Of course, to say that dreams have an emotion-regulating function is not to say that they have no other function—they might be multi-functional. They might aid in memory retention or help with cognitive tasks or allow us to blow off steam or provide a space for adaptive simulation or even provide sexual release. There is a tendency among dream theorists to assign a single function to dreams, but this may be quite false to the facts; certainly, an organ that evolved for one purpose might acquire others as evolutionary time passes. Still, I rather fancy that emotion regulation is the main function of dreams, and the reason for their original appearance. The dreaming part of the brain evolved to deal with the emotional part, a kind of in-house corrective.
It is striking how much of human life is devoted to emotion management. Among the more obvious manifestations of this are psychiatry, psychotherapy, drug taking, shopping, hot baths, and taking a brisk walk. We are forever trying to calm ourselves down, recover from an emotion-laden incident, cope with a crisis, contain our anger, improve our mood, and steady our nerves. We are a highly emotional species, well aware of the negative effects of affect. We are prone to depression, emotional breakdowns, and PTSD. This is quite strange: why would we be built this way—why would the genes engineer us to feel too much? The answer, presumably, is that emotions are fast-reaction unreflective propensities that exist to enable organisms to survive in a threatening world—or at least a demanding world. As I have argued, predator avoidance looms large in this brutal economy: we need to feel fear and feel it quick if we are to escape the clutches of homicidal predators lurking around every corner. If this means that we are prone to pathologies of fear, then so be it—it’s a small price to pay for not ending up in the stomach of a ravenous tiger. Emotions are not fine-tuned and they are anarchic forces, but they get the job done. In any case, emotions clearly need to be managed, soothed, civilized, and kept under control; they can’t just be left to their own devices. Maybe there was a time when humans had not evolved any strategies of emotional regulation and life was miserable, chaotic, and short-tempered; then emotion management succeeded in calming the storm to some degree (civilized society was coeval with the pacification of unruly affect).
It is a question how much of human life is related to this goal of mitigating the ill effects of primordial emotion. We are familiar with philosophies that address themselves to the management of emotion: Stoicism, Buddhism, Hedonism, etc. Philosophers have long been aware that there is a problem here, and they have made recommendations about living with the emotions that nature has bequeathed to us. But it is surely clear that other human institutions are also in the emotion management business, with greater or lesser success: music, art, literature, sport, motorcycling, dancing, singing, playing cards, swimming, going for a run, taking a nap, and boozing. All these help with the serious task of managing our emotions: they enable us to take the sting out of our emotions, or at least supplant them momentarily with something else. They don’t solve the problem of emotion, but they make it a bit less onerous, a bit less impossible. Even positive emotions like love have their disturbing underbelly (well explored by Shakespeare in Midsummer Night’s Dream and elsewhere). We have yet to develop a drug that can quell the undesirable aspects of emotions while keeping the sufferer reasonably compos mentis (no doubt the pharmaceutical companies are working on what they laughingly call “the Spock drug”). The genes have devised a rough and ready way to get themselves into the next generation, but they have given us precious little with which to combat the fallout (a comparison with the atomic bomb is not inapt).
Except dreaming–that is, according to one theory (mine). Dreams are not a chosen method of emotion management, something we have invented in our quest to govern our emotional lives; they are products of nature—of the very genes that gave us the problem to start with. Dreaming is an adaptation for mitigating the ill effects of emotional inflation (hegemony, possession): it evolved in order to provide a way of regulating our emotional lives. Presumably it pre-dates the other methods I listed and is shared by our fellow-sufferers the animals. In particular, dreams are devices for coping with fear, probably the most loathed of all emotions. We and other animals live with fear all the time: fear is remarkably protean and remarkably gripping. Maybe it performs a useful biological function, but it is extremely hard to handle. Anything that can soothe its psychic impact is welcome, and dreams (according to the theory) can do that to some degree. We can appreciate that fear management is a pressing need of the human species, finding many expressions in human life; well, dreams were the first (and probably the best) method of regulating fear. It is rather mysterious how they do this, but we have good evidence that they do: interrupting a person’s dream life has a deleterious effect on his or her emotional wellbeing. Similarly, depriving someone of psychotherapy or art or a motorcycle could have a bad effect on his or her emotional state. Imagine what would happen if all these methods of emotion management were suddenly removed: we would all become shrieking maniacs or sniveling shut-ins. Oh, we would not be happy! The point I am making is that the emotion management theory of dreams should be seen in the context of a more general range of human characteristics dedicated to dealing with our emotional overload. Maybe some even derive from the dreaming method, notably narrative forms. Telling stories around the campfire recapitulates the stories our mind tells us while we are asleep—stories invariably revolving around emotions (particularly fear). People started to report their dreams and before long some genius is making up similar stories without having already dreamt them: emotions can then be processed in a way similar to dream processing but while the subject is wide awake. Mysteriously, the level of hysteria goes down a notch, as the narrative form works on people’s seething emotions. Eventually these spoken stories turn into books and people are reading novels in order to have their emotions regulated (and no doubt for other reasons too). If there were no dreams, humans might never have hit upon the idea of fiction; dreams provide the cognitive-affective foundation of the art of narrative form. It might be so.
But there is another narrative form that cries out for inclusion in this picture: film. Watching films is clearly a method of emotion management for many people—an escape, as they say. Arguably, movies have had a larger impact on the psyche of ordinary people (and extraordinary people) than any other cultural form, including popular music and pornography. People live their emotional lives (partly) via the Big Screen: fear, love, grief, exhilaration, compassion, etc. They don’t sit there in the dark in an affect-free zone; they emote to their heart’s content. Look at the face of average moviegoer! Horror films have been remarkably durable and popular, as well as other fear-based genres. The ancient dread of predators is being processed via the moving image (there is a movie called “Predator”). But now we can make a theoretical link: for movies are a dreamlike medium. So the palliative effect of movies mirrors that of dreams, and maybe even improves on them: the psychological mechanisms that govern dreaming are recruited while watching movies. Movies tap into the same set of psychological capacities: imagination, narrative understanding, visualized affect, and emotional re-enactment. So we can predict that movies will bring the same sort of relief that dreams bring (whatever exactly that is): they will render our emotions easier to live with. They won’t solve the problem of emotion, but they may ease it; they afford some sort of amelioration (as psychotherapy does, also somewhat mysteriously). And they are closer to nature’s own psychotherapist—the dream creator—than other means of emotion regulation. I venture to suggest that movies have done more to modify human emotion than any other art form, at least in societies that have them, precisely because they recapitulate dreams. Practitioners have long realized that dreams are central to psychotherapy; film experience could be likewise revealing (better than Rorschach tests). Both are sites of affective enactment—that mysterious process in which emotions assume a different character by linking up with imagination. Dreams, films, songs, games, physical activities, philosophies, books, etc.—all these work to regulate emotions. The emotions originally arose as devices for coping with a demanding and dangerous world, without much regard for their disruptive and unpleasant side effects, many millions of years ago (what must the emotional life of dinosaurs have been like?); these modern developments are aids that enable us to deal with the fallout. Dreams are the most ancient and primitive, but they seep into other forms too, particularly film. We accordingly live at the intersection of wild emotion and relatively feeble attempts at containing it. Other animals have fewer ameliorative resources, but then again their emotions don’t seem quite as unmanageable as ours (though the life of an elephant, say, may be much more emotionally fraught than we imagine). At any rate, we have a lot to thank dreams for. Things could have been worse.
 It’s not as if emotions have a switch-off threshold: they don’t simply turn themselves off when they get too intense. We might venture the Law of Emotional Amplification, which asserts that emotions will keep amplifying indefinitely. You thought you were pretty angry about X and then you encounter Y, which produces an even stronger anger reaction—and then you are presented with Z, which exceeds anything you might have imagined. There seems to be no upper limit to the intensity of an emotion.
 We don’t feel the need to regulate our perceptual and cognitive lives: it’s not as if our perceptions and thoughts have a tendency to get out of control to our detriment (unless driven by emotion). We don’t live our lives trying to mitigate their ill effects (though they can of course malfunction). But our emotions have an inbuilt tendency to go rogue, to run amok, to trample the chickens—so we need to find a way to corral them, tame them, keep them away from the chickens. Our thoughts and perceptions are not our enemies, but our emotions are always one step away from that status. That’s why Aristotle counseled moderation and the Buddha inner calm (meditation being a tool of emotion management).
 Theorists have used words like “repress” and “release” to characterize the way emotion can be regulated. These are dubiously hydraulic terms and should not be taken to define the range of operations the mind might employ. I use the word “regulate” to be as neutral as possible as to how the mind might act on emotions in the overall economy of the psyche. I don’t think we have any clear ideas about how such regulation works, though that does not imply that there is no such phenomenon. One part of the mind can modify another part to produce such and such an effect—that’s about all we know.
 It’s hard to find a good analogy for the co-evolution of emotion and dreaming, but the idea of adaptations and counter-adaptations is surely familiar enough. Adopting a bipedal gait will require compensating adaptations to deal with issues of balance, for example. In fact virtually every adaptation will require some counter-adaptation to deal with unintended side effects. In the case of emotions we have an adaptation that has many unwanted side effects, requiring compensatory adaptations—enhanced rationality, self-control, self-monitoring, as well as the ability to dream. Emotions are a lot to handle, so the organism needs ways of keeping them to the straight and narrow. Dreaming emerges as a type of emotional massage. This is presumably why you feel somewhat better when you wake up in the morning, thankfully. It’s a hard life being an emotional creature, and dreams help you get through it.
Dreams and Emotion
It is widely agreed that dreams are a mystery, or rather dreaming is. Why do we and other animals dream—what purpose does it serve? And why do we dream about some things and not others? Dreams seem pointless, even disruptive: why did nature install the ability to have them? One thing is clear: dreams are closely connected to emotions. The precise nature of the connection is not well understood, but that there is such a connection would not be disputed. So maybe we should begin by asking what the purpose of emotion is: why do we have emotions, and why some emotions and not others? It is tempting to reply that emotions are easy to understand: natural selection installed them to serve specific biological ends such as the avoidance of danger or mate acquisition. But this answer is superficial; emotions are mysterious too. Why did emotions evolve to fulfill these functions and not some non-affective trait or mechanism in the style of Mr. Spock? Plants manage without them, as do bacteria and primitive organisms: emotions are not the sine qua non of biological survival. And why must they be so extreme? Surely we could do without all the emotional drama and proceed in a more calm and calculating manner. Emotions are unruly, chaotic, disruptive, often irrational, uncontrollable, and linked to depression, anxiety, neurosis, and insanity. We could do without them a lot of the time—they are a burden, a trial, and a cause of strife (Mr. Spock’s considered opinion). It’s also hard to know what they are exactly, which lends them further potency. Fear, in particular, is volatile, labile, and dominating, easily sliding into phobia; and we all know about the ill effects of anger, envy, and jealousy. Emotions are the bane of our existence, what with one thing and another. Wouldn’t it be nice to have Spock’s serenity? So it’s not clear why we have emotions, biologically speaking, and their activities leave a lot to be desired—rather like the dreams they are linked to. Still we do, so it would be good to have a theory of them. Perhaps if we did we would be closer to understanding dreams and dreaming.
There seems to be a clear connection between emotion and imagination. Fear will lead to images of injury and death; sexual emotion will lead to sexual imagery; anger will produce images of revenge and downfall. We often see in our mind’s eye what the emotion concerns; the two are made for each other. Why this should be is not so clear, but it appears to be a fact. If we regard dreams as exercises of the imagination, we can see a natural affinity between emotion and dreams: dream images are the shape emotions take while we are sleeping. The emotional faculty recruits and infiltrates the imaginative faculty; the imaginative faculty is readily available to the emotional faculty. Thus the imaginary landscape of dreams is an emotional landscape. Accordingly, the excesses and pathologies of emotion will be manifest in dreams; we might even say that dreams are the imaginative identity of emotions—what they look like when they join forces with the imagination. The two things fuse in dreaming. If the imagery of dreams is primarily visual, then emotions get transformed into visual images in dreams. Thus the mystery of dreams and the mystery of emotion become entangled: why do dreaming imagination and the emotions combine in this way? Our explanandum becomes the dreaming-emotional complex—an emergent psychological unit. What theory might we give of this psychological formation? How might it have arisen and for what purpose?
Let’s take fear as our paradigm: why does fear exist? My conjecture is that it arose in the context of predation: animals are naturally afraid of what preys on them (as well as other things no doubt). In our case we used to be deathly afraid of big cats: a gene for feeling intense fear in the presence of such predators would be favored by natural selection. This is a useful adaptation when encounters with such dangerous animals happen frequently, but it has a tendency to spill over into other areas of human life. We easily become a fearful and timid species obsessed with death from a tiger’s jaws. It’s a bit like deer evolving big antlers in order to joust with reproductive rivals: the antlers do the job nicely, but you have to carry them around all the time. We suffer from emotional overload arising from a useful but localized adaptation—a downside to the upside. The emotion needs to be extreme to do its job effectively, but then you are saddled with something intense and uncontrollable, something that can easily lead to phobia and neurosis. The prey animal is in an arms race with the predator animal, and it evolves the emotion of fear as part of its armory; but like all arms races the weapon becomes a liability—prone to malfunction, indiscriminate, and expensive to maintain. The weapon needs to be regulated, contained. This is where dreams come into the picture: they serve to process and manage emotions that exist because of specific biological imperatives. Something about the transformation into dream materials calms and controls the underlying anarchic emotions, rendering them less toxic and disruptive. Dreams are a kind of counter-adaptation regulating and mitigating the emotions that have evolved to perform a specific vital function. They are a kind of self-therapy combating the ill effects of excessive emotion. The original adaptation was crude but effective, by no means the perfect solution to a survival problem (nothing ever is); the imagination in the form of dreams stepped in to keep the emotions in some sort of order. Compare pain: it’s a good way to motivate the animal to avoid injurious stimuli, but it is prone to undesirable side effects such as chronic pointless pain. The body normally has ways of terminating pain when the job of avoidance has been done, but it is by no means perfect; then we have to resort to massage or herbs or surgery. Presumably apex predators have little to no fear of becoming prey themselves, so they possess no fear response to the presence of other animals (or not much); such animals would not need a dream life to mitigate the side effects of this kind of fear. Their dream life might be thin to non-existent, according to the theory under consideration. Let’s call this theory the “fear-of-predator management theory of dreaming”: simply put, dreams exist in order to manage our fear of predators. That’s how the psychological formation originally evolved (it can take other forms as time passes): predators—fear—fear management—dreams.
An immediate objection is that it is not clear how dreams could have this therapeutic effect: in virtue of what do dreams “manage” emotions? How does imagination work to bring emotion under control? We know that it does because it is well attested that dream deprivation leads to emotional troubles, sometimes serious. When dreaming is reduced the emotions start to cause problems. We can speculate that if dreams were entirely eliminated the person would become an emotional wreck; dreaming keeps those raging emotions in check. Emotions are dangerous things when left to their own devices, and dreaming helps to keep them healthy. That’s the theory anyway. Why this is we don’t know—it’s just a psychological fact. To this extent the theory harbors a mystery: it doesn’t say how the transformation of emotions into the visual (and other) imagery of dreams serves to keep the emotions healthy; it simply asserts that this is the case. In this respect dreams are like the action of a drug that we know eases a particular pathological condition but don’t know the mechanism. Dream activity has a therapeutic effect on emotional wellbeing, but we don’t know how the causal structure operates: all we know is that fusing emotion with imagination in dreams keeps emotions in reasonable health. But if the theory is true it explains why dreams evolved and what their function is: dreams operate to reduce the ill effects of emotions that would otherwise overwhelm the organism. The dreaming imagination tames the emotions; it keeps them relatively placid and well behaved. Without dreams our emotions would consume us; we need that counter-adaptation. Imagine if emotions were the result of parasites that invade the brain, causing much psychological ill health (Spock might become the victim of such a parasite). Then a neuroscientist figures out an antidote—install a dream module in the brain to counter the emotional effects of the parasite (this would make a good Star Trek episode). It might simply suppress the disruptive emotions, making them more manageable; or perhaps it works by converting the emotion into a pale simulacrum existing in another part of the brain (the part devoted to vision, say). In any case, the emotion ceases to have its demonic power, its disruptive overreach.
I have focused on fear but much the same treatment can be applied to other emotions. Sexual emotions can be expressed in sexual dreams, and we can suggest that such dreams work to keep the emotion within tolerable limits. We need not think of this on a hydraulic model with the dream allowing a release of energy (or some such); instead we can think of the dream actively changing the charge of the emotion in some way that we don’t understand (drugs don’t work by releasing what they are designed to modify). Jealousy is a biologically useful emotion as a way of securing a mate, but it is notorious for its poisonous effects (see Othello); and dreams might work to dampen or transform this difficult emotion. Similarly for envy: it can motivate achievement in a social species, but it can also poison a person’s life—dreams might work as an antidote to this poison. And let’s not forget the boiling cauldron of childhood emotion: it’s hard to see this as healthy and adaptive in every respect, even if it has a biological function. Childhood dreams (especially nightmares) might well serve to keep the cauldron at a tolerable temperature. Adult emotions are not discontinuous with childhood emotions, as developmental psychologists remind us, so the ability to dream does not become redundant as we grow up. Dreaming is still necessary in order to keep emotions from spilling over. This has nothing to do with repression in the manner of Freud; it is more a matter of containing a crude but urgent psychological adaptation. I see it more as reshaping than as holding down: it gives emotions a mode of existence that allows them to do their job while not causing too much psychological havoc. As I indicated, there is an element of mystery to this process, but perhaps that is just as well, since the mystery of dreams is not going to be solved by anything obvious and completely devoid of mystery. What I have done is identify the location of the mystery while sketching a plausible evolutionary story.
Imagine coming across a tribe with the following peculiar epistemic deficit: they are strangely ignorant of ordinary familiar things like animals, people, mountains, and other objects in the environment. They don’t know whether cats and dogs are both animals, they don’t know whether mountains are convex or concave, they don’t know the color of leaves, they don’t know the shape of the human body, they don’t know whether humans have minds, they don’t know that the sun is warm, etc. Their senses are normal and they know about many things (perhaps they know a lot of mathematics and history), but they draw a blank on questions that concern things they interact with every day. We find this very strange, a peculiar kind of selective ignorance. Perhaps we start to suffer from a similar pathology after a time and eventually trace it back to drinking from a certain river; we therefore assume an underlying physical cause. In any case, it is an ignorance quite unlike the kinds with which we are already familiar—such as things being too far away or too small to see or hidden in some way. We dub it “strange ignorance syndrome”.
I want to compare this with our situation in regard to philosophy. The things that trouble us are ordinary familiar things not remote or inaccessible things: perceptual objects, consciousness, the will, the self, numbers, causality, values, universals, space, time, necessity, and so on. And we are ignorant of fundamental properties of these things: we don’t know their basic nature. Consider ordinary physical objects: we know they have color, shape, location, etc., but we don’t know whether they are mere bundles of qualities, or whether they exist in the mind or in a mind-independent way, or whether they really persist through time. You can stare at such objects from dawn till dusk and examine them from every angle but you will not thereby be able to answer these questions. As we like to put it, you can tell the shape and color of an object but you can’t tell its ontological status. Similarly, we know many properties of consciousness but we don’t know whether it is identical to the brain: you can tell you are in pain but you can’t tell whether pain is a brain state. That’s why we resort to arguments in philosophy—because we can’t simply tell whether pains are as one or another theory claims. I can tell by introspection that my pain is throbbing but I can’t tell that it is a brain state (or a state of an immaterial substance). Likewise, I can’t tell whether universals are mental, abstract or physical just by experiencing them; I can’t just inspect them and find the answer to this question. I can inspect an object to find out whether it exemplifies the universal whiteness, but I can’t inspect the universal to find out if it exists in Plato’s heaven. Philosophy does not proceed by inspecting ordinary objects and reporting on their properties: we can’t tell whether they have this or that nature by examining them. We can’t just have a look and see. But these are objects that can be looked at and seen (or known about in some other way such as introspection or intellectual intuition). Nor can we take a closer look at them or take them apart or weigh them in order to answer philosophical questions.  We have to approach the matter indirectly (as we feel like saying) by constructing elaborate and contestable arguments. Maybe these arguments will reveal the truth, and maybe they won’t, but it is clear that we can’t bypass them and just do some ordinary inspecting and telling. We don’t have the faculties for that.
Thus our situation resembles that of the strangely ignorant tribe: they can’t tell what is true either when it comes to ordinary familiar things. They can’t examine or inspect dogs and cats to determine whether they are both animals, or have a look at mountains to see whether they are convex or concave, or check out the human body to see what shape it has. And these are not stupid people, ignorant of everything, understanding nothing; they know many things perfectly well. They just have a strange selective ignorance about quite ordinary things (it isn’t at all like the ignorance of the microscopic world that once afflicted humans). Evidently something about their brains (in concert with that river) explains this odd epistemic deficit; and evidently much the same must be true of us—our brains also prevent us from directly grasping the “philosophical” nature of ordinary things. We don’t know what this something is—it could even be the fact that our brains are made of carbon or are spatial objects—but presumably our philosophical ignorance reflects some truth about our organ of cognition. It may or may not be remediable, but in any case epistemic limits have neurological foundations (even if that just means being very far from the object of interest, as with remote galaxies). But the main point I want to make is that we, like the tribe, suffer from a type of strange ignorance syndrome: we are ignorant of fundamental properties of objects that we interact with daily. 
Isn’t this fact the basis of the philosophical impulse in humans? You find yourself gazing at an object, say a table, noting its various features, and then you start to wonder whether the table is just the sum of its properties, or whether it is really just in your mind, or whether it exists through time (but what is time?). You realize that no amount of gazing is going to answer these questions and you think, “Strange—how come I can’t tell whether the table is one kind of thing rather than another when I can tell its color and shape?”  Then you have a further philosophical thought: Is it even possible for anyone to tell whether the table is one thing or the other? Isn’t it a necessary truth that no one could answer these questions by direct inspection? But what kind of truth is that, and why is the world like that? You have discovered philosophical questions—just by realizing that ordinary things don’t yield up their full nature to your ordinary powers of detection. You have discovered a strange area of ignorance in your view of the world. Members of our tribe might also be aware of their epistemic strangeness: they note that some subject matters yield their truths by ordinary inspection but others don’t—arguments have to be given for why mountains are convex or people tetrapod. It isn’t that they think these questions are philosophy (they may have a sophisticated understanding of philosophical questions possibly superior to ours); they just recognize that they have peculiar pockets of ignorance that they struggle to fill. We too are dimly aware that the familiar world presents us with questions that can’t be answered simply by exercising our powers of direct inspection and ascertaining what is the case. We can’t use the same epistemic powers to answer these questions that we use to answer other questions about the very same objects—such as perception, memory, introspection, and intellectual intuition. It would be nice if we could—if we could just tell by looking whether the will is free, or consciousness is material, or universals are mind-independent abstract entities—but we are not built that way. Empiricism is in effect the wish that this were so (as is rationalism in its fashion), but in reality philosophy must consist in arguing not detecting, persuading not ascertaining. We can’t go on an expedition to find out whether objects are bundles of qualities or whether numbers exist, hoping thereby to detect what is in fact the case. The objects are right under our noses, but our ordinary powers of inspection fail to give us the knowledge we seek: our ignorance is anomalous, singular, peculiar. It is really very strange that we don’t know these things (itself a philosophical thought)—one might even say, astonishing and marvelous. How amazing that we don’t know these basic facts about the things of the world! How, for example, can we be so ignorant of the nature of time, given that we are obsessed with it, experience it daily, and use it to govern our lives? You would think we should know allabout time! Why is there even such a subject as the philosophy of time—there is no subject of the philosophy of water or air or blood? Isn’t it curious that we exhibit this kind of selective ignorance—just as it is curious that our tribe has its areas of selective ignorance? Shouldn’t all knowledge be homogeneous, given that reality is homogeneous (a totality of facts)? Why this odd epistemic partition when there is no ontological partition? Can it be that the world consists of two types of fact—the philosophical facts and non-philosophical facts? But what would that even mean? It is really very peculiar that philosophy exists at all. Yet it does, indisputably so: not all questions about reality can be resolved using our faculties of inspection, detection, and telling. Isn’t it actually quite remarkable that we can’t tell what consciousness is—or causality, moral value, meaning, necessity, the will, generality, etc.? The very existence of philosophy is a puzzling and peculiar thing, by no means predictable from the objective world or our basic epistemic faculties. It really ought not to exist—yet here it is right in front of us. Other terrestrial creatures go about their business inspecting and detecting, never suspecting the existence of philosophical questions; we alone ask questions that transcend our creaturely epistemic faculties—real difficult questions about real things with real natures. We alone know that there is more to reality than our powers of inspection and detection can reveal, and that “philosophy” is the name of this area of study. Strange, surpassing strange. 
 We can inspect the whole physical universe and ascertain facts about it that remove deep ignorance, such as the existence of background radiation. But there is nothing comparable for philosophy: there is no analogue of background radiation that might be detected and provide a demonstration of a particular philosophical position. It couldn’t be that the existence of platonic universals, say, can be established by observing a telltale remnant of their earliest existence in the shape of traces of Form-like activity in space. So even cosmology provides no model for the epistemology of philosophy, despite its speculative character.
 The case of meaning is instructive: we know a lot about meaning and about language in general—what words and sentences mean, that one meaning is different from another, the various categories of meaning—but we don’t know what meaning is. That is, there is no consensus about what is the correct theory of meaning (even within an individual: compare Wittgenstein’s earlier and later theories). We mean things all the time but we can’t tell what constitutes meaning—we can’t inspect it and report our findings. We are strangely ignorant about the nature of meaning. Yet we are not similarly ignorant of phonetics and grammar; our ignorance is curiously localized.
 Note that the same distinction applies to our knowledge of numbers: we can tell by inspection that 4 is even and precedes 5 but we can’t tell by inspection whether it is a platonic entity or exists in the mind or is reducible to marks on paper. Similarly for moral value: we can tell that someone did something wrong by finding out the facts but we can’t tell whether moral values are objective or subjective in this way. The concepts of inspection, detection, and telling apply to the non-perceptual world as well as the perceptual world—and they likewise fail to extend to questions of a philosophical nature. (The point has nothing to do with the question of whether philosophy is an a priori discipline.)
 How did philosophy evolve? What kind of mutation led to it? Would Neanderthals have indulged in it if they had survived? What if dogs underwent a mutation that led to possessing a philosophical brain (and accompanying language)? It seems like an odd adaptation, and quite an abrupt one (a notable saltation). It doesn’t seem to be an inevitable accompaniment of science, since science works by powers of inspection and detection (suitable extended). Nor does it look like an inevitable by-product of the human capacity to argue. Philosophy is a sui generistrait, unique to Homo sapiens, and having no apparent function (even as an offshoot)—its biology is obscure. Somehow we came to be philosophical animals, but we were not vouchsafed any method for detecting the answer to philosophical questions.
Mind Fuck America
Here is the first verse of Green Day’s American Idiot:
Don’t want to be an American idiot
Don’t want a nation under the new mania
Can you hear the sound of hysteria?
The subliminal mind fuck America
I wrote a monograph entitled Mindfucking over a decade ago, and it seems more prescient every day. What else is the Big Lie? But don’t think it’s confined to the political right: the left is prone to it too. The point I missed is that the mind fuck can proceed on the basis of an obvious lie, so long as the audience is primed to accept it. Indeed, the bigger the lie the better, so long as it has the right psychological shape. I notice that Green Day associates the phenomenon specifically with America–a point worth pondering.
Can We Solve the Problems of Philosophy?
Philosophy consists of a set of problems that are particularly difficult to resolve. There are two aspects to this difficulty: first, we can’t find solutions that every reasonable person should be able to accept; second, the solutions offered always seem quite inadequate, i.e. we seem forced to consider purported solutions that stretch credulity. How do we avoid being forced into unpalatable positions? This meta-problem takes a characteristic form: either we accept a reductive deflationary position or we accept a kind of inflationary anti-naturalist position. Take the problem of universals: either we accept nominalism or we accept platonic realism—the former being implausibly reductive, the latter startlingly reifying. At the most extreme we are forced to choose between an eliminative position and a supernatural position: there are no such things as universals or they are occupants of a quasi-divine abstract eternal heaven. So not only can we not decide between the various options, but the options themselves are distinctly unappealing. We would like to find something both inarguably correct and not intrinsically absurd (or at least hard to believe), but the field of options is difficult to narrow down and it is populated with non-starters. Why do we find ourselves in this predicament? Can we get out of it? In the case of cosmology, say, we have a choice between a steady state theory and an originating event theory: the choice between them may be difficult to make, but at least the options are perfectly feasible—each theory might be true. But in the case of the problem of universals both options seem inherently unsatisfactory, if not preposterous: how could the universal whiteness(say) be just a word, and how could it be an abstract entity floating in an otherworldly realm? In philosophy it often seems that we are condemned to be unable to choose between theories and that the theories available are none too appealing in themselves. It’s like wanting to buy a used car and being confronted by a bunch of lemons between which we can only dither.
I would list the following as exhibiting this general character (in addition to the problem of universals): the problem of the nature of ordinary objects, the problem of what constitutes matter, the problems of causality, space, time, necessity, natural law, consciousness, the will, perception, knowledge, the a priori, the self, meaning, moral values, and numbers. The list is not exhaustive, though it is representative: each of these raises profoundly difficult questions, and there is a feeling that nothing we know of adequately answers these questions; indeed, the proposed answers strike us as conspicuously wide of the mark (though fervently defended by their adherents). I could go through each topic in turn and explain how the dialectic plays out, but I won’t; I will merely note that the usual theories typically fail to measure up to the problem they are designed to solve. They tend to alternate between the overly reductive and the vaguely mystical. For example, we have linguistic theories of necessity and possible world realism; we have constant conjunction theories of causation and magical power theories; we have materialism and dualism about the mind; and so on. The arguments between these eternally rage, and what is contended for seems hopeless from the start (prima facie ridiculous or at least pretty far fetched). So the problems of philosophy appear to exist in an uncomfortable intellectual space—recalcitrant to the mind and inherently maddening. Yet we can’t just let them go: for the questions strike us as real, reasons can be given for favoring certain positions, and there must be some truth of the matter. It is just that we don’t seem to be able to get where we would like to be: with a solid understanding of what we are talking about and a set of considerations that decisively settle the matter. We seem stuck, permanently lost.
I would like to venture a hypothesis (and I choose these words carefully): a hypothesis about why the problems are so resistant to solution and about why the normal range of proposed solutions is so jejune. I will first note a certain tendency of thought: we are apt to dwell on two aspects of the phenomenon or concept in which we are interested, viz. its appearance and its correlates. So consider causation: we examine how it strikes the senses and what it is correlated with; and it does not appear as a mode of necessitation and is correlated with constant conjunctions. Or consciousness: it appears in a certain way to our introspective sense and is correlated with brain states. And so on through the list. These two aspects form the shape of the solutions we come up with, either separately or together. We strive for a theory that explains the nature of what we are interested in in terms confined to appearances and correlates—how it affects our sensibility and how it relates to other associated things. Thus we try to develop a theory of consciousness that draws upon its subjective character and its neural correlates; or we approach moral value with how it is represented in the mind and how it is correlated with actions and language; or we consider the perceptual appearance of objects and their causal and functional properties. Certainly the things in question have a phenomenology (a presence in the human mind) and they also have correlates of various kinds (relations to other things); but it is a question whether this is all they have. Might not these two aspects fail to include some essential fact about the thing being studied? Might this ignored aspect be vital to understanding that thing? Might it be the key to uncovering the solution to the problems that so trouble us? To be concrete, might not pain (say) have a nature that goes beyond its subjective appearance and its observed bodily correlates? This suggests the hypothesis I have in mind, which I will call elusivism. The hypothesis is akin to mysterianism but it stresses the idea that the problematic thing actively eludes our powers of comprehension. It isn’t just that we are cognitively limited; rather, some things have a nature that defies the specific type of intelligence that we contingently possess. For example, universals have a nature that refuses to be represented as a type of perceptual object—either of the five senses or of the faculty of intellectual intuition. Recoiling from the idea that universals can be sensed like particulars, we picture them as subsisting in a type of space in which they might be glimpsed by our mind’s eye; but in fact they are not of a nature that permits any such apprehension. They are radically non-perceptual; it is not that they require a specific type of sense that might be supplied by the human mind. The way they enter our consciousness, then, is inadequate to capture their elusive nature—which is why we have so much trouble understanding them. Their essence precludes them from locking with our given mental faculties, save in a glancing and indirect way. They slip between our mental fingers (some objects are manually elusive).
This is hard to get one’s mind round for obvious reasons. The elusiveness hypothesis asks us to accept that we literally don’t know what we are talking about, though we do have knowledge of appearances and correlates. But of course we can’t conceive what we can’t conceive, so it’s hard to accept the truth of the hypothesis; still it may be true. If we could grasp what these things really are, we would not be prone to taking absurd theories seriously; but we are confined to phenomenology and correlates. It may of course be that one of the standard theories is closer to the truth than the others, and may indeed be essentially correct, but that we don’t have the conceptual resources with which to understand this theory properly. Realism about universals may be perfectly true, but our mode of conceiving of them leaves us baffled and troubled by the theory (rather as consciousness might actually be a brain state but we are unable to make this idea intelligible to ourselves). Things can be true without being comprehensibly true. The problem is that our ideas of things might not be adequate to those things (as seventeenth century theorists put it). So we are prone to manufacture bad theories of the things in question and unable to find the right theory. Reality is elusive, so philosophy has the shape it has. It isn’t because of intellectual laziness, or the primitive state of science, or misleading ordinary language, or a lack of imagination, or religious holdovers; it’s because reality is elusive relative to our epistemic faculties. We tend to substitute what we do know for what we don’t know (and need to know)—hence the reliance on appearance and correlates—but this strategy doesn’t solve the problems. Ideally we would immediately grasp what all these problematic things essentially are, and then we would know the truth about philosophical questions; but that is a fantasy exemplified only by God. Isn’t it amazing that we don’t even know whether universals are abstract, mental or linguistic? How inadequate can our supposed knowledge of them be! Our grasp of their nature must be weak to non-existent. We can’t even decide whether ordinary objects are in the mind or outside it—that’s how inadequate our knowledge of them is. It is as if we don’t know the first thing about a lot of things. Of course, there is no reason why we should from a biological point of view: our knowledge is originally practical and species-specific, not designed to answer deep questions about reality. Nor are our concepts open repositories of complete information about their referents, but are more like pragmatic pointers with a practical purpose: hence the existence of philosophical problems, according to the elusivist hypothesis. Still, we can least solve the problem of how to avoid unpalatable theories: we can relax in the knowledge that this is an artifact of our contingent ignorance. We don’t have to believe any of them, or if we do we don’t have to accept that they meet certain conditions of intelligibility. We can be complete agnostics or tentative believers—not bad faith dogmatists for one position or another. We can thus solve the problem of forced philosophical belief, which is not nothing. We are not compelled to believe what we can’t in good conscience believe. We can believe that the solution lies outside of the range of options our minds are capable of generating. We are spared the thought that the world is inherently absurd. That is progress of a kind. 
 The elusiveness hypothesis comes in various strengths: from the weak variant that claims only present lack of knowledge to the strong variant that insists on terminal ignorance, with positions in between. I won’t discuss which to prefer except to note that philosophical problems seem extremely resistant to solution, thus favoring the strong version.