How To Fix Our Image of Man?

Bruno Mölder is a senior research fellow of theoretical philosophy at the UT Institute of Philosophy and Semiotics. Below is a shortened version of a lecture that Bruno gave at the festive meeting dedicated to the 93th anniversary of the Estonia’s independence and was originally published in the Eesti Päevaleht newspaper.

Common understanding of man and the world needs serious involvement from philosophy. This is especially needed in present-day Estonia, where horoscopes and quackery have taken root in the mainstream media, and magicians, witches, psychics, aura purifiers and energy healers have become leaders of public opinion.

The Tuhala Witch's Well

The Tuhala Witch's Well is famous in Estonia for "boiling over" after heavy rains or when the snow finally melts. A legend says that the whisking Tuhala witches make it boil. Photo: Jarek Jõepera

Even if one views all of these things as light entertainment, they still strengthen the opinion that although everything said by diviners and augurs is not completely true, they might have a point. But this kind of thinking is possible only when things are not fully thought through.

We can see this if we ask ourselves what the world would be like if witchcraft or astrology were possible. In addition to natural laws, this world would be governed by laws that are unknown to science. People would not be fully autonomous and instead would be led by mysterious forces.

I am not going to give an explanation as to why people are so susceptible to belief in the supernatural or why esotericism in present day Estonia is so popular. The former is a psychological and the latter a sociological phenomenon. As concerns the former, I presume that on the right track are those accounts, which claim that our minds are built so that we tend to see evidence of intelligent behaviour also in cases where there is none.

I am going to focus on how philosophy, and especially philosophy of mind, can assist in fixing our world view. Philosophy of mind deals with philosophical questions concerning the human mind. While each person should choose his or her own beliefs, I find that the philosophy of mind can at least provide a genuine alternative to the presently popular half-baked beliefs.

According to American philosopher Wilfrid Sellars, the main task of a philosopher is to bring together the common-sense and scientific conceptions or images of the man and the world. The result of merging these two somewhat one-sided views would be a three-dimensional image.

I call the one-sided conception about the world and people in it an inherited image, and the merging result an improved image. The terminology speaks for itself. The inherited image originates from both religion and humanist traditions. The new image is improved because it includes the scientific discoveries that were not known to us before.

The following focuses mainly on the image of man.  We can discern two important elements, namely ideas about the human nature and concepts that mediate this understanding. In the philosophy of mind, the collection of these concepts and the principles that govern them is called folk psychology. This is the common-sense framework we use to make sense of our everyday actions.

The image of man can be improved by improving both of those elements. Although some philosophers have held that folk psychology is completely wrong and that its vocabulary should be replaced with that of the neurosciences, I do not see a need for radical transformation of folk psychology.

If we reflect on how well people manage to carry out their everyday lives, we can presume that this cannot be based on a completely false conception of how they function. If corrections are necessary, they should rather be partial. A good example is human memory, which is not at all a unitary entity. It has many forms and to speak of just remembering would be simply inaccurate. Thus, the improved image of man would probably similarly include some kind of improved version of folk psychology.

Things are different with the second element of the image of man: ideas about what it is to be human. Compared to folk psychology, this might require more extensive corrections if the inherited and scientific images are to be merged. The following passage provides a short description of the main ideas about the man in the inherited image.

The human is a rational actor, free in his or her actions. He or she possesses a self that executes its will freely. The person’s self is a locus of control wherein all decisions are made. Often it is viewed as a soul that is separable from the person’s material body. Everything the self does, that is, what happens in the mind is accessible to the self. The mind is like an open book unto itself.

The image resulting from the generalisation of scientific research is completely different. A person consists of many different autonomously operating subsystems. They do not require management from a separate self or soul. The soul is not acknowledged by scientific views at all – as a hypothesis it is not required for explaining our functioning. It creates serious philosophical problems instead.

It seems as if both the self and free will are illusionary from the scientific perspective. Our actions are actually initiated by the processes in the brain. And if the self and free will are mere illusions, knowledge about our mind also becomes doubtful. Indeed, giving reasons for our actions is a common example of self-deception.

It seems that those two images are directly opposed to each other, but closer examination presents a way to overcome this contradiction. It would be wrong to feel obliged to discard the inherited image completely. It would be as one-sided as clinging on to it. Let us remind ourselves of Sellars’s point that the two views should be merged. The resulting image was supposed to be truly stereoscopic.

We should aim towards the improved image being a recognisably improved version of the inherited one. To accomplish this, we need to analyse both. We should extract the elements of the inherited image that are compatible with scientific findings. At the same time, we should be alert enough to recognise whether some of the conclusions of the scientific approach are too radical.

We can admit that there is no soul or self separate from body and instead further develop the scientific approach to self-consciousness and self-conception. We can retain from the notion of free will such elements (as being autonomous and responsible for one’s actions) that are compatible with the view of a person as a machine, which states are caused by its previous states.

It is true that we are not perfectly rational, but it would be far-fetched to claim that we are therefore irrational. Compatibility with the inherited image is possible if we propose that a person is rational enough to be able to lead her or his life. Our self-knowledge is not always correct, but everyone still knows one’s own mind better than a bystander. The person itself keeps the authority about the contents of one’s own mind.

Let us summarise. We have inherited an image that is comprised of folk psychology and certain ideas about the nature of man that have become part of common sense over time. Considering the discoveries in psychology and with the help of philosophy of mind, we may develop an improved understanding, an improved image of man that includes improved folk psychology and corrected ideas.

And what about the esotericism mentioned in the beginning of this article? The esoteric view of man is a mixture of folk psychology and false ideas. In addition to the inherited image, it contains unscientific fantasies, false claims and simple stupidity – none of which are worthy of keeping or adding to the improved image. When creating a new image of man, the most worthwhile decision is to simply ignore them.

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