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.

Share

Reparations

The demand for reparations for the evils of slavery is often met with the argument that present-day white people are not morally responsible for the sufferings of black people under slavery. That is true, so far as it goes—no one now living is an agent of past injustices committed before they were born. That would require backwards causation! But this response misses the point of the demand for reparations. Suppose your parents stole from their neighbor’s family—they broke into their house and burgled it, taking everything that have, even cleaning out their bank account. Suppose the neighbors suffered great financial damage from this theft, from which they never recovered, which blighted their children’s lives. Meanwhile, the thieves prospered on their theft and gave their children every advantage. The result is that you are doing very well in life, but the children of the neighbors are not. Now those impoverished children ask for reparations: they want their parents’ assets back, which were wrongfully taken. They ask you to provide those reparations. It will be to no avail for you to insist that you are not responsible for the sins of your parents—you didn’t commit the burglary and subsequent financial ruin. That is no doubt true, but not to the point—which is that you benefited unjustly from the crimes of your parents. You owe the neighbor’s children the good things that would have been theirs were it not for the theft of their assets. You are benefitting from the theft from their family, and you need to give something back. It is irrelevant that you didn’t commit the original crime; you are benefitting from the ill-gotten gains of that crime, and you need to make amends. Suppose there is a particular vase that was stolen from the neighbor’s house and is now in your possession. The neighbor’s children now ask for that vase back. They have every right to it, even though you didn’t personally take it. You ought to give it back. This is entirely obvious.

Now observe that slavery is (among other things) labor theft: slaves have their labor forcibly taken from them without proper compensation. That labor builds wealth for the slave owners, which they pass on to their children, and so on down the generations. Meanwhile, the children of the slaves suffer the impoverishment resulting from slavery—notably the lack of wealth accumulation. They are victims of economic exploitation, which is a type of theft. Therefore they have the right to reparations. Roughly, those reparations should be calculated according to what the stolen labor would have been worth under non-slavery conditions. None of this depends on the claim that the current beneficiaries of past slavery are responsible for what their forefathers did in order to acquire their wealth; it is, rather, a point about theft and the just allocation of assets. You steal from a person if you exploit them and forcibly take the fruits of their labor. If the slave owners had first stolen the material assets of their victims and only then subjected them to conditions of forced labor, we would all agree that their descendants have a claim on reparations for the initial theft—but the same logic applies to labor theft. Hence the demand for reparations is morally just. It is a further question of how the reparations should be computed and distributed, and whether they would have desirable consequences.

Share

Conceptions of God

Conceptions of God

 

 

According to orthodox Christian theology, God plays three main roles: he is the creator of the universe; he acts as moral judge; and he is our divine benefactor. These roles are combined in a single entity, though they are different roles. There would be no contradiction in the roles being possessed by distinct entities. Creating the universe requires one sort of capacity, meting out justice another, and caring about human welfare another. In normal human life such roles are assigned to different people. But God is multi-talented: he can perform all three. There is some tension between the role of judge and the role of benefactor: if God decides to punish us (justly) by sending us to hell, he is not acting as our benefactor; and benefactors are not ipso factoagents of justice. He cares about us, but apparently not enough to spare us the flames of hell. A theology that invoked distinct individuals to play these roles would be more intelligible. Yet we have become accustomed to monotheism. True, God is sometimes divided into sub-gods, as with the Holy Trinity (God the father, God the son, and God the holy ghost): but it is supposed that these are somehow aspects of a single entity. How can we be sure of this? Whether there is any god is a commonly asked question, but what about the question of the cardinality of gods? Why exactly do we posit a single god?

This raises the issue of the criterion of identity for gods. Different tribes can worship different gods, and the ancient Greeks worshipped many gods, so it is not as if the concept of God logically implies unity; so why do we amalgamate the three roles I mentioned into a single being? What are the groundsfor asserting identity? Has anyone ever seen the being that performs these roles and observed that they proceed from a single source? Is there any deduction from them to the identity of their bearer? Clearly not: it looks like a dogma. Presumably there are many different types of divine ontology in logical space: three gods, twenty-seven gods, an infinity of gods. Yet we have settled on the single-god ontology (with possible subdivisions). But how are gods to be counted? We know how to count apples and humans, but how do we count gods? In Greek mythology the implicit criterion is in terms of role performed (the god of love, etc.), but in Christian theology that principle is abandoned. What is put in its place? Nothing, so far as I can see. Why exactly don’t we entertain the proposition that three different beings perform the jobs of creator, judge, and benefactor? Why not a divine committee? It can’t be because the members of the committee might disagree, because that can be ruled out by means of an omniscience clause. Is it an affront to the dignity of a god that there should exist other gods? But why is it less dignified to exist alongside other gods than to exist alone? God could certainly create other gods, being omnipotent, so why does he practice divine solipsism? He created Jesus, and angels too, so why not another god like him? Why not propose a theology in which monotheism is relaxed? Why the obsession with singularity? After all, we pray to our benefactor for help, but not to the creator of the universe, still less our stern moral judge. Don’t the three roles naturally call for different entities to perform them? Holiness need not be confined to a single individual. Isn’t the idea of a single god a holdover from the days of monarchy (there was never more than one king)? Doesn’t modern democracy fit better with a divine collective—a kind of supernatural cabinet? Isn’t there something cultish about a single unique super-being? What about checks and balances, distribution of powers, division of labor? What about an executive god, a legislative god, and a god of welfare? Isn’t there at least a possible world in which godliness is thus divided? Is it not an epistemic possibility that God is not one but many? How can we rule out discovering at the pearly gates that there is more than one god? Couldn’t we discover that God has more than one child, contrary to what we now tend to believe? Monotheism hardly seems like a certain and necessary truth. We should keep an open mind on the question.

We have a certain conception of God, though it tends to be hazy and undefined: he exists outside space and time and is not as other mortal beings. He stands apart from us in a special realm of his own, imperceptible, immaterial, and incorruptible. He doesn’t walk the streets or travel on the subway like the rest of us. Why do we think like this? What led us to conceive of god in this removed and elusive way? Suppose you had read the tales of Sherlock Holmes and took them to be reports of actual events. That is, you mistakenly think that Holmes is real not fictional. You think Arthur Conan Doyle combed police records and discovered an amazing detective who lives on Baker Street, has a friend named Dr. Watson, etc. You become fascinated by this remarkable man and want to meet him, not realizing that his fictional status precludes such a thing. Given this, you might haunt Baker Street in the hope of sighting him and making his acquaintance. However, diligent research and ceaseless surveillance fail to turn up the famous detective—he is nowhere to be found. Nor, you discover, has anyone else ever seen him. You might draw the conclusion that your initial assumption was wrong: Holmes is fictional not factual. But suppose you are too far-gone for that, too emotionally invested, so you persist in your initial belief. How then to explain the great detective’s absence from the scene? Is he just remarkably adept at eluding detection, slipping in and out of his residence on Baker Street without ever being observed by anyone? No, that is too implausible—no one could be thatelusive and yet dwell on planet earth. So you come up with a radical hypothesis (indeed a strong conviction), namely that Holmes is not as other men—he is not a concrete earth-dwelling being at all. He actually lives (if that is the word) elsewhere, in a special realm reserved only for superlatively gifted detectives—and indeed there was always something otherworldly about him. He is, you might say, a…god. That is, he is a special type of being that lives in a special place outside space and time, though he contrives to intervene in worldly affairs. Admittedly, this belief requires some reinterpreting of the Doyle texts, but it is not beyond the powers of human imagination to conceive. The reason Holmes is never seen about the place is that he is not a mortal being at all.

Clearly, this explanation, though intelligible, is not correct. You started with the false assumption that Holmes is non-fictional and then erected your theory to explain his lack of earthly presence, while you should have reconsidered your belief that he is a real person. You believed that a fictional character was real and then invented a wacky theory to explain his lack of presence in the empirical world. Couldn’t something like this be true of our conception of God? We read a text about a fictional entity and believe that entity is real (we are told as children that it is), but then we are perplexed by his absence from the observable world, so we invent a theory to explain this disparity. What elsecould explain why a real entity isn’t evident in the observable world? It’s because this entity is not ofthis world, but of another world. There are two possible explanations of God’s absence from the empirical world: (a) he is a fictional character and so doesn’t exist in reality, and (b) he isn’t a fictional character and exists in a special unobservable realm. If our transcendent conception of God arose in the way the transcendent conception of Sherlock Holmes arose, then we can see how we came to conceive God in the way we did—it is a natural response to his lack of empirical presence. I am not claiming that this ishow it arose, only that ifit did our manner of conceiving God would be explained. That is, if there is no God—he is a fictional character—and yet we believe in his existence, it is natural that we should conceive of him in the transcendent way we do. Believing in the reality of fictional entities is apt to generate wacky theories about their whereabouts. If I believe in unicorns but find that none ever reveal themselves, I might form the theory that unicorns exist elsewhere—in a special unicorn meadow far far away. It is no accident that Santa Claus is supposed to live at the North Pole, because if he lived in Neasden it would be a puzzle why no one ever spots him. The North Pole is sufficiently far removed that inquisitive children can be palmed off with the information that he lives far way, so that’s why he is never spotted around town. Fictional entities that are objects of belief need special places to exist that are hard to access—unicorn-land, the North Pole, heaven. No one is going to believe that a mythical being exists if he said to live around the corner. Mythical beings that are believed to exist must be supposed to live where their non-existence can’t be detected.

 

Colin McGinn

 

Share

The Anti-Ontological Argument

 

The Anti-Ontological Argument

 

 

The ontological argument proceeds from the premise that God contains all perfections to the conclusion that God exists. The anti-ontological argument proceeds from the premise that God contains all perfections to the conclusion that God does notexist. It thus precisely reverses the traditional argument deriving from Anselm.[1]Anselm argued that God could not be merely imaginary, because his definition as the most perfect conceivable being logically implies his existence, existence counting as a type of perfection. The anti-ontological argument contends that God mustbe merely imaginary, because his definition as the most perfect conceivable being logically implies his non-existence, since no absolutely perfect being can possibly exist (though such a being can certainly be imagined). This argument, like its traditional counterpart, operates with a very simple principle, which may be stated thus: For any kind K, nothing that exists could ever fall under the concept perfect K. Consider, for example, the kind hammerand form the concept perfect hammer: you have now gone from a concept with existent instances to a concept with no existent instances. Why? Because there can be no such thing as a perfect hammer, since every existent hammer will be imperfect in one respect or another. Only imaginaryhammers are perfect; real hammers always have flaws and drawbacks and weaknesses. Every hammer will fail to hit the nail on the head once in a while; every hammer will occasionally hit your finger instead; every hammer costs money to buy; every hammer gets rusty and decays; every hammer weighs something; every hammer takes several knocks to drive the nail home. There is no point in going into a hardware store and asking for the perfect hammer; there is no such thing. There are only more or less imperfect hammers. True, you can conceiveof a perfect hammer stipulated to have none of the defects listed, but there can’t be such a hammer. That’s not how the world works: there are always downsides and side effects and boundary conditions. It is the same for knives, motorcars, houses, musical instruments, and other artifacts. Ditto for organs of the body, and indeed whole organisms. Nor are persons any different: there is no perfect teacher or perfect policeman or perfect violinist. Everything is flawed in one way or another. Everything fails to live up to our imaginary ideals. Only non-existent objects lack any imperfection, because they are so stipulated. The real world always carries attributes that exceed and diverge from the ideal function of a type of object; thus no object functions ideally, as a matter of principle. Nothing is functionally perfect.

But God is defined as all perfect, absolutely perfect in every respect, without flaw or failing of any kind. The ancient Greek gods were not so defined, so there is no logical or metaphysical obstacle to their existence: but the god of monotheistic Christianity (and other religions) is decreed to be entirely without imperfection. Certainly we can imagine such a being, given the powers of the human imagination; but by our principle this being could not exist in the real world. The more we stipulate God’s supreme perfection the more we remove him from the realm of reality. In the real world God’s great powers and virtues would come with accompanying drawbacks, such as unintended side effects or large expenditures of energy or the exclusion of alternative desirable states of affairs. But we are told that none of this is true of God: when God acts there are no unfortunate correlates, no cons to the pros. His being and his actions are perfection through and through. He doesn’t even take up space thereby preventing other good things from existing! But this is simply defining him out of existence, like allowing that no actual terrestrial hammers are perfect while insisting that there are perfect hammers somewhere else in the universe (“transcendental hammers”). If someone were seriously to claim that, you would naturally ask what kind of hammer this could be: what material is it made from, how does it escape the laws of nature, how does it operate? In the case of God we are schooled not to ask these kinds of question, but the price is that we are merely confusing the imaginary with the real. The concept perfect beinghas no existent extension, where beingis taken to mean some sort of person-like entity. Thus that concept logically implies the non-existence of whatever falls under it (i.e. imaginary objects). If we take the concept of perfection to imply something functional, such as performing the office of a god perfectly, then no existent entity could ever be functionally perfect in the sense intended. In fact, when God is conceived as imperfect, as he sometimes is in the Old Testament, we have a clearer idea of what an existent entity of this kind might be like; but once we stipulate that there is nothing imperfect about him we enter the realm of the unreal and merely imaginary. Just as there are no perfect circles in the real world, only ideally, so there are no perfect gods in the real world, only ideally. The only circles that existare imperfect.

Here it might be objected that perfect circles can exist in Plato’s heaven—the same kind of place in which God is supposed to exist. But this is a confused thought, because such ideal entities do not act in the real world: they may be claimed to have genuine existence (as opposed to be being merely imaginary idealizations) but they don’t do anything to change the course of events. God does: he is supposed to be an active agent, a powerful force, a driver of change. That is, he is supposed to be as other active agents are—a type of (very superior) person, not an inert abstract form. God isn’t a piece of abstract geometry eternally at rest; he is capable of intervening in history. But then he must have whatever imperfections come with the territory: he can’t be both of the world and yet not of it. If he has a will, he has to have whatever imperfections come with that—anything else is merely imaginative stipulation. To deny this is like saying that a perfect knife has an ideal cutting edge without recognizing that no existent knife can have a cutting edge free from all imperfection. We can say the words but no real knife could live up to them (it would have to be unable to cut the flesh of its user for one thing). Why should a god be any different?

You might say that an existent God could have all moralperfections. That is not as easy as it sounds, but anyway it won’t preserve the traditional Anselmian notion of God, since it is compatible with accepting multiple imperfections of other kinds. That is, there might be a morally perfect being with bad teeth, a limp, a weakness for chocolate, poor taste in music, and a horrible dress sense. Such a being could exist without violating our principle, but he doesn’t add up to God. It is the requirement that God be perfect in every way and in every particular—absolutely and totally perfect—that puts him beyond the realm of actual existence. We just can’t comprehend what this would be—just as we can’t comprehend an actual perfect circle (one drawn with the intention to approximate the platonic ideal). If we define God in this way, we define him out of existence: we place conditions on his existence that can’t be realistically met. Suppose we say (with Spinoza) that God is composed of an infinite immaterial substance: that substance will exclude other substances like it, thus precluding a second all-perfect God from existing (itself a drawback); but it also raises the question of how such a substance might operate and what prevents it from malfunctioning. How could any substance exist and yet be incapable of failing to function as intended? How could it not at least contain the seeds of imperfection? To think otherwise is to lapse into a fairytale land subject only to the laws of imagination. It is to deal in metaphysical nonsense. We can appreciate this point easily for hammers, knives, and policemen, but in the case of God piety prevents us from applying our principle consistently. We tacitly concede this when we ignore the question of God’s aesthetic properties: is God perfectly beautiful too? No existent thing is ever perfectly beautiful—the very idea is a fantasy—so how can God be perfectly beautiful? What does that even mean? Is he superlatively handsome? Does he have a lovely form than which no lovelier form can be conceived? Is his beard finer than the finest silk? None of this makes sense—so how does God possess all aesthetic perfections? The anti-ontological argument contends that any actual being with aesthetic qualities will have aesthetic imperfections or limitations; aesthetic perfection obtains only in the realm of the ideal or imaginary. The right thing to say is that we can conceive of an all-perfect being (or at least we can say those words) but that no such thing could exist in reality. Thus the definition of God as an all-perfect being logically implies that God is not real—just like the definition of an all-perfect knife (call it “Excalibur”) implies its unreality. If we knew there to exist gods that are less than perfect, we would accept no counter-example to our principle; suggesting that there is a different type of god that is perfect in every way would naturally arouse our suspicions, for it would violate our general conception of reality. We know that reality is less than ideal, and we know that we can conceive of things that are ideal; so we naturally reject the idea of the ideally real. We find the conjunction of the attributes of complete perfection and real existence to be contrary to reason.[2]The concept of absolute perfection is hyperbolic and fails to characterize the real world. It is this concept that is deployed in defining God as Anselm does in the ontological argument: but that definition asks too much of any actually existent entity. Thus the Anselmian definition of God, so far from entailing God’s existence, logically precludes it.

 

[1]In what follows I don’t attempt to say where Anselm’s argument goes wrong; instead I offer another argument with the opposite conclusion. If this argument is sound, we know that Anselm’s argument hasto go wrong somewhere. For the record, I think he is wrong to take existence as a type of perfection.

[2]I hope no one will protest that perfect numbers exist (a positive integer that is equal to the sum of its proper positive divisors): that is not the notion of perfection at issue. And of course there is no objection to the loose use of “perfect” in conversational contexts.

Share

Interrogative Closure

 

 

 

Interrogative Closure

 

 

Nearly thirty years ago I coined the phrase “cognitive closure” to mean “things that can’t be known”. I now want to introduce the phrase “interrogative closure” to mean “questions that can’t be asked”—to be contrasted with “affirmative closure” meaning “answers that can’t be given”. Just as there may be answers to questions that are beyond us to discover, so there may be questions that are beyond us to ask. We can ask some questions about nature, but maybe there are questions that we are not equipped to ask, because of a paucity of concepts or a theoretical blind spot. The human question generator may not be able to output every question that can be coherently formulated. This is a species of cognitive closure because it depends upon a cognitive limitation; it is a lack of knowledge that leads to the inability to ask questions (or the right questions). Questions require concepts and the requisite concepts may be lacking. This is presumably true of many or most animals: they may well be capable of interrogative thought, but they are not capable of asking every possible question. Questions of explanation are likely to be beyond their cognitive capacities: they may wonder what the sun is but they can’t ask what explains the sun’s movements. Nor could they come to be able to ask such questions save by substantial neural reprogramming; they couldn’t do it simply by thinking harder or being forced to sit in a chair while lectured to. They may have the interrogative construction in their cognitive apparatus, but they cannot formulate every meaningful question that can be asked about reality—not by a long chalk.

Humans are adept at interrogation, as every parent of a young child knows. We are always asking questions, thirsting for answers, not letting go of a question. If we are natural thinkers, we are also natural questioners. Descartes questioned whether everything is open to doubt before he came up with his answer—questions precede answers. But despite our prodigious questioning—we can ask infinitely many questions, as we can produce infinitely many affirmative sentences—we are not guaranteed to be able to ask every question that can in principle be asked. It would be biologically anomalous if we were; and it is notorious that asking the right question often takes genius—it isn’t routine. Interrogative omniscience is not to be expected. This is surely obvious. What is not so obvious is that this is not an all-or-nothing matter: it isn’t that every question is such that we can either clearly ask it or clearly not ask it. Let me distinguish extremeinterrogative closure from moderateinterrogative closure: the extreme kind implies that we cannot ask the question at all, in any form, not even close; the moderate kind implies that we can formulate a question in the neighborhood of a given question but can do so only inadequately, ineptly, inaccurately, and obscurely. We don’t grasp the right question, but we grasp a question that gestures towards the right question, albeit feebly and misleadingly. The question that we ask might involve conceptual confusions that are cleared up by the correct question, or it might have false presuppositions. There are facts that we are asking about, but our way of asking contains conceptual errors. And it may be that this moderate closure is incurable: we can never ask the question in its proper form, only the inferior substitute. But at least we are not completely blocked from asking the relevant question, unlike animals. We are semi-closed to the question.

It is hard to find an example where we can see that this is the situation, since that would require grasping a formulation of a question that we by hypothesis cannot grasp. If this is our position with respect to a certain question, we will not be aware that it is—we will suppose that we are more or less on the right track. We will be like children asking ill-formed questions without realizing it (“When does dreaming become waking?” “Why doesn’t Tuesday follow Sunday?”). Maybe there is some coherent thought in the vicinity of the question, but it is so ineptly put as to be unanswerable. What I want to suggest is that we are in this kind position with respect to the mind-body problem: we suffer from moderate but not extreme interrogative closure. We are on the verge of asking the right question, but we are not really there; or better, we are far from formulating the right question correctly, but we at least recognize that there isa question. We glimpse the question from afar, obscurely, but we cannot get it into focus. Perhaps we can never get it into focus, given our conceptual limitations.

Consider then how we talk about the mind-body problem. We speak of the mind “depending” on the brain, “resulting” from it, being “caused” by it; or we introduce technical terms like “emergence” and “supervenience”. Then we form questions like these: “In virtue of what does the mind depend on the brain?” or “How does the brain cause the mind?” or “Is the mind strongly or weakly emergent on the brain?” or “What makes the mind supervenient on the brain?” Thus we contrive to state the question that encapsulates the mind-body problem—or we think we do. But how solid are these formulations? First, the concepts invoked add to the underlying facts: these are that changes in the brain are accompanied by characteristic changes in the mind. But it is another thing to start speaking of “dependence” and “causation” and “emergence”.  That is to import concepts into our description of the case that have their original home elsewhere. We know what we mean when we use these concepts in their usual context, but they become loose and metaphorical when applied to mind and body.  This is why people appeal to models drawn from other domains to explain the meaning of the technical term they re-deploy: water and liquidity, crystals and molecules, embryogenesis. But it is far from clear that we can subsume mind and body under such concepts: isn’t this just sheer hand waving? Isn’t it a forced resort to concepts that work elsewhere and are wheeled in just so that we have something definite to say? Maybe the relation between consciousness and the brain is correctly captured in terms quite alien to us (even using the word “relation” here is tendentious); we are forcing it into a conceptual box that suits our actual concepts. A conceptual lacuna is papered over with concepts drawn from elsewhere and quite unsuitable for the task. Instead of asking, “How does the mind depend on the brain?” where the word “depend” is taken from its original home in describing things like architectural forms and weather patterns, we should be asking, “How does the mind stand in relation Rto the brain?” where Ris a relation alien to our conceptual scheme. Let’s not pretend that we know what we are talking about in invoking these words and admit that they are poor substitutes for more adequate and accurate concepts. They are stopgap measures, crutches.

We say that the brain “generates” the mind, “produces” it, “gives rise” to it, but we have no idea what these labels mean, except the meaning given by their original context, which has nothing to do with the case at hand. We feel there is somegeneral relation between mind and brain, something likecausation or generation; but we really don’t have any clear conception of what sort of relation holds between the two—so we just stick a label on it. Then we proceed to formulate a question using the appropriated label hoping thereby to make sense. But that question may be quite inept, confused, and misleading, given its dubious genesis. Of course, we can’t make such a judgment directly by comparing our concocted question to the question as it should be formulated (by God or super-intelligent aliens), since we don’t know what that formulation would look like; so we blunder blindly on, not realizing that our question falls short of capturing the nature of what we are attempting to describe. Interrogative closure, extreme or moderate, never announces itself as such. Still, we may reasonably suspect that something like this is what is going on, given how we set about formulating our question and the peculiar nature of what we are asking about. The general character of the relation between mind and brain is not apparentto us, so we can’t just refer to it directly and ask how it works; instead we postulatea relation and give it a name—“dependence”, “emergence”, “supervenience”, etc. All that warrants the term are the basic facts, namely that changes in the mind are correlated with changes in the brain. It is not that the chosen terms are clearly false or confused, so that the question we ask is simply meaningless; it is rather that the question as formulated falls short of the formulation that best captures the real relation between mind and body. I can’t tell you what that relation is, for obvious reasons, but I have an inkling that it needs to be conceptualized in ways that are unavailable to us. For one thing, it would need to be a relation holding between something inner and private and something outer and public. And it could never be observed: we could never seethat mind and brain stand in relation R.

It is difficult to find analogies for the case of mind and body precisely because it is unique. We are asking for an explanation of “dependencies” between mind and body not between bodies or within minds. We can ask about how emotion depends upon belief and about how air currents depend upon temperature, but it is another thing to ask how consciousness “depends upon” neural activity. In what sense does the former “depend on” the latter? All we get in reply is some sketchy business about correlation.[1]Presumably the relation is much stronger than mere correlation, so we reach for more full-blooded language; but we may be reaching in the wrong direction and seizing upon whatever happens to fit our cognitive grip regardless of suitability (a hammer to do the job of a screwdriver). The standard analogies used to explain what the relation is supposed to be between mind and brain encourage us to be complacent about our capacity to frame the right question; we may be quite far off target. The very fact that our formulations of the question don’t lead anywhere satisfactory suggests that we are not asking the question as it needs to be asked. For a being that knows how to ask the question the answer might not be so elusive. Its elusiveness to us is a sign that we are in the presence of interrogative closure: we can’t find the answer because we can’t ask the question (properly, adequately). There is affirmative closure because there is (moderate) interrogative closure: our inability to get the question right is bound up with our inability to answer the question. In addition, our cluelessness about the inadequacy of our question leads us to false optimism about answering it: if we knew how bad our formulation of the question was, we would be more inclined to think we cannot answer it. But of course if we knew that we would be on the road toanswering it. Our predicament is that we are (moderately) closed to the right question but we find it hard to recognize that fact, and so we think we are conceptually on the right track to solving the problem. I believe we are completely closed to the solution and moderately closed to the question, but I have not argued for that composite position here.  I have suggested only that it is probable that we suffer from moderate interrogative closure with respect to the correct formulation of the mind-body problem.[2]

 

Colin M

[1]It may be suggested that we can help ourselves to a very abstract notion of dependence, perhaps defined in terms of counterfactuals, just as supervenience is abstractly defined. But that abstract notion will not do justice to the specificrelation that holds between mind and brain—the notion that distinguishesit from other applications of the abstract notion. We want to know how thatrelation holds between mind and brain. We want to know how the actual specific relationship between mind and brain is set up—how this part of nature operates. This is why people invoke concepts like emergence: because it promises to identify the explanandum clearly and distinctly. But it does so only by means of dubious analogies and assimilations that serve to obscure the proper formulation of the issue. This is why it is more hygienic to express the question as, “What is the explanatory basis of the relation Rthat holds between mind and brain?” and remain agnostic about the identity of R. Using words like “depends upon” is at best a crude and uninformative description of how mind and brain connect up (and that phrase too is loaded). There is a good way to ask the question out there in interrogative space, but it is not to be found in our formulations heretofore (and perhaps permanently).

[2]Imagine that we are extremely interrogatively closed to a large number of questions—as every other animal on our planet is. There are thousands of questions about nature that we are not equipped to ask. Then it will not be surprising if there are some questions to which we are partially open—which are only moderately closed to us. These exist on the border between the humanly accessible questions and the humanly inaccessible questions. I have suggested that the question that constitutes the mind-body problem might be one of these borderline cases (other philosophical questions might also belong in this class). Isn’t this a realistic way to look at the human ability to ask questions? Some we can ask clearly, some we can’t ask at all, and some we can ask only unclearly.

Share

Some (lighthearted) definitions

An intellectual: a person who reads for displeasure

A philosophy professor: a person who screams when someone says something true

A university administrator: a person whose job is to take out the garbage but is incompetent at it

A feminist: a person who thinks death is too good for men and so marries them instead

 

 

 

Share

Philosophical Economics

 

 

Philosophical Economics

 

 

Economics tells us that an economic transaction involves the sale (or exchange) of “goods and services”. This phrase invites conceptual scrutiny. It is notable that an evaluative term is used to describe the commodities sold: goods are good.[1]Services also are inherently valuable: you don’t perform someone the serviceof executing or robbing him (disservice, yes). What kind of good do goods possess? Not a moral good, evidently, since you can’t sellsomeone a moral act or benefit—that would nullify the morality of it. There are no shops where you can go and purchase a moral favor or pay for a moral obligation to be met. Moral goods are trans-economic. Altruism is not a commodity to be bought and sold, on pain of not being altruism. No, goods in the economic sense are goods forsomeone: an economic good is good for its recipient—it does the recipient some good. Thus food, furniture, flowers, and phones: they are purchased because of the personal benefits they afford. But are they really distinct from services? Aren’t all goods imbued with service? Typically, they are manufactured, or at least harvested or mined—they involve skilled human labor. They are not independent of human work, but an expression of it. So they are shaped by “service”, unlike volcanoes or seas or trees (unless cultivated). I would say that all economic goods involve service in this sense; they are not just lying around for anyone to pick up (why pay for them then?). Goods imply services. But what about vice versa? A service is a type of human action with a certain result deemed desirable—say, a massage or a waiter bringing food. But don’t these involve goods? The goods would be muscular therapy and relaxation via pressure, or food being on the table. A teacher supplies the good of information while performing the service of teaching.  A lawyer provides the good of contracts. A doctor provides the good of health by prescribing medicine. Something worthwhile results from the service provided: these are the goods we purchase. A service is no use unless it produces a tangible good. So services involve goods. If someone provides you the service of fixing your fence, he has at the same time given you something good—an intact fence. There is no separating goods and services; there is no essential duality here. There are not twotypes of entity in an economic transaction, but a mixture of the human act and natural raw material. Conceptually, we could unite goods and services under a single heading—say, “products”. People sell products of different types, which might be called “goods and services”. Goods come modified by service, and services are mingled with goods.

What is it that we are ultimately purchasing when we engage in an economic transaction? What is it that we desire when we hand over money? Is it other people’s actions and the physical things they produce? No, what we are purchasing are states of mind—that is the point of the whole transaction. If actions and things had no impact on our state of mind, we would have no interest in buying them. We buy things for pleasure, security, pride, company, joy, excitement, comfort, satisfaction, etc.[2]Thatis what we are ultimately purchasing—goods and services are just the means to achieve these desirable states of mind. Economic value is psychological value. We could summarize this list by saying that we are buying happiness(though this concept is obscure and includes many disparate psychological states). And what do we offer in return? We hand over money obviously, but why does the vendor want our money? To buy happiness, of course: money is what we use to buy goods and services that produce (we hope) happiness. So we buy happiness by offering happiness in return (this is even more obvious when bartering is involved). An economic transaction is thus an exchange of (hoped for) happiness, i.e. psychological states deemed desirable. An economic system, such as capitalism, is a means of generating and exchanging happiness. Goods and services are happiness-vehicles, external means to an internal end. The price of a product is ultimately determined by the happiness it can produce in the purchaser. The entire material substructure is a just a means to allocate happiness through economic activity. The basic commodities are states of mind. The speech act that defines economic exchange is: “I will give you this happiness if you will give me that happiness”. The thing about goods that is good is precisely their effect on mental states—they improve psychological wellbeing. For example, if I exchange with you a guitar for a surfboard, I have traded one sort of happiness for another, giving you happiness in return—the happiness associated with a guitar or a surfboard. There would be no point in the exchange otherwise. Thus economics is psychology in a very direct sense—it is trading in mental states.

Interestingly, no animals operate with an economic system, despite having quite sophisticated mental abilities (such as mind-reading). Animals don’t buy goods and services from each other, though they may exchange goods and expect favors in return. The concept of money is alien to the animal mind. Presumably humans developed economies at some specific period of history, where there was none before. How that happened is shrouded in mystery, but clearly it requires sophisticated social consciousness. When do children begin to understand economic exchange? Economies are biological adaptations with biological payoffs and must have arisen by mutation and natural selection. Perhaps we have an innate economics module in our brain (“the economic gene”). It sits next to our theory of mind module. It requires a tacit understanding of how minds work and how they relate to the material environment, as well as an appreciation of evaluative concepts. Economic transactions now constitute a large part of human interactions, and they shape the way we think of others (perhaps too much). We are always thinking of how to improve our state of mind by entering into economic exchanges with other people, which requires thinking about their state of mind too. We monetize the mind—put a price on it.

It is useful to keep these points in mind when running a business. We need to remind ourselves of what we are really buying and selling—what the true meaning of the phrase “good and services” is. It isn’t the object as such that is important but its effect on the consumer—what good it will do forthe consumer, psychologically speaking. It is the meaningof the product that matters. And it isn’t just what is reallygood for the customer that counts but what the customer believesis good: if the customer doesn’t think that something genuinely good is really good, he or she will not buy it. This is why persuasion is always part of a functioning economy. Savvy advertisers know this very well, so they draw attention to the psychological benefits to be derived from a particular product—not its physical characteristics. A successful business must therefore be psychologically astute and psychologically attuned. It should also have a clear philosophical understanding of what it is up to.

 

[1]We speak of “dry goods” but we don’t speak of “wet goods”. Why?

[2]We also buy things to protect our lives, but we only value our lives because of the states of mind they make possible.

Share

Kafkaesque

I used to describe my situation as “Kafkaesque”. I’m now reading Kafka’s The Trial and almost feel that I am reading about myself (“Hello, K., I am M.”). The predominant feeling, aside from evil, is absurdity.

Share