Evolutionary epistemology, philosophy of science, idealist philosophy,
idealist ontology, materialist realism, consciousness, time, psychological
Cognition and Biological Evolution
An Idealist Approach Resolves a Fundamental Paradox
International Center for Interdisciplinary Psychiatric Research, CIRIP
Finished 2004. Electronic publication only
The scientific study of cognition in the context of biological evolution
(Cognition and Evolution, CE) has led to the result, that all our thoughts
and cognitions, including science and philosophy, are dependent on our cognitive
apparatus in its present stage of evolution. I find, that this result is
in contradiction with the basic philosophy of mainstream biology, the philosophy
of materialist realism, which recognizes the existence a material world
independent of human observation and cognition. I therefore regard
it as impossible to make a contradiction-free account of CE based on materialist
realism (including "hypothetical realism"). An account of natural
science, biological evolution, and CE based on an idealist philosophy is
offered, and it is argued that this account is free of contradictions.
Key words : Cognition and biological evolution, contradiction-free
account, philosophy of science, idealist philosophy, materialist philosophy,
time, psychological Now.
The scientific study of cognition in the context of biological evolution
( Cognition and Evolution , CE) assumed from the beginning, like all biology,
the existence of a material world independent of the human observer (materialist
realism). The study of CE led, however, to the contradictory result, that
all the thoughts and cognitions of our everyday life as well as of science
and philosophy depend on the human cognitive apparatus in its present stage
It is my opinion that this contradiction is an unavoidable consequence of
the philosophy of materialist realism and that it therefore cannot be resolved
within this frame of reference. In the following I shall propose an idealist
frame of reference, within which I think it is possible to overcome the
contradiction and arrive at a consistent account of CE.
Natural Science Seen in the Optic of Idealist Philosophy
The idealist philosophy relied on here contends that only conscious
experience is real (Randrup 1997a; 1999; 2002; 2003). In this idealist frame
of reference natural science is regarded as a catalogue of selected conscious
experiences ("observations") acknowledged to be scientific. I
think that scientific "observations" must be regarded as extracts
from whole perceptions. The reading of a measuring instrument can serve
as an example: usually only the position of the pointer is recorded, while
its color and shape together with many other features of the perceptual
whole are ignored (Marchais and Randrup 1991, p 2). To be acknowledged as
scientific the observation has to be intersubjective, and it can be seen
that the extraction from the whole perception facilitates intersubjectivity.
Observations belong to the class of immediate experiences we cannot change,
i.e. to what Diettrich (1995, pp 103-104) callsWirklichkeit and Berger
and Luckmann (1966) call "reality".
The catalogue of scientific observations is structured by means of concepts
and theories, which are also regarded as conscious experiences. Material
objects are thus regarded as heuristic concepts (or constructs) useful for
expressing observations (visual, auditory, tactile etc.) within a certain
domain together with some of their mutual relations. This reinterpretation
of materialist objects allows a direct understanding and use of traditional
scientific theories without accepting their ontology (Marshall 2001, p 60;
Randrup 1997a). This differs from contemporary mainstream science, but it
does maintain the methodological presupposition that all scientific research
rests on empirical observations from which concepts and theories are derived.
The idealist ontology emphasizes even more the role of the empirical evidence
in science and is particularly open to new theories and to the application
of more than one theory and set of concepts to a domain of observations
(Lindsay and Margenau 1949, p 1-3; Randrup 1992; 1994; 1997 b; Wallace 1996,
pp 25-27, 113-114,148-150, 190).
The idealist ontology also readily accomodates the intense nature-experiences
known as nature spirituality (Randrup 1997 a). These intense experiences
are felt by the experient to be essential and important, indicating to him
that they must be real and that nature is primarily an experience. These
experiences are therefore felt to be in conflict with the materialist view
that nature exists separated from and independent of the "observer".
Also on more secular ground many people resist the alienation from nature
entailed by strict materialist realism, and tend to retain naive realism
or scientific naive realism. The former means that material nature is believed
to be as perceived and the latter that it is believed to be as experienced
by scientific observations, concepts, and theories, or nearly so. Both forms
of naive realism may be regarded as a mixture of materialist and idealist
Immaterialist views such as idealist philosophies, phenomenalism, and radical
constructivism have often been met with the objection that they are based
entirely on private (individual) experiences and thus are or lead to solipsism
(only "my" experiences exist). This objection, however, seems
untenable. It is based on the presumption that conscious experiences are
always individual, but I think that collective (and egoless) experiences
are viable alternatives or complements to individual experience. A collective
experience is regarded as one experience associated with a group of persons
as the subject, the We, and related to all the brains of this group. This
differs from traditional neuropsychology which usually discusses conscious
experiences in association with one brain only. Persons, including the "I",
as well as brains are here seen as heuristic concepts, analogous to the
concept of material objects mentioned above (Randrup 1999; 2002).
Concepts Basic for the Study of Evolution and Cognition
In the idealist philosophy proposed here physical time and the placement
of events in this time is seen as a construction developed on the basis
of experiences in the Now (Randrup 2002). These experiences include memories
and anticipations which may be seen as special modes of experience in the
I think that the construction of physical time (and of other sorts of time)
are based on these special modes of experience and also on the experience
of succession in the psychological Now. The available evidence indicates
that this experience of succession is possible, and that the psychological
Now has temporal extension, and thus differs from the physical point of
time which is seen as infinitesimal having zero duration. I find that the
evidence for this provided by the psychologist Rubin is particularly clear
and significant. Rubin (1934) performed phenomenological studies of the
immediate experience of time., some of them with " two very short sound
stimuli in the outer physical world succeeding one another." When the
interval between the two sound stimuli was a fifth of a second (in physical
time), he describes the immediate experience thus:
"Quite contrary to our general notion of time, the experience does
not occur that one of the sounds is present and that the other belongs either
to the just expected future or to the immediate past. Either both of them
are past or both of them are future or both of them have the character of
being present, although they are experienced as a succession."
According to Rubin the perceptual Now can thus comprise the experience of
succession. Rubin also found that immediate experience of duration is possible
in the perceptual Now.
Searching the literature I have found no direct replication, continuation
or critique of Rubins work, but there are several authors who on various
grounds concur with Rubin (Randrup 2002; 2003, both with references). Thus
Fraisse (1975) has, like Rubin performed many phenomenological observations
and experiments on the psychology of time, and he thinks that our perception
of change is characterized by the integration of successive stimuli in such
a way that they can be perceived with relative simultaneity (p. 12). He
also states that, when he hears the tick-tock from a clock, the tick is
not yet part of his past, when he hears the tock, so the order of the tick
and the tock is perceived directly (pp. 72-73, 117).
It should also be considered that different concepts (or constructs) of
time exist in various cultures as well as in modern advanced physics. These
differ from the ordinary linear physical time and comprise: cyclic time,
spiral time, static time, imaginary time, sacred time existing alongside
with secular time, etc. (Randrup 2002; 2003 ). Hawking describes imaginary
time which is a spatial and therefore static construct and states that like
other theories in physics, it is a mathematical model describing our observations.
He finds that it is meaningless to ask, whether the usual or the imaginary
time is the correct or real one, the question is, which description is the
most useful (Hawking 1988, chapter 8).
Interestingly, the conception of time as constructed from the Now was already
expressed by Nicholas of Cusa (15th century):
"All time is comprised in the present or 'now'..... time is only a
methodological arrangement of the present. The past and the future, in consequence,
are the development of the present" (quoted in Perry 1971, p. 840).
Even if the material conception of biological evolution is presumed,
it is clear that all the observations leading to this theory have been made
in our time, i.e. in a short span of time compared with the presumed length
of the biological evolution. This comes close to the idea that the theory
of evolution is a development of the present. In the idealist frame of reference
proposed here all the evidence is seen as being experienced in the Now,
in the focus or the periphery of its conscious content (Randrup 2002; 2003).
The theory of evolution itself, associated with the theory of linear time
is also regarded as experienced in the Now and seen as a methodological
arrangement of the present.
In this idealist view we construct the past from the present, while science
usually tries to see the causes for the present in the past and the causes
for the past in a more distant past. There is, however, a special case,
where science to some extent relies on the present for understanding the
past. This is the use of the anthropic principle for understanding certain
features of the structure and evolution of the universe.
The anthropic principle is discussed thoroughly by Barrow (1988). He states
that we must accept that there are aspects of the large-scale structure
of the universe which do not have any explanation in the conventional sense.
They arise as random events in the first moments of the universe's history.
There are also a number of remarkable and apparently disconnected "coincidences"
in the universe. These structures and coincidences are, however, a necessary
condition for life in the present, and according to the anthropic principle
their appearance in the distant past is understood in relation to the fact
that we exist now and observe the universe. The anthropic principle may
be seen as a complement to the standard theories in cosmology (Barrow 1988,
The materialist exposition of biological evolution does not express the
fact that all the evidence for the theory stems from our time. This must
be stated as an addendum. Further, when cognition is included in the theory
of biological evolution as in CE, the theory leads to a fundamental contradiction.
This contradiction and its resolution by applicatiom of an idealist frame
of reference will be discussed in the next sections.
Discussions of the Fundamental Problem with the Materialist Exposition
It was argued in the Introduction that the materialist exposition of
CE entails an inevitable contradiction between the assumption of a material
world independent of the human observer and the conclusion of CE that all
our thoughts and cognitions (including the assumption of an independent
material world) depend on our cognitive apparatus in its present stage of
evolution. Indeed in the light of CE the assumption of an independent material
world appears to be self-contradictory.
Students of evolution and cognition have over the years struggled with this
fundamental problem. Thus Clark (1997) asks, what the proper attitude of
the evoutionary epistemologist should be towards science. Should he regard
science as disclosing information concerning the way the world is in itself,
independently of the species-specific needs, bias and cognitive orientation
of the human life-form, or should he conceive it as intrinsically limited
and indelibly marked with the stamp of his own humanity ? Clark finds himself
attracted to the alternative of dropping the notion of the world-in-itself
entirely, he prefers to envisage theoretical models ultimately justified
by keeping faith with observable phenomena (Clark 1997, p 53). As the theoretical
models can be seen as mental constructs, this view is not far from the idealist
views proposed in the present paper.
Ruse (1986; 1990) has written on evolutionary and Darwinian epistemology
at length. He arrives at the notion "common-sense realism" which
he regards as an alternative to the either/or of materialism/idealism (Ruse
1990, p. 108). He thinks, that there is a real world, but not a real world
independent of us. "We cannot escape our own mind-injected element"
(Ruse 1986, p. 175). Ruse struggles with the problems originating in abstract
philosophy and scepticism:
".... the human mind is such that, even if abstract philosophy leads
to scepticism, unreasoned optimism keeps us afloat. As human beings, we
all believe in the reality of causality and of the external world and of
the worth of consiliences, whatever philosophy might prove. And that is
what counts." (Ruse 1986, p 188). I will here contend, that we humans
do not all believe in the reality of an external world. I for one don't,
and others are quoted below.
Ruse also states that "truth rests in coherence, not in correspondence"
(i.e. correspondence with an independent world) (Ruse 1986, p 206). The
latter statement is actually close to the idealist view, I propose in this
"Hypothetical realism" is a term which earlier was often encountered
in the literature on CE. It assumes that there exists a real world independent
of man, and that our knowledge about this world is dependent on our cognitive
apparatus, therefore hypothetical. But Löw (1984) criticized hypothetical
realism, because he regarded also the existence of the external world, materialistic
realism itself, as hypothetical. He writes explicitly:
"If reality is given us only through the glasses of our "ratiomorphic
world-view apparatus", then every statement about the "true"
reality is, at the same time, a statement viewed through such glasses and
no "truer" than others." (Löw 1984, p. 213).
I concur with Löw and regard common sense realism and hypothetical
realism as compromises, which are insufficient for overcoming the fundamental
paradox inherent in the matarialist account of CE. More radical changes
A Consistent, Contradiction-free Exposition of CE Based on an Idealist
The term "hypothetical realism" was used quite frequently
in the 1980es , but seems to have been forgotten in the 90es; in the journal,
Evolution and Cognition (New Series) published since 1995 the term is hardly
ever found. But in this journal there are some indications of views that
are wholly different from materialist realism:
Thus Krall (1995, p 84, note 9) regards ".... objects as invariances
in observations and not as something that may or may not exist in reality"
And Stotz (1996)writes: "No matter how far we we turn the spiral
of knowledge gain, the problem of demarcating subject from object remains
insoluble. Much as we might even "trivially" presuppose an objective
reality and regard it as plausible, all our highly complex theories are
merely "assimilatory instruments" all the same: reality is always
mediated - an operational construct of cognition". (Stotz 1996, p 24).
In a very thoughtful account Diettrich (1995, pp 96, 103-105, 112) states,
on the basis of "complete constructivism" , that our perceptions
contain regularities and specificities, we cannot influence, and these unchangeable
features of our perceptions he denotes by the German word Wirklichheit.
In daily language this German word means nearly the same as reality,
but in Diettrich's exposition reality ("materialist" reality)
is seen not as something existing independent of humans, but as a
special human-made theory of Wirklichkeit. This of course comes close
to my idealist descriptiion here of "material things" as mental
Diettrich realizes, that it has been used as a major objection to constructivist
approaches, that they may lead to solipsism. He counters this objection
by stating, that the cognitive efforts he describes are "human specific"
(p. 111) and that the experience, that our perception contains regularities
we cannot influence, is a basic experience of "all men" (p. 105).
I have denied, that solipsism is an implication of immaterialiat views by
invoking the notion of collective conscious experience (see the section
on Natural Science above) and I think that this is closely similar to Diettrich's
Diettrich's conception ofWirklichkeit is an original one, but I have
been informed about one predecessor. Manfred Wimmer drew my attention to
the book "The Social Construction of Reality" and here the authors
Berger and Luckman (1966, Introduction, p. 1) define "reality"
as a quality appertaining to phenomena that we recognize as having a being
independent of our own volition, we cannot "wish them away". Thus
Berger and Luckman do not define reality as independent of human observation
or human cognition altogether, only as independent of our volition.
The constructivist approach emphasizes epistemology more than ontology.
But in the idealist philosophy proposed here ontology is in the focus, and
it asserts that only conscious experience is real (Randrup 1997a; 2003).
Conscious experience consists of immediate experiences which we cannot change
(the Wirklichkeit ) and experiences (concepts, theories) which we
can change and discuss, and which structure the immediate experiences.
Every immediate conscious experience has relations to many other conscious
experiences, and the experiences can be grouped in various ways.Thus visual,
tactile, auditory etc. experiences can be grouped together in such a way,
that they become constitutive parts of the construct (or concept), a "material"
object. The very same experiences can also be seen as constitutive parts
of the construct, consciousness or mind of the experient. By consciousness
(individual or collective) I here understand the total of conscious experience
in the Now. In the construct consciousness the perceptual and conceptual
experiences are grouped together with other experiences such as emotions,
aesthetic and ethic experiences etc. (Wimmer and Ciompi (1996) emphasize
the opinion, that affect or emotion and cognition form an inseparable interactive
unit). In this view object and subject are not disentangled, since they
have constitutive elements in common. The construct, the "material"
world, may be regarded as a subset or subsystem of the construct, consciousness;
this view has earlier been expressed by the physicists Lindsay and Margenau,
who began their book "Foundations of Physics" with the statement:
"Physics is concerned with a certain portion of human experience"
(Lindsay and Margenau 1949, p.1).
The grouping of perceptions (scientific "observations") into the
constructs or concepts of "material" objects expresses some regularities
(or constraints) in the occurrence of these experiences, and the grouping
into a subject (I or We), seen as consciousness or mind expresses other
regularities. The latter are clearly understood, when we compare with the
splitting and loose associations encountered in communications with schizophrenic
patients. In the idealist exposition there is no logical contradiction in
the grouping of the same experiences into two different constructs, "material"
object and consciousness. In mathematics it is well known, that an element
may be a member of more than one set, each membership expressing relationships
of the element with other elements. This of course also means that two sets
or two systems can have one or more elements in common.
The consciousness or mind conceived as above has relations to the constructs,
body and brain. These relations too express regularities in the occurrence
of perceptions and other conscious experiences. It is clear, however, that
these regularities are not in contradiction with the other regularities
or constraints mentioned above.
Consciousness is often conceived as individual, but as argued above and
in previous publications by the author (Randrup 1999; 2002; 2003) it may
also be conceived as collective, shared by a group of individuals. This
agrees with the generally acknowledged central position of intersubjectivity
in science. The necessity to obtain intersubjectivity also gives some constraint
to concepts and to observations regarded as scientific. This is clearly
felt, when it is attempted to describe an unfamiliar new idea or observation
in words and discuss it with others.
Convincing evidence indicates that egoless conscious experiences occur too.
Here there is no subject like in monistic material realism, but an egoless
experience of the world (perceived or conceived) is still a conscious experience
and avoids the dichotomy between the material and the mental (Randrup 1999;
In the idealist philosophy a cognition is not of something, but rather
an experience. Our perceptual, conceptual, and other experiences are not
of an external world, but the world itself (and at the same time
they are parts of our consciousness). We have visual, auditory, and tactile
experiences for example, and between these experiences we can experience
regularities and coherences, which may be expressed and experienced by concepts
such as "tree" for example or "a living animal in the past".
In this way "a living animal in the past" may be seen and experienced
as a structure or arrangement of perceptual experiences in the Now (Randrup
2002, pp. 32-33; 2003). The same holds for the concept "evolution"
and for scientific theories such as Darwin's theory of evolution. Conscious
experiences in the past (human or animal) are understood on the basis of
collective conscious experience across time (Randrup 2002; 2003).
Clearely, the fundamental paradox in the materialist exposition of CE, the
contradiction between the world seen as independent of humans and also seen
as dependent on the human cognitive apparatus, does not appear in the idealist
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