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.

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Monotheism and the Problem of Evil

 

 

 

Monotheism and the Problem of Evil

 

 

There is no problem of evil for polytheism, which for the theist is a good argument for polytheism. If there are three different gods who are, respectively, omniscient, omnipotent, and all-good, then it is quite clear how there could be preventable evil in the world: the omniscient god knows it is there but is powerless to prevent it or doesn’t care; the omnipotent god can prevent it but doesn’t know it’s there or doesn’t care; and the all-good god would fix it if he could but he doesn’t know it’s there or is powerless to do anything about it. It is only when there is a single god that the problem of evil arises, because he combines all three attributes. Thus monotheism has a problem of evil, and that threatens to undermine monotheism. Some may maintain that it refutes the existence of a single god instantiating the three attributes that give rise to the problem.

            But actually it doesn’t refute the existence of such a single god–unless, that is, we make a dispensable assumption. We have to assume that the single god has the three attributes at the same time. Suppose that God is omniscient on Mondays and Tuesdays, omnipotent on Wednesdays and Thursdays, and all good on Thursdays and Fridays (on Saturdays he sleeps)—but he is never all three things at the same time. Then if a bad thing happens on any given day he might not do anything about it through lack of knowledge or lack of power or lack of goodness. We only get a problem of evil if he has all three attributes continuously—which is tacitly assumed in setting up the classic problem of evil. But this is not logically required by a monotheism that postulates a god with the three attributes in question: we could postulate a god that has the attributes discontinuously. That is still a single god—so we are not postulating polytheism. Nothing about the attributes themselves logically requires that they be possessed simultaneously; that is just a dispensable assumption. One god could be omniscient, omnipotent, and all good, but he might not be all three things at any given time. So monotheism does not by itself generate a problem of evil, even assuming that God has the traditional three attributes.

            So here is a way out of the problem of evil for the convinced theist: postulate a god that does not have his characteristic attributes at the same time. This seems a minor theological amendment, allowing God to have all the powers he is traditionally supposed to have: creating the universe, performing miracles, existing in heaven. The advantage is that it exonerates God from any responsibility for evil. On his omniscient days he knows about all evil but is not be able to do anything about it; on his omnipotent days he has the power but he lacks the knowledge; on his all-good days he might lack both knowledge and power. In fact, we can remove the problem of evil even while assuming that God is continuously good: he might be all good every day but lacking in knowledge or power on certain days—then some evil could escape his powers of remedy. Indeed, we can resolve the problem just by supposing that he lacks one of the attributes on certain days, so that evil could occur on those days that he cannot remedy. It is just that evil does not occur only on certain days of the week, so we can infer that God is not disabled in the regular way I described. Still, logically, evil could exist in a world with a god who is omniscient, omnipotent, and all-good, so long as he is not all three things simultaneously at all times. A brief lapse in omniscience would be sufficient. To be sure, this would be a reduced god, compared to the usual conception, but at least it is a possible god, given the cogency of the problem of evil. I can imagine a heretical religious sect occupying this position in theological logical space.

 

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The Moral Law Within

                                   

 

 

 

 

 

The Moral Law Within

 

 

Kant famously says: “Two things fill the mind with ever-increasing wonder and awe, the more often and the more intensely the mind is drawn to them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.” We can take this statement as an expression of moral realism or moral objectivism: Kant is comparing what he calls the moral law to the vast and undeniably real world of the stars and galaxies. If we take the laws that govern these objects to be equally objective, then he is comparing the moral law to the laws of physics with respect to their objectivity. Just as the natural world studied by astronomy is mind-independent, so the world of moral value is mind-independent. And the reason we are awestruck by both is that the realities in question have an objective grandeur to them—a scale and quality that commands admiration. We gaze in wonder at the moral law as we gaze in wonder at the starry heavens.

            But there is a difference between stars and values, according to Kant: stars are “above” me and values are “within” me. These are spatial or quasi-spatial terms: the stars are situated in objective space in a particular relation to human beings on earth, while the moral law is situated within human beings—somewhere on their “insides”. Where exactly, and in what sense of “within”? Not in the lungs or kidneys obviously, but somewhere in the mind—as an aspect of the self or soul, presumably. But now there seems to be a tension in Kant’s position, since locating the moral law in the mind looks like a form of subjectivism or anti-realism. Someone like Hume would be inclined to say that moral principles lie within—precisely because they are reflections of human psychology. They are, or are based on, desires or emotions—feelings of benevolence and the like. Thus they contrast with the starry heavens in respect of mind-independence or objective existence: their being is essentially a psychological being. But that is not what Kant intends to suggest; he seems to be saying that the moral law is both objective and an aspect of the self. Yet it is hard to see how these two claims can be reconciled: how is moral realism to be reconciled with what we can call the “internality thesis”? Shouldn’t Kant have phrased his morally realist sense of awe by describing the moral law as outside of me? If we are thinking of the moral law in a roughly Platonic way—the form of the Good is situated in the same place as other forms—then the mind must be directed outward when it encounters the moral law, not inward. Indeed, it would not be unnatural to speak of the moral law as, like the starry heavens, “above me”.

            It might be replied that Kant was speaking loosely and inaccurately when he located the moral law “within me”—he should have said “the moral law above me” or “the moral law beyond me” or “the moral law outside of me”. Yet no one flinches at his actual choice of words, even if they are convinced moral realists. The moral subjectivist will insist that there is a good reason for the lack of flinching: namely, morality is a subjective and internal matter, not a matter of transcendent Platonic forms, floating in value space like so many glittering celestial objects. The reason we find Kant’s locution so natural, he will say, is precisely that we implicitly reject the realist picture; so Kant is actually being pulled in two directions, his sound instincts clashing with his unsound theory. The question, then, is whether a moral realist can consistently maintain, with Kant, that the moral law is encountered “within”. And that question turns on quite what it means to describe the moral law in that way. Kant himself offers us no further guidance on the question, and it is not an easy question to answer. What notion of internality, if any, is available to a moral realist?

            One possible answer finds no prima facie paradox in a position that combines objectivity with internality: it is not that the moral law itself lies “within”, but that our recognition of it does. Kant misspoke: he should have said “the recognition of the moral law within me”. That is clearly an aspect of my mind, without it following that the moral law itself is an aspect of my mind. We just need to distinguish act from object, here as elsewhere. But in just that sense the starry heavens are within me, since my recognition of them is—our perceptions of them and our thoughts about them. Kant is not merely suggesting that both stars and values are objects of inner mental acts; he clearly supposes that the moral law itself is found within, not just our apprehension of it. And the question is what this means, and how it might be rendered consistent with moral realism.

            Another suggestion might be that Kant holds that all objects of human knowledge are “within”, because of his transcendental idealism. Thus it follows from his general philosophy that the moral law (the “phenomenal” moral law) resides within the mind. But in that sense the starry heavens are also within, since they too are phenomenal objects; only noumenal objects are genuinely “without”—but we know nothing of them. This suggestion fails to register the contrast that Kant is assuming: the stars are “above” and exterior, while the moral law is “within” and interior. He is not assuming that the stars, in addition to being above us, are also within us, in just the sense in which the moral law is said to be within us. The moral law is within us in a sense much stronger than the sense of “within” sanctioned by transcendental idealism.

            I think Kant is right to describe the moral law as within us, and I also accept a version of moral realism; so for me the conundrum is real, not just exegetical. Kant is here simply following a long tradition of reflection about morality, enshrined in religious thought. Let me simplify all this by saying that the tradition views the commandments of the moral law as the voice of God emanating from within us. We have something called a “conscience” and that faculty speaks to us in the form of an inner voice, which is the displaced voice of God. It is as if God has left a tape-recording of his commandments in the human soul. It is not that God speaks to us from the outside, as another human person would, because then the moral law would not be presented to us inwardly—God is as much outside and above us as the starry heavens. But there is, according to religious tradition, a kind of divine homunculus that inhabits our inner recesses—the “still, small voice of conscience”. Here we have a religious interpretation of a phenomenological datum—the sense we have that moral dictates issue from within. It feels as if morality somehow wells up inside us, not as if it is imposed by an external source. This sense is not consistent with many theories of the origin and nature of morality: that morality arises from parental authority (Freud), that it arises from “social conditioning” (behaviorist psychology and most twentieth century thought), that it is God speaking to us from on high through the anointed priesthood (many world religions). Instead, as Kant intimates, we encounter the moral law within our own given being: it somehow exists inside us—yet it objectively exists. The question is how to make sense of this. The idea of the inner moral voice seeks to do justice to the phenomenology of moral sensibility, by conceptualizing moral requirements as inner speech (perhaps speech uttered in grave and portentous tones). Think of the Ten Commandments resonating sonorously in your head—that is the sound made by the moral law within.

            But that story and its theological basis reek of myth and pseudo-explanation: we don’t always, or even often, hear such an inner voice, and even if we did why should we take it seriously? Still, I think it works to make concrete a very elusive concept, though admittedly it isn’t much of a theory. Can we do better? What about exploiting the idea that the moral law inherently provides reasons for action? The starry heavens do not motivate us to do anything, but moral norms do—they are intrinsically action-guiding. But then they must exist within us in the form of reasons we have for doing things. To recognize a moral principle (e.g. “You should keep your promises”) is to have a reason to act, to be motivated, to have a particular psychological propensity. So in encountering the moral law we encounter reasons for action, and reasons are “within” us, an aspect of the self. These are objective reasons, because the moral law is itself objective, but they are still reasons, and hence psychological entities. The sense in which the moral law is within us is therefore just that it prescribes reasons for action, and reasons exist within us—they are part of our psychology.

            That seems on the right track, but it is not satisfactory as it stands. First, are the moral reasons that the moral law prescribes really within us? If reasons are identified with facts, then reasons need not be psychological entities. Aren’t objective moral reasons, construed as moral facts, non-psychological things? If a reason to bring about X is that X is good (it is a fact that X is good), that reason is not subjective, granted moral objectivism. The reasons may be “external” reasons: they are simply moral facts. So appealing to the concept of a moral reason does not by itself yield an appropriately strong notion of internality. Second, is that what Kant means when he speaks of the moral law as within—merely that it is reason-providing? Doesn’t he mean something stronger, whatever exactly that is? But if so, we have not captured his intended meaning. Third, would we want to say the same thing about “the prudential law”, i.e. prescriptions for self-regarding good living? Do we marvel at the prudential law within us that instructs us to be moderate in our consumption of food, or to get a good night’s sleep, or to keep our mouth shut when we have nothing worthwhile to say? These prescriptions provide prudential reasons for action, and hence connect to our motivational psychology, but do we find ourselves speaking of “the prudential law within”? They just seem like useful rules of thumb we have picked up from experience, not self-evident normative principles that present themselves to us inwardly. We have no special reverence for such prudential rules and do not regard them as written into our inner being in the way Kant is claiming for the moral law.

            Can we gain any illumination by comparing our grasp of the moral law to other kinds of non-empirical knowledge? Kant contrasts morality with astronomy, but we can also contrast mathematics and logic with astronomy—and reverence for these subjects, and hence our capacity to grasp them, is traditional. What if Kant was more of a Platonist—could he plausibly speak of awe for the mathematical law we find within us? Certainly, mathematical reality is not where the starry heavens are—up in the sky—and so one place to put it is inside the mind. But that smacks unmistakably of mathematical subjectivism—it is precisely the kind of thing that someone committed to psychologism would say. It isn’t what would come naturally to a mathematical realist. And is it part of the folk phenomenology of mathematics? I don’t think so: we don’t warm to the idea that mathematics is within us, as we do with the case of morality. So there is no prima facie conflict to resolve between mathematical realism and a robust intuition of internality, such as find with moral realism. We don’t in the mathematical case find ourselves wanting to say that realism is true and so is internality.

            I think we see the beginnings of an answer to our puzzle by noting that we are essentially moral beings. Descartes argued that we are essentially thinking beings, plausibly enough; well, let us add that we are always thinking moral thoughts—thoughts about right and wrong, good and bad. I venture to suggest that we probably have more moral thoughts a day than thoughts of any other kind: we are always mulling over moral issues, making moral judgments, trying to solve moral problems. Morality features dominantly in our art and literature, in our politics, and in our ordinary conversation. Other animals are not similarly preoccupied, being blissfully free of moral concerns. And not only are we moral beings through and through; we are also conscious of being moral beings. We think of ourselves as moral beings. We may even take particular pride in our moral stature, and on occasion be ashamed of our moral shortcomings, which are exercises of moral self-consciousness. What we cannot do is ignore our moral status. We exist in a space of moral reasons. Our psychology is a moral psychology.

Here is where talk of the soul enters: the soul is conceived as the locus of our moral status—our moral core. We speak of a person as having a good soul or a bad soul, or sometimes no soul at all. The soul is, of course, within us, as within us as it gets. But it doesn’t yet follow that the moral law is within us—unless the moral law is itself within the soul. The soul might merely apprehend the moral law, while standing ontologically apart from it. What we need, evidently, is some way to bring the moral law into the soul, if we are to find it within us. How do we do that? My suggestion is this: the soul is formed by the moral law. That is, the soul is that part of us that is shaped and constituted by the moral law, to a greater or lesser degree. Let me give an analogy: the way material objects are shaped and constituted by the laws of nature. Natural laws are written into the inner nature of things, making them what they are. We cannot separate objects from the laws that govern them—the laws are “within” the objects, not distinct existences. By analogy, moral laws make souls what they are—specifically, their degree of goodness or virtue. When a person has a virtuous soul he or she instantiates the moral law—for example, the person is committed to keeping his or her promises. So if you examine your soul, you will find the moral law abiding there (to one degree or another): the very idea of the soul is just the idea of a repository of moral value—what gives us moral worth. It makes no sense to speak of looking into one’s soul and not finding one’s moral status inscribed there. We invented the idea of the soul in order to speak of our moral psychology. The moral law, like the laws of nature, is not confined to particular souls (or objects), but exists apart from them; yet it determines their identity in the sense that there is no conception of a soul that is morally neutral—the soul is by definition the bearer of one’s moral status. We have no conception of the soul that is not defined by reference to the moral law.

            Thus the soul is within us and the moral law is constitutive of the soul. Hence we are confronted, as self-conscious beings, with the moral law in our innermost self. In so far as we conscious of ourselves as beings with souls, we find the moral law within, because that’s what a soul is. The nature of the stars is constituted by the laws of physics and astronomy; the nature of the soul is constituted by moral laws (principles, rules, prescriptions). For example, the law that one should keep one’s promises governs the soul of a virtuous person. This, I think, is what Kant was driving at: we marvel at the moral law within because the moral law animates and determines the nature of the soul, and the soul is incontrovertibly within. It is not that the moral law is itself subjective or psychological; rather, it exists independently of us but enters into an aspect of human beings—the aspect we call the soul. Thus we reconcile the objectivity of the moral law with our ability to encounter it by looking inwards. By contrast, no part of our mind is constituted by the laws of astronomy or even by the laws of arithmetic. There is no analogue of the soul for these subjects. We simply know about these domains, without their fixing what we essentially are. To put it differently, we need to be externalists about the relationship between the soul and the moral law: the nature of the soul is beholden to the external existence of the moral law. The former incorporates the latter, since the soul is conceived by reference to the moral law (i.e. virtue and vice).

            There is, however, another aspect of our nature that is genuinely analogous to the soul and the moral law—the aspect we call “reason”. Consider logical laws—the prescriptive principles that define valid reasoning. These are inherent in thought, and there is no conception of thought independently of them. They are constitutive of thought, in the externalist sense. Yet they are also objective, not subjective. Not only are we logical beings; we are conscious of ourselves as logical beings—and we assess ourselves that way. Here objective norms enter into the nature of psychological capacities—thoughts are things that stand in logical relations—without their being psychological. Imagine Aristotle or Frege reflecting on the magnificence of logic and announcing that nothing creates so much awe in them as the starry heavens above and the logical law within. To my ear that sounds like perfectly acceptable English, and I conceptually resonate to it. We do encounter logical laws within ourselves, because logical laws are written into our thought processes internally. Reasoning is inherently subject to logical evaluation, to objective normative assessment; and we obey logical laws, at least most of the time. Thus there is no sense in the idea of a faculty of reason that is logically neutral—though we can conceive of a faculty of reason that is astronomically or even mathematically neutral. Reason and logic are analogous to the soul and morality: both involve inextricable relations between the psychological and the objectively normative. These relations ground our readiness to speak of logical laws and moral laws as “within”. They are incorporated into our inner landscape in the classic externalist style: parts of the objective world come to characterize our inner states.

            This, then, is how we can reconcile the internality thesis with moral realism—just the way we can reconcile logical realism with an internality thesis. The norms are not themselves internal or psychological—they transcend individual minds—but they enter into minds in constitutive ways, and can thus be detected there. This is really just another way of saying that we are essentially moral beings, as well as essentially logical beings. But we are not essentially starry beings or number beings—these are just external things that we have the capacity to think about. We can truly say that stars, numbers, logical rules, and moral values exist “outside” of us, since they are not mind-dependent; but we can say only of the last two that they also exist “within” us, since they fix an aspect of our psychological nature. A creature cannot be said to have a soul or a faculty of reason if it does not exemplify moral or logical norms; but soul and reason do not depend upon the existence of stars or numbers. The truths of history or geography are not found within, but the truths of morality and logic are, because soul and reason are inextricably bound up with those truths. Logical and moral truths are within us because we are essentially rational ethical beings, though we are not essentially astronomical or mathematical beings.

            I am conscious of myself as a rational and ethical being, subject to normative assessment. This means that I grasp various logical and ethical principles, and try to conform to them, succeeding to a greater or lesser degree. There is no sense in the idea that I might be aware of myself in these ways and have no understanding of logical or moral laws. Thus I encounter both types of law in acts of self-reflection, especially if (as Kant says) my reflection is frequent and intense; and so we may say that I encounter them within myself. The Kantian contrast with knowledge of the starry heavens above is therefore quite correct, and also not incompatible with a stoutly objectivist view of both logic and morality.

 

Colin McGinn

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Memes, Dreams, and Themes

                                                Memes, Dreams, and Themes

 

 

This is to be an exercise in the taxonomy of ideas. It is characteristic of ideas to be shared by many minds. Why is this? One reason is that ideas spread from mind to mind. Here is where the concept of a meme comes in: a meme spreads like a virus from one mind to another, duplicating itself, colonizing new minds. Memes include jingles, catchphrases, fads, fashions, crazes, religions, ideologies, mannerisms, and accents. They spread by imitation and credulity, exploiting the receptivity of the human mind to new information and influence. They may mutate and be subject to natural selection, sometimes proliferating wildly, before possibly going extinct. Thus ideas (in a broad sense) exist in many minds because they are memes: they have arrived there from somewhere else by means of meme transfer. The mechanism of meme transmission is essentially mental manipulation: minds are disposed to accept whatever comes along, as a result of the childhood need to absorb as much information as possible in the shortest time, and so uncritical copying is favored. People just can’t help picking stuff up, willy-nilly. Memes are like computer viruses—they trade on the architecture of the system to insert themselves into the software. Once inside they can vary from mild mental nuisance to dangerous ideology. In some respects they work like a drug: they trigger reactions in our brains that take over our minds. That annoying jingle in your head is a meme playing with your brain chemistry.  [1]

            The concept of the meme can be taken more or less widely. Some people take it to provide a general theory of human culture and idea transmission. I want to distinguish the meme from two other sorts of idea that are importantly different from it; thus I am providing a taxonomic survey of ideational contents. My taxonomy invokes a three-way division: memes, dreams, and themes. First I consider dreams. Dream ideas are also widely shared, with the same kinds of dream cropping up in different communities and cultures. Moreover, like memes, these dream contents often seem rather arbitrary and pointless—despite being widely shared. Thus people regularly dream of falling, flying, being pursued, being embarrassed, missing trains or buses, being inadequately prepared, being incapacitated, and finding an extra room in the house. The last item is particularly peculiar: why should so many people dream of that? It is fair to say that no one knows why people dream as they do, though theories abound. But one thing is clear: it is not by means of imitation. It is not that dreamers transmit their dreams to others by recounting them or otherwise making them public (say, by making a film embodying the dream). People just tend spontaneously to have the same sorts of dream. So dream ideas are not shared because they are transmitted like memes: they don’t spread like a virus from one mind to another; they are not the result of copying. Possibly dream life can be influenced to some degree by shared culture in meme-like fashion, but that is not the explanation of the majority of common dream content. Dreams seem to grow from within, like bits of anatomy; they are not picked up from interactions with others. Memes are exogenously formed; dreams are endogenously formed. So dreams are not memes.

            My third category I call themes, partly for the sake of the rhyme, but also because it has a breadth that I want to emphasize. One of the salient features of memes is that they do not spread by rational persuasion—they spread by non-rational manipulation. But the spread of scientific ideas, to take the most obvious example, is not like that (though there are theorists would like to extend the meme concept to scientific belief): scientific ideas spread because they have been found to be true—or at least have been empirically confirmed. Scientific beliefs are shared because of the existence of publicly available rational justification. Thus Darwinism, for example, is generally accepted because of the overwhelming evidence in its support, and similarly for other accepted scientific theories. There is no exploitation of weakness in the scientist’s mind, no drug-like manipulation, no lethal catchiness. The explanation for the spread of scientific ideas is simply the power of scientific method and rational persuasion. On no account should we assimilate the transmission of scientific knowledge to meme transmission; indeed, the concept of the meme is intended precisely to mark that contrast. Memes spread for reasons that are independent of rationality, not by virtue of rationality.

            I hope what I have just said is completely uncontroversial, because now I want to court controversy. It would surely be wrong to restrict the non-meme type of idea transmission to science: many other disciplines involve shared beliefs, where these beliefs are shared for good rational reasons. Thus: history, geography, literature, philosophy, mathematics, music theory, engineering, cookery, and bottle washing. There is a large range of human cognitive activities in which ideas are shared by something other than meme propagation—not all of them counting as “science”. We clearly need to expand the notion of rationality so as to incorporate these areas. And there is no difficulty in doing so: there are standards of evidence, argument, and intellectual rigor that characterize all these areas—it isn’t all jingles and ideology (despite what “post-modernists” may claim).

But matters get a bit more interesting when it comes to aesthetics. Aesthetic ideas spread—is this kind of spread more like meme transmission or scientific communication? Compare an advertising jingle to the opening bars of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Both may lodge in the mind against one’s will, repeating themselves endlessly; and they may be transmitted to others, say by whistling. Are they both therefore memes? I would say not. There is a different explanation of the musical spread in each case: in the jingle case we have a meme, a worthless cultural trope that insidiously takes over the mind; but in the Beethoven’s Fifth case we have an aesthetically valuable musical theme. And that is why I call my third category “themes”: themes are cultural units with intrinsic value, which deserve to be spread and replicated. They are not annoying mind viruses but welcome friends, sources of personal enrichment. The reason they spread is that they are excellent—meritorious, worthwhile—and are recognized to be so. They are not science but they are not mere memes either.  [2]

Notice that we can only distinguish themes from memes by employing evaluative language, and by assuming that values play a role in cultural transmission. Themes spread because they have value, while memes spread despite having no value. It is the same with other aesthetic products—such as art and literature. Famous lines from Shakespeare don’t spread because they are memes—worthless cultural viruses—but because they are judged to be aesthetically valuable, and rightly so judged. It is a matter of merit. This is not a high culture versus low culture point: a good Beatles song, say, is a completely different animal from a commercial jingle. The point is that the mechanism of transmission is quite different in the two cases, being more like science in the theme case, in contrast to your typical meme. Whereas we can say that we are suckers for memes, we cannot say we are suckers for themes.

            None of this is to deny that memes and themes can get mixed up in practice, or that it is always easy to tell the difference. There can be fads and fashions in science too—memes masquerading as themes (the idea of a “paradigm shift” comes to mind). But there is a deep difference of principle here— there are two very different kinds of idea transmission. Memes may even disguise themselves as themes in order to gain a stronger hold, as with certain “scientific” ideologies. The difference lies in the psychological means of transmission. Themes may spread from mind to mind in an epidemiological manner, even mutating as they spread, but the reason for their exponential spread is not the same as for the case of memes. In the latter case it is brute susceptibility, but in the former case it is appreciation of merit. This is why we don’t resent the transmission of themes into our minds, while we do resent the insertion of memes (at least those recognized to be such). Theme transmission is genuine learning or improvement, but meme transmission involves no learning or improvement, merely mental infection. One of the central questions of cultural life is which of one’s existing ideas are memes and which are themes: which are absorbed because of mental manipulation and which have genuine cognitive value? That important question is possible only if we decline to extend the concept of a meme beyond its legitimate domain.

            In sum: there are three categories of ideas in the mind, differing in their etiology; none can be assimilated to the others. Memes are ideas that spread by non-rational means, bypassing our critical faculties. Dreams incorporate ideas that don’t spread at all, or very little, apparently arising from within. Themes are ideas that spread and proliferate, but they do so by appealing to our rational and critical faculties. Memes expose our weakness; themes demonstrate our strength; dreams reveal our oddity.  [3]

 

  [1] In this paragraph I have simply paraphrased Richard Dawkins, the inventor of the term “meme”.

  [2] In ethics we also find a meme-theme distinction: some ethical ideas spread by manipulative propaganda, while others spread by virtue of their inherent cogency (I leave it to the reader to supply her own examples). Politics may be viewed as the battle between ethical memes and ethical themes—propaganda versus merit. 

  [3] I don’t say anything here about the contribution of genes to the distribution of ideas across minds. But for anyone who believes in innate ideas, genes are the basis for some of our ideas; so it is genes that explain why ideas of this class are shared—we share genes for the same set of innate ideas. 

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Atoms, Genes, Ideas

                                                Atoms, Genes, Ideas

 

 

I propose to ruminate briefly on the analogies between the three topics of my title. What do they have in common? The most obvious point is that they are each discrete isolable units that combine to form complexes with like units. Atoms combine with other atoms to produce molecules, which can then combine to form more complex physical structures. Genes combine with other genes to produce a genome, which produces an animal body. Ideas combine with other ideas to produce thoughts, which can combine to form theories and systems of thought. The units don’t blend, like paints on a palette; they retain their identity as discrete units while combining to form complex wholes. When the units are combined we don’t get something intermediate between the two, like a shade of color intermediate between two other shades, but a complex consisting of the original units in their original form. The units are devices of assembly, aggregation: this is why they tend to come in large packages, not individual units—chunks of matter, genomes, or minds. They exist in populations not in isolation.

            Second, these entities form the basic subject matter of their proprietary science. Physics is about atoms, individually or in the form of macroscopic bodies; biology is about genes, as such or as they configure the body and behavior of animals; psychology is about ideas (concepts, mental representations), especially as they feature in mental processes. In each science we have a distinction between the basic entities and their “expression”: the properties of atoms are expressed in the behavior of matter; the properties of genes are expressed in animal bodies and behavior; the properties of ideas are expressed in thoughts, cognitive processes, and behavior. The underlying entities themselves are invisible, but they are expressed in observable phenomena. We thus have upward causation: the basic entities cause the higher-level phenomena, from which they are inferable.

            Third, these entities were substantial discoveries, not given at the outset. They have the character of hypotheses, however well established, not a priori certainties. Even in the case of the mind, it was not obvious from the start that the mind is made up of discrete units—the atoms of thought. Consciousness seems like a fluid stream-like thing, but upon analysis it turns out to have a granular structure—as language also does. There are simple ideas and complex ideas, ideas of different logical types, combinations and re-combinations of ideas. Concepts are point-like elements in a web, but a web that is constantly updated; they are made to interact and join together. This was not evident to casual inspection, either introspective or perceptual. Nor were atoms and genes self-evident constituents of reality; on the contrary, they were major discoveries, revolutions in thought. Revealing the fine structure of atoms and genes took serious work (we have yet to do this for ideas).

            Fourth, despite the theoretical centrality of atoms, genes, and ideas, the question of the origin of these entities is highly non-trivial, indeed deeply problematic. This is obvious for ideas, since we have little understanding of how the mind arose during the course of evolution—ideas no doubt emerged, but how? In the case of genes the problem is how self-replicating entities arose from mere chemistry—how did DNA come to exist? Genes are a cosmic novelty, not prefigured in the prior state of the material world; hence the origin of life is a mystery. Even in the case of atoms their origin is obscure: evidently they came to exist during the first few seconds following the big bang, preceded by a much hotter undifferentiated plasma in which the particles had not yet formed. Aside from the issue of the process by which this happened, there is the problem of how the superhot plasma came to exist—the cradle of particulate matter as we know it. Were there atoms before the big bang or did atoms originate with it? Whence the plasma itself? The very beginnings of the physical universe are shrouded in mystery. So in each case we know what the entities are that we are dealing with, at least superficially, but we are baffled as to how they came to exist: we don’t know what caused atoms, genes, and ideas. These are all difficult origin problems.  Our best science thus invokes entities whose birth is mysterious.

            There seems to be a pattern here at a very abstract level—a formal structure with three different instances. The instances belong at quite different levels, from the basic physical level to the biological level to the psychological level. It does not appear that reality must be this way: it could have been more continuous, more a matter of blending, less punctate. But nature as we find it seems to prefer the discrete and aggregated.  [1] Its mathematics is digital not analogue. Matter could have been continuous, heredity could have worked by blending, and the mind could have been an amorphous field: but in fact all three consist of discontinuous units rigged up into conglomerations. Nature is arranged like individuals and societies, people and populations. It is not arranged like the color spectrum or musical tones. We might call this “the law of discrete organization” and postulate that the universe has a tendency to produce discrete organizations—as it has a tendency to entropy. It likes to make well-defined units that coexist and join with other well-defined units, not formless clouds or fuzzy borders. Everything is an island, linked to other islands, not a massive commingling and bleeding in. This holds at the level of physics, biology, and psychology.

 

Co

  [1] Not all of nature: some things are continuous not discrete, such as space and time. But matter, genes, and the mind obey a discrete logic not a fuzzy logic.

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The Evolution of Color

                                                The Evolution of Color

 

 

According to projectivist views about color, color properties do not precede color vision. It is in virtue of color experiences in perceivers that things come to be colored. Color is mind-dependent. I will assume this view here. My concern is with the consequences of this view for the theory of evolution.

            Sensations evolve: they result from genetic mutations acted upon by natural selection. They are adaptive traits, just like bodily organs; they are there for a reason. Thus the feeling of pain has biological utility (as a warning sign and motivator), and even the phenomenological details of the sensation will have been subject to fine-tuned natural selection. The feeling of orgasm must be similar: it is the way it is for strictly biological reasons–as the best method the genes have for securing their survival. These traits are internal—sensations occur “inside” animals. They are part of what we might call the restricted phenotype: they belong with eyes and stomachs and other organs of the body. Their design follows the general rules of trait selection: they are solutions to evolutionary problems, more or less efficient, constrained by the past, and handed down through the generations.

            Tastes and smells are similar, only now it is external objects that have tastes and smells—whereas it is organisms that have sensations. Things taste and smell as they do for strictly biological reasons. As organisms evolve, tastes and smells come into being, though they are tastes and smells of external things. They are projected not inherent, relational not intrinsic. And it is the same for colors: objects are colored but they are so only in virtue of the existence of evolved organisms that see them that way. There were no tastes, smells, and colors before sentient organisms evolved. Thus we can say that colors evolve—like sensations of color. Red objects, say, came into existence (qua red) by means of genetic mutation and natural selection. If red were not an adaptive color for organisms to see, then it would not have evolved: red is a biologically useful color to project. In general, the colors organisms see must have been specifically selected for their adaptive value—presumably because of their ability to provide sharp contrasts (among other things). In other words, natural selection operates on colors—even though it is external objects that are colored (in virtue of color vision). If the genes for color vision were to mutate so as to produce a completely different set of perceived colors, and these new colors were more adaptive than the ones we now see, then we would find a selective pressure in favor of these mutated genes. The world contains the colors it does because of the selective pressures operating on organisms.

            That may sound odd, because colors, unlike sensations, are not properties of organisms—they are properties of external objects (though projected there). They are not part of the organism’s restricted phenotype, i.e. existing within its individual boundaries. But here we must remember the notion of the extended phenotype: it is not just the individual body type that is selected, but also what that body produces environmentally. Thus the beaver’s dam and the bird’s nest are part of these animals’ extended phenotype: natural selection works on the combination of body and external product, so that good dams and nests are favored, along with good limbs and brains. Body plans and behavioral capacities evolve, but so do the adaptive products of those things—she who builds the better dam or nest is most likely to pass on her genes. The unit of natural selection is the extended phenotype not merely the restricted phenotype. And now the point I want to make is that colors are part of an organism’s extended phenotype. They are products of minds and brains, like dams and nests, but they exist outside the boundaries of the organism—hence they belong to the extended phenotype. They evolve by the same rules as bodies, but they are not parts of bodies. As dams and nests evolve, so colors evolve (and sounds, tastes, and smells). Colors are created by genes, ultimately, and the better the color the more chance it has of surviving. The colors we see now in the world have stood the test of evolutionary time. The colors we project are the colors that have passed selective muster. Red, for example, has proved itself a highly adaptive color, along with the usual color spectrum that we see. Wishy-washy or indistinct colors might not do as well in the fight to survive—just as feeble or painful orgasms would not be apt to survive, in contrast to more pleasurable ones. In the case of colors, we might say that they belong to the projected phenotype—which is a subclass of the extended phenotype. The organism builds its physical environment (sometimes), but it also constructs its perceptual environment. It constructs a phenomenal world. This world consists of colored objects (among other things); so colored objects evolve (though not the matter they are made from). Evolution thus operates selectively on phenomenal worlds, as it operates selectively on limbs and brains. Whole species of phenomenal world come into existence by mutation and natural selection.

            Some properties of objects do not evolve—those that precede and are independent of organisms—but some do. Projected properties do, because they reflect the perceptual receptivity of organisms. When I say that colored objects evolve I obviously don’t mean that the objects themselves have evolved by natural selection; I mean that their having the colors they have is a result of natural selection–there are no colored objects on the planet without natural selection. It is because colors are both properties of objects and projected by the mind that they belong to the extended phenotype of the organism. If they were psychological properties of organisms, they would be part of the restricted phenotype; and if they were inherent properties of external things, not projected properties, they would simply be part of the non-evolving environment. The point is not that experiences of color evolve—that follows simply from the fact that sensations evolve. It is rather that the colors that are the objects of such experience evolve—as dams and nests evolve. Dams and nests are adaptive traits for beavers and birds, and colors are adaptive traits for visual organisms—though these traits all belong in the extended phenotype. As adaptive traits, they are subject to evolution by natural selection. The colors that exist in our world are those that have survived the rigors of natural selection.

            It may help in understanding the point if I make the ontology of colors clear. The projectivist view of color is naturally associated with a dispositional theory of color ascriptions: objects have the colors they are disposed to produce experiences of—an object is red, say, in virtue of being disposed to produce experiences of red. This need not imply that colors are identical to such dispositions: we can hold that colors supervene on these types of dispositions, without being identical to them. Then we can say that colors are simple qualities of objects, not in themselves mental, but that they are instantiated in objects in virtue of dispositions to produce color experiences. Color experiences clearly evolve, and objects only have dispositions to produce such experiences in virtue of the existence of evolved organisms; but it is a further claim that colors themselves evolve—conceived as simply qualities of external things. We thus have the nontrivial thesis that objects come to have simple color properties in virtue of evolution by natural selection. A mutation caused some object to look red, and hence (by projection) to be red; then natural selection favored that way of seeing, and hence what is seen. Colors came into the world by the same mechanism as hearts and kidneys. To put it paradoxically: it is adaptive for us to be surrounded by colored objects.

            Does this view of color generalize? It certainly generalizes to other secondary qualities, but it may also generalize to qualities traditionally regarded as primary qualities, such as shape and motion. For it may well be that such qualities do not rightly belong in the austerely objective world described by physics; rather, they reflect our evolved sensibility—how we have been programmed to experience the world. If so, shape and motion—the perceptible qualities we experience—are also evolved (and evolving) entities. Objects have shape and motion, as we perceive them (if not in the austere world of physics), but they do so only as a result of our evolved sensibility; so they too are subject to evolution by natural selection. The whole world of colored objects with shapes and in motion is caught up in the evolutionary process: it originated in that way and its survival depends on the usual evolutionary pressures. In other words, the world we experience is an evolutionary product—like limbs and brains, dams and nests. The empirical world is really part of our extended phenotype.  [1] So the extended phenotype extends quite far into reality (though not all the way). When did this naturally evolved empirical world come to exist? It probably had its early origins in the projective mind of a sentient fish a billion or so years ago. Then it was that the world began to be clothed in color (and maybe shape and motion, as we conceive them in common sense). It has been evolving ever since, becoming ever more complex and subtle. It will cease to exist when there are no more sentient organisms projecting properties onto the world. Colors will eventually become extinct, joining the dinosaurs.

 

  [1] But not the whole of reality since there is an objective world out there that owes nothing to our evolved modes of experience. It is the world as it appears to us that belongs to the projected extended phenotype—but this world contains real (though projected) properties of things.

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The Cruel Gene

                                                           

 

 

The Cruel Gene

 

 

I can forgive the genes their selfishness; it is their cruelty I can’t forgive.  [1] I understand their need to build survival machines to preserve themselves until they can replicate: they need the secure fortress of an animal body. But why did they have to build suffering survival machines? Hunger, thirst, pain, and fear—why did they have to make animal bodies feel these things? Granted the survival machines benefit from having a mind, but it was cruel of the genes to produce so much suffering in those minds. Couldn’t they have found another way? Are they sadists?

            The answer is that suffering is an excellent adaptation. Genes build animals that suffer because suffering keeps the animal on its toes. If the body is the genes’ bodyguard, it pays to make the bodyguard exceptionally careful. Since pain signals danger, and hunger and thirst signal deprivation, and fear motivates, the genes will build bodyguards that are rich in these traits. To build a bodyguard that suffered less would be to risk losing out to genes that build one that suffered more. This is why we find suffering so widely in the animal kingdom—because it is so useful from the genes’ point of view. It probably evolved separately many times, like the eye or the tail. Pain also has many varieties, also like the eye and tail. There doesn’t seem to be any complex animal that lives without suffering, so the trait is clearly not dispensable. Surviving and suffering therefore go hand in hand.

            Most adaptations have a downside: a thick warm coat is a heavy coat, brains use up a lot of energy, and fur must be groomed. In fact, all adaptations have some downside, because all need maintenance, which calls upon resources. But pain and suffering have very little downside from the point of view of the genes. They don’t slow the animal down or make it lethargic or confused; on the contrary, they keep it alert and primed. The avoidance of pain is a powerful stimulus; hunger is a terrible state to be in. Animal behavior is organized around these aversive psychological states—and the genes know it. They are cruel to be kind—to themselves: suffering helps protect the survival machine from injury and death, so the animal lives longer with it than without it, with its cargo of genes. The reason the genes favor suffering is not from altruistic concern for the life of the animal, but merely because a longer life helps them replicate. The genes aim to reproduce themselves, and this requires a fortress that can withstand adversity; suffering is a means they have devised for keeping their fortress alive and functioning until reproduction can occur. Since there is so little downside to pain, from their perspective, they can afford to be lavish in its production. Thus the animal suffers acutely so that they may survive. They know nothing of pain themselves (or anything else), but natural selection has seen to it that pain is part of animal life. Nature has selected animals according to the adaptive power of their suffering. Genes for suffering therefore do well in the gene pool.

            Suffering has no meaning beyond this ruthless gene cruelty. It exists only because natural selection hit upon it as an adaptive trait. A mutation that produced a talent for pain, probably slight pain initially, turned out to have selective advantage, and then the adaptation developed over the generations, until spectacular amounts of pain became quite routine. As giraffes evolved long necks, and cheetahs evolved fast legs, so animals evolved high-intensity pain. As an adaptation, pain is very impressive, a clever and efficient way for genes to keep themselves in the gene pool; it is just that pain is very bad for the animal. Pain is an intrinsically bad thing for the sufferer—but it is very beneficial to the genes. But they don’t care how bad it is for the sufferer—they don’t give it a second thought. Pain is just one adaptation among many, so far as they are concerned. Maybe if there was another way to obtain the beneficial effects of suffering—another way to keep the survival machines on their toes—the genes would have favored that: but as things are suffering is the optimal solution to a survival problem. The genes are unlikely to spare the animals that contain them by devising another method more compassionate but less efficient. Suffering just works too well, biologically. It wasn’t used for the first couple of billion years of life on earth, when only bacteria populated the planet; but once complex organisms evolved pain soon followed. It probably came about as a result of an arms race, as one animal competed with another. Today plants survive and reproduce without suffering: it is not an element in their suite of adaptations. They are the lucky ones, the ones spared by the ruthlessly selfish genes. Mammals probably suffer the most, and maybe humans most of all, at least potentially. We suffer acutely because the genes decided they needed an especially finely tuned and sensitive survival machine to get themselves into future generations. The possibility of excruciating torture was the price they left us to pay. Theydon’t suffer as their human vehicle endures agonies; yet the reason the agonies exist is to benefit the genes. The genes are the architects of a system of suffering from which they are exempt.

            Animals are probably tuned better for suffering than for pleasure and happiness. It is true that the contented sensation of a full belly is a good motivator for an animal to eat, but then the animal has already eaten. Far more exigent is the demand that an empty belly prick the animal into action. The pleasure of grooming might motivate animals to groom, thus avoiding parasites and the like. Far more exigent is the need to avoid injuries from bites and battering. The system must be geared to avoidance, more so than to approach. Thus animals are better at suffering than at enjoyment—their suffering is sharper and more pointed. Some animals may be capable of suffering but not enjoyment, because their pattern of life makes that combination optimal. But no animal feels enjoyment in the absence of a capacity to suffer, not here on earth. Suffering is essential to life at a complex level, but enjoyment is optional.

            This is why I can’t forgive the genes: with callous indifference they have exploited the ability of animals to suffer, just so that they can march mindlessly on. They have no purpose, no feelings, just a brute power to replicate their molecular kind; and they do so by constructing bodies that are exquisite instruments of pain and suffering. If they were gods, they would be moral monsters. As it is, their cruelty is completely mindless: they have created a world that is terrible to behold, yet they know nothing of it. It just so happens that animal suffering follows from their prime directive—to reproduce themselves. Animal suffering is how the genes lever themselves into the future. It is one tactic, among others, for successful replication. Its moral status is of no concern to them. The genes are supremely cruel, but quite unknowingly so—like blind little devils.

 

Colin McGinn

  [1] I indulge in rampant personification in this paper, knowing that some may bristle. I assure readers that it is possible to eliminate such talk without change of truth-value. Actually it is a helpfully vivid way to convey the sober truth.

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Particles and Identity

                                                Particles and Identity

 

 

In the case of statues and similar objects we can separate the identity of the thing from its substance. Thus the statue is not identical to the piece of bronze that composes it, because the piece but not the statue survives being melted down. The piece is the aggregate of its constituent particles, but the statue is a particular form of that aggregate. For composite objects in general, the object is not identical to the mass of particles that composes it: the constitution relation does not coincide with the identity relation.

            But what should we say about the particles themselves? Suppose that electrons are physically basic: can their identity come apart from their constitution? Could we melt down an electron so as to destroy the electron but leave its substance intact? That could not consist in rearranging its constituents, because it has none. We cannot destroy the electron and leave the aggregate of its parts intact, since it is not composed of an aggregate. So it is not clear what it would be for its substance to survive the destruction of the electron itself. We can’t remove the form of the electron and leave the elements that compose that form. You might try saying that we could destroy the electron but leave its single constituent intact. But it is that single constituent, so when the electron goes it goes too. Nor can we suppose that the electron is composed of a substance that does not consist of electrons: for what could that substance be? If it were composed of some other type of particle, we could just repeat the argument for that particle.

            For simple objects, then, we cannot produce a statue-type example. The existence of the object and the existence of its substance cannot be pulled apart. At the basic level, constitution is identity. Not everything is composed of something to which it is not identical. So the distinction between identity and constitution is not a deep fact about the universe. It arises only at the level of composite objects.

 

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