Pathological Belief



Pathological Belief


There is something funny about belief: belief isn’t quite right in the head. The human belief system leaves a lot to be desired. Philosophers have been onto this for a while, noting the peculiarities of belief. Early on it was noticed that belief reports are referentially opaque: you can’t substitute co-denoting terms and be guaranteed to preserve truth-value. Someone can believe that Hesperus is the moon’s best friend and not believe that the Phosphorus is. So belief reports don’t have the logical form of a predicate applied to a subject; they are logically anomalous. This discovery provoked a lot of handwringing and even skepticism regarding the notion of belief. Perhaps there is no such thing as belief—that supposition would certainly remove the logical puzzlement belief occasions. And when are two beliefs the same? What makes one belief differ from another? Criteria of identity are sorely lacking. A properly scientific psychology might wish to eschew or otherwise scorn this element of folk psychology (the folk are a primitive and superstitious crowd). We don’t even know whether beliefs are “in the head”, and if they are not their causal powers look distinctly iffy. Then Kripke delivered his puzzle: belief is not only logically problematic; it is positively paradoxical. Pierre believes both that London is pretty and that London is not pretty—and yet he is a perfectly reasonable man. It is belief that is at fault in allowing such contradictory beliefs, not our friend Pierre (he reasons impeccably). If contradiction is not ground for banishment, then what is? Perhaps we should simply stop believing things, since belief is so fraught with logical and conceptual problems. We have stopped believing in specific propositions as human thought has progressed; maybe we should stop believing altogether. Why court paradox and conceptual incoherence? Belief just isn’t a very wholesome commodity, logically speaking; we would be better off without it. True, we would then have no means of assenting to a proposition, but that is a mixed blessing at best. Animals seem to get on quite well without full-blown belief (except those similarly afflicted), so maybe we should take a leaf out of their book. It is human belief that is problematic; other animals have different ways of negotiating the world (without indulging in referential opacity and contradiction-generating assent behavior). Time to refashion the human cognitive system and let belief quietly expire.

            That utopian hope is reinforced by a feature of belief that is less well explored by analytical philosophers, namely its irrationality. Not only is belief opaque and paradoxical; it is prone to the worst excesses of irrationality. People believe the strangest things on the slenderest of grounds: they positively leap at belief without pondering its reasonableness or possibly errant causes. This wouldn’t matter so much if it weren’t for another feature of belief—its connection to action. People act on these wacky beliefs: hard to believe, I know, given their wonky foundations, but lamentably true. Just consider the out-there ideologies that have permeated human culture and the horrific actions they have prompted. History would not be the same if belief were more responsible and controlled. Irrational belief is the cause of most of the atrocities that have marred human history. It is our capacity to believe crazy things (inter alia) that has led to massacres, pogroms, prejudice, religious wars, genocide, and all the other grotesqueries that bring such shame on the human race. Granted, we have some pretty nasty emotions too, and plenty of evil intentions, but it is our ability to believe garbage that really sets us splendidly apart. Our belief system is sorely lacking in proper regulation and rational self-criticism: people will believe anything if you say it enough times, and if it suits them so to believe. Belief is just too malleable, easily manipulated, prone to fantasy, emotion-driven, and just plain bonkers.  [1] It is a biological adaptation riddled with design flaws, faulty wiring, and damaging malfunction—a real lemon. It’s a wonder natural selection let it pass at all! It should have been eliminated long ago—and maybe it will be in due course.

            To get a sense of belief’s failings, imagine if its proneness to error resulted in something like visual illusion or hallucination: whenever you have a false belief about something it looks to you as if reality is that way. You believe that someone is an animal or a devil and lo and behold that’s what they look like—fur, four legs, no clothes, or horns, hooves, a demonic countenance. That is, your belief system intrudes on your visual system so as to make things appear as they are believed to be. This would result in massive visual illusion, a malfunctioning perceptual system, and a potential for accidents on a grand scale. Suppose you believe in ghosts: then ghosts would appear before you all night long. Or you falsely believe your husband is unfaithful and are promptly visited by vivid scenes of marital infidelity. Surely you would want to consult a doctor and get your eyes examined. But in the case of false belief we have a similar level of delusion that fortunately doesn’t commandeer our senses. Still, we might want to consult a belief specialist who can rid us of these wild suppositions and preposterous opinions. The whole problem is that people find their beliefs perfectly reasonable just because they have them, no matter how groundless and absurd they may be. The illusory nature of belief is not written on its surface, so falsehood can survive undetected and uncorrected. This is a dangerous way for a belief system to be. It leads to belief perseverance that is very difficult to curb.

            The problem, evidently, is that beliefs are just too unencapsulated (in roughly Jerry Fodor’s sense): they are far too prone to elicitation by factors quite irrelevant to their truth. Notoriously, beliefs are influenced by wishes and desires: people have a tendency to believe what they want to believe. This is a disastrous way to build a belief system—the very antithesis of what belief production ought to be. Why on earth did the genes ever construct brains that have this grievous flaw? Surely a minimal requirement on a good belief system is that it should notallow for desires to influence the course of belief formation—that’s the last thing that should happen! But that is exactly what the human belief system permits with giddy abandon (I see no evidence that animals are prone to such misfiring). Hopeless! Beliefs should only be formed by processes involving strict adherence to rationality, but in fact they come into existence for the strangest of reasons, or for no reason at all. This is a grievous fault in the whole system—like having teeth that break whenever you bite into something nutritious, or a tail that whips you in the face whenever you wag it. I can’t emphasize this point strongly enough: the human belief apparatus is appallingly designed, a complete mess, an utter balls-up. It needs to be totally overhauled, or simply consigned to the rubbish heap. It is true that it is possible by diligent effort and proper training to avoid the worst excesses of this defective contraption, but why should our brains present us with such a daunting task—which most people decline to undertake anyway? Animals don’t need rigorous drilling in critical thought and rational belief formation, so why are we so lacking? If there were a little white pill that could put an end to our chronic doxastic disease, wouldn’t we swallow it without hesitation? Surely we want to have healthy beliefs, like healthy teeth, and it is clear enough that our beliefs are all too often rotten misshapen embarrassments. I am not exaggerating: take a look at the average person’s belief system—it’s a complete mess in there (a hot mess, as they say). Who among us is sure that his belief teeth are as sound as they should be? Who can be certain that his desires are not exerting undue influence on his beliefs—after all, nothing in the brain is set up to prevent such a thing from occurring?  [2] We are saddled with a deeply flawed psychological apparatus that we are powerless to regulate with any guarantee of success. What we might call “Descartes’ nightmare” haunts us all: that our much-cherished beliefs are riddled with error and are products of irrational forces. For nothing about belief as it exists in humans can preclude large-scale lapses in veracity—beliefs are just too labile, too susceptible to manipulation. Shakespeare’s Othello can be read as a lamentation over the dire state of the human belief system: the title character has his beliefs manipulated and toyed with by a skilled exploiter of the weaknesses inherent in the human belief system. Othello is not a particularly dull or gullible man, but his beliefs are susceptible to influence from other parts of his psyche that have no place in rational belief formation. He represents us all: we are all the victims of a pathetically vulnerable psychological set-up that leaves us at the mercy of hucksters, tricksters, and our own weaknesses. The entire apparatus needs to be radically redesigned, or removed if the problems are too deep-seated. That was certainly the view of Mr. Spock as he bore witness to the frailty of human belief: he exemplifies the proposition that human belief can only be fixed by excising all emotion—an extreme position, no doubt, but one whose force is not lost on us. Humans diverged from other animals psychologically by developing a belief system with no precursor in the animal cognitive system; the result was something with an enormous downside, to put it mildly. Perhaps human language abetted this regrettable development by enabling excessive flexibility in the belief apparatus, in which case language has a lot to answer for. In any case, what we have to live with now is light years away from ideal. We could be forgiven for supposing that human belief is intentionally irrational—and hence intentionally harmful. I repeat: irrational belief is responsible for the worst excesses of human history. Just consider the ill effects of the belief that the white European races are naturally superior to all other races. Case closed. This is all possible only because belief in humans is so prone to error (motivated error, no doubt). If only we could stop Believing!

            This is why I speak of pathological belief: the problem lies in the nature of belief itself, or at least in the way that belief is embedded in the human psyche. It needs badly to get encapsulated, i.e. insulated from outside interference from other parts of the psyche (it needs to be more modular). We could simply cut the fibers linking the belief centers of the brain to the emotion centers (Chief Science Officer Spock would favor simply removing the emotion centers altogether), but one imagines ethical and other footling objections to such an evidently sound plan. Short of that I can only urge greater awareness of the architectural catastrophe that is human belief. We should regard our beliefs with extreme caution, as if they are dangerous animals, being conscious of their deceptive and credulous tendencies: they love to do stupid things and then conceal the fact under a mantle of apparent rectitude. They are not our friends; we should not trust them; we should question them at every turn. Wasn’t that Plato’s main message and Socrates’s constant plaint? We should regard our beliefs as potentially dangerous viruses not as cuddly little pets that will never let us down. There is definitely something funny about belief, and it isn’t funny.  [3]


  [1] In this respect it resembles fear, which is also highly labile. We easily acquire phobias that are hard to shed. There should be an analogue notion for belief: types of belief that are wildly excessive and out of sync with reality. This seems to be the state of most political belief.

  [2] It would be nice if there were something analogous to homeostasis in relation to belief—a mechanism that would automatically cool them down when they get too hot. As it is we have something like a positive feedback loop, as beliefs feed off each other to create ever more furnace-like conditions.

  [3] I am hoping that my rhetorical excesses here will be forgiven: it is hard not to get worked up about the perils of belief when one surveys the course of human history (including today). People are just far too in love with their beliefs.


Why Does Consciousness Exist?



Why Does Consciousness Exist?


I mean this question to be a question of biology: what adaptive purpose was served by the evolution of consciousness? Consciousness, like other biological traits, evolved because it contributed to the survival of the organisms that possess it, so there must be an answer to the question of what its survival value is. That is, consciousness has various distinctive properties and among them are properties that aid the survival of the organism (ultimately the genes): what are these properties? We might mention subjectivity and privacy—how do these contribute to survival? No answer suggests itself: would consciousness be less adaptive if it were objective and public? Why does it help a conscious state to perform a vital function that it can’t be known by others or can only be grasped from a particular point of view? So there must be another property or set of properties (perhaps less salient) that perform the necessary adaptive work.  There must be something about consciousness that makes it a worthwhile addition to an organism’s survival equipment.

            One feature of consciousness is familiar from the tradition: it is known about in a peculiarly intimate way. Consciousness is both self-intimating and infallibly known: it reliably informs us of what is going on within it, and when we form beliefs about it we are invariably correct.  [1] Let us say that it possesses the property of epistemic privilege—it is closely hooked into our epistemic faculties. For example, if you feel hungry, you know you feel hungry; and if you think you feel hungry, you do feel hungry. As it is sometimes put, consciousness is transparent—it is available to knowledge in a special way. Is this a happy accident of no biological significance or is it something that plays a vital role in the life of the organism? It may seem like a pointless luxury: the organism gets to know about its states of consciousness quickly and easily—nice for the self-centered organism, perhaps, but where is the biological payoff? The organism feels hunger pangs and immediately knows it—hunger qualia convey their existence swiftly to the organism’s cognitive system. It knows it feels hungry, that its consciousness is active in the hunger department: but this is not all it knows–for if it feels hungry, there is a very good chance that it actually needs food. There is lawful connection between needing food and feeling hungry: the latter strongly indicates the former. So the organism knows it needs food by knowing that it feels hungry. Knowing this it sets about getting food (other things being equal). It’s obviously good for the organism to know it needs food when it does, and the conscious state of hunger clues the organism in to when its food resources are depleted. So there is a two-stage process here: lack of food triggers conscious feelings of hunger, and feelings of hunger trigger knowledge of lack of food via knowledge of the accompanying feelings. If you were designing a functioning organism that is constantly faced with food shortages, it would be sensible to build in a mechanism that generates the necessary knowledge in a reliable manner. The feeling itself does not have the same functional characteristics as the knowledge that results from it, so the knowledge adds something to the organism’s biological resources. Given that such knowledge is desirable, and given that consciousness plays a role in producing it, we begin to see why consciousness might perform a useful biological function. It helps in the task of preserving the organism by informing it of what is going on in its body in respect of food. Obviously the same story could be told about feelings of thirst and dehydration, or about feelings of pain and bodily damage. These kinds of consciousness play the role of somatic monitors, transmitting information to the cognitive centers of the organism. We can see why it would be a good thing to possess the trait in question: knowledge of possibly life-threatening states of the body is clearly useful knowledge to possess. You would want to know when you are about to starve to death or are dying of thirst or are being bitten by a tiger. Here consciousness functions as the body’s guardian and protector—and the body is all the organism has as a vehicle of survival and reproduction.

            But what should we say about other kinds of consciousness, particularly sensory consciousness? These convey information about things other than the body, being directed to the organism’s environment: how can this be explained in terms of bodily preservation via knowledge of the body’s internal states? It can’t, not directly anyway. But the theory we are considering (the “somatic monitor” theory) is not without resources in replying to this natural question. An extreme view, not unheard of, is that perception never acquaints us with external objects; it is only ever directed towards the inner states of the organism. Thus every conscious perceptual act really conveys information about the body, given that there are bodily correlates to every such act. The organism lives in its own world and its sole concern is what is going on inside it. The only thing organisms ever really know about, then, is their own body—and that is no hindrance to survival (why be distracted by what goes on outside?). A second view, less radical and more plausible, is that all perception of the external environment is at the same time self-perception. This is evidently true for touch: when you touch an object you also sense your own body—touch informs you of external objects and of your own physical body (e.g. that your hand is grasping something). Likewise taste and smell bring awareness of bodily sense organs, as when food enters the mouth or aromas enter the nose. Hearing locates sounds in relation to the head and ears—possibly inducing such bodily reactions as blocking the ears from loud noises. The body is never out of the conscious picture, never entirely absent from what consciousness presents to the perceiving organism. Even in the case of vision we see things in relation to the body, this involving awareness of ocular motion, head orientation, and the state of one’s eyelids. I see things in relation to me, i.e. in relation to my body. Thus I may protect my body from seen objects that seem to threaten it—I don’t stare at the Sun, for example. So all the senses are bound up with the body and its parlous condition. Consciousness is always telling us about where our body stands and what might endanger its wellbeing. It evolved with this aim in mind—to keep the body in existence. Consciousness is the (mental) organ that enables the organism to manage its body’s affairs in a hostile world. Lastly, we might adopt an extended phenotype conception of the body, including in its extent the external environment: the organism is aware of its extended body when it is aware of what lies yonder, as when a spider is aware of its web or a beaver its dam. These entities need preserving too if the organism is to pass on its genes successfully; functionally, they are part of the organism’s phenotype. The body doesn’t end at the epidermis.

            Accordingly, the model of hunger and thirst is not wide of the mark generally: these are the primordial forms that consciousness took back in evolutionary history, ultimately in creatures of the deep. Consciousness evolved in fish so as to keep the organism informed about its bodily state, both its subcutaneous organs and its surface features (fins, eyes, gills). It is ideally suited to this job because it has the property of epistemic privilege: it is exceptionally, indeed voluptuously, well known to its possessor. And conscious states are lawfully correlated with bodily conditions, thus yielding their existence and status to the organism’s epistemic faculties.  [2] In consequence the organism knows what is going on within its body, this enabling it to act so as to preserve that body. It knows when its body needs food and water and when it is being dangerously impinged upon. If consciousness were not so closely connected to the epistemic faculties (and we mustn’t be too intellectualist about this), it would not have evolved: for the theory is precisely that consciousness evolved because of its epistemic privileges, combined with the ability of conscious states to indicate the condition of the body. This is the property of consciousness that explains its evolutionary emergence—its ability to pass the test of natural selection by reliably transmitting information about the body to the organism’s cognitive centers.  Consciousness is like a messenger whose message we cannot miss or misunderstand, and whose central subject of communication is news about the body and its perils. It’s what the genes hit upon as a method of keeping track of what is going on internally. Consciousness is part of a biological mechanism designed to enable the organism to manage its body’s survival needs—for example, by monitoring its nutritive state. It is as if the genes decided to solve the problem of monitoring food intake by inventing the sensation of hunger, knowing that this is not likely to be missed by the hard-pressed organism (unlike, say, its actual physiological state of tissue nutrition). It’s a quick and easy way to keep informed about how your body is doing at any given time. It’s not the only logically conceivable way this vital task could be performed, as other biological adaptations are also not logically unique (birds could in principle have flown like helicopters or missiles); but it is the method that arose in the cut and thrust of practical biological evolution—the solution that cropped up at the time. Before that organisms did without consciousness, relying upon more mechanical methods of detecting and regulating their bodily requirements. But consciousness catapulted organisms to a new level of self-monitoring expertise, exploiting the epistemic privilege property of consciousness. This remarkable property is what gave it the advantage compared to non-conscious ways of ensuring that the body has what it needs to survive. So consciousness is really all about the body from an evolutionary point of view, a device for keeping the body safe and well and primed to reproduce. If there were no vulnerable biological bodies to take care of, consciousness would be unnecessary. Consciousness is one of the ways that evolution discovered to keep the body in passable shape; many organisms do without it entirely and get on just fine (consider bacteria or jellyfish).

            A nice thing about this theory is that it brings consciousness resoundingly down to earth: from an evolutionary perspective, it is just another mechanism for ensuring the wellbeing of the body—a piece of machinery for keeping the body well regulated and free of damage. This is a good way to think about all biological adaptations—their raison d’etre is rigorously utilitarian. No trait takes root and is passed on unless it passes the stern test of natural selection—certainly not a trait as widespread as consciousness (sentience, awareness). It is truly biological. What exists within us, making us the thinking and feeling beings we are, is ultimately the result of a blind process that selects for bodily continuity. Preserving the body is what it’s all about, and consciousness does its bit in helping that to happen. It is body-centered, body-obsessed—just like the lungs, the heart, and the kidneys. Its interest in the world beyond the body is distinctly marginal, distinctly derivative. The external world matters only because it impinges on the body—the place where the genes live and have their being. Ultimately, indeed, the focus of the evolutionary process is on the reproductive organs of the body, these being the conduit through which the genes are passed on to future generations. We might even be so bold as to suggest that consciousness is genital-centric, since the genitals are the part of the body whose health is most vital to gene propagation. All the other organs of the body are dedicated to making sure that the reproductive organs get to perform their solemn duty at the highest possible level. If consciousness has anything to do with the soul, that is strictly a superfluous accretion, not part of the basic biological story—which begins with the fish, the insect, and the reptile. Consciousness is fundamentally all about ensuring that the body makes it through another day; and it achieves this aim by deploying its uncanny ability to be known with special intensity.  [3]


  [1] Of course, some people dispute this, and some qualifications need to be appended, but I take it the basic idea is not in serious doubt.

  [2] Proprioception is the prime example of this: the organism knows from the inside what the disposition of its body is. I wouldn’t be surprised if this was the very first sense to evolve, vital as it is.

  [3] I could characterize this essay as Descartes meets Darwin: Descartes stressed the epistemic uniqueness of consciousness—its connection to certainty—while Darwin insisted that everything in the biological world is a product of survival-driven evolution. My proposal is that Cartesian certainty regarding consciousness plays a role in enabling the organism to keep its body in good physiological shape. In one good sense this is a type of naturalismabout consciousness. Certainly we need to pay special attention to forms of consciousness other than the human if we are to understand its biological roots. Of course, nothing in what I say is intended to rule out all sorts of elaborations and convolutions in the human case.   


Mind and Behavior



Mind and Behavior


Philosophical behaviorism has a curious reputation: on the one hand, it can seem eminently reasonable, on the other, completely wrong. Thus it is natural to be uncomfortably ambivalent about it, veering from acceptance to rejection as the mood strikes. On the side of rejection we have the inverted spectrum, behaving zombies, paralyzed conscious subjects, and basic repugnance at the idea that phenomenology could be reducible to bodily movement. On the side of acceptance we have clear connections between mind and behavior, the problem of other minds, the functional necessity for bodily deeds, and the evident plausibility of functional definitions. Behaviorism doesn’t strike us as just completely wrongheaded: mind and behavior are intimately related. Watson, Carnap, Ryle and Wittgenstein don’t seem to be barking preposterously up the wrong tree. Isn’t it simply true that pain is a state that mediates between harmful stimuli and adaptive responses? Isn’t belief precisely a state that is typically caused by perceptual stimuli and leads to utterance and other action? Isn’t desire what inclines organisms to behave in certain ways, as when an organism drinks when thirsty? Isn’t bravery a trait that leads to courageous action? Maybe it is true that we can envisage color inversion combined with behavioral equivalence, but surely it is not true that mental states can be freely combined with just any behavioral profile—you can’t have pains that are functionally equivalent to beliefs, or beliefs that function just like desires. It seems to be part of the essence of a given mental state that it operates in a certain way; the connection is not just contingent and adventitious. Mental states can’t just swap functional roles ad libitum. Mind and body are not stuck arbitrarily together; they are made for each other. Isn’t behavior the point of having a mind? Isn’t behavior how we know what someone else thinks and feels?

            So we have conflicting intuitions: viewed from the inside, it can seem that behavior is just a dispensable extra; viewed from the outside, behavior looks like the whole story. We seem to be forced either into accepting that phenomenology and behavior are completely separable or that the former reduces to the latter. Neither alternative is attractive. Both sides in the debate seem to have a point, but pain (say) can’t be both behavioral and non-behavioral—behaviorism can’t be both true and false! Or can it? Aren’t we making an assumption here, namely that the ontology of the mental is essentially simple? That is, we are assuming that pain is a simple property, a one-dimensional state, a unitary phenomenon. But what about the idea that pain is actually a composite state, a combination of two (or more) components? What if mental states have a dual nature? They are combinations of a felt quality (a phenomenology) and a behavioral disposition (a bodily expression). When we respond to the first component we see the point of asserting the non-behavioral character of the mind; when we focus on the second component we respect the evident link to bodily behavior. Pain really is behavioral—partially; and it is also non-behavioral—partially. Pain isn’t a simple one-dimensional affair; it is a kind of compound or assembly. Compare meaning: we have grown accustomed to thinking of meaning multi-dimensionally (sense, reference, force, tone); and now we are pondering whether the same might be true of the mind generally. Is the ontology of the mind inherently plural, composite, and componential? Every mental state is really a complex of constitutive elements—a construction from distinct components.  [1] To put it simply, pain is made of a phenomenological component and a behavioral component. Thus we are given space to accept that mental states are partially behavioral: behaviorism is partially true. It is completely true of part of the mind. But the part it is true of doesn’t exhaust the whole nature of the mind; there is a part of the mind that is not behaviorally definable. So philosophical behaviorism is both true and false—but not of the same simple unanalyzable property. It is true of one component of the mind, but false of another component. The components can be pulled apart, at least to some extent–as with the inverted spectrum, zombies, and paralysis–but that only shows how compound mental states are: it doesn’t show that the mind is wholly non-behavioral. This is why these kinds of thought experiment affect us strangely: we are invited to detach a component from our ordinary concept while leaving the other component intact, but we find ourselves unsure whether we have enough left to ground that concept–hence the ambivalence. It’s like detaching reference and leaving sense, or detaching sense and leaving reference: sure, something semantic is left, but it seems to fall short of the genuine article—as if meaning has been dismantled and dismembered. The solution to these quandaries is to recognize that mental states are a congeries, a juxtaposition of elements, a duality. Accordingly, it is possible to be a behaviorist about one aspect of the mind—that is, to accept that an aspect of the mind is essentially and intrinsically bound up with behavior. Pain really is (in part) a disposition or tendency to respond in a certain way (viz. avoidance) to harmful stimuli, as belief really is a state that prompts certain kinds of behavior. Or perhaps we do better to say that functionalism is partly true—allowing that functionalism improves on classical behaviorism in familiar ways. Mental states essentially interact with other mental states in concert with external inputs to generate behavioral outputs. But they also have qualities that transcend such functional features, being hybrid entities. There is nothing materialist about this conception of the mind; there is no such metaphysical agenda. We are simply seeking descriptive adequacy. We are trying to do justice to the range of intuitions that cluster around this topic. We are explaining how it is possible to be a card-carrying behaviorist (functionalist) without eliminating the essential nature of the mind. The mind is a phenomenological-behavioral compound. The mistake was to presuppose an ontology of simple properties capable of only a single analysis—the analogue of pre-Fregean views of meaning. We need to acknowledge a more fine-grained and variegated ontological structure to the mind.  [2]

            Having distinguished the two components of mental states we can ask which component preponderates in a given case. It seems intuitively correct to report that sensations have a larger phenomenological component than beliefs (and certainly traits of character): thus we can envisage inverted spectrum cases with relative ease, but we can’t easily envisage exchanging beliefs and preserving functional role. So we should leave open the possibility that some types of mental state are more behavioral than others: some are more a matter of qualia (e.g. color sensations) and some more a matter of abilities to act, dispositions to behave, and competences to perform (e.g. belief, linguistic understanding, and character traits). You can in principle be very behaviorist about some things and only slightly behaviorist about others, according to the magnitude of the behavioral component. Why there should be such variations of magnitude is no doubt an interesting question, and one that could profitably engage the attentions of a researcher who has seen the merits of the dual component conception. I rather think it has to do with the fact that experience is low on the behavioral component but knowledge is high on it: in knowing the deed dominates, but in experiencing the feeling does. In the beginning was the deed, as some like to say, but the deed is only part of the story; the feeling is also a leading character, sometimes eclipsing the deed. At any rate, the mind is a feeling-deed combo.  [3]


  [1] I leave aside the question of whether there is a third component corresponding to the neural correlates of the mental state, but this possibility is certainly worth exploring: see my “A Triple Aspect Theory”.

  [2] Motto: things are often more complicated than we initially suppose (duh).

  [3] As to the problem of other minds, we can venture the following: given that mental states are partly constituted by behavioral facts, we are in a good position to know that other people (and animals) have part of a mental state—for example, we can know that an organism has one component of pain (the part that consists in behavioral facts). Thus we have partial knowledge of other minds even if we don’t have full knowledge. This might explain our sense that the mind is not quite as elusive as some philosophers suppose—those that identify the mind exclusively with the inner phenomenological component. There is something to Wittgenstein’s insistence that the mind is visible in behavior, even though it is not plausible to think that all of mind is so visible. The mind is not entirely private, but it is not entirely public either: it has a foot in both camps. The concept of mind is the concept of a pairing of elements, neither exclusively inner nor exclusively outer. By rough analogy, it is like the concept of knowledge—a pairing of both belief and truth; or wide content and narrow content, or character and content, or connotation and denotation—all cases of duality within apparent unity. 


Religion as Science



Religion as Science


I wish to put forward an unfashionable and provokingly simple point of view: religion is just outmoded science. Religion is the science of an earlier age, yet still clinging on in some places. I don’t just mean the cosmological parts; I also include ethics. That is, religion consists of natural science and moral science—a set of theories about the natural world and a theory of morality. According to religious science, God is the creator of the natural world andhe provides the foundation of morality (as in divine command theory). He created the universe of stars and planets as well as creating all the animals on earth; he also brought right and wrong into existence. The moral laws are God’s laws, as are the natural laws. Above all, he designed and created human beings, with their characteristic nature and moral sense. In the early days it was supposed that many gods rule the universe, each responsible for a certain part of it (the sea, the wind, love, etc.). The essential point here is that these were postulates offered to answer explanatory questions. At some point humans evolved the ability to ask questions (other animals don’t seem to do this)—of each other and of nature. We asked why the sun rises, what it is, where animals come from, etc. The realm of gods, spirits, angels, demons, and so on, was the human attempt to answer such explanatory questions. It wasn’t such a bad attempt: it provided some explanatory insight into things, a semblance of understanding. The attempt went beyond immediate observation, postulating entities (“theoretical” entities) that might be causes of what we observe. Likewise, religious ethics provided a foundation for moral truth: right and wrong are seen as divine edicts. Prior to these postulations, in the dim dark prehistory of human existence, before the ability to ask questions had evolved, these theories had occurred to no one. But once this way of thinking came into existence it took hold of the mind of man: it was the best science available at the time. It was taught and inculcated; it became orthodox. A profession of experts (“priests”) grew up to promulgate this scientific worldview: they became the authorities on the science of the day. Their methods could be obscure, but they were the only show in town—and they had a coherent story to tell (with some fancy vocabulary thrown in). They were humanity’s first theoreticians. 

            What happened later is that a new approach to science was developed, emphasizing systematic observation and experiment. This superseded the old science. It was still trying to answer explanatory questions—the hallmark of science—but it employed a new method. The priest scientists began to seem shabby by comparison, their theories weak and unfounded. Their science just wasn’t very good.  [1] Socrates exploded their view of morality (in the Euthyphro argument), and a succession of natural philosophers undermined their cosmological opinions. Their centers of learning began to seem like centers of ignorance, and new institutions called universities began to appear.  There had been a revolution in science—a massive paradigm shift—away from religious conceptions and towards modern secular science. The science accepted for thousands of years gave way to a new science using a new method—though still cleaving to the questions-and-answers model. It wasn’t that science (“natural philosophy”) began with the Enlightenment—it had been around for millennia—but it made a decisive step forward; and the old science went by the wayside (or is still in the process of going by the wayside). Greek polytheism went by the wayside after a long period of hegemony; now Christian monotheism (and other religions like it) also went by the wayside.  [2] Their theories were falsified, or at least cast into serious doubt: what once seemed scientifically solid was exposed as so much superstitious thinking. It may have seemed reasonable then, but it was reasonable no longer. The entire religious approach to science had to be discarded, and it largely was, in relatively short order. Copernicus, Galileo, Descartes, Newton, and Darwin—they all showed that the old science was wrong science. It wasn’t doing something else: it was doing the same thing, but not doing it very well.

            The question that interests me in all this is whether the same thing could happen to science as we know it today. Could the general orientation of modern science be fundamentally in error, as old-style religious science was (though not disgracefully so)? Might there come a time when it will be superseded in favor of something better? This might have seemed inconceivable to the old religious scientists, and it no doubt seems hard to believe for us now, but is it a real possibility? Is there a viewpoint from which our current science might seem not only partial but also deeply misguided? Surely the question is not to be dismissed a priori. Ironically, it is the very emphasis on observation that might prove its downfall, at least as a comprehensive account of the universe. That is, it is the empiricism of science that may undermine its ability to give a complete account of things—as it was the supernaturalism of religious science that undermined it. Why do I say that—isn’t the empiricism of modern science its chief engine of success? Yes, but any method, however successful, is apt to have a downside. The obvious point of weakness is that the human senses are partial, finite, biased, and subjective: how can they be the basis of objective knowledge of the whole universe—all of Being? At least under the religious approach the supposed basis of knowledge—divine revelation–is not thus limited, since God is not epistemically bounded. In principle, access to God’s knowledge will give humans complete knowledge of what there is, unlike the puny human senses. In practice, of course, science has moved further and further away from the deliverances of the senses, erecting a magnificent inferential superstructure, which dilutes its vaunted empiricism considerably. Only thus has modern empiricist science succeeded in establishing the system of knowledge that now constitutes it. But there is still the possibility that some areas of reality are closed off from this mode of knowledge acquisition, and always will be. The list of such possible possibilities is long and familiar: the origin of the universe, the origin of life, the quantum world, deep space, the nature of time, consciousness, human freedom, the ultimate nature of matter, etc. These questions have not yet succumbed to the empirical method, the method that defines modern science. Ethics is not susceptible to the empirical method at all.  [3] Our science-forming faculty, as Chomsky styles it, construed as the method of empirical science, seems not cut out for certain problems and questions. Like all methods it has its limitations and blind spots. Maybe the future holds the prospect of a synthesis of human and artificial knowledge systems, which might make our current scientific method look feeble by comparison.  [4] Who knows? Just as modern science superseded religious science, despite centuries of dominance, so some future science might supersede what we have now—admirable as that has been during the relevant phase of human evolution. We need to take a wider perspective, seeing our current science as just one phase of a much longer history. It’s hard to see how our current science could come to be seen as completely wrong, but likewise not everything about religious science was completely wrong—just the main postulates. A lot of good science was done under religious assumptions, and the search for systematic theoretical principles traces back to religious conceptions. We shouldn’t be too caught up in our particular epoch with its relatively local disagreements; from a loftier perspective religious and secular science lie on a single trajectory, with our current methods a possibly replaceable temporary phase. We tend to think that religious science was bad science because it was replaced by secular science, but future science might make ourempirical science look bad in retrospect. And if we never actually reach that lofty perspective, that won’t necessarily be because it doesn’t exist. If we suppose that science came into existence when the human ability to ask questions evolved, maybe when human language evolved (about 200,000 years ago), beginning with religious science, then we might still be in an early phase of its development, with untold possibilities ahead of us. At any rate, the history of science is best seen as a continuous thread tracing back to supernatural conceptions; the scientific spirit did not suddenly begin in the seventeenth century in Western Europe. That is a parochial position: science is the systematic attempt to understand the universe; its methods are just means to that end. Empirical observation is one small part of this story.  [5]



  [1] Berkeley is an interesting transitional figure because his cosmology is resolutely theistic yet he incorporates modern science. He doesn’t endorse out-of-date theories of nature, accepting modern theories, but he places them in a religious context: his is a form of theism without religious science to encumber it. But from a wider point of view his cosmological science is firmly religious: God plays the role of a theoretical entity responsible for all existence. This is theistic science without its usual dogmas.

  [2] I can’t help noticing that polytheism and monotheism have analogues in the natural sciences: from an ontology of several basic elements (earth, fire, water, and air) we move to a monistic ontology comprising only uniform atoms in the void, i.e. matter in general. We go from many gods to a single God, and from many forms of material substance to a single material substance.

  [3] When science adopted an empiricist conception of itself ethics became split off from mainstream science, which it had not been hitherto, thus precipitating all sorts of deformations in moral thought. Before that religious science was not so sharply distinguished from ethics: a natural philosopher would naturally also be a natural ethicist (not a supernatural one).

  [4] The contribution of scientific instruments to scientific knowledge is, of course, massive—the microscope, the telescope—and without this enhancement of the senses modern science would scarcely be possible. The advent of further brain augmentation, possibly by direct implants, is not to be underestimated. Here too we can discern a continuous path in the history of science. The brain awaits the installation of its game-changing inner instruments.

  [5] Rationalism has always opposed the alleged ability of empiricism to provide a complete account of human knowledge, though there doubtless must be an empirical component. The intellect must make a substantial contribution to knowledge (whatever exactly the intellect is).






The word “object” occupies a prominent place in philosophy, but it is seldom scrutinized in any depth. What is an object exactly? On the face of it the word has two uses or meanings: it may be used as a descriptor of a certain type of entity in contrast to other types, as with the distinction between objects and properties; or it may be used to indicate a relation between a thinker and what she or he is thinking about, as in the phrase “object of thought”. In this latter sense we speak of someone as the “object of attention”, or of “objects of experience”, or of “my object in doing such and such” (goal, aim), or of the “direct object” of a verb, or of “nonexistent objects of hallucination”.  [1]Objects in this sense need not exist: a mental state can have an object—it can be about something—even if that object doesn’t exist. Fictional objects are objects of thought that don’t exist. It is not always clear what sense is intended, or whether the duality of uses is even recognized. The OED gives this for “object”: “a material thing that can be seen and touched”, and “a thing external to the thinking mind or subject”. The confusion is evident here. Must an object be a material thing? Why make reference to what can be sensed? Why just sight and touch? Why must an object be external to the mind—aren’t there mental objects, and isn’t the self an object too? The philosopher seems to want to designate a very broad ontological category that exists independently of perceiving minds and makes no reference to mental acts (as with Frege’s and early Wittgenstein’s use of “object”), but also to speak of mental acts in which things are “posited” or “apprehended”. The word “object” shuttles between these uses rather indiscriminately, now meaning one, now the other. Linguistically, it’s a mess.

            What should we say about these two ways of using “object”? One view would be that we have a straight ambiguity analogous to “bank”—the same sound or mark just happens to have two quite distinct meanings. But this is hardly plausible: surely the two meanings are connected in some way. It is natural to suppose that one use is primary and the other derived: “object” as a type of entity or “object” as a way of talking about mental acts. Suppose we take the first use as primary: then “object of thought” comes to mean something like, “object (first sense) that happens to be thought about”. This has the problem that not all objects of thought exist, but all objects in the first sense do: so “object of thought” can’t mean “existent thing that someone happens to be thinking about”. The whole point of the phrase “object of thought” is to make room for mental acts about nonexistent things. Also, objects of mental acts need not be objects in the first sense, since mental acts can be about properties, facts, moral values, etc.—these are their “objects”. More promising is the idea that the mental act sense is primary: an object is what is or can be an object of thought (experience, emotion, intention, etc.). This is supported by the etymology of the word: it derives from a Medieval Latin word objectum meaning “thing presented to the mind”. Thus whenever “object” appears in philosophical discourse it means, “object of thought”. There are two problems with this. The first is that not all objects are objects of thought, since some are not thought about—e.g. remote galaxies and their constituent parts. The second is that it is clear that not all uses of “object” by philosophers can be so paraphrased: for example, Wittgenstein’s use of “object” in the Tractatus. At 2.01 he says: “A state of affairs (a state of things) is a combination of objects (things)”; at 2.014 we have “Objects contain the possibility of all situations”; and at 2.02 we read “Objects are simple”. He clearly doesn’t mean the word “object” in the mental act sense, and indeed he slides between “object” and “thing” without giving any notice of a shift of sense. Similarly, when Frege announces that truth-values are objects he doesn’t mean that they are things that we think about; he means to be making an ontological remark. He is distinguishing between objects and concepts (functions, in his system)–as Wittgenstein is distinguishing between objects and facts. So it is wrong to suppose that this use of “object” can be paraphrased by invoking the other use. What is to be done?

            One thing we can do is firmly mark the distinction and pay due attention to it. We could in principle simply ban one use so as to clean up the language and not be bamboozled by it: we could, say, reserve “thing” for objects in the first sense and continue to use “object” only in the second sense (thus respecting etymology). I am not against this idea, though it would be pretty impractical given the entrenchment of the first sense (but in an ideal language…). It has the advantage of preventing a certain kind of misguided objection to Meinong, namely the sneering riposte, “But nonexistent objects of thought are not objects”—as if Meinong is contradicting himself. Sure they aren’t, but the whole point of Meinong’s philosophy is to distinguish between what we think about and what really exists (the former having a special type of “being”). Let’s agree that objects of thought (“intentional objects”) are not objects in the sense in which Frege and Wittgenstein speak of objects—whoever said they were? We can continue to investigate the nature of objects of mental acts, observing (say) that such objects need have no mind-independent existence, or that they lack ontological depth, or that they violate the law of excluded middle. This verbal recommendation would certainly put paid to a lot pointless squabbling. I suspect myself that “object” in the ontological sense is an example of creeping semantic shift, whereby the original word (objectum) was extended to anything that exists whether thought about or not. This can lead to an unspoken idealism according to which everything that exists is really intrinsically a mental object—for everything is like an object of thought. We conceive of everything as if it were something thought about—an object of apprehension. But we need to make a firm distinction between an object of thought and a real existing object—though we do sometimes think about the latter. Clarity would be served by calling objects in the first sense “things” and reserving “object” for objects of thought. Thus we might ask how many things (of a certain kind) exist in a given room, and we might ask how many objects came before my mind in that room during a certain time interval: these are quite different kinds of question. I might have three cat-things in my room but have hallucinated a dozen cat-objects. It only invites confusion to report that there were three objects of a certain type at a given time in a particular place but a dozen objects of the same type at the same time (three actual cat objects but a dozen object-of-thought cats). In any case, we do well to be clear about the distinction and be constantly on guard against confusing the different uses of “object” that now infect our language.

            It may be wondered whether we really have a notion of object in the ontological sense. Objects of thought are conceptualized things, unitary and well defined, but are things considered independently of the mind similarly unified and well defined? We might toy with the idea of a “natural object”—one that is unified by nature, as it were. Maybe there is such a thing—organisms provide plausible examples—but the principle of unification is not like that imposed by the mind. Nature is not as Gestalt as the mind is, and it obeys different rules of unification. I conceive of you as a unitary person, but nature might regard you as just an assemblage of parts. Is Mount Everest really the natural unity that it is represented as being in human thought? One can at least sympathize with those philosophers who have found in nature only undifferentiated stuff not individuated objects; they have an exaggerated response to the insight that the world is not as cleanly segregated objectively as human thought represents it as being. But objects of thought enjoy a kind of ideal unity, since they have no being beyond what the mind invests in them. They are the real objects not the amorphous and pointless stuff that populates the mind-independent universe. In other words, natural objects are not as clearly defined as intentional objects, which enjoy a kind of conferred unity. The latter are human objects, fitting human purposes; the former are just products of natural forces that lack conceptualized unity. If we project the unity of intentional objects onto nature, we endow nature with a mind-centeredness it doesn’t strictly deserve. We engage in a kind of unintended idealism. This is why I am not averse to restricting the word “object” to objects of mental acts and referring to everything else with the word “thing”, from which any suggestion of presentation to the mind is expunged. Thus the objective world is not strictly speaking composed of objects, though it is composed of things that bear a certain complex relation to objects of thought.  [2]

            I am struck by the fact that “object” in the mental act sense has so few synonyms or even metaphorical expressions (perhaps this is why Husserl had to introduce neologisms like “noema”). The closest word I can think of is “target”—what the mental act “aims” at. The mind targets its objects of thought. But even that is jejune and unhelpful: what kind of targeting is this, and with what weapon? We are stuck with the locution “object of” expressing a relation whose nature remains obscure. The word “object” here just seems to mean, “what is apprehended”—what is on the receiving end of thought, so to speak. Maybe the mind “grasps” this thing when it becomes an object of apprehension, but again this word lacks the limpidity one could wish for. At any rate, “object” in the intended sense should not be confused with designations of existing objects in space; it has a quite different grammar, as Wittgenstein would say.  [3]


  [1] In this use the word “object” functions like the word “referent”: both are descriptions that allude to a representational medium—mental acts or linguistic expressions. A referent is that which is referred to; an object (of thought) is that which is thought about. It is the same with “denotation” or “designatum” or “subject” (in the sense of “subject matter”). 

  [2] An enormous amount of philosophy (and science) is comprised in understanding the nature of this complex relation (Kant had a strong interest in it).

  [3] This would be a good example of the way ordinary language can mislead us: we toggle lazily and confusedly between two uses of “object”.


Empty Materialism



Empty Materialism


As everyone knows, Newton abandoned the materialism of his day by introducing the “occult” force of gravity. Clerk Maxwell expanded physics further into the immaterialist camp with his theory of electromagnetic fields of force. These developments cast the whole notion of materialism (or physicalism) into doubt. But was physics before Newton and Clerk Maxwell materialist? Was mechanism a materialist doctrine? To answer that question we need to know what “materialism” means, i.e. what matter is. We need a criterion of the physical: what is it for something to be physical (or material)? What are the necessary and sufficient conditions? This question is far from easy. The OED gives this for “matter”: “physical substance or material in general; (in physics) that which occupies space and possesses mass, especially as distinct from energy”. For “material” we read “the matter from which a thing is or can be made”, contrasted with “mind or spirit”. Under “physical” we have “relating to the body as opposed to the mind” and “relating to things perceived through the senses as opposed to the mind; tangible or concrete”. These definitions only take us so far and offer little to elucidate what is meant by the metaphysical doctrine known as “materialism”. Two points stand out: first, matter is to be distinguished from energy; second, matter is perceived through the senses. Energy is not material and what is not perceived by the senses is not material (what is so perceived is). This gives the result that energy is not subject to materialism and secondary qualities are material simply because they are perceived by the senses (and atoms are not material because they are not so perceived). This is far from what philosophers have intended by using the terms “materialism” and “physicalism”. We clearly need to go back to the drawing board.

            One approach, much favored, is to invoke geometrical concepts like size and shape. Thus Descartes spoke of extension and modes of extension as characteristic of physical substance. It is necessary and sufficient to be physical that something has shape, shape being a physical attribute. More generally, the physical is to be defined as what possesses primary qualities. The view goes with the idea that space and matter are intimately connected: matter is what occupies space (as the OED states). There are many problems with this approach. First, as to sufficiency: don’t persons and sentient beings generally occupy space and have shape? Is it contradictory to suppose that God is spread out through space, as in pantheism, and has a tripartite form (the holy trinity and all that)? What if thoughts and sensations have shape of some sort—does that preclude them from being immaterial? Doesn’t it depend on what kind of stuff they are made of? Is extension logically sufficient to make something materially constituted? Descartes already had a problem with space in this regard, given that space is extended (his solution was to declare space a rarified form of matter). And is shape really a physical property? What if perceived shape is actually a secondary quality (as modern physics appears to suggest)? Then reducing everything to shape is not a form of materialism at all, since shape is projected from the perceiving subject, i.e. is mental. Maybe in objective physical reality nothing has shape, or at least determinate shape: does that imply that materialism must be false? But more fundamentally, is geometry physical? Is Euclid’s Elements a work of physics? There is certainly a strong tradition stemming from Plato and going back to Pythagoras that geometry is about the world of abstract geometrical forms, loosely proximate to the realm of the gods. If we are Platonists, we don’t regard geometrical forms as physical in the sense of being made of physical substance; and we don’t suppose that they are perceivable by the senses (the intellect must be employed). We might even adopt a kind of idealism about geometry, holding shapes to be ideas in the mind of God. In that context reducing everything to geometry is the furthest thing from materialism as traditionally conceived. So the prospects for a form of materialism based on primary qualities like shape depends upon your metaphysics of geometry: you have to think that geometry is about physical substances–whatever your account of that concept is going to be.  Second, in regard to necessity: is it really a necessary condition of being physical that a thing has shape? Do electrons have shape just by being physical? What about fields? Could there be a physical universe with no shaped objects? So long as there is physical stuff we have a physical world; possessing shape is an added ingredient. The connection between matter and shape looks to be contingent and adventitious, not a matter of strict definition. The same goes for size and number: are these necessary and sufficient for being material? If size is relative, then nothing has size in a universe containing a single object; but surely there could be a physical universe with just one object. And how can number confer materiality on a thing, given the ontological standing of numbers? The basic point is just that these qualities are not intrinsically physical (whatever that means): they are, if anything, abstract, or possibly psychological. That is why Berkeley has no trouble including primary qualities like shape in his idealist universe. We still have no criterion of the physical that will confer content on the doctrine known as “materialism”.

            You might think we could resort to the doctrine of mechanism: materialism is defined as the thesis that everything is subject to mechanism. This is certainly the form that materialism took before Newton and later Clerk Maxwell. The problem here is that mechanism is neither necessary nor sufficient for materialism. The OED defines mechanism as “the doctrine that all natural phenomena allow mechanical explanation by physics and chemistry”. Correct: but what is “mechanical explanation”? It is explanation by deterministic contact causation—the kind that is found in typical machines. But this is not a necessary condition of being material, since we can conceive of physical systems that don’t work by such causation: they are made of material particulars but their behavior is not to be explained in terms of deterministic proximate causes—maybe the entities concerned never actually touch each other, or act probabilistically. The nature of an object’s composition is not the same as the nature of the explanations that apply to it. And the applicability of mechanical explanation is not sufficient for materiality either, because non-physical things might interact by means of contact causation: immaterial minds might make contact and thereby influence each other, or a part of an immaterial mind might affect another part by immediate contact. The mode of interaction between things is not determinative of what composes them. So mechanism is not a good way to define materialism, conceptually speaking, though it was the form that materialism took in earlier times. Mechanism is a view of what constitutes an adequate scientific explanation not a view of the composition of basic reality: these are orthogonal questions. It isn’t as if planets ceased to be material once Newton’s non-mechanistic physics became established! So we still don’t know what it is for something to be material.

            Is it the possession of mass? If we define mass as “quantity of matter”, we invoke the concept of matter in defining what matter is, which makes the definition circular. If instead we define mass as resistance to motion (inertia), then it doesn’t follow that the object in question is material: couldn’t immaterial entities vary in their degree of resistance to motion? And what about massless particles? Likewise, being subject to gravitational force (weight) is not logically sufficient for being material, since immaterial things might be subject to gravity too—this could be a basic law of a conceivable universe. What about limiting the concept of the material to the brain, which would still enable us to define a workable materialism for mental states? That is, we define “material” as “neural”, thus enabling us to claim that the mental is reducible to the neural—no need to attempt a general definition of the material. But are neurons material things? This takes us back to where we started: in virtue of what are they declared to be material or physical? Is it because they are objects of sense perception, or is it because they occupy space, or is it because they have shape? What if electricity is non-physical (as was once thought)? What if shape properties are non-physical in the manner of Plato? What if perceived shape is a mental projection, so that the shape of neurons is as subjective as their color?  [1] What if in objective reality nothing really has determinate shape? We can certainly define a doctrine of “neuralism” that maintains that everything mental reduces to neural properties, but it doesn’t follow that materialistic metaphysics has been thereby vindicated. For that we would need a proper notion of what it is to be material; but the concept of materiality remains elusive. It is true that there is the popular sense of the word in which it connotes undue concern with worldly values (money, real estate, etc.), but that has nothing to do with materialism as a metaphysical thesis—though this thesis might derive spurious content by association with materialism understood as a life-style. Maybe the word “materialism” has always connoted that which is to be contrasted with the divine or supernatural, but clearly this notion is not specific enough to define the intended metaphysical doctrine (human and animal minds are not divine or supernatural). The notion is irredeemably hand waving and honorific, more a device of rhetoric than strict ontological taxonomy. It operates to define what side you are on in the wars of religion.

            Is time material? Is space? What about numbers? And values? Are the four fundamental forces of nature material, or electric charge, or motion? We have the idea of chunks of stuff like rocks and furniture and bits of food, but this is not enough to give us a perfectly general notion of matter capable of making useful ontological divisions. This is why there have been such controversies, even within physics, about whether this or that qualifies as “physical” (gravity, light, fields of force, the ether, etc.). The concept of shape has been the last redoubt of the would-be materialist, but as indicated above that proves a frail reed too. Geometric form is really not a promising basis on which to define the putative concept of the material, because geometry itself is not a physical science in any intuitive sense; someone who believes that the world is a pure mathematical structure of abstract geometric forms is hardly a materialist. And space, the concrete reality in which geometry manifests itself, is a poor candidate for erecting a viable notion of the material, even if it is not defined by reference to human perception. We need some idea of space-occupying physical stuff, but what exactly is this elusive stuff supposed to be? It is no wonder that theorists, sensing the difficulty, have proposed that material stuff is really mental stuff: but then materialism turns out to be a form of idealism, i.e. the view that reality is ultimately mental. The panpsychist is no materialist.

            We can imagine intelligent beings that revere matter for its supernatural associations, while finding mind quite far removed from the divine. They suppose that God miraculously created matter in the initial act of creation, while minds arose by mundane natural processes. These beings worship matter and extol its remarkable properties (they are very taken with light and love rainbows): they display big chunks of it in their temples and teach physics as a holy science. The soul excites them not at all—any more than the stomach does: for these happy beings are not much concerned with matters of moral conduct. For them there is nothing bravely hardheaded or thrillingly anti-religious about regarding matter as the basis of everything real (God, for them, is the Matter of all matters); for them it would be heretical to be an idealist, proclaiming the unreality of matter and asserting the sole dominion of the mind (that animalistic thing!). For us, however, materialism sounds anti-religious and we devoutly wish to distance ourselves from religious conceptions; while for them dwelling on the soul exclusively and repudiating matter is what excites religious opposition. Could it be that the historical enthusiasm among human freethinkers for something called “materialism” has its psychological roots in opposition to religion (no doubt well-founded opposition)? But once religion loses its cultural hold on us the rhetoric surrounding the term becomes obsolete: we no longer have any use for the concept of the material (beyond its quotidian practical uses). We can go on talking about the mind and the brain and wondering whether neurons are the ground of all mentality, but we can dispense with the general notion of the material. We need not concern ourselves with the pseudo-question of whether or not neurons are material things. We can ask whether they are mechanical things and expect to be talking sense (they are probably not), but insisting on an answer to the question of whether they are material or immaterial is outmoded gibberish—rather like forcing an answer to the question of whether gravity is material or immaterial, or energy, or radiation. We no longer think there is anything to the ancient contrast between the sublunary and the superlunary—this is a pointless bifurcation from a scientific point of view—so why cling to the obsolete and unhelpful contrast between the material and immaterial? Both belong to a worldview built around religion, but that worldview no longer commands scientific or philosophical interest. Materialism is accordingly an empty doctrine.  [2]


Colin McGinn   


  [1] According to old-style biology, organic structures are imbued with vital spirits, and hence are not reducible to the inorganic materials dealt with by physics and chemistry. That would make neurons likewise imbued with vital spirits, this disqualifying them from being purely physical. So identifying mental phenomena with neurons would not vindicate materialism. And can such vitalism be ruled out a priori?

  [2] Of course, immaterialism is empty to exactly the same degree. We might say that naturalism has rendered materialism null and void.







When philosophers talk about qualia they are typically discussing the mind-body problem and the prospects for materialism. They are not interested in the general theory of qualia. They may cite some examples of qualia, but they don’t enquire into the general structure and function of qualia—as a linguist might study the structure and function of language. There is no “qualistics” analogous to linguistics. And indeed the subject is difficult and obscure, even more so than the nature of language. Here I will merely tickle the subject of qualia in the hope of eliciting a gurgle that might reveal the general nature of the beast. The analogy with linguistics provides a useful starting-point, because quite a bit about language has been discovered, particularly in the post-Chomsky period. The most basic fact about language is that it consists of a finite lexicon that is capable of infinite expansion by means of the rules of grammar. Language has an elements-and-rules structure with infinite potential. Grammars generate an infinite array of expressions by operating on a fixed and finite set of linguistic units. Is something similar true of qualia?

            The plural form of the noun “qualia” suggests a stock of distinguishable discrete elements, and indeed introspection confirms that our sensory consciousness is constituted by a totality of just such elements—sensations of color, feelings of pain, tastes, smells, etc. These come in enormous profusion: it would be hard to put an upper limit on the number of qualia accessible to a typical human perceiver (or other animal). Just consider the number of distinct qualia you experience with a closed eyelid! I would suspect that qualia vastly outnumber words. So we may state the first law of qualia science: there exist a colossal number of qualia in the universe. The number is presumably finite, and is probably less than the number of stars, but it is truly massive. Moreover, qualia, unlike words, vary continuously, being more analogue than digital (just consider all the shades of blue): so the infinity of the continuum applies to them. The cardinality of the qualia lexicon is astronomically large. In addition to this the “grammar” of qualia is immensely productive: qualia can be combined ad libitum, both in space and time. Complex totalities can be formed that are completely novel and will never be repeated—as when you visually take in a new scene of any complexity. At any given moment the five senses are saturated with seething populations of qualia, which together yield an enormous array of variegated qualia ensembles. The brain in all its complexity must be responsible for this vast qualia universe, by virtue of mechanisms little understood. Consciousness is constitutionally capable of housing these gargantuan combinations of individual qualia. The brain is clearly an incredibly complex and intricate qualia-generating machine.

            The second law of qualia science states that qualia are extremely various. Each sense has its own proprietary range of qualia, and within each sense there is also considerable variety. There are a great many qualia universals. Qualia types are evidently more various than physical particle types (which are relatively few in number). Words differ in their types too, but qualia fall into far more categories. It would take a determined theorist to be a qualia monist (or an especially blind one). The qualia of different senses don’t mix, despite their freedom of combination within a given sense: you can’t see red and taste pineapple within the same sensory field. Qualia shun each other when they are too different, though they congregate happily when they share a basic phenomenology. Perhaps there could be olfactory eyes that respond to light and chemical impingement at the same time, thus producing a combined olfactory-visual field; but that is not the set-up on planet earth (so far as we know). So there is a definite limit to the combinability of qualia into unitary percepts, even though within a sense modality there is great plasticity (not to say promiscuity). Qualia are like members of a tribe that will hang out with any member of their own tribe but will not mix with members of other tribes.

            But there are some strange borderline cases and apparent exceptions, which bring us to the heart of qualia darkness. For one thing, qualia enthusiasts never cite impressions of geometrical forms as instances of qualia: it’s always sensing colors not sensing shapes. Do we not have shape qualia? But surely we do perceive shapes, so there ought to be corresponding qualia. The reason for this omission, I suspect, is that we experience shape with more than one sense—with both touch and sight. So there is nothing qualitatively distinctive about sensing shape. Yet it does seem as if a single experiential type is involved in sensations of circularity (say). This is why it is tempting to give an affirmative answer to Molyneux’s question: yes, a blind man made to see would recognize circles based on his previous tactile experience with them. So here the quale seems to hover between sensory specificity and abstract generality. We don’t really know what to say about geometrical qualia—that is, qualia corresponding to the traditional category of primary qualities. This is why all the examples cited involve secondary qualities. But the question cannot be avoided: do we, or do we not, have qualia of what are called “common sensibles”? If we do, qualia can hop between the senses; but if we don’t, we are qualia blind to certain qualities of things.  [1] The question remains infuriatingly obscure.

            Obscurity mounts when we consider synesthesia. It is said that red resembles the sound of a trumpet, and some people experience letters of the alphabet as having certain hues. Is there, then, a type of experience that straddles the two—a type of quale that unites these disparate qualities? Are redness and trumpet sounds instances of a common qualia type for people who sense the resemblance? Are there such higher-order qualia? The idea seems not without merit. This suggests a hypothesis: that there are qualia that transcend specific concrete qualia but coexist with them. These unifying qualia hover in the background somehow, permeating our more immediately discernible qualia.  [2] Maybe we have no words for them, but they are real nonetheless. Concrete instances may be variations on a phenomenological theme. Could it be that there is a single basic type of quale that gets specialized in the different senses, producing variety from uniformity? Can we imagine a sentient being whose entire qualia space arises from a subset of uniform qualia originating in a particular sense? Suppose that in this being vision evolves first and then the other senses piggyback on it by modifying the qualia associated with vision, thus producing qualia called by other names. The sensation of red is coopted by hearing to produce the sound of a trumpet, say.  [3] Thus there are qualia universals that span the different senses—rather as there are linguistic universals that span different human languages. The variety we observe arises by a process of transformation amounting to metamorphosis. This seems like a strange idea, to be sure, given the qualitative differences between qualia across the senses, but can it be ruled out a priori? Might the variety of qualia be less than appears to casual inspection? Certainly we have repeatedly discovered deeper uniformities in nature than strike us at first sight. Concepts are not sense-specific—they don’t have a sense-modality written into them—so perhaps qualia are also more modality-neutral than we suppose. Could there be unconscious qualia that underlie the conscious kind available to introspection? Could the apparent heterogeneity disguise a more basic homogeneity? Might qualia admit of a distinction between surface structure and deep structure? We don’t know, but the question seems real enough. We are certainly familiar with the idea that the introspectively available part of the mind is only one part of it. Qualia might enjoy a substantial unconscious life in some form or other.

            It may be said that the analogy with language is imperfect because the principles of qualia combination are nothing like grammar in the literal sense. I would agree with that—indeed, insist upon it—but this is a dispensable feature of the analogy. A better analogy would be bird song, which has the advantage of locating qualia at a lower evolutionary level: bird song is also built around a set of primitive elements and rules of combination, species-specific and quite intricate. Also, the notes of bird song vary continuously like qualia, thus producing enormous variety. Architecturally, then, individual qualia resemble the elements of bird song; we can readily imagine a mapping from one to the other. The basic brain mechanisms that allow one might allow the other (not that we know what these mechanisms are). From a computational point of view, both are functions from primitive elements to combinations of elements, possibly exhibiting hierarchical structure. Qualia do seem to cluster and embed, forming gestalts, dividing up the world into useful units for effective behavior (just consider your visual field right now). We have no idea how qualia evolved, singly or as combinable elements, but presumably mutations produced machinery capable of generating their distinctive form—a kind of program for qualia manipulation. And presumably this elaborate mental capacity has survival value: qualia help keep the organism around. The genes wouldn’t go to all that trouble for no reason. Qualia are psychologically real, cerebrally embodied, and functionally adaptive—they have to be. They must be as natural as bird song, and analogous to it (up to a point).

            It should be noted that qualia are not confined to the senses. They also appear in the imagination: our mental imagery is qualia-laden. Here they combine in new and surprising ways, following the elastic rules of image formation. They take on fresh combinatorial possibilities, not being stimulus-bound. Thus we have the qualia-borne imagery found in dreams: boundless, bizarre, creative, and anarchic. Dreams are qualia heaven—the place where qualia go to do whatever they feel like doing. And they are so nimble, so mischievous, and so free. But even in daydreams qualia flex their creative power, fluidly combining and recombining, always resourceful, preternaturally agile. They form the inner speech of the senses. They also feed into the thought process, though they seem shy about actually entering that domain (we don’t “think in qualia”): what we think and believe is shaped by the qualia populating our sensory consciousness—colors, sounds, smells, tastes, feels. So qualia fit into the overall economy of the mind in characteristic ways; they aren’t just marginal. Again, they are like words in this respect—here, there, and everywhere.

            I have tried to avoid the vexed question of the ontology of qualia. What are they exactly? Are they representations of external properties or are they qualities of consciousness itself? Are they non-physical? I will simply say that they are subjective-objective hybrids: episodes of seeming to apprehend qualities of things. The quale associated with seeing something red is a seeming to have a red thing before you: it is thus a synthesis of a subjective state and an objective quality (in one sense of “objective”). Not that any of this is easy to understand, but it is the right way to describe what is at issue. Accordingly, qualia are instances of such episodes of seeming—that is, states of consciousness in which a quality is apprehended. These are the things that exist in such profusion and that get combined so freely. If it is any consolation, it is also not at all clear what a word (lexical item) is: is it a sound wave, an act of speech, a mental entity, an abstract pattern, or a brain configuration? The ontology of words is also obscure (ontology often is: numbers, meanings, beliefs, even physical objects). But this obscurity shouldn’t prevent us from recognizing important truths about the subject matter in question, particularly its structural and functional features. As with so much about the mind, we are only at the beginning of understanding it, and may never achieve the understanding we seek.  [4]


  [1] People sometimes say we perceive visual shape and tactile shape, but never just shape: but this is an obvious cop-out—surely there is something in common between the two, something with phenomenological reality.

  [2] Sartre would say that every quale carries with it a sub-quale of nothingness, since nothingness is the essence of consciousness: in seeing something red, say, the subject apprehends the emptiness of consciousness itself. A referential theory of qualia would likewise imply that every quale embeds an awareness of an act of intentionality common to all qualia. In both cases we have cross-modal qualia of a rather abstract type.

  [3] We can formulate a synesthetic version of Molyneux’s problem: would a person born deaf recognize the sound of a trumpet as similar to red if suddenly given the ability to hear? That is, is this similarity inherent in the red quale and capable of extrapolation? I myself sense a strong similarity between whiteness and silence, and also between hot peppers and hot objects (the use of “hot” for both is surely not an accident). Thus there might be a universal phenomenology (across the senses) analogous to universal grammar (across languages). 

  [4] It is an interesting historical fact that the word “qualia” and the associated concept have been around for over a hundred years  (C.S. Peirce introduced “quale” in 1866 and C.I. Lewis introduced “qualia” in 1929), but the notion is still highly controversial even as a descriptive term. The subject is shrouded in obscurity, and hardly exists as part of scientific psychology. It awaits its Noam Chomsky to set it on a scientific footing. We barely have even a superficial taxonomy of qualia. Qualia theory is like the linguistics of the Stone Age.


An Identity Theory of Identity



An Identity Theory of Identity


The identity theory I have in mind says simply this: identity is identical to indiscernibility. That is, the identity relation reduces to the indiscernibility relation. Why would anyone endorse this theory? First, there is a very clear connection between identity and indiscernibility, enshrined in Leibniz’s Law: x is identical to y if and only if x and yare indiscernible, i.e. have all properties in common. Second, if the two are not identical (identity and indiscernibility), then we cannot establish identity by ascertaining indiscernibility, since the identity relation transcends the indiscernibility relation. We could simply assert an entailment from the latter to the former, but this has the look of a stipulation absent any recognition of identity. Thus there is a danger that identities will turn out to be unknowable if not reducible to indiscernibility. Third, identity would be a sort of metaphysical dangler if not reducible to indiscernibility: it would stand apart from indiscernibility in a weird and gratuitous way—better then to trim it back to indiscernibility using Occam’s razor. Reality contains no identity relation over and above the indiscernibility relation. So there are reasons to hope that identity is in fact identical to indiscernibility.

            But there is a well-known obstacle: while the indiscernibility of identical things seems self-evident, the identity of indiscernible things seems not to be. The classic example is qualitatively identical spheres at different points in a symmetrical universe. The example seems exceptional and contrived—we don’t normally encounter such potential counterexamples to Leibniz’s law—and not surprisingly there are counter-replies. First, we could simply stipulate that identity-with-x should be counted among the properties of x, in which case the qualitative counterpart y will not have this property (having instead the property of being identical-with-y). Second, we can include spatial location among the properties of each sphere, so that the two are not spatially indiscernible. Third, we could bite the bullet and declare the two identical, dismissing the thought experiment as fantasy: for if nothing distinguishes them they cannot be distinct. It is important here to denude the concept of discernibility of any epistemic connotation: the point is not that our inability to discern the difference between two objects establishes that they are identical; it is that the objective fact of indiscernibility, i.e. complete sharing of properties, entails identity (because it is identity, according to the identity theory of identity). Thus we can reply to the standard objection to the right-to-left reading of Leibniz’s Law: there is no proof that indiscernibility fails to entail identity.

            The theory might be compared with a similar identity theory of numbers, viz. that numbers are sets. Once we have sets, it may be said, we don’t need a separate ontological realm of numbers—we can shave off the redundant ontology. Whether that is a good argument is not to the point; the point is that the analogous identity theory of identity can claim that there is no ground to distinguish identity from indiscernibility once we have a suitably relaxed notion of indiscernibility to work with. Identity just is complete objective indiscernibility, neither more nor less. It adds nothing to the basic fact of absolute and total coincidence of properties. It is possible to be an anti-reductionist about identity, holding it to be a separate relation altogether, but one can appreciate the position of someone who can’t stomach that kind of metaphysical multiplication. The reduction is not empirical, to be sure, and it qualifies as knowable a priori, and it may even be analytic: but it is informative in some way, and hence rationally disputable—it is not an empty tautology. It is piece of substantive metaphysics. An interesting feature of it is that it applies to itself: it says that identity is indiscernible from indiscernibility. For that is what identity is, according to the theory; therefore the identity of identity with indiscernibility is the same as the indiscernibility of identity and indiscernibility (and that “same” is also equivalent to indiscernibility). The word “identical” or “same” always expresses indiscernibility. Thus Leibniz’s Law is not just a stipulated biconditional in need of a rationale; it is tantamount to the proposition that identity is identical to indiscernibility. Leibniz has discovered a true identity statement connecting two expressions of the language: “identical” and “indiscernible” both denote the same relation, variously described as identity or indiscernibility. The case is no doubt special, but in broad outline it is an instance of a Fregean informative identity statement: one denotation with two names for it. Ontologically, the world contains indiscernibility facts, and these facts constitute identity facts. Logically, the case is just like the identity theory of mind and brain: the world contains brain facts, and these facts (allegedly) constitute mental facts. There is something pleasing in the result that identity itself might be subject to reduction via identity (i.e. indiscernibility).