Is Water Disgusting?

Is Water Disgusting?

Wet feces are more disgusting than dry ones. Suppurating wounds are more disgusting than non-suppurating wounds. Blood is disgusting, so is urine, so is saliva. The waterier something is the more disgusting it becomes. It is hard to think of dry things that are disgusting. Liquidity makes for disgustingness. One would think, then, that water is a disgust trigger, since it contributes to disgust. But it isn’t. True, stagnant or polluted water is disgusting, as is peculiar-tasting water, or muddy water; but water itself, pure water, is not generally found disgusting. Odd: oughtn’t it to be a potent source of disgust? Isn’t it the salient ingredient of objects of disgust? Remove water from the world and disgust is abolished, pretty much (even dry corpses are much less disgusting than moist ones). The slug, the fish, the slimy, the clammy—these are the animals most disgusting to us (not so the dry cat or elephant). Aren’t these things disgusting in virtue (partly) of their wateriness? And yet water itself is strangely non-disgusting—we even drink it! If water were not something we drink and bathe in, would we find it as non-disgusting as we do? Are we just habituated to its disgustingness? Compare fear: many people are aquaphobic and everyone knows the dangers of water. Hence, we are ambivalent about water: we like it and we are afraid of it (with good reason). Water can contain invisible microbes dangerous to health, so why don’t we exhibit a healthy ambivalence towards it—why isn’t it regarded as a potential disgust object? Disgust is close to fear (though not the same), but we don’t seem to have any disgust reaction to water as such. We fear rivers, lakes, and oceans, but we are not disgusted by them, even though the presence of water in other things occasions extreme disgust reactions (most liquids are made of water). A bowl of spit is regarded as highly disgusting, yet it is made mostly of water; if the water was distilled out, you could drink it (so long as you don’t know its salivary history). Dirty water is repellent; not so much the water in it, or even the dirt when dried out. This is puzzling, like so much about the emotion of disgust. What is going on?

As I say, habituation may be a factor, but it is hard to believe it is the whole truth. After all, we are intimately acquainted with feces, but their disgust value doesn’t diminish; we are not habituated to shit. The truth, I suspect, is that we are more disgusted by water than we think, but we need it to live, so we accept the bargain. Notice how temperature makes a difference: lukewarm water is often perceived as mildly disgusting, to drink or bathe in. Cold water is “refreshing”, while hot water is “cleansing”; body-temperature water is too close to blood and spit and urine. People don’t thirst for a nice glass of lukewarm water, or look forward to a tepid bath. If you are not thirsty at all, drinking lukewarm water is pretty unpleasant; in fact, it is rather disgusting. Apparently, pregnant women often develop a distaste for water, especially at body temperature. Children often hate pure water, craving more taste in their liquid intake. It wouldn’t take much conditioning to get people to be repelled by water—just dwell on microbes and dirty pipes and suchlike. Even bottled water could be propagandized: all the bacteria in the earth, recycled plastic bottles, etc. We are not far from a general repulsion towards water; many people already can’t drink it at room temperature, and an outbreak of water-borne disease could turn people against water (suppose no such disease could be carried by Coca Cola). We think water is good for us in its pure flavorless form, so we force it down, but we could become persuaded that it is somehow contaminated and not good for us, triggering widespread revulsion. Can’t we imagine aliens who find water repulsive to drink and won’t go near it? Disgustingness is in the eye of the beholder to some extent, so we could become more disgusted by water than we are now. In future centuries we might wonder how our primitive ancestors could bear to drink it or wash with the stuff. Even today no one really likes water—the taste, the texture; it is a cheap thirst quencher not something to enjoy for its own sake. It would not be difficult to develop an aversion to water, say by a near drowning or being waterboarded. Our attitudes towards water are complicated and ambivalent; the balance could easily be tipped against water. People today don’t want to drink blood, finding the very idea repellent, even though their ancestors did it from necessity, and even relished it. The seeds of disgust might already be present in water. It certainly has one property closely interwoven into human disgust reactions: it straddles the life and death divide.[1] Water is essential to life, manifest in living things; but it is in itself lifeless, a mere chemical combination found in places unconnected to life (e.g., asteroids). Water is intrinsically lifeless and yet integral to life; thus, it partakes of both, like the corpse or excrement or spilt blood or toenails. Warm water is especially close to life while being intrinsically dead, because of the temperature of the body, so it can occasion thoughts of creaturely mortality. The vampire drinks warm blood and absorbs life; we drink warm water and feel our own organic warmth. We are 60% warm water, so drinking the stuff is uncomfortably close to our mortal nature. Water stirs deep (if suppressed) emotions of a discomforting kind. So, is water disgusting? A little bit, a little bit. It is more disgusting than diamonds, say, or empty space. It has its own quantum of disgust.[2]

[1] I discuss this in The Meaning of Disgust (2011).

[2] Water is essential to life, but it has no nutritional value: it is not a result of photosynthesis, like food in general. Can you think of anything else of which this is true that you willingly consume? Not pills or medicines (salt, perhaps, but not in large quantities). It is tasteless in pure form, so does nothing for the taste buds, and tasteless food is generally found inedible. It is surprising that we don’t jib at it more. The whole bottled water industry is an attempt to reconcile us to water consumption. We keep ourselves “hydrated”, but we don’t really enjoy the experience. We need water, but we don’t really desire it. We are reconciled to water, but we don’t love it. It’s like air except that we have to take it into our stomach. And it makes us into chronic urinators, which has its own disgust profile.

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Action as Selection

Action as Selection

The causal theory of action maintains that reasons cause actions, reasons being combinations of beliefs and desires. This doctrine is supposed to provide a uniform account of the “because” relation: action is produced in the same way any event is produced—by means of causation. Cars cause bridges to collapse; reasons cause actions—it is all one. I think this misses an important distinction: actions are selections among alternatives, but regular causation is not. The agent envisages several possible courses of action and then selects one, e.g., he wonders what to have for dinner, reviews the possibilities, selects one of them, and acts on it. He choosesfrom among a set of options. But ordinary non-mental causation is not like that: there is no selection, no choice, no contemplation of alternatives. Causation is operative but it is not selective. When the agent chooses what to eat for dinner, he rejects all but one of the alternatives that occur to him: he chooses not to eat those things. So, his final desire has a negative component: in choosing to eat sushi, say, he chooses to reject pizza or curry or bananas. The intentionality of desire is complex: I want to do X and not Y or Z. It is this selective desire that causes the eventual action. Ordinary causes are not like that: they have no intentionality, let alone this kind of negative intentionality. But rational causes (reasons) have this kind of selectiveness built into them.

This has a bearing on the question of freedom. For an action to be free it must be the result of choice, but choice is only possible if there are alternatives to choose from, known to the agent. If reasons did not have the intentional structure I just specified, acting on them could not be considered free. The compatibilist says that an action is free if and only if it is caused by the agent’s desires, but that formulation doesn’t yet introduce the idea of alternatives. If the operative desire were not embedded in an array of alternatives, it could not count as generating a free action. But upon analysis we see that desire is always constituted by such an array, considered by the agent, so the compatibilist theory has what is needed to account for free action. It is in the nature of desire to be selective (accepting and rejecting); acting on a desire will thus always involve an array of alternatives. However, we need to make this explicit: free action is acting on one’s desires, viewed as selecting from among alternatives. It isn’t enough just to act so as to satisfy a desire for a certain thing; that thing has to be selected from an array of possible alternatives. Our agent selects sushi instead of pizza etc.: his desire includes rejecting the alternatives—he desires not to have those other things. Free action results only when this condition is satisfied. Reflex actions thus don’t count as free, since no alternative was considered and rejected. The causal theory of action thus needs to be supplemented and refined in order to make room for compatibilist freedom, but that seems perfectly feasible given the nature of desire. Desire is multi-pronged.[1]

[1] Is this a kind of holism? It does discern complex structure in human desire, but this is not a structure of separate desires. The desire for sushi for dinner is the desire not to have alternative things for dinner: the intentionality of the desire includes rejecting alternatives. This is not the same as having many desires operating together. That may or may not be true, but it is not the point I am making; I am making a point about the structure of each desire.

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Can the Universities Survive?

Can the Universities Survive?

There is a crisis at American universities: a crisis of stupidity. It has been brewing for a while, but it intensified beginning around 2012. How much stupidity can a university take before it ceases to be a university, before it collapses under the weight of its own stupidity? The DEI craze was stupid, but so is the backlash against it. Title IX became stupid. The whole thing about Israel is stupid—the protests and the response to them. The students are stupid, so are the administrators, so are the professors. People talk rubbish constantly. I no longer work at a university. I haven’t been on a university campus for over ten years (I’m banned from the one I used to work at and I haven’t been invited to any others), but I can see from the outside that things have gotten, well, stupid. Universities used to be places of intelligence—that was the whole point—but now they are places of politics (the art of the stupid). Why is this? I don’t know, except that intelligence is hard and stupidity is easy; it will grow if given the chance. Philosophy, in particular, has succumbed to stupidity. Philosophers nowadays seem to revel in it. Just look at the blogs. I can’t tell you the levels of stupidity I have had to put up with over the last few years, and from people I thought quite intelligent. We know that people are a pretty bad lot, but at least they weren’t completely stupid. Now stupidity is thought admirable, virtuous. It’s an epidemic, a Covid of the mind. I wonder how long the universities can survive in their traditional form.

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Free Mind

Free Mind

Philosophers of free will usually focus on bodily action. Does anything change if we switch to purely mental actions such as thinking and imagining? Suppose a man is imprisoned: we would normally say that he is not free to do what he wants as far as his body is concerned, but he is free so far as his mind is concerned. He is not free to go to the corner store, but he is free to imagine doing that. He can think whatever he likes, but he can’t move his body in whatever way he likes; he is physically coerced or controlled, but not mentally. The compatibilist says he is mentally free but not physically free. That seems like an eminently reasonable thing to say—simple common sense. It would sound paradoxical to say that he was equally unfree both physically and mentally. If we add that the prisoner’s mental acts are determined by his desires, we seem not to detract from his freedom.[1] The reason he imagines as he does is that he has certain mental states, variously called desires, wants, wishes, inclinations, feelings, likes, and attitudes, which lead him to act as he does mentally; that is precisely why he acts freely. So the compatibilist maintains, and he seems right on the money—free action is doing what one likes because one likes to do it. It is going to take philosophical work to dislodge the compatibilist from this commonsense position. Notice that no reference to the body is made in this telling of things: the action takes place wholly within the mind; the body doesn’t move. Intuitively, the action was as free as any action could be—what more could possibly be wanted of freedom? This kind of action is a paradigm of free action: how can there be a problem of whether free will exists with regard to such actions? Free action is acting on one’s desires (etc.) and that is what we do when performing purely mental actions. A shade more theoretically, free action is action caused by desires (using the term in the broadest sense), and we do that all the time; therefore, we are free. If an action is not caused by one’s desires, then it is not free—say, it is caused by someone else’s desires or some sort of brain defect. An action is free if, but only if, it is (appropriately) caused by one’s desires.[2] It is harder for other people to influence your ability to think or imagine what you like than to control your bodily movements, so you are freer in the former area than the latter. But in both cases, you can act according to your desires, so you can be free to act with your body as well as your mind. All this seems pretty straightforward.

But things get more complicated for the compatibilist when we consider bodily action. In that case, the action involves movements of the body, and these are caused by internal states of the agent’s nervous system. This may also be true of purely mental acts, but it is not so obviously true—we can ignore it in the case of mental acts. But in the case of bodily actions there is now a clear rival to the explanation in terms of desires and other mental states, viz. internal states of the body. Indeed, such internal states look like the correct explanation of the movement in question, since physical events have physical causes. When the effect is mental, however, we have no such compelling reason to wheel in extra-mental causes. That is, bodily action involves us in the idea that actions have physical causes; maybe mental actions do too, but this is not something pressed upon us by the phenomena. And now we start to see a threat to freedom of action: for the physical causes of bodily movements are not desires, and freedom exists only when the action is caused by a desire. It isn’t determinism that undermines freedom; it is determinism by non-mental causes. Freedom actually requires determination by mental causes, chiefly desire, but it is ruled out by the existence of non-mental (i.e., physical) causes. Free action must (according to the compatibilist conception) be caused by desires, but bodily movements are not so caused, so they are not free. There is no such argument against the freedom of mental actions, since they are not bodily and hence don’t cry out for physical explanation. In other words, the incompatibilist position is more compelling for bodily action than mental action. Determinism is not the issue; the issue is what kind determinism, mental or physical. Physical determinism rules out freedom even if you are a compatibilist, because it invokes non-mental causation in the explanation of action. An action is free only if it is caused by desire, not by brain states. If epiphenomenalism were true, desires would not cause actions, only brain states would, so action would not be free according to the compatibilist credo. Desires have to be the reason people act as they do, or else they are effectively coerced by something other than their desires, something non-mental. So it is natural to suppose.

There is an obvious way out: identify desires with brain states. Then causation by suitable brain states iscausation by desires. But this involves taking a controversial stand on the mind-body problem: we are free only if the mind-brain identity theory is true, i.e., freedom requires physical reductionism. We might have hoped not to be saddled with such a heavy metaphysical commitment in our efforts to save freedom. We could try claiming that bodily movements are not caused by brain states, but only by desires, but that is a hard pill to swallow. Or we could go for a more complicated position (supervenience, token identity without type identity, functionalism, etc.); but now we are up to our neck in the mind-body problem. The lesson is that the free will problem is deeply connected to the mind-body problem: we won’t know whether we are free until we have solved the mind-body problem. That is, we won’t know whether we are free in the way required by the (plausible) compatibilist definition of freedom until we are clear about how, if at all, the mind acts causally, i.e., how it relates to the causal machinery of the brain. If the mind really does cause movements of the body, and nothing else does, then we have freedom in the defined sense; but if the brain, as distinct from the mind, carries the causal burden, then we are not free, because then desire isn’t the cause of bodily action. The question of freedom must remain murky so long as these questions are not resolved. We may be free, if desires cause actions in the required way, but we may not be, if they don’t. To put it intuitively, desire must cause action directly and intimately in order that action be free, but we don’t really know whether this is true or not, because we don’t understand the mind-brain nexus. This is why freedom comes under threat: not from determinism as such but from the involvement of the physical world in the causation of action. If anything otherthan desire is responsible for the production of action, then the compatibilist conception of free action is undermined: but that is something far from clear, pending a resolution of the mind-body problem. Of course, this means that if the mind-body problem cannot be solved, neither can the free will problem be solved. We know what it would be to be free, but we don’t know whether those conditions are in fact satisfied in the real world. The incompatibilist thinks he knows we are not free (because of the truth of determinism); the typical compatibilist thinks he knows we are free (given the correct definition of freedom): but really, we only know that we may be free (but may not be), given the uncertainty about the relation of mind and brain. My own feeling is that desire really does cause and explain action, both mental and bodily, so that the compatibilist position is correct: but I acknowledge that this is not demonstrably true. It feels like desire causes action, but that may be illusory, or partly illusory. I think mind and brain are inextricably connected, so that the causal story will inevitably award desire a central role in action causation, in which case it will be true that we are free in the required sense—desire will be the reason we act as we do. If so, bodily action will fall into line with mental action: both will involve causation by desire and only by desire (no intrusion of causes that can act as alternatives to the agent’s desires).

Perhaps ironically, it is dualism that acts as the greatest threat to freedom, because it suggests that action has a causal history that excludes desire, and hence it takes freedom away from the agent. The causation of action could become detached from the agent’s psychology, thus undermining the idea of doing what one likes as definitive of freedom. The identity theory, on the other hand, keeps desire in the center of free action by assimilating it to brain states, which cause bodily movements; but that theory is deeply controversial (perhaps not even intelligible in its classic formulations). We need a theory of mind and body that makes desire the true cause of action but doesn’t sideline the brain completely. This is none too easy a thing to do. Thus, the difficulty of the free will problem owes a lot to the difficulty of the mind-body problem. Still, the bogeyman of determinism is beside the point: freedom entails determination, though it must be determination of a specific kind, viz. desire-based determination. What is incompatible with freedom is the idea that our actions are notcaused by our desires, because then we are not doing what we would like to do (what we like could easily include what we think is morally right). True, freedom consists in acting from one’s desires, but do we really act from our desires, as opposed to physical states of the brain? That is the question.[3]

[1] In this paper I presuppose the compatibilist position; the problem I discuss arises from within this tradition. I have defended compatibilism elsewhere.

[2] I put aside the deviant causal chains problem.

[3] If you take a moment and review the possibility that your actions stem from deep within your brain, instead of from your manifest desires, you will feel your sense of your own freedom evaporate; you will start to feel like a puppet. You will not feel like the master of your own destiny.

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Cosmological Phenomenology

Cosmological Phenomenology

There are many types of intentional object, each with its associated phenomenology: physical, psychological, mathematical, linguistic, ethical, aesthetic, spatial, temporal, non-existent. I will be concerned with a rather extensive object—the universe. How does the universe present itself to consciousness? What suite of seeming (if I may put it so) is peculiar to this intentional object? What meaning does it have for us? The first point to note is that this meaning has changed over time, dramatically so, because astronomy has changed. I am talking about cosmic phenomenology under contemporary astronomy in contrast to pre-modern astronomy. I won’t rehearse the modern astronomical picture, or the old one, assuming that it is familiar enough.[1] We used to think there was one sun that revolved around us, and we had no reason to doubt that other planets (“stars”) had other civilizations on them. We now know that there are billions of stars just like the Sun, and we have every reason to suppose that life is rare in the universe, certainly in the nearby universe. So, there has been a kind of reversal in our picture of the universe: we thought the Sun was special and unique, while conscious beings were common and plentiful; now we see that the Sun is just one among a great many such objects, while conscious life is markedly confined in scope. The Sun is nothing special, but life is very special, only occurring in isolated pockets of the universe. Stars are ten a penny; minds are rare gems. Conscious beings are common on Earth, to be sure, but planets like Earth are few and far between. From an economist’s standpoint, stars are not scarce in the universe, and thus a dime a dozen, while minds are in relatively short supply (so far as we know) and therefore worth a king’s ransom. Stars are also just condensed clouds of dust (hot squashed dirt), while conscious beings are impenetrable mysteries of nature. What even isconsciousness? How did it arise? It isn’t squashed (or stretched) anything. Thus, our perspective on the universe has changed quite drastically: suns don’t command worship anymore, but conscious beings arguably do (reverence at least). Animals on Earth, particularly humans, are now the gods of the universe, not those glittering points of light in the night sky. The extraterrestrial universe has been de-mystified, naturalized, demythologized.

How else has our cosmic phenomenology changed? There are three basic aspects of the way we now view the universe, which I abbreviate to SIC—Small, Improbable, and Contingent. We now appreciate how small we really are compared to the rest of the universe, i.e., how small our neck of the woods is; even everything visible to us is only a tiny part of all there is out there. In the past we had no reason to think the universe much larger than the Earth (the Sun seemed relatively close and small); now we appreciate how miniscule our sector of the universe is compared to the whole. Thus, our current cosmic phenomenology is that of unimaginable distances and sizes. Second, we now understand that we are extremely improbable: it is only by remote chance that we exist at all; in most parts of the universe there is nothing like us (as far as we know). On the earlier conception, our existence was not improbable at all—we were what the universe was designed for. We were the point of the whole thing, what it naturally leads to or accommodates. Now we see that it was a just a massive fluke that we came to exist at all. Third, our existence is highly contingent: we are not a necessary feature of the universe. We used to think of ourselves as essential to the universe, but now we see ourselves as radically contingent—much more so than the stars and planets. This makes us feel alienated from the universe: it is not generally hospitable to us, but inimical to us. There are very few places, apart from planet Earth, where beings like us could survive. The universe could easily have skipped life and consciousness altogether, as it has for vast stretches of its geography. The universe is an in-itself that contains no hint of a for-itself that takes itself as intentional object. It is mind-indifferent in its general nature, only producing mind in isolated spots, possibly only one spot among countless billions of other potential spots. We are not at its ontological center but in its anomalous periphery, a freak exception. There could have been no beings like us and the universe would have existed in its present form nonetheless. The thought of the universe is thus the thought of something that is sublimely indifferent to our existence. Big hot stars are part of the predictable natural order, but we sentient beings are just a kind of local curiosity, despite our importance to ourselves. This is all part of the phenomenology of our intentional relation to the universe as it is now constituted.  We used to be the point of the whole arrangement, but now we are just a point. We have been demoted in the great scheme of things. We just happen to be, and will die out as unceremoniously as we arrived. We are small, improbable, and contingent—a mere blip in the universe’s history. This is what modern astronomy has taught us, shaping our consciousness of the universe and our place in it. It is not easy to digest.

A vivid illustration of this is provided by black holes (aka “dark stars”). There are two salient features of black holes: their absolute darkness and their extreme power. The black hole is antithetical to life: an inescapable dark place of implacable gravitational force. No light can escape its grip, and it crushes everything that falls into it. There can be no life in a black hole. This is not the traditional image of a cosmos generously created by God for human habitation and flourishing; you can’t raise a family in a black hole, or enjoy a game of croquet. But black holes are everywhere apparently, including at the center of our galaxy; they are inevitable, a result of deep laws of nature. Yet they are totally inhuman—the very opposite of life-affirming. They are life-denying. A lot of the universe is like that: life-denyingly hot or cold, destructively stormy and cruelly crushing, no place for life to take hold. The black hole is the embodiment of annihilating power. This is why it grips the human imagination, shaping our modern consciousness of the world in which we live. That is what nature is all about, its true identity, not soft life and gentle consciousness. It would be different if we had discovered other hospitable planets and nurturing suns, full of teeming life and mind; but instead, we have found lifeless life-denying brute matter—even the water out there is frozen solid for all eternity! Phenomenologically, the universe is a bleak and unforgiving desert. And it begins at our back door: even our neighboring planets are bereft of life and quite inimical to it—lumps of dead rock, basically. We exist by the skin of our teeth and extinction is an all-to-real possibility (global warming exemplifies the destructive power of cosmic chemistry). Our consciousness of the universe is shot through with images of peril, reflecting the universe in its true colors; a welcoming place it is not. The black hole is just an extreme manifestation of the mindless violence of nature. Thus, our cosmic phenomenology is permeated by ideas of death and destruction. Stars are created only to violently destroy themselves; they have predictable life-spans and self-annihilate on a regular basis, sometimes quietly, sometimes spectacularly. The universe itself will one day run out of fuel and end in dark deadness. Starlight will be extinguished completely–there will be no sparkling stars anymore. The intentional object known as “The Universe” has gone from being God’s eternal creation designed for human flourishing to being a death machine destined to annihilate all life and eventually itself. That is the phenomenology that modern cosmology has bequeathed to us, though one seldom hears of its bleaker pronouncements (it’s always reported as dealing with the “the beauties of the night sky” etc.). It hardly bears thinking about and I wonder how much human gloom stems from it.[2]

[1] Readers may wish to immerse themselves in the Smithsonian Universe (2020), edited by Martin Rees, a chastening experience (exhilarating too). The book is as big as its subject (nearly).

[2] This is an essay in philosophical-scientific belles-lettres and should be read as such. It is neither astronomy nor philosophy, except in an extended sense. Still, there is room for such ruminations, perhaps a need for them. There is very real despair at the heart of modern cosmology.

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Developmental Philosophy of Mind

Developmental Philosophy of Mind

Developmental philosophy of mind is an undeveloped field. There are two questions: phylogenetic and ontogenetic. How did the mind as it now exists develop over evolutionary time, and how does it develop in the individual? Like developmental psychology, it is natural to adopt a stage conception of these processes: what stages does the mind go through to reach its mature state (as currently conceived)? There are successive discrete stages, characterized by distinctive principles, that predictably occur and which prepare the organism for subsequent stages. Each stage enriches the previous stage, possibly subtracting certain features, and which is required for the more sophisticated stages to emerge (think Piaget). There are continuities and discontinuities, smooth ascents and abrupt leaps; there is no reduction of the later stages to the earlier stages. What we find are modifications of earlier traits to serve new functions, neither complete novelties nor mere re-applications. Thus, we may speak of an X-type stage giving rise to a Y-type stage. Given that ontogeny often recapitulates phylogeny, we might expect some parallelism in these two sequences. Of course, the brain of the organism in question will contain the necessary equipment for each stage once the phylogenetic process has done its work, but it may be that it manifests its evolutionary history in particular cases. I will be focusing here on the phylogenetic question, while keeping an eye on the ontogenetic question; I want to know the likely evolutionary history of the mind. What progressive sequence led to the mind as it now exists in human beings (and perhaps other animals with a relatively sophisticated psychological set-up)? What intelligible process of modification might have led to the mind as it now is? What is the natural history of human psychology? How did it start and what transformations did it undergo over evolutionary time?

The story I will outline should not be unfamiliar, though the ordering might seem eccentric. It runs as follows: sensation—perception—memory—imagination—thought–language. I am going to be brutally brief; the field is enormous, though well-trodden. We begin with sensation conceived as information-bearing but not fully representational, rather like the sensation of pain.[1] The sensation is correlated with worldly magnitudes and this correlation is relevant to the survival prospects of the creature in question—as it might be, subjective intensity and chemical gradients indicating a food source, coupled with suitable motor capacities. Yet there is nothing corresponding to the predicative attribution of a feature to objects in the environment—nothing that can be evaluated as veridical or inaccurate. This is sensation without perception proper. The next stage, then, will be the development of genuine perception, which does involve a kind of primitive semantics. This is a large step forward (it might have taken millions of years to establish itself in some sea-dwelling creature, say an octopus). The sensation is preserved but modified into a new psychological category: seeing x as F—a particular thing in the immediate environment represented as being a certain way. Next, we find memory: the perception is retained in some sort of storage facility, available for later use. This also is a major step forward, however inevitable it seems to us today—animals might never have remembered anything, or very little. However, it does exploit pre-existing psychological features in the form of perceptions: it is these that are remembered, stored for later use. We might conjecture that sensations per se were not remembered; only representational perceptions were deemed fit to be preserved. So, now we have remnants of perceptions stored in memory in some form, cut loose from their originating causal connections to the external world. What follows is predictable: the emergence of the imagination. Mental images are formed from the materials of memory: the organism becomes capable of conjuring up such images (say, of its regular prey). Stimulus-freedom has entered the mental world of Earth-bound creatures. Soon the isolated image was subjected to manipulations and emendations, so that imagination begins to get a grip—the boundless capacity for invention, novelty, free expression.[2] At this point we might postulate a hiatus: the mind gets stuck at the imaginative stage; millions of years go by without any major developments to report. Then, slowly and tentatively, something new and different begins to stir: concepts, the building blocks of thought. Some enterprising species (probably that innovative octopus) develops thought, along with reasoning. This is certainly a giant step forward, though its biological function might be obscure; it takes a considerable architectural re-configuration. There is still sensation, perception, memory, and imagination in the organism’s repertoire, folded into the new cognitive capacity, but something original has come into the world—the thing we call thinking. In due course, this would be capped by the upsurge of language, a vehicle for thinking and communicating thoughts. We thus reach the level of words. There was no straight path from sensations to language; that was not a suitable pre-adaptation that might intelligibly lead to words and sentences. But the intermediate stages provide an adequate jumping-off point, when suitably supplemented, for language to get a grip on the mind. Thought and language are the culmination of the series of developmental changes that resulted from sensation in its primitive form. As nebulous cosmic clouds lead eventually to star formation, with associated solar systems etc., so inarticulate clouds of sensation lead to the formation of more differentiated psychological characteristics, one step at a time. There is a natural developmental sequence, a predictable history. Of course, we don’t know much (if anything) about the mechanisms of such psychological ascent—we know much more about star formation—but we can suppose that natural processes account for the sequence we observe or postulate. History can be a mystery, but it happened somehow. The point is that we have a plausible story to tell about how it might have happened in the case of the phylogeny of mind. It’s rather like the emergence of feathers and flight in birds: initially feathers functioned as thermal regulators in dinosaurs, but in the fullness of time they were coopted to serve as means of flight. Evolution makes use of what it finds lying about; it can’t just magically conjure complex organs from nowhere. According to the developmental story I have sketched, just this kind of opportunistic tinkering is what drove the evolutionary development of mind. It is what made the modern mind possible. There is a natural ordering of mental faculties. Perhaps the child’s mind goes through a similar sequence: from sensation to perception, then memory, followed by imagination, leading to thought and language. Much of this is no doubt shrouded in mystery and occurs early on in the child’s mental life, but it doesn’t sound too farfetched or thrown together. The child achieves in about three years what it took life on Earth to achieve in billions of years (but then the child has a brain that is the upshot of those billions of years).

Superimposed on the developmental story I have told is a grand dichotomy: that between the propositional and the pre-propositional. We might think of this as the analogue of the dichotomy between the cold-blooded and the warm-blooded. Up to time t animals got by without anything propositional running through their heads; after t propositions found their way in. Minds began to grasp propositions and think real thoughts. I doubt this happened at the early stages of mental history—not even including the time of the imagination. It arrived late in the game—before language, I would say, but not before thought proper. Even today the human imagination is not essentially propositional, though propositions have infiltrated it (imagining-that); it is still largely perceptual in nature, though not a form of perception. Natural language is heavily propositional, though not exclusively so. The proposition now enjoys a kind of psychological hegemony, but it isn’t an absolute tyrant; it coexists with other psychological ingredients and remnants, with which it has obscure historical connections. It may be regarded as a watershed adaptation, requiring a new and challenging kind of mental athletics (logical reasoning etc.). Did it have any precursor in the evolution of animal brains? How much of a saltation is it? What is it a modification of? Whatever the answers to these questions may be, there is clearly a big distinction between two types of animal mind: those that can engage with propositions and those that cannot.

Animal bodies evolved in an orderly sequence, each body plan building on earlier ones. This was a long, drawn-out process, subject to all the pressures of natural selection. What we see now is the end product of this complicated history. Likewise, the mind evolved over billions of years, subject to the same pressures, each adaptation building on previous adaptations, with deletions and additions. It went through specific eras and phases. This sequence is not random or shapeless; it has a certain “logic”. Developmental philosophy of mind tries to discern the patterns and interrelations, the innovations and consolidations. It doesn’t just happen any old way. Broadly speaking, it is a story of increasingly refined intentionality, culminating in the phenomenon of linguistic meaning, but with useful remnants of the past still in play.[3]

[1] See Tyler Burge, Origins of Objectivity (2010), chapter 9, for a discussion of this distinction.

[2] See my Mindsight (2004) for a discussion of imagination.

[3] If we want to understand the human body, we do well to consider its evolutionary origins. Similarly, if we want to understand the human mind, we do well to consider its evolutionary origins. I am campaigning for a Darwinian perspective in the philosophy of mind, as there is already a Darwinian perspective in psychology. Of course, this is perfectly consistent with a more synchronic investigation alongside the diachronic one. (None of this means that I sign on to all so-called Darwinian approaches to the mind, and I don’t.)

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Stephen Hawking: Logical Positivist

Stephen Hawking: Logical Positivist

Reading Stephen Hawking’s The Universe in a Nutshell (2001), I came upon the following passage: “Any sound scientific theory, whether of time or of any other concept, should in my opinion be based on the most workable philosophy of science: the positivist approach put forward by Karl Popper and others. According to this way of thinking, a scientific theory is a mathematical model that describes and codifies the observations we make… If one takes the positivist position, as I do, one cannot say what time actually is. All one can do is describe what has been found to be a very good mathematical model for time and say what predictions it makes” (31). Later we read: “But as a positivist, the question ‘Do extra dimensions really exist?’ has no meaning” (54). Then: “From the point of view of positivist philosophy, however, one cannot determine what is real. All one can do is find which mathematical models describe the universe we live in.” (59) More: “From a positivist viewpoint, one is free to use whatever picture is most useful for the problem in question” (118). Additionally: “The mathematical model of black holes as made of p-brains gives results similar to the virtual-particle pair picture described earlier. Thus from a positivist viewpoint, it is an equally good model, at least for certain classes of black hole” (127). Finally: “However, from a positivist viewpoint, one cannot ask: which is reality, brane or bubble? They are both mathematical models that describe the observations” (198). In his glossary Hawking defines positivism as follows: “The idea that a scientific theory is a mathematical model that describes and codifies the observations we make” (206).

What should we say about these pronouncements, none of which is defended in the book? One would not think that positivism has been a dead letter in philosophy for many decades, for well-known reasons (which I will not rehearse). Alarm bells are sounded in the first quotation when Hawking identifies Popper as a positivist: he was explicitly and vociferously not a positivist. The idea that Hawking is taken with is that scientific theories don’t describe reality or purport to say what is true but rather provide “mathematical models” (whatever they are—we are not told) that can be “useful” in making “predictions”. They don’t tell as what things are or how they work but merely provide “good” models (“pictures”); the former type of question “has no meaning”. A scientific theory merely sums up (“describes and codifies”) the observations; it does not attempt to arrive at the truth about what these observations are observations of. This is good old-fashioned instrumentalism, a descendant of classical empiricism. So, the heliocentric theory of the solar system is not true or accurate—a correct description of real things—but merely a useful device for predicting the movements of the planets (themselves just ways of summing up our observations). Darwin’s theory of evolution is not a true account of how actual species came to exist but just a “mathematical model” of our biological observations. Anything else is literally meaningless. I won’t go into the very familiar arguments against such ideas; what is remarkable is the way Hawking adopts an extreme positivism without even acknowledging that he is saying something highly controversial (I would say complete rubbish). He is a physicist attempting to talk philosophy and making a complete hash of it. He obviously has no idea what he is talking about, but that is no impediment to making confident philosophical pronouncements. Has he ever read any positivist literature (e.g., Ayer’s Language, Truth and Logic) or had a look at Popper’s writings? I doubt it. Instead, we are told what his “opinion” is, as if he has a right to say whatever he likes when it comes to philosophy, which is just a bunch of “opinions” anyway.

But there is a deeper and more disturbing point to be made: at least Hawking knows he is a positivist—he is aware that he taking a philosophical stance in his physics. I don’t know how many times I have read a physicist (Einstein is a prime example) and thought, “He is clearly making positivist assumptions but is quite oblivious to the fact”. They think they are just talking plain common sense with which no one could sanely disagree. Obviously, this kind of attitude is deeply embedded in the culture of physics as it is now practiced. It is simple verificationism: what is real is what is verifiable. Any questions that don’t yield to verification must be deemed meaningless. Reality reduces to what is humanly knowable by means of the senses. That is just terrible epistemology. Yet it is tacitly taken for granted by supposedly educated people. So, I am grateful to Stephen Hawking for laying his cards on the table, shocking is it may be to see what those cards reveal.[1]

[1] From the point of view of human vices, it is the sheer overconfidence of many physicists that really shocks me.

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Is the Universe Large?

Is the Universe Large?

If you study astronomy, it will be impressed upon you that the universe is large—very very very large, unimaginably so. The galaxies, their number, the distance between them, the travel times (even for light)—the universe is an extremely big object, much bigger than you thought, much bigger than anyone thought until quite recently. A feeling of awe routinely follows. I am going to argue that this is not true: the universe is not extremely large—it isn’t even large simpliciter. This is not because I have discovered that cosmologists have got their measurements wrong and the universe is actually much smaller than they thought; it follows rather from the semantics of the word “large”, from its ordinary meaning. The sentence “The universe is large” is not true (nor is the sentence “The universe is small”). The argument is in fact quite simple and obvious. Consider “Jumbo is large” said of an elephant. This sentence is true if and only if Jumbo is large for an elephant.[1] To be large for an elephant is to be larger than most elephants (or the typical elephant, or a normal adult elephant, or some such). That is, there is a (non-empty) comparison class presupposed in the original sentence, viz. the class of elephants. That is why a large flea is smaller than a small elephant—different comparison classes. We can thus define the positive use of the adjective in terms of the comparative use (and the superlative use too—the largest elephant is larger than all elephants). Crucially, there is no sense in the positive use unless there exists a suitable comparison class. So, what is the comparison class for “The universe is large”? A large what, we must ask. A large universe, of course: This (pointing at our universe) is a large universe—the adjective now standing in attributive position. It is large for a universe—i.e., larger than most universes. But there aren’t any other universes! There is just this universe; there are no other universes hanging out in the wings. There are no other universes for ours to be larger than, some smaller, some larger. Of course, the universe (note the definite article) is larger than the solar system or the whole Milky Way or a cluster of galaxies; but it is not larger than some other universe. That is the sortal term we need to make sense of the original claim, not “galaxy” and the like. The universe is certainly much larger than the things contained in it, but it is not larger than the other universes, because there are none. Maybe it is larger than some other possible universes, but that is irrelevant, since a small elephant is not rendered large by the merely possible existence of yet smaller elephants (nor is a large elephant rendered small by the possible existence of still larger elephants). No, the universe can only be meaningfully described as large if there are actual universes smaller than it—but there are none such. It’s like saying the Eiffel tower is a large Eiffel tower when there is only one Eiffel tower. The universe is not larger than some other existing universe, so it makes no sense to speak of it as large—larger than what exactly? Other objects exist within a class of similar objects between which comparisons of size can be made, but that is precisely what cannot be said of the universe (everything that actually exists). If there were such co-existing universes, then it would make sense to say that this one is large by comparison with them (say, twice as far across), but that is what is signally lacking. Nothing is inherently large or small—a comparison class is needed for such judgments—so it is meaningless to suggest that the universe itself might be large (or small).

Why then do we insist on talking this way? The answer is that we are tacitly describing the universe subjectively, by reference to ourselves and our local environment. Yes, the universe is vastly larger than us or our particular neck of the cosmic woods, but it doesn’t follow that it is large in any objective sense. We tend to think anything larger than us is large in an absolute sense: to be larger than us is to be large, period. But that is an anthropocentric perspective: there is nothing intrinsically large about the spatial-material macro universe, as there is nothing intrinsically small about the micro world of atoms, quarks, etc. A possible world containing only free-floating atoms has nothing small in it, as a world containing many objects the size of our universe has nothing large in it. When we speak of such things as large or small tout court, we are thinking of them in comparison with our size, but really there is nothing to these descriptions, objectively speaking. The world does not come into existence containing small things and big things, only bigger or smaller things. The terms are completely relative, either to us or to suitable comparison classes. Things have shape and other qualities intrinsically, but their size is a relational matter. If I describe a mountain as huge, I am tacitly comparing it to my own body; compared to a whole planet it is a mere speck.

The same point applies to other attributive adjectives used in astronomy and cosmology and physics—“hot”, “heavy”, “fast”, “strong”, and their antonyms. The Sun is said to be extremely hot in its interior; some elements are described as heavy; the speed of light is said to be very fast; some forces are said to be strong. But none of these uses is truly objective: things are said to be “hot” or “cold” relative to normal human (or animal) temperatures, and the same for “heavy”, “fast”, and “strong”. These uses are subjective intrusions into our descriptions of nature, or else technical terms defined by objective relations between things. To say that light travels very fast can only mean much faster than we can or faster than other physical things. Nothing is inherently hot or heavy or fast or strong: there is nothing of our subjective nature in them, and they all come down to physical relations described in comparative terms. Gravity, say, is only described as a weak force in comparison with the electromagnetic force; it is not weak in any absolute sense. In a possible world in which things regularly travel faster than the speed of light, it could be correct to say that light travels slowly, even very slowly. That is just the logic of attributive adjectives (of this class). Semantically, light could be a slow mover and the Sun’s interior pretty cool and black holes quite light (weight-wise)—it all depends on what is true of other things that form the comparison classes for these attributions. We must not commit the fallacy of misplaced absoluteness. The language of astronomy, cosmology, and physics is logically misleading and could do with an overhaul. It needs de-subjectivizing.[2]

[1] Attributive adjectives like “large” are said to be syncategorematic, needing the appended noun in order to have meaning. The sentence “Jumbo is a large elephant” does not mean “Jumbo is large and an elephant”.

[2] There are even emotional connotations to these words that have no place in rigorous austere objective science: “hot” and “cold” evoke more or less hospitable environments; “heavy” suggests something hard to carry or potentially crushing; “fast” is something we like in ourselves but not in a predator; “strong” connotes an admirable quality. Such words humanize what should not be humanized, i.e., the physical universe. Even words like “attraction” and “repulsion” are suspiciously anthropomorphic. The constellations are clearly human projections not hard objective astronomical facts. The Sun and Moon have been personified since the dawn of man.

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