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