Lecture

Yesterday I had the pleasure of giving a lecture by Zoom to a group of philosophers in Budapest. It was the first lecture I have given in over ten years (I wonder why). I spoke on the topic of personal identity, and it is true that I don’t feel like I am the same person I was a decade ago. Psychological metamorphosis is real.

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Meaningless Names

Meaningless Names

If an expression has meaning, it should be possible to say what that meaning is. Meaning should not be something ineffable. Dictionaries say what meaning is—they specify the meaning of words. But they don’t contain names (or very few).[1] What would they look like if they did? They would certainly be extremely long: all the names of people past and present laid out alphabetically with accompanying definitions. It is not clear what form the definitions would take, however—how would the names be defined? There are two theories of the meaning of names and each recommends a different method of definition: the description theory and the direct reference theory. According to the first, a dictionary entry would take the form “N means the F”; according to the second, it would be “N means x”. For example: “Plato means the teacher of Aristotle”, and “Plato means Plato”, respectively. One specification attributes certain properties to the bearer of the name, while the other simply specifies the bearer. In the case of a general term like “cat” these would be equivalent to the following: “Cat means a small carnivorous mammal of such-and-such an appearance”, and “Cat means cats”. In short, one view says that names mean properties and the other says that names mean objects. So, imagine two dictionaries of names each using one or the other format: would these be good dictionaries? They would not. The first would suffer from the problem of selection—which property specification should be put into the entry for a given a name? People associate different properties with the same name, at a time or at different times, so the choice appears arbitrary; no definition in these terms provides a constant interpersonal meaning. No meaning in a common shared language gets specified, but dictionaries specialize in such general public meanings. All we have is idiosyncratic beliefs about the bearer—hardly the stuff of a shared language. Also, the underlying theory has been subjected to devastating criticism, and we don’t want a dictionary of names to presuppose a false theory. This is simply not what names mean, so we shouldn’t say that this is what they mean in our dictionary. According to the second theory, names mean objects, so a dictionary along these lines will say as much. The trouble here is that such a dictionary will be entirely uninformative: it will simply say things like “Plato (the name) means Plato (the object)”. This is like saying “Cat means cats”: it doesn’t articulate the meaning at all. But meanings need to be informatively specifiable, or else the dictionary is useless (assuming it is a dictionary of a language in that language). Also, the underlying theory is controversial at best, false at worst. We don’t want a statement of meaning to presuppose a questionable philosophical theory of meaning. Thus, we can’t do with names what dictionaries do with other words: that is, we can’t say what names mean in the standard fashion.

The reason for this, I suggest, is that names have no meaning, given that words have meaning only if we can say what that meaning is. They are, as the tradition maintains, mere tags or labels, devoid of meaning. Some names have meaning, such as “Shorty” or “Big John” or “Autumn” or “June” or “Tuesday”, but most names don’t. If they have no meaning, then we cannot state their meaning; that is why we cannot state it. For the same reason, we can’t state the meaning of horses or toadstools or accents or pauses or sighs. Names are used in communication, as are many things, but they are not thereby elements with meanings. It is true that as so used they have denotations, but the denotation isn’t part of their meaning—for they have none. Names are meaningless tags for objects denoted by speakers. It might be wondered how they can have denotation but no meaning to determine the denotation. The answer is that there are terms that fix their reference but don’t determine their meaning. Suppose we say that the reference of “Plato” is fixed by “the object people call Plato”: that explains how the name latches onto one thing rather than another, but it tells us nothing about the meaning of “Plato”—nothing that could be usefully reported in a dictionary. So, names can feature in sentences which have meaning and truth conditions without themselves having any meaning.[2] Names don’t bring meanings with them that combine with other meanings to produce meaningful sentences (they have a use but no meaning). As theories of meaning, then, the two traditional theories are barking up the wrong tree—there is no meaning up there to start with. There may be truth in the theories in other respects, but not as contributions to the theory of meaning. They are certainly not paradigms for other classes of expressions that do indisputably have meaning. There is no such thing as a “semantics of names” if that means a theory of meaning for names. If names had meaning, it would be possible to compile a dictionary specifying their meaning; but it’s not, so they don’t. That’s why there is no dictionary devoted to names (even of famous people, as it might be Dictionary of the Names of the Stars).

Descriptions and demonstratives have meaning, as do prepositions and conjunctions, but not proper names. We don’t think we are expanding our vocabulary by learning new names; nor do we complain that our names misdescribe us. We recognize that they are just convenient devices with no intrinsic significance. If a name’s meaning were identical to its reference, then it would have a meaning, as the word “red” has a meaning by denoting the color red; but then it would not be a mere empty label. That theory would imply that the meaning would perish with its bearer (as Wittgenstein once remarked), which is not what meanings are supposed to do. But associated descriptive beliefs are too variable and contingent to constitute meaning, so this theory is ruled out too. Names have no meaning at all, in the way other words do, so there is nothing there for theories of the meaning of names to be theories of. A lot of recent philosophy of language has been chasing a mare’s nest.[3]   

[1] The OED contains the name “Jesus” and the names of the planets (though not “Shakespeare” or “London” or “Plato”), but the entries are hardly adequate to specify a meaning. For “Jesus” we read “the central figure of the Christian religion”: is that what the name meant to his family or the apostles? At best this is a reference-fixer for us now. Ditto for the entries purporting to give the meaning of the names of the planets.

[2] A pure causal theory allows for this possibility too.

[3] Oddly enough, the entire history of philosophical discussion of names has lost sight of their most obvious characteristic, which is difficult by this time to recover, namely that names are empty labels—meaningless sounds or scribbles conscripted to serve acts of speaker reference. They have no cognitive content, no intrinsic significance, no propositional potency. They are semantically vacuous; dead on arrival. Yet they do a useful job in acts of speech. See my “Completely Empty Names” for more on this theme.

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Things I Can Do

Things I Can Do

Intellectual (in descending order of competence): philosophy, psychology, economics, linguistics, biology, physics, chemistry, literature, film. Novelist and short story writer.

Athletic: tennis, table tennis, squash, badminton, football, cricket, basketball, gymnastics, pole vault, discus, trampoline, swimming, diving, kayaking, surfing, windsurfing, kiteboarding, skim boarding, skiing, ice skating, bowling, knife throwing, darts, archery, weightlifting, golf, billiards, frisbee.

Musical: drums, guitar, harmonica, vocals, songwriting.

Other activities: motorcycling, mountain biking, chess, cooking.

(This is my latest cv.)

 

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Dictionaries and Meaning

Dictionaries and Meaning

Let’s stipulate that a theory of meaning is a specification of the meanings of all words, phrases, and sentences of a language.[1] If we knew that, we would know what meaning is, presumably. What form should such a theory take? I will suggest that it should take the form of a dictionary.  A dictionary tells us what words mean, and words compose phrases and sentences, so it ought to do what we desire—state what expressions of a language mean (finitely, compositionally). We will need to add a grammar, i.e., rules of sentence construction, but the hard work will be done by the lexical component. But how does a dictionary set about specifying meanings—what form does it take? We must inspect a good dictionary and see how it is actually done. I will choose the Concise Oxford English Dictionary (Eleventh Edition) and select two words at random: “cat” and “close”. For “cat” we find that word in boldface followed by an “n” for noun. Then we read: “a small domesticated carnivorous mammal with soft fur, a short snout, and retractile claws”. For “close” we get the same boldface but followed by “v” for verb, then “move so as to cover an opening”. Mark well the form of these inscriptions; you will notice a glaring use-mention mix-up. The word defined initially appears as mentioned, though not within quotation marks, given that it is said to be either a noun or a verb (as in ‘“cat” is a noun’). But immediately the word slides into being used as we are told what a cat is or what it is to close something (as in “a cat is a small domesticated carnivorous mammal” etc.). Nowhere does the dictionary explicitly say anything of the form ‘“cat” means…’. First it tells us what grammatical category the word belongs to; then it says what kind of thing the denoted thing (object or act) is. However, we would be within our rights to read into the entry something of the form “w means such and such”, where w is a word and “such and such” stands for a description of a thing. Thus it is that the dictionary specifies the meaning of a word: it says what kind of thing it is that the word denotes (expresses, refers to, indicates). As we might say, it spells out the meaning of the word by using a longer form of words that ascribes various properties to the thing in question. It makes the meaning explicit, displays it, articulates it, analyzes it. It would be wrong to say that the definition provides a synonym for “cat” or “close” (a thesaurus does that): “cat” has no synonym in English (unless we include “pussycat”) and “shut” does not occur in the dictionary entry for “close” (or vice versa). Synonyms in the strict sense don’t tell us what a word means by spelling it out; they just provide another word that has the same meaning. Only dictionaries linking one language to another do anything like that—they translate. An English dictionary doesn’t translate; it paraphrases. It is informative precisely because it does more than translate (and also less); it analyzes, disassembles. If you are in doubt about the exact meaning of an English word, a good dictionary will remedy your ignorance, add to your stock of knowledge; it will teach you something. It specifiesthe meaning—gives you the specifics, the details. It doesn’t just give you a word which happens to have the same meaning. Thus, it tells you the meaning of sentences containing the word in question; you can transfer your knowledge of word meaning into knowledge of sentence meaning—you don’t need to start again with the sentence, novel though it may be. The dictionary is therefore compositional: the meaning of the whole is a function of the meaning of the parts. This is something a theory of meaning ought to be. A dictionary (plus a grammar) does what a theory of meaning ought to do—provide a finite compositional analytic specification of the meaning of every well-formed expression of the language. It is not clear what else remains to be done, given the task we set ourselves.

It might be protested that such a theory fails to do the main thing a theory of meaning ought to do, viz. offer a central concept that captures all of meaning. It provides nothing analogous to truth conditions theories or verification conditions theories or use theories or picture theories or intention-based theories. Two points may be made in reply. The first is that this is actually a desirable property of the dictionary theory: such alternative theories are inevitably procrustean in that they fail to apply to all types of sentences (imperative, interrogative, expressive), as well as suffering from defects often pointed out. We don’t want a single property of all types of sentences, since sentences are of irreducibly different types; we just want a theory of word meaning plus combinatorial rules. Second, the theory is not as pluralistic as you might suppose: it specifies the meaning of all words in a similar manner, i.e., by ascribing attributes to things. Cats have the attributes listed and acts of closing likewise. We might say that the dictionary theory is an “attributional theory” of meaning: it says that all meaning involves property attribution.[2] Meaning is essentially attributive. Different attributes get attributed, but the common thread is the act or process of attribution. Typically, the attribution is complex not simple, so that a certain “holism” applies: the meaning of “cat” involves a bunch of attributes; the attributes are bundled together, synthesized. In addition, there is room for a theory of the nature of attribution, and of what is attributed. What kind of operation is this? Do different kinds of attribute produce different kinds of meaning? What is an attribute? There is plenty of room for philosophical thinking about meaning once we have settled on the general form of a meaning theory. Are all attributes made of sense data, or physical things? What is it to “grasp” an attribute? Are attributes platonic universals or conceptual entities? The dictionary theory is not a cop-out but a starting-point; it defines the general territory to be investigated. The central point of it is that meaning specifications involve attributing properties to things; they go outside of language narrowly conceived.[3] The meaning of “cat” involves facts about cats.

And so, we come to encyclopedias. People used to contrast dictionaries with encyclopedias—the former about meaning, the latter about facts. But this is a false dichotomy. A dictionary is a partial encyclopedia and a truly encyclopedic encyclopedia includes a dictionary. The latter proposition is true because a real encyclopedia will cover languages inter alia, and the former is true for the reason already stated—dictionaries contain facts about things (cats, closings). These are not disjoint enterprises. In order to specify meaning we need to advert to properties of things in the world, those comprised in the meaning. These properties are apt to be constitutive, or at least commonplace; they are a subset of the totality of properties possessed by a thing (or kind of thing). Semantics is also physics, chemistry, biology, psychology, common sense—whatever makes a thing the thing that it is. To specify meanings is to specify facts. Dictionaries and encyclopedias are not about different things; they are just more or less inclusive. Have you ever wondered why there aren’t any “conceptopedias”—alphabetized books devoted to the nature, analysis, and operations of concepts? Concepts are not the same as words or extra-mental facts, so shouldn’t there be a type of book that does for them what dictionaries and encyclopedias do for words and the world? Is it because there are really no concepts, or that conceptual analysis is lamentably underdeveloped? No, it’s because such a book already exists—in the shape of dictionaries and encyclopedias. So, there is no market for an extra book about concepts. These publishing divisions are arbitrary; they don’t correspond to book natural kinds. It isn’t that there are semantic truths and conceptual truths and factual truths all sealed off from each other; they bleed into one another. In particular, dictionary truths are a species of encyclopedia truths.

This conception of meaning might work for nouns, verbs, and adjectives, but what about conjunctions, pronouns, demonstratives, prepositions? We don’t normally look these up in the dictionary (when was the last time you looked up “and”?), but they are in there; and they receive a different kind of treatment from that accorded to the other three categories of word. For “and” we have “used to connect words of the same part of speech, clauses, or sentences”; for “not” we have “used chiefly with an auxiliary verb or ‘be’ to form the negative”; for “that” we have “used to identify a specific person or thing observed or heard by the speaker”. In these cases, the dictionary evidently opts for a use theory of meaning: it tells us how the words are used to form sentences not what the nature of some type of thing (object, action, characteristic) involves. Thus, we might conclude that meaning divides into two types—attributive and functional. That would be fine as far as the attributional theory is concerned; it merely requires us to recognize that there is a secondary kind of meaning that calls for a different account. We opt for a dualistic theory of meaning. However, there is another option: get creative with the attributional theory. Thus, we could suppose that “and” and “not” denote truth functions with characteristic logical properties; and “that” denotes, on its different occasions of use, certain types of objects with determinate properties. We go the denotational route and apply the attributional theory across the board. There is no serious challenge here to the attributional conception of meaning, just some minor tinkering.

The most substantive line of questioning comes from metaphysics. Okay, we can conceptualize meaning as holistic attribution of properties and look to the dictionary to provide the details, thus achieving what we set out to achieve, viz. specifications of meaning for an unlimited class of expressions. But none of this tells us what kinds of things constitute meaning, metaphysically speaking; so, we don’t yet know what meaning is. I think this is entirely correct: our aims were modest, or should have been (we weren’t trying to save humanity from itself or anything like that). For all we have said, meanings might be sense data, or platonic universals, or atoms in the void, or mathematical models, or words in the language of thought, or mental images, or ideas in the mind of God. It is perfectly true that none of these theories has been precluded. But that is really as it should be: don’t expect the theory of meaning to do your metaphysics for you. It isn’t a shortcut to anything, a “turn” that will get you to your destination quicker. It will tell you what a sentence—any sentence—means, but it won’t tell you the ultimate nature of the reality meant. The sentence “snow is white” means that snow is white, but it is a further question what snow ultimately is and what being white amounts to in the great scheme of things. Let’s keep these two questions separate, so that we can answer the former without being held hostage by the latter. To me it is quite reassuring that the problem of meaning can be (partially) solved by the not-so-humble dictionary.[4]

[1] This is Davidson’s original formulation of the aims of a theory of meaning, which he claims can be satisfied by Tarski’s theory of truth, suitably augmented. I am suggesting an alternative approach to the same question.

[2] Notice that dictionaries don’t have entries for nonsense words like “borogrove”, simply because nonsense words don’t attribute any determinate properties to their purported reference. Nor do they contain the likes of “grue” and “quus”, since these words refer to no natural kind with a fixed humanly-natural nature, however useful they may be philosophically.

[3] It has not failed to cross my mind that this position is not a million miles away from classic description theories. It’s a relevant fact that dictionaries don’t contain proper names (no meaning, you see). Mere labels don’t attribute.

[4] I am intending that the position outlined should be, and be seen to be, massively deflationary, given the recent history of the philosophy of language. There is much less to the theory of meaning, strictly so called, than has been supposed. In this respect I am outDavidsoning Davidson. He thought we could do theory of meaning on exiguous truth-theoretic foundations by wheeling in Tarski’s theory of truth; but I am suggesting doing away with even this degree of novel theorizing. The dictionary can do all the work we need. Radical? You bet.

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Psychological Economics

Psychological Economics

Economics tells us the relationship between supply, demand, and price: the higher the supply the lower the price; the higher the demand the higher the price; the higher the price the higher the supply; the lower the price the higher the demand. But what are supply, demand, and price? If by supply we mean the quantity of goods actually available, then the law breaks down in conditions of ignorance: people will not pay a certain price for a good if they don’t believe it has a certain level of scarcity. If you believe potatoes are a scarce commodity, you will pay highly for them (given a certain level of demand) even if they are not in fact scarce; and if you believe that diamonds are common, you will not pay highly for them even if they are in fact scarce. So the law of supply should really be a statement about perceived quantity not actual quantity: price is a function of the perceived amount of a particular good not the actual amount. In conditions of ignorance objective quantity and perceived quantity can come apart, and then price follows perceived quantity. Such ignorance is not uncommon and may be relied upon by suppliers (“Quick while supplies last!”). The underlying law is psychological not psychophysical, and it is robust.

            What is demand? Not overt behavior as such but desire: how much people desire a particular good. If people desire something a lot, they are willing to pay more for it; if less, they are willing to pay less. So price is a function of desire: the more desirable the more expensive. Putting the two laws together, we can say that if people desire a good Gand believe G to be in short supply, then they are willing to pay a higher price for it than if they don’t desire it or believe it to be readily available. Two psychological variables conspire to generate a given price. But what is price? Not just the amount of money (legal currency) a person is asked to pay, since bartering transactions also count as economic—here price would be the amount of a certain good you would be willing to give in exchange (a pint of milk for a bushel of hay, say). But what determines what you would be willing to give in exchange? Clearly it is the sacrifice you would make of other desires you might satisfy given that you make the exchange in question. The more money you give for G the less you have to buy G’, which you also desire. Price is really the amount of desire satisfaction you agree to sacrifice; it is defined in terms of desire dissatisfaction. So the price variable is also psychologically defined. The law of supply thus says that people are willing to have certain desires not satisfied as a function of their beliefs about the scarcity of the good in question (given a fixed level of desire for that good). The law of demand says that people will sacrifice more of their desires the higher their desire for a particular good is, i.e. pay more for it. All of this is purely psychological—supply, demand, and price. The operative economic law is a psychological law relating beliefs and desires. People have beliefs about how rare goods are, as well as desires for those goods and dispositions to favor some desires over others—these psychological facts determine their economic behavior. Economics at the basic level is the study of how these psychological variables interact.[1]

            And not just people, animals too. Suppose a hungry tiger spots a gazelle and wonders whether to give chase: she has a certain level of desire for gazelle flesh and she is aware of the price she will pay by giving chase—exhaustion and the likelihood of injury (she doesn’t desire either of these things). Will she pay that price? Not if she believes gazelles are plentiful and available, and therefore can be obtained at a lower price. She exemplifies the same psychological structure as a human economic agent: supply, demand, and price (desires that will be sacrificed by satisfying the desire for gazelle flesh).[2] She doesn’t tend to go after big fast gazelles because the price will be higher to obtain their flesh, so she makes a calculation about the gazelle before her. Animals are subject to the same “economic” laws as humans when it comes to obtaining goods that incur a certain cost (as in climbing a tree to obtain the luscious fruit near the top). None of this has anything essentially to do with hard currency, industry, exchange rates, banks, etc. Economics is fundamentally about desires, actions, and beliefs regarding availability (especially community-wide beliefs). What sacrifices will I make in order to satisfy a desire, given my beliefs about the availability of the means of desire satisfaction? That is, what price will I pay, given my level of demand and my beliefs about supply? The price a vendor can charge is conditioned by the degree of demand for his product and the buyer’s beliefs about the scarcity of that product. All this proceeds at the level of psychology, so the laws of economics reduce to psychological laws. Economics is a department of psychology—the department concerned with satisfying desires in a social group.

Colin McGinn

[1] There is perhaps some resistance to this way of thinking among economists because it makes their discipline “subjective”, or concerned with the “private”, so they prefer to conceive of it in terms of objective “physical” things. But this is a complete distortion of what economics is really all about—a misguided attempt to emulate physics.

[2] It is true that the gazelle is not a voluntary participant in this interaction, unlike in a typical economic exchange, but that is irrelevant to the laws of supply, demand, and price that the tiger is subject to. These apply whether the other agent benefits from the interaction or not. If I am debating whether to buy a certain car at a certain price, I am only concerned with my level of desire and my beliefs about the scarcity of cars; I don’t care whether there is another agent who will benefit from my purchase. The laws of supply and demand are individualistic in this sense. Since these laws form the core of economics that science reduces to psychology in the manner described.

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Generative Economics

Generative Economics

Darwin’s theory of evolution includes two generative components: mutation and natural selection. Mutation generates genetic variants and hence phenotypes; natural selection operates on these to produce differential survival. Neither of these generative processes involves intention or intelligence. Thus we have biological novelty without intentional intelligent design. Both processes are blind and driven by non-mental causes. We have creativity without a creator. But Darwin also recognized what he calls artificial selection, as with the selective breeding of dogs (or horses and flowers). Here human beings intentionally direct the course of evolution according to their own preferences, producing dog breeds that would not arise by natural selection. This is not selection by nature but selection by human design and desire. Of course, the process of generation is still natural not artificial: dog breeders rely on the genes to generate dog variants. They don’t make poodles from scratch; they just interbreed dogs and let the genes do their work. So here we have a case of natural generation and artificial selection to be added to the far more common case of natural generation and natural selection. Dog breeders don’t even know how to generate dog variants artificially; they depend upon natural reproduction.

            In principle there could be artificial generation combined with natural selection: a type of intelligence creates an organism and then turns it loose in the world to the tender mercies of nature. You could genetically engineer organisms and then let nature select the good from the bad. In effect that is what happens with many human artifacts: they are intelligently created but left for nature mindlessly to destroy or preserve (as with architectural ruins and plastic bags). What about artificial design combined with artificial selection? Can there be intelligently created entities that are then intelligently selected? Of course there can: machines created by humans and selected by humans to be used as they see fit. Motorcars are propagated by these two modes of generation: first they are designed and manufactured by the use of intelligence; then they are bought and sold in the marketplace by a process of intelligent selection, intentionally and consciously. So there are four logical possibilities in all: natural generation and natural selection, natural generation and artificial selection, artificial generation and natural selection, and artificial generation and artificial selection. Entities can come into existence and reproduce (or be reproduced) by any of these four methods.

            There is something strange in Darwin’s terminology, because so-called artificial selection is itself a natural process. The mind is natural and it is what directs selective breeding; there is nothing super-natural going on here.[1] Bees select flowers and hence direct the course of flower evolution: this is not “artificial”. When humans selectively breed animals for their own purposes this is an aspect of their species-specific nature. It would be better to speak of intentional intelligent selection versus selection that is neither. For intelligence is part of nature too. Still, we can keep the terminology for convenience. The question I am interested in is the nature of economic activity; and what I want to maintain is that economic activity is continuous with biology. It is just another form of biological generation. Now it is true that (so far as I know) other animals don’t engage in economic activity, though it would serve my purpose if they did; but that doesn’t prevent us from imagining such activity in animals. So suppose we encountered a species of bird that manufactures nests that it exchanges with other birds for food. Instead of just building a nest for its own use, it builds nests “for sale”. This has become part of its genetic make-up, as much as nest-building itself. We can think of it as instinctual and automatic, like birdsong, and not as reflective and flexible: birds that exchanged nests for food in the past (as a result of some mutation) did better than birds that kept their nests to themselves. Thus a primitive bird economy develops. In such a case we would say that the entire process is part of the bird’s biological endowment. The “buyer” birds would select nests according to their own criteria and a form of competition might develop, which would lead to a selection process. In just such a way human commerce might have originated: humans capable of exchange do better than humans incapable of it. This would also be as biological as digestion and sexual reproduction, whatever the later elaborations (banks, money). It is a form of social behavior rooted in biological imperatives.

So there are two principles of generation at work here: generating the nests and their being selected. Both are “artificial” in Darwin’s strained sense, since they involved goal-directed action. The bird makes the nest not its genes and other birds do the selecting not brute nature. But this doesn’t exclude the phenomenon from the realm of biology. Or again, consider those ants that enslave other ant populations: these “brood parasites” seize the eggs of other ants and bring them back to their own nest where they carry out the work of their “slave-owners”.  Again, I don’t know of any documented cases of ants that then trade their slaves with other ant slave-owners, but the idea is not beyond reason. What if we encountered an ant species that did just that, perhaps because they were better raiders than their potential trading partners? The “buyers” exchange food for slaves, which they find a bargain. This would be an entirely biological arrangement, not introducing any new non-natural principle into biology. Some ants are natural-born slave-traders! No doubt this is deplorable of them, but it is biologically possible. They thus have a nice little economy going here—a system of exchange trading one sort of good for another.

            I don’t think it is farfetched to suggest that human economies are analogous. Perhaps they even arose from some such primitive beginnings way back with our ancient ancestors in Africa. In any case, we can say that human productivity and the capacity for economic exchange are part of our biological nature. It turns out that the biological realm includes more than just natural generation and natural selection (in Darwin’s restricted sense); it includes the kind of intentional intelligent design and exchange that we find in human social groups. We can imagine our remote ancestors exchanging primitive tools for other tools or for food; we now do it with computers and cars. Thus from a lofty philosophical perspective economics is a branch of biology involving the basic twin generative processes: first make the product, then sell the product (ensure it is selected by purchasers). There is no discontinuity between genes and nature, on the one hand, and products and purchasers, on the other. There is a smooth transition from natural selection through artificial selection through economic selection. Darwin also included sexual selection in his list of types of selection; I am adding economic selection. Both of these are selection by conscious agents (peacocks and purchasers), but that doesn’t make them beyond the range of biology. Minds are a part of biology too. The dichotomy of culture and biology is artificial and misleading; economics belongs with both.[2] That is, economic culture is just another type of biological phenomenon. It is the same with business culture: that too is continuous with biology. Specifically, it involves the two generative components I have identified: creating the product and then marketing it, i.e. offering it up for selection by purchasers. The structure is the same. Markets are arenas of voluntary action, to be sure, but that doesn’t put them outside of biology or nature. In particular, economics is a generative science in the sense that biology is: it involves the generation of entities from raw materials and the generation of further entities by means of market forces. Production is like embryogenesis and buying and selling is like the selective survival of the fittest. Products go extinct if no one buys them, as animals go extinct if nature stops selecting them. We might even say that the Darwinian notion of natural competition is modeled on the notion of economic competition. Animals compete with each other in much the same way that products do. And of course the two intersect, as when animals are bought and sold (some breeds do better in the marketplace than others).

            Just as Darwin’s theory is a theory of evolutionary change, so too economics is concerned with economic change—with how goods and services succeed each other in time. It is a dynamic science not a static science. The idea of a purely structural economics is a misguided one: economies are changing evolving structures just like animal species. The change can be slow judged by human standards, but the entire biological world is in constant flux; so too is the economic world. Supply and demand are forever changing. From a meta-economic point of view, then, economics shares the basic structure of biology (the same is true of linguistics and psychology—and even philosophy). In linguistics we are used to the idea that a grammar generates an infinite array of sentences—it is not merely a structural description; in economics too we should also think of economic mechanisms as generative—of products and of their adoption. A successful product is very like a thriving organism: there will be many instances of them and they will outperform the competition. This is the theoretical framework to adopt when considering the foundations of economics as a science. Economics is a generative biological science (so it is not like mathematics or logic). Capitalism, say, is a species of economic system that replaced feudalism, as mammals replaced dinosaurs. And it is still evolving into variant forms.

            Let me suggest another analogy: verbal communication. A speaker is engaged on two generative tasks: (a) producing a grammatically well-formed sentence and (b) ensuring that she is understood by the hearer. The former does not entail the latter, which requires an additional generative effort—sufficient volume, getting the hearer’s attention, saying something interesting, etc. Similarly, the genes must produce an anatomically well-formed organism and one that will survive the pressures of natural selection—particularly, those arising from competition for resources and mates. Similarly again, a product must not only be functionally well designed but must also achieve market penetration in a competitive economic environment. The entrepreneur is like a speaker striving to be heard in a cacophonous world: she needs a sound product but also the means to be heard by potential consumers. It is necessary to generate supply anddemand (hence advertising etc.). Whether an animal will survive depends on the world it confronts as well as on its internal structure; but the same is true of a product. A speaker faces the same problem: first produce a good sentence but then ensure it is heard and understood. You have to create understanding as well as what is understood. These are different (though connected) tasks. So economics is not just a generative science; it is a doubly generative science.[3]

Colin McGinn

[1] I discuss this in “The Language of Evolution”, Philosophical Provocations (2017).

[2] I defend this view in “Biology and Culture: an Untenable Dualism”.

[3] This essay is a sequel to my earlier essay, “Memes, Behavioral Contagion, and the Zeitgeist”.

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Philosophical Economics

Philosophical Economics

Economics tells us that an economic transaction involves the sale (or exchange) of “goods and services”. This phrase invites conceptual scrutiny. It is notable that an evaluative term is used to describe the commodities sold: goods are good.[1] Services also are inherently valuable: you don’t perform someone the service of executing or robbing him (disservice, yes). What kind of good do goods possess? Not a moral good, evidently, since you can’t sell someone a moral act or benefit—that would nullify the morality of it. There are no shops where you can go and purchase a moral favor or pay for a moral obligation to be met. Moral goods are trans-economic. Altruism is not a commodity to be bought and sold, on pain of not being altruism. No, goods in the economic sense are goods for someone: an economic good is good for its recipient—it does the recipient some good. Thus food, furniture, flowers, and phones: they are purchased because of the personal benefits they afford. But are they really distinct from services? Aren’t all goods imbued with service? Typically, they are manufactured, or at least harvested or mined—they involve skilled human labor. They are not independent of human work, but an expression of it. So they are shaped by “service”, unlike volcanoes or seas or trees (unless cultivated). I would say that all economic goods involve service in this sense; they are not just lying around for anyone to pick up (why pay for them then?). Goods imply services. But what about vice versa? A service is a type of human action with a certain result deemed desirable—say, a massage or a waiter bringing food. But don’t these involve goods? The goods would be muscular therapy and relaxation via pressure, or food being on the table. A teacher supplies the good of information while performing the service of teaching.  A lawyer provides the good of contracts. A doctor provides the good of health by prescribing medicine. Something worthwhile results from the service provided: these are the goods we purchase. A service is no use unless it produces a tangible good. So services involve goods. If someone provides you the service of fixing your fence, he has at the same time given you something good—an intact fence. There is no separating goods and services; there is no essential duality here. There are not two types of entity in an economic transaction, but a mixture of the human act and natural raw material. Conceptually, we could unite goods and services under a single heading—say, “products”. People sell products of different types, which might be called “goods and services”. Goods come modified by service, and services are mingled with goods.

            What is it that we are ultimately purchasing when we engage in an economic transaction? What is it that we desire when we hand over money? Is it other people’s actions and the physical things they produce? No, what we are purchasing are states of mind—that is the point of the whole transaction. If actions and things had no impact on our state of mind, we would have no interest in buying them. We buy things for pleasure, security, pride, company, joy, excitement, comfort, satisfaction, etc.[2] That is what we are ultimately purchasing—goods and services are just the means to achieve these desirable states of mind. Economic value is psychological value. We could summarize this list by saying that we are buying happiness (though this concept is obscure and includes many disparate psychological states). And what do we offer in return? We hand over money obviously, but why does the vendor want our money? To buy happiness, of course: money is what we use to buy goods and services that produce (we hope) happiness. So we buy happiness by offering happiness in return (this is even more obvious when bartering is involved). An economic transaction is thus an exchange of (hoped for) happiness, i.e. psychological states deemed desirable. An economic system, such as capitalism, is a means of generating and exchanging happiness. Goods and services are happiness-vehicles, external means to an internal end. The price of a product is ultimately determined by the happiness it can produce in the purchaser. The entire material substructure is a just a means to allocate happiness through economic activity. The basic commodities are states of mind. The speech act that defines economic exchange is: “I will give you this happiness if you will give me that happiness”. The thing about goods that is good is precisely their effect on mental states—they improve psychological wellbeing. For example, if I exchange with you a guitar for a surfboard, I have traded one sort of happiness for another, giving you happiness in return—the happiness associated with a guitar or a surfboard. There would be no point in the exchange otherwise. Thus economics is psychology in a very direct sense—it is trading in mental states.

            Interestingly, no animals operate with an economic system, despite having quite sophisticated mental abilities (such as mind-reading). Animals don’t buy goods and services from each other, though they may exchange goods and expect favors in return. The concept of money is alien to the animal mind. Presumably humans developed economies at some specific period of history, where there was none before. How that happened is shrouded in mystery, but clearly it requires sophisticated social consciousness. When do children begin to understand economic exchange? Economies are biological adaptations with biological payoffs and must have arisen by mutation and natural selection. Perhaps we have an innate economics module in our brain (“the economic gene”). It sits next to our theory of mind module. It requires a tacit understanding of how minds work and how they relate to the material environment, as well as an appreciation of evaluative concepts. Economic transactions now constitute a large part of human interactions, and they shape the way we think of others (perhaps too much). We are always thinking of how to improve our state of mind by entering into economic exchanges with other people, which requires thinking about their state of mind too. We monetize the mind—put a price on it.

            It is useful to keep these points in mind when running a business. We need to remind ourselves of what we are really buying and selling—what the true meaning of the phrase “good and services” is. It isn’t the object as such that is important but its effect on the consumer—what good it will do for the consumer, psychologically speaking. It is the meaning of the product that matters. And it isn’t just what is really good for the customer that counts but what the customer believes is good: if the customer doesn’t think that something genuinely good is really good, he or she will not buy it. This is why persuasion is always part of a functioning economy. Savvy advertisers know this very well, so they draw attention to the psychological benefits to be derived from a particular product—not its physical characteristics. A successful business must therefore be psychologically astute and psychologically attuned. It should also have a clear philosophical understanding of what it is up to.

Colin McGinn

[1] We speak of “dry goods” but we don’t speak of “wet goods”. Why?

[2] We also buy things to protect our lives, but we only value our lives because of the states of mind they make possible.

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Elements of Economics

Elements of Economics

Economics is aptly defined as the science of scarcity (we could say “systematic study” if “science” seems too strong). Philosophy of economics is then the philosophy of scarcity, or of the science thereof. It is in this vein that I write the present words. What, then, is scarcity? Here is a good definition: “Insufficiency of supply; lack of availability, esp. of a commodity, in proportion to demand; shortage” (Shorter OED). It does not mean the same as “rare”, which means “occurring very infrequently”; “scarce” connotes a lack of quantity relative to demand, not just statistical infrequency. Things can be rare without being scarce in the economist’s sense (e.g., the excrement of a dwindling species), because there is little or no demand for the thing. When we speak of demand, we don’t mean primarily a speech act of demanding (“I demand a pound of apples!”); we mean desire or need—preference, utility, degree of wellbeing. We mean a psychological state, expressible in demand behavior. So, we can say that scarcity is proportional to desire and availability: if desire is high and availability low, then the commodity is scarce; if desire is low and availability high, then the commodity is not scarce. Some commodities are not scarce at all: space, time, air, ground to walk on—we have as much of these things as we want (in normal circumstances). Economics is the study of scarcity in this sense: human action in relation to commodity shortfall (I include services under “commodity”); it is about what happens when scarcity obtains. If there is no scarcity, there is no economics, either the science or the behavior. Economic action is action under conditions of scarcity, not plenty. There is no economics in heaven; economics results from finite resources, insufficient goods, shortages of supply. (In hell by contrast everything desirable is scarce and everything undesirable is plentiful, especially pain.) In the real world, scarcity is a natural fact, a fact of nature, and economics deals with the human response to it.

It might be retorted that this definition is both too narrow and too wide. Too narrow because of non-human economic agents (animals, aliens), and too wide because it includes types of behavior not normally classified as economic. The first complaint is entirely correct: we want to make room for animal economic action, though it may be primitive and disputable (e.g., cleaner fish symbiosis), and clearly non-human intelligent aliens could have economies. So, let’s expand the definition to include non-human creatures that live under conditions of scarcity (though I will continue to speak of human agents for convenience). The second complaint is more difficult to resolve and calls for some revision of intuitions and common speech. Consider a predatory tiger hunting for food: the food is scarce relative to the tiger’s desire, but should we say that chasing and killing the prey is an economic act? The tiger is responding to scarcity in a desirable commodity, and is making a sacrifice in order to obtain the commodity in question (“paying a price” in energy expenditure and risk); but the prey animal is not doing anything similar—there is nothing in it for it. There is no exchange of goods, no voluntary mutually beneficial transaction; there is just the predator forcibly taking the life of the prey (compare simple robbery). So, is this an example of economic activity? There is scarcity, need, actual cost, and opportunity cost, so far as the tiger is concerned; but the prey animal is operating under no such set of conditions—it is simply running for its life. If the prey animal were to offer part of itself to the tiger, thus sparing the tiger the cost of chasing it, while preserving its own life, then we might have a case of economic exchange; but no such thing is going on as things actually are. I propose that we describe such a case as “asymmetric economic behavior”: it is an economic calculation for the tiger, but not for the prey. There is no economic exchange, but one party is acting under economic imperatives—coping with scarcity by sacrificing some of its own well-being (its own wealth, we might say). In the same way a human robber is acting under economic constraints by responding to scarcity by acts that carry costs (including opportunity costs). He is thinkingeconomically. True, this is not your typical purchase, but it does meet the conditions for cost-benefit calculation under scarcity. We can then define normal economic exchange as “symmetric economic behavior”, acknowledging a real distinction within the class of economic actions. The case is similar to the question of whether economic action is possible for an individual in isolation: can there be a “private economy”, an economy consisting of a single individual? It might seem that this ought not to be possible, but further reflection suggests that it is just an outlying case not typically encountered but conceptually possible. For consider a man alone on a desert island providing for himself: he lives under conditions of scarcity and must weigh his productive options—should he hunt, fish, farm, or just pick fruit? How much effort should he put into constructing his dwelling? He is a producer and consumer with limited resources and finite supplies of energy; he must provide for his future self under the same constraints as apply to interpersonal production and consumption. He is semi-economic man, but recognizably engaging in economic behavior: he is coping with scarcity by standard economic means—capital, labor, costs, production and consumption. He doesn’t buy anything from anyone else, but that is not essential to economic activity: the key point is that he is responding to scarcity by adopting economic methods. He knows his supply and demand, and he pays the price in terms of labor (he pays for desire satisfaction in the currency of labor, mental and physical). The basic elements are there. In particular, he must always be conscious of opportunity costs, just like any spender of money in a department store; he is always trying to get the best bang for his laborious buck. He plans ways to maximize his utilities given the prevailing scarcities. He may come to the conclusion that hunting for meat is just not economical given the realities of the chase; he is better off fishing or fruit-picking. The OED defines “economics” as “the branch of knowledge concerned with the production, consumption, and transfer of wealth”; by that definition the solitary individual can be classified as part of the subject-matter of economics (he even transfers wealth to his future self in the shape of stored food and re-usable tools). We should not let our conception of the economic be too tightly defined by reference to post-industrial money-centered economies; the basic concepts are more general, more primordial.

Inflation is not itself an essentially monetary phenomenon. Even in a bartering economy inflation can occur. A glut of apples will decrease the purchasing power of apples, as will the introduction of cheap labor into an economy (either wage labor or slave labor). You may find yourself having to do more to obtain less—work longer hours, skip vacations. It might be necessary to fight inflation by reducing the supply of apples or cheap labor (cf. printing less money). The same laws of supply and demand apply to money and to commodities. Banks don’t depend for their existence on money either: you could deposit your commodities in a bank too, earning interest on them, as the bank loans out deposits to interest-paying borrowers. There could be bank runs and financial crises (banks don’t have enough apples on deposit to pay for all the apple withdrawals). Money is just a contingent feature of economies. You could be taxed on your apple possessions and even on your labor resources (e.g., everyone has to pay a flat tax by working on the roads a few hours a week). A society could teach economics to students without even mentioning money (they don’t use the stuff); money is just one form that economic action takes. Economics is scarcity science not money science. When the singer sings that all he wants is money (“Money don’t get everything it’s true, but what it don’t get I can’t use”), he misspeaks; what he means is that he wants the opposite of scarcity—he wants not to be short of what he wants. Poverty is scarcity, desire dissatisfaction (“I can’t get no satisfaction” is more accurate), not a lack of funds.

There is another verbal deformation endemic to the way we talk economically: the division into consumer and producer. You would think there are two classes of people in an economy—those who produce (capitalists, manufacturers, entrepreneurs) and those who consume (customers, buyers, clients). But this is a misconception: everyone is both a producer and a consumer in the very act of economic exchange. First, note that sellers are not always makers of products (concrete consumer goods); people also sell their labor, their expertise, their talent. Philosophy professors are producers, as are actors and doctors and lawyers (et al). Nor is all consumption consumption (food being the paradigm): we “consume” lectures, pop songs, dental treatment, massages. We might better speak of “makers” and “takers”. Then we can say that every act of making is an act of taking, and vice versa. When you give me something I also give you something: you sell to me, but I also sell to you—in that very act. For example, I go to the supermarket to buy groceries: I buy from them, but they also buy from me—they buy my money with their foodstuffs. In exchange for my money, they give me food: they bought my money with their food. My money represents my labor, so they are buying the fruits of my labor with the fruits of their labor. They are consumers of my goods (in the form of money) as I am a consumer of their goods. The relationship is completely symmetrical. It is not that I am the passive (idle) consumer while they are the active (hardworking) producer; they are also the passive consumer of my money, in which I was actively productive. Everyone is simultaneously producer and consumer. I could go into a supermarket and say, “Would you like to purchase some of my money with your food items?” and not speak amiss. It is just a convention that we speak as we do, but it masks the realities of economic life. The relationship is not like speaker and hearer; in economic exchange every act is both an act of consumption and an act of production. The supermarket consumes my money in the very act of my consuming its food. One role entails the other. The two roles are indissoluble. So, it would be quite wrong to say that economies are divided into producers and consumers. Again, the model of industrial economies has too great a hold on the way we understand economic reality; and the institution of money disguises the nature of economic exchange. If I went into the supermarket ready to give philosophical lectures for food, that would convey the realities more clearly; the medium of money is incidental to the proceedings.

Economic reality should really be conceived as split-level. At the level of logical form, so to speak, it is all about scarcity, desire, supply, demand, markets, cost (actual and opportunity), production and consumption, conserving and using, materials and labor; but at the level of existing speech, as it were, it superimposes money, high-street banks, stocks and shares, exports and imports, bosses and workers, profits and taxes—all the apparatus of modern economies. I have tried to sort out the essential and foundational from the contingent and superimposed. Of course, it is worthwhile to study contemporary encrustations, but also worthwhile to distill out the underlying realities. Apart from anything else, it makes the subject more interesting. The science of scarcity need not be the “dismal science”.[1] Current expositions make it sound dry and dull, forbiddingly technical, remote from the human condition; but viewed more philosophically it connects with human life at a more visceral level. We live in a world of scarcity, a world brimming with unsatisfied desire. That is the basic subject-matter of economics, scientific and philosophical.

[1] Thomas Carlyle didn’t mean by this phrase that economics is dismal qua science (though that is often what it means to people today); he meant that it contains depressing truths about the human condition. I would describe it as a “pitiful science” in that it evokes pity for the life of man (and other animals) simply because scarcity is a terrible burden. Its most immediate impact is hunger. Hunger is the central fact around which economics is built.

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