Connectives and Necessity



Connectives and Necessity



In Naming and Necessity Kripke argues against the description theory of names and offers a theory-sketch to be put in its place, often labeled the causal theory. He then extends his critique to apply to common nouns (natural kind terms) contending that they too are not to be defined by means of descriptions but rather owe their reference to certain kinds of causal chain. What he doesn’t do is inquire into whether the critique can be extended yet further. Here I will do just that, focusing initially on logical connectives such as “and”, “or”, and “not”. The question, then, is whether these terms satisfy a description theory, and if not what kind of theory should be put in its place. Instead of employing the notion of reference, which may appear tendentious, we may prefer to formulate the issue in terms of the “semantic value” of such terms, so the question becomes whether (say) the term “and” has the semantic value of conjunction in virtue of the fact that speakers associate certain individuating descriptions with “and”. To fix ideas, we might cite a description like “the truth function that has such and such a truth table”, though a description like “Russell’s favorite truth function” is not to be ruled out on logical grounds. When a speaker uses “and” to refer to (express) conjunction does she do so by having a description in mind along these lines? Does she pick out conjunction with a description like “the truth function with such and such a truth table” and then abbreviate that with the monosyllable “and”? Does she have a little logician in her head that knows how to characterize conjunction uniquely? This would be the analogue of having a little historian in your head that enables you to refer to Winston Churchill using “Winston Churchill” by knowing various historical facts about that individual, such as that he was the prime minister of Great Britain during World War II.

It is easy to see that this kind of theory runs up against the same kinds of problems Kripke diagnosed for ordinary proper names. The main one is the problem of error: speakers may make mistakes about the properties of the things they refer to. In the Godel/Schmidt example, the obscure Schmidt is the inventor of the incompleteness theorem not Godel, yet people still refer to Godel with “Godel” and not Schmidt despite associating “the inventor of the incompleteness theorem” with the name “Godel”—their mistaken belief does not direct their reference towards Schmidt. Similarly, a logically inept speaker might wrongly suppose that a conjunction can be true if only one of its conjuncts is true (he would be a very logically inept speaker), but that wouldn’t mean that his use of “and” expresses disjunction not conjunction. The reason in both cases (according to Kripke) is that there is an historical and social dimension to the meaning of the relevant terms in a given speaker’s mouth—the speaker refers to what people in the past in general referred to with “Godel” or “and”. He just happens to have a false belief about what he is referring to (this would be even clearer if the description the speaker had in mind were “Russell’s favorite truth function” in the situation in which actually Russell liked disjunction more). Likewise, just as a speaker might refer to Feynman with “Feynman” even if all he knows about the physicist is that he is some famous physicist or other, a speaker might refer to conjunction with “and” even if all he can tell you is that conjunction is some kind of truth function or other. The community’s use of the word in question ensures its reference in an individual’s mouth; his ignorance of facts about the reference doesn’t undermine that. This applies as much to connectives as to proper names. It is in fact an instance of a perfectly general point, namely that what people believe about the things they talk about is not determinative of the reference of their words. You can have all sorts of false beliefs about things and still mean what other people mean by their words. Clearly, the point about “and” can be carried over to “or” and “not”, so our logical vocabulary is not subject to a description theory (assuming Kripke is right about proper names).[1]

Here is another instructive case: the word “necessary”. How does it refer? First, note that it can refer to two different things—metaphysical necessity and epistemic necessity (compare a single name with two referents). Suppose we take it to refer to metaphysical necessity: is this because speakers have true individuating beliefs about metaphysical necessity? Hardly: they might have quite wrong ideas about this kind of necessity. Suppose someone believes that such necessity is truth in all possible worlds whereas in fact there are no possible worlds and metaphysical necessity is a primitive modal property. Then they have a false belief about the reference of their words, but the words still have a determinate reference, viz. metaphysical necessity. Or suppose the speaker thinks the notion corresponds to some outdated and supernatural concept of the metaphysical whereas in fact it is definable in elementary modal logic. That doesn’t cause them to refer to nothing or to something supernatural with the word “necessary”; their personal beliefs are irrelevant to the semantic content of the communal words they use. Or again, they might just know that metaphysical necessity is some kind of necessity or other—they can’t personally distinguish it from epistemic necessity—and yet they still refer to metaphysical necessity not epistemic necessity. The same might be said of the word “causation”: does it refer to whatever satisfies the speaker’s descriptive beliefs? Clearly not, since the speaker might have quite erroneous beliefs about the nature of causation (she might think that causation is nothing but constant conjunction). Ditto for the words “identity” or “true” or “beauty” or “good” or “space” or “time” or any number of other words. The reference of these words will not follow the idiosyncratic false beliefs of individual users. We can’t find out what they refer to in a given speaker’s mouth by surveying the descriptive contents of his or her mind. Just consider all the erroneous beliefs that surround such words as “democracy”, “God”, “morality”, “death”, “consciousness”: none of this matters to the actual semantic content of the word as it is used in a given linguistic community. The point has nothing specifically to do with proper names; it is a general point about the relation between meaning and belief.[2]

Compare syntax and phonetics. No one thinks that the syntactic and phonetic properties of an utterance are determined by the speaker’s beliefs about them. They are a matter of the language itself not what the speaker believes about the language. People can have all sorts of false beliefs about syntax and phonetics—they are not made true by the fact that beliefs about language fix the nature of language, because there is no such fact. Why should semantics be different? What people believe about the reference of their words is not what fixes the actual reference of their words. Kripke claims that causal chains fix the reference of proper names, but the same kind of point applies to any meaningful word—the meaning-determining facts are not facts about individual belief. This is why false beliefs don’t alter meaning. We might put this by saying that the language faculty is independent of the belief faculty (compare the perceptual faculty). A pure causal theory of reference removes reference altogether from belief as a means of reference fixation, but the falsity of description theories already undermines such a theory. So the defects of the description theory of names reflect a much more general point about belief and meaning, as we can see by considering other types of word. It is certainly not true that each word in a sentence has its reference (semantic value) fixed by descriptive knowledge possessed by the speaker; and it is demonstrable that no word is semantically equivalent to a definite description (except a definite description).[3] The point I have been making is that Kripke’s critique of names is just part of a larger critique, and in the light of that larger critique is entirely predictable.[4]


[1] It wouldn’t be difficult to construct a similar case for quantifier words by imagining speakers with false beliefs about the properties of quantifiers.

[2] I haven’t discussed rigid designation in connection with the generalized description theory, but an analogue of it holds for connectives and the like (de jure rigid semantic value). The most effective argument Kripke deploys is the error argument, so I have focused on that.

[3] It is true that there can be “descriptive names”, i.e. names stipulated to be equivalent to descriptions (“Let ‘Stanley’ be synonymous with ‘the lizard in my living room’”). But that is not the situation with ordinary proper names.

[4] Another line of argument is that the description theory presupposes reference because the components of descriptions are themselves referential, as in “the father of that girl”. Kripke does not deploy this type of argument and I will leave it aside here.


Particulars and Universals

Particulars and Universals



It is a truism regarding particulars that they cannot be in two places at the same time. This is why alibis work in the law. Types of particulars can have multiple spatially separated instances, but not particulars themselves. Particulars are necessarily singly located things. Of course, they can have parts that are at different places simultaneously, but not the whole object. It is an essential property of any particular that it occupies a unique position in space at a given time. But the same is not true of universals: they can be manifest at different locations simultaneously. We can rightly say that they exist at different places at the same time: for example, the universal green exists wherever there is a green leaf. The same universal can be present at multiple locations simultaneously; and not just parts of it—the thing itself. Universals don’t even have parts; it is the whole universal that exists at a given location whenever a leaf is green. The single thing is spread out over space without detriment to its unity. We don’t think it must be a different green that is present in one place in contrast to another place; it is the same universal green that enjoys multiple locations.  The same particular must exist at one place only, but the same universal can exist at many places—sometimes billions of places. Particulars are spatially tied down, but universals can roam freely—except that there is no roaming, just multiple spatially separated instantiations. The universal is spatially distributed, but the particular is spatially localized. Herein lies an essential difference between the two—their different relation to space. Particulars are individuated by their location, while universals are not—they can be anywhere (sometimes nowhere).

This point should be obvious, but its metaphysical implications less so. Our world is made of two sorts of entities, one that is spatially monogamous and one that is spatially promiscuous. Both are essential to the formation of facts: for a particular to exemplify a certain property is for space to contain an entity necessarily at a single location that instantiates another entity that necessarily has many locations. Even if this second entity happens to have just one instance, it has potentially many instances—as in a world containing a single green leaf. Facts consist of the interplay of the spatially unique and the spatially common. Space offers itself in two ways, as the unique location of a particular and as the residence of a multiply located universal. We should take literally the idea that a universal exists in many places: it is here, there, and everywhere. Space cooperates with particulars and universals to produce facts, where these facts are a combination of the spatially confined and the spatially free-ranging. The world is the totality of combinations of the spatially singular and the spatially profligate—particulars and universals.

We should contrast this metaphysical picture with Plato’s picture (or at least how it has been represented). If we regard universals as existing in platonic heaven, conceived as a separate quasi-space housing the Forms, then they will have a single locus of existence. Within this quasi-space they have a unique location—perhaps all the color universals are clustered together in one corner of a vast hyperspace of universals. We will not then say that universals have their existence in the sublunary particulars that exemplify them; rather, the particulars are said to “participate” in the universals that exist in the otherworldly realm. According to this picture, universals are logically (ontologically) like particulars in that both enjoy a confined existence within their respective spaces—they have a unique location in the order of things. But if we insist on following ordinary language that is not the case: universals exist in, and at, the particulars that exemplify them. They are a totally different kind of being, not locally bounded at all, not sealed off from other being. For all his dedication to the special existence of universals, Plato modeled them too closely on particulars, taking them to be (quasi-) spatially compartmentalized–like so many celestial ducks in a row. But the essence of universals is to be spread out, borderless, scattered, nomadic. When I look out of my window I see greenness (that universal) at many different places: the single entity spreads itself across the landscape, seemingly without strain or limit. It does not (condescendingly) offer shards of itself to individual green objects but rather takes up full-blown residence in particulars, like a lodger. It divides its time between one place and another, but without having to do any traveling between them. Particulars can only get from A to B by taking a trip between them, but universals can effortlessly occupy many places simultaneously, with no travel required.  Thus they don’t descend from platonic heaven (a kind of journey) but rather find themselves spread hither and thither as a matter of course. Their original being is to be located multiply. For particulars, space is a challenge, a cage, and a trap; but for universals, space is no impediment, no constraint, just an arena of absolute freedom. Absolutely nothing prevents a universal instantiated here from also being instantiated (that universal) millions of light-years away. The particular cannot share its being with any remote object, while the universal spreads its being effortlessly. The particular cannot be in two places at once, but the universal is invariably in many places at once.

This has implications for epistemology. Russell talked about acquaintance with particulars and universals, picturing the latter as a kind of non-sensory intuition. Both are necessary for propositions to be grasped and known. But if universals are the distributed entities I have described, then that is too simple—the acquaintance must take a different form. I hesitate to enter this fraught territory, but we might suppose that at least part of acquaintance with universals involves direct perception of them by means of the senses. When you look at a leaf you literally see the universal green. That universal permeates the leaf in all its glory, and you see the leaf as green, so don’t you see the universal itself? Maybe some additional cognitive act is necessary in order to make real acquaintance with the universal in all its generality, but can’t we say that you are literally seeing it whenever you see a green leaf, despite its presence elsewhere? In any case, we need not slavishly model acquaintance with universals on acquaintance with particulars, as if each took a segregated entity as object—as if we can gaze at the individual shining inhabitants of Plato’s heaven. Rather, the universal has an essentially fragmented existence, i.e. it exists at each of its instantiations. The epistemology of universals should reflect this ontological character.

There have been two opposing tendencies in thinking about particulars and universals: one tendency takes particulars to be constructions out of universals, as with the “bundle theory” of particulars; the other takes universals to be constructions out of particulars, as with the idea that universals are collections of particulars (a kind of “bundle theory” of universals). The former theory has trouble accepting that particulars are spatially locked down—why couldn’t the same bundle of properties crop up at different locations? The latter theory has trouble with the fact that universals can exist independently of any specific collection of particulars—couldn’t the same universal exist in some other collection? The truth is that particulars and universals have very different kinds of being, as is clear from their different relations to space. A convincing alibi will always exculpate a particular, but misdeeds by universals can never be exculpated by reference to remote instantiations. Particulars can only be in one place at a time, but universals can be dispersed through space during a given time interval and generally are so dispersed. Any attempt to assimilate the two must face this fact.[1]



[1] This is one of those rare instances in which a robust dualism is indicated.


Existence and Consciousness




Existence and Consciousness



The idealist sees an essential connection between existence and consciousness: there is no existence where there is no consciousness. Can we make anything of this thought? Suppose an otherwise empty region of space contains an instance of consciousness, say an experience or thought; then we can rightly say that something exists in that region. Consciousness is the kind of thing that confers existence (this is the root of the Cogito). The thing that exists might be said to be the conscious state itself or its bearer (the subject of consciousness). Moreover, this thing is a concrete empirical existent not a merely abstract one. Consciousness is a paradigm of existence; it leaves no doubt of existence. Contrast consciousness with matter: suppose we stipulate that within a certain region of space there is extension, i.e. length, breadth, height, size, shape. Is it an immediate consequence of this that something exists in that space additional to the space itself? No, because space itself has extension, i.e. geometrical properties. It doesn’t follow from the instantiation of geometric properties that space contains an actual concrete empirical thing. Something needs to be added—something concrete. To put it another way, the concept of extension is a mathematical concept, so if matter is defined in terms of extension, we won’t be able to derive concrete existence from it. There is no analogue of the Cogito as follows: “X has extension, therefore X is a material existent”—not if matter is a concrete empirical thing. Thus consciousness brings existence with it while matter (defined as extension) doesn’t: we can’t get our ordinary concept of a material thing out of mere extension. It would be different if we could supplement extension with substance in the Scholastic sense, but that notion is not available owing to unintelligibility (certainly anathema to Descartes). Intuitively, we have no account of the distinction between empty space and what materially occupies it. We thus don’t know what the existence of matter consists in: the concept of extension (geometry) leaves it schematic, abstract, merely mathematical. To be sure, matter has extension, but what we don’t know is the nature of the thing that has it; whereas we do know the nature of consciousness, i.e. what it is that exists when consciousness exists. We have a real conception of mental existence, but we don’t have a real conception of physical existence. In practice we fill out the abstract notion of extension with the concepts derived from our perception of material things, e.g. color, but these have a mental origin, so they can’t be what the objective existence of matter consists in. The suspicion is that when we speak of the existence of material things we know not whereof we speak.[1]

This is where the idealist plants his flag: the only way to explicate the nature of material existence is to borrow from mental existence—material things are really mental in nature. Then we will understand how material things can have concrete existence, just like mental things—they are mental things. They might be sense impressions in human minds or ideas in the mind of God or a special kind of primitive consciousness found in so-called material reality (panpsychism and its ilk). According to each theory, material things turn out to have the kind of existence possessed by mental things. Existence is thus univocal and uniform: all of reality exists in the same way. It is not that minds exist in virtue of one kind of property and bodies exist in virtue of another kind—existence is always mental. To exist is to be conscious in some shape or form. The price of rejecting idealism is to render the existence of bodies problematic, not to say impossible. For what else could their existence consist in? You might try saying that bodies have properties other than extension such as mass, charge and solidity: where these properties are instantiated there must be existence. But these are merely dispositional properties, unlike extension, and so raise the question of what grounds them: what is the intrinsic nature of body? The existence of a thing cannot consist solely in its dispositional properties on pain of rendering it mere possibilia. Again, the contrast with consciousness is stark: in its case we do have a grasp of the intrinsic nature of the existent thing. The idealist insists on something analogous in the case of material bodies, and it is obscure what that might be if it is not more consciousness.

There is a possible view that can block the idealist’s argument, namely that matter possesses an unknown type of intrinsic property that plays the existence-conferring role of consciousness without being consciousness.[2]Call this property M: then we can say that bodies exist in virtue of instantiating M, where M is not identical with C(consciousness). This seems like a logically available position, but one can appreciate why the idealist will jib at it: why postulate such an unknown property when we have a well-known property that can demonstrably do the job of securing concrete existence? Isn’t the idealist position less hand waving, more parsimonious, more intellectually satisfying? Why go noumenal and mysterian when idealism offers such a nice uniform theory? Idealism tells us exactly what existence consists in, intelligibly and invariably, so why speculate about hypothetical unknown properties? Without it we are left with no positive account of what physical existence amounts to—a mere I-know-not-what.

Historically, idealism arose from Descartes and Newton’s mathematical conception of the material world: there was a distinct danger that the material universe might disappear in a puff off mathematical smoke.[3] Indeed, it wasn’t long before theorists began doubting the concrete existence of material things and regarding such talk in an instrumental fashion. If matter is really geometry, we might as well regard talk of it as so much applied mathematics. Physics seemed to take the substance out of the world—it took the body out of body. But idealism resisted this etiolating tendency: it allowed us to recover our sense of the concrete reality of body, albeit in mental form. Before mathematical physics arrived, Aristotle’s teleological physics allowed the concept of purpose to fill out the theory of motion; and purpose could plausibly be supposed to guarantee concrete existence—what has purpose must exist. But once this is banished and classical mechanism is allowed to fix the nature of matter (bloodless extension), a gap opens up in our conception of matter, a gap that threatens its very existence. The contrast between mind and matter becomes unsustainable and matter loses its grip on concrete reality. Thus Berkeley meets fertile ground for saving bodies from evaporating into abstract posits. At least with Berkeley we know what it is for bodies to exist! Idealism allows matter to have the kind of being we understand—the kind possessed by our own minds. Berkeley’s world is a world of complete intelligible existence, whereas Descartes’ world is a world of intelligible existence (the mind) alongside a world of unintelligible existence or faux existence (matter). The fundamental problem is that extension by itself is not sufficient to deliver concrete material being. Nor is it clear that anything in contemporary physics is sufficient either, which is why the physical world is apt to appear theoretically ethereal. In order to deliver concrete reality our conception of matter needs beefing up, and idealism offers itself as the only viable way to do that. For the idealist, existence without consciousness is no existence at all, because in the end consciousness is the only intelligible form of existence there is.[4]


[1] Here I am summarizing thoughts that have been around for centuries, from Descartes to Russell, Berkeley to Mach.

[2] This is the view that I myself am inclined to accept, mainly because I see objections to the idealist picture; here I am just trying to give idealism its best shot.

[3] Surely part of the reason we have trouble with Platonism in mathematics is that we can’t form a clear conception of what mathematical existence would be; we feel we are taking it on faith. Numbers are quite unlike episodes of consciousness, in which existence is carried on their face: hence the attraction of mentalist theories of numbers and nominalism generally.

[4] Let me emphasize the alternative—that there are other forms of existence that are unintelligible to us. This position is by no means absurd. The question then becomes whether idealism faces insurmountable problems (I won’t discuss this here).


Materialist Idealism

In the history of philosophy materialism and idealism are regularly opposed to each other: they are conceived as rival metaphysical systems. Each is thought to have its appeal, with oscillation between them, but it is assumed that you cannot be both. They are logically incompatible doctrines. The world is either completely material or it is completely mental—it cannot be completely both.[1] But on reflection things are not so simple; it is possible to combine materialism and idealism. There can be a coherent materialist idealism and also coherent idealist materialism. You can be a materialist and an idealist. How is this possible?

Suppose you are attracted to an identity theory of mind and body: you think that mental states are identical to brain states. You think this for the usual reasons (parsimony, causation, anti-dualism, etc.) and you subscribe to the view that reality is generally material (consisting of atoms in the void, say). What is to stop you conjoining this materialist viewpoint with the proposition that so-called material nature is really mental? Suppose you agree with Berkeley about material objects—they are really ideas in the mind of God with counterpart ideas in human minds. Then you accept that brains and their states are mental objects too, along with other material objects. So you hold that the brain states with which mental states are identical are themselves mental entities, ultimately ideas in God’s mind. Thus mental states are identical with ideas in the mind of God (ideas of brain states). Ideas are identical with other ideas. Pain, for example, is identical to an idea in God’s mind, since C-fiber firing is an idea in God’s mind. You reduce the mental to the physical and then you reduce the physical to the mental. You are a global idealist who is a materialist about the mind. Or you might hold, with Eddington and Russell, that the world of physics is ultimately a world of conscious experience (“neutral monism”) while at the same time believing that minds reduce to brains (which themselves reduce to ripples in the mental substratum). You are a materialist about the mind but an idealist about reality in general—an idealist materialist. You are certainly more of a materialist than someone who holds that the mind is quite independent of the brain and also that reality is generally mental. You hold that everything mental is physical (atoms in the void) but that everything physical is ultimately mental (those atoms are really mental in nature).

Now suppose that you attracted to the doctrine that material objects are bundles of dispositions to appear a certain way—you would call yourself a phenomenalist. Perhaps you think this is a good way to avoid skepticism, or that it is the only hope of preserving naïve realism. Objects have no being independent of the mind: idealism is true of them. What is to stop you conjoining this belief with the claim that experiences are really material processes occurring in brains? You are a materialist about sense experience and all other mental phenomena. Your position is like that of someone who believes that colors are dispositions to produce color experiences but also believes that color experiences are brain processes. This seems like a perfectly consistent position: colors could be dispositions to elicit brain processes, these being what color experiences are. And the same is true for a general idealism about the objects of perception: this doctrine might be combined with a materialist view of experience. The brain itself is a bundle of dispositions to produce sense experiences, but sense experiences are states of the brain (and hence themselves dispositions to produce experiences). You are an idealist about material objects (so-called) but a materialist generally: you think objects depend on minds for their existence, but you also think that minds are physical things. You are a materialist idealist. You are certainly much more of an idealist than someone who holds that objects are mind-independent: for you hold to a central tenet of traditional idealism while rejecting the claim that reality is ultimately mental.

We might describe the first sort of metaphysician as a global idealist who holds to a local materialism and the second as a global materialist who holds to a local idealism. It would be misleading to label either an idealist or a materialist tout court, since they differ from a theorist who rejects those local claims. We need to make room for these mixed positions, since they exist in logical space and have their own attractions. We thus require an expanded terminology. But now I want to complicate matters further by introducing an additional ontological layer. Suppose you hold that reality consists of ideas in God’s mind in the style of Berkeley, while also accepting the mind-brain identity theory: you are a global idealist and a local materialist, as described above. But suppose also that you believe that God is a corporeal being (as Hobbes apparently did)—you are a materialist about God. So you believe that the world consists of ideas in God’s mind but also that God’s mind is material. Then you are a global materialist global idealist local materialist (because you accept the identity theory of human and animal minds). You think that everything is ultimately material because God is material and God’s ideas form the basis of all reality—while also accepting that mortal minds are reducible to brains. Are you a materialist or an idealist? There is no answer to that question, because your position combines elements from each doctrine—you believe a mishmash of idealist and materialist elements. Likewise, you might hold that materialism is generally true in the sense that everything reduces to physics while also holding that physics is ultimately about a world of conscious experience (following Eddington and Russell). Thus you might hold that objects reduce to dispositions to produce experiences, experiences reduce to brain states, and brain states reduce to the conscious stuff that makes up the world in general. You think that everything is material but that the material is ultimately mental. Are you a materialist or an idealist? Again there is no answer to that dichotomous question: you are a global idealist global materialist local idealist. You think that everything is ultimately mental but that everything reduces to physics and that objects are mind-dependent. You simply don’t fit into the traditional dichotomy of materialism versus idealism.

If that sounds complicated, consider what happens if we add a further wrinkle: suppose we introduce the idea of a neutral substance that is neither mental nor physical, as in neutral monism. Now we can say things like, “God is neither mental nor material but something in between” or, “Mind and matter are the result of a neutral substance that is neither”. This produces a further range of possible positions that refuse to fall into the usual categories. I won’t elaborate further, but it is clear that the metaphysical landscape is now populated with a startlingly large array of options. The traditional dichotomy is woefully inadequate to capture this range. But even without adding the notion of a neutral stuff we can generate positions that can’t be slotted into the usual two categories. And this is not just a logical nicety but corresponds to positions with intrinsic appeal—positions someone might conceivably adopt. Hobbes might agree with Berkeley’s critique of traditional theories of perception but still insist that everything is material because God is; or an idealist might wish to maintain that mind and brain are identical as a way to avoid epiphenomenalism. Couldn’t Eddington believe that everything is ultimately mental in nature while maintaining that all the sciences reduce to physics? What about the idea that mental states reduce to brain states but brain states are constituted by an alien type of experiential state? That would give us an identity theory between one kind of mental state and another, mediated by a physical state of the brain. Pain is identical to C-fiber firing; C-fiber firing is identical to alien experiential state E: so pain is identical with E, whatever E is. Is this a materialist theory of pain or an idealist theory? Both and neither: it contains elements of both. Being red is a disposition to produce experiences of red, but experiences of red are states of the brain, but states of the brain are really experiential in nature, but these experiences are ultimately grounded in an unknown type of physical property–what kind of theory is that? It is a complicated combination of materialist and idealist elements. Metaphysics is not as simple as we have been led to believe by the old division between materialism and idealism. In principle, nothing prevents us from contemplating indefinitely many layers of mental and physical reality, each giving way to the other: a mental layer rests on a physical layer, which rests on a further mental layer, which rests on yet another physical layer, and so on.[2] Would someone who thinks this layering can go on infinitely many times be a materialist or an idealist? Neither: they would be a materialist idealist and an idealist materialist.



[1] I won’t consider the question of whether the terms “mental” and “material” (or “physical”) can bear the weight placed on them in these metaphysical controversies, assuming that they have enough content to form coherent theories. My question is whether a simple dichotomy is adequate to the philosophical landscape. Of course, there is also metaphysical dualism, which holds that there are both mental and material facts at the basic level; I am only considering the monistic theories of materialism and idealism.

[2] Compare particles: it has turned out that there are far more layers of particles than we first thought—from molecules to atoms to electrons and protons to quarks, etc. And it may be that we are not yet at the end of the line—or maybe there is no end of line and there exists an infinitely descending series of particles. Similarly, it might be supposed that mental and physical layers alternate multiple times before bedrock is reached—or maybe it is never reached and we have infinite alternation. Nature is not generally averse to infinity.


Family Resemblance

Wittgenstein concludes his famous section in Philosophical Investigations on games (66) with these words: “we see a complicated network of similarities overlapping and criss-crossing: sometimes overall similarities, sometimes similarities of detail”. This he opposes to the idea that games have a single characteristic that defines them. He follows up this discussion by saying, “I can think of no better expression to characterize these similarities than ‘family resemblance’; for the various resemblances between members of a family: build, features, colour of eyes, gait, temperament, etc. etc. overlap and criss-cross in the same way.—And I shall say: ‘games’ form a family.” (67) This is a rather casual introduction of the idea of family resemblance with very little elucidation offered, and Wittgenstein does not use the phrase again in the course of the Investigations; nevertheless, it has achieved canonical status in commentaries on Wittgenstein and analytical philosophy more broadly. I shall suggest that it is a misconceived idea best dropped. I don’t mean that Wittgenstein is wrong to claim that games are united only by various similarities and have no collective definition—though I believe that to be the case; I mean that, even accepting his view of the concept of a game, it is not helpful to compare the case to resemblances among family members.[1] Games don’t have family resemblances in any significant sense.

Let me start with a crude point: football does not have the same nose or mouth or eyes or gait as rugby. Games are not people with various observable bodily traits, so they cannot be similar in the way family members can be. They are not even individuals but rule-governed activities. They can be similar or dissimilar, to be sure, but not in the way family members can be: there is resemblance but not family resemblance. So the concept of a family is here at best metaphorical: games do not literally form a family. There is no genetic linkage and family structure, no birth and child rearing, no brothers and sisters. It might be thought that there is still a specific type of similarity peculiar to family similarity that carries over to games (and perhaps to other things), but this is a confused idea: similarity is just similarity whether between family members or types of car or animals or works of art. Different objects are involved in these cases, but there is no relation of “family-similarity” that differs intrinsically from other types of similarity. Objects are similar or dissimilar in certain respects, depending on the type of object they are, but there is no notion of family-similarity that singles this case out; it is not that family similarity is a special kind of similarity of some peculiarly profound or subtle kind. Wittgenstein could have inverted his explanation and claimed that family similarity is like game similarity: just as games overlap and criss-cross, so family members overlap and criss-cross. The two involve similarities, but it isn’t that family similarity is somehow unique and that games happen to mimic it. In the only way that family resemblance is unique it fails to generalize to games, viz. that it involves having the same nose or mouth or eyes, etc.

Second, the kind of resemblance between people that Wittgenstein is referring to is not confined to families. In fact, it is neither necessary nor sufficient for family membership since some members of a family can be quite unlike other members (perhaps because of some genetic accident) and people outside a family can strongly resemble people in the family (people can have unrelated lookalikes). People can look alike in all sorts of ways whether they are members of the same family or not (and does Wittgenstein intend extended families as well as nuclear families—how extended?). They can have a sort of physical resemblance that is not the result of family membership in the narrow sense. For example, Finns have a characteristic appearance that distinguishes them from other national groups; and racial groups also exhibit physical similarities. So Wittgenstein’s point about family resemblance holds also for larger social groupings; it has nothing specifically to do with families. He could therefore have compared games to nationalities or ethnic groups. Come to think of it, he could have cited animal groups—families or breeds or species. The class consisting of all mammals exhibits various kinds of similarity and dissimilarity, with no observable feature shared by all: there is phenotypic similarity as well as dissimilarity. Again, families are not germane; they are just one instance of human and animal resemblance (think how different mice are from giraffes). In all these cases we have the same logical pattern: a can be similar to b in respect R1 and b can be similar to c in respect R2, but a might not be similar to c in any respect. I can be similar to my brother in respect of nose and mouth, and he may be similar to our father in respect of eyes and chin, but I may share no features with our father. The same is true for many social groups; this is not a point about families as such. Indeed, the same pattern occurs quite generally: musical instruments, say, exhibit various similarities and differences with no common thread—that is, no observable trait shared by all (taut strings, a mouthpiece, a particular type of sound). Selecting family similarity seems random and arbitrary; a great many types of similarity would have done just as well. And the case of families is misleading in at least one important respect: families are natural biological groupings, united by genetics and inheritance, whereas games are united in no such ways. An obvious reply to Wittgenstein is that games are quite unlike families in that families have another principle of unity apart from overt appearance, namely genetic overlap and connection. His point about games (whether right or wrong) is that games have no unity apart from overt similarities, but that is precisely not the case with biological families. Family resemblance is thus a poor choice to illustrate his claim about games. In fact, trait similarities within families are the result of underlying facts that create family unity: they rest upon a shared genetic endowment. No such thing is true of games, and Wittgenstein would certainly reject any analogous claim for games.

What is true is that games can resemble each other in multiple ways, as well as differ in multiple ways: not all games have the same form. They can also vary widely in the kinds of rules they adopt. They don’t all involve a ball or running or keeping score. That is fine as far as it goes, but the analogy with family resemblance is unhelpful and misleading. That is just one instance of resemblance among many (the kind that involves individual humans and their physical appearance), but there is nothing unique about it, nothing that allows it to shed light on games that other cases can’t shed. The case of musical instruments, say, would have done just as well, and better in some ways. All instruments are played, as all games are played, and there are purposes that unite the members of each class; it is just that the physical make-up and form of the objects deployed are very various (compare drums and violin). Wittgenstein says he “can think of nothing better” to characterize the case of games than the expression “family resemblance”, but it seems that there are many better analogies and that this one is quite unapt. To use Wittgenstein’s own concept of a language game, the language game of talking about games is quite unlike the language game of talking about families: we never remark, upon first encountering the game of rugby, “Oh, you look just like football”, as if we have noticed a striking visual feature common to both. Nor do we offer comments like, “Football and rugby look like they belong to the same family, but curling looks like it belongs to a different family altogether”. We don’t think about game resemblance as if it is comparable to physiognomic resemblance between people; how games look is not the main point of judgments of resemblance and difference between them.[2]


[1] I accept that Bernard Suits satisfactorily defines the concept of a game in The Grasshopper (1978), but I am not discussing that question here. I am merely considering the question of whether similarities among games are aptly characterized by the phrase “family resemblance”—whether or not these are all there is to the concept of a game.

[2] Wittgenstein also claims that different kinds of number are linked by family resemblance (67); the points made in this paper apply a fortiori to that suggestion. Numbers, being abstract, don’t even have perceptible characteristics, and their similarities and differences are really nothing like those between family members. At this point the phrase “family resemblance” has lost any real content beyond simply “similar in some way”. That is an extraordinarily weak relation, logically speaking.


Colors and Powers

According to Locke, colors are nothing but powers in objects to produce ideas in our minds. He writes: “What I have said concerning colours and smells, may be understood also of tastes, and sounds, and other the like sensible qualities; which, whatever reality we by mistake, attribute to them, are in truth nothing in the objects themselves, but powers to produce various sensations in us, and depend on those primary qualities, viz. bulk, figure, texture, and motion of parts; as I have said.” (Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Book II, Chapter VIII, section 14) There is, he tells us, no “resemblance” between these sensations or ideas and the objective ground of the power, as there is in the case of primary qualities, and without minds to interact with the powers there would be no color (etc.) in the world. To say that an object is red is just to say that it has the power to produce sensations of red in us: that is, colorless objects made of colorless minute particles happen to cause in us a certain type of sensation, and that is all there is to color—it has no mind-independent existence.

But two questions may be raised about this doctrine, appealing though it is. The first is that a given object has several such powers: it may produce sensations of red in one set of perceivers and sensations of green in another set (and so on for the other colors). It doesn’t have a unique idea-producing power but many such powers (it could even produce ideas like those produced by the other senses). Yet there is only one set of primary qualities underlying this multiplicity of powers. This prevents us from identifying the color with the primary quality basis, on pain of identifying the colors with each other (same basis for each power and hence sameness of color). It isn’t the power in the object that is fixing the color of the object but its relation to the minds of perceivers. Second, how could a colorless object have the power to produce sensations of color? Nothing about the object itself explains the power it has to excite color sensations, let alone specific color sensations. It is, we might say, chromatically impotent. It would be a type of miracle if primary qualities had the power to produce sensations of quite different qualities. The only sense in which objects have such powers is that minds have corresponding powers: the mind has the power, when interacting with colorless objects, to generate sensations of color—the power comes from it not the external object as such. The power of which Locke speaks is really a relational power not an intrinsic power. Intrinsically the object is powerless to produce color sensations; whatever power it possesses is conferred on it by perceiving minds. Locke should have said that colors consist in the power of our mind to impose colors on the world—powers in the mind not powers in objects. Does a square object have the power to produce sensations of a round object? Well, it can produce such a sensation if the perceptual system misfires, but it has no intrinsic power to do any such thing—as it has to produce a sensation of a square object. It just happens to cause (partially) a sensation of roundness; the real work is done by the perceiving mind—it has the power to respond with roundness perceptions to a square object. Similarly, colorless objects can elicit sensations of color, but only because minds are so set up that they can generate sensations of color in the presence of things that have no color. The external primary qualities play a minimal causal role, and considered in themselves have no power to produce sensations at all. Indeed, it is conceivable that there be no such objects and yet the mind has the power to generate the full panoply of colors from within its own resources (color sensations in a vat). In fact, we are already in a situation close to this in that we have colored mental imagery that is elicited by no external object—no primary qualities are triggering this kind of “perception”. The external object in the perceptual case merely triggers a pre-existing power of the mind; it is not the locus of the power to bring color sensations into the world.[1]

If we say that water has the power to dissolve salt, we mean that water has objective properties that explain how the power is exercised; but if we say objects have the power to cause color sensations, we can’t provide any such explanation. This is because objects are powerless in this regard; the mind is the origin of the power in question. Imagine a world in which there are simple objects having just two properties and yet these objects are perceived by minds as being rich and complex, endowed with (say) a thousand properties. It would be bizarre to suggest that the objects have the power to produce the full range of sensations available in this world—that power properly resides in the minds that exist in it. It would be quite wrong to say that the properties perceived are nothing but powers in the objects to produce sensations, with their impoverished two-property profiles. The objects have no such intrinsic power, though they have the weak relational power of being able to interact with minds that do have the power to perceive the full range of a thousand properties. In a way Locke undersells his own subjectivist position, which is that the mind is the origin of secondary qualities not the external world. At the least he should have distinguished between the weak sense of power and the strong sense, maintaining only that objects have only a weak power to cause sensations. Primary qualities, by contrast, have a strong power to produce sensations because of that “resemblance” he mentions, but secondary qualities are only weakly connected to the objective nature of external objects. They are connected in roughly the sense in which sugar has the power to taste bitter if the taster’s sense organs are deranged in some way, or in which red objects have the power to appear yellow if there is something wrong with your eyes. The relation expressed by “x can trigger y” is much weaker than that expressed by “x has the power to y”.

This matters because it affects the strength of subjectivity of Locke’s basic doctrine. If we identify colors with powers-in-objects, then we accord them a degree of objectivity not intended by the basic metaphysics; but if instead we identify colors with powers-in-the-mind, then we fully endorse the fundamental thesis that colors are purely subjective, i.e. originate in the mind and are then imposed or projected onto external things. Here is Locke in full flight: “The particular bulk, number, figure, and motion of the parts of fire, or snow, are really in them, whether anyone’s senses perceive them or no: and therefore they may be called real qualities, because they really exist in those bodies. But light, heat, whiteness, or coldness, are no more really in them, than sickness or pain is in manna. Take away the sensation of them; let not the eyes see light, or colors, nor the ears hear sounds; let the palate not taste, nor the nose smell, and all colours, tastes, odours, and sounds, as they are such particular ideas, vanish and cease, and are reduced to their causes, i.e. bulk, figure, and motion of parts.” (ibid, section 17). That use of “reduced” is perhaps ill advised, suggesting as it does that secondary qualities, and ideas of them, are reducible to primary qualities of external things, which would make them as real as primary qualities in general. But it is clear that Locke intends to maintain that colors (etc.) are mere subjective projections not at all inseparable from matter—they arise from powers of the mind not from powers of matter. It is only in a very weak sense that we can say that objects have the power to produce ideas of secondary qualities, as weak as saying that manna has the power to produce sickness and pain, or a spear has the power to be thrown. The truth is (according to Locke) that colorless particles interact with our colorless sense organs in such a way as to activate the latent power of the mind to generate colors in all their glory. The power to produce color sensations is a mental power not a power of material objects considered in their own right. Perhaps Locke was subliminally influenced by his opposition to innate ideas: for if colors originate in the mind, how can ideas of them be derived from perception of external objects? At any rate, one who sympathizes with Locke’s metaphysics of color has reason to dislike his official object-centered formulation of the doctrine. The powers that give rise to colors are in the mind not in the external world.[2]


[1] Much the same can be said about the dispositional formulation of color subjectivism: objects have many color dispositions and no object has such a disposition intrinsically. Rather, minds have dispositions to see the world as manifesting various colors—that is where the disposition originates. Objects are merely disposed to trigger such mental dispositions in the sense that they can trigger them in certain conditions. The ontological work is done by the mind not the world.

[2] None of this is to deny that matter might be the origin of the mind’s power to produce colors; it is just that the material objects of perception are not the locus of the power to bring colors into being. Put broadly, Locke (and his followers) are putting too much emphasis on the powers of objects and neglecting the vital contribution made by the mind.


Causal Universals

Causation implies laws. A singular causal statement entails a general causal statement. If a caused b, we know that events like a will cause events like b. Thus universality is built into causation—the particular implies the universal.[1] This puts causation in a very special class of relations: it is not generally true that a singular relational statement entails a general one. If a is to the left of b, it does not follow that everything like a will be the left of something like b: an apple can be to the left of a pear, but not all apples are to the left of pears. The same is true of all spatial relations: no general spatial proposition follows from the truth of a singular spatial proposition. Similarly for temporal relations: if a happens before b, it doesn’t follow that everything like a will happen before something like b—you might have dinner before going to a play, but it is not generally the case that dinners are followed by plays.  Ditto for family relations: it doesn’t follow from my having a brother that everyone like me has a brother like mine. And the same seems true generally; only causal relations give rise to the kind of generality in question. This is because all singular causal relations are necessarily instances of general laws, whereas that is not the case for the other relations mentioned. The law need not be framed in the same terms as the singular causal statement, but some sort of description will exist under which the instance exemplifies a law. Everything happens by law; therefore all causal relations imply underlying laws.

We should view this as more surprising than we do. For how is it possible for the particular case to have implications beyond itself, covering indefinitely many other cases? How can we derive a universal statement from a singular statement? We can derive an existential statement from a singular statement, but how can we move from what is true in a particular instance to what is true in all instances? The causal relation between particulars seems to encompass causal relations between quite distinct and often remote particulars: if a certain causal relation holds on earth, we can infer that it generalizes to other galaxies. This gives us amazing powers of knowledge: we just need to know that this caused that and we thereby know that everything like the former causes something like the latter. Imagine if knowing that this cup is on the table enabled us to know that every cup is on a table! Yet causation seems somehow to condense the universal into the particular: if a really did cause b, then no matter where you go, whenever you have something like a it will cause something like b. Causation is not just the cement of the universe; it is a cement that repeats itself endlessly, holding things together in the same recurring pattern. Once you know one part of the pattern you know them all. The puzzle is how an individual instance of a relation can “contain” all the other instances. Generally, if a relation R relates individuals a and b, we can infer nothing about whether other similar individuals are related by R; but in the case of the causal relation, we can infer a universal proposition from a specific one. This is because every particular case is necessarily an instance of something more general. And that seems puzzling, almost miraculous, as if great tracts of the universe are coiled inside a particular localized case.[2]

Consider two other relations that have generality built into them: logical and deontic relations. If a particular statement entails another particular statement, this is always an instance of something more general: the proposition expressed by the first statement entails the proposition expressed by the second, so that every individual statement will stand in the entailment relation. Similarly, if one person has a moral duty with respect to another, this implies that anyone relevantly like the first will have just such a duty to someone relevantly like the second. As Kant would say, particular moral maxims can be universalized. Is there a puzzle about how this is possible? If there is, it is surely superficial, since logical and deontic relations primarily hold between types not tokens—types of statement, types of person. Conjunctive propositions, say, have certain logical implications, which are inherited by particular expressions of them; and fathers and sons as general categories have certain duties to each other, which then apply to specific people. That is, the relations in question hold in the first instance between something other than concrete particulars and are understood as such. It is not a matter of inferring the universal from the particular but recognizing the universal in the particular. We know those relations to hold without having to inspect the empirical world of particulars. It might even be said, by way of emphasis, that logical and deontic relations don’t strictly hold between particulars at all—this is just a manner of speaking about more abstract relations, harmless enough if we don’t let it mislead us as to the true ontological situation.

This suggests an approach to the puzzle of causation that has some reassuringly familiar elements. What if we say that the causal relation holds primarily between types not tokens? Then generality will be built into it from the start. When token events causally interact this is an instance of a type-event interaction; the former is derivative from the latter. Thus universality is guaranteed because it is built into the nature of the basic causal relation: causation is a relation between event-types in somewhat the way logical and deontic relations are relations between types. This is familiar because it is commonly accepted that token events stand in causal relations in virtue of the properties they instantiate: it is not events tout court that stand in causal relations but events “under descriptions”, i.e. inasmuch as they instantiate causally relevant properties.[3] It is the electric charge of a battery that causes an electrical device to work not the color of the battery, and events have causal powers in virtue of some of their properties though not all (being an event recorded in the history books, for example). Spatial and temporal relations relate things irrespective of their intrinsic properties, but causal relations between things depend entirely on their intrinsic properties (i.e. their nature). Thus the primary locus of causation is properties, which are inherently general. The puzzle arises when we think of cause and effect as particulars and then wonder how the particular can contain the general, but in fact causation is inherently general because of the essential role of properties in causation—they are the primary bearers of causal powers. Laws relate properties, and causation consists of laws in action. The universal is already present in the particular case. The form of a singular causal statement is, “a being F caused b to be G”, where the causally relevant properties figure essentially in the fact; so the singular instance already includes general properties as causal agents. The causal structure of the universe accordingly relates properties not just particulars. This is what makes the causal relation different from other relations, and solves the puzzle of causation. Causal structure is not the sum of isolated instances of causation between particulars but of general causal principles linking properties.[4]

[1] There is an extensive literature on this question, with notable contributions from Davidson, Anscombe, and others; but I won’t get into this and simply assume a well-known position.

[2] Here we might think of Wittgenstein’s discussion of the way meaning seems magically to contain future use in Philosophical Investigations.

[3] It may be true that singular causal statements are referentially transparent statements about token events, but it doesn’t follow that causation itself works without reliance on selected causally relevant properties. No event has causal powers just by being that event.

[4] In a world of bare particulars, if such there could be, there could be no causation, because there would be no exemplified properties to do the work of causation. Bare particulars would have to be causally idle. In a slogan: no causation without exemplification.


An Argument Against Materialism

If materialism were true, we should be able to know about matter by introspection; but we don’t, so it isn’t. For materialism is a theory of the nature of mind—what constitutes mental states—and so we ought to know this nature by knowing about the things that have it; but we don’t. If it is the nature of pain to be C-fiber firing, then knowing what pain is should give us knowledge of that nature; yet we know nothing about C-fiber firing by knowing our own pains. Introspection should reveal pain to be fibrous and staccato, because that is what the neural correlate of pain is; but it is blind to these cerebral facts. We don’t even know that the correlate is extended just by knowing our pains, or indeed that there is such a correlate. Shouldn’t the nature of pain communicate itself to us through our faculty of introspecting pain? Why the epistemic cut-off? There isn’t even a hint of the nature of pain in our introspective knowledge of it, as materialism views this nature; but that is puzzling and unexplained. The most obvious explanation of this lack of physical knowledge is that materialism is not true. Contrast two other theories of mind: behaviorism and functionalism. Our ordinary knowledge of mind incorporates information about the behavioral and functional aspects of mental states: we know that pain leads to withdrawal behavior and that it has a certain functional role vis-à-vis belief and desire. The nature of mental states, according to these theories, is not cut off from our self-knowledge, just as one might expect—we know quite a bit about this nature just by having and knowing about mental states. But in the case of central-state materialism we appear completely in the dark about what really constitutes our mental states, as if behind a brick wall. Thus the theory strikes us as startling, surprising, thrilling even (also rebarbative). It seems like a departure from common sense not a continuation of it.

There doesn’t seem to be any logical necessity about introspective ignorance of the brain: people could know their brain states (conceived as such) by inner sense. Consider a possible world in which people have sensations of pain and also introspective intimations of the cerebral correlates of pain. The pain is felt but so is the corresponding brain activity. In such a world the materialist doctrine would not seem far-fetched or counter-intuitive because ordinary knowledge of pain would include facts about its material nature (according to materialism). People would think, “Oh, that’s why I feel my brain that way when I have a pain, because pain is a state of my brain!” And maybe in that world materialism is in fact true: thus its truth conveys itself to the introspective faculty. The case would be like that of behaviorism and functionalism. There would be nothing puzzling in people’s epistemic situation with respect to the mind. But in our world there is no such knowledge of the real nature of mental states, as materialism conceives that nature; and that is puzzling. The dualist will insist that this is exactly what we should expect, since mental states have no such physical nature. The materialist thus faces a challenge—how to explain our ignorance of the nature of our minds given the materialist doctrine. How can introspection be so blind to the truth?[1] Opponents of materialism will conclude that this is not the nature of mind, which is precisely why we don’t introspect minds in the way we should if materialism were true. The relation between mind and brain naturally strikes us as extrinsic, contingent, correlative, not as a relation of identity or constitution: why, if that is what it is? What the materialist cannot do is point to some aspect of our introspective knowledge that anticipates the truth of materialism—as behaviorism, functionalism, and dualism can with respect to their own theories.

It would be wrong to object that the same is true for other kinds of theoretical identification, as with water and H2O or heat and molecular motion, because here ordinary perceptual knowledge does anticipate the theories in question. That is, our ordinary knowledge of water and heat already represents them as material phenomena of some sort, even if the theoretical details remain to be discovered—they clearly belong with other recognizably material things. But in the case of mental states that is precisely not the case: we don’t already conceive them as material and simply await further information about their material nature. No one thinks that materialism about water and heat is a surprising discovery. Thus there is a crucial distinction between the two cases: our ordinary conception of the mental does not already represent it as material in some way yet to be determined, while for water and heat their material nature is a given. This is because introspection tells us nothing of the mind’s (alleged) material nature, not even of the most general kind. So the question remains: how can the materialist explain our lack of knowledge of the real nature of our own minds? Maybe he can, but the question poses a serious challenge. One would think we have an inkling at least of the real nature of our minds via introspection, but according to materialism we could go through our whole lives and never even think of it.[2]


[1] One possible explanation might look like this: there is no biological payoff in knowing the material nature of our mental states, so we are not set up to have such knowledge—it’s just a question of whether the knowledge would be useful. I take it the problems with this kind of explanation are obvious (we know lots of useless things, etc.).

[2] An analogy: an idealist might contend that the real nature of material objects consists in dispositions to cause sensory experiences, but she wouldn’t maintain that this nature is closed to our knowledge, since we are well aware that material objects are associated with dispositions to bring about sense experience. But in the case of materialism the constitutive facts are supposed to lie outside our ordinary awareness of our mental states. That asymmetry cries out for explanation. A dualist will certainly see it as confirmation of his position.