Drumming Tutorials

Let me give this more prominence: my demonstration of two new drumming techniques on Youtube. Just go to “Colin McGinn drumming tutorials” on Youtube. My drumming is a bit ropey but you will see the lessons I’m trying to impart.

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Memes, Behavioral Contagion, and the Zeitgeist

 

 

Memes, Behavioral Contagion, and the Zeitgeist

 

 

I want to bring these three concepts together to create a meme that will be contagious and contribute to the zeitgeist.[1]First a quick introduction to our principal players: a meme is an idea or action that spreads analogously to the gene; behavioral contagion is the process whereby the actions of some members of a group are copied by other members of the group; the zeitgeist is the sum of all ideas and patterns of behavior prevalent at a given time in a culture. For example, a meme may be a melody or a catchphrase or a fashion; behavioral contagion occurs when yawning spreads from one person to another or mass hysteria grips a mob; the zeitgeist could be the belief system of medieval Europe or the mind-set of industrial capitalism. I want to say that memes are transmitted by behavioral contagion to form the zeitgeist: that is the basic structure of cultural (ideational) formation. I will generalize the concept of behavioral contagion to include not just behavior but also attitudes and ideas—psychological contagion.[2]Emotions can be propagated through a group as well as actions. The notion of contagion is taken from epidemiology: ideas can spread like a disease caught by social contact. Ideas can “go viral” in the sense that they leap from one mind to another, as bodies are invaded by a virus, leaving their mark as they disseminate. Thus the meme is the unit of transmission, psychological contagion is the method of transmission, and the zeitgeist is the totality of items transmitted. The three concepts all belong together.

We can take the gene as our basic model. The gene is the unit of inheritance, the focus of natural selection, and the driver of embryogenesis; it is fundamental to biology. As we know, it consists of DNA molecules—a certain type of physical structure. The gene is transmitted across generations, passing from one organism to another, somewhat like a germ (indeed biologists call this transmission the “germ-line”). Thus genes have the power to combine in one organism and spread to others. They are “contagious”. Inheritance is therefore the analogue of behavioral contagion—the way items replicate and multiply. Genetic transmission is a copying process just like the spread of fads and fashions, theories and obsessions. There is also the so-called gene pool—the totality of genes characterizing a species at a given time (along with the mega gene pool that includes all the genes on the planet at a given time[3]). This is the biological zeitgeist—the analogue of the “Spirit of the Times”. Thus we can map our three concepts onto concepts drawn from genetics: gene and meme, inheritance and psychological contagion, gene pool and culture pool. This provides a theoretical framework for thinking about cultural formation (as theorists have observed). What I am adding is the completion of the analogy to include means of transmission and to the sum-total of what is transmitted (psychological contagion and zeitgeist, respectively).

There is an abstract theoretical structure here: a replicating entity, a method of transmission from one host organism to another, and a repository of all the items capable of such transmission. Memes and genes are special cases of this abstract structure. Are there any other domains in which the structure applies? Written language appears to exemplify it. Words are the replicating units, which combine into larger units (phrases, sentences); writing is the means by which words are disseminated through the population; and libraries are the totalities that result from this dissemination. Words pass from one mind to another by a process of copying (e.g. “To be or not to be”) and books contain totalities of words. Thus we have word units, word transmission, and word pools. Reading and writing (and publishing) are the means by which words propagate and multiply and fill libraries. Indeed, inverting the analogy, we can describe the genome as a library of genetic verbiage, and embryogenesis as a process of “reading” the books of this library. Words produce copies of themselves by being transmitted between people; and a dictionary is a compendium of all the words of a language at a given time (a “lexeme pool”). As there is a spirit of the time, so there is a biosphere of the time, and a language of the time: replicating units that get transmitted through a population. And these three types of “pool” can have a characteristic shape at a given time—say, a religious shape or a dinosaur shape or an eighteenth-century British shape (see Thackeray and Austen). Certain words and styles of speech can be in vogue, or a certain type of organism dominant, or a particular system of thought communally received. These can mutate and be selected for or against, yielding to new formations (e.g. scientific thought, mammals, contemporary American English). Different domains have different categories of zeitgeist and different units of transmission, but the broad structure is common to all—replicating units, a means of spread, and a currently existing totality of favored items.

Is there anything else that exemplifies this structure? Yes: commodities, products, artifacts, bits of technology, machines. I mean to include a broad range of items here, ranging from motorcars to furniture, clothes to life-styles, food to computers. Things that can be bought and sold: these too can be analyzed in the tripartite way outlined. Take computers (or their parts): these are the units, the economic system is the way they are propagated, and the collection of them at a given time is the technological zeitgeist. The units are manufactured and sold, and they form the state of technology at a given time (the zeitgeist shifted when Apple came along). Behavioral contagion explains their widespread adoption. They are selected for or against in the marketplace. They reflect a given stage of technical and business evolution. Books fill libraries as genes fill genomes; commodities fill warehouses in the same way (and homes and offices). Genes, memes, words, and products: all are subject to the same overarching structure, the same logic. If products can’t be replicated or can’t be distributed, they won’t survive in the marketplace—just like genes or memes. Reproduction and transmission are essential, as is intrinsic quality (lousy TVs are as bad as lousy genes or lousy ideas). And the state of contemporary technology (in the broad sense) reflects the state of the world at that point in time—products come and go, as civilizations do, or animal species, or words. The zeitgeist is perishable and may be superseded by a superior zeitgeist (there are plenty of extinct zeitgeists). Thus we can subsume the business world under our general schema. The entrepreneur is swimming in a sea of replicators, contagion, and time-bound constraints—just like the biologist, the librarian, and the historian of ideas. Survival depends on navigating these waters, and it’s good to know what sea you are floating on and how the current flows. The successful entrepreneur needs to be aware of the conceptual structure that underlies and shapes his or her activities.[4]

 

Col

[1]The literal translation is “time-spirit”; apparently Hegel preferred “Geist der Zeiten”, i.e. “Spirit of the Times”.

[2]Behavioral contagion belongs with other forms of social influence such as suggestibility, conformism, imitation, social facilitation, copycat behavior, and the like. What I want to emphasize is the more or less automatic absorption of social trends whereby something comes to permeate a population without any rational deliberation. It is sub-rational, below the radar, and sometimes insidious. Often it occurs by the release of inhibition triggered by an aberrant individual, as in copycat shootings or suicides. At the other extreme we have the general adoption of a particular accent. The human mind seems especially susceptible to this kind of subliminal influence. Memes need it to get off the ground and colonize a population—mere reproducibility is not enough. The channel must exist as well as the replicators that flow through it.

[3]The cosmic gene pool would be all the genes existing in the universe.

[4]I intend this to be the first of a series of essays about the theoretical model described, with special reference to the business world.

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Against the Argument from Design

 

Against the Argument from Design

 

I have a parakeet, Emma, who developed a rather nasty infection about a year ago. Her feet became encrusted with some horrible-looking growth and her beak was discolored and deformed. I took her to the vet who diagnosed a parasite quite common in parakeets (but only in parakeets)—a tiny mite that lives in the feet and beak. A series of injections cured Emma of this ailment by exterminating the invading parasite. This made me think about the argument from design. That argument celebrates the beauty and ingenuity of design found in plants and animals, and argues that only an intelligent designer could explain this excellence of design. It’s like finding a watch in nature and inferring the existence of an intelligent and mighty watchmaker. But don’t parasites put a crimp in that argument? Who would design a creature susceptible to what Emma went through? I don’t mean ethically (though that is a question); I mean rationally. Isn’t it just bad design to make something so vulnerable to breakdown—why not create a parakeet that can’t be hijacked in this way? Suppose the watchmaker constructs a watch that is vulnerable to invasion by a common fungus that clogs up the works when it would be perfectly possible to build in a device that keeps the fungus out. Wouldn’t that be a better design? It is simply unintelligent to design a watch with such a flaw. True, the parakeet itself exhibits excellence of design, but making it the prey of a parasite is a design weakness. It is not that the designer can’t avoid such a flaw because it is an inevitable side effect of good parakeet design; it would be perfectly easy to keep the parasite at bay (after all, no other bird suffers from it). It looks like sloppy workmanship, sheer oversight, rank incompetence. It would be reasonable to infer that there wasno intelligent designer, given the lack of intelligence displayed by the alleged design product. Of course, we know that to be the case, given Darwinian theory—this is just a case of evolved inter-species competition. But what is striking is that the argument from design overlooks such failures of intelligent design, concentrating instead on traits that are good for the animal and beautiful in themselves. There is nothing good or beautiful about the deformed beak and feet suffered by Emma—if that were intentionally installed by a designer, we would think he or she an exceptionally incompetent designer (assuming good intentions). So really the argument from design proves that that there isno intelligent designer of nature—just as Darwin teaches us. From good design we might infer an intelligent designer (except for the alternative explanation provided by Darwin), but from bad design we can only infer the non-existence of an intelligent designer such as God is supposed to be. We might try to refurbish the argument to deliver only sometype of designer, albeit an inept and careless one; but clearly that would not get us to the conclusion envisaged by the classic argument from design. If God designed Emma in such a way as to be susceptible to the mite that plagued and deformed her, he is not the God we had supposed him to be. He is a watchmaker who should be banned from the watchmaking profession. Even if we didn’t have Darwin’s theory to fall back on, the argument from design is therefore flawed on its own terms; if anything it proves that nature is unintelligently designed.[1]

 

Colin M

[1]Of course, that is just what it is: the process of natural selection is not an intelligence-driven process. It may mimic intelligent design in some respects, but if you look deeper there are signs of the lack of intelligence everywhere (e.g. human anatomy).

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Doomed

Doomed

 

I’m getting the distinct impression that we’re doomed. I can feel it in my bones. First, philosophy in America is doomed; indeed, it is now more or less defunct (relative to earlier times). Once the older generation dies off in five to ten years we will be left with a desert of mediocrity and infighting, which will probably invite institutional elimination (no one will want to study it to start with). Second, democracy is doomed: it was never well thought out to begin with and has obvious structural weaknesses. Already it is fraying and fracturing (Trump, Brexit, China), and young people are no longer the hope for redemption (see Euphoriaand the general state of the Internet). Third, the human race is doomed by its stupidity and selfishness (climate change, nuclear war): there is no way the people of the world will make the sacrifices they need to in order to avert catastrophe. It’s only a matter of time till global warming leads to all-out war, not to mention the eruption of simmering conflicts. Fourth, the planet is doomed—at least many animal species are. The rate of species extinction is already alarming and will only increase; this will lead to ecological catastrophe on a grand scale. Some species will probably survive, but planet earth will be a much-reduced place. This to me will be the greatest tragedy. I see in human nature as it is manifesting itself today an unprecedented level of hysteria and foolishness, coupled with moral blindness and sheer greed. Once evil gets a grip it is hard to stop it, till the final collapse puts an end to everything. It takes a lot to create something, but destruction is easy.

 

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Truth-Value Gaps and Meaning

 

Truth-Value Gaps and Meaning

 

 

Sentences exhibiting truth-value gaps would appear to pose a significant problem for truth-conditional semantics. Such sentences evidently have meaning, yet they are neither true nor false. In this respect they resemble non-indicative sentences such as imperatives. But imperatives can be handled by adopting a parallel concept like obedience conditions and proceeding in the usual way.[1]How do we deal with sentences like “The king of France is bald” or “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously” or “All my parakeets are asleep” (said when I have no parakeets). These sentences are as meaningful as any, yet they lack truth-value.[2]And there are infinitely many of them, as many as there are sentences with truth-value. Should we conclude that Tarski-style semantics for them is impossible? They don’t even have falsity conditions, so how could they submit to a recursive definition of the kind Tarski showed how to provide? We understand such sentences—our linguistic mastery encompasses them—and we also appreciate thatthey lack truth-value, so how can truth-based semantics apply to them?

It is an interesting fact that there is no simple predicate capturing the condition of being neither true nor false, so theorists adopt the makeshift “gappy”, or we could stipulate a use for “vacuous” applied to whole sentences (as in “vacuous names”). For convenience I will abbreviate “neither true nor false” to “NTF”, so that I can say that a sentence sis NTF if and only if p, where pis some sentence in the meta-language yet to be specified. The question is what that sentence will be. For truth we simply repeat the sentence of the object language (or a translation of it), for falsehood we prefix the sentence on the right with negation—what do we do for “NTF”? What we need is a necessary and sufficient condition for the semantic predicate “NTF” to apply. It seems fairly obvious what this should be: sis NTF if and only if it is not the case that either por not-p, where pis (or translates) s. For example, “The king of France is bald” is NTF if and only if it is not the case that the king of France is either bald or that he is not bald. That is, the law of excluded middle doesn’t apply to the sentence in question. If there is no king of France, he can’t be either bald or not bald, so a sentence affirming that he is bald is neither true nor false.[3]Notice that the condition on the right hand side is not meta-linguistic, so it resembles the usual disquotational conditionals made famous by Tarski. We could say that “snow is white” is made true by the fact that snow is white, “snow is black” is made false by the fact that snow is not black, and “The king of France is bald” is made neither true norfalse by the fact that he is neither bald nor not bald. Similarly, it is not a fact that colorless green ideas sleep furiously or that they don’t, so the sentence stating this is neither true not false. When a speaker understands such a sentence she knows that the facts don’t give it a determinate truth-value, and her understanding is displayed by the biconditional enunciated. We have the usual mention-use pattern of classical truth theories, but the right hand side doesn’t just repeat the left—it provides a more complex condition. The same is true for falsity, because there we have to add negation. Not all semantic biconditionals are “homophonic”.

Employing this basic format, we can provide recursive clauses in the usual manner.  Thus “pand q” is NTF if and only if both pand qare NTF; “por q” is NTF if and only if either por qis NTF[4]; “not-p” is NTF if and only if pis NTF. To deal with quantified sentences we introduce the notion of a “true of” (satisfaction) gap: the predicate is neither true nor false of a putative object (such as a French monarch). The reference of the description is neither bald nor not bald, since there is no such reference. Compare “Vulcan revolves”: the putative planet Vulcan neither revolves nor fails to revolve, so it doesn’t satisfy “revolve” or dissatisfy it. Thus we can apply the standard Tarskian apparatus to the concept of a truth-value gap, mutatis mutandis. We can therefore provide a recursive disquotational definition of the predicate “NTF”. We could call the form of this definition “Convention NTF” and require that for any sentence of the object language such a meta-language sentence be derivable. Thus we have Convention T for truth, Convention F for falsity, and Convention NTF for neither truth nor falsity: the first simply repeats the sentence, the second introduces negation, while the third deploys negation plus disjunction. For “snow is white” to be true is for snow to be white, for “snow is white” to be false is for snow not to be white, and for “snow is white” to be neither true nor false is for snow neither to be white nor not white. Thus we bring sentences exhibiting truth-value gaps within the fold of Tarski-style theories—not by subsuming them under the concept of truth but by extending the apparatus beyond that concept. We might call this generalized truth-theoretic semantics.

It is a question whether every sentence has an NTF condition, not just those that are actually neither true nor false. Do we, in understanding “snow is white”, grasp under what conditions it would be neither true nor false, as we grasp its truth conditions and its falsity conditions? We grasp this for sentences that are NTF because we recognize their “gappy” status, but do we also grasp it when we know that there is nothing gappy going on? I rather think we do: for we grasp what it wouldbe for them to be NTF. I know that “snow is white” would have a truth-value gap ifsnow were neither white nor not white—though I also know that it is actually one way or the other. If you ask me under what conditions the sentence would be NTF, I can tell you—if there’s no fact of the matter about the color of snow (as there is no fact of the matter about the color of Hamlet’s hair). So NTF conditions are pervasive in the understanding of language: they are part of what every speaker (tacitly) knows. Every sentence has conditions under which it wouldbe NTF, say by the subject-term lacking a reference (and this is always an epistemic possibility[5]), and this is something speakers grasp at some level. So a semantics for the predicate “neither true nor false” is applicable everywhere. We all grasp something of the form: “snow is white” wouldbe neither true nor false if and only if snow was neither white nor not white (possibly by not existing). NTF conditions are as much grasped as truth conditions and falsity conditions.

 

C

[1]I wrote about this in my 1977 paper “Semantics for Non-Indicative Sentences”, Philosophical Studies.

[2]I am going to assume the existence of meaningful sentences with truth-value gaps without arguing for it. My question is what happens to semantics ifwe accept such sentences. I will also not discuss all the possible examples that have been offered: vague sentences, future contingents, empty names and demonstratives, ethical sentences, etc. What I propose will carry over to these cases.

[3]It is worth noting that empty descriptions can also occur in imperative sentences such as “Kill the king of France!”, so we have obedience-value gaps as well as truth-value gaps. Then too we have “Bring me some colorless green ideas!”

[4]Actually this clause is too simple given the case in which pis true and qis NTF, since this will make the disjunction come out true. We could append “unless pis true” to cover this case, but for simplicity I will stick with the condition as stated in the text.

[5]In the extreme case in which we are brains in vats and our noun phrases are empty of reference, truth-value gaps will be ubiquitous, and hence the correct semantics for our language will be largely NTF semantics.

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Belief, Desire, and Action

 

 

Beliefs, Desires, and Actions

 

Consider actions in which the agent uses a piece of technology (in a broad sense) to achieve a desired goal: using a car to get to a certain place, using a cell phone to communicate, taking an umbrella out in the rain, using a hammer to knock in a nail. It is natural to analyze the psychological background of such actions as involving (a) a certain desire and (b) a belief about the means to achieving that desire. For instance, the agent wants to get to a certain place and believes that driving a car is the best means to achieve this goal. There is a combination of belief and desire at work, which leads to the performance of the action. Theorists of action have seen in this kind of case a general analysis of action: any action is caused and explained by the presence of an antecedent pair of a desire and a belief, where the belief specifies the means to be adopted to satisfy the desire. The desire alone will not prompt or predict the specific action performed—an accompanying belief is also required; nor will the belief alone suffice to elicit the action—an accompanying desire is required. A desire to stay dry will not prompt you to take an umbrella unless you believe that umbrellas keep you dry, and the belief that umbrellas keep you dry will not prompt you to take one unless you desire to stay dry (you might feel like getting soaked today). Thus there arises a certain doctrine about the psychological basis of action: any action requires the presence of a desire anda belief—both are necessary conditions (and together possibly sufficient) for an action to occur. This is supposed to be an interesting and unique fact about action and its explanation, suggesting a certain kind of “holism” about psychological explanation. Let’s call it the “Combination Thesis” (or “CT” for short): the thesis that all actions are consequences of a belief-desire pair acting in concert. Thus we arrive at something called “belief-desire psychology”, taken to be a general format for psychological explanation: any explanation of action requires the specification of a desire and an instrumental belief concerning how best to satisfy that desire. Action is the result of something cognitive and something appetitive operating together.

I propose to question this widely held picture. I think it arises from overgeneralizing one sort of example of action—the kind that involves means-end reasoning. In particular, I think that some actions occur without any instrumental belief and some occur without any desire (in a natural sense of “desire”). That is, there are one-factoractions—just a belief or a desire operating on its own. The Combination Thesis is false, except in a limited range of cases; it is not fundamental to action as such. Let us consider a very simple kind of action: flexing one’s index finger. Suppose an agent has a desire to flex his index finger and does so: what means-end belief accompanies this action? On the face of it, none: he didn’t believe that a certain device was a good means to bring about the desired result. The agent didn’t think that contracting certain muscles in his forearm would be a good means to flex his finger—he simply did it. And even if such a thought had entered his head (maybe he specializes in hand physiology), there would be the question of whether thataction needed a belief about means for it to be performed (say, initiating efferent nerve impulses from the brain). No, the action simply resulted from a desire, with no means-end belief involved (no technology is being exploited). It is the same for swallowing, breathing, walking, swimming, etc. You don’t believe that swallowing is a good way to get food into your stomach when you eat, or that putting one foot in front of the other is a good way to walk—any more than animals do. You just do it. It is absurdly intellectualist to suppose otherwise. It is not as if you have an array of options available for getting food inside you, such as inserting it through your navel, and you choose one of them as the best means in the circumstances. Chewing and swallowing are just nature’s way of getting fed, not a cunning plan you have devised for achieving satiation.[1]You have a desire for food, so you do what comes naturally, as you do when inhaling oxygen into your lungs. In general, movements of the body (often called “basic actions”) are not preceded by means-end reasoning: a person never moves her body by reasoning about the best means of doing so. That is, basic actions are not subject to CT. Raising my arm is not something I need an instrumental belief to perform. If I want to raise it, I raise it, without consulting possible means. Thus the explanation of a basic action has the form, “Xdid Abecause he desired to do A”. It is the same for adult humans, infant humans, and most animals: basic movement is caused by a desire not by a desire-belief combination. There is simply no need for belief: the mind and body are just wired (innately or by learning) to translate desire into action. The right thing to say is that where there is means-end reasoning there is a belief corresponding to the means that combines with a desire, but in more basic cases there is no such belief, since there are no such means. A specific feature one kind of action has been overgeneralized to apply to all action. Indeed, whenever CT does hold there is always a basic action for which it does not hold, i.e. a movement of the body. This is even clearer for purely mental action such as calculating in the head: if I add two numbers in my head, I don’t have an instrumental belief about how best to get the result I want. I want the answer and I’m wired to get it (I know arithmetic); I don’t need any superintending belief about the best means of getting it. Another way to put the point: in tactical practical reasoning agents have instrumental beliefs, but most action is not of a tactical kind. What psychologists call sensory-motor activity is generally not tactical or instrumental or belief-driven; it is automatic, programmed, not thought out.

But is desire always necessary for action? It depends what you mean by “desire”, which tends to be a philosopher’s term of art (sometimes glossed as “pro-attitude”). It seems right to say that the agent needs to view the action favorably (certainly not unfavorably), but there are ways of doing that that are not really cases of desire. Suppose you believe that you have a certain desire but you don’t really have it (you have been brainwashed into the belief): won’t you still be inclined to do the thing in question? Then your action will be motivated by a belief abouta desire, but not by that desire—you apply to medical school, say, because you have been brought up to believe that medicine is your calling (in fact, it’s opera). This would be a case in which you act on a belief without the corresponding desire, though you can be said to view the action favorably. And isn’t it generally true that desires influence actions only if they are recognizedin some way? How could desires of which you are completely ignorant figure as causes of action (even unconscious desires need to be recognized by the unconscious executor)? Their existence has to be registered or acknowledged. So something like belief has to be added to them to produce action; and then we have the question how much the belief contributes to motivational force. This gets pretty messy, psychologically. The neat picture of the pristine desire and its helpful belief companion starts to seem too simplistic. Motivation has (or can have) a more complex and variable structure.  You can do something simply because you have a sudden urge to do it, and you can also do something because you believe you desire to (though you don’t)—in either case you lack one of the components postulated by CT. So there are now three types of case to consider: (i) belief and desire in combination, (ii) desire alone, and (iii) belief alone. Some theorists have argued that moral motivation consists of nothing but a moral belief; we need not take a stand on that issue to accept that beliefs aboutdesire can play a motivational role. Being under the impression that you have a certain desire can act as a prompt to action, whether you have that desire or not. Maybe the only general thing we can say is that the action has to look desirable to you—there is something to be said in favor of doing it. This can take the form either of desire plus belief, or simply desire, or believed desire (or maybe just belief that the action would be morally good). Animal action will largely consist of the second category; agents with advanced practical reasoning will do a good deal of the first kind; the third kind will be restricted to those individuals deluded or confused about what it is they really want. There is no psychological structure common to all cases. The psychology of action is not monolithic.

Suppose someone suggests that action is what is caused by need, so that to explain an action we must specify what need it serves. This theorist is perhaps impressed by the actions of certain animal species of a somewhat primitive type. The natural response would be that this is too simple, too parochial: not every action is prompted by a biological need, and actions sometimes require practical reasoning involving instrumental belief. The need theory applies to some cases but certainly not to all. Well, belief-desire psychology, as currently understood, is rather like that: it fits some cases well enough, but it is too uniform and simple. There are a variety of different kinds of motivational state, ranging across a wide spectrum. In some ways the theory is too complex (because of basic actions) while in others it is not complex enough (because of cases like false beliefs about one’s desires). Thus reasons for action are of different types, not always resolving into the two-factor model of CT. Pluralism about reasons is the indicated position.[2]

 

Colin McGinn

[1]Sub-intentional actions, such as rolling one’s tongue around one’s mouth or tapping one’s foot nervously, seem particularly unsuitable to the belief-desire treatment: what instrumental belief do I have when my tongue is rolling around pointlessly? Just as the heart has no instrumental belief when performing the act of pumping blood, so many of our more automatic actions are free of cognitive supervision.

[2]All reasons may be causes, but the causes can vary as to type. Desires themselves can come in many types, from the moral to the animalistic. Nor is there less variety in the concept of belief. It is variety all the way down.

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Subjectivity and Symbolism

Subjectivity and Symbolism

 

 

Mechanism in physics was a unified theory of the physical world, positing only bodies in space and contact causation. Newton’s mechanics undermined this unity by postulating action at a distance, thus introducing another kind of causation. Electromagnetic theory undermined it further. Things don’t always operate by impact and reaction. In the case of psychology mechanism took the form of behaviorism, specifically stimulus-response psychology: the stimulus makes its impact and the response is the elicited reaction. The organism is just another body in space being pushed around by impinging forces. The reflex is the perfect exemplification of this theoretical framework: stimulus strikes body, body reacts (e.g. the patellar reflex). The discovery of conditioned reflexes held out the prospect of extending this basic mechanistic model to all behavior—psychology is thus the study of environmental impacts and the resulting motions of bodies. This too is a unified theory, employing a single conceptual apparatus to characterize everything the mind does and is. It is a unified theory that lasted much longer than the mechanism that was undermined by Newton and Clerk Maxwell. Mechanism about the mind persisted long after mechanism about the body had met its demise. Mechanism in physics replaced mysterious teleological conceptions of physical action (Aristotle), while mechanism in psychology replaced mysterious dualist conceptions of the mind (Descartes): but the former kind of mechanism succumbed to the mysteries inherent in Newton’s discoveries, while the latter kind soldiered on.

There were always rumblings against psychological mechanism, despite its dominance during much of the twentieth century; but the rumblings reached a crescendo during the latter part of the century. For convenience I am going to locate these dissenting voices in the persons of Thomas Nagel and Jerry Fodor; and I am going to summarize their contributions in two words—“subjectivity” and “symbolism”. By now this is a very familiar story, so I won’t spell things out. In brief: Nagel drew attention to consciousness, deploying the phrase “what it is like”, and insisting that there is more to the mind than physiology; Fodor likewise resisted physical reductionism and argued that the mind works symbolically, coining the phrase “the language of thought”, and suggesting that the mind is a computational system. Sensations are the paradigms of the subjective; thoughts are the paradigms of the symbolic. Some scuffles ensued regarding the scope of these basic categories, mainly having to do with whether everything symbolic is also subjective, and vice versa; but a consensus emerged that the mind has both sorts of property. It felta certain way and it representeda certain way. Thus people described conscious experience as consisting of qualia while thought processes were described as consisting of symbols: phenomenology and syntax, respectively. Two approaches to the mind thus came into prominence (one might cite Husserl and Chomsky as the father figures of these developments—or going back further, Brentano and Turing). One approach emphasized the first-person perspective, introspection, and lived experience; the other emphasized language (natural and formal), grammar, and symbolic processing.

The result of these innovations is not a unified theory; it is a disunified theory.[1]The general assumption is that the mind has two aspects, or consists of two sorts of faculty, or is made of two sorts of thing. True, it is subjective in some parts of its being; but also true, it is symbolic in other parts of its being. A theory of mind must therefore recognize a fundamental duality in what the mind is and how it operates. Metaphors have arisen to capture this duality: on the one hand, the stream or river of consciousness,[2]the mosaic of qualia, the theater of the mind; on the other hand, the mind as a computer, thought as inner speech, reasoning as calculating. It is not supposed that qualia are units of computation, and it is not supposed that words in the language of thought are qualitative contents of consciousness. The ontology is quite different, as is the role assigned to the entities postulated. One might say that subjectivity is an analogue phenomenon while symbolism is a digital phenomenon—continuous versus discrete, fluid versus segmented. The chief characteristics of mental symbolism are infinite productivity and syntactic concatenation, while the chief characteristics of mental subjectivity are not described in this way but are thought of a kind of flowing or pulsating (those metaphors!). Feelings don’t combine like words to generate an infinite array of syntactically structured strings, but neither do mental symbols afford a rich subjective life. These ontologies exist side by side, but they don’t interpenetrate—they don’t integrate. There is no unified theory of the subjective and the symbolic. [3]

Here we may be reminded of the current situation in physics, and indeed I think the comparison is apt. The theory of gravitation and the theory of elementary particles form different theories that are not unified or integrated. Indeed, the two theories operate with very different principles and laws. Yet the macro world and the micro world are not separate disjoint worlds; they overlap. What we have is a unified reality and a fragmentation of theory—not a happy state of affairs. There are some who detect actual tensions between the two theories, if not outright contradiction. Similarly, we have two theories of the mind, also not integrated or unified, and apparently about different things. For example, we can approach a given conscious thought in two ways: as a subjective state of consciousness imbued with a characteristic phenomenology, or as a symbolic structure functioning in a computational process (mostly unconscious). Yet we are looking at the same thing—just as a macroscopic object is the same thing as a congeries of microscopic objects. Surely there must be some way to bring these two descriptions together. But where is it to be found? Ideally we would be able to take a subjective description and derive from it a symbolic description, or vice versa—we would see these descriptions as aspects of a single reality. But there is a chasm between them, a dualism withinthe mind. What have qualia and symbols got to do with each other? Couldn’t you have one without the other? Is one more basic? What makes a symbol have a subjective character, and what makes qualia have symbolic properties? The two seem to stare at each other across a vast divide. It is not as if we have a computational theory of subjectivity or a phenomenological theory of symbolism—whatever either of those things might be.[4]The quantum world looks alien to the gravitational world and the subjective world looks alien to the symbolic world, but these worlds must be parts of a seamless whole in some way. In particular, an adequate theory in psychology would integrate the subjective and symbolic perspectives.

I am not saying it can’t be done; I am only saying that we don’t presently know how. The concepts are lacking; the theory is fugitive. At least mechanism avoided this kind of theoretical disunity. Starting with the idea of a reflex (innate and hardwired) behaviorism tried to generalize to cover all aspects of the mind, employing a single conceptual apparatus. That was a dismal failure—an absurd leap of faith. But the apparatus that replaced it is radically bifurcated and dubiously connected; we don’t even know how far the subjective and the symbolic overlap. It would be different if the two theories dealt with different components of the mind—say, subjective theory with sensations and symbolic theory with thought—but that is far from being the case, since sensations occur in perceptual and cognitive processes and thought is imbued with subjectivity. Subjectivity and symbolism exist in the mind in intimate and inextricable connection. So there really oughtto be a unifying theory, but we don’t have any idea of what it might look like. What would be nice is some explanation for how mental symbols are necessarily infused with subjectivity. Spoken symbols have the phenomenology associated with their sensory modality (mostly hearing), but symbols in the language of thought are not sensed in any way, so their phenomenological aspect must have some other source. Granted that the language of thought is innate, is it that the phenomenology of thought is coded into the genetic basis of its lexicon and syntax? The mind reels. Consciousness and computation are not separate aspects of the mind, existing is isolation from each other. A mind (a human mind) is a conscious symbolizer: it symbolizes in the mode of consciousness (as well as unconsciously). Its nature is subjective symbolism or symbolic subjectivity.

I have no suggestions to make about how to integrate these two aspects of mentality; I merely wish to point out the lacuna. As in physics, we live in an era of theoretical fragmentation with respect to the mind, following upon the heady unity promised by a general mechanism. Perhaps the future will bring the kind of theoretical unity that made mechanism so attractive to our ancestors, perhaps not.

 

Colin McGinn

[1]Functionalism undertook to demonstrate theoretical unity across everything that dwells in the mind, but it succumbed to an onslaught of objections, which I won’t repeat.

[2]Also consciousness as like a mysterious flame or a translucent rainbow or a type of veil or a genie drawn from a lamp or a shimmering force-field over the brain or steam from an engine—and no doubt others.

[3]It is worth noting that psychophysics has never been a symbolic theory, any more than reflexology has been. The law-governed dependence of sensation intensity on stimulus intensity is not a computational process—the sensory systems don’t deducesensation intensity from stimulus intensity. Rather, there are psychophysical reflexes underlying the laws of psychophysics. We have no tendency to invoke a “language of sensation” to explain the facts of psychophysics.

[4]No one writes papers entitled “The Logical Form of Consciousness” or “A Subjectivist Theory of Universal Grammar”. Those sound like category mistakes.

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