From such simple adjustment of reactions of the spinal cord, we come step by step to the more complex activities of the subcortical brain centres, and finally to those which are evidently only short-cuts of the higher brain processes. That we react at every change of position with the right movements to keep our bodily balance, that we walk without thinking of our steps, that we speak without giving conscious impulse for the various speech movements, that we write without being aware of the motor activity which we had to learn slowly, that we play the piano without thinking of the special impulses of the hands, that we select the words of a hasty speech, if we have its aim in mind, without consciously selecting the appropriate words—all that is by continuous transitions connected with those simplest automatic reactions. And from here again, we are led over gradually perhaps to the automatic writings of the hysteric who writes complex messages without having any idea of their content in consciousness. It is in such cases certainly a symptom of disease that the activity of these lower brain centres can go over into the motor impulse of writing without producing secondary effects in the highest conscious brain centres; it is hysterical. But that the message of the pencil can be brought about by such operation of lower brain centres, or at least with imperfect cooperation of the higher brain centres, is certainly entirely within the limits of the same physiological explanation.
On the other hand, nothing is changed in the theoretic principles of the case if the effect of these automatic processes in the nervous system is not an external muscle action at first, but an influence on other brain centres which may furnish the consciousness with new contents. We try to remember a name, that is, a large number of neuron processes are setting in which normally lead to the excitement of that particular process which furnishes us the memory image of the name. But those brain cells may not respond, the channels may be blocked somehow, or the excitability of those cells may be lowered. Now new excitements engage our psychophysical system. We are thinking of other problems. In the meantime, by the new equilibrium in the brain the blockade in these first paths may slowly disappear or the threshold of excitability may be changed. The physiological excitement may now be carried effectively into those tracts. The cell response sets in and suddenly the name comes to our mind. This purely physiological operation in our brain paths must thus have exactly the same result which it would have had, if more parts of the process had been accompanied by conscious experience. And again, from mere remembering a forgotten name, we come by slow steps to the solution of a problem, to the invention, and finally to the creation of the genius.
Superficiality of thought is easily inclined to object to such a physiological interpretation and perhaps to denounce it pathetically as a crude materialism which lowers the dignity of mental work. Nothing shows more clearly the confusion between a purposive and causal view of the mind. In the purposive view of our real life, only our will and our personality have a meaning and can be related to the ideas and higher aims. Nature is there nothing but the dead material which is the tool of our will and which has to be mastered by the personality. In that world alone lie our duty and our morality. But as soon as we have gone over to the causal aspect of our life and have taken the point of view of the psychologist, making our inner life a series of contents of consciousness, of psychical phenomena, we have transformed our inner experience in such a way that it has become itself nothing but nature.
It is mental nature, nature of psychical stuff, but each part of it is nothing but a mental element, a mental atom without any meaning and without any value; nothing but a link in the chain, nothing but a factor in the explanation of the whole, nothing to which any ethical or asthenic or logical or religious significance can any longer be attached. The psychical sensations and the physical atoms are equally material for naturalistic explanation. To understand causally a certain effect, for instance the creation of a work of art, of a discovery or a thought or a deed as the product of psychical processes, is thus in no way more dignified or more valuable than to understand it as the product of physiological brain processes. The one is not more dignified than the other because both alike have nothing whatever to do with dignity. Both alike are the necessary results of the foregoing processes, and to attach a kind of sentimental preference to the explanation through conscious factors is nothing but a confused reminiscence again of the entirely different purposive view of life. And surely nothing is gained for the higher values of life if this confusion sets in, because if the popular mind becomes unable to discriminate between the secondary, causal, artificial aspect of science and the primary, purposive aspect of life, the opposite effect lies still nearer: the values of the real life suffer and are crowded out by the knowledge of the scientific facts. Man’s moral freedom is then wrongly brought in question, as soon as it is learned that every action is the product of brain processes. Life and science alike will gain the more, the more clearly the purposive and the causal point of view are separated and the more it is understood that this causal aspect itself is demanded by certain purposes of life. The oratory of those who denounce the physiological theories as lacking idealism in reality undermines true moral philosophy. There is no idealism which can really flourish merely by ignoring the progress of science and confusing the issues. The true values of the higher life cannot be safely protected by that thoughtless idealism which draws its life from vagueness, and which therefore has to be afraid of every new discovery in scientific psychology. Our real ideals do not lie at all in the sphere in which the problem of causally explaining the psychological phenomena arises.
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