Problems of Philosophy


Problems of Philosophy



Russell called his “shilling shocker” The Problems of Philosophy, and there is a reason for that title: philosophy consists of a set of problems. The same is not true of other subjects: physics, chemistry, geology, biology, psychology, history, economics, English literature, etc. In these subjects a certain sector of reality is selected and investigated, discovering the entities, processes, and laws of that sector. It is true that problems arise during these investigations, which might impede the progress of investigation, but none of these subjects consists of problems—and the problems that do arise are not like philosophical problems (see below). Philosophy is not concerned with any specific sector of reality, ranging over all of reality, but only with the philosophical problems that arise in anydomain (hence philosophy of physics, philosophy of psychology, etc.). It goes from ethics to metaphysics, language to space and time, art to science, politics to logic. Philosophy is concerned with a certain type of problem not a specific aspect of reality. And no other subject is like that: it is what distinguishes philosophy from every other area of human inquiry. We might indeed use it to define philosophy: philosophy is that subject which deals with a certain set of problems, no matter what those problems may concern—problems of a certain distinctive character. It is not defined by subject matter, as other disciplines are, but by the kind of intellectual activity it invites—problem-solving activity. This is why an introductory textbook in physics or psychology or geology will not have a title of the form The Problems of X but rather something along the lines of The Discoveries of X. It is also why so many topics in philosophy are described as “the problem of such and such”: the problem of free will, the problem of knowledge, the problem of consciousness, the problem of the self, the problem of induction, the mind-body problem, the problem of perception, and so on. Each of these areas poses problems—questions we find it hard to answer, questions that trouble us, questions that won’t go away. They pose problems for us: we ourselves have a problem because of the existence of these problems. For the problems challenge rational thought: they put pressure on rational thought, and so they put pressure on us as rational beings. The problems of philosophy are ourproblems not just problems attaching to a certain subject matter—problems of the self, we might say. So the philosopher is in a peculiar position: he or she has no specific domain of expertise to investigate, no proprietary subject matter, but rather a roster of disparate problems that tax and trouble him or her. The philosopher is more of a trouble-shooter than a fact-collector: when queried about what she does for a living the philosopher will reply, “I solve problems” (inwardly adding, “or try to”). This is what makes philosophers different from other inquirers: we are in the problem business while they are in the discovery business. Even when our topic of interest isn’t conventionally called “the problem of X” (e.g. “the problem of meaning”) we recognize that problems constitute our daily diet—they are what we feed on. Philosophy is made of problems.

What kind of problems? Here the hand waving is apt to commence; the otherwise articulate philosopher begins to mumble. He may say airily that he is concerned with “deep problems” or problems about “ultimate reality”; or state peremptorily that he is interested in “conceptual problems”. For it is difficult to give a precise and uncontroversial characterization of the kind of problem that comprises the subject of philosophy. These problems are not like problems stemming from remoteness in space and time, as in astronomy and evolutionary biology; nor do they concern infinity or the interior of black holes. The problems have to do with thought itself: we find that we can’t think straight about something—we can’t make sense of it. It baffles us. Thus problems about space and time, the nature of the mind, the status of ethical value, what meaning is, what necessity is, how knowledge is possible, whether we can perceive material objects, and so on. I would call these logical problems, in a wide sense of “logic”: they concern the possibility of making rational sense of something.[1] I won’t go into the details of this, merely observing that the philosopher is in the business of rendering things coherent, intelligible, and clear, not confounding, confusing, and obscure. In the case of the problem of knowledge, for example, the philosopher wishes to reconcile the demands imposed by the concept of knowledge with the mind-independence of the world. So we can say that the set of problems that define philosophy are logical problems, not empirical or “factual” problems. How is free will compatible with determinism? This is a logical problem of showing that one thing is logically consistent with another (or accepting the inconsistency). Not surprisingly, then, philosophy and logic are close cousins—the philosopher is always a logician of sorts. Again, no other subject is like this—a battle against logical problems. This is perhaps why philosophy is regarded with suspicion by other academic types: it really is a different kind of enterprise from every other subject. Instead of trying to discover truths about a certain part of reality, which may or may not be actively problematic, it tries to solve the logical problems raised by any part of reality. In so doing it attempts to solve our problems in thinking about reality (so it has a therapeutic purpose). Philosophy is self-medicating in a way that physics (etc.) is not. It tries to soothe a personal unease.

How do these logical problems arise? Are they unavoidable? Could there be a type of philosophy that didn’t take this form? Two possibilities suggest themselves: either they arise from our modes of thinking about reality, or they arise from reality itself. If they arise from our modes of thinking, they should be in principle correctable; or if not correctable for us, then other intelligent beings need not be subject to them to start with. But this seems hard to accept, given their obstinacy and longevity. Then they must be objectively based: but how can the world contain such problems? Is free will itself not sure whether it is possible or not? Is there simply no fact of the matter about the nature of space and time, or consciousness, or ethical value? One feels that reality cannot itself be problematic: the universe is not a set of problems! It simply is. The problems must stem from us, from our inadequate ways of thinking, from our concepts, not from the ways things objectively are. Yet that suggests that we could escape the problems by adjusting our minds—which seems implausible. The problems seem unavoidable for any mind, but they can’t be inherent in reality qua problems, as atoms and forces are inherent in reality: for how can reality be made of problems? Here we have a philosophical problem about the basis of philosophical problems (a meta-philosophical problem). As to the question of whether philosophy could transform itself into something more like a regular discipline, abandoning its obsession with logical problems, the answer seems fairly clear: it could not. It is necessarily problem-centered. We could certainly decide to investigate concepts as such without concerning ourselves with solving the traditional problems, but that would not be philosophy—it would be a branch of psychology. The idea of philosophy without its problems is not the idea of philosophy. The essence of philosophy is the set of problems that define it. This is not to say that these problems could not be solved (we live in hope!) but if they were that would be the end of philosophy. Some successor discipline may emerge in that happy dawn but it wouldn’t be philosophy as we know and love it (or hate it). Philosophy without its problems is no philosophy at all. Indeed, we can think of the concept of philosophy as simply a generalization of the existence of separate logical problems: people found themselves perplexed by certain problems in disparate areas of human thought and decided to lump them all together under the heading “philosophy”. The problems came first, the discipline second. Again, this is not true of other disciplines: they are not compilations of disparate problems but unified fields of investigation (rather like fields in fact). A philosopher has no “field” in the sense of a unified area of study; a philosopher is rather a problem-wrangler roaming widely. So it is quite wrong to describe a philosopher as someone whose field of study is concepts: that misses the problem-oriented nature of the subject. Philosophy could certainly be abandoned as an area of study—simply no longer taught and thought about—but that isn’t for it to cease to have its problem-centered character. The problems of philosophy are philosophy. Even if all the problems are solved one day and the solutions tabulated in a definitive textbook, philosophy will still be about problems: how the problems that define the subject were eventually answered. The student will still need to understand the problems, feel their force, and not merely absorb the facts uncovered by the area of investigation called “philosophy”. The perplexities are part of the nature of the subject not something extrinsic to it.

Perhaps we can imagine a race of beings for which physics and chemistry consist of problems. They can’t understand how material objects are possible, or how chemical reactions are logically consistent, or what a law of nature is, or how motion can occur; they find the whole subject conceptually confusing. They make little progress with it, despite strenuous efforts. Disputes are endemic among people calling themselves “physicists” or “chemists”. Their attitude towards the physical and chemical world is like our attitude towards consciousness, free will, knowledge, etc. What subject are they engaged in? I would say philosophy, or one form of it: they have logical problems about a certain sector of reality. Their discipline tries to solve these problems, which are philosophical in character so far as they are concerned. If they finally sort these problems out and begin accumulating positive knowledge in the manner of human physicists and chemists, then philosophy for them will have come to an end. Maybe philosophy will one day come to an end for human beings (though I doubt it) once its logical problems are straightened out, perhaps by means unheard of today. Meanwhile it will continue to be defined by its problems.[2]


[1] In calling the problems “logical” I intend no narrowing of ambition on the part of the philosopher. I mean merely that they concern rational thought as opposed to empirical discovery—that they have an a priori character, to use the traditional terminology. No simple philosophical label is entirely suitable, though I think “logical” is perfectly justified once freed from limited conceptions of the logical (such as those found in standard logic textbooks). The OED’s “the quality of being justifiable by reason” strikes me as pretty much on target. It would not be wrong to say that philosophical problems characteristically put reason in question. The same is not true of other disciplines (except in so far as they raise philosophical questions).

[2] In teaching introduction to philosophy it is good to start with a problem chestnut such as the problem of our knowledge of the external world. This gets the student accustomed to the idea that philosophy is concerned with a certain kind of question of the form “How would you solve that?” This is not like teaching statistics, say, in which you might start by explaining the concept of the mean, or the concept of a normal distribution, and then proceed from there. You might also simply announce at the beginning that philosophy is concerned with problems—difficulties, conundrums, obstacles to rational thought. It attempts to overcome these problems, once they have been detected. It is not a recitation of discoveries, like botany or archeology.


On Mind-Brain Relations



On Mind-Brain Relations



Various relations between mental events and brain events have been (and could be) posited: correlation, causation, simultaneity, supervenience, spatial coincidence, composition, part-whole relations, and identity. It is fair to report that these relations are first found outside of the mind-brain relation and then applied to that relation; we don’t come up with them by considering the mind-brain relation itself. That is, they stem from the physical world not from the psychophysical world: we transfer them from their original home in the physical world to the special case of mind and brain. Hence analogies are often drawn between the psychophysical case and physical cases—for instance, “pain is C-fiber firing” is like “heat is molecular motion”. This is already suspicious, since we are not deriving the relations from direct inspection of the mind-brain nexus: we are not examining that nexus and concluding that a particular relation is the right one to characterize it. Rather, we are extrapolating the relation from elsewhere and postulating that it applies, not observing that it does. Thus there is a big difference between our knowledge in the two cases: we can experimentally establish that heat is molecular motion, for example, but not that pain is C-fiber firing. Or, to take a more transparent case, we can observe that Superman is Clark Kent simply by seeing Clark Kent change into his Superman clothes and fly off; but we can’t do anything comparable with the claim that mental events are identical to brain events—we can’t witness the transformation. Instead we postulate an identity; we don’t discover it. It is the same with all other ordinary identity statements: we empirically discover that these identities hold. So it is not a mere theory that a is identical to b; it is an established fact, known by empirical means. By contrast, the identity theory of mind and brain is a speculative theory, a bold conjecture, not something we have empirically established to be true. And similarly for other theories of the relation between mind and brain, such as that mental events are composed of physical events or are spatially coincident with them. True, we can empirically establish correlations, but the step to identity or composition is always a move away from observation—a philosophical theory rather than a piece of empirical science. We apply relations drawn from elsewhere, but we don’t carry over the methods that are generally used to assert their existence. Thus the theories remain controversial (but no one seriously disputes that Hesperus is identical to Phosphorus or that water consists of H2O). The justification for asserting the theories tends to be abstract and general—isn’t it more parsimonious to assume identity, and good to avoid the absurdities of dualism? It is never stated that we have simply discovered by observation that pain is the same as C-fiber firing—by looking at it from different angles or by using a microscope or by tracing it over time. We discovered that butterflies and caterpillars are the same organism by observing the chrysalis stage; we didn’t just posit the identity on the grounds of Occam’s razor or fear of butterfly-caterpillar dualism.

It would obviously be better to arrive at a theory of the mind-brain relation by examining the case directly. After all, it may be that physically based relations of the familiar kinds do not apply in this case—maybe there is a special kind of relation that connects the mental with the neural. So shouldn’t we concentrate our attention on the specifics of the mind-brain nexus and work from there? The trouble with this is that nothing suggests itself. We don’t get even a hint of what the relation might be by introspecting our pains and observing our brains; we find only correlations not a theory of the connection between the correlated entities. Maybe they are identical, but nothing in what we observe suggests as much; they don’t even seem similar. At least we can see that Hesperus and Phosphorus are both planets, and that Superman and Clark Kent are both men, but we can’t see that pain and C-fibers are both anything (except maybe events); there is not even a hint of the possibility of identity (or composition, etc.). If the relation is that of identity, this remains hidden from us, not something that reveals itself to diligent observation. Why? Why does the mind hide its true relation to the brain, and hide it so well? If it is true that pains are composed of strands of C-fiber, then why is it that nothing in our experience suggests that? Why can’t neuroscience prove it? Physics proved that heat is molecular motion, chemistry proved that water is H2O, biology proved that the heartbeat is a pumping muscle, and astronomy proved that Hesperus is Phosphorus; but neuroscience is incapable of proving that pain is identical to C-fiber firing. Is that perhaps because it isn’t? Does it bear some other relation to the correlated brain events, some relation we don’t know about, or can’t even imagine?

It is possible that we are thinking about this all wrong. We shouldn’t be hunting for relations drawn from outside our area of interest—the mind-brain connection—and then postulating that such relations capture that connection. We should instead focus on the case at hand and try to forge a theory of the psychophysical nexus that respects its special character. Don’t think, look! The problem is that nothing comes to mind: we look, but we don’t find. The psychophysical nexus just stares blankly back at us, elusive and enigmatic. Here the pain, there the brain: but where the linkage? There must be some sort of intimate relation, since the two are not just accidentally joined, but for the life of us we can’t figure out what it is. Let me introduce some neologisms: let’s say that the brain state “mentalizes” and the pain state “physicalizes”—that is, they each do something that leads to the other. This doesn’t tell us how they do these things, only that they do. Then the question is what these peculiar relations involve: what theory of them is correct? Pain is such that it physicalizes itself as C-fiber firing, and C-fiber firing is such that it mentalizes itself as pain: now the question is how that happens. A formidable question indeed, and one formulated by using a pair of murky neologisms; and yet it at least points us in the right direction—what is it to mentalize and physicalize? We know what it is for Phosphorus to “Hesperusize”—to follow the same path through space and time as Hesperus does—but what is it for C-fibers to mentalize (specifically painize)? That is the question; and we will not seek to answer it by borrowing concepts drawn from somewhere else. We need concepts tailored specifically to the case at hand. Whether we can find or devise such concepts is another matter. Mysterians remain doubtful: we simply have no viable way to infer the relation from the relata. There might be identity for all we know, but the usual paradigms of empirically discovered identities provide no guidance in this alien territory, being mere impositions from outside. All we can claim is that the relation must be close, intimate, and transparent (not brute). It must be such that it takes the enigma out of the connection, and makes it something other than a mere conjecture, backed by nothing but Occam’s razor and dualism-phobia. It must be like the empirical discoveries that underlie ordinary assertions of identity (“I saw Clark Kent put on his Superman clothes and then fly off”). As things stand, however, we have no clue about how to do any of this, but merely struggle with concepts borrowed from areas less intractable, as in “You know what identity is from the case of Hesperus and Phosphorus; well, mind and brain is just like that”. But it is not just like that because we can’t apply the methods used to establish the former identity to establish the latter (putative) identity. What I tend to believe is that the psychophysical nexus is nothing like the standard paradigms, just in a different league or galaxy; and that it is completely misguided to employ the usual types of relations in an effort to understand it. It is not so much that the identity theory, say, is false as that it provides no illumination at all, because the standard cases of identity are so far removed from the case at hand. We need a completely new way of thinking if we are to get anywhere in grasping the true nature of the mind-brain connection; and it is a real question whether this new way is available to us. What is certain is that we will never achieve it if we lazily rely on concepts designed for a quite different purpose. It is as if we are trying to understand electromagnetic phenomena solely on the basis of traditional mechanics instead of recognizing that something completely different is afoot, calling for a new conceptual apparatus.[1] The very idea of using concepts like identity and composition, explained by way of the standard paradigms, is hopelessly wide of the mark, signaling desperation rather than insight. We should forget all such paradigms and start afresh, always being aware that there is no guarantee of success. But failure is better than complacent illusion.[2]


[1] Actually this analogy understates the case, but you get my point. We don’t just need a paradigm shift but a complete conceptual reboot, a new mind almost.

[2] I can put the point very simply: it is no use trying to construct a theory of the psychophysical nexus by comparing it to cases in which nothing mental is involved. This is merely the triumph of wishful thinking over honest toil.


Scientific Knowledge



Scientific Knowledge


No doubt scientific knowledge is impressive and enchanting: science has learned so much of interest about the world, with many practical applications. The human brain is lucky to be able to obtain and contain such knowledge. It looks like the best knowledge on planet Earth; if there were a competition for Best In Know, it would be declared the winner. Cognitively, it is our pride and joy. And yet it has come in for criticism, especially by philosophers of science, not all of it motivated by epistemic envy. It postulates unobservable entities, which by definition can’t be detected by the senses; it uses inductive reasoning, which is not (allegedly) a valid form of inference; it has a disturbing tendency to get refuted as time goes by; it is often hard to understand, which renders it undemocratic; it takes years to learn, which makes it expensive and elitist; it is unnatural, like ballet or speaking a foreign language; and it is vulnerable to political influence and corruption. Epistemologically, it is not as fine, upstanding, and humanly accessible as one could wish, despite its undeniable interest and utility. Some have even supposed that scientific knowledge is strictly impossible: Popper maintained that we can never know a scientific proposition to be true, only that it has not so far been falsified. Our attitude to a scientific theory can only be that it has hitherto withstood attempts to prove it false, not that it is actually true. Induction is fallacious, according to Popper, so we can only justify the belief that so far we have not found a counter instance (Popper tends to be popular with practicing scientists). Others have used the speculative nature of science to insinuate that scientists are not always rationally motivated. Paradigms hold them in thrall, status matters, and scientific revolutions are suspiciously like political revolutions. Still others have declared science to be largely fictional on account of its dealings with the unobservable—all such things being on a par with fictional entities. Science is not all it is cracked up to be, according to these critics.

What has not generally been pointed out is that scientific knowledge compares unfavorably with other forms of human knowledge. Here we could mention knowledge of language, psychological knowledge, and knowledge of one’s own history and local geography.[1] We learn all aspects of our native language easily and equally (no difficulty and elitism), producing a smooth and shared linguistic competence, encompassing semantics, syntax, and phonetics, with no reliance on elaborate experiments or expensive equipment, and not subject to refutation by later research. Popper would be proud of it. We are natural knowers as far as language is concerned. Likewise, we learn our psychological ABC with ease and success, enabling us to understand and predict human behavior, with no danger of later refutation (no beliefs and desires after all!). We even have the advantage of direct acquaintance with the subject matter of this type of knowledge in the form of introspection. There is no laborious training, no nerve-wracking examinations, no inability to get it right, etc. We take to it like a fish to water (fish are very knowledgeable about water). And in the case of history and geography we have solid knowledge of the facts in question: memory tells us what we did when, and perception informs us of the local terrain. I remember what I did yesterday and I know my way home. True, this kind of common sense knowledge is fallible, but it is not the faltering and conjectural affair that science is:  it didn’t take centuries to get started, isn’t rife with controversy, and won’t get refuted tomorrow. Everyone has it, it works beautifully, and it is clear what is being said. It is nothing like quantum theory, or relativity theory, or even Darwinian evolution; in took no Newton or Einstein or Darwin to discover it, genius not being required. Thus there are areas of human knowledge that outclass scientific knowledge by objective criteria of epistemic soundness. So it isn’t that humans are generally bad at knowledge and science is the best they can manage in the circumstances; rather, science is the odd man out, being markedly inferior to other forms of human knowledge. This is not to knock science or disrespect it; it is merely to point out that among our other cognitive achievements it is not exactly stellar. We can easily imagine beings that are much better at scientific knowledge than we are, acquiring it with the ease and naturalness that we bring to language—born scientists. They might possess an innate science faculty that generates knowledge of science as our language faculty generates knowledge of language. Just as we learn a specific dialect without even thinking, they develop a specific scientific expertise without any effort or special training—grasping the far reaches of physics by the age of five and molecular biology by seven. We, on the other hand, are just not naturally equipped to master science, which is why it took so long for humans to get even a rudimentary hang of it. There had to be a concerted Scientific Revolution to get science off the ground (after a promising start centuries before), but there was never a Linguistic Revolution in which humans finally got round to speaking grammatically. We weren’t linguistic illiterates till the seventeenth century, needing the leadership of Great Thinkers before we learned how to speak properly. To put it bluntly, we are bad at science but good at language—we are to science what chimps are to language, i.e. not cut out for it. Not that science isn’t worthwhile or is impossible to achieve, but from an epistemological point of view it isn’t exactly the cat’s whiskers. Frankly, we suck at science. By all means do it, but recognize that you are in alien territory, hobbling along, ill equipped for the journey.[2]

Imagine if common sense knowledge were in the state that quantum theory is in. We don’t even know what quantum theory means, what in the world corresponds to it, whether it even makes sense. Imagine if that was our condition in folk psychology: we don’t even know whether our postulated entities exist independently of our observations, and whether mental states are particulate or wavelike, and we can only know someone’s desire if we can’t know his belief and vice versa. Maybe our folk psychology is predictively close to perfect, but we don’t know what could make it true, and it is full of paradox and perplexity. Moreover, it was only developed a century ago, so that for most of our history we had no folk psychology.[3] What then? Presumably social life would have been impossible, human behavior totally baffling, and life generally meaningless (we wouldn’t even know what happiness is). Maybe our ignorance would have led to species extinction. At least our ignorance of the true nature of the microscopic world has no such dire consequence, since it is not crucial to survival; but if it were, we would be in big trouble. If not knowing the correct interpretation of the equations of quantum theory were crucial to survival, we would have perished long ago. So biologically our scientific “knowledge” in this area is lamentably inadequate compared to our ordinary knowledge of human psychology. We really suck at quantum theory, but luckily it doesn’t matter from a biological point of view. Still, this shouldn’t blind us to the limits of our scientific knowledge. And it is not so different elsewhere in science: there are many areas of ignorance, much controversy, numerous dead ends, and lots of hesitancy. It is not so in the other areas of human knowledge I have mentioned: I know how to speak English extremely well, I have a good grasp of human psychology, and I am intimately acquainted with my past and my surroundings. I am a genius about these things compared to my struggles with science (and let’s not even talk about philosophy!). I am epistemologically rich in some areas but a pauper in this area, despite all my strivings and aspirations. My brain just isn’t cut out for it, though I salute its valiant efforts (I wouldn’t want my brain to get an inferiority complex).

Moral knowledge is interesting in this connection. You will find people unfavorably comparing moral knowledge to scientific knowledge, even supposing that appellation unsuitable for describing our moral understanding. But isn’t the opposite the case? In ethics we are not inferring entities that are too small or distant to observe, we are not hostage to inductive reasoning, and we are not struggling to overcome our natural cognitive weaknesses; we are operating with a supple and comprehensive system for evaluating conduct. Ethics is not something we invented a few hundred years ago when the time was finally ripe, having languished without it for millennia; it is a natural human accomplishment requiring only experience and a little instruction to grasp.[4]There is no need to understand calculus, for instance, or even Euclidian geometry. Moral knowledge is actually solidly based, universal, not subject to overnight refutation (I am talking about general principles not specific applications), and relatively easy to acquire. It even admits of certainty in some respects (e.g. happiness is good, misery is bad). It is quite intricate, but spontaneously acquired. It is nothing like quantum theory. You don’t need a high IQ to get the hang of it. So moral knowledge is not the ugly duckling of epistemology, outshone by the paragon Science; actually it is quietly impressive from an epistemological point of view (a bit Jane Austen-ish). Knowledge of what one ought to do is certainly a lot more robust than knowledge of whether Schrodinger’s cat is alive or dead (or the propositions of relativity theory, I would say). It is comparable to knowledge of language, as has been pointed out (Rawls, Chomsky). We know morality as we know our mother tongue.

Don’t get me wrong: I love science; I seek scientific knowledge; and I even have some of it. But from an impartial perspective it is not the glittering epistemic paradigm it is sometimes supposed to be in our scientific age. If we compare it to our motor abilities, it is somewhere between ballet dancing and mountaineering: humans can do it, some better than others, but it isn’t part of our natural endowment, what we can do in our sleep. Baboons swing in trees better than we do science, only seldom coming crashing down. Science, for humans, is an admirable attempt to do the impossible, or at least the biologically contraindicated. It isn’t what we were born to do.[5]


[1] Another example would be our knowledge of faces: we have an extensive and remarkably reliable knowledge of people’s faces, enabling us to recognize people at a glance. It is not a matter of theory or calculation but is automatic and instinctual. Face recognition is probably an innately given module enabling us to possess vast stores of useful knowledge. It is superior to scientific knowledge in many ways.

[2] None of this should be a surprise for a biologist: scientific knowledge is hardly a prerequisite for evolutionary success, which is why no other animal bothers with it. We are able to do science only because it is an accidental side effect of abilities designed for other tasks. This is why it is unnatural toil that only some humans engage in not a universal human ability programmed by the genes.

[3] Medicine is a good point of comparison: it is still at a rudimentary stage (we hope!) and was a disaster until quite recently. If our knowledge of language or folk psychology were like our knowledge of medicine, we would be in pretty bad shape. We do have medical knowledge, but it is hardly a shining exemplar of knowledge, though undeniably useful. Our ignorance of what causes cancer, for example, is actually quite shocking, given the effort that has gone into it. Medical knowledge compares poorly to other areas of human knowledge, which require no huge injection of funds.

[4] Imagine if ethics conformed to Popper’s view of science: we don’t know that cruelty is wrong only that the proposition that it is has not yet been refuted. That would undermine our ethical confidence horribly—we can only act as if this moral proposition has so far resisted our efforts to falsify it! Can we not even believe it? This degree of agnosticism is not compatible with a robust moral outlook.

[5] It is noteworthy that animals get by without scientific knowledge and seem none the worse for it. Yet they have plenty of other knowledge, some exceeding the human ability to know. They might regard our scientific knowledge as a waste of time, and epistemologically shoddy to boot. Perhaps God is tickled at our troubles, having mischievously given us a thirst for scientific knowledge combined with ineptness at acquiring it. Oh, how he chortles at our quantum quandaries!


What is Nature?



What is Nature?


What falls under the concept of nature and what does not? What does the concept include and what does it exclude? The OED defines “nature” as follows: “the phenomena of the physical world collectively, including plants, animals, and the landscape, as opposed to humans or human creations”. The Cambridge Dictionary gives us: “all the animals, plants, rocks, etc. in the world and all the features, forces, and processes that happen or exist independently of people, such as weather, the sea, mountains, the production of young animals or plants, and growth”. Construed as analyses of the concept, or even as descriptions of the common use of the word “nature”, these attempts at definition leave much to be desired. First and most glaring, they exclude human beings from nature: human nature is not taken to be part of nature. This is totally arbitrary and flagrantly pre-Darwinian: didn’t we descend from apes, and aren’t apes part of nature? Even if you think humans contain a divine spark—an immortal soul—you surely accept that some aspects of human nature belong to nature (respiration, digestion). What would Martins think if they visited earth—that those funny-looking featherless bipeds are not part of nature? What then are they a part of? Second, the OED explicitly, and the Cambridge Dictionary implicitly, excludes minds from nature: it is the phenomena of the physical world that are said to constitute nature.[1] So minds are not deemed part of nature, even though the organisms that have them are. How is that defensible? Minds evolved, have a genetic basis, and function to aid survival—all the marks of life on earth: they are surely as much a part of nature as bodies. Third, the creations of humans are declared not to be part of nature either. What does this include? Dwellings, weapons, spoken language, culture, and roads would seem to be creations of humans—are they not parts of nature? Aren’t animal nests, hives, burrows, bowers, webs, and tools part of nature? But if so, why are human artifacts declared external to nature (not to mention footprints and prepared food)? Finally, there is no mention of things traditionally supposed outside of nature, particularly the supernatural. Presumably this is intended by implication, since God, angels, and ghosts are not usually thought of as “phenomena of the physical world”, but the point bears emphasis: the concept of nature is supposed to contrast with what is beyond nature—what transcends it, flouts its laws. Heaven is not a department of nature and God himself is not an inhabitant of nature; part of the meaning of “nature” is that these items are not elements of the entity denoted. Nature is what is not supernatural—what is of the earth, sublunary, tangible, non-miraculous, and perishable.

So can we do better? In fact the concept is difficult to define explicitly, ubiquitous as it is. One might even be tempted to wax family resemblance about it. But I think two points are relatively clear: (a) nature is not supernatural and (b) nature is not fictional. As to (b), fictional worlds don’t belong to the realm of nature: for it is at least a necessary condition of being in nature that the thing in question exists. Horses are in nature but unicorns are out, Shakespeare is in but Hamlet is out. You can’t be a part of nature unless you are real. Of course fiction itself can be part of nature—written texts, oral traditions, inner stories, dreams—but not the things fiction talks about. Putting these two points together, then, we can say that nature is what is real and not supernatural: intuitively, it is what exists here, in this world with us, alongside animals, plants, and rocks. It is not otherworldly or purely imaginary. But this still leaves a lot of latitude and unclarity. Are laws of nature part of nature (e.g. the law of entropy)? What if there is a soul in man and a vital spirit in animals? What if atoms don’t really exist? To these questions I think we should answer as follows. Laws of nature are part of nature, since they are inseparable from it, simply being very general. Even if humans and animals contain a part that is not of nature, they contain parts that are, so they do belong to nature (as well as to something outside of it perhaps). If indeed atoms are fictions, then they do not qualify as inhabitants of nature, since what is fictional is not part of nature. This third point should be emphasized: fictionalism about a class of entities is incompatible with counting them as parts of nature. According to Berkeley, material objects are not a part of nature, since matter is a philosopher’s fiction (though not tables, chairs, etc.). According to positivism, the unobservable entities of physics are “logical fictions” that don’t really exist, so they are not elements of nature. Nature might be composed solely of mental entities with nothing “physical” at all; nature is not by definition coterminous with the physical (whatever exactly that word means). Maybe nature consists entirely of consciousness in the manner of panpsychism. This is a matter of what your metaphysics happens to be not of the very meaning of “nature”. In Berkeley’s system nature consists of ideas in the minds of finite spirits and in the mind of the infinite spirit, with matter deemed fictional. For a materialist nature consists of matter as described by physics, while anything not of this kind lies outside of nature, possibly in an immaterial realm. The concept of nature is strictly neutral between these possibilities. That is why I defined it as what is non-fictional and non-supernatural.

The question that particularly interests me once we have these definitional issues out of the way is this: do logic and mathematics (and also ethics) lie within nature or outside of nature? I have never seen this question discussed, but I think most philosophers would be inclined not to include these domains within nature: for they are too abstract and ethereal (“non-empirical”) to belong with animals, plants, rocks, and landscapes (or even human organisms). Ethics, in particular, is not part of nature, being steeped in things called norms—you can’t derive an “ought” from an “is”, and obligations are not natural entities like hearts, livers, and atoms. Now this decision might be grounded in fictionalism: if you believe that logic, mathematics, and ethics are all about fictional entities, then you won’t be inclined to include them in an inventory of the contents of nature. Nature abhors the non-existent. But that is not the majority view—so the question is where these areas fall according to other views. If we adopt subjectivism or psychologism about logic, mathematics, and ethics, then we assimilate them to the psychological—and then they belong to nature along with other psychological realities. Mathematics becomes a human creation, an artifact of sorts, and so falls within nature alongside other human artifacts, material and mental; and similarly for logic and ethics. The tough case is realism in these three areas: does Platonism or moral realism exclude mathematics, logic, and ethics from nature? I find myself inclined to dispute this—I tend to suppose that numbers and values are part of nature. I already think that nature includes human creations, including art, science, politics, and philosophy—these are all parts of nature, as that notion is properly understood—but I also think that other realities belong there too. They don’t belong with the supernatural (if such there be), despite their distinctive character; they belong with the rest of nature. They are part of what exists without any supernatural backing or miraculous infusion. Nature is what is real and not supernatural—and this description applies to logic, mathematics, and ethics (understood realistically). So the concept of nature has nothing intrinsically to do with the physical (again, whatever that means), nor indeed with the psychological—it includes even what has traditionally been regarded as “non-empirical” (a priori). Norms and numbers are thus as much part of nature as wings and mountains.[2] Where else would you locate them? Not in the fictional world (if you reject fictionalism) and not in the divine world (if you believe in such a thing), so nature seems the natural place to locate them. Why not locate them there—isn’t it just a prejudice to keep them outside of what we call nature? After all, they are closely intertwined with things already admitted to nature—the world of physics, the process of reasoning, and human action—so why insist on extruding them from the world of nature? Why try to make another world for them to live in? If this requires an expansion of the usual assumed extension of the concept, then so be it—we need to expand well beyond the dictionary definitions anyway. Hasn’t human thought already expanded the concept of nature well beyond its initial range by extending it to human and animal minds, so why stop at the logical, mathematical, and ethical? Let them in, you will feel better for it. For the notion of nature has acquired a strongly honorific connotation: it is good to be part of nature—a member of the naturalist’s club—and vaguely disreputable to linger at the gates unable to gain entrance. We need to be more inclusive with the concept of nature, less snooty and hidebound. So I suggest welcoming logic, mathematics, and ethics into the fold—they too can be proud members of the Nature Club (with all the perks attaching). We needn’t refashion them in order to make them eligible; they can come as they are, in all their glorious singularity. You can be as Platonist as you like and still be greeted as a fully paid up member. We can’t let you into the Nature Club if you are a figment or a deity—we have to keep up standards—but logic, mathematics, and ethics are neither, so they can be happily admitted. The expanding circle includes them without strain or solecism.[3] Mother nature has a wide embrace. Perhaps indeed with the passage of time these new members might be taken as exemplars of their class, not only members in good standing but respected and senior representatives of the Nature Club. They might be listed first in the roster of honorable members. Wouldn’t it be splendid if ethics were to become President of the Society of Nature? In the book of nature ethical norms might stand out for their authenticity, their natural claim to the title. If you want to know what nature is, you need look no further than ethics—though other items no doubt belong to nature too (e.g. atoms and squirrels).

There are other terms that vie with “nature” for its inclusive exclusiveness such as “the universe”, “the cosmos”, “Creation”, “the world”, “reality”. To belong to the extension of these terms is a mark of distinction, distancing you from the merely fictional and (dubiously) divine. But we can hope to bring logic, mathematics, and ethics under such umbrella terms along with “nature”, thereby securing them ontological respectability. Norms and numbers are thus constituents of the universe, elements of Creation, inhabitants of the cosmos, creatures of the actual world, as real as anything—yet they are what they are and not another thing. They shouldn’t be left out in the wilderness, shunned even by the fictional and supernatural; they should be accepted as bona fide parts of nature. Let’s not multiply worlds unnecessarily. If it turns out that there is no supernatural world, then there will only be the natural world left (fictional worlds not being real), and that world is capacious enough to include those hitherto excluded members.[4]


Colin M

[1] How the editors of the OED would define “physical” in this context is left unclear, and the difficulties are notorious. Is gravity physical (Newton declared it “occult”)? What about parental behavior in animals? Perhaps they merely mean “non-psychological” (not that the concept of the psychological is free of difficulty).

[2] What applies to numbers applies equally (if not more so) to geometric forms: they too belong to nature, as do space and time. On the other hand, in addition to fictional worlds, nonsense worlds also fail to belong to nature: mome raths and borogroves are not parts of nature, even if non-fictionally meant. Are merely possible worlds part of nature? That’s a tough one, which I leave for homework.

[3] There seems to be a natural (though regrettable) human tendency to restrict honorific concepts more narrowly than is reasonable—witness the concepts person, right, true, physical, reason, rational, and others. The concept of nature belongs to this list: people have a tendency to restrict it to certain preferred examples or exaggerate certain alleged paradigms (mountains, rivers, pretty birds). When people say they are “nature lovers” this is primarily what they have in mind, so that mathematics, logic, and ethics don’t get a look in. Truly enlightened nature lovers, however, adopt a more inclusive stance.

[4] Is philosophical ethics part of nature? Is moral realism as a theory part of nature? Is Platonism as a doctrine part of nature? The answer to all three questions is yes, since they are aspects or expressions of human nature (language and belief being part of human nature). Secularism leads naturally to the hegemony of nature. The less real the supernatural seems to you the less likely you will be to compare exceptional cases to it; thus nature swallows up the real in proportion as it replaces the supernatural. In the days when the supernatural seemed everywhere it was easy to assign mathematics, logic, and ethics to a place at least adjacent to the supernatural realm; but once that world was eclipsed these areas needed a new home–and nature seems the natural place to put them. Reality thus merges with nature in a secular age.