The Tyranny of the Majority

Tyranny of the Majority


Here is de Tocqueville in Democracy in America (1835): “But the dominating power in the United States [the majority] does not understand being mocked like that. The slightest reproach offends it, the smallest sharp truth stimulates its angry response and it must be praised from the style of its language to its more solid virtues. No writer, however famous, can escape from this obligation to praise his fellow citizens. The majority lives therefore in an everlasting self-adoration. Only foreigners or experience might be able to bring certain truths to the ears of Americans” (from “The Power Exercised by the Majority in America Over Thought”).

Do I need to make any comment?


Oh America!

I have lived in this country for 30 years, but I count myself an outsider. What we have witnessed in the last week, and in the last few years, has undoubtedly been ugly in the extreme, but to my eye it is not so far removed from business as usual in America. The same tendencies towards conspiracy theories, hysteria, gullibility, brutality, and delight in destruction are everywhere, including in American universities. They are not the exclusive property of the political right (appalling as that is ) but are quite independent of political affiliation. They are features of the American psyche, but Americans are oblivious to it. They are part of the national character, going back a long way. Of course, there are some good things about America, but people need to wake up to their blind spots and habitual reactions. Yes, I am talking to you.


Self-Blindness and “I”


Self-Blindness and “I”


Hume’s point that the self is not introspectively detectable has always been met with intuitive acceptance. Its significance is more contentious. Does it show that the self does not exist, or that introspection is limited, or that the self is really just a congeries of mental states? A possible view is that introspection has blind spots and the self falls into one of them. Introspection doesn’t reveal the body or the brain either, but they clearly exist; perhaps the self is a real entity that happens to fall outside introspection’s possible field of acquaintance. God can see it perfectly well, but humans are blind to this aspect of their nature. They are introspectively blind to the self in the same way they are blind to other things—through lack of acuity, lack of coverage, and lack of receptivity. They are not completely blind to the mind, since introspection can reveal other mental phenomena, but the self eludes their introspective powers. Some people are totally blind in the ocular sense, some partially so, and everyone is blind to some things (elementary particles, remote galaxies, parts of the electromagnetic spectrum); well, humans are introspectively blind to the self. Hume could have made the same point about the senses: search through the data of smell, taste, and hearing and you will not find any presentation of an object given to these senses. They deliver information about qualities, states, events, and processes, but they don’t include the perception of a continuant object—the objective source of the phenomena in question. You hear the bark of a dog but hearing gives you no impression of the dog itself as an object existing through time. Only vision and touch offer impressions of continuant particulars (and some have contested even this); the other senses are blind to such entities. Their intentional objects include only fragmentary passing occurrences: smells, tastes, and sounds. Introspection seems to be like this: it never presents the continuing self to the inner eye but only its states and contents. It suffers from perceptual closure with respect to the self—as well as for the brain and body (not to mention the rest of the world). Every sense is limited in some way, and introspection is no different. Self-blindness is really just par for the course. It certainly doesn’t imply the non-existence of the self.

            But Hume’s point does raise an interesting question about the word “I”: how does it refer? It seems not to be equivalent to a description, but it doesn’t correlate with a mode of acquaintance either, since we have no acquaintance with the self (accepting Hume’s point). It isn’t like reference to pain or color sensations: here we doknow what we are talking about—these things are immediately presented to us inwardly. In these cases we “see” what we refer to. But we are constitutionally blind to the self, so we are referring to something we can neither perceive nor describe. We are like a blind man referring to what he can neither see nor pick out descriptively. This is perfectly possible: he may say “that dog” while pointing forward and happen to pick out a particular dog in front of him. He has no acquaintance with the dog and cannot describe it uniquely, but the demonstrative enables him to achieve reference nevertheless.  The dog is not referentially closed to him—just perceptually and descriptively closed. Reference can transcend acquaintance and description. Hallelujah! We can refer to what we cannot otherwise access (compare remote galaxies, elementary particles, future persons, and other universes). Similarly, according to this line of thought, we refer to the self in just this kind of way: “I” refers in roughly the way “that dog” refers for the blind man. And what is that way? By means of context, indexical mechanisms, and the semantics of content and character.  [1] We are like someone cut off epistemically from an object yet able to deploy the apparatus of indexical reference to make reference to that thing. Otherwise we would be referentially impotent with respect to the object. What this means is that we have no perception (and no real conception) of the self that we so effortlessly denote all the time—thanks to the semantics of “I”. We have nothing of epistemic substance in mind when we use “I”, but that doesn’t stop us referring to the self. This is a species of ignorant reference—reference in the absence of knowledge (by acquaintance or description).  [2] This may account for some of the peculiarities of the word “I”—in particular, its air of airiness. It seems totally devoid of content, a mere schema or skeleton, perhaps a pseudo singular term, not really denotative at all. The reason is that it is a case of blind reference—reference not backed by knowledge. It seems like a shot in the dark, a mere gesture at reference—like putting your hand over your eyes and enunciating the word “that” hoping to net something to refer to. Even if you succeed, you have nothing much to say about the thing you have referred to, with no mental act of identification to back up your stab in the dark. Introspection is blind to the self (and external observation does nothing to remedy the lack) but the indexical semantics of “I” enables you to hang onto reference by the skin of your teeth. It is the constitutional weakness of introspection combined with the elastic power of indexical reference that characterizes the use of “I”: a sort of blind strength.

            Other indexical words conform to roughly the same pattern, particularly “here” and “now”. Imagine someone subjected to complete sensory deprivation: absolutely no input is received via the senses from the external world. Thus nothing is known by the deprived subject about what is going on around her: she has no perception of what is occurring at the present time, nor does she have any descriptive knowledge that could uniquely identify the place and time involved. Yet she pronounces the magic words “here” and “now”, outwardly or inwardly, and evidently makes determinate reference thereby: a certain place and time are picked out. The reference is not mediated by acquaintance and not by individuating description, but it proceeds nonetheless. This is an extreme case of what I am calling ignorant reference. There is clearly a lot of ignorant indexical reference going on in typical language use, and it can be used to anchor other reference such as with proper names. It might even be argued that these cases are like the case of the self in that they involve blindness to the entities actually denoted: we never really encounter places and times as such in our epistemic searches. We don’t perceive them directly with the senses and we don’t have adequate descriptive knowledge of them; but we can refer to them by exploiting the mechanisms of indexical reference. And they are always there to be referred to, like the self (and unlike the material objects of perception): there is never simply no such thing as time or space or self to reciprocate the referential act. The self, though contingent, is always there because the act of referring guarantees it—where there is a referrer there must be a self that is referred to by “I”. There cannot be cases of empty self-reference. There is no need to rely on perception to provide evidence of existence as a precondition of successful reference; existence comes with the referential territory. We exist in space and time and the self is always present whenever reference occurs: so “here”, “now”’ and “I” always find a target. Blind spots don’t undermine successful reference in any of these cases. There has been a tendency to link reference with knowledge (by acquaintance or by description) but the interesting fact about reference is that it is free of such epistemic constraints: it can proceed in blissful ignorance of the thing referred to. Hume’s point is correct (though not damaging to the self’s existence) but it is no bar to reliable and useful reference to the self. Self-blindness does not entail referential self-blankness: we can denote what we cannot see (or otherwise sense). And this is true even if we necessarily can never encounter the self.  [3]


  [1] See David Kaplan on indexical semantics.

  [2] This is consistent with a causal theory of reference: the self might be the cause of reference to itself. But if so, it is a cause of which we have no knowledge. The causal theory of names is typically formulated in terms of observable objects causing chains of reference leading up to a particular use, but a causal theory of reference by “I” would more naturally be formulated in terms of an elusive self that nevertheless causes acts of reference to itself. Even a totally transcendental or noumenal self could operate causally in the production of occurrences of “I”. Some causes of acts of reference might be completely invisible and unknowable, yet indispensable.

  [3] The theory of reference has been dominated by consideration of reference to public middle-sized material objects—people, animals, cities, etc. But this is parochial and possibly misleading: we also refer to selves (construed as private mental entities) as well as to places and times. Thus ignorant reference might be more paradigmatic than knowledge-based reference. The emphasis on reference to ordinary material objects probably traces to an empiricist (or positivist) tendency to put sense perception at the center of cognition, including linguistic understanding. But once we see the limitations of perception-based reference as a model for self-reference we are free to recognize that reference can proceed in conditions of ignorance. We don’t (can’t) perceive (introspect) the self, but we can refer to it with the greatest of ease. In the case of the self we appear to have an extreme example of the divorce between the epistemic and the semantic: deep ignorance combined with infallible reference. No wonder “I” is deemed so philosophically problematic.      


Death, Time, and Other Minds


Death, Time, and Other Minds


It is often said that we are “social animals”. What seems to be intended is twofold: we have an emotional craving for human contact, and we are similar to other social animals in this respect.  [1] Both observations are surely correct, but could there be anything more to our gregarious disposition? Does it reflect any deeper need? I want to suggest that death comes into it—death and consciousness. We seek the company of others because of our peculiar relationship with our own consciousness and its extinction. Suppose you were the last man alive, indeed the last sentient organism alive: when you die consciousness dies too—all of it. Suppose also that it will not return: that will be the end of the line for consciousness, with the universe reverting to its pre-conscious state. That seems like a momentous annihilation. It is bad enough that you yourself will be gone—that localized center of consciousness—but in addition the entire field of consciousness will be no more. If the bleakness of your solitary existence inclines you to suicide, you need to consider that your decision also concerns consciousness itself. Presumably consciousness is a thing of value, maybe the only thing of value, so you will be putting this valuable thing out of existence for good—in addition to your individual self. This would not be so if there were other centers of consciousness in existence; then your death would not be the end of consciousness as such. And not only is the cessation of consciousness tragic; it is also mind-bending—hard to get your mind around. Suddenly there will be nothing but brute existence with no conscious record of it: and the idealist in you rebels and reels at the thought. The universe is now empty. The same feeling applies if you simply don’t know whether there is anybody else: so far as you are concerned, your death could be the death of consciousness as such. It will be worse if this is so than if other centers of consciousness exist. The case is like species extinction: the death of the last mongoose is worse than the death of one mongoose among other mongooses—and consciousness is far more significant than the mongoose species (sorry mongooses, I mean no disrespect). The extinction of all consciousness is a pretty big deal, a major cosmic catastrophe. A lot hangs on your continued existence.

            But isn’t our actual predicament disturbingly similar to this? There are two factors at work: first-person salience, and the problem of other minds. For obvious reasons our own consciousness seems the most real to us—the most in your face. It is right here, up very close and personal: we are saturated in it. The consciousness of others, by contrast, is remote and occluded. So when my consciousness goes the most conspicuous instance of consciousness goes: its absence will be all too evident, because there won’t even be a hint of it from my point of view (since my point of view is gone). This bias towards my own consciousness feeds into the second factor: I don’t really know that other people have consciousness. Maybe they don’t, in which case when mine disappears that’s it for consciousness in general. So my death is particularly critical so far as the existence of consciousness is concerned, since I am the only clear and indisputable case of it. For all I know, my death is the death of all consciousness—that is an epistemic possibility. It would be good to be assured that this is not the actual situation—other minds do exist. And it would be good to know this in the context of impending death—especially death by suicide. Then I could calculate the cosmic momentousness of my own death. Of course, given the difficulty of the problem of other minds, combined with first-person salience, I am not going to obtain the information I seek, so I have to go to my grave not knowing if my end is the end of everything worthwhile. But it would be natural for me at least to try to gain an impression of consciousness elsewhere—to feel the existence of consciousness in other beings even if I can never prove it. Thus I might naturally seek out the company of others: I might try to sense the existence of other minds as strongly as possible. This will be particularly true while I am on my deathbed, but it could also be a lifelong project. I want to believe in other minds because this will give me the feeling that my death is not the death of all consciousness, so I pursue social relations with a particular intensity. We are social beings in part because we are mortal beings haunted by the problem of other minds. Our access to our own consciousness, by contrast to other centers of consciousness, is what (partly) fuels our propensity to social intercourse (which includes sexual intercourse). We nurture a kind of cosmic altruism in relation to other instances of consciousness that conditions our attitude toward death. We want to go on individually, of course, but we also want consciousness to go on, and we can’t be certain that it will, given the problem of other minds.

            This consideration may seem a bit high-minded, as well as suspiciously abstract, but there is another more obvious way that the problem of other minds affects our attitude towards death, namely that we need other centers of consciousness to exist in order that we shall carry on. After all, if there are no other minds, then there is no one to remember me. If everyone is a zombie or a robot, then no one will grieve for you, or love you, or remember your precious self (as Achilles grieved so passionately for his murdered friend Patroclos). Imagine if you were to believe that at death your spirit literally flows into the minds of others; then if it turns out that there are no other minds, there is no such flowing going on. You can only have an afterlife if other minds exist—your continuing life depends on their having an inner life (or so you believe). But even if no such literal afterlife is possible, it is still true that each of us requires other minds to exist in order to affect their state after we are gone. If there are no other minds, then my death will be that much worse, because there will be no conscious beings to care about and remember me. Even the production of great works will be meaningless, because there will be no minds around to appreciate them. So I will naturally try to assure myself that other minds are real, insofar as I can—I will attach myself to a social group. I will try to feel part of a collective consciousness. My need for society is thus rooted (in part) in my existential fears and anxieties concerning my own death. I need to feel that I am not alone or else my death will be the complete and utter end of me, with nary a trace remaining. If only I could get hooked up to other minds by some sort of brain linkage and experience them directly! Then I could be sure that my mind is not the only one. As it is I must rely on whatever methods of social contact are available, even if they are not really satisfactory. The life of the hermit leaves me disconcertingly susceptible to skeptical fears regarding my own death: that it might for all I know be the end of all conscious life, and that my own life will definitively end when I die, because it will leave no remnant in the minds of others.  [2]

            It is instructive to consider the case of animals in this connection. Animals don’t ponder the meaning of their death. They don’t see themselves as living a finite lifespan at a specific moment of history, with a beginning and end. It is as if they are immortal from a subjective point of view; they don’t lament their mortality. They don’t regard themselves as part of natural history, as occupying a certain finite stretch of time. They have no conception of time at all as an all-encompassing medium. The relationship between their own short lives and eternity is not apparent to them (we on the other hand are consumed by this relationship). Nor are they afflicted with the problem of other minds, haunting their attitudes towards their eventual death. So nothing of what I said above applies to them. Thus they don’t have any of those reasons to seek the society of others: they don’t have any philosophical reasons to be “social animals”. They are social animals for purely pragmatic reasons: that is just the best way of living for them in the light of their reproductive and survival requirements. They have no need to consider what their personal demise means for consciousness as a whole, nor whether there are minds out there that will fondly dwell on memories of them. So they are social beings for reasons that fall short of our reasons (no doubt we have their kinds of reasons too): we are not social animals in the sense that we are social for no reasons that transcend animal reasons. For us the question of society is mixed up with existential questions—about consciousness, other minds, value, finitude, and the afterlife. This is why the scenario of the last man alive illuminates our actual predicament: it expresses a deep truth about our attitudes towards death. It is as if every human death is, for the subject of that death, the death of the sole example of consciousness. Death forces us to think about the value of consciousness and the reality (or otherwise) of other conscious minds. If the problem of other minds were more of an everyday problem, not just a philosopher’s conundrum, these points would be more evident to us. Suppose a disease came along that renders the victim a functioning zombie, but only with a certain probability: 50% of sufferers literally lose their mind while the remainder is not affected, but you can’t tell which is which. Thus you really don’t know whether your social group is conscious or not—it could be that your entire nation has been turned into zombies. Then your own death will seem like the all-too possible total end of consciousness, at least so far as your field of acquaintance is concerned; and you have no assurance at all that any conscious being will remember you. You will be effectively living a last-man-alive life, and social existence will seem largely futile (save for pragmatic reasons). You will not have the reassurance social life provides that you are not alone—that there are other sentient beings like you in the world. Epistemologically uncritical social intimacy is what softens the blow delivered by individual death (which is still a hard enough blow), but absent that your reasons for seeking a social existence are significantly diminished. You may as well live alone if everyone around you is a zombie! The costs of social life will begin to outweigh its benefits. You will not be living a genuinely social life if your “companions” are all mindless robots—your attitudes towards them will be quite different. And this will affect your feelings regarding your own death, making it seem more tragic, more of a loss, more catastrophic. The death of a diehard solipsist is the worst death of all.  [3]


  [1] It is less often remarked that we are also anti-social animals. We like to be alone too: then we don’t have to feel the burden of another consciousness. We can indulge our natural solipsism. It is when the thought of death intrudes on our solitude that we feel the tug of the social group (though not only then). We thus live with two countervailing impulses: to be alone and to be with others. I wonder if other animals ever feel the same tension.

  [2] This is the meaning of ostracism: social death. The fully ostracized individual is deprived of continued existence in the minds of others. Exile makes death sting more poignantly because there is no prospect of continuing in other minds. To be alone is to die without significant remainder or residue.

  [3] There is this consolation: the solipsist has no envy towards those who continue living while he perishes—for their “living” is no better than a rock continuing in existence. In fact, the solipsist has no envy at all.


Cognitive Closure De Dicto and De Re


Cognitive Closure De Dicto and De Re


De dicto belief does not entail de re belief and vice versa. The two have different conditions of possibility. Someone could believe de dicto that the tallest man in the world is over 8 feet without believing de re of the tallest man that he is over 8 feet: he believes the former on general grounds, but he has never met the tallest man and knows nothing about him. Belief de re requires something stronger than mere descriptive reference. But it is also true that we can’t infer de dicto belief from de re belief: you might meet the tallest man, not realizing that he is, and form the belief that he is unhappy, but you don’t thereby believe that the tallest man is unhappy. Belief de dicto requires something stronger than mere acquaintance; you have to think of the object in a certain way. This familiar distinction has implications for the concept of cognitive closure (and allied concepts). A given conceptual scheme can suffer from two sorts of gap: the concepts it contains and the objects it refers to. It can be limited with respect to ideology or with respect to ontology (to use Quine’s terminology)—the concepts it expresses and the objects it denotes. Take a typical ape conceptual scheme: it might contain reference to the Sun but not contain the concept center of the solar system, and it might contain the concept cause of these footprints without there being any de rebelief about the actual cause of the footprints (the animal responsible has never been seen). We can also suppose that the ape conceptual scheme is empty of both sorts of belief with respect to a given subject matter: no de dictobeliefs about remote galaxies and no de re beliefs about them either; ditto for atoms, the unconscious, and dark matter. The apes don’t have the concept and they don’t have the necessary acquaintance. And it is plausible to suggest that they can’t have either: they can’t have the concepts and they can’t achieve the acquaintance. Thus we can say that they are cognitively closed both de dicto and de re to the entities in question: they are lacking both conceptually and perceptually (assuming de re beliefs to require perception). At any rate, there are two sorts of epistemic limitation to consider: how the organism can think and what it can think about. These can be called de dicto cognitive closure and de re cognitive closure. Since the two types of closure come about by different means, they can come apart, either from a conceptual gap or from a perceptual limitation (or causal contact limitation, if that is your preferred account of the conditions of de re belief).  [1] Another species might invert the position of the apes: they might have no trouble conceptualizing the Sun but have no de re knowledge of it, and they might be acquainted with the cause of those footprints but not have the concept of a footprint.

            How does this apply to humans? We might have the concept of something that we can never become acquainted with (and hence have de re beliefs about) and we might also have acquaintance with something that we cannot have certain de dicto beliefs about. Dark matter might be an instance of the former, or the universe before the big bang (do we even have de re beliefs about the big bang itself?); and consciousness would be instance of the latter—we have de re beliefs about consciousness but we may not be able to have de dicto beliefs about all of its properties. Many mysterious things are such that we are in direct cognitive contact with them but are not capable of having de dicto beliefs (knowledge) about all their properties. Knowledge by acquaintance is one thing; knowledge by description is another.  [2] Here is an interesting case: do I have de re knowledge of bat experience that I don’t have de dicto knowledge of it? We can agree that my conceptual scheme has a gap where the concept of bat experience ought to be (an area of local cognitive closure), but am I also precluded from forming de re attitudes towards bat experience? One might suppose that I am, since I am not acquainted with bat experience, but that may be too quick: for I am in causal contact with it—it exists in my immediate environment. I can refer to it demonstratively. Do I have de re beliefs about other human minds? Do I believe of your pain that it deserves a visit to the doctor? That doesn’t sound wrong, so can’t we say that I believe of a bat’s experience that it is something I can’t know about de dicto? That is, I know of what it’s like to be a bat that I can’t know what it’s like to be a bat. If so, I have de re attitudes towards bat experience whose nature I cannot conceptualize de dicto: I am not de recognitively closed, but I am de dicto cognitively closed. Bat experience is not like dark matter or other parallel universes, with which we have no causal contact. The case is like the blind man and sensations of color: he can’t know that I am seeing red (that would require him to have the concept red), but does he know of my red experience that it is something he can’t grasp? The case isn’t straightforward but I am inclined to say that de reknowledge is possible in such cases, in which case we can have de re attitudes towards experiences we cannot conceptualize de dicto. Alien minds can be de re objects of our attitudes even when they cannot be conceptualized in the de dicto form. I can believe of an alien mind that it is irremediably alien to me.

            Now there is this question: is there anything in the universe that cannot be either de re cognized or de dictocognized by the human mind? Are there any objects or facts that are in principle inaccessible to human cognition of either kind? The familiar mysteries don’t qualify because they all involve de re cognition combined with de dictoignorance: consciousness, free will, creativity, matter, space, and time—or whatever mysteries you happen to believe in. We would need an example of something that we can’t have de re knowledge of and we can’t adequately describe in the de dicto style. It would have to be something like the origin, or fate, of the universe: we are not acquainted with these things, and arguably we can never come to know what they involve. Still, the concept makes sense: real facts that are not objects of de re cognition and also not conceptually accessible to us (save in unrevealing descriptive phrases such as “the origin of the universe”). Consciousness is a de re object of cognition and also known about in various ways, so it is not completely removed from human cognition; but there could be realities that are neither de re objects of cognition nor susceptible to de dicto beliefs—not even recognized as possibilities in our conceptual scheme. Of course, it is impossible to give an example—but that doesn’t mean the idea is incoherent. There might also be things that we can form adequate theories of but which we can never know de re (say, the ultimate constituents of matter). So there are mixed cases of cognitive closure depending on the scope of de re and de dicto modes of cognition. In the most familiar cases we have de re openness combined with de dicto closure (or partial de dicto closure, because we have some knowledge of the things in question). This is really just a special case of the distinction between de re and de dicto belief: we have de re knowledge of the thing but at best incomplete de dicto knowledge of the properties of the thing. Our limited ability to know de dicto about the properties of something is never sufficient to undermine our de re acquaintance with it.  [3] We could be completely wrong about consciousness, say, and yet still have de re beliefs concerning it. Knowledge of objects is not dependent on knowledge of truths, as Russell puts it; it is more primitive than that. It is knowledge of a different order or type.  [4]

            We have two basic sorts of cognitive power: the power of acquaintance (to use Russell’s term of art), and the power of conceptualization. They are largely independent of each other and can therefore come apart. With respect to cognitive limitations we need to recognize both types of limitation and classify cases accordingly. Conceptual schemes can suffer (or benefit) from both sorts of gap—ontological or ideological. They can be limited de re or they can be limited de dicto. The human conceptual scheme, like other conceptual schemes, has certain types of limitation, of varying degrees of severity, and its combination of the de re and dicto is distinctive, depending as it does on our contingent powers of perception and conceptualization. It is hard to see how it could be otherwise.


  [1] There is controversy about the necessary and sufficient conditions of de re attitudes, but some sort of causal contact seems to be required—not necessarily perceptual contact. It might even be possible to acquire de re attitudes by testimony, and certainly by introspection. Russell restricted the objects of such attitudes to sense data and one’s own self, but nowadays we prefer to relax this to include the material objects of perception and things in the past—though not the future. The intuitive test is always whether we can say, “X believes of y that such and such” or “Concerning y, X believes that it is so and so”—which always allow wide scope existential generalization. Thus we can’t say that someone has a belief of something unless that something exists.   

  [2] See Russell, The Problems of Philosophy (1912). As an aside, let me say that this book breathes an optimism that could no longer exist after the wars of the twentieth century. Its epistemology is supremely lucid and self-confident.

  [3] This is one of the faults of the description theory of reference as applied to thought: it tries vainly to reduce acquaintance to descriptive knowledge. Hence the popularity of causal theories.

  [4] We could also consider the question of whether knowing-how is subject to cognitive closure: are there some things we could never know how to do? Clearly there are things our animal brethren will never know how to do (play tennis, tie their shoelaces), and we may suppose that some tasks are beyond human cognitive abilities too (what about create a human being from scratch, or a whole universe?). That is, for each epistemic concept we can inquire into questions of cognitive limitation: it isn’t only about the scope and limits of propositional knowledge. Epistemology meets mysterianism.