The Space Trap

I have discovered that my 1992 novel The Space Trap now exists in audio form from Amazon. I had no idea this was being done and was not informed of it. I discovered it by chance when I bought an Alexa and it started reciting the novel to me for reasons I can’t fathom. The woman reciting the novel does a creditable job, especially given the challenging content. I enjoyed listening to it. I don’t know how generally available it is, so I’d be interested to know if people can access it from their devices. All I did to get it was say to my Echo Dot “Alexa, read The Space Trap by Colin McGinn” and she started reading it. Can readers check to see if they can get it this way?


Minimalist Ethics



Moral Minimalism



I shall explore the prospects for a minimalist theory of normative ethics. By “minimalist” I mean a theory (analogous to minimalism in linguistics) that seeks to base normative ethics on the most exiguous of foundations, viz. a single moral principle, with other aspects of the ethical life consigned to something extraneous to morality strictly conceived. The moral principle in question is exceedingly familiar: DO NO HARM. That is all that morality contains, according to the minimalism I envisage, neither more nor less. The onlymoral principle is the injunction not to do harm. Usually this principle is included in a total utilitarian package: Do no harm andmaximize wellbeing (welfare, the good, happiness, pleasure). I propose to drop the second conjunct so that morality only prescribes the avoidance of harm. Clearly the two conjuncts are logically independent, though the second is generally taken to include the first: if our aim is to maximize wellbeing, it should surely include minimizing harm. But we may live in a possible world in which there isno harm to be undone or produced, yet still we are subject to an injunction to maximize wellbeing—we must increase the level of wellbeing even if there is no suffering to be eliminated and none that can be produced (this is a world of harm-proof people). More obviously, one could accept the injunction not to harm while rejecting the injunction to promote wellbeing: I mustn’t harm anyone, but I have no duty positively to improve anyone’s lot. For example, I must not strike an innocent man for no reason, but I am under no obligation to make him happier than he already is. So I propose dropping the second injunction while insisting on the first. I call this position “disutilitarianism” because it emphasizes the avoidance of disutility not the production of utility. It is a negative prohibition: it says what we must notdo not what we must do. We must not cause harm, though we have no duty to cause its opposite (if it has a real opposite)—we have no duty to maximize the general good, or even to produce it in a particular case. There is a duty against maleficence, but no duty of beneficence.

Let me immediately address a natural objection, namely that it is clearly morally praiseworthy to promote the good. I don’t disagree, though there are notorious cases in which promoting the good is not the morally right thing to do (the bane of utilitarianism); but I would distinguish between what morality requires and what it is admirable to do. It certainly shows the virtue of generosity to help the poor and needy, but that is not the same as saying that this is a moral duty. It may just be supererogatory. We have a dutynot to harm, but we have no comparable duty to make people happier—though it might be virtuous so to do. I will come back this point, noting now only that moral minimalism does not preclude acting virtuously in promoting wellbeing; it claims only that this is not part of morality in the strict sense. We might even say that not causing harm isn’t a virtueat all, being merely our most basic moral obligation—there is nothing virtuousin declining to strike an innocent man for no reason. Duty and virtue are separate domains.

A main reason for advocating moral minimalism as against full-blown utilitarianism is that the stronger doctrine runs into well-known problems. I won’t rehearse these problems, but they concern considerations of justice and the problem of moral inflation, whereby we turn out to be the moral equivalent of murderers by not helping starving people in distant lands to the point of self-impoverishment. What is crucial, I think, is that there is a deep asymmetry between harming and benefitting: we have an absolute duty not to do the former, but the latter is optional. Partly this is because of the difference between pain and suffering, on the one hand, and happiness and wellbeing, on the other: the former are clearly defined and obviously bad, while the latter are amorphous and not invariably good (e.g. the pleasure-loving happy sadist). The dentist must do his best to avoid hurting you, but he is under no obligation to make you feel happier when you leave his office than you were when you came in—and what exactly would that be? He knows how to avoid harming you, but he may have no idea what would make you happier (a joke, a donation, a pat on the back?). So the harm principle has a different deontic status from the benefit principle. This is of course exactly how we operate in daily life: you avoid stepping on people’s toes as you walk down the street, but you don’t try to cheer everyone up as you pass them by. They will blame you for hurting them, but not for failing to improve their mood. They may think that that is none of your concern, while avoiding crushing their toes indubitably is. So we can say that the harm principle has a greaterhold on us than the benefit principle; I propose accordingly that we restrict morality to the harm principle.[1]

It is a significant fact that all the standard rules favored by the deontologist can be seen to stem from the rule against causing harm. Breaking promises, lying, stealing, assaulting, murdering, acting unjustly—all involve causing harm to others. These rules are prohibitions designed to minimize suffering, ranging from disappointment to physical agony. None of them reflects the utilitarian’s insistence that we should maximize wellbeing—as if by sitting at home doing nothing we have committed grave evils. Of course, it is possible to harm by omission—and that is equally proscribed by the harm principle. You can fail to save someone from being hit by a car, so that your omission harms him or her. But doing nothing to make people happier is not ipso facto a form of indirect harm. We can’t somehow squeeze beneficence in under non-maleficence. The usual rules of morality concern things we are not to do (“Thou shall’t not…) and they all concern the harms that result from doing these things. Bringing each of these specific rules under the harm principle effects a major simplification, making moral thinking easier to manage and sharper in focus. All we really need to remember—all we need to know—is that it is wrong to cause harm. Whenever you are faced by a difficult moral choice you need only ask yourself what action will cause the least harm and then do that. For instance, you should not break a promise to meet A because meeting B instead will increase the total level of happiness in the world; you should avoid harming A by leaving him hanging (maybe suggesting to B that she finds something else to do). It is no small advantage to morality that it should be codified in a single easily remembered slogan. Children need to be instructed in it, and many adults have no aptitude for moral complexity, so keep it simple.

Can you harm someone in order to benefit him later? If so, there is no absolute ban on causing harm. Here we need to distinguish two cases: causing harm now to prevent greater harm later, and causing harm now in order to increase happiness later. The dentist drills the tooth now in order to prevent the pain of later toothache, so she is minimizing pain in the long run: that is morally acceptable and in accordance with the harm principle. But it is another thing entirely to try to justify causing harm now by citing future benefits that don’tinvolve harm minimization—as it might be, applying the rod to the child in the expectation that she will grow to be happier than she would be otherwise. This is far from obviously acceptable and it gains no support from the harm principle, which speaks only of minimizing harm not maximizing happiness. Omitting to do something harmful today can cause greater harm tomorrow, and is therefore morally proscribed; but omitting to do something harmful today that will result in less overall happiness in the future is not to be morally condemned (except by the rigid utilitarian). Even if beating children is known to make them happier in later life, that is no ground for beating them—though if it will prevent them from excruciating suffering later, then it should be done (however reluctantly).  We must always seek to minimize harm, even if harm is necessary to bring that about; but harm can’t be justified by considerations of overall utility, as if pain now is made up for by elation later (as opposed to mere contentment).

It is important to minimalism to distinguish between what it is good for a person to do from what it is morally obligatory for a person to do. Minimalism is only a theory of the latter; it is neutral on the broader question of virtuous or admirable conduct. Living a good life includes acting generously and kindly, even if no harm is reduced thereby. That may seem to leave a lot of moral life outside the scope of the minimalist theory, but in fact it covers more than might be supposed. For much generosity and kindness involve the avoidance of suffering not merely the production of utility. You can harm someone by not being concerned about his or her welfare, as when you callously decline to give food to a starving person. But not all generosity is like that, as with the generous host: she is not avoiding harming her guests by laying on a great feast, but rather adding to her guests’ enjoyment. That is what is not morally required—increasing other people’s happiness. By not voting for tax increases to help the poor you may be harming them indirectly and by omission, so this falls under moral criticism; what does not invite moral criticism is declining to share your resources with people already amply resourced. So quite a lot falls under the prohibition against causing harm, not merely refraining from attacking people directly (animals too). Someone might be exceptionally generous with his friends, by always treating them to fancy dinners and the like; that may be commendable, but it is not morally obligatory. This is a distinction well worth preserving, and it is a virtue of minimalism that it makes the distinction firmly (unlike classical utilitarianism). Much virtuous behavior is discretionary, but moral behavior never is—it is strictly obligatory. Being a miser may not be admirable, but it is in a different category from being a sadist. The paradigm of the immoral act is maiming someone, not providing a thrifty meal instead of a lavish one.

Is the anti-harm theory deontological or consequentialist? You can take it either way, either as a moral rule or as a statement about consequences. That is, you can say that an action is right if and only if it actually minimizes harm, or you can say that the agent must always intend to minimize harm and that this is what makes it right not the actual consequences. I prefer to think of it as an absolute general rule with a number of sub-rules as special cases (such as “Don’t break promises”), but clearly the consequences are crucial in justifying the rule—pain and suffering being bad things in themselves.

I would emphasize the formal merits of the minimalist theory. It is simple, clear, manageable, and practicable. It is intuitively compelling and scarcely controversial in its recommendations (unlike utilitarianism). Its only questionable claim is that there is nothing more to morality than what it includes; but this is mitigated by the distinction between morality proper and what counts as virtuous conduct. It combines the best of deontology and consequentialism. It is what you would expect of a moral system that is designed to help people live together in close proximity. It is non-paternalist. It doesn’t seek to meddle in other people’s lives, as the prescription to make everyone as happy as possible does.  It has a pleasing homogeneity. It is readily universalized. It does not attempt to combine disparate ideas (as in W.D. Ross’s mixed theory). It is easily teachable. It does not call for extremes of altruism and intolerable guilt over never doing enough. It takes what is good in utilitarianism and discards what is bad. The disutilitarian is a realistic, clear-eyed, compassionate, commonsense type of fellow, mainly concerned to prevent pain and suffering. Everything else is icing on the cake. If he can prevent us from harming each other (animals included), he thinks he has done his moral duty. What we choose positively to do, as a matter of personal virtue, is our own affair and of no concern to morality as such.[2]


Colin McGinn

[1]A further asymmetry is this: the harm principle applies impartially to intimates and strangers, but the benefit principle applies differentially according to personal distance (at least according to common morality). You must not harm anyone equally, but it is morally permissible to benefit members of your own family over others. This suggests that the harm principle is part of non-negotiable moral law, while the benefit principle operates according to personal discretion.

[2]The disutilitarian might well contend (echoing Nietzsche) that morality since the advent of Christianity has indulged in a kind of duty-creep whereby virtuous behavior has been converted into a species of strict moral duty. Thus Jesus urges us to give to the poor and needy (defined relatively) and his followers have interpreted this as an extension of our moral duties. But that is not necessarily the right way to interpret the words of Jesus: he is not assimilating charity to the deontic level of non-violence, merely suggesting that we cultivate the virtue of generosity and not content ourselves with the mere observance of our strict moral duty. Perhaps under the influence of Christian ethics, as it came to develop, utilitarian ethics made a virtue of blurring the line between moral duty and personal virtue, thus assimilating the demerit of not being charitable with the demerit of violently assaulting people. That was a conceptual error and one the minimalist is anxious to remedy.


Realism Redefined


Strengths of Realism



Realism and anti-realism are conventionally presented as dichotomous: you must be either one or the other with nothing in between. This is supposed true across the board, from material objects to moral values. But on reflection the dichotomy is too simple—there are finer distinctions to capture. We can approach the matter by examining the paradigm case: realism and anti-realism about the external world. What is it to be a realist about material objects? Several points might be mentioned: propositions about material objects must be logically independent of propositions about sense experience; material objects must be the cause of sense experiences; material objects cannot be mental constructions of any kind; material objects must differ in their intrinsic nature from sense experiences; material objects must exist in a different space (or region of space) from that occupied by sense experiences; material objects must pre-exist and post-exist sense experiences; material objects must have properties that sense experience does not reveal or perhaps cannot reveal. These points affirm that material objects in no way reduce to or depend upon sense experiences; and they are precisely what is denied by someone who cleaves to an anti-realist view of them. So realism here consists in a conjunction of separate claims that are not necessarily jointly true. Consider Berkley’s idealism: he regards so-called material objects as ideas in the mind of God that can exist whether we have corresponding ideas or not, but he does not suppose that they have an intrinsically different nature from sense experiences, since that is what they are. He also believes they exist in a space separate from that occupied by human minds, but he doesn’t think they pre-exist existence in God’s mind. Nor does he hold that propositions about material objects are logically independent of propositions about God’s mind. So is Berkeley a realist or an anti-realist? The question has no sensible answer: he accepts some of the claims of the cluster I mentioned but not all. It seems right to say that he is not so strong a realist as someone who accepts all the claims of the cluster but that he is also not an outright anti-realist who rejects all of them. We might say (not very illuminatingly) that he is a weakrealist about material objects, and then go on to specify exactly what claims he accepts and what he rejects. The traditional dichotomy is just too crude to capture the full range of metaphysical opinion in this case.

Or consider realism and anti-realism about the mind itself. You can hold that there is nothing in the mind except what shows itself in actual behavior; or you can weaken this to maintain that mental states consist in dispositions to behavior; or you can identify mental states with brain states that underlie such dispositions; or you can hold that it must be at least logically possible to manifest a mental state behaviorally. Correspondingly, you can assert that mental states exist in a separate immaterial substance that is logically independent of the body and behavior, or you can weaken this position in various ways. The result is a spectrum of possible positions not a simple dichotomy. Some positions are intuitively more realist than others. The closer the position gets to the analogous position with respect to material objects the more or less realist it becomes (existing in a separate space and having a different intrinsic nature make the position strongly realist). But it is artificial and distorting to try to force a position into one or the other of two categories, realist or anti-realist. Someone might reasonably maintain that he is moderately realist about Xbut not mad-dogrealist about X—soft-core but not heavy-duty. On a realism scale of 1 to 10, he might describe himself as a 7.

Much the same pattern is discernible with respect to mathematical realism. You can be an extreme platonic realist holding that numbers exist in a separate sphere difficult to reach from the human point of view, eternal and unchanging, far from the madding crowd of empirical particulars; or you can weaken this position in various ways, holding (say) that numbers are constructions from sets of particulars combined with logic, or even concrete aggregates of particulars. Again, there is room for manoeuver in articulating a position deserving the name of realism, with some positions stronger than others. An anti-realist might accept nominalism or some form of psychologism, where again different strengths of position might be distinguished (for example, numbers are nothing but actual inscriptions in contrast to possible inscriptions). There is a wide spectrum of possible positions that may be adopted and it would be procrustean to try to force all of them into one of two categories. Similarly with scientific realism: one might hold that unobservable entities are real and causal while also holding that they consist in potentialities not actualities; or one might accept particles as real but jib at fields. There is room for half-hearted scientific realism as well as the full-throated kind.

I have made these points as a preparation for considering moral realism. For here there are difficult questions of formulation and it is helpful to have a clear view of the full range of options. We don’t want to lapse into anti-realism just because we have a limited view of the varieties of moral realism. If we want to keep the analogy with the external world, which gives the issue clarity and bite, we need to identify features of the moral case that match the features I listed earlier—such as intrinsic difference of ontological kind or separation in space. Thus moral values may be said to exist at some remove from the moral subject and to differ in kind from any fact about that subject. They must also pre-exist recognition by the subject and be logically independent of anything she might believe, feel, or experience. Presumably they will not be said to act as causes, but that view is logically available under some ingenious conception of causation. Moral values might exist and yet not be discoverable by moral agents, and they may be quite other than what is generally believed. Again, it is possible to endorse some of these claims but not others: for example, one might hold that what is morally right cannot be inferred from what people believe but that morality must be in principle accessible to moral believers—belief-independent but not completely mind-independent. One might believe in Plato’s Form of the Good or in Moore’s indefinable non-natural property of goodness; but it would also be possible to style oneself a moral realist while rejecting such views, opting instead for a view in which the existence of objective reasons constitutes the sole content of a reasonable moral realism. There is no point in fighting over labels, which is a temptation if the issue is conceived dichotomously; better to accept a plurality of possible views each inviting the label “realism”. Some types of moral realism will be stronger than others, i.e. closer to the paradigm of realism about material objects. To insist that certain views are not reallyrealist is to be in thrall to binary thinking, though no doubt certain views will count as anti-realist if any view does (emotivism, for instance).[1]

One response to these observations would be to abandon all talk of realism and anti-realism as misleadingly simplistic; and that response is not without its merits. But then there is the question of what might be put in its place—what other terminology could we use? And the current terminology is not without intuitive force, especially in conjunction with the paradigm supplied by the external world. To be a realist is definitely to be an identifiable kind of thing—to adopt an intelligible position. The concept is not empty. It is just that it is not quite as black and white as it has seemed from traditional debates. We need to make room for the partial, qualified, and week-kneed realist—as well as the modest and lukewarm anti-realist. Certainly, we must avoid pinning caricatures on positions that attract the label “realist”, as if anything so called must be of the most extreme and implausible kind.


[1]In ethics we find a contrast between subjectivism and objectivism, as well as between relativism and absolutism, but we don’t find these contrasts in the case of the external world and other subject matters. It is an interesting question why this is so, but it must surely be connected to the fact that there is a strong tendency in ethics for people to believe that thinking it makes it so, which is not the case for the external world. Thus moral realism is often framed as the denial that moral belief implies moral truth (suitably relativized). I would prefer to label this position “moral objectivism” and keep the label “moral realism” for views that model ethics more closely on the external world: but this is all a matter of words (not that words can’t be philosophically important).


Is Philosophy Ethically Limited?



The Alleged Limits of Moral Philosophy



Bernard Williams wrote a book entitled Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy.[1]This title invites interrogation. What kind of limitation might be meant? We can all agree that philosophy is limited in someway: it cannot do what science does, for example, or history or geography or literature or painting. In that sense everything is limited: there is no point in using one’s philosophical faculties in order to answer non-philosophical problems. Someone could write a book called Ethics and the Limits of Scienceand we could be persuaded that science is not the answer to ethical questions, since it is not the answer to many questions, especially normative ones. But isn’t ethics precisely moral philosophy—so how could philosophy be limited in doing the philosophy of right and wrong? What if Williams had called his book Moral Philosophy and the Limits of Philosophy? Of course, real ethical questions involve factual matters, and hence are not properly part of philosophy, but what could be meant by saying that philosophy is limited in dealing with the philosophical aspects of ethics? And is philosophy limited in other areas traditionally designated philosophical too? As it turns out Williams doesn’t really mean that philosophy is limited with respect to ethics (or moral philosophy): he means a certain kindof philosophy is so limited. He doesn’t mean that a more historically rooted and humanistic philosophy is limited when it comes to ethics; he means the kind of philosophy exemplified by Kant and Bentham along with their successors. He means something theoretical, abstract, systematic, monistic, context-independent, non-psychological, ahistorical, absolute, and scientific-sounding. So his title is misleading: he thinks that a certain dominant strandof Western philosophy is limited when it comes to ethics. Not that this strand might not contain important truths and be valuable in its way, but that it has limits—it doesn’t cover the full territory of ethics. This is a less resounding thesis than that suggested by the title of his book. He might more accurately have called it Ethics and the Limits of a Certain Kind of Philosophy. The book would then have gone on to argue that the kind of philosophy in question omits certain important considerations, to be remedied by adopting a different kind of philosophical approach or style or method.

The question I want to raise is whether Williams would wish to extend his thesis to other parts of philosophy. Is it just ethics in which a certain kind of philosophy has inherent limits? Let us call this kind theoreticalphilosophy, meaning thereby to sum up the list of features I cited in the last paragraph. Would he complain that epistemology, philosophy of mind, aesthetics, philosophy of language, philosophy of science, and so on, are not sufficiently historical or humanistic or contextualized? Is his critique of theoretical philosophy as too limited itself limited to ethics? Is it that the other areas traditionally covered by philosophy are perfectly well suited to the theoretical style, but that right and wrong are not? If so, what is it about this domain that makes it stand out so? It can’t be merely that it is a normative domain, because so are aesthetics and epistemology (which concerns what we oughtto believe and is shot through with normative notions), not to mention logic. And why exactly would the normative preclude theoretical treatment while everything else invites it? I don’t recall Williams ever addressing this question—though he certainly contrasted the “absolute conception” of science with philosophical investigations. My question is whether he would be prepared to extend his critique to all of philosophy or whether he intended it as restricted to the case of ethics.

It seems to me this is an uncomfortable dilemma for him. For it is hard to see on what grounds he could restrict it, and yet extending it surely proves too much. It proves too much because clearly theoretical philosophy is not limited in any non-trivial way when it comes to these other areas. How could it be argued that logic and philosophy of language are objectionably limited in their methods and results? Of course, they can be supplemented by other disciplines, but in what way are they just the wrong way to approach the subject? Similarly for epistemology and philosophy of mind: why do they fail to provide an adequate way to approach the questions that constitute their domain of interest? Would Williams be prepared to write a book entitled Knowledge and the Limits of Philosophyor The Mind-Body Problem and the Limits of Philosophy? What other approach to these questions would he favor over the one traditionally practiced by philosophers? Does he think logic should be more historically situated and psychologically realistic? What about the analysis of knowledge or the nature of intention? I myself see no reason to distinguish ethics from other branches of philosophy methodologically, and I also believe that there is no real alternative to the usual way of doing things. So I would see no point in a book paradoxically entitled Philosophy and the Limits of Philosophy, even when that last phrase is understood to mean “limits of a certain kind of philosophy”.

In fact, Williams’ chief targets were Kantian ethics and utilitarianism. He found them too abstract and oversimplified as well as psychologically unrealistic. I can see a point to that critique, but it is an unwarranted leap to suppose that ethics in general has been blighted by the same failings. What about the work of W.D. Ross? What about Aristotle? These are theoretical thinkers in the sense intended—they purport to offer a systematic treatment of ethics valid for all times and places—but they are more pluralistic and realistic than the abstract monistic formulae of Kant or Bentham. True, philosophers are prone to defend oversimplified monistic theories, but it is no abnegation of theory as such to move in a more complex pluralistic direction. Is that all Williams is asking for? Evidently not, but I fail to see why ethics should be held to a different standard than other philosophical topics. In epistemology we can distinguish a rule-based from a consequentialist view of justification: either you follow the rules of induction, deduction and abduction, or justification is defined as simply what makes the best predictions (or has the best results for humans if you are a pragmatist). This is analogous to the distinction between deontology and consequentialism in ethics. We can certainly oppose either view as being partial or limited, but combining them is hardly a move away from the theoretical to something more historically grounded or humanistic. Similarly, we can oppose the monolithic systems of Kant and Bentham without thereby abandoning a broadly theoretical approach to ethics. Pluralism is not inherently anti-philosophical or an indication that philosophy has reached its limits. To reject bad theories, or theories that oversimplify, is not to reject theory altogether.

And is it that Williams finds nothing of value in the theories he criticizes? No: for they crystalize important aspects of morality—moral rules and good consequences, respectively. They are idealizations intended to bring out what matters, much as other philosophical theories are idealizations. There is nothing wrong with that so long as we realize what we are doing. Maybe they aretooidealized, but again that is not a point against theoretical philosophy as such. Nor do I see any real alternative to theoretical philosophy if we are going to keep on doing philosophy at all. Certainly, merely describing the moral attitudes and practices of societies present and past is not a kind of moral philosophy worthy of the name. So I don’t really see what Williams is getting at by accusing moral philosophy of failing to recognize its limits.[2]


Colin McGinn


[1]Harvard University Press: 1986.

[2]I considered Bernard Williams a friend. I admired him as a philosopher. I enjoyed talking to him. We once appeared together on television discussing animals and ethics. I taught a seminar with Malcolm Budd on Ethics and the Limits of Philosophywhen it came out. But I never felt I really understood his position in ethics—either what he objected to or what he favored. I got the flavor of it, if course, but the actual content of his views eluded me.


The Water Paradox





The Water Paradox



It has been a while since we had a new paradox to cudgel our brains over. For your edification (and frustration) I will present what I call “the water paradox”. Like all paradoxes it aims to derive an absurdity from self-evident premises, thus demonstrating the auto-destructive powers of reason. We are not meant to accept the paradox as true (that’s why it’s a paradox), but to marvel at its existence. So consider the following principle: “Every object wholly composed of solid parts is solid”. That sounds right and examples confirm it: a rock is composed of solid parts and is solid, and similarly for a block of ice. Some things are not solid, such as molten metal, but they have non-solid parts: liquid things have liquid parts. If a substance has some solid parts, it is not wholly liquid; it is partly solid. If a sea is partly frozen, it is not liquid tout court; it is only partly liquid. It would be false to say of it, without qualification, that it is liquid. Someone could rightly reply that itisn’t liquid, though many of its partsare. To be liquid requires that allof it be liquid.

But is it true that what we routinely call liquid water is liquid with respect to its parts? What about its constituent molecules? The OEDdefines “solid” as “firm and stable in shape”, so that “liquid” means “not firm and stable in shape”. Drinking water is not firm and stable in shape, but its constituent molecules are—theyare not liquid. They slide over each other in so-called liquid water, but they are individually as solid as any solid object. So the molecular parts of water are themselves solid in both its solid and liquid state. But according to our principle, if all the parts of an object are solid, then so is the object: therefore there is no such thing as liquid water! That is paradoxical, since there is certainly a distinction between two states of water, which we mark with the terms “solid” and “liquid”.

Suppose that we were quite unperceptive about water and simply never notice that the water we drink and swim in has lots of little chunks of ice in it. If we were giants, these might be quite big chunks that are beneath our notice. Then we discover, to our surprise, the facts about this water: shouldn’t we conclude that we were wrong to suppose that our water is liquid? Shouldn’t we conclude instead that it is only partly liquid? It seemed liquid to us, but actually it isn’t. Well, science has discovered that room-temperature water is composed of unobservable solid parts, and so is not liquid after all. Imagine if you were a creature that could drink sand and swim in sand, so that sand seemed like a liquid to you: you would be within your rights to compare it to a liquid from a practical point of view, but it would be false to say of sand that it is a liquid. What if you could crunch up ice in your mouth and swallow it without melting? It would be solid, though drinkable. Isn’t that the way it is with water and us as things stand? Water seemsliquid to us, but on closer inspection it turns out not to be, since it is made of non-liquid parts. From a molecule’s-eye point of view, water is like so much sand—solid particles jostling around each other. Is a galaxy to be declared liquid because its parts move in relation to each other? Is the universe one big liquid? No, the universe is a solid object made of solid moveable parts. Isn’t that precisely what we have discovered water to be? Its liquidity is entirely superficial once you get down to the chemistry.

You might try to deny the premises of this argument. You might deny that molecules are solid, perhaps on the ground that they are parts of a liquid. But that seems hopeless given the empirical facts of chemistry, molecules being firm and stable objects; and anyway we can push the argument down to the atomic parts that compose molecules—they certainly aren’t liquid. Second, you might attack the main premise of the argument: you might claim that it is just not true that objects wholly composed of solid objects are solid—liquid water being a counterexample to this principle. You might say that liquidity merely requires the free motion of solid parts relative to each other, not liquidity all the way down. We have already seen that this is not the correct analysis of the concept of liquidity, since sand and galaxies are not liquids. But there is a further consideration: for consider substances that areliquid all the way down, unlike water–how should we describe such substances? Suppose Sis a substance that is very like water in its superficial appearance but whose physical nature is not atomic-molecular but continuous and infinitely malleable.Sis physically the way we assumed water to be before we discovered atoms and molecules: we thought everythingabout solid water (ice) melted when it was heated, not realizing that it has hidden components that resist melting. We can say that Sis superliquid, meaning that it has no solid parts but is liquid through and through. Sis apparently moreliquid than water, as water with no bits of ice in it is more liquid than water with bits of ice in it. Sis wholly and completely liquid, pervasively liquid, right down to its fine structure, while water is liquid only superficially—when you look into it closely there is a lot of solidity there.

But do we really want to talk this way? What is this idea of one thing being more liquidthan another? Aren’t things either liquid or not? Isn’t it that Sis reallyliquid, but room-temperature water is not? On some planets the water is never liquid but always exists in a solid state (i.e. frozen): isn’t it the truth that water is never literally and objectively liquid, given its actual chemical nature? Eddington famously argued that matter is never really solid, given the amount of space present in atoms; his point was not merely that some things are more solid than others depending upon the amount of space they contain.[1]We have discovered these things and they contradict our normal linguistic practices—they even challenge our concepts. We thought that matter is solid (dense, continuous), but it is not; we thought that water is liquid (in one of its forms), but it is not. Our ordinary concepts simply don’t apply. Those concepts were formed before we understood the nature of the physical world; they reflect our naïve pre-scientific understanding of nature. We had no idea that the parts of so-called liquids were solid, as we had no idea that so-called solids were mostly made up of space. Have we discovered that everything is really a gas—tiny particles widely separated in space? The principle I started with sounds correct on first hearing, indeed trivially true, but it leads quickly to the conclusion that nothing is liquid—nothing in our actual universe anyway. That is certainly disturbing and counter-intuitive, but maybe it is the sober truth. We can accordingly either abandon the word “liquid” as factually erroneous or retain it as a mere manner of speaking (like saying the sun rises). Our commonsense views of the physical world have been wrong before, and this is another example of that. Zeno argued paradoxically against the reality of motion, concluding that motion is not real; the present argument is designed to show, paradoxically, that liquidity is not real (both arguments are based on considerations about parts). It is rather as if “animal” meant “creature created by God” and then we discover that the things we call “animals” were not created in that way; the proper conclusion would be that no animals in that sense exist. We can craft a new word without the divine implication, and we could also replace “liquid” with some substitute that better reflects the facts, say “squishy”. What we can’t do is keep on talking in the old discredited way.

But why is this a paradox? Haven’t we simply discovered that nothing is liquid, as we have discovered that nothing is solid, or as Darwin discovered that there no divinely created animals? Our commonsense beliefs are just false. The same might be said of Zeno’s argument: it isn’t a paradox, just a demonstration that motion is unreal. We should simply stop saying that objects move: we live in a stationary world. Similarly, we should stop saying that substances are liquid: we live in a solid world (or a gaseous world if we follow Eddington). The trouble, however, is that the displaced beliefs are not so easily expendable: we can readily agree that there are no unicorns–but no moving objects! Some things stay still and some don’t: isn’t that just a fact? Likewise, is there no distinction between drinking water and ice? There is a distinction between moving and not moving, so we can’t just abandon the whole idea of movement—hence Zeno’s argument is a paradoxnot merely a non-existence proof. In the same way, the water paradox is not merely a proof that liquids don’t exist; it’s a genuine paradox because we can’t just abandon that idea. Some bodies of water are clearly different from other bodies of water—bathwater is different from frozen water. What word best captures this difference? The word “liquid” obviously, or some synonym; we can’t just dispense with the concept of liquidity. Hence we are reluctant to accept the argument against liquidity; we don’t just cheerfully accept a conceptual clarification. We want to protest that water is(often) liquid, no matter what the argument says. We are thus tugged in two directions. We might even be willing to contemplate accepting that some bodies of water are bothliquid and non-liquid, distinguishing two senses of “liquid”, or simply accepting the contradiction as true (as with diatheleism). We can’t just nonchalantly accept that drinking water isn’t liquid, as we can’t just nonchalantly accept that trains don’t move. These are genuine paradoxes not straightforward refutations of falsehoods.

It is a striking fact about the classic paradoxes (Zeno’s, the Liar, the Sorites, Russell’s) that they have been around for a long time and yet very little progress has been made with them. People periodically announce purported solutions, but there is little consensus and the core of the problem seems to remain, stubborn and defiant. Reason seems to undermine itself. Unreason we could understand leading to paradox—but reason! What is going on? Will we keep discovering new paradoxes while never solving the old ones? Might everythingturn out to be paradoxical on close analysis? Is paradox the rule rather than the exception? And what would this tell us about human thought? The fact that it isn’t too difficult to generate a paradox about liquid water is worrying—what’s next?



[1]There is an ambiguity in the word “solid” in these discussions: it can either mean firm and stable in shape or dense in structure. In this essay I am using the first sense; Eddington was using the second sense (he didn’t deny that ordinary objects have a firm and stable shape).




Remarks on Metaphysics



What kind of statement expresses the results of metaphysical inquiry? Wittgenstein famously begins the Tractatusthus: “The world is all that is the case” (1), “The world is the totality of facts, not of things” (1.1.), “The world is determined by the facts, and by their being allthe facts” (1.11). The use of the phrase “the world” is conspicuous, intended to announce a thesis of metaphysical proportions, but what does it refer to? What does Wittgenstein mean by “the world”? Presumably he means the actual world, though he could certainly be taken to include other possible worlds—they too are constituted by facts (in that world). But what in the actual world is he referring to? Not ethics, because he denies that value is inthe world, and not philosophy since its results can only be shown. Not the self either: “The philosophical self is not the human being, not the human body, or the human soul, with which psychology deals, but rather the metaphysical subject, the limit of the world—not a part of it” (5.641). The facts are what can be stated by means of true propositions, but Wittgenstein doesn’t think that everything (real?) can be stated. He means to exclude some things (if the word “thing” may be permitted). We could take him to be distinguishing the world from our attitudes to the world, including our ethical attitudes. Thus he might say that while the world is the totality of facts the mind is the totality of attitudesto facts. This would be to oppose mind and world (as in the title of a well-known book: Mind and World); the mind is not intended to fall within the denotation of “the world”. This is the narrow interpretation of  “the world” to be contrasted with the wide interpretation that includes the mind within the world.

Two pieces of evidence may be cited for the narrow interpretation. The first is that in a later section Wittgenstein says the following: “Similarly the possibility of describing the world by means of Newtonian mechanics tells us nothing about the world: but what does tell us something about it is the precise wayit is possible to describe it by these means. We are also told something about the world by the fact that it can be described more simply with one system of mechanics than with another” (6.342). Assuming that he refers to the same thing in both places by “the world”, he must be referring to what might be called “the physical world”, since he is not supposing that the mind can be described by mechanics. This certainly fits the general tenor of the book. Second, he construes facts as “combinations of objects”, and there is no reason to believe that he understands the mind that way: how is being in pain or feeling angry a combination of objects? There is no developed philosophy of mind in the Tractatusand it would be merely speculative to suggest that he understands the mind as a totality of facts constituted by combinations of objects. It is true that at one point he speaks of a speck in the visual field, musical notes, and “objects of the sense of touch” (2.0131), but these are not mental phenomena; they are the objects ofmental phenomena (not sensing but thing sensed). It is also true that he may be committed by the picture theory to regarding thoughts as combinations of (symbolic) objects, since they have to be isomorphic to external facts; but there is no reason to suppose that he regards everything about the mind in this way. In any case, it seems clear that he intends the narrow interpretation in the passages cited, so that it includes neither ethics nor the mind nor the self nor philosophy: the world is contrasted with these other domains, not taken to include them. Perhaps we could paraphrase him by saying “the objective world”. That would make sense of his remark that “the world is independent of my will” (6.373), which would make no sense if the will were partof the world. He is quite happy to assert, “The sense of the world must lie outside the world. In the world everything is as it is, and everything happens as it does happen: init no value exists—and if it did exist, it would have no value” (6.41). So he has no trouble excluding things from the world that don’t belong there, in the realm of reportable fact. He is speaking always of what may be mentally represented, not the representing itself. And his point is that the world in this narrow sense consists of facts not things, states of affairs not merely the objects that occur in them. The structure of the world is the structure of facts not objects (particulars, universals).

But now, having settled on the denotation of “the world”, we have the question of the logical form of Wittgenstein’s pronouncements. We know what he is talking about, more or less, but what is he saying about it—and how is he saying it? On the face of it the sentence “The world is the totality of facts” has the form of an identity statement combining two definite descriptions: “The F= the G”. It is not an identity statement joining two proper names, as in “a= b”, though we might substitute a name for one or both of the descriptions, calling the world (say) “Winston”, so that we have “Winston is the totality of facts”. The question then would be how to analyze these descriptions: would Russell’s theory do the job? That gives the decidedly peculiar, “There is uniquely something xsuch that xis a world and xis identical to the totality of facts”, which might also yield its second description to Russell’s analysis. The truth is that the alleged description “the world” is by no means a term of ordinary language but a philosopher’s invention; semantically, it is hard to know what to make of it. In any case, the statement in question purports to identify one thing with another—the world with the totality of facts. Elsewhere we read: “The totality of existing states of affairs is the world” (2.04) and “The sum-total of reality is the world” (2.063)—again, apparently, identity propositions employing definite descriptions. Metaphysics thus characteristically issues in statements of the form, “The world is (identical to) X”, where “X” is to be replaced by some description that purports to tell us the general nature of things.

What is notable is that Wittgenstein’s own statement falls short of what most metaphysicians aim to supply, since he is neutral as to the kindof fact that constitutes the world. All he tells us is that facts make up the world, not what these facts might be (similarly for his talk of “objects” and “states of affairs”). So far as his statement is concerned, these facts might be physical or mental or abstract or divine or unknowable. His theory is merely structural (logical), not substantive: it gives the form of the world not its substance (as he no doubt intends). Still, his statement provides a canonical formulation of a metaphysical thesis—a thesis about the general nature of reality. If we add to it the claim that all facts are physical facts, then we get metaphysical materialism. If we say that all facts are mental facts, we get metaphysical idealism. If we say the world consists of two types of substance, material and immaterial, we get metaphysical dualism. Schopenhauer wrote a book entitled The World as Will and Representation, clearly aiming to make a metaphysical statement (the book was known by Wittgenstein). Plato’s metaphysics can be expressed as, “The world is the instantiation of universals by particulars”. Hegel maintains, “The world is spirit”. David Lewis might say, “The world is the totality of all worlds”. Quine could opine, “The world is what science tells us it is”. The positivists might assert, “The world is what is verifiable”. All these views make use of the general notion of “the world”, and all could agree with Wittgenstein’s structural thesis. The metaphysician is telling us what the world is—its nature, its manner of being. Hesperus is Phosphorous, and water is H2O, and the world is spirit or matter or both or neither. We are offered a very general identity statement purporting to enlighten us about something called “the world”.

It is reasonable to be suspicious about such metaphysical statements. This is not because they are unverifiable or that ordinary language has gone on holiday but because the conditions of reference may not be met. Does the term “the world” really refer to anything determinate as used by the would-be metaphysician? It isn’t much like a regular definite description with uniquely identifying descriptive content, or an embedded demonstrative; and “world” is hardly a regular sortal noun that carries criteria of identity and counting. What kind of entity is the world? What predicates does it satisfy? How is it to be picked from among other things? How can we speak about it as concrete particular with a specific nature? Is it an object? Can it be named? To what end? Sentences containing this pseudo-description, such as “The world is the totality of facts”, are semantically anomalous, though perfectly grammatical; certainly, we can’t just assume they are meaningful, possessed of determinate truth conditions and reference. They seem parasitic on other types of sentence in which the word “world” appears doing more humdrum things (“I’ve searched the world for her”), and thus derive apparent sense from their humble origins. But metaphysical sentences sonorously beginning, “The world is…” are up to something beyond the normal routines of the words they contain: for they purport to refer to the whole of reality—whatever that might mean. Hence the lack of clarity about Wittgenstein’s use of the phrase: does he include value in the world, or logical form, or the mind, or the fact that the world is the totality of facts? (Is this fact also a combination of objects, the world being one of them?) In fact Wittgenstein excludes various things from the reference of “the world”, so the phrase can’t just be a variant of “everything”: but then we need to be told exactly what he does intend to refer to. The phrase trips easily off the tongue, to be sure, but it may still fall flat—it may fail to single out a specific entity. Similarly for “the totality of facts” or “the sum-total of reality”: do we really know what these phrases mean? Presumably they are not intended to include the non-existent or merely fictional (but what about Meinong?), but there are true propositions about them too—isn’t it true that Sherlock Holmes is a detective or that unicorns don’t exist (hence all the problems about whether the world contains negative facts)? It is just not clear that we have hold of a well-defined concept here. What if a common sense type of chap were to protest, “I have no idea what you mean by ‘the world’, though I’m perfectly happy with phrases like ‘the cat in the corner’ or ‘the queen of England’—what is it exactly that you have in mind?” Grammatically, it looks as if we have an identity statement flanked by definite descriptions that pick out entities in good standing, but appearances can be misleading—in which case the standard products of metaphysical inquiry are lacking in sense. At the least we are owed some kind of account of how such sentences work. To put it bluntly, isn’t “the world” a meaningless abstraction, however sublime it may sound—just the kind of thing on which the later Wittgenstein would pour scorn? Isn’t it suspiciously like “the holy spirit” or “the ether” or “the force”—in fact, worse than these because they at least contain relatively well-defined words? Just because I can say, “You mean the world to me” doesn’t imply that I can talk meaningfully about what kind of the thing the worldmight be. Certainly we cannot begin a sentence with, “The world is…” and expect automatic semantic propriety; we need to say more about what precisely we have in mind.

Because the sense of such sentences is unclear, we are apt to interpret them by whatever means comes to hand. And here I think semantics gives way to mental imagery: we form various picturesof what might be meant. These pictures may vary from individual to individual, but they are introduced in order to pin down the import of the proposition we are struggling to grasp. Metaphysics thrives on emergency imagery, particularly spatial imagery. Thus when I hear the sentence, “The world is the totality of facts”? I picture a heapof facts—a mountain of them, what with the world being so large. Wittgenstein tells us at one point, “The world divides into facts” (1.2), and we duly picture a divisible something—something with spatial parts. The world is an assemblage of smaller entities (“facts”) that combine into a larger whole, as rocks may form a mountain. Wittgenstein’s use of “totality” is interesting: not “set”, which might prove not concrete enough, but the more tangible idea of a spatial grouping of some sort—a pile, a stack, a pyramid maybe. The world is an agglomeration of lesser things, where these things are themselves conceived as spatial particulars (like atoms or molecules—atomic and molecular facts).  Such imagery courses through our mind as we study Wittgenstein’s enigmatic text and gives us an illusion of understanding—I know what a heap is! I conjecture that metaphysical discourse is unusually prone to this kind of imagery, as a kind of substitute or crutch. It would be interesting to do some empirical work on such imagery: how frequent is it, are there any universals, what happens when it is absent? Wittgenstein had an engineer’s mind and was fond of the notion of picturing, so it is possible that he had unusually strong imagery when composing the Tractatus: this will have encouraged him to think he was talking sense. And partly he was—but was it complete sense?  Language can carry us away, as he recognized in the Investigations, but so can the mental imagery it provokes: it can provide dubious abstractions with concrete credentials. Isn’t the Tractatusa very visual work, reliant on the reader’s complicity in visualization?

The same is true of other metaphysical visions (!): they are apt to come with pictures attached. What do you think of when you think of dualism? I imagine two entities side by side, one extended and concrete, the other wispy and amorphous (compare the image of consciousness as steam emanating from a steam engine). When I think of materialism I imagine an accumulation of geological strata: at the base we have atoms in the void, with chemistry and biology and psychology laid on this base, like bricks laid on a foundation (and just think of the imagery associated with that word!). I don’t think of the facts of the world as separated in space, like islands, but as built one upon another—vertically not horizontally. Idealism puzzles my imagination because the mind is not so readily imagined spatially, but my imagery is something like a cloud of feathers or a ghostly gathering—a weightless assembly of formless nothings. Plato tried to give imaginative expression to his theory of forms by the parable of the cave, which is full of spatial imagery, but the theory taken neat suggests (to me) nothing so much as a colony of splendid birds of paradise. Frege likened his theory of sense and reference to the optical image in a telescope, in order to make the metaphysics palatable (intelligible), with space explicitly invoked; without this analogy we struggle with mental pictures of free-floating simulacra of things (those elusive “modes of presentation”). Much of the charm of metaphysics derives from these flights of imagination: we contrive to render elusive abstractions mentally manageable. Without this we might flounder in incomprehension, with only words to play with (“the world”, “totality”, “substance”, “immaterial”, “hierarchy”, “supervenience”, etc.). When Wittgenstein remarks, “Objects make up the substance of the world” (2.021) we reach for familiar ideas of substance and think we know what he means, as in “Flour makes up the substance of the cake”. Imagery abets metaphysics—maybe makes it humanly possible. What makes metaphysics meaningful to us is the imagery we bring to its pronouncements: but this is a suspicious gift, intoxicating though not necessarily illuminating. It may simply provide spurious protection from the verbal haze (or blaze). Or it may bias us in favor of views that interact better with our imagination—that provide us with more appealing pictures. Wittgenstein spoke of being held captive by a picture—well, in metaphysics there may be no alternative. In normal discourse we can rely on words to carry us along, but when discourse turns metaphysical words struggle to keep up, and then imagination takes up the slack, or tries to. We find ourselves dependent on pictures of many kinds: of heaps, webs, steam, railway tracks, shadows, lenses, ghosts, exotic animals, shimmering mirages, tools, chess games, light, magic tricks, building blocks, cement, blank slates, sentences—all the tricks of the philosophical trade. In this way we try to give sense to what we are inclined to say. When you read the words, “The world is…” your imagination is activated: you start to form pictures of what might be meant. You would be lost otherwise, or perhaps just not interested.[1]


Colin McGinn


[1]I don’t want to give the impression that I am against all metaphysics (on the contrary), but I think certain ways of proceeding are fraught with linguistic peril, particularly pronouncements of the general form “The world is X”.






A Causal Theory of Truth



We have been inundated with causal theories: of perception, knowledge, memory, and reference. But no one (to my knowledge) has proposed a causal theory of truth. On the face of it this is surprising, since truth is so closely bound up with reference. If reference to both objects and properties is subject to a causal theory, why isn’t truth? I will explore a causal theory of truth that seems rather natural, indeed a natural extension of the causal theory of reference. Put simply, the theory says that a belief or statement is true if and only if it is caused by the facts. Some beliefs or statements are caused by the facts and some are not, being caused instead by desires or errors or fictions or fantasies. That is the difference between a true belief and a false belief: its causal relation to the facts. Some beliefs are brought about by objective reality and some are otherwise brought about (say, by subjective factors): to be true is to be caused in the former kind of way. Where the correspondence theory says that truth is correspondence to the facts, the causal theory says that truth is causation by the facts.[1]

The theory assumes that the world consists of facts (objects having properties) and that these facts causally shape beliefs, making them true. If it is a fact that p, then it is true that p, so there can be no problem with the theory as far as sufficiency is concerned. But then couldn’t the theory dispense with the causal element and simply equate truth with fact? No: because truth is a property of representations (beliefs or statements or sentences or propositions), so we need something to connectfacts with truth. Traditionally that has been a correspondence relation; according to the causal theory, it is a causal relation. For a belief to be true is for it to be caused by a fact, not just for the fact to be a fact: the belief that snow is white is true in virtue of its being caused by the fact that snow is white—that is, the belief is caused by what it represents (what is believed to obtain). In the most straightforward case a person is in perceptual contact with a fact and he or she forms the belief that it is a fact, thus forming a true belief: you see that it’s raining and this fact causes you to believe that it’s raining—so you have a true belief. If you were to be hallucinating rain because of a drug, you might form the same belief but it would be false, since your belief would not be caused by the fact that it’s raining but by the drug. If you dream that pand form the belief that p, then your belief is not true, since it was not caused by the factthat p. If I tell you a lie, my statement is false because it was not caused by the fact I purport to state but by my desire to deceive you; while in the case of a truthful statement a fact causes my true belief and my statement transmits the causal relation to you—you have a true belief because your belief was (indirectly) caused by the fact that I stated to obtain.[2]When the facts shape belief we have truth, but when illusion, error, deception, and fantasy shape belief we have falsehood. Truth depends on the causal antecedents of belief: do they stem from objective reality or from other factors (often internal to the subject)? Is belief caused by the factual or the fictional?

That is the simple way to put the theory, but of course it needs to be refined and complicated. Still I wish to emphasize its intuitive starting point: true belief is the kind brought about by the facts; false belief is the kind brought about by things other than the facts. Compare: veridical perception is the kind brought about by external objects; illusory perception is the kind brought about by other factors, such as intoxication or defects of the perceptual system. You believe truly if the facts impress themselves on your belief system; you believe falsely if your beliefs arise from some source other than the facts, such as biases or blind spots. Of course, all factors that influence belief are trivially facts, but truth is having your belief caused by the fact represented by the belief in question. If the fact thatpcauses you to believe that p, then you have a true belief.

We can compare this account to causal theories of reference.  A speaker refers to an object xwith a name “a” if and only if there exists a (suitable) causal connection between xand “a”—say, a chain of causal links leading back to an initial baptism. A speaker refers to a property Pwith a predicate “F”if and only if instances of Pregularly elicit utterances of “F”(or some such). In the case of whole sentences we are dealing with fact-like entities (states of affairs, situations, ways things are) not objects and properties, so these are the appropriate entities to stand in causal relations to sentences.[3]We simply extend the causal theory from names and predicates to sentences: reference to an object is being caused by that object to utter its name, reference to a property is being regularly caused by instances of that property to utter a predicate, making a true statement is making an utterance caused by an appropriate fact. We thus use the word “true” to distinguish this kind of causation from other kinds—the kinds that produce false statements. To say that a belief or statement is true is to say that it is a consequenceof the facts; to say that a belief or statement is false is to say that it is nota consequence of the facts, but of fictions, fantasies, errors, etc. In its strongest form the theory says that the property of truth isthat property a belief has when it is caused by a fact (the fact represented). Instead of saying, “Your belief is true” we could equally say, “Your belief is factually caused”.

At this point a swarm of questions assails the causal theorist; they are for the most part quite familiar. Are the causal conditions necessary and sufficient for truth? How do we handle truths about non-causal facts? What about deviant causal chains? Do facts really cause anything? To spare the reader (and myself) tedium, I will be as speedy as possible with these well-worn issues. Are the conditions necessary? Couldn’t we have true beliefs and yet there be no causal links between belief and fact (pre-established harmony)? What about the truths of mathematics, modality, and morality? Here we can reply by amending the theory from its simple causal formulation: we can invoke the concepts of reasonor explanationor counterfactual dependence. Thus: the reason (but not the cause) for forming the belief that pis the fact that p; the explanation for believing that pis the fact that p(where this is not causal explanation); a person would not believe that pwere it not for the fact that p. We just weaken the causal relation to accommodate the awkward cases—just as we have to for causal theories of reference and knowledge. The causal theory of truth is thus no worse off than these causal theories (no better either). We can also remark, with a knowing wink, that this is actually a desirable result for the theory, since these non-causal cases are precisely those in which the concept of truth carries dubious credentials. Causal dependence is what truth basically consists in, so anything non-causal will struggle to qualify as true—except perhaps by extension or metaphorically or fictitiously. In the clearest cases truth amounts to causation by fact–we needn’t get too worked up about peripheral cases. Or we could simply stipulate that there are two kindsof truth requiring two kinds of theory: causal theory for one kind and correspondence theory for the other (or coherence or deflationary theory). It depends on the type of subject matter involved (and we already know there is a distinction between analytic truth and synthetic truth).

As to deviant causal chains: there are none–so long as a fact causes a belief in that fact we will have truth. As to facts as causes: we should be liberal with the notion of cause, but if we decline so to be, we can always choose another kind of cause (say, event causation), and let thatbe the cause of belief. If you don’t think beliefs have any causes at all, I invite you to substitute whatever else you think is responsible for beliefs; and if you think nothing is responsible, you are beyond help. We can thus make the standard dialectical moves in response to the standard objections. At worst we concede that no causal analysisof the concept of truth is possible but suggest instead that we are offering a better pictureof truth, one that sees truth as a passive effect of reality not as an active mapping onto reality (as with the correspondence theory). The world givesus truth by acting on us; we don’t achievetruth by contriving to depict it. This is a theory that works nicely for animal truth: animals have true beliefs because the world acts on them to install beliefs (or some more primitive representational state); they have no need to strive for truth. When facts cause beliefs they automatically produce truth, whether in mouse or man.

Here is a more difficult counterexample: the case of random truth. Suppose I am making random statements about the color of things in some unknown part of the world, most of which are false, but by chance I hit on a true statement about the color of a flower there—I have said something true but the fact in question was not the cause of my saying it. The case must be admitted: there is such a thing as an accidentally true statement (similarly for a case of wishful thinking that just happens to produce a true belief). But surely the case is exceptional: the vast majority of cases are those in which the belief’s truth results from the fact in question—where we can know the belief is true just by knowing the person’s causal history. In the random truth case we can’t infer truth from knowledge of the person’s causal history. It’s a bit like introducing by stipulation a name for an unknown soldier and succeeding thereby in referring to a certain individual long dead: you do name a person without there existing any causal link to that person, but the case is quite unlike standard cases of naming. Truth is rooted in causation by facts though it can break free of these confines in unusual circumstances; we shouldn’t give up the basic insight in order to accommodate exceptional cases.[4]Hard cases make bad law and all that. At a pinch we can retreat to a genealogical theory: this is how the concept of truth started out, but it might develop new forms alien to its origins. We must cling to the initial insight derived from perceptual beliefs: their truth consists in the fact that they are caused in a certain way, i.e. by the very fact they represent. The fact by itself will guarantee truth; we just need to add the relational conditions that enable beliefs to be true—that they exist and are externally caused. Once all this has been stated there is nothing further for talk of truth to add: the distinction between truth and falsity emerges from the distinction between fact-caused belief and fantasy-caused belief (to put it simply). What does an ascription of truth add to the assertion that a person’s belief that pwas caused by the fact that p? It is quite redundant.

The causal theory of truth, like other causal theories, can lay claim to the honorific label “naturalistic”: truth is primarily a property of empirical particulars (beliefs, statements) not abstract propositions, and it consists in a causal relation between agent and world. It is not conceived as a mysterious mapping or isomorphism or picturing; nor is it declared an irreducible primitive. It is a relation between the mind and the world that consists in a kind of causal connection, particularly via the senses. We observe that people’s beliefs are shaped by the world of fact and we call those beliefs true because of it; we also observe that sometimes people’s beliefs result from other factors (bias, illusion, wishful thinking) and these beliefs we call false (though they might in odd cases be true by chance). Truth reduces to w

[1]One version of the correspondence theory (there are many) equates truth with “designating an existing state of affairs”: the causal theory replaces the designation relation with a causal relation but retains the general form of the correspondence theory. We could view it as proposing a causal theory ofthe designation relation between beliefs (or statements) and states of affairs. It thus “naturalizes” such designation—as a causal theory of names “naturalizes” the naming relation.

[2]Note the analogy to causal theories of names: there is a social dimension to the causal relations involved, as well as experts and deference. Thus some beliefs are directly caused by facts while some are caused via chains of communication radiating out from an original encounter. Testimony exploits causality to transmit truth—as chains of communication can transmit reference.

[3]An attractive feature of the causal theory is that it explains the referential transparency of truth: if “Hesperus is a planet” is true, so is “Phosphorous is a planet”. This is explained by the fact that causal statements are themselves transparent. The transparency feature is not captured by disquotational theories, since the disquoted statement is just the original statement. But causation is indifferent to mode of presentation or verbal formulation.

[4]One thing we can say is that in standardcases true statements about color are caused by the facts. So the theory can be reformulated to assert that a given belief is true if and only if it is in standard cases caused by the facts


More on Color




Colored Surfaces: A Puzzle



Colors appear to be onthe surfaces of things. The surface seems saturated with color, as if the color has been painted on. Colors seem as much an intrinsic property of surfaces as textures. They are not experienced as properties of the perceiver’s body or of the intervening medium. They coincide with the object spatially.[1]Yet, according to tradition, they are projections of the mind, arising from the perceiver’s inner resources: they are transferred from inside to outside—from “in here” to “out there”. In the cinema we experience the film image as on the screen in front of us, though it emanates from somewhere behind us in the projection room. Similarly we see color as inhabiting the surface of objects while in fact it issues from somewhere in our minds (unlike shape or texture). According to some views, colors are dispositions to produce experiences; but dispositions are not perceived as if they are onthings, so there is a mismatch between appearance and reality. Colors are creatures of the mind and yet are perceived as distal features of objects.

The point I want to make is that they are unique in being thus outwardly perceived: among so-called secondary qualities they are the only ones experienced as being literally onthe object of perception. They are the only secondary qualities experienced as objective features of things (in one sense of “objective”). This is puzzling. Why aren’t they experienced as the subjective phenomena they really are, like other secondary qualities? Couldthey be so experienced? We don’t perceive smells and tastes as on things: smells are experienced as in our nose not in the remote object, and tastes only coincide with the object tasted because it is typically in our mouth (it would be different if we tasted things remotely). Likewise we don’t hear sounds as if they are on objects—we don’t project the sound out onto the source of the sound (the noise is loud not the object making it). We hear sounds as in the proximity of our ears (consider the flash of a distant cannon followed a few seconds later by the sound of the shot). Indeed, we hear sounds not objects, so we don’t experience sounds as remote qualities ofobjects. In the case of heat and cold we locate these qualities in our body not in the object. It is true that hot and cold objects are typically touching the body, so that the qualities are experienced as spatially coincident with the object, but again that is a contingent circumstance—and there are cases in which we have such sensations emanating from remote objects (e.g. the Sun). When I feel the heat of a remote object I don’t project the hotness onto the object; I feel the hotness in the region of my body. The object causes my body to feel this way, to be sure, but I don’t perceive it as having the sensory quality in question on its surface. Thus we are not so inclined to make an error about the status of such secondary qualities: we recognize that they are subjectively constituted (unless we are philosophically opinionated). There is no illusion of objectivity for these cases. Someone might be of the opinion that objects are intrinsically hot or cold, independently of perceivers, but it would be pushing it to claim that they experience these qualities to be onobjects, as they perceive colors to be on them. I perceive the Sun as yellow on its surface, but I don’t perceive it as hot on its surface.

It is an interesting question whether this is a contingent truth or a necessary truth. Could there be a perceiver that experienced color as he experienced other secondary qualities? Is the perception of color necessarily outward in the way it actually is? Here are two reasons to doubt that. First, we can ask whether all organisms that perceive color perceive it as intrinsically qualifying the surface of objects. Do insects see colors as intrinsic properties of surfaces? Might they not have sensations of color that are detached from sensations of surfaces, perhaps because they have deficient spatial perception? Color sensations are triggered in them by external objects, but they don’t engage in full-blooded projection onto distal surfaces, so that they perceive color rather as we perceive smells or sounds. This seems logically possible. Second, not all of human color experience involves distal projection onto physical surfaces—consider mental images, after-images, and those sensations you get when you press your eyeball or close your eyes. In these cases you don’t experience a remote surface as suffused with color, alongside shape and texture; the experience is felt as more internal, more subjective. If so, it would be possible for objects to elicit such color sensations without the perceiver painting their surfaces with color. So color couldbe perceived in the way other secondary qualities are perceived, not as it is now for us in ordinary color vision.

And herein lies the puzzle: why is color perceived as on surfaces, suffusing and saturating them, as if it were an objective property like texture, when it could be perceived as other subjective qualities are? Why is it accorded special treatment? Why is the projection so extreme? One possible answer is biological utility: it is more effective or convenient to experience color in this external objectifying way. But why is that—why does color differ from other secondary qualities? Why don’t they follow the model of color if it is so effective and convenient? And what does this biological utility consist in—what selective advantage does it incur? Another possible answer is that vision has a special kind of phenomenology that requires the qualities that are perceived to be perceived as distal. But why should that be, given that not all of visual experience involves projection onto remote surfaces? It is perplexing why we perceive color as a property of surfaces in the way we do—why we perceive colors as onobjects. Colors are not really on surfaces, objectively speaking, so why make an error in color perception when other secondary qualities involve no such error (or not one of the same magnitude)? Why paint the world with color it doesn’t have when you could stick to a mode of experience that involves no such effort and illusion? Why not see the world more as you feel it or smell it, without the projection of secondary qualities beyond their proper sphere? This is the puzzle presented by colored surfaces.


Colin McGinn




[1]If you place a colored filter in front of a white surface you will see the surface as having the color of the filter. The eye projects the color from the proximal filter onto the remote surface. Thus you see the surface as being (say) pink in virtue of an act of projection performed by the visual system. But projection operates even in cases where there is no such intervening medium.