Analysis of Mind




Forms of Analysis



Since Plato inaugurated conceptual analysis a certain pattern has recurred. His first stab at an analysis of knowledge broke it down into two parts: truth and belief. To know something you had to believe it and it had to be true. Neither element alone was sufficient (though both were necessary) but the conjunction of them added up to knowledge. We have a kind of conceptual equation: xplus yequals z. But then he noticed that this simple combination wasn’t enough for knowledge; it needed an extra ingredient. For it is possible to have true beliefs that aren’t knowledge, as when you accidentally hit on the truth. So he added a further element: justification. Now knowledge is a triadic concept: xplus yplus jequals z. The sufficiency of this was in turn questioned, but let us stop here for the moment. We could say that Plato discovered that truth and belief had to be coordinatedin some way in order to add up to knowledge: you have to believe the truth justifiably(rationally, non-accidentally, for adequate reasons, reliably, etc.). Truth and belief had to be suitably connectednot just exist side by side—you must have the belief becauseof the truth in order to have knowledge. Instead of belief andtruth, we need belief becausetruth. Knowledge breaks into two parts, but the parts don’t just sit there separately; they meld in some way. Knowledge is the kind of belief that resultsfrom truth. Thus a structure emerged: the concept breaks into two basic parts joined in a certain way, where this way features as an extra ingredient added to the basic ones. Knowledge is not a simple thing, but it is not a serial thing either; it is a composite thing—parts coordinated.

This structure is not confined to knowledge. What is perception? It consists of two parts: experience and object. In order to see an object you have to have an experience (a “sense-datum”) andthe experience must be veridical, i.e. there is a suitable object answering to it. You seem to see a table and there is a real table in front of you: neither is sufficient for seeing but if you combine them the upshot is seeing. There are two sides to seeing, as there are two sides to knowing–an internal side and an external side, a subjective side and an objective side. Seeing is a two-factor state, as we can see from conceptually analyzing it. But on further examination we see that seeing must be more than that, because these two conditions are not sufficient for seeing: there needs to be some connectionbetween experience and object; they can’t just be accidentally joined, as when you hallucinate a table but there happens to be a table just where you seem to see one. Thus it becomes natural to require that the two elements be causally connected: the object has to cause the experience. Again, this triadic analysis itself runs into problems of sufficiency, but let’s not be detained by that: what we must note is that perception breaks into two parts and the parts must be properly coordinated. Perception is experience becauseof object. There is an internal side and an external side, along with a relation of dependence. The form is: xbecause of yequals z. This is beginning to sound like a kind of lawof conceptual analysis—a recurrent pattern. And further inquiry confirms that diagnosis: for the same thing is true of memory. To remember a past event is to have both a memory impression and for the past to be a certain way: neither alone is sufficient for remembering but together we get memory. Mind and world supply the necessary ingredients–internal and external, subjective and objective. But again, the two elements cannot merely be conjoined, since you don’t remember something simply because you have a memory impression of it and it actually occurred—that could be so and yet you have completely forgotten the past event (the memory impression has some other source). You have to have the impression becauseof the past event (if you have it because someone randomly stimulates your brain, you don’t really remember). Once again, the concept has the form: xbecause of yequals z. Memory impression because of past event equals memory. Again, problems of sufficiency can be produced, but we won’t go into that. What we can say is that we now have three important concepts whose analysis follows the same pattern—quite an impressive record for the enterprise of conceptual analysis. Our putative law, in brief, then is this: Epistemic concepts break into two coordinated parts. Their analysis has the form: xbecause of yequals z, where xis subjective (internal) and yis objective (external).

Emboldened by this result we might wonder whether other concepts follow the same pattern. In the history of the subject this claim has not been ventured, but I propose to extend the pattern into other areas of the mind. First, and somewhat familiar, there is the concept of action: an action consists of an internal component and an external component, both necessary and (on the face of it) sufficient. To perform an action it is necessary (a) to will it and (b) for a bodily movement to occur, as when I open a car door. I don’t open the door if I merely will it and my body doesn’t move, and similarly if my body causes the door to open but not because of any decision or intention of mine (a sudden spasm, say). Action is willing plus moving—subjective and objective, inner and outer. The concept bifurcates into two. But again, these conditions need to be augmented to deal with a familiar problem, namely that both elements could occur and yet I don’t act. What if I decide to open the door and my body is caused to open it by some accidental event? Then we can’t say that I opened the door: I performed no action, though I tried to and my body did what I was trying to do (because of some random outside stimulus). Again, the cure for this is to require that the agent’s body moved becauseof the internal willing: the willing has to cause the moving. Now the causation is going from inner to outer instead of outer to inner, but the structure is the same: xbecause of yequals z. Moving because of willing equals acting. Again, there are going to be problems of sufficiency (deviant causal chains and so on), but we won’t worry about that here. The important point is that yet another concept falls under our generalization: the concept of acting emerges as a composite concept consisting of two elements, internal and external, joined by a coordinating factor. The mere conjunction of the two elements is never enough; we always need to add the extra ingredient. Is this perhaps the general form of psychological concepts? That would be an interesting discovery in conceptual science, would it not?

One might suppose that it could not be the general form of psychological concepts: for consider belief itself. Is that concept triadic in the way described? Where are the two elements here, and what might coordinate them? We now venture into virgin territory, but not without some prior preparation. Here is an analysis of belief with respectable credentials: For a subject Xto believe that pis for Xto stand in a certain relation Rto a sentence sand for sto mean that p. Intuitively, the subject assents to a sentence in the language of thought that means the content of his belief. For me to believe that the sky is blue is for me to internally assent to the sentence “the sky is blue” (or some synonym) and for that sentence to mean that the sky is blue. Thus belief is assent plus meaning: it is assenting to sentences with propositional content. These are two distinct conceptual elements that together add up to the concept of belief (we are supposing). One is psychological; the other is semantic. If you assented to a meaningless sentence, that would not be a belief, while the mere fact of a sentence meaning something confers no beliefs on anyone. Belief requires both things. But now comes the big question: do we need in addition a coordination condition? Is the mere conjunction enough? That would spoil our generalization (though not entirely), so we anxiously inquire whether our law can be preserved in this case. I think it can be preserved, happily, because the conjunction is notenough, and in a familiar way: you could assent to a sentence that means that pwithout thereby believing that pbecause you might not know what that sentence means. Suppose you are in a foreign country and hear the natives talking: you might accept what they are saying as true, and their sentences certainly have meaning, but you don’t know what they mean, and hence don’t believe what they say. You have to accept what they say becauseof what the sentences mean, not merely because the speakers look like a reliable bunch. You have to understand the sentences, not merely assent to them independently of understanding them. So the conjunction of assent and meaning is not enough.

But what if the sentence occurs in your very own language of thought? Here we must wax more reserche: suppose you have a psychological disability that prevents you from understanding the sentences coded into your genes, yet you have a credulous tendency to assent to these sentences anyway (maybe you think they wouldn’t occur in your mind if they were false, given the ways of natural selection). The sentences have meaning (inherited from your ancestors) but youdon’t grasp this meaning—yet you blithely and blindly assent. Ifthat were possible, this would be a case in which assent to sentences in your own language of thought would not suffice for having the corresponding belief; and conceptually there is clearly daylight here. What is needed to plug the gap is that your understanding of these sentences should play a role in your assent to them: that is, your assent must be becauseof their meaning (among other things). The two factors can’t just operate independently; they must be connected in the right way. Maybe we will find ingenious counterexamples even when this extra condition is added, but again that is not to the point—we have uncovered the same basic pattern in the case of belief too (given the suggested analysis of belief). Belief is assent because of meaning, to put it simply. (This means, of course, that the two-factor concept of knowledge embeds the two-factor concept of belief; or three-factor if we include the coordinating condition.) Belief might have struck us initially as logically simple, but upon analysis we see that it exhibits the same kind of structure that Plato long ago uncovered in the concept of knowledge (it only took us two thousand years). There are two parts to the concept, psychological and semantic, and a condition on their combination; put together we have the composite whole that is the concept of belief (and belief itself). Perhaps we reach conceptual bedrock with the concept of assent, or perhaps not, but there seem to be many ordinary psychological concepts that break down in the way described.[1]Just to have a grand label for our would-be law, let us call it “The Law of Coordinated Duality”, or more colloquially “The Mixed Doubles Law”. It is a law about how psychological concepts are constituted (or some of them), which is to say how the mind is constituted.

What about purely mental actions? Bodily actions divide neatly into two, inner and outer, but what about actions that go on entirely within the mind? Again, we need to get imaginative if we are to discern a comparable structure. Consider mental calculation—calculating in the head. Since this is an action, it is willed—you intend to perform a certain calculation and proceed to do it. But there is also the event of calculation: symbols going through your mind. Someone observing these processes could use them to arrive at the same result you arrive at. So there is a willing and an execution of this willing. You perform the mental act of calculation if both things go on; thus mental action has the same fundamental structure as bodily action. But could there be a case in which the two elements are not properly connected, so that it is false that the person didthe calculation? Imagine an alien scientist who uses your brain as a calculator: he punches in questions and recruits your brain circuits to perform calculations, thus sparing himself the trouble of doing them himself. From the inside you experience symbols passing through your consciousness, but no feeling of willing the process to occur. You feel, as we say, alienatedfrom the calculation, because the alien is willing it not you (compare his causing mental images in your mind against your will). A calculation was occurring in your consciousness, but it wasn’t an action of yours. This is the analogue of the externally imposed bodily movement of opening the car door. Now suppose we add to this scenario your willing to do the calculation, but this willing is not the cause of calculation itself—the cause is still the alien. Intuitively, you still didn’t do the calculation: you willed it and it was done, but you didn’t do it. It just so happened that the alien caused the calculation immediately after you willed it yourself. The two together don’t add to your doing mental arithmetic—the calculation wasn’t your action. What is missing, obviously, is that the calculating didn’t occur becauseof your willing it, but because of the alien. So we need to amend the simple two-factor account by adding that the mental event of calculation was caused by the mental event of willing it. Calculation because of willing equals performing the mental act of calculating. Suppose that the calculation would not have occurred if the alien had lost interest in it, despite the fact that you willed it (maybe your brain’s executive functions are down); then you wouldn’t have done any actual calculating. Adding the alien-caused calculation doesn’t change this; you still didn’t perform the calculation. So again we have the two-factor analysis supplemented with a coordination condition. If you perform a calculation partly in your head and partly on paper, this result is more intuitively obvious, because now we can clearly separate the two side of the action: logically, inner calculating is just like outer calculating. It’s mixed doubles in the head.

Finally, we reach the hardest case: having an experience. Does thisbreak down into two separable components coordinated together? It may not; it may just be primitive (something has to be). At first sight two logically separable elements may be discerned: the experience and the having of it. To have an experience eis for eto exist and for you to have e. Experiencing is an experience andthe having of it. But in this case there seems no logical gap between the experience and the having of it: one entails the other. There is no separating the components, as there is in all the other cases. However, consider this strange scenario: your brain is hooked up to someone else’s brain in such a way that when he has an experience you automatically do, irrespective of what else is happening in your mental life (you know this is the set-up). For example, you have an experience as of a green truck because this other guy sees a green truck (you are at home lying in bed and think, “Oh boy, here we go again!”). The experience occurred in your consciousness but was it your experience? One wants to say that it was his experience intruding on your consciousness; you endured it but you didn’t haveit—it didn’t belong to you. That may sound wrong, because you certainly were the subject of an experience as of a green truck, but the question is whether it was your experience. The case is rather like possession: you are the subject of experiences that belong to the possessing demon, but it doesn’t follow that these experiences are (experienced as) yours—they are the demon’s experiences occurring in you. If it is logically possible for someone else’s experience to occur in you, then we have a possible case in which the experience occurs in you but isn’t had by you in the relevant sense. That would be the logical analogue of truth without belief or object without percept or past event without memory or bodily movement without willing or mental calculation without mental calculating. Conceivably the mind of a baby is like this: experiences occur in its consciousness, but we can’t say that it hasthe experiences, perhaps because a self has not yet fully formed. So there could be experience without the possessing relation holding between it and the subject.[2]Conceptually, it looks as if there is a logical chink here separating an experience occurring and its being possessed by a subject. No doubt this is all very obscure and difficult to pin down, but there is some sense of the kind of structural duality I have discerned. In any case, the matter is worth considering further if we are to determine how far our law of analysis extends. It is possible that the same basic conceptual architecture exists in this case but that it differs in significant ways from case to case. That would certainly be an interesting finding of conceptual science—a kind of structural universal found across a wide range of psychological concepts. Knowledge would then not be a unique case but simply one instance of something much more general. Two factors in combination would be a general feature of mental life.


Colin McGinn
[1]We might say that members of this family of concepts have the same body-plan, to borrow a term from biology—the same architecture, the same geometry.

[2]Could the possessing relation exist without the experience? That would be the logical analogue of belief without fact or percept without object, and so on. It seems hard to make sense of, since it would be the mind shorn of all experience. But maybe it does correspond to some sort of psychological reality in that the mind presumably has a pre-existing capacity to host experiences of different kinds—something like a blank slate. Whether it could exist in a state of pure possessing without anything possessed is hard to contemplate, but conceptually it seems like a distinction exists here. There is the experience and there is the fact that I have it.

2 replies
  1. Giulio Katis
    Giulio Katis says:

    Very interesting.

    I wonder if it is helpful to reify the ‘coordination’ part of this, and to think of it as if it were a process as well as a logical relationship. Consider an arrow: we could just think of the arrow as a coordination of the tail and the head, but we typically think of it as a thing in itself that has a tail and a head; and the meanings of the tail and the head (and how they stand in relation to one another) are bestowed through them being specific parts of the arrow. Similarly, in mathematics we think of a function (say x2) as a thing in itself that has a domain/source and a codomain/target. Or a circuit component with input and output wires – the wires can exist independently, but once joined as part of the circuit they take on the roles of inputs and/or outputs. By analogy, I wonder if it is helpful to think of the coordination you write of as a thing in itself that has a source (e.g. psychological aspect) and a target (e.g. semantic aspect), where the former stands in the relation of causation to the latter by virtue of the former being the source of the coordination and the latter being the target of the same (not another) coordination. The reason it may be helpful to reify the coordination is that we can then talk in terms of operations (various forms of compositions, maybe even feedback) to produce new ones (such as your example of knowledge being composed from belief). Also, as a process, we can ask questions about the state of that coordination, how it varies, is configured etc. With a nod to your book Prehension, take grasping a pebble in your hand. In line with your account, grasping the pebble is more than your hand being clenched and coincidently there being the pebble in your hand. But grasping is a process that requires something to sustain it, there is a type of feedback involved, and it can wax and wane; in fact, I may get progressively distracted until I forget about the pebble, and later notice my hand is clenched and happens to have a pebble in it, at which point the grasping process may be rebooted.

    Regarding experience, I don’t think we need to go to sci-fi or demons to deconstruct the having of it. It is possible to undergo what I would call a proto-experience for which there is no ‘having’, but moments later (while it’s imprint is still in working memory) to recall it; i.e. to engage unconsciously ‘on remote’ in some activity that you become aware of moments later. You are driving the car, your mind wanders and you realize you’ve driven a block without realizing it, and all of a sudden some images of what you saw or did while driving on remote pop into your mind. You engage in a complex high-speed interaction in a fencing bout or a BJJ roll in which you act on remote, and just afterwards you see it played out in slow motion. Even though these are memories of something you did/saw, they are not memories of experiences you had (rather, proto-experiences you underwent).

    One argument could be that having an experience is just the above but with the time gap compressed i.e. we are recalling the proto-experience almost simultaneously. And there is nothing more to it, no coordination connecting the two. And the extent to which we may later recall there being a sense of something more (of ‘having’ the experience) is an illusion, an enrichment of our memory imprints fabricated by the mind. We might ask ‘But recalling itself is an experience’, at which point the argument might be that recall is itself a proto-experience and it may be associated with an almost simultaneous recall of the recall. And so on. This line tends to remind me of Zeno, which we could avoid if we accept there is actually something (motion, coordination, etc) that is doing the joining (and providing the meaning).

    If the proto-experience is like the pebble, and the recall is like the clenching, then having the experience is like the grasping. But what is causing what in this coordination (or, perhaps more accurately, we should ask what causal relationships is the coordination imparting)? In the case of grasping, I have the pebble in my hand because I am clenching, but I am also in a sense clenching because I have the pebble. There is a feedback. In the case of experience, I am having the proto-experience because I am recalling it in real-time, but also the proto-experience is causing the recall. There seems to be more than one-way cause, wouldn’t you say? Although the nature of the causations in each direction seem to be different (maybe there is a sense one is more primary than the other).

    Maybe the capacity to have an experience was selected for precisely for the role it plays in associative memory formation given its coordinating, joining features: my memories of activities/thoughts/feelings become experiences that I had, connected with other aspects of me. “I” am a consequence of the joining, the coordination that comprised the experiences I had (and are reflected in my neurological structures).

    With regard to your last question: is it possible to grasp without grasping anything? Is it possible to just have the having aspect of experience? Certain Buddhism schools have a practice called Shamatha (that actually predates Buddhism), which is a training undertaken to sustain attention, develop balance, and cultivate powers of discernment. (It is undertaken in Buddhism as training preliminary to what they consider to be their core wisdom developing practices, and it can be done in an ethically neutral way just like physical yoga.) It often starts with attention on some object, or very commonly on breathing, and then can be directed towards activities of the mind (thoughts, feelings etc). In the Dzogchen tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, the practice culminates in what they call “Shamatha without a sign” or “Awareness of awareness”. I think this is close to what you are asking about.


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