Evolutionary Causation

Evolutionary Causation



Evolution is a causal process. But it is a causal process unlike any other. It is a causal process in which the effect vastly exceeds the cause, and indeed (in a loose sense) contradicts the cause. The most obvious point is that the effect is much more complex than the cause: from natural selection operating over simple entities, ever more complex entities evolve. At the origin of the causal chain leading to humans we have simple bacteria; and there is no infusion of complexity from outside, except that provided by genetic mutation and natural selection. The evolutionary causal process takes us from simplicity to complexity, dramatically so. Evolution also takes us from mindlessness to minds—from matter to consciousness. Nothing psychological directs the evolutionary process, but something psychological emerges from it. The effect is mind, but the cause is mindless. It is the same with purpose: there is no purpose to evolution by mutation and natural selection (despite the misleading connotations of that phrase), but the result is animals endowed with purpose. Teleology is caused by non-teleology; efficient causes produce final causes. Animals desire and intend things, but evolution does not. Similarly, animals—some of them—have foresight and plan ahead, avoiding future catastrophe; but evolution has no foresight and is not deterred by future catastrophe. Evolution could drive all animals to extinction and not lift a finger to avert that consequence—just as it has driven countless species extinct (nor does it lament those vanished species, as we might). Evolution is blind in its operations, but it produces animals that are not. Evolution is also amoral, wasteful, cruel, and indifferent; but it produces at least one species with a moral sense (and maybe more). Indeed, it produces moral beings that deplore the very process that led to them: we would change nature’s methods if we could. We recoil at the very process that leads to our ability to recoil. Our moral nature is not nature’s nature, but the opposite of it. Finally, evolution has no comprehension of anything–no understanding or intelligence or insight–yet it causes creatures that have comprehension of many things, including the evolutionary process and its lack of comprehension. Thus we can say that animals (especially humans) are caused by a process alien to themselves: animals have characteristics that are not found in their (remote) evolutionary causes, and which are at variance with their causes. The causality is a kind of paradoxical causality—as if it gives rise to things opposite to itself.

The same can be said of embryological causality, which is in many ways just like evolutionary causality. The embryological process takes us from the simple, mindless, purposeless, blind, amoral, and uncomprehending to the opposite of these traits—to a being with the negation of each of them. The process itself is one of mechanical self-assembly, guided by nothing, not even a blueprint, purely local in its methods of protein synthesis; yet it produces a being endowed with a rich set of traits. The causality is again paradoxical, anomalous, surprising, hard to believe, miraculous-seeming. It has the look of creating something from nothing. But it is entirely natural, governed by the laws of physics and chemistry, just like evolution.

No such paradoxical causality is assumed in creationist models of evolution or embryogenesis. According to those theories, the cause of creatures with the traits listed is another creature with the traits listed: God is precisely a being with complexity, mind, purpose, foresight, morals, and comprehension. Creationist causation is non-paradoxical (paradoxically!), since the cause has the very traits found in the effect. But that theory is known to be false, while evolution by natural selection is known to be true—so we are saddled with the kind of causation it involves. And notice that it is not just that the causation is emergent or generative; it actually involves negating the defining features of the cause—that is, producing traits that are at variance with the nature of the cause. It is just as if nature were contradicting herself.

It might be said that evolutionary (and embryological) causation is not as special as I am making out. Isn’t the early history of the universe likewise causally “peculiar”? After all, the universe was once all dispersed gas and only gradually did gravity create solid discrete bodies—stars, planets, galaxies, etc. Didn’t physical causality produce the solid and massive from the vaporous and weightless? Well, no, it didn’t, because all that gas was simply dispersed matter, with the standard properties of matter—mass, volume, electric charge, and gravity.[1] The universe never went from non-mass to mass or non-gravity to gravity. There was no paradoxical emergence, no something from nothing, just the working out of what already existed—basically, material aggregation by gravitational force. Even the production of the elements inside stars proceeded by the pre-existing laws (gravitational compression). It is only when we get to the evolution of life that the surprising kind of causality kicks in; then the universe discovers a new kind of causal process, with vastly greater generative power. Mutation and natural selection, genes and self-replication, prove to introduce a new kind of causation, capable of far more impressive feats than any observed hitherto—even if they are far more local and parochial, as well as less physically powerful (it takes only sunlight to fuel the whole process). The causation involved in the expanding universe operates on a much larger and more general scale than the expanding of life on earth, but it is far less impressive than evolutionary causation in its innovative power. The cause-effect mismatch of the latter is not mirrored in the former. Evolution is causally prodigious.

It would be good to have a label for the two types of causation, but none currently exists. We might borrow from Kant’s discussion of the analytic-synthetic distinction and press into service “ampliative” and “augmentative”. Thus non-evolutionary causation might be described as “ampliative causation” because it merely spells out what was already present: it adds nothing essentially new, though it can yield non-trivial transformations in the universe (stars, elements, black holes, etc). By contrast, we have “augmentative causation” in which radical innovations occur, even the kind of oppositions I have described. Evolution and embryogenesis involve augmentative causation—as a synthetic judgment for Kant involves going beyond the content of the subject in the predicate. Or we could speak of “conservative causation” versus “creative causation”, or “easy causation” versus “hard causation, or “mechanical causation” versus “innovative causation”. Of course, it might be maintained that the two types of causation really collapse into each other, because what I am calling a special type of causation really reduces to the other type. Either the evolved traits I listed do not really exist (“eliminativism”) or they can be reduced to properties that obey the ampliative type of causation (“reductionism”). I have not claimed to refute such a position here; my point has been that evolutionary causation is special on the assumption that the traits in question exist and cannot be reduced away to properties found in the evolutionary causes that don’t presuppose them. That is, I have assumed that mammals, for example, instantiate a range of traits not found in bacteria (mind, purpose, morals, etc). Given that, we need to recognize two basic kinds of causation in the universe (though they may be interwoven in complex ways).

I strongly suspect that this distinction lies behind an historical puzzle concerning the discovery of the theory of evolution (indeed I formulated the distinction while trying to solve that puzzle). It wasn’t until the nineteenth century that Darwin (as well as others) came up with the correct theory, though there was nothing to prevent earlier thinkers from discovering it, even going back to the ancient Greeks. The question was how to explain biological adaptation, and the answer is blindingly obvious once formulated; yet no one thought of it. It was quite possible to come up with the theory from the armchair by a priori reasoning, and it is not the kind of counterintuitive and difficult theory that (say) quantum theory and relativity theory are. All we need are the notions of chance variation and differential survival. The theory really could have been invented by Aristotle or Descartes well before Darwin’s time—so why wasn’t it? In fact, Darwin himself did not endorse it from the armchair but had to amass huge amounts of empirical data before he could accept the theory—the data forced the theory on him. Why the reluctance to accept what seems so blindingly obvious? (Selective breeding alone should have given the game away long before.) Something seems to have been blocking people from seeing it—and more than just piety and tradition.

My suggestion is that it was the nature of the causation involved that made the theory invisible for so long: people just assumed that the cause of animal (and human) existence had to conform to the usual kind of conservative ampliative causation. Hence the easy attraction of the creationist picture: it didn’t involve counterintuitive paradoxical-looking causation, but just regular causation in which cause and effect match each other. It turns out that this view of causation was too restrictive, as we now understand, but it is not surprising that there would be resistance to it at a gut level. The production of life had to be a causal process of some sort, but the kinds with which we are familiar respect the conservative principle, so it had to be that kind of causal process. We have certainly never observed the kind of creative causation manifest in the evolutionary process, simply because it takes place over such a long span of time. The idea that things like humans, with their distinctive traits, could be caused by a blind mechanical amoral process, originating in things like bacteria, was just too much of an affront to habitual assumptions about how causality works. And indeed it is still difficult to make sense of the causal process involved, precisely because it seems to entail getting something remarkable from nothing very much. It is thus very surprising that Darwin’s theory is true—something to marvel over (mind from mindlessness, morality from amorality). This explains why it was so hard for Darwin and others to recognize its truth. If someone had come up with the basic idea centuries earlier, it would have struck them as preposterous: how could chance variation in mindless entities, combined with blind natural selection, have caused the creatures we see today? We have found out, however, that the impossible is actually true—if I may exaggerate a bit. So it is not inexplicable that Darwin’s theory lay hidden for so long, despite its simplicity and a priori availability—unlike Newton’s theory that required enormous feats of mathematical reasoning and pure genius. No one came up with Darwin’s theory for so long because it seemed causally impossible—quite unlike the traditional creationist story (despite its falsity). Even today I suspect that many people resist Darwinism simply because of their habitual intuitions about causality, formed by ordinary observation, not because of any immovable religious commitment. People came round to the heliocentric hypothesis much more easily, because it did not challenge their intuitive notions of causality. But if what I am suggesting here is right, it is much harder to persuade people of evolution because of the causal picture it implies. To put it more positively, in order to overcome resistance we need to address ourselves directly to the question of causality and face it head on. The theory should be advertised as empirically correct but causally counterintuitive, or at least causally surprising. Simply passing over the causal question in silence, without facing it squarely, leaves people uneasy and perplexed. We need to accept that when species evolved a new species of causation evolved.[2]


[1] An exception might be made for the instant of the big bang in which it is said that matter, space, and time came to exist with extreme rapidity. Putting aside the question of whether that is the right thing to say, my comment is that if this is indeed so then causation at this early stage had the kind of innovative power I am attributing to evolutionary causation. Thereafter, however, physical causation followed a far more conservative trajectory.

[2] This is not to deny that evolutionary causation is grounded in ordinary physical causation (compare mental causation); it is just to say that the macro causal process of evolution involves the production of kinds of entities not present before. Teeming life comes from monotonous non-life—animals from atoms, men from molecules.

Distinctions and Difference




Distinctions and Differences



There is distinction in the world and distinction in the mind: things differ and so do concepts. States of affairs differ and thoughts about them differ. But how are these distinctions related? Are they dependent or independent? Clearly there can be objective distinctions that are not mirrored by cognitive distinctions—where thought fails to capture distinctions in reality (consider reality before the onset of thought). But can there be distinctions in thought that are not mirrored by distinctions in reality? Of course, distinctions in thought are real distinctions, but the question is whether distinctions in thought always reflect distinctions in what thought is about. Can two thoughts be distinct even if what they are about is not distinct? Can thoughts differ while the states of affairs they express are identical?

The orthodox view is that they can, but on closer analysis this is wrong. It is generally agreed that in the vast majority of cases cognitive distinctions are matched by objective distinctions—it isn’t that reality is a homogeneous lump that we insist in thinking about in different ways—but it is supposed that there is a special subclass of cases in which no worldly distinction can be found that corresponds to a cognitive distinction. I speak, of course, of classic sense-reference cases: the reference is the same but the sense differs. But this is confused thinking: identity of reference does not entail identity of state of affairs expressed, because of the different properties that can be connoted by a singular term. The name “Hesperus” connotes the property of being the evening star while the name “Phosphorous” connotes the property of bring the morning star—and morning and evening are not the same thing. Appearing in the evening is a different worldly state of affairs from appearing in the morning. Similarly for “water is H2O”: here the word “water” connotes the property of appearing in a certain way to human subjects while “H2O” does not; the way water looks is a different property from the property of having a certain molecular structure. In these kinds of cases the cognitive difference is not independent of distinctions in the world; it corresponds precisely to such distinctions. No cognitive difference without objective difference. The content of thought cannot vary without the subject matter of the thought varying, i.e. without a distinction at the level of objective reality.

This is as it should be: for what would be the point of conceptual distinctions that fail to map onto worldly distinctions? The aim of concepts is to make discriminations among things beyond the mind (sometimes within the mind): a distinction between concepts that concern exactly the same objects and properties is a pointless distinction—why distinguish what is not distinct? Our minds track distinctions in reality; they don’t invent distinctions that don’t exist in reality. Distinctions without differences are not real distinctions. Do not multiply distinctions beyond necessity! That is, thought should track only objective distinctions, of which there are many and subtle. There is more than enough fine structure in the world to occupy the discriminating thinker; anything else is redundant and pointless. Indeed impossible: concepts can’t differ without the aid of distinct states of affairs–that is their nature (this is a variant of Brentano’s thesis). A concept is always a concept of something. Externalism about conceptual distinctions is true: no concepts are distinct but objective reality makes them so.

You might think that concepts could differ in their dispositions while corresponding to identical states of affairs, thus counting as distinct concepts. But (a) the same concept could have different dispositions in different cognitive beings and (b) such dispositions would be pointless as means of discrimination. What is the point of discriminating what cannot be discriminated? You might say that different beings might have different needs with respect to the same objective world, so they might differ in how they conceptualize external things; but then the different states of affairs involve states of the organism itself—the varying needs ground the distinction in the concepts. The concept edible may apply to the same thing for one creature as inedible does for another, but that is only because of different properties of the different creature’s digestive systems. Concepts differ only in virtue of objective differences that they represent or correlate with—there is no separate dimension of variation capable of individuating concepts. This is not to say that connotation reduces to denotation, still less that connotation doesn’t exist; it is just to say that connotation always cashes out as objective worldly difference—since what is connoted is always a property of things. Even in the case of semantic tone (dog versus cur) there is always an underlying distinction at the level of facts: different emotions are aroused by the different concepts. There are no conceptual differences that are “purely cognitive”, that exist independently of non-conceptual facts. The world is the ultimate dictator of conceptual distinctions. Conceptual distinctions are never “in the head”.[1]

The right picture is this: the world consists of the totality of objective distinctions—different ways that things can be. The aim of thought is to latch onto and exploit these distinctions, and it has nothing to work with other than the distinctions that exist in reality. Thoughts divide up according to the states of affairs that form their content. It is certainly not that concepts acquire their distinctness from some source other than objective reality, and then foist distinctions onto reality—as if they could be subjectively distinct ontological distinctions.   without any objective distinctness in things. There is nothing to constitute a difference of concepts other than distinctness in what they represent—objects and properties, basically. Conceptual distinctions recapitulate

[1] In the case of indexical expressions we always have differences in spatiotemporal context that correspond to different indexical concepts, as with “here” and “there” and “now” and “then”. But this is a complex subject I won’t pursue here.

Beauty and Objectification




Beauty and Objectification



Beauty can be found in both people and things. In the case of people it is connected to sexual desire, while not so in the case of things. One finds the object of one’s desire beautiful, but one doesn’t desire all the things one finds beautiful. I may desire a certain woman, but I don’t desire a painting of her, however beautiful it may be. Thus beauty can be connected to two sorts of attitude: the erotic attitude and the aesthetic attitude. These attitudes differ markedly: they entail different dispositions on the part of the onlooker and different wishes as to the behavior of the beautiful object. The erotic attitude entails a desire to have sex (of some sort) with the object, not so for the aesthetic attitude. The erotic attitude is physically active, while the aesthetic attitude is contemplative.

It is sometimes supposed that the erotic attitude is inherently objectifying, since its focus is the embodied self: one desires that body. Thus we hear talk of “sex objects”—the other is the object of desire. The other is reduced to her (or his) body. By contrast, the aesthetic attitude regards the other as more than a mere physical thing with which to cavort: it regards the other as belonging to the realm of disinterested contemplation and valued for its intrinsic character. The other is not merely an instrument of gratification, analogous to food, but a valuable being in its own right, like a work of art. Desire is objectifying while aesthetic contemplation is edifying. A person can enjoy being admired for her beauty but not being treated as a mere thing for someone else’s carnal pleasure. To be found beautiful in the erotic way is to be treated as a mere object, while to be found beautiful in the aesthetic way is to be elevated to the level of art (possibly the divine).

But this way of thinking is the opposite of the truth: the erotic attitude to beauty is subjectifying while the aesthetic attitude is objectifying (and potentially morally suspect). This is because sexual desire contains in its intentionality the wish that the other should behave as a sexual agent: that is, should actively engage in sexual interractions with the one doing the desiring. It is the desire for desire, and hence action. It is the desire that the other should will what we ourselves will. Of course, the desired action is the action of an embodied being, but it is essential to the desire that its object be an agent endowed with volition. One does not desire the other qua inert body but qua active self. The “object” of sexual desire is a conscious willing agent with whom one desires a certain sort of cooperation. One wishes to engage in a joint project, as it were, i.e. sexual interaction. The beauty of the other is conceived under that aspect—as an aid to the erotic project. At the moment of desire what is wished for is the agency of the other to manifest itself in a particular way.

It is quite otherwise with the aesthetic attitude. Here beauty does not excite any desire for the beautiful object to act in a certain way—it does not inspire a desire for active cooperation. On the contrary, the object of contemplation is regarded as just that—a passive object to be gazed at and appreciated. You don’t want Mona Lisa’s picture to kiss you, though you may well want Mona Lisa herself to. The enraptured gaze is caught up in the qualities of the object qua object without regard for any actions it might undertake. Thus a woman’s face can be regarded as a purely aesthetic object: not something to be kissed and adored but to be admired for its formal beauty. In this attitude the object is dwelt on as on a beautiful painting—in an attitude of disinterested aesthetic analysis. The observer’s eye will move admiringly over the eyes, lips, cheeks, and chin, noting the symmetries and sparkle, the color and texture (such exquisitely smooth skin!). The idea that there is person within is not at the forefront of the mental act (robots can be beautiful in this sense). The viewer may have no sexual interest in the woman at all, through lack of libido or difference of sexual preference. The person is reduced to an aesthetic object—an appearance of matter, a congeries of qualities. The exact shape of nose or color of eyes will be analytically noted and appreciated. What the person within thinks or feels is irrelevant—outer appearance is all. Thus the other is objectified by the aesthetic attitude: her humanity is deemed secondary at best. Her agency is eclipsed by her beauty as a thing among other things—paintings, sculptures, landscapes. And here lies a moral danger: she may be regarded merely as an object devoid of will and agency. She might be degraded, assigned to the wrong ontological category. She might protest: “I’m not just a beautiful object—I’m a person!”

Consider the attitude of the peahen to the peacock. She finds that tail beautiful; it incites lust in her, the desire for copulation. She seeks the cooperation of the peacock to satisfy her desires, well aware that he might not reciprocate (though he probably will). In no way does she treat him as a mere object empty of agency. We, however, gazing at the peacock’s tail, adopt the aesthetic attitude not the erotic attitude; and in so doing we perceive the peacock as a thing of visual beauty—we objectify him. We are not concerned with his thoughts and feelings but with his feathers—splendid, no doubt, but merely part of his body. Which of us is more objectifying, the peahen or the connoisseur? The peahen desires to reproduce with the peacock (a cooperative act), but the connoisseur regards the peacock with a curator’s eye—what a fine candidate for taxidermy! The connoisseur will want to take a picture, the peahen to move in closer. One wants to make images, the other babies. The former requires passivity on the part of the object, the latter activity.

It is odd that beauty plays both these roles—as a stimulus to desire and as an object of contemplation. They are really very different, and yet the same thing is perceived, viz. beauty. Suppose you experience a sudden loss of libido: you no longer desire your beloved but you still perceive her beauty. Has your experience of her changed? She still looks the same to you—she is no less beautiful—but her beauty just doesn’t excite you any more. Inevitably you move from the erotic attitude to the aesthetic attitude, objectifying her in the process. You no longer want her body next to yours; you are content to gaze at her from afar. Is that progress?


Colin McGinn

Platonic Pragmatism





Platonic Pragmatism



The pragmatic theory of truth has this going for it: it recognizes that truth is something with value. Truth is something we ought to pursue and hence has a normative aspect. It is good to believe what is true and bad to believe what is false. Truth is a desirable property of belief. As William James says, “The true is the name of whatever proves itself to be good in the way of belief” (1907). It is contradictory to say, “We ought to believe what is true but truth is not a good thing”. Any theory of truth that fails to acknowledge the normative character of truth is defective or at least incomplete. Thus the classic correspondence theory fails to meet this condition: for what is so good about correspondence? If correspondence is a type of isomorphism, what is desirable about isomorphism? Sameness of form is not ipso facto a good thing: objects can share their form without this being something they ought to do (crystals, mice). If truth were just correspondence, it would be normatively neutral, not the desirable trait we take it to be (much the same can be said about coherence). Truth cannot reduce to a property or relation that bears no trace of the normative; it must have some type of goodness built into it. This seems like a solid insight on the part of the pragmatist and a cogent criticism of other theories. Call it “Convention G”: any adequate theory of truth must reveal truth as an inherently normative property, i.e. an instance of the Good. It must be something about which we (rightly) care.

The pragmatist, having identified this requirement, goes on to give an account of what the goodness in question consists in; and it is an account both natural and dubious. The goodness of truth is simply the way it conduces to human flourishing—the way it leads to a satisfying life. Truth is what contributes to human happiness: believing what is true will make us happy not sad. This is because true beliefs enable us to satisfy our desires more successfully than false beliefs. The farmer with true agricultural beliefs will reap a better harvest than one who has false agricultural beliefs. We will dress more comfortably for the weather if we have true beliefs about the state of the weather. A stockbroker with true beliefs about the market will make more money than one who has false beliefs. We can express these facts by saying that true beliefs have good utilitarian consequences; indeed, we could call this type of pragmatism “the utilitarian theory of truth”.[1] The truth is what maximizes utility (so it has a lot in common with the right as a utilitarian conceives it). Truth is good because self-gratification is good—good food, nice home, stimulating company. Truth is good for the same reason other things are good: it leads to pleasure, satisfaction, happiness. We can all agree that these things are good; well, truth is just one among the engines of human gratification. The pragmatist thus invokes ordinary human goods and identifies the goodness of truth with these goods.

And this is a very natural move: what else could constitute the goodness of truth? But it is also a move that has generated criticism: for surely not all true beliefs maximize utility—for example, grief will be the result of believing truly that a loved one has just died. Sometimes truth requires us to face harsh realities; the happiness-producing belief may be the false belief. And what about true belief in a society ruled by propaganda, as in George Orwell’s 1984? In Orwell’s dystopia true belief leads inevitably to Room 101 (and we know what happens to you there). Isn’t the pragmatic theory a recipe for wishful thinking, conformity, and slavery to the passions? We want to protest: you could believe the truth and it lead to absolute disaster—it would still be the truth! Sure, truth often leads to utility, but not as a matter of definition, not as a matter of essence. A belief can be true even though it fails to maximize utility. Additionally, a belief can be true though it has nothing to do with desire satisfaction, as with abstract theoretical beliefs. The pragmatist has therefore failed to explain the nature of truth in terms of human goods of the standard sort. Is it then an incorrect theory?

But didn’t it seem to rest on an important insight—the normative nature of truth? Here we need to separate two things: (a) truth as a type of good and (b) the utilitarian theory of goodness. We can have (a) without (b). Consider Plato’s account of truth in which truth is essentially connected to goodness and beauty: for Plato, believing the truth is contemplating the sublime world of forms, chief among them the form of the Good. This makes for an elevation of the soul: communion with the perfect and eternal. This is not a matter of appetites and bodily needs, quite the contrary. Plato accepts that truth is a type of good but he doesn’t identify the good with desire satisfaction. For him, the good is contemplating the forms, and that is what true belief enables one to do. This will lead to a special higher form of happiness—the happiness of rational contemplation, roughly. There is thus room for a Platonic form of pragmatism: true belief is belief that leads to rational happiness, i.e. contemplation of the forms. This kind of happiness (soul elevation) is consistent with many kinds of ordinary unhappiness. A person may be destitute and yet in rational contact with a higher reality (Diogenes, for example): his believing is good even though it does not mitigate his material deprivations. If there are goods beyond the basic goods, then a Platonic pragmatist can appeal to these goods to explain the nature of truth.[2] We ought to pursue truth because of these goods not those identified by your typical American pragmatist, focused as he is on creaturely wellbeing. Truth is essentially connected to the Good and the Beautiful, according to Plato; so these notions can be invoked to inject a normative element into truth. We can thus be Platonic pragmatists not American-style pragmatists. At any rate, such a combination of views is logically consistent and not unattractive.

We need not agree with Plato’s view of truth in order to appreciate the architecture of his position. Truth is a good thing, but its goodness does not consist in desire satisfaction but in something more rarified—the “good of the intellect”. Truth is an intellectual good not an appetitive good; it is superior to falsehood as a condition of the intellectual faculties. It may not be easy to specify the nature of this kind of goodness, though it commands intuitive acceptance, but it offers a way to agree with the basic insight of pragmatism while avoiding the standard objections to it. There is something “pragmatic” about truth in the sense that it conduces to a human good—an intellectual good—but it is not a matter of maximizing non-intellectual wellbeing. The good of truth is not the good of satiety, safety, and prosperity; it is the good of understanding, insight, and judgment. More grandly, it is the good of intellectual receptivity to reality—a kind of self-transcendence. It is the very opposite of slavery to the passions, subjection to our own needy animal nature; it opens the self to what lies beyond it. Classic pragmatism puts the human self at the center of the search for truth, identifying truth with the satisfaction of basic human needs; Platonic pragmatism puts the aim of self-transcendence at the center of the search for truth, identifying truth with the intellectual good of apprehending reality impersonally, without regard to its ability to satisfy our needs. It is both the opposite of classic pragmatism and yet a version of its basic insight, viz. that truth must be connected to goodness in order to be what we intuitively take it to be. Platonic pragmatism thus has the virtues but not the vices of classic pragmatism.


Colin McGinn

[1] Pragmatism is a consequentialist theory of truth that emphasizes human happiness. Formally, it resembles utilitarianism with respect to moral rightness: the right act is the one with the best utilitarian consequences. Thus utilitarianism might be characterized as “moral pragmatism”. The two doctrines have a similar form, though one concerns rightness of action and the other concerns truth of belief. Were the pragmatists influenced by the utilitarians?

[2] Another traditional conception of truth provides a direct link between truth and goodness, namely the idea that in knowing the truth about the world we come to know God’s mind. If God created the world according to his own nature, then insight into the world is insight into God’s nature, and that is in itself deemed good. Thus truth is valuable because knowledge of God is valuable; such knowledge may even enable to live better lives by God’s standards. Again, this is a kind of “pragmatism” that does not appeal to the idea of human desire as the good that truth serves, instead invoking a “higher” type of good.

Ontological commitment

Ontological Commitment



Can there be a criterion of ontological commitment? Can there be a formal test of what a person is ontologically committed to? What a person is committed to is a matter of what he believes or assumes or presupposes or is prepared to act on—on his attitudes. So the question is whether there is a linguistic litmus test for an attitude of commitment. Can we read a person’s ontology off his verbal productions? Can I figure out my ontological commitments by inspecting my use of language?

The first thing to observe is that the question is not restricted to matters of existence. As the term is commonly used “ontological commitment” is taken to refer to what a person takes to exist, so that it is interchangeable with “existential commitment”. That is certainly one form of commitment—what a person believes to exist—but it is not the only form. Consider “chromatic commitment”: what colors you believe things have (whether they exist or not). You may believe that things are colored and you may believe specific color claims—these are your chromatic ontological commitments. Ontology concerns what is so, and color is a matter of what is so. Roses are red and violets are blue—and Santa Klaus has a white beard and a red cloak (whether he exists or not). I might believe that colors are unreal and that nothing has them; in that case I am not ontologically committed with respect to color, though I might well believe in the existence of the things commonly said to be colored. Ontological commitment can concern any fact or putative fact: do you believe in that fact or not? Do you believe in moral facts, divine facts, facts about unobservable entities, psychological facts, and so on? Existence is just one kind of ontological commitment: we might say that it concerns one type of property, viz. the property of existence. Does anything have the property of existing? Which things do? Does anything have the property of being colored? Which things do? And so for any property you care to mention. A criterion for existential commitment might be a willingness to affirm “Such-and-such exists”, and a criterion for chromatic commitment might be a willingness to affirm “Such-and-such is red” (and similarly for other kinds of fact). It is artificial to single out existence from other sorts of ontological commitment: it is just one kind of factual commitment. The proper contrast here is with “epistemological commitment”: what we are committed to in the way of knowledge. What is it that we think we know? Do we think there is any knowledge, and if so what is known? We can be committed on questions of being (fact, reality) and we can be committed on questions of knowledge; what we are committed to existentially is just a special case of a more general question.

The question of providing a criterion of ontological commitment is thus broader than that of providing a criterion of existential commitment. Quine announced, “To be is to be the value of a variable”; he has been paraphrased thus, “What you say there is, you say there is”. That is, you are committed to whatever your sentences mean: if you affirm a sentence that can be true only if certain things exist, then you committed to the existence of those things. For example, you can’t say, “There are numbers” and then turn round and deny there are numbers: you must be taken at your word. But it is the same with all forms of ontological commitment: if you say, “Roses are red” you can’t turn round and deny that roses are red (same for “good”, “solid”, “conscious”, and so on). To be committed to red things is to describe things as red. You are committed to such facts as your sayings require for their truth. The criterion of commitment is saying. You can’t disavow what you affirm: you can’t say it and then try to take it back. You can’t say it in practice but then disavow it theoretically. You can’t have your ontological cake and eat it. You can’t weasel out of your statements.

That sounds all very reasonable (indeed trivial—what was the fuss all about?), but actually it runs into difficulties as a formal test of ontological commitment. The idea was to provide a public formal test of ontological commitment, eschewing the vagaries of what a person internally believes. We might think of it as a behavioral criterion for a mental phenomenon: what a person is committed to (believes to be) is what he affirms in his public utterances. A person believes in unicorns if she affirms, “There are unicorns” or “Unicorns exist”. I determine what I believe in by examining what I say, and I might be surprised at what turns up (I may find that I accept, say, an ontology of events or possible worlds). Thus the criterion is formal and public: it invokes facts of language and it is interpersonally accessible. No need to delve into the inner recesses of a person’s mind.

But the proposal is obviously problematic. It hardly provides a necessary condition, since you can keep silent about what you believe or may not have language at all; and it is not sufficient, since speech is not always sincere assertion. It is possible to say something and not believe what one says, as in play-acting or elocution practice. Even in assertion you may not be committed to what you assert in the sense that you believe what you say. A liar can’t use his assertions to figure out his ontological commitments. The assertion must be sincere, i.e. you must believe what you assert. But that is what we were seeking a criterion for–belief. Speech is never a sure guide to belief, so we can’t formulate a test of ontological commitment from facts about speech. My ontological commitments can be read off my sincere assertions—if I sincerely assert, “Snow is white”, then I am committed to snow being white—but the commitment comes from the belief not the assertion. No act of speech (or writing) can add up to belief, so there cannot be a formal linguistic criterion of ontological commitment. In order to find out what I am committed to you have to find out what I believe; what I say isn’t going to get you there. It may be true that what I say there is I say there is, but it doesn’t follow that that is what I believe there is. The most that can be claimed is that we have criterion for the ontological commitments of what someone says—a speech act is “committed” to what is required for its truth—but this is a far cry from the ontological commitments of a person. What I believe is not the same thing as what I say, since I may not give voice to my beliefs and, if I do, I may not mean what I say. My ontological commitments are fixed by my beliefs—but that is a trivial tautology not an illuminating criterion.


This Country

I find it increasingly difficult to live in this country. The people are solipsistic, deluded, gullible, prejudiced, violent, histrionic, puerile, stupid, and callous. And there are some pretty terrible people outside of universities too.


I’m in favor of Colin K’s “taking the knee”. I used to go to Halle orchestra concerts when I was a student in Manchester and I would “take the rump”: I would remain seated during the national anthem. My reason was the content of that anthem–all about the Queen. I would have stood for a non-royalist anthem. I was not “disrespecting the flag” or the country, just expressing my opposition to monarchism. I see Colin K. as expressing a specific protest (racial injustice) not some generalized disrespect for America–just as I was not expressing some general disrespect of England.

This Time

I don’t think Trump can recover from his latest “error”. When Jimmy Fallon denounces him you know the jig is up. The contempt for Trump is palpable across the board. Well deserved. Probably the worst thing I have ever seen from a politician in America.