Conceding Intelligence



Conceding Intelligence


In footnote 76 of Naming and Necessity Kripke writes: “I have been surprised to find that at least one able listener took my use of such terms as ‘correlated with’, ‘corresponding to’, and the like as already begging the question against the identity thesis. The identity thesis, so he said, is not the thesis that pains and brain states are correlated, but rather that they are identical. Thus my entire discussion presupposes the anti-materialist position that I set out to prove. Although I was surprised to hear an objection that concedes so little intelligence to the argument, I have tried especially to avoid the term ‘correlated’ which seems to give rise to the objection.” (p.149) He then goes on to point out that such terms don’t presuppose the anti-materialist position, being quite neutral on it. The identity of this “able listener” is not disclosed and I would expect that he must feel a surge of acute embarrassment whenever recalling this artful footnote (I especially like Kripke’s use of “so he said”). The “objection” in question is utterly ridiculous and Kripke’s reply to it perfectly devastating; one wonders how anyone could say anything quite so idiotic. I can almost hear the dripping sarcasm in Kripke’s voice as he stoops to deal with this nonsense.  What could possess a person, able or otherwise, to voice anything so silly? Was he simply not thinking at all? Was Kripke’s ready answer not even contemplated by this “able listener”? What did this individual think Kripke would say? Did he not notice that Kripke is pretty astute logically and would be unlikely to make such a glaring and obvious mistake? At most a point of clarification might have been requested—but not an accusation of grotesque logical blunder. One imagines Kripke thinking as this “objection” is raised, “Does this guy really think that I am capable of such an elementary mistake? Does he think I am that dumb?” And then he has to manufacture a way of replying that doesn’t expose the questioner as a compete fool—hence the tiptoeing around with “able listener” and “so he said”. He has to try to maintain a degree of politeness in the face of abject imbecility. This is a highly unedifying occasion, but not an uncommon one.

            And so he came up with the timeless and convoluted phrase “concedes so little intelligence to the argument”: that is, the objector is not allowing even a minimal degree of intelligence to the person offering the argument, viz. Saul Aaron Kripke. Consider that for a moment: the guy is listening to Kripke’s groundbreaking and (to put it mildly) highly intelligent lectures and says to himself, “This supposed big shot has just committed an elementary blunder and I am going to speak up and expose his stupidity for all to see”. He thinks he has the perfect gotchawhile in fact he has shown how desperate he is to score points off the speaker, or is perhaps as dense as his question suggests (can anybody be that dense?). I think this episode should be engraved on the heart of every American philosopher young or old—and isn’t it a distinctively American moment? Hesitate before ascribing an elementary mistake to an obviously sharp and distinguished philosopher! Maybe you have got something wrong; maybe you have misunderstood: it is vanishingly improbable that such a speaker would be guilty of an error of this magnitude. Don’t just leap into the fray and accuse the speaker of logical ineptitude or total ignorance! You will only go down in history as the biggest twit ever to walk the face of the planet. Do you really want to be that guy? Do you want to be the guy who told Kripke he doesn’t understand what the identity theory says? Try to find the intelligence in what is being said by an obviously intelligent person! Don’t daydream of the glorious and spectacular takedown you imagine is within your reach! The kind of stupidity exhibited by this anonymous “able listener” (and has he ever come forward to own the “objection” Kripke so deftly demolishes?) deserves to be given a special label so that it is always at the forefront of the eager objector’s consciousness: maybe the Failed Kripke Gambit or the Reverse Stupidity Mistake or the Unintelligent Unintelligence Accusation. By conceding so little intelligence to Kripke’s (highly sophisticated) argument the objector revealed himself to be the one sorely lacking in that quality. To put it simply: Don’t make dumb objections! Think before you speak! Don’t just assume that smart people say silly things! If you think that the speaker has made an obvious mistake, frame your question carefully so as not to impute a complete lack of intelligence to said speaker. I can’t tell you the number of times in my career I’ve been reminded of Kripke’s footnote as I say to myself, “Does this guy really believe I am capable of the kind of foolishness he is attributing to me?”  [1] Then I have to come up with some polite way to avoid replying, “The person not thinking clearly here is you not me, for the following obvious reason…” So I urge would-be objectors to bear Kripke’s footnote in mind and try to concede a little more intelligence to the speaker. Just keep in mind the simple words “footnote 76” and you won’t go far wrong.        


  [1] And of course it’s not only guys who come up with this kind of stuff—but it is mainly guys. No doubt it springs from a misguided desire to compete, or else a simple lack of thoughtfulness. The same point applies to book reviewers (I name no names).


Fundamental Discoveries



Fundamental Discoveries


What are the most fundamental discoveries we have made about the universe? I don’t mean what are the most fundamental things we know about the universe; I mean to ask about what we have discovered (revealed, unearthed, found out unexpectedly). I think there are three: atoms, universals, and forces. We have discovered that ordinary objects are made of invisible particles agglomerated together; we have discovered that there are universals as well as particulars; and we have discovered that the universe contains forces as well as the vehicles of forces. We can credit the first two discoveries to the ancient Greeks (specifically Democritus and Plato) and the third to Newton (though his discovery had antecedents). These basic discoveries have been deepened and elaborated, and much of science and philosophy is built around them: types of atoms, types of universals, and types of forces. But the fundamental discovery in each case consists in a single general idea—the idea of invisible particles composing visible objects, the idea of general properties in addition to the particulars that instantiate them, and the idea of a small number of forces that govern how things behave. None of these things is evident to the senses or known innately or easily verified: they are speculative, bold, and open to controversy. To make these discoveries the human mind had to transcend common sense; evidently no other animal has succeeded in duplicating this feat. We might say that they represent scientific knowledge, construed as including the discovery of universals. They have in common the property of attributing an extra layer of reality to things—a kind of additional world. We have the world of atoms, the world of universals, and the world of forces: there is thus more to the universe than visible objects, particulars, and bodies in motion. In so far as these extra realities are hidden, we have discovered that much of reality is a hidden reality. The big general discovery is that the universe is more than appears to us: this is a discovery about our limited powers of perception, or equivalently the indifference of reality to our contingent minds.

            As a consequence the three discoveries have been resisted and reformulated: maybe atoms are just abstractions form ordinary perceptions of objects; maybe so-called universals are logical constructions from particulars; maybe talk of forces is just disguised talk of the behavior of objects. We have thus discovered that such discoveries are controversial, but the discoveries themselves cannot be gainsaid. We need to incorporate these insights into any comprehensive picture of reality. And together they point to an important truth about nature: nature is rife with generality. The atoms are of only a few basic types (especially when we venture into their internal structure); there are many fewer universals than particulars and they are repeated everywhere; and the forces are limited to just four, gravity and electromagnetism being the basic two so far as ordinary observation is concerned. The multitude of particular things we observe is accompanied by relatively few discovered general things; so we have discovered that the world is more parsimonious than we might have supposed. The laws governing atoms are indicative of a basic uniformity: a few types of atoms, a few properties of these atoms, and a handful of forces acting on them. We have discovered that nature is fundamentally simple, almost miserly, not the rich variegated pageant we naively supposed. This is a startling discovery that took a long time to mature and crystalize. Nature is all about uniformity and repetition.

            Once we have these discoveries firmly in mind we can ask a vertiginous question about them: are they true of all of nature? They are true of the parts of nature we have examined, but might they be false of other parts? Do they have only a local validity? We can ask this regarding parts of actual space and time, but we can also ask it more broadly of other universes that might exist alongside ours, and also of merely possible universes. Is matter everywhere made of atoms? Do we always find a sharp distinction between particulars and universals? Is there always a force-vehicle distinction? What about the universe before the big bang when atoms had not formed and the four forces of our current universe had not yet emerged? Are there conceivable forms of matter that don’t divide neatly into the particular and the general? Might the mind be an area of reality in which these distinctions don’t really hold up? Are there mental atoms? Does the mind admit of a clear particular-universal distinction? Are thoughts and emotions subject to gravity and electromagnetism? It appears conceivable that our prized trinity of discoveries has only a relatively local application, being derived from an analysis of what confronts our senses on a daily basis. They could have turned out not to be true of our local world, and they might not be true of every actual or conceivable world. Our most fundamental discoveries might be parochial or even atypical compared to reality as a whole. Maybe what we have investigated hitherto is an unrepresentative sample.


Colin McGinn       


Evolution of Language

                                                Evolution of Language



Consider a hypothetical species with the following profile: they have evolved by mutation and natural selection a language of thought, an internal symbolic system of infinite scope and finite base. This they use as the medium of their thought. They have not yet, however, evolved a public language of communication, so their use of language is wholly internal. Let us suppose that this language, call it IL (internal language), is fully conscious to members of the species: the words, phrases, and sentences that comprise it pass through the consciousness of its users. It is not an unconscious language, employed by the brain, but a language that can be introspected in all its glory—rather as we can introspect the language we speak when we employ it in inner speech. Let us suppose that it is innate and universal. In addition to IL the species has a vocal signaling system V that they use to warn each other of predators or to express their emotions, but V is not a real language in the sense that IL is—just a few unstructured sounds. We can suppose that V evolved well before IL in some ancestor species and has been inherited from those ancestors. The signaling system V is a separate faculty from the language IL, both in its evolutionary origin and inner nature. V cannot express the full semantic content of IL and members of our hypothetical species don’t expect it to. The two faculties merely coexist.

            Now suppose that at a later time something novel happens: the species develops an external communicative language. This language EL is a sign language not a vocal language, and it recruits the earlier internal language of thought. It is, in fact, the externalization of IL, though it serves a different purpose—communication not cognition. The external language EL is capable of expressing all that is expressed in IL—the two languages are inter-translatable. EL is rather like a human natural language, except that it is paired with an internal language that is as accessible in its structure and lexicon as a natural language. It may be that EL will gradually diversify over time, so that there will come to be many versions of it, though all derive from IL. Notice that EL does not derive from the old signaling system V and isn’t even a vocal language; in no way does it share in the neural basis of the signaling system. This system predated both IL and EL, but those languages evolved without any reliance on it. We can say that IL was a preadaptation for EL and essential for its appearance, but the system V played no role in the origin of either. Exactly why and how IL evolved is not known, though it certainly greatly expanded cognitive power; and it is also a question why EL evolved, given that the species did perfectly well without it for thousands of years. In any case, IL came first and EL built upon it, without input from V.

We can imagine that speakers of EL might wonder whether this new capacity deserves to be called a language, since they originally applied this term to IL and take that to be the paradigm case of a language. The fact that it is public and embodied might for them count as reasons to withhold the name “language” from it, because for them a genuine language should be something interior and hidden. For them, a language is by definition a mental language not a public physical language, though they can appreciate the motivation for extending the notion to the external language. Some cautious souls might insist on putting the word in scare quotes when speaking of the external means of communication. And there may be bolder types who write books with titles like The Language of Communication or External Syntactic Structures, well aware that they are flouting linguistic convention and received opinion—for it is generally held that there is no real language but the language of thought and no syntax of anything outside the head. After all, they can introspect the language of thought within their own consciousness, and there is no doubt that a language is what it is (some skeptics maintain that we can never be certain that an external language exists, though it is apodictic that an internal language does).

This hypothetical species appears perfectly logically possible. It contrasts with another hypothetical species, which may not be logically possible, that first develops a public language and only later internalizes that language to produce inner speech; and that public language evolved from a prior signaling system like V. The former hypothetical species first develops a language of thought and then develops an external language of communication, with no contribution from its inherited signaling system; that system need never have existed in order for language to evolve. The latter hypothetical species models what many have believed about the origin of actual human language, namely that primitive vocal signaling came first and formed the basis for the evolution of sophisticated human language. But the former is also a coherent story that should be evaluated on its merits; it may, in fact, be the true theory. The question is an empirical one (though issues of logical possibility also arise); certainly we cannot just assume that the other theory is correct. It is not easy to see how we could set about answering the question, what with the remote origins of language and the difficulty of understanding thought, but there are some facts about human spoken language that are suggestive.    [1]

First, natural languages mirror thought, but they do not mirror animal signaling systems: thought has the complexity and structure of language, but signaling systems don’t. If we maintain that human languages somehow derive from primitive signaling systems, we have the problem of the poverty of the precursor: those systems just don’t have the internal structure that is present in a normal human language. But a system of inner thought, especially when coded in an internal language, has exactly the right kind and degree of structure to provide a platform for external language to develop. People tend to suppose that just because signaling systems and human languages are both vocal the one must have evolved from the other, but this is a superficial point of view—in my hypothetical species the external language is stipulated to be a sign language (visual) not a vocal language (auditory). It is not physical form that matters but constitutive structure—the formal object not its contingent physical medium.

There is a lot to say, and a lot that has been said, about these matters, but I don’t propose to delve into the evidence and arguments now; my point has been to set the issue up in a perspicuous manner by describing a stipulated hypothetical species. The question is whether that species models how things actually are (were) with humans. Is spoken language externalized symbolic thought or is it elaborated vocal signaling? Once we have accepted the prior existence of a language of thought, isn’t this the obvious place to look for the origin of spoken language? I would venture that the more advanced mammals all have fairly sophisticated thought but that their signaling systems fail to do justice to their thought processes—they can’t properly express what they think (this is why we always have to guess what dogs and cats want and think from their rather limited sounds and gestures). They thus lack what humans manifestly possess—a full-blown articulate external language. Why this should be is hard to say, but it is clearly a fact. We have IL, EL, and signaling; they have (primitive) IL and signaling. The idea that both thought and language evolved from signaling by some process of augmentation is hard to believe—like thinking that eyes might have evolved from fingernails. Of course, the linguistic behavior we observe in humans today incorporates vocal signaling, alongside the linguistic competence that derives from the internal language; but that doesn’t mean these have the same evolutionary origin or intrinsic structure. Natural languages as we find them are really hybrids of distinct systems with distinct evolutionary origins: they result from a combination of the initial language of thought, contingent embodiment in a specific sensory-motor system, and the ancient system of calls and cries that we inherited from our ancestors. These three systems are now interwoven in the phenomenon of human communication, but that doesn’t mean they don’t retain their separate identities. If I shout out the sentence “Your hair is on fire!” I exploit my vocal apparatus, my instinct to warn, and my internal competence in an abstract computational structure—all in one. But these are separate psychological systems with complex interrelations. Thus language as we use it can be both “cognitive” and “expressive”—reflecting its origins in inner thought as well as in more primitive forms of communication.

The naïve view of thought and language is that thought comes first, in the species and the child, and that we then go on to express it in spoken words. That view has been challenged, particularly by twentieth century thinkers, who invert the order of explanation: spoken words come first and from these thought develops. Thought is language internalized, instead of language being thought externalized. The naïve view seems to me to have more going for it, and my hypothetical species agrees. To them it is quite self-evident that a language of thought precedes and explains a language of communication and not vice versa.



    [1] This is complex contested territory; I intend only to skim over the subject here. For those familiar with modern linguistics, I am siding with Chomsky on these matters: my hypothetical species closely follows the view of language he has defended, most recently in Robert C. Berwick and Noam Chomsky, Why Only Us: Language and Evolution (MIT Press, 2016).


Topics Covered

Topics Covered


I thought it would be helpful to list the main topics covered in the papers published on this site, so in no particular order they are as follows: truth, identity, existence, necessity, color, knowledge, persons, consciousness, the unconscious, belief, intention, skepticism, realism, induction, free will, concepts, language, speech, names, descriptions, performatives, properties, mathematics, psychology, biology, physiology, action, behavior, genes, morality, meta-philosophy, fiction, pain, science, causation, meaning, mystery, life, the Cogito, emotion, metaphysics, thought, democracy, time, motion, memory, perception, food, appearance, reference, analysis, sex, matter, evolution, God, infinity, beauty, the a priori, dispositions, entailment, substance, solipsism, logic, evil, value, negation, injustice, ontology, intentionality, disgust, the brain, culture, introspection, music, definition, subjectivity, experience, privacy, modularity, seeing-as, reduction, animals, manners, nature, instantiation, nihilism, nothing, death, religion, paradox, personality, punctuation, and the universe.


The Necessity of Necessity



There are necessary truths, but might there not have been? The actual world contains necessities, but are there possible worlds in which nothing is necessary? Is necessity necessary?

            If necessity were a matter of language or human convention, the answer would be that necessity is not necessary, since language and human convention do not necessarily exist; but what about good old-fashioned Aristotelian de re necessity? Things have essences as matters stand, but could there be things that lack essence—a world in which everything is contingent? The question divides into several sub-questions, according to the type of necessity we are considering: logical and mathematical necessity, analytic necessity, necessity of identity, necessity of kind, necessity or origin, necessity of constitution. If logical laws and mathematical truths hold in all worlds, then presumably the attendant necessities will also hold. In every world it will be necessary that there are no contradictions; there is no world in which 2+2+=4 is not necessary; the number 2 exists in every world and in every world it is necessarily even. In the case of analytic necessity it depends on whether every world contains concepts: if some do not, then there will be no analytic necessities concerning concepts in that world. What about the necessity of identity? Surely this will hold in every world, since all it takes is for the existence of things with self-identity, i.e. things of any conceivable kind. But the really interesting cases are the last three on my list, and here the answers are less obvious.

            If a given world contains such things as chemical elements and animal species, it presumably instantiates the relevant necessities: it will be necessary that water is H2O and a cat will necessarily be a cat. There are no worlds in which volumes of water are not necessarily H2O and cats are not necessarily cats. It is not just that all (actual) cats are necessarily cats but that necessarily all (possible) cats are necessarily cats. There are no possible cats that are not cats in their essence. But it doesn’t follow that every possible object is necessarily of the kind that it is—couldn’t there be a type of object that had no essence at all? The idea does not seem manifestly contradictory or absurd. What about a basic point particle? It would occupy a particular position in space but that would be a contingent property of the particle—and couldn’t that be its only property? But this is not so obvious on reflection: Is it not necessarily a point-like entity? Would it not have such properties as mass or charge and wouldn’t they be essential properties of it? In fact, given that every possible existent has a nature, must it not follow that it has an essence? If something constitutes an object’s nature, isn’t it part of that object’s essence, i.e. what it could not lack?

            It might be retorted that we need to strip the object down still further—not an elementary material particle but a bare particular—something that simply is but without any determinate nature. But doesn’t even this putative particular also have a nature of sorts—as bare and as a particular? So aren’t these its essence? Even if the notion of a bare particular makes metaphysical sense, it doesn’t avoid necessity, because it is necessarily what it is intrinsically, i.e. a bare particular. Everything must be of some kind, and that kind will form its essence, however thin and simple the kind may be. Nothing has only contingent properties. It is not that some things have essences but others don’t.

            Necessity of origin is trickier. Again, we need not assume that all worlds will contain organisms or artifacts, so this kind of necessity of origin will not hold across all worlds, while other kinds may (planets, particles). But might there be worlds in which there are objects that lack any origin and hence don’t exhibit necessity of origin? What about a world of eternal objects or a world in which nothing comes from anything distinct from itself? Consider a world of eternal and immutable material particles–they come from nothing and have no time of origin: how can they be subject to the necessity of origin? To be concrete, do electrons exhibit necessity of origin? Actual electrons had their origin in the big bang, so this might be necessary to their identity as the electron they are (thiselectron could not have originated in anything but the actual big bang); but what about conceivable electrons that originate from nothing at all? Numbers cannot have necessary origin because they have no origin, and electrons might follow suit. But isn’t there room for an extended necessity of origin thesis, namely that these (non-actual) electrons necessarily come from nothing? That is, they are necessarily causeless and timeless—these electrons could not exist in a world in which they were caused and temporally finite. They necessarily don’t have an origin—or they necessarily have an origin that is confined to themselves and the reaches of eternity (the necessity of non-origin). So again, it is hard to avoid these kinds of de re necessity, though we may have to modify and extend such necessities to fit the merely possible entities we are postulating.

            Similarly with necessity of constitution: we can postulate a world in which things have no constitution—in which everything is a primitive particular—but we can’t rid that world of an analogous modal thesis, namely that every such particular is necessarily not constituted by something other than itself. Even if the objects don’t break down into parts or stem from something with which they are not numerically identical, we can still formulate the thesis—which appears true—that they are necessarily constituted by themselves or necessarily not constituted at all. We are still trafficking in essence as it relates to constitution; we have not got beyond such questions.

            None of this is to say that necessities must necessarily be recognized: the point is metaphysical not epistemological. There can clearly be worlds in which the prevailing necessities are not recognized by any thinking being, since such beings may not exist in those worlds; but that has no relevance to the question of what worlds are metaphysically possible. The world would exhibit the necessities it does irrespective of anyone’s knowledge of necessity. People could entirely repudiate the existence of necessities in every world, but that doesn’t show that there are no necessities. The point I have been urging is that it is hard to escape the existence of necessity: no matter what world you travel to, even some very fanciful ones, necessity will be staring back at you, even if it exists in an unfamiliar form. Reality always contains necessities, no matter what kind of reality it is.

            This raises a difficult question: Why is necessity so deeply embedded in reality? What is the reason that necessity is (metaphysically) inescapable? On the face of it the world could have consisted of nothing but contingent truths (this is what many philosophers still believe about the actual world), so why is it that necessity is so deeply embedded in reality? Why did God have to make a world exhibiting necessities? Don’t say, “Because everything has to have a nature”: that is no doubt true, but it just re-raises the question, viz. why must everything have a nature? Everything must have properties, to be sure, but why must these properties form a nature in the strong modal sense, i.e. properties that a thing cannot lack and still be itself? Why can’t things instantiate all their properties contingently? And yet nothing does, either actual or possible. The universe is necessarily a home for necessity—necessity is not just an accidental feature of the universe. Nor can God do much about it: even he could not choose to create a world devoid of necessity—the “null necessity world”. Once he creates anything he necessarily builds necessity into it, even the barest of bare particulars. However, it is not clear what the explanation of this metaphysical fact is, or whether there could be an explanation of it: but fact it appears to be. No one said modal metaphysics would be easy.

            And then there is this puzzle: if necessity is as pervasive and inescapable as it appears to be, why has it been so controversial? Why have so many people rejected its very existence, let alone its ubiquity? Why has it been so difficult to get people to take it seriously? If it is present in everything—actual and conceivable—why is it so hard for people to recognize?  [1]


Colin McGinn     




  [1] Of course, necessity cannot be literally seen, but it is difficult to believe that crude empiricism could be the reason for the widespread suspicion of necessity. It must have to do with how different necessity is from other aspects of reality (space, time, matter, causality, etc). Modality presents itself as another dimension of reality—another plane of existence (all those worlds). It is tempting to postulate a dualism of the modal and the non-modal so different are the two. If the essence of matter is extension, as Descartes maintained, then the fact that matter is necessarily extended is not itself a mode of extension—so it cannot be a material property: hence matter-modality dualism. Modal realism is metaphysically disturbing.


The Mind of God



The Mind of God



Divine Psychology



A typical university education in the science of psychology will include a course entitled “comparative psychology,” which deals with animal psychology and its similarities to, and differences from, human psychology. But I have never heard of a psychology degree that offers a comparative psychology course on divine psychology and its relation to human and animal psychology. Yet God must have a psychology, because he has a mind. And there must be a philosophy of mind appropriate to the divine mind too. God has various mental faculties, and these must have a nature and a modus operandi. There must be a way that God’s mind is. So why can’t we study the mind of God? Why do we find this gap in the curriculum? 

            It can hardly be that the subject is deemed unacceptably impious, because theology studies God in all sorts of ways–so can’t he be studied psychologically? If we can discuss God’s plans and intentions, then he must have plans and intentions; and then we can ask theoretical questions about these divine mental attributes. Any being with states of mind must have a psychology in which those states feature. It might be agreed that God has a psychology, but denied that we can study it, because we can’t do experiments on God or observe his behavior. We therefore cannot have a proper empirical science of God’s mind. It is no doubt true that we can’t use God as an experimental subject, along with the usual herd of conscripted undergraduate subjects, because of his general unavailability; but it is wrong to conclude from this that we cannot meaningfully investigate God’s mind. We cannot perform experiments on Shakespeare either (or any other dead person) but that doesn’t mean that we can’t make justified statements about the mind of Shakespeare. Why? Because we know quite a lot about Shakespeare’s mind from the evidence of it he left behind, as well as from his membership in the human race, and from that we can make reasonable inferences. Experimental evidence is not the only kind of psychological evidence there is. So we might have enough information about God that we can make sensible inferences about the nature of his mind. The right thing to do is look and see.

            Another objection to the project of divine psychology might be made: we cannot have a psychological theory of God’s mind because God does not exist. It would be like having a comparative psychology that included the unicorn—a nonexistent beast with a nonexistent mind. But this is a bad argument: we can ask about the mind of Sherlock Holmes without presupposing that he exists. Fictional characters have minds too, and hence psychologies. Thus we know that Holmes has a very high IQ, is easily bored, and is subject to narcotic cravings. We also know that he has a language faculty and hence must have acquired language during childhood, with all the psychological machinery that that implies. Even if God is merely a fictional character, with no existence, we can still ask what kind of psychology he has. The evidence for this will come from human intentionality—how God has been depicted and conceived in various traditions of religious thought. God (the fictional character) must have a psychology that is such that those depictions could hold of him—just as with Sherlock Holmes and other fictional characters. If God exists, on the other hand, then his mind also exists, and hence has an existent nature—which can in principle be investigated. Our knowledge here can only be tentative, to be sure, but that is true of large tracts of human knowledge in general.  [1]

            So there seems no objection of principle to pursuing the subject of divine psychology, though it might prove arduous and elusive. Our approach will naturally be comparative: how does divine psychology compare to human psychology? I will be unavoidably sketchy about this in what follows, but I think the outlines of the divine mind are fairly clear. Two points seem clear at the outset: God thinks and has mastery of language. Just as we are essentially thinking things, as Descartes claimed, so God is essentially a thinking thing—a res cogitans. God has reason, and plenty of it.  [2] This means that God thinks logically—his thoughts are governed by relations of logical validity. If so, his thoughts must have propositional content—since there is no other kind of logical thought. We must ascribe thoughts to him using “that”-clauses: God thinks, for instance, that man is weak and easily led. God reasons according to modus ponens and other logical rules, which concern propositions. In this he resembles humans, cognitively speaking.  [3] God respects the laws of logic and conforms his thought to them.

But his propositional thought differs in one important way from that of humans: his thought does not generate opaque contexts, on account of his omniscience. A human can believe that Hesperus is a planet without believing that Phosphorus is a planet, even though Hesperus is identical to Phosphorus, because he or she doesn’t realize that the identity holds—that crucial piece of knowledge is missing. But God knows everything, necessarily so, and therefore he cannot fail to know the truth of all identity statements. So all ascriptions to God of singular thoughts will produce only transparent contexts, in which co-denoting names are intersubstitutable. God’s thoughts no doubt have sense and reference, as Frege argued, but God recognizes the referential coincidence of all senses that in fact have the same reference. God knows every mode of presentation of every object, so he cannot fail to know the truth of every true identity proposition.  [4]

            Given that God thinks in propositions, various other things will follow, very familiar to philosophers. The thoughts of God will have logical form, possibly that specified by standard predicate logic. When God has a descriptive thought (say, “The queen of England has been a good monarch”) his thought has the logical form captured in Russell’s theory of descriptions (a quantified conjunction). His general thoughts will have the structure specified in Frege’s account of quantification, since this is by common consent the correct theory of generality. His adverbial thoughts will conform to Davidson’s theory of adverbs—or whatever is the best theory of adverbs. The content of God’s thoughts will include particular objects and not merely general concepts—granted the correctness of “direct-reference” theories of thought. These theories are not held to be merely contingently true of humans, but to apply to all beings capable of the thoughts in question–and hence to God’s thoughts. They are theories of the essence of propositions.  [5]

            God’s putative mastery of language (“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God”) will also imply various theses about his psychology. As we know from Chomsky and others, language is a recursive structure, based on a finite vocabulary, with finitely many grammatical rules. God’s language (maybe it is mainly a language of thought, not much used for communication) may not share the precise rules and vocabulary of human languages, but it must still exhibit syntactic and semantic structure. It must be compositional, generative, and imbued with grammatical rules. It cannot be systematically ungrammatical! It must be based on rules that produce sense not nonsense. Thus God’s language faculty has a structure very similar to the human language faculty, at least at an abstract level: a finitely based recursive system of normative rules. Much the same is true of his cognitive capacity: his thoughts too must result from rule-governed combinations of conceptual elements. We can therefore say that this aspect of God’s mind has the architecture of systems with “discrete infinity”: words and concepts are discrete entities that can combine into infinitely many complex sentences or thoughts. The divine mind is “digital” not “analogue”.

            I would say that this kind of cognitive architecture also applies to God’s geometrical and social modes of cognition. In both cases we have primitive elements (shapes or individual people) that combine into novel complexes according to fixed rules. When God thinks about human beings in groups, say, his thoughts exhibit the same abstract schematism: he represents us as a social formation made up of individuals that may combine in all sorts of ways and with certain sorts of outcome. How else could he think about entities that exhibit the combinatorial character we find in social groups? And the same holds for his geometric representations of the world. If entities are compounded from other entities in law-governed ways, then any adequate conception of those entities will reflect their internal structure, of necessity. 

            I think we can also assert that God is conscious. There is something it is like to be him, even if we cannot grasp it (compare the bats). On some views, this implies that God harbors “qualia” in his mind. On other views, every divine conscious state must exhibit intentionality, this being the “mark of the mental” (Brentano). He must also be self-conscious, much like us. And he must have a self—and not just be a mere bundle of sensations or thoughts. His consciousness must be unified, centered. He must refer to himself with the first person “I” and ascribe conscious states to the self thus referred to, incorrigibly so. These “I”-thoughts will have the features of all such thoughts, involving immunity to error through misidentification, as well as something like David Kaplan’s distinction between character and content. For these are logical features of “I” and apply to any user of that word.  [6]

            One respect in which the consciousness of God differs from our consciousness (and that of other animals) is that there is no mind-body problem for God. This is simply because he has neither body nor brain. Thus there is no mystery in God’s nature stemming from this problem: we don’t face a deep puzzle about how the consciousness of God could result from neural activity in God’s brain. God’s consciousness, unlike ours, does not emerge from brain activity; nor does it evolve from more primitive biological forms. How it does come about is another question, but it certainly doesn’t arise from electro-chemical activity in a galaxy-sized divine brain. In this respect, then, God’s consciousness is less mysterious than ours. It is true that some philosophers have argued that the notion of a disembodied consciousness is not logically coherent, but the idea of an embodied consciousness also presents deep mysteries. God exhibits no mysterious psychophysical link or dependence. His mind is not a mysterious emergent.  [7]

            God also possesses a will. He decides, has practical reason, and he deliberates.  [8] But is his will free? Everyone knows what a problem this is in the case of humans. The only thing I wish to say about the problem here is that it applies equally to God. Freedom seems to be compatible with neither determinism nor indeterminism, but these exhaust the possibilities, so the will is not free. But God’s decisions are subject to the same dilemma, even if he is not constrained by the physical world: if his acts of will are caused, they cannot be free; but they cannot be free if they are not caused either, for then they will be random (quantum indeterminacy at the divine level will not save God’s free will). There are, of course, many attempts to get around this argument, which I cannot discuss here (I have one myself  [9]); but I think it is fair to report that none are free of difficulty. In any case, free or not, God has a will—he is not purely contemplative or passive. Given that God has a will, he must also have desires and wishes: not for food and sex, to be sure, but for peace, harmony, and goodness. When God acts he acts for reasons, and these reasons comprise beliefs and desires in the usual bipartite way. If God sent his son into the world in order to be our salvation, then he must have desired our salvation and believed that by sending his son he could satisfy that desire. So God has a belief-desire practical psychology: he has desires for certain ends and beliefs about the means for achieving those ends, and he forms intentions by combining his desires and beliefs. Maybe he even has degrees of desire, so that these psychological states are subject to continuous magnitudes—as when we speak of having a strong desire for immortality. Then God’s mind would be discrete in some ways (words and concepts) and continuous in others (degrees of desire)—just like ours, in fact, but with a rather different desire set. Presumably God does not work with subjective probabilities in his practical reasoning, given his omniscience, but he still functions according to standard belief-desire psychology, since he acts for reasons.  [10]

            I don’t think that God has an unconscious or that he dreams. He certainly does not have a Freudian unconscious (as I doubt that humans do), but he also lacks the kind of cognitive unconscious modern psychology attributes to us. There is no subconscious information-processing going on in God, so as to save on the amount of conscious space being taken up—God has no such computational limitations. In God’s mind all is at the forefront of consciousness—like an enormous Cartesian theater.  [11] As to dreaming, God never sleeps, so he has no opportunity to dream. And what would he dream about—his anxieties and repressed feelings? Would he have wish-fulfillment dreams in which human beings become innocent of all sin? Nor, I conjecture, does God daydream, letting his mind wander where it will. I wonder whether he has an imagination at all, in anything like the way we do, as opposed to intellectual apprehension. Does he have mental images? In what sense modality would he have them? God’s mind may be considerably more capacious than ours, but it is also in certain respects simpler.  [12]

            There is much discussion as to how much of human knowledge is innate. No one doubts that we learn and acquire knowledge, so that not everything is innate, even if much knowledge may be. But God never learns anything—he certainly does not get his ideas from the world outside his mind by employing his senses. He is omniscient and always has been (there was no ignorant childhood). Thus all his knowledge is innate: it all comes from within his own nature, never being derived from what enters through the senses. Empiricism is false for God’s knowledge, even if it is true for a good deal of human knowledge. Descartes thought that our innate knowledge was planted in us by God, but he would presumably not say the same about God’s innate knowledge—he did not plant it in himself. For where did he get the knowledge to plant? He must have had it already. So God’s knowledge belongs to him natively and eternally: he innately knows everything there is to know (assuming divine foreknowledge). Mathematics, logic, metaphysics, ethics, and language—this is all innate for God. And the same must be true for history, geography, cooking and so on, given his general omniscience.

            I have said nothing about God’s personality. The tradition sometimes ventures an opinion on this, describing God as jealous and vengeful or kindly and forgiving. God is rightly described as a person, with the attributes that define personhood (self-awareness, identity over time, reason, and so on); but it does not follow that he has a personality, and I find myself doubting the idea. It smacks of anthropomorphism, does it not? Do we really want to entertain the possibility that God is short-tempered or softhearted or gloomy or cheerful or extraverted or introverted? The concept of personality seems not to fit the mind of God as we grasp it. The same might be said of some animals that have minds: you can have a mind, even quite a sophisticated one, and yet have no personality at all, in the usual sense. Do sheep have personalities, or snakes, or fish? Similarly, I don’t think God has a personality, despite his manifest personhood. He has different desires from, say, the Devil, but that is not enough to ground the ordinary notion of personality—with the implication of quirks and arbitrariness of traits.  [13] That seems much too limiting, far too human. It would be odd to describe God as having a sparkling personality or as being a bit of an introvert.

            Even from this quick survey, I think we can see that the project of divine psychology can yield non-trivial results. We can know quite a bit about the mind of God, even if not everything. But that limitation applies to our knowledge of the minds of terrestrial animals, including ourselves. I doubt that university departments of psychology would provide research money for a project on divine psychology, but it does seem to be a possible enterprise. It could be a branch of theology perhaps—theological psychology or psychological theology.  [14]


 The God-World Problem


I now want to discuss the question of the relationship between God and the world. Let us suppose God to exist and the world to exist (both existential claims could be coherently denied). By the “world” I just mean all of spatio-temporal reality, including the minds of animals and humans. The point I wish to make is that the God-world relationship can be usefully articulated by invoking some ideas drawn from philosophy of mind. This will act as a prelude to discussing the question of God’s intervention in the world—for that question presupposes an understanding of the metaphysical relation between the two. Again, I will perforce be sketchy.

            One view would be that God and the world are totally separate substances. Call the world “empirical substance” and call God “divine substance”: then this view would be a dualism of empirical and divine substances. Such a position is modeled on the Cartesian conception of mind and body: a pair of independent substances existing alongside one another. God could exist without the world, and perhaps the world could exist without God (say, if God decided to end his own existence and leave the world intact). The two separate substances might be taken to interact or not, depending on one’s metaphysical opinions. Let us suppose that they do interact, with God intervening in the course of history. There would then be a problem about how this interaction takes place, analogous to Descartes’ problem of interaction. If the divine substance is non-spatial, then the problem will coincide with Descartes’ problem, since mind is a non-spatial substance for him. A proponent of this interactionist dualism might propose a celestial pineal gland (the Earth!) as the locus of interaction. But this would be no better than Descartes’ own “solution”, leaving the problem exactly where it was. Thus God-world substantial dualism has a classic interaction problem. It therefore seems that God will turn out to be epiphenomenal with respect to the world—which is not a happy result theologically.  [15]

            Then there is the view that God and world coincide in some way. We might here think of Spinoza’s doctrine, according to which God and the world are identical. This view is analogous to the identity theory of mind and brain: not two things but one, described in two different ways. By this means we solve the problem of interaction, since we are dealing with just one spatial substance, which obeys the usual causal rules. God can cause events in the world because he is the world—parts of him are causing other parts of him, in effect. The trouble with this view is its extreme reductionism, which is tantamount to eliminativism (hence the accusation of atheism against Spinoza). If God is really nothing over and above the world, then it is hard to see what is added to the world by his existence—there may as well be no God at all. The same kind of complaint has been made against identity theories of mind and brain: why speak of mind at all, if brain is all there ultimately is? All we have is a distinction of words.

            The remaining views try to avoid this Scylla and Charybdis—dualism and monism–with greater or lesser success. Thus we might try the idea that God emerges from the world, and is yet something over and above the world. This view is modeled on the “emergentist” view of mind and brain: the mind (necessarily) emerges from the brain, but what emerges is a new level of reality, not reducible to its basis in the brain. Such a position is theologically problematic, because it is hard to see how God could emerge from the world and yet be its creator (the creation relation has been inverted). But it is also metaphysically troubling, because the notion of emergence is mysterious and seemingly miraculous. How can X owe its very being to Y (and nothing but Y) and yet be something over and above Y? It is also not clear how the theory solves the interaction problem, once God has been granted separate ontological status as an emergent entity. We seem to be offered some sort of dual aspect view (or property dualism), and then there is a question how the extra aspect can fit into the causal order. Can’t we explain everything at the Y level in terms of the Y aspect, with the X aspect merely epiphenomenal?

            Panpsychism might now be ventured: the mind is already part of the physical world in small packets, so that the emergence of mind from matter is not really radical and miraculous. Atoms have tiny bits of consciousness in them, so when they combine bigger conscious bits result. Pantheism is the analogous doctrine with regard to God: there are bits of divine dust scattered everywhere in the world, and God himself is just their universal summation. Lots of little gods get together to produce one big God, as it were. Thus the emergence of the divine from the empirical is explained—the empirical has bits of divinity in it to start with. Again, there are theological objections to this picture, with respect to creation: but we also have problems about how the combination process works, as well as the sheer implausibility of the doctrine—what exactly are these microscopic hidden gods lurking everywhere, just itching to combine into one big macroscopic God?

            Lastly, we have idealism. Berkeley held that the so-called material world consists of ideas in the mind of God, so that the world is really not separate from God. There is only spiritual substance. Thus there is no Cartesian problem of interaction between substances with different essences, since there is no material substance. This is analogous to holding that the brain is nothing but the mind, with mind constituting the basic nature of reality. According to idealism, God never created a material universe, though he did create a universe that exists when we do not perceive it—since ideas always exist in God’s mind. All causation is really mental causation, on this view, taking place within the one infinite spiritual substance, which is God. Matter is a myth invented by misguided philosophers; what we really have are ideas subsisting in the divine mind.

            None of the views cited are free of difficulty, to put it mildly, either in regard to the mind or to God. There are real problem of metaphysical integration. This means that the problem of integration is not in itself a reason to reject God—any more than the analogous problem about mind and body is a reason to reject mind. In both cases, the dualist position is the one that is most immediately attractive, but it encounters serious difficulties concerning causal interaction (among other things). The other positions are attempts to resolve the interaction problem, but they suffer their own drawbacks. This is philosophy—metaphysics–at its most difficult.



God’s Agency


How does all this bear on the question of divine intervention? Let me distinguish two problems: one about interaction, the other about determinism. If we presuppose a radical dualism of God and world, then we get an interaction problem, analogous to Descartes’ problem. How can God make contact with the spatio-temporal world, given that he is not himself spatio-temporal? That is indeed a problem, as it was for Descartes. We either have to declare ineradicable mystery or try to dilute the dualism. But the problem is not peculiar to God’s supposed intervention in the world, since it applies also to mind-body dualism. In fact, there is an analogous problem concerning our knowledge of mathematics: how can we know about numbers, given that numbers are platonic entities existing outside of space and time? These are all real philosophical problems; the God case is not unique. Theologians can take some comfort in this fact.  [16]

            With respect to determinism, the problem is how it can be that God can intervene in the course of history, given that nature is governed by inviolable natural laws. Aren’t all his decisions impotent to change the course of history, with the basic laws determining everything that happens? How can God hope to affect what happens in nature when nature operates by laws independently of his will? Again, this is a genuine philosophical puzzle, but it is worth observing that it applies to human decisions too. How can what we decide make any difference to the course of history, given that history is determined by laws of nature and initial conditions? How can there be “downward causation”—from will to world? The human will looks to be epiphenomenal, with all the causal work being done by factors outside of its operations. How then is it possible for humans to intervene in nature? If we could just identify acts of will with underlying physical mechanisms, then we would not have a problem, because then decisions would be physical events in the basic causal order. But that seems too reductive—just as the analogous position with respect to God’s role in history would be (God’s will cannot just be an attribute of atoms, say electromagnetism). Thus we are sent on a search for some position that avoids the problems identified so far, with nothing we find proving satisfactory.

            Notice that the problem is not confined to the psychological level. How can biological events, such as acts of reproduction, influence the course of history, given that physical determinism holds? Isn’t everything fixed by the state of elementary particles already, so that we have no need of extra biological events to explain what happens? But then animal copulation would play no role in determining what happens—which sounds wrong. What we need is a way to reconcile downward causation with physical determinism (or indeterminism if nature is fundamentally indeterministic). This is a genuine philosophical question, to which various answers have been proposed; my point is just that the problem about God’s intervention just appears to be a special case of this more general problem, and is therefore not in itself a reason for theological anxiety. How can animal action intervene in the causal order, if it is governed from the ground up by physics? How can divine action intervene in the causal order, if it is governed from the ground up by physics? We surely don’t want to accept that God or animals need to thwart the laws of physics in order to have an influence on what happens, but then it seems that all the causation in the universe proceeds purely from atoms and their laws. As I say, this is a real philosophical puzzle; but it is a general puzzle about causation and the entities that populate the universe whose antics make a difference to what happens. It is not clear that the problem of divine intervention in a law-governed world adds anything new or unique.

            As to the very different idea that God can intervene in nature in such a way as to disrupt its laws, I hold to the orthodox opinion that no such thing has ever occurred. There is simply no good evidence that such a “miracle” has ever been observed. What is commonly advanced as evidence is just so much questionable testimony, to which Hume’s classic argument applies.  [17] The kind of event that would constitute such a breach of natural laws would be the suspension of the law of gravity as someone is plummeting to earth, resulting in their ceasing to fall and floating in thin air. The forces of nature would need to be countermanded by God for that to happen. Even if God has such a power, conferred by his omnipotence, I don’t believe he has ever exercised it; and the idea that he does it sparingly and sporadically, for especially good ends, raises the obvious question of why he doesn’t do it more often. By contrast, the question of the compatibility of divine intervention and the unbroken existence of natural laws raises a genuine conceptual puzzle; but, as I have said, the puzzle is not confined to God’s action in the world.  

            As a final remark, let me just say that a radically dualist view of the relationship between God and the universe is apt to make the problem of intervention more difficult than under other metaphysical conceptions. It is the same with Descartes’ dualism: radical separation makes the mind cut off from the causal network in a way it is intuitively not cut off. We need to find a closer relationship than this if the causal picture is to work. Philosophers have toyed with notions like “realization” as a way to characterize the relationship between the mental level and the physical level, so that the levels are close enough to make causal sense. The model here would be, say, the way an eye is realized in different anatomical organs: being an eye is not identical to any one anatomical type of eye, yet we can say that eyes are “realized” by different anatomical types.  If we take our lead from this example, then we could try saying that God is realized by the universe, without being reducible to the universe. He has no further substance over and above that of the universe, but he is not simply identical to the universe (I suppose this would qualify as a type of pantheism). It is a bit like the way a statue is realized in a particular chunk of bronze, without being strictly identical a chunk of bronze.  [18]  I am not sure I know what this idea of realization comes to for the case of God and the universe, but it least it promises to make it feasible for God to be enmeshed in the natural causal order, without collapsing into it. It is not so much that God intervenes as supervenes, to use the jargon. On this picture, there is a mega-universe that includes both the physical universe and God, with the two locked somehow together. But trying to make sense of this is a tall order.


Colin McGinn

  [1] It is often supposed that human knowledge of the mind of God is necessarily limited—that God must be mysterious to us. Yet it is also believed that we can know quite a bit about God’s wishes and intentions, and his intellectual faculties. This mixture of ignorance and knowledge is not, however, unique to God, but applies to all minds, and even to the physical world. It is not that God is uniquely impenetrable.

  [2] One thing God has plenty of is knowledge, on account of his omniscience. But it is a question what form this knowledge takes. Presumably he has propositional knowledge (knowledge that p), but he must also have knowledge how and knowledge of. Is his propositional knowledge a type of belief? Does he have justification for what he believes? Is it a priori or a posteriori? Does he have introspective knowledge? Is his knowledge analyzable? These are all good questions, but I won’t be discussing them here, since I am concerned with God’s psychology rather than his epistemology.

  [3] I don’t mean that, like humans, he reasons in time, slowly or quickly, smoothly or falteringly. But he must apprehend logical relations between propositions, possibly “at a glance”. His superiority to humans as a logical thinker does not mean that he is not himself a logical thinker. (Perhaps I should note here that I am assuming God to be an entity more person-like than, say, some sort of impersonal force—that is, I am following the precepts of the main world religions. If God is conceived impersonally, then of course we cannot ascribe the attributes of a person to him (or “it”).)

  [4] If Frege is right, God apprehends objects under modes of presentation, not “directly”, so that his thoughts are perspectival, like ours—they represent the object under a certain specific aspect. It is just that God always knows when two senses correspond to the same reference, so that he can never be surprised by a true identity statement. Hence there is no referential opacity in ascriptions of propositional attitudes to God.

  [5] It is like God’s mathematical concepts: he thinks of number according to the theory developed in Principia Mathematica (or whatever the best theory of numbers is). The correct analysis of the concept of number applies to anyone employing that concept, human, Martian, or divine—because the analysis tells us what number is.

  [6] I assume monotheism in this paper, but the same general points apply under polytheism. The Greek gods, say, will each have mastery of the word “I”, and this word will have a uniform meaning for all of them—and hence the same logical properties. The same logic applies to every thinking being.

  [7] This is not to say that there is no mystery about the origin of God’s mind—just no mystery about how it could originate in matter (since it doesn’t). It might have existed for all eternity in its present fully developed form, or it might have originated in some prior divine reality not of its present form. According to the latter hypothesis, God’s mind arose from a proto divine substance (if that is the word) that became organized into a full-fledged divine mind. First, there was a primitive divine reality, not yet organized into an actual functioning mind; and then something happened to bring about God’s mind, as it now exists.

  [8] Again, we need not suppose that God deliberates in time: yet he comes to conclusions, both theoretical and practical, by means of his faculty of reason. How this is possible is, admittedly, something of a mystery—is it to be conceived of as instantaneous or does the concept of time not apply to it at all? In any case, God has plans that he carries out intentionally.

  [9] See Colin McGinn, Problems in Philosophy (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1993), chapter 5. I should apologize for my lack of citation of theologians and philosophers of religion who have written on the topics discussed in this paper. The reason is simply that I have read very little of this literature and am not a specialist in the field.

  [10] It is an interesting question whether God has needs—such as the need to help humanity or the need to create a universe. I think not, because that would make him vulnerable in case his needs are not met. God cannot suffer when he doesn’t get what he needs. It would be quite inapt to think that God has cravings.

  [11] In fact, the idea of a divine unconscious is demonstrably impossible, because it conflicts with God’s omniscience: given that God knows everything, he knows what he has in his unconscious—but then it is not unconscious.

  [12] God doesn’t suffer from conflicts, quandaries, uncertainties, cognitive dissonance, paradigm shifts, mixed emotions, and self-doubt. Nor does he endure aches and pains, troubles of the flesh. God’s mind is always clear and focused, perfectly rational, never divided.

  [13] Typical personality traits cited by psychologists are neuroticism, extraversion, openness to experience, agreeableness, and conscientiousness. A given individual’s personality corresponds to a blend of these traits, varying from one individual to the next. But none of these traits seems an apt description of God, except maybe conscientiousness. God falls at no particular point in personality space, as so defined. That is not to say that he lacks specific kinds of desire, such as the desire for good to prevail.  

  [14] A topic I have not discussed is divine memory. Does God possess a memory? Is that where God stores his vast knowledge? Does he have short-term and long-term memory? How does divine recall work? And what are God’s concepts like? Does he employ family resemblance concepts, or vague concepts, or sensory concepts? Does he have a “conceptual scheme”?

  [15] I am not saying there are no conceivable replies to these problems, just that both sorts of dualism run up against the same sorts of problem: God is to world as mind is to body—an extraneous entity with peculiar causal links.

  [16] If we follow Hume’s lead on causation, we find that all causation involves intractable mystery, since we have no adequate idea of power or necessary connection. So it is not just theologians who are saddled with unfathomable causation. From this point of view, divine causal intervention is not much worse than gravity, which is also (as Newton admitted) “occult”.

  [17] Namely, we always have more reason to doubt the testimony than to believe in the miracle. In order to overturn this principle in a particular case we would need a lot of very credible testimony, based on solid observation; and that we never seem to find. This Humean point does not show that miracles are impossible, which is a metaphysical claim; it merely shows that it is difficult to get good evidence for miracles, which is an epistemological claim.

  [18] The classic argument against the identity of statue and chunk of bronze is based on Leibniz’s law: the chunk existed before the statue did and persists when the statue is gone, so the two do not have all their properties in common.


The Uniformity of Evil



Evil comes in many varieties. A typical list would include: genocide, murder, torture, terrorism, slavery, sadism, the sexual and physical abuse of children, slander, betrayal of trust, desecration of the sacred, disfiguring, maiming, and crippling. We might count as evil the willful destruction of great works of art or architecture, in addition to such standard examples as the extermination of innocent populations. Physical harm to persons is not always involved, though it often is, along with emotional pain. Given this variety, we might be tempted to suppose that the class of evil acts is irreducibly heterogeneous, united by nothing more than brute disjunction or family resemblance. That is, we might deny that there is any one feature common and peculiar to all evil acts. The concept of evil, it may be said, is just too vague and open-textured to admit of informative definition. We must accordingly accept the diversity of evil.

            I shall suggest, to the contrary, that evil is a unitary quality common to all acts rightly classified as evil. Moreover, it is quite a simple quality, which is not to say that it is easily identified in practical life. My definition of evil, to get right to it, is that it is the intentional destruction of the good—but this will need some unpacking. First, destruction: by this I simply mean, “causing to cease to exist”. The world contains a certain entity or quality at a certain time and to destroy that entity or quality is to bring about its cessation. This may be done violently or insidiously, quickly or slowly. It is the opposite of creation: instead of causing something to exist, it removes that thing from reality. So destruction is explained through the notion of existence and its negation. It is therefore a highly general notion applicable a wide variety of cases—people, animals, artifacts, states of mind, social movements, bits of nature.

            Second, the good: by this I mean any good state of affairs. Without going into the matter fully, the following list will serve our purposes (we could add to it if need be): life, happiness, knowledge, innocence, freedom, friendship, and aesthetic quality. If you think some of these items reduce to others, or should not be on the list of intrinsic goods at all, by all means amend as you see fit; the definition of evil will remain the same, even if its extension differs. I favor keeping the list fairly long and non-reductive, because I think that the good is best seen in all its variety; we don’t want theories that try to reduce every basic value to one (such as pleasure). Despite the variety of the goods, there is something they all having in common—that they are precisely good—and that is what matters to the definition of evil.

            Third, intentional: by this I mean that the act in question must be intended in a certain way. If an agent destroys something good by accident, through no fault of his own, and is horrified by what he has wrought, he cannot be adjudged evil, merely unlucky. So we should say that an evil act is one that is intentional under the description “destruction of the good”: the agent foresees and intends the destruction of the good and acts as he does in order to bring this destruction about. He “knows what he is doing”. In a typical case he plans the destructive act and self-consciously carries it out.

            Thus an evil act is one that involves an agent intentionally destroying what he knows to be good. The mental state of the agent incorporates the concepts of destruction and goodness—this is the content of his intention in acting. It is the intention that defines the evil agent. Is there a second-order intention associated with this first-order intention? Grice argued that communicative acts require a second-order intention—not only the intention to produce a belief in one’s audience, but also an intention that the first intention should be recognized by the audience. Thus the basic intention is transparent, not concealed and secret. In the case of the evil agent, there is also a second-order intention, but it is not a transparency intention—it is an opacity intention. The agent intends that his first-order intention should not be recognized by observers (he may even try to shield himself from knowledge of his intention). The evil agent is trying to destroy the good, but he doesn’t want people to know that this is what he is doing, possibly including himself. Even if he feels safe in his actions, fearing no repercussions, he does not want it to be apparent that his aim is precisely to destroy something good. So he will often characterize his actions in other ways—say, by arguing that he is serving a greater good. I might put it by saying that there is always a level of shame about evil actions, and hence a desire for concealment. The agent is not proud of what he does, even if he tells himself it is somehow necessary. For the agent has set about intentionally destroying what he acknowledges to be good, and this is not something he can happily admit. That is why there is often a degree of self-deception involved in evil actions (not so for virtuous actions). For this reason there will typically be a second-order intention to conceal the first-order intention. The easiest way to fulfill that intention is to commit the evil act secretly, away from prying eyes—as it might be, in a dungeon or concentration camp or in the dark. The evil agent is by nature deceptive; secrecy is his cover, his protection.

            The conception of evil I am suggesting limits it to creatures capable of certain kinds of “sophisticated” attitudes. I doubt that animals are capable of evil in the sense I have defined, though they are certainly capable of impressive feats of destruction. Animals may maim or kill but they don’t do so with the kinds of intentions I have described (some of our primate relatives may have such intentions, in which case my claim applies to non-primate animals). They may cause great suffering and death but they do not do so under the description “destroy the good”. They just don’t have the concept. Evil is what results when a creature acquires such abstract concepts, so it is a uniquely human achievement. Perhaps, indeed, the very acquisition of the concept of the good (as well as the concept of destruction) is what opens the human species up to feats of evil not possible for other species. We do evil things precisely because we know what good is; we destroy the good because we apprehend things as good. Evil thus requires a certain intellectual attainment. The necessity to conceal evil acts also requires a cognitive sophistication absent in other animals (possibly with certain exceptions). It is not that animals do less harm than we do—though that is doubtless true—but rather that the harm they do does not spring from evil motives and intentions.

            Now we must see how the definition fits the various types of evil I have listed. Let’s start with a hypothetical example. Suppose a university administrator, call her Eva, receives a complaint against a distinguished professor, call him Carl. The complaint is completely fictitious, being motivated by malice and a bad grade. Eva knows this, but she also knows that taking disciplinary action against Carl will, in the current climate, score her political points, help with funding, and appease the radical feminists. She decides to initiate dismissal proceedings against Carl, fully aware that this will ruin his reputation, take away his livelihood, and prevent him from any further achievements as a scholar and teacher. She also knows that he cannot fight her actions legally because it would bankrupt him to do so. Eva thus uses her power, quite cynically, to destroy Carl in order to advance her political and personal goals. Carl is duly forced out of his position, becoming impoverished and bitter. I hope we can agree that Eva was evil in acting as she did, and the reason is clear: she intentionally destroyed something good. Carl was an innocent man, a good man, and also a productive and brilliant scholar. Eva destroyed his ability to work and teach, as well as his happiness and security, along with that of his family. She did so deceptively, unethically, and callously. Her evil actions fit the definition perfectly.  [1]

            Next consider an artist who is tired of being unfavorably compared to another artist, whose work is vastly superior. He decides to destroy the superior artist’s work, stealing into his studio one night and burning all his paintings. Let’s suppose that he manages to destroy every one of the great artist’s works and also to prevent him producing any more (he is so traumatized by the destruction). Now the second-rate artist gets more attention and makes more sales, with his main rival eliminated. Again, these actions are clearly evil, and they fit the definition perfectly: the evil artist has intentionally destroyed works of great aesthetic value for his personal gain and out of envy.

            David is a bitter man and a failure in life. He lashes out at anyone he can, belittling and insulting people. His young son Patrick becomes a target of his ire because David cannot stand the thought that his son might succeed where he failed. He sets out to damage Patrick psychologically, even going to the extreme of raping his five-year old son. He succeeds in his aim and Patrick is so traumatized that he becomes a heroin addict and eventually commits suicide. Again, the evil is obvious, and again we can see why: David has destroyed Patrick’s innocence and happiness in order to satisfy his own warped needs. His express aim was to prevent his son from achieving anything good in life, including any chance of happiness: he destroys the good in order not to suffer the pangs of his own sense of failure.  [2]

            Terrorists bomb a city center, killing dozens of innocent men, women, and children. They do so because the people they have targeted practice a different religion from theirs and appear to be happy and prosperous doing so, making their own religion look shabby and regressive. Their aim is not just to kill and maim but also to undermine the peace of mind of people living in the city in question. Their actions are evil and for the usual reason: they have destroyed life, happiness, and peace of mind among the target population, because of their misguided religious zealotry.

            The Nazis undertake a program of mass extermination against the Jews. Their motivation is that the Jews are far too successful in German society, owing to their intellectual and cultural superiority. The Nazis covertly acknowledge the qualities of the Jewish minority and wish to rid themselves of a people that challenge their sense of racial superiority. They accordingly murder six million Jews by means of starvation, gunshots, and poison gas. They are defeated before they can realize their project of total genocide, but they would have carried it through to the end if they could. No one can doubt the evil of the Nazis, and their actions clearly conform to the theory: they intentionally destroyed the good—life, well-being, culture, achievement—in order to gratify their own (shaky) sense of superiority.

            Liz is a friend of Susan, who is also friends with Wendy. But Liz doesn’t like the friendship between Susan and Wendy; she wants Susan to herself. She decides to undermine the friendship between Susan and Wendy by telling lies about Wendy to Susan, to the effect that Wendy has been making advances to Susan’s boyfriend. Liz convinces Susan of this falsehood, using doctored photographs and what not. Susan consequently drops Wendy as a friend, causing her considerable distress. This is not evil on a grand scale, like the previous example, but it is evil nonetheless. Here the good that has been destroyed is friendship.

            Iago sets out to destroy Othello, who is respected as a great general and honorable man (Iago’s reasons are obscure), by making him jealous. He succeeds in reducing the normally unflappable Othello to a blubbering heap and a murderer of Desdemona, his wife. Iago’s evil consists in this act of destruction, more of the soul than the body, in the case of Othello. Macbeth betrays the trust of King Duncan, murdering him while he sleeps, in order to advance his own ambitions, and then murders others to cover his crime. He doesn’t think Duncan is a bad king; on the contrary, he likes and admires Duncan. So he has knowingly destroyed something good. Judas betrays Jesus, despite believing him to be the Son of God, for fifty pieces of silver; he thus destroys the embodiment of goodness for a tawdry sum.

            I don’t think I need to multiply examples any further: it is easy to see how the definition of evil I have presented works, and indeed it is an intuitive and natural way to characterize evil. The definition is simple and straightforward; and it offers a uniform account of what evil is. Are there any counterexamples to it? Someone might suggest that the definition does not provide a necessary condition for evil, since some evil consists in positively producing harm, not just removing the good. The evil of torture, say, is that it produces a lot of harm, either pain or injury. But I take it that this is just another way to phrase the theory under discussion: to produce harm is just to annihilate a good, i.e. the good of not being harmed. Harms are defined relative to goods: for example, pain is bad because it is good not to be in pain. The trouble with stating the theory in terms of harm is that it loses generality—not all cases involve an intention to harm. The envious artist was not attempting to harm his rival exactly, though he did; his intention was to destroy the good—the harm to his rival was just a by-product.  The same can be said of the desecration of sacred sites or buildings. The harm formulation gets the emphasis wrong: the evil agent recognizes the good in something and seeks to destroy it despite this; he is not just out to do harm. A run-of the-mill thug might be out to create harm by punching anyone within range, but he is not evil in the sense I am trying to capture. Evil is the intentional abolition of the good, recognized as the good. Iago, say, is not interested in bringing down some undistinguished nobody; what incites him is Othello’s distinction—the good that he embodies. And what marks Judas out is not just a betrayal of any old goat-herder from Palestine, but the fact that he betrayed the Son of God (allegedly). The harm caused might be the same in both cases, but the evil agent is doing more than just maximizing harm—he is destroying that which is indisputably good. It is true that one way to destroy what is good is to cause harm, as in crippling an athletic rival, but the evil resides in the negation of goodness, not in the harm as such. Nor is it clear that negating the goodness of a person is always harming her: if a scientist reduces the intelligence of a rival by putting a chemical in her drink, this is definitely evil, but it is not clear that the target has been harmed—she might be quite happy having average intelligence. I might set out to make you happier by chemical means, so that you spend less time at home working, and more time out having fun—as a way to lessen your intellectual output. This would be evil, but it is not clear what harm I have done to you—you might even decide you want to change your life-style in that direction anyway. What if I introduce you to a very seductive partner so as to distract you from your important intellectual work—have I harmed you?

            Now it might be claimed that the conditions are not sufficient for evil, since it is possible to intend to destroy the good for morally praiseworthy reasons. Thus we have vaccination and surgery—we remove a person’s tranquility and freedom from suffering by subjecting them to these procedures. Are dentists necessarily evil? The obvious answer is that the agent is aiming for the greater good of the patient, and rightly so: the short term removal of the good is justified by the long term creation of the good. It wasn’t that Iago believed that only by destroying Othello and Desdemona could he save the city of Venice from a terrible fate: he did not commit his harmful acts with a heavy heart, with everyone’s best interests in mind. So we should add that evil is the intentional destruction of the good all things considered—that is, when the destruction of one good is not justified by the production of a further good. Of course, this is not to deny that some evil agents use such justifications spuriously, as the Nazis did to excuse their genocidal actions. But in cases like dentistry it is clear that no evil is committed, since the intention is to produce long term dental goodness in the (temporarily) suffering patient. The dentist is promoting the good not negating it.

            Let me return for a moment to the destruction of reputation, because I think it is particularly instructive. This does not involve physical harm or death, so it doesn’t fit a crude definition of evil as simply “causing suffering”. A person can no doubt suffer from the unjust destruction of his reputation, but that suffering does not pinpoint wherein the evil lies. The slanderer is taking aim at a manifest good and seeking to annihilate it: the good character or good standing of the person unjustly accused. Suppose the target’s reputation is well earned and fully justified—it is backed by undeniably good qualities. Then the slanderous accuser is attempting to negate this manifest good—say, with a view to preventing the person accused from gaining employment. The intention is precisely to destroy a human good—that is its exact focus. This epitomizes evil, perhaps more clearly than any other case, because the good that is destroyed is specifically targeted as such. It is close to another paradigm of evil—the intentional undermining of trust. If an evil agent sets out to gain the trust of another person, himself without evil intent, by encouraging such trust, with a view to betraying it later, she has attacked a deep and central human good—the ability to trust another person. A person treated in this way may never be able to trust again, which undermines many other human goods. The betrayer has destroyed something precious and precarious, and we rightly reserve our severest criticism for such actions. This is precisely what Iago and Macbeth do. It is particularly heinous because it specifically targets a central human good for annihilation. Just as a person values his good name, so he values being able to trust other human beings: to destroy these things is evil in the purest sense. Neither of these forms of evil is calculated to cause pain or death (though they may cause both of these things); what they are calculated to do is to take a certain kind of good from a person that is highly valued. Both involve depriving the target of normal social relations. The evil here consists in destroying a fundamental social good—being well thought of and kindly received, and being able to place one’s trust in another. Hence these are my paradigms of evil, not the usual cases of torture and murder—because they exemplify the abstract form of evil so clearly.    

            We need to make a minor amendment to the definition. I have been speaking of evil agents, but there are also those who are passively complicit in evil—bystanders or onlookers. There are not just those who do the deeds, there are those who allow them to be done. It is not only the agents of the action who are evil but also the observers of it: the wife who lets her husband rape his son, those who tolerate atrocities committed by others, people who make no protest when those with power persecute the innocent—the whole sorry crew of cowards, toadies, and the morally numb. These enablers of evil should also be included under the concept. It is easy to do so: just add “or those who tolerate the destruction of the good”. We thus recognize two categories of evil: active and passive.

            We should also make a distinction between ideological evil and non-ideological evil. Iago and Macbeth are not evil ideologues, like Stalin or Hitler. They stop when the count of corpses reaches the double figures, and no general ideology drives their homicidal tendencies. But the evil ideologue envisages a much wider field of operations—sometimes totaling in the millions. Here entire sections of the population are targeted for destruction: Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, the bourgeoisie, heretics, racial minorities, and many others. The guiding ideologies are by now very familiar to us, but it is easy to miss them when they emerge, because they masquerade as moral crusades. It is often only in retrospect that an evil ideology reveals itself for what it is. Ideological evil allows people to destroy the good while telling themselves they are working for a greater good, so it is especially sinister and dangerous. They make people think that their evil acts are not evil at all. Whenever you see people justifying destructive acts by reference to an ideology be on the lookout for ideological evil. One sees in the ideologue a wild-eyed enthusiasm, a disregard for basic principles of fairness and justice, violent imagery and extreme response, blanket condemnation, sloganeering, demonizing, prejudice and pre-judgment, sectarianism, and social conformity. The psychology of ideology is murky, but the human mind clearly has a weakness for ideology, and the results can be devastating (consult history). I don’t doubt that one of their principal attractions is that they permit people to do evil in the guise of promoting the good.

            It is important for any conception of evil to distinguish it from merely bad or immoral acts. Evil acts are always immoral, trivially, but not all immoral acts are evil. It is not ipso facto evil to break promises or steal or tell lies or defraud or assault. In certain circumstances all these can be evil, but they are not evil in all circumstances. So we had better hope that they don’t turn out to be evil according to our definition. Nor do they: breaking a promise or stealing things are not intentional under the description “destroying the good”. They are not even cases of intending to do harm, even if they do in fact do harm. When I break a promise to you I have not identified a good in you that I proceed intentionally to eliminate; I simply act selfishly or lazily. Nor is it my aim in stealing from you to remove a good from your life; it is simply to add a good to my life. I would be quite happy to enhance my life by leaving yours undisturbed, so long as I get what I want; taking your things is just my means to enhancing my life. It is entirely contingent that my gain is your loss.

By contrast, if I decided to steal from you in order to deprive you of something precious to you, even if it meant nothing to me, then I would be acting evilly. But ordinary instrumental theft, in which I am merely trying to accumulate more goods for myself, does not exemplify the evil schema; I am not so much destroying a good as transferring it from you to me. Even assaulting another person, say in the course of robbery, is not evil by the criterion laid down here, since this is merely a means for me to get what I want. I am not trying to obliterate a good that you have; I am simply using the means necessary to my obtaining a good that I want. I would be quite happy to get what I want without assaulting you, but as it happens I have to. If I assault you intending to destroy your happiness and future, then I am acting evilly; but not all assault is so motivated. A crime it may be, and it is certainly immoral; but it is not evil, intuitively or according to our theory. It all depends on the motive behind the assault.

This is why, if the assault is disproportionate to the intended theft, it veers into the realm of the evil. If all I need to do is twist your arm, but I hit you on the head with a brick, then I have acted evilly, because I have removed more good from you than if I had used the minimal means to enact the theft. My action is immoral either way, but it is only evil when I destroy a good as an end in itself. Just war and self-defense both involve destroying good things, notably lives, but they are not evil because there is no intention to destroy the good as an end, just as a (proportionate) means. I would even distinguish between very bad acts and the subclass of bad acts I am calling evil acts. It is very bad to steal from helpless old ladies, and more so to assault them, but this is not a case of downright evil, as when you decide to terrorize old ladies for its own sake. It is when you take aim at their wellbeing itself that you become evil. The hardened criminal is not necessarily opposed to the good of others; he is merely out for his own good, irrespective of the deprivations he brings to others.  But Iago is not just a self-centered criminal using Othello for his own enrichment; his intention is rather to destroy Othello, mind and body, without regard for how he might benefit. A career criminal would find Iago irrational, given the risks and potential payoffs, but Iago is quite rational given his real aims. He is in the business of removing the good not in acquiring goods.

            The evildoer is therefore often quite difficult to distinguish from the mere criminal or immoralist. The actions look the same from the outside; it is the inner attitude that makes the difference. The same act of violence can be motivated by evil intentions or by merely criminal intentions. It would be easier if all evil actions were purely evil, i.e. motivated by nothing more than a desire to destroy something good. But some evil is instrumental—the agent expects to get something out of it himself. Here is where evil can shade into mere criminality or wrongdoing. Suppose I have a selfish aim and I am not too particular about how I achieve my aim: then I am not ipso facto evil, just rather unscrupulous. I might cheat people or coerce them or rob them to get what I want. This is not yet to act evilly towards others, because my focus is not destroying what is good for them. It is said by historians that the Germans at the beginning of their persecution of the Jews sought only to have them leave Germany: they made life difficult for Jews in the hope that they would voluntarily leave the country. These were no doubt deplorable and vicious policies, but they do not compare to the policies that succeeded them. If the Jews were not willing to leave voluntarily, then they would have to be exterminated. At first this was achieved by mass executions conducted wherever Jews lived, using bullets, but that was deemed inefficient, so special extermination camps were set up, where starvation and gas were used to kill people. Here the intentions of the Germans were nakedly sadistic and designed to bring about extreme degradation. They wanted to remove as much as possible of what makes life good from the Jews in their captivity. In this they entered the realm of evil quite decisively. They began to make the destruction of soul and body an end in itself. At the beginning they had an instrumental desire to force Jews into exile, but as time went on this was replaced by a desire to annul everything Jewish. They went from the merely criminal and bad to outright evil and depravity. They sought systematically and ruthlessly to destroy the good as exemplified in a population of people.  

            We find evil shocking in a way we don’t find routine crime shocking. Why? The theory gives us the answer: because the evil will is aimed at the destruction of the good. The criminal will is not: it is aimed rather at the good of the criminal, with indifference towards the good of others. But the evil agent is bent on the destruction of the good as such—in the purest case, he wishes simply to destroy what is good without any benefit accruing to himself. This is shocking, because we normally think that the pursuit of good states of affairs is what human motivation is all about. The evil agent inverts that assumption and aims to annihilate the good, not create it (in himself or others). We wonder why anyone would do anything so negative; hence the evil agent strikes us as a monster, a freak, even a paradox. The merely self-interested criminal, by contrast, is normal in his motivation, just unscrupulous. We wonder what the point of evil is, if it is aimed solely at the reduction of the amount of good in the world. No one’s utilities are being maximized. This raises the question of motivation, which I don’t want to get into here. Suffice it to say that envy, competition, and Schadenfreude often play a role. There is also, apparently, a brute appetite for destruction for its own sake—a kind of generalized vandalism. It may have to do with assertions of power, and certainly evil shadows power. In any case it is the opposite of the normal desire to bring about the good.  [3]

            Let me end with the question of natural evil, i.e. the kind that arises in the world independently of anyone’s will—earthquakes, floods, fires, disease, etc. This appears to be a counterexample to the theory defended here, since the natural destruction of the good is not an intentional destruction. Of course, if there is an agency behind it (say, Satan), then it fits our definition—these events are instances of intentional action. But suppose they are purely natural—what should we say about this kind of evil? My answer is that this is not a kind of evil; it is simply the occurrence of bad states of affairs. Talk of evil here is just a holdover from antiquated ways of thinking about the natural world, as if everything that happens must be willed by somebody. There are evil agents, but there aren’t evil facts or events or conditions. So the notion of “natural evil” is an oxymoron, unless we explicitly postulate an agent behind the bad events. A child dying of cancer is no doubt a horrible thing, but it is not an evil thing. What is called “the problem of evil” only arises when we introduce an agent like God. The problem is usually posed by asking why God allows horrible things to happen, as if he is a passive bystander too lazy or indifferent to lift a finger; and indeed, that is a form of evil (“passive onlooker evil”). Then evil is involved, but only because of an assumed agent—not because of the horrible event in itself.

But there is also the problem of active divine evil if we suppose that God is responsible for everything that happens—if he is the cause of all natural events. Then it looks as if God is actively, intentionally, and knowingly producing very bad states of affairs—that is, he is destroying the good on a grand scale. He then appears as an evil agent. This problem of evil  (“active agent evil”) is even worse than the kind in which God is conceived as a mere onlooker, since it is his will that actively creates the bad state of affairs. How can God be good and yet he intentionally produces very bad states of affairs? The only conceivable answer relies on the model of the benevolent dentist, but that rings very hollow to most people. In any case, there is no counterexample here to the definition, since God would be evil if he intentionally destroys the good (without some excusing instrumental explanation). In either case (God or no God) the existence of “natural evil” poses no problem for our theory.

            I hope that the theory I have presented strikes the reader as natural and intuitive, almost a truism. Truism or not, it still serves to bring order to our thinking about evil, by providing an account that discerns uniformity in the many varieties of evil. We don’t have to fall back on a disjunctive analysis or a vague family resemblance story, i.e. no definition at all. We now know what to look for when we are keeping our eye open for evil. Thus a theoretical advance might lead to a practical advance: we might become better at detecting evil, and hence preventing it. It is also good to reserve a special label for one particular kind of human badness, and we need to be able to justify the use of the concept of evil in our classifications of human actions. We need to know that the word “evil” denotes a coherent and well-defined natural kind—a distinctive moral natural kind. My view is that the concept of evil is a vital part of our moral conceptual scheme, corresponding to a very real type of human act. My aim has been to buttress the concept by providing a clear and straightforward definition of it, applicable to the major kinds of evil that exist. Absolute precision may not be possible, and borderline cases can no doubt be constructed, but I hope to have shown that the concept of evil deserves a place in our repertoire of moral concepts. Actually getting rid of evil may not be so easy.         


  [1] I do not intend to describe any actual case here; it is purely fictitious. This paper is philosophy not history.

  [2] This case is based on, but departs from, the novel sequence The Patrick Melrose Trilogy by Edward St Aubyn, a study of evil.

  [3] I discuss evil motivation at length in Ethics, Evil and Fiction (Oxford University Press, 1997). Here I am defining what evil is; in that book I was concerned with its psychology.


The Human Malaise





The Human Malaise



There is widespread agreement that something deserving to be called a human malaise exists, but there is little consensus about its origin and nature. It is accepted that human beings suffer from some sort of angst or distress or depression or sickness or uneasiness—some negative emotional state that is inherent to the human condition—but there are many different theories about the form of their perpetual disquiet. Here we must immediately distinguish between episodes of ordinary unhappiness and the unhappiness that is supposed to be inherent in our psychological make-up. There are obviously many things that make people unhappy and anxious, but these are apt to be contingent and fleeting; over and above these things there is also supposed to lurk some more general debility of spirit, a deeper disquiet that afflicts the human soul. The question is what this is exactly: what causes it and what is its precise content?

            Here is a list of would-be answers to the question: the conditions under late capitalism; sexual repression and early childhood conflicts; fear of death; anxiety stemming from the possession of free will; the nuclear threat; feelings of cosmic insignificance; ineradicable solitude; self-disgust springing from our bodily nature; deep aesthetic dissatisfaction; consciousness of our essential nothingness; evolutionary deracination. Some of these theories propose historical contingencies as the cause of the malaise, which are in principle remediable, as with Marx, Freud, and nuclear weapons. Others point to deep structural facts about the human condition, as beings who are mortal, fragile, embodied, self-conscious, reflective, free, contingent, evolved—and these are not remediable. The former are historical theories; the latter are existential theories. What is surprising is that the generally accepted malaise should be so difficult to diagnose: if all humans feel it at all times everywhere, why is it so hard to pin down what its nature is? Shouldn’t we all know quite well what troubles us? Why is the cause so elusive?

            It is natural to invoke the unconscious: what troubles is not conscious, and hence not available to casual inspection. In Freudian vein, it may be supposed that we repress what troubles us—we purposely keep it out of our consciousness. All we have is a vaguely defined conscious unease, whose true cause is concealed from us. But not all the theories postulate an unconscious basis for the malaise: some suppose it to be perfectly transparent to us—as that we all must die, or that we are tiny specks in a vast universe, or that our lives are filled with ugliness. The theories are not necessarily incompatible with each other: we may be suffering from a multitude of ailments—many separate malaises not just one. Some may be unconscious and some conscious.

            The general assumption is that the malaise is distinctively human: other animals don’t suffer from it. It is true that they too are mortal, fragile, insignificant, and so on; but they are not sufficiently conscious of themselves and their place in the world to suffer the existential pangs that humans suffer. They may have their fears and failures, their bad days and untimely ends, but they are not haunted by a nameless dread, an unease smoldering at the core of their being. They are not constitutionally unhappy, as humans are. They do not fret at their own freedom, nor struggle with the aftermath of an Oedipus complex, nor compare their own brief duration with the eternity of the universe. No sense of inherent tragedy or absurdity haunts their daily lives. Presumably, other species could share the human type of malaise—maybe the other hominid species that are now extinct: they would just need to share our advanced mode of reflective consciousness. Thus it may be thought that a malaise of the human kind belongs to any self-reflective conscious being (except the gods), as a necessary upshot of enjoying that status. But what is it exactly?

            One possibility is that there is really no such constitutional malaise—we are confusing ordinary sources of unhappiness with some more general structural disquiet. That is why it is so difficult to pinpoint. But this is hard to accept, given how prevalent the assumption of malaise is—are we just being melodramatic and pointlessly pessimistic? And it is better to acknowledge the malaise, if it exists, than to deny it, especially if there is any prospect of mitigation or cure (e.g., socialism, psychoanalysis, philosophy, brain surgery).

            Still, uncertainty persists: we need a convincing diagnosis. I suspect that it does lie deep in our essential nature—as part of our species identity. What about the idea that we are ontologically of a different order from the rest of nature? We are self-conscious, morally aware, intelligent beings, while nature is unselfconscious, amoral, and devoid of intelligence. Yet we are caught up in nature, in its grip—we are immanent not transcendent. We exist at the juncture of a split—we are from nature but not of nature. We feel our difference from nature and its difference from us, as well as our immersion in nature. It is hard to articulate what this feeling amounts to exactly, but there are reverberations of it throughout culture: the sense of schism, of alienation, of separateness. It is the feeling of being out of place—not belonging. We feel like strangers in a strange land—the actually existing universe.

The feeling is well captured in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland: that place of routine wonders and non-stop wondering. For Alice, everything is both familiar and alien—the alien in the familiar. She dramatizes the human predicament as a conscious feeling intelligence living in a world that constantly acts in ways that make no sense—to which she is subject but in which she is an outsider. She is not happy in that world; unease is her natural lot. She suffers from an existential malaise. Sartre talked about the for-itself (consciousness) and the in-itself (material things), contrasting their essential nature: the for-itself is ontologically quite different from the in-itself (nothingness versus plenitude). The for-itself is aware of itself as not an in-itself—yet it is inextricably bound up with the in-itself. There is something uncanny about the way human consciousness is situated in the world—as there is something uncanny about Alice’s adventures in Wonderland. We feel, like Alice, that we ought not to be here, as if we are not cut out for the world around us; and yet there is no other world, and we are unavoidably caught up in it.  

            This is a highly abstract concern—more abstract than anxiety about death or even freedom. It involves our awareness of the contrast between our nature and the nature of what exists around us (within the body too). The bubbling stream of consciousness is like no other stream in nature, and we are troubled by the disparity; yet we cannot escape nature. Alice’s body grows and shrinks unpredictably, powered by incomprehensible forces, while her mind remains the same—just as biology foists organic growth on us whether our mind wants it to or not. Nature is an alien agency that acts of its own accord, indifferent to us, marching to its own rhythm. The human malaise, in its most abstract form, stems from the recognition that we live in a world made of very different stuff from what we are made of, with its own internal imperatives. Just gaze at a rock or a tree and think about how very different its mode of being is from yours: that is the world in which you live and from which you arose. There is nothing mind-like going on in there, less than a blank, just a harsh obstinacy of being. Even to describe nature as indifferent is to understate the case; the question of indifference does not even arise. Nature simply is, without regard to us; it doesn’t even ignore us. We find ourselves (like Alice) thrown into a world in which we had no say, and whose activities determine our wellbeing; but that world has no awareness of us, no interest in us, no stake in us. Our existence doesn’t matter to nature, but it is everything to us. Our malaise stems from the fact that we are subject to a world that proceeds as if we are not even in it. We can never be comfortable in such a world. Like Alice, we long to return to another more hospitable world; but unlike Alice, there is no such world for us.  [1]


  [1] The idea (fantasy) of heaven is precisely the idea of a world geared to our existence and wishes. In heaven we experience no existential malaise, since there is no human alienation from heaven. Everything is as it should be—we don’t even feel alienation from our own bodies. There are no blank mindless objects going about their own preordained business, capable of thwarting or hurting us. But this idea is dubiously coherent: how could there be a reality—any reality—that had human psychology written into it? Doesn’t reality need a nature of its own, with its own laws and make-up? Maybe we would feel alienated from any possible world. This might make it easier to accept the malaise we feel living in the actual world.