Evolutionary epistemology, philosophy of science, idealist philosophy, idealist ontology, materialist realism, consciousness, time, psychological Now

Cognition and Biological Evolution

An Idealist Approach Resolves a Fundamental Paradox

By Axel Randrup arandrup@mobilixnet.dk

International Center for Interdisciplinary Psychiatric Research, CIRIP

Finished 2004. Electronic publication only


The scientific study of cognition in the context of biological evolution (Cognition and Evolution, CE) has led to the result, that all our thoughts and cognitions, including science and philosophy, are dependent on our cognitive apparatus in its present stage of evolution. I find, that this result is in contradiction with the basic philosophy of mainstream biology, the philosophy of materialist realism, which recognizes the existence a material world independent of human observation and cognition. I therefore regard it as impossible to make a contradiction-free account of CE based on materialist realism (including "hypothetical realism"). An account of natural science, biological evolution, and CE based on an idealist philosophy is offered, and it is argued that this account is free of contradictions.

Key words : Cognition and biological evolution, contradiction-free account, philosophy of science, idealist philosophy, materialist philosophy, time, psychological Now.


The scientific study of cognition in the context of biological evolution ( Cognition and Evolution , CE) assumed from the beginning, like all biology, the existence of a material world independent of the human observer (materialist realism). The study of CE led, however, to the contradictory result, that all the thoughts and cognitions of our everyday life as well as of science and philosophy depend on the human cognitive apparatus in its present stage of evolution.

It is my opinion that this contradiction is an unavoidable consequence of the philosophy of materialist realism and that it therefore cannot be resolved within this frame of reference. In the following I shall propose an idealist frame of reference, within which I think it is possible to overcome the contradiction and arrive at a consistent account of CE.

Natural Science Seen in the Optic of Idealist Philosophy

The idealist philosophy relied on here contends that only conscious experience is real (Randrup 1997a; 1999; 2002; 2003). In this idealist frame of reference natural science is regarded as a catalogue of selected conscious experiences ("observations") acknowledged to be scientific. I think that scientific "observations" must be regarded as extracts from whole perceptions. The reading of a measuring instrument can serve as an example: usually only the position of the pointer is recorded, while its color and shape together with many other features of the perceptual whole are ignored (Marchais and Randrup 1991, p 2). To be acknowledged as scientific the observation has to be intersubjective, and it can be seen that the extraction from the whole perception facilitates intersubjectivity. Observations belong to the class of immediate experiences we cannot change, i.e. to what Diettrich (1995, pp 103-104) callsWirklichkeit and Berger and Luckmann (1966) call "reality".

The catalogue of scientific observations is structured by means of concepts and theories, which are also regarded as conscious experiences. Material objects are thus regarded as heuristic concepts (or constructs) useful for expressing observations (visual, auditory, tactile etc.) within a certain domain together with some of their mutual relations. This reinterpretation of materialist objects allows a direct understanding and use of traditional scientific theories without accepting their ontology (Marshall 2001, p 60; Randrup 1997a). This differs from contemporary mainstream science, but it does maintain the methodological presupposition that all scientific research rests on empirical observations from which concepts and theories are derived. The idealist ontology emphasizes even more the role of the empirical evidence in science and is particularly open to new theories and to the application of more than one theory and set of concepts to a domain of observations (Lindsay and Margenau 1949, p 1-3; Randrup 1992; 1994; 1997 b; Wallace 1996, pp 25-27, 113-114,148-150, 190).

The idealist ontology also readily accomodates the intense nature-experiences known as nature spirituality (Randrup 1997 a). These intense experiences are felt by the experient to be essential and important, indicating to him that they must be real and that nature is primarily an experience. These experiences are therefore felt to be in conflict with the materialist view that nature exists separated from and independent of the "observer". Also on more secular ground many people resist the alienation from nature entailed by strict materialist realism, and tend to retain naive realism or scientific naive realism. The former means that material nature is believed to be as perceived and the latter that it is believed to be as experienced by scientific observations, concepts, and theories, or nearly so. Both forms of naive realism may be regarded as a mixture of materialist and idealist views.

Immaterialist views such as idealist philosophies, phenomenalism, and radical constructivism have often been met with the objection that they are based entirely on private (individual) experiences and thus are or lead to solipsism (only "my" experiences exist). This objection, however, seems untenable. It is based on the presumption that conscious experiences are always individual, but I think that collective (and egoless) experiences are viable alternatives or complements to individual experience. A collective experience is regarded as one experience associated with a group of persons as the subject, the We, and related to all the brains of this group. This differs from traditional neuropsychology which usually discusses conscious experiences in association with one brain only. Persons, including the "I", as well as brains are here seen as heuristic concepts, analogous to the concept of material objects mentioned above (Randrup 1999; 2002).

Concepts Basic for the Study of Evolution and Cognition


In the idealist philosophy proposed here physical time and the placement of events in this time is seen as a construction developed on the basis of experiences in the Now (Randrup 2002). These experiences include memories and anticipations which may be seen as special modes of experience in the Now.

I think that the construction of physical time (and of other sorts of time) are based on these special modes of experience and also on the experience of succession in the psychological Now. The available evidence indicates that this experience of succession is possible, and that the psychological Now has temporal extension, and thus differs from the physical point of time which is seen as infinitesimal having zero duration. I find that the evidence for this provided by the psychologist Rubin is particularly clear and significant. Rubin (1934) performed phenomenological studies of the immediate experience of time., some of them with " two very short sound stimuli in the outer physical world succeeding one another." When the interval between the two sound stimuli was a fifth of a second (in physical time), he describes the immediate experience thus:

"Quite contrary to our general notion of time, the experience does not occur that one of the sounds is present and that the other belongs either to the just expected future or to the immediate past. Either both of them are past or both of them are future or both of them have the character of being present, although they are experienced as a succession."

According to Rubin the perceptual Now can thus comprise the experience of succession. Rubin also found that immediate experience of duration is possible in the perceptual Now.

Searching the literature I have found no direct replication, continuation or critique of Rubins work, but there are several authors who on various grounds concur with Rubin (Randrup 2002; 2003, both with references). Thus Fraisse (1975) has, like Rubin performed many phenomenological observations and experiments on the psychology of time, and he thinks that our perception of change is characterized by the integration of successive stimuli in such a way that they can be perceived with relative simultaneity (p. 12). He also states that, when he hears the tick-tock from a clock, the tick is not yet part of his past, when he hears the tock, so the order of the tick and the tock is perceived directly (pp. 72-73, 117).

It should also be considered that different concepts (or constructs) of time exist in various cultures as well as in modern advanced physics. These differ from the ordinary linear physical time and comprise: cyclic time, spiral time, static time, imaginary time, sacred time existing alongside with secular time, etc. (Randrup 2002; 2003 ). Hawking describes imaginary time which is a spatial and therefore static construct and states that like other theories in physics, it is a mathematical model describing our observations. He finds that it is meaningless to ask, whether the usual or the imaginary time is the correct or real one, the question is, which description is the most useful (Hawking 1988, chapter 8).

Interestingly, the conception of time as constructed from the Now was already expressed by Nicholas of Cusa (15th century):

"All time is comprised in the present or 'now'..... time is only a methodological arrangement of the present. The past and the future, in consequence, are the development of the present" (quoted in Perry 1971, p. 840).


Even if the material conception of biological evolution is presumed, it is clear that all the observations leading to this theory have been made in our time, i.e. in a short span of time compared with the presumed length of the biological evolution. This comes close to the idea that the theory of evolution is a development of the present. In the idealist frame of reference proposed here all the evidence is seen as being experienced in the Now, in the focus or the periphery of its conscious content (Randrup 2002; 2003). The theory of evolution itself, associated with the theory of linear time is also regarded as experienced in the Now and seen as a methodological arrangement of the present.

In this idealist view we construct the past from the present, while science usually tries to see the causes for the present in the past and the causes for the past in a more distant past. There is, however, a special case, where science to some extent relies on the present for understanding the past. This is the use of the anthropic principle for understanding certain features of the structure and evolution of the universe.

The anthropic principle is discussed thoroughly by Barrow (1988). He states that we must accept that there are aspects of the large-scale structure of the universe which do not have any explanation in the conventional sense. They arise as random events in the first moments of the universe's history. There are also a number of remarkable and apparently disconnected "coincidences" in the universe. These structures and coincidences are, however, a necessary condition for life in the present, and according to the anthropic principle their appearance in the distant past is understood in relation to the fact that we exist now and observe the universe. The anthropic principle may be seen as a complement to the standard theories in cosmology (Barrow 1988, pp 352-373).

The materialist exposition of biological evolution does not express the fact that all the evidence for the theory stems from our time. This must be stated as an addendum. Further, when cognition is included in the theory of biological evolution as in CE, the theory leads to a fundamental contradiction. This contradiction and its resolution by applicatiom of an idealist frame of reference will be discussed in the next sections.

Discussions of the Fundamental Problem with the Materialist Exposition of CE

It was argued in the Introduction that the materialist exposition of CE entails an inevitable contradiction between the assumption of a material world independent of the human observer and the conclusion of CE that all our thoughts and cognitions (including the assumption of an independent material world) depend on our cognitive apparatus in its present stage of evolution. Indeed in the light of CE the assumption of an independent material world appears to be self-contradictory.

Students of evolution and cognition have over the years struggled with this fundamental problem. Thus Clark (1997) asks, what the proper attitude of the evoutionary epistemologist should be towards science. Should he regard science as disclosing information concerning the way the world is in itself, independently of the species-specific needs, bias and cognitive orientation of the human life-form, or should he conceive it as intrinsically limited and indelibly marked with the stamp of his own humanity ? Clark finds himself attracted to the alternative of dropping the notion of the world-in-itself entirely, he prefers to envisage theoretical models ultimately justified by keeping faith with observable phenomena (Clark 1997, p 53). As the theoretical models can be seen as mental constructs, this view is not far from the idealist views proposed in the present paper.

Ruse (1986; 1990) has written on evolutionary and Darwinian epistemology at length. He arrives at the notion "common-sense realism" which he regards as an alternative to the either/or of materialism/idealism (Ruse 1990, p. 108). He thinks, that there is a real world, but not a real world independent of us. "We cannot escape our own mind-injected element" (Ruse 1986, p. 175). Ruse struggles with the problems originating in abstract philosophy and scepticism:

".... the human mind is such that, even if abstract philosophy leads to scepticism, unreasoned optimism keeps us afloat. As human beings, we all believe in the reality of causality and of the external world and of the worth of consiliences, whatever philosophy might prove. And that is what counts." (Ruse 1986, p 188). I will here contend, that we humans do not all believe in the reality of an external world. I for one don't, and others are quoted below.

Ruse also states that "truth rests in coherence, not in correspondence" (i.e. correspondence with an independent world) (Ruse 1986, p 206). The latter statement is actually close to the idealist view, I propose in this paper.

"Hypothetical realism" is a term which earlier was often encountered in the literature on CE. It assumes that there exists a real world independent of man, and that our knowledge about this world is dependent on our cognitive apparatus, therefore hypothetical. But Löw (1984) criticized hypothetical realism, because he regarded also the existence of the external world, materialistic realism itself, as hypothetical. He writes explicitly:

"If reality is given us only through the glasses of our "ratiomorphic world-view apparatus", then every statement about the "true" reality is, at the same time, a statement viewed through such glasses and no "truer" than others." (Löw 1984, p. 213).

I concur with Löw and regard common sense realism and hypothetical realism as compromises, which are insufficient for overcoming the fundamental paradox inherent in the matarialist account of CE. More radical changes are required.

A Consistent, Contradiction-free Exposition of CE Based on an Idealist Philosophy

The term "hypothetical realism" was used quite frequently in the 1980es , but seems to have been forgotten in the 90es; in the journal, Evolution and Cognition (New Series) published since 1995 the term is hardly ever found. But in this journal there are some indications of views that are wholly different from materialist realism:

Thus Krall (1995, p 84, note 9) regards ".... objects as invariances in observations and not as something that may or may not exist in reality" .

And Stotz (1996)writes: "No matter how far we we turn the spiral of knowledge gain, the problem of demarcating subject from object remains insoluble. Much as we might even "trivially" presuppose an objective reality and regard it as plausible, all our highly complex theories are merely "assimilatory instruments" all the same: reality is always mediated - an operational construct of cognition". (Stotz 1996, p 24).

In a very thoughtful account Diettrich (1995, pp 96, 103-105, 112) states, on the basis of "complete constructivism" , that our perceptions contain regularities and specificities, we cannot influence, and these unchangeable features of our perceptions he denotes by the German word Wirklichheit. In daily language this German word means nearly the same as reality, but in Diettrich's exposition reality ("materialist" reality) is seen not as something existing independent of humans, but as a special human-made theory of Wirklichkeit. This of course comes close to my idealist descriptiion here of "material things" as mental concepts.

Diettrich realizes, that it has been used as a major objection to constructivist approaches, that they may lead to solipsism. He counters this objection by stating, that the cognitive efforts he describes are "human specific" (p. 111) and that the experience, that our perception contains regularities we cannot influence, is a basic experience of "all men" (p. 105). I have denied, that solipsism is an implication of immaterialiat views by invoking the notion of collective conscious experience (see the section on Natural Science above) and I think that this is closely similar to Diettrich's argumentation.

Diettrich's conception ofWirklichkeit is an original one, but I have been informed about one predecessor. Manfred Wimmer drew my attention to the book "The Social Construction of Reality" and here the authors Berger and Luckman (1966, Introduction, p. 1) define "reality" as a quality appertaining to phenomena that we recognize as having a being independent of our own volition, we cannot "wish them away". Thus Berger and Luckman do not define reality as independent of human observation or human cognition altogether, only as independent of our volition.

The constructivist approach emphasizes epistemology more than ontology. But in the idealist philosophy proposed here ontology is in the focus, and it asserts that only conscious experience is real (Randrup 1997a; 2003). Conscious experience consists of immediate experiences which we cannot change (the Wirklichkeit ) and experiences (concepts, theories) which we can change and discuss, and which structure the immediate experiences.

Every immediate conscious experience has relations to many other conscious experiences, and the experiences can be grouped in various ways.Thus visual, tactile, auditory etc. experiences can be grouped together in such a way, that they become constitutive parts of the construct (or concept), a "material" object. The very same experiences can also be seen as constitutive parts of the construct, consciousness or mind of the experient. By consciousness (individual or collective) I here understand the total of conscious experience in the Now. In the construct consciousness the perceptual and conceptual experiences are grouped together with other experiences such as emotions, aesthetic and ethic experiences etc. (Wimmer and Ciompi (1996) emphasize the opinion, that affect or emotion and cognition form an inseparable interactive unit). In this view object and subject are not disentangled, since they have constitutive elements in common. The construct, the "material" world, may be regarded as a subset or subsystem of the construct, consciousness; this view has earlier been expressed by the physicists Lindsay and Margenau, who began their book "Foundations of Physics" with the statement: "Physics is concerned with a certain portion of human experience" (Lindsay and Margenau 1949, p.1).

The grouping of perceptions (scientific "observations") into the constructs or concepts of "material" objects expresses some regularities (or constraints) in the occurrence of these experiences, and the grouping into a subject (I or We), seen as consciousness or mind expresses other regularities. The latter are clearly understood, when we compare with the splitting and loose associations encountered in communications with schizophrenic patients. In the idealist exposition there is no logical contradiction in the grouping of the same experiences into two different constructs, "material" object and consciousness. In mathematics it is well known, that an element may be a member of more than one set, each membership expressing relationships of the element with other elements. This of course also means that two sets or two systems can have one or more elements in common.

The consciousness or mind conceived as above has relations to the constructs, body and brain. These relations too express regularities in the occurrence of perceptions and other conscious experiences. It is clear, however, that these regularities are not in contradiction with the other regularities or constraints mentioned above.

Consciousness is often conceived as individual, but as argued above and in previous publications by the author (Randrup 1999; 2002; 2003) it may also be conceived as collective, shared by a group of individuals. This agrees with the generally acknowledged central position of intersubjectivity in science. The necessity to obtain intersubjectivity also gives some constraint to concepts and to observations regarded as scientific. This is clearly felt, when it is attempted to describe an unfamiliar new idea or observation in words and discuss it with others.
Convincing evidence indicates that egoless conscious experiences occur too. Here there is no subject like in monistic material realism, but an egoless experience of the world (perceived or conceived) is still a conscious experience and avoids the dichotomy between the material and the mental (Randrup 1999; 2003).

In the idealist philosophy a cognition is not of something, but rather an experience. Our perceptual, conceptual, and other experiences are not of an external world, but the world itself (and at the same time they are parts of our consciousness). We have visual, auditory, and tactile experiences for example, and between these experiences we can experience regularities and coherences, which may be expressed and experienced by concepts such as "tree" for example or "a living animal in the past". In this way "a living animal in the past" may be seen and experienced as a structure or arrangement of perceptual experiences in the Now (Randrup 2002, pp. 32-33; 2003). The same holds for the concept "evolution" and for scientific theories such as Darwin's theory of evolution. Conscious experiences in the past (human or animal) are understood on the basis of collective conscious experience across time (Randrup 2002; 2003).

Clearely, the fundamental paradox in the materialist exposition of CE, the contradiction between the world seen as independent of humans and also seen as dependent on the human cognitive apparatus, does not appear in the idealist exposition.


Barrow, John D. (1988) The world within the world. Clarendon Press: Oxford, England.

Berger, Peter and Luckman, Thomas (1966) The social construction of reality. Doubleday: New York.

Clark, Andy J. (1997) Evolutionary epistemology and the scientific method. Evolution and Cognition 3(1): 49-54.

Diettrich, Olaf (1995) A constructivist approach to the problem of induction. Evolution and Cognition 1(2): 95-113.

Fraisse, Paul (1975) The psychology of time. Greenwood: USA.

Hawking, Stephen (1988) Hawkings univers [A brief history of time].
Gyldendal: Copenhagen.

Krall, Eva (1995) Intentional order. Considerations on regularities in natural processes underlying intentional attributions - an evolutionary approach. Evolution and Cognition 1 (1): 74-85.

Lindsay, Robert Bruce and Margenau, Henry (1949) Foundations of Physics. Wiley: New York.

Löw, Reinhard (1984) The metaphysical limits of evolutionary epistemology.
In Wuketits, Franz (ed.) Concepts and approaches in evolutionary epistemology. Reidel: Doordrecht, Netherlands. pp 209-231.

Marchais, P. and Randrup, A. (1991) De la spatio-temporalité [On spatio-temporality]. Annales Médico-psychologique 149 (1): 1-33.

Marshall, Paul (2001) Transforming the world into experience. Journal of Consciousness Studies 8 (1]: 59-76.

Perry, Whittal N. (1971) A treasury of traditional wisdom. Allen and Unwin: London.

Randrup, A. (1992) Perspectives de recherche interdisciplinaire en psychiatrie. Annales Médico-Psychologique 150 (4-5): 247-249.

Randrup, Axel (1994) Mind-matter relations: Is it the conception of matter that is problematic? In Lasker, George E. and Murphy, Dennis (eds.) Advances in research of human consciousness. International Institute for Advanced Studies in Systems Research and Cybernetics.: Windsor, Canada. pp 24-25.

Randrup, Axel (1997 a) An alternative to materialism.
Cybernetics & Human Knowing 4 (4): 15-24.

Randrup, A. (1997 b) More than one truth: Consequences for our world view. In Lasker, G. E. (ed.) Research-in-Progress: Vol.4. International Institute for Advanced Studies in Systems Research and Cybernetics: Windsor, Canada.
p. 12.

Randrup, Axel A. (1999) Collective and egoless consciousness.
The International Journal of Transpersonal Studies 18 (29: 133-137.

Randrup, Axel A. (2002) Collective consciousness across time.
Anthropology of Consciousness 13 (1): 27-41.

Randrup, Axel Abraham (2003) Idealist philosophy: What is real ?
Conscious experience seen as basic to ontology. An Overview.

Rubin, Edgar (1934) Some elmentary time experiences. British Journal of Psychology 24: 445-449.

Ruse, Michael (1986) Taking Daewin seriously.Basil Blackwell: Oxford.

Ruse, Michael (1990) Does evolutionary epistemology imply realism? In Rescher, Nicholas (ed.) Evolution, cognition, and realism. University Press of America: London,.pp. 101-110.

Stotz, Karola (1996) The psychology of knowledge in the context of evolutionary theory. Evolution and Cognition 2 (1): 22-36.

Wallace, B. Alan (1996) Choosing reality. Snow Lion: Ithaca, N.Y., USA.

Wimmer, Manfred and Ciompi, Luc (1996) Evolutionary aspects of affective-cognitive interactions in the light of Ciompi's concept of "affect-logic". Evolution and Cognition 2 (1): 37-58.