resources_nature_txt_The intelligent organism

The intelligent organism: misunderstandings about a paradox

Author: José Ignacio Murillo
Published in: Published as "El organismo inteligente: malentendidos en torno a una paradoja", in Borobia, J. J., Lluch, M., Murillo, J. I., Terrasa, E., Idea cristiana del hombre. III Simposio Internacional "Fe cristiana y cultura contemporánea", Pamplona, Eunsa 2002, 83-103.
Date of publication: 2002


There are occasions when a topic of research scientific arouses such enthusiasm that it reaches beyond the circle of specialists and is transmitted in one way or another to society. The reasons for this can be very diverse, and it cannot be excluded that the importance we attach to a certain topic is not only due to its intrinsic interest, but also to other political and economic reasons. The US congress publicly declared the 1990s as the Decade of the Brain. In doing so, he indicated that this would be the priority for both theoretical and applied research . Already in 2000, Antonio R. Damasio, a prestigious researcher in the field, summarised the status with the following words: "More has been learned about the brain and the mind in the 1990s, the so-called Decade of the Brain, than in the entire preceding history of psychology and neuroscience" * (1). Leaving aside the discussion about the valuational principles he employs, it is clear that, in his eyes, enormous progress has been made, even if many problems remain to be solved. We are making steady progress in a field that is still full of challenges: what more do we need for enthusiasm?

Scientists point out that the focus of science, which until a few decades ago seemed unquestionably centred on physics, is shifting towards the life sciences. This shift has also been influenced by political and economic reasons. Scientific research is often extremely expensive. The cold war led to a huge effort in particle physics research , which put the study of the inner workings of the subject at the forefront of scientific interest. But with the end of the Cold War, particle physics has lost one of the most powerful reasons that contributed to the satisfaction of its bulky assumptions. In our psychological status of peace, the money of the states has been directed more towards the health sciences, and this has given a powerful boost to biology.

On the other hand, we cannot forget that the study of the mind, which is nowadays closely linked - also theoretically - with the interest in so-called Artificial Intelligence, has also been driven by the needs of space technology, which is eager to solve the problems arising from the difficulty for humans to work in outer space.

But it is not enough to consider these motivations to understand the relevance of this shift. There are also powerful reasons of a strictly scientific nature. In the same way that progress in the knowledge of subatomic particles was made possible by quantum theory, which was developed before military and economic interests were directed towards this field, biology has seen great advances since the end of the 19th century, which have shown that it is well on its way to maturity and have enabled it to achieve unsuspected results. It is useful to place the study of the brain in this context in order to better understand the nuances with which it presents itself.

Earlier I referred to the scientific enthusiasm that spills over into the rest of society. The truth is that on this occasion the word enthusiasm may not give a full picture of the feeling that these issues arouse in public opinion. For, although it is true that many scientists are enthusiastic because they believe they are on the way to finally conquering the most mysterious and elusive redoubt of reality, that is, life and, in particular, human life, it is also true that those who do not share their enthusiasm for the battle may feel a motivated dismay at the prospect of the results. On the one hand, the knowledge of life places it at the disposal of hands that are not always benevolent. On the other hand, one might ask: what will become of man's dignity when the halo of mystery that envelops him disappears?

I believe that today's status deserves more attention from philosophers than it currently receives. In my opinion, philosophers have lost much of our former role as shapers of the image of man, a power that we began to lose a long time ago with regard to the image of the universe. This power is now progressively passing to biologists. One might try to console oneself with the thought that, after all, granting such a role to a positive science is just reductionism - as if reductionism were a vice that only affects scientists - but this does not change the status.

But let's go back to the world of neuroscience. Let us read the declarations of intent, the interpretation that scientists make of the results of their research. My opinion, and I hope I am wrong, is that the vision of man and reality they convey to us is materialistic. It may be objected that nothing more than subject is to be expected from sciences that methodically limit themselves to investigating material phenomena. But, of course, that is not what I mean. I am referring to the fact that scientists draw with their results a vision of man in which everything is explicable at that level.

It may also be objected that not all scientists are materialists, and I accept that. However, if there are people who really know how to frame their research in a broader context, I miss that. I think that in such cases, we are often faced with an embarrassing spiritualism, limited to an inner conviction that cannot be expressed without bringing scorn from a good part of their colleagues, let alone influencing research. I do not deny that there are neurologists who have unequivocally affirmed the spirituality of the soul, and even that they have good arguments to defend it. But in any case, in the current context, this is a defensive position, which does not seem to contribute anything to the progress of science, and which, on the contrary, has a serious problem: to say that there is something in man and in his mind that is not reduced to the material is seen by many neuroscientists as a clear symptom of despair, as it is equivalent to raising limits to science and with it, for many, to human intelligence in general.

The result of this status in the culture and in the man in the street is rather bleak. Hardly anyone dares to speak of the spirit any more, except as a symbol, because they do not know where to place it. And it is generally thought that what we will learn about man in the future will come from the biological study of his organism and certainly not from the theories of philosophers. So what is to be done with religion, with its pretensions to transcendence and its eschatological doctrines? Not only the ordinary believer who reads the newspapers or is capable of staying to watch a scientific documentary on television, but theologians themselves sometimes seem defeated, for either they renounce the intelligibility - and who knows if sometimes also the truth - of what they claim to believe, or they must resign themselves to their words sounding like an ethereal aspiration, which only deserve attention for the beauty or consolation it can offer, but not above all for its truth, even if it can sometimes be harsh and distressing.

What I have said so far may seem a debatable and apocalyptic judgement. Of course, so far I have made a value judgement on a complex status , and therefore there is room for many nuances. I would also like to make it clear that I am not trying to denounce non-materialistic neuroscientists for ignorance or cowardice. In reality, the problem they face is not an easy one. In my opinion, although there have been important and even decisive contributions on the nature of the spirit in history, it is not at all easy to relate them to the data of science.

Furthermore, although up to this point I have shown my dislike for the Philosophy that seems to me to be implicit in much of current neuroscience, I consider it essential, nevertheless, to praise some of its patent virtues. The first of these is that in many of those in this field who openly express their reductionist convictions, we can find something that is not always easy to detect in the current Philosophy : confidence in man's capacity to know the truth and the thesis defense clear and not at all elusive, which can be submitted not only to confrontation with experience, but also to rational argumentation. On the other hand, it should be noted that the results of neuroscience open up interesting perspectives for those who approach them with an open attitude. And, in this sense, it can be affirmed that scientific discoveries themselves contribute to overcoming the limits that a materialistic mentality tries to impose on them.

subject and materialism

I must admit that I have been somewhat uncomfortable so far. For the sake of the exhibition, I decided to state my objectives in a general way at the beginning of this speech. That is why I have been obliged to take a position on something that I have not really defined: materialism.

In its most obvious sense, materialism is that philosophical stance that identifies the real with the material. For those who think that not everything is material, materialism is obviously a reductionism. But at this point we are faced with the problem of defining subject. And this is not easy to solve. Some materialists use common sense and think that subject is something that does not need to be defined. The subject is, for them, the reality that we experience and that science is in charge of unravelling, while the spirit is something obscure and confused, that nobody has ever experienced and that can only be the fruit of a mirage. But it can also happen that what for some is spiritualism is for others just another form of materialism. Therefore, before reviewing some opinions, it is necessary to determine what is meant, at least in this context, by subject and materialism.

The term materialism takes on meaning only because of what it denies and not because of what it affirms. Therefore, although to be a materialist is to maintain that there is nothing other than subject, to be a materialist it is not necessary to have a complete conception of subject. It is enough to deny that there is anything that is not, what is usually called spirit. Since materialism affirms that reality is of one subject, it is not uncommon, and moreover quite accurate, to call it monism. A distinction is usually made between two types of monism: materialistic monism and spiritualistic monism. But, without denying the basis of this distinction, it can be observed that, generally speaking, it is ambiguous, because it all depends on what is meant by subject and what is meant by spirit. The clearest test of this ambiguity is that one can be both at the same time, as in the famous case of Espinosa, and that even a doctrine as furiously spiritualist as Hegel's can become part of a doctrine that calls itself materialist, such as Marxism, just by turning it around and tinkering with some terminology.

It seems, therefore, that the best way not to be a materialist is to hold what materialist authors (and not only materialist authors) call dualism. But, although I cannot accept that everything is what is commonly called subject, I must admit that I am also uncomfortable with the grade of dualism. average Indeed, I would accept being called a monist in the sense that I regard everything as real (a realist monism?); though it seems to me that such a parsimonious claim pales in the face of the recognition that in reality, before the supposedly dramatic distinction between spirit and subject, there is a much more abrupt distinction between God and creatures, and even between creatures and each other. The difference between monism and this position seems to be that, while the former holds that reality is a single cloth from which all beings are cut, here it is held that the single cloth - call it subject, being or reality - is only the fruit of a bold and impoverishing generalisation.

To understand materialism, one has no choice but to look at how the distinction between subject and spirit came about, for before it there could be no such distinction by definition. Few would dispute that it is Plato to whom we must attribute the philosophical formulation of this duality. How did Plato coin the distinction between the material and the spiritual? By affirming the distinction between the sensible and the suprasensible. For Plato, who follows in the wake of the Greek Philosophy , only the intelligence grasps reality as such, immutable and imperishable. But reality as such are the ideas, which cannot be grasped by the senses; so that, if we do not want to reduce the images that come from them to mere appearances, we must attribute to them an inferior and dependent reality. They are reflections of the immutable and intelligible in a changeable container and report.

Aristotle took up his master's finding and overcame some of its shortcomings - including its accentuated dualism - by emphasising not only the ideas about intelligence and its own activity, but also by connecting it with his interest in the activity of living beings. Later, this distinction, far from being refuted, would undergo a chequered history until it was definitively appropriated by Christian thought.

The universal openness of intelligence to the real and its capacity to access the imperishable force it to be understood as absolutely independent of the subject. That is why Plato's and Aristotle's thought is the moment when the intellectuality of a corporeal being is acutely posed as a paradox or a difficulty. I also believe that this return to the Greek Philosophy helps to clarify our problem. In my opinion, not to be a materialist is first of all to affirm, at the same time, that reality is grasped by the intelligence, and not by the senses, and that the latter can know realities that are inaccessible to the senses. In other words, reality is not felt or perceived, but ultimately only understood.

It is necessary to retain this relation of the notion of subject to the senses, without which it becomes an unsearchable concept. If this is so, we can understand that the empirical sciences can orient scientists - although not in an inescapable way - towards a materialistic metaphysics, because these sciences, by their own vocation, are dedicated to describe empirically observable phenomena with categories relative to these same phenomena, even if their observation requires extending the human sensitive capacity with highly sophisticated instruments.

Along with monism and the reference letter to the sensible that the concept of subject entails, there is another characteristic of what is vulgarly called materialism, and especially of the scientistic materialism to which we refer. This tendency has been clear since Epicurus - surely the first great thinker to be a declared materialist - and recurs with variants throughout the history of thought. It is the conviction that the human capacity to know can be explained by analysing it in non-intellectual parts, i.e. intelligence is conceived as a conglomerate of particles which in turn are not spiritual. So intelligence appears as something secondary, which does not intervene decisively in the origin and development of the real.

thesis materialists in neurobiology

To illustrate the current state of the discussion in neurobiology, I have drawn on the assertions of a few neurobiologists or biologists without prejudging that they are all avowedly materialists, and accompanied them with thesis defended by philosophers who argue at their level, and whom they usually take into account.

Schwartz, partner in several publications with Kandel, one of the recent Nobel laureates, in this case for his research on the mechanisms of report, after a brief survey of ancient philosophical proposals, states in a appendix of the work Principles of Neural Science, graduate Consciousness and neurobiology in the 21st century*(2), that "it is convenient to date modern discussions about consciousness back to René Descartes". Further on, after mentioning Locke, Berkeley and Kant, he states: "The possibility of a physical explanation of consciousness became evident in the 19th century with the rise of experimental psychology (Wilhelm Wundt [1832-1920]) and psychophysics (Gustav Fechner [1801-18887]), which assumed that mental activity corresponds to different physical states (psychophysical parallelism)". And further on: "Most neuroscientists and philosophers now take it for granted that all biological phenomena, including consciousness, are properties of the subject". The epigraph of this section is none other than Modern thinking about consciousness is materialist.

Another well-known neurobiologist, Francis Crick, in his well-known book The Scientific Search for the Soul: A Revolutionary Hypothesis for the 21st Century, states this hypothesis in terms little different from those of the old Epicurus:"You, your joys and sorrows, your memories and ambitions, your own sense of identity staff and of your free will, are nothing but the behaviour of a vast array of nerve cells and their associated molecules" * (3).

Another researcher, the aforementioned Antonio Damasio, gives this title to a article published in the January 2000 issue of issue of the magazine research y Ciencia: "Brain creation of the mind". In it he states forcefully: "I am firmly convinced that one day, perhaps soon, we will come up with a coherent explanation of the emergence of the mind from the brain" * (4).

And for Steven Pinker the problem can be posed as he does in his best-seller How the mind works: "The complex structure of the mind is the topic of this book. His idea core topic can be summed up in one sentence: the mind is a system of computing organs, designed by natural selection to solve the subject of problems faced by our ancestors in their primitive way of life, namely understanding and manipulating objects, animals, plants and other people. (...) The various problems were for our ancestors subtasks of one big problem for their genes, that of maximising the issue copies in the next generation" * (5).

This Darwinian conception of man and his mind underlies many biological approaches. Although he is not strictly speaking a neuroscientist, given the dissemination of his ideas, we can recall that Pinker's approach is identical in this respect to that of Richard Dawkins, the biologist and author of numerous scientific works knowledge dissemination . For him, it is crucial to understand evolution, not at the level of organisms, but at the level of genes. And so, after considering the problem of why cheetahs are the way they are, he can say of life in general: "The real utility function of life, the one that is maximised in the natural world, is the survival of DNA. But DNA does not float around free. It is locked up in living bodies, and it has to use all the levers of power at its disposal. The genetic sequences that sit in the bodies of cheetahs maximise their survival by using those bodies to kill gazelles" * (6).

It is not surprising that the materialist conception of science finds its best ally in evolutionism, and in particular in neo-Darwinism, since this theory allows to explain the living Structures without resorting to the intervention of an intelligence. Darwinism is even used to understand the training of the individual brain, as in the case of Gerald Edelman* (7), who understands the brain as an organism genetically equipped from birth by a large number of neuronal groups and which develops by a mechanism comparable to Darwinian natural selection: some are eliminated, while others are reinforced. Logically, it cannot be otherwise, since, if we accept the materialist thesis , the mind cannot intervene in the constitution of the brain, since it comes from it; so its emergence has to be explained by resorting to such a blind mechanism.

In the field of the Philosophy of the mind, John Searle, in a article published in the New York Review of Books and reproduced in the journal Scientific World, reviews current proposals for solving the problem. What interests me most is how he puts it: "Let us summarise our general view of how brain research can help us answer the various questions that interest us here: the brain is an organ like any other; it is an organic machine. Consciousness is caused by lower-level neural processes in the brain and is itself a feature of the brain. Since it is a feature resulting from certain neural activities, we can consider it an emergent feature of the brain" * (8). Searle, however, is aware that there is still a long way to go to explain howconsciousness emerges from the brain.

Also David Chalmers, a philosopher of mind whose naturalistic dualism would deserve a more detailed study, thinks that we are far from solving this problem. In this sense, he distinguishes between the soft problem and the hard problem of consciousness. The soft problem consists of discovering the neural mechanisms involved in conscious processes. The hard problem, on the other hand, is to find out "how the physical processes of the brain give rise to consciousness" * (9). Chalmers believes that consciousness cannot be explained by describing the brain states that accompany it. Therefore, in developing a theory to explain the hard problem of consciousness, it must be recognised that "not all objects of science can be explained by other, more fundamental entities" * (10). It seems rather that consciousness should be a fundamental element not reducible to another. In his opinion, a theory that claims to explain all of reality would have to take it into account and provide laws that would serve to relate it to the other fundamental elements of physical theory. Chalmers is inclined to think that consciousness is parallel to a specific cerebral process, which we could call awareness, and which is the one thanks to which "the information of the brain comes to be globally available for motor processes in the style of those of speech or bodily action" * (11). His hypothesis is that the concept of information can play a central role in this new theory * (12).

Francis Crick, responding to article in which Chalmers proposes these thesis , connects the problem of consciousness with that of meaning (so dear to Searle): "It would be useful to try to determine what characteristics a neural network (or some other computational embodiment) must have in order to generate meaning. (...) The hard problem of consciousness would then perhaps appear in a completely new light. It might even disappear" * (13).

To conclude this brief tour of the materialist thesis on the mind-brain problem, I will mention again Kandel, who begins the first chapter of his book Neuroscience and Behaviour with a paragraph in which he explains the interdisciplinary vocation of neuroscience. In it he points out how in the last two decades neuroscience has merged with cellular and molecular biology, and how its next challenge is its unification with the study of behaviour and the science of the mind* (14), to immediately add: "The central dogma of such unification is that what we are accustomed to call mind consists of a series of functions performed by the brain"* (15).

It may seem from what I have said so far that all those who advocate thesis materialists are convinced that they will eventually explain how the brain generates the mind. However, this is not the case. To limit myself to the authors cited, I will mention only two opposing views on the matter. As we have seen, Damasio is one of those who are convinced that we will succeed. In the aforementioned article he does not hesitate to describe this conviction as optimistic. Pinker, on the other hand, consistent with his evolutionary principles, warns: "Perhaps philosophical problems are difficult not because they are divine (...) or meaningless (...), but because the mind of homo sapiens lacks the cognitive equipment to solve them. We are organisms, not angels, and our minds are organs, not conduits to truth. Our minds evolved by natural selection to solve problems that were a matter of life and death to our ancestors, not to communicate correctly or to answer the questions we are capable of asking. We can't keep ten thousand words in our report short deadline. We cannot see ultraviolet light. We cannot mentally rotate an object in all four dimensions. And perhaps we cannot solve enigmas such as free will and consciousness" * (16). These melancholic words are reminiscent of the aforementioned Dawkins, who laments that the human mind seems not to be made to understand such an obvious truth as Darwinism, as it constantly strives to understand things while forgetting the clear principles that he strives so hard to disseminate.

Some critical remarks

Much could be written at purpose about what each of these authors proposes. However, for the sake of brevity, I will dwell only on a few recurrent assumptions in the arguments of those who hold materialist approaches.

Before doing so, it is worth noting that the problem of the relationship between the mind and the brain in these authors is reduced almost exclusively to the explanation of the origin of consciousness. The underlying conviction of almost all of them seems to be that there is nothing to explain human behaviour as the product of unconscious physical processes, just as there is nothing to explain the behaviour of robots and nothing to explain the behaviour of Aplysia caliphornica. But what strikes neurologists and psychologists who are back to functionalist objectivism - i.e. all of the above - is that some of our behaviour is accompanied by consciousness. The consciousness of reality and of the self is understood by some - such as Damasio or Dawkins - as the cerebral generation of a virtual reality. And if one asks where the self that contemplates such a spectacle comes from, Damasio, for example, will reply that "the biological basis of the sense of self is to be found in the brain mechanisms that represent, instant by instant, the continuity of the organism itself" * (17).

To begin with, I will dwell on a prior problem with the mind-brain relationship. Those who recognise that the mind is distinct from the brain, but can be explained from it, often explain the relationship between the two from agreement with an emergentist model .


We have seen that, according to Searle, our conscious experiences are emergent properties of the system of neurons. Let's see how he defines an emergent property: "An emergent property of a system is a property that is explained by the behaviour of the elements of that system but does not properly belong to any of its elements, nor can it be explained simply as the sum of the properties of those elements. The liquidity of water is a good example: indeed, the behaviour of H2O molecules explains the liquidity of water, but none of the individual molecules is liquid" * (18).

I think the example is very clear and serves perfectly well for the discussion of this thesis . But before I discuss anything, I will lay my cards on the table: my opinion is that the emergentism described here is an illusion. I will try to show why. To do so, I will swap Searle's example for a different one. At first sight it may seem a betrayal, but then I will try to show the similarities.

According to Searle's definition, the image of a person that we can see on a computer or television screen is an emergent property of a set of coloured pixels. In effect, the image does not belong to any of the pixels, and yet, to explain it, we do not have to resort to anything other than the set of pixels they form.

Is this true? In reality, if the image is nothing but a collection of points of light, the image I see is nothing but a mirage that hides the true reality. In reality, the difference between the image and its pixels is in no way physical, but only relative to the point of view I adopt to observe it. That is why distinguishing between pixels and the image they form cannot be dealt with by physics, but is reduced to a problem of the theory of knowledge. And indeed, few will be offended in this case if we say that the image is an illusion produced by an agent who knows how our perception works.

If we compare this example with the one Searle proposes, we will see that they are not so different. Although in appearance they are, since Searle could agree with me at agreement that the image is, from the scientific point of view -that is, rational and explanatory of reality-, a mere mirage, while liquidity is a property studied by science.

However, if we think about it more calmly, we will realise that, if liquidity means something to us, it is because we are able to perceive water molecules apart from their reality as molecules. The liquidity we want to explain appears again as the fruit of a perspective. Whereas, if we go back to the molecular level, what we call liquidity is nothing else than the way molecules are related. And are we ready to say that the relations between molecules are an emergent property of molecules?

Returning to consciousness, if reality, which, as some claim, is nothing other than neural processes, appears to me as consciousness, the first thing that occurs to me to ask is, not how one thing produces the other, but to whom and from what point of view reality appears to be such a thing. But if I end up accepting that the various points of view are valid, I meeting have the problem of justifying their existence, with the danger of leaving the narrow framework to which the materialist programme reduces the scientific research .

Ultimately, we run up against one of the basic problems of materialism. If we maintain that to explain reality is nothing other than to break it down into its elementary parts, we are affirming that the only real thing is those parts and the rest are mere appearances. For to affirm the contrary would be to admit the horrendous Aristotelian thesis that the whole is more than the sum of its parts, which leads to accepting that there are other levels of reality, and, ultimately, the existence of an order that presupposes the existence of the by many abhorred final cause.

Difficulties of monism

As I said before, materialism can be understood as a form of monism. A monism that tries to reduce reality to what can be grasped directly or indirectly by the senses or by the empirical experimental method of the scientific research .

This monism appears clearly in the claims of those authors who, without denying the reality of consciousness, try to explain the relationship between consciousness and the brain by claiming a theory, which we do not currently have, that will make it possible in the future to explain both the physical processes of the brain and subjective experience as manifestations of a single entity or process.

Thus, Thomas Nagel concludes one of his articles by stating: "My conjecture is essentially this: that although a transparent and direct connection between the physiological and the phenomenological is not possible, but only an empirically established extensional correlation, we can hope and should try, as part of a scientific theory of mind, to form a third conception which includes both the mental and the physical, and through which their real and necessary mutual connection becomes transparent to us. Such a conception has to be created. We will not find it by resting. All the great reductive successes in the history of science have depended on theoretical, non-natural concepts - concepts whose whole justification is that they allow us to substitute gross correlations for reductive explanations. At present a solution to the mind-body problem is literally unimaginable, but it may not be impossible" * (19).

Nagel's approach, which we cannot reproduce in full here, offers interesting aspects. Among them, that he accepts to a large extent the complexity of the elements of the problem and that sample clearly shows the inadequacy of current attempts to solve it. But, although I agree with him to a large extent in his diagnosis, I do not share the object of his hopes. And I do not share them because they start from the debatable budget that the way to explain the correlation between the physical and the mental is to elaborate a theory that shows them as manifestations of the same thing.

I do not wish to deny that, in the future, there may be better explanations for dealing with this problem and that we are not in a position to work them out today. However, I would not stake all my efforts and all my hope on this possibility, for it may well be that such a theory, thus posited, is impossible.

Now, I do not mean to say that we can never fully understand the relationship between the physical and the mental, or that there is a clear barrier that is insurmountable at research. What I am arguing is that the solution to the problem may not lie in reducing the physical and the mental to two manifestations of the same thing.

The reservation that I have just expressed can be understood as a profession of dualism. And it certainly is if dualism is understood as the irreducibility, either directly or through a third party, of the mental to the physical. But I think there is an alternative to dualism, which has to do with what I said earlier about the existence of distinctions in reality. It is to accept that human complexity cannot be understood from an avowedly or tendentially monistic perspective.

As Leonardo Polo puts it: "The human is organised according to dualities. And, at the same time, the human sciences are, in the end, thematically dual. The complexity of man is not resolved in simple elements, but in dualities. That is why it is appropriate to say that in man the two is more than just a issue. Since it appears in so many aspects of what is human, it can be argued that it has a quasi-transcendental value" * (20).

From this perspective, the spirit-body duality need not appear as the relation between two heterogeneous things, but as the expression of a duality characteristic of man, which must be studied with an appropriate method.

Internal contradictions in materialist theories

But perhaps the most serious deficiency in many of the contemporary debates about the mind is that we have lost much of the convictions that the history of thought has been gaining about the nature of mind, consciousness and intelligence.

For it is not just that the existence of consciousness or experience is a fact that cannot be hastily reduced to physical processes. It is true, as Nagel or, in other words, Chalmers states, that it must be taken into account that consciousness only appears in the first person, whereas scientific objectivity describes reality in the third person. But this is only part of the problem. What is really decisive is, firstly, that what we call consciousness in the strict sense is part of intelligence, and, secondly, that any attempt to explain intelligence presupposes it.

In reality, it is precisely intelligence that is largely absent from these debates. Since the term has become blurred nowadays, and serves to designate only the budget of certain behaviours, attributable to both animals and machines, I would like to clarify that I am referring to what has been understood by intelligence since the Greek Philosophy : the human capacity to know the truth.

In this respect, it is useful to heed Husserl's warning: "The most serious objection that can be made to a theory, and above all to a logical theory, consists in saying that it clashes with the obvious conditions of the possibility of a theory in general. To set up a theory and to violate in its content, whether expressly or implicitly, the principles on which the meaning and the claim to legitimacy of every theory are founded, is not merely false, but radically absurd" * (21).

Obviously, this objection can be applied to all those theories that attempt to explain reality intellectually, leaving the justification of intelligence at Fail . And, since evolutionism is universally present in the materialistic approaches of contemporary biology, we will analyse it from this point of view.

Materialistic evolutionism claims to explain all living things, including our intelligence, as the result of an unconscious process subject to physical laws. Let us outline this explanation.

The physical laws of the world in which we live have the peculiarity of allowing the existence of complex Structures , which are sometimes stable. Among these complex Structures , there are some that have the surprising property of replicating themselves, that is, of associating with other materials to form a double. We also know of some of these Structures which, in addition to replicating, have the property of forming a complex organism in which, so to speak, they nest.

Of these complex organisms, many of which are destroyed by the same laws of physics, there are some that survive because they serve to replicate the structure that gave rise to them. Only those that do so effectively in relation to their environment are capable of bequeathing replicas to posterity.

Some of these organisms have managed to generate Structures that allow them a new subject, more subtle, relationship with the environment, which we usually call knowledge. This is a property that can be maintained over generations because financial aid or, at least, it does not hinder too much the transmission of the genetic heritage, i.e. to reach maturity alive and in a position to have offspring, i.e. to replicate the genetic code.

Well, of those organisms capable of knowing their environment, we know of at least one, homo sapiens, which has not only acquired consciousness, a property that for many it does not possess exclusively, but has been able to formulate this history and thus understand how it has come into existence.

Let us conclude this brief account, which for some has a subjugating beauty, by recalling that what defines a materialist interpretation of evolution is that it holds that new properties are only recombinations of simpler primitive elements. And, after this caveat, let us move on to some critical remarks.

The first objection to this theory can be stated as follows. If, from agreement with it, the only thing we can affirm about the beings that now exist is that their structure allows them to survive, how can we be sure that the knowledge of reality that their endowment provides them with describes reality as it is? If we maintain our assumptions, the only thing we can affirm is that this image of reality either financial aid is conducive to survival or, at least, does not hinder it. But the most dramatic thing is that this rigorous conclusion affects the theory itself. Nothing can assure us that the theory of evolution is true. And so we enter into contradiction with ourselves, for to accept the materialist version of the theory of evolution as true leads us to the contradiction of denying the possibility of affirming that it is true. The theory makes any criterion of truth impossible, because the closest it can offer as a criterion of truth for a theory is the survival of the organism that sustains it, which, for the purposes of legitimising it as a theory, is frankly insufficient.

In reality, and although it may be hard for those who hold a materialistic approach to accept, we can only legitimately aspire to explain the origin of intelligent organisms if we presuppose that intelligence is independent of any unconscious process.

Conclusions and outlook

So far I have tried to give a brief overview exhibition of the state of what seems to me to be the dominant philosophical paradigm in the world of neuroscience. The criticisms I have briefly outlined are, of course, not exhaustive and are only intended to point out the weakness of some of its assumptions. Now, before concluding, we can ask ourselves about the reasons for its wide diffusion.

On the one hand, as we pointed out at the beginning, it is clear that for many scientists, both in the fields of biology and physics, the materialist paradigm is optimistic because it reduces all problems to those they can solve with their occupation. In other words, it seems to be a means of giving prestige to their respective disciplines.

In my opinion, the root of this temptation lies in the age-old struggle to differentiate these sciences from Philosophy. A struggle that is based on the error of thinking on both sides that the activity of the scientist is absolutely alien to that of Philosophy. As I have said elsewhere, it seems to me that one of the sources of the misunderstanding between philosophers and scientists lies in not realising that, although the results of particular sciences, including biology, do not have the scope of Philosophy, modern science cannot be understood if we do not accept in the scientist a truly philosophical concern. Indeed, scientists do not only want to know how to describe the behaviour of nature, they want to know nature, and this is at the very heart of what is meant by science. The scientist wants to know about reality and therefore orients his research and frames his discoveries in a framework which, although it may be crude, is truly philosophical * (22).

As an illustration of the scientists' view of Philosophy, which, by the way, is not usually aggressive nowadays, the following statement by a well-known zoologist guide , who is characterised, among other things, by his sensitivity in approaching scientific problems from a historical perspective, may serve as an illustration. The text is taken from a appendix in which he deals very synthetically with the fundamental milestones in the history of biology: "Aristotle. Birth of Zoology as a science. Although this pioneering zoologist cannot be assessed according to modern criteria, we will hardly find among the great areas of Zoology one to which he has not contributed something. However, Aristotle was more of a philosopher and poet than a scientist, and many of his biological writings are riddled with erroneous opinions" * (23) (Hickman, 821; at appendix A: development of Zoology). I think that, as long as Philosophy seems to scientists to be poetry, the problem I describe will not be solved.

But the way to solve such an apparently theoretical problem, paradoxical though it may seem, is not only theoretical, but above all practical. Philosophers need to dialogue with scientists, and I believe that the best way to take the first step is for philosophers, who, moreover, learn so much from the results of science, to be encouraged to put forward, or at least translate, their contributions in such a way that they can enter discussion with the scientific thesis .

On the other hand, philosophers - note that I say neither Philosophy nor science - have much to gain from this dialogue. First of all, because they can find in their interlocutors the confidence in reason that they have been losing for some time, and that the world of scientists, albeit unconsciously, is more reluctant to abandon.

I would also like to point out that, in the philosophical problems that revolve around the study of the brain, it is necessary to recover a broader perspective. In my opinion, and as I have tried to show, there is a lack of a serious and profound approach to the question of knowledge. Intelligence understood as the capacity to know the truth is largely absent from these debates. I would venture to affirm that the historical root of this problem is to be found in the reduction that the contemporary Philosophy has made of knowledge to language, because it leaves the doors open for intelligence to be understood as a subject of behaviour, and attempts are made to study it with empirical methods. This leads to approaches - which could be comical if it were not for the fact that the vast majority of people do not have the resources to refute them - which begin by reducing what is specifically human to the possession of feelings and end up defending the project Great Ape.

Finally, I would like to show my agreement with Robert Spaemann, who in a recent interview, when asked about the lines of philosophical research he considered to be a priority, said: "If you ask me what I consider to be the priority of topic philosophical research , I would say that at the bottom is the notion of life. Because this notion disappears as much for materialism as for idealism, or rather, for subjectivism". The mind-brain problem is a limiting case of how these two perspectives can coexist and of the difficulties in understanding ourselves that this fact entails.


  1. Damasio, Antonio R., "Brain Creation of the Mind", research y Ciencia, January 2000, p. 66.
  2. Cf. Kandel, E. R., Schwartz, J. H., Jessel, T. M., Principles of Neural Science , Mac-Graw Hill, New York 2000 (4th ed.), pp. 1317-1319.
  3. Crick, F., The Scientific Search for the Soul: A Revolutionary Hypothesis for the 21st Century, discussion, Barcelona 1994, p. 3.
  4. Damasio, A. R., op. cit., p. 66.
  5. Pinker, S., How the mind works , Norton &Company, New York 1999, p. 21.
  6. Dawkins, R., "Does life itself make sense?", research and Science, January, 1996, p. 61.
  7. Cf. Edelman, G., Bright air, brilliant fire: on the matter of the mind, Allen Lane, The Penguin Press, London 1992.
  8. Searle, J. R., "Two Biologists and a Physicist in Search of the Soul", Scientific World, No. 170, July/August 1996, p. 658.
  9. Chalmers, D., "The Problem of Consciousness", research and Science, February, 1996, p. 61.
  10. Ibidem, p. 63
  11. Ibidem, p. 65.
  12. Cf. Ibidem, p. 66.
  13. Crick's reply to Chalmers contained in Chalmers' article . Ibidem, p. 65.
  14. Cf. Rakic, P., Introduction to Gazzaniga, M. S., (ed.) The new cognitive neurosciences, MIT Press, Cambridge-Massachusetts 2000 (2nd ed.).
  15. Kandel, E. R., Jessel, T. M., Schwartz, J. H., Principles of neural science , McGraw-Hill, New York 2000, p. 5.
  16. Pinker, S., How the mind works, Norton & Company, New York 1999, p. 561.
  17. Damasio, A. R., Op. cit., p. 71.
  18. Searle, J. R., op. cit., p. 658-659.
  19. "Conceiving the impossible and the mind-body problem", Philosophy, vol. 73, no. 285, July 1998, p. 352.
  20. Polo, L., Transcendental Anthropology, volume I. La persona humana, Eunsa, Pamplona 1999, p. 165.
  21. Husserl, E., Investigaciones lógicas, 1, Alianza publishing house, Madrid 1982, p. 109.
  22. Cfr. Murillo, J. I, "¿Son realmente autónomas las ciencias?", in Aranguren, J., Borobia, J. J., Lluch, M., Fe y razón, conference proceedings del I Simposio Internacional Fe cristiana y cultura contemporánea, Eunsa, Pamplona 1999.
  23. Hickman, C. P., Roberts, L. S., Larson, A., Principios integrales de zoología, McGraw-Hill, Madrid 1999, p. 821.