The basic premise of my book, How To Be An Excellent Human, is that human happiness is found in functioning well:
Functioning well means doing what we are good at and doing it in a good way, a way that promotes and enhances our ability to do it. When we function well, we experience happiness [and] fulfillment.(1)
This essay is an attempt to explain what I mean by that passage and to answer some objections. The idea that functioning well is important for human well-being goes all the way back to Plato and Aristotle. My account of the matter takes inspiration from their insights but differs in some details. I suppose you could call me a neo-Aristotelian.
In Book I of The Republic, Plato gives a brief account of how human happiness has to do with performing a specific function well.(2) A much fuller account is found in Aristotle, in the Nichomachean Ethics:
[A clearer account of happiness] might perhaps be given, if we could first ascertain the function of man. For just as for a flute-player, a sculptor, or an artist, and, in general, for all things that have a function or activity, the good and the ‘well’ is thought to reside in the function, so would it seem to be for man, if he has a function.(3)
Aristotle’s aim is to find the function of the human being. We’ll take up that idea shortly, but first we need to get clear on a few concepts. The first is happiness, which the Greeks called eudaimonia, often translated as “flourishing.” The second is soul, the Greek word for which is psyché (pronounced “psoo-khay”). We get words such as “psyche,” “psychology” and the like from this Greek root. The third is function or work, the word for which in Greek is ergon. We get the word “ergonomics” from this root. And the fourth is excellence, areté in Greek.
Eudaimonia literally means being accompanied by a good (eu) spirit (daimon). If one is accompanied by a eudaimon, a sort of guardian angel, then one’s life goes well; hence, the translation “happiness.” Nowadays we find the notion of guardian angels fanciful, but there is a spirit that does accompany each one of us at all times: our own spirit, our own soul. By extension of the Greek idea we can say that eudaimonia means wellness of soul.(4)
But what is soul? The word psyche is often translated as “soul,” but it does not mean a single enduring entity, such as Descartes’ res cogitans (thinking thing). It is not the entity said to live on after death in many religious theologies. The Greek word is derived from a root meaning to breathe and, by extension, to live. We can think of it as the animating spirit or vital breath of a living being.(5) Living beings, we can say, are ensouled. Instead of saying that a person has a soul, it would be more correct to say that he or she simply has soul, or perhaps soulness.
Soulness has two aspects, objective and subjective. Greek thinkers before Aristotle recognized two characteristics that distinguish what has soul in it from what does not: movement and sensation.(6) Objectively, from the outside, we observe that living things are animated; they grow and maintain their form through metabolism. and have their source of motion in themselves. Soul in this sense is the animating principle by virtue of which a living being is alive. Aristotle says that “what has soul in it … displays life.”(7)
Subjectively, from the inside, we observe our own life, and we find that the world appears to us, and that we engage with it. The world, we surmise, does not appear at all to nonliving things, but it does appear to living beings. We recognize that some elements of what we experience—trees, chairs, people and the like—are experienced by others as well; and others—thoughts, feelings, emotions and the like—are experienced directly by each of us alone. Soulness in this sense is a coherent world appearing to a particular point of view. Soulness is coherence of interiority. If that interior coherence is rich, full and harmonious, we call it happy and say that in such a state we flourish.
And what causes our interior state to be harmonious, fulfilled and happy? Both Plato and Aristotle say that such a happy state comes from doing our function well.
The term “function” (ergon, also translated as “work”) has been the subject of much analysis. It basically means what something does or what it is there for(8), what good it does.(9) It may also mean how it works.(10) Plato says that a thing’s function is what only it does or what it does better than anything else.(11)
There are two kinds of function, and unfortunately both Plato and Aristotle confuse them. The first is biological. For example, the function of the heart is to pump blood; the function of the eye is to see; legs and feet function to enable an organism to stand and move around. In all these cases the function of the part is to contribute to the ongoing life of the living being. Aristotle assumes that if there is a structure in an animal, it is there to do something. The part contributes to the well-being of the whole.
The second kind of function is instrumental, and instrumental functions most often involve a deliberate purpose. For instance, the function of a hammer is to drive nails. It does not drive nails on its own, but rather requires a human to pick it up and use it to do so. The human drives nails for some purpose, such as to build a house. The purpose of building a house is to provide shelter. And the purpose of shelter is to contribute to the ongoing life of the human being.
In both cases we end up with a contribution to life, but in the biological case the contribution is direct and need not involve any deliberate purpose, whereas in the instrumental case the contribution is indirect and does involve deliberate purpose.
As I said, Plato and Aristotle confuse the two meanings, sometimes referring to biological function and sometimes referring to instrumental function. In The Republic Plato gives the example of a pruning knife, the function of which is to trim branches. Other kinds of knives would work, but pruning is best done with a pruning knife, so that is what the pruning knife’s function is.(12) This is clearly an example of instrumental function. Aristotle at times uses similar examples. He says that a good horse is one that is good at running, at carrying its rider and at standing steady in the face of the enemy.(13) In this context a horse is a military instrument to be used by its rider. But in other places Aristotle speaks of biological function:
As eye, hand, foot, and in general each of the [bodily] parts evidently has a function, may one lay it down that man similarly has a function …?(14)
It is in the biological context that we can understand the function of the human.
The final concept we need to understand is areté, often translated as “virtue” but more properly rendered as “excellence.” (“Virtue” is used in its somewhat archaic sense of power or potency, as in “a potion with the virtue of removing warts.”) A thing is excellent if it does what it does in a very good way, that is, if it is effective at performing its function.(15) For instance, the function of a rabbit’s legs is to enable it to run. The better they are at this function, the better for the rabbit. Excellence promotes the animal’s well-being.
The Function Argument
Aristotle’s assertion is that an excellent human, one who performs the human function well, is a happy (eudaimon) human. But what is this human function?
In Aristotle’s view the human function is what human soul does, and not just what human soul does but what it alone can do or what it can do better than anything else. Aristotle contrasts human soul with two others, that of plants and that of (non-human) animals. Plants, animals and humans are all alive. All have soul. Soulness in plants enables them to take in nutrients, grow and reproduce. Soulness in animals enables them to do those things and, in addition, to perceive their world and, in most cases, move around. The soulness of humans is that humans do all that plants and animals do and even more. Humans have, in addition, the power to think rationally.(16)
The connection between functioning well and well-being is not magical and not arbitrary. A plant that absorbs nutrients well does better than one that absorbs nutrients poorly; that is, it has a better chance of surviving, thriving and reproducing. An animal that perceives its world and gets around in it well has a better chance of surviving, thriving and reproducing than one that does these things poorly. Similarly, human beings who think well have a better chance of surviving and thriving (for humans, reproducing is optional) than those who think poorly.
We humans partake of all three kinds of soulness, all three ways of sensing and engaging with the world, but the specific excellence of human soul, Aristotle says, is found in thinking rationally:
The function of man is an activity of soul which follows or implies a rational principle. … human good turns out to be [this] activity of soul in accordance with virtue [areté, excellence].(17)
By “in accordance with virtue” he means doing so well. In other words, when you think well, then you function well and flourish.
Aristotle says a lot more than this, of course. He discusses virtues such as courage and temperance, the need for sticking to a middle ground between excess and deficiency, the obvious influence on happiness of having friends and enough material goods to sustain yourself, and so forth. But he ends up saying that the life of pure study, such as is enjoyed by philosophers, is the best.(18)
Coming from a philosopher, perhaps this conclusion is not surprising. But is it correct? I think not. Leaving aside the difficulty of comparing lives, Aristotle seems to confuse what is best for a particular person and what is best for human beings generally.
Aristotle does recognize that there is more than one kind of thinking. Two of them are practical reason (phronesis), which is directed at accomplishing things in the world, and theoretical reason (theoria), which is aimed at disinterested understanding. The ability to think well in practical terms is obviously useful. But not everyone is suited for a life of theoretical contemplation.
Some of us are good at that sort of philosophical thinking. Some of us are good at other things: sports, music, crossword puzzles, mathematics, caretaking, fixing things, gardening and many more. But few of us are good at all of those things. On an individual level, each of us is well advised to find out what he or she is good at personally, or idiosyncratically, and to pursue and develop those talents. By and large, we will be happier doing what we are good at than doing something else. (Perhaps not universally. I know someone who is good at plumbing, but does not much enjoy it. In his case I suspect he is even better at other things.)
Aristotle wants to know the good for humans generally, for all humans considered just as humans. His conclusions are based on observation of the similarities and differences among living things. He was a sharp observer of the natural world, but modern scientific knowledge has far surpassed his elementary classifications. The distinctions between animals, plants and humans are not nearly so clear-cut as he thought. We know that some plants can sense quite keenly what is going on around them and even seem to have a form of intelligence.(19) Many can move, in most cases slowly compared to animals, although some, such as the Venus Flytrap, quite rapidly. And we now know that some animals—birds, octopuses, and chimpanzees, for instance—are far more intelligent than we had previously thought.(20) The ability to think is not limited to humans. Perhaps humans do it better than every other kind of being, but we are certainly not the only ones who do it.
But we humans do have an ability that goes well beyond what any other animal can do: we can turn our attention to ourselves. Even more than intelligence, the capacity for self-reflection—that we are able to turn our attention to our own experience, to take ourselves as an object of thought and perception—is what makes us uniquely human. Variously called self-knowledge, self-awareness, higher-order thought, and metacognition, the ability to take ourselves as objects of concern enables us, within limits, to develop ourselves and improve our functioning. I like to call this capacity second-order thinking, the first order being thinking directed at the world. The second order is thinking directed at oneself, and it, not thinking alone, is the uniquely human function. It enables us to improve and enhance all our other functions.(21)
Here is an example. One of the objections to the function argument is that it can be oppressive. One of the obvious functions of women is to have babies. Hence, the oppressive argument goes, they should be confined to that role. The Nazis advised women to stick to Kinder, Kirche und Küche (children, church and kitchen). Patriarchal prejudice punishes women who try to succeed in business, politics or any other role traditionally assigned to men. Not only is this attitude damaging to women, preventing them from reaching their full potential, it is a mistake. The mistake is to think that human nature is exhausted by its biological functions, that humans are only their biology. And it is our ability to think about ourselves that enables us to recognize the mistake.
Every human being is indeed a biological organism. Every biological organism has three goals built in, so to speak, to its very being: to survive, to thrive and to reproduce. So you might think that those are the built-in goals of every human. But they aren’t. Some of us do not choose to reproduce; some do not choose to thrive; and a few do not even choose to survive; instead, they commit suicide.
Of those who choose not to reproduce there are those who feel no sexual attraction to the opposite sex; and there are those who do, but for various reasons choose not to have children. Of those who choose not to thrive, there are those who are addicted to harmful behavior such as smoking cigarettes, and there are those who devote their efforts to a cause at some cost to their own well-being. I do not know how many types there are of those who commit suicide. For many of them, I suppose, life has become unbearably painful; and the urge to avoid pain, which is an element of the urge to thrive, overcomes the urge to survive.
Our animal nature is strong. Even those who choose not to reproduce cannot choose to be unaffected by the drive to reproduce; we all feel sexual urges. Even those who choose not to thrive cannot choose to have no desire for what is pleasant and nurturing. And those who commit suicide have to make a lot of effort to overcome the powerful urge for self-preservation.
What is it about humans that enables us to overcome these built-in biological drives and to pursue other ends instead? It is second-order thinking, our ability to think about ourselves.
Much more could be said about this human function, including how best to deploy it, and I do say more in my book. We humans have lots of other functions, skills and talents. We have a place in the broad scheme of things. There are ways our functioning is impaired, and there are ways to correct that impairment. The more we know about all these things—that is, the more we examine our lives, as Socrates recommended—the better our chances are for a flourishing life.
(1) Meacham, p. 6
(2) Plato, The Republic, 351e – 353d.
(3) Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, I.7, 1097b 22-29.
(4) Wikipedia, “Eudaimonia” and “Eudaimonism.”
(5) Bible Hub, “5590. psuché.”
(6) Aristotle, On The Soul, 2, 403b 25.
(7) Aristotle, On The Soul, 2, 413a 20.
(8) Wright, “Functions,” p. 146.
(9) Foot, Natural Goodness, p. 32.
(10) Korsgaard, “Aristotle’s Function Argument,” p. 138.
(11) Plato, The Republic, 353a.
(12) Plato, The Republic, 353a.
(13) Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, II.6, 1106a 20
(14) Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, I.7, 1097b 30.
(15) Wikipedia, “Areté (moral virtue).”
(16) Aristotle, On The Soul, 2-3, 413a 20 – 415a 10.
(17) Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, I.7, 1097a 5 – 15.
(18) Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, X.7-8, 1177a 10 – 1179a 30.
(19) Wikipedia, “Plant perception (physiology).”
(20) See for example Ackerman, The Genius of Birds, Montgomery, The Soul of an Octopus, and the many works of Franz de Waal.
(21) There are actually a number of functions that humans do better than other species. Long-distance running is one. Hairless bodies that sweated heat away enabled our ancestors to run down game animals that were faster than we were but could not keep going as long without overheating. Cooking is another. Cooked food is more digestible than raw; eating it freed up calories to grow our brain. Tools and language are other ones. Other animals use tools and have rudimentary language, but ours are far more developed. See Lieberman, The Story of the Human Body, and Wrangham, Catching Fire. Second-order thinking surpasses these functions by enabling us to augment and improve them.
Ackerman, Jennifer. The Genius of Birds. New York: Penguin Press, 2016.
Aristotle. Nichomachean Ethics. Tr. W.D. Ross. Introduction to Aristotle, Ed. Richard McKeon. New York: Random House Modern Library, 1947. Available online at http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/nicomachaen.html.
Aristotle. On the Soul. Tr. J.A. Smith. Introduction to Aristotle, Ed. Richard McKeon. New York: Random House Modern Library, 1947. Available online at http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/soul.html.
Bible Hub. “5590. psuché.” Online publication http://biblehub.com/greek/5590.htm as of 28 February 2017.
Foot, Phillippa. Natural Goodness. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.
Korsgaard, Christine M. “Aristotle’s Function Argument.” Online publication
http://www.people.fas.harvard.edu/~korsgaar/AristotleFunction.pdf as of 3 December 2008.
Lieberman, Daniel E. The Story of the Human Body. New York: Random House Vintage Books, 2013.
Meacham, Bill. How To Be An Excellent Human. Austin: Earth Harmony, 2013. Available at http://bmeacham.com.
Montgomery, Sy. The Soul of an Octopus. New York: Atria, 2015.
Plato. The Republic. Tr. Paul Shorey. The Collected Dialogues of Plato. Ed. Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns. New York: Pantheon Books, 1963.
Wikipedia. “Areté (moral virtue).” Online publication https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arete_(moral_virtue) as of 1 March 2017.
Wikipedia. “Eudaimonia.” Online publication http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eudaimonia as of 16 December 2008.
Wikipedia. “Eudaimonism.” Online publication http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eudaimonism as of 16 December 2008.
Wikipedia. “Plant perception (physiology).” Online publication https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plant_perception_(physiology) as of 1 March 2017.
Wrangham, Richard. Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human. New York: Basic Books, 2009.
Wright, Larry. “Functions.” The Philosophical Review, Vol. 82, No. 2 (Apr., 1973), pp. 139-168. Online publication http://www.jstor.org/stable/2183766 as of 22 May 2012.
I am happy to announce that my paper, “Don’t Say ‘Consciousness’: Toward a Uniform Vocabulary of Subjectivity,” has been published in Sociology and Anthropology, an online open-access journal. Earlier this year I gave a presentation on the same subject at the Science of Consciousness Conference in Tucson, and this is the corresponding paper.
You can view the article information here: http://www.hrpub.org/journals/article_info.php?aid=5342. The paper itself is freely available at http://www.hrpub.org/download/20161130/SA9-19607991.pdf.
The language we use to talk about consciousness, experience, mind, subjectivity and the like is ambiguous. Different people use common terms in different ways without realizing it, and thereby foster confusion. In this paper a terminology is proposed for speaking of subjectivity. An operational definition is given of the term “subjectivity,” and from that standpoint usages of the terms “experience,” “consciousness” and “awareness” are proposed. The approach is both phenomenological in the tradition of Husserl, examining that which is given directly from a first-person point of view while holding in abeyance interpretive theories, and analytic in the British tradition, attempting to clarify terminology used to discuss what is found in such phenomenological investigation. After proposing definitions of salient terms, suggestions are given for reframing confusing language. To make the speaker’s meaning clear it is recommended to avoid the term “consciousness” altogether.
Consciousness, Subjectivity, Philosophy of Mind
Cite this paper
Bill Meacham (2016). Don’t Say “Consciousness”: Toward a Uniform Vocabulary of Subjectivity. Sociology and Anthropology, 4 , 1099 – 1107. doi: 10.13189/sa.2016.041209. Online publication http://www.hrpub.org/download/20161130/SA9-19607991.pdf.
I recently presented a paper titled “Learning from Masters: Ethics and Cosmology in Zarathustra and Hazrat Inayat Khan” to a conference on Zoroastrianism and Sufism. Zarathustra, known to the Greeks as Zoroaster, founded the religion that bears his name. Hazrat Inayat Khan is the founder of what is now the Inayati Order of Sufism. In both we find a kind of virtue ethics, a concern for building admirable character rather than obeying moral rules or calculating the consequences of our actions. And in both we find intriguing hints of a cosmology of pantheistic panypsychism.
The paper is a bit too long for a blog essay, so I have posted it on my website at http://www.bmeacham.com/whatswhat/Zarathustra_v3.htm. You can watch my presentation on YouTube at https://youtu.be/4ejZhNmEbGA.
I have argued that the concept of moral duty is, in a sense, bogus. Moral duties, rules and obligations do not exist independently of us in the same way that physical and mathematical realities do. We certainly have moral intuitions, that is, feelings and judgments that some types of actions are morally forbidden, others are allowed and others are mandatory. But these intuitions are socially constructed. Moral rules are independent of individual human beings in that they come from the culture that an individual lives in or was raised in. But they are not independent of all human beings in the ways that physical things and (arguably) mathematical entities are.
Once you recognize the peculiar irreality of such intuitions—that they have no physically objective basis in fact, but do have an undeniable influence on our assessments of types of behavior—you can rationally choose which moral intuitions to give assent to and obey, and you can choose which ones to ignore or repurpose. You can choose to adopt certain courses of action as a general rule and then harness the power of moral intuition to reinforce them. You can, in effect, choose your duties.
Here is an example. I know a person who engages in environmental struggle. At the moment he is trying to put a halt to a real estate development that would destroy many beautiful trees and would cause harm to nearby neighborhoods. It has been a long slog with a few victories and many defeats. At times he becomes quite discouraged. But he continues, partly because he is stubborn and partly because he feels a sense of duty or obligation to do so. He is not a moral realist. He recognizes that morality is socially constructed and that he is free ignore it. But he assents to the duty under which he finds himself.
He does so because he sees it as his dharma, a concept from Hinduism. One of the meanings of the Sanskrit word “dharma” is duty. This concept of duty, however, is not a narrow moral one, not a list of right things to do and wrong things to avoid. Rather it has a sense of acting in accord with the fundamental order of the universe, with what holds everything together. The concept includes duties, rights and laws, but also virtuous conduct in general.(1) It assumes, of course, that the universe has a fundamental order that has some relevance to human conduct.
This person chooses to continue in the struggle because he prefers to be the kind of person who assents to such duty. He adheres to the goodness ethic, to work for the good in all things.(2) Preventing harm to his neighborhood is an obvious good, and so is saving trees and wildlife habitat, especially in the face of global warming. He chooses to undertake a task that he has the skills to do and that increases his skills with practice. Enhancing useful skills is also an obvious good. He wants to have admirable character. He wants not just to be admired, but to be admirable, that is, to have character that people have good reasons to admire. Perhaps, he hopes, others will become motivated to work for the good as well, and such motivation would increase goodness. And he does it in order to strengthen his ability to persist in the good despite painful feelings of discouragement, anger and fear.
He wants to become the kind of person who does good things as an expression of who he is rather than one who merely obeys a set of rules. The importance of good character is that not only can others rely on a person of such character but that the person can rely on himself or herself as well. In this case he does not have to question continually whether to persist in the often unpleasant struggle, but can spend his energy actually doing so. He is virtuous in an Aristotelian sense: he has skills (arete); he has enough practical wisdom to put them to good use (phronesis); and in so doing he experiences a kind of fulfillment (eudaimonia).(3)
He is a bit of an existentialist in that he chooses to create himself as the person he wishes to be. And he is a bit of a mystic in that he believes that the universe does, in fact, have a fundamental order. It has an inner unity with a drive toward increased richness of satisfaction. He finds himself an integral part of the living being that is the cosmos as a whole. If he did not follow his dharma he would not be fully himself, and both he and the universe would be poorer.
Duty in the sense of societal restrictions is to be questioned. Duty as dharma, as acting in harmony with the will of the Whole, is to be discerned and embraced.
(1) Wikipedia, “Dharma.”
(2) Meacham, How To Be An Excellent Human, pp. 14-17, and Meacham, “The Goodness Ethic.”
(3) Hursthouse, “Virtue Ethics.”
Hursthouse, Rosalind. “Virtue Ethics”. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2013 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.). Online publication http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2013/entries/ethics-virtue/ as of 6 August 2016.
Meacham, Bill. How To Be An Excellent Human. Austin, Texas: Earth Harmony, 2013.
Meacham, Bill. “The Goodness Ethic.” Online publication http://bmeacham.com/whatswhat/GoodnessEthic.html.
Wikipedia. “Dharma.” Online publication https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dharma as of 20 October 2016.
Author and self-proclaimed metaphysical speculator(1) Bernardo Kastrup attempts to solve the mind-body problem by embracing philosophical idealism. His basic insight is sound, but the way he defends it is flawed, and some details of his theory don’t support his aim. This essay shows how, with a little tweaking, his insight can be salvaged. But be warned: it gets a little dense.
First, some background. The mind-body problem, recently renamed the “hard problem”(2), is the problem of how the ability to be conscious (mind) is related to entirely unconscious matter (body).(3) Historically there have been two broad categories of answers, dualism and monism. Dualism asserts that mind and body are two different types of substances. Mind has the ability to be conscious but lacks spatial extension, and body has spatial extension but lacks the ability to be conscious.(4) Dualism, although favored by some theologians, is unsatisfactory because it fails to explain how an immaterial substance can have any interaction with or effect on a material substance, and vice versa. Monism, on the other hand, asserts that there is basically only one type of substance. One of its variants, materialism, says that the basic substance is matter. Another, idealism, says that the basic substance is mind.
Materialism is unsatisfactory as a metaphysics because it can’t explain how unconscious matter gives rise to experience. Historically the alternative to materialism—at least for those who prefer monism over dualism—has been idealism. But idealism is equally unsatisfactory, as I shall endeavor to show. (I discuss a third alternative, dual-aspect monism, below.)
Idealism is not, in its philosophical form, the espousal of high or noble principles such as truth, justice, loyalty, compassion, and the like. Philosophical idealism would better be called “idea-ism,” as it is the doctrine that everything is basically ideas, that reality at its core is mental. It has a long and varied history in western philosophy from Plato onward to Leibniz, Berkeley, Kant, the German idealists culminating in Hegel and a number of now-forgotten British and American idealists who followed Hegel.(5) It has an even longer history in Indian philosophy, going back to the Upanishads and onward through Shankara’s Advaita Vedanta and, more recently, the teachings of gurus such as Sri Ramakrishna, Sri Aurobindo and others.(6) I bring up the Indian tradition because it seems to be the inspiration for Kastrup’s idealism.
That inspiration would be fine, except that in a recent paper Kastrup attempts to go beyond mystical intuition to present a logically rigorous defense of idealism, and in fact a particular type of idealism, absolute idealism, the claim that being is ultimately comprehensible as an all-inclusive whole.(7) Kastrup wants to demonstrate that, as he puts it, “there is only universal consciousness.”(8) His aim is to show “how the most parsimonious possible ontology can be derived, through rigorous steps of reasoning, from canonical empirical facts available to observation.”[p. 2] Unfortunately neither his facts nor his reasoning holds up to scrutiny. Here are just a few examples.
Kastrup starts by listing nine “empirical facts accessible to anyone through simple observation.”[p. 2] These are to function as premises for his argument. Most are not controversial, but some are. Let’s take his Fact 7:
Fact 7: a nervous system has the same essential nature — that is, it belongs to the same ontological class — as the rest of the physical universe. After all, nervous systems are physical systems. They are composed of the same types of basic subatomic particles that make up the universe as a whole.[p. 2]
This is an assumption, not a fact. There are actually two problems here. The first is that the composition of nervous systems is not accessible through simple observation. Scientists and medical researchers investigating nervous systems reliably observe certain images through microscopes and certain readings on rather complex instruments. It is a plausible theory, based on these observations, that nervous systems are composed of subatomic particles; and it is indeed the most plausible theory so far. But it is nevertheless a theory and certainly not accessible through simple observation. Similarly, the composition of the universe as a whole is a theory, not a fact. Even worse, the assumption that the universe, including nervous systems and the farthest stars, is the same throughout is just that, an assumption. It underlies the scientific method but is not demonstrated by that method. So Kastrup’s alleged fact, although plausible, is hardly an empirical one accessible to anyone through simple observation.
His reasoning is even more suspect. Take his Inference 1, which is based on Facts 1 and 2.
Fact 1: there is subjective experience. This is the primary and incontrovertible datum of existence.[p. 2]
Fact 2: from Fact 1, we know that there is that which experiences, since experience entails an experiencer. Notice that I am not, at least for now, passing any judgment or making any assumption about the fundamental nature or boundaries of that which experiences. … For ease of reference, I will henceforth refer to ‘That Which Experiences’ simply as ‘TWE.'[p. 2]
Inference 1: the most parsimonious ontological underpinning for Facts 1 and 2 is that experiences are patterns of excitation of TWE. This avoids the need to postulate two different ontological classes for TWE and experiences, respectively. As excitations of TWE, experiences aren’t distinct from it in exactly the same way that ripples aren’t distinct from water, or that a dance isn’t distinct from the dancer. … There is nothing to experience but TWE ‘in motion.’ Ripples, dances and experiences are merely patterns of excitation of water, dancers and TWE, respectively.[p. 3]
Inference 1 has some problems.
- The phrase “subjective experience” in Fact 1 is redundant, as all experience is subjective, accessible directly only by the one who is experiencing. I suppose this is just a quibble, but one would expect a bit more precision from a person who claims to make a rigorous argument. More seriously, it can be argued that the primary datum of existence is not that there is experience but that there is a world. Only after some reflection do we realize that it is we who experience the world.
- Fact 2 is not something accessible through simple observation, it is an analytical truth. This is also just a quibble, though. The interesting part of Fact 2 is that Kastrup says he makes no assumptions about the nature of that which experiences (TWE).
- But in Inference 1 he does make an assumption about TWE. He says it is something excitable. It can be in motion. It is a sort of medium that contains or is composed of patterns of excitation.
No doubt what we experience is constantly in motion and much of it appears in patterns. But to claim that what experiences all that motion is itself in motion is not an inference; it is just an assertion. Kastrup claims that the assertion is based on ontological parsimony, but gives no evidence for that claim. In fact, what he does here is to assume what he wants to prove. His goal is ontological parsimony, so he assumes ontological parsimony to justify the inference to his goal of ontological parsimony. This is not a sound logical move.
Kastrup says that TWE is “an indisputable empirical fact … as opposed to abstractions of thought.”[p. 11] But it is not an empirical fact. Even on his own terms (“experience entails an experiencer”) it is something inferred. Given that his inference is faulty, TWE is just an assertion, and far from indisputable.
His Inference 2, which is based on Fact 4, has problems as well.
Fact 4: there is at least a partial correlation between measurable electrochemical activity in a person’s nervous system and the person’s private experiences.[p. 2]
Inference 2: from Fact 4, we know that a nervous system is sentient. … Somehow, the activity of these systems is accompanied by inner experience. One possibility is that there is something about the particular structure or function of nervous systems that constitutes sentience. However, it is impossible to conceive — even in principle — of how or why any particular structural or functional arrangement of physical elements would constitute sentience …. This is a well-known problem in neuroscience and philosophy of mind, often referred to as the ‘hard problem of consciousness.’ … It remains conceivable that physical arrangements could still modulate experience, without constituting it, if one postulates some form of dualism. But even if this hypothesis turns out to be coherent, it would still leave That Which Experiences entirely unexplained, since TWE would be that which is modulated (Inference 1). From all this we must conclude that TWE is uncaused, irreducible. It simply is. Technically, we say that TWE is an ontological primitive.[p. 3]
How does he get from the assertion that nerve activity and experience are correlated to the conclusion that TWE is uncaused and irreducible? That is quite a leap. Let’s analyze the argument in detail.
- He asserts that “from Fact 4, we know that a nervous system is sentient.” Already there is a problem, because it is not the nervous system that is sentient but the person or organism whose nervous system it is.
- He then adds an additional premise, one not stated in his list of facts, that it is impossible to conceive how arrangements of physical stuff could result in sentience. But he gives no evidence for the assertion except citing an authority or two. As a matter of fact, it is quite controversial, and there is a large body of literature devoted to arguments pro and con.(9)
- He alludes to dualist explanations of the mind-body problem and claims that they might explain how physical stuff could modulate experience but also claims that TWE would be unexplained. His justification for the latter assertion is his Inference 1, which we have just found to be faulty.
- He concludes that since TWE is unexplained both under monistic materialism and under dualism, it must be an uncaused, irreducible ontological primitive.
All three of his premises are flawed, two being entirely unjustified. Hence, the conclusion does not follow. Once again Kastrup assumes in his premises what he wants to prove. He wants to say that the only explanation for TWE is monistic idealism, but assumes without justification that no other explanations suffice. He begs the question, committing the fallacy of citing as a premise what is in dispute.
OK, that’s enough. There are many more nonsequiturs, unexamined premises and the like. Poking holes in this guy’s argument is like shooting fish in a barrel. The conclusion to be drawn, however, is not necessarily that Kastrup’s metaphysics is wrong. It may be simply that logical derivation is a poor way to ground or justify metaphysics.
Kastrup is trying to get at something important. Even if his derivation is flawed there may be something worthwhile in his conclusion, so let’s start there and see if it makes sense. Here is a summary of his thesis:
I argue for a coherent idealist ontology [which] can be summarized as follows: there is only universal consciousness. We, as well as all other living creatures, are but dissociated alters [i.e. alter egos] of universal consciousness, surrounded like islands by the ocean of its mentation. The inanimate universe we see around us is the extrinsic view of thoughts and emotions in universal consciousness. The living creatures we share the world with are the extrinsic views of other dissociated alters of universal consciousness. A physical world independent of consciousness is a mistaken intellectual abstraction.[p. 1]
The statement that there is only universal consciousness puts Kastrup firmly in the absolute idealist camp. He explains reality in terms of ideas—thoughts and emotions—in universal consciousness. By saying “there is only,” he asserts a kind of monism, saying that all that exists is something he calls “universal consciousness.” By that phrase he means TWE, that which experiences. He says “‘Consciousness’ is the ordinary English word that best fits what I mean by TWE.”[p. 11]
(As an aside, I think “consciousness” is actually a terrible word for TWE. It has too many other meanings, ranging from merely being awake to being conscious of things in an ordinary sort of way to being a conscious self. The term “consciousness” as a synonym for TWE conceived of as the ground of all being is misleading
So Kastrup is a monist. Now, monism can be of two kinds, which we might call, following the analytic philosophers, Type monism and Token monism. The distinction between a type and its tokens is an ontological one between a general sort of thing and its particular concrete instances. The sentence “A rose is a rose is a rose” contains eight separate tokens, words as individual collections of letters, but only three types, words as things that convey meaning. The word “rose” is one type that appears three times in the sentence; that is, there are three tokens of it.(10) Type monism would assert that although there are lots of different things in the world, they are all made of the same type of stuff or all fit into the same ontological category. Token Monism would assert that, appearances to the contrary, there is actually only one thing.
Materialism is a Type monism. No materialist asserts that there is only one material thing; instead, all things are taken to be of the same type, namely physical matter. Some idealisms, notably that of Bishop Berkeley, are Type monisms, asserting that there are many things, each of which is of the same type, something perceived by the mind via the senses. Berkeley says that such sensible qualities cannot exist apart from being perceived.(11) Kastrup, however, is a Token monist. In another work he says “consciousness is unitary and essentially undivided. … I call this unitary consciousness ‘mind-at-large’. … the universe as a whole has subjective inner life.”(12)
Kastrup calls his work a defense of nondualism.(13) He is a modern apologist for the ancient Indian philosophy Advaita Vedanta. “Advaita” means not two, or non-dual; and “Vedanta” literally means the end of the Vedas. The Vedas are ancient religious texts of India, and their end is the Upanishads, philosophical texts based on them.(14) Advaita Vedanta is a nondualist interpretation of certain themes in the Upanishads, the main point of which is
a consideration of the relation between Brahman, the Holy Power spoken of in the Upanishads … as sustaining and/or informing the cosmos, and the self, or atman. Some Upanishadic texts … assert that in some sense Brahman and atman are one.(15)
Here are some representative passages that make that assertion:
“This whole universe is Brahman.”(16)
“This finest essence,– the whole universe has it as its Self: That is the Real: That is the Self: That you are!”(17)
“This Self is Brahman indeed.”(18)
And that’s what Kastrup is getting at when he says there is only the mind-at-large. The whole universe, Brahman, is a self, atman. The universe as a whole, having a subjective inner life, is like a living being. Everything in the universe is something contained in the mind-at-large. All things, nonliving and living, inanimate and animate, are things that the mind-at-large thinks of or feels; in other words, is conscious of.
Kastrup explains the difference between what is not living and what is living in an interesting way. Both are in the mind-at-large, but in different ways. Inanimate things are ideas in this being’s mind and living organisms such as human beings are dissociated alter egos of this being, rather like split personalities of a person suffering from dissociative identity disorder.[p. 4] Each alter ego perceives the world, but only from its own point of view rather than that of the mind-at-large. Each alter ego is like a little piece of the cosmic ego, mind-at-large, which perceives the whole universe.
What each alter ego perceives as separately existing things and as living beings are extrinsic views either of mental activities within the mind-at-large or of other alter egos (which I presume are also mental activities within the mind-at-large). By “extrinsic” Kastrup appears to mean exterior. The mind-at-large thinks of nonliving things such as rocks. The rocks are ideas in the mind-at-large; they are interior or intrinsic to that mind. What we alter egos see as rocks is the exterior, the extrinsic view, of mind-at-large’s ideas of rocks. Living beings are dissociated entities that have an interior or intrinsic view, their own view of the world, and an appearance to other alter egos, an exterior or extrinsic view. That is Kastrup’s ontology in a nutshell, explaining how everything exists in the mind-at-large.
But consider this ontology carefully. Some entities, the inanimate ones, have only an exterior. The mind-at-large thinks of them—i.e., they are objects that the mind-at-large is conscious of—but they themselves are not conscious of anything. We alter egos are conscious of them, but they are in no way conscious of us. Other entities, the living ones, have both an exterior and an interior. They are objects that the mind-at-large is conscious of, and they themselves are conscious of things. We alter egos are conscious of them, and they are or can be conscious of us. In effect Kastrup posits two categories of things, bodies with no mind and bodies with mind. Despite being dressed up in monistic terms, his ontology is dualist!
If we want a truly monist ontology, we must look elsewhere. Fortunately, there is a better one. It is both Type and Token monist, it accounts for the undeniable plurality that we find in the world, and it is true to the unitary mystical insight of the Upanishads. That ontology is based on the process metaphysics of Alfred North Whitehead.
I have written about Whitehead’s metaphysics on several occasions: in my book How To Be An Excellent Human and in some blog essays, notably “Dead or Alive?” and “In Defense of Panpsychism.” Here I give just a short summary.
Whitehead’s ontology is one of process. The fundamental units of reality, in his view, are occasions, not inert particles. Occasions are quite tiny. He wrote at a time when quantum mechanics was being developed, and no doubt the mysterious behavior of reality at the subatomic level informed his thinking. Entities submicroscopically small cannot be described as material as we generally think of it. Quantum-level entities do not interact like billiard balls; instead, they seem to have a quasi-existence in a field of mere potentiality until they are detected; then they become actual. The interaction between them and someone or something else that detects them is essential to their existence. Reality at that level is relational and dynamic.
Whitehead seeks categories of explanation that can apply both to the quantum level of reality and to the world revealed by our unaided senses. In our everyday world it is undeniable that, unless we are asleep or sedated, we are aware of our surroundings and remember our past. So Whitehead posits that subatomic actual occasions are, in a way, aware of their surroundings and of their own past. Whitehead calls them “drops of experience, complex and interdependent”(19) and “occasions of experience.”(20) They are examples of what Galen Strawson calls “micropsychism.”(21) We could call Whitehead’s metaphysics a process panpsychism.
One of the objections to panpsychism is that it seems obvious that some things, those that are not alive, have no sentience whatsoever. So how can we say that everything has a psyche? The answer is that in nonliving things the sentience is confined to the constituent actual occasions, and is not found in aggregations of them. The sentience of living things, in contrast, is a function of their complex and dynamic form, which is more than mere aggregation.
Just as subatomic particles combine to form all the objects of our world, so do actual occasions combine into nonliving and living things. In nonliving things the combinations are simple and stable; in living things they are complex and dynamic. The constituent material of nonliving things does not change over time unless impacted from without. The mentality of nonliving things remains isolated at the subatomic level. Tables, chairs and chunks of rock are certainly not sentient, and process panpsychism does not assert that they are. But living things have a unity of form over time as their constituent material changes. They are not mere aggregations. That complex unity of form over time is accompanied by a complex mentality. The primordial experiences of the actual occasions comprising living things, such as plants, animals and human beings, bind together and reinforce each other, giving birth to a higher-level coherence of experience.
Whitehead’s metaphysics can be seen as a form of dual-aspect monism, but with a twist. Dual-aspect monism, also known as neutral monism, says there is only one type of substance, which has both physical and mental properties.(22) Whitehead agrees, but says reality is better conceived as process than as substance. Every instance of reality, that is, every actual occasion, has both a physical and mental aspect, the physical being how it is detected or experienced by other occasions and the mental being how the world and its own internality appears to itself. The difference between Whitehead’s ontology and dual-aspect monism is that in his view the underlying substrate that has both physical and mental aspects or properties is process, not substance.
There is much more to Whiteheads’ process ontology, but that is enough for now. Let’s return to Kastrup. He is not a big fan of panpsychism because it is only a Type monism and he wants a Token monism. He objects to an ontology that postulates as ontological ultimates a slew of abstract subatomic particles.[p. 11], and the notion that they might in some sense be conscious does not impress him. But there is a way to extend process panpsychism that might be more congenial.
The clue is in a passage from the Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 13, verses 1 and 2. Krishna, The God, speaks to Arjuna, a human:
1 This body is called the ‘field’, and he who knows it is called the ‘knower of the field’ ….
2 Know that I am the ‘knower of the field’ in every field.(23)
This passage echoes the earlier Brihadaranyaka Upanishad:
The man who possesses this knowledge becomes the Self of all contingent beings.(24)
What these texts suggest is that TWE, to use Kastrup’s term, that which experiences, is the same in every experiencer. Not just the same type of thing, but the very same thing (although the term “thing” is misleading, as it is not a thing but that which experiences things). Brahman is the atman (self) that experiences its world in every being. This is a slightly different way to understand what Kastrup is getting at.
Kastrup is after unity. The unity of all that exists can be understood from the inside, as it were. We can say that the mind-at-large is that which is conscious and active in everything, in every event. What appears to be many from the outside, Kastrup’s extrinsic view, is in fact the manifestation of one underlying reality. The mind of each of us is the same as the mind-at-large of all of reality. As I like to put it, there is one universal interiority, which incorporates the interiority of all the separate constituents of reality into one unity of experience, one coherence of interiority.(25)
The difference between this view and Kastrup’s is subtle but important. We’ve seen that Kastrup, although claiming monism, actually ends up with a dualism: in his view some bodies have mind and some don’t. We can ameliorate Kastrup’s dualism by combining it with process panpsychism, which says that everything has mind, just as everything has body. Everything is composed of occasions of experience, each of which has the dual aspects of interiority (mind) and exteriority (body). And we combine process panpsychism with Advaita Vedanta to conclude that all these occasions of experience are united in one mentality, the mind-at-large. Instead of saying that the mind-at-large thinks of everything so that everything exists within it, we can say that mind-at-large is everything. It is broken into bits, as it were; and the bits, being both mind and body, perceive each other. Each one experiences its world; and its world is the extrinsic view of all the others, which experience their world. The mind-at-large as self (atman) perceives all there is through the senses of each of the bits. And the mind-at-large as body is entirely perceived by those bits that comprise itself.
In other words, to use Kastrup’s terminology, every actual occasion is an alter ego of mind-at-large. If we use the term “God” to mean TWE and say that the mind-at-large is the mind of God, we can say that process panpsychism is process pantheism.(26)
You’ll notice that I have not gotten to process monism and process pantheism by reasoning from premises to conclusions. Doing so is a fruitless task, as we can see from Kastrup’s attempt. Instead, I have joined some insights and ideas that together form a coherent system of metaphysics. As I have noted elsewhere, we evaluate metaphysics differently from how we evaluate empirical science and logical reasoning. By finding a way to relieve Kastrup of incipient dualism, I believe I have come up with something superior. I hope Kastrup himself would agree.
(1) Kastrup’s website, http://www.bernardokastrup.com, is titled “Bernardo Kastrup’s Metaphysical Speculations.”
(2) Chalmers, “Facing Up to the Problem of Consciousness.” pp. 10-11.
(3) Wikipedia, “Mind–body problem.”
(4) Wikipedia, “Dualism (philosophy of mind).”
(5) Acton, “Idealism.”
(6) Smart, “Indian Philosophy.”
(7) Wikipedia, “Absolute idealism.”
(8) Kastrup, “On why idealism is superior to physicalism and micropsychism,” p. 1. Subsequent references to page numbers in brackets are to this paper.
(9) See, for instance, Shear, Explaining Consciousness, and Dennett, Consciousness Explained.
(10) Wetzel, “Types and Tokens.”
(11) Acton, “Idealism,” p. 112.
(12) Kastrup, “The threat of panpsychism.”
(14) Smart, “Indian Philosophy,” p.156.
(15) Ibid., p. 159.
(16) Chandogya Upanishad III.xiv.1. Zaehner, p. 87.
(17) Chandogya Upanishad IVi.viii.7. Zaehner, p. 109.
(18) Brihadaranyaka Upanishad IV.iv.5. Zaehner, p. 71.
(19) Whitehead, Process and Reality, p. 28.
(20) Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, p. 221.
(21) Strawson, “Realistic Monism,” p. 25.
(22) Wikipedia, “Mind–body problem,” and Wikipedia, “Double-aspect theory.”
(23) Bhagavad Gita XIII.1-2. Zaehner, p. 303.
(24) Brihadaranyaka Upanishad I.v.20. Zaehner, p. 40.
(25) Meacham, How To Be An Excellent Human, pp. 63-66.
(26) This is a variant of Whitehead’s notion of God. Whitehead has a place for God in his ontology, and his conception is similar this one, but not the same. A comparison of the two is a topic for another time however.
Acton, H.B. “Idealism.” The Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Ed. Paul Edwards. New York: Macmillan, 1967. Vol. 4, pp. 110-118.
Chalmers, David. “Facing Up to the Problem of Consciousness.” Explaining Consciousness: The ‘Hard Problem’. Ed. Jonathan Shear. Cambridge Mass. and London: The MIT Press (A Bradford Book), 1997. pp. 9-30. Online publication http://consc.net/papers/facing.html as of 6 July 2016.
Dennett, Daniel C. Consciousness Explained. Boston: Little, Brown and Company Back Bay Books, 1991.
Kastrup, Bernardo. “On why idealism is superior to physicalism and micropsychism.” Online publication https://www.scribd.com/doc/305856953/On-why-idealism-is-superior-to-physicalism-and-micropsychism and https://www.academia.edu/20313118/On_why_Idealism_is_superior_to_Physicalism_and_Micropsychism as of 9 June 2016.
Kastrup, Bernardo. “The threat of panpsychism: a warning.” Online publication https://www.scienceandnonduality.com/the-threat-of-panpsychism-a-warning/ as of 18 June 2016.
Meacham, Bill. How To Be An Excellent Human: Mysticism, Evolutionary Psychology and the Good Life. Austin, TX: Earth Harmony, 2013.
Shear, Jonathan. Explaining Consciousness: The ‘Hard Problem’. Cambridge Mass. and London: The MIT Press (A Bradford Book), 1997.
Smart, Ninian. “Indian Philosophy.” The Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Ed. Paul Edwards. New York: Macmillan, 1967. Vol. 4, pp. 155-169.
Strawson, Galen. “Realistic Monism: Why Physicalism Entails Panpsychism.” Consciousness and its Place in Nature. Ed. Anthony Freeman. Charlottesville VA: Imprint Academia, 2006. pp. 3-31.
Wetzel, Linda. “Types and Tokens.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy Spring 2014 edition. Ed. Edward Zalta. Online publication http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2014/entries/types-tokens/ as of 11 July 2016.
Whitehead, Alfred North. Adventures of Ideas. New York: The Free Press, 1967.
Whitehead, Alfred North. Process and Reality: An Essay in Cosmology. New York: Harper and Row Harper Torchbook, 1960.
Wikipedia. “Absolute idealism.” Online publication https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Absolute_idealism as of 9 July 2016.
Wikipedia. “Double-aspect theory. Online publication https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Double-aspect_theory as of 6 July 2016.
Wikipedia. “Dualism (philosophy of mind).” Online publication https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dualism_(philosophy_of_mind) as of 6 July 2016.
Wikipedia. “Mind–body problem.” Online publication https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mind%E2%80%93body_problem as of 6 July 2016.
Zaehner, R.C., tr. Hindu Scriptures. London: J.M. Dent Everyman’s Library, 1966.
A rose by any other name would smell as sweet, says the bard, but a concept wouldn’t. Take the term “consciousness.” Usually taken to mean the capacity to be aware of one’s surroundings, it can mean anything from the mere state of being unsedated to the ground of all being. If we want to avoid ambiguity and promote mutual understanding, we need to get clear on what we mean by the term. In this essay I focus on the most grandiose of its meanings, the ground of all being.
Deepak Chopra, a prominent New Age author and speaker, says
“consciousness creates reality”(1)
Consciousness … is not just a human attribute. Existing outside space and time, it was “there” “before” those two words had any meaning. In essence, space and time are conceptual artifacts that sprang from primordial consciousness.(2)
Without addressing the metaphysical claim, it should be clear at least that the term “consciousness” in this context is misleading. Its meaning is certainly far from just being able to detect your surroundings well enough to navigate around. As this primordial consciousness is alleged to precede any distinction between being conscious and what one is conscious of, it would be less confusing to call it something else, perhaps “primordial being” or “primordial reality.”
But there are a number of other terms we could use as well. Here are three:
These terms – and there may be more; this list is illustrative only, not exhaustive – come from various mystical traditions. “Brahman” is from the Upanishads, ancient Indian philosophical texts, and it means supreme existence or absolute reality.(3) “Tao” is a Chinese word meaning the primordial essence or fundamental nature of the Universe.(4) “Zat” is a Sufi term meaning the unmanifested.(5)
Does that help? Is “unmanifested essence of absolute reality” any better than “primordial being” as a substitute for “consciousness”? What could these terms mean? To answer, we must consider what meaning is.
The great German logician Gottlob Frege distinguished two aspects of meaning, which he called reference (Bedeutung in German) and sense (Sinn). A term’s reference is what it refers to, denotes or points out. A term’s sense is the way it is presented. The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy explains it this way:
One of his primary examples … involves the expressions “the morning star” and “the evening star”. Both of these expressions refer to the planet Venus, yet they obviously denote Venus in virtue of different properties that it has. Thus, Frege claims that these two expressions have the same reference but different senses. The reference of an expression is the actual thing corresponding to it, in the case of “the morning star”, the reference is the planet Venus itself. The sense of an expression, however, is the “mode of presentation” or cognitive content associated with the expression in virtue of which the reference is picked out.(6)
The terms in question here – “primordial reality,” “Brahman,” “Tao,” “Zat” – all have the same reference; they all denote the same thing. (Except what they denote is not a thing. We’ll get to that shortly. But linguistically the terms all function the same way, as names.) Their senses are different, however.
To understand the senses we do have to address metaphysics. Let’s consider just one of the terms, “Zat,” with which perhaps you are not familiar. The Sufi mystic Hazrat Inayat Khan says the following:
According to Sufi tenets the two aspects of the supreme Being are termed Zat and Sifat, the Knower and the Known. … Zat being only one in its existence, cannot be called by more than one name, which is Allah; and Sifat, being manifold in four different involutions, has numerous names….
Zat projects Sifat from its own self and absorbs it within itself. It is a rule of philosophy that the negative cannot lose its negativeness by projecting the positive from itself…. The positive has no independent existence, yet it is real because projected from the real, and it may not be regarded as an illusion. Human ignorance persists in considering Zat to be separate from Sifat, and Sifat independent of Zat.(7)
Within manifest reality, the reality we all live in, there are two poles: the knower and the known, that which is conscious and the objects of which it is conscious. Zat, the knower, is called negative because in any moment of experience it is absent from Sifat, all the objects of experience. The experiencer is not any of what is experienced; it is not found in experience; it is, as it were, a nothingness. (That is the Sufi’s assertion. You will need to examine your own experience to determine whether or in what way it is true.)
But recall that “Zat” also denotes the unmanifest. According to this cosmology, Sifat, all that is manifest, emanates from the unmanifest, Zat, at the beginning of time and will return to the unmanifest at the end. We are in the midst of a grand cosmic cycle, rather like that posited by the Big Bang theory of the origin of the universe. That theory says that about 15 billion years ago the universe started expanding from an unimaginably small point and that at some point in the future it will collapse back into a single point. Unlike the Zat-Sifat theory, which makes no measurable predictions, the Big Bang theory does predict certain observations; and those observations have been confirmed.(8) Until further evidence is found it is at least reasonable to suppose that the universe oscillates between being fully collapsed and fully expanded, and that we find ourselves at some temporal point within that cycle.
The Big Bang theory makes no reference, however, to a conscious observer; it describes only the physical world that is observed. The Zaf-Sifat theory, on the other hand, explicitly includes an observer, Zat as knower. Not stated in the brief excerpt given above, but included in the world view of the Sufi, is the assertion that the point of view which is conscious within each one of us, which we may refer to as a knower, is in some way the same as a universal or cosmic knower. Ralph Waldo Emerson called it the “Over-Soul.”(9) Zat as knower of Sifat is not just a feature of the individual but part of the fundamental structure of reality.
So what is the relationship between Zat as unmanifest and Zat as knower? That Zat as knower is a feature of the world we live in leads thinkers such as Chopra to believe that the term “consciousness” is appropriate for it. Because “consciousness” has many meanings, I think it more suitable to avoid the term and say something like “transcendental Self” or “transcendental Ego” or “Over-Soul” instead. But even those terms would not apply to a state in which nothing is manifest.
Physicist Stephen Hawking says we can say nothing about the physical characteristics of the unmanifest state, the state “before” the big bang:
Since events before the Big Bang have no observational consequences, one may as well cut them out of the theory, and say that time began at the Big Bang. Events before the Big Bang, are simply not defined, because there’s no way one could measure what happened at them.(10)
Similarly, the Zat-Sifat theory says that we can say nothing about how it would be to experience the unmanifest state. It would be a state of complete unity. There would be no separation between knower and known, between the conscious subject and the object of which the subject is conscious. It is impossible to imagine such a state, because we can imagine only various objects presented to us, not the absence of all objects. The closest we can come is to imagine sheer undifferentiated quality, sameness, suchness, it-is-what-it-is-ness, what C.S. Peirce called Firstness.(11) The unmanifest state would be neither consciousness nor an object of consciousness, neither witness nor what is witnessed, neither mind nor matter.
As such, it would be completely useless. Speculation about it is what the Buddha called a question that does not edify.(12) Regardless of what the unmanifest state might or might not be, what matters is the state of manifestation that we live in here and now.
What’s not useless are the senses, as Frege calls them, of the various terms taken as referring to the Over-Soul that regards manifest reality. To think of Zat as the knower of the entirety of Sifat – or of Brahman as identical with self or soul, or of Tao as animating the flow of nature, which I have not discussed – suggests something like a personality, an agent. Agency, say the mystics, lies at the core of the reality we live in. And it is not at all useless to try to find out something about that agent and even to enter into a deliberate relationship with it.
The agent at the core of reality has been called by many names. We may call it “Allah,” as the Sufi suggests, or “Krishna” or “Quan Yin” or “Ahura Mazda” or “Wakan Tanka” or “Y-H-V-H” or “God” or “the Higher Self” or many other names. Just don’t call it “consciousness.”
(1) Chopra, Quantum Healing, Preface.
(2) Roff, “Interview with Deepak Chopra.”
(3) Encyclopædia Britannica Online, “Brahman”.
(4) Wikipedia, “Tao”.
(5) Khan, The Sufi Message, Vol. 5, p. 25.
(6) Klement, “Gottlob Frege.”
(7) Khan, The Sufi Message, Vol. 5, p. 14.
(8) Hawking, “The Beginning of Time.”
(9) Emerson, “The Over-Soul.”
(10) Hawking, “The Beginning of Time.”
(11) Wikipedia, “Categories (Peirce).”
(12) Buddhist Writings, Majjhima-Nikaya, Sutta 63.
Buddhist Writings, Translated and Annotated by Henry Clarke Warren. Vol. XLV, Part 3. The Harvard Classics. New York: P.F. Collier & Son, 1909–14; Bartleby.com, 2001. Online publication http://www.bartleby.com/45/3/201.html as of 15 November 2012.
Chopra, Deepak. Quantum Healing: Exploring the Frontiers of Mind Body Medicine. New York: Random House, 2009 .
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “Essays, First Series : The Over-Soul.” Online publication http://www.emersoncentral.com/oversoul.htm as of 9 May 2016.
Encyclopædia Britannica Online, s. v. “brahman”. Online publication http://www.britannica.com/topic/brahman-Hindu-concept as of 8 May 2016.
Hawking, S.W. “The Beginning of Time.” Online publication http://www.hawking.org.uk/the-beginning-of-time.html as of 9 May 2016.
Khan, Inayat. The Sufi Message of Hazrat Inayat Khan, Vol. 5: A Sufi Message of Spiritual Liberty. London: Barrie and Rockliff, 1962 (1973). Online publication http://wahiduddin.net/mv2/V/V_1.htm as of 8 May 2016.
Klement, Kevin C. “Gottlob Frege.” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Online publication http://www.iep.utm.edu/frege/ as of 8 May 2016.
Roff, Chelsea. “Interview with Deepak Chopra on Consciousness, God, & the Nature of Belief.” Online publication http://www.beliefnet.com/columnists/intentchopra/2012/09/interview-with-deepak-chopra-on-consciousness-god-the-nature-of-belief.html as of 5 May 2016.
Wikipedia. “Categories (Peirce).” Online publication https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Categories_%28Peirce%29 as of 9 May 2016.
Wikipedia. “Tao.” Online publication https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tao as of 8 May 2016.
A friend of mine used to startle people by asking “So, what’s it like being you?” Best answers:
- Fun!” (five year-old boy)
- “Better than being you.” (graduate student, now director of corporate strategy at a large enterprise)
- “I don’t know, I have no basis for comparison.” (university professor)
Humorous as these answers may be, only the last one is philosophically accurate. Ever since Nagel’s influential essay “What Is It Like To Be A Bat?” the phrase “what it is like” has been used to refer to the subjective character of being conscious. An influential article on Phenomenology, for instance, contains the phrase “what it is like to have sensations of various kinds.”(1) The famous Zombie Argument against the reducibility of the mental to the physical asserts “There is nothing it is like to be a zombie.”(2) The Routledge Encyclopaedia of Philosophy tells us, “An experience or other mental entity is ‘phenomenally conscious’ just in case there is something it is like for one to have it.”(3) Other examples abound. But it is a very misleading phrase, because strictly speaking one’s subjectivity is not like anything!
In order for the phrase “what it is like” to make sense, it has to refer to something we can contrast to something else.(4) We can ask what it is like to swim in Barton Springs and answer by comparing swimming in Barton Springs to swimming in Deep Eddy. But to ask what it is like to be conscious or to have sensations makes no sense, because there is nothing to which we can contrast being conscious or having sensations. Each of us has his or her own experience alone. Nobody else has direct access to it, nor have we direct access to anyone else’s, so we can’t compare them and can’t truly assert similarity or difference. We can compare our present experience to memories of our own past experience or anticipations of our future experience. But our experience is not like anything, in the way, for instance, that the flavor of a tangelo is a bit like that of a tangerine but juicier and a bit like that of a grapefruit but sweeter.
Nagel himself recognized the difficulty. He says “The analogical form of the English expression ‘what it is like’ is misleading. It does not mean ‘what (in our experience) it resembles’, but rather ‘how it is for the subject himself’.”(5) Nagel’s essay would have been better titled “How It Is To Be A Bat.”
In everyday speech it may be quite OK to use the phrase “what it is like” to refer to our subjectivity, because it is an idiom that we generally understand. But even so, it lacks a certain panache. Bob Dylan did not sing “What is it like? / To be on your own / Like a rolling stone.”
In philosophical speech, however, such idiomatic language is best avoided. It leads to sophomoric conundrums like how I can tell whether my experience of redness is the same as yours. (Answer: I can’t, and it doesn’t matter.) Let’s quit using the expression “what it is like” to speak of subjectivity and speak instead of how it is or how it feels to be conscious. The issue concerns more than just arcane discussions in philosophy of mind. It is a crucial question in the age-old and perennially new question of how we can know ourselves. Wisdom is not served by verbal confusion.
(1) Smith, “Phenomenology,” section 1.
(2) Chalmers, “Zombies on the web.”
(3) Lomand, “Consciousness,” p. 581.
(4) Garvey, “Hacker’s Challenge,” pp. 28-29.
(5) Nagel, “What Is It Like To Be A Bat?” footnote 6.
Chalmers, David. “Zombies on the web.” Online publication http://consc.net/zombies.html as of 21 August 2013.
Garvey, James. “Hacker’s Challenge.” TPM, The Philosopher’s Magazine, Issue 51, 4th Quarter 2010, pp. 24-32. Online publication http://jamesgarveyactually.files.wordpress.com/2011/03/hackers-challenge.pdf as of 6 October 2014.
Lomand, E. “Consciousness.” Routledge Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, vol. 2. London: Routledge, 1998.
Nagel, Thomas. “What Is It Like To Be A Bat?” The Philosophical Review, Vol. 83, No. 4 (Oct., 1974), pp. 435-450. Online publication http://www.jstor.org/stable/2183914 as of 29 April 2015.
Smith, David Woodruff. “Phenomenology.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2013 Edition), Edward N. Zalta, ed. Online publication http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2013/entries/phenomenology/ as of 26 October 2015.
Ever since Kant we have recognized that we know reality only through our experience of it. We have no privileged epistemic access to the Dingen An Sich, the things in themselves. (In fact the presumption that there are many things is just that, a presumption.) All we have is phenomena, how reality appears to us; all we have is our experience. What is of interest, then, is how to make sense of that experience.
Along these lines, Tommy Kelly, a friend in the philosophy club and quite a bright and interesting fellow, has an intriguing comment on my blog post “Is Science a Religion?” In that essay I claim that there is a parallel between scientific observation and meditative experience. Tommy wants to take it a step further and say there is really no difference at all between the two. Here is what he writes:
Reading your article reminded me of a question I’ve had for a while but for which as yet I’ve not been able to figure out an answer. You say:
…religion at its best bears some resemblance to science. The phenomena it concerns are not public in the same way that the subject matter of the physical sciences is. But they are subject to verification. There exist, for instance, quite detailed sets of instructions for meditative practices that produce altered experiential states. …You can think of spiritual practice as a sort of experiment. You have to do the experiment to get the results, just as you do in the physical sciences. Unlike the physical sciences, the results are largely private, not public; but they are not unverifiable.
I agree with most of that, but I’m suspicious of this part: “The phenomena it concerns are not public in the same way that the subject matter of the physical sciences is.” Consider the following two experiments:
Experiment One: Look through a telescope oriented in a particular way.
Result: You will experience a set of phenomena (sights, sounds, feelings, etc.) commonly known as “the rings of Saturn.” Note that these phenomena—your observations—are private. As you peer through the telescope you and only you will “see Saturn.” Nevertheless, someone else can repeat the experiment; and we are confident they will experience their own private observations that, according to our shared language game, are considered the same as yours.
Experiment Two: Kneel down with your back upright then close your eyes and make mental notes—”rising…rising…rising” and “falling…falling…falling”—corresponding with the movement of your abdomen as you breathe.
Result: You will experience a set of phenomena (sights, sounds, feelings, etc.) commonly known as “the first samatha jhana.”(1) (Of course I understate the amount of such practice that is needed, but the point remains regardless.) Note that these phenomena—your observations—are private. As you perform the noting exercise, you and only you will “enter jhana.” Nevertheless, someone else can repeat the experiment; and we are confident they will experience their own private observations that, according to our shared language game, are considered the same as yours.
Generalizing, then, it seems that *all* observations are private. In that case, the private versus public difference doesn’t seem to exist after all. So in what way is science different from religion-at-its-best?
To Tommy I respond as follows:
Yes, all observations are private, but what they are observations of is a matter of interpretation. Some are usefully taken to be public, and others, private. Science treats the former, and religion treats the latter.
The difference between seeing the rings of Saturn and experiencing the first samatha jhana is that all those who see the rings of Saturn consensually agree that what is seen is a set of objects existing independently of anyone’s seeing them; but those who experience the first samatha jhana consensually agree that what is experienced is not one set of objects existing independently of anyone’s experience of it, but rather a state that is experienced only by the experiencer. In other words, there are as many states as there are observers, and each observer experiences his or her own state of jhana, not anyone else’s. (In addition, you can quantify what is seen when you see the rings of Saturn but you cannot (I think) quantify what is experienced when you experience the first samatha jhana.)
We all consensually agree that what scientific observations are of is a reality independent of us. I suppose that we can’t unequivocally prove that it is so, but such an interpretation makes very good sense of our experience, and it works to help us get around in the world and make intellectual sense of it.
What meditators experience, we consensually agree, is private to each meditator. I suppose that we can’t unequivocally prove that it is so, but such an interpretation makes very good sense of our experience, and it works to help us get around in the world and make intellectual sense of it.
So the difference between science and religion-at-its-best is found not in single observations, each of which is indeed private, but in the sense we make of multiple observations by multiple people. It is reasonable to take the objects of science as public. It is reasonable to take the objects of religious experience as private, or at least not public in the same way.
William James, the great American Pragmatist, puts it this way:
Ideas (which themselves are but parts of our experience) become [believable] just in so far as they help us to get into satisfactory relation with other parts of our experience, to summarize them and get about among them by conceptual short-cuts …. Any idea upon which we can ride, so to speak; any idea that will carry us prosperously from any one part of our experience to any other part, linking things satisfactorily, working securely, simplifying, saving labor; is [believable] for just so much, [believable] in so far forth, [believable] instrumentally.(2)
James offers epistemological criteria for what warrants our belief. The idea that the rings of Saturn are public objects links our observations satisfactorily and saves intellectual labor compared to the idea that everyone seeing them observes something different. Similarly, the idea that the first samatha jhana is private to each meditator links our observations satisfactorily and saves intellectual labor compared to the idea that all the meditators perceive the same thing.
James took these epistemological criteria a step further into the metaphysical theory that all that exists is experience.(3) We need not go that far to understand that it is a good idea to examine our experience closely because our experience is all we have. Philosophically, the discipline of Phenomenology founded by Edmund Husserl is a useful method.(4) Practically, the disciplines of meditation, particularly Buddhist Vipassana, are helpful.(5) However we do it, investigating our own experience is a step toward knowing ourselves, the essence of wisdom.
(1) “Samatha” is a form of Buddhist meditation. “Jhana” is a Buddhist term meaning absorption. The first samatha jhana is the first of a series of states of meditative absorption. See The Dharma Overground, “Samatha jhanas.”
(2) James, “What Pragmatism Means,” p. 49. I substitute “believable” for “true” in this passage, as I think James, in his zeal, misuses the latter term.
(3) James, “A World of Pure Experience.”
(4) Wikipedia, “Phenomenology (philosophy).”
(5) The Dharma Overground, “Vipassana.”
James, William. “A World of Pure Experience.” Online publication http://psychclassics.yorku.ca/James/experience.htm as of 21 August 2013. Archived at http://bmeacham.com/whatswhat/OP/James_AWorldOfPureExperience.htm.
James, William. “What Pragmatism Means.” Pragmatism and four essays from The Meaning of Truth, pp. 41-62. New York: Meridian Books, 1955. Online publication http://www.marxists.org/reference/subject/philosophy/works/us/james.htm as of 21 August 2013. Archived at http://bmeacham.com/whatswhat/OP/James_WhatPragmatismMeans.htm.
The Dharma Overground. “Samatha jhanas.” Online publication http://www.dharmaoverground.org/dharma-wiki/-/wiki/Main/samatha+jhanas as of 19 January 2016.
The Dharma Overground. “Vipassana.” Online publication http://www.dharmaoverground.org/web/guest/dharma-wiki/-/wiki/Main/vipassana as of 21 January 2016.
Wikipedia. “Phenomenology (philosophy).” Online publication https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phenomenology_%28philosophy%29 as of 21 January 2016.
I venture to guess that most people are moral realists. That is, they think that rules and principles of morality—that stealing and lying are wrong, for instance—actually exist in some form independently of what anybody thinks of them. By contrast moral anti-realists deny the independent reality of moral rules and principles. They say that moral rules are only social conventions. As evidence the anti-realists point to the fact that different cultures have different moral norms.
An extreme example is honor killing.(1) In some cultures it is considered morally obligatory to kill a woman who has brought disgrace to her family by having sex outside of marriage. This is so even if she was raped; she should not have put herself in a situation where that could happen to her. People in most western cultures consider honor killing hideously wrong. But there is no objective way to decide which one it is, right or wrong, obligatory or forbidden.
If one person says the weather is too hot, and another person says it’s not, there is no way to adjudicate who is right. But they can both look at a thermometer and determine exactly what the temperature is. They can come to objective agreement about the temperature and then recognize that the comfort level of that temperature may be different for different people.
Not so with morality. If you are convinced that honor killing is right, you can admit that other people don’t think so, but you’ll still think you are right and they are wrong. And they will think the same of you. The problem with morality is that there is no objective way to tell which view is correct. That conundrum leads moral anti-realists to say that neither one is correct. There is no moral fact of the matter because morals do not exist in the same way that physical reality exists.
Moral realism makes for a number of bad consequences: morality makes us angry; it promotes hypocrisy; it encourages arrogance; it is arbitrary, because there is no final justification for saying anything is right or wrong; it is imprudent, leading us to do things that have obviously bad consequences; it makes us intransigent, fueling endless strife; and it leads philosophers to waste time on silly puzzles.(2) Moral anti-realism avoids all these ill effects. As I argue elsewhere, we would be much better off speaking in terms of good and bad, the language, roughly speaking, of prudence, rather than in terms of right and wrong, the language of morality.
How would this work in practice? Let’s take a contemporary issue, whether to eat meat or not. Moralistic vegetarians say that killing animals—or at least big farm animals such as cows and pigs—for our benefit is wrong. Being a vegetarian is “the right thing to do” says food writer James McWilliams. It is a “basic moral truth” that we should not kill farm animals in order to eat them.(3) Doing so violates their “right to live.”(4) That’s because, it is alleged, farm animals are “sentient beings.”(5) They are, as philosopher and animal rights advocate Tom Regan says, subjects of a life.(6)
The argument, in abbreviated form, is this: Killing sentient beings needlessly is wrong. Big farm animals are sentient beings. Killing them so we can eat them is needless because there are other ways we can get nourished. Therefore killing big farm animals so we can eat them is wrong.
Now, there are a number of ways we could attack this argument. One is to deny that cows and pigs are sentient beings in the sense of subjects of their lives. They certainly do not pass the mirror test for self-awareness.(7) Another is to deny that we can get fully nourished without eating meat.(8) But the most fundamental objection is the anti-realist one: to deny the first premise. It is not the case that killing sentient beings is wrong, because objective rightness and wrongness do not exist.
As I have argued elsewhere morality is socially constructed or, in technical terms, intersubjectively constituted. It’s not just a matter of convention; we don’t all sit down and agree to abide by certain moral rules. And we do have a sense that moral rules are independent of what any one person thinks they are. But that independence is not the independence of physical reality, which would be there whether we were or not. It is the independence of a set of norms within a community or society. Everybody agrees (more or less) on what they are, everybody treats them the same way and everybody acts as if they are real. So, for members of such a community they are real.
Once you realize the socially constructed nature of morality, you get to choose whether or not to buy into it or not. There is some truth to the Existentialist assertion that you are what you choose. As Sartre says, “[A human being] … is what he wills …. [He] is nothing else but that which he makes of himself.”(9) Whether you should obey the purported moral injunction against eating meat is not predefined. You define yourself as one who does or does not take it seriously.
But what if you do think it makes sense to avoid eating meat and want others to do so as well? What is a concerned moral anti-realist vegetarian to do?
The answer is to appeal to self-interest. You can appeal to the benefits of vegetarianism without guilt-tripping others (which doesn’t work well anyway). Here are some useful arguments that avoid moralistic “shouldhoods”.(10)
- You’ll feel better and be healthier if you don’t eat meat. There is evidence pro and con on this one, but you can certainly advise people to alter their diet and see how they feel. Then they will have a sound basis for deciding.
- Raising meat contributes to global warming because animals emit methane, a greenhouse gas. If you want to reduce global warming, don’t eat meat, because the less demand there is for meat, the fewer animals will be raised for food. This argument appeals to the quite sensible desire not to live in a world of extreme temperature and weather events.
- Meat is an inefficient way of feeding people. We can feed a lot more people on the plants that animals eat than on the animals themselves. If you want to alleviate people’s hunger, don’t eat meat. This argument appeals to our sense of compassion for others, not as a moral duty, but as a way of alleviating our own suffering.
- Many ways of killing animals entail their suffering. If you want to minimize suffering, then don’t eat meat. This argument encourages us to enlarge the circle of beings we take as significantly like us. Again, doing so is not a moral duty. But it enables us to experience more compassion and empathy, which are rewarding in their own right.
Perhaps you can think of other non-moralistic arguments. Appeals to morality are intractable and only create conflict. Appeals to enlightened self-interest are far more likely to result in harmony and in lasting change.
(1) This example is taken from Rosenberg, “Can Moral Disputes Be Resolved?”
(2) Marks, Ethics Without Morals, chapter 4.
(3) McWilliams, The Modern Savage, p. 6.
(4) Ibid., p. 9.
(5) Ibid., p. 6
(6) Animalethics.org, “Subject of a Life.”
(7) Science Daily, “Mirror test.”
(8) See, for instance, Smil, “Should Humans Eat Meat?”
(9) The phrase is from psychologist Alfred Ellis. See Ellis and Dryden, The Practice of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy, p 206.
(10) Sartre, “Existentialism Is a Humanism.”
Animalethics.org. “Subject of a life.” Online publication http://www.animalethics.org.uk/subject-of-a-life.html as of 17 August 2015.
Ellis, Albert, and Windy Dryden. The Practice of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy. New York: Springer Publishing Company, 2007.
Marks, Joel. Ethics Without Morals: In Defense of Amorality. New York and London: Routledge, 2013.
McWilliams, James. The Modern Savage: Our Unthinking Decision To Eat Animals. New York: Thomas Dunne Books (St. Martin’s Press), 2015.
Rosenberg, Alex. “Can Moral Disputes Be Resolved?” New York Times 13 July 2015. Online publication opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/07/13/can-moral-disputes-be-resolved/ as of 13 July 2015.
Sartre, Jean-Paul. “Existentialism is a Humanism.” Tr. Philip Mairet. Online publication http://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/sartre/works/exist/sartre.htm as of 10 May 2014.
Science daily. “Mirror test.” Online publication http://www.sciencedaily.com/terms/mirror_test.htm as of 17 August 2015.
Smil, Vaclav. “Should Humans Eat Meat?” Online publication http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/should-humans-eat-meat-excerpt/ as of 17 August 2015.
Do we see reality as it is? The fact that we are subject to perceptual illusion leads some thinkers to assert that we don’t. Instead, we see (or taste or feel, etc.) an illusion concocted by our brains. Donald Hoffman, Professor of Cognitive Science at the University of California at Irvine and a respected researcher, is a popularizer of this view. A couple of recent videos, one on the Science Channel,(1) and another on TED,(2) are entertaining expositions of his thesis that our experience is misleading.
Take this picture, for instance, one of many on his website:
The figure on the left contains various grey patches. Two of them, corresponding to A and B in the figure on the right, appear to be different but are actually identical greys; a photometer would find them to be the same. Hoffman takes this as evidence that the cognitive aspect of our perception (he calls it “visual intelligence”) constructs the greys that we perceive.(3)
The idea that the world we encounter in our everyday experience is not the real world is not new. Ancient Indian philosophy speaks of the world as Maya, illusion, which conceals the true nature of reality.(4) Plato likens us to prisoners in a cave and likens the things we experience to shadows thrown on a wall. The philosopher is one who breaks his (or her) chains and ventures out into the real world to perceive reality truly.(5) Kant said that things in themselves are unknowable; all we know through our senses is the world of phenomena.(6)
What Hoffman brings to the table is not only a wealth of experimental evidence but a plausible account of how we got this way. His thesis is that our perceptual apparatus is wired evolutionarily, not to perceive reality accurately, but to enhance our genetic fitness. What counts is not how well we see reality as it is, but how well what we see helped our ancestors stay alive long enough to mate and have children. And what we see is shaped by “tricks and hacks,” as he says(7), not accuracy.
This account is not merely a “just-so” story.(8) Hoffman has conducted some mathematically rigorous computer simulations that show that creatures that employ strategies tuned to utility outcompete those that employ strategies tuned to objective reality.
Here is a simplified version. You construct a series of simulated habitats, each of which has some quantity of food and water. Then you construct two creatures that will look at the habitats and choose one to occupy. One creature, the truth seeker, looks at the exact quantities of both food and water; it has an accurate perception of reality. Another creature, the simple hacker, just looks for the greatest amount of food and ignores water; it uses a trick, not a fully accurate perception. The truth seeker takes more time and energy to gather its information and make a choice than the simple hacker. The simulation repeatedly pits the two creatures against each other in a variety of habitats. It turns out that the simple hacker occupies the better habitats more quickly than the truth seeker. In other words, it outcompetes the truth seeker. Accurate perception of reality turns out not to be an optimal strategy.(9)
Hoffman and his colleagues have performed many far more complex simulations, pitting not just these two strategies against each other but yet another as well. The truth seeker embodies what they call a naive realist strategy; its perceptions fully match what really exists. The simple hacker embodies a critical realist strategy; its perceptions are limited but still reflect some truth about reality. Both are homomorphic to reality; that is, both have the same shape or structure as reality. The critical realist strategy is just less finely grained than the naive realist one. Hoffman proposes yet a third strategy, which he calls the interface strategy, in which perceptions are not homomorphic to reality. In the simulations, the interface strategy outperforms both of the others. Hoffman and his colleagues conclude that “natural selection does not always favor naive realism or critical realism. … In many scenarios only the interface strategy survives.”(10) In other words, it is entirely possible that our perceptions bear no resemblance to reality at all! (To be clear, Hoffman does not say that the interface strategy always or necessarily wins, only that it can. And that a lot more research is needed.)
So the claim, supported by some evidence, is that it is possible that our perceptions bear no resemblance to reality at all. But Hoffman, in his popular lecture, goes further. He claims that it is not just a possibility but a fact that they bear no resemblance. He says, “There’s something that exists when you don’t look, but it’s not spacetime and physical objects.”(11) And “When I have a perceptual experience that I describe as a red tomato, I am interacting with reality, but that reality is not a red tomato and is nothing like a red tomato.”(12)
Hoffman goes too far here. How can he possibly know that reality bears no resemblance to our perceptions? By his own admission, we have no contact with reality—what Kant calls the Ding an sich, the thing in itself—at all. So there is no way to make a comparison.
What we can compare is not experience with reality, but some experiences with others. Consider the visual illusion of patches of grey above. The reason we think our perception is illusory is that it doesn’t agree with what a photometer tells us. But we know what a photometer tells us only through our experience!
Try this: print this page and then cut out the two patches in question and place them side by side. In that position they will look the same. If you have a photometer, measure them, both in context and side by side. In all cases they will measure the same. You can go to the website of Edward A. Adelson, the originator of the illusion, to see more evidence for their sameness.(13)
There is a reason that we consider our experience of the photometer and our experience of the patches viewed side by side more veridical than our experience of the patches in context. It is simpler and more coherent to assume that the grey colors stay the same and our perception varies by context rather than that the colors actually change when the context changes. And the former assumption leads us to make more successful predictions.
What we take as physical reality is what Willard Van Orman Quine calls a “cultural posit.” His account is picturesque but informative:
As an empiricist I continue to think of the conceptual scheme of science as a tool, ultimately, for predicting future experience in the light of past experience. Physical objects are conceptually imported into the situation as convenient intermediaries—not by definition in terms of experience, but simply as irreducible posits comparable, epistemologically, to the gods of Homer. Let me interject that for my part I do, qua lay physicist, believe in physical objects and not in Homer’s gods; and I consider it a scientific error to believe otherwise. But in point of epistemological footing the physical objects and the gods differ only in degree and not in kind. Both sorts of entities enter our conception only as cultural posits. The myth of physical objects is epistemologically superior to most in that it has proved more efficacious than other myths as a device for working a manageable structure into the flux of experience.(14)
Similarly, the myth of reality as homomorphic, for the most part, to our experience is believable just because it works so well for us. Optical illusions reveal, not flaws in our perception, but how well our visual system is adapted to reality under standard conditions.(15)
(To be fair, Hoffman does have a more complete argument for his view of the relationship between experience and reality, which he calls “Conscious Realism,”(16) but a full discussion of that is a topic for another time.)
(1) Hoffman, “Can We Handle The Truth?”
(2) Hoffman, “Do we see reality as it is?”
(3) Hoffman, “Constructing Shades of Grey.”
(4) Wikipedia, “Maya (illusion).”
(5) Plato, The Republic, 514a–520a.
(6) Kemerling, “Kant: Experience and Reality.”
(7) Hoffman, “Do we see reality as it is?” time 11:45.
(8) Wikipedia, “Just-so story.”
(9) Mark, et. al., “Natural selection and veridical perceptions” pp. 505-506.
(10) Ibid., p. 513.
(11) Hoffman, “Do we see reality as it is?” time 16:22.
(12) Ibid., time 16:59.
(13) Adelson, “Checker Shadow Illusion.”
(14) Quine, “Two Dogmas of Empiricism,” p. 41.
(15) Bach, “Optical Illusions & Visual Phenomena.”
(16) Hoffman, “Conscious Realism and the Mind-Body Problem.”
Adelson, Edward H. “Checker Shadow Illusion.” Online publication http://web.mit.edu/persci/people/adelson/checkershadow_illusion.html as of 19 July 2015.
Bach, Michael. “Optical Illusions & Visual Phenomena.” Online publication http://www.michaelbach.de/ot/ as of 19 July 2015.
Hoffman, Donald. “Can We Handle The Truth?” Online publication http://www.sciencechannel.com/tv-shows/through-the-wormhole/can-we-handle-the-truth-2/ as of 16 July 2015.
Hoffman, Donald D. “Conscious Realism and the Mind-Body Problem.” Mind & Matter Vol. 6(1), pp. 87–121. Online publication http://www.cogsci.uci.edu/~ddhoff/ConsciousRealism2.pdf as of 15 July 2015.
Hoffman, Donald. “Do we see reality as it is?” Online publication http://www.ted.com/talks/donald_hoffman_do_we_see_reality_as_it_is as of 10 July 2015.
Hoffman, Donald. “Constructing Shades of Grey.” Online publication http://www.cogsci.uci.edu/~ddhoff/adelson-illusion.html as of 16 July 2015.
Kemerling, Garth. “Kant: Experience and Reality.” Online publication http://www.philosophypages.com/hy/5g.htm as of 17 July 2015.
Mark, Justin T., Brian B. Marion, Donald D. Hoffman. “Natural selection and veridical perceptions.” Journal of Theoretical Biology #266 (2010), pp. 504-515. Online publication http://www.cogsci.uci.edu/~ddhoff/PerceptualEvolution.pdf as of 15 July 2015.
Plato. The Republic. In Plato: The Collected Dialogues. ed. Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns. New York: Pantheon Books, 1963.
Quine, W. V. “Two Dogmas of Empiricism.” The Philosophical Review, Vol. 60, No. 1 (Jan., 1951), pp. 20-43. Online publication https://webfiles.uci.edu/rsmead/PHIL330/Readings/Quine%20-%20Two%20Dogmas%20of%20Empiricism.pdf as of 31 March 2014.
Wikipedia. “Just-so story.” Online publication https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Just-so_story as of 17 July 2015.
Wikipedia. “Maya (illusion).” Online publication https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maya_%28illusion%29 as of 17 July 2015.