Is Instantiation a Relation?

Is Instantiation a Relation?

I propose to address a question of high obscurity, hoping at least to make some clear points. As philosophers we are accustomed to using the word “instantiate” to describe what is involved when an object has a property—say, a ball is red. We say that the ball instantiates the property of being red (or the quality redness or the universal RED). We thereby speak of a relation between objects and properties (qualities, universals). We may even refer to something called “the instantiation relation”. But is this really a relation? Are objects related to properties in the way they are related to other objects when they stand in relations to them? Is a ball being red a relational matter? One object being to the left of another is a relational fact, but is an object being red a relational fact?

            In the case of objects and their relations we can say that the objects have a nature that is independent of their relations to other objects: if x is to the left of yx and y both have intrinsic properties in addition to their relational properties, typically predating the obtaining of the latter. The objects don’t have only relational properties. They are constituted as the objects they are by their intrinsic properties, and they are only subsequently able to enter into relations with other objects. The relations are metaphysically dependent on the properties: x can’t be R to y unless it is already possessed of a relation-independent nature constituted by properties. For what would it be that stands in these relations if there were nothing but the relations? There would be no well-defined object to stand in relations to other objects. There would just be some sort of bare substance that is related thus and so to other bare substances. Relations alone cannot add up to well-defined objects. Thus we find that objects in spatial relations have non-relational properties too, such as size, shape, material composition, and color. Traditionally these are referred to as primary qualities (I will include color here, assuming it not to be a relation to other objects). The relations are added to the qualities and cannot obtain without them. But in the case of the instantiation relation this basic principle is violated: for the primary qualities themselves are taken to be possessed relationally. The object stands in that relation to the qualities conceived as extrinsic entities (we picture them as occupying their own realm). Objects have no nature independently of standing in the instantiation relation, since that is what it is to have any nature at all. Logically, the object has a nature only by standing in the instantiation relation to properties extrinsic to it, so it has no relation-independent being. The situation is precisely not like relations between objects and objects, so that model fails at a crucial point. At best we picture the objects as bare particulars awaiting the possession of properties in virtue of standing in the instantiation relation to them, but this notion is metaphysically incoherent—it is the bogus notion of the property-less particular. The relational conception converts objects into bare particulars, but there are no such things; and anyway they are not what we signed up for when we entertained the idea of the instantiation relation.

            Second, there is surely something very odd in the idea that objects stand in no other relation to properties. When objects stand in relations to each other they stand in many such relations: if x is to the left of y, it will also be (say) larger than y or of a different shape or color or heavier than y. But when an object instantiates a property it doesn’t also stand in other relations to that property such as being heavier than the property or to the left of it or a different color from it. The only relation objects ever have to properties is that of instantiating them (or failing to); there isn’t the usual panoply of other relations. What kind of relation is it that precludes the holding of other relations? It seems like a very jealous sort of relation! Properties have relations among themselves, such as inclusion or incompatibility, but they only relate to objects via the instantiation relation—otherwise they have nothing to do with them. Is it perhaps that there is no relation there to begin with and hence no concomitant package of other relations? That suspicion turns to conviction when we note another peculiarity of the so-called instantiation relation: when the ball instantiates redness we can re-state this fact by saying simply that the ball is red. The relation drops out under paraphrase, as if a mere redundant flourish (or device of generalization). But no such thing is true of relations in general: if x is to the left of y, we can’t re-state this fact by dropping the relational term—if we try, we get the nonsensical “x y’s” (“Fred Albert’s”). Relation words are not redundant at all; we need them in order to capture all the facts. But the word “instantiates” (like the word “true”) vanishes under paraphrase: we can truly say, “x instantiates P if and only if is P”. There is no relation here that cries out for inclusion in our list of Indispensable Terms. And indeed who has ever witnessed the instantiation relation holding? Do objects look like they enter into relations with properties extrinsic to them? The idea is a philosopher’s invention not a piece of robust common sense. We talk that way sometimes, but to harden this into a theory of objects and their properties seems like metaphysical fancy.

            Do objects have properties? Not in the way you have a bicycle or a coin in your pocket. True, objects are red, square, heavy, etc., but this is not like ownership: you don’t possess your properties as you possess your books or furniture (you can give away your books but not your properties). So there is no support here for the relational picture of objects and properties. Why do we even talk this way? Why do we invoke such relational language when trying to understand what it is for a ball to be red? Because we really don’t understand what is going on when a ball is red: the metaphysics is obscure to us. So we reach for the first available analogy—objects standing in relations. Once we see that this analogy fails we are stymied—stuck, skewered. We find we have no real understanding of the most primitive fact of reality—objects being a certain way. We don’t want to say that objects are nothing but properties (“bundles of qualities”), but we also don’t want to think of them as removed from properties in the manner of the bare particular. We impose the relational model on them, but it quickly collapses, leaving nothing to put in its place. Balls are red but their being so strikes us as impenetrably obscure (as philosophers). Plato proposed a two-tier theory with particulars down here and universals up there, under which the relational conception seems inescapable: but we really have no idea of objects independently of properties and properties independently of objects. The two seem clearly distinct, but how they combine baffles the intellect. We thus have no positive idea what is going on when a ball is red (round, heavy, etc.), but resorting to something called the instantiation relation looks like the wrong way to go. It is trying to force one thing into a mold suitable only for another.[1]

[1] To put the matter intuitively, objects and their properties form a natural unity, but the instantiation relation imposes a duality that is false to the facts. Genuine relations between objects involve dualities (or more), so the relational view imposes this picture on simple monadic facts—with the object and its properties on opposite sides of a metaphysical divide. Recoiling from this, we start to blabber about “organic wholes” and suchlike things—no real theory offers itself. We thus fail to grasp what it is for an object to be a certain way, i.e. the most basic structure of reality.


The Selfish Phenotype



The Selfish Phenotype


Organisms often act selfishly, i.e. so as to benefit themselves. They compete with other organisms for food and mates; their behavior is anything but altruistic. Human organisms are a case in point. But they don’t always act selfishly—sometimes they act so as to benefit others at their own expense, as in raising their young. They exhibit kin altruism. That is to say, the individual organism is not always beneficent in relation to itself: sometimes it acts to benefit organisms not numerically identical with it. It has been pointed out that the same is not true of genes: they always act to preserve and benefit themselves.[1] No gene ever predisposes an organism to act in such a way that that gene goes out of existence—or else it would go out of existence! There are no genes that benefit other alien genes, no altruistic genes. There are genes for altruism in organisms (kin-directed altruism) but not genes that sacrifice themselves for other genes. When an animal nurtures its offspring at its own expense it is benefitting its own genes, but genes don’t do anything comparable in relation to other genes. Genes are invariably selfish, while organisms are only intermittently so. Genes are selfish according to biological law, while organisms are selfish only in so far as that benefits their genes.[2]

That is the orthodox picture and its logic is inescapable, but closer analysis reveals that it misses something important. This is that the organism’s actions serve also to reproduce its own phenotype—an organism similar to itself. If the parent organism sacrifices itself for its offspring, its survival comes into question; but its phenotype marches on. Not, to be sure, its entire phenotype, since its genes mix with those of another organism with a different phenotype, but more so than if it had no offspring at all. It uses the other organism in order to ensure that a partial copy of itself is passed into the next generation. It shares space with another organism’s phenotype in order to carry on its journey through time. So we can say that the phenotype survives in cases of individual self-sacrifice—just as the genes survive in such a case (the latter is a means to the former).[3] Thus the phenotype is a selfish entity too. The phenotype never acts so as to benefit an alien phenotype—as it might be, an antelope’s phenotype acting so as to benefit an elephant’s phenotype—but rather it always acts so as to propagate instances of itself. The individual organism promotes the survival of its own phenotype by benefitting its own offspring. It doesn’t benefit itself qua individual organism, but it does benefit the suite of traits we call its phenotype (including its extended phenotype). To use philosophical terminology, it doesn’t benefit this token of its phenotype (viz. itself) but it does benefit the type of its phenotype (hence the use of “type” in “phenotype”). It helps produce more tokens of this type—otherwise known as babies. The type is more abstract than the token, less of a concrete particular; it is more of a universal or general kind. If evolution is a path through the space of all possible phenotypes, then the individual organism acts so as to maximize the chances of a particular such path. Accordingly, phenotypes can be viewed as self-perpetuating entities, leading to copies of themselves (or partial copies), and hence “selfish” in the technical sense. They are like genes in this respect and unlike the individual organisms that contain them—those dispensable temporary tokens. They are immortal in the way genes are immortal and individual organisms are not.

It might be thought that there is a significant asymmetry between genes and phenotypes, namely that genes promote themselves not just entities like them. It isn’t that the organism is a survival machine for similar genes in future generations but for these particular genes. Organisms produce tokens of their phenotypic type in future generations, but genes qua tokens sail through to the next generation and beyond—they get to survive not just genes similar to them. But brief reflection shows that this is false: the physical particulars that constitute genes in one body do not themselves survive in a future body. They disintegrate along with the organs and cells of that body once death supervenes. They become food for bacteria and victims of entropy. What survive are numerically distinct physical entities that replicate the originals. It is just as if I were to make a copy of a coin and then melt down the original: the type of the original survives but not the token. Likewise, these particular strands of DNA go the way of all things—into dust and disorder—but their type persists into the future in the form of numerically distinct material particulars (ultimately atoms). The old type is embodied in a new token. So when we say that an organism’s genes survive in its offspring we speak loosely: we don’t mean those specific bits of matter but their type or form. A copy of x is not x—it is something just like x. It is qualitatively identical (or close to it) but not numerically identical. So it is not that my genes are immortal in the sense that those very physical particulars will go on indefinitely (as elementary particles do); rather, their specific type travels on down the generations—copies of my originals not the originals themselves. Genes replicate themselves; they don’t just survive as is. Genetic perpetuation is genetic reproduction. But then, they are not different from phenotypes: they too are types not tokens, kinds not instances of kinds. The individual organism acts altruistically so as to benefit genes just like its own (but not literally its very own, i.e. the ones sitting inside its body); and similarly it acts so as to perpetuate a body like its own by producing and preserving a (partial) copy of its phenotype. Instances of a phenotype have no immortality, and nor do instances of a particular type of gene—they will perish with the organism’s particular body. Not that anyone I know of has ever claimed otherwise, but it is good to be clear about the logic and ontology of the situation: tokens come and go, whether of genes or phenotypes, but types go on in perpetuity (or until extinction). So genes are not selfish in the sense that they are solely concerned with their own survival qua physical particulars—that being impossible under normal conditions—but rather in the sense that they are hell-bent on producing copies of themselves. But the same is true of phenotypes—body plans, brain designs, types of psychology—and so do not differ logically from genes. Both are selfish as to type but not as to token. Organisms areselfish as to token, at least a lot of the time, since they are very concerned to make sure things go their way and the devil take the hindmost. I want me to survive not someone just like me! I don’t much care if my twin lives to carry my genes and my phenotype; I am more concerned about this individual thing called “I”. I don’t even much care if my genes and phenotype survive as long as I do. That is true honest-to-God selfishness, not the watered down kind exhibited by genes and phenotypes. It is as if the gene is saying to itself, “I don’t care if I survive so long as there are copies of me in the future”, and similarly for the phenotype; but the self is concerned precisely with itself—that with which it is numerically identical not just anything qualitatively similar to it. Sure, I may be glad if copies of me survive, but I don’t confuse this with my own immortality. Nor do the genes make this confusion, being well aware of the distinction between numerical and qualitative identity. Compared to me, my genes are quite selfless beings—as is my phenotype. Wanting my particular body to persist into the future (say by cryogenesis) is not the same as wanting a body similar to mine to persist into the future. The latter is the kind of “selfishness” proper to genes and phenotypes not the former.

We can then say that phenotypes are selfish in the way genes are selfish: both (metaphorically!) want copies of themselves to go on down the generations. Neither is more selfish than the other (though both pale in comparison to me). That is, phenotypes that successfully produce copies of themselves are favored by natural selection, while phenotypes that fail to cut it in the reproductive stakes are apt to fall by the wayside. Ditto for genes: the genes that do well are the ones that produce survival machines (bodies and brains) capable of winning the reproduction wars. To do that the gene doesn’t need physically to hop into the next organism, like a coin going from pocket to pocket; it just needs to replicate itself in that organism—copies not persisting originals. To put it differently, the operative unit is the type not the token: it is what gets passed on or not. The type needs a token if it is to have real-world impact, but the token is a dispensable entity in the wider scheme of things—it can safely go the way of all flesh. The unit of natural selection is really an abstract type not a concrete token. It is closer to the meme than is sometimes realized: the meme produces copies of itself but its original can disappear without a trace. The brain that housed the first meme of a jingle, say, can be reduced to pulp and yet the meme itself survives in copies of the original token. The meme is what is common to its embodying tokens not any of these tokens individually. In principle it can be realized differently in states of the brain in different individuals, and it is certainly not identical to any one of them. The same could true of genes, though it appears not to be in the actual world: that is, tokens of the same gene type could in principle be realized in different chemical configurations, though the chemical composition would have to duplicate the functional properties of the gene. You could in principle replace DNA with some other molecule and have the same gene type so long as it functioned to build the same body (“the prosthetic gene”). Genes could be multiply realized, as philosophers say. So it is wrong to identifygenes or memes with certain physical configurations, though no doubt there are lawlike correlations. Both belong at a more abstract theoretical level. What is selfish in biology, then, is really fairly abstract—gene types not gene tokens (ditto for phenotypes). This is really implicit in the notion of a copy: nothing is a copy tout court but only in certain respects. The gene is not copied with respect to its physical context or its time of existence or its movement through space; it is copied with respect to its informational content and its internal molecular architecture. It is the same for copies of paintings: not the way the light was shining on the original or its historical period or what the original painter was thinking at the time it was created, but rather a subset of its properties concentrated in its shapes and colors.[4] The logical form of “copy” is given by “x is a copy of y with respect to R”—that is, relative to certain selected features. The selected features are what matters to the copy not the totality of its properties. It is the same with genes and phenotypes: general features that are relevant to what these things do, not the particularity of the individual instance (a scar on the body, a little jiggle in the DNA). The ontology of biology is thus more abstract than might be supposed, less tied to physical particulars (in this it resembles the ontology of psychology).

Let’s rank the biological world on the score of selfishness. Individual organisms are often genuinely selfish but not invariably so (including humans); genes are invariably selfish, but their selfishness does not concern their individual survival as bits of matter, but rather the survival of copies of themselves; phenotypes are selfish in the manner of genes, type not token, copy not original; memes (also part of the biological world) are always selfish, being concerned to spread themselves through as many minds and brains as possible, rather like a selfish parasite; species and groups are not selfish at all, never acting for their own good or anyone else’s.[5] As to selflessness, only individual organisms manage this feat, serving the interests of both genes and phenotypes (and I suppose memes). In nature, it’s mainly every man for himself.


[1] Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene (1976) is the locus classicus.

[2] Let it be noted that organisms like humans can be literally selfish, culpably so, while genes are selfish only metaphorically, and not culpably. The metaphor can readily be cashed, but I won’t do that now (see Dawkins).

[3] Since genes don’t always make perfect copies of themselves, the difference between genes and phenotypes with respect to fidelity is a matter of degree. Also, there is non-sexual reproduction.

[4] Many copies of things are not to scale or use different materials or don’t weigh the same—yet they are still copies.

[5] Species make no effort to avoid extinction, though it is not wrong to say that they can perform collective actions, e.g. moving to another continent. Nor do they replicate themselves. Nor do they aid any other species at their own expense. They are neither selfish nor selfless. You couldn’t write a book called The Selfish Species (or The Selfless Species).


Real Appearance


Real Appearance


Philosophers are apt to speak of appearance and reality as if the two are opposed. But this is too simple: appearances are necessarily real and realities necessarily appear. The dichotomy no doubt has its origin in cases of perceptual illusion—the stick in water appears bent but in reality is not.  Here is the appearance and there is the reality, the two running on separate tracks. Then the philosopher converts this distinction into a general thesis about the world, dividing it into Reality and Appearance (capitalized). Reality may be said to be the totality of appearances (idealism) or to transcend appearances (realism). The concepts are clear, and clearly distinct, now we just have to make use of them to formulate grand theories. But let’s look at them more closely, in particular, their alleged mutual exclusiveness. Is this really a good way to carve things up? How exactly are the two concepts related?

First, appearances are real: when it seems to you that the stick is bent it really does appear bent. The stick is one thing–an element of reality–and the appearance of it is another–a distinct element of reality. Both are real, and equally real, but they are not the same. We might say that the appearance is not part of the reality of the stick, but neither is the stick part of the reality of the appearance (it could exist without the stick). The appearance is part of the real world of appearances: impressions, presentations, ways things seem.[1] We might say it is part of the world of psychology—the way things strike minds. So why are we opposing appearance and reality when appearances are constituents of reality? They are just not parts of that reality—the part that the stick exists in. They are not parts of physical reality, as we like to say, though they are parts of reality as a whole. Moreover, they are parts of objective reality: they objectively exist just like other aspects of the mind (the subjective is also objective in this sense). They are objective facts: it really did objectively seem to me that the stick was bent. Appearances exist at certain times and places, have causal powers, and can be measured—they are not phantasms or fictions.  If we say, for example, that colors belong to the realm of appearance, we in no way assert that they are not objectively real—they are just not included in the part of reality that (so-called) physical objects occupy. Being assigned to the realm of appearance is not a form of ontological demotion.

But now things are about to get murkier: do appearances have a reality that transcends their appearance, and do realities necessarily appear? I think the answer to both questions is yes, though the matter is hardly straightforward. Taking the second question first, is it true that every real thing has an appearance? Not a perceptual appearance, to be sure, because of numbers, moral values, thoughts, and appearances themselves. We don’t have visual impressions of these things. Still, they are presented to our minds in a certain way: we have (as Frege would say) modes of presentation of them. They don’t appear to us naked, just as they are in themselves, with no infusion from our minds; they appear to us in ways conditioned by our modes of sensibility and intelligibility. We grasp numbers, say, in the way human beings grasp them—as finite fallible embodied creatures. Not all conceivable beings grasp them this way: some may survey them far more extensively and intuitively. Animals may grasp numbers in a way different from the human way—more primitively, we suppose—and superior intelligences may grasp them differently from us (and we vary among ourselves according to our mathematical prowess).[2] Appearances are not always perceptual, yet they exist nonetheless. Similarly, unobservable entities like atoms have an appearance—how we represent them in thought. Maybe we use images to do so or maybe discursive symbols, but we grasp them somehow—under some mode of presentation. Conceivably, other beings might grasp them differently, according to their cognitive structure.[3] But what about unknown realities—do they have appearances? What about reality before minds came to exist? Here I think we can say that such unknown objects have conditional appearances: there is a way they would appear to minds of such and such a type. This is a determinate fact about them: every reality has a way (a set of ways) of possibly appearing to cognitive beings. The reality constrains the appearance, without exhausting it, and the appearance belongs to the reality as an objective fact. There is a fact of the matter about how unknown particles would appear to the human mind—or numbers not yet contemplated. There is no such thing as appearance-free reality: real things necessarily have appearances built into them (sometimes conditionally). The same is not true of fictions: they don’t always have a determinate way they would appear, because they don’t always have a determinate nature. How would Sherlock Holmes appear? But things with a determinate objective nature thereby have a determinate mode of appearance, which is relative to the being appeared to. Appearance is thus woven into reality not imposed on it arbitrarily from outside. There is no appearance-neutral reality.

As to the first question, I believe that appearances always transcend their appearance. There is always more to them than there seems. This is because they are themselves realities. For example, the stick seeming bent to me at time t is an experience with a nature—a visual experience occurring at a certain time with certain causes and effects. Not everything about it is apparent to my mind. Maybe we can say that it appeared to me a certain way—the appearance did—but it wasn’t exhausted by this second-order appearance. It is not easy to argue for this view, but I think it has intuitive plausibility: why should the part of reality consisting of appearances be different from the rest of reality? Appearances are real too, so they should have a nature that transcends their appearance—this is part of realism about appearances. Appearances are natural occurrences or states with a basis in the brain, a history, and a science proper to them: why should they lack a nature that goes beyond how they naively seem? An idealist about appearances would suppose that they are nothing but how they appear, but a realist will insist that nothing real reduces to its mode of presentation—even modes of presentation themselves. Senses, to use Frege’s terminology, have a nature of their own not exhausted by how they strike the mind (and the same is true of these events of striking the mind). In other words, real things are never just a matter of how they strike a mind, which includes appearances.

Let me put it this way: objective reality always has subjective appearance built into it, and subjective appearance always has objective reality built into it. The two are intertwined not separate orders of being. This is not to say that appearance and reality collapse into each other, or that the concepts are not genuinely distinct. The matter is subtler than that—harder to comprehend. Let’s look at logical form. The concept of appearance is a three-place relation: x is an appearance of y to z. An appearance is always an appearance of something (cf. Brentano)—in the simplest case a perceptual appearance is an appearance of a physical object (or a merely intentional object in the case of hallucination). But it is also true that every appearance is an appearance to someone—a sentient being at a minimum. The word “appear” always goes along grammatically with the prepositions “of” and “to” (or some equivalent): that is its logical grammar, as Wittgenstein would say. But no such thing is true of the word “real”: when something is real it is not real of something or to someone. Realities are not relations between themselves and something else that they are of, and they are not inherently relations to conscious beings. So the two concepts are vastly different; they correspond to quite different aspects of the world. Yet they are necessarily joined at the hip, since everything real has an appearance (even if only conditionally) and every appearance has an underlying reality (if we are appearance realists). You can’t be an idealist who denies realities beyond appearances, and you can’t be a realist who denies the reality of appearances. For appearances are realities with an objective nature and realities are things that necessarily appear in a certain way. Reality is woven into appearance and appearance is woven into reality. To put it simply, appearances are real and realities appear. There is no possible conception of the world that denies these truths: we cannot conceive of reality without a determinate mode of appearance, and we cannot conceive of appearances without an underlying reality. There is no appearance-independent conception of reality, and there is no reality-independent conception of appearance. This basic truth stems from the recognition that appearances are not opposed to reality but part of it, and reality is not something that floats free of appearance like the Invisible Man (a Kantian point). We can thus understand why some philosophers maintain that reality is appearance and others maintain that appearances are somehow illusory or fictitious (there are really only brain states). But reality is always more than appearance, while never departing altogether from appearance. Idealism (in one form) is not true, necessarily so, but a realism that seeks to detach the world from all appearances is likewise doomed. The phenomenal has its noumenal aspect and the noumenal has its own (counterfactual) phenomenal aspect. Reality and appearance are indissolubly connected, though logically and metaphysically quite distinct. We would do well to reform our metaphysical language to speak of appearance-reality and reality-appearance: unities not dualities. Everything that exists is a hybrid of the two, or better a fusion.[4]


[1] If the world is everything that is the case, then appearances are part of what is the case—one type of fact among others. It is not that appearances lie outside the world; indeed, some philosophers have thought that appearances are the only thing that exists in the world. In any case, they are of the world—part of the totality of facts.

[2] We can thus say that every reality corresponds to many possible appearances, because appearance is a relation between an objective entity and a subjective viewpoint (this may be entirely intellectual). We might even agree that every finite reality has infinitely many possible appearances. Still the reality constrains the appearance, as reference constrains sense.

[3] This has a bearing on what is called the “absolute conception”, the way we grasp the subject matter of physics. This should not be taken to be completely appearance-neutral, since it depends on our specific cognitive and linguistic make-up, though not perhaps on our sensory make-up. Particles have their creature-relative modes of presentation.

[4] This is one of those cases in which trying to state the metaphysical truth taxes our language, no doubt because it was forged in conditions of metaphysical confusion.


Fearing Morality



Fearing Morality


In the past people were taught to love God and to fear Him (making sure to capitalize the divine pronoun on pain of incurring His wrath). The fear was as important as the love. Since morality was closely tied to God, consisting of His divine Commandments, people also feared morality: doing something wrong, disobeying God’s commands, would lead to punishment, and hence should be feared. Hell was the ultimate fear object—what you had coming if you failed to fear God and his commands. Even if there was nothing to fear in this life for being immoral, the afterlife was certainly something to be feared—a possible eternity of excruciating pain. People found nothing paradoxical in this idea: the link between fear and morality was intuitively clear to them. Nowadays this link has been broken (supposedly) either by casting God as invariably beneficent or by denying the existence of God altogether. Accordingly, morality—the moral law—is no longer an object of fear. We might be afraid of flouting its requirements because of tangible repercussions, but we don’t find it fearful as such. We may not have much love for morality (it always seems to be ordering us about) but it has lost the sting it once had. It has lost its terrifying authority, its motivating punch—fear being a big motivator. Who’s afraid of the moral law? We no longer tremble before it, kneel in supplication at its feet. Morality no longer scares us.

I think this is a mistake. Morality is still scary, still capable of making us suffer, and suffer horribly. This is because of the operation of conscience: its stabbings and burnings are still things to be feared. A single bad deed can stay with you your whole life, scarcely losing its power to upbraid the conscience, while good deeds fade into distant memories providing little solace. Wittgenstein felt the need to atone for past bad deeds committed long ago and hardly qualifying as pure evil, and who among us does not regret slights and selfish acts committed in childhood? Conscience has an excellent memory and a pointy stick.[1] Let me illustrate this fearful quality of morality by reference to Tolstoy’s War and Peace, which is about battles of many kinds. Three of the central characters, Pierre, Natasha, and Andrei, each act in morally questionable ways and each is made to suffer in consequence: not from tangible harms but from their own moral sense. Pierre is an idle libertine, a self-indulgent aristocrat with neither purpose nor fortitude; after a flirtation with the Masons and a good deal of self-hatred he edges into the war zone and is made to undergo extreme suffering. His disapproval of his own past conduct is what leads him to these sufferings. His inner pain and his outer pain mingle to produce a man who can hardly bear to live. But it is made clear that his external torments are nothing compared to his internal torments—the barbs of his own conscience. If only he had feared morality more! Natasha’s vanity, fecklessness and immaturity lead her to abandon Andrei for the odious Anatole in plain violation of her moral duty. Her consequent suffering as she realizes her folly leads her to the brink of death, as if she has contracted a mortal sickness. Andrei for his part stiffly and proudly refuses to forgive her, knowing the contrite and despairing state she is in, and he too suffers the inner consequences of his moral lapse. On his deathbed he admits to Natasha that his actions were morally repugnant, and she too admits her moral failure in the business with Anatole. We see three characters living with the spiritual results of a troubled conscience, and it is pitiful to behold. They were rash and weak and foolish. They should have realized the punitive power of conscience, or the power of morality to compel conscience. They should have been more afraid of what they were getting into when they ignored the promptings of morality (each of them is admonished to do so but fails to heed the warnings). Many other characters from literature could be cited to the same effect, from Macbeth to Humbert Humbert. Morality will exert its comeuppance and create a spiritual hell from which there is no escape, lasting the eternity of a lifetime. The image of a vengeful god is a personification of this psychological fact. Misdeeds are magnified by conscience so as to resemble a physical hell. If you choose to do battle with the moral law, it will make you pay: better to be afraid of it, to retreat from it. Those pagan ideas of a wrathful and excessive god correspond with a psychological reality. Morality can act as a punisher in its own right without any help from contingent circumstances.

It is different with the law. We are rightly afraid of the law, but this is because of the external punishments that accrue to breaking it not because of anything internal to it. We don’t suffer from remorse and regret for breaking the law (we may on occasion even rightly find the law immoral), but we do suffer thus from violating morality. We don’t have to anticipate a lifetime of self-recrimination for being a criminal, but we do have to endure self-loathing for our immoral acts. For instance, one remembered episode of bullying at school is apt to trigger decades of self-recrimination. We should be afraid of anything with the power to have this kind of effect on us. But people often fail to realize what they are getting into when they commit immoral acts: they are not fearful enough of the psychological consequences. I would advocate teaching children to have such fear. We teach them to be afraid of traffic for their own good; we should also teach them to be afraid of morality for their own good. Those moral wounds may never heal and spoil all future happiness. When it comes to morality the best advice is: be afraid, be very afraid. By all means respect the law for your own good, but don’t think that legal immorality will spare you all pain. Fear and morality go naturally together. Kant spoke of the emotion of awe in relation to morality, but fear is equally appropriate, and more urgent. Morality is not some warm and cuddly thing that will never make you feel bad (as God is not); morality can act as your enemy if you violate it. Morality (like love) hurts. That is part of normal moral psychology.

The total psychopath (if such a being exists) feels no pain as a result of his immoral actions, but he is rare; most of us are only too capable of such pain. But many of us employ various devices and stratagems for avoiding the pangs of conscience: self-deception, bluster, avoiding the subject, alcohol, and rationalization. Interestingly, none of these works, not really. They may give temporary relief but they don’t make the pain go away; it is always ready to spring back into action when you least expect it—shooting through your soul like an arrow from hell (or at least a mild cramping in the gut). There is really no cure for it once the deed is done (see Macbeth): no amount of therapy or money or booze will stop it in its tracks. So it’s best not to go there to begin with; and children should be warned, teenagers admonished, adults counseled. Fear of morality should be part of everyone’s preparation for life. By all means love doing the right thing, but also be afraid of doing the wrong thing. That may cause far more self-harm than you bargained for.[2]



[1] How does conscience exercise its punitive power? Freud would say that conscience (the superego) is the internalized parent imposing strictures and prohibitions, but this view is not plausible: what if you have no parents, and can’t you reject your parent’s values and demands? I don’t pretend to know how conscience operates, what confers its peculiar potency; I suspect that it has an innate basis, like morality itself, and that it is triggered by a mismatch between moral conviction and other psychological forces—a form of cognitive dissonance. We feel compelled to reduce the dissonance, which eats away at us, but why it has such sharp teeth I don’t know.

[2] It might be suggested that respect is the emotion proper to the moral law; I would not disagree, though respect is rather anemic to capture all that is in play (one respects a government official). Something more visceral is involved, which is why love and fear have attached themselves to morality (or at least grudging affection if not love). We (justifiably) fear the consequences of acting immorally as well as feel respect for its requirements. We fear what acting immorally will do to us: it can cause unhappiness like nothing else. In War and Peace Helene is not a happy woman, not deep down. Kutuzov, despite his ailments, is a happy man because he cleaves close to morality, even when it makes him unpopular—perhaps the most virtuous man in the novel. He knows when to do battle and when not to.








The concept of replication is central to biology. For instance, Richard Dawkins makes heavy and illuminating use of it in The Selfish Gene and elsewhere. Here I will offer some analytical remarks about the concept, with special reference to the question of what counts as replication: what is replication and how far does it extend? Let’s start with word “replica”: the OED gives us this, “an exact copy or model especially on a smaller scale than the original”. One thinks of model planes or effigies of famous people. Two elements stand out in this definition: the idea of an “exact copy” and the idea of an “original”. There must be (a) a close resemblance and (b) the replica must be derived from the original. Close resemblance alone is not sufficient to be a replica, or else random similarity would suffice; there has to be some sort of relation of dependence whereby the replica is derived from the original. Thus atoms are not replicas of each other, despite close resemblance, because there is no process of derivation leading from one to the other. The entry for “replicate” captures this nicely: “make an exact copy of; reproduce”. Replication is a process in which a copy is reproduced from an original: the original is part of the causal story about how the replica came into existence. Replication is a generative process that produces exact similarity. Finally the OED turns explicitly biological for “replicate itself”: “(of genetic material or a living organism) reproduce or give rise to a copy of itself”. Again, two elements stand out: (a) both organisms and genes are said to replicate themselves, and (b) the original “gives rise” to the copy—causes it, generates it, brings it into being. So self-replication is not the same as replication in general: some replication is driven by the original itself, while some derives from an external source, possibly a conscious agent. There is internally driven replication and externally driven replication: the former is performed by genes and organisms, while the latter requires an external agency, such as a photocopier or an artist or a modeler.[1]

One might be tempted to suppose that replication constitutes the essence of the biological: it is necessary and sufficient to qualify something as biological. The world falls into two big categories, the biological and the non-biological, and replication is the feature that makes the difference. However, there appear to be counterexamples to such a criterion of the biological. First, it is not clear that replication can’t occur outside the biological realm, as with the formation of crystals. Here we have derivative duplication but the process is entirely chemical and inanimate. Perhaps it could be argued that this is not replication proper because of some further ingredient in the notion (it is not purposive, for example), but on the face of it this looks like non-biological reproduction—exact copies produced from an original. Second, it is not clear that everything biological is replicative: isn’t sex biological, but is sex a replicator? What about homeostasis or digestion or respiration? In what sense could these be described as replicators? They are not like organisms or genes, discrete entities that generate copies of themselves; they are more like processes in which such entities participate. They aren’t spatially bounded things, chunks of matter, lumps of stuff. So it looks like replication is not the very essence of the biological, just one of its chief features. There are replicating non-biological entities and there are biological non-replicating entities.

But let’s examine this more closely. Putting aside the crystals type of case, is it really true that only organisms and genes replicate, as the dictionary suggests? What about cells? Surely they replicate, using a mixture of internal and external machinery: they literally divide into exact copies. They self-replicate according to endogenous and exogenous factors. And don’t larger bits of tissue also sometimes replicate—such as the re-grown tails of lizards? In fact not much of this sort of macro-replication goes on, but it is logically possible that it should, and the result would be bona fide replication. Body parts could be replicas of earlier body parts generated by some sort of constructive process. What about organs of the body—can we say that they too are replicators? Well, they don’t produce copies of themselves by division, like cells, but isn’t there an indirect way that they work to produce copies of themselves? That is, an organ contributes to the success of an organism in such a way that an organ just like it crops up in the next generation. It does this because the body in which it lives contains genes that construct organs like it. An efficient heart in one animal leads to a similar heart in its offspring because that heart helps the organism reproduce and pass on its genes. We can thus say that the original heart plays a causal role in the process whereby a copy of it comes to exist in a later generation. It isn’t just a coincidence that the heart of an offspring animal resembles the heart of its parents; the latter heart “gives rise” to the former heart (with a little help from the genes). The whole organism replicates itself by exploiting the genes, and the organs that make it up do much the same. So the organs are replicators too—they engage in the process of producing copies of themselves. The same holds for height, weight, musculature, eye color, etc.—all these are things that get replicated.

It is no different for mind and behavior. Mental capacities and behavioral dispositions get passed on according to their contribution to an organism’s reproductive success: excellent memory, acute vision, sound reasoning, a tendency to strike while the iron is hot, etc. In so far as these are genetically encoded (i.e. very far), they get replicated in the usual way. This is not to say that genetic transmission is the only way to replicate: there is also behavioral contagion, learning, “osmosis”, meme transfer, etc. That is, mind and behavior can be replicated by several avenues and mechanisms not just by genetic transmission, so it is wrong to limit the concept of replication to the genes and whole organisms in the manner of the OED; we need to include much more under the concept.[2]The important point is that the concept is more elastic than the dictionary allows, at least so far as its entry for “self-replication” goes. In fact, replication is a common feature of a lot of biology: organisms, genes, cells, cell clusters, organs, mental traits, and behavioral dispositions. These items vary in mechanism and type of entity, but the concept of replication is common to all of them. The concept is abstract and inclusive (rather like the concept of natural selection).

This relates to something I have argued elsewhere, namely that genes are not the end of the line when it comes to selfishness.[3] Without repeating what I have already said, the point is that the biosphere, or parts of it, acts as the beneficiary of genetic and organismic action: the biosphere persists in virtue of the genes and their host organisms, because these entities enable biological processes and traits to continue. The point I am making now is that we can extend the notion of replication to include such processes and traits. Take sex: it continues in the world by a process of replication—past sex gives rise to future sex. The future sex is just like the past sex (a replica or duplicate or copy of it), and it is the past sex that “gives rise” to the future sex. Why? Because sexual behavior leads to the survival of organisms that engage in it, along with genes that transmit it. The sexual behavior of an elephant, say, is a copy of previous elephant sexual behavior, where the earlier behavior is part of the causal story of how later sexual behavior in elephants came to be. Sex is replicated across the generations just like anatomy and physiology. And it is subject to competition and natural selection in the same way too: the better you are at it, the better you do in the reproduction races. So these biological phenomena act as replicators (aided by the genetic and organismic machinery)—they are repeated, reproduced, duplicated. Thus they are not just beneficiaries of the activities of genes and organisms; they function in a replicative manner. Sex survives because it does well in a biosphere governed by natural selection, and it is passed on by a process of replication. Homeostasis is the same: it is duplicated across the animal kingdom because it works well as an aid to survival and reproduction. So traits like sex and homeostasis manifest the attributes common to biological phenomena: they can be beneficiaries of other entities (genes and organisms), and they are subject to replication. They become increasingly numerous by a process of replication. In addition there can be variations in the traits that give natural selection something to play with: a random mutation in sexual anatomy or behavior can lead to greater reproductive success than rivals, as is also the case for homeostasis. So, to use my preferred terminology, the biosphere (or sections of it) constitutes biological bedrock—the ultimate self-replicating, selfish, naturally selected stuff of biology. Not genes and not organisms: they exist one or two levels up. In particular, the gene functions as a survival machine for the biosphere, an aid to its propagation. This is not to say that the gene is not unique and central in its own way—as indeed the organism is unique and central in its own way—but it is not the be-all and end-all, biologically speaking. If I were to coin a term for these ultimate realities, I would call them “biemes”: biemes are such relatively abstract things as sex, respiration, digestion, homeostasis, growth, locomotion, sensation, thought, and so on. These things stay in existence because genes and organisms keep them in existence, and they do so because they are useful to the survival of both genes and organisms. There are thus three pillars of biological reality: organisms, genes, and biemes—with cells and organs sandwiched in between. The organisms serve the genes and the genes serve the biemes (the biosphere in effect). The most visible things are therefore the least basic: from the conspicuous organism to the microscopic gene to the abstract bieme. All are equally real, and equally vital, but the third has a claim to being the most fundamental.[4]


Colin McGinn



[1] Strictly speaking, replication is a three-place relation: “x is a replica of y in respect z”. Nothing is ever a replica in every respect. In the case of genes there are three respects to consider: chemical composition, functional properties, and information content. In principle replication might preserve one of these but not the others: for example, same information but not the same chemical composition or functional profile. In practice the three go together, but conceptually they are quite distinct. We can imagine possible worlds in which genes shed their chemical features and yet preserve their functional and informational features as they get passed on. We also have the notion of partial replication as well as complete replication (itself inevitably partial).

[2] I would also apply the concept of replication to historical phenomena: sometimes a population copies another population and hence produces a common historical change, e.g. revolutions or wars. This is large-scale replicative behavioral contagion. Given this, I would be happy to rate history as a branch off biology (it is really psychology writ large).

[3] See “The Selfless Machine” and “The Selfish Biosphere”.

[4] I see no competition between this perspective and standard selfish gene theory, merely a shift of emphasis. The gene can retain its starring role, though it works for another level of reality (like shady money men lurking in the shadows of movie production). The organism benefits the gene, but the gene benefits the biosphere (including the process of natural selection itself).