Sketch for a General Theory of Human Psychology




Is it possible to come up with high-level organizational principles of human psychology? The task has been attempted before–as in associationist psychology, classical conditioning theory, and computationalism. The hope is to discover general principles that cover a wide variety of psychological phenomena, thus unifying what appears disparate. In this paper I make another attempt at this project, by integrating what we have learned since Chomsky introduced his theoretical framework, also adding some emphases that may be less familiar. I will be operating at a high level of abstraction.

I shall consider four types of competence: linguistic, logical, geometrical, and social. By linguistic competence I mean the ability to produce and comprehend grammatical sentences of one’s native language (or the cognitive structure that underlies this ability). By logical competence I mean the ability to reason logically, i.e. according to valid rules of inference—to follow trains of reasoning produced by others and to produce such trains oneself. By geometrical competence I mean the ability to classify and manipulate geometrical forms—to tell triangles from squares, to grasp geometrical relations, to master school geometry upon suitable instruction. By social competence I mean the ability to grasp social relationships and dynamics, to read the minds of others, to understand social groupings (family, village, nation). No doubt these competences break down into sub-competences, with a good deal of inner complexity. Thus we have phonetic, syntactic, and semantic competence; we have competence in deductive and inductive logic, in modal or deontic logic, and so on; geometric competence can include basic sensori-motor tasks such as sorting objects according to shape, as well as theoretical grasp of abstract geometry; social competence will involve a whole host of abilities employed in social interactions, predicting the behavior of others, and moral evaluation (e.g. knowing what a promise is and that breaking promises is blameworthy). In these four competences we see huge areas of the human mind at work, with enormous sophistication and complexity; so if we can discern general features of the operative systems we will have discovered something very general about the mind. My question is whether we can unify these four competences by articulating general organizational principles, thus providing a synoptic picture of what is distinctive to the human mind. More broadly, I want to know what the mind must be such that it is capable of the competences in question—its most general properties.

A number of questions can be asked about these four competences, as follows. What are the universal features of each competence, i.e. what features do all humans share that possess such competences? What are the linguistic universals, the logical universals, the geometrical universals, and the social universals? What are the specific principles involved in each competence? What do they have in common, if anything? How are the competences expressed in action (performance)? To what extent are the underlying principles innate? What does the schedule of acquisition look like? How did the competences evolve? Are any of them more basic than the others? Might any derive from the antecedent presence of others? How do they interact with each other? How are they realized in the brain? What are their characteristic pathologies? To what extent are the operative principles conscious? We think of each competence as psychologically real and we ask questions about their internal structure, their origins, their interactions, their physical realization, their overt expression in behavior, how basic each is, and so on. We try to do justice to their distinctive properties, so that our model of each competence is not impoverished or distorted. We take them for what they are, instead of trying to shoehorn them into a preconceived theoretical box.

What I now propose to do is list the most general features the four competences have in common. Many of these will be quite familiar, though my interpretation of them may not be. I am looking for universals acrossthese domains, not within them. The mind will then be characterized as the system that has these inter-competence universals: that is, there are abstract principles that are given specialized form in each specific competence. There is an abstract operational schematism that gets exemplified in linguistic, logical, geometrical, and social competence. Let me emphasize that I am offering only a sketch here, with little detail or empirical confirmation.


(i) The first feature goes by several names: generative, recursive, combinatorial, compositional, creative, infinite. The point is usually applied to linguistic competence—in language we can produce a potential infinity of sentences based on combinations of primitive parts. Sentences have structure and our mastery of language reflects that structure. But the same basic point applies to the other three competences. Logical arguments also have structure and our grasp of them is a projection from mastery of primitive modes of inference. A complex chain of reasoning is a composite of smaller bits of reasoning. Also, we grasp abstract rules of inference that apply to infinitely many potential cases. Grammatical rules generate well-formed sentences; logical rules generate valid arguments. In geometry we have figures composed of primitive parts—lines, planes, solids. Infinitely many figures can be produced by iteration of basic geometric components. We demonstrate a grasp of these principles of combination in our ability to build complex objects using simpler objects of certain shapes—as with basic building-block operations (architecture is a more sophisticated expression of our geometrical competence). In social cognition we grasp social units as combinations of simpler elements (people and other animals): thus we grasp the concepts of family, friend, village, pack, herd, marriage, nation, and so on. We understand how individuals combine with others to form certain kinds of social unit. We also understand social relations, such as promising, contracting, befriending, lying, cheating, and so on. Our grasp of morality is part of this competence, which is about right and wrong in social relations. We function as we do socially only because we have this kind of social cognition.

It is customary to express the point by saying that we can analyzecomplex structures into parts—the wholes are not taken as primitive. I would add that we are also capable of synthesis, as we fuse the elements into wholes. In reception we analyze; in production we synthesize. We grasp the basic units as elements of a potential synthesis—words, propositions, shapes, and individuals. So we see the parts in relation to each other and to constructed wholes. We see the elements according to their roles—what they do in relation to other elements (“if xwere combined with y, we would get z”). Words combine into sentences, propositions combine into arguments, shapes combine into geometrical structures, and people combine into social formations. In each case the competence involves grasp of part-whole structures, where wholes can in turn become parts, and so on indefinitely (“recursion”). This abstract principle is therefore universal to the four competences: it is the general idea of a generative system.


(ii) The second feature I shall call segmentation. By this I mean that the mind conceives the elements of a combination as discrete entities sharply distinguished from other entities. Thus we conceive of words as clearly individuated, as genuine units with their own identity; and similarly for propositions, shapes, and individuals. We do not regard these elements as intrinsically fuzzy or continuous with other elements. It is a well known fact that the acoustic signals of speech are physically far less well defined than what we hear, far more continuous than heard speech (as revealed by a speech spectrograph); we experience these signals as discrete units (“phonetic segmentation”). We actively segment the stimulus. Much the same is true of the visual stimulus: we segment the ambient array into sharply defined objects. Thus we impose segmental structure onto the world—we insist on sharply demarcated units. No doubt this aids the mind-brain’s combinatorial proclivities, for now we have nicely defined units with which to work. It isn’t the world that foists the segments on us; rather, we foist segments onto the world, in order to facilitate our psychological operations. In any case, in each of our four domains the mind works with a basic “vocabulary” of discrete elements—things than can function as manageable segments of a larger whole.


(iii) Thirdly, we have the notion of rule-governed principles of combination. Not just anything goes; you have to play by the rules. Words must be combined according to grammatical rules if the output is to be successful. Here we encounter modal notions: you mustcombine words thus and so and not just higgledy-piggledy. Similarly, you mustinfer conclusions from premises according to valid logical rules, and not just anyway you feel like. And there are geometrical rules too: you can only construct a triangle by combining lines in a certain way; you can only build a house by setting bricks of certain shapes one upon another. Breaking such rules produces monsters like Escher drawings or round squares. Thus we have the notion of geometrical necessity. It is much the same for social arrangements: there are rules about what social formations are permissible, as with marriage or employment arrangements. Thus we employ the idea of social obligations and social freedoms—what is required by social rules and what is not. Deontological ethics is precisely a theory of social rules. To be sure, the rules are of different kinds in our four cases, but in each case we have the idea of rule-governed combinations—those that obey the rules and those that do not. Putting this together with the first two features, we can assert the following: the abstract schematism involves combining discretely segmented units into synthetic wholes according to precise rules of combination. We operate with rules in each of the four areas and we recognize what constitutes obedience to a rule and what does not.


(iv) The next feature is a corollary of the previous one: each of our four domains incorporates a prescriptive or normative dimension. That is, notions of right and wrong can be correctly applied to the domain. There is a right way and a wrong way to combine words, determined by the grammatical rules; nonsensical combinations are deemed undesirable; and you can be criticized for flouting the rules of grammar. I don’t mean what is called “prescriptivism” about usage; I just mean basic rules of sentence formation. Split infinitives and dangling participles are fine, but it is bad to produce a string like “Barking it’s sing John car very”. You are expected to meansomething by what you say. It is goodto speak meaningfully. In the case of logic, prescriptivism is clearly right: you oughtto reason logically, and illogical reasoning opens you up to warranted criticism. We use logic precisely in order to evaluatearguments. In geometry too there is a right and wrong way to draw an equilateral triangle and, as Plato observed, we have the idea of the perfect triangle, which no drawn triangle ever quite attains. Indeed, Plato’s entire conception of geometry sees it as a repository of value—those perfect unchanging Forms that elevate us in their very contemplation. In the case of social competence we need look no further than ordinary morality, with its many prescriptions about conduct in relation to others (“stealing is wrong”). Obviously morality is the domain of right and wrong. In each area there is heavy infusion of value judgment—of a sense of rightness and wrongness, perfection and imperfection. It is not all value-neutral description but is shot through with approval and disapproval, praise and blame. And we act as we do becauseof these normative judgments—clearly in the case of morality but no less so in the other cases. We try to draw the perfect triangle, we make an effort to reason logically, and we are ashamed to make grammatical blunders (not that we often do, save in pathological cases such as aphasia). We are guided by the governing norms of the competence, respectful of their demands. We see things under normative conceptions. Here the human mind is saturated with notions of value and it proceeds accordingly. Thus the rules are not experienced as arbitrary but as conducive to genuine values: it is a good thing to speak grammatically, commendable to reason logically, admirable to draw triangles as close to the ideal as possible, and right to act morally. Human psychology is steeped in evaluations of many kinds (though this is not something you would guess from typical behaviorist psychology or even computational psychology: I will come back this point).


(v) The four competences, as so far characterized, are quite abstract in their general mode of operation: they must be described in highly abstract language in order to bring out their commonalities. We are accustomed to the abstractness of grammatical rules (a point often made by Chomsky), and the abstract nature of logic is also well attested, as are the abstractness of geometry and moral rules. But now we perceive a higher level of abstractness, as we discern what these competences have in common: the idea of a process that is generative, segmental, rule-governed, and norm-guided. In principle, this very abstract structure could be implemented in many ways, as it is in the four competences considered here; it is neutral with respect to more specific expressions. Maybe in Martians the creation of art is subsumed by a system with this abstract character, which appears not to be the case for humans; maybe in other terrestrial species so-called “language” does not fall under the general schematism I am sketching (dolphins, bees). We might think of the schematism as a kind of “super-competence”—an abstract structure that lies behind and makes possible the specific competences we have discussed. Where this super-competence came from, and how it was specialized into the four specific competences, we don’t know; but it is conceivable that it pre-dates them and has some entirely alien origin (as it might be, our ability to negotiate trees in our dim arboreal past[1]). In any case, the deep architectural principles of the human mind are extremely abstract—multiply adaptable schemas, not specific interpreted contents. Specific contents get slotted into the abstract schema, but it has a nature and psychological reality that transcends its particular exemplifications. Just as universal human grammar is abstract relative to particular human languages, so the general schematism is abstract relative to universal grammar. Thus the schematism can show up as the basis of various types of competence: that is the picture that is emerging. The four competences are no doubt quite modular, but it may be that they stem from something universal—something with a higher level of abstractness. We can try to investigate the nature of this abstract schematism as such, formulating as best we can its general properties.


(vi) The competences are all cognitive. That may seem like a triviality, but it is not. The word “cognition” refers specifically to knowledge, not mere belief or other mental representations. In each area we knowthings to be so: we know that a given sentence is grammatical because we know the rules of grammar; we know that a certain inference is logically valid (we don’t just conjecture that this is so); we know what a triangle is and that no perfect triangle has ever been drawn; we know that stealing is wrong (we don’t merely have a tentative opinion about it). So in our sketch for a general human psychology we need to make it explicit that we are dealing with states of knowledge—the concept of knowledge becomes a central concept for psychology. We are characterizing systems of knowledge, properly so-called—not just “internal representations”. The study of our mere conjectures about remote history or deep space may not be a study of systems of knowledge, given our ignorance in these areas; but we are not similarly ignorant about what is grammatical or logical or triangular or morally right. The output of the abstract rule-governed generative schematism is knowledge in the most straightforward sense in these cases.


(vii) It will be useful to have a short label for the schematism I am describing, so let us call it the “forms and norms” schematism. Then we can express the next feature by saying that the forms and norms schematism is doubly universal: first, it is universal across human beings—everyone is equipped with it, short of devastating brain pathology; second, it is universal across a variety of human competences, being shared by (at least) the four competences I am describing. It is doubtful that it is possessed by other species, except perhaps in a very rudimentary form; and it may not be shared by all human psychological capacities, especially those inherited during evolution from earlier types mind (such as the ancestral fish that led ultimately to us). Basic sensori-motor skills and innate reflexes don’t have this kind of abstract structure. It is an interesting question whether our musical ability is a forms and norms system (music theory makes it seem so, but mere receptivity to beat and melody seems too primitive). It does seem that what is most distinctive of the human mind centrally involves a full-blown forms and norms structure: generative, segmental, rule-governed, evaluative, abstract, cognitive.


(viii) Our language faculty appears to incorporate both a conscious and an unconscious component: we are conscious of sentences as grammatical and we can articulate a good deal about the rules of grammar, but it is also true that the competence includes an unconscious level—which is why we find it hard to formulate universal human grammar. Much the same seems to hold of the other three competences: we reason logically not by consciously formulating the laws of logic but by having an implicit grasp of them (it took Aristotle and Frege to bring these implicitly grasped laws to explicit awareness); our understanding of geometry is largely implicit until we start studying the subject in school (recall Socrates and the slave boy in the Meno); and much of morality is not consciously formulated but instinctively acted upon. So we can say that the forms and norms schematism has both a conscious and an unconscious representation in the mind. Perhaps the underlying abstract structure once had a purely unconscious representation, but once it became exploited by more specific competences its character became more conscious to us—though it still remains largely unconscious. It is certainly true that we do not, in the ordinary course of life, experience ourselves asengaging in abstract operations with the character I have tried to describe; instead the schematism just whirs away inside us, quietly going about its work.


(ix) Chomsky has long urged that the structures of universal human grammar are innate. What about the other three? Without going into the matter in detail, it seems safe to assume that much the same is true of them: our logical faculty is an innate component of the human mind, as is our geometrical faculty, and evidence is accumulating that moral psychology has an innate basis. If the underlying forms and norms structure is itself innate, which seems overwhelmingly likely, then it will not be surprising if the faculties it grounds are also innate. These areas of knowledge are not like our knowledge of history or geography or what is fashionable this season—all these being clearly acquired. But the four competences have a strong claim to innateness, for reasons that are now well appreciated. This dovetails with the previous point, since what is innate is likely to be unconscious: the schematism is specified in our DNA and grows in the brain during the course of maturation, only becoming conscious along the edges, so to speak. Again, we see a commonality that confirms the idea that we are here dealing with a psychologically real internal structure, hard-wired and universal.


I have now enumerated, briefly and dogmatically, the common features that I see as holding over the four competences I am considering. I now want to articulate further what the internal character of the forms and norms schematism is, as well as point to how adopting this perspective alters the way one sees human psychology. The general character of the schematism will be familiar from work done by philosophers, psychologists, and linguists over the last several decades, variously formulated and with varying emphases. I have merely brought these ideas together, while imparting my own spin. A useful metaphor is that of a network: the elements of a network exist in relation to other elements of the network, united by linking relations. Thus we have the conception of language as consisting of a vast network of signs that link with each other in various way, coming into proximity with each other to form phrases and sentences, according to fixed rules. In logic we think of propositions as laid out in logical space, linked by logical relations such as entailment or inconsistency, with rules about what propositions can be inferred from what. Our psychological structure as logicians has to mirror the objective logical structure in some way, so that we can move around it cognitively. In geometry the metaphor of a space become literal, since geometrical forms are conceived as regions of space, carved out in a particular way. Figures can be conjoined with other figures, or laid over them, fitting or not fitting. The spatial world looks like a huge mosaic of geometrical figures, regular and irregular (hence Plato’s doctrine that the essence of the material world is geometry). And social groupings are another kind of network: patterns of connection between people, linkages, aggregations, hierarchies, and collectivities. Each person has a place in this “social mosaic”, and what we are partly depends on our social role (cf. “semantic role” for words). It is all a matter of systems of discrete elements that combine and recombine according to rules, generating endless new wholes, with a heavy dose of the normative (this one good, that one bad). Accordingly, we need in the mind representations for the basic units, representations for rules of permissible combination, and a device to evaluate the outcomes. The mind needs to be able to segment and amalgamate, and it needs a grasp of the point of this mental work. The basic form of a mental operation is thus: segment-amalgamate-evaluate (SAE). The human mind is (among other things) an SAE device.

The first two parts of SAE have been well recognized: the mind must be able to analyze and synthesize, to break down and build up. It cannot build up unless it has first broken down—for it needs segmented elements as the building blocks of constructive operations. If there were no words in sentences, we would have to invent them. Given that we want to have sentences, and given that we are finite creatures, we had better find a way to analyze sentences into finitely many constituent and re-combinable parts. Similarly with the visible world: we need a finite stock of visual primitives if we are to make sense of the huge variety of visual scenes the world can present. We also need something like fixed persons to make sense of social life: we need the idea of the same person being a member of many groups or moving from one group to another. That is, we need the idea of an atom if we are to have the idea of a molecule. And where would we be without the notion of determinate shapes and sizes and combinations thereof? But once we have the elements, neatly segmented, we also need rules to combine them—we must be able to synthesize according to rules. Thus we arrive at the idea of the mind as a machine for analysis and synthesis that incorporates rules. This is all pretty orthodox today, even if it sounded revolutionary fifty years ago.

But where is evaluation in all this? It tends not to get mentioned. So I want to carve out the rightful place of evaluation in the SAE model; I want to give it its due. And my first point is simply that the mind is also a normative machine: it evaluates things. Sometimes this is acknowledged but then scanted: the normative dimension is regarded as essentially epiphenomenal. Yes, we engage in evaluations—of sentences, arguments, shapes, and social actions—but none of that makes any difference to anything. For how can values influence facts? How can the grammatical rightnessof a sentence play any real role in what we do with it? This is no more possible than moral values playing a causal role in the world. And here we reach the nub: mental causation cannot be influenced by values. So if the mind is indeed steeped in values, as I suggested, then these must be epiphenomenal, and hence hardly worth mentioning. The causation must be ordinary mechanical causation, of the same kind that we find in the purely physical world; but then there cannot be any such thing as evaluative causation.

What should we say about this line of thought? First, there is confusion in it. The claim is not that values themselves figure in mental causation but rather that judgmentsof value do. It isn’t that we produce a grammatical sentence because of its havingthe objective value of being grammatically correct; we do so because we takeit to be grammatically correct. Compare: I refrain from stealing something not because it iswrong to steal but because I deemit wrong to steal. But these normative attitudes are not themselves values—they are psychological facts. So why can’t our attitudes towards values causally influence our actions and our mental operations? Why did I go into a particular restaurant? Because I believed they serve good food there and I wanted good food (not as a result of the goodness of the food considered independently of what I believe and desire). This is no more problematic than acting on any other kind of belief and desire. So there is nothing metaphysically to prevent us from crediting the mind with a host of evaluative attitudes that influence the way it works. We could even postulate an unconscious Grammar Evaluator that issues verdicts on strings of words put together by our grammar module, determining which strings will actually get uttered. It says things like “This one good” or “That one bad”. The judgments it makes could have causal powers in respect of what sentences get uttered. And the same could be said for our logical faculty: it issues normative verdicts on arguments in process and can facilitate or halt that process. At any rate, there is no argument derived from the metaphysics of causation to prevent such a hypothesis. Psychological causation by attitudes with evaluative contents seems no more problematic than other sorts of psychological causation. It is true that some theorists are allergic to the use evaluative notions in scientific theories, but their objection cannot stem from considerations about causation. And it is surely obvious that human beings are deeply evaluative creatures—they are always going on about right and wrong, perfection and imperfection, praise and blame.

This rejoinder is fine so far as it goes, but I don’t think it goes quite far enough. For I think that the objective rightness involved ispart of the overall psychological story: we can truly say that certain outcomes occurred becauseof an objective rightness in things. For example, it is perfectly true to say that I don’t produce verbal strings like “Barking it’s sing John car very” precisely because that sentence is grammatically defective (bad, wrong). It is also true to say that I don’t steal things precisely because it is wrong to steal: that is, the fact that it is wrong to steal is whyI don’t steal. There are true “because” statements linking values with psychological facts, as there are true “because” statements linking physical facts with psychological facts; and I think this is an important point about human psychology (it is doubtful that animals can be made subject to such value-mind explanation). So I want to bring values into psychology proper, as part of the SAE package. In order to explore this question fully I would need to go into the entire metaphysics of causation and explanation, which I do not propose to do here. I will say simply that the mechanical model of causation has long been obsolete even in physics (gravity is not a kind of mechanical contact causation). I would favor a more Aristotelian approach to causation, in which causation is made correlative with why-questions and is linked closely to explanation. So while it is true that values cannot literally make physical contact with minds (the two cannot touch) they may yet figure in answers to why-questions. If we ask why I don’t produce nonsense sentences, then the answer is that they are patently ungrammatical and nonsensical: it is becauseof that fact that I don’t utter them. It is an entirely verbal question whether we should speak of this as “causation”. What matters is that it tells us why things happen. We can have perfectly true and informative “because” statements of the kind in question. Indeed, there are true law-like general statements of the type, as in: “Normal speakers don’t utter ungrammatical sentences simply because they areungrammatical”. In the same way we can say “People don’t steal simply because stealing is wrong”. The wrongness of stealing explains why people believe it is wrong to steal, and that belief explains their non-stealing actions. Truth explains belief (which is not to deny that other factors can come into play). This strikes me as simple common sense; and it is important to acknowledge that what happens in people’s minds can have this kind of explanation. Thus a comprehensive psychology will include values as part of its explanatory framework. To put it differently, the human mind is sensitive to values, unlike other animal minds: we think in terms of values and values are part of the explanation of our actions and mental processes. To bleach value out of the study of mind is to miss this important fact, producing a misleading model of how things work (orthodox computationalism is guilty of this). In a slogan: the mind crunches values as well as symbols.

Let me emphasize how modest this claim really is. It says no more than that we are aware of values because of their existence and that this awareness affects what we do. Thus we are aware that it is good for sentences to be grammatical or for arguments to be valid, and that awareness affects our actions. This is whywe put together only grammatical strings and respect valid inferences and keep our promises. Psychology therefore needs to build values into its conceptual framework, simply because the human mind is a value-sensitive device (unlike the merely physical world or the botanical world or most of the animal world). It is also a generative, segmental, and rule-governed device: these are all just facts about the kind of thing it is. Each aspect of SAE must be fully and robustly acknowledged.

Further questions arise. If this is the essential nature of human cognition, how did it arise in evolution? What pre-adaptations made it possible? How does it develop in the child’s mind? Are there other mental faculties with the same general structure? If so, do they derive from any of the four we have considered, singly or in combination (physics, arithmetic, chess, etc)? How is the SAE schematism implemented in the brain’s neural hardware? The last question is especially difficult when it comes to value: for how do brains and values connect? But none of these questions is easy, once we take on board the full reality and abstractness of the forms and norms schematism and its place in the mind’s overall landscape. This is why what I have offered here is little more than a sketch, an aspiration. Perhaps we can be comforted by the reflection that these are at least (and at last) the right questions.



[1]This view is not as silly as it sounds, given the actual conditions under which the intelligence of our ancestors evolved. If the brains of our ancestors evolved to cope with life in the trees, they would need to develop mental representations of the branching structure of trees, which would be necessary to both sensory and motor competence. That would be the most important part of the environment to gain competence in negotiating. Once the geometric structure of trees was mastered it could be generalized and applied elsewhere, so that the tree schema might underlie other forms of competence: for example, social and family relations might be modeled on the structure of a tree. And of course we do speak of “branches” of a family and indeed of “family trees”. Could the tree-like structure of grammar itself be a transformed application of the early mental representation of trees? How could human cognition notbe shaped by the arboreal environment in which our ancestors evolved and lived for millions of years? The brain of the gibbon must above all be a tree-adapted brain with a finely tuned understanding of the properties of trees; and gibbons have evolved a sophisticated form of language. Intelligence is apt to be niche-specific. The genes are geared to the particular environment in which they exist, with respect to both body and mind. Thus tree genes must be part of our genetic inheritance.


Moral Responsibility




Is Moral Responsibility Logically Possible?



There is a well-known argument purporting to show that human beings are not morally responsible, i.e. appropriate recipients of praise and blame, which goes as follows.[1]What you do results from the way you are—your psychology. But the way you are is fixed by heredity and environment—nature and nurture. You act as you do because of the influences on your psychology. But you had, and have, no control over those influences: you are not responsible for your genes and upbringing. These are given to you independently of your will. But if that is so, how can you be held responsible for what you do, since it results from factors beyond your control? Your criminal tendencies are determined by what you were born with and the environmental influences brought to bear on you; they are not the upshot of your will (decision, intention). But they are what incline you to criminal acts—others may not be so inclined. It is just your bad luck that you are the way you are. You can’t be blamed for it, any more than a falling tree can be blamed for crushing you. You can’t help being the way you are. Thus you are not morally responsible for what you do.

There is much to be said about this argument, but I want to focus on a specific question: Does it show that human beings are not morally responsible or that nobeing couldbe morally responsible? Ourdesires are fixed by heredity and environment, and hence are not our responsibility, but is that a logical truth? Let me first note that the question generalizes to prudential responsibility: we also take ourselves to be proper objects of praise and blame according as we behave prudently or imprudently, but isn’t this determined by factors outside our control, namely our genes and upbringing. So how can we be held responsible for whether we behave prudently? Do we think animals are proper objects of prudential praise and blame? Do we say to the cat, “It was foolish of you to climb that tree—you have only your self to blame”? But why are humans different given that they too have their psychological nature fixed by causal factors beyond their control? It may be said that humans can resist the desires they are given, but how do they resist except by the psychological capacities also given to them by nature or nurture? Whether you have a strong will or a weak will is a matter of the constitution you are given by nature and nurture and is not “up to you”: it comes from having the right genes or the right upbringing. Some people are more prone to addiction than others, but this is not something they have chosen; it is just part of their given nature, and not subject to praise and blame. So we are not prudentially responsible and also not morally responsible. Responsibility presupposes the causa sui(self-causation, self-determination), but humans are not self-caused; they are caused by factors outside themselves. Even if we are partly self-created, we are not wholly so, and thus anything about us that is not self-created (most of it) is not a candidate for assessment of responsibility, moral or prudential.

This argument seems powerful in the case of human beings and other animals, but does it show that all possiblebeings lack responsibility? One might wonder about God: can God not be praised or blamed because he doesn’t choose his own nature (assuming that he doesn’t)? If God is just made the way he is, actions resulting from his nature are not up to him; they simply flow from his given nature (e.g. being all good). But this seems like a suspect result: is the notion of responsibility so flawed that not even God can count as responsible? If God performs a virtuous act and we want to praise him, should we refrain from doing so on the ground that God’s nature is not the result of his will? And how could God cause his own nature except by already having some sort of nature, in which case he is not responsible for that? Isn’t the argument proving too much? Consider a species of being with the following property: they decide what desire set to possess. They are like beings in the Original Position in that the desires they will have in life are not fixed by factors outside their control but by their own decisions: no heredity, no environment, just their own acts of will. Suppose some choose a virtuous set of desires, being attracted by the idea of sainthood and dazzled by the Form of the Good; while others choose less elevated desires, feeling the appeal of a life of wine, women and song, which they think will be a lot more fun than a life of bloodless virtue. They then set out on their lives and act according to the desires they have chosen: saints and sinners, respectively. Now when the question of praise and blame arises they can hardly reply by asserting that their desires were not up to them, since they were. They chose them: their desires were self-determined. These beings choose the personality type they possess. So they can’t dodge the question of responsibility by claiming non-self-determination of desires. So on the face of it moral responsibility is logically possible.

This doesn’t help humans, of course, since their desires are not self-determined (except perhaps marginally), but at least it shows that the concept of responsibility is not hopelessly confused and contradictory. We have discovered empirically that human desire has certain sorts of cause, which disqualify humans from responsibility for their actions, but the concept itself is viable and applicable to possible beings (maybe God, my imaginary species). But it may be objected that this is wrong because a decision about what desires to have must issue from otherdesires over which the agent has no control. I said that one group chooses virtuous desires while another group chooses more worldly desires that might well lead them into temptation: but on what basisdid they so decide? Mustn’t they have had certain second-order desires to go for one set of first-order desires rather than another? Here is where things get messy and murky, philosophically speaking. Is it really logically necessary that such second-order desires must exist in order for a decision about first-order desires to be possible? Couldn’t my beings simply opt for one set of desires and not the other at random or on a whim or because of a considered judgment about what sort of life they deemed more valuable? A philosophical theory of motivation is now driving the argument not the empirical facts of human nature. So my point is to make a firm distinction between thisargument and the argument that applies to human beings: that latter argument seems solid given the facts of human nature, but the other argument begs many conceptual questions about the nature of motivation. It threatens to turn into this argument: Every psychological being must have a nature that is not determined by the decisions of that being, since all decisions rest on prior psychological facts; sono psychological being can ever be responsible for its actions. Whether that argument is sound or not—or well-formulated enough to be debated—it is not the same as the argument that moral responsibility is not possible in a being whose (first-order) desires do not result from its will. Intuitively, the possible beings I described are responsible for their actions in a way that we are not, and it takes a fancy philosophical argument to undermine that conviction—the idea that it is an a prioriconceptual truth that all decisions rest on antecedent desires (in some sense of “desire”). The important point is that the possible beings can’t excuse themselves from blame for bad actions by insisting that their desires have causes beyond their control, since they chose them. Suppose they can at any moment revise their desire set simply by choosing to do so, but they refuse to make that choice—they choose to keep on having desires that lead them to bad acts. How can they defend themselves by claiming that they can’t alter their desires? They can; they just choose not to. They keep succumbing to an addictive desire that is causing havoc in their life while they could simply wish the desire away (as we cannot): they can’t plead that the desire is beyond their control. They are the exact opposite of us so far as will and desire are concerned; so it can’t be that we are on a par when it comes to responsibility. Intuitively, they areresponsible for their addictive behavior, while a human baby born with a stubborn addiction to heroin is not. In the sense in which humans are not responsible, they are responsible; so the concept has possible application. This explains why we have the concept, given that it doesn’t apply to us: we simply had mistaken ideas about the etiology of human desire (as opposed to a confused concept), and now we realize that human desire originates in facts outside of human will—we can’t in fact choose to revise our desires (or our proneness to give in to them). We have discovered the empirical psychological fact that human psychology is (largely) the result of heredity and environment, and not decision in vacuo.

What undermines responsibility is the recognition that our ability to refrain from acting on desire is not something that results from choice but from factors we don’t and can’t control (genes, upbringing), but this doesn’t apply in cases stipulated to involve freely chosen desires—here the existence and force of desireissubject to the agent’s will. So we can describe coherent cases in which agents are responsible for their actions, pending some proof that even in such cases there is an ultimate lack of responsibility. In other words, it takes an abstract and rather obscure philosophical argument to undermine responsibility even in these kinds of cases. Maybe that argument could be produced, but it would require premises that exceed what is necessary to undermine human moral responsibility.[2]


[1]In recent years Galen Strawson has defended this argument, but many others have too, including Nietzsche.

[2]This essay was prompted by a remark I heard from a woman commenting on the Bill Cosby case: she said that he clearly had a psychological problem that led to his sexual assaults but that he should have sought help to get over that problem, thus implying that he may not have been responsible for the assaults but he was responsible for not seeking help to remove the desires that led to them. The same might be said of someone with a drug addiction, especially if removing the desires in question is not that difficult.


Civil War

The civil war begins today in the Senate. Just because the facts will likely never be established it is possible for either side to take exception to the other side. The bad feeling and distrust is now turned up very high.

I found  Professor Ford convincing and Judge Kavanaugh unconvincing. If they appoint him to the Supreme Court it will be a political liability for the Republicans for many years to come. They should hope that they can’t get the votes (though they can’t say this). The GOP has already discredited itself in the eyes of most voters with the antics of Trump, but appointing Kavanaugh would really turn many people against them for ever.



Pauli Exclusion and Spatio-Temporal Coincidence

I have heard it said by people who fancy themselves physicists that Pauli exclusion is the explanation for why there cannot be two objects in the same place at the same time. This is claimed in criticism of my discussion of the latter principle in my book Basic Structures of Reality. It is completely wrong and totally misunderstands the principle in question. That principle has to do with questions of individuation and metaphysical necessity not the laws of physics (see David Wiggins’ classic discussion in “On Being in the Same Place at the Same Time” in Philosophical Review 1968). Pauli exclusion has to do with quantum states not quantum particulars, and anyway does not apply to many particles (only to fermions). Those who essay this criticism are clearly ignorant of the metaphysical issues at stake.


Defining Philosophy

Defining Philosophy


It is an embarrassment to philosophers that they cannot define their discipline. It makes them look like shady operators. I propose to alleviate their embarrassment by offering a succinct definition of philosophy.

If you ask a physicist what physics is about, he will say that it is about physical reality, and you will learn what physics is. If you ask a psychologist what psychology is about, she will say that it is about the mind, and you will learn what psychology is. Similarly for geography, astronomy, botany, history, etc. But if you ask a philosopher what philosophy is about, you will not get such a straightforward answer—instead you will be subjected to vague mutterings about our conceptual scheme or incipient science or language or Being. You will rightly protest: “But what is it about?” The other disciplines can tell you what sector of reality they concern, but philosophy seems not have a specific sector to call its own—it seems to include both everything and nothing. This is theoretically unsatisfactory and bad PR. Every discipline is defined by the properties and relations that constitute its subject matter, but philosophy seems like the odd man out—the exception to the rule. What sector of reality does it take as its own? Don’t say “all sectors” because that is merely mystifying, and makes it look like it is all the disciplines added up, which it certainly is not.

It used to be said, perhaps a touch defensively, that philosophy is about concepts (or possibly the language in which concepts are expressed): it deals with the property of having a concept and with relations between concepts. The trouble with this answer is that it makes philosophy sound like psychology, and as a consequence not about the world beyond the mind. We need to say what it is about concepts that renders them of philosophical relevance. The answer might be returned: the analysisof concepts. Again, that is not entirely on the wrong track, but what kind of analysis? Isn’t analyzing psychological entities just more psychology (compare psychoanalysis). Similarly if we prefer to talk about language: what then makes philosophy differ from linguistics? What kindof analysis characterizes philosophy? The obvious answer is logicalanalysis. But this formulation describes the method of philosophy not its subject matter (imagine a physicist saying “physics is about the analysis of matter”). I propose that we make the obvious amendment: philosophy is about logical reality—as physics is about physical reality. That is the sector of reality with which philosophy is essentially concerned—the logical sector. The use of the word “reality” in this style of answer is intended to contrast the concern of the practitioner with such things as the concerns of a fiction writer: the scientist is concerned with reality not fantasy (like the science fiction writer). So the philosopher, being a sober factual type, is concerned with a certain part of reality—the part I am calling “logical”. Thus when asked what philosophy is about the philosopher can answer simply, “Philosophy is about logical reality”—as physics is about physical reality, psychology is about mental reality, history is about historical reality, etc.

Of course this short answer will not put an end to all questions, just as the comparable answer for other disciplines may well prompt further questions. We will need to say what we mean by “logical”, as the physicist needs to say what he means by “physical”. The correct answer, though not perhaps the best pedagogically, is that logical reality consists of all the relations of entailment, consistency, and inconsistency that exist. An example might help: the philosophical problem of free will concerns whether free will logically implies determinism or indeterminism. Thus we have compatibilists and incompatibilists debating the logical relations between free will and these other concepts. Some say free will rules out determinism, some say the two are compatible, and some say that free will logically implies determinism. Philosophy therefore differs from psychology and physiology when it comes to acts of will, being concerned with a logical question. Here are some other examples chosen more or less at random. Does the mind entail the body or are the two logically separable? How are sense experience and material objects logically related? Is knowledge logically compatible with non-conclusive evidence? How are mind and behavior logically related? Are truth and meaning logically connected? Do descriptive propositions ever entail ethical propositions? Does identity of reference entail identity of sense? Do modal propositions entail the existence of possible worlds? Do general terms logically imply abstract universals? Does death entail the end of the soul? Does survival of persons require identity through time? Are causation and constant conjunction mutually entailing? These questions are the stuff of philosophy and they all concern what I am calling logical reality; so our definition of philosophy looks to be on the right lines.

There can be different theories of logical reality: some say it involves concepts, some say it is a matter of words, others say that it is about reality itself (this is my position). Never mind: philosophy is about whatever logic is about. Note that I am adopting a very broad notion of logic here—certainly not restricted to standard propositional and predicate calculus. Logic in the broad sense includes any type of consequence relation—entailment in the most capacious sense (but it has to involve necessity). What is important is that this sector of reality exists and can be studied. In addition to physical objects, psychological subjects, biological forms, historical epochs, and geological strata, there is a realm of logical relations along with their relata (whatever we determine these to be). Let’s adopt for the nonce full-blooded realism about this sector: there is an objective mind-independent logical reality into which we can inquire.  Like other regions of reality it can be difficult to penetrate, presenting puzzles and mysteries, and be capable of leading us up the wrong track (some have said that our ordinary language distracts us from its actual nature). So we might want to preface our answer to the question of what philosophy is by remarking, “Well, there is something called logical reality, which is a genuine part of what there is, though there are debates about its nature…and philosophy studies that”. It might help to soften the inquirer up by saying a few words about mathematics or even logic itself (i.e. the subject of a typical logic course). But don’t spend too long on these preliminaries, just blurt it out without hesitation and in a confident no-nonsense voice: “Philosophy is the study of logical reality”. This should obviate the shady operator suspicion and pave the way for a healthy and fruitful discussion.  It is also entirely accurate.

One nice feature of this definition is that it does justice to the breadth of philosophy: philosophers talk about everything, though from a specific point of view. For everything has entailments, logic being universal. For instance, if you are investigating the logic of identity, you will be dealing with everything that exists, since everything is self-identical. This gets philosophy a reputation for being “abstract”, dubiously airy-fairy: but you should resist this idea. Philosophy has a perfectly solid subject matter, given that logical reality is real: entailment is as real as the things it relates. We investigate it by employing the faculty of reason, not the sense organs, but that doesn’t detract from its reality (compare mathematics). Reasoning is the method whereby logical relations are exposed. There is thus no objection to rephrasing our definition as follows: “Philosophy is the study of rational structure”. Logic deals with what is rational, so philosophy is concerned with the domain over which rationality operates. I prefer the blunter “logical reality” for reasons of rhetoric, but “rational structure” can be offered as a useful gloss (but beware of its psychologistic connotations). In any case, the general conception is consonant with the generality of philosophy. But this is not an indication that philosophy has no subject matter to call its own, only that its specific subject matter extends over all of reality (in this sense philosophy is a “higher-order” discipline). We might picture philosophy as lying alongside the other sectors of reality studied by the various disciplines, so that we have such philosophical topics as philosophy of history, philosophy of mind, philosophy of physics, philosophy of knowledge, etc. It is not that philosophy somehow includesthese other subjects (it is not history, psychology, physics, etc.); rather, it studies the logical relations into which these various subject matters enter. It studies, for example, the logical relations between physics and biology or history and psychology (as well as logical relations existing within those disciplines).

What are the paradigms of philosophy as so conceived? I hesitate to single certain philosophers out because that may suggest a tendentious picture of the discipline, but Frege and the Wittgenstein of the Tractatusmake good examples. Consider Frege’s apparatus of sense and reference, of objects and functions, and Wittgenstein’s vision of reality as a logical space fixed by logical language. The world is depicted as a logical structure into which we may inquire. At the other extreme we have Hegel’s dialectical theory of the logic of history, or Sartre’s investigation of being and nothingness (consciousness entails a “nothingness at the heart of being”). Husserl’s Logical Investigationsdeals with the logical structure of mental acts. Grice’s work tells us that conversational implicature does not entail logical implication. Quine assures us that a behaviorist view of meaning entails indeterminacy. Kripke contends that names don’t imply descriptions. Rawls argues that justice entails fairness. And so on. A philosopher is always concerned with what follows from what, and what does not follow. Problems arise when reflecting on our knowledge of the world—logical problems—and we strive to solve these problems by reasoning. We try to get a clear view of logical reality (whether bewitched by language or not).

Philosophy so understood is not confined to mere description. It can be revisionary, even radically so. There may be hidden implications that undermine parts of common sense or even science. There may be lurking paradoxes that call whole areas of thought into question. Such is the way of skepticism: if we examine the logical nature of knowledge we see that it is inconsistent with many of our knowledge claims—it implies certainty where none is to be had. Truth may turn out to entail its own negation, as in the semantic paradoxes. Modality may imply an unacceptable metaphysics. So logical reality may diverge from the way it seems to us in common sense, requiring revisions in our conceptual scheme (maybe free will turns out to be impossible given its entailments). Logical reality may be difficult to discern, and not what we expect: so there is nothing quietist about this conception of philosophy.

If philosophy is about logical reality, it is centrally about linkages—its focus is on connection. It wants to know how things hang together, or fail to. It is always interested in how things are related, joined or disjoined. But it is not concerned with physical or psychological linkages, but with logical linkages. In the philosophy of free will, for example, the concern is less on free will itself as on how it is related to determinism (or indeterminism)—how are these things linked? Likewise we want to know about the linkage between mind and body—whether the mind logically precludes emergence from the body or not. So philosophical acumen largely consists in the detection and articulation of such logical linkages—in seeing what follows and does not follow. That’s what you’ve got to get good at. That’s what you’ve got to be interested in. The philosopher is a linkage enthusiast, an artist of logical connection (scientist too).

It is tediously repeated that philosophy used to include the sciences till they found their independence, and that the rest of philosophy will eventually go that way, disappearing up its own success. But if what I have said here is correct, this will not happen; and it betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the subject to think that it will. For philosophy is concerned with the linkages that constitute logical reality, and no other discipline is so concerned. Just as logical reality will never collapse into other areas of reality, so philosophy will never be replaced by the disciplines that study those other areas.[1]


Colin McGinn

[1]This essay is meant to complement my Truth By Analysis: Games, Names, and Philosophy(Oxford University Press, 2012).


Believing Zombies


Believing Zombies



Could there be zombies that believe they are conscious?[1]They have no consciousness, but they erroneously believe that they do. That may seem possible if we think of their beliefs as implanted at birth or something of the sort: couldn’t a super scientist simply interfere with their brain to install the belief that they are conscious, as innate beliefs are installed by the genes? The belief is false, but that is no obstacle to belief possession. We may have an innate belief that we are surrounded by a world of external physical objects, but that belief might be false if we are really brains in vats. Similarly, zombies might have false beliefs about their mental world, supposing it much fuller than it really is.

But the matter is not so simple: for beliefs need reasons. What reason could the zombies have for believing they are conscious? The reason we believe we are conscious is that we are conscious and this fact is evident to us–without that we would not have the belief in question. If the believing zombies were to reflect on the beliefs they find implanted in them, they would wonder what grounds those beliefs—what evidence there is for them. Finding nothing they would abandon their groundless beliefs, perhaps with a shake of the head at being so irrationally committed to something for which they have absolutely no reason. Minimal rationality would quickly disabuse them of their error; they would believe instead that they are notconscious, or possibly remain agnostic.

It might be replied that consciousness is not necessary to ground belief in consciousness, only the appearance of consciousness is. The zombies have to be in an epistemic state just like our epistemic state except that we have consciousness and they have none—the appearance of consciousness without the reality. But this is contradictory, since the appearance of consciousness would have to be a form of consciousness: it would have to seemto them that they were conscious. For instance, it would have to seem to them that they have a conscious visual experience of yellow without having any conscious visual experience (of yellow or anything else). Surely that is impossible: seeming to have a conscious state is having a conscious state (of seeming). So the only reason they could have for believing they are conscious is that they are conscious, and they need areason for that belief if they are to have it stably.

Now it may be said that we are being too rationalistic about belief: people can believe things for no reason at all, without any evidence whatever. Couldn’t our zombies believe they are conscious because this is what they have always been taught or because of superstition or from wishful thinking? They want badly to believe they are conscious (it seems so undignified to be a mere zombie) and so they deceive themselves into believing it. Happens all the time: no evidence at all, but firm belief nonetheless. That sounds like a logical possibility, though it would be an odd case of irrational dogma or motivated self-deception. One problem is that irrational believers generally thinkthey have reasons for belief, even though these putative reasons look hollow and unconvincing to everyone else. They will cite these reasons when challenged to defend their beliefs. But what will the zombies say when challenged? They can’t point to anything that even appears to look like consciousness, since that would imply that they have consciousness. People whose religion requires them to believe in miracles will cite certain natural events as proof of said miracles, however unconvincing these events may be as evidence of miracles; but our zombies have absolutely nothing to point to, since the mere semblance of consciousness isa case of consciousness. Their religion may require them to believe they are conscious, but they can point to nothing that could even be interpreted as consciousness, because they have no consciousness. An appearance of miracle may fail to be a miracle, but an appearance of consciousness is always consciousness. And nothing else could provide any halfway reasonable grounds for their belief. So we are left with the idea that they believe they are conscious without even believing they have any grounds for that belief.[2]This gets us back to the case of beliefs that exist without even having any purported justification. All they can say when challenged is, “I simply believe it”. This is a difficult thing to make sense of because beliefs need grounds ofsomesort (they purport to be knowledge after all).

We should conclude that zombies that believe they are conscious are not possible. Any being that believes it is conscious must be conscious. That includes us: if we believe we are conscious, then we must be conscious. This refutes an eliminative view of experiential consciousness: it cannot be that we lack such consciousness while simultaneously believing that we have it. We cannot be actual zombies under the illusion that we possess consciousness.[3]


Colin McGinn

[1]These are zombies with respect to experiential consciousness not zombies tout court, since they are stipulated to have beliefs. The intuitive idea is that they have no conscious experience and yet they believe that they do: for example, they think they have conscious visual experiences of colors, but they don’t have any such experiences.

[2]They may have a sacred text in which it is written that zombies are conscious, despite the introspective appearances, and they may be brainwashed into accepting that text. But then the “belief” they have is really a matter of faith, since they have no direct grounds for the belief, even of the thinnest kind. They accept the text only because of their religion, not because they can offer any justification for the beliefs it recommends. They don’t really believethey are conscious, as they (rightly) believe themselves to be embodied believers. For that they need some sort evidence, even if it falls far short of what it is evidence for.

[3]Some extremists have sought to deny that “visual qualia” (etc) exist, despite our firm conviction that they do exist. But it is simply not possible to believe in such things without there beingsuch things, since they provide the only possible grounds for such a belief.



I started playing guitar at age 60 after being a drummer for nearly 50 years. Not easy. Lately I’ve been playing bass more, which combines guitar and percussion. I recently learned the bass lick in Prince’s Sign O’ the Times (quite a thrill to play that). But even more recently I took up blues harmonica, which is fascinating and doable–I recommend it. Get a good instruction book and a Hohner Blues Harp and learn to draw on 4, you won’t regret it.


Aretha Franklin

Aretha Franklin: why we love America. Donald Trump: why we hate America. I’m aiming for 76 as my expiry date. Her lack of glamor is part of the reason for her transcendence. That voice.

The TV coverage was gratifying and RESPECT accorded a good deal of respect as a feminist anthem. Fair enough, it has a political dimension, but let’s not forget the groove and the way Aretha phrases it rhythmically.