The Humanistic Turn

 

 

The Humanistic Turn

 

 

A popular narrative has it that analytical philosophy replaced an emphasis on knowledge with an emphasis on language. It is said that Descartes brought epistemology to the center of philosophy and that Frege shifted the center to the philosophy of language (assisted by Wittgenstein, Austin, et al). Thus we have the “linguistic turn”. Some add to this the idea that the linguistic turn gave way to the conceptual turn, in which the study of thoughtbecame the central preoccupation of philosophy. From knowledge to meaning to thought, there has been a succession of intellectual revolutions during the last three centuries. Continental philosophers may wish to add the phenomenological turn, initiated by Husserl and taken up by Heidegger and Sartre, in which philosophy takes as its central concern the study of lived experience. Yet others may prefer the idea of the logical turn, in which formal logic became foundational. And there may be various sub-turns: the linguistic turn itself exhibited a number of smaller turns, from propositions to speech acts to language games to theoretical linguistics. In any case, philosophy has undergone various shifts of emphasis, beginning with Descartes: moves towards something and away from something else. There are then debates about whether these moves were good or bad, and how exactly they should be characterized.

But what was Descartes turning from? I think there are two answers that are not unconnected: religion and traditional metaphysics. He was turning away from reliance on Scripture and church authority, which lie outside of the human subject; and he was also turning away from the legacy of Platonic metaphysics and Aristotelian scholasticism, which emphasize impersonal ontology. Philosophy must focus not on a transcendent God and not on external Nature, both construed as non-human realities, but on the human capacity to know—on human reason, human experience. How do we know and what do we know—with the accent on “we” (or “I”). We must study the human ability to know things, not an extra-human God or Nature. Human knowledge (its scope and limits) is something we can get our teeth into, since it is an aspect of us, part of our nature. Philosophy must turn from the non-human to the human—to human nature, in a word. Descartes accordingly meditates on himself, alone and unaided, as a natural human creature, particularly as a knowing creature. The Cogito is one of his first discoveries: he finds that he is a thinking thing that indubitably exists. The question then is whether this thinking thing can know the things it thinks it knows, and more besides; thus the stage is set for the analysis of knowledge and the attempt to rebut skepticism—central concerns of post-Cartesian philosophy, up to and including the analytical kind.[1] The important point is that this epistemic turn was a humanistic turn: a turn towards the human and away from the non-human. The focus on knowledge was the form this humanistic turn took for Descartes and subsequent thinkers.

The successive turns away from knowledge–which came to include perception and reasoning, common sense and science–were also humanistic turns: language is a human attribute too, an aspect of human nature; and the same is true of concepts and thoughts. We humans have these attributes as aspects of our given nature, and philosophy is now construed as an investigation of human nature under this dispensation. Philosophy becomes the philosophy of the human, specifically our powers of linguistic and conceptual representation—a kind of rarified psychology. Thus we find Strawson’s project of “descriptive metaphysics”: the attempt to map our ordinary natural conception of reality—our “conceptual scheme”. This is to be contrasted with theology and with science, which both attempt to describe the non-human world. It also stands opposed to the Platonic style of metaphysics in which we attempt to describe reality as it exists independently of humans—the world outside the cave. The world of Forms has nothing intrinsically to do with human beings, but exists independently of us, and will go on existing whether we do or not. And before Strawson’s humanistic metaphysics we had such works as Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding and Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature—note the occurrence of the word “human” in both titles. These are avowedly books about the human animal, if I may put it so—about a certain type of creature with a specific nature. We know, we perceive, we think, we speak: that is what philosophy should concern itself with. If it is not about such things, we should turn away from it and towards its proper object. Thus, seen from a broader perspective, the epistemic, linguistic, and conceptual turns are all turns within a larger humanistic turn. The debate between empiricism and rationalism, for example, is a debate within the humanistic conception of philosophy, namely how human knowledge is arrived at and what its nature is. We today have become very accustomed to this turn and are scarcely aware of it, perhaps not even seeing anything turn-like about it. This is because it is a shift in intellectual history that goes back centuries and whose antecedents are barely comprehensible to us moderns—the time of religious domination and pre-modern metaphysics. At one time it was startling to maintain that philosophy should concern itself with the human being, whether as knower, thinker, or speaker. Aren’t we just too small and insignificant compared to God and the Platonic Forms to be awarded such a prominent place? What does the universe care about our ability to know, think, and talk (especially the last)? Isn’t the Form of the Good so much grander than our feeble human meanderings? Isn’t there something impious and vain about focusing philosophy on ourselves? Isn’t humanistic philosophy anthropocentric philosophy? And isn’t that culpably self-centered?

Not all modern philosophers have adopted the humanistic approach. Two giants stand out: Spinoza and Leibniz (we might add Schopenhauer and even Kant in some respects). Both developed traditional-sounding metaphysical systems without regard for human perspectives, and both are alien to modern sensibilities. Spinoza and Leibniz have struggled for curricular recognition and are often regarded as eccentric at best. That is not a false impression given that they don’t share the humanistic turn (proudly in the case of Spinoza, in view of his naturalism about the human creature). Both belong squarely in the tradition beginning with Plato and Aristotle (including the pre-Socratics) and pre-dating the Christianized doctrines of the middle ages; they are concerned to provide an intelligible general ontology without reliance on Scripture or the human viewpoint. They are certainly not interested in describing what the ordinary human animal thinks, or how he or she thinks it. We might call these non-humanistic philosophers: they resist the humanistic turn in whatever variety it presents itself. Kant is the odd case because of his duality of the phenomenal and the noumenal—the former decidedly human, the latter not human at all. Kant took a kind of half-turn, though historically he triggered a yet sharper turn towards the human: his view is that we can’t know anything about the non-human world, though there is such a thing, while the human world is open to our understanding. Berkeley is an interesting case: at first sight his idealism would appear to put him firmly in the humanist camp, but then we remember his placing of God at the center of all things and the non-human asserts itself. The infinite spirit is not a human spirit, and it is the foundation of the entire universe. Berkeley is a non-humanist wolf in humanist sheep’s clothing. Again, he is someone we moderns find it difficult to digest. We are more comfortable delving into our own nature accompanied by Locke and Hume. We like the humanistic turn, self-centered as we are. We prefer to think of ourselves as the measure of all things—whether by our knowledge or our meanings or our concepts. We think human nature is fantastic.

Where do more recent philosophers fall? Almost all twentieth century philosophers are humanists: Russell, Wittgenstein, the positivists, Husserl, Heidegger, Sartre, Davidson, Quine, Strawson, Dummett, and many others.[2]The anti-humanists are harder to spot, not surprisingly given the humanistic turn, but a few exhibit anti-humanist leanings—I might mention Kripke and Nagel. Kripke opposes the humanistic interpretation of modality, stressing the existence of metaphysical necessity and distinguishing it from the epistemic kind—it stems from objective reality not from our own minds (as with analyticity). Nagel qualifies because of his realism and emphasis on human limitation—in no way is the bat’s mind a version of the human mind, and our concepts are not guaranteed to catch hold of everything real (the View From Nowhere is not a human view). Mysterians (such as Chomsky and myself) are sharply anti-humanist because we reject the idea that reality is designed so as to conform to human modes of thinking. We humans are just tiny specks in reality, not the measure of reality; neither human knowledge nor human language nor human thought are constitutive of the real—the objective world is. These human attributes are merely part of the world. Construed as a general meta-philosophy, the humanistic turn was a mistake, according to mysterians–though there is nothing untoward about studying human nature as such. We do better to revert to Plato, Aristotle, Spinoza, Leibniz, and whoever else shares their anti-humanist predilections. In any case the issue has been joined: to be a humanist or not to be a humanist.[3]

 

Colin McGinn

 

[1] A problem with the epistemic turn, as exemplified in Descartes, not mentioned in the standard narrative, is that knowledge turned out to be not as unproblematic as we might have hoped. Descartes recognized the problem of skepticism from the start and tried unsuccessfully to solve it, so knowledge can hardly be a solid foundation on which to erect a humanistic philosophy alternative to what had gone before; but further, it became clear that even defining knowledge is difficult, so we don’t even know what knowledge is. If our aim is to find a sound starting point in human nature, knowledge seems like the wrong concept to invoke. In this light we can see why a switch to language might seem appealing; however, the concept of meaning soon revealed itself to be anything but pellucid, so turning to it hardly leads to the Promised Land. And the same can be said of concepts and thoughts. Human nature turns out not to be as transparent as we might have hoped. If obscurity is a count against non-humanistic philosophy, then it applies also to humanistic philosophy.

[2] There is also the humanistic turn with respect to ethics (and politics and aesthetics): instead of finding moral value in the supernatural realm or in the natural order we find it in the human individual; it is imminent not transcendent, an aspect of human nature. Moral humanists would include Nietzsche and Hume as well as many twentieth century ethicists (e.g. Bernard Williams); moral anti-humanists would include Platonists, Kant, and early Moore. In the case of ethics the subject matter at least has a clear connection to human life, so the humanistic turn is more intuitive; but it is far from self-evident that values themselves are part of human nature. In any case, we should include ethics under the grand opposition I am describing.

[3] The same kind of dilemma can also confront the sciences, physics in particular. With positivism physics took a humanistic turn, given that verification is a human attribute; and instrumentalism invites the question “Instrumental for whom?” Einstein’s relativity theory comes perilously close to building the human subject (the “observer”) into physics, and so does quantum theory on some interpretations; at least part of the appeal of these theories is surely their humanistic aura. Newtonian physics, by contrast, was resolutely non-humanist. And isn’t post-modernism really just the final expression of humanism? Even truth is a human construction: the world is nothing but the human world (culture, custom, power relations).

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The National Psyche

The combination of Covid19, Trump, and police brutality is producing a toxic mixture of fear, anger, impotence, and disgust that is afflicting the national psyche. Who knows where it will lead. Therapists stand to prosper. I myself am suffering from an acute case of America-phobia.

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Is Natural Selection Physical?

 

Is Natural Selection Physical?

 

Is Darwin’s theory of evolution a physical theory? Does anything mental enter into its explanatory apparatus? There are two main components to the theory: mutation and natural selection. It might well seem that these are both entirely physical phenomena, because mutation is just chance genetic change (change in the DNA) and natural selection is the physical impact of the environment on survival and reproduction. We can agree that mutation is a purely physical phenomenon (it results from such things as radiation striking the genome), though we should note that mutations cause mental changes as well as bodily changes; but it is an oversimplification to suppose that natural selection involves no mental elements. If we focus on such factors as climate change, the effects of gravity, lack of food, lightning, and meteors, then we might come to the conclusion that nature selects in virtue of physical facts and events; but these are not the only factors that influence survival and reproduction. Take predators: the bite of a lion certainly affects the survival prospects of its prey, and the bite is physical, but the bite was caused by a desire on the part of the lion—the desire for food. The lion’s psychological state leads it to act in the way it does, shaping the reproductive potential of prey animals. No account of such natural selection would be complete that failed to mention lion psychology. And the same is true of the psychology of the prey: this too affects the chances for survival of an animal hunted by lions. Predation is not just a body-to-body interaction; it is mind-to-mind interaction. The mind plays a causal role in shaping who survives such interactions. An eliminative materialist would deny this, but otherwise it is undeniable. Part of an animal’s environment is the psychological environment (including its own) not just the physical environment; so natural selection includes psychological factors. An animal is adapted to its physical environment and to its psychological environment. This is true even for plants: their selection is governed in part by the behavior of herbivorous animals, which typically results from the psychological state of such animals—does the animal like to eat this type of grass?

In the case of social animals this kind of selection by psychological environment is even more pronounced. Competition is a powerful driver of evolution, but competition involves the psychology of the competitors: aggressive conspecifics will decisively affect an animal’s opportunities for reproduction, and aggression involves emotional states. This is why many animals need a theory of mind to navigate their social life: you need to understand others’ psychology in order to survive and mate. If the psychological environment were to change, what was once adaptive could become less so. What is called artificial selection illustrates the point beautifully: this kind of selection is done by conscious agents with intentions, for example dog breeders. Here selection is governed by the aesthetic tastes of the breeders or by marker expectations; no account of this process could be correct that failed to recognize this selective force. Nor is it really outside the domain of natural selection, since there is nothing unnatural about the human desire to shape other species to their own ends (bees “artificially” select flower types too). If a species did this in order to provide a food source better suited to its needs, that would be perfectly within the natural domain—what Darwin called artificial selection is just another kind of natural selection (it isn’t super-natural selection). Once organisms get minds natural selection is influenced by these minds, so it is not always a purely physical matter. Of course, if we are materialists we will suppose that minds are really material, so that all natural selection comes down to physical selection; but that does not gainsay the point that mental phenomena are involved in the selection process—just not irreducibly mental phenomena. And the Darwinian theory itself is not committed to any such materialism: it simply speaks of whatever factors there are that can shape natural selection, physical or mental. In some possible worlds no doubt the only form of natural selection is psychologically driven—organisms are never selectively acted upon by purely physical phenomena.

Sexual selection is another case in point. Again, this should not be opposed to natural selection, since it is just a type of natural selection—the type in which mates select each other by considerations of fitness and attractiveness, as with the peacock’s tail. Here the selective force is an estimate of the fitness of the potential mate—that is, what the selector thinks is attractive in a mate. It is a matter of psychological response, and this response will determine whether the potential mate becomes an actual mate. In some species sexual selection is the main determinant of reproductive success—much more so that lightning strikes or falls from great heights or poisonous berries. If you are selected for your looks, then it is the aesthetic tastes of the selector that determine whether your genes get passed on. Sexual selection is psychologically driven and a powerful selective force. Of course, such psychological causation is physically mediated by actual behavior, in this case and in the others I have mentioned; but that is not to say that the selection is purely physical, since it stems from psychological factors. You would not want to say that selecting a wife or husband is a purely physical matter just because the outward acts that are involved are physical.

So Darwin’s theory is not in any way an elimination of the mental from the process of evolution: the mechanism of natural selection operates over psychological facts as much as physical facts. Nature selects both physically and mentally. It is not that Darwin’s theory replaces the mental with the physical in its account of evolution, by (say) removing God’s intentions from the picture. It is not a scientific theory that would gladden the heart of a metaphysical materialist. It is not a physical theory in the way chemistry is. It uses the mental; it doesn’t eschew it. Nor does it take a stand on the nature of the mental: it is neutral with respect to the metaphysics of mind.[1] This is simply because nature includes more than physical nature. Mind accordingly played a role in the origin of species.[2]

 

[1] You cannot read off from Darwin’s theory which theory of the nature of mind is correct: materialism, functionalism, anomalous monism, supervenience, panpsychism, computationalism, dualism, etc. This is not to say that theories don’t differ in how easy it is to explain the evolution of mind.

[2] I doubt that anyone would disagree with this once it is spelled out. Nevertheless, there seems to be a vague feeling out there that Darwin’s theory has materialist tendencies, or even that it claims to account for all of evolution without mentioning anything mental. Clearly minds play a role in determining what traits get selected and passed on, according to the theory.

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Aesthetic and Moral Syllogisms

Aesthetic and Moral Syllogisms

 

 

Consider the proposition “x is aesthetically better than y”: does this entail the proposition “I should engage with xin preference to y”? One might suppose so, but in fact it doesn’t, unless we add something like “other things being equal”. If x is more intellectual demanding than y and I am tired from mental exertions, I am under no aesthetic obligation to engage with x; it might give me a headache. Or I might simply not be in the mood for x and would be happier engaging with y. Or I might have engaged a lot with things like x recently and would welcome something different in y. Thus there is no valid deduction here—though if we add “other things being equal” we get closer to that (but what things exactly?). Aesthetic value does not immediately translate into a categorical imperative.

Compare “x is morally better than y”: does this entail “I should do x in preference to y”? Can I decline the invitation to do x by pointing out that I am tired or not in the mood or am bored with doing x-like things? Certainly not: I must do x instead of y, no matter what my personal circumstances (though of course I must be able to do it). This is the familiar point that moral reasons entail categorical imperatives: if x is morally better than y, I am under a strict obligation to do x not y. I can’t plead tiredness, my mood, or boredom to avoid the obligation. There is thus a sharp distinction between the aesthetic ought and the moral ought, as exemplified in these syllogisms.

 

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How Mysterious is Evolution?

How Mysterious is Evolution?

 

 

The basic mechanism of evolution is not mysterious at all. Random variation combined with natural selection is a fully intelligible means of biological change, perspicuously accounting for speciation. The abstract idea has a mathematical simplicity to it: (a) a process for generating outcomes at random, and (b) a method of selection imposed by some sort of agency (either agents with intentions or nature without intentions). So far this says nothing about implementation, which might introduce mysterious elements into the process: living tissue, DNA, sexual reproduction, competition, etc. In principle, the units could be anything, including blobs of ectoplasm or ideas in immaterial minds; and the method of selection could be a wise god’s decisions or holes through which objects can differentially pass. Random generation plus a filtering mechanism is all that is logically required. So the basic apparatus of Darwinian evolutionary theory is fully intelligible, not mysterious in the slightest. Compared to invoking God as creator, it is elementary arithmetic. Nothing could be clearer.

But that is not to say that evolution as we find it on planet earth is without mysterious elements. There are in fact puzzles aplenty, a few quite recalcitrant, some even deserving the name of mystery. Here is a list: the origins of life, sexual reproduction, altruism, dreaming, aging, bipedalism, syntax, suicide, fiction, modal thought, aesthetic sense, pure mathematics, music, dance, depression, mind and consciousness. None of these is easy to explain given what we know of the evolutionary process, chiefly because they seem surplus to survival requirements or even counter to survival. There is much that we don’t understand. We can wheel in spandrels and sexual selection to explain apparently non-adaptive traits, but that will only take us so far. A more streamlined biological world would consist of same-sex reproductive machines with no distractions tolerated. A Darwinian planet could easily consist of bacteria alone. But none of this should make us question the correctness of the basic theory, though we may wonder at its sufficiency. Nor should we surmise terminal mystery at this stage of intellectual history: the Darwinian theory is recent and there is still much to be learned. These are problems to solve not mysteries to resign ourselves to; puzzles not indications of intellectual limitation. Progress has been made on many of them; after all, it is only recently that the role of the gene has been properly understood, and DNA wasn’t discovered till late in the 20th century.

Well, that is true up until the last item on my list. Up to that point there is no compelling need to acknowledge deep mystery in the field of biology. The mechanism of evolution is not mysterious, and its products present at most puzzles (so far as we can see at present), but the existence of mind and consciousness is another matter. Here genuine mystery descends like a cloud on the evolutionary process: how could random genetic mutation and natural selection lead from an organism devoid of mind and consciousness to an organism with those things? The raw materials of evolution are chemicals that can combine, and the method is fundamentally rearrangement of those chemicals, so how could the process generate consciousness from such limited resources? At least under theism we inject consciousness into the process from the beginning (however illicitly). How could the selection of some bunches of chemicals over other bunches of chemicals lead to consciousness in those bunches? This is just a version of the mind-body problem seen temporally: the problem of emergence, as it is often called.[1] Consciousness wasn’t there to begin with (unless we go panpsychist), so how did it emerge in the upshot? This seems like a miraculous qualitative leap quite at variance with the basic form of the theory. We can understand (more or less) how bunches of chemicals can get more complex over time, producing the things we call animal bodies, as mutations get selected and passed on, but how can this process produce consciousness from non-consciousness? To put it differently, only materialism seems able to account for the evolution of mind; but if materialism is false, then evolution is in trouble. The only alternative is to assume mystery and credit the process with properties that we don’t grasp, maybe can’t grasp. My point here is not to urge the merits of the mysterian philosophy; it is to observe that this is the only aspect of evolution that is genuinely mysterious. Of course, organisms are made of matter and matter itself poses some real mysteries; but the biological theory of evolution by mutation and natural selection is free of intractable mystery up to the moment when it has to explain the origin of consciousness.[2] Darwin could write a book called The Origin of Species and hope to dispel the mysteries surrounding that topic, but he could not (and did not) write a book called The Origin of Consciousness and hope to provide an intelligible theory of that. Nor can anyone do it today. Yet consciousness is clearly an evolutionary product, as much as feet and brains. There seems to be something we are missing: what was the mutation that led to there being something it is like for the organism? How did subjective experience break into the objective world? And once it arose how did further iterations of it come about—novel forms of consciousness? Was there a specific mutation that led to the phenomenology color vision? How did gene selection produce sensations of red, say? Why conscious brains and not zombie brains?

Evolutionary theory as we have it thus combines an enviable lack of mystery with a very conspicuous mystery. At its core it is pure lucidity, but in practice it contains an enormous blind spot. It is both advanced and backward: everything a scientific theory should be yet afflicted with a gaping hole. The answer to my title question is therefore “not mysterious at all” and “utterly mysterious”, depending on where we look.

 

[1] Of course, I am saying nothing original here: this problem for Darwin’s theory was perceived from the very beginning.

[2] I am using this as a catchall term that might be taken to include other aspects of the mind such as free will or some kinds of knowledge.

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Woody Allen’s Memoir

I had the pleasure of reading A Propos of Nothing recently and greatly enjoyed it. If you are interested in Woody’s personal history and his many films, this book will sate your appetite: funny, impressive, and endearing. As to the allegations made against him, he convincingly refutes them, thereby demonstrating the absurdity and corruption of the world, especially the American part of it. When I first moved to New York in 1990 I happened to see him in Central Park walking with a woman, which was itself such a New York experience.

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Predator Blues

 

 

Predator Blues

 

 

We humans have a tendency to admire, even envy, what we are pleased to call apex predators: big cats, eagles, sharks, polar bears, and the like. We thrill to their powerful jaws, vice-like talons, speed, agility, and ruthlessness. No one pushes them around, they dominate their worlds: king of the jungle, master of the air, most-feared in the seas. They eat other animals for breakfast, and no one eats them. They are at the top of the heap, the aristocracy of the animal kingdom. We view them as one step down from us, the supreme beings, though we admit that in a dark alley they would have the edge.

But this is a biased and anthropocentric view of the life of a premier carnivore. They too are victims, sad, suffering, vulnerable, anxious, fear-ridden, teetering on the brink of death: for they are afflicted with a highly selective digestive system that can process only meat. The result of this is that when hunger strikes they must hunt to survive; and the hunt is strenuous, exhausting, uncertain, and dangerous. The prey does not give in easily and the predator can be injured both by the chase and by the animal being chased. The lion is kicked, the eagle crashes, the shark is blinded—all in the cause of a full stomach. No ruminant must undergo such peril just in order to eat—the grass just sits there waiting to be nibbled at. Do you think lions like to chase big strong beasts and fight to bring them down? Would you like to do that? How about if whenever you fancy lunch you have to have a fistfight with a burly attendant? You emerge bloodied clutching your sandwich, but at least you are fed for another day. Do you think mother eagles like to watch their young starve while they fail to bring back enough meat to eat? Food gathering is a constant battle punctuated by periods of excruciating hunger and anxiety. Imagine being so weak from hunger that you can’t give chase to the only food source that can save you from death. And then there are the fights with other predatory animals chasing the same scarce food: you finally bring an animal down to save yourself and your family from starvation and immediately you are set upon by a bunch of vicious coyotes. None of this is fun.

Carnivores are the helpless victims of their own digestive limitations. Just think how much easier life would be if they were omnivores: when meat was scarce they could fall back on nuts and berries or chomp on grass. They wouldn’t need to starve when fleet-footed prey elude them. There is nothing more pitiable than an old or sick lion unable to hunt any more lying down to die—how much better if it could adopt a vegetarian diet at that point. Lions don’t choose to be exclusively carnivorous—they don’t think it’s cool or a matter of pride. They were born that way, evolved that way: that’s how the gene machine made them, willy-nilly. All around them animals happily chew on their various preferred foods, but the carnivore has no other option if its supply of meat runs out—and meat is always hard to come by. It’s like being at a feast in which you can only eat one dish and that dish is always running out (literally). Surely no benevolent god would ever design a species that exists only on meat: quite apart from the fate of the prey animals, there is also the stress and strain of catching dinner (you might actually die in the attempt). When I watch a nature documentary and see a lion bring down a deer, I am conscious of fear on the part of the deer but also of relief on the part of the lion—finally this gnawing hunger will go away, at least for a while. A hard-pressed lioness could be forgiven for reflecting that life would be so much easier if she could just stay at home with her cubs and eat peanuts.

And these reluctant predators are victims of another biological limitation: not only the limitation on what they can digest, but also a limitation on the means of obtaining it. We humans have the kind of intelligence that allows us to hunt without taxing our bodies too much: bows and arrows, spears, guns, four-wheel drives, helicopters. The eagle is impressive in its aerial feats, powerful talons, and keen eyesight; but it lacks the ability to shoot at prey from afar or catch it in a net or organize a hunting party. So the carnivore is also a victim of its limited brain: it is condemned by its brain to using only what nature gave it. We humans have the advantage here: not only are we omnivores, we can also use our brains to augment our body’s natural endowments. No doubt this looks like cheating from an eagle’s point of view, but it is a moral certainty that the eagle would accept the augmentation were it offered. Natural selection, however, in addition to giving nature’s top predators a restrictive digestive system, has also given them a restrictive cognitive system, which makes life even harder. You can only eat meat andyou can only obtain it by running it down yourself. The apex predator is thus restricted in its ability to live an acceptable life; indeed, we might say that it is condemned to live one the toughest and most demanding lifestyles on planet earth. If I try to imagine what it is like to be a lion, I picture intense hunger, anxiety, fear, fatigue, and pain—with brief periods of relief from the strain of simply staying alive. God did lions no favors when he made them apex predators, and he must have disliked eagles equally. Why not at least give them the option of eating something else when the going gets tough?

I have two cats and one of them likes to catch lizards and chew their tails off while they are still alive. I feel for the poor lizards (sometimes I manage to save them) but I also wonder what it would be like for the cat if this were its only source of sustenance. It’s hard to say who has it worse, predator or prey. No doubt we like to project our own fantasies onto the animal world, elevating some animals to the pinnacle of the food chain, but really we should spare a thought for those poor apex predators. Life at the top is not always what it seems.[1]

 

[1] It is a good question which animal has the cushiest lifestyle. All life is afflicted with scarcity and danger, but some animals seem less stressed than others. Tree dwellers always strike me as more content than other animals, because of the availability of food and the relative safety of life in the trees. Bees used to be happy.

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The Mind Problem

 

The Mind Problem

 

 

What makes body possible? What are the conditions of the possibility of material objects? Space: bodies are essentially extended things and space is the home of extended things. Without space body would be impossible; with it body slots smoothly into place. Space and body are intelligibly connected, made for each other. A world consisting of space and bodies in space is an intelligible and possible world, not a peculiar and paradoxical one. For instance, parts of bodies, even minute parts, map neatly onto parts of space. The two seem designed to fit together. An intelligent God would approve. But now ask what makes mind possible: what are the conditions of possibility for minds to exist? Minds are not extended things but rather conscious things: their essence is thought (as Descartes put it) not extension. So space is not the matrix into which they naturally fit—its properties do not map onto the properties of mind. Parts of consciousness don’t match up with parts of space; the very idea seems like a category mistake. So what does make mind possible? That is the problem I am calling “the mind problem”.

One response is to invoke a different type of underlying reality: instead of extended space we introduce a non-spatial substance or realm. Call this “immaterial substance”; then we say that what makes mind possible is the existence of an immaterial substance. But this has all the advantages of theft over honest toil, for we can say nothing about the properties of this supposed substance that explains its link to mind. Space has a nature ideally suited to matter, but the supposed non-spatial substance has no nature that we can specify, and so no nature that can explain its power of harboring consciousness. We are merely bandying labels and conjuring phantasms. So this kind of dualism does not solve the mind problem; it simply re-raises it. We still don’t know what gives mind an intelligible foothold in the world. Postulate an immaterial substance if you will, but don’t fool yourself into thinking you have solved anything thereby. For instance, how does the what-it’s-like of consciousness arise from the inner nature of the immaterial substance? Have you really any idea what you are talking about when you utter these words?[1]

Another response is to populate the world with something closer to mind so as to give mind a chance of getting off the ground. Thus we postulate a world of mini minds that can organize into a recognizable macro mind. We call this “panpsychism” and congratulate ourselves on our ingenuity. Now we can map parts to parts, starting with something that will in principle make mind possible, viz. more mind. Here the problem is that the mini minds raise the same question as the macro mind: what makes them possible? They need to slot into the world of extended matter (specifically, the brain), but we have said nothing about how that works; and there is the distinct danger that we will end up declaring them primitive and inexplicable, in which case why not do that to begin with and avoid the detour through the mini mind level? What we don’t have is an analogue of the role of space in relation to matter; instead we have the analogue of postulating lots of mini bodies to explain the existence of macro bodies—but what makes them possible? We already know that space exists, so we can help ourselves to its properties in accounting for the possibility of matter. But in the case of mind we have no such antecedently accepted reality to fall back on.

This is where we might choose to rethink our premises: why not deny that mind lacks extension? True, it seems that way intuitively, but intuitions can be faulty, so we are not obliged to follow their dictates—leaving us the option of asserting that consciousness is an extended thing just like matter. Thoughts and feelings accordingly have length, breadth, and height, size and shape, location and volume—they are no different from regular chunks of matter. Then we have no trouble saying what makes them possible—the same thing that makes bodies possible. We label this liberating doctrine “materialism” and commend ourselves for our intellectual fearlessness in the face of insurmountable paradox. The drawback is that this looks a lot like denying the obvious in order to escape a genuine difficulty: mind simply does not have extension, no way no how. That is like saying that numbers have mass or values have color! What is the exact size of the thought that purity is overvalued? Where are that thought’s parts located? Do some thoughts have different shapes from other thoughts or do they all have the same shape (different from the shape of desires)? Such questions haunt (and daunt) less robust souls than our intrepid materialist.

Have we run out of options? Stunned into silence, another type of theorist wonders if we are able to say anything: perhaps the answer to our question lies beyond our limited powers of comprehension. The conjecture is that in addition to properties of extension material things have other properties of an unknown nature that explain the possibility of mind. These properties are intuitively “closer” to mind than properties of extension, which is just physical geometry. Thus mind comes to exist in virtue of hidden properties of matter, though properties as natural as any known properties. If a race of beings had no notion of space, then they might puzzle over how bodies can exist; we are like that with respect to mind. In reaction to this “mysterian” position many feel that we simply haven’t the foggiest idea what these hidden properties could be, so they doubt that such a view is tenable. Yet the other positions are even less tenable, so we seem stuck in theoretical limbo. The mind problem continues to taunt us.[2]

What is called the mind-body problem could be re-labeled the mind problem, because it concerns the very existence of mind not just its relation to body. It is not that we understand how mind exists and we understand how body exists but we are puzzled about their connection; we don’t really understand how mind exists at all. It exists in virtue of something—something must make it possible—but we draw a blank on saying what it might be. Descartes’ problem goes deeper than even he realized.[3]

 

Colin McGinn

[1] I am not claiming to have decisively refuted the various positions that have been offered in this area in these brief remarks; I am merely summarizing prevailing opinion, or recording familiar objections. I am aiming to articulate the shape of the debate.

[2] Someone might wonder whether time is to mind as space is to body: does mind exist in virtue of time? It is true that consciousness has a temporal dimension, while lacking a spatial dimension, and this seems integral to its essence. Certainly this would restore the analogy to matter and space, but time by itself cannot explain the distinctive features of mind, since it holds equally of non-conscious phenomena. It is not that the features of consciousness map point-by-point onto the structure of time; time is too “thin” to provide this kind of underpinning. Still, the suggestion is worth pondering (could time have a richer nature than we generally recognize?).

[3] Another way to put the point is that mind presents itself as a dependent phenomenon but it is impossible to say what it depends on: it is unintelligibly dependent. The threat is that this epistemic point could turn into metaphysical impossibility. Then we end up denying its very existence.

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