A Philosophical History of Psychology, Cognition, and Consciousness:The Arab Proto-Renaissance,( Ibn Sina, Ibn al-Haytham ,Ibn Roshid), Aristotelian and Kantian Scientific Theory.

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The influence of the Arabs during the medieval period is somewhat of an enigma. Many scholars have been characterized as Neoplatonic in spite of the fact that there was a tangible presence in their work of Aristotelian ideas especially in the arenas of logic and philosophical psychology. Bertrand Russell in his work “History of Western Philosophy” ventures into East-West philosophical and religious relations and claims the following:

“The distinctive culture of the Muslim world, though it began in Syria, soon came to flourish most in the Eastern and Western extremities, Persia and Spain. The Syrians at the time of the conquest(634 AD) were admirers of Aristotle, whom Nestorian preferred to Plato, the philosopher favoured by the Catholics. The Arabs first acquired their knowledge of Greek Philosophy from the Syrians, and thus, from the beginning, they thought Aristotle more important than Plato.”(p416)

As mentioned above, however, it was in the theoretical spheres of logic and philosophical psychology that the Arab scholars were most active. It was not clear, for example, how the Arab preference for Nestorianism(the thesis that there were two beings present in the Incarnation of Jesus) could be a consequence of the Aristotelian monistic hylemorphic theory. Nestorianism could be many things amongst which are:

1. A belief in a Platonic form of a dualism of the mind and the body. or

2. An Aristotelian belief that man is both an animal(irrational) and rational.

The essentially encyclopedic approach to knowledge displayed by wide-ranging Arab interests of this period prevents a categorical stance on this issue. With some exceptions, they appeared to regard Philosophy as merely one subject among many. Avicenna, Ibn Sina, embodies this spirit, being the author of an encyclopedia and producing work in philosophical psychology that has a distinctive empirical character. Given the fact that his fame was principally gained in the field of medicine practicing as a doctor his preference for Aristotle over the more theoretically inclined Plato is understandable. He is noted amongst analytical philosophers for his work on the problem of Universals and here his views were clearly in some ways related to Aristotle, claiming that universals are before things, in things, and after things. One of the major differences between Aristotle’s and Plato’s theories as we know resides in a differing view of the character of the forms: Plato claiming that, for example, the natural objects of the external world “participate” in some sense of the term in their form and Aristotle countering this proposal with the view that the form partly resides in the external natural object.

Avicenna’s approach to the work of Aristotle was also encyclopedic and he divided his attention up into areas of logic, physics, mathematics, and metaphysics. Anthony Kenny, in his work ” A New History of Western Philosophy” argues that Avicenna’s work in metaphysics is “a thoroughly thought out original system”(p38). The system begins with the claim that a grasp of universals and principles by the active intellect complements a more receptive mind that requires information from the senses of the body. The system discusses the nature of God in terms which will reverberate long into the twentieth century, claiming a unity of the concepts of essence and existence. God is a being, it is argued whose essence logically entails the being’s existence in an eternal realm in which the world has “emanated” from God. The move from a principle to the realm of existence it constitutes is recognizably Platonic: the form of the oak tree is constitutive of the physical oak tree. Insofar as God is concerned the Platonic system may appear at first sight to be more complex than the Aristotelian given the intermediate role of the Demiurge in contexts of creation, and there arises here a question about whether “emanation” is a term that ranges over three entities, God, the Demiurge and the physical world instead of the Aristotelian proposal of a two-term relation which given his position that the principle or form of something can be “in” that thing suggests a relation of mutual implication between the two terms. If this is the case, the notion of “emanation” which suggests a one-way implication between three terms may not satisfactorily characterize the Aristotelian position. Avicenna’s own account, however, postulated no further than 10 different terms or levels of intellect in a heavenly realm beyond the fixed stars. Emanation in this contexts appears, however, to be a central notion giving a distinctly Neoplatonic impression. The correct characterization of these different systems may be of more than academic interest given the fact that Avicenna claimed to use Aristotelian justifications for the practices of polygamy, the subordination of women and many other Islamic social practices. The Aristotelian component of his reflections, however, were not appreciated by many conservative Muslims. Professor Brett in his work “The History of Psychology” has the following account which may illuminate some of the aspects of the debate:

“The history of Arabian Philosophy is mainly a record of translations and comments. This judgment commonly passed on the philosophy as a whole, applies with still greater force to such topics as may be called psychological…..there is no clear line of demarcation between the psychosophy which is allied to theology and those views of the soul which are more definitely scientific….In the union of psychosophy and psychology it is easy to see that the most salient feature of Arabic traditions is the union of Neoplatonic and Peripatetic views. Plato and Aristotle were believed to be fundamentally identical….a strong infusion of Neoplatonism corrupted even the doctrines that were declared most distinctively Aristotelian.”

Neoplatonism can take many forms, some close to the position of Aristotle and others more remote, so it is difficult to fathom Brett’s meaning when he claims that Neoplatonism has corrupted Aristotelianism. There appear to be two confounding variables in this discussion. The first is that of the extent to which Aristotelian metaphysics constitutes acceptance of large tracts of Platonic metaphysics but also the extent to which it constitutes a rejection of dualism and the relation of “emanation”. The second confounding variable is that of a negative attitude toward Arab philosophy because of its embrace of Neoplatonism. This second variable could, in fact, be neutralized by embracing a more positive attitude which includes a more positive suspicion that there may be more genuine Aristotelianism in Arab Philosophy then has been suspected throughout centuries of interpretation and commentary.

Maintaining his negative attitude toward Arab Philosophy Brett goes on to claim that the Arabs use Aristotle in philosophical characterizations and explanations of the nature of man but use a Platonic superhuman view of other intellectual powers in the universe and these “emanate” from the supreme divine unity and goodness of the One(a dualism of theosophy and psychosophy). It is not exactly clear as to why Brett does not wish to maintain an objective distance to the texts of Arabic Philosophers and test the hypothesis that they may have understood more Aristotle than we give them credit for. Here is a clue as to why Brett is reluctant to await the judgment of scholarship on this issue:

“In the Arab as in the Christian doctrines of the soul there is a painful lack of experiment: empirical tendencies only emerge occasionally and remain undeveloped: this was the weak point in the natural sciences, and psychology as a natural science was, in this respect, no exception.”

Involved in Brett’s position here is the scientifically motivated desire to reduce higher functions of thought to lower sensory-motor functions in order to justify the scientific method of observation and the manipulation of variables in scientific experiments. The extent to which, however, that theories embodying non empirical generalizations and transcendental principles such as causation actually help to determine which variables to manipulate, which effects are to be observed and which confounding variables need to be neutralized is the extent to which it is impossible not to adopt something resembling a Kantian Metaphysical Philosophy of Science.

Kant’s theory contains an architectonic view of the relation of levels of scientific activity. Throwing a rock parallel to the ground produces, argues Kant(after a large number of “experiments”) an awareness that the path the rock will be a curvilinear one back to the earth. The reason the path of the rock presents itself as it does to the perceiver will vary in accordance with the variables of the mass of the rock, the velocity imparted by the thrower, the resistance of the medium of the air and the pull of gravity upon the rock. The actual path of the rock, including its velocity, can be calculated mathematically by using the above variable system which is the result of empirical generalizations generated by a large number of experiments.

Now we know that Newtonian science called itself natural philosophy and there are sound reasons for this. Newton for example abstracted from one concrete variable, namely the resistance of the air and introduced another transcendental variable of causation, thus postulating two further levels above that of what could be physically observed or experienced. In the first case he called this level metaphysical and in the second he called the level transcendental. Both levels were regulated by logical relations between their elements. The metaphysical level and transcendental levels were in fact well illustrated by Newtons first(logical) law of motion: Every object continues in a state of rest or of uniform motion in a straight line unless acted upon by some other force. A rock thrown in an environment where there was no air resistance or effect of gravity would on this theory continue resting or moving in a straight line: a phenomenon that no one has observed or experienced. This law of motion also incorporates another variable that transcends experience, the variable of causation which is characterized by the proposition “every event has a cause”. Such metaphysical and transcendental principles are in fact ways of thinking about phenomena and require nonexperiential nonobservational philosophical and logical justifications. Furthermore, on the Kantian account, this transcendental principle of causation also has Aristotelian application to forms of life that act as they do in accordance with a principle of internal causation, e.g. a dog jumps over a fence circumscribing as he does to a curvilinear path that is only partly explained by the laws of physics. The other part of the explanation of this phenomenon will refer to the above internal cause, i.e. to the desire and effort of the dog.

Einstein, as we know refused to believe in the universality of objects traveling in straight lines in a virtually propertyless empty space and insisted, contrary to Newton’s theory, that space in the vicinity of massive objects has at least one property, namely that it is curved. This cast a shadow over Euclidean geometry but not over mathematics in general. The question to ask here then is: is a straight line something metaphysical in a negative sense, needing to be neutralized as a concept by the transcendental proposition that everything must have a cause: even in the case of space which has been caused to be curved. One assumes that in this context the metaphysical element of Einstein’s theory would be best characterized in terms of nonEuclidean geometry. If this is the case then we can confirm that at the very least, Einstein’s science is more Kantian than it is empirical, more defined in terms of its theory then the so-called scientific method. As we may recall Einstein did not conduct any experiments to arrive at his theory or to confirm his theory. He formed his theory first and then left it to others to confirm via experimentation. Kantian science is in fact merely a refinement of Aristotelian science and the question that is being raised in this discussion is whether this is what Brett means by science when he accuses the Arabs of possessing a weak conception of natural science. The evidence, however, is to the contrary, Brett embraces a more modern empirical view of science that at best only explains its technological achievements and not the thought of Newton or Einstein.

Alhazen, Ibn al-Haytham(965AD-1039AD) was certainly interested in science having written over a hundred treatises on mathematics and the physical sciences. His most famous work was entitled “Perspectiva” or “Optica” and dealt with problems arising from the works of Ptolemy and Damianus. Alhazen thought of the eye as a physico-psychological system and embraced the Aristotelian theory of the intromission of light(light transmits sensible forms from the external world to the eye). Alhazen disagreed with Aristotle, however, over the mechanics of this transmission claiming that from every physical point on the object rays of light are sent to every point on the surface of the eye. Alhazen conducted experiments to prove that light travelled in straight lines and also argued against the use of observation in astronomical investigations. Einstein’s theory, as we know, argued that light would only travel in straight lines if no other cause such as the gravity of massive objects did not cause it to bend toward the source of the gravitational power.

According to Mathias Schramm, Alhazen in his experiments:

“was the first to make a systematic use of the method of varying the experimental conditions in a constant and uniform manner.”(Habilitationsschrift, Ibn al Haythams Weg zur Physik(Steiner, Wiesbaden, 1963) quoted by Rudger Thiele Historia Mathematica(2005) 32, 271.

The experiment in question concerned a light spot formed by moonlight through two small slits diminishes in intensity when one slit is progressively sealed.

Bronowski in his work “The Ascent of Man” claimed Alhazen to be the only original mind produced by Arab science. Bronowski claims that Alhazen was the first to recognize that the visual field was structured by an awareness of distance which is given by what happens when the cone of rays that come from the outline of an object grows narrower and narrower as the object retreats in the visual field and grows larger as it advances toward the perceiver in such a field. According to Bronowski, scientists paid no attention to this discovery for 600 years and it was left to Renaissance artists like Ghiberti to “rediscover ” this idea. The use of what the artists of the Renaissance were to call “Perspective” was used by Ghiberti, for example in his plans for the bronze doors which were to be placed in the Baptistry in Florence. The discovery of perspective for the painter enabled painted space to display the third dimension of depth thus providing it with a space for life. Once distance is represented in the form of depth everything suddenly appears to occur in an arena of movement thus increasing the “life” of the painting. All this was possible, according to Bronowski, because

“The Greeks had thought that light goes from the eyes to the object. Alhazen first recognized that we see an object because each point of it directs and reflects a ray into the eye. The Greek view could not explain how an object, my hand, say, seems to change in size when it moves.”

As mentioned above Alhazen was in fact influenced by Aristotle in this matter but it is not the first time in history that a scientist has misunderstood Aristotle’s role in the history of science. This point would, of course, become more significant if it were the case that Aristotelian hylemorphic theory eventually proves to be more important than one suspected as science develops in the future, i.e. if and when science develops beyond the materially oriented method obsessed activity we are witnessing today. Aristotelian hylemorphic theory is certainly a part of the Kantian metaphysical foundations of natural science. This observation indicates the problem with understanding exactly Alhazen’s contribution to the history of science since we cannot attribute a complex understanding of Aristotle’s metaphysics to him, given the fact that he is more inclined to use mathematics than logic for the solution of scientific problems.

The curtain raiser to the subsequent scientific debates that led to our modern position was a philosophical debate between Descartes and Hobbes which in its turn polarised into a conflict between Empiricism and Rationalism, a debate that haunts philosophical and psychological debates to this day. Kant attempted to intervene in this train of events and produced a brilliant synthesis of the positions: a synthesis that led more towards Aristotelian rationalism than to British Empiricism. Some commentators might liken Alhazen’s contribution to this debate in terms of being a precursor to empiricism. An interesting observation to make in this context is that Alhazen’s experiments were restricted to the material physical world where it is relatively simple to control and manipulate variables( e.g. his spot of light experiment) and where the description of what is occurring is relatively unproblematic. Aristotle we know was one of the first biological scientists and whilst he engaged in scientific activities such as the dissection of the bodies of dead animals in order to investigate their organ systems, there was no attempt by Aristotle to conduct animal experiments perhaps because he realized that in order to control all the necessary variables one would need to place the animals in unnatural environments which would negate the purpose of acquiring knowledge about the animal. Kohler, the Gestalt psychologist, for example, experimented with apes in captivity but even in these restricted circumstances encountered problems with giving theory-free behavioural descriptions.

Even a simple matter such as giving a description of a place was a problem for Alhazen because of his anti-Aristotelian commitment to what some critics called his “geometrisation of space”. It is hardly surprising therefore that in spite of Alhazen being regarded as a polymath there is nothing of biological significance in his writings. Given the fact that the Aristotelian concept of psuche or soul as a principle of living movement is nowhere to be found in Alhazen’s writings, it is a fair criticism to point out that he was not by any stretch of the imagination a philosophical psychologist. The only region of the mind or consciousness he was concerned with was perception, the lower of the cognitive faculties.

Averroes, Ibn Roshd,(1126-98) was a member of the Spanish Arabian School and according to Bertrand Russell, was an unorthodox Muslim who objected to the Neoplatonism that dominated philosophical debate:

“Averroes was concerned to improve the Arabic interpretation of Aristotle, which had been widely influenced by Neoplatonism. He gave to Aristotle the sort of reverence that is given to the founder of a religion–much more than was given even by Avicenna. He holds that the existence of God can be proved by reason independently of revelation, a view also held by Thomas Aquinas.”

Not only can the existence of God be proven, according to Averroes but according to Brett it can also be proven that:

“there is ultimately only one soul, that the individual reason is no more than a temporary manifestation of that generic or Universal soul in the same sense that Humanity may be said to be manifested in the human individual. This is not so much a religious as a logical doctrine.”

The human soul is thus a temporary form of existence compared to the eternal form of existence which is God. Human reason is here passive in comparison to divine active reason, i.e. God has an active form and humanity has a passive nature. In hylemorphic theory humanity is the matter in the equation formed by God. Viewing God non-materialistically implies not conceiving such a being as a physical designer manipulating physical variables but rather in terms of an abstract principle working in ways we could never completely understand. Like Avicenna, Averroes believes in the eternity of the world but this in itself is not incompatible with the coming to exist in a time of existing beings–in human form for example–which in terms of the divine principle that has caused it, can itself be regarded as eternal(by association).

Bertrand Russell claims that Arab thinkers of this period were not original thinkers on the grounds that they merely transmitted the thoughts of others. This, however, may be a gratuitous criticism of a historical period in which the cultural task appeared to be the reinterpretation of Aristotle in order to restore an Aristotelian platform for the development of Philosophy and Science(a platform similar to that which we encounter in Kant’s Philosophy of science). This point would, however, be rejected by Russell because he believed that Aristotle’s metaphysics was in many respects an obscure and confusing work.

Given Brett’s avoidance of Aristotelian metaphysics in his characterization of Aristotle’s scientific method in the following quote, one might imagine that he would, therefore, deny any connection with Kantian Philosophy:

“Aristotle is often extolled as the founder of scientific method. His claim to this title rests on a single misconception of science which dies very hard–the view that science is a vast body of knowledge accumulated by a laborious and systematic process of classification and definition….His deficiencies as a scientist can be traced back to Plato’s influence on him–to his retention in disguised form of Plato’s theory of essences and to his doctrine of final causes.”

What Brett is failing to see here is the complex web of description and justification we encounter in the work of Aristotle: four kinds of change(Substantial, Qualitiative, Quantitative, Locomotion), three principles of change and four cause of change(material efficient, formal and final). Brett mentions two of the 4 causes and ignores the other two. He also speaks incorrectly of Quality as being for Aristotle the basic quality of reality thereby ignoring the other three kinds of change in reality. It is Kantian philosophy that best develops the Aristotelian web in a direction which Brett(given the above remarks) ought to object to. But he puzzlingly instead claims the following:

“The course of history affords an interesting parallel to the development from Kant to Hegel, the former being more definitely Aristotelian, the latter an admirer of Neoplatonism.”

The cloud of confusion increases, however when we recall what Brett later in his text has to say about the philosophy of Kant:

“Kant’s second contribution to the German tradition of psychology was his contention that science is characterized by mathematical as well as by empirical description. His celebrated fusion of the empirical standpoint of Hume with the rationalist standpoint of Wolff involved the aphorism that an empirical inquiry is as scientific as it contains mathematics…It introduced the craze for measurement in psychology..”

The above characterization clearly ignores Kant’s reliance on the Aristotelian web of description and justification and it places emphasis upon an aphorism relating to the fact that the Chemistry of Kant’s time lacked mathematical support and also at the same time, emphasizing Hume’s empirical standpoint which incidentally claimed that causation cannot be objectively observed in the world(in contrast to Aristotle’s view). Placing the modern scientific craze for measurement at the doorstep of Kant may well be overestimating the roles of Hume and Descartes the mathematician and underestimating the roles of Descartes the rationalist and Aristotle the hylemorphic metaphysician.

On the question of consciousness, Brett has the following to say:

“The idea of consciousness in general was ready to hand in the Neoplatonic tradition. The Aristotelian basis to which scholasticism returned in the thirteenth century was firmer ground and the rejection of the pantheistic tendency was in accordance with the general character of Christian monotheism.”

The idea of consciousness which the modern scientific psychologist appeals to has its roots partly in the empirical and rational rejections of Aristotelian hylemorphic theory and partly in the rejection of the Kantian synthesis of empiricism and rationalism. Dualistic assumptions are clearly operating in the separation of consciousness from the world it is conscious of. Both Plato and Descartes were dualists, the latter being a disguised materialist who claimed the mind and the body meet in the physical organ of the brain, the former being committed to a soul that could detach itself from a physical body in a manner that is absolutely mysterious. In both cases the division of the physical world from consciousness is irrevocable. Both Aristotle and Kant avoided the pitfalls of dualism and its half brother materialism and it is not a simple matter to see how to parse their thoughts into the language of consciousness. The work of Freud, paradoxically appears to offer the best account of consciousness as a realm extending over the operating domains of three principles, the energy regulation that is responsible for our waking states, the pleasure pain principle which is responsible for pleasurable and painful modifications of consciousness and the reality principle which Freud claims is occupied with the real problems of love and work.

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