Self- Knowledge



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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


The Connected Mind



The Connected Mind



Massive modularity is the order of the day. The mind, like the body, is made up of a large number of separate mental organs (faculties, systems). Here is a typical list: the five senses, memory (several kinds), the moral faculty, the mathematical faculty, the theory of mind faculty, the commonsense physics faculty, the language capacity, the will (motor control), the emotions, the conscious mind and the unconscious mind, facial recognition, sexual competence and performance. The picture is of an array of distinct modules that specialize in certain tasks or competences, each with a characteristic structure and mode of operation, rather like the distinctly individuated organs of the body; the mind is not an undifferentiated blob or a tabula rasa or an indefinitely plastic potentiality with no discrete components or subdivisions. The body is made up of a great many autonomous organs each dedicated to a certain function, each with a distinct type of cellular composition and mode of operation, all contained in a single envelope; the mind is viewed as similarly divided and segregated into heterogeneous units, all comprehended under the broad label “mind”. Correspondingly, the brain is also conceived as modular, with anatomically distinct areas dedicated to particular mental functions; it is nothing like porridge. In each aspect the organism, whether human or animal, is viewed as a collection of separate elements that together add up to a whole bearing a simple name: “body”, “mind”, “brain”. The organism is a feat of modular engineering through and through, no doubt formed by the demands of evolution, the mind as well as the body.

But it is not an unconnected collection: the parts interact and interface with each other. This is as much an aspect of the mind’s nature as its individual components. It can be studied in its own right. This is a large subject that has only just begun. I am concerned here to articulate some general principles and distinctions. I begin with Fodor’s celebrated discussion of the modularity of the senses: the idea that vision (say) is an “encapsulated” system incapable of modification or supervision by the cognitive components of the mind, as is evidenced by the persistence of illusion under conditions of cognitive correction.[1] You will keep on seeing that stick in water as bent even when you know perfectly well that it is straight. Your beliefs are powerless to bring about any alteration in the deliverances of your senses, no matter how you might try to change how you see things. This shows, according to Fodor, that the senses are modular and exist as separate systems in the overall economy of the mind. Of course, the senses are also modular (encapsulated) with respect to each other as well as the “central system” of rational thought: the fact that you feel the stick to be straight with your hands has no power to alter the way it is visually perceived. In general, the senses have no power to govern the operations of each other: what you see doesn’t affect what you hear, what you smell doesn’t determine what you feel. The senses are certainly coordinated, but they don’t penetrate each other’s domains (synesthesia is the closest thing to that). They are self-governed, refusing to heed with their neighbors assert. They are as separate as the bodily organs that serve them. We might say that they form the unconnected mind—as unconnected as the lungs and kidneys or the stomach and the feet. Similarly, bodily sensations are impervious to outside influence: you can’t stop feeling pain simply because you want to or because your intellect tells you there is nothing to worry about. Nor does the sinner stop feeling pleasure because his conscience tells him it is wrong (the sexual module is notoriously impervious to the moral module, and likewise for the gustatory module and the prudential module). There is clearly a good deal of encapsulation in the human mind, as each part of it blithely goes about its specific business. It is not all harmony and concord. It is as if the parts have a will of their own.

But encapsulation is not the general rule; in fact, it is more the exception. Consider memory: memory is open to all-comers, quite promiscuous in what it will allow in. Anything from the senses, thoughts, feelings, acts of imagination, passing desires, other acts of memory: you can remember pretty much anything you can be conscious of (and maybe more than that). Memory is a module that is receptive to every other module, allowing itself to be ruled and structured by what happens outside of it. It is like an organ of the body that takes input from every other organ. Memory is maximally un-encapsulated, hyper-connected: “Only connect” is its invariable motto. Thought is quite similar: Fodor never claimed that thought is encapsulated with respect to the senses—that would be clearly false. What you think is obviously responsive to what you experience perceptually or else empirical knowledge would be impossible. What you believe is obviously affected by what you see, hear, etc. Not everything you think is controlled by your senses—not if there is such a thing as a priori knowledge—but in general thought is not closed to outside influence from the organs of sense. We can perhaps imagine that it could be: there might be a pathological condition in which thought becomes closed off from perception, so that a person’s beliefs are never shaped by what he or she senses. But that is not the wiring-diagram of the normal human and animal mind: the lines are always open to what the senses have to report. Here the modules are different but they are systematically connected (at least in one direction).

Emotion and thought provide an interesting case. There is clearly an interaction between emotion and thought that cuts both ways: emotions can influence thought (even “color” thought) and thought can influence emotion. The connection might be seen as adaptive: it is good for emotion to be shaped by thought so as to enable it to be more fine-grained and rational; and it is good for emotion to influence thought because of its motivational force (emotion can proverbially concentrate the mind). So far, so platitudinous: but the example suggests a useful general distinction between types of intra-mental (but cross-modular) connection, namely that between causal and constitutive connection. It is one thing for causal connections to exist between distinct modules, but it is another thing for the connections to determine the very nature of what belongs internally to the connected modules. It seems true to say that emotions can have their nature fixed by the thoughts that influence them; that emotion has to involve those thoughts. Here cognition and emotion are inseparable. For instance, the thoughts one has about a loved individual are integral to the emotion of love that one feels toward that individual. This is not merely a causal connection but a constitutive one. In view of this constitutive connection, we can reasonably speak of a kind of intra-mental “externalism”: emotions (some of them anyway) have their nature fixed by factors external to the module proper to them; or better, the two modules coalesce at this point. If we consider the cognitive faculty as existing in the “environment” of the affective faculty, then we can say that the latter has its content fixed by something external to it—though that something becomes internal to emotions themselves. The connections are not merely extrinsic but intrinsic—they determine the very nature of emotion. If there were no such connection, the emotions available to a subject would be limited in a way that are not when there is such a connection. On Twin Mind-Earth different thoughts coexist with the same affective module and the result is a different set of emotions: if you vary the thoughts, you vary the emotions. Thought content penetrates emotional content; the psychological “environment” contributes to fixing the inner form of a given mental module. Here we have not just connection between one module and another but annexation, appropriation, penetration. One type of mental state bleeds into another, suffusing it. According to standard externalism, the mind and the environment are not just causally connected but also constitutively enmeshed; and the same kind of relation can bind mental modules to each other. So separation of modules is consistent with constitutive connection. The mind may be an array of separate systems but those systems can saturate each other, shaping their content. We might call this “internal externalism”.

Language affords another example of overlap and interpenetration. The language capacity is best viewed as an internal system that has become hooked up to a sensory-motor system, generally vocal speech (but also sign language in some cases).[2] The two systems interface and cooperate but they are not to be identified: one could exist without the other. Double dissociation is possible, as when a creature can make vocal sounds but not speak a language, or possesses an inner language but has no means of expressing it publicly. But when a creature has a normal vocal language that faculty is an inextricable combination of one module and another: the inner language faculty becomes linked to an outer sensory-motor system and the outer system comes to embody the inner faculty. The two are joined together, even though strictly they are separate mental systems capable of dissociation. Normal human language use is a phenomenon of connection not of the connected things considered separately. Thus sounds come to express meanings and meanings get expressed in sounds. Without the ability to connect the distinct modules the human organism would be incapable of vocal speech. The connections are as vital as the things connected. Evolution can produce modes of connection as much as it can produce the things that are connected; and that is apparently what happened when human speech evolved from the joining of a sensory-motor system and an internal linguistic system.

So we have three types of relation between separate compartments of the mind. First, we have encapsulation in which no pathways exist between one compartment and another—no influence from one part of the mind to another. Here we have what might be called “the unconnected mind” (Fodor’s encapsulation). Second, we have causal pathways that allow for what happens in one part to be affected by what happens in another part, as with conscious events affecting memory and the influence of perception on thought. Third, we have connections that amount to contributions, in which one part of the mind actually shapes another part: here there is a new synthesis that resembles traditional externalism (only now it’s an internal externalism).[3] Modularity can obtain in all three situations, though it is most conspicuous in the first kind of case. What I would emphasize is that the connections are as important as the elements combined: the mind is a connected ensemble of separate modules. Those connections are as worthy of study as the connected elements. Psychology is really the science of the constituent parts of the mind and of their modes of connection: modular connectedness (compare physiology). First it isolates and describes the parts; then it studies their inter-connections.[4]


[1] Jerry Fodor, The Modularity of Mind (1983).

[2] This is Chomsky’s general position: see What Kind of Creatures Are We? (2018).

[3] I am not intending to endorse traditional externalism, which comes in several forms, some more plausible than others; I am merely pointing to an analogy in order to bring out the way components of the mind can interpenetrate. Once the disunity of the mind is acknowledged it is natural to ask whether the components enjoy constitutive connections with each other, and it appears that in some cases they do. Faculty psychology is thus consistent with inter-faculty crossover.

[4] The inter-module connections can be as innate as the modules themselves, as much the product of evolution. This is presumably true for the connection between the internal language faculty and the sensory-motor system that typically expresses it in acts of human communication.


A Counterfactual Theory of Morality


A Counterfactual Theory of Morality



It is frequently maintained that moral sentences are logically misleading: they look like straightforward fact-stating descriptive statements but actually they are not. Their underlying logical form differs from their surface grammatical form. Thus the emotive theory treats them as expressions of emotion (exclamations); the prescriptive theory takes them to be recommendations (imperatives); the anti-categorical-imperative theory interprets them as hypotheticals about desire; the existentialist philosophy condemns them as dispensable symptoms of bad faith not eternal truths. The thought is that the surface form of moral sentences (e.g. “Stealing is wrong”) invites errors of reification and that a paraphrase away from that form will reveal their logical nature to be other than it seems (compare Russell’s theory of descriptions, always the paradigm). We thus rid ourselves of entities and facts that offend our ontological sensibilities. In roughly this spirit I will suggest a new theory of the logical form of moral sentences, though I doubt that it has the liberating ontological significance boasted by other theories; I am concerned more with semantic accuracy than metaphysical purity.[1]

The theory can be simply stated: A moral proposition is a statement about what should be done in certain circumstances. To say that stealing is wrong, for example, is to say that if an occasion for stealing arises you should not take it. To say that generosity is right (or good) is to say that if an occasion for generosity arises you should so act. The idea is that if an opportunity to do a certain something arises you should act in a certain way and not in other ways. Life presents us with occasions of possible action (to steal or not to steal, to be generous or not to be) and morality directs us to act in one way rather than another. Thus the theory is a counterfactual theory in roughly the sense in which we have counterfactual theories of causation: to say that a causes b is to say that if an event like a were to occur an event like b would occur.[2] Causal statements look like simple categorical statements, but logically they have a counterfactual form—they are conditionals of a certain sort. There is no more to them than what such conditionals assert—nothing over and above the meaning of the counterfactual itself. Similarly, we say nothing more in saying that stealing is wrong than that you should not steal in situations in which stealing is an option. When a mother is instructing her child in the wrongness of stealing she is saying that stealing should not be done when the opportunity to steal arises. We might put it by saying that certain actions should not be performed when one might be tempted to perform the actions in question. If you feel like stealing and you think you can get away with it, don’t do it! Or better, you shouldn’t do it—it would be wrong. Likewise, if an opportunity to be kind presents itself, you should take that opportunity and act kindly. The logical form of a moral utterance is thus conditional: it says what should be done if certain possible conditions obtain. If no such conditions could ever arise, the statement would be pointless (ought implying can); the point of morality is to regulate possible action.

We can note three things about this analysis. First, it is irreducibly normative: it says what should be done in certain circumstances, not what is done or could be done or would be done. So it is not intended as a theory that attempts to leverage the normative from the non-normative, still less a theory that rejects the normative on metaphysical grounds. The normative is present there in full force. Second, the theory directly relates morality to action: morality is all about regulating actions—not about emotions or desires or Platonic forms or aggregates of happiness. It is also about actions as they might occur in the real world—situations an agent might actually confront. It is practical in that sense. It says that you should do this and you shouldn’t do that if such and such a predictable situation should arise. Third, it discourages overly fanciful metaphysical ideas—the Form of the Good, indefinable non-natural moral qualities, some heavy-duty forms of moral realism. It doesn’t, however, endorse forms of moral anti-realism or reductionism, since it explicitly builds in a normative condition in the shape of “should”; it merely advises against taking moral sentences as logically analogous to such sentences as “Gravity is proportional to mass” or “London is populous”, which are not logically conditional. To say that stealing is wrong is not to categorically ascribe a property to an object, as those sentences do, but to make a statement about what should be done in certain circumstances. Moral propositions are thus like dispositional propositions (e.g. “salt is soluble in water”): superficially they seem like simple categorical statements, but deep down they are conditional in form. They function to abbreviate a more complex-looking counterfactual conditional. That didactic mother might pedantically remark, “Stealing is wrong, i.e. you shouldn’t steal if an occasion arises where you might be tempted to”. She is not attempting to dispense with the moral concept of wrongness—indeed, she invokes it when employing the word “should”—but merely spelling out the formal content of the original sentence. She might even try to avoid all possible confusion by saying explicitly, “You morally shouldn’t do it”. She isn’t attempting to get outside the moral circle, just to articulate the thrust of a moral affirmation—it’s about what should and shouldn’t be done in certain possible circumstances.

Does this theory avoid moral “queerness”? There are all sorts of metaphysical assumptions about that question that I would dispute, but we can quickly respond as follows: no in one way, but yes in another. No, in that we are still invoking an irreducibly normative notion in the shape of “should”; but yes, in that we are not postulating something that transcends constraints on action—as arguably Plato’s Form the Good does (as it might be interpreted anyway). We are not invoking an entity that is fit to be gazed at and adulated, like some sort of radiant god, but rather enunciating principles governing human action. There are metaphysical extravagances that might be discouraged by the down-to-earth proposal to paraphrase moral statements in the manner suggested, but theorists looking for naturalistic reduction or elimination will be disappointed. The proposal is metaphysically modest, being merely an attempt to get the semantics straight. The proper form of objection to the theory would be that it fails to capture the entailments of moral sentences, or generates unacceptable entailments, but no such objection has hitherto been offered; and the theory seems on solid ground in that respect. Of course, we can go on to ask what justifies such a conditional should-statement—that is, what makes such a statement true—and here we may expect the usual array of theories to offer themselves, e.g. divine command theory, moral relativism, utilitarianism, deontology, social contract theory, etc. But that is to go beyond what the theory set out to accomplish, namely an account of logical form. If the child asks her mother why she shouldn’t do such-and-such, the mother might reply by sketching her favored moral theory; or she might loftily respond by observing that she is merely informing her child of what moral statements mean. If her daughter is precocious enough, she might further comment, “Moral propositions are logically analogous to causal propositions according to the counterfactual theory”. Here we can imagine the clever child replying, “If that’s all you are saying I quite agree, though there is still much work in moral theory to be done once questions of logical form are out of the way”.

An intuitive way to put the theory is as follows: morality is fundamentally about making the correct moral decisions as the occasion arises. Decisions are made in concrete circumstances. Abstract moral propositions don’t always make this clear (“Humility is a virtue”, “Cleanliness is next to godliness”), but it is close to the surface of moral discourse. We may say grandly that stealing is wrong and generosity is right, but what we mean is that you shouldn’t decide to steal something when it is in front of your nose and you fancy having it, and you should decide to act generously to someone who needs help even if you have other things to do. Moral propositions are essentially about what decisions to make in what circumstances—hence conditionals about what should and shouldn’t be done when certain situations arise. We might call this theory the “normative hypothetical” theory: “if it is the case that p, you should/shouldn’t do X”—a conditional with a descriptive antecedent and a normative consequent.[3]



[1] I say “new” but it is entirely possible that the theory has been enunciated elsewhere; it is certainly commonsensical. Still, it is far from orthodox.

[2] I won’t fuss with exact formulation, types and tokens, etc. I am merely making a comparison. (I am also not endorsing counterfactual theories of causation.)

[3] The same kind of account is attractive for statements of prudence, e.g. “Eating in moderation is good”. What this says is that when you are presented with food you should not stuff yourself—if food is placed in front of you, you should consume it in moderation. The prudent person is one who does what he (prudentially) should when negotiating the conditions if life.







Monogamy is defined by the OED as “the practice of being married to or having a sexual relationship with only one person at a time” (from Greek words meaning “single” and “marriage”). A certain type of human relationship (marriage, sexual involvement) is restricted by this practice to a single person at a given time: you must not enter into this relationship with several people simultaneously.[1] The restriction is not typical of human relationships: other social relationships are permitted to have multiple simultaneous instances—friendship, parenthood, pedagogy, teammate, coworker, etc. People don’t enter into these relationships with the express stipulation that no one else may be permitted to be in the same relationship with the person in question—for example, you don’t expect a new friend to cut off all other friendships for your sake, keeping only unto you. These relationships are not deemed mono-relationships; indeed, it would seem preposterous to most people if someone were to take this attitude (“You are teaching someone else!”). A question must then arise as to whether the practice of monogamy is rational and desirable. What if a tribe inverted our practices and regarded friendship as mono and marriage as poly? That would seem arbitrary and unmotivated—are we so sure that our practices are not similarly benighted?

How monogamous are we really? We might distinguish strong monogamy and weak monogamy: the weak kind requires only that there be no sexual contact with another person, while the strong kind prohibits all affection and physical contact with others. The super-strong kind bans even affectionate thoughts about others, or being in the same room. We don’t normally insist on the strong kind, but it is a conceivable form of social exclusiveness. We make room for affection that extends beyond the marriage or romantic partner, though we grow uneasy when the affection crosses certain lines. Hugs and kisses are acceptable, but not kisses on the lips or prolonged hugs. We are not all that strict about passing infidelity of the heart, though that is close to dangerous territory for many people. The lines are blurry and the trespasses contestable, yet we continue to insist on the essential rightness of the practice. Is this rational? Is it good for us? Let’s chip away at it a bit. Suppose people distinguished different types or levels of infidelity: there exists a strict hierarchy of infractions, from hugging to handholding to kissing to genital contact. Each level has its own set of rules and laws with varying punishments that might be formalized in the marriage contract: say, fantasizing and hugging are acceptable but nothing more intimate. Not all offences are treated alike. Are these people monogamous? It is not a binary question: they are monogamous to a certain degree, in a certain respect, quasi-monogamous, monogamous-ish. “How monogamous are you?” “Pretty monogamous, but not, like, absolutely monogamous.” This is not so far removed from current human practices. But there might be difficult cases: suppose that a glance from a stranger at a distance of thirty paces could trigger orgasm if the stranger possesses a certain appeal. That might lead to a prohibition against looking at strangers in public places–and might be taken to be grounds for divorce, even though no bodily contact took place. A person who went around doing this habitually might be deemed hopeless marriage material. Special glasses might be recommended for the weak of will who can’t seem to keep their eyes down. On the other hand, the difficulty of policing such interpersonal stimulation might encourage a more tolerant attitude—after all, it never leads to marital desertion. A person might be partly monogamous and partly not—having a weakness for strolling around the mall on a Saturday afternoon but otherwise strictly mono.

There are more extreme possible scenarios. What if you are married to a person who has recently undergone brain bisection—aren’t you now married to two people? What if each self emerged on alternate days of the week so that you are actually having sex with distinct persons on successive days? Should you divorce one of them and decline to have sex on the days that person is in the ascendant? That seems an extreme response, though it is quite true that you now have two sexual partners if you carry on as before. Or suppose that brain fission occurs and the two halves of the brain end up in different bodies: you now have two individuals in the house where before you had only one. Should you choose one and reject the other? What if they are qualitatively identical? It would be unfair to deprive one of them just because of a pedantic insistence on monogamy. What if you underwent brain fission too, so that four people now roam around the same house? What marital practices should apply? It would surely be prim to limit marital relations so as to guarantee monogamy; a more fluid approach would seem more practical and not morally objectionable. But if that is so, there is the question of the number of selves inhabiting a typical human psyche: what if considerations of personal identity favored the view that we contain multitudes, or at least two or three distinct selves? Aren’t we then already in a non-monogamous relationship? If people began to accept that the self is not the unitary entity of traditional metaphysics, their attitudes towards monogamy might change correspondingly. You might prefer this kind of personal fluctuation as affording a degree of variety in your romantic life. No guilt need accrue; no jealousy need arise (as in “You like my other self more than you like me!”).

Let’s take it a stage further now that we are considering logical possibilities. Suppose an intelligent and sensitive life form to have the body of a snake or worm with segmentation; on each segment a distinct set of genitals are to be found, let’s say 10 in all. Imagine that the sets vary in their impressiveness (by some measure, say potency or pulchritude) with the better sets located nearer the head. Marriage exists for these creatures and rules about extra-marital relations are in force. The main rule is that one may only use the very best genitals for a designated partner, while the others may be used for extra-marital relations. It might be thought a serious violation to break this rule, meriting divorce or worse, while a tolerant attitude is taken towards lesser forms of genital wandering. This seems like a conceivable set-up and the attitudes described reasonable attitudes given the facts (maybe there is some variation in attitudes within this society). The notion of a binary practice of monogamy is alien to these aliens. There is a spectrum not an all-or-nothing choice. Things might be different for us if we displayed this kind of anatomical complexity: there would exist different categories of departure from strict monogamy.

What about jealousy—isn’t this an obvious problem for non-monogamous relationships? Yes it is, but so is it a problem for nearly all of human relationships. We all want to be number 1 not number 2 or number 23. We all want to be the one loved the most: the most-loved child, the most-loved friend, the most-loved pupil, the most-loved lover—or at least we are prone to such wishes. We tend to get jealous if we are not at the top of the list. We learn how to control this emotion to some degree, or we claim to, not sinking into despair when we find out that a cherished friend has better friends than us, or that we are not the most prized student in the class. We fear the loss or demotion of important relationships; we can be wracked with insecurity. This is, as they say, human nature: it is not unique to our romantic relationships. For some people, jealousy is easily triggered and hard to manage, in romance as elsewhere; for others it is less of a problem. But its possibility should not be used to insist on a strict and unrealistic ban on any forms of departure from monogamy. To do so is like saying that possible disappointment is a reason not to strive to succeed: it is true that disappointment often accompanies striving, but that is not a sufficient reason not to make the effort. Similarly, jealousy is natural in intimate relations, but it shouldn’t be taken as a decisive reason not to engage in non-monogamous relations or to prohibit them. It may even be a good thing in keeping us on our toes. As always, tact and good sense should regulate potentially jealousy-producing situations, but it is too much to demand that nothing jealousy-producing should ever be ventured. When you meet your dear friend’s best friend you must handle it with due humility and decorum, and your friend should take care not to rub in the disparity. So there is nothing special about the romantic case so far as jealousy is concerned. Maybe if mores changed the dangers of jealousy might be mitigated, especially if no loss of relationship were threatened. We frown on jealousy in non-romantic situations and try to get beyond it; we might come to feel the same way where romance is concerned.

Ask yourself if the idea of mono-hatred makes sense: the requirement that you can only hate one person at a time. Isn’t it possible, and not morally objectionable, to hate several people at the same time? Of course it is, so it would be silly to prohibit poly-hatred. It would be pointless and unrealistic. So why should romantic love be such that it is only permitted in the singular? It seems possible in the plural, like other kinds of love, so we must ask what rational grounds there might be for restricting such love to a single individual. Is it perhaps just a relic of outdated marriage laws, or a clumsy protection against disease, or a holdover from a preference for monotheism over polytheism, or a way to control women? Suppose a society had a particularly stringent code of monogamy—only one romantic love object per lifetime. Finding a new beloved upon the loss of an old one is deemed infidelity to the old. Serial monogamy isn’t enough; the monogamy must be temporally absolute. Surely that is a far too rigid and life-denying standard, despite its simplicity and purity. So why isn’t the prohibition on simultaneous romantic partners similarly draconian and life denying? Besides, it is not really empirically accurate, since monogamy as we have it is really a matter of degree and variation, with no sharp lines.[2] It is a kind of abstract ideal not a practical compromise fit for the messy realities of life.[3]


[1] What is intended here is not sameness of instant, which suggests threesomes, but overlapping of relationships. This allows for some flexibility, as when a relationship starts up again after going dormant and another person is meanwhile involved—you will not be convicted of infidelity in the interim. This makes the concept of monogamy more elastic than is often supposed, depending as it does on the question of when a romantic relationship exists.

[2] You might say that sexual intercourse provides a sharp line–either it occurs or it doesn’t. But (a) this is far too permissive for most people’s tastes and (b) we can manufacture possible cases that make it blurry (what if inter-genital stimulation is mediated by a suitable force field that operates over several centimeters?). The concept of “having sex” is actually not very well defined.

[3] A case can be made for stricter standards of monogamy during the early stages of a relationship, but as time wears on a more relaxed attitude may be considered reasonable.


Sentience and Morality


Sentience and Morality



It is often said these days that morality applies when and only when sentience is present, but the exact connection between the two is not often spelled out. The thought is that the states of insentient objects impose no obligations on us while the states of sentient beings do. Obviously it is not intended that the merely physical states of sentient beings impose such obligations; the idea is that it is in virtue of the mental states of sentient beings that moral obligations apply. That is, it is states of consciousness that form the necessary and sufficient conditions for morality to apply. But what is it about consciousness that confers value on it? Not merely its subjectivity or its intentionality or its rationality or its innerness, since many conscious states have these features but have nothing particularly to do with morality—for instance, seeing yellow or thinking about the moon. There is nothing good or bad about having such mental states considered in themselves: they impose no moral obligations on moral beings (we are not obliged to increase the incidence of seeing yellow). Rather, there is a subclass of mental states that are morally relevant—the class that includes desire, happiness and unhappiness, agreeableness and its opposite, good experiences and bad. Pain and suffering are paramount in this class: from physical injury to bad smells to romantic pangs to boredom, lassitude, and despair. All the things that we don’t like, that turn us off, that bring us down, that ruin our day: thwarted desires, nasty sensations, unpleasant forebodings. These are the mental states that create obligation and trigger moral action, along with their positive counterparts. Thus “Pain is bad” is the prime example of a moral proposition, because it leads directly to ought-statements such as “You ought to do something about that person’s pain”. It is this type of state of sentient beings that is deemed morally significant.

But this doesn’t settle the question of the connection between sentience and morality, because we have yet to explain what sentience as such has to do with morality. Why does the property of consciousness have such a central role in moral thinking? What about unconscious pain and unconscious desire? Suppose for a moment that these are possible (the supposition is not absurd): would such states also ground moral obligation? The answer is unclear: one feels that they would count to some degree but not as much as fully conscious pain and desire. It is worse to feel a conscious pain than to have one that is outside of consciousness, but surely one ought to do something about someone’s pain even if he or she is not conscious of it. Similarly, it is good to satisfy a person’s conscious desires, but is it equally good to satisfy someone’s unconscious desires? Utilitarianism exhorts us to produce the greatest happiness for the greatest number, but does that extend to unconscious happiness? The fact of being conscious makes a moral difference, though not the same difference as that between (say) being square and being in pain—the former having no moral significance at all. What if a tribe was equally attentive to the unconscious minds of its members as to their conscious minds—wouldn’t that make them more morally sensitive than us? Is the emphasis on conscious mental states a moral prejudice? Or is it just that we don’t tend to believe in the unconscious mind but would change our moral tune if we did?

The question of other minds is instructive: here there can be genuine doubt about the scope of morality. Suppose that half the people you are acquainted with are conscious and half or not—but you don’t know which is which. The distribution of sentience is opaque to you. Then you will be placed in a moral quandary, since you can’t apply the sentience-morality connection with any confidence. You agree that obligation requires sentience, but you don’t know who has it. It would be different if morality had nothing to do with sentience and everything to do with outer behavior, since then your obligations would be equal for all the individuals you encounter. But as things are, the scope of moral obligation is indeterminate so far as you are concerned, so you don’t know how to be moral in this world. Should you treat everyone as if they are sentient just to be on the safe side (but think what a waste of resources for the false positives), or should you put half your effort into each individual (but that may result in neglecting a deserving case)? The sentience criterion runs into the problem of other minds and in unfavorable cases can render it unworkable as a basis for morality. You always know what is due to you morally, since you know your own consciousness directly, but you can be genuinely uncertain what you owe to others. And this theoretical problem has a real-life counterpart when it comes to other species and people with abnormalities (such as paralysis or coma). If you got really serious about the problem of other minds, you might wonder whether you had any moral obligations to others at all—and likewise with the problem of not recognizing sentience when it is present (worms, trees?). The sentience test makes morality epistemologically problematic.

Is it just a primitive fact that sentience matters? What if we came across aliens that invert our normal sense of moral obligation, treating insentient objects as deserving moral respect while disregarding sentient beings? They go around making sure that every object is polished and made straight, holding this to be their prime moral obligation, while treating suffering and unfulfilled desire as morally insignificant. Could we persuade them of the error of their ways? Would we be reduced to saying, “Can’t you see that pain is bad and roundness is value-neutral?” When they ask us why we can only reply, “Because pain is a conscious state”. They might wonder whybeing a conscious state makes all the difference: what is it about consciousness that makes it the sine qua non of morality?[1] Is it the mere fact that to be conscious is for there to be something it is like for the organism? But why does what it’s like have this special relationship to morality? Why is this kind of subjectivity a condition for moral obligation to get a grip? And if it is a condition, why do moral theories not generally recognize it to be so?

For not all substantive moral theories put sentience at the heart of morality. Utilitarianism does because it expressly speaks of maximizing a certain type of mental state, assumed to be conscious; but deontological theories have no such direct connection to consciousness. The duty to tell the truth, keep your promises, not to steal, not to commit adultery, etc., say nothing about states of consciousness: they could apply in a robot world. There might be lying, stealing, promise-breaking adulterous robots—that is, beings that do all these immoral things. Does morality apply to them? One might say that such duties can only apply against a suitable psychological background, but that is not part of the official deontological story and threatens to reduce it to a utilitarian theory. The connection between morality and sentience is certainly looser according to deontological ethics, and less subject to some of the uncertainties of the sentience criterion. It may be true that in the actual world morality and sentience are coterminous, more or less, but it is a question whether the connection goes any deeper—whether the existence of moral obligation can be explained by the nature of sentience. That is, it is a question why being conscious should be the touchstone of morality, as a matter of conceptual necessity. There is certainly a feeling—an “intuition”—that this is so, but articulating it is less easy than one might have expected. Maybe one part of morality—the part concerned with pain and suffering—necessarily involves consciousness, but it may not be essential to other parts, such as those emphasized by deontological theories. Would an eliminative view of consciousness put an end to morality? Would a takeover of the conscious mind by the unconscious mind make the idea of moral obligation nugatory? What if a condition analogous to blindsight were to invade the entire human mind—would that mean that morality no longer applies? Kant took personhood to define the scope and limits of morality, thus excluding animals and some humans; the substitution of sentience for personhood was intended to enlarge the range of moral obligation. But perhaps we need a further enlargement to include beings whose consciousness is in question. Sentience may be too parochial (as well as too inclusive in some respects). Having interests seems to be the essence of morality, but that notion doesn’t seem necessarily tied to sentience, though having conscious desires may be the central case of having interests. Ecological ethics sometimes speaks of the interests of whole species or the biosphere or the planet, but these entities are not claimed to be conscious sentient beings. Sentience as such doesn’t seem to constitute the dividing line, given the moral neutrality of much sentience (e.g. seeing yellow), and unconscious mental states seem to have some moral weight, and not all moral rules have to do with promoting conscious happiness and avoiding conscious misery, and other minds can be elusive: so we do well to take the sentience criterion as just a rough rule of thumb rather than a definitive account of the scope of morality. Perhaps, indeed, it was always a bad idea to seek hard and fast limits to the scope of morality.[2]


[1] Should we say that pain can only hurt if it is conscious, and hurting is what makes pain morally significant? But then it is not consciousness as such that is morally significant but its power to make things hurt: an entity is morally considerable if and only if it can be made to hurt. This is (a) a rather narrow conception of morality and (b) not self-evident as a conceptual truth because of the possibility of unconscious pain. Here we get into debates about the metaphysics of pain, which render the sentience criterion contestable.

[2] Morality has been in a process of expansion over many centuries; it would be folly to suppose that it has reached its outer limit now. We tend to fashion theories to fit its actual scope at any given time. Now that we have acquired the power to destroy planets (our own at least) and might develop yet more destructive powers, we might have to consider our obligations to the universe as a whole; and this might prompt us to expand our notion of obligation beyond the realm of sentient beings. What if we encounter complex alien life forms to which our notion of sentience fails to apply—might we then contemplate extending the concept of moral obligation to include these insentient life forms? After all, it was only recently that the sentience criterion came to be accepted as a legitimate extension, mainly as a result of a greater awareness of animal ethics.


Externalism and the Cogito


Externalism and the Cogito



The basic meaning of the Cogito is that the existence of a conscious state implies the existence of a subject of that state. Thus thinking implies a thing that thinks, where that thing is not identical to the thought itself. We might say that something external to the thought is implied by the thought—a distinct existence. If selves were material objects, this would give us the result that conscious states imply the existence of material objects—though that is not the only conception of the self that might be invoked. Still, the idea is that something of another nature is implied by consciousness: it isn’t thoughts that are the subject of thoughts, but something of a different order. To have a thought it is necessary for this other entity to exist; the thought is not a self-subsistent entity capable of independent existence. It depends on the existence of something outside of it. This contrasts with the position that the mind is merely a collection of free-floating states of consciousness, owing nothing essential to anything outside of those states. Only what is internal to thought is essential to its existence. Thus we cannot validly propound anything like the Cogito: from the existence of thoughts we can infer nothing but the existence of thoughts. Accordingly, thoughts could exist in a world consisting of nothing else as a matter of metaphysical possibility, whereas the Cogito asserts that thoughts require the existence of other things in order to exist. Thoughts require the existence of selves in order to have being at all, according to the Cogito, while they are conceived as ontologically autonomous by the contrasting position. This is why Descartes held that the Cogito provides leverage against the skeptic: it enables us to get beyond the mere existence of states of mind into a broader reality.

I have stated the Cogito in such a way as to bring out its analogy with externalism about mental states.[1] For that doctrine also asserts that thoughts imply the existence of something beyond themselves—not the self, however, but the objects of thought. That is, it asserts that thoughts cannot exist in the absence of external objects that give them content: they draw upon objects distinct from themselves in order to be thoughts at all. There is thus an analogue to the Cogito: “I think, therefore the objects of my thought exist”; for example, “I think that London exists, therefore London exists”. The direct reference, Russell-Mill-Kripke-Kaplan, view of names implies a modified Cogito, now relating to the subject matter of thought not merely to its subject. Generalizing, thoughts are not self-subsistent autonomous entities that can go their merry way without reliance on anything else; they depend upon an ontological realm beyond themselves—what we are pleased to call the “external world”. Put differently, they are not merely subjective entities locked up in the mind but possess objective conditions of existence: no external world, no thought. The contrasting view is that thoughts only contingently have objective correlates; in themselves they are free-floating entities beholden to nothing outside their own boundaries. They exist entirely within the subject and could exist in the complete absence of an external world. As a corollary, their content cannot vary without some variation in their internal characteristics, notably their introspectively available nature: same inner appearance, same content. The externalist, by contrast, claims that content can vary while inner appearance remains the same (Twin Earth etc.). Here we have an analogue in the case of thoughts and their subjects: identity of thoughts implies identity of subject for the internalist about subjects, while the externalist maintains that the same thoughts could correspond to different selves thinking them. Consider psychological twins having exactly the same thoughts: one view says they must be the same self, since selves cannot transcend collections of thoughts, while the other view says that two distinct selves could have the same thoughts. In both cases the internalist insists that no reality beyond thoughts themselves need enter the picture—neither subjects nor objects—while the externalist holds that thoughts essentially involve an extra level of reality. The externalist sees thought as reaching out to selves and external objects, drawing them in so to speak, while the internalist sees thought as standing apart from everything else. The question at issue between them is whether the mind incorporates other regions of reality or whether it is sealed up in itself.

The point I am driving at is that externalism and the Cogito are in the same line of business seen from a broader perspective. The Cogito is a kind of externalism: it regards thought as incorporating an “external world” of selves—entities that are not reducible to thoughts and might even pre-exist them (depending on what exactly selves are). Similarly, the modern externalist holds that thoughts incorporate objects in the environment existing at some distance from the subject and generally pre-existing thought. The externalist thinks that thoughts have existential implications beyond themselves, just as Descartes thinks that thoughts imply the existence of selves distinct from themselves. And just as he argued that the Cogito thwarts the skeptic, so the modern externalist contends that externalism undermines radical skepticism: for both take thought to involve more than merely inner states whose nature is exhausted by introspection. Thoughts drive us in a direction beyond themselves, thus delivering us from the walled-in world of pure subjectivity—so at least it is supposed. Ironically, then, Descartes is the first externalist—the first to claim that thought is possible only because of things outside of thought. He is opposing the idealist notion that there could be nothing but ideas, i.e. states of consciousness, because ideas themselves require the existence of non-ideas—the selves that have them. Externalism merely pushes this point a stage further by contending that thought content is not independent of non-mental reality (particulars, natural kinds, properties, etc.). Thought involves the world at both ends so to speak. It embraces the world; it doesn’t shun the world.

In fact, according to the clear-headed externalist, thought doesn’t exactly “reach out to” or “embrace” or “incorporate” or “include” things beyond itself—though those locutions are immensely tempting—since it alreadyembodies the world in its inner architecture. A thought just is a subject apprehending objects; it doesn’t achieve this condition by starting from a different position. There is no reaching out to do, no implying or extending or grasping, since that is what a thought constitutively and originally is. The fact of thought contains subjects and objects as part of its inherent make-up, according to the externalist; it doesn’t need to stir itself into miraculous acts of inclusion, as if employing a magical lasso. It is not an essentially inner thing with remarkable powers of attraction; it is an outer thing from the start. That is, the Cogito and its externalist counterpart merely express what a thought is in its original nature. A thought is a subject-object complex for the committed externalist, where the subject and object are not themselves instances of something mental. If we are materialists, subject and object are both material things, so thought (in addition to its material realization in the brain) embeds both a material self (perhaps consisting of the body) and a material external world (tables and chairs, water, tigers, etc.). The Cogitoand its modern externalist counterpart situate the mind in a world of things whose nature is not inherently mental—selves and freestanding objects. Thus both oppose the idealist position that thoughts can exist in a world devoid of non-ideational being, as if they need neither a subject to possess them nor an object to be what they are about. There is no clean separation of mind and world of the kind the idealist presupposes.[2]


[1] I won’t defend, or even much articulate, externalism here, but bear in mind that the doctrine comes in several varieties and that the external entities invoked can vary from material particulars to Platonic universals and numbers—anything that isn’t mental in nature. A relatively weak version of it says simply that thoughts concern properties and properties are non-mental attributes of external things: see my Mental Content (1989).

[2] Clearly I am sympathetic to externalism (of a suitably restricted kind), but in this paper I am suspending the question of its truth and merely exploring an analogy with the Cogito. It is perhaps surprising that such a famously Cartesian thesis should be so consonant with modern externalism, which prides itself on rejecting a (supposedly) Cartesian view of mind. Actually, I don’t think Descartes would have much objection to Twin Earth cases and the like.



Being Conscious


Being Conscious



What is consciousness? What is its basic and essential character? I shall suggest the following: consciousness is the feeling of being. This terse formula will need some elaboration but it is useful as a summary statement. I mean to be speaking of consciousness in the broadest sense—the kind of consciousness (sentience) found in birds, reptiles, fish, even insects, as well as humans. Mainly this is sensory consciousness, though other kinds branch out from the basic kind (presumably it was the earliest kind of consciousness to evolve). There are two sides to the characterization I propose, corresponding to feeling and being. By the latter I simply mean existence: to be conscious is to feel the existence of something. Here two historical figures come into play: Brentano and Descartes. Brentano maintained that to be conscious is to be conscious of something, generally something other than oneself, say objects in the environment. Descartes maintained that being conscious implies one’s own existence (the Cogito)—consciousness carries within it the knowledge of the existence of a self. Putting these two thinkers together, we can say that being conscious carries a double existential implication: it implies the existence of a subject of consciousness and the existence of something other than the subject. It is existentially committal in two respects. Possibly these intimations are misleading (illusions etc.), but they are real intimations nonetheless. Consciousness posits a duality of existences. The suggestion is that these are universal features of consciousness, as Brentano and Descartes supposed; they are necessary and definitive. I think that is basically right, but I won’t here go into the pros and cons. The important point is that conscious states are being-directed while non-conscious states are not (being square doesn’t imply the existence of anything). We can see this in the grammar: to be consciously seeing (say) is for a subject to see an object—there is no subject-less seeing of non-objects.[1]

What about the feeling part? I intend by this word to capture the primitiveness of consciousness in its most basic form—it is a primordial type of feeling. It is not a judgment or a mental act or a belief or an emotion; it isn’t “conceptual”. To be conscious is to feel a certain way—to feel consciously. Thus consciousness is rightly classified as a sensation: whenever an organism is in a conscious state it has a characteristic sensation, the sensation of consciousness. There are sensations of red and sensations of pain, but there is also the sensation of consciousness itself. You can feel this sensation in yourself during your waking hours; it attends your every conscious move. A being might not this have this sensation, in which case it would not be conscious. If you attend now to your visual experience, you will detect various visual sensations, but in addition to these you will find the sensation of consciousness itself. This is why you are aware of your consciousness—because you have sensation of consciousness that you know about. So the feeling of being is a sensation directed toward being—you sense being, you have a sensation of it. It is not that you believe in being whenever you are conscious or that you make a judgment about it; rather, you have a primitive sensation of being. But this sensation cannot occur in the absence of consciousness, as arguably other sensations can, since it is what consciousness is—it is precisely the sensation of consciousness (the consciousness-sensation). If you have a conscious sensation of pain, say, you have both a sensation of pain and a sensation of consciousness. The latter sensation accompanies all conscious mental states uniformly despite their phenomenological variety. When you recover consciousness upon waking up you start to have a sensation that will be present throughout your waking hours—not a higher-order judgment that you keep making or a certain type of omnipresent emotion or a mental act repeatedly performed. You have the consciousness-sensation, a specific feature of mental life.[2]

The view I am describing has points of contact with Sartre’s view of consciousness.[3] He emphasizes the fact that consciousness essentially posits being: the for-itself aims itself at the in-itself. It is not an enclosed self-subsistent being. He doesn’t describe it as having a sensation-like character, but this claim is consistent with his analysis. What he does emphasize is what he calls the “nothingness” of consciousness—the idea that consciousness has no positive being over and above its posited objects. I won’t try to explicate this idea here, merely noting that it can be added to the account I am developing. In Sartre’s terms, consciousness harbors a negation: it is not the objects it posits. It transcends those objects, though not because it is another object, but rather because its being is to be pure other-directedness. It posits existence without being an existent thing like the things it posits—it has a kind of invisible vanishing existence: nothingness, in a word. So, following Sartre, we can say that consciousness is the feeling of being that distances itself from being: it posits being as not itself. It is the feeling of being while feeling itself not to be a being (an in-itself). Thus three notions come together in consciousness: feeling (sensation), being (existence), and negation (nothingness). These are fundamental features of our conceptual scheme, as well as of objective reality. We can therefore say, filling out our simple formula, that consciousness is the feeling of double existence that presents itself as removed from existence (transcending it) and as not itself an existent thing (except as a kind of nothingness).

There is another way to put the view I am proposing: we can speak of manifest being and non-manifest being (pure being). Inanimate objects have non-manifest or pure being: their being is not manifest to any conscious subject, save per accidens. They simply are without any necessary recognition of this fact. But in the case of conscious subjects being becomes manifest, as when we recognize our own existence in acts of consciousness. Consciousness makes our being (and other being) manifest, so it is the agent of being-manifestation. Instead of saying that consciousness is the feeling of being we can say that it is being become manifest, thus shifting the emphasis to the level of being. Consciousness is being become aware of itself. At one time being was manifest to no one, but then consciousness came about and being became manifest. Being caused being to become aware of being. Thus the feeling of being became part of being, with its characteristic structure (sensation plus being plus negation). Instead of saying that consciousness consists in a subject feeling an object we can equivalently say that consciousness consists in an object making itself manifest to a subject—the difference is one of emphasis.

An idealist would insist that there is no being without the feeling of being, possibly a feeling in God’s mind. So there is no pure being: all being derives from the feeling of being–all being is manifest being. This is another way of saying that everything is made of consciousness, so idealism can be formulated using this definition of consciousness. It is the doctrine that all being is felt being. Being consists in sensations of being, i.e. consciousness. An idea in the mind of God is a sensation of being, since God is a conscious being, though no doubt more capacious than human sensations of being. When God has the sensation that a table exists a table exists—that’s idealism under the present theory of consciousness.

How does this account relate to the idea that consciousness consists of states there is something it is like to have? This phrase is usually coupled with the idea of subjectivity, which in turn is analyzed in terms of epistemic access: a state is said to be subjective if and only if it can only be grasped by experiencing it oneself. Thus what it is like to be a bat is subjective in the sense that only beings with experiences like bats can know what kind of state is in question.[4] Clearly this is an epistemological point concerning knowledge of conscious states (or possibly unconscious ones if they are similarly restricted in their conditions of understanding, e.g. subliminal bat perceptions). As such it belongs to a different level from the kind of constitutive conditions I have been discussing: those are internal to conscious states, part of their structure, whereas subjectivity in the sense defined concerns relational facts about knowledge of conscious states. It says they are only knowable in a certain way, i.e. from a particular “point of view”, not from any point of view. There is nothing wrong with characterizing conscious states in this epistemological way, but it should be distinguished from the search for the constitutive nature of such states. There is no incompatibility between the two; they are aiming at different things. The feeling of being that defines a particular kind of conscious state, say a bat’s echolocation experiences, is something that can only be grasped by sharing that feeling, so that subjectivity (in the sense defined) can be added to existence, feeling, and negation that characterize the inner structure of a state of consciousness. Being can be felt (and simultaneously transcended) in different ways, and these ways correspond to differences in epistemic accessibility. There are different things it’s like for organisms and these consist in different ways that being can be felt.

But that doesn’t imply that consciousness itself is a variable commodity in the sense that the property of being conscious itself varies from organism to organism. If what I said earlier is correct, that property is uniform across types of conscious state—within an organism and across organisms. It is the same sensation in all cases—the sensation of consciousness as such. In this sense we do grasp the consciousness of bats, since their consciousness consists in the same thing as ours, viz. that feeling or sensation that makes a state a conscious state. The bat’s echolocation experience is not like anything we possess, but its being conscious is just like what we possess, since that property exists in our experience too—the property precisely of being conscious. If consciousness is a type of sensation, then bats and humans share a sensation (over and above other shared sensations), namely the sensation of being conscious. What we can’t grasp is the nature of the sensory experiences that bats enjoy, but we can grasp what consciousness is for bats, because it is the same for us. All sentient beings are united by a single mental property, i.e. the sensation of being conscious. The bat feels existence by exercising its echolocation sense, and that feeling is subjective (accessible only from one “point of view”); but in addition to that it has a sense of its own consciousness—a certain type of sensation that being conscious consists in. If consciousness consisted in possessing a higher-order thought, we would get the same result, since we know what higher-order thoughts are from our own case; but the same result follows from the sensational theory of consciousness. So there is a sense in which we don’t grasp the consciousness of bats but also a sense in which we do.

What would be a good label for the view I am describing? The label “phenomenological existentialism” suggests itself: it conveys the idea of feeling and the idea of existence, as well as their joining together. But those words carry a lot of baggage and are cumbersome—is there anything catchier and more specific? How about “felt being-ism”? True, it is grammatically awkward, and true it can claim no familiar antecedent; but at least it captures the view briefly and clearly. It’s either that or we appropriate some French or German phrase that resists translation into English, a task I leave to those more linguistically adept than I am.



[1] Of course there can be hallucinations, but the experience is still object-directed—it has an “intentional object”. It is as of an object.

[2] There might be other such constant sensations such as a sense of your own unity or of the presence of space and time. My suggestion is that a sensation of being conscious pervades all waking life: you constantly feel your own consciousness in the mode of sensation.

[3] See Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness (1943).

[4] See Thomas Nagel, “What is it Like to be a Bat?” (1972)







Some things are said to be reducible, others irreducible. I wish to consider two questions about such claims:  (a) what their modal status is and (b) what their explanation is. I won’t be interested in whether the claims are true or false but only in whether their truth is necessary or contingent and in why they are true when they are true. I will focus on the irreducibility of mind to body, assuming that this is a genuine case of irreducibility.

The first question, then, is whether the mind is necessarily irreducible or only contingently so. We are accepting that nothing about the brain as it actually exists affords an adequate reduction base for the mind—not neurons, axons and dendrites, chemical transmitters, etc. It doesn’t follow from this that no brain properties couldserve as an adequate reduction base: maybe there are possible worlds in which the mind is reducible to properties of the brain that don’t exist in our world. Maybe brains have a richer set of properties in some other world and these properties allow a successful reduction of the mind. For example, assume that panpsychism is false in our world, so that such properties cannot be appealed to as a possible reduction of the mind as we experience it—there just are no such properties of matter in the actual world, inside the brain or outside. That is consistent with accepting that in some other world the brain might be endowed with micro-mental properties and that these provide a successful reduction. Suppose that in that world we have ample evidence for the existence of these micro-mental properties and that physics has long since recognized their existence (they might even affect the behavior of elementary particles). It then turns out that a combinatorial scheme can generate macro-mental properties from these more basic micro properties—the case is structurally just like the atomic theory of matter. There is a mental chemistry that relates the mind reductively to its micro-constituents. Whether we choose to call those constituents “mental” or “physical” matters little; the important point is that there exists a set of facts that provides a satisfactory reduction. Or again, there might be some hitherto undreamt of set of properties that exists in a possible world that can provide a reduction, even though nothing in the actual world can perform this role. If so, though the mind is actually irreducible, it might not be necessarily irreducible (though we could still say that it is necessarily irreducible in the actual world).

Similarly, something may be reducible in the actual world but not in all possible worlds. Thermodynamics is reducible to statistical mechanics in the actual world, but is it so reducible in all worlds? What if a world contains heat phenomena but no molecular motion (the molecules stay still in this world)? Maybe heat is reducible to something else in this world, or maybe it is reducible to nothing. What if chemistry is not reducible to physics in a possible world because there are no negatively charged particles in that world? Just as the same things can have different explanations in different possible worlds, so natural phenomena can be differently reducible in different worlds. Does liquidity always have to reduce to sliding molecules in all worlds? Maybe it is a primitive property in some worlds, or maybe it reduces to perturbations in a continuous substance. Just because X is reducible to Y in our world doesn’t imply that the same reduction obtains in all possible worlds. Reduction is contingent.[1]

If these reflections are correct, Descartes could have been right about the mind as it exists in the actual world but not as it exists in all worlds. Maybe in some worlds matter is richer than Cartesian mechanism allows so that there is less of a gap between it and thought (the essence of mind). Maybe functionalism stands more chance of being true in a world that contains more subtle kinds of functional role than what obtains in the actual world (experiences of red may have a different functional role from experiences of green in this world, so that we don’t have inverted spectrum problems). None of this would imply that in our world functionalism is true, but some version of it might be true in another world (relative to the kinds of mind that exist there). Even something deserving the name “materialism” might be true in world in which the physical world is richer than our physical world. If this is so, we could say that it just happens that the mind is irreducible in our world—it might have been otherwise. Reduction is a metaphysical possibility.

But if it is merely contingent that the mind is irreducible in our world, why is it the case that it is so irreducible? If the mind is not intrinsically irreducible, then presumably something must explain why it is irreducible as things are—there must be something about our world that makes it so. There must be a reason for the irreducibility. There is a reason for reducibility when it obtains, which is not difficult to discover: roughly, things are generally combinations of simpler things. The universe starts with a range of basic ingredients and then these combine to form more complex structures, but nothing fundamentally new comes into the world—thus stars, planets, galaxies, rock formations, mountains, and continents. Molecules form from atoms, ever more complex. Primitive organisms form from molecules (we don’t yet know precisely how). Simpler organisms give rise to more complex ones. There is an unbroken chain, an intelligible and predictable sequence. It all hangs coherently together. Reduction, then, is only to be expected; it is certainly not something to be surprised about—no one says, “How amazing, mountains are reducible to rocks!” Nor are we stunned to find that water is H2O and heat is molecular motion. Things are composed of other things according to laws and intelligible modes of combination. It is irreducibility that is surprising from a cosmic perspective: how does the universe contrive to create novel types of entity? For example, granted that the mind is irreducible, why should that be so? Couldn’t it have been reducible? In some worlds it may be. What is the explanation of irreducibility in our world? Why does the universe indulge in it? This may seem like a strange question, but perhaps considering some possible answers will make it less strange.

Suppose the mind has some functional biological property P that cannot be conferred by the brain, as the brain is constituted in the actual world.  Then natural selection could lead to the propagation of P—even though the brain has no property that can reduce P. Here we have a biological explanation of the irreducibility of the mind: it has a property that brains can’t confer that is advantageous to survival. That is the reason an irreducible reality arose.  Irreducibility could arise when a chance mutation is selected that brings a new trait into circulation. That is, the explanation of mental irreducibility is that a chance factor combines with natural selection to favor a given trait that has no basis in anything else. In general, chance can lead to new forms, which may or may not persist. According to this explanation, irreducibility arises for intelligible reasons (in so far as chance is intelligible); it is not just a brute inexplicable fact. It might even arise from basic indeterminism at the quantum level. Alternatively, it might be said that the explanation of mental irreducibility is that God intervenes in nature to inject new ingredients into the world, expressly designing it to contain irreducible elements. He doesn’t leave nature to its own combinatory devices. Whether these are good explanations, is not to the point—which is that irreducibility requires an explanation. It is not a predictable necessary truth about how things are. In fact, it is a puzzle, an anomaly, compared to reducibility. This doesn’t mean that it isn’t a reality just that it is a surprising fact about nature. Given the way nature generally works, we would expect the mind to be reducible—as bodily organs are reducible (the brain is not irreducible). Something special must be invoked to explain its existence as an irreducible being. If we say that the mind is essentially subjective and hence irreducible, then the puzzle is why the evolutionary process gave rise to a subjective entity instead of making do with the objective entities already on the menu. What does subjectivity do for the organism? Why didn’t evolution install objective traits functionally like the subjective mind, thus allowing for reduction? The lack of reducibility calls for some kind of explanation, but it is not at all clear what this explanation might be. It hardly seems like a completely chance occurrence with no underlying rationale.

Compare fact and value: why is value irreducible to fact? We might reply: because values are normative and facts are not. That is some kind of explanation for irreducibility–and notice that it applies in any possible world. But the case of mind and body is not like that because the mental-physical divide is not comparable to the fact-value divide: the former exists within a natural evolutionary process while the latter reflects the very different purposes of factual and normative discourse.[2] It is not at all surprising that values differ from facts and are irreducible to them, but it is surprising that an irreducible type of reality arose during the course of evolution. This is why the latter irreducibility cries out for explanation while the former does not. We don’t know the reason why an irreducible mind arose—though (it may be supposed) we know that it did. In general, we don’t know why the universe contains irreducible things as well as reducible ones. It seems like an eccentric proclivity, a fondness for variety for its own sake. A thoroughly reducible universe would be a lot easier to comprehend.[3]


Colin McGinn


[1] The astute reader may observe that if reduction implies identity then we will have the same reduction all worlds, since if X is identical to Y it is so in all worlds. For example, heat will always be reducible to molecular motion in all worlds since heat is molecular motion. But we need not have such a simple view of the reduction relation: what matters for reduction is that everything about the reduced domain is explicable in terms of the reducing domain. And identity is certainly not sufficient for reduction or else “Hesperus is Phosphorous” would count as a reduction (and molecular motion would be reducible to heat). In this paper I shall try to avoid presupposing any specific theory of reduction, leaving the notion at an intuitive level.

[2] I am not here attempting to give any serious account of the fact-value distinction, or even defend its reality; my purpose is merely comparative.

[3] Another way to put the question of this paper is: Why does the universe contain (non-reductive) supervenience as a well as (reductive) identity?