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Cognition and Volition





Gotthard GŁnther*1)
Preamble
It seems to be beyond controversy that the novel science of Cybernetics involves the problem of subjectivity. If we speak of memory, intelligence and decision making in connection with machines we associate traits which, according to a very long and deeply founded tradition, belong to the domain of a so-called psyche, with the problem of computer design.
Philosophy and the humanities have dealt with the phenomenon of subjectivity for a long time. And these disciplines have always stressed the point that the problem of what religious thinkers call a soul cannot be treated with the methods of natural science and that all technical methods - we have known so far - are totally incommensurate with the character of spiritual manifestations. Especially memory was always considered an essential element of human spirituality. We have only to recall the role which Plato's anamnesis plays in the intellectual tradition of Western civilization.
The last decades of scientific development, however, have contradicted the prejudice that the faculties of intelligence, memory and decision-making belong entirely in the sphere of "subjective" life. It has been shown that certain processes of subjectivity which 5 0 years ago were still judged "transnatural" could be imitated by computing machines. So far, so good. Nevertheless, there is little awareness in cybernetic circles that the modest results which have so far been obtained by cybernetic techniques have raised a problem for which no answer has been found as yet because the problem itself has not been clearly recognized. Today we are facing the question: is the beginning dehumanisation and despiritualisation of the subjective faculties of living systems a superficial corrective process which merely chips off a few mechanical characteristics which were mistakenly connected with the subjective side of reality and which actually belong within the objective range of being or does Cybernetics aim at a basic revision of our traditional world concept which has been dividing reality into a natural and a supernatural sphere?
In the case that we deal only with a short period of corrective measures which do not touch the fundamental antithesis of the physical and the spiritual and of the basic relation between subject and object we may be satisfied with present cybernetic methods and the present paper of this author will then constitute a futile and superfluous effort. On the other hand, if the emergence of Cybernetics is to be taken as a symptom that we are at the eve of a total revolution of our traditional scientific world concept - a concept which looks at our world into an irreconcilable duality of form and matter, of meaningful information and physical energy, of subject and of object, and finally of theoretical reason and pragmatic will - then the present scientific methods employed in Cybernetics are woefully inadequate. They are totally insufficient because they are designed on the assumption that this classic duality which is mirrored in the general division between natural sciences and the humanities or moral sciences is still valid.[1]
However, no serious attempt has been made so far in Cybernetics to develop a general logical and mathematical theory of subjective life where life is not judged to be in its very core a supernatural phenomenon but treats it as an extension of physical events into patterns of an almost unimaginably high complexity.
As long as life is looked at as a supernatural essence the world the scientist deals with-is a basically subjectless universe. And the very same rational methods which Western science has developed for the analysis of such a universe are now naively applied to a problem of a totally heterogeneous nature, namely to unravel the code of a universe which is an inextricable fusion of subject and object and where, according to a paper by Warren S. McCulloch of the year 1956 [2], we may design ethical robots, because a moral decision can be shown to be a direct extension of a physical event into structural patterns which are redundant from the viewpoint of mere physics but are nevertheless essential for the contact between subject and object. If we use our traditional logical and mathematical methods developed against the background of a cosmology which considered subjectivity as supernatural, totally extramundane and irrational to deal with subjective life as a selfreferential process of nature and fully rational, this is approximately on the same level as if we asked the automakers in Detroit to use their tools to manufacture symphonies.
Cybernetics is now called upon to assist in solving social and political problems. So far the results have been more than disappointing. This will not change till we have developed methods germane to the problem of subjective life. When the Greeks developed their scientific methods - which, as far as the basic assumptions are concerned, are still ours - they did so within a conceptual ontological frame which radically excluded subjectivity. And they were well aware that their methods were only meaningful within this frame. The modem cyberneticist uses these very same methods but outside their legitimate frame. The result is that if analogues of subjective processes are designed into computer hardware the cyberneticist is consciously or unconsciously trying to make them as lifeless as possible. His methodical ideal is to unmask subjective processes of life as merely lifeless objective events instead of trying to retain as much as possible of their transphysical complexity. Hence the neglect of transclassical logic and the lack of interest in the theory of dialectics - the only praiseworthy exception being the work of Prof. Hector C. Sabelli of the Medical School in Chicago, if we ignore for the time being the cultivation of dialectic theory in the Eastern countries.
Since the present author is vigorously opposed to the prevailing methodological aim of total re-objectivation of life processes the following analysis of the fundamental relation between subjectivity as cognition and subjectivity as active volition is intended to be a contribution to a cybernetic theory of Life.
Part I
The problem of the antithesis of Reason and Will is as old as the spiritual history of mankind. There is an elementary knowledge, quickly acquired by the human intellect, that the happenings which take place in our Universe belong to two - as it seems - exactly opposite categories. We believe that we are able to distinguish quite clearly, on the one hand, impersonal objective events which take place in the realm of inanimate things and which are triggered by physical causes and, on the other hand, subjectively motivated actions of living organisms which appear to have a peculiar spontaneity. The manifestations or results of a subjective Will we call decisions. And although we cannot clearly say what the difference is between the causal connections which link the data of objectivity together and a driving will and a decision which emanates from it, thinkers have insisted since ancient times that there must be a fundamental difference.
A tradition of long standing says that the objective side of the Universe is fully determined by causality, but that living systems, although they also are partly determined by a strict nexus of cause and effect, have in addition a domain within which they seem to be undetermined and free. An inanimate object is wholly identical with itself and represents an unbroken contexture. For this very reason it is exclusively a product of determining causes. A living system, on the other hand, represents - according to the tradition and functionally speaking - a profound ontological duality. It is a system of contemplative cognizance as well as a source of active volition. In its cognitive capacity it is determined by its environment insofar as it can only recognize what there is - including its own fantasies and its own errors. As volition, on the other hand, it maintains a certain independence from its environment. It can change its environmental conditions within limits and negate the influences which the world presses upon it. This fundamental distinction between theoretical reason and pragmatic will is associated with antithetic pairs of other categories of which we shall name only a few. On the side of theoretical reason belong such concepts as observation, order, necessity and objective truth. Associated with pragmatic will, however, are the ideas of the Good, of Hope, of Purpose and of Personal Autonomy.
The human mind had hardly made these distinctions when the question arose: what is first in reality and has ontological primacy? Is it the object and connected with it theoretical reason, or the subject as the impersonation of will and as the activator of creative decisions? In the story of the Creation all existence is the result of the unfathomable Will of God. The world comes forth from Him, not as a logical or physical necessity but as a manifestation of a primordial decision that is groundless and deeper than all reason. This is the doctrine of the Primary of Will.
If we turn from the report of the Creation in the first Chapter of Genesis to the Gospel of St. John we learn, however, that not the will but reason is the primordial source of Reality. Because there we read: "In the beginning was the Word: and the Word was with God: and God was the Word."
We encounter the same ambiguous attitude toward the problem of the mutual relation between Will and Reason in the philosophy of Plato. On the one hand we learn through the mouth of Socrates that knowledge determines the will and that sin is basically nothing but theoretical error. On the other hand, in such dialogues as the Philebos or the Republic the point is stressed that the Idea of the Good is the highest, the very first and the most general and the everything else (including Reason) derives from it. Finally, it is also possible to extricate from the work of Plato the ontological theorem that Reason and Will are dialectically speaking identical and that there is no primacy of either of it. This ultimate position comes very much to the fore in the latest period of Plato's thoughts, when he tried to connect his doctrine of ideas with the Pythagorean number theory equating the Idea of the Good with the Oneness of Being in general and hence with the arithmetical number 1. It is irrelevant whether Plato succeeded or not. At any rate, Plato's attempt was - seen against the background of the early development of Western Science - premature and therefore bound to be ineffective. The whole history of philosophy and scientific thought testifies to it, because the issues of the primacy of Reason or Will was never decided and the controversy oscillated for more than 2000 years between opposite solutions. Whenever a thinker proclaimed the primacy of Reason and the primordial rank of objective thingness some opponent was capable of demolishing such theory and asserting the primacy of Will and the primordinate ontological status of subjective decision. However, after having accomplished this the advocate of the primacy of Will suffered in turn the same fate of being refuted with the most convincing arguments and the pendulum swung back to the first position.
The controversy culminated the first time in the historic confrontation between Christian religion and Greek science. Taken as a whole the intellectual tradition of the Greeks decidedly favored the primacy of Reason and consequently a concept of the Universe that was basically rational and totally resolvable in terms of objectivity. In Christianity, however, the idea prevailed that the world had been created out of Nothingness by the inscrutable Will of God, the Father, and Reason or the Logos took second place and was personified by the Son.
A new confrontation took place in the rivalry of Thomism and Scotism during the high Middle Ages. According to Thomas the Will is determined by the knowledge of the Good, and the intellect is the supreme motor of the psyche. In contradicting Thomism Henry of Ghent, Duns Scotus and Occam argued that, if the Will receives its motoric impulses by Ideas and by the Intellect, it loses its basic character of contingency and its "power to the contrary". In order to be capable of genuine decisions the Will must be the "movens per se". A will can be sovereign only if it is not determined by the dictates of reason.
For Thomas even the Divine Will must be subservient to the Divine Wisdom which is its indisputable master. But Duns Scotus insists that God created the Universe as a manifestation of his absolute arbitray will and if it had been his decision he might have endowed it with exactly the opposite properties. One of the most poignant formulation of this controversy is offered by Frances of Mayro who posed the question: Was God, when he created the world, bound by the laws of logic which limited his omnipotence or are these laws and their validity an expression of an arbitrary decision and he might as well have decided on different laws to be valid? On the ethical side Occam amended the argument by musing whether God might have decided that what we have learned to call sin might be the true content of the moral law of goodness.
That the controversy was never decided in favor of one or the other side since each party advanced equally valid and equally refutable arguments - is drastically demonstrated by the fact, that the issue turns up a third time at the highest level of philosophy in the difference between Kant's and Hegel's metaphysical attitudes. For Kant there can be no doubt that philosophy has to insist on the primacy of Will and the absolute sovereignty of free decision (Categorical Imperative). Reason, according to Kant, cannot dominate the will because it is limited by an intrinsic weakness of built-in fallacies, the so-called "transcendental illusion". These fallacies are not a result of human incompetence and blundering but belong to the innate character of theoretical thought.
This metaphysical weakness of Reason is denied by Hegel, the philosopher of "Panlogism". The Will as the adversary of Reason has its highest manifestation in the realm of the "objective spirit" (objektiver Geist), i.e. in Law Morality and State. But above the objective spirit reigns the absolute spirit which is the self-reference of a Reason that is a law unto itself.
We shall not follow the further vagaries of the issue which has remained an unsolved problem. up to the present time and which must remain unresolved within the frame of the classic concepts of the world. For, as long as reality is subdivided into a natural and a supernatural sector, the problem cannot disappear. Subjectivity itself is then divided into a natural and a supernatural component.
If a problem is raised again and again and no solution can be found it is wise not to ask what separates the proponents of opposite viewpoints but to ask: what do they have in common? Because this is the point where the source of the disagreement must lie! And no matter how. much Greek scientists and religious thinkers of the early Christian era, or Thomists and Scotists and finally Kant and Hegel may disagree about the solution, there has been a marvellous agreement among the contending parties about the way to pose the problem. Neither side has ever doubted that Will and Reason are two distinct spiritual faculties of the subject than can be separately identified and put into opposition to each other like two warring leaders who meet on a battlefield with the aim to defeat the adversary. It has never occurred to the proponents of either side that they might not have anything worth while to fight about.
Occasionally, very occasionally, a timid doubt was voiced in the history of philosophy about the legitimacy of the problem; but such doubts remained without serious consequence because during the classic period of philosophy and science no tools were available to develop a theory which denied the assumption that Will and Reason are two capacities of the Mind, separate and independently operating.
This, however, is the position which we are going to take. Our Thesis will be: Will and Reason are the very same activity of the Mind, but seen from two different viewpoints. Or - to put it differently - Reason and Will or theoretical reflection on one hand and contingent decision on the other are only reciprocal manifestations of one and the same ontological configuration that is produced by the fact that a living system goes through constantly changing attitudes toward its environment. There is no thought unless it is constantly supported by a will to think. And there can be no act of volition unless there is a theoretical perception of something that will serve as motivation for the will.
A will that wills nothing but itself would have no objective that could trigger it into action; and a thought that is a mere mental image without a volitional process which produces and maintains it is equally inconceivable.
Under the circumstances it is understandable that we have as yet no scientific theory of decision making. If the will cannot be treated as a separate capacity and does not exist as such, there is no way to develop a separate theory for it and its mechanism of decision making. But, so the contradicting argument goes, we do have a theory of thinking which was originally conceived by Aristotle and developed and refined up to the present day. The answer to this argument is that it perpetuates a colossal mistake. We do not have a theory of the mechanism of thinking. If we had one we could have built computers with hetero-reference and self-reference that think like us long ago. But our present computers are only auto-referential. They have no awareness of the difference between their so-called thought processes and what these processes semantically refer to. In other words, they are not capable of hetero-reference, let alone self-reference. This is the best proof that we are still incapable to develop an exact theory of the process of thinking. What we have only acquired during the course of western scientific history is a mere theory of the contents or results of thinking, but not of the active thought process itself. To mistake our present day logic for a theory of the mechanism of thinking is about on the same level as if we confused our furniture with the movers who have placed it in our new apartment. So far all attempts to discover the laws of the subjective event which we call theoretical reflection have failed. And they failed for the very same reason why we never succeeded to develop a theory of will and decision making: because Will and Reason are not two independently operating capacities. They constitute a single faculty of subjectivity which, however, may assume contrary aspects under reversed ontological conditions.
Since the classic approach to identify cognition and volition separately in a closed unit of individual subjectivity has failed we shall approach the problem from a different side. We shall assume that the phenomenon of subjectivity, as manifested by thought processes and decision making, cannot be looked for inside the skin of an individual living body - be that animal or man. We propose instead the following theorem:
Subjectivity is a phenomenon distributed over the dialectic antithesis of the Ego as the subjective subject and the Thou as the objective subject, both of them having a common mediating environment.
If we try to describe the situation from the viewpoint of a neutral observer we may say that we are aware of our own subjectivity by self-reference. In this self-reflective mental attitude one's own ego appears as a merely passive entity. We are aware of it in the sense of a pseudo-object, because all action which we ascribe to the living subjectivity is now absorbed in the self-referential process which has taken such "inward" direction. Thus the personal ego appears to our self-reflection as a passive object toward which our active attention is directed. One's own self is - so to speak - a "soul thing". However, if we turn from self-reference to hetero-reference and direct our attention toward our environment we meet subjectivity again, this time in the shape of the other ego, the Thou. But the Thou is not a soul thing to us, only the specific body the Thou is in liaison with presents itself to us as a thing. In our environment the category of thingness refers to physical objects only. The subjectivity in the shape of a Thou is conceivable to us and observable exclusively as the manifestation of an event which we may, in contraposition to the objective events which take place between inanimate things, call a volitional event as the expression of a subjective will which is not ours and which is totally inaccessible to us. What gives the Thou its peculiar ontological position is that it has a physical location in our environment insofar as it must appear as an animated organic body occupying a specific place in time and space. On the other hand, it resists identification with this body which is reachable by methods of classic natural science and remains, as inner subjectivity, totally unreachable. In this respect it does not belong to our environment because by environment we mean something which is in principle within our reach, even if there are practical obstacles which may keep us away from certain parts of the environmental world. What gives this situation, however, an additional aspect of intricacy is the fact that we cannot rest satisfied with the simple formula that the subjective subject - which means our own ego - appears in a mental environment as an object of thought and the objective subject, the Thou, in a physical environment as a manifestation of will in the shape of decisions. In other words we cannot be satisfied with the primitive formula that our personal ego appears as the source of cognition and the alter ego as the font of decisions. We know very well that our own ego must also be considered as a main spring of decision and that no Thou could manifest itself as a decision making entity unless this process of deciding is motivated and directed by thought.
The key to the problem lies in the relation both versions of subjectivity have to the non-subjective environment and in our awareness that the I as the subjective subject forms with any Thou as the objective subject an ex-change relation. Although everyone of us from his own viewpoint is the subjective Ego and any other subject is an objective Thou the situation is reversed from the viewpoint of any Thou. Seen from there all of us who claim to be subjective egos are demoted to the objective subjectivity of the Thou and located in an environment which is not ours - it only overlaps it - but belongs to the specific Thou who has taken up the role of the ob-server of us. This all of us know! And it means that the division which sepa-rates our personal subjectivity from the subjectivity which is mediated to us by our environment is - structurally speaking - only a replica of the divi-sion which we are aware of in our own selves as being the simultaneous source of cognitive concepts and volitive decisions. In other words: the brain as the organ of subjective awareness repeates within itself the relation between I and Thou as mediated by a physical environment. For this reason we shall, for the rest of this paper, ignore the existence of the Thou in our environment and assume for the time being and for the purpose of simplifi-cation a somewhat solipsistic attitude. We shall assume that there is only a solitary subject which finds itself the lonely living inhabitant of an otherwise lifeless cosmos. Even this epistemological attitude represents some progress compared with the traditional classic viewpoint where an observer maps a Universe which is totally devoid of Life - because he has excluded even himself.
After we have reached this point it is high time to reflect upon the question how the preceding ontological analysis could be relevant for brain research. There are two ways in which brain research can proceed. We can look at the brain as a mere physical piece of matter consisting of approximately 10 billion neurons and we can investigate how nature has constructed these neurons and how they arrest and transmit messages and store information. This is, of course, a legitimate procedure and it goes without saying that it is eminently necessary to proceed in this direction. However, this method has its limits. With the techniques available in this field of research it is, on principle, impossible to cross the borderline between objective events and subjective awareness. All research and analysis started in a given contexture is unvoidably and unconditionally confined to the very contexture in which it started its moves. But objectivity and subjectivity are discontextural.
Moreover, there is a technical difficulty. The description of a neural system has to rely heavily on combinatorial analysis. But the number of neurons which are required to produce mental events is so high that combinatorial analysis will fail us in very relevant respects: it can be shown that, when we make the transition from the object to the subject, the neural system must display some properties which can only be described by recursive procedures. But these methods will not carry us far enough. We shall give one example: It is highly probable that the borderline between subjectivity and objectivity has some arithmetical relation to the maxima of the Stirling numbers of the second kind. If we ask for this maximum we want to know for which k at a particular n the value of S(n,k) has a maximum.
This question can, for the time being, be answered up to the value n = 95. Beyond that number only estimates are possible. But to describe the mutual relation of subjectivity and objectivity adequately N would have to assume the value of 10 billion. And even that would probably not be enough because with 10 billion we refer only to the nerve cells of the brain and not to the additional nerve cells of the body.
In other words: there are not only theoretical but also practical reasons why research in the neural system of the brain will never unrevel how the brain con