sides would find it to their mutual interest to cooperate. He also retained the belief – or was it just a hope he could not relinquish? – that the USSR, despite everything, was still moving towards the kind of society he wished for. The collapse of the Soviet state has put paid to any such hopes.


But the slowly rising tide of protest at global capitalism and the campaign to end world poverty provide a new hope. In that campaign we need Bernal’s vision that, through science and its application, the hope is realistic, the end attainable, a better world achievable. Bernal was critical of Utopian writings, yet in many ways his own work was Utopian. I think perhaps he would have agreed with Oscar Wilde: "A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing. And when Humanity lands there, it looks out, and seeing a better country, sets sail. Progress is the realisation of Utopias" (The soul of man under socialism).


In World without war, Bernal has a chapter on "the limits of the foreseeable future". In it, he asked, once food, clothing and shelter is generously available for all, how would people live, what would they do? The next goal to be aimed at would be the ending of all hard and monotonous work. With industry so transformed, he envisaged that "nearly all work would be an adventure or a research – there is not very much difference between them [...] The society in which everybody can be effective all their lives would be a really good society. Some readers may feel that the picture I draw is a purely material one [...] they are afraid , and rightly so, of an ordered world in which fantasy and irregularity have no place. There is absolutely no need for this to happen [...] We want more and more people to enjoy life and make it more worth enjoying". So say all of us.


Bernal and the development of society

In 2005 Andrew Brown published a biography of J.D.Bernal, based not only on what has already been published by and about him, but also on the Bernal archive in Cambridge University Library, other academic archives, and interviews with such colleagues and friends as were still alive. The result is a detailed and rewarding account of Bernal's work in natural science, which also pays due attention to his many public and political activities. But it does not seriously address his view of society, the Marxism to which he adhered for the whole of his adult life.

It is not too much to say that Brown simply regards this as an unfortunate mental aberration. In his summarising "Postscript", he quotes with approval the physicist Appleton's statement that there are "two Professor Bernals: one is the brilliant natural philosopher of worldwide renown, the other is a fervid convert to an extreme political theory". To explain this, Brown quotes the journalist Kingsley Martin: "Bernal was not the man to do without a religion. His romantic temperament demanded an ideal […] Only communism satisfied his needs, since he thought it alone had the proper attitude towards science". So Bernal's belief in communism is explained as a "romantic" religious substitute for his former catholicism, not to be taken as a serious intellectual commitment.

Brown nowhere discusses Marxism as such - he equates it with the practice of the twentieth-century Soviet state, which he wholly condemns. It must be admitted that Bernal's refusal to make any public criticism of Soviet practice helps to make such an equation plausible. But Bernal's views on society did not derive from that practice, but from a wide-ranging knowledge of world history informed by the ideas of Marx and Engels. These thinkers can no more be held responsible for the acts of Stalin or Mao than Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot or Condorcet can be held responsible for French revolutionary terror and the acts of Napoleon. Marx has an honoured place in the histories of philosophy and of social science, and Bernal's views in these fields deserve to be discussed in that light, and not only in terms of his misplaced belief that the USSR was heading towards socialism. This belief was, after all, shared by our capitalist rulers (what else was the Cold War about?). My aim in this essay is not to criticise Andrew Brown, but to look at what Bernal wrote about the development of society, and at the historical and contemporary reasons behind his views.

The great transformation

Bernal discovered the ideas of socialism in his first term at Cambridge University ( November 1918). During the next twenty years he took part in a variety of experiences and activities that are well described by Brown. Endless student discussions, absorption in the study of crystal symmetries, marriage, graduating and moving to the Royal Institution in London, working with communists in support of striking coal miners, moving back to Cambridge as a lecturer and researcher, and in 1929 publishing his first book, The world, the flesh and the devil, an essay on a possible future for man. In this he predicted the building of permanent space stations, and the modification of the human body by what we now think of as "genetic engineering" and "cyborg" surgery. By 1937, he was a member of the Cambridge Scientists Anti-War Group that investigated and published a book on The protection of the public from aerial attack. For all the scientific work completed during these years, Bernal was elected Fellow of the Royal Society in 1937, and in 1938 was appointed professor at Birkbeck College London. In 1939 he published The social function of science (SFS), which had a wide impact. In this he demonstrated his great knowledge of science and technology, of their organisation, and of their future possibilities. He argued that science within capitalism was distorted by being used for military and commercial purposes, from which it would be freed under socialism.

In none of this work did Bernal directly address the issue of social development. He was primarily concerned, then as indeed later, with the ways in which changes in society affect science, and how science could increasingly have an impact on society. But in SFS he was beginning to write about "the great transformation". He saw human social development as having taken place in three stages: the emergence of social man from animal existence; the emergence of civilisation based on agriculture and cities; and now, the use of science and technology to transform society. "Science implies a unified and coordinated and, above all, conscious control of the whole of social life […] Henceforth society is subject only to the limitations it imposes on itself. The mere knowledge of this possibility is enough to drive man on until he has achieved it […] We are in the middle of one of the major transition periods of human history. Our most immediate problem is to ensure that the transition is accomplished as rapidly as possible, with the minimum of material, human and cultural destruction". The transformation will involve the elimination of "preventible evils" - starvation, disease, slavery, war - but even more, "the production of new good things, better, more active and more harmonious ways of living, individually and socially".

In 1941, with the war against fascism well under way, Bernal sat down to work out "a total reaction to the world situation". His reflections - an essay of over 60 pages - were published in 1942, and reprinted in 1949 in the collection The freedom of necessity (FN). Once again he took up the theme of "the great transformation".

"A great social transformation has been maturing in the past four hundred years. For the first time human beings are beginning to control the conditions of their lives - the whole human environment - consciously through the use of science. An enormous mechanical apparatus of material production and distribution is already in being. But it has been built up in the framework of the old civilisation, the pillars of which were private property and state authority, [which] has visibly failed to provide for the extent of cooperative planning that is required for the working of the modern productive machine […] Men must work all together if they are not to spend their lives and strength killing each other […] The only alternatives now are world domination by force or world cooperative organisation".

Bernal spelt out his view of the development of human society in a little more detail. "Mankind came into existence when, through social cooperation, they were able to exploit nature collectively […] But with the introduction of agriculture man, controlling through his understanding certain plants and animals, was able by his crops and herds to secure a more thorough exploitation of the primary resources of land and water […] The industrial (scientific or mechanical) revolution went one step further - the control and exploitation of inorganic natural forces and materials […] This third stage makes far greater demands on human understanding, and these are not limited but progressively increase as the scale of exploitation of natural powers increases. Rational and scientific analysis takes the place of traditional thought. There is a transformation of human mind and human society no less than of the material basis of life".

"The difficult birth and the struggling youth of the scientific and technical conquest of the material environment occurred - and could only occur - under conditions of capitalism, but it does not at all follow that capitalism is necessarily and permanently associated with these transformations. In fact, [the world today] demonstrates that this is not the case […] Capitalism has been like the wizard's apprentice in the fairy story, who knew the spell to make the spirits work but after conjuring them up could not control them […] Marx characterised capitalism as an increasing organisation and socialisation [cooperative action] in the production of goods, unaccompanied by the socialisation [cooperative distribution] of the products. Since Marx's time, the degree of organisation of production has increased enormously. It is now apparent to most intelligent people in the world that this organisation could be used effectively for general benefit if we could solve the human and social problems involved in the transition from serving the vested interests of the few to serving the common interests of all […] We are realising that our productive powers will be of no use to humanity unless the whole of human effort on a world scale is consciously organised and integrated".

"The general object of human society", Bernal maintained, "which can be realised only by our becoming conscious of it, is the establishment of the best possible biological and social environment for every man, woman and child. A good biological environment means, for human beings, what for years past it has meant for domestic animals - plenty of good and agreeable food, freedom from excessive heat and cold, a pleasant atmosphere to live, work and play in, security from attack of all avoidable diseases, and medical treatment for all unavoidable ones […] A good social environment implies a positive consciousness in all men and women of working together for the common good, a fundamental combination of freedom and cooperation".

" The only way of securing a good biological and social environment for all is by setting up a well organised productive and distributive mechanism […] This implies the negative work of crushing all social forces that would check the development of the productive forces or divert them to destructive or limited ends. Positively, it implies the planning and putting into operation of a vast interrelated set of schemes for raising human productivity to new levels, and for directing that productivity at every stage so as to satisfy human needs and enlarge human capacities […] Under present-day conditions, no great enterprise can be carried out to ultimate success unless it has the willing and conscious collaboration of innumerable groups of human beings working together. The technique of working together in small groups, for purposes that extend beyond the interests of the individual, is the essence of democracy".

"The ideals for which the great struggles of the last three hundred years have been fought were summed up in the three great rights of man in the French revolution - liberty , equality and fraternity […] They may still stand as necessary conditions for an effective productive mechanism […] The society of the future cannot admit any type of imposed inequality, because in doing so it would defeat its own ends, the achievement of a good human environment […] Liberty will come to mean the fullest use of the capacities of every individual […] Fraternity is the most important of the three rights […] it is not an ideal virtue to be obtained in the future: it is a practical necessity for working together now to make a tolerable world".


There is much more in Bernal's essay than I have been able to summarise here. Andrew Brown spent a page or so commenting on it. Scornfully, he writes that Bernal "adopted the tone of a secular prophet". "It appeared to him that the whole world was becoming Marxist because in wartime we are coming naturally to think and act in terms of directed economic and social organisation ". Many statements in the essay showed that "his faith in the Soviet system as a model for the post-war world was unshakeable". It is true that Bernal did see the use of science and planning in the USSR as a potential model. But the thrust of his argument was about the present state and possible future of the world as a whole. I am truly sorry for Andrew Brown if all he saw in this essay was the fervid exposition of an extreme political theory. On the contrary, it was clearly and calmly reasoned, and grounded in the Enlightenment principles to which we still pay lip service. [In his 2005 inaugural address, President Bush mentioned "free" or "freedom" 34 times, and "liberty" 15 times. Equality and fraternity, however, did not rate a mention.]

It is over 60 years since the essay was written. Was Bernal right in claiming that capitalism "has visibly failed to provide for the extent of cooperative planning that is required for the working of the modern productive machine"? Take the longest historical view. In 1400, the domestic products per head of population in Europe and in China were approximately equal, and there was still no great difference between them in the eighteenth century. Since 1400, the figure for Europe and its "offshoots" such as the USA has multiplied by over 30 times; the figure for China by only 5 times (Beaud, History of capitalism, 2001). It would seem that the productive machine has been triumphantly successful for the industrialised "West", and - it might be argued - when China and the rest of the world industrialise, their productivity will catch up. Nevertheless, the fact remains that the world today is one of gross economic inequality: divide the world population into five equal groups based on income, and look at the results in the following table (Beaud):

Group 1965 1970 1980 1990
Poorest 20% 2.3 2.2 1.7 1.4
Second 20% 2.9 2.8 2.2 1.8
Third 20% 4.2 3.9 3.5 2.1
Fourth 20% 21.2 21.3 18.3 11.3
Richest 20% 69.5 70.0 75.4 83.4

The richest 20% in 1965 received 69.5% of the world's income. During the next 25 years, this share increased to 83.4%, and is higher today (Dicken puts the figure at 86%), while everybody else has grown relatively poorer. Under capitalism in its "global" phase economic inequality is still vast, and it is growing wider, in spite of all the alleged "governance" of the world economy by the World Trade Organisation, the World Bank, and so on. Even in the industrialised countries, economists are beginning to ask "where will the jobs come from?" (Dicken, Global shift, 2003).

"Imagine a wondrous machine, strong and supple, a machine that reaps as it destroys. It is huge and mobile, something like the machines of modern agriculture but vastly more complicated and powerful. Think of this awesome machine running over the terrain and ignoring familiar boundaries. It plows across fields and fences and houses with a fierce momentum that is exhilarating to behold and also frightening. As it goes, the machine throws off enormous mows of wealth and bounty, while it leaves behind great furrows of wreckage. Now imagine that though there are skilful hands on board, no one is at the wheel. In fact, the machine has no steering wheel nor any internal governor to control its speed and direction. It is sustained by its own forward motion, guided mainly by its own appetites. And it is accelerating. The machine is modern capitalism driven by the imperatives of global industrial revolution […] As the global system has extended its reach, the ancient paradox of poverty amidst plenty becomes more acute and obvious because, even though many prosper, the extremes between wealth and the unfilled human needs grow wider. Capitalism's enduring barbarism is: Why must so many human beings suffer from scarcity when the world is awash in abundance? […] Capitalism, for all its wondrous creativity and wealth, has not found a way to clothe the poor and feed the hungry unless they can pay for it" (Greider, One world, ready or not, 1997).

The global capitalist machine is indeed not controlled by any one agent at the wheel - in principle, its activity is anarchic, the outcome of a struggle among many competing forces. But the most powerful players in the game are transnational firms and national governments (Dicken).

For those who accept this analysis of the world today, which corresponds to Bernal's view, there are three alternatives. First, there are those who play the capitalist game, climb aboard the machine and use their skills to get as much of the "wealth and bounty" for themselves as they can. There are many individuals, businesses, associations and governments who act in this way. Second, there are those who regard the machine as unstoppable, its continued forward motion as inevitable, but nevertheless seek to lessen the impact of the wreckage it causes, by national and international regulations, by "social safety nets", by charitable donations, by "development aid". There are individuals, associations, governments and even businesses who act in this way. Third, there are those who refuse to accept that humanity is incapable of living a humane life, and work for the time when the peoples of the world take democratic control of the production machine and build a better future. There are individuals and associations, but no businesses or governments, who act in this way.

The struggle for democratic control of the economy has been and will continue to be long and difficult. "The blunt truth is that the political power arrayed against reform visions is overwhelming, while the people who support new directions are quite weak. The inertial momentum of the status quo - the insecurity of political leaders, intimidated as they are by the overbearing influence of business and finance - makes it quite difficult, if not impossible, to imagine that the alternative path will receive rational consideration and timely response […] I would estimate that the global system will probably experience a series of wrenching calamities (economic or social or environmental) before common sense can prevail" (Greider).

What must occur for the peoples of the world to win effective democratic control of the productive machine? They must become sufficiently aware of the ills from which the world is suffering; sufficiently agreed that the root cause of these ills is the capitalist mode of production; sufficiently imaginative to conceive of an alternative mode of production - indeed, mode of life - to which they can aspire; sufficiently convinced of the kinds of action that must be taken to bring about this change; and sufficiently organised to actually make - indeed, enforce - the change. Here I want to consider only the third of these conditions - conceiving an alternative mode of life.

What are the key features of the global capitalism within which we now all live? (1) Most of the facilities for producing the goods and services on which we depend are owned and controlled by private corporations. The corporations differ greatly in size, from one-man firms to giant transnationals, and it is the latter who have the most power and influence in the competition between them. Most people work for wages, directly or indirectly, for a corporation of one kind or another. (2) These corporations exist - and can only exist - by selling their goods and services for profit on local or world markets to those people who have purchasing resources. They cannot avoid making profitability, and staying ahead of the competition, their over-riding objective. (3) People with insufficient resources can obtain goods and services only through governmental welfare or charity. (4) In actual current fact, the distribution of resources among people - both in the world as a whole and within each nation state - is grossly unequal, so that there is widespread poverty, with its attendant disease and misery. Despite the growth of pockets of increased affluence in one part of the world, increased distress in another, the overall inequality is increasing. (5) This inequality, poverty and misery is the root cause of the social unrest and violence in so many parts of the world (in both the have and the have-not nations), which in turn leads to the use of force by governments to "maintain order". (6) The working of the "wondrous" capitalist machine does not provide in itself any mechanisms for ending this state of affairs other than the market, government welfare and charity - mechanisms which have already shown their inability to cope with the situation.

What kind of alternative world can we visualise? The most obvious answer is put into words by the campaigns to "end world poverty". People everywhere want a world which has got rid of the grinding poverty that afflicts so many, a world in which resources are far more equally distributed. They want a world in which inequality does not drive people to violent acts against others, in which scarce resources are peacably shared. They want to live in a world that does not inevitably generate self-seeking, greed, and indifference to the plight of others. Most people, even if they are trapped in the capitalist rat-race, will agree that "all men are brothers". These hopes are not novel - they have been expressed by every religion and social reform movement that ever existed. But we must go beyond general aspirations. What alternative mode of providing goods and services can we visualise, that will achieve our wished-for conditions? Can we imagine a world in which the driving force of production is not profit, but human need? Can we envisage a "market" that provides an equitable distribution of goods and services? Can we devise an economic system based on cooperation, not competition?

Does this sound dangerously like Bernal's view of socialism? "There is today a social and moral crisis, a crisis of the beliefs and assumptions on which modern society has been founded since the early eighteenth century - the rationalist and humanist assumptions, shared by liberal capitalism and communism […] It is not a crisis of one form of organizing societies, but of all forms. The strange calls for an otherwise unidentified 'civil society', for 'community', are the voice of lost and drifting generations […] It has for the first time become possible to see what a world may be like in which the past has lost its role, in which the maps and charts which guided human beings, singly and collectively, through life no longer represent the landscape through which we move, the sea on which we sail. In which we do not know where our journey is taking us, or even ought to take us" (Hobsbawm, The age of extremes, 1994). If this is indeed our situation, then we need to examine and assess anew all proposals for a way forward, whatever their origin, no matter by what names they are labelled.

Whatever misplaced faith in the USSR may have distorted Bernal's view of the world, the basic direction of his thinking and his actions was "on the side of the angels". The only alternatives are still "world domination by force or world cooperative organisation". Bernal deserves praise, not condemnation, for his tireless work towards a cooperative future.

A recent paper on Bernal by A.L.Mackay ('J.D.Bernal in perspective') was available in July 2005 as

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The material mind - part 1  [2005]




Brian Vickery



thinker (4K)



The materialist viewpoint has been in existence for over two millenia, and today there are a number of philosophers who profess to be ‘materialists’. But the scope of their views is very narrow compared to the range that materialism has embraced in the past. In current philosophic texts, materialists are usually defined as people who maintain that ‘the world is entirely composed of matter’, matter being ‘that which occupies space’ (Blackburn). ‘Materialism holds that everything in existence is reducible to what is material or physical in nature […] All events and facts are explainable, actually or in principle, in terms of body, material objects or dynamic material changes or movements’ (Stack). Moreover, these contemporary philosophers seem to be pre-occupied with applying their views to a single issue – the relation of mind to body.


In this essay I have tried to set out my understanding of a more general materialist position, and its relation to a wider range of issues, before turning to a more specific discussion of contemporary mind/body considerations. I might have entitled it ‘materialism and philosophy’, suggesting a distinction between them, for two reasons. First, as the sciences struggled free from the umbrella of philosophy, some materialists urged that there was no longer a need for the discipline of philosophy. Needless to say, philosophers (even materialist philosophers) have not taken the hint, and are as active as ever – but the thought remains. The author of a recent survey certainly seems to feel that he is defending philosophy against an alien materialism (Trigg). Second, on a more personal note, though I believe that I am equipped to write about materialism, as I have studied it for many years, I am certainly not so equipped with regard to philosophy in general, having consulted it only in relation to my own concerns. So I can only put forward the views of an old materialist, with such comments on alternative philosophical standpoints as I have encountered over the years.


World views


Materialism, in the philosophical sense, is a set of particular ways of looking at the world, so let us consider ‘world views’. Most people have a picture of the world that the philosophers call ‘naïve realism’, which may be summed up as involving the following beliefs:



It is not too unfair to say that philosophy, throughout its career of two and a half millenia, has been engaged either in probing the weaknesses and difficulties of this naïve view, or in strengthening and deepening it. Materialism has followed the latter course.


Some of the difficulties that sceptical philosophers have pinpointed are: Can we be sure that the knowledge we derive from our sense impressions really does ‘correspond’ with external reality? Are we sure that the redness we see in a rose is in the rose and not just in our sense impression? If all that we directly perceive is ‘sense impressions’ (colour, shape, sound, smell, texture), can we validly infer that their origin is in ‘objects’, things, stuffs, bodies? If objects themselves are in doubt, can we validly talk about one object ‘causing’ a change in another, or about regular patterns of change among objects? Just what is this ‘free will’ that we believe enables us to initiate changes in objects? The most extreme sceptic asks, can we be sure that there is an outside world giving rise to our sense impressions? Materialism combats these doubts.


There is another aspect to people’s ‘world views’, which has changed considerably over the millenia. Given a common belief in naïve realism, there can be different views as to the nature of the outside world that we sense and come to know. Is it all ‘of one kind’? Are earth, water, air, fire, stars, plants, animals, humans all made of the same stuff, all entities of a common ‘nature’? Or are there essential differences within the world, for example, is fire something quite other than earth, a star something else again, is a plant, an animal and above all a human being essentially different from any inanimate object? As well as material stuffs, are there immaterial, spiritual ‘stuffs’? Are there minds quite distinct from bodies? Are there supernatural beings distinct from mortal men?


Philosophy began when the ancient Greeks started to question the old beliefs in spirits and gods, and to propose a materialist view of nature. Another feature of the career of philosophy has been a long battle to resist the advance of materialism, to retain in some form a belief in a spiritual essence distinct from matter. Materialism argues for the unity of nature, against any ‘essential’ differences within the world. Despite the immense diversity and differences in complexity of the entities in the universe, all spring from the self-same ‘stuff’. There are in principle no barriers to the transition from one entity to another – from earth to fire, from inanimate to living, from animal to human, from body to mind. There are no beings beyond nature.


Whatever else philosophy may be, it is the result of reflecting within the mind upon the knowledge that we gain from our interaction with the world. This characteristic leads to a third theme in its career. Because it is a purely mental activity – conducted, indeed, only in terms of language and logic – philosophy has always overstressed the role that contemplation and conceptual ideas play in human life. This has led philosophers such as Plato to picture the existence of a world of ideas separate from and in some sense more real than the material world. But even without going that far, philosophers often view ideas, people’s thoughts, as determinants of human action and human history. Materialism fully agrees that actions arise from conscious decisions, and that these decisions are based on ideas in the mind. But it urges that ideas themselves arise in the course of interaction between people and their environments, i.e. from practical activity, and that it is this conscious practical activity that determines how individual and social life changes.


Materialists take realism for granted. They proclaim that they are sentient, thinking beings (otherwise their further claims are meaningless). They hold that the world – the world in which we live – really exists, independently of us, not an artefact of our minds, of our language or of a conceptual scheme, and that we are able to attain truths (partial though they may be) about this world,  truths that may be tested by their success in predicting the outcome of our actions on and in this world. They agree that ‘it is the greatest scandal of philosophy that, while all around us the world of nature perishes – and not the world of nature alone – philosophers continue to talk, sometimes cleverly and sometimes not, about the question of whether this world exists [and whether we can know it]’ (Popper). It is true that realism cannot be formally ‘proved’, i.e. shown to be a logical consequence of indisputable fact. The view is held as a matter of ‘animal faith’ (Santayana). Sceptical views of reality also cannot be formally disproved, but equally ‘none of them can be proved either, and, what is more, none of them can be believed, not even by their advocates’ (Russell). Anyone who truly believed that the world does not exist, or that knowledge of the world is not possible, could have no-one else to talk to: ‘the price of genuine scepticism may be silence’ (Trigg).


To sum up, the materialist view of the world is realist, ‘monist’ (the world is of a single nature), and ‘interactionist’ (we change both the world and our knowledge of it by practically interacting with it).




All  people who are able to ‘take care’ of themselves – even the most philosophically sceptical – are well aware that they spend their waking hours negotiating their way around a material world. They awake and look for objects with which to clothe themselves, ingest edible objects at breakfast, dodge pedestrian and traffic objects on their way to work, handle spades or computers or chemicals or crops or animals at work, and so on throughout the day. They are further aware that since birth they have been continually learning about new objects and how to manipulate them, and that if they did not have this capacity to learn about the external world they would have remained as helpless as a new-born baby. Only when sitting quietly in their armchairs does it occur to people to wonder whether they can really believe in all these objects, whether the outside world really exists.


The principled argument used by sceptics is this. If we want to discover whether an entity S is like an entity W, we need to observe and examine the characteristics of both, so that we may compare them. But if W is the external world, and S is our sensation of it, what knowledge of W do we have other than the sensation S? With what else can we compare S? We cannot know W in any other way than in terms of the sensation S that we have of it. Even if we accept that there does exist an entity W that is the origin of S, we have no basis on which to claim that W is ‘like’ S. For all we know it might be wholly unlike. ‘In itself’, it may be argued, the external world is ‘unknowable’ – we know only our sensations.


The argument seems to be logically convincing – as far as it goes. But the same argument also leads to the conclusion that we have no basis on which to claim that W is unlike S. For all we know it might be exactly like. Sensation may be, in fact, the way in which we become aware of the characteristics of the external world, our way of knowing it. The whole of human (and animal) history is evidence that on the basis of our sensations we have been able to cope successfully with the outside world, negotiate our way around it, survive its hazards, and develop a civilisation based on the technological manipulation of material objects. It would be strange indeed if we have achieved all this on the basis of sense knowledge that is unlike, does not correspond to the characteristics of the world. The realist view of the relation between sensation S and external reality W is much more convincing than the sceptical.


To be sure, there are detailed problems of how to interpret this relation. Our perception S of the world W cannot be ‘exactly as it is’, because this would imply that somehow a replica of an ever-moving three-dimensional world was inside our heads. We need to develop an understanding of the nature of the relation.


It is truly asserted that perception is not a passive ‘reception’ of sense impressions – the mind is continually focussing attention on particular aspects of the external environment, and interpreting sensations in the light of prior knowledge and expectations – even of desires and hopes. We often see what we want to see. Sceptics argue that in principle, therefore, we cannot have valid, ‘impartial’ knowledge of the real world, that our view of it is always distorted by these internal factors, that we ‘construct’ a view of the world to suit ourselves.


Materialism opposes this argument. In the first place, by the principle of ‘corrigible fallibility’. Our initial perception of any state of affairs in the world is fallible, liable to be imperfect. But it is subject to correction – by further interaction with the world we can reduce the impact of internal factors and refine our understanding of the situation. It is this continual refinement that is the ‘constructive’ work of the mind. Secondly, all these internal ideas, which contribute to our view of the world, where do they come from? Why, from previous experience of the real world. Though some of them may be fantasies only loosely connected with reality, many of them relate to valid prior knowledge that actually helps in the interpretation of new sense impressions. So though our knowledge is in the form of internal, mental, subjective perceptions and ideas, by perseverance we can construct a view of the world that does ‘correspond’ with external, physical, objective reality. The more deeply we explore this reality, the closer becomes the correspondence of our knowledge with it.




Knowledge, correctness and truth


Representations of the external world are at the basis of our knowledge of it, but there is far more in the human mind than current perceptions. Introspection, and analysis of what people do and say, suggests the existence of various kinds of personal knowledge.


First, in our minds there are all sorts of images – primarily visual and auditory – that we recall when we remember a place or a picture, think of a voice or hum a tune; wine and tea testers, and odour experts, must have a better-than-average stock of tastes and smells in memory. Skilled musicians have a large stock of tunes and musical structures. Second, there is an ‘episodic’ memory – a store of all sorts of recollections of incidents in our recent or distant past life, that we can summon up as anecdotes or as examples to illustrate a discussion point, or which may surface unexpectedly when triggered by a chance remark or observation. Third, there is what has been called ‘semantic’ memory: we have in store all kinds of propositions about various aspects of the world – generalisations and schematic models that we have arrived at from our own experience or by being told by parents, teachers, friends, the media, books, etc. Such propositions and schema may be complexly interrelated so that we can recall, and expound, a detailed argument or a complicated theory. Fourth, we have a stock of  ‘tales’ – anecdotes, stories, poems, histories, legends, myths, about real or imaginary people and things. Fifth, there must be a store of desires, hopes, objectives, plans about the current situation or the future. Sixth, there must be in the mind knowledge of how to carry out all kinds of manual and mental actions – how to use a can opener, how to do sums, how to tie a knot, how to tell a joke, as well as knowledge of how to behave in all sorts of situation, social codes and norms. Much of this may be ‘tacit’ knowledge – we know how to do something, even though we may not be able to describe how we do it. In some way, also, we store emotions, so important in our lives, colouring every thought and action.


All this we know – or rather, think we know. We can perhaps divide our personal knowledge into three groups. Some of it – the ‘semantic’ material – makes statements purporting to describe states of affairs in the external world, and these may be true or false, or partly so. Much in the mind – images, episodes, tales, even factual or ‘how to’ knowledge – consists of memories of what we have perceived or experienced or learnt, and these memories may be correct or incorrect to some degree. Last, there are our internal desires, objectives, emotions, that can be judged neither as true/false nor as correct/incorrect, but only as, in some sense, good/bad. 


‘Correctness’ does not seem, in principle, to be a difficult concept – for example, it is easy to check whether we have remembered a poem correctly if we can consult a published version of it, and we may check our understanding of how to carry out an action by comparing it with the ‘best practice’ of an acknowledged expert. The correctness of a ‘factual statement’ about some object, event or phenomenon in the world (e.g. that a measure of the petrol usage of my car is X miles per litre) can be checked by repeating the observation, if necessary under more closely controlled conditions. But the correctness of a remembered image or episode may be impossible to check – the event itself is past and gone.


What can we say of ‘truth’? A generalisation about the world is a mental conclusion based upon whatever evidence is available, combining our perceptions and observations with prior knowledge that we take as ‘given’. What we hold to be true, believe to be the truth, is dependent on what evidence is available to us, what we find acceptable as evidence, what prior knowledge we take as established, perhaps ‘self-evident’, what assumptions we introduce (perhaps unnoticed) into our explanations, and even on whether or not we find the conclusion acceptable, pleasing, bearable, in accord with our desires, hopes and objectives. Because of this variety of factors influencing belief, philosophers have proposed various criteria for truth.


Materialist truth criteria


Materialism does not seek for ‘absolute truth’. From the primitive level of consciously understanding almost nothing of the world, man slowly develops a continually wider and deeper understanding. Each new generalisation achieved is not ‘the truth at last’, but one step nearer to the ever-receding goal of truth.


We have all had experiences of unexpected insight, intuition, in which an understanding of something suddenly dawns, which stands the test of later experience. But to count as a ‘truth’, materialism requires that a statement about the world be backed up by evidence and reasoned argument. Consonant with its world view, materialism further requires that the evidence be ‘material’, i.e. based on facts that can be tested in a material fashion, not calling on any alleged immaterial, supernatural phenomena that are not subject to test by other people.


The materialist view is therefore that the generalisations about the way the world is that are most eligible as candidates for truth are those that (a) are based on practical, observational evidence that can, in principle at least, be checked for correctness, verified, (b) incorporate only such other knowledge as has been similarly based, (c) explicitly identify assumptions or explanatory hypotheses introduced, (d) reach their conclusions by fully logical reasoning, (e) are compatible with a wide range of other knowledge statements in their field, and (f) are themselves open to further practical, observational verification.


If a generalisation fulfills these criteria, the chance that it is influenced by unacceptable evidence, hidden assumptions and subjective bias is minimised. This does not make it ‘true’ – certainly not in any ‘absolute’ sense. The evidence and other knowledge used may still be too narrowly selective, relating only to certain aspects of the state of affairs in question and neglecting relevant factors; the assumptions and hypotheses used may turn out to be untenable; the reasoning may turn out to be flawed; and the conclusion may be falsified. But the generalisation is a valid ‘conjecture’ about the world. Even if fully verified, it can only claim to be a conditional, provisional truth, usable until a better one comes along. Facts about particulars can be certain (that I ate cornflakes for breakfast every day last week) but not general ‘truths’, conclusions from the facts (that I always eat cornflakes for breakfast).


It has been said that though no generalisation can claim to be certainly true, it is possible to claim one as certainly false: one example of me not eating cornflakes for breakfast will disprove the conclusion cited above. But such outright falsification only succeeds against generalisations that themselves claim universality (that they are ‘always’ true). A conditional, provisional truth is only weakened, not refuted, by a counter-example. 


The materialist criteria set out above are those familiarly used in the natural and social sciences, and indeed in any scholarly discipline. Other philosophical approaches to truth differ from them in either (a) the kinds of evidence or (b) the kinds of verification they will accept, or (c) more generally, the kind of  ‘justification’ that is put forward.


Alternative criteria


Many people accept an insight based on intuition as some evidence of truth. Certainly, it can be a step on the road to truth. Intuition into a state of affairs on which one has pondered much is an imaginative leap to a conclusion that has not yet been argued out, but it should be treated as a hypothesis that needs to be tested.


‘Faith’ is belief that something is the case even though no concrete evidence for it can be produced. In a sense, all world views are matters of faith. As discussed earlier, the sceptical argument that sensation does not correspond with reality is to be rejected, not because it can be disproved, but because it is so much less convincing than its materialist counterpart. As already noted, materialism is based on ‘animal faith’ (Santayana). It is faith in the supernatural that materialism rejects.


The world view of ‘pragmatism’ is to contrast truth with ‘justification’, defined in various ways. The ‘consensus’ view of justification is that a statement about the world is justified (and in that sense ‘true’) if it is one ‘which would be endorsed unanimously by all persons with sufficient relevant experience to judge it’. The ‘instrumentalist’ view is that a statement is true ‘if behaviour based on it leads to beneficial results for its believers’ (Kirkham). The function of enquiry is thus not to represent reality but to enable us to act more effectively. Pragmatism rejects both ‘the idea that knowledge is accurate representation and the idea that reality has an intrinsic nature […] Finding out what there is is a matter of finding out what descriptions of things will best fulfil our needs. So philosophers should stop asking about the nature of reality or of  knowledge’ (Rorty).


Pragmatists claim to set the fulfilment of human needs as the prime target for enquiry and investigation, not the understanding of reality. If a statement about the world is endorsed by ‘experts’, and acting on it is beneficial to those who endorse it, then it is justified. In this sense, a statement is true if it works. The materialist view is that a statement works if it’s true, while agreeing that one way of testing a statement is to apply it in a practical situation to discover whether it gives the predicted results. The fulfilment of human needs is indeed a prime target, but to discover how to achieve this we also need knowledge. It may, for example, be endorsed by experts that genetically modified crops will provide more needed food, and acting on this belief may be beneficial for those who endorse it. But, first, the belief itself is based on acquired knowledge (how to make genetic modifications) and second, we require sound evidence that the application of this knowledge will indeed be beneficial, not just to those who ‘endorse’ it but to the humans who are in need.


‘Justification is obviously neither eternal nor absolute, because it is relative to the composition of the audience to which it is offered’ (Rorty). This implies that the same statement may be regarded as justified by one ‘audience’ , but not by others. In fact, different collectivities of people have different beliefs as to what they accept as ‘true’.  This is so for various reasons. What people believe is a  reflection of  their individual experiences in life, the range of facts and influences to which they have been exposed, their social positions, and most usually the perceived interests of the ‘reference groups’ with whom they most closely identify.


Knowledge, truth, is needed as a guide to practical action in the world, and satisfies man’s ‘insatiable curiosity’. But belief plays many other roles – it can inspire to action, it can console, it can reconcile one with one’s lot, it can provide one with some personal goal to pursue … ‘How much faith a person requires in order to flourish, how much “fixed opinion” he requires which he does not wish to have shaken […]  Men have an impatient longing for certainty, a longing by all means to get at something stable […] Even the readiness with which our cleverest contemporaries get lost in wretched corners and alleys, for example in chauvinism, or in petty aesthetic creeds, or in nihilism (the belief in unbelief) – this shows always and above all the need for belief, support, backbone, and buttress’ (Nietzsche). Having beliefs for such reasons, people seek to make them respectable, to ‘justify’ them.


‘Relativism’ is the philosophical viewpoint that every such justification is equally valid, because it is beneficial for its believers, and there is no universal criterion against which particular justifications can be judged. If all social theories and ideologies are biased statements reflecting the views and interests of a particular social group, then none of them can lay claim to truth. This would hold not only for the ideologies of the past, but also for all the varied theories about the world that are current today. Each is true only ‘relative’ to the social environment in which it was formulated. Such relativism can therefore become a form of scepticism – the relativist is sceptical of the validity of any social theory.


During the twentieth century this approach began to be applied even to natural science. Historians of science started to look closely at the major theoretical changes that have occurred from time to time, ‘scientific revolutions’ such as those introduced by Copernicus and Kepler in putting the sun at the centre of the solar system, by Newton and his establishment of gravity as a universal force, by Einstein’s theories of relativity, by Darwin and natural selection, and so on. Each major theoretical innovation was seen as creating a new ‘paradigm’, that defined what problems would be studied, how data would be interpreted, what criteria would be used to evaluate solutions, what experimental procedures would be deemed acceptable, and while this paradigm held sway, ‘normal’ science would develop within the limits that it laid down. The more radical relativists maintained that each new paradigm in a scientific field was ‘incommensurable’, incompatible with the paradigm it replaced, and consequently could not be regarded as an extension or refinement of the old paradigm – it was a new creation. If the source of a new paradigm did not lie in the development of science itself, then it could be seen as emerging from the social environment in which the science was practised, and if this was the case, then it could be regarded as ‘true’ only relative to that environment. One could become sceptical of the validity of any scientific theory.


In assessing a scientific theory, therefore, the radical relativist is not so interested in whether it is ‘true’, but rather in elucidating why the author believes the theory, what personal or social circumstances have led him to it. Two sociologists of science put it like this: ‘the incidence of all beliefs without exception [regardless of truth or falsity] calls for investigation and must be accounted for by finding specific, local causes of their credibility’ (Barnes and Bloor). If all knowledge is relative, the only thing worth doing is to investigate ‘relative to what’, to demonstrate the relation of a theory to its social environment.


Radical relativism – ‘every theory is relative, so none can be believed’ –  is not even self-consistent. It is, after all, put forward as a theory in which people are asked to believe, but on what grounds can it claim to be true when all else is discarded?  Writing of relativism, it has been said that ‘there is a curious and unnatural but effective division of labour between the man who denies that anything is absolute, and the man who says that he himself is absolute. The “left” intellectual takes upon himself the merciless task of exposing the relativity of all values, standards and rules, supplementing it by a secret longing for an unproblematic absoluteness beyond all doubt. The “right” intellectual picks up the thread, and gathers the profits of the argument, loudly trumpeting into the public ear the unquestionable validity of his pretentions as against the obvious invalidity of everybody else’s’ (Kolnai).


‘Postmodernism’ goes beyond relativism into a kind of nihilism. This viewpoint maintains that any set of ideas is the product of the thinking of a particular social group, ‘local’, or situated in a particular time and social environment, rigidly circumscribed by the interests and prejudices of the group, reflecting the historical conditions of its existence. There is no impartial knowledge, there are merely stories, ‘narratives’, devised to satisfy particular human needs to make some sense of the world. Such narratives express in unacknowledged ways the interests, prejudices and conceits of their devisers. But they are not to be accepted as ‘justified’ because they are beneficial to their believers. The aim of the postmodernist is to ‘deconstruct’, to dissect out the self-interest underlying any set of ideas, to show its hollowness, to reveal that its seeming coherence is illusory. In the end, such a viewpoint maintains, there is nothing worth believing.


The language used by postmodernism is often condemnatory, moralistic. There is talk of prejudices, conceits, self-interest, hollowness. Indeed, this is brought out in a passage in a philosophical text that seeks to sum up the postmodernist mood:  ‘Disenchanted eyes are now cast onto the West’s long history of ruthless expansionism and exploitation – the rapacity of its elites from ancient times to modern, its systematic thriving at the expense of others, its colonialism and imperialism, its slavery and genocide, its anti-Semitism, its oppression of women, people of colour, minorities, homosexuals, the working classes, the poor, its destruction of indigenous societies throughout the world, its arrogant insensitivity to other cultural traditions and values, its cruel abuse of other forms of life, its blind savaging of virtually the entire planet’ (Tarnas). In the light of this condemnation, ‘The whole project [of modernity] to grasp and articulate a foundational reality is a futile exercise in linguistic game-playing, a sustained but doomed effort to move beyond elaborate fictions of its own creation’ (ibid.). It appears that the search for knowledge is being rejected for moral reasons.


The rise of mechanical materialism


So far I have written about materialism as though it were a homogeneous outlook, but in fact it has undergone developments that are today not fully appreciated. To set it in context, let us consider something of its history.


Early Greek philosophers started from the experienced fact of continual change, in things and men, and began to speculate on an abiding ground for these changes. They conceived of a ‘world-stuff’, which undergoes transformations, from which all individual things arise, and sought ways of combining the ideas of a stable ‘being’ and an ever-changing ‘becoming’. From this there developed the thought that the ‘world-stuff’ consisted of eternal, unchangeable, minute atoms, varying only in size and shape, ever moving, which temporarily combined together to produce the evanescent things of this world. Thus material change was explained by the incessant motion and agitation of the unchanging atoms, the motion itself being accepted as a ‘given’ characteristic, a ‘fact of nature’. The different qualities of things, and qualitative change, were ‘reduced’ to quantitative, mechanical differences in the size, shape and disposition of the atoms.


We become aware of things by the act of perception, e.g. vision, and the atomists offered a mechanism for this. Each real world object emitted an image or ‘efflux’ which was a  small copy of the thing. This impacted on the atoms that constituted a sense organ such as the eye and imparted to them a motion which ‘mirrored’ the imaged object, and by this means we perceived the world. Whence came our thought of atoms?  The Greek atomists such as Democritus and Epicurus maintained that objects emitted, not only relatively ‘coarse’ images mirroring the gross structure of things, but also very fine images of their atomic structure, and that these could be apprehended by the equally fine atoms that constituted the ‘mind’. Thus the contrast between perception and thought was also represented as a quantitative difference between the atoms concerned.


The Roman atomist Lucretius elaborated these ideas. The mind was ‘part of a man, no less than hand or foot or eye’. The mind, a conglomeration of very fine atoms, ‘foresees’ an image of the action it wishes to take (e.g. walking), and ‘immediately jogs the vital spirit diffused through every limb and organ of the body, the spirit  in turn jogs the body, and so the whole bulk is set in motion’. Lucretius further held that plants and animals in past times were engendered out of the earth, as was also man. The difficulties and dangers of primitive life led men to form ‘mutual alliances’, and practical convenience led to communication through language. Technical crafts and the arts were taught by ‘the active mind’s experience as men groped their way forward step by step’ (Lucretius). The gods might exist, but they were remote from human affairs. 


Thus early materialism developed views on the atomic structure of matter and the mechanism of material change, the nature of perception and thought, the relation between mind and body, the origination of living organisms from the inanimate, and the development of human society and its activities. Aristotle, who in many ways summed up the achievements of Greek philosophy, rejected atomism, but made many advances in understanding which could eventually be incorporated into materialism. He did not visualise a ‘world-stuff’ out of which things were constructed. Each individual thing was an independent ‘substance’, material shaped by ‘form’, with its own innate set of qualities. And each substance was subject to change, in particular ‘coming-to-be’ and ‘passing-away’, in short, development. He conceived Nature ‘as the connected system of substances viewed as a unity, in which matter, Becoming ever higher, from form to form, through all the multitude of its particular shapes, approaches the resting Being of the deity’ (Windelband).


In the seventeenth century A.D., the ideas of the Greek atomists were revived by Gassendi. He too ascribed perception to an image emitted by an object, mirroring its ‘form’, in the Aristotelian sense. These images ‘preserved the pattern and configuration of the objects, and excited in the sense organ a motion of similar pattern and configuration’ (Randall). But what of ideas, such as that of atoms? Gassendi did not write of ‘very fine images’, but of  ‘prenotions’, not delivered to the mind by sense, but assumptions made in order to render the fact of motion intelligible (ibid.). However Hobbes, in the same seventeenth century, reduced both perception and thought to mechanical motion. He asserted that perceptions arise from motions in the material objects that press upon our senses, and cause motions within us: ‘for motion produceth nothing but motion’. ‘The growth of knowledge is to be understood as the mechanical succession of images’ (ibid.). Further, to Hobbes, ‘men are bodies in motion, to be restrained only by force’ (ibid.).


In the eighteenth century, Locke continued this mechanical approach. The real constitution of material objects was evidenced by their ‘primary’ qualities, ‘their bulk, figure, number, situation and motion’. Their impact on us provided us with sensations, including such ‘secondary’ qualities as colour, sound, smell, taste. All our knowledge was derived by reflection on the experience that these sensations provided. French materialists such as Cabanis accepted this ‘sensationalism’. ‘Sense impressions, arriving at the brain, set it in activity […] Its function is to perceive each impression, to attach signs to it, to combine different impressions, to compare them, to draw judgments from them […] to return them changed into ideas. The brain in some manner “digests” the impressions’ (Randall). This whole development of mechanical materialism was summed up by Holbach. Man was the work of Nature. He was a being purely physical. All knowledge came from sense contact. The universe consisted only of matter and motion, ultimate ‘facts of nature’, giving rise to an uninterrupted succession of cause and effect (ibid.). Probably the last full statement of traditional materialism was the enlarged 1884 edition of a widely read work by Büchner, quoting all his predecessors back to Democritus, fully embracing geological and biological evolution, but still asserting a kind of atomism, for example: ‘All the so-called imponderables – such as heat, light, electricity, magnetism – are neither more nor less than changes in the reciprocal conditions or the active state of the minutest particles’ (Büchner).


Marxist critique


Karl Marx made few direct comments on philosophical materialism. He briefly traced its descent, since the Renaissance, from either the physics of Descartes or the English materialism that began with Bacon, naming La Mettrie and Holbach as two who united these trends, and stressed particularly the ‘mechanical’ nature of this early materialism. As Wood pointed out, Engels, the colleague of Marx, tried to be more explicit about the materialist world outlook, but did not produce a consistent statement. For example, for him materialism was concerned with ‘the relation of thinking to being’; it maintained that ‘nature’ was original and primary, not ‘spirit’; and that ‘mind was merely the highest product of matter’ (Engels). Wood suggested a unifying way of looking at these statements, by considering that the fundamental tenet of Marxist materialism is ‘naturalism’ (Wood). This is the view that there is only one reality, the world of ‘nature’ (including man as part of that world); that we will call the total content of this world ‘matter’; that there is no ‘spirit’, no supernatural or immaterial agencies outside or inside or beside this matter; and that therefore the operations of ‘mind’ are ‘merely’ those of a highly organised form of matter.


Engels criticised earlier materialism on two grounds, both arising from limitations in the scientific understanding of its time: first, ‘its exclusive application of mechanics’ to explain the activities of the natural world, and second, ‘its inability to comprehend the universe as a process, as matter undergoing uninterrupted historical development’. (Engels). For Marx, the ‘chief defect of all previous materialism’ was something different. He criticised its basic methodological approach: he complained that it conceived of the real environment of man only as an ‘object’ to be contemplated, interpreted in a static way. For him, this reality was what man interacted with, and understanding of it had to be reached via ‘human sensuous activity, practice […] All mysteries which mislead theory into mysticism find their rational solution in human practice and in the comprehension of this practice […]  Philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways: the point, however, is to change it’ – and it is in this activity that we change our understanding of the world (Marx)


The defects of mechanical materialism are today fairly obvious, and provide an easy target for philosophical critics. First, perception – the source of knowledge – was viewed in a wholly passive manner: things ‘impacted’ on our sense organs, giving rise to sensations, on which the mind or brain ‘went to work’, in ways that were far from clear. Second, such impacts – and the material ‘motions’ from which they derived – were viewed as purely mechanical: this was a reflection of the earlier state of science, which only in the nineteenth century began to recognise other forms of ‘motion’ such as electrical, chemical, biological and social. Third,  the cause of any activity was seen as purely external: a body moved because another body bumped into it (or gravitationally attracted it), the mind or brain was ‘set into activity’ by the arrival of an impression. Only generalised mechanical motion was accepted as an inherent attribute of matter. Incidentally, neither Marx nor Engels ever gave philosophical allegiance to an atomic view of matter: for them, the constitution of matter was something that science would continue to elucidate, and its findings could not be prejudged.


What is needed to go beyond mechanical materialism? First, to see the source of knowledge to be, not the passive receipt of sensations, but the active interaction of men with their natural and social environments. In the course of this interaction, both the environment and man are changed, the most important changes in man being the growth of his knowledge and understanding of the environment, and his ability to act on it. Second, to recognise that these interactions are not purely mechanical or even physical, but embrace every type of relation, biological, intellectual, emotional, social. Third, to understand that, just as material particles have an innate activity (incessant mechanical motion), so every ‘substance’ (in the Aristotelian sense) has its own ‘self-activity’: chemicals are ‘innately’ reactive; a living cell spontaneously moves, grows, metabolises, reproduces; a dog does what dogs do; the mind and brain have their own incessant activities. Man is continually initiating actions on his environment in order to satisfy his own needs and desires, not just waiting to be ‘impacted’. He is not just interpreting sensations and signals from his environment: he is trying to change it to serve his own purposes.


The evolution of matter


The comment by Engels on comprehending the universe as matter undergoing uninterrupted historical development can best be amplified by considering the findings of modern science. The central finding is that an evolutionary development of the world can be demonstrated, starting (as far back as can yet be traced) from a state of immensely condensed ‘matter’, from which emerged in succession elementary particles, atoms, galaxies, stars, planets, living organisms, conscious beings, human societies (Chaisson). A more detailed sketch of this development is shown in Figure 1.






Figure 1: The evolution of complexity



The implication of cosmic evolution is that a series of levels of material organisation has successively come into existence, each integrating elements from lower levels. Thus, from an unbelievably dense and hot radiation ‘chaos’, elementary particles were formed which then combined into simple atoms such as hydrogen and helium; later, ‘gravitational instabilities and statistical fluctuations’ caused some of the atoms to assemble into vast clumps, which became the galaxies that we now observe; within the galaxies, smaller clumps began to form – stars – and in their hot interiors larger atoms began to develop, until the whole range of chemical elements became available. Each star goes through a developmental sequence, a life cycle, some of them forming planets.


On at least one planet, in some watery environment there were formed organic molecules, perhaps primitive nucleic acids analogous to DNA or RNA, that displayed a new characteristic: they could make copies of themselves (replicate) using simpler chemicals in the environment; the replicant molecules became assembled into primitive ‘protocells’; from these eventually were formed an immense diversity of animal and plant species (populations of interbreeding individuals), one of which (humans) developed the characteristics of  consciousness, language and conceptual thought.


At each hierarchical level, it seems that some entities have the capacity to combine with others at that level to form a higher-level entity. Thus certain combinations of protons and neutrons form atomic nuclei, which with electrons form atoms. Atoms combine in certain ways to form a large number of different molecules. Certain types of molecule display new characteristics that we refer to as ‘life’. Among living organisms there is a series of transitions to ever more complex modes of organisation, such as the following (Maynard Smith):



Here we see a hierarchy of levels of organisation, each more complex than its predecessor. They are distinguished by the nature of the material relations at each level. For example, in protocells, there is a cooperative relation among replicant molecules, which is enhanced in the chromosome; in nucleated cells, there are cooperative relations among the various cell components; in multicellular organisms, among the various cells and types of cell.


Even if we defined ‘matter’ as elementary particles and the forces between them, in a sense it would still be true that ‘the world is entirely composed of matter’. But it is not ‘nothing but’ elementary particles: matter also includes a succession and a hierarchy of ever more complex and highly organised structures, and the relations between them. At each level, the new structure displays new characteristic properties and behaviour, that its constituent entities are not capable of displaying.  The transitions from one level to another, whether from elementary particles to atom, from inanimate molecules to living cells,  or from animal to human, are problems for the sciences to investigate and elucidate. Neither the origin of life nor the birth of consciousness is in principle a philosophical problem, any more than the origin of the helium nucleus or the solar system. All were natural material processes, amenable to scientific investigation. Even though the characteristic of consciousness is indeed one about which we as yet understand relatively little, no extra non-natural (let alone supernatural) ingredient needs to be postulated.


The problems that this view of matter poses are concrete: (1) For each level of the evolutionary hierarchy, to elucidate the properties and behaviour of the entities that exist at that level, and the interactions between these entities. (2) Further, to explore the life cycle of each such entity, how it originates, develops and eventually passes away. (3) To analyse the constituents of entities at each level, and their interactions with each other. (4) To study the relationship between the activities of these constituents and those of the entities of which they are part, i.e. their functional roles.


Contemporary materialism


How does contemporary philosophical materialism relate to the scenario so far sketched? Let us look again at some current philosophical definitions of materialism. It is defined as ‘the view that the world is entirely composed of matter’, and matter is then defined as ‘that which occupies space’ (Blackburn). ‘Materialism is the general theory that the ultimate constituents of reality are material or physical bodies, elements or processes […] It holds that everything in existence is reducible to what is material or physical in nature […] All events and facts are explainable, actually or in principle, in terms of body, material objects or dynamic material changes or movements’ (Stack). ‘Physicalism (sometimes known as materialism) is the thesis that everything is physical […] Physicalists don’t deny that the world might contain many items that at first glance don’t seem physical – items of a biological or psychological or moral or social nature. But they insist that at the end of the day such items are wholly physical’ (Stoljar). ‘Put bluntly, the [materialist] view is just this: everything that actually exists is material, or physical. This view originated among the pre-Socratic philosophers in ancient Greece’ (Moser and Trout).


It is evident that these definitions are wholly in keeping with the old mechanical materialism. The term ‘matter’ is used to mean physical bodies that occupy space, and it is stated or implied that everything in the world can be explained by, be reducible to such physical objects. So by an act of philosophical faith, these philosophers claim that science, if it works diligently, will find that everything is thus explicable and reducible, and no doubt would wish also to urge science to direct its investigations along these lines. Marxist materialism made no such claims, and one might be tempted to sweep the whole argument aside, saying that it is for science to discover what explanations will best fit the facts. But since ‘reducibility’ or ‘reductionism’ has its advocates within science itself, it needs to be examined more closely.


It will be convenient henceforth to follow the example of many modern philosophers, and to use the term ‘physicalism’ as a label for contemporary materialism. Physicalism agrees with earlier materialism in one respect: it evokes no supernatural agencies in its description of the world. But the definitions just quoted show that, for physicalism, although ‘everything is physical’, there is some distinction to be drawn between the ‘physical’ to which everything can be reduced, and those aspects of the world that can be so reduced. Out of the total ‘material’ world, it separates the mental from the physical, using the latter to label, either everything not mental, or more specifically inanimate bodies. If we look back at the four ‘problem areas’ at the end of the last section, it seems that it is problem (4) with which physicalism has philosophical difficulties. It is asserted that, at some level(s) of the hierarchy, the relation between the activities at one level and activities at its lower constituent level is not straightforwardly scientific, but needs philosophical elucidation. Even 100 years ago, the level at which the world became philosophically problematic was for some that of the living organism, which could only be explained by the emergence of a ‘vital spirit’. Today, it is at the level of  the mind, more particularly the conscious mind. 


We are all aware of the many activities of the human mind: perceiving, interpreting sensations, forming images and representations of the outside world; having emotions and desires that drive us to action; remembering past images, events, learnt skills, thoughts; using language to report, query, persuade, command, amuse; forming general concepts, reasoning logically, making judgments, having beliefs and opinions and attitudes and values; making plans and choices; imagining what we have never perceived; interacting with the environment to produce artefacts and tools; interacting with other people cooperatively or antagonistically; and so on and on. In naming these activities I use familiar psychological terms, which some have called ‘folk psychology’. I think that everyone, materialist or not, at times stands amazed: how can a physical body be capable of such activities? The most difficult to interpret physically, some maintain, are the experiences of  ‘what it is like’ to see colour, or to feel pain. Many philosophers indeed, past and present, consider that, in principle, no materialist or physicalist answer to that can be valid. There is an unbridgable ‘explanatory gap’ between the mental and the physical.


The materialist replies that there is incontrovertible evidence that the mental evolved from the physical, so there is no material gap, and the task for science is to understand how that evolution occurred. Eventually the explanatory gap will be bridged. The contemporary physicalist approach is to ask: how can we philosophically think about the gap so as to make the existence of the mind’s activities plausible, even if not yet explained?  More specifically, what relation can we conceive to hold between mental activities and other activities of the living organism?


Explaining behaviour


Mental activity, whatever else it may be, is one aspect of the behaviour of a living organism. It will be helpful at this point to remind ourselves how biological behaviour is currently explained in science.


The biologist Mayr asked a question about biological behaviour: why did one American warbler bird in my garden migrate south on August 25 this year, but his mate did not, nor did the nut-hatches that nested nearby? (Mayr). One answer is that the migrating bird responded physiologically to drops in the hours of daylight and air temperature. The observed outcome was that there was a change of state: the bird moved from north to south. The reason put forward describes the causal mechanism whereby the change of state occurred: environmental conditions in the north changed, and this initiated a change in the bird. The phrase ‘responded physiologically’ could be elucidated , to describe the physiological and behavioural mechanisms in the bird that the environmental changes initiated, and that led the bird to migrate. Why did it move from north to south? The cause was that there was not enough food in the north during winter to sustain it. So causal mechanism is one form of explanation used in biology. The mechanism can be external (the environment, lack of food, cold weather), internal (physiological in this case), or both.


But another reason can be given for warbler bird migration: the bird’s evolutionary history had given it a genetic constitution that programmed it to migrate under these circumstances. In the same way, a fertilised warbler embryo, in the right conditions (inside a nutritious egg that is kept warm), invariably becomes a warbler. Inside the embryo there is an explicit programme in the genome that carries instructions for the details of the change. Mayr gave the name ‘teleonomic’ to such programmed change, the second form of explanation used in biology.


Inside a bird there are various organs, each of which has one or more functions that contribute to its life. To answer the question ‘why does a warbler have a heart?’ by saying ‘to pump blood round the body and so carry needed oxygen to its parts’ is to give a functional explanation: the activity of the heart contributes to the activity of  the body. Similarly, its temperature-sensing ability contributes to its behaviour. This is a third form of biological explanation.


The causal origins of organisms, their components and their activities, are nowadays given an evolutionary explanation. Each teleonomic programme – a genome – is subject to chance variation and, through the operation of the programme during development of the organism, this leads to variation of the adult organism (phenotype). Some variants are more successful than others in surviving and reproducing, so the population of genomes and of phenotypes changes, via continual selective interaction with the environment. This evolutionary development includes not only the formation of new components and activities within organisms, but also new relations between those components and activities. Functional dependence and integration thus has an evolutionary origin. This fourth form of biological explanation thus looks to the history of the population to explain how a particular organism got to be the way it is. The nut-hatches did not migrate because their evolutionary history was different from the warbler’s.


There is a fifth form: why did the warbler’s mate not migrate? Because earlier in the year she had injured a wing, and could not fly well enough. The history of the individual is another form of explanation.


It seems reasonable to claim that the explanation of mental behaviour should also need to look at causal mechanisms, teleonomic programs, functional explanations, evolutionary and individual history, for example in explaining why, one day in 1600 or so, William Shakespeare took up a pen and wrote the words ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? Thou art more lovely and more temperate’. But we are a very long way from being able to do that.


The brain is clearly a specialised organ of the body, as is the heart or the kidneys. It is an elaboration of the nervous system, and its sensorimotor function is fairly clear. Even in animals much simpler than the human, signals from the environment received as sensations are transmitted to a nervous system, which then initiates particular motor action. The nervous system is acting as a decision mechanism, matching action to signal.


In such a context, what is the function of consciousness, awareness of the environment in the form of images, feelings and thoughts about them? Various suggestions have been put forward (Van Gulick). (1) Conscious mental processes may provide more flexible and adaptive forms of body control than do unconscious automatic processes, so they are important when dealing with novel situations and new problems. (2) Consciousness may offer an enhanced understanding of the mental states of fellow creatures with whom one has to interact. (3) Consciousness presents us, not with isolated aspects of the world – simple signals about one feature – but with an integrated structured world of objects, leading to wider understanding of the environment and greater variety of response. (4) The information carried in conscious mental states may be available for use by a diversity of mental subsystems and thus be applied in a range of potential situations and actions. (5) We are conscious, not only of information received from the environment, but also of the flows of internal thought and feeling, and can thus consciously link both external and internal data in deciding on action. (6) In various ways, therefore, consciousness opens up a realm of possibilities, and might seem to be a necessary precondition for the exercise of free choice of action.


The relation between mind and brain


One scientific view of this relation was expressed seventy years ago: ‘A conscious being is a portion of the stuff of reality organised so that it is intensely conscious; not mind and body, but body and mind in one. Body is one aspect of this unity, mind is another. The matter of physics and chemistry and the conscious spirit of the human mind are two aspects of the organisms we call men and women. In the light of such a conception the old question, whether mind determines the actions of matter or matter determines those of mind, ceases to have any meaning at all […] If the world-stuff is organised in a particular way, in the form which develops into a human being, it will be both a body and a mind – a Mind-Body’ (Wells, Huxley and Wells).


We know that science has established that mental activity is in some sense correlated with the physical brain (if no brain, then no thought or feeling). All materialists would agree that in some manner the physical activities of the brain generate or enable mental activities, but they disagree on the nature of the relationship between the two.


The physicalist ‘identity theory’ claims that conscious mental properties, states and processes are identical with physical ones, more particularly with the neurophysiological. Some of these theorists claim that, if mental and physiological are identical, there is no need to explain how P (the latter) gives rise to M (the former): P does not cause M, it is it. There is no explanatory gap to bridge (Van Gulick). The theory maintains that ‘a man is a vast arrangement of physical particles, and there are not, over and above this, sensations or states of consciousness. There are just behavioural facts about this vast mechanism, such that it expresses a disposition [on occasions] to say “I see a red patch” or “I am in pain” […] Sensations are nothing over and above brain processes’ (Smart//). It appears also that the mechanism has a disposition, in some cases, to assert philosophical theories.


If there are no mental states, what are we to make of  the ‘folk psychology’ which we use to talk about the mind? ‘Eliminative physicalism’ suggests that it is so defective that we should look forward to the day when we can eliminate it, replace it with direct descriptions of brain states. (Presumably, ‘folk philosophy’ might also be defective and replaceable.) Language itself, the medium we use to talk folk psychology and philosophy, is ‘an extremely peripheral activity’ (Churchland, P.M.). This author envisages the time when research into neural structures has demonstrated that the machinery of the brain can handle processes far more complex than language. Guided by this new understanding, we might then manage to construct a new form of communication entirely distinct from human language, with different and more complex syntactic and semantic structures, which could be learnt and used verbally by humans and could also be used directly by our brain machinery. This would raise the efficiency of information exchange by an order of magnitude (ibid.). This happy outcome is perhaps rather far ahead. At present, it is even the case that ‘we still do not understand the general nature of sensorimotor representation’, let alone the language of the future (Churchland, P.S.).


Some physicalist philosophers see another problem with mental states. They accept that they exist, and that in some way they are generated by the brain. But they cannot believe that the mental states can act back causally on the brain. Such states are ‘epiphenomena’, produced by the physical activities of the brain as a by-product. Consciousness plays no role in human behaviour. When I am offered a variety of  food dishes, the epiphenomenalist claims, the sight and smell of each that I experience does not influence my choice among them.When I touch a hot surface, I feel pain, but the sensation plays no causal role in the quick movement of my hand. If this is the case, must we assume that all the passions that men and women have displayed in history, all the world’s literature and art, all the philosopher’s ideas, are no more than froth on the sea of reality? For what possible reason could evolution have produced such an odd byproduct, with no practical consequences and therefore no survival value?


Why – among all the interactions that we recognise in the world – should this alone be regarded as ‘one-way’, the brain causing mental states, but no reverse causality? The epiphenomenalists claim that this behaviour must be ‘built into’ matter, as a ‘psychophysical law’, that some physical processes (such as brain processes) automatically generate epiphenomenal processes. Indeed, some philosophers argue that such behaviour must be built into matter ‘from the beginning’, so that perhaps an electron potentially knows ‘what it’s like’ to – to do what? (Sloman 1996 has serious fun with this kind of idea).


I find it difficult to see what value these speculations have for either the scientific or the philosophical understanding of the relation between mind and brain, and indeed I am surprised that some philosophers are willing to take them seriously. Fortunately, few physicalists are prone to such fancies. They accept the reality of mental states, and aim to locate mental activities within the physical world, but on the basis of some psychophysical relationship short of identity or elimination or epiphenomena. Among common variants of this view are those that take conscious reality to be composed of the physical, or to be ‘reducible’ to the physical , or to ‘supervene’ on the physical, or to be ‘realised’ by the physical (Van Gulick). We will consider these various relationships in general terms, not only in relation to consciousness. But first there are some general issues to be discussed.


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The material mind - part 2




Brian Vickery



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Correspondence and representation


If our perceptions of the world are not ‘exactly like’ the world, what are they like? What does it mean to say that they ‘correspond’ to the world? Is the redness really in the rose, as well as in ourselves?


Science has established that what the human eye focusses on the retina is an ever-changing intricate pattern of light of varying intensity and wave-length. By a sequence of processes, of which only the early stages have yet been elucidated, the effect of such a visual impression is that the human viewer reports that he sees, perhaps just a light pattern, but most frequently a ‘scene’ in which he discerns coloured physical objects, such as red roses, stationary or moving. He sees things in process, their properties and relations. Our direct perception seems to be a mental interpretation of sensations occasioned by the impinging of signals from the external world onto our sense organs. In some sense there must be similarity between perception and reality, for I can see a novel object, draw or photograph it, show the illustration to a second person, who will later identify an observed object from the illustration. Even a verbal description of an object may be sufficient for the other person to recognise it when he sees it, though assuredly a verbal description is not ‘like’ an object in any facsimile sense. 


A great deal of philosophic time has been spent in arguing how it can be possible for a patterned image to be interpreted as a scene with coloured physical objects. When we had no knowledge of the physical natures of light and of the nervous system, such speculation was inevitable. But today the problem – still far from solved – is one for science, for psychology and physiology.


Can we say more about what is preserved, what is common to, a perception and its external source? A harp is plucked, and we hear a succession of sounds; atoms vibrate and emit radiation, and we see a lamp; a brick falls onto our toes, and we feel a sharp pain. The external source and the mental response seem to be of different natures. How can we say that we ‘know’ the external world? Materialists assert that we form representations in which the ‘structure’ of the world is preserved. Let us explore this concept.


If we listen to piano music, what we sense is a sequence of sounds of varying quality, which may give rise to pleasurable emotions. If we examine the piano with hand and eye, all we can find is a set of strings of varying length, each with a different quality of vibration. Yet we may say that what we hear ‘corresponds’ to what has occurred at the piano: the pattern of string striking does have a structural resemblance to the pattern of received sound. We understand this structural correspondence or ‘mapping’ so well that a composer can mentally think of a tune; he can then represent its structure in writing (as musical notation); a pianist can read this notation, and manipulate his fingers according to the pattern recorded; this in turn causes the strings of the piano to vibrate in a certain sequence; the pattern of vibrations is translated into a series of sound waves, that impinge on the ear of the composer; who can judge how well his original thought pattern has been maintained in this long ‘causal chain’. We can even extend the chain by introducing new ‘correspondences’: a microphone can pick up the sound waves and translate them into electrical signals, which a transmitter can convert to radio waves, these to be collected by a receiver, which via electrical signals drives a loudspeaker, from which sound waves are again emitted.


At each stage of the process, the structure (in this case, a tune) is represented in terms of the structural elements or code characteristic of  the medium used at that stage: sounds in the mind, musical notation, finger movements, string vibrations, and so on. The code used at any one stage may not be able to represent all the subleties of the representation at the preceding stage, so that at every conversion from one form of representation to another, errors may occur, distortions, loss of detail, intrusion of unspecified ‘noise’– hence the possibility of illusions on which so much philosophic ink has been used. We may make a similar analysis for visual perception: however different a visual image may be from the electromagnetic vibrations that give rise to it, the former preserves the basic structure of the latter, subject to the errors already mentioned. ‘Redness’ is a subjective perception, but it corresponds, via a long causal chain, to a particular kind of electromagnetic vibration occurring in the molecules that make up the rose.


Consider the analogy of  a computer program. This is a set of instructions, a complex message transmitted by a human to a machine. It is  represented at a series of levels. At the top level (outside the computer) is a ‘knowledge level’, a verbal specification that sets out what a computer program has as its goal and how it will reach it: this statement uses natural language as its medium. This specification is then humanly transformed into the next level, a program, in which a sequence of operations to be carried out by the computer is set out, using the medium of a programming language. An ‘interpreter’, internal to the computer system, next translates this program into digital form (bits) at the next lower level – the ‘logic level’. The computer represents the bits as currents and voltages at the ‘circuit level’, and these are in turn physically realised as flowing electrons at the ‘device level’ (Newell). The structured knowledge of the program specification is translated, step by step, down the levels of the system, and eventually implemented at the device level. The medium of representation differs at each level, but the logical structure is preserved. The semantic content is the same, but the form or method of coding changes.


Materialism maintains that in perception and cognition we do achieve a real understanding of the external world, by means of a representation of it, in our internal mental coding, that corresponds structurally to characteristics of the world. In this way, perception and cognition are our links with the world, not barriers that hinder us from having real knowledge.


Causal closure


One problem that has beset philosophers for centuries is that of ‘causal closure’. If any physical event has a physical cause, how can mental activities affect physical activities? Consider Figure 2 (Sloman 2001]. If physical event P2 is fully explained by P1 (physical causal closure), then it looks as if there cannot be any scope left for M1 to cause P2, or even some aspects of P2. Moreover if the second physical event, P2 completely accounts for M2, and P1 completely accounts for P2, then there is nothing M1 can do to produce or modify M2. So M1 can have neither physical nor mental effects. It is purely ‘epiphenomenal’.






Figure 2: Possible relations between mental and physical events



In everyday life, and in the psychological and social sciences, we talk freely about mental activities and abstract entities having both mentally and physically causal consequences: e.g. desire for pleasure rather than learning can cause ignorance, ignorance can cause poverty, poverty can cause crime, and crime can involve movement of cars, bullets, and so on. Either most of our talk of mental and abstract entities is totally confused, or there are problems with our notions of causation.


Consider the following scenario, in which a number of potential causal factors (f) are indicated:  Joe was anxious to get home in time for dinner (f1), so he drove fast (f2) along the highway in his old rickety car, poorly maintenanced (f3).  He came to a sharp curve which was not adequately signposted (f4), because of local economic restrictions (f5), skidded off the road (f6) and crashed. His faulty car window handle broke (f7), and Joe cut his arm (f8). The arm became infected (f9) and Joe died. Why did he die? The immediate physical cause was the infection f9, with contributory physical causes f7 and f8. But his behaviour contributed also (f2, f3 and bad driving f6), as did his desires f1 and local policies f5, and these are not wholly physical.


With respect to any physical event, there are many interwoven factors that, at some level or another, have a causal effect, and these are not all physical. Sloman has applied this reasoning to the mental/physical situation of  Figure 2 as follows. ‘When we say that M1 caused P2  [e.g. Joe’s anxiety caused his death], this is not refuted by saying that P1 [the infection] caused P2, because even if P1 did cause P2, it may still be true that:


This implies that both M1 (Joe’s anxiety) and P1 (the infection) can be causes of P2 (Joe’s death). Even though the physical infection is a valid cause of Joe’s death, it is not incompatible with the co-existence of a mental cause. In Figure 2, the question marks may be removed from the downward arrows.



When philosophers talk about the material or physical world, they refer to matter and energy (sometimes to quanta), but not very often to ‘information’. The only related entry in Blackburn is to ‘information theory’, dealing with information as ‘statistical improbability’ –  probably the aspect least relevant to the issues in this paper. We are concerned here with the semantic content of information.


‘Providing information’ is a form of interaction between entities. In an informational interaction, one entity receives a signal or ‘message’ from another, that triggers a change in processes occurring in the recipient. The signal is some kind of change in the immediate environment of the recipient entity – e.g. the arrival of an entity such as a light ray, a sound, an electrical impulse, a chemical, or (for humans) spoken or written words. The delivery of the message involves energy and a physical carrier, but this energy and material does not itself contribute to the change in the recipient entity: the energy and material involved in this latter change are supplied by the recipient entity itself. Thus a chemical reaction may be triggered by the presence of a catalyst, but the catalyst does not contribute material or energy to the reaction. All kinds of process in the living body are triggered by electrical or chemical signals flowing from one part to another. The crack of the starter’s pistol triggers the runners in a race to charge down the track, but does not supply them with the energy they need to do this.


For the recipient entity, to be ‘information’ a signal or message must be associated with a ‘meaning’. Essentially, a meaning is an appropriate action that takes place as a direct result of the receipt of the information: the runner moves when he hears the pistol crack, the chemical reaction takes place when the catalyst appears, the woman goes to the door when the child informs her ‘the postman is here’. For humans, the meaningful action may be wholly mental – a modification of internal knowledge or plan. Meanings may be conventionally agreed (as for the starter pistol) or developed in the course of evolutionary, cultural or personal history. It is clear that an informative message must be ‘about something’. The information content can be factual, involving reference to an entity, to a state of affairs, or be a generalisation, or be about what exists, what is possible, what is necessarily the case, and so on. There is also control information about what to do next, ‘conditional imperatives’ (if hungry, find food),  general preferences, abstract values.


A potentially informative ‘message’ may take three forms. (1) It can be a structural ‘representation’ in the sense discussed in an earlier section. Thus in human face recognition, a representation of a face present to the sight (or, say, of a photo of the face) is constructed in the brain using its internal method of coding, and compared to an image in memory. (2) The message can be any existent which by conventional or historical means has acquired a meaning for the recipient, has been accepted as a symbol ‘standing for’ something that prompts action to be taken. (3) It can be a verbal description of a situation, which may or may not be relevant to (i.e. meaningful for) a recipient. Potentially informative messages may also be stored, to be accessed as required. There are information stores inside the human body (such as memories and the genetic code), and many outside it.


‘Like many deep concepts in science, information is implicitly defined by its role in our theories and our designs for working systems. To illustrate this point, we offer some examples of processes involving information in organisms or machines:


From this account, it is clear why successful organisms are information-processors. ‘This is because organisms, unlike rocks, mountains, planets and galaxies, typically require action to survive, and actions must be selected and initiated under certain conditions. The conditions do not directly cause the actions (as kicking a ball causes its motion): rather, organisms have to initiate actions using their own internal energy. Therefore appropriate and timely selection and initiation of action requires, at a minimum, information about whether the suitability conditions obtain’ (ibid.).


Parts and wholes


The hierarchy sketched in Figure 1 immediately implies that each level of entity is composed of lower-level entities. Each is therefore a ‘whole’ of which its constituents are parts. Various kinds of relation between part and whole may be conceived . Are wholes affected by the properties and activities of their parts? Do wholes affect the behaviour of their parts? Are all or some of the properties of wholes determined by those of their parts?  Different attitudes to these questions are taken by different philosophies, and Figure 3 reproduces one summary of these (Blitz).






Fig. 3: Possible relations between parts and wholes



Mechanism argues that the properties of all wholes are of the same type – everything is really physical. We have met this physicalist view before. Reductionism does not flatten everything into the physical, but argues that all (or at any rate, some) of the properties of a whole can be explained by or reduced to the properties of its parts – thus chemical, biological, psychological or social properties can be reduced to the physical. Emergentism, on the other hand, claims that some of the properties of a whole at any level are not the properties of its parts, they are novel properties, not reducible, not explicable by examining only the properties of the parts. Organicism also asserts the emergence of novel properties, but adds that a whole is dominant over its parts, whose behaviour can only be understood in terms of their dependence on the whole. Holism goes one step further, and claims that each whole is uniquely novel, that must be understood in its own terms, without consideration of the parts. These last two views are not now widely prevalent. Reduction and emergence will be discussed in more detail below.


Part/whole relations are of obvious importance in many areas of knowledge – e.g. in interpreting the relations between a living cell and its chemical constituents. What is their relevance to the relation between mind and brain? Mental activities are activities of the brain. Just as the human hand has its activities (to touch, grasp, manipulate), so has the brain (to feel, perceive, correlate, interpret, judge, plan, decide, initiate action, and so on). Within the brain are all kinds of neural activities, at various levels (Figure 4, from Churchland and Sejnowski). These form the mechanisms by which the brain’s mental activities are enabled.




Figure 4: Levels within the central nervous system





The sense of reductionism noted above is concerned with the concrete properties and behaviour of the component parts of a whole. Their activities constitute the mechanism whereby the whole operates, and the reductionist claim in this case is to assert that understanding the mechanism is sufficient to understand the behaviour of the whole. In principle, say, biological behaviour can thus be understood in terms the  behaviour of chemical substances, and this in terms of the behaviour of physical entities.


The analysis of the mechanism of a whole in terms of its parts is a widely used methodology in science. It is often very illuminating – for example, the biological functioning of genes was not fully understood until the chemical structure of DNA was elucidated. But ‘extreme analytical reductionism is a failure because it cannot give proper weight to the interaction of the components of a complex system. [Moreover], an isolated component almost invariably has characteristics that are different from those it displays when it is part of its ensemble, and that do not reveal its contribution to the interactions within the ensemble’ (Mayr). Knowledge of parts is often valuable or indeed necessary to understand the behaviour of the whole, but it is not sufficient.


Let us look at a detailed example. A living cell is undoubtedly constructed out of a variety of chemical substances. But we cannot say that knowledge of the properties of these chemicals – each one studied in its ‘free’ form – provides understanding of the behaviour of the system which is the cell. Consider the synthesis in the cell of proteins from amino-acids, using the DNA genetic code: a string of RNA is produced corresponding to a DNA gene; a cell structure (a ribosome) moves along the string and ‘reads’ its chemical code, three-letter codon by codon; a small ‘transfer’ RNA structure that corresponds to the codon read is formed, and this locates an appropriate amino-acid in the cell fluid and transports it to the ribosome, where it is attached to the end of a growing protein string. Certainly, chemical processes take place, and assuredly no rules of chemistry are flouted, but the procedure only remotely corresponds to what happens to the same chemicals in a laboratory flask. What chemical reactions can occur is prescribed by the nature of chemistry, but what reactions do occur in the cell, and how they occur, is constrained by the organisation of the cell. Protein synthesis in the cell has not been ‘reduced to chemistry’: far from it, it cannot be understood without knowledge of the biological structures and processes, the organised pattern, the context within which the chemical reactions take place.


To fully understand the behaviour of a living cell, we need to know much more than its internal mechanisms: we also require knowledge of its environment in the organism, its developmental origin in that organism, and the evolutionary history of the organism. The same must be true of the human brain – we need to know not only neuronal mechanisms, but also the environment of the brain (both the rest of the body and the external world with which it interacts), and the developmental, evolutionary and cultural histories that have shaped it.


There are wider senses of reductionism (Chalmers). One is related to conceptual analysis. Suppose that in our knowledge of a hierarchical level M, for each of its concepts or ‘predicates’ there corresponds a concept at lower level P, such that the concept in M is true if the concept in P is true. Then we may say that conceptually M has been reduced to P. So, if biological concepts could thus be related to chemical, we could say that biology (or part of it) had been conceptually reduced to chemistry. One can go further. Theories have concepts as their elements. A theory at level M can be logically derived from a theory at level P if there are ‘bridge laws’ between concepts of the kind just discussed. If this were the case in the example given, (some) biological theory could be reduced to chemical theory.


The logic of this argument is impeccable, but unfortunately ‘I am not aware of any biological theory that has been reduced to a physico-chemical theory […]  The chemical nature of a number of black boxes in classical genetic theory has been filled in, but this did not affect in any way the nature of the theory of transmission genetics […] The essential concepts of genetics, like gene, genotype, mutation, diploidy, segregation, recombination and so on, are not chemical concepts at all’ (Mayr). They may involve chemical processes, but the concepts are biological and cannot be reduced to physico-chemical ones.  It is equally true that even those who advocate the reduction of psychological to physiological theory bring forward no convincing examples.


The very aim of such reduction is misconceived. Neurophysiology studies the processes of the brain – that is its complex and fascinating field of action. Psychology studies the behaviour of the individual person. We have already noted that to explain the behaviour of a warbler bird we must look beyond its physiological processes and their functions, and investigate the interactions with the environment of not only the individual warbler, but also of its ancestors. These interactions no doubt have physiological effects, but in themselves are external factors not reducible to internal  processes. The field of action of psychology is the mental activity that inevitably accompanies the interaction of people with their social and natural environments. It is inherently different from that of neurophysiology.


Supervenience and realisability


Another way of looking at the relation between the properties of entities in two adjacent levels of the hierarchy has been called ‘supervenience’. Suppose that some wholes in the upper level M have a property N, and that some of their constituents in the lower level P have a property (or set of properties) Q. Suppose further that it is always or often the case that, whenever Q is true, then N is true. Then property N is said to supervene on property (set) Q, i.e. N exists because Q exists. The occurrence of Q at the lower level causes the appearance of N at the upper level. Nevertheless, those who uphold this view claim that this does not necessarily imply that N can or need be reduced to Q.


The term ‘mechanism supervenience’ has been used for the situation where a mechanism M is implemented by a mechanism P. It has been applied to two situations: (1) where a ‘virtual machine’ M (a computer program) is implemented in a physical machine P, and (2) where psychological processes M1 (regarded as a behavioural ‘mechanism’) are implemented in a physical brain P1 and possibly also in a physical computer P2 (Sloman and Chrisley). These authors draw a distinction between full supervenience, where the implementation of M depends only on the mechanism P, and partial supervenience, where other factors must be available. For example, if implementation of program M required access to information in a database, it would not be dependent only on P. If, as stated earlier, the implementation of psychological processes M1 requires explicit or implicit reference to the environment, then they do not fully supervene on P1.


Sloman further notes that the concepts (the ‘ontology’) of M may and usually do differ from the ontology of P. For example, if the computer program M is about chess playing, it involves concepts such as pawn, knight, capture, threaten, mate and so on, which are quite separate from the concepts that are used to describe the structure and behaviour of the computer P, such as fetch, match, data structure, loop, recursive and so on. The concepts of M and P need not, usually will not be compatible, so that M cannot be reduced to P – there are no ‘bridge laws’. Supervenience occurs only contingently, because in a particular implementation it is true that whenever property (set) Q appears in P then property N appears in M – for example, the computer actions X7+X11+Y3 in P always means ‘knight’s move’ in M. The same argument goes for the relation between psychological processes M1 and brain implementation P1 – we should not expect one to be reducible to the other.


The same computer program can be implemented, ‘realised’ on many different computers with different architectures and physical operations, so that M may supervene on a series of mechanisms P1, P2, P3, etc. (multiple realisability). We know that where M1 equals mental processes, they ‘supervene’ on brain processes P1. Could we create a model of (some) mental processes, and represent this model in a computer program M2, which could be implemented on a computer P2? If the model were valid, then the supervenience of  M2 on P2 would mirror that of  M1 on P1. Neuroscience is actively seeking to create and implement such models. Their success will throw much light on the activities of the brain, and contribute to our materialist understanding of these activities.


Functionalism and functional analysis


Some philosophers have used multiple realisability as an argument against reductionism. It implies that there would be a plethora of ‘bridge laws’, different for each realisation. Others have argued that these may be accepted as ‘species-specific biconditional laws’, each valid for its own situation (Kim).


A different approach is that of ‘functionalism’, which argues that the existence of multiple realisability means that the whole issue of realisability is not of central importance – i.e. that seeking to relate mental processes to brain processes is a secondary issue. The guiding principle of functionalism ‘is that we can define mental states by a triplet of relations: what typically causes them, what effects they have on other mental states, and what effects they have on behaviour’ (Blackburn).


Functionalism seeks to understand mental states by decomposing them into functional parts and their interrelations. This decomposition can proceed down many levels, at each stage defining a set of simpler functions that act together to implement the level above. At the conscious level, we are aware of such mental processes as perceiving, recognising, remembering, calculating, formulating sentences, deciding, feeling various emotions, and so on. But there is no need to postulate physical structures that directly carry out the whole of each task. In any system, top-level functions may be carried out by second-level functional activities, these in turn by third-level, and so on, and there may be a number of steps in the functional hierarchy before we reach actual physical mechanisms that perform functional tasks (Wilkes, chapter 4). This is analogous to the way in which a computer program is constructed, by starting with an overall task (e.g. a complex calculation) and breaking it down into subtasks and subsubtasks until we reach operations that a simple-minded digital computer can perform.


Computer scientists distinguish sharply between functional program and physical implementation. A suitably programmed computer can make a passable translation of a German text into English, but the most detailed inspection of its physical mechanism reveals no translation activity. The computer must be humanly supplied with the programmed knowledge whereby to perform this function. Before the human could supply this, he too had to be ‘supplied’ with the knowledge, acquiring it by a learning process, that in principle could also be performed by a computer.


Some functionalist philosophers claim that the physical implementation of mental functions is irrelevant – it’s the functional relations that count. Nevertheless, seeking the functional decomposition of mental processes is an important part of the activity of understanding them and how they might be implemented. Coming in the other direction, neuroscience starts with the simplest physical elements of the brain and seeks to understand how they interact to build up more complex configurations that carry out more sophisticated tasks (see Figure 4). The hope is that downward decomposition of functions and upward integration of mechanisms will meet to complete the causal chains.


Aaron Sloman has long been involved in the computer simulation of mental processes, and in 1978 sketched a possible functional analysis (Sloman 1978, chapter 6). He suggested that the top-level functional activities of an ‘intelligent mechanism’ could be: to perceive the external environment and to have perceptual experiences; to learn skills and facts; to think about things; to deliberate, decide and plan; to relate a purpose to available resources; to notice unsought-for facts; to reason logically; to construct and manipulate symbols and representations, both verbal and non-verbal, for storing and communicating information; and to send signals that would initiate action in the external environment. These functions did not exhaust human psychological abilities – for example, moods and emotions were not included.


At a second level, structural elements upon which all the preceding activities could draw might include:


The functional analysis then made was, of course, not at the level of detail required for computer implementation. But to specify such functional abilities in detail would give some answer to the question : what is a human mind? A mind is something which can do those kinds of thing. Actually to implement such abilities in a computer would demonstrate that such physical implementation was possible. It would not, of course, demonstrate how they are implemented in the brain, though it might give useful clues to the neuroscientist.




If you put a number of components together to form an operating mechanism, it is clear that the mechanism can do things that no individual component can. The separate parts of a clock cannot ‘tell the time’, nor even ‘strike the hour’. So understood, the ‘emergence’ of new properties and behaviour as we move from one level of the cosmic hierarchy to the next is self-evident. When unicellular organisms have emerged from replicating molecules, they interact with each other and with the environment in ways that the molecules do not, and a variety of novel properties and behaviours comes into existence.


How is emergence to be assessed philosophically (see Figure 3)? The issues discussed seem to be (1) can the properties and behaviour of an emergent ‘whole’ be understood and predicted from a knowledge of its constituent parts – an ‘upward’ causal effect from part to whole, and (2) does the whole have an effect on the behaviour of its components – a ‘downward’ causal effect from whole to part? Unlike mechanists and reductionists, ‘emergentism’ tends to answer No to the first question and Yes to the second, i.e. it asserts that the behaviour of a new whole is not predictable from knowledge of its parts, and that there is a downward causal effect on the parts.


A whole W is assembled by the integrated organisation of a set of parts S. In so assembling, the parts interact in ways that they do not display when they are separate. For example, free electrons move in straight lines unless acted on by electric or magnetic fields, repel each other, and are attracted by positive particles; but electrons assembled together with an atomic nucleus move in a series of definite stable orbits around that nucleus. Is such behaviour predictable from the properties and behaviour of free electrons and free atomic nuclei?  Are the properties and behaviour of whole atoms thus predictable? No to both questions. What quantum theory does is to predict, knowing the structure of the atom (the whole) what will be its physical and chemical behaviour. The properties of the whole arise from the particular organised way in which the parts have been assembled, and it is this dynamic structure that is associated with them.


As for ‘downward’ causation: there is no ‘whole’ standing separate from the parts that can interact causally with them: the whole is constituted by its parts. They are affected, i.e. they behave in particular ways, by virtue of the fact that they are interacting within the assembly. The causal links are the relations between the parts. I would consider that the answer to the second question should also be No, no downward causation. This seems to be true of the brain. ‘The old view was that all its individual regions and modules reported upwards, so to speak, to some central coordinating area […] and there at the top of the command chain would sit a “homunculus”, assessing information and issuing orders. But closer consideration of such an idea makes clear that it simply won’t do […] Instead, the brain operates like a classical anarchistic commune in which the semi-autonomous work of each region contributes harmoniously to the whole’ (Rose).


One argument in favour of belief in emergence is based on our knowledge of cosmic evolution. Scientists maintain that all the structured entities in the world – certainly from neutrons, protons and electrons on – did not exist at the moment of the Big Bang, and therefore had to emerge since that time. Any purported model of  any entity X  that cannot account for its historical and ontological emergence (both its existence and its characteristics, its emergent causal powers) is thereby incomplete. More importantly, any model of X that makes its emergence impossible is thereby refuted. If X cannot have historically emerged, then either it existed from the beginning or it was non-naturally introduced. Consistency with the possibility of emergence, then, is a scientifically necessary requirement – given contemporary science – for any ontology.


The relevance of emergence to materialists is that it encourages them to assert that, as the level of organisation rises in the brain (Figure 4), so there has emerged the properties and behaviour that we associate with the mind. For Marxist materialism, the human brain was an organ of the body that has emerged, evolved, to manage the ever-more-complicated interactions between the human organism, its natural environment, and other people. Marx and Engels wrote:


‘Men can be distinguished from animals by consciousness, by religion or by anything else you like. They themselves begin to distinguish themselves from animals as soon as they begin to produce their means of subsistence, their actual material life […] Material production has a double relationship: on the one hand to the natural environment, on the other as a social relationship – meaning by “social”, cooperation between people, no matter under what conditions, in what manner and to what end […This cooperation] produces “consciousness” [‘people now have something to talk about’, as Engels put it elsewhere], but even so, not “pure” consciousness. From the start the “spirit” is burdened with matter, agitated layers of air, in short, language. Language is “practical” consciousness that exists also for other people, and for this reason alone it really exists for me personally as well […] Consciousness is, therefore, from the very beginning a social product’ (Marx) . It emerged primarily to facilitate human cooperative activity.

The development of consciousness


Science has established that the structure and behaviour of animals, including man, have developed in an evolutionary way so as to survive in a changing environment. Materialists assert that the development of consciousness was an integral step in that evolution. Daniel Dennett has a nice fable about the evolution of mental abilities (Dennett).


(A) Once upon a time there were ‘Darwinian’ organisms, struggling to survive and reproduce in their competitive environments; each was able to respond in a particular way to each challenge of the environment; their offspring were not all identical to the parents or to each other, and these chance genetic variations fitted some to survive and multiply better than others did in their original or a new environment; so the breed slowly evolved new ways of coping with the environment – acquired new genetically stored ‘knowledge’.


(B) At length, variations occurred that provided some organisms with a set of alternative responses to a particular environmental challenge; they could try out these alternatives until they found one that worked; so their ‘dispositions to act’, their ‘knowledge’, was more varied, their behaviour was more flexible than that of their single-response ancestors, and they had a better chance of surviving and multiplying.


(C) Suppose now that variations occurred whereby some organisms became able to absorb information about the environment and ways of coping with it, and store a model of this, in some form of memory. Now they had a store of knowledge beyond the genetic, beyond inborn dispositions, and they could mentally visualise alternative courses of action, and select the one that looked most promising to try in practice. This gave them still more flexibility, and more chance of survival.


(D) Suppose that eventually this modelling ability was further developed by chance genetic variation: some organisms became equipped, not only with models of the environment, but also with skills and mental tools that enabled them to create new models. Now, as the environment changed, offering new challenges, these organisms could amend their models to meet those challenges, once more improving their chances of survival. They are now on the lower rungs of a ladder of increasingly subtle internal reflection and reasoning that, as Dennett concludes, has no discernible limit. They have learnt how to learn, how to design, how to plan, how to predict. They have truly discovered knowledge.


What might be the nature of the skills and tools that lead to this outcome? In the first place, of course, language. There appears to be good evidence that language developed very early in man’s development – indeed, it has been argued that it coincides with the first production of stone tools and the cooperation of men in their use, for cooperation needs communication. Language has a structure – we talk about things, properties of things, actions and processes – and it seems reasonable to think that man unconsciously imbibed, by repeated interaction with the environment, some aspects of the structure of the world in which he lived, and it became incorporated into his language habits.


But beyond the use of language, building reliable models of the environment involves the use of reason, conformity to the so-called logical ‘rules of thought’. We have found that thinking must conform to these rules if it is to be successful. It is reasonable to think that these rules were also imbibed from interaction with the environment, reflecting the way the world is. We may call it ‘evolutionary experience’, as distinct from personal, individual experience. The same argument can apply to other allegedly inborn presuppositions with which we work.


This evolution – and whether Dennett’s fable is true to life or not, the evolution did occur, for we reasoning creatures are here when once we were not – this evolution, then, arose from two factors: interaction between organisms and a perpetually changing environment, and an inexhaustible propensity for new variants to occur among organisms. With the coming of the latest learning organisms, there is a third factor – the new ability of the organism itself consciously to engineer new variant forms of response to the environment. While the earliest forms of interaction with the environment may have been relatively passive (an organism simply reacting to whatever stimulus the environment presented to it), now it is proactive: the organism is consciously scanning the environment, selecting data from it, interpreting the data to provide information for its internal modelling and its subsequent decisions on action.


The active, creative role of the human mind in perception, in constructing images of objects and situations, in formulating concepts and making judgments, is generally acknowledged. We climb the ladder of cognition to build a tower of knowledge. Continual interaction with the environment remains essential in the development of human knowledge; the variations that become important are no longer genetic, they are the acts of imaginative invention and discovery by which we introduce new features into our models; and the skills of reasoning, designing, planning that have evolved to guide our decisions and actions.


Conscious mental processing, according to this materialist account, therefore developed step by step so as to provide ever-more-sophisticated ways of interacting with the environment. ‘Consciousness’ is not an ‘it’, which a stone or a protein molecule does not possess, but a human does. Nor is it satisfactory to think of it as a ‘stuff’ that an organism can have more or less of – an adult human having a lot, a dog or a frog having perhaps very little. It is best thought as a large cluster of different processing capabilities, some of which may be possessed by relatively simple organisms, others only by highly developed humans.


At the human level, some key components of mental processing are (1) ability to receive information from the environment, (2) ability to construct from that information a model of (some aspect of) the environment, (3) ability to formulate a purpose, an intention to cause a certain change in the environment, (4) ability to formulate a plan to achieve that change, and (5) ability to choose what action to take at each step, including modification of the plan.


This fifth item is to be emphasised, because it implies that a necessary component of the mental capacity that has evolved is the ability to select from among several possible courses of action – i.e. that choice, ‘free will’, has become an essential item in our mental equipment. This introduces indeterminism into the situation, because the factors that influence the choice of action do not all arise directly from the information being currently received from the environment. The factors include the guiding ‘purpose’ of the whole operation, and this purpose is formulated prior to embarking on the operation, and is itself influenced by internal desires, hopes, memories, needs of varying origin.


Social activities


Contemporary philosophy of mind and neuroscience, even when they avoid reductionism, are basically concerned with the mechanism of the mind – how it may be enabled by the physical processes of the brain. In discussing reductionism earlier, it has been urged that to fully understand the behaviour of the mind/brain we need to know not only neuronal mechanisms, but also the environment of the brain (both the rest of the body and the external world with which it interacts), and the evolutionary, developmental and cultural histories that have shaped it.


Some philosophers reduce the understanding of consciousness to the ‘hard’ problem of how we know ‘what it’s like’ to feel or perceive or think something (Chalmers). Such views, says Rose, are an impoverished understanding of consciousness. ‘There are many other understandings and uses of the term consciousness; there is Freudian consciousness, with its murky unconscious world of desires and fears. There is social consciousness, class, ethnic or feminist consciousness, the recognition of having a standpoint from which one can interpret and act upon the world’ (Rose). He continues: ‘There can be no consciousness without content; indeed, it is constituted by its content, and its content is not merely of the moment but of all past moments in the history of the individual […] It exists in sets of relationships, between the person and the surrounding world’ (ibid.). For this reason, a materialist view of consciousness must take these relations into account, and it is social relations as a source of mental content that will be considered here.


Man, like all animals, must be active in order to live. The earliest primitive activities are of course to eat, to seek food and shelter, to avoid danger, to mate. Mankind was, to begin with, one biological population among myriad others. Some complex of changes – starting to produce its own means of subsistence, starting to cooperate in this production, starting to communicate during this cooperation, starting to hold internal conversations, to think conceptually and to develop more complex mental powers – led the species in new directions. First, actions were no longer wholly instinctive inbuilt behaviour, but started to become the outcome of conscious thought. Second, behavioural changes in an individual could be inherited, by being consciously and deliberately taught to the next generation (and indeed to contemporaries). This began to apply, not only to changes in practical behaviour (e.g. a new way to shape a flint tool), but also to mental behaviour (a new way to think about natural and social phenomena – e.g. that they were caused by spirits). Cultural change supplemented and eventually overshadowed biological change.


A key feature in man’s behaviour, distinguishing him from other animals, is conscious ‘productive’ and creative activity. There are innumerable kinds of practical productive action that men and women  carry out. They hunt and grow food and cook it; build houses and bridges; make tools and machines; synthesise new chemicals; breed and train animals; play sports and games; create art (graphic, musical, poetic, and so on); produce spectacles (theatre, dance, concerts, exhibitions, etc); provide services to alter people (educational, medical, welfare, religious, cosmetic); create social institutions (armies, juries, priesthoods, parliaments, etc); and so on and on.


We may characterise human activity as interacting with an ‘object’ to produce an outcome (a ‘product’) that is hoped to be useful in some way. The ‘work object’, the product and the activity itself may all be external (environmental) or internal (mental) or a mixture of both. The activity usually involves a ‘tool’, again either physical or mental. Human activities are mainly conscious, not instinctive, and an internal, mental model of the activity normally precedes action. The whole process may be diagrammed as in Figure 5.





Figure 5: Human activity



Based on the model, a plan of action is devised and techniques (action procedures) are selected. During action, the work object is observed, and the observed results of action are ‘fed back’ to the actor and delivered as further ‘information’. This may be used to amend the model and the plan, or to change the technique used. Once the product is made and used, defects may be observed, which feed back ideas on how to remodel the activity.


A major feature of change in society is the ‘division of labour’, i.e. the differentiation of men’s activities into an ever greater number of specialisations, occupations and roles. The ceaseless operations of man’s practical powers lead to an ever-greater accumulation of cultural ‘products’. Some of these products are physical – commodities, machines, tools, buildings, food, medicines, computers and so on. Other products are the skills and methods, the ‘know-how’ that enables us to carry out productive operations effectively and efficiently. Yet other products may be called mental: norms such as laws, regulations, standards and so on, and knowledge embodied in recorded myths, literature, science, philosophy, etc. The stock of cultural products is an information store, greatly adding to the inherited stock of behavioural information embedded in our genes. The growth of this information store is the most visible evidence of continuing cultural evolution.


Here we have phenomena which are greatly different from those displayed by any other type of living creature, and which must have a great impact on the nature of the mental processes in the human mind. Most human activity is social – that is, it involves cooperation between people. The basic reason for cooperation is that, in the course of practical life, men find that acting together achieves better results than acting alone – indeed , it can often achieve results that cannot be achieved at all by one man on his own. Man’s productive activities in most cases take place within an institutional framework, a structured ‘organisation’, and this in turn is only one organisation among many in a community. A human community is a group, local or embracing the world, of people interacting in a variety of ways. The ‘actor’ in Figure 5 becomes a collective group of individuals cooperating and communicating with each other: football team, football club (now run like a business), Football Association; government office, government department, the Cabinet.


Men and women ‘make their own history’ in two ways. First, an individual ‘makes himself’ into what he is by interaction from birth with his physical and social environment. Second, collectively the actions of men change their environments. People ‘make history’ by acting according to the desires, beliefs, values and ideas that motivate them. The ideas relate to (a) facts – what they believe to be the case about some situation, (b) values – what they would like to be the case, and (c) procedures – what they believe needs to be done to get from here to there. Their ideas come from two sources. First, derived directly from their own practical experience and interaction with the natural world and other people. And second, by assimilating and being influenced by the ideas of other people. Fully understanding consciousness and the conscious behaviour of people requires us to take all this into account.





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