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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Species Psychology

 

Species Psychology

 

 

It is an interesting zoological fact that animals don’t sexually desire animals outside their own species (excluding pathological cases). A particular species may not strike us as sexually desirable, but within it we may suppose that sexual desire runs high; even the most beautiful species on earth will not attract members from outside its ranks. The loveliest human female has nothing to fear from the lascivious attentions of orangutans, say. Sexual desire is species-centric. Why is this? Is it some sort of innate sense of propriety or an instilled taboo? The basic equipment for copulation is present, but the interest is lacking. The reason, as any biologist will tell you, is that species cannot interbreed, so cross-species sex will never lead to offspring. If a gene arose by chance that encouraged sex across species boundaries, it would never make it into future generations, since the mechanics of reproduction disallow the requisite mixing of DNA. Perhaps such a gene has arisen many times, but each time it quickly exits the gene pool because it cannot lead to offspring in which it recurs. If things were different, if species could interbreed, then we may suppose that sexual attraction would be far more promiscuous, since a gene for cross-species sex would lead to offspring containing that gene. Animals would favor animals that look (and smell) quite unlike them—mammals desiring reptiles, birds fancying moles. The result of such copulations would be strange (to us) hybrids, the fruit of inter-specific sex. What prevents this from being the case is a basic physical fact, viz. that DNA can’t combine if it is too different from other DNA. Species sexual psychology is the outcome of a genetic law at a basic chemical level—a kind of psychophysical law. The physics shapes and constrains the psychology. That is the sole explanation for why animals don’t breed with other species. Dogs can breed with other breeds, given the genetic facts, and dog breeds vary enormously; hence dog sexual psychology is flexible as to phenotype. That would be the model for all sexual behavior if DNA were more accommodating. Humans, say, might have a thing for big cats or even elephants, if the DNA were sufficiently flexible: emotion would follow chemistry.

And it is not just a matter of glandular excitation; there is also the question of rivals. Each animal of a given species competes with other animals for mates, sometimes fiercely, even fatally. Males fight other males for access to females. But they don’t worry about males of other species, because these individuals cannot impregnate females of their own species and have no wish to do so. The psychology of aggression and competition is limited to members of the animal’s own species—other orangutans, say. The reason again is that the DNA of other species cannot combine with the DNA of the species in question, so there is no genetic need to ward off suitors from other species. It would be quite different if this were not so: then an animal would need to compete across species boundaries. A male squirrel, say, may need to fight off a handsome snake for the attention of female squirrels; human males may find themselves pitted against massive orangutans for the attentions of human females (the fights would be terrible to behold). The psychology of male-male interactions would conform to the genetic possibilities afforded by inter-species sexual congress. Again, the psychology would be fixed by the chemistry of DNA—not by any supposed proprieties or taboos.[1]

Perhaps on other planets life has evolved without the constraints that terrestrial DNA labors under; on these planets inter-specific sex is common and deemed entirely normal. It would be thought strange to limit one’s erotic interest to one’s own species (too many fish in the sea, as it were). No doubt our own psychology (and that of other terrestrial species) would recoil at such freewheeling ways, but the logic of Darwinian genes predicts it. There is nothing in standard Darwinian evolutionary theory to preclude inter-specific sex, merely the chemical possibilities inherent in DNA. Animals will mate with any animal that can carry its genes into the next generation; species identity is irrelevant. Species psychology simply tags along with the genetic story. If our DNA were less choosy, so would we be.

It may be objected that the scenarios I have envisaged are not logically (metaphysically) possible for the simple reason that interbreeding is the criterion of species identity. If two animals can reproduce together, then they must be of the same species, by definition. But this objection is misguided even if we accept the proposed criterion of species identity. Let us suppose that successful copulation between an orangutan and a crocodile (say) does entail that the two animals are of the same species; that does not gainsay the point that enormous phenotypic differences are compatible with sexual desire. If such a thing became possible tomorrow, there would still be a striking disconnect between psychology and genetics—the animals may as well belong to different species so far as phenotype is concerned. Besides, the interbreeding criterion only works because of de facto correlations between genetic possibility and phenotypic resemblance: if cold-blooded quadrupeds could interbreed with warm-blooded bipeds, we would still need a way to mark the phenotypic distinction—so we may as well say they belong to different species that happen to be able to produce offspring.

No doubt it seems entirely natural to each species to be attracted only to members of its own species—as if anything else is inconceivable—but in reality sexual psychology is fixed by chemical facts that lie outside of anything psychological, or even physiological. Let alone anything preordained by an approving or disapproving divine creator. Intra-specific sexual attraction is an artifact of chemical combinability. Sexuality would be quite different in a world in which DNA could more freely intermingle.

 

Col

[1] The perceptiveness of animals is markedly superior within their own species, as things stand. The reason for this is that animals need to evaluate potential mates or rivals with greater acuity than members of other species given that their genetic future depends on it. In a world in which cross-species reproduction occurs, however, animals would need to extend their perceptiveness beyond their own species; they would need to perform the same exact calculations and careful appraisals of members of other species in order to maximize gene propagation.

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The Concept of Life

 

The Concept of Life

 

 

The concept of life is notoriously hard to define. The OED makes a decent stab at it with the following: “The condition that distinguishes animals and plants from inorganic matter, including the capacity for growth, functional activity, and continual change preceding death”. The first part of this is blatantly circular, since “inorganic matter” just means “lifeless matter”, so we are being told that life is the opposite of non-life. All we can gain from this is that “life” is a contrastive term, distinguishing animals and plants from such things as rocks and water. But the rest of the definition gives us more to chew on: life involves growth, activity with a function, and continual change, culminating in death. I would emphasize that life involves birth, youth, maturity, old age, and death: developmental stages in which there is growth, relative stasis, and decline. This growth is not purely a matter of increasing size, since organisms can grow in their complexity and sophistication (the brain is the obvious example). We speak of the mind growing, reaching maturity, and then declining, thus conceiving it as part of life—as a living thing. We also refer to our “inner life” or “mental life”. The dictionary does not stipulate such properties as homeostasis or reproduction or metabolism or DNA; no doubt these characterize life on earth, but they don’t belong in a definition, because they are too parochial. They provide neither necessary nor sufficient conditions for the concept of life as such. For example, crystals reproduce (replicate) but they are not living, and we do not withhold the concept from animals that are unable to reproduce. Our concept of a living thing does not require these conditions to be met, though they are certainly typical of actual living things, as we know them. The concept is neither a family resemblance concept nor a primitive concept nor a concept rigorously definable by means of necessary and sufficient conditions; it is a concept that can be roughly glossed in terms of such features as growth, functional (goal-directed) activity, and change unto death. We might call it a “typical features concept”.

Does the concept apply to anything other than whole organisms? Does it apply to the parts of whole organisms? It would be wrong to say that the molecules that compose an organism are living things (certainly not the atomic constituents of such molecules), but it isn’t a stretch to say that the gross organs that compose a body are themselves living things. The heart is a living thing and it fits the dictionary definition: it grows, actively functions, and changes till death stops it—and similarly for the other bodily organs. Also, it seems right to say that cells are living things, because they too fit the definition—they grow, act functionally, and eventually die off. Even outside the context of an organism these entities count as living things. Bacteria do too—though viruses are not clearly living things (they can’t survive without a host cell and lack the kind of development characteristic of life forms). They are more like tiny robots that invade an organism, replicating but not really living. They disappear or disintegrate, but they don’t really die; they don’t have a childhood, a middle age, and an old age followed by death—they don’t change form in these ways. In any case, the definition applies to bodily organs as well as whole organisms. The tougher question is whether the organs of the mind qualify as living things. The eyes are living things, but is vision a living thing? Is memory a living thing? Is language a living thing? Is the rational faculty a living thing? We certainly think that persons are living things—and they clearly fit the definition—but do the mental faculties characteristic of persons also qualify? If so, that would make psychology into a branch of biology by definition—and philosophy too, if it deals with such faculties. I shall suggest that they do so qualify: so mental organs are as much living things as bodily organs.

The obvious point is that the faculties in question bear the marks of life as specified in the dictionary definition: growth, change, and functional activity. Memory, intelligence, the senses, language ability, consciousness, and the emotions all develop and grow during ontogenesis, display functional characteristics, and suffer decline in their later stages, eventually ceasing to exist with death. They may be healthy or diseased, effective or defective, and they are bound up with the survival of the organism. They are not extraneous to the life of the organism but integral to it. No doubt they have an innate component as well as acquiring features as they mature. They are adapted to the organism’s environment–part of the equipment the organism brings to its life. So the components of mind are as much living things as the components of the body. The study of the mind is thus a study of an aspect of life, hence a part of biology. This kind of perspective is not entirely alien to the analytical tradition in philosophy—there is Wittgenstein’s “form of life” and Husserl’s lebenswelt (life-world), for example—but it is not taken as a clear truth and generally acknowledged. The categories of Mind and Matter are standard philosophical categories, but we don’t hear much about the third category of Life. Nor is it that this category has suffered any demotion in intellectual history comparable to the travails of the concept of matter: it isn’t as if Darwin destroyed the notion of life as Newton destroyed the notion of matter by introducing the “occult” force of gravity. It is true that the conception of life as an expression of the “vital spirit” has fallen into disrepute, but that is not to say that the concept of life itself has fallen upon hard times. So there is nothing suspect about using the concept of life to describe the faculties of mind and body as well as complete organisms. There is nothing “non-natural” afoot here, or conceptually bankrupt. We are simply resisting the tendency to take the mind to belong to some sort of supernatural realm by insisting that it belongs to biology—not because of any reductive urge but because mind is an evolved and functional trait of organisms. Growth, maturity, and decline are aspects of its natural history, setting it apart from inanimate matter, which neither matures nor ages nor acts functionally.

Are there any other living things that are not conventionally described as such? How far can the concept be legitimately extended? Rocks, planets, and electrons are clearly not living things, but what about numbers or geometric forms? I think not: they don’t display the sort of developmental arc characteristic of life, and they don’t die or contract diseases or suffer injuries. Is God a living thing (as God is traditionally conceived)? Jesus certainly was, being part man, but what about God the Father? There is no birth or death in his case, to be sure, but there is purpose and activity, not stasis and aimlessness. Perhaps God is partly a living thing—a quasi-organism (blasphemous as that may sound). The concept is perhaps not clear enough to yield a determinate answer. Hair and fingernails also hover on the border, exhibiting both growth and functionality, but lacking in feeling and organic substance (they are made of keratin and consist of dead cells). What about human productions like artifacts and systems of belief? Artifacts have functions and something close to birth and death, but they lack self-directedness and adaptability; thus they can give an appearance of life while lacking the key ingredients of life (robots, in particular). Fire too can look like a living thing, but it has no functional properties: it grows and changes and dies out, but it never does anything directed towards a goal. What about physics or religion? We might describe them as having a birth and undergoing growth, possibly entering a mature phase, conceivably dying a death; but this seems metaphorical in the absence of active self-propelled survival tactics. Physics and religion don’t strive to stay alive by exploiting the environment functionally. Particular natural languages are similar: we speak of “dead” languages like Latin, but there is no active self-preservation on the part of Latin. The idea of a meme might seem more promising: memes replicate and proliferate, following Darwinian logic, but they don’t engage in functional activity (certainly no metabolism or functional organization)—they lack a physiology. Perhaps surprisingly, genes are dubious candidates for life too: genes are not themselves living things despite their role in the life of living things. Genes (bits of DNA) don’t grow and mature or purposefully act to preserve themselves—they are not like mini organisms. The double helix is not an animal or a plant, however microscopic: it is a chemical, and chemicals are not alive. No one has ever seen a strand of DNA scavenging for food or trying to find a mate or running for its life or growing protective spikes. Genes lack the chief characteristics of life: they cause life but they are not alive. Cells yes, genes no. Are beliefs alive? That sounds odd, and not without reason: beliefs are states of living things but are not themselves living things, since they lack the features of growth, self-directed functional activity, and eventual death. It is a category mistake to say that beliefs can be healthy or unhealthy, alive or dead, though they may make the organism that has them to be so describable. In general, states and properties of organisms are not themselves living things: being hairy or strong is not a living thing, merely a property of a living thing. Is the unconscious mind a living thing? As conceived by Freud, it may qualify, as it is self-like in its organization, like a second buried person: it has a natural history, it is functionally active, and it keeps changing till death puts a stop to its machinations. The brain certainly is a living thing and presumably the unconscious occupies a part of the brain (the occipital lobe is a living thing). Are art and music living things? They mimic life to some degree—they originate, mature, and expire like life—but again they lack autonomous functional activity. Is the earth a living thing? Some have supposed so and one can understand why, but again the suggestion seems metaphorical given that the earth itself lacks goals and goal-directed activity. The universe looks to have a birth (the big bang), a mature period, and then an end (the big crunch), but to call it living is stretching the concept given that it lacks goal-directed activity. It is perhaps an epistemic possibility that it has goals we know nothing of, and might even be one of a multitude of other goal-directed universes, in which case it is one exceedingly large organism; but that is not our usual conception of the universe, so as far as we know it is not alive. The concept of life may not be precisely defined but it is quite restrictive. It is important to get right what it does apply to and what it does not apply to.[1]

 

[1] A note about the connection between consciousness and life: the former is neither necessary nor sufficient for the latter. Not necessary because many living things are not conscious (plants obviously), and not sufficient because we can conceive of non-living robots that are conscious. In the case of conscious robots we have a curious hybrid in that while their bodies may not be living things their minds may be: the body may lack organic development (being born as “adults”) but they could be designed so as to develop and grow mentally. They would thus be physically lifeless but mentally alive. Isn’t this just how some fictional robots appear?

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Phenomenological Knowledge

Phenomenological Knowledge

 

 

There is debate concerning our ability to know the nature of alien consciousness, but there is no debate concerning our ability to know the nature of our own consciousness. It is argued that we can’t know what it is like to be a bat, but accepted that we can know what it is like to be a human, since human is what we are.[1] Similarly, it is doubted that a blind person can know what it is like to see, but it is not doubted that a seeing person can know what it is like to see. Some maintain, to the contrary, that it is possible to grasp the nature of a consciousness that one does not have: but no one questions whether we can know the consciousness we do have—we assuredly know what thatconsciousness is like. The thought is that one knows consciousness from one’s own case, so of course we know what it is like to be us. I know what it is like to be a normal conscious human since I am one, though it is doubtful that I can grasp other types of consciousness. But is this really so obvious—do I unerringly grasp what is like to be me? Do I occupy such a privileged position with respect to knowing my own phenomenology? Do I, for example, really know what it is like to see? Do I know what it is like to see red, say? Is this alleged knowledge infallible, complete, and unassailable? Is the character of my consciousness transparent to me?

Does a bat know what it is like to be a bat? The answer is surely not: the bat has echolocation experiences but it doesn’t have knowledge of those experiences. It doesn’t have the kind of reflective introspective knowledge that we have of our experiences. It doesn’t have concepts of its experiences, though it has the experiences. Certainly bats have no words for their experiences. There is something it is like to be a bat but bats don’t know what that is (no true justified belief about it). Generalizing, animals don’t tend to know what it’s like to be them, though there is something it’s like. Maybe our close primate cousins know what it’s like to be them, but if so they are the exception in the animal kingdom. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if we are the only animals on earth that know what is like to be themselves: only we have the cognitive sophistication necessary to form concepts of our own experiences, and hence have the phenomenological knowledge that we have (as we suppose). That kind of knowledge is by no means an automatic consequence of possessing the experience; it is not a package deal. The fact is one thing; knowledge of it is another. Phenomenological knowledge is superimposed on phenomenology not written into it. Seen from this perspective, it is surprising that we have the kind of phenomenological knowledge we have (or seem to have)—shouldn’t we be as ignorant of our phenomenology as other animals are of theirs? Why then do we uncritically assume that our phenomenological knowledge is so inerrant? Phenomenology is quite hard to know, if other animals are anything to go by, so why assume that we have it down pat? We are pretty bad at grasping the phenomenology of other species, so why assume we are so brilliant at grasping our own?

You might reply that we have an introspective faculty and they don’t. That is undoubtedly true, but it doesn’t answer the question: for how does this faculty generate the knowledge in question? Philosophers have spoken of “knowledge by acquaintance”, but no explanation is given of how this works exactly. The thought appears to be that we perceive our own conscious states with the introspective faculty and then somehow derive the concepts and accompanying knowledge from this perception. But perception alone is neither necessary nor sufficient for knowledge, and anyway this whole story is notoriously rickety. What is this “derivation”—is it some kind of “abstraction” in the manner of Locke and Hume? And why should it yield the kind of fullness and infallibility that we tend to ascribe to our phenomenological knowledge? Isn’t it possible that our self-knowledge in this respect should be partial, fallible, superficial, and erroneous? Why should the phenomenological facts be transparently given to us? No doubt the phenomenology evolved first, so why should the later cognitive ability perfectly match the facts it seeks to represent? Maybe the facts exceed what we can know of them, so that we don’t fully grasp even what it is like to see red. Or maybe we misattribute qualities to our experience that they don’t really have. Maybe we only imperfectly grasp what it’s like to be us. Just as we might know more about bat experience than the bat, given its limited cognitive abilities, so a possible being might know more about our experience than we do, given our cognitive limitations. We are certainly not too impressive at saying what it’s like to be us. We can’t put it into words. Our so-called knowledge seems notably inarticulate, purely ostensive, and suspiciously private. Maybe a superior being would disdainfully remark, “Those humans have no idea what it’s like to be a human!”—just as we say the same about bats. A skeptic might even insist that we could be completely wrong about our phenomenology, stressing the distinction between phenomenological facts and knowledge of those facts. So we can’t just assumethat we are omniscient with respect to what it’s like to be us. A human child presumably undergoes a transition from merely possessing a phenomenology to knowing that it does, and it is not to be supposed that this is a move from complete ignorance to complete knowledge; more likely, it is piecemeal and partial, possibly flawed. Curiously, though, it strikes us that we have a kind of godlike insight into our phenomenological make-up, whereas we have no such insight into our bodily make-up. But that would be peculiar given the nature of the facts and our generally feeble grasp of phenomenology (even those little bats defeat us!). When God looks into our visual consciousness he might see there a lot more than is evident to us, with blind spots and areas of error, or even wholesale ignorance. We have some idea of what it’s like to be us, as perhaps chimps have some idea of what it’s like to be them, but that is not to say that we have the kind of superior penetrating knowledge that we tend to assume. For example, there might be phenomenological similarities between vision and hearing that we are oblivious to (as the case of bats would suggest). Or maybe perceptions of shape and color are more distinct than our phenomenological knowledge indicates: what it is like to see the two might be more disparate than we suppose (their difference of objectivity might be clearly etched into the phenomenology). At the extreme a skeptic could hold out the possibility that we are quite wrong about what it’s like to be us—maybe we are much more like bats than we suppose! Maybe our visual experience is not really as we believe it to be. It is not that we are wrong to make the self-ascriptions that we do—we really do see red and feel pain—but when it comes to grasping the natureof our experience our knowledge might be quite defective. If so, our self-knowledge is closer to our knowledge of others than we uncritically suppose: we partially grasp the nature of bat experience but we also only partially grasp the nature of our own experience. It is not that we are totally inept in the alien case but magically flawless in the home case; it is more a matter of degree. If our introspective eye could be magnified tenfold, we might be surprised at how our phenomenology looks: it might look a lot richer and stranger than it does now. It might indeed strike us as undeniably alien.

Suppose we came to the conclusion that we don’t know what it’s like to be us—to see, hear, smell, taste, feel, etc. We could then argue that our consciousness can’t be reduced to the brain because we have no such cognitive limitation with respect to the brain: our ignorance of our phenomenology is not matched by our ignorance of the brain. This would be an anti-materialist argument of the same form as the classic bat argument, but without the bats. If we can’t know what it’s like to be us but we can know all about our brain, then facts about what it’s like can’t be facts about the brain. We would be more ignorant of our phenomenology than materialism can explain.[2]

 

Colin McGinn

 

 

 

 

[1]Thomas Nagel argues thus in “What Is It Like to be a Bat?” and many others too.

[2] We could call this the “ignorance argument”: just as we are more ignorant of a bat’s mind than materialism can explain, given that we can have complete knowledge of a bat’s brain, so we might be more ignorant of our own mind than materialism can explain, given that we can have complete knowledge of our brain. This provides a new twist to a familiar line of thought.

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Is Biology a Normative Science?

 

 

Is Biology a Normative Science?

 

 

At first sight biology would appear to be steeped in normative concepts. Animals act for their own individual good or for the good of their offspring or for the good of the species,[1] and their organs are designed to promote these goods. Biologists speak of adaptations, where an adaptation is a trait that benefits an organism, or possibly other organisms—it is a trait that contributes to wellbeing in some way. The OED defines “adaptation” thus: “a change or the process of change by which an organism or species becomes better suited to its environment”: the phrase “better suited” is normatively loaded (as normally understood). Adaptive traits contribute to fitness, health, survival, flourishing, robustness—all these are normative notions. It is a good thing to be adaptive. We might naively suppose that adaptations help ward off death, which is a bad thing, so that makes them things of value. We might even suppose that adaptations promote the happiness of organisms (in those organisms capable of happiness): they make the animal less prone to disease or injury or hunger or loneliness. Evolution produces, by means of mutation and natural selection, organisms that are constituted so as to live longer and do better than their evolutionary rivals—the “survival of the fittest”. The fitter the organism the better it will perform in the race to reproduce and pass on its genes, so evolution favors the good—health, wealth, and happiness. It favors strength, speed, agility, beauty, intelligence, and the absence of neurosis—all those good things. So we might suppose that biology as a science is concerned to study the means and mechanisms that contribute to something of value: life, health, and fitness. Its theme song is “I Will Survive”.

But this naïve picture is apt to make the professional biologist wince, precisely because it interprets biology as centrally concerned with questions of value. Physics and chemistry don’t deal with value, so how can biology be a “natural science” if it does deal with value? Worse, isn’t value really a subjective matter? We like to say that life is good (and death bad), and that happiness is better than misery, but these are subjective value judgments not reports of objective fact. What if other intelligent beings made different judgments of value—wouldn’t that mean that biology is only relatively true? No, biology must be purged of all such subjective normative notions, on pain of not being an objective science. Admittedly, it may be conceded, the vocabulary of biology might naturally be interpreted in a normative manner, but that is merely superficial; all these terms can be defined without reliance on normative notions, which are merely heuristic. Thus we can define an adaptation as a trait that maximizes the number of an organism’s offspring, or a trait that ensures the maximal propagation of genes into future generations. There is nothing normatively good about this property; we define it in strictly mathematical and descriptive terms. Evolution produces organisms that outperform their rivals at causing a certain outcome—offspring creation or gene propagation. We don’t say whether this is good or bad, merely a fact. The biologist quabiologist is not concerned with the value of life in the way we are concerned with it as moral beings that make value judgments; he or she is normatively neutral about life and death, merely regarding them as biological facts that affect the power of organisms to generate copies of themselves or their genes. Thus biology is an objective science as “natural” as physics and chemistry, and not mired in the subjectivity of the normative. It is true that the facts it describes and explains are correlated with things we treat as having value–being alive for longer (surviving) is correlated with producing more offspring than your rivals—but biology is not concerned with value as such. It is no doubt good to be healthy, but health is only relevant to biology as a fact that can contribute to offspring generation. Medicine cares about health in the normative sense—doctors strive to realize an admittedly valuable thing—but biology as a science is not concerned with such matters. Doctors are ethical beings by profession, but biologists are scientists—they deal only in facts. Any appearance to the contrary can easily be removed by appropriate redefinition.

Let’s consider some thought experiments. Suppose that a certain trait has the property that it increases procreative productivity but decreases wellbeing in the ordinary sense: it makes the organism have more offspring but at the same time it makes it less healthy, less long-lived, less happy. Picture this as an odd kind of disease that causes all the organism’s energy resources to go into its reproductive organs. Conspecifics that lack this trait live longer, are healthier, and enjoy life more, but they don’t produce as many children; maybe their reproductive years are simply fewer, while their sicklier comrades go on reproducing to the bitter end (fewer kids, good life; lots of kids, rotten life). According to the objective conception of biology, the latter organisms are more adaptive, fitter, and more biologically successful than their healthier counterparts. Or suppose that the sicklier organisms produce sicklier offspring compared to the less procreative but healthy organisms: there are more of them but they are not as robust and full of the joy of life. Then they are more reproductively “successful” than their rivals, if we define success numerically, simply because there are more of them. Suppose that intelligence causes animals to restrict the number of their offspring, the better to take care of the kids they have, so that intelligence acts counter-reproductively: that would lead to less intelligent animals having more kids. So intelligence wouldn’t be an adaptation in the biologist’s objective sense: it wouldn’t lead to comparatively higher reproductive productivity. So what we regard as good when making value judgments is not “good” in the biologist’s austere sense. Suppose that a species has two sorts of member, the sort that retain consciousness throughout life and the sort that have consciousness only up to an certain age, after which they become zombies. However, the loss of consciousness has no impact on reproductive fitness; in fact it enhances it because it allows more resources to be directed to the reproductive organs. Then whatever value life has in the ordinary sense evaporates when the age of unconsciousness begins, though in the biologist’s sense these zombie organisms are a roaring biological success—look how many of them there are! If you are a biologist member of this species, you might relish the loss of consciousness because it will enable you to outdo your rivals in the reproduction stakes—though of course you will derive no pleasure from this victory, since you are a zombie. What these thought experiments all illustrate is that the objective non-normative notion of adaptation (and allied notions) can logically come apart from the ordinary normative notions we bring to biological understanding. What is bad in the ordinary sense becomes “good” in the stipulated sense, and what is good becomes “bad”.

Now it is not that this stipulation is impossible or contradictory, but it is instructive to see how far it departs from ordinary notions of fitness, success, adaptation, etc. In order to make biology like physics and chemistry we have to detach it from the ordinary understanding of the form and function of organisms. We normally think that the form and function of organisms contributes to their wellbeing, health, happiness, and life expectancy—all regarded as valuable things—but we are told that this is of no concern to biology as a science, which deals only in causal relations between traits and their reproductive consequences. As things actually stand, these two levels coincide, more or less, but this is not a necessary truth; and once we separate the two we see how far the official conception of biology departs from our ordinary conception of organisms. What I want to suggest now is that we should not accept the elimination of commonsense biology, indeed that it is quite wrong to suppose that a normative biology is somehow unscientific or lacking in objectivity. The first, and weaker, claim I want to make is that there is room for both sorts of biology, properly distinguished: we can do objective biology in the sense outlined and we can do a normatively loaded type of biology closer to common sense. There certainly are facts of the kind identified by the austerely objective type of biology, so it is possible to study these facts; but there are also facts of the kind the second type of biology recognizes—facts of health, flourishing, happiness, etc. There is nothing to stop us from studying how these facts are produced and what their consequences are. We can investigate what traits are adaptive with respect to these facts—what traits are apt to lead to their obtaining. Strong muscles, an effective immune system, efficient digestion—these all help to produce valuable states of organisms (life, pleasure, vigor). The imaginary organisms I described will have adaptive traits in this sense, though not perhaps in the other sense, since their health, happiness, and continued life depend on their biological make-up. So we can envisage two types of biology, each focusing on a specific kind of fact—reproductive fecundity or valuable states of conscious beings. These subjects can coexist and are not in competition with each other. We could call them “normative biology” and “non-normative biology”. A given biologist might identify as a normative biologist, while others are proud non-normative biologists (compare social and physical anthropology).

But it may still be insisted that the normative type of biology is not objective, not scientific, and not factual. To this I make two replies: the first is that this is a substantive stance in philosophical value theory, not a datum we are required to accept. According to value objectivists, the value of life and happiness (etc.) is objective, absolute, and incontrovertible—not subjective, relative, and disputable. So we can’t just assume as a dogma that where there is value there must be subjectivity; nor that value and science are incompatible. This may be a philosophical opinion common among biologists, but it is not an opinion we are obliged to endorse. I certainly don’t, but I won’t pursue the matter now. The second, and more telling, reply is that it is a biological process that has caused value to come into the world: evolution by natural selection is a value-generator, an engine of the normative. For evolution is what has led to the thing we call life, to consciousness, to freedom, to knowledge, even to virtue: these are biological phenomena, i.e. results of biological processes—as much as hearts and kidneys, species and genes. For example, pain is an adaptation brought about by mutation and natural selection—a biological trait built into the genes—and pain has a normative dimension, i.e. it is bad. It hurts, it is not something we desire, it is connected to death; a life with it is worse than one without. So actually it is the duty of a biologist to be interested in value: it is part of his subject matter. It is an aspect of the evolutionary process.[2] Not that the evolutionary process aimed at value, but it did bring things of value into the world—they are a biological outcome, like teeth and flesh. Evolution caused there to be things of value in the world (this is not to say that it caused them to be valuable). And aren’t biologists supposed to be interested in the products of evolution? Darwin’s great book is called The Origin of Species, but he could have also written a book called The Origin of Value. According to the rival theory, God is behind the origin of value since he intentionally created beings about which value judgments can be made—and God was generally supposed the origin of all value. Darwin tells us that value was created by a natural process beginning with value-neutral materials (inorganic matter): that is, the traits of animals that have value (positive or negative) arose by a process that had no value at its origin or in its mode of operation. That is a highly significant claim, and one that every biologist should heed. So the biologist must study the organism as an entity laden with value; and part of that is recognizing that its traits contribute to the value of the organism’s life. When we say that organs of the body and mind are adaptive we mean (or should mean) that they contribute to valuable states of the organism. These can vary from hedonic states to cognitive states to moral states, depending on the organism. Granted that it is good to he happy, good to know things, and good to be virtuous, we can say that biology is properly concerned with the value of these products of the evolutionary process. If eyes lead to knowledge, then eyes are good, because knowledge is good; if taste buds lead to pleasure, then taste buds are good, because pleasure is good; and so on. Traits enable good things and hence are adaptive with respect to those things. They may also be adaptive in a non-normative sense by producing an outcome that lacks any normative dimension, such as the sheer number of offspring or the volume of genes that get passed on. I would regard the latter as a derivative notion of adaptation; the primary notion relates to facts with normative significance. Likewise, when we speak of “fitness” we primarily mean it in the ordinary normative sense; the non-normative use is a derivative sense. There is really nothing wrong with accepting that biology is steeped in normative notions, and we may as well acknowledge that fact. Biology is more like medicine than physics.[3]

 

C

[1] Actually animals never act “for the good of the species”, but people talk this way clearly intending a normative assertion.

[2] I hope it is clear that this claim is not tantamount to some sort of biological reductionism about value, as that “good” is definable as “what natural selection selects”. It is merely the claim that the things that are valuable are precisely the things that have evolved by biological processes, particularly states of mind. So the biologist is unavoidably studying things that have intrinsic value. It is a good question whether any evolutionary process will inevitably lead to things with value built into them.

[3] Medicine is really applied biology, so the notions it works with (notably health) need to be grounded in biological fact; and so they are because biology deals with facts that have value. Psychology is a branch of biology, and psychological facts are the locus of value.

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Mind-Dependence

 

Mind-Dependence

 

Idealism is the thesis that the world is mind-dependent. In particular, the things we call material objects are dependent on the mind for their existence: to be is to be perceived. Realism is the thesis that the world is mind-independent, so that material objects can exist whether perceived or not. Here is a simple argument against idealism and in favor of realism: the mind depends on the brain, which is a material object, but no material object can depend for its existence on another material object; therefore, material objects cannot depend for their existence on minds. If material objects depended on minds for their existence, then they would depend on brains for their existence, because minds depend on brains; but brains are material objects, which would imply that other material objects depend for their existence on these material objects, but material objects never depend on other material objects for their existence; so material objects cannot be mind-dependent, and idealism is false. I think this is a valid argument, but it may be thought to beg the question: for can’t we say that brains also are mind-dependent? But suppose that were so: it would imply that the being of brains consists in their being perceived—but those very perceptions would themselves depend for their existence on a brain, and hence would call for a material object to exist that is not itself merely a perception. Perceptions of brains need brains too. Moreover, suppose that we had never perceived a brain and had no knowledge of the existence of brains: there would then be no perception of a brain for a brain’s existence to be dependent on. No, the existence of brains cannot be a matter of the existence of perceptions of brains; the existence of brains is an objective matter that is necessary in order for minds to exist. But since material objects can never depend for their existence on the existence of another material object, including a brain, they cannot depend for their existence on minds. The doctrine of “cerebralism” has zero credibility—that is, the doctrine that the entire material world depends on the existence of brains. No one supposes that tables and chairs, trees and mountains, depend on brains. That would not be idealism but a peculiar form of materialism—everything material is really one type of material thing. This is not the identification of reality with appearance, as idealism maintains, but the identification of reality in general with brain reality in particular (neurons, blood, brain chemicals).

Why don’t we see this point, thus rendering ourselves immune to idealism? The reason is that the dependence of mind on brain is opaque to us: we don’t have a grasp of how the mind depends on the brain, though we know that it does. Thus we think we can conceive of a universe in which minds exist but brains don’t, which contradicts the thesis of necessary brain dependence. But such intuitions are immediately suspect stemming as they do from ignorance of the mind-brain nexus. Not that the brain must be just as we conceive it, but there has to be something to do the job of the brain even if it isn’t exactly as we conceive this thing now (even Berkeley saw the necessity for finite and infinite spirits in addition to the ideas that exist in them). The fact is that (barring skepticism) we have discovered empirically that brains are the basis and sine qua non of minds, so that any dependence on the mind is also a dependence on the brain: but brains cannot be what material objects in general depend on, since material objects don’t depend for their existence on other material objects.[1]

Note that the idealist claim is never that the world depends on someone’s mind (unless that someone is God); it is the thesis that my mind is what the world depends on. The idealist never says that the world depends for its existence on (say) the mind of Justin Bieber: why him, we might wonder. But we are easily seduced into thinking that our own mind might be the one on which everything depends (the world is my world). Why? Because of a certain kind of egocentrism: we don’t tend to see ourselves as merely one subject among many. Once I see myself as something in the world along with other subjects, I see that the world as a whole cannot depend on me in particular—why me and not him? Putting this together with the point about brain-dependence, why should reality depend upon my brain, which is just one brain among many (many billions in fact)? Why should this particular material object (the one in this head) be the font of all being? My brain does not enjoy this momentous privilege, and neither does my mind. In the case of God we are more inclined to accept that God’s mind could be the basis of all being, but that is because we don’t tend to see him as merely one person among many, with no more power to generate reality than anyone else; also, we are far hazier about the kind of existence God possesses. But putting aside this kind of theistic idealism and sticking to the usual secular kind, there has to be a question about whose mind is doing the ontological work; and Colin McGinn’s mind is no more privileged in this respect than Justin Bieber’s mind (rather less so). I am just one subject among countless others, and my brain is one among a multitude of brains (cf. my kidneys), so reality as a whole can’t depend on my mind or my brain. I am something in the world; it is not in me. We only fail to see this because of a stubborn (and callow) egocentrism that insists on putting ourselves at the center of things.

Once we see that our minds depend on our brains, and that our brains are just material objects among other material objects, the appeal of idealism evaporates. The world can never reduce to my world, i.e. how it seems subjectively to me. There must be a reality external to my experience (starting with the brain). This would not need arguing if the dependence of mind on brain were written into our everyday lived experience, but that would imply that the mind-body problem has a readily accessible solution. In a way, the mind-body problem is at the root of idealism: a solution to the former would do away with the latter.[2]

 

Colin McGinn

[1] Spatially separate from them: of course, objects can depend for their existence on their parts. But it is not plausible to suppose that ordinary material objects have brains as parts. The general principle I am relying on is the standard notion of a material substance—that which does not depend on other substances for its existence (“self-subsistent”).

[2] I don’t wish to suggest that idealism is not a respectable philosophical position; indeed, I think that the debate between idealism and realism is one of philosophy’s deepest questions. I am simply pointing out its connection to the mind-body problem, also one of philosophy’s deepest questions. Idealism is as attractive as the mind-body problem is hard.

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Animal Deontology

 

Animal Deontology

 

 

The moral theory usually applied to animal ethics is utilitarianism. We are to be concerned exclusively with the suffering and happiness of animals: we must minimize animal disutility and maximize animal utility. That, and only that, is what animals have a right to expect (transposing utilitarianism into a rights-based theory). This seems eminently reasonable: how could a deontological theory apply to animals? How could it be wrong to lie to animals or break promises made to them or be ungrateful to them? They don’t have language or freely perform acts of generosity towards us. We don’t have a duty to carry out their last will and testament, simply because they don’t make wills. The only duties that bind us in relation to animals are related to suffering and (possibly) happiness—the kind that reflect their nature as sentient beings. We don’t have any duty to educate them in world history or respect them as persons or listen to their defenses of their actions or grant them due process in a court of law, since these all presuppose attributes that they don’t possess (even the most intelligent ones). So animals only partially fall under morality as we apply it to humans; they don’t have the kind of across-the-board moral standing we typically accord to each other. They are not full moral beings like our neighbors and friends or people from other lands. They exist a step down the moral ladder, not quite as deserving as fellow humans. True, they fully deserve not to be made to suffer unnecessarily, just like people, but they are not de jure recipients of the full range of duties recognized under deontological ethics. And this shapes our general moral attitude towards them.

But this picture, accepted as self-evident, seems to me fundamentally wrong. Let’s start with lying and promise-breaking (a kind of lying): true, one cannot tell a lie to a dog or break a promise, since dogs don’t understand the relevant speech acts, but performing a false speech act is not what the wrongness of lying and promise-breaking consists in. It isn’t a matter of falsehood as such, or else actors would be liars, but rather of deceiving someone by making false statements. It is the deceiving and misleading that is wrong, not the fact that it is done in language: creating false beliefs and raising dashed expectations is what is wrong. But it is possible to do that non-linguistically: you can act in such a way as intentionally to generate the belief in a dog that it is about to be taken for a walk, but then decline to take it. You can pretend to put food in a bowl for the dog to eat and then hand it an empty bowl. You can regularly give the dog a treat at a certain time each day so as to create an expectation, and then intentionally omit to do so on a particular day, thus disappointing its expectations. These are all examples of deceiving and misleading an animal, even though the means adopted is not a speech act in a shared language. And don’t you normally feel a duty to take the dog for a walk if you have created the expectation that a walk is in the offing? Isn’t it incumbent on you to feed your cat in the morning given that its past experience has led it to expect to be fed then? So the duties that come under the heading of truth-telling and promise-keeping in deontological ethics are applicable to animals, though they are not linguistically mediated.[1] In fact, animals belong with pre-linguistic human infants in this respect: in both cases deception is possible without the mediation of language, and it is as wrong as linguistically mediated deception.

Here we can make a general point about morality, namely that we are apt to be too fixated on language in applying moral principles. We have become familiar with such concepts as racism, sexism, and speciesism as markers of discriminatory types of moral stance; but we can add to this list speech-ism as another type of discrimination, i.e. taking the possession of language as a criterion of moral standing. In fact, language has nothing essentially to do with morality—it is not a morally relevant characteristic. Being capable of being deceived is a morally relevant characteristic, but it is possible to have that and not understand language. If we all lost our linguistic ability tomorrow, that would not affect our moral standing, so long as the rest of our psychology remained intact. It is a failure of imagination to suppose that animals that don’t speak like us don’t have the moral standing that we enjoy; they simply lack a contingent human attribute that evolved some 200,000 years ago while still possessing a psychology much like ours, cognitively and affectively. Language possession is like gender or race or species—not a litmus test for equal moral consideration. Animals can suffer and therefore should not be made to suffer for no good reason, but animals can also be deceived and therefore should not be deceived for no good reason. Suppose you were to poison your dog by giving it tainted food: there would be the wrongful act of causing the dog to suffer (and maybe die) but also the wrongful act of misleading the dog about the food it has been given to eat. It doesn’t matter whether the misleading is done through language or in some other way; it is wrong in either case. Allowing for a bit of poetic license, we can say simply and succinctly that it is wrong to lie to animals and to break promises made to them, i.e. to mislead them intentionally. What makes it wrong to mislead someone linguistically is the same as what makes it wrong to mislead someone in other ways; language is incidental to the wrongness of the action. So we should eschew discriminatory speech-ism (or linguistic-ism): grammar is not the measure of morality any more than gender or race or species is.

I mentioned ingratitude earlier: one of the standard duties listed by deontological ethics is gratitude for good actions performed. It might be thought that this cannot apply to our attitudes to animals for the simple reason that they are not themselves moral agents. I will put aside the question of whether animals are (or can be) moral agents; there is still a question about whether it is appropriate to feel gratitude to an animal. And here I think it is evident that gratitude is an appropriate attitude in our dealings with animals: we can be grateful for their love and also grateful for their existence. We love our pets and our pets love us: this enriches our lives and we feel happier for it. We are, and should be, grateful for this love, even if the animal is not acting from moral motives—as we can feel grateful for the love of our family and friends. Not all actions that occasion gratitude are moral actions, and it would be strange not to feel gratitude for the love of others, animal or human. Also, I think it is appropriate to feel gratitude for the existence of animals—their beauty, their fascination, their affinity to us as well as their difference. Life is better because animals exist as objects of contemplation, aesthetic and scientific. They are a marvel to behold. We are rightly glad to share the planet with them (many of them anyway). Someone who doesn’t feel this is defective in some way—just like someone who fails to appreciate when they have been treated kindly. We call them hard-hearted or blind.[2]

It is difficult to think of a standard moral duty that has no analogue in the case of animals. Beneficence and non-malificence (W.D. Ross’s terms) obviously apply, but it turns out that truth-telling, promise-keeping, and gratitude also apply, suitably extended. What about the duty of making reparations for past wrongs? Even here we can think of cases in which such a duty would be applicable—as with stealing the land of an animal population or removing its source of food. Suppose you decided in your selfishness to buy something fancy to eat instead of buying your dog food and left it to go hungry one day: wouldn’t you owe it to the dog to make up for that the next day? You should give it extra food and pet it penitently or some such thing. You need to compensate for the deprivation you visited upon your dog earlier. Isn’t that what justice requires? The dog may remember your past actions and your present actions will go some way towards making up for what you did earlier; it may think better of you for making amends. This would be even clearer for animals closer to us zoologically such as chimpanzees, though we typically don’t have them for pets. If I accidentally trip over my cat, I feel an obligation to pet him gently and perhaps given him a treat—aren’t I trying to make reparations? The duties we feel towards our intimates do not magically disappear when the species changes. No doubt if Neanderthals still existed and mingled among us we would extend deontological ethics to them too, recognizing the similarities behind the differences; the case of other existing species is not essentially different. Of course, there are animals that really do fall outside the moral circle defined from a deontological point of view: some animals cannot constitutionally be deceived and can feel no love for us humans—starfish, bacteria, flies. These animals cannot be made to have false beliefs or disappointed expectations because of their restricted psychology, so they impose no corresponding duties on us; but many animals clearly do impose such duties. Acknowledging this removes the last remaining gap that separates us morally from other species: now we can see that animals deserve more than what utilitarian ethics can deliver.[3]They are fully within the moral circle defined by deontological ethics. Our duties towards them include more than merely reducing suffering and providing happiness.

 

Colin

[1] We could assign them to the class of implicit truth-telling and promise-keeping: intentionally creating the impression that certain beliefs and expectations are warranted without explicitly saying so, which we do all the time.

[2] There are also those who feel particularly grateful to animals because humans are so awful.

[3] I am of course assuming that utilitarian ethics is incomplete; there are duties that cannot be subsumed under the utilitarian framework. My point is that if you are a committed deontologist you can still include animals within your official moral theory. Put differently, deontology is not limited in scope to humans, ceding territory to utilitarianism in the case of animals.

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Emotion and Perception

 

 

Perception and Emotion

 

 

Everyone knows that sensory qualities are associated with emotions, though the manner of association is obscure. Colors suggest emotions (red passion, blue sadness); sounds are perceived emotionally especially in speech and music; tactile sensations are felt as pleasant or unpleasant; smells can be appetizing or revolting; tastes delicious or nasty. It is a question what establishes these associations–whether they are innate or cultural, the result of arbitrary conditioning or of a perceived intrinsic connection. They seem to bypass explicit belief: it is not that we are of the opinion that screeching noises are irritating, or that rotten food tastes disgusting, or that green is soothing. Artists and musicians, not to mention chefs and masseurs, know how to exploit these emotional resonances. The sensory faculties are clearly hooked up somehow to the affective parts of the brain. We sense feelingly. The same must be true of other animals, even when cognition is not at the human level. Imagine how birds see colors or cats and dogs hear sounds (the bat may thrill to its sonar perceptions). These sensory qualities clearly have affective, motivational, and appetitive connotations for the animals that sense them. They are not emotionally neutral.

It is noteworthy that all the sensory qualities mentioned so far would be classified as secondary qualities, i.e. qualities originating in the mind (or brain) and projected onto the world. Let’s call these qualities subjective: then we can say that subjective qualities are apt to have an intimate connection to emotion. What we project we resonate to; what comes from us excites us in this way or that. But is the same true of primary qualities, particularly size and shape? Here we seldom hear talk of emotional associations, and scientific studies of possible such associations are few and far between. What is the emotional meaning of a straight line as opposed to a wavy one? Are circles evocative of different emotions from rectangles? Does size matter emotionally? Maybe some sort of affective meaning can be conjured up by remembered resemblance, but it doesn’t seem natural or intuitive (geometers might feel differently about circles and squares). So the following generalization suggests itself: objective qualities don’t have the emotional associations of subjective qualities. That is, the perceived qualities of things that are discovered not invented, received not projected, lack emotional resonance—or if they have it, it isn’t in the same way subjective qualities do. What doesn’t come from us doesn’t move us in the way what originates internally does.  Emotion-laden perception is confined to projected subjective qualities. Proponents of the distinction between primary and secondary qualities, past and present, have not noticed this difference, but it appears to exist—and it is not altogether surprising on reflection. For secondary qualities have been manufactured biologically as a tool of survival, so they are likely to have conative significance; but primary qualities exist in the world anyway, whether relevant to organisms or not. They might be relevant to survival, adventitiously so, but they are not guaranteed to be, unlike secondary qualities. The absolute conception is not emotionally imbued, save per accidens.

One can envisage an extreme reaction to this point, namely that secondary qualities are emotions, projected outward. To be red, say, is to be imbued with passion. That would be pretty crazy, to be sure, but it brings out an interesting point: perceptive and emotive theories are not necessarily opposed. In ethics people have discussed whether moral qualities are perceived or are merely reifications of our emotions: but they can be both. Maybe we perceive moral qualities and at the same time, inextricably, feel certain things (a rush of approbation, a surge of indignation). If perception is essentially emotional, it won’t be surprising to find that moral perception has a characteristic type of affect associated with it. And it is surely true that moral impressions (for want of a better term) are heavily emotion-laden, as well as motivating—which is what we would expect if they are perceptual in nature. It might even lend support to the idea that moral qualities are manufactured by the mind and projected outwards, not found among the objective features of the world, though perceived there. The indicated theory might thus be labeled “perceptive emotivism” or “emotive perceptivism”. This seems like a pleasant resolution of an old dispute.

It must be admitted that the connection between perception and emotion is far from pellucid. Why particular colors have they associations they do is puzzling and not at all self-evident; and it is not plausible that we are somehow taught to make these associations. Clearly that is not so for taste and smell. The mind is so configured that the senses and the emotions are coupled to each other in multiple and complex ways. Nerve fibers spanning cortical regions must be the basis for this, and these neural connections must have been established somehow. Why is the Blues called “the blues”? Why are we said to “see red”? Why are cowards described as “yellow” and novices as “greenhorns”? But some semblance of intelligibility arises from the observation that the sensory qualities with pronounced emotional meaning are mental projections—they come from the same place that emotions come from. Emotions are not objective qualities of external things—potential subject matter for physics—but neither are secondary qualities. The perceived world and the emotional world are inextricably intertwined, both having their origin in the subject. The objective world of primary qualities, by contrast, is emotionally neutral and not a mental projection. It has nothing intrinsically to do with the needs of perceiving organisms.[1]

 

[1] It is good for organisms to have accurate perceptions of primary qualities, but the qualities themselves are not reflections of the organism’s own nature—hence the lack of emotional punch. Subjective qualities, by contrast, are bound up with the inner life of the organism. It is as if they are emotions distilled and objectified.

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