Why is thinking so difficult for people

"Before we do anything, let's think"


DW-WORLD: Professor Prinz, you are repeatedly quoted as saying "We don't do what we want, we want what we do". Is that really the case?

Wolfgang Prinz: This sentence is the pointed summary for the interpretation of the experiments of the American neurophysiologist Benjamin Libet. In these experiments it looks as if the movement in the brain is first set in motion - for example, by lifting a finger - and at some point later the person has the impression that they actually want the movement.

In general, however, voluntary decisions come about in a different way than reflex actions, instinctual actions or even such trivial things as when one lifts a finger. There are many more situations in everyday life where we think carefully before we do something.

So we can continue to assume that we are not only reduced to reacting, but that there are motives, reason, understanding, planned action?

There are, but it is still not entirely clear what role they play. What we perceive - namely our intentions - does not automatically have to be what actually determines our actions. We may be mistaken that what we perceive does not have exactly the functions that we ascribe to it. Because our perception is only a selective image of reality.

What we know about our inner workings is also highly selective. It is subject to delusion and can be just as wrong as what we know about the world. And it says nothing about whether the underlying processes and mechanisms actually work as our intuition says.

But that would mean that everyone perceives the world in a subjective way. Can you then still exchange ideas with others?

If the subjectivity of the different people is organized in a similar way, this is not a problem. And social mechanisms ensure that this is the case. Subjectivity does not occur naturally in us, but is constructed socially. Social discourses and practices ensure that the development of subjectivity in individuals is aligned. Otherwise communication would no longer work.

Is there a social determination of doing - that one automatically reacts to social framework conditions?

Yes of course! We modern humans are 99 percent surrounded by social and technical artifacts. We only become what we are by living with other people. I would like to develop a theory that human subjectivity is also a social artifact. And that free will is also socially fabricated. But of course it appears to us as if it were given by nature. It is by no means certain that what we perceive about our inner life says anything about how free or unfree the underlying processes are.

If we are not free, what is the decision to do or not to do something?

I think that the decision is essentially made through social control. Social interaction mechanisms mean that in the course of our lives we gradually see ourselves as "responsible actors" who are responsible for the consequences of their actions. This in turn means that we develop individual practices to regulate our decisions and actions in such a way that we can provide socially acceptable information about the reasons at any time. This is how we are brought up.

And because that is so, we become individuals who think before doing anything. The will is therefore a moral authority and not an "organ of the soul" that is naturally present. The idea of ​​free will was "invented" in the Christian moral philosophy of Augustine and the Church Fathers. So free will was invented as something that is needed to explain how it is possible for people to act morally.

But that would also mean that in principle there should only be noble, helpful and good people - but this is not the case. Why?

Human beings have very different motives than morally good motives, and they cannot always control their immoral needs and drives in the way that would be necessary. Societies have always had to tolerate crime up to a certain limit. In addition, the moral systems are constantly changing - making them less stable and less effective. That doesn't explain why it is, but that's the way the world is.

Why is it so difficult to build human robots? Is our little brain perhaps too complex? Continue reading on page 2.

One can get the impression that neuroscientists would currently prefer to reduce all human actions to physical phenomena ...

I would doubt that any neuroscientist is doing research on these things. They do research on synapses and they do research on cells, but they don't research how human activity is regulated by cells and synapses alone. They only write about it in the features section ... But of course I also believe that everything people think and do is ultimately embodied and realized through processes that take place in synapses and nerve cells.

But just by examining synapses, one does not understand anything about how the brain works. But on the contrary. Brains are organs that have to provide certain services on the behavioral and action level. And that's the only reason why they have developed into material machines that can actually realize these services. Without understanding the services, one cannot understand how the brain works.

How do you understand it then?

You can only proceed in reverse: You have to start from the functions that the system performs. I am very much in favor of continuing to pursue their reductionist approach together with the neurosciences. But that cannot mean that the more complex levels of description will disappear.

Normally, you proceed from top to bottom: you give the more complex levels of explanation and analysis a certain amount of lead time so that they can develop their hypotheses. Then one looks at the more elementary levels of analysis for the processes that may be relevant for this.

Is that why it's so difficult to build robots that act like humans?

You can build such robots, at least for certain functions. But it is only possible by first analyzing the performance that the robot is supposed to provide and then working on the implementation based on this. Building a robot that can move in a complex environment in such a way that it does not infect everywhere is very complicated.

Whether and to what extent one can achieve cognitive functions with silicone-based machines similar to those possible in natural systems is an open question at the moment. One thing is certain, however: the systems that we all have in our heads are - at least currently - much more efficient than non-biological systems.

Is this just an unsolved research task or is it also a matter of faith - a kind of trust in a supernatural principle that makes us unique?

We simply still don't know enough about how the brain realizes mental functions - and whether cognitive performance of this complexity is actually only possible in biological systems. Because only there we have been observing them so far.

There is a lot to be said for biological systems to be one feature that allows them to realize tremendously large computing capacities in a very small space. Maybe there are some Design principles at work that we do not yet understand.

But that would still not call God into action. Scientists always leave God out of the picture. Some are private believers, but God does not appear as an actor in the sciences.

The conversation went on Ingun Arnold

Professor Dr. Wolfgang Prince has headed the cognitive psychology department of the Max Planck Institute for Psychological Research, Munich since 1990 (since 2004 Max Planck Institute for Cognitive and Neurosciences Munich / Leipzig). In 1993 he received the Leibniz Prize from the German Research Foundation.

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