Ethics and the Self

 

 

Ethics and the Self

 

The self is perhaps the most elusive subject in philosophy. It seems impossible to say what the self is. Doubts about its existence are perfectly understandable, if exaggerated. The self seems intensely real, but its nature remains opaque. This is why all the standard theories are wide of the mark: the body, the brain, a series of mental connections, a transcendental ego. We are convinced of its unity, but the basis for this unity is unclear. It seems bound up with consciousness, but it is not an object of conscious awareness (as Hume noted). The self is a conundrum locked in a mystery surrounded by an enigma. Yet it is what we care about most, the thing about which we are most anxious, the entity most dear to us. Our life centers around something we find baffling. Every time you go to the supermarket you are surrounded by a phalanx of these baffling beings, each focused intently on itself, peeping out from behind anxious eyes. We don’t even have adequate language for them, these secret unities: we give them proper names, we apply pronouns to them, we call them “persons” (or just “people”), we invent fancy terms for them (“selves”, “souls”, “subjects of consciousness”); but none of these labels really provides anything by way of illumination—they are just words for we-know-not-what. Selves are a magical mystery tour (John, Paul, George, and Ringo—who are you really?).

None of this uncertainty might matter much except for one thing: selves are central to ethics. Ethics is about the right way to treat selves (animal as well as human)—whatever selves may be. What we owe to each other we owe to other selves. Selves are what suffer or prosper; they are what we have duties towards; they are what we make contracts with. Yet they make no explicitly articulated appearance in standard ethical theories: no account of their nature underpins the prescriptions offered. This is most obvious in the case of utilitarianism. We are told to maximize utility, utility being a mental state: but it is a mental state of persons (selves, subjects, sentient beings)—what is maximized is the wellbeing of persons. There is no such thing as maximizing wellbeing in the absence of selves—like maximizing the amount of grain in the world. We are trying to make people happy. We are trying to create facts of which people are essential constituents. But we don’t really know what people are. So the theory rests on an epistemic abyss. If we knew what selves are, we might appreciate better the soundness of the utilitarian position—we might see why the happiness of persons is so important. Or conceivably we might come to doubt that importance. As things stand, however, we are asserting the ethical centrality of personal happiness without having much idea what it is that is happy or unhappy. If selves are particles of the divine spirit that fact might be morally relevant, while if they are actually non-existent fictions that might be relevant too (how can it matter whether persons are happy if there are no persons?). There is thus a lacuna at the heart of the utilitarian theory. That might be acceptable from a practical point of view—we are ignorant of many things yet we get on with life regardless—but theoretically it is far from satisfactory. Wouldn’t it be better if ethics were not predicated on an enigma?

Kant’s ethics is instructive because of the explicit reference to persons. We are told to have “respect for persons”—autonomous rational beings, supposedly. Persons create obligations; the principle of universalization quantifies over them. It is regarded as self-evident that persons are the source of our moral duties (though Kant has a problem with animal ethics). But elsewhere in his philosophy Kant tells us that selves are noumenal beings—their essence is unknown to us. So the categorical imperative applies to beings whose nature we do not and cannot know. We know they are rational and autonomous (allegedly), but we don’t know what grounds these traits. We are admonished to respect entities whose real nature escapes us. Wouldn’t it be better to have an ethics that rests on knowledge of its essential subject matter? Maybe knowledge of the noumenal nature of selves would make us see that these entities are of supreme moral worth—one would assume that this must be so. But we are not granted such knowledge, so our ethical convictions lack the grounding necessary to them. This is a dramatic statement of what is implicit in common sense: we have only a vague idea what a self is, our own or others.[1] Our attitudes towards these elements of nature are solicitous, to be sure, but we don’t really know what grounds them, if anything. Maybe a better understanding of selves would convince us that we underestimate their value (that is particularly true in the case of animals), but we are not in a position to say. Also, moral skeptics might be kept at bay by a more penetrating understanding of the nature of selves: as things stand they can rightly complain that the basis of ethics rests on ignorance. The skeptic may protest, “Why do you say that selves matter so much?” and we have little to say in reply except to appeal to self-evidence. What if complete knowledge of the self were to demonstrate not only the validity of ethics but also the correctness of one ethical theory over others? What if knowledge of the noumenal self were to vindicate Kantian ethics as against utilitarian ethics? The trouble is that the ethicist is proceeding in profound ignorance; or worse, knowledge combined with ignorance. For we do know some of the attributes of the self—consciousness, rationality, will—but not its full nature; and the known attributes may bias us in a direction full knowledge would contraindicate.

We are familiar with the point that ethics depends on the persistence of the self over time: you can’t, for example, blame someone for what his earlier self did.[2] The metaphysics of the self is not irrelevant to the ethics of selves. But the point is more general: ethics cannot be independent of the nature of the self at a time either. If ethics were concerned with biological organisms as such, with no reference to psychological subjects, then it would have a clearly articulated subject matter and its prescriptions would be solidly grounded in knowable fact. But as things stand it is concerned with those mysterious entities called “persons” or “selves” or “subjects of consciousness”; and these are philosophically problematic. It’s a bit like applying ethics to mathematics without knowing what numbers are: doesn’t it matter whether numbers are abstract platonic entities or marks on paper or ideas in minds? But the self is even more elusive, to the point of being under suspicion of non-existence. A Humean about the self can hardly base her ethics on the principle of respect for selves! That would be the equivalent of a utilitarian who denies the existence of mental states. The problem of the self is the dirty little secret of ethics.[3]

 

Col

[1] We have only indexical ideas of the self not descriptive ideas: the self is what I am and what you are and what heis—it is this (pointing inwards). As Hume would say, we don’t have an “adequate” idea of the self, based either on experience or reason.

[2] Derek Parfit emphasized this point based on considerations about identity through time: see Reasons and Persons (1984).

[3] I don’t at all mean to assert that ethics is impossible without a resolution of the problem of the self; I just mean that it lacks solid theoretical foundations without a clearer conception of what the self is. That, at any rate, is a possibility we do well to take into account. My own feeling is that our rather glancing conception of animal and human selves leaves our ethical appreciation of selves seriously etiolated.

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History and Mystery

 

History and Mystery

 

 

How does the history of philosophy look to a mysterian? As follows: the history of philosophy is the history of our consciousness of mystery. Philosophy consists of a set of mysteries, possibly open-ended, and philosophers, as conscious beings, are aware of these mysteries—and aware of them as mysteries (no matter what they might say in professional moments). The philosophical state of mind is a confrontation with mystery felt as such. But this set may not be static; it may be that different mysteries are salient at different times. Given that philosophical preoccupations vary over time, the mysterian will expect to find a different set of mysteries dominating during particular periods. What is distinctive of the mysterian point of view is that it characterizes philosophical perplexity as an encounter with the mysterious—the baffling, incomprehensible, confusing, and elusive.[1] That is, philosophy is not just grappling with problems that are experienced as solvable and open to available methods, but as peculiarly taxing and prone to rational disagreement. I won’t attempt to say more here about what this mystery consists in; my aim is rather to sketch the overall shape of (Western) philosophy as seen from this perspective. What were the mysteries that occupied thinkers at different periods of history, and is there any pattern to the succession of philosophical mysteries that gripped people over time? I am not attempting to defend the mysterian position, nor even to articulate it further, merely to describe (sketchily) the history of philosophy as seen from its perspective. I think this provides an illuminating way to think about philosophical history.

The pre-Socratics were concerned largely with mysteries of the physical world: what things are made of, whether reality is one or many, do things change or remain the same. The empirical sciences didn’t exist at that time, so their suggestions were highly speculative (e.g. Greek atomism). To these thinkers the physical world presented many mysteries that could not be resolved by common sense or by any generally accepted method—the model of Euclidian geometry could not be applied. No doubt their intellectual attitude toward these questions resembled the attitude of later generations towards questions about the mind: physical nature will have seemed to them like a vast enigma. Their questions don’t strike us now as part of philosophy proper, though to them they may have seemed the way the mysteries of philosophy seem to us today. In any case the mysteries that concerned them pertained mainly to physical nature—to what they could see and touch. They wrestled with these questions as best they could, aware of their intractability.

Plato’s concerns were rather different: he was interested principally in mysteries of definition. What is knowledge? What is virtue? What is the just state? He was also concerned with reality and appearance, including the distinction between particulars and universals. His interests were centered on the human: human knowledge, human virtue, human nature, and human concepts. He found these questions exceptionally difficult to answer (or Socrates did), not part of existing human understanding. Socrates is forever asking people to define some concept or other and finding them irrationally overconfident; famously, he knows only that he does not know. Ignorance is standard; human knowledge is limited; real knowledge (of the forms) is difficult to acquire. There is mystery lurking in the most familiar of things. It isn’t just the world outside us that is mysterious; our own thoughts are mysterious—we are mysterious. Everyone could see that we know little about the external natural world, but it takes a philosopher like Plato to see that we know little about our own internal world. Plato’s pupil Aristotle is also concerned with matters of definition, though he prefers to speak of essence—the essence of existing things. Thus his concern with the essential nature of substances, causation, biological forms, and human virtue: he looks outward to the world not inward to our modes of representing it. He thus combines Plato and the pre-Socratics, simply put. His mysteries belong to external reality, though they emerge through the search for essences (hence “Aristotelian essentialism”). They belong to nature, but nature as viewed through Aristotelian categories. In Plato the mysteries come with a dose of mysticism, while in Aristotle no trace of mysticism can be detected—though he is still grappling with the most recalcitrant of problems.

The medieval period undergoes a shift of interest, despite its debt to Plato and Aristotle: God and the supernatural now become the field for the contemplation of mystery. No doubt this is mainly the result of the rise of Christianity: theological questions become paramount. The problem of evil, divine foreknowledge, the Holy Trinity, arguments for the existence of God, angels dancing on pinheads—all these become the mysteries of the moment. And they were apt to be characterized in just those terms, God being the ultimate mystery—thus the lucubration of Augustine, Aquinas, and sundry others. Now the mysteries exist in the supernatural realm not so much here on earth, in nature or human nature. Philosophers had to look upward not outward or inward. What is constant is the sense that philosophy deals with deep mysteries not merely problems solvable by the application of recognized methods. Whether these were pseudo-mysteries, born of misguided religion, is not to the point; they were conceived as grist for philosophy precisely because they were seen as genuine mysteries. Philosophy goes wherever the mysteries are perceived to be.

The modern period, in which philosophy as we now know it was largely formed, is characterized by two main problems, along with subsidiary problems: the problem of human knowledge and the problem of motion. The latter problem has now shifted to what we call “physics”, but at the time no sharp distinction was made by practitioners. Natural philosophers from Galileo to Newton tried to understand the nature and origin of motion; the problem was seen as presenting deep mysteries to the human mind in its effort to understand nature (the equivalent to today’s mind-body problem). Newton’s eventual triumph was not total, since gravity as a source of motion was agreed not to be intelligible by mechanistic standards (“occult” in Newton’s word). The mystery of motion was not fully resolved (and arguably still is not). In the case of knowledge the main question concerned the acquisition of knowledge (the “origin of ideas”) and two theories were formulated, rationalism and empiricism. Thus we have the efforts of Descartes, Leibniz, Locke, and Hume (among others). Solving this problem was not understood as routine empirical inquiry but as steeped in imponderables and controversy. Human knowledge was seen as a mystery, a puzzle, something calling for distinctively philosophical work. And it is indeed still a mystery how human knowledge is possible, despite the efforts of “learning theory”. How we come to know mathematics, for example, is still not understood at a fundamental level. The mind-body problem was also much discussed during this period—also still a mystery today. It isn’t that the dawn of science saw the conversion of philosophical mysteries into tractable scientific problems; rather, natural philosophers began to appreciate more fully the mysteries inherent in knowledge and motion. New mysteries were added to old.

Not much later the mysteries of metaphysics began to assert themselves, particularly in the writings of Kant, and later Hegel and others (e.g. Schopenhauer). Reality and appearance, space and time, necessity and contingency, the self, idealism versus realism, monism versus pluralism—all the problems of traditional metaphysics are extensively debated. Again, this was not a matter of routine science, still less common sense, but was understood as a confrontation with profound mysteries that stretch or exceed the powers of the human intellect. Philosophy changed its focus with Kant, but it did not change its preoccupation with mystery; it did not perceive itself as moving to a new phase in which mysteries gave way to mere problems. The torment of philosophy never went away. The mysterian sees in this the essential connection between philosophy and mystery. Mystery is not associated only with the earlier immature phases of the subject, nor with the medieval emphasis on religion and the supernatural, but is part of the very texture of the subject–the impenetrable, the obscure, the maddening.  Anti-metaphysical positivism was the welcomed antidote to this sense of oppressive mystery—the promise that all confounding mystery could be banished by appeal to the principle of verifiability. Mysteries consist of unanswerable questions, but there are no such questions because every meaningful question must be answerable. It was not so much a priori metaphysics that the positivists objected to; it was mysterious metaphysics, the kind that resists resolution. If metaphysicians had been able to reach consensus on their questions it wouldn’t matter that they eschewed methods of empirical verification; the real problem was that the questions of metaphysics presented insoluble mysteries. Why labor at questions you can never resolve? Kant’s entire system is really a rebuke to the human intellect (the noumenal world is completely impenetrable to the human mind); positivism promised to do away with all such metaphysical mystery by adopting an exclusionary theory of meaning. That was its main motivation and appeal.

Twentieth century philosophy then dedicates itself to pondering the general nature of meaning, making the “linguistic turn”; but here too mysteries abound, controversies rage, frustration descends. Frege, Russell, Wittgenstein, Carnap, Quine, Austin, Kripke, Davidson, Grice, and others: they all tried to lay the mysteries of meaning to rest, but those mysteries persisted. The state of philosophy as mystery management did not fundamentally change, just the nature of the mysteries being studied. Theory of meaning never turned into a branch of science; it remained as philosophy with its characteristic sense of puzzlement. Anti-metaphysical philosophy of this type is not mystery-free philosophy; indeed, the focus on meaning only accentuated the sense that philosophical questions resist resolution. Wittgenstein exemplifies it best: the Tractatus is a deeply mysterious (and mystical) work, but the Investigations also raises profound puzzles about meaning, despite its ostensible complacency. Philosophy of language is just philosophy as usual, complete with its own roster of puzzles and paradoxes (Chomsky has always been willing to accept that language presents genuine mysteries).

In the present day we have the mystery of consciousness, but also mysteries of free choice, imagination, creativity, dreams, and thought. The currently accepted mysteries cluster around the mind, human and animal. To some extent these are new mysteries, or new versions of old mysteries. Calling them mysteries is perhaps new, at least within the last hundred years (Hume had spoken of “mysteries of nature” in the eighteenth century). Chomsky has been using this language for many years and the term “mysterian” was introduced to describe my position on consciousness thirty years ago. Whether the existence of these mysteries shows anything about the limitations of the human mind is a separate question; for all I have said here the mysteries might stem from objective reality (we live in an inherently mysterious universe). I have only suggested that the history of philosophy can be described as an engagement with mysteries whatever their provenance may be. The point of this exercise is to draw a distinction between philosophy and other disciplines: philosophy is characteristically concerned with mysteries, while other disciplines traffic in them only incidentally. You can write a book called The Problems of Philosophy and be expected to deal with the kind of mysteries I have enumerated; a book called The Problems of Physics will not deal with the mysteries of physics but with the achievements of that field. Even psychology, an undeveloped science, does not deal in mysteries in the way philosophy does (though philosophical problems certainly arise within psychology): its problems arise from lack of data and lack of theory, not from recalcitrant conundrums or conceptual roadblocks.

So philosophy has a distinctive kind of history—a distinctive kind of psychological history. The psychology of the philosopher differs from the psychology of other seekers after truth: it might be described as ecstatic despair(if I may be allowed a degree of hyperbole). Ecstatic, because of the grandeur of its questions; despair, because of the difficulty of answering them (sometimes even formulating them). It is like being in contact with an elusive god: the object is radiant, but the access is limited. Philosophy thus produces a curious mixture of optimism and pessimism: optimism born of being able to think about these questions at all, but pessimism born of constant failure to answer them. Oh how wonderful it would be to solve these problems! But oh how lowering it is to come up with nothing! Doing philosophy is an exercise in hubris and humility: hence the pained expression on the face of philosophers (true philosophers), but also the wild glint in the eye. The philosopher longs to discover things, to write up his or her results and announce them to the world; but alas it is all controversy and rejection, doubt and neurosis. We want to see into the nature of things and take their measure, but they remain maddeningly elusive. Still, we cannot quench the feeling that this time we have it right… Thus the life of the philosopher is apt to be veering and halting, or else digging dogmatically in; the serenity of certain knowledge is not ours to be had (except in very limited ways). We live with the consciousness of mystery, while committed to unraveling it. We are like babies learning to walk—we get up on those rubbery legs and totter a few paces before collapsing on the floor (but we gamely get up again to totter a few more wobbly paces). We don’t feel merely ignorant, remediably so; we feel stupefied, nonplussed. No amount of further study can remove our bafflement. No grant is large enough to resolve our perplexities. The mystery bears down on us.[2]

Of course, there have been attempts to deny mystery: it’s all pseudo- questions, nonsense, confusion; or it will all eventually turn into regular science; or it has already been taken care of by the latest theory from Professor X. There are no real mysteries, just ordinary problems or conceptual snarl-ups. That too is part of the history of philosophy from the mysterian standpoint—the need to deny that philosophy deals with mysteries. Meta-philosophy is part of the history of philosophy and it often takes the form of denying the mysterious character of philosophical problems. For the mysterian, however, this is predictable, since the human mind is impatient with mystery and would like to be rid of it. So the history of philosophy will be marked by attempts to deny the truth about the nature of philosophy. For philosophical perplexity is irritating—it disturbs the mind, won’t let it rest. The mind wants badly to solve mysteries (hence the appeal of detective stories) and it grows peevish when denied that satisfaction. Thus the philosopher is forever irritated and exhilarated at the same time. Acceptance of mystery is difficult, and there is always the possibility of total triumph! So it has gone in the past, and so it will continue to go in the future. I don’t expect the future of philosophy to be any different from its past, though new mysteries may rear their heads as time goes by.[3]

 

Colin

[1] See my Problems in Philosophy: The Limits of Inquiry (1993).

[2] I don’t mean to say there are no lighter moments when dawn breaks and clouds part—and there is always the thrill of refutation. But the experience of solving problems to one’s own and others’ satisfaction, central hard problems, is not one that we can hope to enjoy. At best we can argue for positions, not announce results. (I used to be an experimental psychologist where at least one can tabulate data and perform statistical tests on them. And think what a field biologist can hope to discover!)

[3] My guess is that the brain will come to seem the mystery par excellence, much more so than today; also the mysteries of physics will become more widely acknowledged.

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World and Head

World and Head

 

 

When Hilary Putnam made the claim that meanings are not “in the head” he emphasized the indexical character of natural kind terms. His point was that terms like “water” have their reference fixed by demonstratives like “that liquid”, and demonstratives have their reference as a function of context not descriptions in the mind of the speaker. In David Kaplan’s terminology, context yields content in conjunction with character—character alone cannot determine reference. Thus two people could be internally indistinguishable and yet refer to different things with “that liquid” depending on the actual physical context (H2O or XYZ). Since the anchoring demonstrative fixes the reference of “water”, that term too will vary its reference according to context—hence Twin Earth cases. Strictly speaking, Putnam overstated his conclusion, since all that follows is that an aspect of meaning is not in the head—the aspect Kaplan calls content; character does not vary in this way, being completely context-independent. He should have said that part of meaning is not in the head, the part that is “in” the context. The meaning of an indexical is always a two-component affair: the component that results from context and the component that is “in the head”. In the case of a demonstrative like “that liquid”, the first component corresponds to the external natural kind being demonstrated, while the second component may be identified with something like the perceptual appearance presented by the demonstrated object or kind. If someone were to claim that the meaning of a demonstrative is completely outside the head, the reply would be that an aspect of its meaning is clearly inside the head—the aspect Kaplan calls character. Indexical meaning is double-aspect.

So far, so familiar: what I want to ask is whether the natural kind itself is wholly “outside the head”. Is what we mean by “water” something completely divorced from its appearance to human minds? Is the reference of “water” purely an objective matter? Or is the reference partly constituted by what is in the mind? Water has both a hidden essence, captured by “H2O”, and a superficial appearance, captured by “transparent, tasteless liquid”: is only the first of these constitutive of water? It might be tempting to suppose so—it is necessary and sufficient for something to be water that it be H2O. But that has to be wrong: in a possible world in which something is H2O but has none of the manifest properties of water we would not say that that stuff is water. If it had all the manifest and dispositional properties of honey, it would be wrong to classify it as water, no matter that it is composed of H2O. This might prompt the retort that nothing could be H2O and have the manifest properties of honey, because of the necessary connection between chemical composition and manifest properties; but (a) not all the manifest properties of water follow simply from its being H2O, and (b) this is to concede that manifest properties also count as necessary conditions of being water. In fact, being tasteless and colorless are parts of the nature of water, along with its chemical composition. Natural kinds really have a double nature—underlying real essence and apparent nominal essence (to use Locke’s terminology). Both are necessary to being water, neither being sufficient.

Now we come to the more difficult question: is nominal essence tied essentially to the mind? Is it “in the head”? There is an obvious precedent for such a claim, namely colors and other secondary qualities: objects only have colors in relation to minds—so colors are “in the head”. That means that colored objects (qua colored) are partly in the head: an object is red only because of its relation to a mind that perceives it as red. Colored objects are partly in the world and partly in the head—they have both aspects. In the case of water we can likewise claim that being colorless and tasteless are also secondary qualities: things only have these qualities because there are minds that respond with certain types of sensory experience to them. But there is a further point: the very concept of a manifest property is tacitly mind-relative. Manifest to whom? Properties are only manifest in relation to minds that can perceive them; to beings with different senses from ours chemical composition might be manifest while color and taste are inferred. Real and nominal essence could conceivably be reversed. As things stand, however, the properties we attribute to the surface of water are mind-relative, so that this aspect of the nature of water is mind-dependent. It is a function of how our senses represent the world. Water, as we commonsensically conceive it, is thus partly “in the head”. In fact, the part that is in the head coincides with the part of meaning that is in the head, viz. the sensory appearance. Thus meaning has two aspects, one in the head and one not, and likewise natural kinds have two aspects, one outside the head (chemical composition) and one not (sensory appearance). Meanings have a worldly component and a mental component, but so do the objects we refer to. In the sense that meaning is not “in the head”, so objects are not “in the world”, i.e. they are partly so. It is the fact that objects have a foot in both camps that enables meaning also to have a foot in both camps. Surface properties correlate with demonstrative modes of presentation, while hidden properties characterize the reference, as it exists independently of such modes of presentation. The duality of meaning thus maps onto a duality at the level of reference: the inner component of meaning contains the manifest properties of the reference, while the outer component corresponds to the non-manifest properties. Meaning is a hybrid of internal and external, as the character-content analysis of demonstratives suggests, while objects themselves divide into an objective aspect and an aspect that is tied to perception. The distinction between the scientific image and the manifest image is mirrored in the distinction between content and character, respectively—what is fixed by context or environment or causation and what is wholly subjective or “in the head”. To put it differently, the objects of common sense have a dual component analysis corresponding to real and nominal essence.[1] The abstract structure of objects is thus reflected in the abstract structure of meaning: a bit in the head plus a bit not in the head. Character goes with surface and content goes with hidden. There is more to meaning than what is in the head, and there is more to objects than what appears to heads—but we must not forget that the head-involving aspects are also part of meaning and of objects. Meaning is not only what lies beyond the head, and objects are not only what is independent of appearance; meanings and objects are both hybrids. Meanings are composites of two factors, as Putnam taught us (with a little help from Kaplan), but so also are objects.

 

Col

[1] Here we might be reminded of Eddington’s two tables: the table of science and the table of common sense. The former has nothing mind-dependent about it while the latter is a projection of mind. Eddington in effect reifies the distinction of aspects or components that I am suggesting. Frege’s sense-reference distinction also finds a counterpart in the distinction between real and nominal essence—roughly, the distinction between the known and the unknown properties of objects. Senses are necessarily known by one who grasps them, but it is possible to refer to things and know little about them. Then too, we have Kant’s bifurcation into the phenomenal and the noumenal. In philosophy later distinctions often trace back to earlier distinctions. And what seems unitary often turns out to be divided.

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Experience and Fact

 

 

Experience and Fact

 

 

We normally suppose that experience and fact are separate entities. Suppose I observe my cat chasing a lizard: on the one hand, there is the fact of my cat chasing a lizard; on the other, there is my experience of my cat chasing a lizard. These could exist separately—there is a dualism of experience and fact. I might report the fact in question by saying, “My cat chased a lizard”, and I might report the experience by saying, “I had a visual experience of my cat chasing a lizard”. But these sentences mix up fact and experience, because the first refers to me in stating the fact in question, while the second refers to my cat in stating what I experienced. Shouldn’t we be able to describe fact and experience in their own terms? So let’s try again: suppose I say, “This cat chased a lizard” in an effort to keep myself out of the picture, sticking only to the fact itself. That looks better, but what does “This cat” mean? Doesn’t it mean, “The cat I am experiencing”? I am experiencing a cat and I use this fact to refer to the cat by employing a demonstrative: the demonstrative refers back to my experience in using it.[1] So I have not succeeded in keeping myself out of the picture; the picture still contains a reference to myself in the corner. Worse, I have referred to my experience in trying to report a fact about the cat and the lizard. On the other hand, I scarcely remove the reference to the world in describing my experience by substituting “this cat” for “my cat”: now I am saying that I had an experience of this cat chasing a lizard not my cat—still a living breathing cat. I refer to experience in reporting the fact and to the fact (or a component of it) in reporting the experience. But if there is an ontological dualism here, why am I mixing up the two categories? Can’t I report the fact as it objectively is and the experience as it subjectively is?

It might be thought easy to achieve that ideal: I just substitute a name for the cat in the former case and an indefinite description in the latter case. Thus “Blackie chased a lizard” and “I had an experience of a cat chasing a lizard”: in the former there is no reference to my experience, and in the latter there is no reference to a particular cat. But matters are not so simple. How does “Blackie” refer to its feline bearer? Plausibly by trading on a prior demonstrative reference–either at an initial baptism or maybe as an ongoing prop. A perfectly general description is seldom if ever available and is certainly not the typical case; we generally rely on a bedrock of demonstrative reference to secure the reference of names. At root, then, our names refer back to our experiences—as in “the object I am seeing”. So we are still not succeeding in describing the facts purely, as they objectively exist. In the case of descriptions of experience we have a different problem: I am not experiencing any old cat as chasing a lizard—some cat or other—but a specific cat, viz. Blackie, my cat, this cat. There is a particularity to the experience that is not captured by the indefinite description “a cat”; so we need a singular term to do justice to this aspect of the experience. The natural choice is a name (if you know it) or a demonstrative (if you don’t): “I had an experience of Blackie chasing a lizard” or “I had an experience of this cat chasing a lizard”. But then we are back to referring to an actual singular cat. We can’t keep the world out of descriptions of the experience, as we couldn’t keep experience out of descriptions of the world. Yet aren’t these separate domains?

One response is to accept that they are not separate domains. Idealism says that facts are experiences, so it isn’t surprising that we can’t describe the one except by reference to the other: the fact of a cat chasing a lizard is just the occurrence of an experience of a cat chasing a lizard. On the other hand, externalism maintains that experiences are constituted by relations to worldly objects, so that my experience just was composed of a particular cat (inter alia): I wouldn’t have that experience unless it was directed at a particular individual cat. The reference to a specific cat simply reflects the actual nature of the experience, according to externalism. Thus there is no dualism of the sort described earlier: facts and experiences are inextricable. I won’t try to adjudicate this issue now; I have merely indicated a possible route to the doctrines in question. Our habitual modes of description can encourage the rejection of a strict dichotomy between facts and experiences. What I want to suggest is that there is room for an alternative view: granted we can’t find a way to exclude reference to experience from descriptions of fact, and reference to fact from descriptions of experience, but that is really a point about us not about reality. From the fact that we can’t describe facts and experiences without importing alien elements from the other side, it doesn’t follow that these things can’t exist without each other or that they have dependent natures. Ontological dependence doesn’t even follow from the fact that no one could describe the two independently. For it may be that we are limited by our language and cognitive resources to describing things in ways that don’t reflect their real nature. A cat could be chasing a lizard even if no one ever experienced that fact, though reports of the fact inevitably introduce reference to the reporter’s experience (even if only implicitly). And it could be that someone has an experience just like mine when I see my cat chasing a lizard, even though there is no cat there and hence there is no reference for “this cat”. Maybe I can’t capture the singularity of the experience without employing an existentially committal singular term, though the experience itself has a nature that is not dependent on the reference of such terms. So the dualism of fact and experience is not compromised by constraints on description, assuming such constraints to exist. Language is designed to fulfill certain practical purposes and these may not include capturing the objective nature of things (completely, purely). We talk about facts by relating them to our experiences, and we talk about experiences by relating them to facts (objects, properties), but that need not imply that reality itself is similarly structured. Perhaps we could invent new ways of talking that capture things more accurately (objectively, intrinsically), but as things stand we are apt to describe the world in something short of a logically perfect language.[2]

 

Co

[1] There is much to be said about the relation between demonstratives and perception, but it is clear that in standard cases one refers to the object that one is perceptually attending to, as if with an act of inner pointing. Without sense perception demonstratives would have little use—the audience needs to perceive what the speaker is referring to in order to understand the utterance. The mode of presentation associated with a demonstrative is perceptual, i.e. involves an experience of a certain object. But then demonstratives embed in their meaning acts of perceptual acquaintance—while the fact being reported is not itself a fact of perception.

[2] Physics might be regarded as the right kind of language to use to describe physical reality as it is in itself, using no indexical language to do so; but there doesn’t appear to be anything comparable that rids psychology of all reference to things outside the mind. It is hard to reconstruct commonsense psychology in purely non-externalist terms. Could there be a pure phenomenology that described experience without employing any terms applicable to physical objects? This would include even general terms for types of physical object such as “cat” or “square”.

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A New Theory of Consciousness

 

A New Theory of Consciousness

 

 

The other night the angel Gabriel visited me in my dreams. He came, he announced, to inform me of the true nature of consciousness. I was eager to listen. His account ran as follows (I paraphrase, but this was the gist). The most important point to grasp is that consciousness is the body of God. That’s right—God has a body and it’s identical to the totality of consciousness, human and animal. It is quite wrong to suppose that God is disembodied being—no intelligent agent can be that—but it is equally wrong to suppose that all bodies are alike. Some are made of matter, but some take other forms. God’s mind is not a form of consciousness, at least not of the kind we are familiar with; it transcends anything of which we have experience. It is more like mathematics, as conceived by a Platonist. Consciousness and numbers are immaterial (whatever exactly that means—here the angel Gabriel was emphatic), but not in the same way; well, God’s mind has a higher form of immateriality, not to be assimilated to the immateriality of terrestrial consciousness. So we are to picture the being of God as dualistic: on the one hand, his mind is incomprehensibly immaterial, truly beyond what we can imagine (think of its powers!); on the other hand, his body consists of the consciousness with which we are familiar. It is spread out, indefinitely various, concrete in its way, always like something or other. This sprawling object is God’s body. We are thus at one with God, literally parts of his body–and so with all his animal creation.

What then is matter? Here the angel Gabriel was less decisive: he said two views of it were possible. One view holds that matter is a separate level of being, making up our bodies and the general nature of what we call the physical universe. The other view supposes that so-called matter is just mind in disguise—the view humans know as idealism. If we follow the latter view, then God’s body includes everything, excluding numbers and God’s own mind; if we follow the former view, then God’s body stops at consciousness, with the rest of the universe existing outside of it. The important point, as the angel Gabriel kept insisting, is that consciousness is the body of God. God can act through this body, though he is not required to, and it sometimes does things he does not will it to do, rather like our bodies (a problem of evil admittedly arises here). But it gives God some kind of concrete being and joins him inextricably to his creation—he is not the remote entity that theologians have conjectured. You can literally introspect the body of God! He is with us always, inside us, allowing his being to mix with ours. His mind, however, is a thing apart, like nothing we can experience. Theologically speaking, God is at one with his creation, intersecting with conscious life (he has a great fondness for conscious life). He has given his body to us.

The angel Gabriel allowed that this story might seem incredible, certainly not part of human tradition. He also allowed that mysteries remain—mysteries being the province of God. But he pointed out that the usual human theories of consciousness were also incredible, though we are dulled to their wackier features; was the truth really any more wacky?[1] If there is a God (and who could question that?), and if God needs to have a body (and how could he not?), and if matter could not constitute his body (far too common and grimy)—well then, isn’t consciousness the only thing left to constitute it? And from the point of view of divine design, that is exactly what we should expect: God wishes to unite himself with the creation about which he cares so much. When your consciousness hurts God’s body aches: he suffers with you. He cares as much about you as you care about your body. He is not one of those gods who stands magnificently aloof from conscious life; he is right there with us. So the angel Gabriel asserted, and I could not say otherwise. When I awoke the next morning the world took on a new aspect for me. I felt God’s body throbbing within me.

 

Colin McGinn

[1] I will spare the reader verbatim reportage of the angel Gabriel’s utterances beginning “Oh ye dullards and dimwits!” and going on in the same vein until the final “Get thee hence!” Suffice to say he was mightily unimpressed with human efforts to fathom the nature of consciousness. For how could anything so remarkable be anything other than an aspect of God?

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Comparative Morality

 

Comparative Morality

 

 

It is plausible to suggest that our attributions of beauty are essentially comparative. To say that x is beautiful is to say that x is more beautiful than most things (or some such). More exactly, to say that x is a beautiful F (painting, person, motorcycle) is to say that x is more beautiful than most F’s. Objects are not said to be beautiful in isolation but only in relation to other objects; we certainly have the locution “x is more beautiful than y” and this locution is what underlies our use of the adjective “beautiful” used as a one-place predicate. It is the same with other adjectives: to say that x is large is to say that x is larger than most things of a certain class. Thus an ant can be said to be large because it is larger than most ants, though it is certainly not large in relation to other animals—it is large for an ant. Does the same hold for “beautiful”? Can something be a beautiful doorknob because it is more beautiful than other doorknobs but not beautiful tout court? It may not be a beautiful work of art compared to other works of art, suitable for exhibition in an art gallery. In any case, the word “beautiful” is best understood as a comparative: to be beautiful is to be more beautiful than other things of some class or other. This implies that an object can be beautiful in one world but not in another without changing its intrinsic character, since the comparison classes can vary between worlds: what is more beautiful than the majority of things in one world may not be more beautiful than the majority of things in another world. For example, a given bird may be more beautiful than most birds of its species in one world but not in another world in which avian pulchritude is of a higher order. Beauty is not then an intrinsic feature of objects that have it but a relative feature—a matter of how one thing compares to another. In a world of gods even Dorian Grey may seem plain—while what counts as ugly in one setting may be deemed handsome in another. Beauty comes on a scale and position on it is what matters. Accordingly, it makes little sense to entertain the idea that everyone might be beautiful, since that would imply that no one is more beautiful than anyone else: given that some people are more beautiful than others, some will count as beautiful and some will not (the same applies to doorknobs). The point of talk of beauty is to signal differences, so that to be less beautiful than others is to edge towards not being beautiful—someone has to lack this property in order than others may have it. The lowest ranked members of the relevant class will have to lack what the highest ranked members possess, on pain of rendering the concept of beauty nugatory. There can only be large ants because there are also small ants, and the same for beautiful people and doorknobs. In the land of the ugly some may yet be blessed with relative beauty, while in the land of the beautiful even Adonis may cringe and hide.

But I am not concerned here with aesthetics: I want to ask whether a similar story applies to morality. I take it that what I just said about beauty is pretty uncontroversial (if upsetting to the vain), but can something similar be true of goodness? Is it plausible to suggest that for a state of affairs or an action to be good or right is for it to be better than some chosen class of states of affairs or actions? Is moral goodness analyzable as a comparative concept, to the effect that it applies just when one thing is morally better than another? This would imply that moral goodness is not a fixed quality but something that varies with the comparison class: being good is a matter of a relation between the object in question and other objects. To put it simply, an action can be said to be good if and only if it is morally better than most actions. That will need some refinement, but the intent should be clear—goodness is a comparative concept. We can rank actions according to their degree of moral goodness and the property of being morally good is analyzable in terms of the relation of moral superiority. And the same for moral badness: some actions are worse than others and moral badness can be defined as being worse than other actions (of a certain class). The basic moral concept is thus a comparative concept, i.e. being morally better-than. Something like this conception is at work in classical utilitarianism: an action is said to be right just when it produces more utility than other actions that could be performed in the circumstances. Moral rightness is defined as being better than other actions, as judged by the utilitarian measure. If another action would produce more utility than the one actually performed, the latter action is not deemed right. A morally good action is one that produces more utility than other actions that belong to the class of actions that could have been performed. The same action that is deemed not right in the actual circumstances could be right in other circumstances—those in which it is the best of the available actions there. Actions are right only in relation to other actions not tout court. Utilitarianism doesn’t say that an action is right if it produces a lot of utility, which would be a non-comparative condition; it says that an action is right if it produces more utility than other actions. Since utility is the measure of goodness, this implies that actions are morally right according to whether they are better than other actions. And notice that the next-ranked action possible in the circumstances cannot be reasonably deemed wrong without qualification, since it would have been right if the first-ranked action were not available. It is not intrinsically wrong to give someone a hundred dollars—that is only deemed wrong when you could have given a hundred and one dollars. According to utilitarianism, actions are ranked on a scale of moral quality, with some better than others; it is not an all-or-nothing matter. The underlying notion is that of one action being better than others according to its ability to produce utility. In extreme cases an action could be very wrong in one set of circumstances and very right in another, depending on the other actions available (e.g. how much money you have to give).

There is a question how far the comparative account can apply under deontological theories. Isn’t it an absolute all-or-nothing matter whether keeping a promise is right and breaking one is wrong? But even here comparative considerations come into the picture, for two reasons. First, breaking a promise can be more or less wrong depending on the importance of the promise—promising to bring life-saving medicine to a sick person versus promising to sing “My Sharona” to a friend, for example. Clearly, it is worse to break an important promise than a trivial one, so promises can be ranked according to how immoral it is to break them. And it is not implausible to suggest that the scale might be differently set in a world in which promise breaking is more prevalent and serious than in ours: if people are continually breaking important promises, it will seem less immoral to break trivial ones. Or if people are extremely punctilious, what we would count as trivial promise breaking will incur strong condemnation from them. Similarly for lying, ingratitude, etc. It may even be supposed that in the land of routine genocide regular murder will not earn such powerful censure as in our world. After all, not all murders are equally bad, some being worse than others; thus we speak of particularly heinous murders and distinguish them from less grievous cases. The second point is that duties may conflict in a given actual case: telling the truth might involve breaking a promise, for example. Here it is natural to speak of one action as exemplifying more duties than another, thus ranking actions according to the amount of duty following they contain.[1]Comparative thinking is common even in a deontological framework, not just the simple statements “This is right” and “That is wrong”. We can always ask, “Yes, but which action is more right or wrong?” Much the same holds within a virtue ethics perspective, but I won’t go further into this, since the point is clear enough (some people are more virtuous than others, and some virtues more important than others). To be virtuous is to be more virtuous than the average or typical or some such.

The interesting question that arises from this is whether a certain kind of moral relativity follows. Is it relative to a given society how wrong an action is? Suppose that in one country immorality of every kind is rife with the murder rate sky high, while in another country bad behavior is rare and minimal with no murder at all. Won’t the people in these societies calibrate their moral scale according to the prevailing facts? Both will employ a scale ranging from “mildly objectionable” to “absolutely horrific”, but the same actions will be categorized under different moral descriptions—armed robbery deemed only “pretty bad” in the first society while excoriated as “the epitome of evil” in the second society. The prevailing and varying facts will fix how the scale is applied, just as in the beauty case. Our moral language is used to make distinctions, mark contrasts, and these distinctions will exist even when the actions described are different. Thus how bad an action is will depend on the nature of the society that we are dealing with: in a land of villains actions might be only mildly reproved that in a land of saints would be regarded as deserving severe sanction. Societies become more morally lax according to the amount of immorality within them.

But this relativist position encounters resistance from another aspect of our moral thinking, namely that we are wedded to the idea that some actions are intrinsically wicked (or good) irrespective of what other actions may occur. Can it really be that murder is less wicked in a society in which murder is common, as opposed to being described as less wicked by (numbed) members of that society? The intuition to the contrary is certainly strong, and relaxing it likely to lead to nasty consequences, but it appears to conflict with the comparative view of moral discourse. People might rate actions according to their comparative status given the general function of moral discourse, but it doesn’t follow that actions themselves vary in their moral standing as these ratings vary. I think this is a real tension in our moral thinking, since we are committed to both things; and it leads to an uncomfortable form of moral skepticism, to the effect that we might be wrong about how bad various actions actually are. Maybe we are rating actions comparatively so as to preserve the full spectrum of moral language but the underlying moral facts are not varying with our ratings. For example, we rate armed robbery as less immoral than murder, and no doubt it is, but it might be a lot worse than we normally suppose: it might be really bad, just not as bad as murder, which is really really bad. Or it may be that promise breaking is a lot worse than we think, even though it compares favorably to others types of immorality. We apply a fixed set of moral categories but that may not be adequate to the moral facts. Surely a society in which child murder is common is missing something if they regard adult murder as only moderately wrong (comparatively speaking)! So we could be in error about how bad (or good) things are because we deploy a comparative scheme that glosses over questions of absolute rightness. But what are we to do—should we start declaring that certain actions are extremely bad (e.g. promise breaking) and other actions superlatively bad (e.g. murder), phasing out such pallid locutions as “pretty bad” or “not OK”? That seems pointless, so we seem committed to a comparative conception of morality, notwithstanding contrary intuitions. I think that in the course of history our sliding scale has moved around a good deal, though from a wider perspective the moral facts have not changed—murder was always as bad as it is now (and it may be a lot worse than even we recognize). It is clearly important to our moral thinking that we retain a comparative point of view—we need to count some actions are worse than others not just as good or bad simpliciter—but we don’t want to devolve into a kind of relativism that makes the moral status of an action dependent on people’s comparative judgments. Thus there is a tension at work here as we try to do justice to both ways of thinking. This tension does not appear to exist in the beauty case, since there we have less trouble with the idea of relative beauty: a given person might really be less beautiful in a world in which everyone is at the Cleopatra level (though that person is equally beautiful relative to our world). A large ant in our world might be a small ant in another world in which ants are twice as large, but it is less easy to accept that a person who is fairly wicked in our world is quite virtuous in another world in which wickedness is doubled. But then isn’t “fairly wicked” clearly a comparative term, inviting the question “Compared to whom?” We seem to operate uneasily with a moral system that is largely comparative but also contains hints of the absolute.[2]

 

Colin McGinn

 

[1] W.D. Ross formulates the point this way in The Right and the Good (1930): “right acts can be distinguished from wrong acts only as being those which, of all those possible for the agent in the circumstances, have the greatest balance of prima facie rightness, in those respects in which they are prima facie right, over their prima faciewrongness, in those respects in which they are prima facie wrong”. Note the comparative form of this definition of rightness.

[2] I can find no analogy for this situation drawn form elsewhere: nothing else has this kind of dual structure. Pragmatically, our moral discourse operates comparatively, at least most of the time, but metaphysically we are also drawn to a conception of moral facts that transcends such comparative truths. If we compare non-moral uses of “good”, as in “good knife”, we find a comparative account compelling, but there is no countervailing tendency towards absolute judgments: to be a good knife is just to be better than the majority of knives (in a given possible world), and no knife is deemed non-relationally good. We would expect on semantic grounds for the moral “good” to follow the pattern of the non-moral “good”, but it seems also to connote an absolute trait of actions that doesn’t vary between possible comparison classes– hence the tension.

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Instantiating the Mental

 

 

Instantiating the Mental

 

 

Objects have properties: that seems safe to say. But what is an object and what is a property and what is having? We can point to paradigms: the object that is my desk has the property of being brown. Philosophers like to paraphrase such a statement as follows: the desk instantiates the property of being brown. So now we have a threefold scheme—object, property, and instantiation. My question is whether this scheme applies to the mental: can we say that there are objects which instantiate mental properties? Put aside the question of how to define “mental”; the question is whether mental facts (let’s help ourselves to that notion) consist of objects instantiating properties. Does the paradigm of a material object instantiating a physical property carry over to the mind? Put differently, is the threefold scheme a universally applicable structure under which both physical and mental fall?

To be more specific, when someone is in pain or has a belief or is dreaming or feels angry or understands a sentence is that analyzable as an object instantiating a property? The first question that confronts us is what the object might be, and that is already problematic. Is it the mind or the person or the brain or the body or the soul or particular mental events? Each of these could be the instantiating object—the thing that has mental properties (the property of being in pain, of believing, of dreaming, etc.). Let’s assume it is the person or self, since that is our common way of talking; the main question concerns the notion of instantiating a mental property, no matter what the appropriate instantiating object may be. Is it true that when I am in pain a person instantiates the property of being in pain? Is this true in the same sense that it is true that my desk instantiates being brown? Are there any important differences here? We can certainly point to differences between mental and physical properties such as the privacy of mental properties and the publicity of physical properties, subjectivity and objectivity, perceptibility and imperceptibility, consciousness and unconsciousness. But on the face of it these differences don’t entail any difference in the logic of instantiation—in the ontological structure captured by the threefold scheme. Isn’t the mental case just another example of the universal structure consisting of objects instantiating properties? After all, it may be said, that structure applies equally and univocally to abstract objects like numbers, so why not to mental objects (persons) and their attributes? We can say of the number 2 that it is even, and isn’t that just to say that the object 2 instantiates the property of being even? Some may shiver at the use of “object” here, but once that notion is accepted isn’t it a short step (no step at all) to talk of objects instantiating properties? Similarly, a person may be said to be an object instantiating various properties, both mental and physical: the person’s body has a certain shape and color and his or her mind likewise possesses properties like belief and sensation. This is the metaphysical structure that underlies our talk of mind and body and it is uniform in both cases. Facts necessarily consist of objects instantiating properties, it may be said, so how could the mind fail to fit this conception?

But not all philosophers have seen things that way, though skepticism about extending the instantiation relation from the physical to the mental has not been the official motivation. Some have suggested a bundle theory of the self according to which there is no object called the self to do any instantiating; rather, mental attributions are to be analyzed as analogous to set membership—being in pain, say, is one of the several mental states that may constitute a constellation of such states. The mind is nothing but a collection of mental states, so that talk of someone’s being in pain is just including that state in a collection that currently exists (the bundle theory of physical objects has the same consequence: a given property is conceived as a member of a bundle not as something instantiated by an object). Someone who holds that the mind is a subject-less congeries will be resistant to the idea that any object does any instantiating; the only object here is the collection itself, but it contains members without instantiating those members. Then there are those who invoke the idea of a feature-placing sentence to characterize the way people have mental states: just as “It’s raining” has no logical subject, so “I am in pain” has no logical subject, the word “I” acting as a dummy singular term. Mental sentences function as feature-placing sentences and their semantics does not invoke the object-property dichotomy: for how can there be instantiation without denoted objects to do the instantiating?  Another approach is to declare that it is a category mistake to compare mental attributes (so-called) with physical attributes like shape and color, because they are to be analyzed by means of conditionals; and conditionals are not instantiated in the way properties are. Here one thinks of Ryle: the mind is not a repository of categorical properties but a set of tendencies or dispositions or capacities or propensities. And such facts are not composed of properties at all, since there are no if-then properties, but rather reflect our conditional ways of talking. The mind just isn’t substantial in the way it would have to be for the object-property scheme to apply.[1] Similarly, we have the expressive view of mental utterances, according to which no facts are stated in such utterances but rather various acts of expression occur—this is a radical rejection of the physical object paradigm. Persons don’t have mental properties at all; talk of the mental is to be interpreted in terms of expressive acts that lack even truth-value.

So the object-property instantiation model has not been viewed as compulsory, but it is not clear that any of the above really get to the heart of why it can seem misguided. Admittedly, it is difficult to articulate what is dubious about it, though it does seem forced and unperceptive. Isn’t there something unique about the having of states of mind? Perhaps we do better to dwell on another aspect of the case, namely the application of the concept of ownership. There is a sense in which my mental states are mine that goes beyond any idea of mere instantiation: objects simply exemplify properties blindly, as it were, but I claim them as my own—I feel them to be part of me. No doubt this is connected to the fact that they are conscious: I am conscious of my mental states as inhering in me, as bearing an especially close connection to what I think of as myself. This relation is not captured by the general notion of instantiation, which is a pale simulacrum of what I experience. One is tempted to say that I super-instantiate my conscious mental states—they belong to me; they are extensions of me. No one else could have just these mental states, whereas physical objects share their states indiscriminately. There is no conscious possession in the case of physical objects and their properties, but conscious subjects feel their mental states to be their personal property, so to speak. This is mine. However, though that intuition is powerful, it is hard to give any theoretical account of it—or even to pinpoint it precisely. One is quickly reduced to metaphor and invitations to “look within”. We simply have no model of it, and no perceptual representation of what is going on. I can see my body instantiating various perceptible properties, but I can’t see my mind doing this—though I feel my mind to be mine in a much more intimate sense than I feel my body to be mine. It is easy to feel myself to be merged with my mental states, for them to be integral to my identity; but mere instantiation is not enough for this to be so.

What can we say about this special kind of possession? What kind of fact is it? This is where we run into a theoretical brick wall—our conceptual scheme falters. But that is not very surprising, given the generally problematic character of the mind and consciousness. If consciousness is a mystery, it is predictable that its possession will also be: we don’t know what it is for its states to be possessed in the peculiar way that they are. I know that I have various beliefs, sensations, emotions, etc., but I don’t grasp what it is for me to have these states (if “states” is even the right word). The self-mind nexus is a mystery. We say airily that a person instantiates various mental properties, but what this comes down to remains opaque. The self is a notorious puzzle, and so are mental states, but so also is the relation between them—how could it not be, given what it relates?[2] For example, I may utter the sentence “I am in pain” and thereby state a fact, but what is this relation of being in pain? It sounds like saying,  “I am in Miami”, but it clearly means nothing like that. Is it a weak attempt to make sense of the relation between the sensation of pain and myself? Then why don’t we say that I am “in” pleasure or “in” belief? I have a pleasurable sensation and I have a belief, but what is this “having”? It strikes one as a mysterious and unanalyzable relation, certainly not as nothing more than the general relation of instantiation. Perhaps we will one day come to understand its inner nature, but perhaps we won’t. The first step, at least, is to recognize the problem. Here I am, and here are these mental states, and the former evidently has the latter: but what kind of having is this—what mode of possession is invo

[1] So-called adverbial theories of mental language have a similar upshot.

[2] We can therefore add the “having” relation to the mind-body problem alongside mental states and the self that has them. It seems like a sui generis relation not reducible to the relation between the brain and its physical states. Certainly, it would be odd to suggest that it is a “physical” relation in any intelligible sense.

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Self-Knowledge

 

 

 

Self- Knowledge

 

 

Knowledge expressed using “I” is different from knowledge expressed using other modes of reference (names, descriptions, demonstratives). I know that I wrote The Subjective View and I also know that Colin McGinn wrote The Subjective View, but these are different pieces of knowledge despite the identity of reference. This is made vivid in amnesia cases: I might forget that I wrote that book while coming to learn that someone called “Colin McGinn” wrote it—I don’t know I am the author though I know who the author is (that McGinn fellow). I also might know that I did something and not know that Colin McGinn did, because I have forgotten who I am and what my name is. Thus “I am Colin McGinn” is an informative statement. But how exactly do the two pieces of knowledge differ—what makes them different? What is distinctive about first-person knowledge? Evidently I can acquire knowledge of myself expressible using “I”, but what is the specific nature of such knowledge—what makes it stand out from other sorts of knowledge of objects?

One possible response is that it is not unique but merely a special case of an informative identity statement. It is similarly true that “Hesperus is a planet” and “Phosphorus is a planet” express different propositions, but there is nothing special about either proposition. There are simply two modes of presentation associated with the two names, so knowledge of one doesn’t imply knowledge of the other. Likewise, it may be said, “I” in my mouth expresses a different mode of presentation from “Colin McGinn”: that is what the difference consists in. But this response misses an important point, namely that I could also not know a proposition that refers to me by a different name (or description or demonstrative). But that difference is not the same difference as the difference between my name and “I”: the former could just consist in a different description being true of me, while the latter does not. The proposal blithely employs the notion of a mode of presentation without saying what it consists in for my use of “I”, but that is empty unless something is said to explain what this mode of presentation might be. In reply to this objection it may be offered that the difference is that “I” is an indexical while proper names are not: that is how the two propositions differ (now pick your favorite theory of indexicals). But again this conflates cases, since “you” and “he” are also indexical but don’t track what is special about first-person knowledge. I might also think that he wrote The Subjective View while seeing myself in a mirror without realizing it, but this again doesn’t give me the knowledge that I wrote that book. It is something about first-person knowledge in particular that is special not indexical knowledge in general or merely the possibility of more than one name for the same object. We can’t assimilate the case to a wider phenomenon; we need to identify what it is specifically about first-person knowledge that makes it different from other sorts of knowledge of objects. When I know a fact about myself that I express using “I” how does this differ from knowing the same fact about myself without using “I”?

I think that to answer this question we need to dig deep, metaphysically and epistemologically; it is not a merely linguistic phenomenon that we are concerned to understand. The answer I want to propose is not easy to grasp and I may have trouble explaining it. The basic thought is that we may not have the sort of knowledge of ourselves that we think we have—there is something peculiarly problematic about such knowledge. I don’t really know that I wrote The Subjective View, even though I know quite well that Colin McGinn wrote it. This is because there is a gap between my knowledge of myself qua myself and my knowledge of the person known as Colin McGinn. I can coherently say to myself, “I know that CMG did such and such, but I’m not sure that I ever did such and such, because I’m not sure that the person so named is really me”. I think he is, but the question admits of rational doubt. Put differently, I am not certain that I am a particular person in the objective world—that this self is that person. I am in a sense alienated from that individual, as if he is more my avatar than I myself. So I am unclear that his exploits are really mine. Let me try to elucidate this doubt by constructing a fanciful thought experiment.

Suppose that I actually exist in an immobile form in a safe room of some sort (a brain in a vat, to make it concrete). However, I have a body assigned to me that leaves the room and wanders around the world acquiring a history—that is, the experiences generated by this body are reproduced in my mind, so that it is as if I am wandering about. I thus acquire information about the doings of this body. We might be inclined to say that I leave the room with my body (though my brain stays put) and come to have various properties as a consequence. This already sounds strained and a further wrinkle can put it under pressure: suppose that another person commandeers my body and goes out into the world using it as he desires. This individual is called “Colin McGinn” and he does many things, including write books. He is not I. Nevertheless, I might acquire various beliefs about myself as a result of what this individual does, e.g. that I wrote a certain book. These beliefs would be false in the situation described: I never do anything—he does all the doing. It merely seems to me that I do these things.

The skeptic now steps in to urge that this might be true of my actual situation. How do I know that what the person called “CMG” does is really done by me? Maybe I am not embodied at all and the wandering person I think of as myself is not me. Maybe I went through the mental motions of writing a book but none of this caused a book to be written; instead someone else in a certain body did the actual physical writing. I have all sorts of impressions as of that body, as well as knowledge of my subjective states, but when I think I have acted in certain objective ways I really haven’t. After all, it doesn’t follow from the fact that I performed a certain series of mental actions (choosing words, etc.) and that a certain body moved in ways corresponding to this series that I performed those physical actions. I might be ensconced impotently somewhere while all the action is going on elsewhere, mistakenly taking credit for it. I might have no active presence in the world at all, though someone that does matches me in certain ways. I think I have a history of objective happenings, but perhaps I don’t, having only a mental history and an uneventful history of physical immobility. For instance, I never went to school in Blackpool, even though it seems to me that I did—it was someone else who went there in my stead. Accordingly, my beliefs about myself are generally false: my self-knowledge is not what I thought. This is because of the gap between how I appear to myself from the inside and what I objectively do or am subject to. I could express this gap by saying, “I might not be Colin McGinn”. The person with that name might well exist and have the history I take myself to have, but I am not identical to that person. I can therefore sensibly say to myself that I might not be Colin McGinn, i.e. the person who has such and such a history. I know various facts about him and I have no qualms about attributing those facts to him, but there is a question as to whether he is I, i.e. the individual I encounter from a first-person perspective. The objective self that is called “CMG” might not be the subjective self I refer to with “I”. That objective self, so conceived, certainly did various things, but he might not be me, so it is doubtful that I did those things. My putative identity with CMG is thus questionable because of the gap that exists between the subjective self and the objective self, i.e. between the self I encounter within and the public self that exists objectively. The very thought that I have an objective identity can seem like a rash conjecture, even when I don’t doubt that there are objective persons. How can I be something in the world? The world exists with persons in it, but the thing I refer to with “I” might not be one of these persons.

Let me try to put the point more intuitively. When I think of myself (de re) as Colin McGinn I have no trouble with the idea that this individual has a certain objective history—that very individual. I am thinking of an entity that has an objective existence, is observable by others, with a body, etc. But when I think of myself as myself using “I” I feel a gap open up between this entity and the objective facts I associate with it, which I might express by saying, “It is problematic that this entity ever did any of those things”. From the first-person perspective it is moot whether the self even has such attributes; they seem external to it, not part of its intrinsic character, not part of what is given with the self. Thus we feel that the self stands apart from the attributes commonly attributed to it when conceived from the third-person perspective. This is the difference between “I” and “CMG”: the latter presents no gap between the object and the facts that hold of it, while the former does present just such a gap. That is why it can seem surprising that I am an objective being at all: for how can I be that? I seem to myself from the first-person perspective to be of the wrong category to be an objective person, so I am uneasy about claims to self-knowledge of the usual kind–for example, that I wrote a certain book. I feel myself to be curiously remote from the facts of my supposed objective history, and would not be confounded by the discovery that I am not the real subject of these facts, as in the skeptical possibility described earlier. The fundamental form of this kind of thought is that Iam not my body, so that anything it does is not an attribute of me—though I have no qualms about attributing these things to the person I call by my name. This is no doubt what Descartes (and many others) was driving at—the self is not to be identified with the body, so that the history of one is not the history of the other. We could put this by saying that the inner self is not the objective person; of if he is, that is a problematic proposition.

Metaphysically, we could say (riskily) that the self is a bare particular with respect to objective facts: it is not qualified by such facts or presented as instantiating the properties in question. But when we think of a person from a third-person perspective he or she is not similarly conceived as a bare particular: here the facts are integral and salient. It would accordingly be bizarre to offer a theory of the semantics of “I” that defines it by reference to objective circumstances, as that “I” in my mouth means “the author of The Subjective View”, though that theory is by no means absurd as a theory of the name “Colin McGinn”. Put in these (risky) terms, self-knowledge is knowledge of a bare particular (relative to objective facts) that has certain extrinsic attributes by virtue of a relation to something else, while knowledge of the third-person kind is knowledge of an object endowed with various intrinsic properties. Of course, we must add that the self is not a bare particular tout court, since it has an array of mental properties that can be introspected—but we have been speaking of knowledge of physical properties of the person. With respect to mental properties, there is a strong contrast with the kind of self-knowledge discussed so far, since in their case we can’t envisage the possibility of someone else being the subject of these properties. I can’t say, “Someone else may be the person suffering these pains” as I can say, “Someone else might be the author of The Subjective View”. In the self-ascription of mental states I am not venturing beyond the subjective self, as I am when attributing physical attributes to myself. In a sense, then, the former case is like the case of the objective self in that both don’t involve any attempt to cross a metaphysical divide; it is only self-knowledge of objective facts that involves this kind of leap—the kind of knowledge expressed by “I am the author of The Subjective View”. That is the peculiar case, mixing as it does the subjective with the objective, thus inviting the protest, “But how could I have such attributes?” What I most intimately am is divorced from such worldly matters, or so it seems to me from the inside. That may be a false view to take, but it infects our attitudes towards self-knowledge nonetheless: it is what makes “I am CMG” such a potent and troubling thought—the very idea that this might be that. Surely there comes a time in everyone’s life when they recognize that they are a person existing in an objective world, as well as the subjective self with which they have become so familiar; and this is a potentially vertiginous thought—a kind of expansion and contraction at the same time (“I am more than this locus of subjectivity, but also only one object among many”). I am suggesting that such fraught thoughts are built into self-knowledge and give it the peculiar character that it has. There is nothing particularly strange about knowing objective facts about a named individual, or about someone knowing in the first-person that he or she has certain mental states, but it is strange to know that you yourself have certain objective attributes—because that is to combine the inner and the outer in a problematic way (as the skeptic points out). At its most basic, the remarkable (and terrifying) thought is that I am someone.[1]

 

[1] Readers familiar with Thomas Nagel’s work on these topics will detect some points of contact between it and the present reflections.

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