Perception of Perception: History in the Theorizing of Reason, Mind, Matter and Soul

As mentioned in chapter 8 of section 1, “A Brief History of Quantification in Science”, awareness in early humans and other intelligent organisms almost certainly made no distinction between spirit and matter, but the most cognitively advanced species at the same time had their dispositions to experience the environment as consisting of causal order manipulatable in predictable ways by behavior, such as in nest-building, hunting or courting.  These species have a prototechnological sense for how they can organize their surroundings, a mentality making survival in the service of reproduction more possible, which self-perpetuates by being reproduced as well as via what is vaguely called ‘libido’, an assortment of compelling drives that are difficult to specify at the current stage of knowledge.  

By the time humans reached the Neolithic era, our species had a unique and potent combination of thinking ability and some additional traits.  Problem-solving acumen had reached levels of inventiveness and flexibility that were probably unprecedented for Earth’s organisms.  Language fostered the social projection of subtle drives and thoughts as intentions and thus the growth of one’s mind in relationships.  This expressiveness enabled humans to bond more deeply by mutually experiencing complex motivations with attendant conceptualizings, which made creativity, in technology and elsewhere, a synergy of collectivity and individual reflection.  Brain plasticity for enculturing new thoughts and behaviors also heightened.  Altogether, the human mind reached a critical mass in its trait profile that made manageable and desirable the logistics of enlarged, settled community: self-awareness and self-expression, pleasure in relationships, self-actualization, memetic dissemination of ideas, tool-making, construction, farming, division of labor, all the shades of cultural behavior.  A great leap forward to civilized lifestyles took place, supporting bigger and initially more empowered populations in a liberation from baseline survival that had demanded much exclusive attention to food, shelter, clothing, safety and health.

Abetted by opportunity for thoughtful leisure in civilized settings, human curiosity began to stretch its proclivity for technical problem-solving well beyond the sphere of mere practical logistics in an effort to understand the causality of natural environments as a whole.  Thought experiments that applied technological thinking towards understanding spontaneous phenomena were the origins of materialism.  We could perhaps say that ‘matter’ as a concept was at first hypothetical.  Philosophers such as the ancient Greek Thales of Miletus were antiquity’s equivalent to Albert Einstein; his groundbreaking speculations that the dynamics of moisturization are central to causality were at the time akin to Einstein’s theory of relativity, with the hypothetical generalization of water as essence being analogous to the speed of light as a hypothetical maximum, both postulated points of reference around which to aim for systematic explanation.  Thales helped initiate an analysis picked up and extended by generations of Greek thinkers, who developed theoretical narratives based on for instance air (Anaximenes) or fire (Heraclitus).  

This seems like child’s play to the modern mind with its preparatory education, but a notion that the world in total can operate according to principles comparable to those intuited by structural problem-solving contradicts the somewhat chaotic subjectivity of a human’s perceptual lifetime and strains the delimitations of common speech.  Using a dab of imagination reveals that ordering reality from scratch as the generalization of diverse experiences into comprehensive structure, defined with reference to abstractional forms of some precision, in contrast to the more imprecise symbolic contents and emotion-laden themes of most prehistoric myth, presents a challenge to untrained thinking.  Structuralizing would encounter a huge inertia of incoherence from obliquities of ordinary language use, also induced by what many in the present day consider ‘immaterial’ qualia such as dreams, visions, mental images, memory and apparitions.  This insight is also supported by more direct means, when we observe the detrimental yet strangely actualizing impact of sensationalistic propaganda as media “stories” in contemporary society, along with the popularity of mysticism-based belief and practice in a modern economy founded on mechanistic knowledge.     

With thinkers such as Heraclitus, Greek philosophy started to move from materialism towards more metaphysical conceptualizings.  Fire as essence was not merely a unifying description of matter, but a concept of the cosmos’ form as gradations of change or ‘becoming’, a phenomenon which allegedly undergirded all apparent stability.  A few generations earlier, Anaximander had proposed that nature appears to us by way of transmutative properties in a single substance, a comparable sort of essence.  Parmenides introduced the ‘One’, a thought experiment that reversed the notions of Heraclitus, seeing all fluctuation in appearances as an illusory form of eternal and unchangeable ‘being’.

Plato, as a continuation of previous thought, enriched form into more than a new generalization of material observations, introducing the notion that the cosmos’ causality consists in metaphysical laws which order the totality of appearances and being as such.  The Greek mainstream had given credence to the will of the gods and the supremacy of cosmic fate for at least centuries before Plato’s time, a belief system still unreconciled with burgeoning philosophy of material essences, rendering thought-centric perspectives unintuitive, repugnant to some, and on occasion blasphemous, as in the case of Socrates.  Plato rationalized Greek deference to transcending power by coupling it with the worldview that spiritual causes are not set apart from this hypothetical realm of matter, but rather operate upon it intelligibly, in cogent ways accessible via contemplation instead of as an impenetrable enigma of overarching, suprahuman force.  His philosophy inculcated the idea, extrapolated from a distinguished tradition of high-level thinking, that intrinsic organization, a sort of grandiose harmony holds existence under its sway.  This was not dismissive of the godlike, but implied a unifying ‘telos’ or rationale amongst disparate domains, such as traditional spirituality, the new materialistic naturalism which Greeks had expanded into thought experiments addressed to essences, and cultural life, to be sought idealistically and unveiled progressively by the reflections and knowledge complementary to a systematic reality.

In this view, telos – generative essence on a cosmic scale – was paralleled by ‘logos’, the essence of this order as it manifests in musing and thoughtful conversation.  The cosmos unfolds as raw substance – matter – granted its appearances by the influence of principles inherent in metaphysical instantiation of matter with ‘forms’.  Plato’s philosophy synthesized the concept of material reality as composed of a dual form/matter substance with the traditional Greek idea of ‘nous’ or psychical substance, which we translate as ‘soul’, postulating that form also manifests in the soul as a limitless fund of possible ‘ideas’.  This conceptualizing of soul as the realm of ideas, a type of constitutive particular, was a big jump towards psychology, the definition of qualia as having properties to be understood in terms of structure.  Plato saw the soul as deeply coordinated with existence as a whole, perhaps even regarded by him as the primary antecedent of reality’s apparent nature, giving humanity the power to comprehend cosmos in the form of ideas, with acts such as reasoning.  This dovetails with his commitment to the method of dialectical reflection and conversation, during which meanings inherent in the logos but not patent as an immediate totality are elucidated by explicit communication for the sake of giving clarity to the cosmos’ fundamental rationale.    

Aristotle expanded upon Plato’s paradigm of a cosmos structured by metaphysical principles, differentiating the concept of orderedness as essence into four categories of causality.  Like Plato, he specified ‘material causality’, reality’s quality of simply being capable of appearance.  ‘Formal causality’ is a phenomenon of structuralization that gives matter the property of delineated features, responsible for compound shaping, which makes all material apparencies more than the sum of any assortment of parts.  ‘Efficient causality’ consists in properties of interaction between material forms, their effects upon each other.  And ‘final causality’ refers to the tendency for material forms with their interactions to proceed towards some outcomes while excluding others, the directional parameterization in relationships between initial causes and consequent effects.  

Aristotle’s conceptualizings of metaphysical principle pushed past previous naivety regarding the relationship between reasoning and experiencing to cognize knowledge as not simply a reflective mirror for those properties of the absolute world which happen to be intelligible, but instead the apprehension of a looser framework within which essentially contingent transformations of appearance occur, with our knowledge having a capricious dynamism, like matter and Plato’s dialectical knowing in itself.  He inserted Plato’s metaphysical ‘rationale’ back into the cosmos as a theoretical entity to be examined by humanity’s ‘active intellect’, moving towards a naturalistic account of what Plato had intuited as nous’ supramaterial participation in unconditional essence.  This paved the way for enrichment of reasoning into an empiricist method based upon the notion that causal principle, while constrained, does not transcend the changeability of appearances Greek philosophy had termed ‘becoming’, but can transmogrify in profound ways as investigation proceeds.  The door was opened to breaking ground in all of the following areas: theorizing of fundamental composition (material causality); mathematical modeling and theoretical psychology (formal causality); diversification and refinement of theoretical systems into empirical disciplines (efficient causality); and the differentiation and improvement of prediction capabilities as a central value (final causality).  With Aristotle’s malleable approach to rationale, observation as an expanding family tree of increasingly precise models and philosophy as a long-term discourse of strategic inventiveness became realizable, giving birth to protoscientific culture and more advanced technology after reintroduction of his lost writings from Arab civilization to Medieval Europe.

Contemplating the nature of soul, what present day science addresses as consciousness, was popular throughout the world, and with the rise of Abrahamic faiths in the first millennium C.E., spirituality came to the foreground of European philosophy while materialism’s standing diminished.  Theories of matter began to divide back into contramaterial notions of reality and unintegrated problem-solving techniques aimed at specific technological needs, a fissure between beliefs about vitality and technical practice.  European civilization had not lost its analytical prowess as what we call the Medieval period commenced, but accoutrements of intentionality were regarded as miraculous or sacred, with governance requiring submission to the doctrines and decrees of orthodoxy, in addition to superstitions and heretical fads that were also difficult for even obvious evidence to alter.  Empirical activity in Europe had temporarily devolved from a progressive institution towards enslavement to social and ideological power, the pursuit of war, wealth, control, status, and otherwise serving haphazard economic advantage as the ancillary of occupations organized around local purposes.

Neoplatonism gained a large following on the European continent, becoming the pillar of theological orthodoxy until resurgence of Aristotelianism in the 13th century.  Plato’s refinement of soul substance as a philosophical concept had amalgamated with spiritual beliefs throughout the Roman sphere of influence, emerging from this crucible of synthesis as an immaterial substance comprising the core of existence, sorted into a hierarchy of soul-infused beings ranked according to numinous power and governed by divinity as the purveyor and enforcer of moral order.  Causality of soul upon the world was conceived as exacted by ‘emanation’, a miraculous intervention of immateriality in workings of the material, with matter considered subordinate, a fleeting stage of superficial, illusory appearance in the lives of human beings.

Contemporaneous with Europe’s early Medieval religiosity, academic institutions such as monasteries and the new universities became concerned with instilling standards for logical analysis via schooling, with modest bolstering of technical thought, at least in literary circles.  This seems to have been a renewal of intellectual values temporarily set aside after the Frankish Emperor Charlemagne’s 8th-9th century, government sanctioned golden era of study called the Carolingian Renaissance.  So even prior to rediscovery of Aristotle, the movement of Scholasticism expended much effort to jumpstart pedagogy for making the educationally elite’s mode of thinking more systematic.  Once translators got their hands on Arab-preserved Aristotelian philosophy, scholars soon realized that Europe was destined for a paradigm shift, but intelligentsia were at the same time committed to preserving the authority of Christian theology and the mandate of a universal church.  The task was then not to dispute Neoplatonism, but rather synthesize it with this new source of profound and wide-ranging theories.  

Monastic professor St. Thomas Aquinas is the foremost figure in this 13th century synthesis.  He had a pragmatic strategy of analysis, giving consideration to not only contents of his theories but also the medium that would make an assemblage of ideas by him and his colleagues edifying and strengthening to Christendom.  His writing indicates concern with integrating logicality and theological tradition.  In some cases he structures his arguments in question and answer form, resembling a doctrinal catechism.  He applied a Christian interpretation to Aristotle’s metaphysics, giving the concept of cosmic totality as ‘prime mover’ the Neoplatonic connotation of God’s omnipotent spirit, and formulating telos, Plato’s and Aristotle’s notion of rational order within the cosmos’ causality, as ontological, cosmological and teleological proof of a sentient God’s existence.  His social and political commenting has a conservative flavor that makes divine authority and centralized institutions the keystone of culture and morality.

Conceptual consolidation brought greater clarity to some long-standing issues in philosophy.  Chiefly among these was contentiousness about the relationship between objects and concepts, how and to what extent essences of apparent particulars are ideas, a question moderns might be inclined to frame in terms of the division between material and psychical.  Simultaneous with this conundrum was uncertainty about what names for particulars are, whether words and language in general are ‘realistic’, touching base with absolutes constituting the essence of reality, or ‘nominalistic’, an approximation that can perhaps be exacerbative to error.  

Constant pressure to comprehend the nature of objects, concepts and words resulted in the 14th century Ockhamist movement, a departure towards nominalism that theorized elements of language as an approximating representation rather than direct correspondence.  This had ramifications for notions of proof, as truth came to be seen at the time as governed by working principles such as ‘Ockham’s razor’ – a tenet that least assumptive, most economical explanations are superior – rather than provisional of unmediated access to metaphysically essential rationale, intelligibility, orderedness.  The image of truth as inexacting and deeply hypothetical inspired some speculativeness in theology, with professorship more progressive for a time in its approach as language became in scholarly assessment an adaptive instrument rather than a channeling of the cosmos’ static coherence.

A paradigm viewing methodological mediums as decisive in the essence of truth was important, scientificlike insightfulness, but without sufficient development in math and technology, data-based empiricism was impossible and this qualitative kernel of modernity had nowhere to go, so that for a period in the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance, philosophy settled into an orthodox suspension of both criticism and the revisionary program.  Everything changed with the Reformation, as stern regulation by the church evaporated in regions all across Europe, and intellectuals were no longer merely chartered to steer academic culture in line with church politics, but liberated to pursue individualistic projects of conceptual and artistic experimentation.  This gave the Renaissance momentum, an immersion in Europe’s ancient roots, bursting out from the orthodoxy of theologically assimilated Plato and Aristotle to embrace the whole of Greek and Roman achievement, including foremost Classical, non-Medieval values.

Art of the European Middle Ages had been designed to inspire piety, austerely symbolic of Christian values like holiness, divine love, religious devotion and sacrifice.  Its depictions of matter and form were intended to promote these spiritual meanings, with servile concern for fidelity to the nature of immediate appearances.  Renaissance artists became unfettered from theistic archetypes, striving for portrayal of overabundant beauty, striking sensuality and exquisite detail in human and natural forms along with worldly interpretations of history and social life, in similarity to the Greek and Roman aesthetic of Dionysian realism.  This movement wanted to push the envelope like antiquity.

Renaissance artistry was quickened by ancient style, but also sought to pave its own way with innovations in the representation of perspective, color, and lifelike proportioning of figures.  This progressive technicalizing of art had two crucial outcomes.  Firstly, the forms of visual and aural art alike became closely linked with technological advancement as forward thinking individuals attempted to distinguish themselves with invention, consummating their visions.  Secondly, meaning and appearance were placed on more equal footing, with aesthetic effect recognized as a function of nonconceptual sensing as much as intellect.  Thus, the experiencing of matter and form in their dimensions as a surface world of appearances grew more technologized, and the notion of sensation as a distinct module of perception produced by sense organs, consisting in the seemingly mechanical nature of physiological components and their interactions with the environment, came to prominence.  The intersection of perception with the world was increasingly understood as depending on the nature of material and organic bodies, and the forms and dynamics of these bodies were analogized to technology, intuited by the cutting edge as a mechanistic coordination of parts.

As was mentioned, technological problem-solving had continued to move forward during the Middle Ages despite a lack of theoretical integration.  These developments were closely linked to the improvement of quantitative methods for precision in measuring and calculating.  By the time seminal analogizing of matter and machine had been entrenched, technological practice was refined enough to merge with mechanistic materialism and the new insights into perceptual perspective.  Advances in optics resulted in telescopes and eventually microscopes, while theories of sonority gave rise to acoustically sophisticated buildings.  Expanding knowledge of the world in terms of material properties, combined with engineering breakthroughs, provided raw desiderata for the Scientific Revolution’s image of the environment as a physical system.

Together with revitalized materialism, also the technologizing of culture, and a blossoming humanist worldview seeking to synthesize acts of sensing and machinations of physical bodies with the soul’s rational intellecting in pursuit of a systematically comprehended existence, logical methods from the Middle Ages began to come under the influence of experimentalism.  Francis Bacon was the most illustrious personage in this movement; he is often credited with popularizing the scientific method, clarifying how logical analysis can be organized as progressive iterations of hypothesis testing.  Accumulation of knowledge accelerated and empirical activities were welded into an empiricist paradigm, the synergy of fact-acquisition and theorizing that would reach maturation as science.

While Ockhamism had declined in influence, the spirit of nominalism must have lived on in academics, as early scientists clearly had a sense that they were more than passively revealing the nature of cosmos with descriptions of experimental results, but actively actualizing curiosity, rationality and civilization in a customization of language to transforming collections of fact, a process that came to be called ‘modeling’.  Nascent protoscience was not just analytical thought and greater accuracy in knowledge but a cultural phenomenon, formative of revisional, revolutionizing congress between scholarship and the world.  Representations of the cosmos seemed capable of shifting in massive ways, the most notable cases associable with development of the telescope and microscope, at which time a more than one thousand year old foundation of naturalistic truth had to be discarded as all but worthless.

With all of this new fact, as well as the practical proof that linguistic resources used to describe it are nominalist techniques of approximation rather than a correspondence with absoluteness of reality, much consideration seemed necessary as to how models should be advanced and integrated.  Development of algebra, coordinate geometry and calculus made this issue more manageable, an endeavor that is of course still taking place to this day as mathematicians come up with better methods for representing and organizing facts as data.

By the Early Modern 17th century, protoscientific culture was here to stay, but even humanist, nominalist mathematicians such as Descartes were still puzzling over the nature of soul.  This dilemma became growingly significant as early empiricism researched the human body, with a clear notion of physiology as composed of coordinated mechanisms infused into the materialist perspective.  Based on the newest medical science, a correlation between anatomy of sense organs, brain anatomy, thought and behavior had grown unequivocal, but if structure of the mortal body was inextricably linked with personality and awareness, the ground beneath orthodox belief in a soul as immortal consciousness, one of the pillars of Western religion, began to quake and threaten to topple the whole edifice of spirituality.  It was apparent that soul in its intersection with organic matter had a sort of supervenient anatomy, and this modularity became known as ‘mind’.  Early Modern philosophy was thus the origin of the mind/body problem, persisting into the 21st century, a confusion about whether or in what ways experience or matter have causal priority.  ‘Matter’ is of course a concept derived from and modified by experience, but phenomena of matter in the brain and elsewhere exist independent of experience and can alter it in fundamental ways, as if having causal precedence.  It was uncertain if matter is a component of mind or mind a component of matter, and where our sanctified notion of immortal soul fit into the picture.

Aristotle’s theorizing in the domain antiquity called ‘physics’ had been some of the first naturalistic description of the soul/matter complex.  He based this primordial naturalism on concrete facts as given to observation by environments, in contrast with the Platonic style of Socratic method during which dialecticians intuited in the realm of pure ideas.  Aristotle’s theorizing did not accept an idea as valid simply if it could be connected cogently with some further idea in accordance with group consensus, but was more oriented towards the act of so to speak psychically picking up an object of the intellect, accepting its measure of individuality in that enigmatic, singular moment, including of course its material aspects, probing it as a spontaneous phenomenon with a nature all its own, which exceeded the determinational scope of nous, then formulating context-dependent accounts founded on collections of particulars themselves rather than questing for absolutely merged intelligibility.  Aristotle’s approach to knowledge preserved the immediate manifold as much as it refashioned for the sake of synthetic rationalization, and so his generalizing, while certainly presumptive of an essential, cosmos-wide order, had more robust commitment to progressing from separate angles simultaneously.  He expended much effort, with his colleagues, at organizing formal concepts and procedures into disparate categories and academic fields, acknowledging in praxis, if not yet with theoretical explicitness, the mutual exclusivity that differentiates causality into various types while humans attempt to correlate and inference.  This paradigm is mostly absent from Plato’s dialogues and likely in excess of even his technical modes of analysis, though we cannot be completely sure as no records of Plato’s specialized thinking remain.  

It might be said that Plato’s psychological ambiguities become in Aristotle’s philosophy a more methodological ambiguity.  Plato’s vaguely acknowledged sense for the elusiveness of presumed unity in the cosmos’ rationale was pragmatically regarded by Aristotle as a multiplicity, not entirely integratable utilizing any existing approach to the search for knowledge.  Aristotle implicitly recognized this dispersity in knowledge as a function of the intellect’s physicslike qualities, its variety of causal factors, with nous being a property in the hylomorphic form of a human nature he believed to be rooted in plenitudinous materiality as much if not more than the unificational cogency of ideas.  Plato exemplified a metaphysical psychology of applied speculative idealism, and Aristotle resolved this into a more naturalistic psychology of working realism capable of building Plato’s idealism into the modus operandi of institutional practice and expansion, allowing for not just philosophical discourse but construction of academia as a progressive culture which adapts to diversifying circumstances.  As has been stated, this naturalism was one of the motivations for civilization’s move towards empiricism as the core of society, a lifestyle based around advancing science.

So even as far back as Aristotle, we can see a move being made towards the notion of anatomically structured mind.  He divided behavior in organic lifeforms into three general categories.  ‘Vegetative’ functions were responsible for sedentary processes, active in all plants, animals and humans.  ‘Sensitive’ functions were the motivational and sensory processes in animals and humans that satisfy basic needs such as mating, acquisition of food and self-defense, involving what modern science calls affect, in acts such as aggression or fleeing.  And the ‘rational’ function was unique to humans, the presence of an intellect that thinks and has ethical sensibilities as well as a spirituality associated with the soul.  Thus, in Aristotle’s rudimentary estimation, organisms were similar to what we call biological, subject to structuralizations closely linked with matter.

Upon developments in anatomy during the Renaissance and Early Modern period, this tripartite division of the organic began to resolve into a more complex theoretical picture.  What had been conceived very basically as types of natural function became intricate mechanisms, the interactions between physiological modules made comprehensible by detailed knowledge of the matter organisms are composed of.  Even properties of reputedly immaterial experience were seen as involving inanimate, billiard ball type mechanisms emergent mostly from matter, in sensations generated by sense organs, and perception as it seemed to link up with the brain.  Human capacity to understand ideas, consisting in the mechanisms of reason, was the bridge in theory between immaterial soul and the material body.  Reasoning was easily correlated to brain matter, but most natural philosophers viewed it as also bound up with immortal, supernatural soul substance, giving the race a more meaningful existence than the rest of nature.

Dividing up this more and more complex knowledge of anatomical features into the inanimate functions tied to matter and those of distinctly human intentionality tied to soul, intersecting in allegedly rarefied qualities of the contemplative human mind, settled into two theoretical categories of behavioral process: reason and instinct.  The rest of nature was viewed as ruled by instinctual compulsions, while humans alone were capable of meditative reflection, what we might call soulfulness, but not completely liberated from instinct’s sway.  The first theories of the relative predominance of instinct or reason were as numerous and varied as philosophers who produced them, and even the thinkers themselves would have probably admitted they were largely speculating, but efforts to progress this sci-fi discourse of human psychology had serious implications for understanding social dynamics and the crafting of economic and political organization.  Philosophers who saw instinct as dominating reason tended to emphasize the need for strong, invasive authorities, while those regarding reason as master supported more liberty-based society.  But regardless of how much faith philosophers had in reason, everyone agreed that social structure was capable of profoundly impacting human behavior, either by suppressing corruptive instinct, giving instinct destructive free reign, allowing reason to reach optimal productivity, or degrading reason to the point of making humans vicious to each other and generally animalistic.  The first theorists of mind were deeply embroiled in determining how to best institute law and order so as to attain the greatest prospects for a global civilization of billions fueled by technological invention.

By the 18th century, science was putting together a comprehensive theorizing of the universe in terms of mechanistic laws, with all kinds of natural phenomena subjected to study and modeling description.  Uncertainty apparent in the relationship between operation of these mechanisms and any particular observation generated the concept of a distinction between the principles of nature and those of human apprehension, so that rationale became more overtly viewed as not only a product of ontology but also a “faculty” of reason with structure paralleling and partially determined by physiological function: the organs of thought.  Academia was advancing knowledge of the universe’s mechanisms in an innovative discourse based on fact-gathering, theoretical proposals supported with persuasional argument, and criticism followed by revisions.  This kind of intellectuality had been tightly regulated by institutions during the Middle Ages, and also constrained to social elites via reliance of literature and higher education on Latin as the language of learning, but a post-Reformation society bred vernacular art scenes, while censorship greatly diminished.  The reach of pedagogy and intellectual activity was extending to more demographics, so that Europe at least was ready for populist philosophies bringing knowledge to the masses in a more rationally motivated society at large.       

The classes and sectors of many European cultures, especially in England, had been fighting a centuries-long battle since the Middle Ages for political self-determination, with acrimonious negotiating accompanied by periods of unrest.  This agitation resulted in a move towards governments that better balance the needs of all citizens, with constitutional documents such as the Magna Carta obligating even supreme rulers to institutional guidelines, complex administrations responsible for all kinds of minutia exceeding the capabilities of a royal court, and legislative bodies composed of members who represented the vote of ordinary folks.  Government had grown beyond war and the exacting of justice, with an obligation to facilitate social welfare in many spheres.

Even in areas of Western Europe such as France and Germany that had not progressed much beyond monarchy by the 18th century, political philosophy was starting to gel with a suitable climate for promoting rationality to birth intellectual values of a populist kind.  This consisted in the ideal of legal equality as a standard to improve upon traditional status criteria, with many endorsing full participation in politics by the citizenry as well as institutions that nurture collaboration, with maximized freedom to devise and exchange ideas.  The movement had as its goal a stimulating of reforms that would make entire societies fairer, more secure, and individuals empowered to actualize their potential.  It was realized by leading philosophers that these ideals were vulnerable to corruption, and much thought was given as to how institutions can be constructed so power remains distributed in equitable ways despite the ever present threat of greed, ambition, mob mentality, and the vengeful feuding which often arises as citizens seek to place blame under adverse conditions.

As the discourse of rationality moved forward, philosophy started to become more conscious of itself, concerned with reflecting upon its historicity, tenaciously unresolved issues and future prospects.  Immanuel Kant was the premier analyst in this vein, architecting an ambitious synthesis of philosophical tradition that consolidated the discipline by outlining the psychology of intellectual knowledge in a detailed account of humanity’s capacity to reason.  He argued that philosophy revealed some forms of knowing to be inaccessible in his era simply on principle, as fundamental paradoxes.  He also clarified the close relationship between reasoning and ethical decision-making, showing that if a culture can become universally rational, a sufficing degree of universalized morality would be achievable.  Preoccupation with universalizing rationality made its way into the literary climate, especially focused on civic ramifications, coming together in a paradigm of value-construction called the European Enlightenment that would have far reaching influence as an egalitarian strain in belief systems and politics throughout the Western world.

Enlightenment philosophy and literature were adamantly individualistic, stressing the need for society to be a vehicle of self-determination.  Literary figures everywhere in Western Europe exemplified this individualistic mindset with eloquent prose designed to not merely exposit logically but also inspire citizens towards proactive, actualizing independence.  This cultural movement was celebration of humanity as much as a pursual of practical reforms, with reasoning seen as spiritual fulfillment, the search for a meaningful life via commitments to furthering the community’s well-being through one’s public role.  By the 19th century, broad-minded, reformist rationality had become more than the hallmark of responsible authority but a universalizing ethic.

While political theorists attempted to integrate the philosophy of reason into institutions, more purely academic endeavors worked on pushing beyond the history of rational discourse to understand the nature of history as a whole.  The first theories of history conformed to the Hegelian mold, viewing procession from past to future as a form-giving impetus or ‘spirit’ with ontological rationale in likeness to ancient notions of essence.  The history of humanity was increasingly seen as one small strand in a spontaneously generated, self-coordinating, vast universe of causes, with human will a fractional component in the will of a much grander spirituality unfolding at the cosmic scale.

This notion of reality’s essence as having intrinsic creational force was indicative of detachment from the concept of the universe’s orderedness as existing in the form of transcendent principles, a critical rejection especially prevalent as it related to human behavior.  With the rise of reason, those well-versed in the latest academics and positioned for progressive leadership started to abandon advocacy of morality as unconditional fiat reliant on punitive measures to promulge itself.  Cultivated rationality tended to view this arrangement as a means of oppression, a way to coerce populations into submitting to excessively preeminent, self-serving authorities at every citizen’s ultimate expense.  Those who had accepted reasoning as their standard for ethical judgement regarded moral regime as inimical to actualization of the individual, and also capable of making the intellect irresponsible, a nihilism arising from failure in adhering to unrealistically absolutist ideals, with everyone inured to hypocrisy.  The most extreme incarnations of this sentiment were succinctly expressed by philosopher and economist Karl Marx’s quip, “religion is the opiate of the masses”.

As philosophy of will took center stage, this new paradigm for the interrogation of reality opened up two fronts.  There was the formative impetus external to or outside of human reason conceived as biological and then economic evolution, contexts of temporal development composed of causal factors – ‘materialistic’, what we call ‘memetic’, or some combination – interacting as parallel influences in a dialectical process.  The idea that culture and nature undergo transitions dramatically altering their forms broke theorizing out of a strictured essentialism viewing the world in terms of rigid, absolute types.  The vice grip of reification upon thinking, a recurring tendency to analogize the fixed nature of concepts as expressed in written symbols with the phenomena they denote, was loosened, making hypothesizing more receptive to the idea that a cause’s form may differ drastically from the form of even its immediate effects, with the past potentially varying greatly from the present.  Then there was the formative impetus internalized or inside of human reason, a source of unconscious motive as arational force submerged within the species’ behaviors.  Unconsciousness was not at all like brute instinct nor analogizable to Kant’s categories of reason, but rather a protean labyrinth of ulterior desires and meanings characteristic of the specifically human ‘psyche’, growing increasingly visible as diverse cultures of the world made more extensive contact and information about ancient and prehistoric societies came available via literary analysis or excavations, with this wide-ranging grist for theory subjected to scientific systems of comparative analysis.  The dazzling variety of possibilities for customs, practices and beliefs was becoming uncontestable fact of human nature, as was the subordination of life to environmental causality on a timeline ranging from the origins of civilization and humanity to the beginnings of the universe, events which were constantly being pushed back to earlier, even more undocumented and unintuitive dates.

The initial impact of theories of evolution on culture was encouragement to more materialistic and psychologically complex notions of humanity’s place in the universe, with the species recognized as existing under circumstances in which reason has contingent control, but at the same time fostering belief in the possibility for personal growth, the evolution of one’s own lifestyle and way of thinking through sheer willpower.  By the mid-19th century, it was looking as though humans are profoundly affected by environmental and cultural conditions as well as an unconscious psyche yet to be theorized in detail, but it also seemed to be the case that values are not unquestionably transcending absolutes, placing the weight of onerous or unrealistic obligations upon us beyond the purview of justification, which can sometimes be no better than mostly ignored.  Our values are modifiable and enhanceable by decision-making at both the individual and collective level, a process of self-overcoming that is a sign of healthy adaptation, not indubitably subversive to the natural order.  The range of human values seemed more complicated, no longer a matter of unconditional certainties but relative to variability in context between different times and places, yet dismissal of the assumption that ideals are dictatorial, unyielding authority could free humans to personalize values, taking them to heart as applied truths to extents that do not seem as pertinent within a milieu of institutionally enforced, deity-backed moral order with its dependence on extrinsic reinforcement via threats of damnation, excommunication, general estrangement from the community or worse, vulnerable as motivational tools to the fomentation of irrationality, corruption, subversive backlash, and consequent diminishing returns.  With the locus of valuation for newly educated masses becoming intellectual knowledge, these many well-informed citizens had to make profounder choices: commitments to furthering human actualization and quality of life via practicing the sciences of theory and mechanism, a personalized spirituality based on inspired integrity and one’s own initiative, a pragmatic approach to life with functionality as its standard, or more than likely some medley of these.  The onus was on a growing population of learned humans to use knowledge for inventing and reinventing both society and themselves, progress vital to the future prospects of all humanity.

Though the theory of evolution was put to some positive uses, in encouraging the human spirit to evolve and personalities of individuals to reach their full potential, analysis was not sure what to make of its ethical implications in a natural world where immorality reigns supreme.  Even with respected cultures, no one had any doubt that the species violates its moral codes on a consistent basis, and biological evolution as a central theory could motivate acceptance of this fact.  It was always tempting to aggrandize “survival of the fittest” into notions of competition as a fundamental principle of nature, intuiting that organic behavior revolves around combative rivalry, and though conventional religion could at times blend with the philosophy of human will to produce an existential spiritualism moderating this trend, ideals of liberty shifted towards a sense that humans should be free to dominate.  For some citizens, the idea that superior status is a sign of merit and an indication of inherited virility proves appealing, as it legitimizes power as well as traditions of imperialistic conquest so seductive to many psyches.  

In societies working within a capitalist framework, ideology became more tolerant of letting events run their supposedly natural course, with citizens allowed to take full advantage of alleged inequalities in aptitude, very vaguely conceived, by accumulating inequitable proportions of wealth and control.  Adam’s Smith’s economic “invisible hand” of rationality transformed into a ‘laissez faire’ paradigm, acquiescent to acquisitiveness and domination.  The theoretically rational market, in principle free from corruption, waxed more susceptible to intrigue, collusive manipulations and lawlessness.  In more authoritarian societies, the “survival of the fittest” concept compelled leadership towards exploitation, imposing a draconian agenda of social engineering on citizens, applying mandates of power to the purpose of coercing evolution, a misguided attempt at procuring advantages over rival cultures by submitting the populace with fear and force, ironically causing these societies to lag behind the efficiency of more capitalist competitors.  Ensuring ruling class security was of course viewed by the ruling class as vital to the success of oppression-based systems.  Concepts of evolution could reinforce the view that human existence is a fight waged between individuals and subcultures for the sake of their future, a science-centric, instrumentalist holy war, resulting in some ill-conceived or even atrocious public policies.

The interpretation of matter as a manifestation of intrinsic impetus, which was descended from the concept of will as essence, together with advancement in models of physiology and biology accompanied by conceptualizing of the mind as similarly anatomical, resulted in a synthetic view of organic function as self-propagating mechanistic process.  This inspired Freud and like-minded researchers towards the pioneering of medical psychology, a modeling of the psyche and its motivations as modular constructs, socialized by relationships and enculturation.  A delving into the nature of the psyche faced up for the first time to just how much irrational drives and compulsions contribute to behavior, with core desires and meanings hidden from the conscious mind, residing in an unconscious that traumatizes, neuroticizes and even destroys us in contradiction to our intentions, professed commitments and occasionally our obvious best interests.  While psychoanalytic counseling was capable of helping patients tremendously, these threads of examination also had a foreboding side, unveiling how human beings can be conditioned by cultural manipulation of the unconscious into altering their behaviors without consent, impressionable to all kinds of institutional pressures and techniques of indoctrination.  We create progressive values via reasoning, but rational valuation can be undermined by unconscious forces beyond the control of intentional thinking.

19th century materials science also made huge strides, introducing the interpretation of matter we call ‘atomic theory’ that streamlined scientific reasoning about chemical processes.  Initial concepts of atomic structure were improved in the 20th century.  The Danish Neils Bohr and German Max Planck, along with contributions from many additional scientists, theorized matter as a duality appearing more particlelike or more wavelike depending on experimental context.  Wave and particle concepts were combined in a theory of all energized mass as ‘quantized’, occurring in discrete bundles that are however spatially diffuse in ways still, in the 21st century, only probabilistically definable.  Research into quantization advanced knowledge of the internal structure of the atom, producing the idea of atomic ‘orbitals’ as energy wells in which spread out subatomic constituents such as electrons and protons flux in coordinated ways.  Quantized ‘wavicles’ were found to be arranged within atoms according to mathematical ratios associable with chemical bonding properties, analogous to the harmonics of vibrating strings, and to move about the environment in approximately modelable forms, but attempts to predict their behaviors exactly have so far been subject to fundamental imprecisions theorized as the ‘Heisenberg uncertainty principle’ and similar concepts.  Measurability of various properties at the subatomic level – mass, velocity, energy – varies depending on the design of laboratory setups with their mutually exclusive observational focuses.  This prompted even sciences of the inanimate such as quantum physics to contemplate how the apparent nature of reality may be indistinguishable from perspectives of human agents perceiving it.

Psychology was simultaneously continuing to work on this theoretical problem of human perspective from the angle of immateriality, studying the nexus of brain, behavior, thought and communication in the modular mind.  Research techniques like double-blind experiments were developed for analyzing decision-making and motivation in a more unbiased way.  Methods of this kind better blocked scientist’s personal judgements and beliefs from unconsciously or otherwise surreptitiously influencing results.  Objectivity-enhancing strategies provided a more impartial picture of what humans spontaneously do under all kinds of perceptual and social conditions, knowledge which is integrated into clinical practice to make interaction between patient and practitioner more insightful and therapeutic, as well as utilized in the construction of culture.

Improvements in behavioral psychology and sociology were correlated with brain and nervous system function in increasingly perceptive ways as physiology and biochemistry advanced.  It became possible to associate specific classes of molecules and regions of the brain with the mental and physical activities of organisms, and psychologists gained the ability to intervene in emotion and decision-making at an anatomical or biochemical level.  The paradigm investigating mind and the kinetics of body in their relationship to nervous system structures is called ‘neuroscience’, and this discipline hybridizes with sciences of human subjectivity and motive to conjure effective treatments for many illnesses of consciousness.

Application of quantum concepts to biology is revolutionizing our biochemical models of life.  As has been discussed, quantum effects are being discovered in all sorts of cellular systems and mechanisms of perception, foreshadowing wholesale conversion to a quantum mechanical paradigm for organic phenomena, Earth environments, and perhaps matter’s overall structure in the universe.  Thermodynamic concepts work spectacularly on the scale of human bodies, in the lab and in the factory, but never quite added up to the blazingly fast rate of many natural processes nor the facts of introspection.  Research into many areas, including quantum tunneling’s ubiquity as a metabolic mechanism, magnetoreception via quantum effects in biomolecular reactions, the presence of tunneling and entanglement in photosynthetic reaction centers, and retroactive causality in entangled elementary particles are a prelude to the possible coming of a new age, a progressive dynasty of theoretical nonlocality and quantum coherence.

The future of science and technology holds much promise, but society also faces grave obstacles.  Individualism that took root especially in the United States contributed to an ethic of free enterprise and entrepreneurship, driving the country’s GNP towards unprecedented heights as it became the hub of world economy.  Unfortunately, in a laissez faire environment, private ownership was allowed to dominate the market via unchecked consolidation, giving rise to international corporations that often evade, manipulate or even control the laws of national governments, a problem for many countries as their political response to ecological crises arising from economic sectors such as energy, manufacturing and agriculture has been inadequate to curb buildup of pollution and destruction of the planet’s ecosystems.  Capitalist business models of financial exponentiality, which only radicalize a paradigm of economic conquest and sovereignty, have been appealing because they led to a century of ascending U.S. affluence as the country accumulated disproportional amounts of wealth, translating into ownership, influence, securer livelihood, in essence greater self-determination, a standard of living the rest of the world would like to match.  

But even absent any brazen meddling in politics, there remain some negative repercussions of technological commoditization, which is based around the mechanistic materialism that managed to advance much faster than knowledge of intentionality and unconsciousness with its more complicated objectivity.  A cultural climate was produced, especially in centers of concentrated population such as major cities that were rapidly enlarging and shifting demographically due to an exodus from rural regions, where identity and progress are defined not by what individuals do, the activities their lives in these new or transforming communities consist in, but more in relationship to what they own.  Denizens of capitalism-influenced environments are expected to achieve financial independence, supporting themselves with their personal possessions, business networks and drive to excel.  This compels certain neglects: of forging and sustaining intimate relationships, participating in activities of benefit to local neighborhoods, committing to the public good and long-ranged need in a self-directed way.  The locus of culture and meaning shifted towards technologized matter and away from social relevance, employment took center stage as the means to obtain possession of material objects and thereby secure one’s status, with lifestyles tending to revolve around earning money.  Capitalism exerts additional pressures on human beings to fend for themselves.

Humans have a natural gravitation towards social connectedness that counters capitalism-induced atomization in populations, which under some circumstances might settle into a balance between community supports and wants of individuals, perhaps as a less than ideal arrangement for the psyche, but relatively stable.  However, the science of psychology eventually caught up with material science and facilitated invention of techniques for controlling attitudes and behaviors by conditioning the unconscious below thresholds of self-control.  Most human beings are prone to lapses of ill-advised behavior from time to time, a natural feature of the psyche that may be adaptive in moderation, but theories of mind-control and habituation empowered business to reconfigure motivations and priorities using culture, accustoming populations to getting pleasure from individualism become unreflective and sometimes irrational so that marketing can more easily turn a landslide profit, a win-win in the context of economic models and a lose-lose for the quality of mental and social life.  The outcome was excessive consumption – a “consumer culture” – and overspending dictated by shortsighted strategies of finance, giving society no direction besides a series of fads emerging from successively more banal, trivial, nonsensical precedents for what will sell in a degeneration of rational purposefulness.

School classrooms were no safeguard against this atmosphere of incoherent meaning, and even in the populations of developed nations, better educated than any in history, citizens were liable to deviate towards extremities of selfishness and mob mentality, which stoked the flames of some destabilizing movements of cultural imperialism that generate the simple-minded satisfaction of fighting for dominance while satiating irrational affect.  Authorities who had grown up under these conditions were no more rational than subordinates, striving to take advantage of irrationality and shallow pleasure-seeking for callous power plays as well as narrow-minded and self-centered fulfillments, on occasion completely ignoring the whole reason for their stature in the modern world, responsibility to organize a public agenda augmenting humanity’s future.  It seems that capitalism along with every alternative socioeconomic system faces the ever-present threat of devolving into a global spread of exploitationism.  

On a more optimistic note, perhaps a quantum theory of reality will empirically verify that the immortality of soul is a valid concept in some nontrivial sense, but if we become what we might call in our more lucid moments soulless, it will be an empty victory of no significance.  Soul would no longer be soul anymore, even if it truly exists, but some footnote to a utilitarian nightmare.  Peering more deeply into the issue than economics, we must inquire how humans succumb to systemic irrationality so readily when reason is near perfection as an ideal, the foundation for modern political systems as well as much of social progress, and reasoning clearly a core tool for actualizing our goals.  If we want to understand this war between rationality and irrationality waged on the battleground of the human psyche, we might as well start at the beginning.

A free download of the book Standards for Behavioral Commitments: Philosophy of Humanism, also available for preview below.  Topics covered include chemistry, biology, genetics, neuroscience, epistemology, the history of Western philosophy, cultural evolution, theory of cognition, ethics and much more.

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