The Mind-World Nexus


The Mind-World Nexus



According to a dominant tradition, appearances are not “in” objects: that is, how an object appears is not (completely) determined by its objective properties but depends on the mode of sensibility employed to perceive it.  The classic example is color: objects are not colored independently of how they seem but in virtue of the color sensations they elicit in perceivers. Thus we can conceive of variations of color without an intrinsic variation in the object but merely in virtue of being differently perceived (Martians may see as green what we see as red). Color is then relative to a type of perceiver—and not just perceived color but actual color. An object isred if and only if it seemsred to a suitable group of perceivers. We could put this point by saying that color is extrinsic to objects; it depends on what kind of perceiver exists in the object’s environment. If the environment contains one kind of perceiver (humans), then it is red; but if it contains contains another type of perceiver (Martians), then it is green. The color depends on context—on how the object is hooked up to experience. It would be wrong to think that color is internalto objects, as if objects could have determinate colors no matter how they are perceived. And much the same can be said of other sensible qualities associated with hearing, touch, smell and taste. Perhaps it is true that not all apparent qualities are thus subjective, such as shape and size, but many are. As is often said, such qualities are projected by the mind, generated from within, and spread on objects. They depend on the “psychological environment” of the object (no perceivers, no qualities).

I have put the point by using terms drawn from another debate, namely the debate between internalism and externalism about the mind. It is claimed that what kind of mental state a person has is dependent on his or her environment and is not a result of purely internal factors.[1]We can vary a person’s environment while keeping her internal states the same (Twin Earth cases), and when we do so we find that mental states track the environment. So mental states are extrinsically fixed (in part anyway) and environmentally sensitive. They are not “in” the subject—not locally supervenient, not a matter of internal facts. They depend on the physical context, on how the person is hooked up to his environment. So there is an abstract analogy between certain views of color and certain views of mental states: both are regarded as relational and context-dependent. In the slogan, mental states are not “in the head”, but neither are sensible qualities “in the object”. The mental world is not independent of the physical world, and the physical world is not independent of the mental world. The subjective embeds the objective, and the objective embeds the subjective. Thus mind and world are mixed together, each incorporating the other, each flowing into the other. It is not that the whole being of the mind is sealed off from the environment, but neither is the whole being of the external world sealed off from the mind. The world contains projected properties, and the mind contains introjected properties. The mind shapes the world (in part), and the world shapes the mind (also in part). So there is no fundamental dualism here: the world is partly formed by the mind, while the mind is partly formed by the world. When you are aware of external objects you are aware of your own mental contribution to their appearance, but equally when you are aware of your mental states you are aware of the world’s contribution to them. The mind absorbs and projects; the world also “absorbs” and “projects” (it “absorbs” color and “projects” mental content). Mind and world work together to produce a reality of colored objects and content-bearing mental states (though I don’t suppose there is any teleology coming from the world). In other terminology, the mind externalizescolor and internalizescontent—as we might say (metaphorically) that the world “internalizes” color and “externalizes” content. Mind and world are mirror images of each other, abstractly considered.

In fact, we shouldn’t really be speaking any longer of mind and world, as if there is an exclusive dichotomy, since each is woven into the other: there are traces of mind in the perceived world and there are traces of the world in the formations of the mind. What we have is a mind-world nexus: a joining, a merging, an overlapping. What we call “the world” is not purely objective in nature, and what we call “the mind” is not purely subjective in nature. The mind is (partly) constituted by the world, while the world is (partly) constituted by the mind: properties drawn from one side of this divide are found located on the other side. The world I perceive is partly internal to me (i.e. projected), and the mind I introspect is partly external to me (not “in my head”). From the point of view of objects (not that they have one), the colors (etc.) they wear are donated from the outside, while they provide their own service by constituting the mental content of subjects. Fancifully, we might view this arrangement as a quid pro quo: give me your colors and I will give you content in return. More soberly, the mind has two capacities: the capacity to absorb (internalize) and the capacity to project (externalize). It employs external properties to form its conceptual landscape, and it draws on its own resources to confer perceptible properties on things (it is useful to see objects as colored, etc.).

This is not to say that there is no mind-independent external world, or that there is no world-independent mental reality. On the contrary, I would strongly deny both assertions.[2]It is only to say that the livedworld is infused with both—both the world of external objects and the world of inner perception and thought. This is quite consistent with allowing that there is another level of description under which objects have purely internal properties (call it physics) and a level of description under which minds also have purely internal properties (call it narrow psychology). We don’t in physics describe objects in terms of mind-dependent qualities, and we don’t in narrow psychology advert to environmentally fixed psychological kinds. Color doesn’t affect the motion of bodies and they can exist without it; similarly, the operations of mind can be characterized without reliance on wide content and minds can exist without such content. For the purposes of science, we could accept that the two worlds don’t overlap; and it would certainly be quite wrong to conclude that either idealism or materialism is true given the considerations advanced so far (not everything about the world is contributed by the mind and not everything about the mind is contributed by the world). Rather, the phenomenalworld—both mental and external—the world we directly experience—thatworld is a mixture of mental and physical. The world I seeis partly made up of projected properties, and the mind with which I am directly acquaintedis up to its neck in externalities (e.g. my concept water). There are two levels of description here: one is inherently dualistic and the other is not. The one that is not concerns the world that we commonly occupy—the world that we sense, feel, talk about, and take for granted (which includes the mind). The other world is largely theoretical, which is not to say any less real. Think manifest image and scientific image.

I want to point out how remarkable the aforementioned capacities of mind actually are. When the mind internalizes an external property it converts that property from being a feature of external objects to being a vehicle of thought—and these are completely different roles. The property becomes bound up with a concept, and a concept has all sorts of distinctive properties–notably being a constituent of thoughts. This is a brand new career for the property and not one for which it had any prior training. Once it is a constituent of a proposition, it is required to participate in logical reasoning as well as mental representation of states of affairs. What has water (the H2O stuff) got to do with that, or being square or being arthritic? How does the mind perform this conversion operation—repurposing a property to start a new life as a concept? Externalists never answer this question—they just point to examples that (purport to) establish the doctrine. But it is really very puzzling: for how can a feature of the environment enter the mind in such a way as to shape its operations? What is this internalizationthat we speak of? How, for example, is the property of being square made to function as a constituent of perceptual experience and of thought? Not by making the mind square! It seems to undergo a metamorphosis, but the mechanism of this metamorphosis is obscure at best and impossible at worst. It might even make one to give up on externalism completely. Likewise, we speak blithely of projection, but how is thissupposed to work? It is not that the mind literally throws color at objects! Nor does it secrete color onto objects. No, the operation is purely mental—an operation of spreadingin Hume’s metaphor. This is both unhelpful and positively misleading. How does the mind externalize color, when it is not colored itself? How does it generate the qualities projected? How does the projected quality always manage to hit its target, painting the leaves green and the roses red with such precision? Somehow the brain produces an impression of a single object that has both color and shape, exactly coordinated, but it is not supposed that shape is projected; so how does it manage to project one quality and introject the other? Projecting color seems like a magic power—quite unlike what a film projector does (here there is actual transmission of light waves). All we have are vague metaphors but no theoretical understanding. This doesn’t mean that the mind doesn’t perform the action in question; it only means that we don’t understand how. In other words, the projective and introjective powers of mind are a mystery. Yet they are fundamental to our entire view of things.

Look at how perception must operate second by second. At a given moment a state of affairs presents itself to the senses—say, a red bird 10 feet in front of your eyes. Your visual sense must internalize this scene, its various properties and arrangements. The scene must so imprint itself that a suitable percept is formed that can then function as input to behavior: this is a highly complex conversion process whose workings are still poorly understood. But at the same time the brain must carry out a projection operation that bestows color on the seen objects, which is rapidly updated over time. It must take in but it must also give out. These operations have to be coordinated and unified. The stimulus for color projection just consists of impinging light rays in which no color is to be found; on reception of these rays the brain must issue an instruction to retrieve a certain color impression, which must then be combined with various shape impressions. The input is not colored but the output is. How the brain does this is a mystery. We know that the cones of the retina must be involved, but how the nervous system contrives to generate and project color is unknown except in gross outline. The result is that the perceiver sees a colored object, where the existence of the color depends on the existence of perceivers to project it. So there is a continuous interplay between internalizing and externalizing operations, tightly intertwined. It is not that perception is all internalization, as very naive naïve realism might suggest; but nor is it all projection, as idealism might maintain. The world is contributing to the mind and the mind is contributing to the world. In this two-way nexus we find the world as it is lived. We internalize the world (hence psychological externalism) and we externalize the mind (hence color subjectivism). Thus mind and world become intermingled.[3]


Colin M

[1]I won’t defend externalism here or even fuss over formulation; neither will I defend the subjectivist view of color. I am more concerned with their implications when conjoined. I defend externalism in Mental Content(1989) and subjectivism in The Subjective View(1983).

[2]I would count myself a staunch externalist andinternalist about the mind, and a staunch subjectivist andobjectivist about objects of perception. The key is to make distinctions between types of property or fact.

[3]Much the same can be said of language and meaning: semantic externalism brings the world into meaning and hence involves internalization, but the structure of language also shapes our view of reality, since our concepts are bound up with the structures of language (verbs and nouns, objects and properties). We need not accept the extreme view that our entire conception of reality is fixed by our language, which can vary from speaker to speaker, in order to recognize that language can function in a projective manner, imposing its internal architecture on our view of things. Language takes in but it also reaches out—it spreads itself onto perceived reality. Thus grammar can function like color perception. Then too, there is Freudian projection, in which traits of oneself are projected onto others, while the mind also introjects authority figures like parents. It seems that the mind is fond of the introjection-projection dialectic.


Al Franken

I just read the recent article in the New Yorker about Al Franken by Jane Mayer (July 29, 2019). It is a model of responsible journalism and lays the facts out admirably. He should clearly not have been forced to resign. It reminded me of when I met him in 2013 at George Soros’s wedding (though I had met him briefly a few years before at my gym in New York just after George W. Bush “won” the presidency for the second time). I told him my favorite Soros joke: “What is the difference between a Hungarian and a Romanian? They will both sell you their mother, but the Hungarian will deliver”. Franken said he thought it was a good joke. Now he has had his life destroyed.