A Plurality of Selves

A Plurality of Selves

1.Human beings are persons or selves and they have a specific nature: they have a certain type of psychology and a certain type of biological make-up. Not all possible sentient beings share this nature. For instance, humans have personal memories, consciousness, self-reflection, rationality, and a brain with two hemispheres that is in principle detachable from the body. Arguments about personal identity take these facts for granted and contrive various thought experiments on their basis: transferred brains, divided brains, memory loss, memory upload, personality alteration, and so on. Thus we arrive at theories of personal identity for humans. One well-known argument proceeds from the possibility of brain splits to conclude that personal survival does not logically require personal identity.[1]But what about other possible types of being that don’t share our human nature? Can’t they be persons or selves too? If so, we can’t expect to derive general “criteria of personal identity” just by considering the human case: we need to look at the full range of possible cases if our theory is to have the generality we seek (and it might turn out not to have that generality).

Consider sentient beings that don’t have brains that can be divided or transferred: the brains of these beings don’t have two equipotential hemispheres and they are distributed throughout the organism’s body (rather like an octopus). There are thus no possible scenarios in which their brain is divided and the hemispheres placed in separate bodies, so there is no way that theycan survive without being identical to some future being (at least so far as the standard fission arguments are concerned). We can’t consult our intuitions about what we would say under conditions of brain bisection and relocation, since these are not possible (such surgeries would result in certain death). For these beings there would be nosurvival under the imagined conditions. In fact, a theory that ties personal identity to the body would be more plausible for them than in the human case: having that brain in that body would be tightly correlated to future survival. There would be no pressure to accept psychological continuity theories if it were not possible to dissociate survival from bodily identity, as in the standard thought experiments. Lesson: be careful not to accept a general theory of personal identity based on the contingent peculiarities of the human organism. That might lead to chauvinismabout personal identity, i.e. ruling out bona fidepersons as not really so.

Now consider this hypothetical case: sentient beings without personal memories. We can allow that these beings possess general factual memory; what they lack is memory of their past experiences and deeds. Their earlier life is a complete blank to them, though they live and love. They clearly persist through time, but this persistence cannot be a matter of remembering different periods of their existence: they don’t persist through time becauseof the power of memory. So for thesebeings personal identity cannot consist in memory links to earlier selves, however it may be for us. We can’t say that A is identical to B because A can experientially remember what B did. These beings may have the anatomy described in the previous case, so their identity is better explained in terms of bodily continuity, not in terms of memory links. Not that bodily continuity will work for everyone: for some possible beings the body changes over time to become a different body, as with bodily metamorphosis (including the brain). Butterfly persons would persist through time while they acquired a brand new body at puberty. So it would be wrong to generalize from the no-memory type of person to all possible types, as it would be wrong to generalize from the human case to all possible cases. The butterfly adults might have vivid memories of their pupa childhood while not sharing their body with that being; in their case a memory criterion might well seem attractive. It all depends on the being.

Here is an even more radical case to consider: the no-consciousness self. It might be claimed that personal identity consists in the persistence of a subject of consciousness over time: and certainly for conscious beings that theory has some appeal (though it doesn’t seem very explanatory). But consider a hypothetical case in which a conscious being losesconsciousness during the course of life yet retains an unconscious mind; or a species that was once conscious but now, through natural selection, has abandoned that trait and survives by means of unconscious psychological mechanisms. Such beings might have memories, beliefs, desires, personalities, and so on—they just aren’t conscious. They are, if you like, zombie selves (though with an elaborate unconscious psyche). They would look and sound like conscious persons, living their lives like such persons to outside observation (maybe a bit wooden in certain respects). So they exist through time and possess the usual attributes of persons (except one)—picture them on a remote planet with a functioning civilization. For thesebeings a theory based on continuity of a conscious subject would be wide of the mark—more like continuity of an unconscious subject.[2]They have a psychology and they exist through time, but there is no consciousness in there: “unconscious self” is not an oxymoron.

We can thus refute bodily theories, memory theories, and consciousness theories as generaltheories of personal identity by considering the full range of possible persons.[3]Maybe there is no general theory available just different theories for different types of being, or maybe some other theory can be contrived; what is clear, however, is that the human case is a special case, not characteristic of all possible cases. Methodologically, then, it is unwise to proceed from this case alone; that will only lead to parochialism and special pleading. We have personal memories, consciousness, and divisible transferable brains, but that is not true of all possible selves, and perhaps not of all actual ones (animals, aliens). The case is unlike theories of persistence for material objects in that the material objects around us arecharacteristic of m aterial objects in general: if material identity is explicable in terms of spatiotemporal continuity or some such for the objects on earth, then it will be explicable in this way for objects elsewhere, actual and possible. There are no non-spatiotemporal objects to deal with and accommodate. Similarly for set identity: the criterion in terms of identity of membership generalizes to all possible sets—it isn’t limited to the sets we encounter every day. The thing about selves is that they can be “multiply realized” both physically and psychologically, so we don’t want to tie the concept down to a specific type of self—as it might be, adult humans with consciousness, memory, and a divisible anatomy. That would be like defining set identity purely in terms of sets of elephants or ants. The plurality of possible selves imposes a constraint on theories of personal identity, and one that is not easy to meet.

2. Let me now turn to a different question involving plural selves, namely whether I could have been a different self: that is, is there a plurality of selves in metaphysically possible worlds that could be said to be possible selves of mine? The question is tricky because I clearly could not have been a different human being: I am necessarily Colin McGinn, given that a certain human being is denoted at both places. Any human being in a possible world that is not identical to thishuman being is not me. Someone could look and sound like me, but if they are not the same human being they are not me. No member of an animal species can ever be identical to a different member of that species. But it doesn’t follow that I could not have been a different person(associated with the same human being). In fact, this is quite easy to imagine: we just have to suppose that I undergo very different experiences in some possible world. Suppose my experiences in world winvolve being born into poverty in a war-stricken land where abuse is rampant and education non-existent: I suffer various life-altering traumas and end up with emotional problems radically unlike those I now have. My personality, my memories, and my abilities are totally different in w: am I not then a different person from what I am today? The person you become is a function of your life experiences, among other things, but these are contingent, so you could have become a different person. You could even be subjected to chemical attacks that rewire your nervous system, or suffer genetic alteration in the womb. It would be the same organism, but it wouldn’t be the same person, because psychology counts in the latter respect. If we call that person you could have become “Albert”, then we can say that you might have been Albert, in the sense that the human being you are could have been associated with (“housed”) another person, namely Albert. You quaperson could not have been identical to Albert, but your organism could have been his residence instead of yours. Thus we derive the paradoxical-seeming proposition, “I could have been a different person”, which translates roughly as, “My organism could have housed a different person”. The word “I” can slip from referring to a human being to referring to the person housed by that human being, but there is a clear sense in which it is true to say, “I might not have been me”: that is, “This human being might have housed someone other than my actual self” expresses a truth. Indeed, I might have been any number of people in this sense, given the plurality of possible lives I (sic) might have led. What my name actually stands for is an interesting semantic question: is it a human being or a person (self)? It seems ambiguous between the two in actual use, which is why I can say, “Colin McGinn might not have been Colin McGinn” without sensing contradiction, where the first occurrence of the name refers to a certain human being and the second refers to the person currently occupying that human being. I am necessarily the person I am, and I am necessarily the human being I am, but that person is not necessarily identical to that human being—in fact, they are not identical at all. In one sense “I am not a (particular) human being” is true, and in another sense “I am not a (particular) person” is true; but it is equally true that I am a human being and also a person! The word “I” is flexible enough to allow for all these statements to be true under the right interpretation.

We can say, then, that across modal space I have many counterpart selves that could each have occupied this particular organism. I have no such human being counterparts—in this respect I am a unity. But I am (associated with) a plurality of selves in the sense that possible worlds contain many such selves corresponding to me. This is not a denial that proper names are rigid designators, since each of these entities has its own name: it isn’t that my counterpart selves are all designated by “Colin McGinn”, construed as a name of a particular person in the actual world. It is quite true that Colin McGinn is necessarily Colin McGinn (under the right interpretation), even though I might have had many numerically distinct counterparts that inhabit my actual body (and were all called“Colin McGinn”). This can be verbally confusing, but the underlying logic and metaphysics are not: one human being, many selves, with names for each of these separate entities. This enables us to say such potentially confusing things as, “Colin McGinn (human being) might not have been (associated with) Colin McGinn (person)”. The name seems capable of referring to both.

3. I now take up another issue in which the notion of a plurality of selves suggests itself, namely whether we actuallycontain more than one self. It is commonly assumed that we contain at most one self, though there have been dissenters to that conservative opinion (as we will see). Hume argued that we contain zero selves, having conducted an internal survey; but most people put the number at unity after no survey at all. It is an interesting question why we do this so readily: has anyone ever actually countedthe number of selves he or she contains? Is it that you can tell just by looking that you contain a single self, as you can tell by looking that you have a single body? But you can’t lookat yourself and then proceed to count the number of selves in the vicinity. Is it that the ordinary use of “I” suggests unity? But that seems a flimsy way to get at the cardinality. Is it perhaps just a lazy prejudice like assuming there is only one type of person in the world? At any rate, it is apparently a general belief on the part of (human) selves that there is only one of them per organism. If we ask for a demonstration, we are apt to be dismissed as blind to the obvious. Is this just how we appear to ourselves? Maybe, maybe not, but maybe the appearances are misleading: we need a reason to accept that we reallyarethus unitary. At least we should be open to evidence that such unity is illusory. People used to think there was only one sun in the universe, but more careful investigation revealed a plurality of suns; might the same thing be true of the self in our own personal universe?

Let me list some putative reasons for dissent from the common assumption: the Freudian division into ego, id, and superego; the phenomenon of multiple personality; brain bisection experiments; modular conceptions of mind; the theatrical conception of the self; division into private and public self; a general sense of self splintering (R.D. Laing, The Divided Self). I don’t propose to discuss each of these in detail; I am more interested in the general idea of multiples selves. I certainly think it is logically possible for a single organism to house more than one psychic entity deserving the name of self; and I think there is good empirical evidence that this is normal for ordinary adult humans. I am with Erving Goffman (and William Shakespeare) in believing that a given individual presents a number of distinct selves in different social contexts, and that these are deeply entrenched. The person is something dramatically constructed—and we can construct a plurality of these things. I myself have always felt that I am made up of three distinct selves—an intellectual self, an athletic self, and a musical self—with little overlap between them; and I fancy I am not alone in having this kind of impression. Is my impression to be disputed? I also wrote a novel, The Space Trap, in which I played with the idea of a phobic self and an imaginary self in addition to the self we ordinarily recognize. Such ideas are quite common in writers trying to represent the complexity of human psychological reality. People feel they are not the simple unity that we tend to speak of; there are significant divisions and separations (hence the famous Walt Whitman remark, “I contain multitudes”). Just as people feel themselves to change dramatically over time, becoming “a different person”, so they feel that at a given time there is a plurality lurking inside. Pathological conditions like schizoid personality or multiple personality are not so far from the norm, maybe just extreme cases of it. If someone sincerely believes himself to have a divided self, what evidence can be used to refute him? What kind of counting procedure would undermine such a claim? Might there not be degrees of division with the normal case of personal separation just at the far end? Whence the dogmatic conviction that there must be only oneself each? We have got used to the idea that we possess more than one mind, what with the unconscious and generalized modularity, so why should the self be treated as uniquely unitary? If I contain many minds, don’t I thereby contain many selves? If Freud were right about the unconscious, surely he would have discovered another self in us in addition to the conscious self—an autonomous agent with its own agenda. True, the conscious self that is encountered in introspection has a certain salience, but why should that determine the full extent of our selfhood? And that self might divide into a number of sub-selves upon closer examination. We are often torn, internally conflicted, and doesn’t that suggest a separation of selves? No one ever told the genes, or our life experiences, that they were to construct only a single self, so the possibility is open that they construct a plurality of selves uneasily (or easily) conjoined. We are more like a constellation of selves than a single unified self, a galaxy not a solitary star.

If this is so, then our identity through time consists of the persistence of many selves, not one.  There is not a single self that exists from one moment to the next but a plurality of selves. Some of these selves may perish while others march on; all may perish at some point to be replaced by new ones. What we call our personal identity, and picture as a single persistent capsule, is really a mixture of separate elements held tenuously together: an identity of selves in the plural not the singular. Conceivably, these selves might have different conditions of identity: for example, there may be a biological self fixed by the genes that is tied to the constitution of the organism, existing alongside a number theatrical selves freely constructed to serve suitable social purposes and revocable at will. A theatrical self may disappear at a certain time when the context no longer demands it, while the biological self goes on regardless. Once we accept a plurality of selves we have the possibility of separate existence through time. It is really too simple to speak of “personal identity” as if we had a single well-defined thing called a “person” whose identity is at issue; the human psyche is too complex for that. Surely we can imagine a being that regards himself as such a plurality and speaks spontaneously of one of his selves going out of existence while others continue. If we insist on his answering the question whether hesurvived such and such an event, he might give us a puzzled look and reply, “Well, this self and that self survived, though that other one didn’t”. For this being it would be wrong by stipulation to speak only of a single self that survives or fails to. To what extent we approximate to his condition is an empirical question, and one that has a good deal of evidence in its favor.

I believe it is true to say that we experience our body as more of a unity than it really is. It comes as a surprise to discover all those separate organs each doing its specific job—and illness can deliver a jolt to our assumption of unity. If we ask after its persistence conditions, we quickly come to see that many organs are involved, and some can survive what others may not. If we insist on asking whether the bodysurvives such and such an event, we can see that this question is too simple, given the complexity of the body (the plurality of its organs). The person is a bit like that: in principle some parts may survive while others perish (consider Alzheimer’s). I can lose one hand while retaining the other because I have two hands; why couldn’t I have more than one self where each can survive separately? If the brain realizes human personality in more than one location, then damage to one location may destroy one instance but leave another: wouldn’t this be the loss of one self and the retention of the other? Here we would have different tokens of the same type, or similar types, but different types may also coexist with one another. It may be convenient to talk as if we are a single entity, as it is convenient to talk of the body as a single entity, but both are made up of other units. What we call theself is really a plurality of distinct self-like entities.[4]

There is a plurality of types of self; there is a plurality of possible selves corresponding to each human (and animal) individual; and there is a plurality of actual selves within each individual. There is not just the human type of self; there is not just a single possible self for each individual; and there is not just a single actual self for each individual.


Colin McGinn


[1]Derek Parfit, Reasons and Persons.

[2]In considering these beings it might help to adopt a higher-order thought theory of consciousness.

[3]I haven’t considered so-called psychological continuity theories in relation to hypothetical persons. This is because I am not convinced such theories have ever been properly formulated, and because they seem open to obvious counterexamples concerning sufficiency (continuity is a “cheap relation”). And couldn’t there be beings that revel in their psychological discontinuities, changing their beliefs and desires dramatically from day to day? They might regard this flexibility as essential to their identity.

[4]Of course, the parts of the body are not themselves bodies but organs of the body, and parts of the self may also not themselves be selves; but there is reason to accept that someparts of what we call our self are also self-like. If they existed alone, we would still call them selves.






Injustice directed towards an individual creates a specific psychological response. This response includes anger at the perpetrator, moral indignation, resentment, a sense of futility, a desire for revenge, disillusionment, and general malaise. It can shape a person’s entire life, and destroy his or her wellbeing permanently. The injustice can be of two kinds: retributive and distributive. The victim can be blamed and punished for something he or she has not done, or punished disproportionately, or not given due process; or the victim can be subject to unfair distributions of goods to which he or she is entitled, by natural right or contract. Though both types of injustice occasion the psychological response mentioned, the former is apt to occasion it more strongly and deeply. A person wrongly blamed for something, especially where the blamers show bias or negligence, or basic disregard for justice itself, is liable to induce a state of extreme agitation and outrage. In addition to the unjust treatment the victim has received, he or she must also deal with the sense of anger, outrage, resentment, and so on. Clearly, to treat someone unjustly is the very height of culpability, and anyone guilty of such injustice must be held accountable, especially if they have been placed in a position of authority and power over others. This is why we rightly deplore corruption in the judicial system or in quasi-legal tribunals, as well as negligence and plain stupidity. Hatred of injustice is both necessary and unavoidable.

We don’t feel the same way about other crimes against the person. If someone steals from you or strikes you or breaks a promise to you or lies to you, then you may well be upset and angry, but you don’t experience the same degree of psychological upheaval. The reaction to injustice is in a class of its own, sui generis, and not so easily shrugged off. The psychological impact is more profound and enduring. It creates a feeling of pointlessness, deep distrust, and personal isolation. This is particularly true if the injustice is repeated and systematic—if it is sustained over time in numerous unjust acts (racial discrimination, especially embodied in the law, is the obvious example). It is bad enough to blame and punish an innocent person once, but to keep on doing it is exponentially worse, especially when opportunities for just restitution arise. Then the victim is apt to feel that the system is stacked against him, that there is no escape from injustice, and that life is not worth living in such conditions. Suicide can then seem like the only possible escape from systemic injustice. This is a profoundly terrible thing to do to someone—very different from the normal run of crimes and misdeeds. While it is possible to forgive someone for stealing, lying, hitting, and so on, it is extremely difficult—perhaps impossible—to forgive someone for blatant and repeated injustice. A sense of injustice destroys personal relations between people. You cannot remain friends with someone who has treated you unjustly, nor can you respect him or her thereafter.

I take it these points are obvious, if painful to contemplate. One of the less obvious consequences of injustice is that it becomes almost impossible to treat the person who has been unjust to you in a just manner. You feel that your unjust persecutor has sacrificed the right to just treatment from you. Here injustice differs from other crimes: you don’t feel that being lied to or stolen from or struck justifies doing the same thing to the person who has done these things to you. But you do feel that injustice justifies injustice in return: “Why should I be just with you when you were so unjust with me?” Is this just psychological weakness or is it something more profound—more conceptual? Is it just “hitting out” or does it reflect something about the nature of injustice? True, you may manage to set aside your (correct) sense of injustice and treat the perpetrator justly; but you feel that this requires a special, almost superhuman, effort—as if the other person does not deservejust treatment from you. Their right to justice from you has been undermined by their own manifest injustice towards you. That is why they must be judged by someone other than the person they have wronged—by an impartial judge: because the victim of the injustice simply cannot be expected to treat them justly. Everyone has the right to be treated justly by me, but not if they have treated me unjustly; then someone else must be brought in to serve the cause of justice (hence no vigilante justice). No one can be left at the mercy of those they have treated unjustly. But the victim of an act of theft, say, is not likely to steal from the thief, or to suppose that it is morally permissible to do so. Acts of injustice, however, are affronts to morality itself—a rejection of the demands of morality—and we feel that such actors deserve special condemnation. The corrupt judge is worse than the guilty criminal, because the judge is charged with, and accepts, the role of arbiter of justice. To imprison a person unjustly is the ultimate crime; and the person imprisoned is not expected to deal leniently, or even fairly, with his unjust judge. Injustice thus breeds injustice in the victim, even if he or she tries to “rise above” it.

But there is a further consequence that is even more disturbing: the tendency to generalize injustice. If a person has been made the victim of injustice, especially if it is repeated, systematic, and unrepentant, then he or she is apt to abandon justice as a general rule of conduct. The victim thinks: “I have been treated unjustly, so why should I treat others justly?” By contrast, the victim of theft does not think: “I have been stolen from, so why should I not steal from others?” It is not entirely clear why there should be this asymmetry, but it seems to exist and to be entrenched. It may have to do with the general sense that injustice is itself a rejection of morality, not merely a violation of it. We say of the grossly unjust agent that he or she “doesn’t know right from wrong”, but we don’t tend to say that about other miscreants. We take injustice to be a more profound moral failing—and rightly so. It brings morality more fully into question, so that an unjustly treated individual feels less constrained by it.

And here I think is where the special evil of injustice shows itself—the thing that sets it apart from other crimes and misdeeds: it creates chains of injustice. Suppose Ais unjust toBand that Bforms the psychological response I described; then Bwill be apt to be unjust to C, even when Chas not been unjust to B. But then Chas become the victim of injustice, and will in turn be likely to be unjust to D; and so on. One act of injustice (or a series of acts directed against a particular individual) will generate a chain of unjust acts, all mediated by the psychological response I described. It doesn’t work like this with stealing, lying, and so on. Injustice has the power to propagate itself through a population, like a contagious disease, hopping from one person to the next. Previously just people are thus turned into unjust people by being themselves treated unjustly—all because at the beginning of the chain an innocent person was treated unjustly. Injustice begets injustice, while theft does not beget theft. Of course, if the theft is felt to involve injustice, then theft will generate the same kind of chain; but not otherwise. If a rich man steals from you, you feel an injustice that does not apply to a poor thief—though you may still deplore the poor thief’s action. We do not hate the thief quathief, as we hate the unjust agent—he or she we regard as morally bankrupt. Is there anything worse than a “hanging judge” who blatantly ignores evidence and follows discriminatory policies? What about a judge who knowingly sentences innocent people to death for kickbacks from the makers of electric chairs, or because she wants to look “tough” for political reasons? That is evil of a stunning magnitude.

Chains of injustice ramify and proliferate. They can spread through a whole population. They can be transmitted down the generations. And they may be triggered by a single isolated act of injustice. The injustice chain is particularly dangerous in the case of children. If the parents have been treated unjustly, they will be apt to treat their children unjustly; but children will experience the injustice in a sharp and undiluted form, without any possibility of rising above it. It will inform their entire worldview: the world will be seen as an inherently unjust place, with talk of justice meaningless and pointless. And so injustice gets passed down the generations. How many unjust acts in the world are explained by the existence of one of these chains? Here we should distinguish between the instigator of a chain and a link in a chain. If Ais not himself a victim of any injustice, and yet acts unjustly, for reasons of self-interest or political expediency, say, then Ais an instigator—he or she sets the chain in motion. Such a person is far more culpable than one who is a mere link in a chain instigated by someone else—the link merely inherits injustice without creating it ab initio. The link is a victim of injustice as well as a perpetrator of it, and he is the latter because (or partly because) of the former. The instigator, however, has brought a potentially endless chain of injustice into the world: not just the initial unjust act, but also all its ramifying consequences. The instigator has created the disease, not merely been one of its carriers.

The evil of injustice therefore far outweighs the evil of other kinds of immoral act, not just because of its intrinsic evil (though that is considerable), but also because of its tendency to grow and spread. You can see how it could infect an entire population, as well as succeeding generations. It deserves the name “Original Sin”: it is a sin that begets other sins. Those guilty of it, especially the instigators, deserve special condemnation, special contempt. Everyone should, of course, be conscious of the burdens of justice, and employ every means possible to ensure that justice is done. All unjust acts should be rectified fully and promptly. Restitution should be mandatory. There is simply no excuse for injustice, as there can be for other kinds of immoral act. Injustice should not be tolerated or excused, but rigorously punished (not only by law but also by social censure). The shame attaching to injustice should be unique and profound. No one should turn a blind eye to it. Ever.

What can be done to prevent chains of injustice from forming? Don’t instigate them, obviously: but what do we do if some people insist on being injustice instigators? It is all very well to exhort people not to make the same “mistakes” as those who have treated them unjustly; but that may not be very effective advice for someone who has been made bitter and cynical by the injustices done to them. You can’t expect people to be saints if they have been systematically abused. A person who has been sent to jail, knowingly and cynically, for a murder he did not commit is not likely to view the world kindly. Someone who has known nothing but injustice is unlikely to treat others justly. What is necessary is firm public support for justice, above all other values, and an intolerance of injustice—people should be rewarded and punished according to their capacity for justice. No one should be left in a position of judicial power that has acted unjustly. Also, it is necessary for justice to beseento be done, not merely to bedone: justice must be celebrated and recognized, spoken of in hushed and reverent tones. Injustice, for its part, should be despised and reviled for what it is. The word fairshould be on everyone’s lips, and be the (or a) basic moral word. The nerve of justice should be forever taut.

Utilitarianism has a lot to answer for here: it shifts moral praise and blame from justice to consequences, so that an unjust individual can always plead that he or she was just trying to maximize the good—this being regarded as the ultimate aim of morality. An unjust act is thus excused by claiming that it will likely lead to greater happiness all round. This is an insidious way of thinking, almost bound to lead to corruption, and anyway ignores the ramifying effects of injustice—and hence is not defensible even on utilitarian grounds. Fairness is what matters, not the expectation of generalized happiness. If people feel that they will not be treated fairly, perhaps precisely because they have not been, then this will rot everything from the inside out. The psychological effects of injustice, and the resulting chains of injustice, are so damaging that injustice must never be allowed to stand. Injustice is the worst of moral failings.



Motion Again


Causation and Motion



Consider a universe containing just two objects, A and B (suppose they are tennis balls). They are moving relatively to each other at 30mph and are a million miles apart. Conventional opinion has it that it is arbitrary to declare one at rest and the other in motion; we can only regardone as at rest while the other moves in relation to it. We cannot suppose that one might be genuinely (objectively, absolutely) at rest and the other genuinely (objectively, absolutely) moving—that is, moving relative to space itself. Motion is coordinate-dependent, and we get to choose what is to be the coordinate. But suppose we apply a force to one of these objects, say A—we throw the ball in a certain direction. It moves relative to B; but B also moves relative to it, with no force applied. That is, we causeA to move, but not B. It would be bizarre to suggest that we also applied a force to B making it move relative to A. Isn’t this a non-arbitrary reason to suppose that A is in motion and not B? We can’t tell just by looking which is really at rest and which really moving, but once we know the causal history we can make such a judgment. The object B did not have its state of motion changed by the act of throwing it, but the object A did. Thus causation and motion are linked, both ontologically and epistemologically: causation gives rise to motion and we use this fact to determine what is moving (objectively, absolutely). This is how we ordinarily think of actual motions in our universe: when things are observed to move relatively we use causal facts to decide which is moving absolutely (i.e. relative to space). That is the epistemic basis for judgments of non-relative motion.

Generally speaking, causation produces non-relative changes in an object, as in changing the color or shape of an object. We don’t suppose that painting an object red, say, could effect a color change in some other remote object—the analogue of causing motion in ball B by throwing ball A. Causation brings about local changes in the object acted on. Nor do we suppose that it is somehow arbitrary which object changes color or shape—as if we are free to say that some object a million miles distant changes color or shape when we apply a paintbrush to an object in front of us or hit it with a hammer. So if motion is anything like these properties it is a local property of the object acted upon, objectively and absolutely, not a property that can be decreed to hold of a remote object in relative motion with respect to the given object. Of course, relativemotion is relative, but causation gives us reason to suppose that there is also non-relative motion—motion that reflects the causal order of things. If I order you fetch me an apple, thus causing your body to move in certain ways, it would be bizarre to suggest that I have thereby caused the whole material universe to move relatively to your body, which I have taken to be at rest for the nonce; though it is quite true that your body and the universe have been in a state of relative motion, and that I couldhave chosen to make your body my frame of reference for the purpose of describing this relative motion. Intuitively, your body was caused to move by my command, not the rest of the universe, even though there was a state of relative motion between them. In a universe equipped with causation, then, there is absolute motion (as well as relative).

The difference between motion and color or shape is just that we can seechanges in the latter but not in the former just by looking at the object in question. But this is not a deep fact about motion: absolute motion could be imperceptible yet real. And not seeing is not the same as not knowing: we can know that absolute motion has occurred by knowing what the operative causes are. Movement through absolute space is not perceptible because of the featureless nature of space, but it can be inferred by knowing the causal history of the object (e.g. whether it was recently thrown). In a sense, then, absolute motion is not an empirical property in the way that color and shape are: but it can be real nonetheless. Only a form of idealism would deny this possibility.

The relativity of motion is a central tenet of Einstein’s relativity theory, both special and general. But it is noteworthy that no other science treats its central properties as similarly relative. Einstein’s (supposed) revolution in physics has not been mirrored in geology, biology, psychology, economics, etc. There has been no replacement of absolute notions by relative ones—as if an animal could only be a mongoose in relation to another animal, or a belief something you can have only relative to someone else. Objects simply have intrinsic non-relative attributes; they don’t have to be regarded as elements of systems that confer on them whatever properties they possess. This makes Einstein’s mechanics anomalous among the sciences: only it deals in properties that (allegedly) consist in relations to a coordinate system. We don’t, for example, think that Darwin’s theory of natural selection makes evolution relative to a choice of coordinates. Animals are not said to evolve with respect to one reference frame but not with respect to another. Why should the motion of bodies be an exception to this rule? It would be different if Einstein’s “revolution” had carried over to the other sciences, but it hasn’t. Only in certain (dubious) branches of anthropology could anyone say that we have discovered that certain apparently absolute properties are really relative—viz. ethical properties—but that would be a wholly superficial analogy. So mechanics alone traffics in the kind of relativity proposed by Einstein. No one ever says that an animal could be a mongoose relative to one set of animals but not relative to a different set, or that individuals have beliefs relative to one set of people but not relative to another set. There is nothing arbitraryin the claim that a certain animal is a mongoose or that a given person believes that the sky is blue—as if we could with equal right describe things differently by simply changing our frame of reference. Recognizing the existence of absolute motion, because of causation, thus brings physics into line with the other sciences. In trying to free physics from supposed “metaphysical elements” by banishing the idea of absolute motion (and absolute space and time) relativity theory makes physics exceptional among the sciences.[1]



[1]This is, of course, quite contrary to the erroneous lay idea that Einstein transferred the general relativity (subjectivity) of all our supposed knowledge into that bastion of objectivity known as physics. In fact, he claimed a relativity in physics notfound elsewhere.


Intentionality Multiplied


Double Intentionality




Brentano taught us to ask after the reference of a mental state: mental states are always “about” something, “directed at” something. They are not sealed off from the world but engaged with it. They are relational not intrinsic. This intentionality distinguishes them from merely physical states, which are not aboutthings. But did he go far enough in discerning mental aboutness? What about the relation a mental state has to the subject who possesses that state: isn’t the mental state “directed” to its subject also? Doesn’t it “point” inward as well as outward? Can we not say that every mental state stands in the relation of beinghadby a subject as well as the relation of being aboutan object? There is a kind of double intentionality at work.

Is there any further type of intentionality? What about the idea that all mental states have a kind of self-awareness built into them? We are always aware of our awareness. This need not be consciousawareness; it is sometimes called “pre-reflective”. At the least a mental state is always potentiallyan object of awareness—just a short step away. So the mental state is always about an object, had by a subject, and cognizant of itself (for-itself, as Sartre would say). It points in three directions simultaneously: at its subject, at its object, and at itself. Is that it?

Consider belief or thought: here we have the triple intentionality just mentioned—the subject, the object, the mental state itself. But isn’t there also a fourth layer, viz. the proposition believed? The subject stands in the belief relation to that proposition—it is the content of his belief. So he hasthe belief, the belief is ina certain proposition, the proposition is abouta certain object, and he is aware ofhaving that belief. Now we have four types of mental directedness—quadruple intentionality. Brentano needed to add an additional three levels of directedness to his simple one level account. The mind points in many directions at once.

Can we generalize this point about belief? Take grasping a sense: there is the subject doing the grasping, there is the object (reference) of the grasping, there is the sense that is grasped, and there is the grasping itself. So understanding a word can be said to involve all four mental relations: having the understanding, apprehending a meaning, referring to an object, and being aware of itself. All are necessary to linguistic understanding. The same structure applies to perceptual states: the subject undergoes a perceptual experience, which is of an aspect of the external world, which presents an object, which is itself apprehended (albeit implicitly). So the experience “points” at four different things: a subject, an object, an aspect, and itself. For example, Isee a tableunder the aspectbrown, shiny, etc., and my seeinga table is presented to me. The experience sits at the center of a web of connections with other things (including itself): it is multiply ostensive. It points at many things. Frege had already introduced another layer of intentionality over and above Brentano’s “aboutness” by suggesting that we grasp senses as well as refer to objects, but we can go further and recognize the involvement of the subject (self) and the mental state itself—these are ostensive objects too.[1]A word has a sense, a reference, a subject who understands it, and that understanding itself (when the word is understood).  If I understand a name, say, I grasp its sense and denote its reference, but I also havethat understanding and am aware ofmy understanding. I point in four different directions simultaneously (or my understanding does). There is not just onerelation–as it might be, denoting–but several relations, which are all integral to the state of understanding. Intentionality proliferates. The mind is a multi-directional thing.



[1]Actually Frege anticipated this enrichment to his theory of sense and reference in “The Thought” by insisting that every mental state has a subject. That implies that the mental state of grasping a sense necessarily brings with it another object, viz. the self or subject. There is no such thing as a free-floating grasp of a sense; all such grasping is bya subject. So, according to Frege, sense inherently points both to an object of reference andto a subject who apprehends the sense. Indeed, that subject must necessarily exist, according to Frege, while the object of reference need not exist (Pegasus etc.). Sense is precisely something that mediates between subject and object. The ontology of sense therefore incorporates an ontology of subjects and objects.


Accepted in Russia

I found out yesterday that my book Philosophical Provocations was chosen for discussion at the Center for Cosnciousness Studies at Moscow State University. I can’t imagine that happening today in America. So Russia is more rational and academically free than America. Isn’t this downright embarrassing?


Analysis of Matter


Analysis of Matter



What is the general nature of concepts of matter? How are such concepts to be analyzed? Is there a general nature or only a plurality of concept-types? Ryle wrote a book called The Concept of Mind(note the uniqueness implied by “the”), arguing that mental concepts are generally dispositional in form; what would a book called The Concept of Mattercontain? I will begin to answer this question by considering the concept of motion (someone could write a book with this title too), a concept vital to physics. So I am concerned with the analysis of matter-in-motion: how do we conceive of matter-in-motion, and how should we conceive of it? What is the “logical structure” of this concept? This question is not to be distinguished from the question of what motion is—or what it is for a material object to move. What is the logical form (conceptual analysis) of, say, “The earth moves”?

Immediately we are confronted by a difficulty, because there is controversy about the nature of motion. Some say it is absolute and some say it is relative (I say it is both, but we will get to that). We don’t need to settle the question for present purposes, since we can consider my question under either assumption. So suppose it is relative: motion only makes sense against the background of a plurality of objects, consisting in relative change of position. Then we can say that motion statements are relational in form: roughly, “the earth moves” means “the earth changes position relative to some object x”. The object in question may be indefinitely distant from the object said to move, so motion is not a local property of an object (the motion of the earth is usually referred to the sun). This is not apparent on the face of the statement we are analyzing, but that is not generally any objection to an analysis. We say, then, that the predicate “x moves” means “xmoves relative to y”. I shall say that the concept of motion is an object-introducingconcept, meaning that it refers us to an object not initially supposed essential: it is as if we can’t speak of xmoving unless we are first introduced to another object y. We can’t speak of motion in isolation but only in the context of a system of objects. Motion is essentially relational. To put it differently: motion is notlocally supervenient; it depends on what is going on in the environmentof the object in question. It is not internalto the object that is said to move. It is not an individualisticproperty. We need to be externalistsabout motion, recognizing that motion only occurs in a certain context—it is object-dependentor object-involving. The moving object is only so in virtue of being embeddedin world in which other objects exist that confer motion on it. The state of motion of one object incorporatesthe state of motion of other objects.

I have put the point in these ways because I want to explore an analogy between motion and mental content. According to a dominant tradition, motion was conceived as an inherent property of an object, intrinsic and internal. An object could be in motion even though no other object existed. But a counter-movement arose that questioned this idea: motion is something that essentially involves other objects, even remote ones. Similarly, there was a tradition that located mental content within the subject, so that what you mean or think is independent of anything in your environment: it is a matter of your brain or your inner subjective state. But a counter-movement arose that questioned this idea: content is something that essentially involves other objects, even remote ones. Thus we are treated to twin earth cases and other ways of demonstrating the object-dependence of mental content. The environment fixes content—as it fixes motion. Externalism about meaning and motion became received wisdom. And these doctrines were intended to capture the actual character of our concepts, which had previously been misunderstood. As the slogan goes, “meanings are not in the head”; and neither is motion “in the object”—it’s in the relation betweenobjects. In my terms, the concepts of meaning and motion are object-introducing concepts. That is their logical structure—what they logically imply. Thus all the characterizations that are applied to the mind can be carried over to matter-in-motion: externalism, anti-individualism, non-locality, non-supervenience, relationalism, environmental determination, object-dependence, etc. We thought that motion was internal to objects, part of their inner nature; but now we see that motion lies in the connection between one object and another, a matter of their external relations. The concept of motion is therefore a concept with an internal complexity that extends beyond its initial appearance—dyadic not monadic, two-factor not one-factor. Note, particularly, that it characterizes a fact that extends across space to possibly remote objects, and indeed brings in every object in the universe. It is not just a property of an isolated object doing its thing locally, sublimely unconcerned about everything else. It isn’t like shape or mass or atomic structure. It is more like size or length or being up or down: things have these attributes only relative to other things not intrinsically.

One might think that the relational analysis only works if we accept relative motion not absolute motion. But that is not quite right, because so-called absolute motion is not really absolute: it is motion relative to space, conceived as eternally static and at rest. As Newton understood it, the motion of a body occurs against the background of an unmoving spatial manifold: space stays where it is while objects pass through it. So all motion is relative to something, though not to other material bodies. This something, however, is highly local, being either contiguous with the moving body or pervading its volume. So motion is relative but local on this conception: moving throughan enveloping space. And what it is relative to is of a different nature from the moving body itself—space not being a kind of matter. So the concept of motion relates the moving object to a surrounding entity—viz. space—relative to which it moves; it is still a relational entity-introducing concept (I say “entity” not “object” because space is not a material object in the style of the relative theory of motion). Logically, then, the two views are not that far apart, despite the difference of ontology. A truly internalist view of motion would suppose that motion is entirely intrinsic to the object, not even relative to space. Thus this kind of absolutist would insist that even if the surrounding space did not move relative to the object the object might still be moving: for both the object and surrounding space might bothbe moving! Only if we suppose space to be necessarily at rest can this possibility be ruled out, but even then the following counterfactual might be true: “Ifspace were to move along with an object, that object would still be moving”. That is, the concept of motion allows for the conceivability of motion without change of relative position with respect to space. This makes motion super-intrinsic—independent even of space (as presumably shape is: things are not triangular relative to their surrounding space).

Here our analogy proves helpful. Consider a super-internalist who holds not merely that mental content is independent of the environment but also is independent of the subject’s brain and inner subjective state. This internalist holds that content is completely intrinsic to concepts themselves and is not dependent on anything outside of it—not the brain and not the subject’s subjective experiences. He might maintain that the mind is not the brain but an immaterial substance, and that we could vary a person’s subjective state and keep his concepts constant. For example, we could vary his senses and their phenomenology while not changing what he thinks and means: his concepts are not supervenient on his brain states or sensory states. They are supervenient on nothing but themselves (and possibly the immaterial substance). The usual kind of internalism supposes that the independence concerns only the external environment, but this extreme kind of internalism takes concepts to be independent even of states internal to the subject (not including concepts themselves). Thus we have externalism, internalism, and super-internalism (“intrinsicalism”); and similarly we have three views of motion—relativity to remote objects, relativity to space, and relativity to nothing save itself. That last view may not be plausible—it may not even be coherent—but it exists as an option that someone might adopt. After all, geometric properties are not defined relative to space: a circle is not circular only in relation to non-circular space, whatever that may mean. In any case, the two leading contenders for the nature of motion both regard it as fundamentally relational—much as mental content is regarded as fundamentally relational. Reflection in both cases has persuaded us that a superficially monadic concept is really a dyadic one. In the case of the relative theory of motion the extra object can be remote from the given object, while in the case of the absolute theory (so-called) it is as proximate as could be. The absolute theory should not be saddled with the idea of completely non-relative motion, which makes dubious sense; instead it is a question of whichentity motion is relative to and where that entity is located. The absolutist might say, “Of coursemotion is relative, only not to remote objects but to surrounding space!”

But which theory is true? I will not attempt to adjudicate that question; I will merely note that both could be. That there is such a thing as change of relative position there can be no doubt, and if we choose to call that motion (not unreasonably), then relative motion exists. But it doesn’t follow that no otherkind of motion exists: maybe there is absolute motion as well. Objects could move relative to each other andrelative to space. If I say to you, “Don’t move till I get back!” I don’t intend to blame you for your motion as the earth moves; I mean relative to the room you are in. But I can also talk about motion with respect to space and mean precisely that (rightly or wrongly—rightly in my view). Thus we have two concepts of motion that coexist in our conceptual scheme, and hence two types of conceptual analysis.[1]They vary in their ontology but they are similar in logical form. Accordingly, we recognize two types of property when we use motion words, so we conceive of matter in two different ways: bits of matter change relative positions, but they also change their relation to space—they are capable of doing both. It follows that our concepts of motion have different analyses. This is analogous to the claim that we have two concepts of content, wide content and narrow content, which can coexist. Both are legitimate and useful, though they are differently defined and serve different purposes.

Do all concepts of matter fit this pattern? I have already suggested that concepts of shape or configuration don’t: here there is no submerged relationality, whether remote or proximal–internalism rules. Geometric concepts are not covertly object-introducing; they are self-enclosed and just as they appear. I think the same thing is true of the concepts of mass and charge: these are not defined relative to some environmental variable—we would not be right to be externalists about these properties. They look like dispositional concepts, and as such refer to interactions with other things; but the same thing is true of all dispositional concepts, mental or physical. No one is surprised by this kind of relationality; by contrast, it comes as something of a revelation to discover that motion is relative (it is somewhat similar with size and length). Motion is a bit like color in this respect: we start off thinking color is intrinsic to objects and then are surprised to find that it depends on relations to perceivers. Whether a given object is red depends on whether otherdistant objects (i.e. perceivers) see it as red; color isn’t written into the object considered in itself. So it seems that we have three types of physical concept in our repertoire: intrinsic (shape), dispositional (mass and charge), and object-introducing (motion and size). There is not a single homogeneous type; physics is made up of three distinct concept-types with three different kinds of analysis. It would be pleasant to report that psychology is likewise made up of three such types, and arguably it is[2]; in any case, conceptual heterogeneity holds in the case of the science of matter. This is a result in the conceptual science of science.


Colin McGinn

[1]Imagine a possible world stipulated to contain both sorts of motion: it contains an absolute space with respect to which objects move, as well as the more humdrum kind of relative motion. Then inhabitants of that world would needtwo concepts to cover the facts. It seems to me that in our world we have two sorts of concern to which talk of motion answers—practical and theoretical, to put it briefly—so we naturally employ two concepts. The case is somewhat like the concepts of weight and mass. Put tendentiously, one kind of motion might be designated realand the other apparent.

[2]There are mental states with content like beliefs and desires, which are object-introducing; there are mental traits like irascibility and generosity, which are dispositional; and there are occurrences like being in pain or feeling moody that are non-relational and non-dispositional.