Mind in World



Mind in World


I am going to describe a chain of reasoning that begins with commonsense premises and ends with a startling conclusion. It is prompted by some remarks of Berkeley concerning the instantiation of mental properties: “Now for an idea to exist in an unperceiving thing, is a manifest contradiction; for to have an idea is all one as to perceive: that therefore wherein color, figure, and the like qualities exist, must perceive them; hence it is clear there can be no unthinking substance or substratum of those ideas.”  [1] That is, if colors and the like are “ideas”, then what has them has to be a perceiving thing, since mental properties need a subject to inhere in. Let me reconstruct the argument as follows: Objects are colored; colors are mental properties; mental properties are had by psychological subjects; therefore objects are psychological subjects.  Alternatively, to possess mental properties is to have a mind, so if objects possess mental properties they must have a mind; but they do possess mental properties, in the form of color and other secondary qualities, so they have a mind. Thus every colored (etc.) object has a mind! You see what I mean about startling: the subjectivity of secondary qualities implies that objects possess minds, which means that minds are everywhere. And given that each object possesses many secondary qualities, objects have quite complex minds—consisting of colors, sounds, tastes, smells, and tactile qualities like heat and cold. We have here a rather sudden move from a platitudinous premise to an outrageous conclusion, the crucial link provided by the connection between the subjectivity of color and the possession of a mind: no mental instantiation without mentation, as we might say. As Berkeley would put it, the esse of an idea is percipi, and colors are ideas, so what has them has to be a perceiving thing.

            Of course an argument is only as good as its premises, and each of the premises in this argument has been contested: objects don’t really have colors, only items in the mind do; colors are not mental entities but physical ones; mental properties don’t need psychological subjects in order to be instantiated; the idea of minds or psychological subjects as entities is itself suspect. I won’t try to defend each of the premises in the argument, though I think they are all true, but I will try to articulate what lies behind them. There have been many attempts to deny that objects are really colored, locating colors instead in the mind of the perceiver; but they run afoul of a very stubborn intuition, namely that colors (etc.) are as much intrinsic properties of objects as figure and motion—that is certainly how they look. Some say we project them onto objects by a special kind of objectifying mental act, but there is no introspective evidence that such an act ever occurs (is it voluntary?); also this theory has trouble explaining the sense in which objects continue to have colors when not being perceived.  [2] Some try to reduce colors to wavelengths and the like, but this underestimates the difference between primary and secondary qualities; and we have a natural conviction that colors, sounds, tastes, etc. are mental in nature. Why we have this conviction is an interesting question, which I won’t go into, but it is robust and widely shared: it is simply how such qualities strike us, as with sensations of pain and indeed sensations of color. The third premise is where the argumentative work gets done—the link between mentality and mentation. That is the novelty of Berkeley’s observation: other philosophers of the period assumed that colors are mental but didn’t draw the conclusion that they need a psychological subject or mind in the object, or existing somehow alongside it. They perhaps assumed that the mind of the perceiver is the subject of the mental property that is color, since there must be one somewhere: the color is in the object in virtue of being perceived there by the human mind. All we get from the third premise is that there has to be a subject of some sort not that the subject is the object itself. The identity of the subject is so far left open.

            So that is the key premise that powers the argument. There are several options for making this premise come out true that fail to imply universal mentation. Berkeley’s own preference is that the needed subject is simply God: all ideas subsist in his mind—no ordinary object is ever the substance in which an idea inheres. Thus Berkeley infers theistic immaterialism from the third premise: spirits are the things that colors inhere in not material substances, God being the spirit in chief. Along the same lines someone might propose that there exists a cosmic mind pervading the universe, and this mind is the one in virtue of which objects are colored—the true subject of the mental qualities of color and the rest. Or we might just follow tradition and suppose that the human mind is the one that provides the necessary grounding for the mental properties in question—it is the thing that colors exist in when an object looks to be colored. Again, I won’t discuss these proposals in detail; it seems to me that there are obvious problems with each of them and that the natural theory is simply that the object itself is the subject of the mental properties it apparently instantiates. We surely don’t want to follow Berkeley in banishing material substance altogether and with it the belief that some properties are not intrinsically mental; and God seems like a rather heavy-handed way to deal with a problem more easily solved without assuming his existence and direct participation in perception. Similarly for the cosmic mind as the true subject of color, heat, taste, and so on: we don’t want to wheel in such heavy machinery if we can avoid it. As for the human mind, the obvious problem, insisted upon by Berkeley, is that objects remain colored when not being perceived by us, so it cannot be that the instantiation of color depends on our perceiving the object all the time, since we don’t (this is where God proves his metaphysical worth for Berkeley). We need a continuous perception to allow for the continuous existence of the secondary qualities even when unperceived by us or other perceiving organic creatures. Thus the natural theory is that the object itself contains a mind in which its qualities continuously inhere: the object is continuously red, say, because it continuously perceives itself as red. It has a mind that never sleeps.

            Here you shrilly protest: “But it is absurd to suppose that ordinary colored objects perceive colors in the way we do!” The force of this protest depends on the final five words of it: for we need not assume that the object perceives red in the way we do. Minds come in many grades and types across the animal kingdom, from the simple and primitive to the complex and sophisticated. When an insect sees color, say, this might be very different from the way mammals like us do. Extrapolating, we might suppose that colored objects perceive color in a way very different even from the perceptions of lowly insects. To borrow a term from the panpsychist literature, they have proto perception of color, not full-blooded human-like perception of it. Indeed, we might view the position being described as a form of macro-panpsychism: observable objects have minds in much the same way panpsychists have envisaged elementary particles having minds—inchoately, dimly, darkly. We might have no clear idea of this form of perception, viewed from the inside, but it is theoretically possible. Then we can say that colored objects have minds in whatever way inorganic things have minds, which might be quite alien to us. We might not know what it is like to perceive red for a red object, but that is neither here nor there so far as the reality of such perception is concerned. We have to keep a broad mind when it comes to the variety of minds (bats, Martians, atoms, and pillar boxes). And it seems that some enlargement of the domain of mind is required by the simple fact of objects having secondary qualities, by the argument cited.

            It may help to ease the reader’s qualms if I remark a structural parallel between the minds I am postulating and more conventional minds. Objects have two sorts of property corresponding to the primary and secondary quality distinction, only one of which requires the existence of a psychological subject. Similarly brains have two sorts of property conventionally designated mental and physical, only one of which requires the existence of a psychological subject. Thus both objects and brains have a psychophysical nature, having both a mental aspect and a non-mental aspect. And just as we can describe different sorts of theory of the relation between these aspects for things with brains, so we can describe different sorts of theory for the two aspects of objects. We can envisage property dualism, materialist reduction, eliminative materialism, and even substance dualism (objects contain immaterial souls as the bearers of their secondary qualities). We have a mind-body problem for virtually everything, because mentally constituted secondary qualities are everywhere. Might it be that objects already exhibited the basic form of a psychophysical being long before any organic such beings came along? Could this be the basis for the advent of animal minds—not micro mentality, as in panpsychism, but macro mentality, as in colored, hot, tasty objects? What is clear is that there is a lot more mentality in nature than we bargained for, under the current hypothesis. In Berkeley’s system there is nothing but mentality; in this system it is everywhere the secondary qualities are. To repeat: colors are “ideas”, and ideas need minds, and minds in the colored objects are the best hypothesis. Colors are mind-dependent, but the minds they depend on reside in the objects of perception not in the human perceiver. It would be very strange to suppose that ideas in human minds depend for their existence on other minds existing at some remove from them; in the same way it would be strange if the ideas existing in material objects depended for their existence on minds extraneous to them (such as human minds) instead of on minds located inside those objects. Common sense tells us that objects are colored and that colors are mental, and it is not contrary to common sense to infer that those properties need a subject to inhere in—thus crediting them with a psychological subject of some sort. Hence we get mind in world.

            Querulously you enquire whether these minds are conscious, and if so what it is like to have this consciousness. Here the answer is as above: consciousness comes in many grades and types, and it may be that the consciousness of red objects is of a primitive and (for us) unimaginable type. It may be a step down from the consciousness of even the simplest conscious organism—deeply proto, inscrutably dim and dark. Who knows? As to what it’s like, we can’t leap to the conclusion that it is like seeing something red: for this is about what it’s like to be red not to experience red; and it may be that having the property of being red is not accompanied by the phenomenology of seeing red. The object perceives red but it may not perceive that property by having the experience of seeing red (you can perceive a hippopotamus without it seeming to you to be a hippopotamus). Still, maybe the phenomenology is just its seeming to the object that it sees a red thing, in which case red objects have experiences as of red (nature is phenomenologically parsimonious). The important point is that it has to seem to something that things are a certain way, since the esse of “ideas” is percipi: red objects have to perceive their color in a certain way, whatever that way is. So they need a way to sense their own ideas (subjective qualities)—just we need a way to sense our own pains or color sensations. Red is to red things as pain is to things in pain. And let it not be forgotten that ordinary objects are extremely complex and in many ways mysterious: all those atoms and their constituents and the mysterious forces governing them. It is not beyond their powers to allow room for mental properties to be instantiated by the objects they compose. But it must be admitted that we need a radical revision of our view of nature if we are to take on the kind of metaphysical picture I am describing: we need to accept that mind is everywhere and right on the surface of things (not lurking imperceptibly in the particles that constitute matter, as in micro panpsychism). One surprising result of this is that some mental properties are not imperceptible and private but perceptible and public: for we can sense the secondary qualities of things with our eyes and ears and mouths. Here the mind is fully open to view, not hidden inside an opaque shell. So mind is not just literally all around us in the inorganic world but also plainly visible in the perceptible properties of things—we can see “ideas”. Whenever you see a red object or taste sugar you are literally seeing or tasting a mind, because you are sensing a mental attribute that is backed by a mental substance (i.e. thing that perceives in some modality). There are many more minds than we thought and they are a lot more knowable than we ever suspected. There is mind in the world, and it lies right before our eyes.  [3]


  [1] Principles of Human Knowledge, section 7.

  [2] This is why we call color blindness a form a blindness: it is a lack of sensitivity to what is objectively there not just a failure to project what other people project. The idea that a red object ceases to be red when I shut my eyes is surely preposterous, and it doesn’t matter if the entire human race shuts its eyes. This kind of point makes trouble for dispositional theories of color and other theories that make color dependent on the human perceiver.

  [3] One might ask why objects have minds in the way suggested: it can hardly be because minds are an evolutionary adaptation for them with all sorts of benefits for survival. No answer to this question appears forthcoming, but then we don’t know why objects have many of the properties they do either—they just do. That’s just the way the universe is made (theists might suggest that God gave us secondary qualities to add to life’s rich pageant). Physics doesn’t care about secondary qualities (perhaps it should), but physics is not the measure of the real. In effect, sentient beings came into a world already inhabited by sentient beings, though of another order.

3 replies
  1. Free Logic
    Free Logic says:

    I’ve been trying to follow the trajectory of your path in this blog in the recent past and it looks like from mysterianism — and without leaving this position behind — you are moving towards philosophical worldmaking in Nelson Goodman’s sense: “The movement is from unique truth and a world fixed and found to a diversity of right and even conflicting versions or worlds in the making.” p.x, WoW. I don’t mean to say this in the sense of “he said it before” as it really does not matter. Is it roughly correct to think so or you have something else in mind?

    • Colin McGinn
      Colin McGinn says:

      I’ve never read Goodman’s book of that name and certainly have had no such ideas consciously in mind. In fact I have little sympathy for relativism of that kind. I would say that I have been emphasizing what might be called “constructive mysterianism”–trying to develop positive theories in the shadow of mystery. I really just try to make progress on issues as they come up for me. I also tend to favor creativity over criticism.

      • Free Logic
        Free Logic says:

        Thanks for clarifying. Re Goodman – I believe you would have enjoyed his thinking at the end of his productive life. Yes he is a relativist at the last analysis, but not of the lazy and sloppy “everything goes” type. In a nutshell, underdetermination is what got him to become a constructivist in philosophy of science (‘grue’ and stuff) — he concluded that there are many ways to describe, conceptualize and build models; some of these are equally good (they fit) and some are bad (they don’t).


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