Puzzles of the Unconscious


Puzzles of the Unconscious


When was the unconscious mind discovered? The question makes sense in a way the comparable question about the conscious mind does not. The conscious mind was “discovered” when it came to exist, just by being conscious: being conscious and knowing one is conscious are inseparable. But that isn’t true of the unconscious: it is precisely not known just by existing. The unconscious is a postulate, a hypothesis, a theoretical conjecture; and it makes sense to ask when such a postulate was initially proposed. As with all theoretical postulates, we can only approach it indirectly: we certainly can’t know about the unconscious by means of direct introspection. We have to employ inference, experiment, and theory construction. Let’s say for convenience that the unconscious was discovered by Leibniz in the seventeenth century, and later investigated by Helmholtz, Freud, Chomsky, and many others.  [1] We can say that we now know that the unconscious mind exists; at any rate, I have no wish to dispute its existence. Still, there are many unanswered questions about the unconscious that tend to be ignored, because in the minds of many people the idea is regarded as questionable or even taboo. I propose here to accept the robust reality of the unconscious mind (or many such) and tabulate some outstanding questions regarding its nature. My aim is to show how little we know about it.

            Why does the unconscious even exist? Why isn’t everything mental conscious? Some of it clearly is, so why not all of it? Freud thought that repression ensured the existence of the unconscious, but aside from various questions of empirical support and conceptual coherence there is the following point: why couldn’t repression banish disturbing mental contents to another parallel consciousness? After all, I am not disturbed by unseemly desires in your mind, so why couldn’t I have two conscious minds, one containing my acceptable desires and the other containing my unacceptable desires? All I need is to not know what is going on in the unseemly consciousness. It is not a necessary condition of epistemic insulation that the mind containing repressed material should be inherently unconscious, just that we don’t know what it contains. Another popular idea is that for some types of unconscious mentation there is a processing constraint: the conscious mind has a relatively narrow bandwidth, so we are organized in such a way as not to overburden it–nature relegates the bulk of mental activity to an unconscious that doesn’t intrude on our circumscribed consciousness. This is a pretty feeble explanation: whyis this so, and is it really true? For example, much linguistic processing is unconscious, with only the final product reaching consciousness, but it is quite unclear whether this has anything to do with considerations of cognitive capacity. Some consciously produced sentences are extremely complex, and some simple conscious utterances have simple processing antecedents. Complexity is not the determinant of what reaches consciousness. So we really don’t know why the unconscious exists, though it evidently does; we don’t know why there is such a thing as an unconscious. (Likewise, we don’t really know why the conscious mind exists, instead of complete unconsciousness, but that is another story.  [2])

            Is unconsciousness the natural condition of the mind with consciousness as a derivative and recent addition, or is it consciousness that is basic? Did the unconscious evolve first and only later came to coexist with consciousness, or was it the other way about? Were animal desires, say, initially all unconscious with consciousness something superadded (as higher-order thought theories imply)? How would we set about answering this question? What is the value in knowing what is in one’s mind as opposed to simply having a mind? Do some animals now existing have entirely unconscious minds? Could we encounter aliens whose minds are completely devoid of consciousness yet as sophisticated as ours? More generally, is the basic form of the mental an unconscious form, with consciousness something out of the ordinary? If most of mental activity is unconscious, as seems to be the case, at least in some areas (vision, linguistic understanding), then that would seem to imply that unconscious existence is the norm, the default condition. Consciousness might be incidental to most mental activity, by no means intrinsic to it. Again, this is not a question to which we have any clear answer, or any clear way of getting an answer.

            The underlying puzzle is why the mind has a kind of dual existence or identity: why is it partly conscious and partly unconscious? Why not just one or the other? These seem to be very different states of being, and it is hard even to understand how one thing can manage to be both: what is it for a desire, say, to be now unconscious and now conscious? We might suggest that it is simply to be known or not known by its possessor, but that raises a host of questions, not the least of which is that this makes the consciousness of a conscious desire quite extrinsic to its nature. One would expect uniformity in this respect, but it appears that the mind can happily exist in both forms. Thus we are sometimes told that all mental phenomena are intrinsically unconscious with consciousness injected from the outside by means of second-order belief; or contrariwise that the mind is intrinsically conscious with no unconscious at all or only a derivative unconscious (e.g. unconscious mental states are dispositions to consciousness). It is not conceptually easy to accept that the mind enjoys a kind of double life, now bound up with consciousness, now indifferent to it. For instance, words and grammar occupy two worlds, being both elements of consciousness and also components of a language faculty that largely operates behind the scenes. How do they make the transition to consciousness, and is their intrinsic nature quite independent of their appearance in conscious speech acts and conscious inner thought? Is meaning itself essentially an unconscious thing or a conscious thing? What exactly are we asking when we ask this question? Obscurity billows.

            Why is it that some mental phenomena readily admit of such a dual existence while some don’t? We can easily accept that beliefs often exist in an unconscious form, but we don’t think that sensations of pain do. You can firmly believe that p unconsciously but you can’t have an intense pain unconsciously—nor can you have a vivid experience of red unconsciously. So some of the mind can exist in both forms but some can’t: why is that? What is it about beliefs that allows them to flit between the conscious and the unconscious, while pain is stuck on the conscious side of the divide (sometimes the option of unconscious pain would be highly desirable—no need for anesthetic at the dentist)? Emotions too appear to prefer consciousness—can you be extremely angry or elated unconsciously?—though they can also exist in a partially unconscious form. It all seems rather arbitrary, with no obvious rationale or point. Can we imagine creatures that invert our psychological make-up, with beliefs capable only of conscious existence and sensations of pain easily sliding from one state of being to the other? It’s all very puzzling. The division between the conscious and the unconscious seems to fall arbitrarily across the mind.

            The unconscious is often credited with creative powers beyond those possessed by the conscious, and there is much anecdotal evidence to this effect. Problem solving can occur both consciously, as with deliberate mental effort, and unconsciously, often during sleep. But why is this? Why isn’t creativity confined to one side or the other? It is commonly assumed that unconscious creativity is the surprising thing, but why exactly do we suppose that creativity naturally requires the exercise of consciousness? We readily accept that vision is largely an unconscious process, so why not accept that creativity is? Is there anything about creativity itself that favors one or the other mode of operation? Could it be that so-called conscious creativity is largely driven by unconscious creativity? The creativity of dreams is entirely unconscious, and maybe all creativity employs the same mechanisms (if that is the right word); also linguistic creativity, in the form of ordinary speech, is driven by unconscious mental processes. Maybe creativity is predominantly unconscious in human beings, despite our prejudice in favor of the conscious kind. But there would still be the question of why creativity prefers to operate in secret, not revealing its methods to conscious scrutiny. It appears that creativity can operate at two mental levels, but why this should be so remains a mystery. Creativity is already mysterious, and its ambivalent relation to consciousness only compounds the mystery.

            What exactly is the mode of being of unconscious mentation? It isn’t another locus of consciousness cut off from the primary locus (like other minds) yet it is still mental in nature: but what is this mode of existence? It would be wrong to call it “physical” despite the lack of conscious expression: it hovers in a strange ontological no-man’s land. Do we really have any adequate conception of what kind of thing unconscious mentality is? We can’t conceive it on a perceptual model, but we also can’t conceive it on an introspective model; nor can it be compared to unobservable entities like atoms (the unconscious is not just very small consciousness). We can talk of it, but do we really know what we are talking about? We might imagine the brain murmuring softly to itself, but that is so much desperate imagery; we find ourselves comparing it to especially unobtrusive types of consciousness. Or we wheel in something like computation and declare it to be just like that: but computation itself raises similar questions—what kind of being does it have? We know what conscious computation is, but what is unconscious computation? Computation can’t be just electromagnetic activity and the like: is it perhaps like unconscious computation in the mind? But now we are back where we started. We really have no clear conception of what an unconscious mental state is. That doesn’t mean there is no such thing, or that the notion has no theoretical utility; it merely points to a lacuna in our conceptual scheme. Accordingly, we find ourselves puzzled by the mode of existence of the unconscious (as Hume was puzzled about causation). We talk blithely of something whose nature eludes us—a not unfamiliar situation.

            Mental states seem to transform from one state of being to the other: the same thing can appear consciously or unconsciously. We have a caterpillar-to-butterfly situation. But what is the nature of this metamorphosis: how does a mental state make the transition, the transformation? According to one theory, it simply acquires a suitable second-order belief to the effect that it exists, but that is hardly plausible for such cases as linguistic processing: when a word goes from unconscious manipulation to conscious utterance it doesn’t do so by being believed to exist. It undergoes a special type of transmutation: the unconscious lexical item becomes a conscious word. By what mechanism or procedure does this occur? Is it akin to biological metamorphosis? Not literally, to be sure, but the process may be as drastic and as profound—though occurring in an instant and evaporating as quickly. The unconscious-to-conscious transformation is real but baffling: it is not at all like moving counters about on a board. It is literally transformative—a kind of abrupt alteration of being. It would be different if the conscious and the unconscious shared no elements, keeping strictly to their own domain, but in fact there is systematic transfer of elements, thus raising the puzzle of how that is achieved. This puzzle is already raised by memory, which also involves a sudden transition from the unconscious form to the conscious form—the same thing taking on a quite different mode of being. It is as if it is injected with some sort of alchemical fluid that catapults it onto a new level of being. Look, Ma, I’m conscious! More soberly: there are transformational mechanisms that elevate the unconscious to the level of consciousness—though we have no idea what these mechanisms look like. Again, this is not a count against the unconscious, just an indication of how little we understand of its workings.

            Is there a biological law at work here? Does every creature with a mind split that mind into a conscious part and an unconscious part? No organism has a mind that is exclusively one or the other.  That seems plausible, though some empirical confirmation would be desirable. But it does raise the question of the ground of such a law: where does it come from, why is it true? In particular, why this arrangement as opposed to having two (or more) conscious minds, each dedicated to different tasks (as, arguably, with the central nervous system and the enteric nervous system,  [3] or the distributed consciousness of the octopus)? It seems like a solid law of mental functioning, but its rationale is obscure. It isn’t even clear what its functional significance is—what it does for the organism. It just seems like a brute fact (at least Freud had some sort of explanation of why the two parts of the mind exist as separate entities).

            Are we sure the unconscious mind can be described using terms drawn from the description of the conscious mind (including the use of the term “mind”)? We discovered the unconscious mind in the seventeenth century (we are supposing) and immediately began describing it by re-deploying the terms already at our disposal, those used to describe the conscious mind. But is this a good way to proceed?  Maybe a quite new vocabulary is needed (as with computational vocabulary): after all, the unconscious differs rather dramatically from the conscious precisely in not being conscious. Should we really be talking about unconscious beliefs, desires, knowledge, creativity, competence, etc.? But (a) no other terms suggest themselves and (b) how else can we maintain the view that we have an unconscious mind? Everyone knows that a great deal of brain activity has no conscious counterpart, but that doesn’t imply a second mind; using the same terms allows us to recognize that we are dealing with another level of mentality. Yet that may mislead us into ascribing more commonality between the two than is strictly warranted. Again, there seems to be a conceptual gap in our thinking about the unconscious. What we call “the unconscious mind” is an I-know-not-what—we refer to it but we don’t know what it is exactly that we are referring to. Is it subjective or is it objective? Do we know what the unconscious of a bat is like? Can a blind man grasp our visual unconscious? Even that basic question goes unanswered.

            Is there a competence-performance distinction for the unconscious mind? Here at least we can be fairly definitive: there is indeed. Linguistic competence is very largely unconscious, but a good deal of linguistic performance is too—all the activity that goes into producing an utterance. In the case of memory we have the competence (knowledge) that consists in storing information in a retrievable form, but we also have the performance that consists in actually accessing this competence—which can be affected by many outside factors. There is memory knowledge and there is memory action, and both are mainly unconscious. Then too, we have a competence-performance distinction for the conscious mind, so the distinction doesn’t track the conscious-unconscious distinction. It would have been striking if the unconscious were limited to competence and the conscious limited to performance, but that appears not to be the case.

            What kind of intentionality does the unconscious mind have? Is it just like the intentionality of the conscious mind? Do we have referential opacity in both domains? Could it be that one is object-directed and one is not? Jung’s unconscious seems far more amorphous than the conscious, so it is possible that some types of unconscious mentation lack the kind of definite intentionality we associate with the conscious mind. The more primordial the unconscious mind is thought to be the blurrier it is conceived as being (the unconscious as a “blooming, buzzing confusion”). Is unconscious desire as finely targeted as conscious desire? It’s hard to say, but the options are logically available. Is the unconscious mind as thoroughly infiltrated by the language faculty as the conscious mind? That would seem to be denied by the Freudian conception of the unconscious, which is not linguistically sophisticated (that inarticulate id). Different types of intentionality might be exploited in different unconscious parts of the mind. Maybe some regions of the unconscious are more analogue than others. There might be as many types of intentionality (representation) as there are types of unconscious.

            Are there degrees of unconsciousness or is it a binary distinction? People generally assume the latter, but it is not clear this is correct. Consider memory: memories can exist at varying distances from full recollection—from completely inaccessible to accessible after intense effort to tip of the tongue to flooding consciousness. Conscious accessibility is a matter of degree: some items in memory lie very close to consciousness, some are remote from it, some are just around the corner, and some are buried under a pile of misremembering. Language is similar: grammatical rules can sometimes be excavated and brought to consciousness, though some cannot; we construct some utterances at lightning speed with no conscious knowledge of how it is done, while others are laboriously constructed (as with writing) in full knowledge of word choice and grammatical form. In general, we should stop thinking in sharply binary terms and accept that the distinction is graded and fluid, with borderline cases and varying accessibility constraints.

            Is personality partially unconscious? That was Freud’s main contention, his theory being that our motivations and personality traits are largely fixed by unconscious factors; and we still hear talk of “implicit bias” (i.e. unconscious prejudice), hidden sources of irrationality, unacknowledged cognitive dissonance, automatic stereotypical thinking, and the like. Common observation suggests that people are often only dimly aware of their true personality; they are lacking in self-knowledge. So it appears that large chunks of personality are unconscious—cut off from conscious knowledge. To put it differently, the springs of action are often unconscious springs. But some of our motivations are conscious enough, are they not? So again, why are some conscious and some unconscious? Freud had an explanation—repression, especially of a sexual nature. But that theory limps in many ways, leaving the question wide open. Must personality have an unconscious component? Do some people have a more unconscious personality than others? Do animals also have a partially unconscious personality? Do unconscious personality traits function in the same way as conscious ones? Would it necessarily be a good thing to render all personality traits fully conscious? Why exactly does personality divide up in this way? These are all good questions, though seldom discussed.

            It seems to me that the question of the unconscious is still regarded as ideological in character, quasi-religious even. You either Believe or you don’t. It is time to treat it as a scientific question, to be studied like all scientific questions; and the first step in doing this is recognizing how little we know about the unconscious in fundamental respects.  [4]


Colin McGinn       

  [1] I daresay this is not historically accurate; perhaps we can date the discovery of the unconscious back to Plato’s Meno with Socrates and the slave boy. The point is that the unconscious was discovered long after it began to exist, much later than the conscious. The existence of the unconscious is a genuinely surprising fact.

  [2] This is the question of why we and other animals are not unconscious zombies: why did evolution see fit to engineer consciousness into existence? But once it did what was the reason for adding an unconscious level of mental reality? Why not make the mind completely transparent?

  [3] See my “The Second Mind” in Philosophical Provocations (2017).

  [4] If the unconscious is by definition the part of the mind of which we are ignorant, then it is also the part that remains largely unmapped scientifically. And indeed it is in its nature resistant to easy investigation. If only we had an unconscious cerebroscope!


Thinking and Speaking



Thinking and Speaking


Is thinking a type of speaking? There is a tradition that says it is: thinking as “saying in one’s heart”, the language of thought, voices in the head, thoughts as sub-vocal speech. The idea is that just as we produce outward speech by using our speech organs so we produce inward speech when we think: thought is silent soliloquy. Thinking is the occurrence of inner speech acts; it might even be the internalization of outer speech acts. The process of thinking is a process of speaking. Certainly, inner speech exists, so isn’t it natural to suppose that inner speech is what constitutes thought? True, we also hear words in our imagination, but thinking is more active than hearing, so it is preferable to align thinking with speaking rather than hearing. Writing is another process that relates us to language, but it seems implausible to suppose that the mind is writing when it thinks (on what and with what?). Thus people have tended to identify thinking with speaking words not with hearing or writing them. Is this a defensible position?

            Sundry objections spring to mind. First, are the organs of speech employed when a person thinks? Evidently not, since the larynx can remain at rest—and there is no sign of a parallel larynx in the brain. So this must be speech without speech organs. Still, it may be said, the brain must contain some apparatus that governs thought, so there has to be something analogous to speech organs. Hmm. Second, is thought as much of an action as speaking is? Granted, thinking is voluntary (like imagining), but is it really always an intentional act? Don’t thoughts sometimes just occur to us without any initiating intention? Aren’t some thoughts reflexive? Here it may be said that acts of speech can also be unintentional and reflexive. Maybe so, but there does seem to be something to the point that thinking is a lot less intentional than speech. Third, perception is not naturally construed as a type of speech—we don’t contemplate “talking eyes”—so why should thought be aligned with speech? Couldn’t thought be like perception: not voluntary, generally reflexive, and not word-oriented? Couldn’t it be more like reading? In reading we see words and simultaneously have thoughts: the reading is voluntary (though not always, as when a big sign heaves into view), and yet it is perception-like. Is the mind actually reading words when it thinks? The brain writes them and the mind reads them: is that what thinking is? This is no doubt an ingenious idea, but none too intuitively appealing. We therefore return, somewhat morosely, to the speaking model, given the unease occasioned by these misgivings and worries. There is a feeling that we have not yet nailed the problem, though the killing objection hovers elusively in the vicinity. While it is true that language features in our thought processes in the form of inner speech, it seems wrong to identify thinking with speaking. Speaking might accompany thought without being thought. But why is this exactly?

            I think the answer has to do with the contingency of the link between sound and meaning. The most dramatic way to see the point is to note that you can say something by uttering a sentence you don’t understand, but you can’t think something by uttering a sentence you don’t understand. You can utter a sentence of a foreign language and say something meaningful, but you can’t have a thought just by uttering a sentence inwardly that means the content of the thought. Thus you can rehearse a sentence in your mind, possibly in preparation for uttering it, and not thereby think what the sentence expresses; you might just like the sound of the sentence. To think with a sentence you have to grasp its meaning. You think meanings but you say sounds: so thinking can’t beinward utterance. All the sounds of English sentences could pass through your mind in the form of grammatical strings and yet you may understand none of them—in which case you will not be having the corresponding thoughts. Or consider malapropism: you can utter the wrong word and say something you don’t mean, but there are no malapropisms of thought—no cases of thinking a thought you don’t intend to think. In thought you can’t say one thing and mean another, because there is no slack between the word uttered and the proposition meant. There are no slips of the tongue in thought. You can indeed use the wrong word in a sentence that you inwardly utter, but that just shows that thinking is not inner speaking. Speech, inner or outer, can aid thinking, but that is not to say that it is thinking. It is not sufficient to think that p to inwardly utter a sentence that means that p. Nor is it necessary, since surely many animals (and many humans) can think thoughts without inwardly uttering sentences. They need concepts (or something like them) but they don’t need words for concepts—they don’t need to intone words to themselves in order to think. There is such a thing as wordless thought.

            What, then, is the process of thinking? It is not the process of speaking, or of hearing, or of writing, or of reading: it is none of these language-oriented processes. And why should it be—why should thinking mimic these other processes? We don’t report thought by saying that the thinker inwardly said a sentence to himself; we talk as if thinking is another sort of process entirely. Descartes doesn’t say, “I inwardly utter sentences, therefore I am”. This is a theory of thought not a mere synonym of “think”—and it is not a very good theory.  [1] The problem is that it is hard to come up with anything better: we gravitate to this theory because we can’t think of an alternative. We think we know what speaking is, so we propose that thinking is just like that—except that it isn’t. What it is, though, remains obscure.  [2]


  [1] Strictly speaking, the considerations advanced here don’t count against the idea of a language of thought—a symbolic system encoding concepts—though they count against the idea that such a language is spoken. Fodor used to say that a sentence of LOT is “tokened”, a neologism that studiously avoids the idea that thinking literally involves speaking. What such tokening is remains unclear (this is not necessarily an objection). Tokening is what any type does when it generates an instance of itself; it is not specific to mental processes, let alone thought processes.

  [2] Notice how unhelpful introspection is here: we can’t just read off from introspection what thinking is. Nor is conceptual analysis particularly helpful. Yet we are thinking all the time; it should be the most familiar of mental processes. But when we ask what exactly thinking consists in we quickly hit a brick wall. It is even hard to say what it is like to think. Thinking is a bit of mystery, is it not? I think, but I don’t know what thinking is.  



I’ve been wondering about Judas Iscariot recently. We are told he betrayed Jesus for thirty pieces of silver, a contemptible act. But what surprises me is that it took money to get him to betray Jesus, quite a bit of it. Surely it is more realistic to suppose that he did it for a much less compelling reason, e.g. to be popular with the mob. And isn’t it unrealistic to suppose that only one member of the twelve apostles betrayed Jesus? Judging by contemporary standards, one would expect most of the apostles to have been in on the betrayal. Judas has been represented as far more singular than human nature suggests. 


A Linguistic Universal



A Linguistic Universal


We are familiar with claims of linguistic universality: the noun-verb form, recursive embedding, quantificational structure, adverbial modification, discrete infinity, and the like. I want to add a different kind of linguistic universal, one that is less syntactic than semantic: I call it “material plurality”. A natural language like English contains resources for covering three large domains: the world of material objects in space, the psychological realm, and ethical concerns. It also contains specialized technical vocabulary such as we find in theoretical physics and linguistic analysis, but these are not the core components of the language. It is evident that other natural languages contain the same basic range of resources. This is not surprising given that we acquire the whole threefold package more or less simultaneously.  [1] There is good reason to believe that all three domains correspond to innate cognitive resources, possibly organized into distinct modules. But there is no logical necessity about this: it could have been otherwise. It is logically conceivable that a child should acquire one or two of these types of linguistic competence but not all three. Animal communication systems don’t encompass such a wide range of subject matters, but human languages always incorporate reference to the three domains in question. They are logically dissociable but not actually ever dissociated. There is a certain kind of holism at work, biologically based. Thus human languages exhibit the universal of material plurality with respect to these three areas. This is not a syntactic universal but a semantic one; it concerns what human languages are about. It is non-trivial and counts as an empirical regularity. We have an innately based universal of linguistic clustering. We could have had merely local clustering, or no systematic clustering at all, but in fact we find that all human languages obey a principle of material plurality—a de facto conjunction of differing linguistic systems. The human language faculty incorporates resources suitable for physics, psychology, and ethics (of the common sense varieties)

            Presumably the linguistic is underlain by the cognitive: we also have an innately based cognitive clustering. Again, there is nothing a priori about this: it could have been otherwise. But in fact the human mind comes prepackaged with three separable components corresponding to the external world, the internal world, and the normative world. There are no (normal) people that function using only one or two of these three modules: everyone is a commonsense physicist, an amateur psychologist, and an opinionated ethicist. This is the way the human brain is contingently organized. For us, the world comes arranged into the physical, the mental, and the ethical—with connections between them. We are cognitively tripartite. Each area has its own ontology, organizing principles, and theoretical assumptions; but we effortlessly master all three together. We are not like schoolchildren learning history before geography or algebra after music. The pre-school developing mind doesn’t first understand the external world, then graduate to the psychological world, and finally ascend to the dizzy heights of ethics: all of it emerges as a whole, despite the variety of subject matter. That is a remarkable fact, and a remarkable achievement: it is an awful lot to take in (or allow to grow internally). But we all do it, quickly, smoothly, and without concentrated study. We might encounter aliens with a grasp of only part of this grand cognitive structure (they are shaky when it comes to ethical thinking—see the Klingons). But we humans universally grasp all three domains and use them as a basis for more specialized study.

            Why do we exhibit this particular pattern of linguistic and cognitive mastery? Why did we evolve so as to install these three types of competence? The answer is not far to seek: we are a social species with sophisticated social cognition (quite a bit above bees and ants). We clearly need to grasp the workings of the material environment, but we also need to understand and predict our fellow humans, because their behavior affects our own welfare—we need a folk psychology. But with that comes the need to police behavior—to censure and criticize, punish and deter. We need ethics in some form. Quite possibly ants and bees have some sort of counterpart to this given their intensely social life, but we humans need it in spades because of our complex social relations. Not to possess one of these competences would severely disadvantage a human being, rendering him or her incapable of productive human interaction. So we would expect a robust innate program for developing the mature competences that we see universally exhibited. Thus we are not just Homo sapiens but also Homophysicists-psychologists-ethicists. It is our human nature to instantiate these three sorts of competence. Possibly other primates have the rudiments of all three competences, but in us they reach a high level of sophistication.  [2]


  [1] I say this not because I know of detailed scientific studies that establish it but because of common observation (a neglected source of data). It would be interesting if minute differences of cognitive scheduling could be detected between the three areas.

  [2] This doesn’t mean they are incapable of improvement: we are not omniscient physicists, psychologists, and ethicists. We might be sharply limited in all three areas. But our cognitive patrimony includes a substantial helping of each of them.


Song and Soul



Song and Soul


It is a truism that song touches the soul. Something about song and something about the soul naturally mesh: that is, song and the emotions are suited to one another. But why is this? What features suit song to the emotions and hence the soul? Song is clearly language set to music, but what is language and what is music? Language is the pairing of sound and meaning, or better the union of the two: sound expresses meaning and meaning suffuses sound. Music is the union of melody and rhythm: pitch variations conjoined with temporal intervals. So song is the union of these two unions: a song is the joining together of the sound-meaning pair (language) and the melody-rhythm pair (music). When you sing you are fusing your ability to conjoin sound and meaning with your ability to conjoin pitch variations and temporal intervals. A song is a synthesis of these four elements: sound, meaning, melody, and rhythm. In a song, language is converted into something temporally structured (bars, note lengths) and pitch variations are imposed on it (the standard musical scales). Language becomes music. So there is a metamorphosis into an aesthetic medium, no longer a mere vehicle of communicative speech. Language is called upon to operate in the realm of art. Meaning itself becomes an aesthetic object by being subjected to musical forms. The speech act of song is a distinctively aesthetic type of speech act. And music itself becomes imbued with the representational power of language: it acquires an extra layer of meaning, a new type of significance. Music becomes semantically complex, doubly expressive. Such are the powers of song to transform both language and music into new versions of themselves.

            But how do these constitutive features of song mirror the emotions? One would like to find parallel structures at work in the emotions. First, sound and meaning: what in the emotions parallels this duality? Surely this: emotions admit a distinction between their felt character and their representational content. It feels a certain way to be angry or in love and these emotions are about certain people and states of affairs—what philosophers call qualia and intentionality. Moreover, these features merge and meld: they are not independent dimensions like size and color. So emotions are structurally similar to language in joining the phenomenological and the referential—a coloration of consciousness and a semantic content. Second, melody and rhythm: how do emotions parallel thisdistinction? Certainly not by sounding like higher and lower notes, or by mimicking the sound of a drum; but at a more abstract level we can find similarities. Pitch intervals consist of variations along a continuum of sound, selections from acoustic space; and rhythm is the spacing of sounds over time. But don’t emotions also vary continuously in an analogous way, and don’t they also occur spread out in time as separate experiences? Your anger can reach a high affective pitch, waxing and waning, then give way to something less intense; and it can also develop over time according to a recognizable pattern. Your love can burn brightly or dim languidly, and it also throbs and pulses in predictable ways (as when you meet or part from the beloved). Emotions evolve in time and they can be more or less intense (sharp, deep, tormenting, exhilarating). They can also be repetitive and maddening (or soothing). They can reach a crescendo or peter out, scale new heights or plumb new depths. Emotions seem to possess a “music” of their own: staccato or smooth, vibrant or torpid. So emotions mirror the musical form of a song, as well as its linguistic form. As the song progresses, its melody and rhythm intersect with the phenomenology of the corresponding emotions, in such a way that a certain note seems to condense a whole world of emotion, capturing the emotion perfectly. The music of the song maps onto the “music” of the emotions, with its variations of pitch and temporal development. Thus a song can condense and encapsulate a familiar human emotional experience, say the breakup of a love affair. There is an underlying commonality of form. The fourfold union of song reflects the fourfold union of emotion: sound-meaning plus melody-rhythm mirrors feeling-meaning plus affective variation combined with temporal development. The song is targeting the emotional structures of the soul.  [1]

            And there is a further similarity, namely the close connection between the inner and the outer that characterizes both song and emotion. Emotion characteristically has a behavioral expression, both vocal and non-vocal, as when a person shouts and stamps his feet; but song too, like most music, is often accompanied by behavioral expression, as in swaying and dancing. Musical experience and emotion both tend to translate into bodily movement. So hearing a song is apt to lead to the same kinds of behavior that the corresponding emotions lead to—swooning, jumping up and down, lachrymation. The emotions have their bodily manifestations, and so does hearing a song. This affinity enables song to connect with emotion, just as if a song were an embodied emotion. Also, the connection between the inner and the outer in the two cases is not an external connection: the behavior is integral to the emotion (in a way notoriously hard to articulate). The inner and the outer are unified. So there is a third union to be added to the previous two: both song and emotion are the union of three unions. Song is thus the ideal vehicle for the expression of emotion: they both have the same abstract architecture. The soul sings.  [2] 



  [1] Similar remarks may be made about poetry and emotion: the affinity is undeniable, and it is natural to find in emotion some of the structure of poetry—meter, assonance, dissonance, etc. Song, of course, is a form of poetry, as well as being a form of music. A song is poetry set to music, and this enables it to tap into the emotions via the formal analogies between the two.

  [2] Less poetically, the emotions are analyzable using much the same conceptual apparatus that we can use to analyze the nature of song. The two are isomorphic, formal twins. That is why a song feels like an aural emotion.


An Objectivist View of the Universe



An Objectivist View of the Universe


I will describe a metaphysical view aptly labeled objectivist. My aim is expository rather than argumentative, though I am inclined to accept the view. Objectivism says that the universe (reality, being) is fundamentally objective not subjective, with the emphasis on “fundamentally”. It isn’t that the universe has no subjective features; it is just that these features always have an objective basis. By “objective” I mean “not mind-involving”—having nothing intrinsically to do with consciousness (or unconsciousness). The view contains two sub-theses: all properties have an objective basis or correlate, and all concepts have an objective counterpart concept. For example, the property of being red, though subjective, has a basis in objective properties of objects and nervous systems; and the concept of being red has a counterpart concept in concepts of such properties. The color is mind involving, but the correlated objective properties of objects and nervous systems are not mind involving; and the concept of the color is graspable only by someone who experiences the color, but concepts of external objects and nervous systems are not so graspable.  That is, subjective facts always have objective facts behind them—but not vice versa. I won’t harp on the property-concept distinction in what follows, since the same point applies to both: I shall simply say that the subjective is always backed by the objective. What “backed” means will vary with the topic: it could mean straightforward identity, or it could mean something like supervenience or grounding or realization. For example, pain always has an objective correlate of some sort, though views may vary about how strong this correlation relation is. Strong objectivism might insist on reductionism via identity; weak objectivism might claim only a supervenience relation. The general idea is that the subjective is always embedded in the objective, while the objective need not be embedded in the subjective (and typically is not). Thus reality is fundamentally objective. We could put this by saying that the subjective is always emergent on the objective, but the objective is never emergent on the subjective. Mind-independence is the basic form of reality.

            Notice that I have not used the word “physical”: the objectivist view is not that everything has a physicalbasis. There are three reasons for this. First, the concept of the physical is not well defined (for reasons I won’t go into here). Second, we want to leave open the possibility that fundamental reality is not what the physical sciences (currently) describe. Third, it may be that physics harbors subjective elements: our concepts of geometry, causality, and motion are arguably anthropocentrically constituted (at least in part). It could be that a genuinely objective physics has to move beyond these human concepts in order to achieve the kind of absoluteness demanded by the “absolute conception”.    [1] So the objective world I am talking about might not coincide with the world as described by physics; at any rate, we are dealing with different doctrines. Objectivism is committed to the idea that everything has non-subjective nature (or correlate)—something that is captured in a “view from nowhere”—not that everything has a physical nature (whatever that may mean). The thought behind it is that minds are just part of reality; they don’t condition the whole nature of reality. And where they do exist they always rely on non-subjective features. Thus objectivism stands opposed to subjectivism—the doctrine that reality is inherently subjective. Idealism is the obvious form of such subjectivism, but other versions of subjectivism are conceivable. The point of objectivism is to insist that reality is not subject to the mind—and even the mind depends on non-mental factors. Even if we cannot achieve a perfectly objective conception of things, reality itself demands such a conception. Maybe a completely objective conception is impossible for any conscious thinking being—in which case reality is necessarily inconceivable as it is in itself—but still its nature is such as to be quite independent of any subjective intrusion. Objectivism regards reality as perspective-neutral, perspective- transcendent. This view goes beyond what is commonly called realism: it isn’t just the doctrine that reality is independent of our thoughts; it expels anything subjective from reality (except for the manifestly subjective). It takes reality in general to be radically removed from anything mental. Even when objects have subjective properties, such as color, they have underlying properties that have nothing to do with the mind. And even if some properties are irreducibly subjective (e.g. color experiences), they must exist against a background of objective being. There is no such thing as the kind of free-floating subjectivity that idealism contemplates. Metaphysical objectivism affirms that reality exists on a bedrock of entirely mind-free facts, whatever exactly those facts may be. The basic reason for this is that reality pre-dates minds and would exist even if minds did not. Objectivism is the abstract position that reality is constituted quite separately from mind: it is not committed to any particular view of what the underlying reality is. In that sense it is ontologically neutral.

            It should not be taken for granted that subjective facts necessarily have objective counterparts or correlates—after all, many philosophers have denied this. It tells us something about the nature of the mental: it needs the non-mental. It can’t exist without it. No matter how irreducibly subjective a mental state may be, it must bring with it something quite different from itself—something objective. The objective, on the other hand, obeys no such requirement: it can happily exist without the company of the subjective. The subjective, however, is dependent on the objective in order to have any being at all, despite the opacity of the connection. Thus some sort of objectivist reduction would appear indicated—yet no such thing seems on the cards. This is really quite puzzling. The subjective is irresistibly drawn towards the objective, entirely parasitic on it, yet quite different from it. It is true that the subjective is enmeshed in the objective, notably via causality, but still the nature of the necessary connection is far from clear (thus allowing dualism to gain a foothold). So the objectivist position is not free of perplexity: it is true without being intelligibly true. The objectivist therefore carries a heavy explanatory burden, which he fails to discharge (I don’t regard this as an objection). The position is certainly interesting and distinct from other more familiar positions. It should be debated on its own terms.

    [1] Objectivity can come in degrees (as can subjectivity): one conception can be more objective than another. Thus physics may be very objective compared to common sense. But there also must be a form of objectivity that is absolute—where the objectivity is complete. For reality itself does not share gradations of objective understanding: facts have absolute objectivity when they have it at all. The world itself is absolutely objective (not counting the mental world). 


Ignorance, Error, and Mystery


Ignorance, Error, and Mystery


The extent of our ignorance is stupendous. We know next to nothing about vast tracts of reality. If the world is the totality of facts, then our knowledge is confined to a tiny proportion of these facts. Just think of the distant past and remote future: all those individual facts about which we know nothing. We know hardly anything of what happened in the universe during the last five seconds. The universe is huge, populous, and mostly far away—nearly all of what happens is unknown to us. Nearer home we have the microscopic and invisible world: we certainly don’t know what is going on atomically in particular objects at particular times. Nor are we aware of the individual lives of bacteria and the like. We are almost entirely ignorant of what is going on the minds of sentient organisms, even the people we know quite well. We get glimpses, but most of it is quite hidden from us. The spotlight of knowledge falls on a minute section of reality; the rest is ignorance. And this is something we know perfectly well: we are not in the dark about the extent of our ignorance. Of course, we don’t know what we don’t know, but we do know that reality contains dimensions and scales that guarantee human ignorance—the expanses of space and time, in particular. Ignorance is only to be expected, and nothing to feel ashamed about: reality is intrinsically unknown to us in its full extent. Realism implies ignorance: being real does not imply being known.

            The skeptic thinks that ignorance extends even further than this: we are ignorant about what we think we know. We think we know about the local external world, but the skeptic says we are ignorant about it—as ignorant as we are about the remote external world. We think we sometimes know about the minds of others, but the skeptic says we are ignorant about this too: not only do we not know about the minds of bats, we don’t know about the minds of our nearest and dearest. Nor do we know the recent past, or the laws of nature, or what will happen next. All is blind ignorance. We might be making constant errors as well as simply not knowing various things. But even if the skeptic could be rebutted, it would still be true that we are massively ignorant. No one would think that your average animal knows very much of the universe—why should they?—and we are no different. Ignorance is simply a fact of nature, a biological necessity. Nature is sublimely indifferent to how much of it is known, and very little is.

            In the light of this vast ocean of the unknown, it is hardly surprising that some things are mysteries—things that cannot be known. Things have explanations, but not all explanations are known by us, or even could be known to us. It all depends on the available evidence and our powers of intellectual ingenuity. Many crimes remain mysteries: no one knows who committed them (apart from the criminal). Historical events in general may be quite mysterious, even the origins of large-scale wars (see Tolstoy’s War and Peace). Take a typical murder mystery, real or fictional: there may be a range of suspects but no way to decide among them, or there may be no such range—just total mystery. Detectives try to remedy such ignorance, but there is no guarantee that they ever will. Thus we are perfectly familiar with the type of ignorance we call mystery: the type in which we don’t know the correct explanation for a certain event and never will. Here is a mystery that I recently came up against. I have a pond in my garden in which I keep several fish: one day several new fish appeared in it as if from nowhere. The new fish were clearly not of the same species as the old fish—green and yellow with a red tail not red and white. Where did they come from? I didn’t put them there, and they couldn’t have arisen by natural reproduction. Could someone else have put them there? But who would do that, and for what reason? Did they somehow find their way there from some other pond? But fish can’t walk on land. Did they fall with the rain? But how can fully-grown fish fall with the rain? It was a complete mystery, and I never solved it. Several months later the four new fish died of natural causes, remaining mysterious till the end. The mysterian was faced with a real-life mystery! Such things happen. I didn’t suppose that God did it, or that the fish spontaneously arose from nothing, or that I must have put them there in my sleep: I ruled out these possible explanations. But nothing else occurred to me—the mystery fish remain a mystery to this day. I am completely ignorant as to the correct explanation of their appearance. If only I could have asked them!

            I mean these pedestrian remarks to bear on the question of mysteries in philosophy and in science–for example, the mystery of consciousness. Given the prevalence of mystery, it should not be surprising that certain natural phenomena present deep mysteries. Mystery is a form of ignorance (ignorance of explanation) and ignorance is everywhere: we are ignorant of far more things than we are knowledgeable about. Nor should it surprise us if the mystery is terminal: it is surely obvious that we will never completely remove all ignorance—there is just too much in reality for our brains to take in. Our faculties are limited and the world is broad and deep. True, science has made an impressive assault on our natural state of ignorance, but even science will never remove all ignorance. There will always be things that no human knows, often quite boring things. Some of these things may concern phenomena that are quite close to home—including our own consciousness. Does anyone think that a human mind could know the entire state of a person’s brain at a given moment? No, there is just too much going on in those billions of neurons. Human knowledge has its limits, so we shouldn’t dismiss suspicions of mystery out of hand. It would be strange if there were no mysteries given the amount of ignorance there is. I am not trying to prove mystery here, merely to put the claim of mystery in its proper epistemic context. The existence of mystery is the existence of one kind of ignorance, but ignorance is the natural condition of the human cognitive system—as all other cognitive systems. There are very few things that we are not ignorant about in the wide sweep of things. It is easy to focus on what we know, given that by definition it comes within our cognitive reach, but the area of what we don’t know is incomparably vaster, notwithstanding its rather hazy presence to our minds. We do better to think of reality as what we don’t know about rather than what we do. From nature’s point of view, most of it is secret, offering only glimpses to curious minds.  [1]



  [1] There should really be a branch of epistemology dealing with ignorance in addition to the branch dealing with knowledge.