Differentiation and Integration

Differentiation and Integration



According to standard embryology, the process of ontogenesis is characterized by organic differentiation. From an initially homogeneous collection of cells tissues of various kinds are formed. This is no doubt powered by genetic instructions from within the original uniform cells. Maturation is thus a transformation from sameness to diversity as tissues develop in the body according to a fixed schedule. The end result is an organism composed of many organs each equipped with a characteristic type of cell and associated physiology—heart, lungs, bones, kidneys, etc. As differentiation occurs there is a need for coordination between the new types of tissue and the organs that tissue serves, and the adult organism clearly contains components that need to be integrated into a functioning whole. Thus there is no differentiation without integration (and vice versa). These are the twin pillars of biological development: genetically driven diversification and concomitant integration of the elements thereby generated.

This basic picture can be applied to language development. Initially there are just undifferentiated cooing sounds existing alongside the inarticulate sounds of crying, but these soon come to be replaced by language-like sounds (consonants and vowels) without structural complexity. These in turn are replaced by one-word sentences (“dada”, “milk”) that display the rudiments of language. Only later do these come to be combined into two-word strings, and subsequently into the full range of syntactic and semantic categories. The details don’t matter for present purposes: what concerns us is that language development follows a pattern of differentiation analogous to that undergone by the body.[1]A relatively formless initial state is gradually transformed into a highly structured system of elements that combine together. Anatomy develops by differentiation, but so does grammar. When the initial unstructured sentences are transformed into noun phrases and verb phrases there has been a process of differentiation comparable to the formation of heart and lungs (or the internal anatomy of each). This is not surprising once we accept that language is itself a biological phenomenon—an aspect of the human organism. And it makes logical sense: you derive an intricately structured organism from unstructured beginnings by a process of differentiation (it would be difficult to implement such differentiation in the sperm and egg). Language doesn’t emerge fully formed in the child but matures in the brain by a process of increasing structure and complexity. It grows by splitting into different functional units—that must nevertheless be integrated if they are to achieve their purpose. We are accustomed to the idea that language is a system built for integration—producing sentences by combinations of words—but we must also recognize that it is a system that arises by differentiation from something more primitive.[2]It was once a growing thing in the child and only reaches stasis after a lengthy sequence of differentiating stages—just like other human organs. Language is a product of gradual ontogenesis, which only later achieves its full combinatorial power. The adult language faculty enables integration ad infinitum, but at one time it was without much in the way of internal structure (relatively speaking). So let us add to the productive power of language its origins in a simpler form of living tissue. Grammar is the form that linguistic differentiation takes in human ontogenesis—just like anatomy and physiology. Linguistic differentiation is biologically at one with histological differentiation. Language thus follows the same basic pattern of organic growth. How else could the architecture of language arise?

But if this is true of language, isn’t it also true of the mind more generally? The various components (“organs”) of the mind must be integrated in order to function as a unity, but first they had to develop by some sort of maturational process. Perception, cognition, emotion, will—all need to emerge as distinct systems during ontogenesis, to be integrated later (or pari passu). But what was the initial state? Some may speak darkly of a blank state, but that would need to be supplemented by an account of how such a state could be progressively differentiated. Something has to turn into the various faculties of mind—some state of the pre-natal brain. About this process we know little to nothing, yet it must be so in some way. What is the analogue to the one word sentence or those even more primitive cooing sounds? And how did concepts emerge by differentiation? They were not present fully formed in the fetus’s brain but arose by a maturational process to become the vast combinatorial system we now deploy with such consummate ease. Presumably they arose by a process of differentiation: from William James’ “blooming, buzzing confusion” (whatever that means) to an articulated array of combinable elements. This maturational differentiation must be genetically driven, like other biological growth, but it results in a psychological faculty far removed from the initial state of the organism. Again, we know little to nothing about how this works, but we have good grounds for supposing a distinct path of differentiation and integration. One can certainly imagine that unstructured thoughts might with time transform into thoughts with a subject-predicate structure—and thence into more complex forms. First there were feature-placing thoughts (the mental counterpart of “It’s raining”) and later they turned into structured thoughts (along the lines of “There is heavy rain in London now”). Conceptual differentiation created the panoply of concepts we now take for granted.

Coordinating conceptual differentiation and integration is a highly non-trivial task, as it is in the case of the body and language. Once you have the plurality you need to keep it under control. The brain is the ringmaster here. Grammar is encoded in the brain and it sets the rules for combining words; in the case of concepts something analogous must be true—rules that combine concepts in certain acceptable ways (not just arbitrary lists or jumbles). So differentiation combined with integration requires rules or principles of coordination. The heart must be coordinated with the lungs to produce satisfactory aerobic performance; similarly concepts must be coordinated in the right way to produce intelligible thoughts. Integration doesn’t happen by magic. The more differentiation there is the greater the demands of integration. An organism with very simple thoughts doesn’t need much apparatus to keep its thoughts on track, but an organism like us relies on mechanisms that prevent thoughts from forming defectively or randomly. In aphasia these mechanisms can fail, leaving words to fail to link up correctly; in principle the same thing could happen to thoughts—concepts fail to link up to form coherent thoughts. It is surprising that more breakdowns of this kind don’t occur.[3]If there is a language of thought, there ought to be aphasia in that language if the brain is suitably damaged, which produces aphasic thought. The differentiation and integration of concepts will be tied to linguistic differentiation and integration in the language of thought.

The innate language faculty thus has two basic properties: (a) it permits unbounded productivity in its mature form, and (b) it enables a stupendous feat of differentiation as it guides the maturation of language in the child’s brain. It is as creative in the latter respect as in the former (though it doesn’t get as much credit for the latter). The adult lexicon is the product of maturational differentiation (how, we don’t know); sentence production is the outcome of integration rules. Both are built into the genetic blueprint for language. Nor does differentiation cease at normal linguistic maturity, since we continue to make linguistic and conceptual distinctions. The differentiation machine doesn’t go completely offline, its job done; it allows us to make ever-finer distinctions that aid thought. So it isn’t that one kind of creativity completely ends to be replaced by another; we are still able creatively to generate distinctions (though it doesn’t come as naturally as during childhood). Distinction making is as crucial to language development as the growth of the ability to combine existing elements. So I propose conceiving of the language faculty (and the conceptual faculty) as a union of differentiation and integration: it allows the combination of pre-formed elements, to be sure, but it also generates those elements by a (mysterious) process of differentiation. When abnormalities arrest language development we see in sharper outline the maturational stages speakers go through—we see how the differentiation process can be blocked (the same is true of human bodily growth). As adults we tend to forget this early history, but it is as essential to our mastery of language as the growth of the heart is to our survival. The language faculty is as much a creative product as it is a creative producer.

I said that differentiation and integration are the basic laws of biology (so far as concerns ontogenesis), but they are also relevant to evolutionary change. For what is species evolution but biological differentiation? Natural selection causes species differentiation (along with other factors), though mechanically not by pre-set program. There is no predetermined evolutionary schedule like the maturational schedule. Thus simpler forms evolve into more complex forms, splitting off to make a new kind of biological entity. Phylogeny recapitulates ontogeny. However, there is no real analogue to integration, since the different species don’t operate together to form a larger whole. True, it used to be thought that this might be so, as if each species had its functional role in the super-entity called Nature (“the biosphere”); but these days we tend to think that the entities that have arisen by evolutionary differentiation are independent entities subject to no coordinating principles. They are not like organs in a body or words in a language. There is no “grammar of nature”.  The evolution of species is differentiation withoutintegration.[4]


Colin McGinn

[1]This point of view is defended by Eric Lenneberg in Biological Foundations of Language(1967), esp. Chapter Seven.

[2]This is in no way incompatible with the nativist account of language acquisition: the genetic instructionsfor generating full-fledged language are present at birth, but that is consistent with the existence of a maturational schedule that involves cellular and cognitive differentiation. Similarly, instructions for building a heart at a certain maturational stage are present at birth, but it takes time for the actual organ to be constructed by a process of differentiation. Nouns and verbs emerge at a certain maturational stage (the second year of life), but the program for making them was written in the genes.

[3]Drunkenness can cause breakdowns of motor coordination analogous to earlier stages of motor development (a kind of regression), including speech difficulties; but it doesn’t appear that drunkenness can derail the performance of the language of thought—we keep thinking coherently as we stagger and trip, slur and mumble.

[4]Suppose there was a symbiotic parasite that entered the brains of host species and conferred language on the host—the parasite contains grammar. The parasite might instigate a series of maturational stages of language development in the host just like those of humans. It is functioning as an organ of the host’s body/mind—much as symbiosis in general has this character. This would provide a sense in which different species might operate as a unity.


Phenomenological Ignorance


Phenomenological Ignorance



We can’t know what it’s like to be a bat. This is an instance of a more general truth: no one can grasp the nature of experiences that are radically different from their own. We can grasp the nature of experiences similar to our own, but we can’t grasp experiences that are qualitatively different from ours. We are ignorant of phenomenological facts that diverge from our own. Bats can know what it’s like to be a bat, and so presumably can dolphins, which employ a similar echolocation sense; but beings that have no such sense are in the dark about the experiences involved. It is the same story for the congenitally blind: they can’t know what it’s like to see—as the deaf can’t know what it’s like to hear, or the pain-free to understand what pain is, or the nasally challenged to appreciate smells, or the emotionless to know what anger is. In the realm of the phenomenological there are sharp constraints on what is knowable and by whom. You can’t even know what it’s like to experience red if you have only experienced blue. This is an epistemic limitation—a limitation on what can be known, understood, or grasped. It is not an absolute limitation—a reflection of the intrinsic nature of the fact in question—since it can be overcome by creatures that happen to participate in that fact; it is a relative limitation—Xcan’t be known by Y(though it can be known by Z). It isn’t universal ignorance but creature-relative ignorance.

The question I am concerned with is whysuch ignorance exists: what is its explanation? We have a kind of extrapolation problem: how do I move from knowledge of my own phenomenology to knowledge of the phenomenology of others? It appears that I can do this when there is similarity, but not when there is (radical) difference. My ability to extrapolate is blocked by dissimilarity. The question is why such extrapolation limitations exist. To see the problem let us review some cases in which there are no such extrapolation restrictions. Consider geometry: are we limited only to knowledge of shapes we have encountered? Are alien geometries incomprehensible to us? We have certainly not experienced all possible polygons, so what about those that lie beyond our geometrical experience? Here the answer is obvious: we are notso limited. To simplify, suppose a person never to have experienced rectilinear figures but only curvilinear ones, so that he has never seen a triangle (say). Does that mean he can’t understand what a triangle is? No, it can be explained to him perfectly well and he will thereby understand the word “triangle”. So while we can’t grasp a type of experience we have never encountered in ourselves, we can grasp a type of geometrical figure we have never encountered in the perceptible world. We can extrapolate in the latter case but not in the former. We don’t have acquaintance-restricted knowledge in geometry, but we do in phenomenology. There are gaps in our understanding where experience is concerned, but not where shapes are concerned. It is the same for animal species: you don’t need to have seen an elephant to know what an elephant is (or a bat). Elephants can be described to you, pictured, and imagined; and they don’t need to be similar to animals you have seen with your own eyes. You know what an animal is and you understand what kind of animal an elephant is by description. But you don’t know what kind of experience a bat has even though it has been described to you (based on echoes, having such and such brain correlates, etc.). Also: suppose you had never heard of odd numbers, having been brought up only to deal with even numbers. That would not prevent you grasping the concept of an odd number once someone explained it to you. There are no irremediable gaps in our grasp of numbers analogous to the gaps in our grasp of phenomenology. Likewise, our knowledge of astronomy is not limited by the extent of our acquaintance: we grasp the concept of remote and alien galaxies without ever experiencing them. But our general concept of experience doesn’t enable us to fill in the gaps in our acquaintance with experience: we can’t say, “Oh, bat experience is simply this” and feel that we know what we are talking about. Our knowledge of phenomenology is thus gappy in a way our knowledge of other things is not. We can’t use a form of induction to extrapolate to types of experience that we have not ourselves directly (introspectively) encountered. The question is why. And the question should seem pressing, because the epistemic limitation is so anomalous and local—in general, there are no such limitations on knowledge.[1]It is surprisingthat we don’t know what it’s like to be a bat.

We must canvas some putative explanations. One possible explanation is that experiences concern the mind, while the other cases I mentioned concern the non-mental world. But this explanation is inadequate because (a) some facts about the mind are not so limited and (b) there are facts about physical objects that are subject to the same limitation. I can understand what beliefs you have even though they are quite alien to me—their odd content isn’t an obstacle to my knowledge; and I can’t grasp a color that I have not seen if it is different from any I have seen. Color blindness will result in color ignorance, even though colors are perceptible properties of physical objects; but my unfamiliarity with crazy conspiracy theories isn’t an impediment to my knowing what weird belief is in question. So the epistemic limitation we are interested in isn’t just a reflection of a general truth about knowledge of the mind versus knowledge of non-mental things. But even if it were such an instance that would not answer our question, because that question would now shift to the more general question: how come we can extrapolate about things outside the mind but not things inside the mind? What is the sourceof that difference?

A more promising suggestion is that the realm of experience is simply less homogeneous than the realm of the physical (to speak loosely), so that it would involve greater cognitive leaps to extrapolate across this realm. Geometry is about essentially similar things while phenomenology includes very diverse things. But by what criterion is bat experience so different from (say) visual experience while circles and squares are deemed essentially similar? The concept of similarity will not bear this kind of weight. Some people have urged that bat experience is not really all that different from ours: it is a type of auditory experience for one thing, and for another it has many of the properties of visual experience (a distance sense used to navigate and locate objects in space). These points may be conceded while still insisting on the alien character of such experience: but then how are triangles and circles to be supposed moresimilar? One loses one’s grip on what notion of similarity is at issue here. There is really no objectivebasis for distinguishing the cases; the difference arises rather from our mode of knowledge in the two cases. The phenomenological realm is not objectively more diverse than the geometrical realm (or the mathematical realm or the zoological realm); it is rather that our method of knowing somehow differs—we find it easier to extrapolate in the one case than the other. But why is that?

Along the same lines it might be said that we are actually just as limited in geometry as we are in phenomenology, because geometry also includes extreme knowledge-blocking diversity. Thus non-Euclidian geometry might be said to differ dramatically from Euclidian geometry—as radically as bat experience differs from human experience—so that it is impossible to extrapolate from one to the other. Accordingly, we don’t really grasp non-Euclidian geometry, just as we don’t grasp non-human phenomenology. Since there is then no epistemological asymmetry between the cases, there is nothing to explain—no epistemological anomaly to account for. Alien geometry is as incomprehensible as alien phenomenology (and the same might be said for such things as irrational numbers or alien types of animal). The weakness of this position is that it is by no means clear that there is any epistemic limitation attending the allegedly alien types of fact. We dograsp non-Euclidian geometry (and irrational numbers and the platypus). So the epistemic asymmetry still exists in undiluted form. The puzzle thus persists as to what the basis of the asymmetry might be: why is it harder to know one thing than the other? What makes alien phenomenology peculiarly recalcitrant to understanding?

Here is a completely different approach: alien phenomenology is like alien language. Humans are born with a specifically structured language capacity that prepares them for the particular languages they will encounter, but it is not suitable for the acquisition of languages with a different kind of structure. The human language faculty will not work to produce knowledge of alien grammars—as it might be, non-discrete elements that combine according to quite different grammatical principles from those of natural human languages (no recursion, for example); or don’t combine at all. It is dedicated and differentially structured, not an all-purpose learning device. If you place a human infant in a linguistic environment that is radically alien, she will not end up with knowledge of the language in question. Suppose bats were to speak such a language: the human child would not come to know its grammar and speak it like a native upon exposure to that language. Linguistic knowledge is thus subject to epistemic limitation as part of its innate character. At best a person might laboriously decipher the grammar of a radically alien language and speak it awkwardly and unnaturally—rather as someone might develop an abstract and unintuitive conception of bat experience. So the suggestion is that the reason we don’t grasp bat phenomenology is that our innate phenomenology module isn’t designed to extend to types of phenomenology that are alien to our own. That is, our innate knowledge of phenomenology is restricted to types of mind whose phenomenological “grammar” matches our own. It is not that alien grammars are objectively more difficult or complex than human grammar; it is just that there is a bias built into the human language module that favors one type of grammar over others. From an evolutionary point of view, it is important for us to have a solid grasp of our own minds (“theory of mind”), so we are genetically equipped with such knowledge; but there is no biological reason to have a solid grasp of bat minds, so lacunae there are acceptable. It is not as if there has been natural selection operating on humans to improve their grasp of bat psychology! Human phenomenological knowledge is domain-specific and geared to our environmental niche, so it is simply not designed to cover bats and their ilk.

This theory of phenomenological ignorance has the look of what we are seeking, but it might be wondered whether it is strong enough to deliver the epistemic limitation that apparently exists. In the language case, as noted, it is possible in principle for us to overcome our innate bias and acquire knowledge of the grammar of an alien language, albeit laboriously; but is it possible in principle to come to know what it’s like to be a bat? Isn’t that limitation a lot harderto overcome? I don’t know the answer to this: I don’t know whether intensive training, especially during the sensitive periods of child learning, could yield intuitive knowledge of bat phenomenology. Certainly, given that the experiential modality is auditory, the building blocks are there, and maybe training in echo-navigation in the first few years of life could produce a sense of the structure and operations of bat experience (hearing aids would help). So the obstacle may not be insurmountable. Also, we can surely imagine beings that can’t overcome their linguistic bias and so can’t learn an alien language even in principle. So the cases might not be as all-or-nothing as they seem at first sight. The idea of an innate phenomenology module certainly seems intelligible enough, and it delivers an explanation of the puzzling asymmetry I have noted. Just as we have an innate module for our belief-desire theory of mind, so we have an innate module for our phenomenological theory of mind. We couldhave been born knowing what bat experience is like, as we are born knowing what human experience is like; but actually we aren’t and that produces the epistemic gaps in question. Our knowledge of geometry, arithmetic, and zoology is different, not being based on a selective module like the language faculty (or not asselective); but our knowledge of phenomenology is sharply constrained and not easily overcome (if at all). We are not, as they say, plasticwhen it comes to phenomenology.

Notice that according to this theory it is not really correct to suppose that our knowledge of phenomenology is based on our acquaintance with our own experience. That is an empiricist theory of such knowledge analogous to empiricist theories of knowledge of the external world (we possess concepts by abstraction of properties from perceived particulars). But the nativist theory of phenomenological knowledge holds instead that we have such knowledge independently of acquaintance with our experiences. We know what experiential types are without any such operation of acquaintance and associated abstraction, but innately. So the problem isn’t that what we abstract from own experience doesn’t fit the experience of bats, but rather that we are not innately equipped with a faculty of knowledge that includes the knowledge in question. In short, we don’t know bat psychology innately. No doubt acquaintance plays a triggering role in the production of phenomenological knowledge, but it doesn’t play an originative role (as with other innate knowledge systems). Maybe even producing actual bat experience in us wouldn’t itself be sufficient to acquire knowledge of the nature of bat experience, because that requires the cooperation of an innate faculty of phenomenological knowledge geared to bat experiences, which is absent in humans. In any case, an empiricist theory of phenomenological knowledge is by no means to be assumed (if it’s false generally, why should it be true here?).[2]

I want to emphasize not so much the proposed solution as the problem it is designed to solve. We know there are phenomenological facts in the world with a nature we can’t grasp, though other beings can; this poses a problem of explanation. The case looks very different from other types of knowledge. It is a non-trivial question why this is so, raising some deep issues. It challenges conceptions of knowledge that have been long entrenched, concerning how we know the nature of our own experiences. How exactly do I know what pain is, or experiences of red, or anger?



[1]I don’t mean there are no other limits to knowledge, just that there are no limits of the kind we find with respect to phenomenology, i.e. extrapolation problems across a single domain.

[2]It is an interesting fact that an empiricist theory of phenomenological knowledge is attractive even to people who are skeptical of an empiricist theory of knowledge of physical objects. I’m not sure why this is—is it because it is easy to conflate experience with knowledge of experience? In fact, actual bats may notknow what it’s like to be a bat simply because they lack this kind of introspective knowledge, despite possessing the corresponding experiences.


Biological Philosophy of Language



Biological Philosophy of Language



Linguistics has grown accustomed to viewing human language as a biological phenomenon. This view stands opposed to two other views: supernaturalism and cultural determination. Ancient thought conceived of language as a gift from God, closely adjoined to the immaterial soul: this accounted for its origin, its seemingly miraculous nature, and its uniqueness to the human species (we are God’s chosen ones). Recent thought instead insisted that language is a cultural product, a human invention, an artifact: this too accounts for its origin, nature, and uniqueness to humans (only humans have this kind of creative power). Both views deny that language is a species-specific adaptation driven by natural selection and arising in the individual by a process of organic maturation—rather like other natural organs. The “biological turn” in linguistics maintains that language is not supernatural or cultural but genetically based, largely innate, founded in physiology, modular, a product of blind evolution, organically structured, developmentally involuntary, invariant across the human species, and part of our natural history. Biological naturalism is the right way to think about language.[1]No one would doubt this in the case of the “languages” (systems of communication) of other species like bees, birds, whales, and dolphins; human language is also part of our biological heritage and our phenotype (as well as our genotype). But this perspective, though now standard in linguistics, is not shared by contemporary philosophy of language: we don’t see thesequestions framed as questions of biology. Not that existing philosophy of language overtly adopts a supernatural or cultural conception of the nature of language in preference to a biological conception; rather, it is studiously neutral on the issue.  The question I want to address is whether the received debates in philosophy of language can be recast as questions of biology, in line with the prevailing biological perspective in linguistics. And I shall suggest that they can, illuminatingly so. I thus propose that philosophy of language take a biological turn and recognize that it is dealing with questions of natural biology (if the pleonasm may be excused). This will require no excision of questions but merely a reformulation of them. Philosophy of language is alreadysteeped in biology.

Let’s start with something relatively innocuous: the productivity of language. Instead of seeing this as a reflection of God’s infinite nature or the creative power of human invention, we see it as a natural fact about the structure of a certain biological trait, analogous to the structure of the eye or the musculature. Finitely many lexical units combine to generate a potential infinity of possible sentences—that is just a genetically encoded fact about the human brain. It arose by some sort of mutation and it develops during the course of individual maturation according to a predetermined schedule. It is humanly universal and invariant just like human anatomy and physiology. It should not be viewed as a purely formal or mathematical structure but as an organic part of the human animal. So when the philosopher of language remarks on the ability of speakers to construct infinitely many sentences from a finite set of words by recursive procedures he or she is recording a biological fact about the human species—just like bipedal posture or locomotion or copulation or digestion. Nothing prevents us from saying that the human phenotype includes an organ capable of unbounded productivity—the language faculty. It isn’t supernatural and it isn’t cultural (whatever exactly this means). It is, we might say, animal.

But what about theories of meaning—are they also biological theories in disguise? The biological naturalist says yes: truth conditions, for example, are a biological trait of certain biological entities. The entities are sentences (strings of mental representations—“words”) and their having truth conditions is a biological fact about them. Truth conditions evolved in the not too distant past, they mature in the individual’s brain, and they perform a biological function. Truth conditions constitute meaning (according to theory), and having meaning is a trait of certain external actions and internal symbols. Meanings are as organic as eyeballs. So a theoryof meaning is a theory of a certain biological phenomenon—a biological theory. It says that the trait of meaning is the trait of having truth conditions. Suppose we base the theory on Tarski’s theory of truth: then Tarski’s definition of truth for formalized languages is really a recursive theory of an organic structure. It is mathematical biology. Sentences are part of biology and their having truth-conditions is too; so a theory of truth is tacitly an exercise in biological description. No one would doubt this for a theory of bee language or whale language, because there is no resistance to the idea that these are biological traits—a theory of truth conditions herewould naturally be interpreted a theory of a biological phenomenon. Bee dances don’t have their truth conditions in virtue of the bee god or bee culture, but in virtue of genetically based hardwired facts of bee physiology. It isn’t that bees collectively decideto award their dances with meanings—and neither do human infants decide such things either. Sentences have truth conditions in virtue of biological facts about their users, whether bee or human. Semantics is biology.

Consider Davidson’s project of translating sentences of natural language into sentences of predicate calculus and then applying Tarski’s theory to them. Suppose that, contrary to fact, there existed a species that spoke only a language with the structure of predicate calculus; and suppose too that we evolved from this species. It would then be plausible to suppose that our language faculty descended from theirs with certain enrichments and ornamentations. Then Davidson could claim that their language gives the logical form of our language and that it can in principle translate the entirety of our language. This would be a straightforward biological theory, claiming that one evolved trait is equivalent (more or less) to another evolved trait. The “deep structure” of one trait is manifest in another trait. Likewise, if we view a formalized language as really a fragment of our natural language, then a claim like Davidson’s is just the claim that one trait of ours is semantically equivalent to another trait—that is, its semantic character is exhausted by the formalized fragment, the rest being merely stylistic flourish. For example, the biological adaptation of adverbs is nothing more than the surface appearance of the underlying trait of predicates combining with quantification over events. Thus we convert the Davidsonian program into a biological enterprise—to describe one trait in terms of other traits. This is the analogue of claiming that the anatomy of the hand is really the anatomy of the foot, because hands evolved from feet—just as our language evolved from the more “primitive” language of our predicate-calculus-speaking ancestors in my imaginary example. Our language organ is both meaningful and combinatorial, and Davidson has a theory about what these traits consist in: he is a kind of anatomist of the language faculty.

Then what is Dummett up to? He is contending that the trait of meaning is not actually the trait of having truth conditions but rather the trait of having verification conditions.[2]We don’t have the former trait because it has no functional utility so far as communication is concerned (it can’t be “manifested”). So Dummett is claiming that a better biological theory is provided by verification conditions. This is a bit like claiming that the function of the eye is not to register distal conditions but to respond to more proximate facts about the perceiver, these being of greater concern to the organism (cf. sense-datum theory and phenomenalism); or that the function of feathers is not flight but thermal regulation (as apparently it was for dinosaurs). Dummett is a kind of skeptic about orthodox descriptions of biological traits. He might be compared to someone who claims that there are no traits for aiding species or group survival but only traits for aiding individual or gene survival (“the selfish meaning”). Quine is in much the same camp: he claims that no traits have determinate meaning, whether truth conditions or verification conditions. The alleged trait of meaning is like the ill-starred entelechy—a piece of outdated mythology. A proper science of organisms will dispense with such airy-fairy nonsense and stick to physical inputs and outputs. For Quine, meaning is bad biology. Nor would Quine be very sanguine about the notion of biological function: for what is to stop us from saying that the function of the wolves’ jaws is to catch undetached rabbit parts? Our usual assignments of function are far too specific to be justified by the physical facts, so we should dispense with them altogether. We need desert landscape biology: no vital spirits, no meanings, and no functions, just bodies being stimulated and responding to stimulation—Pavlovian (Skinnerian) biology. Quine is really a biological eliminativist.

Where does Wittgenstein fit in? He emerges as a biological pluralist and expansionist. He denies that morphology is everything; he prefers to emphasize the biological deed. He forthrightly asserts that language is part of our “natural history” (not much discussion of genetics though).[3]The Tractatusemployed an austere biology of pictures and propositions, while the Investigationsplumps for a great variety of sentences and words as making up human linguistic life. Wittgenstein is like a zoologist who once thought there were only mammals in the world and now discovers that there are many types of species very different from each other. He also decides it is better to describe them accurately than try to force them into predetermined forms. His landscape is profuse and open-ended, like a Brazilian jungle. He is resolutely naturalistic in the sense of rejecting all supernatural (“sublime”) conceptions of language. What he would have made of Chomsky I don’t know, but he would surely have applauded Chomsky’s focus on the natural facts and phases of a child’s use of language. His anti-intellectualism about meaning (and the mind generally) is certainly congenial to the biological point of view.

What about Frege? Frege is the D’Arcy Thompson of philosophical linguistics, seeking the mathematical laws of the anatomy of thought. He discerns very general structures of a binary nature (sense and reference, object and concept, function and argument) and finds them repeated everywhere, like the recurrent body-plans of the anatomical biologist. The human skeleton resembles the skeletons of other mammals and indeed of fish (from which all are derived), and Frege finds the same abstract structure in the most diverse of sentences (function and argument is everywhere, like the spinal column or cells). But these abstract structures are not antithetical to biology, just its most general features. When a laryngeal event occurs it carries with it a cargo of semantic apparatus that confers meaning on it, intricate and layered. The speech organs are impregnated with sense and reference as a matter of their very biology, not bestowed by God or human stipulation (the underlying thoughts are certainly not imbued with sense and reference as a matter of culture). Thus it is easy to transpose Frege’s logical system into a biological key—whether Frege himself would approve or not. Again, we should think of the developing infant acquiring a spoken language: his words have sense and reference as a matter of course not as a matter of cultural instigation—this is why language precedes culture for the child. Acquiring language is no more cultural than puberty is cultural (and I have never heard of an ancient theory to the effect that pubertyis a gift from God). Meaning comes with the territory, and the territory is thoroughly biological.

Ordinary language philosophy? Why, it’s just ecologically realistic biological theorizing, instead of rigid attachment to over-simple paradigms. It’s rich linguistic ethology instead of desiccated linguistic anatomy.  It’s looking at how the human animal actually behaves in the wild instead of clinically dissecting it on the laboratory table. Austin, Grice, Strawson—all theorists of in situlinguistic behavior. Nothing in their work negates the idea of an innate language faculty expressed in acts of speech and subject to biological constraints. When Austin analyzes a speech act into its locutionary meaning and its illocutionary force he is dissecting an act with a biological substructure, because the language faculty that permit the act is structured in that way. Words are strung together according to biologically determined rules, and the same is true of different types of illocutionary force. Zoology took an ethological turn when scientists stopped examining rats and pigeons in the laboratory and turned their attention to animal behavior in its natural setting; ordinary language philosophy did much the same thing (at much the same time). This led to considerable theoretical enrichment in both cases as the biological perspective widened. One can imagine aliens visiting earth and making an ethological study of human linguistic behavior, combining it with organic studies of speech physiology. They would add this to their other investigations of bee and whale linguistic behavior. All of it would come under the heading of earth biology.

Of course, biologically based language activity interactswith cultural formations, as with speech acts performed within socially constructed institutions (e.g. the marriage ceremony). But the same thing is true of other biological organs—say, the hands: that doesn’t undermine the thesis that basic biological adaptations are in play. It is not being claimed that everythingabout language and its use is biologically based. But the traits of language of interest to philosophers of language tend to be of such generality that they are bound to be biological in nature. For example, the role of intention in creating speaker meaning, as described by Grice, introduces a clearly biological trait of the organism—purposive goal-directed action. We don’t have intentions as a result of divine intervention or cultural invention; intention is in the genes. Intention grows in the infant along with motor skills and doesn’t depend upon active teaching from adults. Intentions will play a role in cultural activities, but they are not themselves products of culture. The same is true of consciousness, perception, memory, and so on—all biological phenomena.

According to Chomsky, a grammar for a natural language simply is a description of the human biologically given language faculty. Following that model philosophical theories of meaning have the same status: they are attempted descriptions of a specific biological trait. Semantic properties are as much biological properties as respiration and reproduction. Philosophy of language is thus a branch of biology. The standard theories are easily construed this way. Semantics follows syntax and phonetics in making the biological turn. Fortunately, existing philosophy of language can incorporate this insight.[4]



[1]For an authoritative study see Eric Lenneberg, Biological Foundations of Language(1967) and the many works of Noam Chomsky. If we ask who is the Darwin of language studies, the consensus seems to be Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767-1835).

[2]The positivists may be construed as claiming that no sentence can have the trait of meaning without having the trait of verifiability. One trait is necessary for the other. This is like claiming that no organ can circulate the blood without being a pump or that no organ can be the organ of speech without expelling air. Thus a metaphysical sentence can’t be meaningful because it lacks the necessary trait of verifiability. No evolutionary process could produce a language faculty that included sentences that mean without being verifiable. Put that way, it looks like a pretty implausible doctrine—why couldn’t there be a mutation that produced meaningful sentences that exceed our powers of verification? Meaning is one thing, our powers of verification another.

[3]“Commanding, questioning, recounting, chatting, are as much a part of our natural history as walking, eating, drinking, playing.” Philosophical Investigations, section 25.

[4]It would be different if existing philosophy of language tacitly presupposed some sort of divine dispensation theory, or a brand of extreme cultural determination; but as things stand we can preserve it by recasting its questions as biological in nature. There is nothing reductionist about this, simply taxonomically correct.


Innate Blank Slates


Innate Blank Slates



Even the most hardline nativist will agree that not everything that passes before the mind, or exists in it, is innately fixed. In particular, memory contains contents that derive from experience. Memory may be defined as the ability to learn, and animals with memory absorb information from the environment that was not in them at birth. To this extent the mind is a blank slate—a receptacle waiting to be filled by post-natal experience. There may be (there is) a lot that is innate, but not everything is innate: fresh input reaches the mind to be added to its original resources. Does this mean that nativism has to concede a local victory to empiricism? Is it that the mind is partly innately structured and partly formless? Is it well stocked in some departments and entirely empty in others? Is the library of the mind a collection of written texts existing alongside an empty volume waiting for the world to inscribe messages on it? Is the mind partly nativist and partly empiricist? I think this is the wrong way to look at the matter; in fact, the so-called blank slate (memory) is really just another iteration of the nativist doctrine. The mind is genetically determined all the way down—including the blank slate. The blank slate is just another innately fixed biological component of the mind.[1]

It might not have been so. Consider this theory, conceivably true in some possible world: the blank slate is acquired by experiencing blank slates in the world and copying them inwardly. You observe empty spaces or sheets of white paper or wax tablets and this creates in you a blank mental canvas on which experience can subsequently write. You “abstract” inner blankness from perceptible blank and formless things, and this forms the basis of memory. Thus the blank slate is an acquired characteristic. If this is the entirety of the mind, then the whole thing is acquired. But that is clearly a completely wacky theory, held by exactly no one. For one thing, wouldn’t the mind need an antecedent blank slate in order to acquire one by means of observing external blank slates? And how on earth could the mind “abstract” blankness and then internalize it—wouldn’t that be just an idea ofblank slates? No, the reasonable view—and the one held by all empiricists—is that the mind is innatelyblank. That is its character at birth, its genetically determined nature, its intrinsic essence. So the blank slate is itself an innate component of the mind existing alongside other innate components. Its distinguishing characteristic is its flexibility: it is a receptiveepistemic faculty—it accepts novelty and change. It is modified by experience instead of being oblivious to experience. We might better call it “the receptive slate” in order to emphasize its function and mode of operation. It is genetically fixed and yet malleable, inborn and also plastic. In this respect it is like the perceptual faculties: we are not born already seeing all the things we will ever see (!), yet vision is an innately fixed faculty. The point of vision (and the other senses) is to permit variation in what is seen, i.e. sensitivity to environmental contingencies; but that is quite consistent with a strongly nativist conception of vision. The form is innate and the content is acquired, as we might put it. The perceptual categories might all be innate, but the particular state of affairs perceived is a result of environmental influence. Similarly, memory is innate even though whatis remembered results from the impact of the world. There are clearly advantages to such flexibility and receptivity, but in no way does this cast doubt on the innateness of the faculty in question. Even the humble earthworm can sense and learn, but its ability to do so depends on its innate constitution.

Why should we classify the blank slate existing inside every learning organism alongside its other innate characteristics? Why should we deem it biological? Why is it not, say, “cultural”? Why resist a form of dualism about what traits an organism possesses, the blank traits and the non-blank traits? There are several reasons. First, it is genetically determined: there is a gene (or complex of genes) forblankness (flexibility, receptivity). Blankness is certainly not the result of an absenceof genes! The genes construct an epistemic organ whose specialization is openness to experience, as opposed to one that already knows all the answers. It is as if the genes constructed an amorphous bodily organ that could be modified by experience—say, a limb that could be molded into a different appendage depending upon environmental demands (a leg, a fin, a wing). That could be a useful adaptation in certain conditions, as a modifiable memory is a useful adaptation. An animal with a gene for blankness will enjoy a selective advantage. Some creatures lack such genes, harboring merely a set of instinctive reflexes, but others contain them, the better to survive in a changing world. So the blank state is as genetically engineered as any physical or mental organ (say, the human language faculty).[2]Animals are genetically designedthat way. They are born to be blank (in part).

Second, the blank slate is not as blank as all that: it is not a featureless nothing, devoid of all inner structure. Consider paper: paper is a highly structured and carefully designed piece of technology, not just a mere absence. It must absorb and retain ink, not blurring or running. It stacks and folds. It can be bound into volumes. It is durable. It took centuries to invent and perfect paper. Paper has a certain intrinsic constitution precisely designed to accept ink. It has as much of an inner nature as the ink that adorns it. And memory must be very similar: memory too took a long time to evolve, and it must be possessed of an inner nature that makes its feats of retention possible. The genes for memory are entrusted with a difficult and intricate job: to construct a system that absorbs and retains information, while letting it to degrade if it is no longer useful. Compare the hard drive of a computer—also an intricate and inventive piece of technology. These are not just empty boxes waiting to have stuff thrown into them. So there is no viable dualism of the structured and the unstructured—the mental plenum versus the mental vacuum. It’s all sophisticated architecture. The blank slate is blank only relative to what may be written on it; in itself it is plenitude, no more vacant than any other natural object.[3]

Third, the blank slate has a biological function, which may be characterized as follows. The world is divided into general facts and specific facts; it is useful to know both kinds. An individual organism has a specific history and it is useful for the organism to learn from its history—to know the specific facts that aid its survival, such as where food is to be found. So it is adaptive to install an organ that can record particular facts for later use—that is, a memory organ. Thus the blank slate is as functionally adaptive as any non-blank organ of the body or mind. It isn’t just for frivolous “culture” and knowing historical dates to pass examinations; it functions as an adaptive trait, no less biological than digestion or locomotion. The genes design it to perform this function. Animals learn new things so as to get the genes that make them into future generations (fundamentally).

Fourth, and very important, there is not theblank slate, there are manyblank slates: that is, each species has its own type of blank slate designed to serve its particular mode of life. Memory is species-specific. Squirrels remember where they have stowed their nuts, birds remember which direction to fly in, social animals remember their conspecifics, humans remember birthdays and to pick up the dry cleaning. Memory faculties vary in their storage capacity and in their contents, with inbuilt biases to remember some things and not others. They are like eyes: they all do the same thing, but they vary in their architecture and acuity. The phenomenology and physiology of memory varies from species to species, as does its functional character. Memory systems are shaped by natural selection like any other trait, and they are as species-specific as other traits of evolved organisms. The metaphor of the blank slate should not be allowed to obscure this fact—as if all forms of blankness were the same (compare different sizes and shapes of paper, or paper and hard drives and vinyl discs). The larynx of different vocal animals serves the purpose of emitting sound for every animal that has a larynx, but larynxes come in different designs and produce different sounds—there is not some universal larynx common to all species.[4]Just as the larynx of one species will not allow it to make the sounds of another species, so the memory of one species will not allow it to remember what another species remembers. Species-specific means functionally limited. The blank slate of an organism is thus tied to a particular ecological niche, a specific biological set-up.

We can accordingly say that blank slates are genetically determined, intrinsically structured, biologically functional, and species-specific. They are part of an animal’s organic endowment—certainly not a product of environmental contingencies or “culture”. True, they can receive information from experience, but that doesn’t render them non-biological, or introduce a sharp line between the innate and the learned—any more than the varying objects of the senses show the senses to be non-biological. So it isn’t that memory reveals the limits of nativism; nativism, rightly understood, simply includes the blank slate of memory. If there were a “blank limb” capable of assuming one specific form or another depending on environmental demands, then that limb would not thereby cease to be biological. It would simply be innately adaptable instead of innately fixed. The traditional opposition between nativism (rationalism) and empiricism is thus misconceived, since even the empiricist is a (closet) nativist. The only issue is how muchof human (and animal) knowledge is due to memory based on experience and how much to what is known at birth (without the use of memory); whatever view you take, the faculties in question are innate and biological. The terminology should really be dropped and replaced by talk of memory knowledge and non-memory knowledge. The question then will be whether specific areas of knowledge are known by memory or otherwise—knowledge of logic, mathematics, morals, language, laws of nature, colors, shapes, historical events, science, geography, etc. It is misleading to speak of nativism versusempiricism, as if empiricism could escape nativism about its preferred model of human knowledge. Talk of a blank slate is really a misleading way to talk about memory. Traditional empiricists claim that all knowledge is based on memory, while traditional nativists claim that much knowledge is not based on memory (though some certainly is). Knowledge based on experience is possible only if experience is remembered; knowledge not based on experience is knowledge notremembered. Do we know mathematics because we remember what we were taught or because we have that knowledge built into our minds before being taught anything? That is the real question, not whether the knowledge is innate or acquired.[5]Even if it is acquired by means of experience and memory, the knowledge rests on an innate faculty, as biological as anything else about us. And again, the fact that vision “acquires” different objects as the eyes rove around the world doesn’t show that vision is not an innate faculty—just as the different objects you might pick up with your hands doesn’t demonstrate that your hands are not innately determined structures. A nativist who held that which objects you pick up in life is genetically determined would clearly be out to lunch, but that is not required in order to maintain the sensible position that hands themselves are genetically determined. It is the same with memory and the blank slate. The blank slate is empty just in the sense in which the empty hand is empty—neither of which entails a lack of innateness. We could rename the debate “memory-ists versus non-memory-ists”. Even the extreme empiricist who believes that allknowledge is based on memory is committed to the innateness of the faculty of memory, with the four characteristics I listed above; the inner constitution of the mind would still be independent of all experience (learning, environmental impact). There is no way to avoid nativism as the foundation of knowledge.

Let me end with some reflections on knowledge of language in the light of the foregoing observations. We can accept that some knowledge of language is innate, i.e. knowledge of universal grammar—memory plays no role in possessing such knowledge. But in addition to this we also have knowledge of the particular human language that we learn to speak—and here memory indisputably plays a role. Does this mean that biology leaves off where knowledge of a particular language begins? No, because memory is itself a biological endowment programmed into the genes. Human speakers thus exploit two innate endowments in their acquisition of language. But there is a further point to be made: the specific form of memory that is exploited in learning a particular language is likely dedicated to that task. We possess a remarkable memory for linguistic information–phonetic, syntactic, and semantic—and it is plausible that this is specific to language. So we are not just using our general-purpose species-specific form of memory but also a special memory module dedicated to language learning.[6]Of course, this is an empirical hypothesis, but its distinct possibility allows us to make a conceptual point, namely that we have a genetically fixed and highly specific form of memory that is employed in language acquisition—a third type of innate mechanism. Thus language acquisition employs three levels of innate machinery: an innate knowledge of universal grammar; an innate general memory faculty directed to knowledge of a particular language; and an innate memory module dedicated to linguistic memory of a specific language. So it is just not innateness at the first universal level but also at the levels that deal with learning a specific language. We possess not just ablank slate peculiar to humans but severalblank slates devoted to different cognitive tasks—and all are innate. The blank slate might be as modular as the non-blank systems that make up our general knowledge. In any case, the blank slate is not the negation of innateness but a special case of it.[7]


[1]I am not the first person to make this point, but I think it is still underappreciated. Even if all ideasare acquired, the thing that acquires them isn’t. The blank slate is as innate as anatomy and eye color.

[2]It might be that blank slates are morecomplex genetically than determinate organs, because of the engineering requirements of extreme receptivity; certainly, they require big brains. Empiricism could not then claim biological parsimony.

[3]Notice that paper is selectively receptive: ink leaves a mark on it but wind doesn’t. There could be a form of “paper” that is receptive to wind but not ink. Thus biasis built in as part of the nature of the thing.

[4]There is an illuminating discussion of larynxes in Eric Lenneberg, Biological Foundations of Language(1967): Chapter Two. They serve as a good model for all adaptive traits.

[5]Of course, innate knowledge is also “acquired” in the sense that organisms come to have it at a certain time by certain processes—by gene activity (and earlier by natural selection). The usual use of “innate” and “acquired” in these debates is quite unsatisfactory.

[6]Mimicry is one expression of this type of linguistic memory.

[7]Why would anyone think that the blank slate is not a robust biological trait of the organism? Perhaps for epistemological reasons: we can’t perceive or introspect the blank slate (i.e. the memory faculty); we can only apprehend its contents (ideas, concepts). Thus we are inclined to doubt its reality. And something unreal can’t be a biological fact. I won’t take time to dissect the errors in this way of thinking.


Attitudes to Reality




Attitudes to Reality



I am interested in devising a general taxonomy of epistemic attitudes towards reality as a whole. This taxonomy can be expected to have an historical interpretation, and heuristically that is a good way to understand it. So let us consider the human attitude to reality in pre-historic times—possibly as far back as our arboreal ancestors. At this time our attitude would resemble the attitude of other animals: there would be no religion and no science, and not even any recognition of why-questions. We did not seek explanations or general causal understanding; we simply accepted the world in which we found ourselves. No one asked why things happen one way rather than another, or how things originated, or what the laws of nature are. Our relation to the world was practical not theoretical: we needed food, shelter, and other biologically given goods; and such knowledge as we had was geared to those ends. Perhaps we also had some nascent aesthetic sense, as other animals seem to today. Our attitude to reality was unquestioning and unreflective: reality, to us, was just the given.

But at some point humans began to ask questions and generate answers to them. We wanted to know why things happen as they do. How exactly we moved to this stage is obscure—other animals never seem to get beyond the first stage of unquestioning acceptance. In reply to these questions we fashioned explanations with frankly supernatural elements: spiritual forces, divine beings, malign agencies, the gods. Why does thunder occur?  It’s the anger of the gods. Why is there disease? It’s punishment for our sins. This epistemic mode continued for thousands of years and still prevails in many human populations today. It is ancient and deep-seated, if utterly misguided. But it is an intellectual step beyond blind unquestioning acceptance of reality—a cognitive advance of sorts. Even our primate relatives seem not to have entered the superstition stage.

Then came science, and none too soon (the human brain had been ready for it for a long time). In fits and starts science began to replace the supernatural mode of explanation. No divine agencies were permitted in the explanation of natural phenomena—just natural mechanisms and laws. The scientific attitude replaced the supernatural attitude as an epistemic stance, at least to some degree and for some people. For many of us now this is the attitude we take for granted, though it is a comparatively recent development. It motivates us to live as we do. We are curious about reality and we accept the scientific method of discovering the truth about it. We have become dedicated students of nature. We delight in scientific results, facts, and theories. Reality, for us, is not (merely) practical or aesthetically pleasing; it is an object of investigation, discovery, and understanding. It exists to be explained–scientifically. We regard reality as a problem to be solved.

The scientific attitude may be accompanied by a secondary critical attitude, a kind of frustration or disappointment. For all the virtues of the scientific method, we understand that it is limited and fallible. We don’t apprehend reality as God might, in one sweeping glance, directly and incontrovertibly. We proceed by cautious inference from what our limited senses reveal of the world: we generate hypotheses, conjectures or guesses—and then we seek evidence to support what we have surmised. Thus we possess the idea of a superior mode of knowledge, which is unavailable to us—godlike knowledge. Still, our very limitations spur us on, in an effort of human transcendence. We enjoy the thrill of the chase, handicapped as we are, and not just the attainment of the knowledge we seek. We feel driven by our curiosity, and our life is given meaning by it. Even though we acknowledge our epistemic limitations, we fight through them in acts of intellectual conquest. Our attitude is passionate and heroic, though tinged with self-doubt. We earnestly hope that science will yield the ultimate truth of the universe, but we have to admit that it might ultimately fail us. Our attitude is optimistic, but with an undercurrent of pessimism. We certainly feel that the scientific attitude is superior to the attitude of blind acceptance or the attitude of supernatural mythmaking. Science enhances our self-image. It makes us feel special. For some, it makes us godlike.

These three attitudes are not the only possible ones, though they are surely the most common. Another attitude would be one of total skepticism: we can ask why-questions and recognize our state of ignorance, but we cannot answer such questions—not by religion orby science. Human knowledge of how the world works is impossible. This attitude is not like the acceptance attitude, which involves no stance with respect to whether reality can be known. The skeptical attitude allows that the questions can be asked, and agrees that they have answers, but denies that we can discover the answers. Reality must remain enigmatic. We cannot know what we desire to know.

A further attitude, combining both skepticism and science, is what might be called “scientific mysterianism”: this is the idea that not all scientific questions admit of answers that we humans can discover or understand, though some do. The attitude can come in degrees, ranging from local mysteries (e.g. the fate of the dinosaurs) to broader mysteries (e.g. consciousness and the ultimate nature of matter). A person who adopts this attitude accepts that the scientific drive must be curtailed in certain cases: we cannot satisfy our curiosity about everything in nature. The attitude is nothing like the supernatural attitude, which does claim to provide answers. The scientific mysterian is someone who believes that for scientific reasonsnot all of reality can be understood by humans. This individual holds that science is a human construct, constrained by limited human intelligence, and evolved for biological purposes: so the science of science implies the real possibility of mysteries of nature.[1]This attitude is quite distinct from any of the other attitudes described so far, and deserves its own place in the general taxonomy. I believe it is the attitude that best fits the state of human knowledge at present, at least in some areas; I expect it to become more prevalent in the coming decades, as the limits of science become apparent. It results from applying the outlook of science to science itself, i.e. a particular kind of human knowledge. The science-forming faculty (as Chomsky calls it) is a natural faculty endowed with inherent strengths and weaknesses.

But what primarily interests me here is the epistemic attitude that will prevail once science comes to an end. For end it will, given some relatively obvious facts. The end of science can come about in two ways: either everything is discovered or some areas resist scientific understanding and always will. In either case there will be no more science for humans to do. Science is a finite enterprise, because the world itself is finite—there are only finitely many laws, explanations, and truths.[2]We have already discovered a great deal about the world, and we will doubtless discover a great deal more; but at some point the discovering will end, either because there is nothing left to discover or because we cannot in principle reach any further. There is only so much botany to do—and zoology, psychology, chemistry, and so on. And before the end point is reached the supply of unanswered questions will shrink visibly: we will be aware that science is drawing to a close and that the pickings that remain are slim. Quite possibly we have already discovered the major theories of nature. What reason is there to believe that science will exist forever, constantly making major new discoveries? Geography effectively came to an end once the earth had been thoroughly explored—there are no more continents to discover. Couldn’t physics come to an end in the next 50 years?[3]

However, my question is less whether and when science might come to an end than what impact this would have on our attitudes to reality and our own lives. What will this recognition do to us? How will our mental attitude change? It will, obviously, deprive us of scientific motivation. We will no longer be able to dedicate ourselves to the pursuit of scientific knowledge. Our curiosity will not find a rich vein in applying the scientific method to reality. We will no longer define ourselves as working scientists. Accordingly, we will have to transform ourselves into a new kind of cognitive being with a different attitude to reality. We will have to find a different meaning and purpose in life. Call this the “post-scientific attitude”. It is not like the pre-scientific attitude, because now science lies before us complete (or as complete as it can get), but it shares one trait with that attitude: we are no longer scientifically motivated. There is no reason, however, to expect that this would lead to a recrudescence of the supernatural attitude, because science has made that obsolete–and certainly it won’t lead to the old unquestioning acceptance of the world. It requires a quite new attitude, a new stance. We will no longer see ourselves as explorers of nature, put here to perfect human knowledge. All scientific knowledge will be available at the push of a button on a giant computer. There will no laboratories, no experiments, no scientific instruments, no professional scientists, no Nobel prizes, and no scientific breakthroughs. What will we do with our intellectual energy, our restless curiosity, our idealism? We will have to adjust to a new epistemic world. Children could still learn science at school, and they might well derive intellectual pleasure from doing so, but the primary drive to discoverwill no longer be one that can be satisfied. The excitement of ongoing science will no longer be there to stimulate and motivate. No one will thirst to become a practicing scientist revealing the truths of nature. No more Darwins and Einsteins.

I think this will be a difficult cultural adjustment, given our human cognitive nature and its emotional associations. There might be widespread depression and a sense of existential emptiness. But perhaps there is a more hopeful future to contemplate: all that mental energy might go into other areas of human concern. We might rediscover things that science has distracted us from; we might find a fresh sense of value in other areas. If our idealism can no longer strike out in search of scientific knowledge, then it might be channeled into art, morality, politics, the preservation of the planet, and so on. We might start to view nature (including human nature) not as a puzzle to be solved, with which we are engaged in a titanic intellectual struggle, but more as an aesthetic object, or an object requiring dedicated preservation. Instead of striving to uncover its secrets, which it zealously conceals from us (with our feeble senses and rickety inferences), we might come to celebrate nature’s beauty more than we do now and seek to preserve and enhance it. Improving the general condition of humankind (and animal kind) might also seem more compelling once we are no longer focused on trying to understand nature. There will be no conflict between searching for knowledge and improving human wellbeing (resources being limited). Art will not be merely a pastime we pursue when the day’s scientific work is done, but something to occupy our fullest attention. In other words, different values will take up the space heretofore occupied by science.

If this prediction is along the right lines, then the science-free world of the future may be a better world than the world we occupy now.[4]However, none of this might come to pass and all that will be left is a gaping hole where science used to be. It might even be that we will turn from nature in an attitude of inconsolable boredom, expressing our despair in destructive acts. Unending war might be the outcome. Nature might no longer engage our interest or even our respect, once its secrets are laid bare, and the nasty side of the human animal might come to the fore. It is hard to say, but things will not go on as before. We would do well to prepare ourselves for the end of science, taking whatever precautions seem necessary, and actively encouraging positive alternatives. Not science education, but post-science education. Philosophy might come to the rescue: it could fill the intellectual vacuum, providing challenges to ambitious young minds (assuming it has not also reached its end point).  I don’t expect science to wind down any time soon, but in a hundred years or so its demise might become a reality.[5]

Let me make a methodological point. It is worth trying to articulate and understand the kinds of general attitudes I have described because they shape the entire way we view the world and ourselves (we might call it “epistemic psychology”). Once Homo sapiensgot beyond the brute animal acceptance of nature, various epistemic options opened up, and these have shaped the course of human history.  A taxonomy of these attitudes helps in grasping them in their full generality—they are natural facts too, capable of study. And just because we are in the middle of the scientific period doesn’t mean that this period will last forever. We should begin to consider the future of the human spirit once science loses its centrality, at least as an active area of human endeavor. We should be ready for the transition.  My own view is that the era of science is a strictly temporary form of human existence, which will inevitably be succeeded by something different. We will always have the results of science (barring some terrible catastrophe, physical or cultural), but we will not always have science as a living form of human endeavor—as something that absorbs our interest and energy. Indeed, science may come to an end before religion, fading into the cultural background, because religion does not have finiteness built into it. My guess is that both religion and science will effectively end in less than two hundred years, given the rate of change we are seeing now; and then we will need to figure out where to go next. I hope that aesthetics and morality will occupy the center of our new attitude to reality, not war and personal enrichment, but I wouldn’t bet on it. Science will be safely tucked away in the reference books (if books still exist) to be enjoyed, savored, and used as need be. We will then inhabit a new form of human consciousness in which other concerns have become salient. The world spirit will have moved on.




Colin McGinn






[1]There are also limits arising from distance in time and space that may never be overcome.

[2]I don’t mean to deny the infinite—of space, time, numbers, and so on. My point is just that there are only so many scientific facts and explanations to be known, so that science won’t go on for all eternity: it has a natural end. This is especially true of natural laws and general theories: there are only so many of these.

[3]See John Horgan, The End of Science: Facing the Limits of Knowledge in the Twilight of the Scientific Age(Basic Books, 2015) for a discussion of this possibility.

[4]Of course, science will still exist in the form of established knowledge; what will be gone is the scientist as discoverer—there will no longer be scientific research. The position of prestige currently occupied by scientists will shift to other members of society. Scientific skills will not be prized as they presently are.

[5]We should distinguish science and technology: I am talking about pure theoretical science not applied science. Technology might have a much more protracted future than science. Discovering the fundamental secrets of nature might not take much longer (or realizing that some things are inherently beyond us), but making new machines by applying scientific knowledge could go on indefinitely.


Introspective Invariance


Introspective Invariance



Our knowledge of the external world is subject to much variation in type and degree of access. We don’t always perceive accurately or clearly or with the same amount of revelation. There are illusions, occlusions, blurring, darkness, variations in appearance, constancy effects, blindness (partial or total), stimulus overload, perspectival disparities, squinting, habituation, priming, etc. Some things are too small to see, some too large. One sound can drown out another. It can thus be hard to know what is going on around you and mistakes are common. But this kind of variation doesn’t apply to our knowledge of the internal world: here we know everything to the same degree with no variation of access. I know my pains as well as I know my intentions and beliefs; and I know individual instances of these types with the same degree of transparency. There are no analogues of perceptual illusions or occlusions or absences of light. Traditionally, it is supposed that such knowledge is certain and incorrigible; but it is also uniform, as if each mental state is bathed in an equal amount of illumination and appears quite unimpeded. There is epistemic invariance in introspection, unlike perception.

This should strike us as remarkable, because mental states themselves are very various. Sensations, thoughts, emotions, intentions, beliefs, and acts of will differ widely among themselves—as physical objects do. Yet they are all presented in the same uniform manner to introspection; it isn’t that some are more difficult to introspect than others in the way physical objects vary in their ease of perceptibility. There are no mental analogues of remote galaxies or invisible germs or atoms or things buried underground. Everything seems presented just as it is without any impediment to knowledge. So in addition to the traditional attributes of infallibility, incorrigibility, first-person authority, and certainty, we have epistemic invariance—the property of being always equally accessible. The contents of the mind don’t vary in their degree of availability to introspection. But that seems odd and inexplicable, since the mind is not homogeneous in itself; and one would expect some variation of access depending on the prevailing conditions of introspection. Why isn’t introspection more like perception in this respect? Surely there couldbe a mind that exhibited introspective variance: the different types of mental state are variously known, with the possibility of error, and analogues of blurring, darkness, blindness, and so on. Isn’t that what we would expect given the realities of knowledge in an imperfect world? Why is our knowledge of our own mind like God’s omniscient knowledge of everything? It seems nothing short of miraculous.

It may be replied that the traditional picture is wrong and epistemic variation is the way things really are. That picture of introspective knowledge is a Cartesian myth: we are notinfallible and incorrigible with respect to our own minds, and there isvariation in quality and degree of access from case to case. Thus we have unconscious mental states, unattended pains, being unsure what you really believe or desire, not knowing whether you are in love. So there is variance in degree and type of epistemic access with respect to one’s own mind. But these points, though not mistaken in themselves, don’t really restore the analogy to perception: we still don’t have the kind of variance that characterizes perceptual knowledge. Ordinary occurrent conscious mental states are all apparently known in the same way with the same degree of clarity and certainty. They are laid out before the introspective eye in equal measure, whether they are sensations, thoughts, acts of will, etc. A pain in the toe is as present to introspection as a thought in the head, despite its relative remoteness. No matter what your beliefs are about they are equally present to you. Sensations of touch are not more introspectively available than sensations of sight. Here it may be said that this is not really as surprising or remarkable as I am making out, for all of these mental states are really in the same place—the brain. The pain in my toe is really located in my brain, just like my thoughts; there is no difference of epistemic proximity. But this just raises another puzzle: why do different parts of the brain produce the same kind of introspective access? Suppose the introspective faculty is located in a certain part of the brain, say the prefrontal cortex, while the pain and thought centers are located in other parts: won’t those other parts be differently hooked up to the prefrontal cortex, more or less distant from it and employing different nerve fibers? If so, shouldn’t we expect a difference in degree of access, with signals from one brain part taking longer to reach the introspection center than signals from another brain part? How is introspective invariance consistent with cerebral variance? Situating all mental states in the brain doesn’t support introspective invariance; it undermines it. We still have the puzzle of why different compartments of the mind converge in their introspective accessibility.

Here is another way to put the point. You can selectively lose a sense but you can’t selectively lose the ability to detect the sensations delivered by a sense. You can go blind but you can’t go “blind” to your visual sensations. I have never heard of a case of someone losing their entire introspective faculty (they go “mind-blind”), still less of someone ceasing to detect their own visual sensations while still being aware of their auditory and tactual sensations. There are no such introspective breakdowns or pathologies. But they seem like logically conceivable scenarios—couldn’t they occur in some imaginary creature? Then there would a very distinct kind of introspective variance—knowledge of some sensations but not of others (which nevertheless exist). Suppose we adopt a biological perspective, always a salutary procedure, and consider the evolution of introspection. First consider sensations and introspective knowledge of these sensations: that is one possible kind of species psychology. Then consider thoughts and emotions along with their own introspective faculty. Why should that faculty be just like the faculty directed at sensations? The faculties could exist in different species, arising at different times, and with different objects—why should they function identically? If we put both faculties together in a single species, why should the result be epistemic invariance? These are different biological adaptations, so why should there be such strong convergence? Yet in our case the entire contents of our mind present themselves with exactly the same transparency. There is a uniformity here that is at odds with biological reality as well as mental heterogeneity. To put it simply: why shouldn’t thoughts be better known than pains (or vice versa)?

It might be retorted that the puzzle arises only under a misguided perceptual model of introspection (the term itself might be contested). If we insist on viewing so-called self-knowledge as a type of inner vision, then we shall feel puzzled about why it doesn’t have the characteristics of vision; but that picture isn’t compulsory, so the puzzle dissolves. I don’t think we need to be committed to an inner vision model to feel the force of the puzzle, but anyway this response doesn’t really advance the discussion, because the same puzzle arises under other conceptions of reports of one’s own mental states. Why should all mental phenomena be expressivelyidentical? I express my pains with the same alacrity and finesse as I express my thoughts or emotions—there isn’t some sort of temporal delay or potential for selective breakdown. Intuitively, I have the mental state and I am aware of it, so I express it at will: it isn’t that in some cases the expression is thwarted or compromised. Logically speaking, a creature could exhibit selective expression, but we don’t do that—why? That is, why does our (conscious) mind always present itself to us with the kind of uniform availability that it does?  The objects around me present themselves to my senses in all sorts of different ways, with great differences of accessibility, but the mental states inside me don’t do that—they just sit there with an equal degree of accessibility, like peas in a pod (or rather notlike that). This is a fact so familiar that it takes work even to notice it, but once noticed it cannot but appear puzzling. The physical world varies enormously in its degree of perceptual accessibility, but the mental world is unvarying in its degree of introspective accessibility (with the qualifications made earlier).[1]It’s as if we always have 2020-vision as far as the contents of our own (conscious) minds are concerned.

Consider animal minds before introspection ever evolved. At some point it did evolve and mental states began to be known by their bearers. Did it operate over all mental states initially or only a subset of them? Was it equally adept for all existing mental states? Did it go through a phase of epistemic variance? Do other animals have the same invariance that we have? What is the explanation of this invariance? These are puzzling questions indeed.



[1]Compare knowledge of one’s own body: here too we have marked epistemic variance, since some parts of the body are better known than other parts, even in the case of proprioception. I can’t see my back or feel my brain, for example—yet these body parts are as much parts of my body as any. But the interior of my mind isn’t like that: it is the analogue of a completely visible body. The mind is thus epistemically anomalous, puzzlingly so.


Thinking as the Good




The Good Life As Thinking Well



What is the good life for a human being? It is hard to think of a more pressing and important question, or an older one.[1]Two remarks on the question, as so formulated, should be made immediately. The first is that there might be several goods for human beings, which may or may not be ranked, not a single good. I mean to be asking what is the deepest and most distinctive good for human beings: what, given our nature, is the highest form of good for us? What is the ultimatehuman good? Second, the question concerns what is good specifically for human beings (and possible creatures relevantly similar to us), not for animals in general. The highest good for a dog or a snake is doubtless different from the highest good for a human, because these three species have different natures, especially psychologically. Our specific form of good depends on what we are—centrally, essentially, distinctively. I shall accordingly say that I am concerned to discover the coregood for humans—the good that is closest to our specific nature.

Two answers to our question have been historically prominent: hedonism and moralism. Hedonism says that the good life consists in feeling good—in individual pleasure, happiness, or wellbeing. Your life is good if and only if it is full of pleasurable or agreeable sensations and emotions. Promoting the good life is maximizing such sensations and emotions, in oneself and others. Moralism, by contrast, says that the good life consists in doing good—that is, in moral or virtuous actions. Your life is good if and only if it is full of virtuous acts. The worthwhile life is the moral life. Hedonism presupposes that we are beings with the capacity to experience pleasure, while moralism presupposes that we are moral agents. If we had neither attribute, it would be pointless to claim that the good life for us consists in either thing. And if we were to lose either attribute, as a result of some catastrophe, then human life would become devoid of value, given the truth of hedonism or moralism: for there would then be nothing about us that could constitute a good life. If the pleasure centers were removed from our brain, or we were rendered unable to act virtuously (say by total paralysis), then human life would be made meaningless, empty of value, not worth living. There would literally be nothing of value for us to live for (this reflection might already make us suspicious of both doctrines, at least as complete accounts of the good life.)

The thesis I wish to advocate is that we have a third type of capacity and that this is where human good ultimately resides. I do not say that pleasure and virtue are not human goods (I think they clearly are); my point is that there is a third type of human good that is more central—that is closer to our core nature. This good I call thinking well. We have this good because it is in our nature to be thinking beings: we are rational, reflective, meditative, and cognitive. Hence my title: the good life for humans is thinking well. There is no established label for views of this type (which hark back to the ancient Greeks), but just for the sake of a name we can call the view “intellectualism” (though this has some misleading connotations). According to intellectualism, the reason it is better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a pig satisfied is that Socrates is still thinking well, even if he is not feeling any pleasure or satisfaction (and not acting virtuously either). But a pig dissatisfied has no other good to fall back on (assuming virtuous action is also out of its reach). I shall now elaborate this intellectualist thesis.


What do I mean by “thinking well”? What does cognitive value consist in? Two views may be distinguished, according as the value in question is construed intrinsically or instrumentally. A very widespread opinion is that all value consists in the satisfaction of desire—the utilitarian position. Thus the value of thought must depend instrumentally upon its ability to aid in the satisfaction of desire. Thought is taken to be a useful device for producing desire satisfaction, and its value resides wholly in that instrumental function. Perhaps the rational capacity evolved so as to help in furthering the organism’s goals, and hence its value is instrumental in relation to these goals (“the better you think the more you get what you want”). Now I do not doubt that thought can have this kind of instrumental value, but I do not believe this exhausts its value; what I maintain is that thought also has intrinsic value—value quathought. Thinking well is not just thinking effectively in the desire-satisfaction sense; there are other characteristics thought has that render it intrinsically valuable, i.e. valuable independently of the good states of affairs it can bring about. An incomplete list of the characteristics in question would include: clarity, precision, creativity, profundity, truth, justification, explanatory power, importance, acuity, brilliance, and objectivity. These features have value in themselves, I maintain, and not merely instrumentally in relation to goals and desires. Thus it is a good thing for thinking to be clear independently of any desirable state of affairs such clarity may bring about. Clarity is in itself a desirable trait of thought—a good way for thought to be, inherently. By contrast, if a thought is unclear or muddled, confused or tangled, then this is a bad way for thought to be—even if it might happen to bring about some amount of desire satisfaction. To characterize someone’s thought with the adjectives I listed is ipso factoto praise or commend his or her thought: it is to assert that the thought in question is good(in some respect). So what I am saying is that thinking well consists in having the traits listed, where these traits themselves have intrinsic value. And if thinking well is our highest good, then our highest good consists in having thoughts with these valuable characteristics. For instance, our highest good consists in having clear thoughts—as well as creative and brilliant thoughts, and so on. If our thoughts are good in this sense, then our life is (to that extent) good.

We could put this by saying that thoughts can have various “cognitive virtues”. This notion is close to what is sometimes called “epistemic virtue”, but that notion tends to focus on procedural aspects of belief formation—how one assesses evidence and so on. I mean to be speaking more about the kinds of virtue that thoughts in themselves can have, as opposed to the virtues attaching to investigation or enquiry. In any case, we are moving in the realm of value—praise and blame, norms, assessment, and evaluation. Just as bodily actions can fall into the realm of value, so can mental actions—but this cognitive value is not ordinary moral value. The value at issue is peculiar to acts of thinking, and reflects the nature of such acts (that they are propositional, in particular). To think well is to think in such a way as to attract positive evaluation—quathinker (not as a moral agent in the usual sense). To be a good thinker is to manifest the traits listed, since these constitute the value that thoughts per sepossess. For a thought to be, say, clear, original, and brilliant is for it to have high intrinsic value, these being value-making characteristics. This is what I mean by “cognitive virtues”.

There is another aspect of thought and its value worth mentioning, though I won’t explore it here: namely, that thought connects us to things that in themselves have been regarded as having positive value. Thus Plato famously held that thought connects us to universals and universals possess a special kind of value, being eternal, timeless, unchanging, perfect, etc. In thought we are in direct contact with this higher world, according to Plato—the intellect is our route to a superior mode of existence. In particular, the form of the Good is accessible by means of our intellectual faculties, and apprehension of the Good elevates us correspondingly. Similar ideas have attached themselves to generality and modality: human thought acquaints us with generality and necessity, with universal law and how things must be. Since these concepts take us beyond the ordinary empirical world of particulars, they are deemed “transcendent” in some way—an ontological cut above. Thought, it is felt, takes us beyond the senses and into a deeper reality—where this deeper reality confers value on the thoughts that achieve that feat. As Russell would say, we become acquaintedwith what is fine and noble in itself—mathematics being the favored example. These inchoate ideas may or may not be philosophically defensible, but they do seem to exert a hold on those who see in thought a route to something higher. Thought takes us to the superlunary, where things are purer and more perfect.


I have said that our highest good consists in thinking well, but I have not yet said anything about happiness. Can we say that happiness is thinking well? That sounds a bit off as stated—how can you be made happy simply by having objectively valuable thoughts? What if we had such thoughts but didn’t know it? I think we need to add another ingredient to the picture: knowing thatwe are thinking well. Then we can say, more plausibly, that happiness—or at least one type of happiness—comes from knowing that one is thinking well—being self-aware in this kind of way. When your thinking is going well andyou know it, then you are happy (with respect to your thinking). If your thinking were good and you didn’t know it, even doubting it, then happiness would not be yours. But if your thinking is both excellent and known by you to be so, then happiness will be the outcome. You happily think: “I am having good thoughts today!” Thus happiness (or one type of it) results from recognitionof one’s intellectual or cognitive excellence; we might say it is enjoyment ofone’s good thoughts. It is a kind of self-congratulation, if I may put it so. This is something over and above just havingexcellent thoughts; it is self-knowledge with respect to the quality of the thoughts one has. You won’t be a happy thinker unless you perceive your thoughts in this way; you might even be quite miserable (“My thoughts are terrible today!”). Intellectual happiness thus requires not just first-order intellectual excellence but second-order awareness ofone’s intellectual excellence. And knowledge of one’s intellectual excellence will naturally give rise to a type of pride, which is a source of happiness. It is self-attribution that links cognitive excellence to happiness—you are happy thatyou are thinking well. When the ancients spoke of a “love of wisdom” they presupposed that wisdom was recognizable, in oneself and others. Since in general we love wisdom (understanding, knowledge, insight), we love it in ourselves, as well as in others; but we need to be able to recognize it in ourselves if we are to experience the love in question. Recognizing wisdom in oneself will naturally produce self-love—and self-love is part of what happiness involves (someone with self-hatred is not happy). A being that had wisdom but could not recognize it would not be happy in the way we are. (Recognizing stupidity and ineptitude in oneself will correspondingly produce self-loathing and unhappiness: the intellectual life is not always and ipso factothe happy life.) The happily wise person thinks well andknows that she thinks well; and since she loves wisdom, she loves herself for being wise. Thus she is made happy by her knowledge of the wisdom in herself that she loves generally. She is proud that she instantiates a quality that she loves (esteems, admires) in others.

You might object as follows: “That all sounds very fancy and high-minded, but isn’t it rather elitist? Can only philosophers be happy? That seems unfair, and also not true. What about the happy practical man and the joyful doer of good deeds?” But, I reply, there is practical wisdom too, and there is a cognitive dimension to right action. The view I am defending does not privilege theoretical reason over practical reason: good thoughts are available in all domains of thinking. The carpenter can think well (or badly) as well as the philosopher. In fact, since everyone loves wisdom, whether practical or theoretical, everyone counts as a “philosopher” in the original meaning of the term. So everyone is able, in principle, to achieve “philosophical excellence”. The doctrine I call “intellectualism” does not advocate the life of the “intellectual” above all others; it simply celebrates the virtues of reason, in all of its many forms. So the view is not elitist in the sense that it elevates some kinds of cognitive activity over other kinds. To do that would be to make a further claim, right or wrong. But it is elitist in the sense that it recognizes that some people are better thinkers than others, whether they are carpenters or epistemologists. Some people have more cognitive virtue than others, whether innately or by training or by strength of will. Whether some areas of thought are more valuable than others is a question I won’t go into, though there is room for more elitism here too (physics versus economics, say). Maybe thinking well about thinking well has the highest value of all… But the idea is not that the “intellectual life” is higher or better or more worthwhile than the “practical life”. It is just that whenever we are thinking—and we always are—we should strive for excellence in our thinking. No matter what we are thinking about, our thinking should always be excellent, according to the criteria cited earlier. Stupid, lazy, fuzzy thinking–about any subject matter–is nevergood.


We are condemned to think. We wake up in the morning and start thinking immediately, and we go on thinking till we fall asleep at night (and then the dreaming starts and thinking returns). You can’t stop yourself from thinking or take a ten-minute break from it—not if you are conscious and awake. You can close your eyes or block your ears if you want to stop seeing or hearing, but you can’t block your thinking organ (while remaining conscious)—it just keeps ticking away, relentlessly. The existentialists declared that we were condemned to freedom, as an inevitable part of the human condition; that may or may not be so, but we are certainly condemned to cognition—to being ceaselessly bombarded with thoughts at every waking moment. We can, to some extent, choose what to think about, but we cannot choose whether to think at all. To be human is to be constantly thinking, reflecting, and fretting. And we think a great many thoughts in the average day—I would estimate more thoughts than there are seconds. Not for nothing did Descartes announce that our essence is to be a thinking thing, a “res cogitans”. Whatever may be said about dreamless sleep, our conscious lives are replete with thinking, and we would not be what we are without it. Thus we could enunciate, in Cartesian spirit, the “inverted Cogito”: “I am, therefore I think”. If a conscious human self exists, it is necessarily a thinking being. Remove my capacity to think and you remove my essence—what it is to be me. I could go blind and deaf and still be myself, thinking my thoughts; I could even lose all bodily awareness and tactual sensation and persist as myself. I might conceivably even exist in a totally disembodied form yet still exist as a thinking thing. But if my ability to think is destroyed, then I become a mere “vegetable” and I no longer exist as a self or person. As things stand, I am also an acting thing and a feeling thing, but these attributes do not form my core in the way my thinking does. Moreover, I experience myself asa thinking thing—I am aware of myself as a thinker. I know thatI think. It is my nature to think thoughts thinkingly, if I can put it so.

These are remarks about the metaphysics of the human self—about what kind of being it is. What consequences do they have for the good life for humans? Well, if I am essentially a thinking thing, then the highest good for me will depend upon the proper form of excellence for such an entity. If it is my natureto think, then what is good for me will depend upon that nature flourishing (as Aristotle would say). For what is good for mewill depend on the form of excellence appropriate to my essential nature. The form of excellence for thought is simply thinking well, as defined earlier: so my nature achieves its highest good when I am thinking well. I am also a digesting thing, inter alia, but the form of excellence appropriate to digestion—“digesting well”—is not part of my very nature as a conscious self (similarly for seeing, hearing, etc). In the case of thinking, though, the appropriate excellence does concern my essential nature, since I am necessarily a thinking thing. Thus, if we combine a Cartesian metaphysics of the self with a broadly Aristotelian conception of human good, then we reach the thesis that our highest and most central good consists in thinking well. The good of an essentially thinking thing is precisely the good attaching to thought itself. There are no doubt other goods appropriate to us because we are also animals that perceive, feel, digest, act, and so on; but the good proper to thinking is the good that most centrally concerns us in our core being. The good of an insect or a reptile, by contrast, will not include cognitive excellence, since these creatures are not to be defined as thinking things. But human beings are equipped with rational thought, and so their good concerns the proper functioning of that faculty. If I am thinking well, then Iam well—quathinking thing. We might interpret this conclusion as supplying the missing Cartesian ethics: Descartes focused on metaphysics, but his metaphysical conception of the self leads naturally to the intellectualist account of human wellbeing. A good state of affairs, for a committed Cartesian, is precisely one in which thinking beings think well. That is what we have a moral duty to bring about. Cartesian happiness is accordingly knowledge that one is thinking well. We may also be happy that we are feeling good or performing good actions (hedonism and moralism), but these are contingent and extrinsic forms of human happiness. Core happiness concerns our core, and our core is to be a thinking thing. In a slogan: the happy man is the man blessed with a happy intellect. Or again, the good of the human self consists in the good of her thoughts. There is also, to be sure, affective good and moral good; but cognitive good is what concerns us most centrally and intimately.


Perhaps I can clarify the position defended here by considering the meaning of life in a utopian world. By a utopian world I mean one in which all material and basic needs are met—no one wants for anything. It is a world in which scarcity has been abolished. In particular, any pleasure can be obtained with a snap of the fingers, and no one needs any help. We are to understand, then, that in utopia any hedonic or moral striving is redundant. Altruistic action is pointless and one’s own desires can be satisfied without effort or expertise. So is there nothing left to strive for—no good that has still to be attained? Has life become perfect? In utopia, as so defined, has man reached his highest good, fully and completely? Well, suppose that in utopia people have become stupid, muddle-headed, intellectually lazy, prone to numbing non-sequiturs, easily duped, mentally dull, incapable of rational thought, and generally shabby in the cognitive department. They may have all their basic desires satisfied and be always brimming with pleasure, and no one can call them immoral, but they can’t think straight for two minutes at a time and never have a creative idea. I suggest that they are lacking an essential ingredient of the good life: thinking well. There is surely something shameful about their condition; they are not living a good human life, everything considered. We might even say that they are failing to live a good life in a deep and fundamental way–their seeming contentment and blamelessness is hollow, mindless, and undignified. What is the point of bliss without intelligence? And is it really bliss if their thinking is that debased? These are not fully admirable people (if they are admirable at all).

The obvious thing to say is that the denizens of utopia have a lot of work to do if they are to live a really good life. They have much to rectify and improve. They are lacking a basic human good. They must, that is, strive for excellence of the intellect. Notice that their thoughts do not lack in instrumental value, since in utopia thoughts don’t have to be inherently excellent in order to conduce to the satisfaction of desire. What they lack is the kind of value intrinsic to thoughts—clarity, creativity, truth, and so on. The good life is therefore not all about desire satisfaction; there are other distinct kinds of good that must exist too. A fool with satisfied desires is still lacking an essential type of good—good of the intellect. In fact, we all instinctively recognize this source of value, because we tend to despise “happy” people who don’t have an intelligent thought in their head; and we are embarrassed when our own thinking fails to measure up. No one will ever tell you they are remarkably stupid and be perfectly happy about it. People wish to be intelligent. Why? Because they valueintelligence (whether it’s intelligence in philosophy or carpentry)—they see goodnessin it. Hence intelligence must be cultivated and celebrated. From a Cartesian perspective, the mindless utopians are failing to realize the good appropriate to their very nature: they are thinking things that do not care to instantiate the good proper to thinking things. They instantiate other goods, such as pleasure, but they don’t instantiate the good that pertains to their essence. And if they are aware that they fail to instantiate this central good, then they cannot be completely happy, because they realize that they are lacking in a crucial type of value. In order to achieve the highest good available to them, they must clean up their thinking: they must discover the joys of beautiful well-formed thoughts, of healthy cognition, of a well-oiled rational faculty. They will be better off once they acquire the capacity for clear intelligent thought, and be the happier for it. They have been neglecting a key component of the life well lived.


One of the nice things about having good thoughts is communicating them to other people. There is a social or interpersonal dimension to all that solitary inner cogitation. Here one might be tempted by a couple of mistaken ideas. One idea is that the value of thinking well reduces to personal desire satisfaction or moral action after all. For, it may be said, when I recognize that I have just had a good thought, especially a creative one, I see the benefits that will accrue to me by communicating that thought to others: I will be rewarded or admired for having the thought in question. So the value of the thought depends upon what it will bring to me in the way of desire satisfaction. Or again, I might reflect, altruistically, that by sharing my thought with others I can improve their thinking and hence the quality of their life—that is, I see the possible moral benefits of my thought. But both these ideas are off the mark: my thought has value independently of its communicative payoff, whether prudential or altruistic. It has value in itself, quainner thought; its value does not derive from its potential relation to other people. And this point puts paid to a second tempting idea: that we need other people for thought to have value, either as sources of reward for the thinker or as targets of cognitive altruism. The truth is rather that the basic value of thinking is essentially solitary: my thoughts have value just by occurring in me, whether I share them with others or not (in this respect they resemble pleasure). This is because they have the value-making traits earlier enumerated quite independently of the existence of other people. We therefore do not need other people in order to enjoy the goodness of good thoughts. Good thoughts maybe communicated, of course, with rewards received and lives enhanced, but the goodness of the good thought does not consistin such consequences. The value would still be there in a totally solipsistic world. Thus the good life, in its highest form, does not require other people; it can be enjoyed in complete solitude. This may strike us as a comforting reflection, what with the vagaries of other people and all that. I can quietly appreciate the merits of my excellent thinking in perfect solitude, without having to take into account the impact my thoughts might have on other people—and so, of course, can you. I can therefore be happy alone (at least quathinking thing). There could be value in my thoughts, and hence in my life, even if I were the last human being alive. This contrasts with the moralist view of human good, which requires other people to exist to be recipients of my good deeds; I cannot live a good life in complete solitude for the moralist. In its most austerely pure form, the intellectualist view of the good life allows that a human life might be good and happy in the complete and lifelong absence of other people–as on a desert island that is conducive to excellent thinking. We do not, in principle, need others in order to be happy, i.e. to experience our core happiness. Our highest good is not a social good. Even if others are taken from us, Cartesian happiness is still possible, though other kinds of happiness are not. Thinking well is something you can do on your own, and indeed is usually best done in solitude.


I will now spell out some practical consequences of the conception of human good defended here. I will be brief, since the consequences are fairly obvious. The first concerns education. Although we are born with an ability to think, good thinking is not a developmental given. Bad thinking is rife and apparently quite “natural”. It takes work and discipline to acquire good thinking. I would recommend telling all children that they innately possess a wonderful thinking faculty—something to celebrate and take pride in—but I would also insist that special attention be paid to that innate faculty in order for it to develop its full potential. I would focus education precisely on cultivating the thinking faculty, with emphasis placed on its value-making role in human life. The ultimate aim of a general education should be to maximize the good thinking of the student, as adumbrated earlier. Thinking should not be regarded as merely instrumentally valuable, as in securing a “good job” (i.e. one that pays well); nor should it be taken to be a skill with purely practical benefits. It has value in and of itself. Since it is not a given that people’s thinking will achieve excellence, it is necessary to educate people systematically in how to think well. Teaching them logic would be an essential part of this, formal and informal. The quality of the student’s thinking should be the focus, not how much he or she has memorized or even his or her knowledge of a particular subject (knowledge without intelligence is sometimes worse than ignorance). That is, good thinking must be the explicit object of educational effort. Students should be tested in it too (the ETT—the Excellent Thinking Test).

This perspective should give us a new appreciation for some traditional modes of education—reading, writing, and (I would add) conversation. Reading, especially of good writing, stimulates and encourages thought; it trains thought. Reading is really an interaction between thought and text, not merely a taking in of information (at least the right kind of reading). Writing is the careful expression of thought, its embodiment; and it also disciplines thought. Mastery of written language (including punctuation!) is essential to good thinking—as to both clarity and creativity. Proverbially, those who write poorly are apt to think poorly. Conversation is also important in cultivating excellent thinking, because it tests clarity and comprehension. Students should be taught how to have an intelligent conversation—how to listen, absorb, and respond. Bad conversational habits should be discouraged. Speaking well to others is part of thinking well, because it requires quality in the underlying thought. In each of these areas, the emphasis should not be on external performance but on the inner process of thought that lies behind performance. For instance, ask the students what they thought about as they read a certain passage, not merely what the passage contained. Make sure the student’s writing is expressing his or her thoughts properly, not merely meeting standards of spelling and grammar (though these are important). Don’t have a behavioristview of education but a mentalistview—what matters is what is going on inside the student’s head, the quality of the hidden thought. Try to find out if a conversation improved a student’s thoughts about a particular subject. Did it clarify anything? Did it lead to any new thoughts on the part of the student? The concern should not be with what “response” can be “elicited” from the student by a given “stimulus” but rather with the virtues manifest in the student’s inner cognitive process. Given that the student is essentially a thinking thing, education should address itself to the nature of the student’s essence. This will produce true human excellence, and with it happiness (if our earlier suggestions are along the right lines). In sum, the central point of a general education is to enable the student think well, and education should be conceived as such: cogitation not recitation.

With respect to politics, the practical upshot is equally obvious. Societies should be arranged so that the populace achieves the best chance to develop their cognitive abilities. An “open society” with genuine freedom of speech is critical to achieving this, as is the absence of propaganda and devices of conformity. Technology is valuable if, but only if, it furthers the ultimate goal of improved thinking; if it interferes with that goal it should be deplored. The aim of government should be to provide the conditions under which the cognitive wellbeing of all can be maximized (the provision of the right kind of education is thus a crucial duty of government). Distributive justice requires that the means of cognitive enhancement should be freely available and not concentrated in the hands of a few. We should judge political systems by their record in improving the intellectual wellbeing of the population (remember that this will naturally lead to success in more practical areas, such as manufacture and trade). Political turmoil, financial crashes, fanaticism, prejudice, and so on, are often the result of shoddy thinking. No doubt other sources of political difficulty exist, but better thinking can often work to block some of the worst results of dangerous forces. To put it bluntly, political evil is often enabled by human stupidity, i.e. less than optimal rational thought. Bad judgment is more often the culprit than an inherently evil will. Politicians should therefore be thinkers of the highest caliber (so we have a very long way to go).

Lastly, some quick comments about art. Our response to art typically involves perception, emotion, and thought. An attractive thesis, prompted by our reflections so far, is that the value of art depends, at least in part, on the quality of the thoughts the artwork occasions in us, especially as these thoughts infuse the emotions evoked. The mere sensory perception of the stimulus is not enough to constitute an aesthetic response, since one can imagine a creature’s senses responding as ours do but which has none of the thoughts or emotions that we have. It might be argued that it is the emotions that are crucial, not the perception as such. But surely the emotions are what they are in virtue of the cognitive response of the onlooker; considered independently of the thoughts, the emotions have no aesthetic value. The artwork makes us thinkin a certain way (the novel is the obvious case); and if this way is itself valuable, then the artwork is. If we had no thoughts at all when experiencing an artwork, just sensory experiences and raw emotions, then it is hard to see what value art could have. But if the artwork clarifies our thoughts, or gives rise to new and interesting thoughts, then it will have value, as a trigger to such valuable thoughts. Or better, perhaps we should say that the artwork unifies perception, emotion, and thought—with the thought ultimately providing the source of value. The thoughts evoked could be of many kinds, but unless they are worthwhile thoughts themselves nothing of value has been gained from the artwork. An artwork that evoked in the audience only confused, inept, false, prejudicial, boring, and trivial thoughts could hardly claim to possess aesthetic value—it would be a failed work of art. If this is on the right lines, then art depends for its existence on thought, and on thought having value. Art may not always improve us ethically, but it might (when it is good) improve us cognitively. Art that made people worse in their thinking would not warrant our esteem. We might say then that art that improves the art of thinking is good art. What seems clear is that the value of art cannot be separated from the value of the thoughts it evokes. This should make Plato more reconciled to art than he was.


My general thesis has been that thought has its own distinctive kind of intrinsic value, not to be assimilated to moral value or to desire satisfaction. This kind of value lies close to our metaphysical essence as thinking things. Thus our duty is to improve our thinking in such a way as to realize our highest good. If we do so, we can achieve a kind of happiness not otherwise achievable. Feeling good and doing good both matter to the life well lived, but good thinking matters most.


Colin McGinn




[1]The tone and style of this paper reflect its origin: it was the text for an annual lecture I gave to students and members of the general public at a small American college–hence its didactic and hortatory quality. I am not meaning to lecture my fellow professional philosophers on the value of thinking well!


Impressions of Existence



Impressions of Existence



You wake up in the morning and you become conscious of the world again. For a while nothing existed for you, but now existence floods back. You become aware of external objects, of space, of time, of yourself, of your mental states. I shall say that you have impressions of existence. I am interested in the nature of these impressions—their psychological character. They are of a special kind, not just an instance of other psychological categories. I want to say they are neither beliefs nor sensations; they are a sui generispsychological state. They need to be recognized as such in both philosophy of mind and epistemology. Intuitively, they are sensory states without qualitative content—perceptual but not phenomenal (though these terms are really too crude to capture all the distinctions we need). Let me try to identify what is so special about them, acknowledging that we are in obscure conceptual territory.

First, impressions of existence are not beliefs: existential beliefs are neither necessary nor sufficient for existential impressions. I might have the impression that there is a cat in front of me, but actually be hallucinating, and know it. My sense experience gives me the impression of an existing cat, but I know better, so I don’t believe a cat exists in my vicinity. Just as I can have an impression of an object with certain properties but decline to believe there is an object with those properties (I know I’m hallucinating), so I can have an impression that something exists and yet not believe it does. So existential belief is not necessary for existential impression. Nor is it sufficient because I can believe in the existence of things that I don’t have impressions of existence of—such as remote galaxies or atoms or other minds. These points make it look as if impressions of existence are standard perceptual states, like seeing red things and square things. But there is no qualitythat I see when I have a visual impression of existence: it strikes me visually that a certain object exists, but there is no quality of the object that is presented to me asits existence (this is an old point about existence). Redness and rectangularity can enter the content of my experience, but existence can’t. It isn’t a sensory quality, primary or secondary. I have the impression that a certain object exists—that’s how things seem to me—but there is no quality of existence that is recorded by my senses. Even theories of existence as a first-order property don’t claim that existence is perceptible in the way color and shape are; and theories that identify existence with a second-order property certainly don’t regard it as perceptible. I don’t seethe existence of a thing, as I see its color and shape. Yet I have an impression of existence, and that impression belongs with my experience (not my beliefs). I describe myself as “under the impression” that various things exist—my experience is not neutralas to existence—but this impression is not a belief I have, and it is not a type of sensation either.

Not all experience carries impressions of existence: not imaginative experience, for example. If I form an image of a unicorn, I am not thereby under the impression that a unicorn exists. Nor do I have existential impressions of fictional characters. There is sensory content to these experiences (note how strained language is here), but I would never say that I have impressions of existence with respect to imaginary objects. On the contrary, I would say that I have impressions of non-existence. Impressions of existence are not constitutive of consciousness as such, though they are certainly a common feature of consciousness. Do I have such impressions in the case of numbers and other abstract objects? That is not an easy question, but I am inclined to say no, which is perhaps why Platonism strikes us as bold. We might have an intuitionof existence here (and elsewhere), but that is not the same as an impressionof existence. We don’t say, “It sure as hell lookslike there’s a number here!” Impressions of existence belong with the senses (including introspection) not the intellectual faculties. Do I have impressions of existence with respect to language? Well, I certainly have the feeling that wordsexist—I keep hearing and seeing them—but as to meaningsthe answer is unclear. The meanings of words don’t impress themselves on my senses in the way material objects do. Physical events impress me with their existence too, but fields of force not so much. We seem more or less inclined to believe in the existence of things according as they provide impressions of existence or not. We are impressed with impressions of existence, though we extend our existential beliefs beyond this basic case.

Impressions of existence undermine traditional conceptions of sense experience, such as sense-datum theory, sensory qualia, and the phenomenal mosaic, rather as seeing-as undermines these conceptions. Seeing-as is not to be conceived as a “purely sensory” visual state either. Sense experience contains more than qualitative atoms of sensation (“the given”); there is a variety and richness to it that is not recognized by traditional notions. Impressions of existence are not instances of Humean “impressions” or Lockean “ideas”. To be sure, there is something it is like to have an impression of existence, which is not available to someone that has only theoretical existential beliefs, and we can rightly describe such impressions as phenomenological facts; but we are not dealing here with what are traditionally described as “ideas of sensible qualities”, such as ideas (sic) of primary and secondary qualities. The impressions in question sit loosely between what we are inclined to call (misleadingly) perception and intellect, sensation and cognition, seeing and thinking. They are neither hills nor valleys, but something in between. It is thus hard to recognize their existence, or to describe them without distortion. Existence is woven into ordinary experience, but not as one thread intertwined with others (color, shape). One is tempted to describe such impressions as assumptions or presuppositions or tacit beliefs, but none of these terms does justice to their immediate sensory character—for it really is as if we are directly informed of an object’s existence, as if it announces its existence to our senses. As Wittgenstein might say, we see things asexisting (even when they don’t). The sensory world is not an existentially neutral manifold. Seeing-as shows that seeing is not just a passive copy of the stimulus, and “seeing-existence” carries a similar lesson. It doesn’t fit the paradigm of seeing a color, but so what?

This has a bearing on skepticism. It is not merely that the skeptic questions our existential beliefs; he questions our existential impressions. We don’t feel a visceral affront when someone questions our belief in galaxies, atoms, and other minds—we feel such things to be negotiable—but we jib when we are told that the very nature of our experience is riddled with falsehood. Our galaxy without other galaxies is one thing, but a brain in a vat is something else entirely. The brain in a vat is brimming with impressions of existence, as a matter of basic phenomenological fact, but these impressions are all false—there are no objects meeting the conditions laid down in its experience. Here, we want to say, the skepticism is existential—it shakes us to the core. How could our experience mislead us so badly, so dramatically? It is like being lied to by an intimate friend. How could experience do that to us! It seduces us into believing that things exist, but they don’t! So the shock of skepticism is magnified by the experiential immediacy of impressions of existence; it isn’t just theoretical, academic. It is different with skepticism about other minds, because in this case we don’t have such impressions of existence; so the skeptic isn’t contradicting ordinary experience, just commonsense assumption. We assumeother people have minds, but we don’t have sensory impressionsof other minds (paceWittgenstein and others). We might then say there are two kinds of skepticism: belief skepticism and impression skepticism. The skeptic about other minds is a belief skeptic, but the skeptic about the external world (or the self) is an impression skeptic. Skepticism about the past, the future, and the unobservable falls into the former category, while the latter category might extend to include skepticism about our own mental states, as well as the self that has them. And certainly we have a very strong impression that our own mental states exist (not merely a firm belief). Of course, there is always a distinction between actual existence and the impression of existence, but it is surely indisputable that we have an impressionthat our own mental states exist—whether they really do is another question. In any case, the skeptic who questions the veridicality of our impressions, as opposed to our beliefs, is always a more nerve-racking figure.

I will mention a few issues that arise once we have accepted this addition to the phenomenological inventory. First, animals: I take it that sensing animals enjoy impressions of existence, even though they may not be capable of existential beliefs. They may not have the conceptof existence but they have a senseof it—the world they experience impresses them as real. If they have mental images, there will a contrast in this respect in their mind. This shows how primitive and biologically rooted impressions of existence are. Second, training: is it possible to train someone out of her impressions of existence? We can’t train someone not to experience perceptual illusions (the system is modular), but could we train someone to cease to experience the world as existing? It’s an empirical question, but I doubt it—this too is part of the encapsulated perceptual system, hard-wired and irreversible. Of course, beliefs can be readily changed by suitable training—as by pointing out their falsity. The brain in a vat will never be able to reconfigure its perceptual experience to rid itself of the impression of existence, even when thoroughly persuaded of its true situation. No matter how much it believes its experiences not to be veridical they will keep on seeming that way (we could always do an experiment to check my conjecture). Third, are impressions of existence capable of varying by degree? Can we have stronger impressions of existence in some cases than in others? A Cartesian might think that the impression is at its strongest with respect to the self, with external objects trailing. A Humean might deny any strong impression of existence for the self, but insist on it for impressions and ideas. Judging from my own case, it seems pretty constant: the impression itself is always the same, though the associated beliefs may vary by degree. Even when I know quite well that an experience is illusory, it still seemsto assert existence, just as much as when I am certain an experience is veridical. So I am inclined to think the impression doesn’t vary from case to case. It is all or nothing. Fourth, are there other cases in which we have sensory impressions that fail to fit traditional categories? Are there impressions of necessity or identity or causation or moral rightness? That would be an interesting result, because then we could claim that these cases are still sensory in the broader sense without accepting that they belong with impressions of color and shape. We could thus widen the scope of the perceptual model. I leave the question open.