Belief, Desire, and Action



Beliefs, Desires, and Actions


Consider actions in which the agent uses a piece of technology (in a broad sense) to achieve a desired goal: using a car to get to a certain place, using a cell phone to communicate, taking an umbrella out in the rain, using a hammer to knock in a nail. It is natural to analyze the psychological background of such actions as involving (a) a certain desire and (b) a belief about the means to achieving that desire. For instance, the agent wants to get to a certain place and believes that driving a car is the best means to achieve this goal. There is a combination of belief and desire at work, which leads to the performance of the action. Theorists of action have seen in this kind of case a general analysis of action: any action is caused and explained by the presence of an antecedent pair of a desire and a belief, where the belief specifies the means to be adopted to satisfy the desire. The desire alone will not prompt or predict the specific action performed—an accompanying belief is also required; nor will the belief alone suffice to elicit the action—an accompanying desire is required. A desire to stay dry will not prompt you to take an umbrella unless you believe that umbrellas keep you dry, and the belief that umbrellas keep you dry will not prompt you to take one unless you desire to stay dry (you might feel like getting soaked today). Thus there arises a certain doctrine about the psychological basis of action: any action requires the presence of a desire anda belief—both are necessary conditions (and together possibly sufficient) for an action to occur. This is supposed to be an interesting and unique fact about action and its explanation, suggesting a certain kind of “holism” about psychological explanation. Let’s call it the “Combination Thesis” (or “CT” for short): the thesis that all actions are consequences of a belief-desire pair acting in concert. Thus we arrive at something called “belief-desire psychology”, taken to be a general format for psychological explanation: any explanation of action requires the specification of a desire and an instrumental belief concerning how best to satisfy that desire. Action is the result of something cognitive and something appetitive operating together.

I propose to question this widely held picture. I think it arises from overgeneralizing one sort of example of action—the kind that involves means-end reasoning. In particular, I think that some actions occur without any instrumental belief and some occur without any desire (in a natural sense of “desire”). That is, there are one-factoractions—just a belief or a desire operating on its own. The Combination Thesis is false, except in a limited range of cases; it is not fundamental to action as such. Let us consider a very simple kind of action: flexing one’s index finger. Suppose an agent has a desire to flex his index finger and does so: what means-end belief accompanies this action? On the face of it, none: he didn’t believe that a certain device was a good means to bring about the desired result. The agent didn’t think that contracting certain muscles in his forearm would be a good means to flex his finger—he simply did it. And even if such a thought had entered his head (maybe he specializes in hand physiology), there would be the question of whether thataction needed a belief about means for it to be performed (say, initiating efferent nerve impulses from the brain). No, the action simply resulted from a desire, with no means-end belief involved (no technology is being exploited). It is the same for swallowing, breathing, walking, swimming, etc. You don’t believe that swallowing is a good way to get food into your stomach when you eat, or that putting one foot in front of the other is a good way to walk—any more than animals do. You just do it. It is absurdly intellectualist to suppose otherwise. It is not as if you have an array of options available for getting food inside you, such as inserting it through your navel, and you choose one of them as the best means in the circumstances. Chewing and swallowing are just nature’s way of getting fed, not a cunning plan you have devised for achieving satiation.[1]You have a desire for food, so you do what comes naturally, as you do when inhaling oxygen into your lungs. In general, movements of the body (often called “basic actions”) are not preceded by means-end reasoning: a person never moves her body by reasoning about the best means of doing so. That is, basic actions are not subject to CT. Raising my arm is not something I need an instrumental belief to perform. If I want to raise it, I raise it, without consulting possible means. Thus the explanation of a basic action has the form, “Xdid Abecause he desired to do A”. It is the same for adult humans, infant humans, and most animals: basic movement is caused by a desire not by a desire-belief combination. There is simply no need for belief: the mind and body are just wired (innately or by learning) to translate desire into action. The right thing to say is that where there is means-end reasoning there is a belief corresponding to the means that combines with a desire, but in more basic cases there is no such belief, since there are no such means. A specific feature one kind of action has been overgeneralized to apply to all action. Indeed, whenever CT does hold there is always a basic action for which it does not hold, i.e. a movement of the body. This is even clearer for purely mental action such as calculating in the head: if I add two numbers in my head, I don’t have an instrumental belief about how best to get the result I want. I want the answer and I’m wired to get it (I know arithmetic); I don’t need any superintending belief about the best means of getting it. Another way to put the point: in tactical practical reasoning agents have instrumental beliefs, but most action is not of a tactical kind. What psychologists call sensory-motor activity is generally not tactical or instrumental or belief-driven; it is automatic, programmed, not thought out.

But is desire always necessary for action? It depends what you mean by “desire”, which tends to be a philosopher’s term of art (sometimes glossed as “pro-attitude”). It seems right to say that the agent needs to view the action favorably (certainly not unfavorably), but there are ways of doing that that are not really cases of desire. Suppose you believe that you have a certain desire but you don’t really have it (you have been brainwashed into the belief): won’t you still be inclined to do the thing in question? Then your action will be motivated by a belief abouta desire, but not by that desire—you apply to medical school, say, because you have been brought up to believe that medicine is your calling (in fact, it’s opera). This would be a case in which you act on a belief without the corresponding desire, though you can be said to view the action favorably. And isn’t it generally true that desires influence actions only if they are recognizedin some way? How could desires of which you are completely ignorant figure as causes of action (even unconscious desires need to be recognized by the unconscious executor)? Their existence has to be registered or acknowledged. So something like belief has to be added to them to produce action; and then we have the question how much the belief contributes to motivational force. This gets pretty messy, psychologically. The neat picture of the pristine desire and its helpful belief companion starts to seem too simplistic. Motivation has (or can have) a more complex and variable structure.  You can do something simply because you have a sudden urge to do it, and you can also do something because you believe you desire to (though you don’t)—in either case you lack one of the components postulated by CT. So there are now three types of case to consider: (i) belief and desire in combination, (ii) desire alone, and (iii) belief alone. Some theorists have argued that moral motivation consists of nothing but a moral belief; we need not take a stand on that issue to accept that beliefs aboutdesire can play a motivational role. Being under the impression that you have a certain desire can act as a prompt to action, whether you have that desire or not. Maybe the only general thing we can say is that the action has to look desirable to you—there is something to be said in favor of doing it. This can take the form either of desire plus belief, or simply desire, or believed desire (or maybe just belief that the action would be morally good). Animal action will largely consist of the second category; agents with advanced practical reasoning will do a good deal of the first kind; the third kind will be restricted to those individuals deluded or confused about what it is they really want. There is no psychological structure common to all cases. The psychology of action is not monolithic.

Suppose someone suggests that action is what is caused by need, so that to explain an action we must specify what need it serves. This theorist is perhaps impressed by the actions of certain animal species of a somewhat primitive type. The natural response would be that this is too simple, too parochial: not every action is prompted by a biological need, and actions sometimes require practical reasoning involving instrumental belief. The need theory applies to some cases but certainly not to all. Well, belief-desire psychology, as currently understood, is rather like that: it fits some cases well enough, but it is too uniform and simple. There are a variety of different kinds of motivational state, ranging across a wide spectrum. In some ways the theory is too complex (because of basic actions) while in others it is not complex enough (because of cases like false beliefs about one’s desires). Thus reasons for action are of different types, not always resolving into the two-factor model of CT. Pluralism about reasons is the indicated position.[2]


Colin McGinn

[1]Sub-intentional actions, such as rolling one’s tongue around one’s mouth or tapping one’s foot nervously, seem particularly unsuitable to the belief-desire treatment: what instrumental belief do I have when my tongue is rolling around pointlessly? Just as the heart has no instrumental belief when performing the act of pumping blood, so many of our more automatic actions are free of cognitive supervision.

[2]All reasons may be causes, but the causes can vary as to type. Desires themselves can come in many types, from the moral to the animalistic. Nor is there less variety in the concept of belief. It is variety all the way down.



I just did a one hour interview with Cody Sexton, which can be seen on his blog and on youtube.  I can’t post the link but it’s easy to find.


Subjectivity and Symbolism

Subjectivity and Symbolism



Mechanism in physics was a unified theory of the physical world, positing only bodies in space and contact causation. Newton’s mechanics undermined this unity by postulating action at a distance, thus introducing another kind of causation. Electromagnetic theory undermined it further. Things don’t always operate by impact and reaction. In the case of psychology mechanism took the form of behaviorism, specifically stimulus-response psychology: the stimulus makes its impact and the response is the elicited reaction. The organism is just another body in space being pushed around by impinging forces. The reflex is the perfect exemplification of this theoretical framework: stimulus strikes body, body reacts (e.g. the patellar reflex). The discovery of conditioned reflexes held out the prospect of extending this basic mechanistic model to all behavior—psychology is thus the study of environmental impacts and the resulting motions of bodies. This too is a unified theory, employing a single conceptual apparatus to characterize everything the mind does and is. It is a unified theory that lasted much longer than the mechanism that was undermined by Newton and Clerk Maxwell. Mechanism about the mind persisted long after mechanism about the body had met its demise. Mechanism in physics replaced mysterious teleological conceptions of physical action (Aristotle), while mechanism in psychology replaced mysterious dualist conceptions of the mind (Descartes): but the former kind of mechanism succumbed to the mysteries inherent in Newton’s discoveries, while the latter kind soldiered on.

There were always rumblings against psychological mechanism, despite its dominance during much of the twentieth century; but the rumblings reached a crescendo during the latter part of the century. For convenience I am going to locate these dissenting voices in the persons of Thomas Nagel and Jerry Fodor; and I am going to summarize their contributions in two words—“subjectivity” and “symbolism”. By now this is a very familiar story, so I won’t spell things out. In brief: Nagel drew attention to consciousness, deploying the phrase “what it is like”, and insisting that there is more to the mind than physiology; Fodor likewise resisted physical reductionism and argued that the mind works symbolically, coining the phrase “the language of thought”, and suggesting that the mind is a computational system. Sensations are the paradigms of the subjective; thoughts are the paradigms of the symbolic. Some scuffles ensued regarding the scope of these basic categories, mainly having to do with whether everything symbolic is also subjective, and vice versa; but a consensus emerged that the mind has both sorts of property. It felta certain way and it representeda certain way. Thus people described conscious experience as consisting of qualia while thought processes were described as consisting of symbols: phenomenology and syntax, respectively. Two approaches to the mind thus came into prominence (one might cite Husserl and Chomsky as the father figures of these developments—or going back further, Brentano and Turing). One approach emphasized the first-person perspective, introspection, and lived experience; the other emphasized language (natural and formal), grammar, and symbolic processing.

The result of these innovations is not a unified theory; it is a disunified theory.[1]The general assumption is that the mind has two aspects, or consists of two sorts of faculty, or is made of two sorts of thing. True, it is subjective in some parts of its being; but also true, it is symbolic in other parts of its being. A theory of mind must therefore recognize a fundamental duality in what the mind is and how it operates. Metaphors have arisen to capture this duality: on the one hand, the stream or river of consciousness,[2]the mosaic of qualia, the theater of the mind; on the other hand, the mind as a computer, thought as inner speech, reasoning as calculating. It is not supposed that qualia are units of computation, and it is not supposed that words in the language of thought are qualitative contents of consciousness. The ontology is quite different, as is the role assigned to the entities postulated. One might say that subjectivity is an analogue phenomenon while symbolism is a digital phenomenon—continuous versus discrete, fluid versus segmented. The chief characteristics of mental symbolism are infinite productivity and syntactic concatenation, while the chief characteristics of mental subjectivity are not described in this way but are thought of a kind of flowing or pulsating (those metaphors!). Feelings don’t combine like words to generate an infinite array of syntactically structured strings, but neither do mental symbols afford a rich subjective life. These ontologies exist side by side, but they don’t interpenetrate—they don’t integrate. There is no unified theory of the subjective and the symbolic. [3]

Here we may be reminded of the current situation in physics, and indeed I think the comparison is apt. The theory of gravitation and the theory of elementary particles form different theories that are not unified or integrated. Indeed, the two theories operate with very different principles and laws. Yet the macro world and the micro world are not separate disjoint worlds; they overlap. What we have is a unified reality and a fragmentation of theory—not a happy state of affairs. There are some who detect actual tensions between the two theories, if not outright contradiction. Similarly, we have two theories of the mind, also not integrated or unified, and apparently about different things. For example, we can approach a given conscious thought in two ways: as a subjective state of consciousness imbued with a characteristic phenomenology, or as a symbolic structure functioning in a computational process (mostly unconscious). Yet we are looking at the same thing—just as a macroscopic object is the same thing as a congeries of microscopic objects. Surely there must be some way to bring these two descriptions together. But where is it to be found? Ideally we would be able to take a subjective description and derive from it a symbolic description, or vice versa—we would see these descriptions as aspects of a single reality. But there is a chasm between them, a dualism withinthe mind. What have qualia and symbols got to do with each other? Couldn’t you have one without the other? Is one more basic? What makes a symbol have a subjective character, and what makes qualia have symbolic properties? The two seem to stare at each other across a vast divide. It is not as if we have a computational theory of subjectivity or a phenomenological theory of symbolism—whatever either of those things might be.[4]The quantum world looks alien to the gravitational world and the subjective world looks alien to the symbolic world, but these worlds must be parts of a seamless whole in some way. In particular, an adequate theory in psychology would integrate the subjective and symbolic perspectives.

I am not saying it can’t be done; I am only saying that we don’t presently know how. The concepts are lacking; the theory is fugitive. At least mechanism avoided this kind of theoretical disunity. Starting with the idea of a reflex (innate and hardwired) behaviorism tried to generalize to cover all aspects of the mind, employing a single conceptual apparatus. That was a dismal failure—an absurd leap of faith. But the apparatus that replaced it is radically bifurcated and dubiously connected; we don’t even know how far the subjective and the symbolic overlap. It would be different if the two theories dealt with different components of the mind—say, subjective theory with sensations and symbolic theory with thought—but that is far from being the case, since sensations occur in perceptual and cognitive processes and thought is imbued with subjectivity. Subjectivity and symbolism exist in the mind in intimate and inextricable connection. So there really oughtto be a unifying theory, but we don’t have any idea of what it might look like. What would be nice is some explanation for how mental symbols are necessarily infused with subjectivity. Spoken symbols have the phenomenology associated with their sensory modality (mostly hearing), but symbols in the language of thought are not sensed in any way, so their phenomenological aspect must have some other source. Granted that the language of thought is innate, is it that the phenomenology of thought is coded into the genetic basis of its lexicon and syntax? The mind reels. Consciousness and computation are not separate aspects of the mind, existing is isolation from each other. A mind (a human mind) is a conscious symbolizer: it symbolizes in the mode of consciousness (as well as unconsciously). Its nature is subjective symbolism or symbolic subjectivity.

I have no suggestions to make about how to integrate these two aspects of mentality; I merely wish to point out the lacuna. As in physics, we live in an era of theoretical fragmentation with respect to the mind, following upon the heady unity promised by a general mechanism. Perhaps the future will bring the kind of theoretical unity that made mechanism so attractive to our ancestors, perhaps not.


Colin McGinn

[1]Functionalism undertook to demonstrate theoretical unity across everything that dwells in the mind, but it succumbed to an onslaught of objections, which I won’t repeat.

[2]Also consciousness as like a mysterious flame or a translucent rainbow or a type of veil or a genie drawn from a lamp or a shimmering force-field over the brain or steam from an engine—and no doubt others.

[3]It is worth noting that psychophysics has never been a symbolic theory, any more than reflexology has been. The law-governed dependence of sensation intensity on stimulus intensity is not a computational process—the sensory systems don’t deducesensation intensity from stimulus intensity. Rather, there are psychophysical reflexes underlying the laws of psychophysics. We have no tendency to invoke a “language of sensation” to explain the facts of psychophysics.

[4]No one writes papers entitled “The Logical Form of Consciousness” or “A Subjectivist Theory of Universal Grammar”. Those sound like category mistakes.



The demand for reparations for the evils of slavery is often met with the argument that present-day white people are not morally responsible for the sufferings of black people under slavery. That is true, so far as it goes—no one now living is an agent of past injustices committed before they were born. That would require backwards causation! But this response misses the point of the demand for reparations. Suppose your parents stole from their neighbor’s family—they broke into their house and burgled it, taking everything that have, even cleaning out their bank account. Suppose the neighbors suffered great financial damage from this theft, from which they never recovered, which blighted their children’s lives. Meanwhile, the thieves prospered on their theft and gave their children every advantage. The result is that you are doing very well in life, but the children of the neighbors are not. Now those impoverished children ask for reparations: they want their parents’ assets back, which were wrongfully taken. They ask you to provide those reparations. It will be to no avail for you to insist that you are not responsible for the sins of your parents—you didn’t commit the burglary and subsequent financial ruin. That is no doubt true, but not to the point—which is that you benefited unjustly from the crimes of your parents. You owe the neighbor’s children the good things that would have been theirs were it not for the theft of their assets. You are benefitting from the theft from their family, and you need to give something back. It is irrelevant that you didn’t commit the original crime; you are benefitting from the ill-gotten gains of that crime, and you need to make amends. Suppose there is a particular vase that was stolen from the neighbor’s house and is now in your possession. The neighbor’s children now ask for that vase back. They have every right to it, even though you didn’t personally take it. You ought to give it back. This is entirely obvious.

Now observe that slavery is (among other things) labor theft: slaves have their labor forcibly taken from them without proper compensation. That labor builds wealth for the slave owners, which they pass on to their children, and so on down the generations. Meanwhile, the children of the slaves suffer the impoverishment resulting from slavery—notably the lack of wealth accumulation. They are victims of economic exploitation, which is a type of theft. Therefore they have the right to reparations. Roughly, those reparations should be calculated according to what the stolen labor would have been worth under non-slavery conditions. None of this depends on the claim that the current beneficiaries of past slavery are responsible for what their forefathers did in order to acquire their wealth; it is, rather, a point about theft and the just allocation of assets. You steal from a person if you exploit them and forcibly take the fruits of their labor. If the slave owners had first stolen the material assets of their victims and only then subjected them to conditions of forced labor, we would all agree that their descendants have a claim on reparations for the initial theft—but the same logic applies to labor theft. Hence the demand for reparations is morally just. It is a further question of how the reparations should be computed and distributed, and whether they would have desirable consequences.


Falsehood and Meaning

In a famous paper entitled “Truth and Meaning” Donald Davidson argues that meaning is constituted by truth conditions. A recursive theory of truth for a language in the style of Tarski is thus a theory of meaning for that language. Understanding a sentence consists in grasping its truth conditions. The meaning of a word is its contribution to determining truth conditions. Truth is the central concept of semantic theory. Davidson says nothing about falsity in relation to meaning; that concept has no place in the theory of meaning. Perhaps the reason is obvious: falsity conditions are not what a sentence means. Suppose we say, evidently correctly, that “snow is white” is false (in English) if and only if snow is not white—the falsity condition is given by inserting negation into the sentence whose meaning is in question. Then clearly it would be wrong to say that “snow is white” means that snow is not white—it means the opposite of that! So falsity conditions don’t constitute meaning. I will return to this point, but at present, I merely observe that falsity is not the concept chosen to characterize meaning, by Davidson or by the many others who have seen meaning as residing in truth conditions. I propose to argue that this is a mistake—that falsehood is as closely intertwined with meaning as truth.

The first point to make is that understanding a sentence involves knowing under what conditions it is false. If I understand “snow is white” I know that this sentence is false if and only if snow is not white—just as I know that it is true if and only if snow is white. I know its truth conditions and I know its falsity conditions. It is perfectly true that we cannot replace “is false if and only if” with “means that”, but this doesn’t imply that knowing falsity conditions isn’t part of understanding a sentence. For the same thing is true of many sentences in relation to truth: we can’t replace a statement of truth conditions for indexical sentences with a “means that” clause either (“I am hot” uttered by me doesn’t mean that Colin McGinn is hot at the time of utterance), and most sentences of a natural language are at least implicitly indexical. Similarly, a biconditional for “Shut the door!” employing the concept of obedience doesn’t license the proposition that the sentence means such a condition (the sentence doesn’t mean that the addressee shuts the door in response to the command to shut it). And there is really no reason to suppose that what constitutes grasp of meaning should be susceptible of statement in the “means that” form. It is just an accident that this holds for truth conditions in the case of context-independent sentences (actually it doesn’t even hold for “snow is white” because of the indexicality of tense). If you say that meaning is use, you are not saying that a given word or sentence means anything about use. In any case, it is not an objection to a claim about meaning that it won’t go over into the “means that” form; and intuitively it is a platitude that to understand a sentence (in the indicative) one needs to know under what conditions it is false. You wouldn’t understand “snow is black” unless you knew that the circumstance of snow being white renders that sentence false. We could test someone’s grasp of meaning precisely by asking her whether the sentence would be true or false under such and such conditions.

But is it possible to give a Tarski-type theory of falsehood analogous to his theory of truth? That was certainly part of the appeal of a truth conditions theory of meaning for Davidson: it permits the employment of Tarski’s powerful and rigorous theory of truth. If falsehood cannot be treated in this way, then it lacks one of the most attractive aspects of the concept of truth in semantic theory. To my knowledge neither Tarski nor anyone else has investigated this question, so mesmerized are they by Tarski’s formidable apparatus; but the question is easily answered in the affirmative—falsehood is just as amenable to recursive formal treatment as truth (which is just what we should expect). I will run quickly through the basic clauses for falsity; it is really a routine matter. For any sentence s, s is false if and only if not-p (where p is a sentence of the meta-language translating s). A conjunction “p and q” is false if and only if either p is false or q is false (not if and only if p is false and q is false). A disjunction “p or q” is false if and only if p is false and q is false (not if and only if p is false or q is false). Notice how disjunction is used in the meta-language to give falsity conditions for “and” and conjunction is used to give falsity conditions for “or”, instead of the usual alignment of connectives for truth conditions. A universal quantification “For all x, Fx” is false if and only if something x is not F. An existential quantification “For some x, Fx” is false if and only everything x is not F. Again notice the inversion of the quantifiers compared to the standard clauses for truth. With these clauses, we can construct a recursive theory of falsity entirely parallel to Tarski’s construction for truth. The analogue of a satisfaction clause will simply be: an object x counter-satisfies F if and only if x is not F, where “counter-satisfies” means the converse of “false of” (alternatively, “dissatisfies”). We can then speak of “Convention F” which specifies that a definition of falsehood should entail all instances of the schema, “s is false if and only if not-p”; and even define falsehood as “dissatisfaction by all sequences”. There would be F-sentences as well as T-sentences. The apparatus is exactly as for truth but with suitable amendments. Tarski could have written an appendix to his famous 1944 paper with the title “The Concept of Falsehood in Formalized Languages” and said much the same things as he said about truth. It would be surprising if he couldn’t, given the close connection between the two concepts—it would constitute an important theorem!

So we now add a Tarski-style theory of falsehood to a Davidson-type theory of meaning to produce a theory of falsity conditions for sentences of natural language (or disobedience conditions for the case of imperatives). This will be part of our theory of meaning for the language. It joins with a theory of truth conditions to give (allegedly) a complete theory of meaning. Both theories are necessary and neither is sufficient by itself. A speaker of the language grasps both the truth conditions and the falsity conditions of the sentences of that language. Thus I know that “snow is white” is true if and only if snow is white and that “snow is white” is false if and only if snow is not white. These are separate pieces of knowledge concerning distinct properties and employing different concepts (notably negation in the case of falsity). We can imagine possible beings that embrace one sort of knowledge while eschewing the other—they might be softhearted relativists that reject the notion of falsity altogether or stern skeptics about truth that recognize only falsity—but in our case, we have and embrace both sorts of knowledge. Our understanding of sentences includes both truth-conditions knowledge and falsity- conditions knowledge. This implies that a theory of meaning is based around two central concepts, truth and falsehood, not a single concept—which is not what we have been traditionally taught. Word meaning is now geared to two concepts: this is not truth-theoretic semantics but truth-value–theoretic semantics. Truth and falsehood play coordinate roles in the overall theory. Linguistic understanding has two parts or aspects. We could say that a meaning is a location in logical space that comprises both a positive condition and a negative condition: both snow being white and also snow not being white. Meanings are both inclusive and exclusive.

This opens up some interesting perspectives. Suppose you are a hardboiled Popperian: you don’t think truth can ever be established, but you do think falsehood can be. You hold that “all swans are white” cannot be confirmed as true, but can be falsified by observing a single instance of a non-white swan. You believe the concept of truth is irrelevant to science, but you think the concept of falsehood plays an important role. Verification is out of the question, but falsification is the engine of progress. Suppose you even go so far as to believe truth should be eliminated from our conceptual scheme, while retaining falsehood. You accordingly don’t accept that meaning is constituted by truth conditions (any more than you accept that scientific progress is the accumulation of truths) or by verification conditions (there are no such conditions): but you do believe that sentences can be false and can be established to be false. Then you may well find yourself attracted to a pure falsity conditions theory of meaning: the meaning of “all Fs are G” is given by the condition that this sentence is falsified by the fact that an F has been observed not be a G. That is, we understand a sentence by constructing its falsification conditions, which embed its falsity conditions, and truth conditions be hanged. You thus don’t much care for Tarski’s definition of truth—for what use is the concept of truth?—but you do fancy his implied definition of falsity. It enshrines your general “critical epistemology”—your dedication to the notion of falsification. You embrace falsity-theoretic semantics done in the general style of Tarski, as adopted by Davidson. This seems like a coherent position, however radical or misguided it may be. It serves to bring out the change of perspective that results from taking falsehood seriously in semantics.

Falsity and negation go together—notice how often I used negation in explaining falsity conditions semantics. Similarly for Popperian epistemology: we are always discovering that theories are not true (i.e. false). So negation plays a critical role in the theory of meaning (and in Popperian epistemology): we don’t know the meaning of a sentence unless we know under what conditions it is not true. The concept of negation thus enters into our understanding of any and every sentence, even when the sentence doesn’t contain negation. Hence negation is integral to meaning as such. I doubt that so-called animal languages incorporate negation in this way, even if the animal in question possesses the concept of negation. We might then speak of negation-theoretic semantics—theories that emphasize the role of negation in constituting meaning. This makes a better understanding of negation desirable, and indeed I think negation is an underexplored topic (not counting Sartre’s Being and Nothingness). Would a good analysis of negation shed light on the nature of meaning?


Conceptions of God

Conceptions of God



According to orthodox Christian theology, God plays three main roles: he is the creator of the universe; he acts as moral judge; and he is our divine benefactor. These roles are combined in a single entity, though they are different roles. There would be no contradiction in the roles being possessed by distinct entities. Creating the universe requires one sort of capacity, meting out justice another, and caring about human welfare another. In normal human life such roles are assigned to different people. But God is multi-talented: he can perform all three. There is some tension between the role of judge and the role of benefactor: if God decides to punish us (justly) by sending us to hell, he is not acting as our benefactor; and benefactors are not ipso factoagents of justice. He cares about us, but apparently not enough to spare us the flames of hell. A theology that invoked distinct individuals to play these roles would be more intelligible. Yet we have become accustomed to monotheism. True, God is sometimes divided into sub-gods, as with the Holy Trinity (God the father, God the son, and God the holy ghost): but it is supposed that these are somehow aspects of a single entity. How can we be sure of this? Whether there is any god is a commonly asked question, but what about the question of the cardinality of gods? Why exactly do we posit a single god?

This raises the issue of the criterion of identity for gods. Different tribes can worship different gods, and the ancient Greeks worshipped many gods, so it is not as if the concept of God logically implies unity; so why do we amalgamate the three roles I mentioned into a single being? What are the groundsfor asserting identity? Has anyone ever seen the being that performs these roles and observed that they proceed from a single source? Is there any deduction from them to the identity of their bearer? Clearly not: it looks like a dogma. Presumably there are many different types of divine ontology in logical space: three gods, twenty-seven gods, an infinity of gods. Yet we have settled on the single-god ontology (with possible subdivisions). But how are gods to be counted? We know how to count apples and humans, but how do we count gods? In Greek mythology the implicit criterion is in terms of role performed (the god of love, etc.), but in Christian theology that principle is abandoned. What is put in its place? Nothing, so far as I can see. Why exactly don’t we entertain the proposition that three different beings perform the jobs of creator, judge, and benefactor? Why not a divine committee? It can’t be because the members of the committee might disagree, because that can be ruled out by means of an omniscience clause. Is it an affront to the dignity of a god that there should exist other gods? But why is it less dignified to exist alongside other gods than to exist alone? God could certainly create other gods, being omnipotent, so why does he practice divine solipsism? He created Jesus, and angels too, so why not another god like him? Why not propose a theology in which monotheism is relaxed? Why the obsession with singularity? After all, we pray to our benefactor for help, but not to the creator of the universe, still less our stern moral judge. Don’t the three roles naturally call for different entities to perform them? Holiness need not be confined to a single individual. Isn’t the idea of a single god a holdover from the days of monarchy (there was never more than one king)? Doesn’t modern democracy fit better with a divine collective—a kind of supernatural cabinet? Isn’t there something cultish about a single unique super-being? What about checks and balances, distribution of powers, division of labor? What about an executive god, a legislative god, and a god of welfare? Isn’t there at least a possible world in which godliness is thus divided? Is it not an epistemic possibility that God is not one but many? How can we rule out discovering at the pearly gates that there is more than one god? Couldn’t we discover that God has more than one child, contrary to what we now tend to believe? Monotheism hardly seems like a certain and necessary truth. We should keep an open mind on the question.

We have a certain conception of God, though it tends to be hazy and undefined: he exists outside space and time and is not as other mortal beings. He stands apart from us in a special realm of his own, imperceptible, immaterial, and incorruptible. He doesn’t walk the streets or travel on the subway like the rest of us. Why do we think like this? What led us to conceive of god in this removed and elusive way? Suppose you had read the tales of Sherlock Holmes and took them to be reports of actual events. That is, you mistakenly think that Holmes is real not fictional. You think Arthur Conan Doyle combed police records and discovered an amazing detective who lives on Baker Street, has a friend named Dr. Watson, etc. You become fascinated by this remarkable man and want to meet him, not realizing that his fictional status precludes such a thing. Given this, you might haunt Baker Street in the hope of sighting him and making his acquaintance. However, diligent research and ceaseless surveillance fail to turn up the famous detective—he is nowhere to be found. Nor, you discover, has anyone else ever seen him. You might draw the conclusion that your initial assumption was wrong: Holmes is fictional not factual. But suppose you are too far-gone for that, too emotionally invested, so you persist in your initial belief. How then to explain the great detective’s absence from the scene? Is he just remarkably adept at eluding detection, slipping in and out of his residence on Baker Street without ever being observed by anyone? No, that is too implausible—no one could be thatelusive and yet dwell on planet earth. So you come up with a radical hypothesis (indeed a strong conviction), namely that Holmes is not as other men—he is not a concrete earth-dwelling being at all. He actually lives (if that is the word) elsewhere, in a special realm reserved only for superlatively gifted detectives—and indeed there was always something otherworldly about him. He is, you might say, a…god. That is, he is a special type of being that lives in a special place outside space and time, though he contrives to intervene in worldly affairs. Admittedly, this belief requires some reinterpreting of the Doyle texts, but it is not beyond the powers of human imagination to conceive. The reason Holmes is never seen about the place is that he is not a mortal being at all.

Clearly, this explanation, though intelligible, is not correct. You started with the false assumption that Holmes is non-fictional and then erected your theory to explain his lack of earthly presence, while you should have reconsidered your belief that he is a real person. You believed that a fictional character was real and then invented a wacky theory to explain his lack of presence in the empirical world. Couldn’t something like this be true of our conception of God? We read a text about a fictional entity and believe that entity is real (we are told as children that it is), but then we are perplexed by his absence from the observable world, so we invent a theory to explain this disparity. What elsecould explain why a real entity isn’t evident in the observable world? It’s because this entity is not ofthis world, but of another world. There are two possible explanations of God’s absence from the empirical world: (a) he is a fictional character and so doesn’t exist in reality, and (b) he isn’t a fictional character and exists in a special unobservable realm. If our transcendent conception of God arose in the way the transcendent conception of Sherlock Holmes arose, then we can see how we came to conceive God in the way we did—it is a natural response to his lack of empirical presence. I am not claiming that this ishow it arose, only that ifit did our manner of conceiving God would be explained. That is, if there is no God—he is a fictional character—and yet we believe in his existence, it is natural that we should conceive of him in the transcendent way we do. Believing in the reality of fictional entities is apt to generate wacky theories about their whereabouts. If I believe in unicorns but find that none ever reveal themselves, I might form the theory that unicorns exist elsewhere—in a special unicorn meadow far far away. It is no accident that Santa Claus is supposed to live at the North Pole, because if he lived in Neasden it would be a puzzle why no one ever spots him. The North Pole is sufficiently far removed that inquisitive children can be palmed off with the information that he lives far way, so that’s why he is never spotted around town. Fictional entities that are objects of belief need special places to exist that are hard to access—unicorn-land, the North Pole, heaven. No one is going to believe that a mythical being exists if he said to live around the corner. Mythical beings that are believed to exist must be supposed to live where their non-existence can’t be detected.


Colin McGinn



The Anti-Ontological Argument


The Anti-Ontological Argument



The ontological argument proceeds from the premise that God contains all perfections to the conclusion that God exists. The anti-ontological argument proceeds from the premise that God contains all perfections to the conclusion that God does notexist. It thus precisely reverses the traditional argument deriving from Anselm.[1]Anselm argued that God could not be merely imaginary, because his definition as the most perfect conceivable being logically implies his existence, existence counting as a type of perfection. The anti-ontological argument contends that God mustbe merely imaginary, because his definition as the most perfect conceivable being logically implies his non-existence, since no absolutely perfect being can possibly exist (though such a being can certainly be imagined). This argument, like its traditional counterpart, operates with a very simple principle, which may be stated thus: For any kind K, nothing that exists could ever fall under the concept perfect K. Consider, for example, the kind hammerand form the concept perfect hammer: you have now gone from a concept with existent instances to a concept with no existent instances. Why? Because there can be no such thing as a perfect hammer, since every existent hammer will be imperfect in one respect or another. Only imaginaryhammers are perfect; real hammers always have flaws and drawbacks and weaknesses. Every hammer will fail to hit the nail on the head once in a while; every hammer will occasionally hit your finger instead; every hammer costs money to buy; every hammer gets rusty and decays; every hammer weighs something; every hammer takes several knocks to drive the nail home. There is no point in going into a hardware store and asking for the perfect hammer; there is no such thing. There are only more or less imperfect hammers. True, you can conceiveof a perfect hammer stipulated to have none of the defects listed, but there can’t be such a hammer. That’s not how the world works: there are always downsides and side effects and boundary conditions. It is the same for knives, motorcars, houses, musical instruments, and other artifacts. Ditto for organs of the body, and indeed whole organisms. Nor are persons any different: there is no perfect teacher or perfect policeman or perfect violinist. Everything is flawed in one way or another. Everything fails to live up to our imaginary ideals. Only non-existent objects lack any imperfection, because they are so stipulated. The real world always carries attributes that exceed and diverge from the ideal function of a type of object; thus no object functions ideally, as a matter of principle. Nothing is functionally perfect.

But God is defined as all perfect, absolutely perfect in every respect, without flaw or failing of any kind. The ancient Greek gods were not so defined, so there is no logical or metaphysical obstacle to their existence: but the god of monotheistic Christianity (and other religions) is decreed to be entirely without imperfection. Certainly we can imagine such a being, given the powers of the human imagination; but by our principle this being could not exist in the real world. The more we stipulate God’s supreme perfection the more we remove him from the realm of reality. In the real world God’s great powers and virtues would come with accompanying drawbacks, such as unintended side effects or large expenditures of energy or the exclusion of alternative desirable states of affairs. But we are told that none of this is true of God: when God acts there are no unfortunate correlates, no cons to the pros. His being and his actions are perfection through and through. He doesn’t even take up space thereby preventing other good things from existing! But this is simply defining him out of existence, like allowing that no actual terrestrial hammers are perfect while insisting that there are perfect hammers somewhere else in the universe (“transcendental hammers”). If someone were seriously to claim that, you would naturally ask what kind of hammer this could be: what material is it made from, how does it escape the laws of nature, how does it operate? In the case of God we are schooled not to ask these kinds of question, but the price is that we are merely confusing the imaginary with the real. The concept perfect beinghas no existent extension, where beingis taken to mean some sort of person-like entity. Thus that concept logically implies the non-existence of whatever falls under it (i.e. imaginary objects). If we take the concept of perfection to imply something functional, such as performing the office of a god perfectly, then no existent entity could ever be functionally perfect in the sense intended. In fact, when God is conceived as imperfect, as he sometimes is in the Old Testament, we have a clearer idea of what an existent entity of this kind might be like; but once we stipulate that there is nothing imperfect about him we enter the realm of the unreal and merely imaginary. Just as there are no perfect circles in the real world, only ideally, so there are no perfect gods in the real world, only ideally. The only circles that existare imperfect.

Here it might be objected that perfect circles can exist in Plato’s heaven—the same kind of place in which God is supposed to exist. But this is a confused thought, because such ideal entities do not act in the real world: they may be claimed to have genuine existence (as opposed to be being merely imaginary idealizations) but they don’t do anything to change the course of events. God does: he is supposed to be an active agent, a powerful force, a driver of change. That is, he is supposed to be as other active agents are—a type of (very superior) person, not an inert abstract form. God isn’t a piece of abstract geometry eternally at rest; he is capable of intervening in history. But then he must have whatever imperfections come with the territory: he can’t be both of the world and yet not of it. If he has a will, he has to have whatever imperfections come with that—anything else is merely imaginative stipulation. To deny this is like saying that a perfect knife has an ideal cutting edge without recognizing that no existent knife can have a cutting edge free from all imperfection. We can say the words but no real knife could live up to them (it would have to be unable to cut the flesh of its user for one thing). Why should a god be any different?

You might say that an existent God could have all moralperfections. That is not as easy as it sounds, but anyway it won’t preserve the traditional Anselmian notion of God, since it is compatible with accepting multiple imperfections of other kinds. That is, there might be a morally perfect being with bad teeth, a limp, a weakness for chocolate, poor taste in music, and a horrible dress sense. Such a being could exist without violating our principle, but he doesn’t add up to God. It is the requirement that God be perfect in every way and in every particular—absolutely and totally perfect—that puts him beyond the realm of actual existence. We just can’t comprehend what this would be—just as we can’t comprehend an actual perfect circle (one drawn with the intention to approximate the platonic ideal). If we define God in this way, we define him out of existence: we place conditions on his existence that can’t be realistically met. Suppose we say (with Spinoza) that God is composed of an infinite immaterial substance: that substance will exclude other substances like it, thus precluding a second all-perfect God from existing (itself a drawback); but it also raises the question of how such a substance might operate and what prevents it from malfunctioning. How could any substance exist and yet be incapable of failing to function as intended? How could it not at least contain the seeds of imperfection? To think otherwise is to lapse into a fairytale land subject only to the laws of imagination. It is to deal in metaphysical nonsense. We can appreciate this point easily for hammers, knives, and policemen, but in the case of God piety prevents us from applying our principle consistently. We tacitly concede this when we ignore the question of God’s aesthetic properties: is God perfectly beautiful too? No existent thing is ever perfectly beautiful—the very idea is a fantasy—so how can God be perfectly beautiful? What does that even mean? Is he superlatively handsome? Does he have a lovely form than which no lovelier form can be conceived? Is his beard finer than the finest silk? None of this makes sense—so how does God possess all aesthetic perfections? The anti-ontological argument contends that any actual being with aesthetic qualities will have aesthetic imperfections or limitations; aesthetic perfection obtains only in the realm of the ideal or imaginary. The right thing to say is that we can conceive of an all-perfect being (or at least we can say those words) but that no such thing could exist in reality. Thus the definition of God as an all-perfect being logically implies that God is not real—just like the definition of an all-perfect knife (call it “Excalibur”) implies its unreality. If we knew there to exist gods that are less than perfect, we would accept no counter-example to our principle; suggesting that there is a different type of god that is perfect in every way would naturally arouse our suspicions, for it would violate our general conception of reality. We know that reality is less than ideal, and we know that we can conceive of things that are ideal; so we naturally reject the idea of the ideally real. We find the conjunction of the attributes of complete perfection and real existence to be contrary to reason.[2]The concept of absolute perfection is hyperbolic and fails to characterize the real world. It is this concept that is deployed in defining God as Anselm does in the ontological argument: but that definition asks too much of any actually existent entity. Thus the Anselmian definition of God, so far from entailing God’s existence, logically precludes it.


[1]In what follows I don’t attempt to say where Anselm’s argument goes wrong; instead I offer another argument with the opposite conclusion. If this argument is sound, we know that Anselm’s argument hasto go wrong somewhere. For the record, I think he is wrong to take existence as a type of perfection.

[2]I hope no one will protest that perfect numbers exist (a positive integer that is equal to the sum of its proper positive divisors): that is not the notion of perfection at issue. And of course there is no objection to the loose use of “perfect” in conversational contexts.


Interrogative Closure




Interrogative Closure



Nearly thirty years ago I coined the phrase “cognitive closure” to mean “things that can’t be known”. I now want to introduce the phrase “interrogative closure” to mean “questions that can’t be asked”—to be contrasted with “affirmative closure” meaning “answers that can’t be given”. Just as there may be answers to questions that are beyond us to discover, so there may be questions that are beyond us to ask. We can ask some questions about nature, but maybe there are questions that we are not equipped to ask, because of a paucity of concepts or a theoretical blind spot. The human question generator may not be able to output every question that can be coherently formulated. This is a species of cognitive closure because it depends upon a cognitive limitation; it is a lack of knowledge that leads to the inability to ask questions (or the right questions). Questions require concepts and the requisite concepts may be lacking. This is presumably true of many or most animals: they may well be capable of interrogative thought, but they are not capable of asking every possible question. Questions of explanation are likely to be beyond their cognitive capacities: they may wonder what the sun is but they can’t ask what explains the sun’s movements. Nor could they come to be able to ask such questions save by substantial neural reprogramming; they couldn’t do it simply by thinking harder or being forced to sit in a chair while lectured to. They may have the interrogative construction in their cognitive apparatus, but they cannot formulate every meaningful question that can be asked about reality—not by a long chalk.

Humans are adept at interrogation, as every parent of a young child knows. We are always asking questions, thirsting for answers, not letting go of a question. If we are natural thinkers, we are also natural questioners. Descartes questioned whether everything is open to doubt before he came up with his answer—questions precede answers. But despite our prodigious questioning—we can ask infinitely many questions, as we can produce infinitely many affirmative sentences—we are not guaranteed to be able to ask every question that can in principle be asked. It would be biologically anomalous if we were; and it is notorious that asking the right question often takes genius—it isn’t routine. Interrogative omniscience is not to be expected. This is surely obvious. What is not so obvious is that this is not an all-or-nothing matter: it isn’t that every question is such that we can either clearly ask it or clearly not ask it. Let me distinguish extremeinterrogative closure from moderateinterrogative closure: the extreme kind implies that we cannot ask the question at all, in any form, not even close; the moderate kind implies that we can formulate a question in the neighborhood of a given question but can do so only inadequately, ineptly, inaccurately, and obscurely. We don’t grasp the right question, but we grasp a question that gestures towards the right question, albeit feebly and misleadingly. The question that we ask might involve conceptual confusions that are cleared up by the correct question, or it might have false presuppositions. There are facts that we are asking about, but our way of asking contains conceptual errors. And it may be that this moderate closure is incurable: we can never ask the question in its proper form, only the inferior substitute. But at least we are not completely blocked from asking the relevant question, unlike animals. We are semi-closed to the question.

It is hard to find an example where we can see that this is the situation, since that would require grasping a formulation of a question that we by hypothesis cannot grasp. If this is our position with respect to a certain question, we will not be aware that it is—we will suppose that we are more or less on the right track. We will be like children asking ill-formed questions without realizing it (“When does dreaming become waking?” “Why doesn’t Tuesday follow Sunday?”). Maybe there is some coherent thought in the vicinity of the question, but it is so ineptly put as to be unanswerable. What I want to suggest is that we are in this kind position with respect to the mind-body problem: we suffer from moderate but not extreme interrogative closure. We are on the verge of asking the right question, but we are not really there; or better, we are far from formulating the right question correctly, but we at least recognize that there isa question. We glimpse the question from afar, obscurely, but we cannot get it into focus. Perhaps we can never get it into focus, given our conceptual limitations.

Consider then how we talk about the mind-body problem. We speak of the mind “depending” on the brain, “resulting” from it, being “caused” by it; or we introduce technical terms like “emergence” and “supervenience”. Then we form questions like these: “In virtue of what does the mind depend on the brain?” or “How does the brain cause the mind?” or “Is the mind strongly or weakly emergent on the brain?” or “What makes the mind supervenient on the brain?” Thus we contrive to state the question that encapsulates the mind-body problem—or we think we do. But how solid are these formulations? First, the concepts invoked add to the underlying facts: these are that changes in the brain are accompanied by characteristic changes in the mind. But it is another thing to start speaking of “dependence” and “causation” and “emergence”.  That is to import concepts into our description of the case that have their original home elsewhere. We know what we mean when we use these concepts in their usual context, but they become loose and metaphorical when applied to mind and body.  This is why people appeal to models drawn from other domains to explain the meaning of the technical term they re-deploy: water and liquidity, crystals and molecules, embryogenesis. But it is far from clear that we can subsume mind and body under such concepts: isn’t this just sheer hand waving? Isn’t it a forced resort to concepts that work elsewhere and are wheeled in just so that we have something definite to say? Maybe the relation between consciousness and the brain is correctly captured in terms quite alien to us (even using the word “relation” here is tendentious); we are forcing it into a conceptual box that suits our actual concepts. A conceptual lacuna is papered over with concepts drawn from elsewhere and quite unsuitable for the task. Instead of asking, “How does the mind depend on the brain?” where the word “depend” is taken from its original home in describing things like architectural forms and weather patterns, we should be asking, “How does the mind stand in relation Rto the brain?” where Ris a relation alien to our conceptual scheme. Let’s not pretend that we know what we are talking about in invoking these words and admit that they are poor substitutes for more adequate and accurate concepts. They are stopgap measures, crutches.

We say that the brain “generates” the mind, “produces” it, “gives rise” to it, but we have no idea what these labels mean, except the meaning given by their original context, which has nothing to do with the case at hand. We feel there is somegeneral relation between mind and brain, something likecausation or generation; but we really don’t have any clear conception of what sort of relation holds between the two—so we just stick a label on it. Then we proceed to formulate a question using the appropriated label hoping thereby to make sense. But that question may be quite inept, confused, and misleading, given its dubious genesis. Of course, we can’t make such a judgment directly by comparing our concocted question to the question as it should be formulated (by God or super-intelligent aliens), since we don’t know what that formulation would look like; so we blunder blindly on, not realizing that our question falls short of capturing the nature of what we are attempting to describe. Interrogative closure, extreme or moderate, never announces itself as such. Still, we may reasonably suspect that something like this is what is going on, given how we set about formulating our question and the peculiar nature of what we are asking about. The general character of the relation between mind and brain is not apparentto us, so we can’t just refer to it directly and ask how it works; instead we postulatea relation and give it a name—“dependence”, “emergence”, “supervenience”, etc. All that warrants the term are the basic facts, namely that changes in the mind are correlated with changes in the brain. It is not that the chosen terms are clearly false or confused, so that the question we ask is simply meaningless; it is rather that the question as formulated falls short of the formulation that best captures the real relation between mind and body. I can’t tell you what that relation is, for obvious reasons, but I have an inkling that it needs to be conceptualized in ways that are unavailable to us. For one thing, it would need to be a relation holding between something inner and private and something outer and public. And it could never be observed: we could never seethat mind and brain stand in relation R.

It is difficult to find analogies for the case of mind and body precisely because it is unique. We are asking for an explanation of “dependencies” between mind and body not between bodies or within minds. We can ask about how emotion depends upon belief and about how air currents depend upon temperature, but it is another thing to ask how consciousness “depends upon” neural activity. In what sense does the former “depend on” the latter? All we get in reply is some sketchy business about correlation.[1]Presumably the relation is much stronger than mere correlation, so we reach for more full-blooded language; but we may be reaching in the wrong direction and seizing upon whatever happens to fit our cognitive grip regardless of suitability (a hammer to do the job of a screwdriver). The standard analogies used to explain what the relation is supposed to be between mind and brain encourage us to be complacent about our capacity to frame the right question; we may be quite far off target. The very fact that our formulations of the question don’t lead anywhere satisfactory suggests that we are not asking the question as it needs to be asked. For a being that knows how to ask the question the answer might not be so elusive. Its elusiveness to us is a sign that we are in the presence of interrogative closure: we can’t find the answer because we can’t ask the question (properly, adequately). There is affirmative closure because there is (moderate) interrogative closure: our inability to get the question right is bound up with our inability to answer the question. In addition, our cluelessness about the inadequacy of our question leads us to false optimism about answering it: if we knew how bad our formulation of the question was, we would be more inclined to think we cannot answer it. But of course if we knew that we would be on the road toanswering it. Our predicament is that we are (moderately) closed to the right question but we find it hard to recognize that fact, and so we think we are conceptually on the right track to solving the problem. I believe we are completely closed to the solution and moderately closed to the question, but I have not argued for that composite position here.  I have suggested only that it is probable that we suffer from moderate interrogative closure with respect to the correct formulation of the mind-body problem.[2]


Colin M

[1]It may be suggested that we can help ourselves to a very abstract notion of dependence, perhaps defined in terms of counterfactuals, just as supervenience is abstractly defined. But that abstract notion will not do justice to the specificrelation that holds between mind and brain—the notion that distinguishesit from other applications of the abstract notion. We want to know how thatrelation holds between mind and brain. We want to know how the actual specific relationship between mind and brain is set up—how this part of nature operates. This is why people invoke concepts like emergence: because it promises to identify the explanandum clearly and distinctly. But it does so only by means of dubious analogies and assimilations that serve to obscure the proper formulation of the issue. This is why it is more hygienic to express the question as, “What is the explanatory basis of the relation Rthat holds between mind and brain?” and remain agnostic about the identity of R. Using words like “depends upon” is at best a crude and uninformative description of how mind and brain connect up (and that phrase too is loaded). There is a good way to ask the question out there in interrogative space, but it is not to be found in our formulations heretofore (and perhaps permanently).

[2]Imagine that we are extremely interrogatively closed to a large number of questions—as every other animal on our planet is. There are thousands of questions about nature that we are not equipped to ask. Then it will not be surprising if there are some questions to which we are partially open—which are only moderately closed to us. These exist on the border between the humanly accessible questions and the humanly inaccessible questions. I have suggested that the question that constitutes the mind-body problem might be one of these borderline cases (other philosophical questions might also belong in this class). Isn’t this a realistic way to look at the human ability to ask questions? Some we can ask clearly, some we can’t ask at all, and some we can ask only unclearly.