Mythology: From Ancient to Post-Modern

By Jürgen Kleist; Bruce A. Butterfield | Go to book overview

Scott R. Smith


The Myth of Mind as Machine: Mankind's Misunderstanding of Self

For several hundred years, since about the time of Descartes, a deep and pervasive myth has taken root in mankind's perception of self. The rise of science, together with the decline of the widespread belief in a "natural order" in which humans rank just below God, yet above other animals by virtue of possessing souls, has led to this century's practice of "cognitive science."

According to the dominant view in cognitive science, the study of the mind must be cast in objective terms, like those used in physics, so that human behavior is reduced to understanding mind, and man, as a machine. Subjective perspectives, including those suggesting a "reality" that is visible only from within the individual or collective consciousness, rather than in a laboratory, are regarded by many cognitive scientists as epiphenomena, not worthy of primary consideration. Many cognitive scientists seem to have adopted the working hypothesis that humans are nothing more than "meat machines."

Some historical reflection reminds us that the reductionism practiced by Isaac Newton was ideally suited to furthering our understanding of the substances of which our environment is composed. The successes of physics in discerning the basic laws of mechanics, electromagnetism, and gases could not have been achieved without the curious drive to "get to the bottom of things" and understand how the world is constructed from the atoms up. Chemistry, anatomy, and biology all owe their inspiration and methods of research to the physics model. Likewise, the applied fields of engineering and modern medicine derive their raison d'être from an essentially mechanistic view of the world.

By the time the humanities disciplines began emerging in the late 1800s, the successes of the physical sciences had captured the imagination

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