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Aug 4 20

Pragmatism and The Good

by Bill Meacham

This is the text a lecture given to several online Philosophy Meetup groups on 4 August 2020. I am grateful to the People’s Colloquium of Portland, Oregon and the Virtual Philosophy Network for supporting this effort.

The American Pragmatist William James distinguishes between two approaches to philosophical questions: rationalism and empiricism. Rationalism starts with a grand idea or first premise (although different philosophers start with different premises) and derives, by logic or some other method, a system that purports to include the whole world in its conceptual scheme. This camp includes Descartes, Kant, Leibniz, Hegel and many others. Empiricism starts with our experience and builds up its conceptual scheme from observation of regularities of behavior of the things we see, hear and touch, and from the commonalities and differences we find among them. This camp includes Locke, Berkeley, Hume, Bacon and others. In the ancient world the distinctions were not so pronounced, but Plato is more on the rationalistic side, and Aristotle, more on the empirical.

James calls the rationalists “tender-minded” and the empiricists “tough-minded” and he clearly prefers the tough-minded approach.(1) The tender-minded, says James, favor ideas that seem appealing, and tend to be monistic and dogmatic. They start with an explanatory principle and interpret everything in light of it. The tough-minded favor facts and tend to be pluralistic. They are not dogmatic; instead they are open to new evidence and are skeptical of having final answers. They make sense of the world via their perceptions and build up explanatory principles rather than starting with them.

The subtitle of James’ book Pragmatism is “a new name for some old ways of thinking,” but Pragmatism is more than just a new name. The old ways he speaks of are those of the empiricists, whose tough-minded approach relies on abstracting general principles—the laws of nature—from experience, not on positing general principles prior to experience. What’s new in Pragmatism is a method for helping the empiricists understand what they are talking about.

Pragmatic Method

Pragmatism started out as a method for determining what concepts mean. The Pragmatic Maxim, first defined by James’s friend and colleague C.S. Peirce, is this:

Consider what effects, that might conceivably have practical bearings, we conceive the object of our conception to have. Then, our conception of these effects is the whole of our conception of the object.(2)

James’ formulation is similar:

The pragmatic method in such cases [of settling metaphysical disputes] is to try to interpret each notion by tracing its respective practical consequences.(3)

Both formulations are theories of the meaning of concepts by appeal to effects and consequences. Peirce gives some examples: To call a thing hard simply means that it is not easily scratched. To call something heavy simply means that it will fall unless something gets in its way. These are fairly trivial, but consider the concept of force. Some think force is some kind of entity or energy that causes motion. Peirce says that such an idea is superfluous. There are precise mathematical methods for describing the changes in motion that come about through the application of various forces. Peirce says that that’s all there is to the concept of force. We don’t need to posit some other mysterious entity behind the effects. There is nothing to the concept other than the mathematically describable effects of changes in motion.

Says Peirce,

The idea which the word “force” excites in our minds has no other function than to affect our actions, and these actions can have no reference to force otherwise than through its effects. … If we know what the effects of force are, we are acquainted with every fact which is implied in saying that a force exists, and there is nothing more to know.(4)

James applies this method to the concept of substance. We think of substance as something separate from its attributes, something in which the attributes inhere, but James says that’s a mistake. A piece of chalk, for instance, is white, cylindrical, friable (easily crumbled into pieces so it leaves marks on the blackboard) and insoluble in water. But what is chalk itself, apart from these attributes? James says “nothing;” the collection of attributes that cohere together is all there is to chalk. More generally, concerning anything material, he says

Matter is known as our sensations of colour, figure, hardness and the like. They are the cash-value of the term. The difference matter makes to us by truly being is that we then get such sensations; by not being, is that we lack them. These sensations then are its sole meaning.(5)

So Pragmatism is a theory of meaning. Both Peirce and James went on to develop theories of truth, but in this paper I don’t discuss those further developments. Instead I want to look at the meaning of another concept, that of goodness. What I am about to say is not found specifically in Peirce or James but is an application of their pragmatic method.

Historical Conceptions of the Good

Let’s start by considering a purely rationalistic account. Plato, in The Republic, speaks of The Good as a perfect, eternal, and changeless Form or Idea (Greek eidos), existing outside space and time, in which particular good things, such as knowledge, share.(6) (The term “idea” here does not mean something merely mental as it does in modern English. It means something like a mental idea but subsisting on its own.) The Idea of good, he says, is what “gives … truth to the objects of knowledge and the power of knowing to the knower,”(7) but it is beyond both known and knower.

The objects of knowledge not only receive from the presence of the good their being known, but their very existence and essence …, though the good itself is not essence but still transcends essence in dignity and surpassing power.(8)

Plato’s model of knowledge is based on our apprehension of unchanging abstract entities such as geometrical forms. We have an idea of a pure right triangle, with perfectly straight lines and an angle of exactly 90 degrees, even though every existing triangle has slight irregularities. We can define the right triangle precisely, and every time we think of it, it is the same. Plato finds this constancy so appealing that he models all of reality on it. There is a realm of Ideas or Forms that is perfect and unchanging. That realm is superior to our everyday world, which is constantly changing. We recognize things in the world because they somehow inhere in or partake of or imitate the realm of Forms. We recognize good things because they partake of the Form of the Good. The Form of the Good is what’s really real, says Plato, and all the good things we come across are only derivatively so.

The problem with this notion of the good is that it doesn’t give us any practical advice on how to find or create or produce good outcomes. It has no predictive power. From a pragmatic point of view, it is entirely vacuous.

Plato’s student Aristotle has a more down-to-earth view. Instead of some perfect Form of goodness, he asks what is good for human beings. He is like Plato in a way because he asks about the highest good for human beings, but he goes about his inquiry by looking at actual people rather than contemplating abstract ideas. Aristotle claims that, as a factual matter, human beings seek happiness (eudaimonia, sometimes translated as “flourishing”) above all else since “we always choose it because of itself, never because of something else.”(9) We seek good food, health, pleasant company, intellectual stimulation and the like because they make us happy. But we don’t seek happiness because it leads to anything else. It is a final goal or end for us. Aristotle’s account of goodness is much more useful than Plato’s, because we can actually investigate the matter and find out what leads to our happiness or flourishing.

With that historical background, let’s take a look at what the concept of goodness entails pragmatically. What are the practical effects of something’s being good? What difference does being good, as opposed to not being good, make?

Goodness Considered Pragmatically

There are actually quite a number of meanings of the term “good,” quite a number of language games we can play with it, as it were. One dictionary lists over 50 definitions!(10) Here I focus on one of the most common, captured in the phrase “good for.” I do not deal with goodness in a moral sense, as in good vs. evil.

What is good in this sense has to do with benefits. Something that benefits something or someone is called good for that thing or person. We can think of this instrumentally or biologically. Instrumentally, a hammer is good for pounding nails, and what is good for the hammer is what enables it to do so well. Biologically, air, water, and food are good for living beings.

Instrumentally, what is good for a thing enables that thing to serve its purpose. To make sense, an instrumental usage requires reference to someone’s purpose or intention. Thus, a hammer is good for pounding nails, and we pound nails in order to build things such as furniture or housing. Our intention is to acquire the comfort and utility these things afford us. That is our goal, or end, and the good is what helps bring it about.

The instrumental usage is expressed in terms of usefulness or utility for achieving a purpose or intention. Some hammers are better than others in that they have better heft or weight or balance and thus can be used to pound nails more effectively.

The instrumental usage leads to the biological usage. Why is it good for human beings to have comfort and utility? Because comfort and utility nourish us and keep us alive.

The biological good has to do with health and well-being. Biologically, what is good for an organism is what helps it survive and thrive, what nourishes it. Some things are better for us than others in this respect. For instance, a diet of whole grains and vegetables is better, in the sense of providing better health for humans, than a diet of simple carbohydrates and fats. Another example: some plants need full sunlight to thrive, and others need shade; thus, full sunlight is good for the former, and shade is good for the latter. The good, in this sense, is that which enables a thing to function well, that is, to survive, thrive and reproduce. Unlike the instrumental usage, the biological usage does not require reference to conscious purpose or intention.

As an aside, the notion of function is non-trivial, and I have dealt with it elsewhere. Here I just want to say that the function of a living thing is, intrinsically, to survive and reproduce.(11) Living things also have functions external to themselves in their habitat or biosphere, such as to provide shelter or nutrients or other goods to other living things, but here I mean function in the intrinsic sense.

The instrumental usage intersects the biological when we consider what is good for something that is itself good for achieving a purpose or intention. For instance, keeping a hammer clean and sheltered from the elements is good for the hammer; if it gets too dirty to handle easily or too rusty to provide a good impact on a nail, it is not useful as a hammer. So we can talk about what is good for the hammer in a way that is analogous to what is good for a living being. The good, in this sense also, is that which enables a thing to function well. “Function” in this case means what the hammer is designed to do.

Just as good is defined in relation to an end, the value of the end is defined in relation to another end. As mentioned above, a hammer is good for driving nails. Driving nails is good for building houses. We build houses to have shelter and warmth. And we desire shelter and warmth because they sustain our life.

Now here is a point that will become important shortly. This chain of goods and ends stretches in both directions from wherever we arbitrarily start looking. A hammer is good for driving nails. Driving nails is good for building things. That’s one direction. The other is what is good for the hammer, which is whatever enables it to perform its function. It is not good to leave it out in the rain; it is good to handle it carefully, swing it accurately with grace and force, and put it away safely.

Pragmatically, both the instrumental and the biological usage give meaning to the term “good” by referring to the consequences or effects of an action or event. That whole grains are good for humans means that the effect of eating them is healthful. That a hammer is good for pounding nails means that using it for that purpose is likely to have the effect you want, namely that the nails go in easily and straight.

Some synonyms for “good” are “helpful,” “nourishing,” “beneficial,” “useful” and “effective.” Some synonyms for “bad” are the opposites of those terms: “unhelpful,” “unhealthy,” “damaging,” “useless” and “ineffective.”

Goodness is contextual, and there are degrees of goodness and its opposite, badness. Some plants, sunflowers for instance, need full sunlight to thrive; and others, such as violets, need shade. Full sunlight is good for the former and not so good for the latter. If the context is raising sunflowers, then full sunlight is good; if the context is raising violets, then it’s bad, and shade is better. Goodness is not absolute. What is good for the hawk is not so good for the mouse.

The good in this sense is a feature of the natural world. One of the benefits of this empirical and pragmatic approach to goodness is that we can tell what’s good by observation. Benefits and harms are publicly observable, and judgments about what’s good are objectively verifiable. We can do studies of the effects of diet on health, for instance, studies that provide factual evidence, so the recommendation to eat vegetables is not just someone’s opinion. In particular, our knowledge of goodness does not depend on some kind of mystical intuition of a supersensible Form existing outside space and time. The evidence is not hidden; it is there for all to see.

I’ve been speaking about goodness-for. I want to mention briefly a related sense of the term “good,” to be good at. Being good at something means to be proficient, accomplished or skilled. For instance, a horse can be good at running, and one that is superlatively good at running will win races. A person can be good at any number of things such as music or tennis or mathematics or philosophy. The connection between goodness-at and goodness-for is that what something is good at gives us clues to what is good for it. I have said that what’s good for a person or a thing enables that person or thing to function well. We can think of what we are good at as our function, or at least one of our functions. Functioning well means doing what we are good at and doing it in a way that promotes and enhances our ability to do it.

Practical Import

The practical import of all this is that we now have a way to achieve what Aristotle calls eudaimonia. We experience eudaimonia, that is, happiness, fulfillment or flourishing, when we function well. So if we want to flourish then we need to find out what our functions are—that is, what we are good at—and learn to do them effectively.

There are things that some of us are good at and others are not. Some have special talents for sports, for instance, or mathematics or music, but not everyone does. On an individual level, we each need to find out what we are good at personally, or idiosyncratically, and pursue and develop those talents.

There are also things that everybody is good at, by virtue of being a human being. The philosophical task is to find the function of human beings in general. As Aristotle puts it,

Perhaps we shall find the best good [i.e., happiness] if we first find the function of a human being. For just as the good … for a flautist, a sculptor, and every craftsman, and in general, for whatever has a function and <characteristic> action, seems to depend on its function, the same seems to be true for a human being, if a human being has some function.(12)

The Greek word for “function” is ergon, or work, from which we get our term “ergonomics.” So what is the function, the characteristic work, of human beings in general, just as human beings? I’m not going to answer that question here, as I have written a whole book about it, but clearly it would be useful to find out.(13)

Interconnected World

To conclude, I want to mention one more idea from William James. In one of his essays he applies the pragmatic method to the question of whether the world as a whole is one or many. Obviously, it contains many things, but can they be considered altogether as one? Pragmatically, one way in which it is meaningful to say that the world is one is that the world contains causal connections and networks of influence that bind each separate thing to others. James says,

Everything that exists is influenced in some way by something else. … all things cohere and adhere to each other somehow, and … the universe exists practically in reticulated or concatenated forms which make of it a continuous or ‘integrated’ affair. Any kind of influence whatever helps to make the world one ….(14)

In another place he says

There can be no difference anywhere that doesn’t make a difference elsewhere.(15)

James is making a metaphysical point here, asserting a characteristic of all of reality, that everything is connected to everything else.

Recall that I said that just as goodness is defined in relation to an end, the value of the end is defined in relation to another end, and that the chain of goods and ends stretches in both directions from wherever we arbitrarily start looking. Following James, I assert that there is no finality to the chains of goods and ends, no summum bonum (highest good) in which all chains culminate or from which all goods are derived. The world is a web, not a hierarchy.

Assuming that we seek to flourish, the fact of being embedded in such a web has implications for how we should conduct ourselves. Since everything is connected, our actions not only have an effect on our surroundings, but in turn our surroundings rebound and have an effect on us. Hence, it is prudent to have a good effect on our surroundings.

The underlying principle, taken from Permaculture, a study of systems theory applied to ecosystems, is that an element of a system thrives when the system as a whole is healthy, and a system as a whole is healthy when its constituent elements thrive. Human beings are elements in a variety of systems, most notably our natural environment and systems of other people, or communities. If, in situations of conflict, we can find ways to benefit all concerned, then we ourselves will be benefited. If conflict is resolved so that everyone is satisfied, then the solution will be likely to last, leading to further benefit for ourselves. Short-sighted egotistical selfishness is self-defeating. The advice here is to seek goodness for as many concerned as possible. Doing so is a strategy based on enlightened self-interest.

If we want to thrive, to maximize our own good, it makes sense to try to maximize the good for all concerned in whatever situation we find ourselves. Another way of saying this is that it is good to be of service, to help everybody, as best we can. As we maximize the good of everybody and everything in the environment, we thereby promote our own health as well

The advantage of the Pragmatic approach to goodness is that now we know what goodness is. If we are smart enough to choose to do so, we can maximize it for all concerned.


(1) James, “The Present Dilemma in Philosophy,” Pragmatism, Chapter One.

(2) Peirce, “How To Make Our Ideas Clear.”

(3) James, “What Pragmatism Means,” Pragmatism, Chapter Two.

(4) Peirce, “How To Make Our Ideas Clear.”

(5) James, “Some Metaphysical Problems Pragmatically Considered,” Pragmatism, Chapter Three.

(6) Wikipedia, “Form of the Good.”

(7) Plato, The Republic, 508d-e.

(8) Idem., 509b.

(9) Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics I.7, 1097b 1. The term “eudaimonia” literally means being accompanied by a good spirit, sort of a guardian angel, but Aristotle uses the term figuratively.


(11) Foot, Natural Goodness, pp. 31-32.

(12) Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, I.7 1097b 22-29.

(13) Meacham, How To Be An Excellent Human.

(14) James, “The One and the Many,” Pragmatism, Chapter Four.

(15) James, “What Pragmatism Means,” Pragmatism, Chapter Two.


Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics, trans. T. Irwin. In Readings in Ancient Greek Philosophy: From Thales to Aristotle, Fourth Edition, ed. S. Marc Cohen et. al. Indianapolis: Hackett, 2011. “Good.” Unabridged (v 1.1). Random House, Inc. online publication as of 19 December, 2008.

Foot, Philippa. Natural Goodness. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.

James, William. Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking. New York: Longmans, Green, & Co., 1907. Available online at as of 22 June 2020.

Meacham, Bill. How To Be An Excellent Human. Austin: Earth Harmony, 2013. Available at

Peirce, Charles Saunders. “How To Make Our Ideas Clear.” Popular Science Monthly, Vol. 12, pp. 286-302 (January 1878). In Charles S. Peirce: Collected Writings (Values in a Universe of Chance), pp. 113-136. Ed. Philip P. Wiener. New York: Dover Publications, 1958. Online publication as of 26 July 2020.

Plato. The Republic. Tr. Paul Shorey. The Collected Dialogues of Plato. Ed. Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns. New York: Pantheon Books, 1963.

Wikipedia. “Form of the Good”. Online publication as of 28 July 2020.

Jul 9 20

Review: The Subject of Experience

by Bill Meacham

I am pleased to announce that that Philosophy Now magazine has published my review of Galen Strawson’s The Subject of Experience. You can find it here: For your convenience, following is the full text.


The Oracle at Delphi famously advised us to know ourselves. But what is the self which is to be known?

This question is at the heart of contemporary British philosopher Galen Strawson’s The Subject of Experience. In this collection of essays, Strawson investigates wide-ranging topics pertaining to the nature of the self: What do we mean by the term ‘self’? In what sense do selves exist? To what extent is continuity over time essential to selfhood? Must one be able to make a story of one’s life in order to be a coherent self? Must one be selfconscious in order to be conscious at all? and more. The fourteen essays here are not necessarily meant to be read in order. They do not offer a sustained argument, but rather a number of themes that appear in different places, like threads in a tapestry. These themes cover so much ground that it would be impossible to do justice to them all in a short review, so I’ll just touch on a few salient ones.

The first is what is meant by the term ‘self’. Strawson is a professional analytic philosopher, and one of his strengths is a careful attention to conceptual nuances. Noting that from an early age we realize that our thoughts are private, that is, not observable by others, he asserts that we all have a sense of ourselves as something mental, distinct from our bodies. Whether this sense is accurate is another question; but he says that it has eight components. We ordinarily conceive of or experience our selves in eight ways, listed from the most fundamental to the most broad as follows (p.19). We think of ourself as:

  1. A thing or entity;
  2. A mental or subjective entity;
  3. A single entity when considered at a point in time (synchronically);
  4. A single entity when considered over some duration of time (diachronically);
  5. Ontically (really or metaphysically) distinct from all other things;
  6. A subject of experience – a conscious feeler and thinker;
  7. Having a certain character or personality.

That’s quite a list. The virtue of an analytic approach is that it helps us avoid ambiguity and equivocation. When we make assertions about the self, it helps to know which of these aspects of selfhood we mean. If I tell you that I ate the candy, ‘I’ refers to me as an agent (#7 in the list): I and not someone else ate the candy. But if I tell you that I didn’t really do it, but rather my addiction to sweets overcame me, ‘I’ here means something else: something ‘ontically’ or really distinct from my cravings (#5).

It won’t do to ask which of these is the right meaning, as if there could be only one. The analytic approach encourages us to be more precise, and say which sense of ‘I’ is being used on any given occasion.

Consider the question of self as subject of experience (#6). Strawson goes on to list three conceptions of subjecthood (pp.171-172):

1) Human beings along with other animals can be generally said to be subjects of experience. Strawson calls this the ‘thick’ conception.

2) A subject of experience can be thought of as “some sort of persisting inner locus of consciousness – an inner someone, an inner mental presence”. This he calls the ‘traditional inner’ conception.

3) A subject of experience can be “an inner thing of some sort that exists if and only if experience exists of which it is the subject.” This he calls the ‘thin’ conception.

Conceptions 1 and 2 assume that a subject of experience continues to exist even when not having any actual experience, as in dreamless sleep or when heavily sedated. In conceptions 2 and 3, the subject is something different from, or at least distinct from, the whole person taken as body and mind together. Conception 3 reserves the term ‘subject’ for that which gives unity to an individual moment or episode of experience, and so operates only during that moment or episode of being conscious.

That there is a unity to episodes of human experience Strawson takes as incontrovertible. In addition to being an analytic philosopher, Strawson is also a phenomenologist, that is, someone who has examined his own experience in some analytical detail. This gives him an edge over those who rely on linguistic or conceptual analysis alone in understanding the self. His description of experience is worth quoting at length:

“The total experiential field involves many things – rich interoceptive (somatosensory) and exteroceptive sensation, mood-and-affect-tone, deep conceptual animation, and so on. It has, standardly, a particular focus, and more or less dim peripheral areas, and is, overall, extraordinarily complex in content. But it is for all that a unity… simply in being, indeed, a total experiential field; or equivalently, simply in being the content of the experience of a single subject at that moment. The unity or singleness of the (thin) subject of the total experiential field in the living moment of experience and the unity or singleness of the total experiential field are aspects of the same thing.” (p.179)

This ‘same thing’ is an occasion or moment of experience. That each moment of experience is unitive leads Strawson in two directions philosophically. One is toward a conception of personal identity; and the other toward a conception of the ultimate nature of reality.

Personal Identity

The question of personal identity is central to this book. Strawson reminds us that the ordinary conception of selfhood –the second one above – is of a persisting inner locus of being conscious of one’s world (and, I would add, of acting on it too). We think of ourselves as experiencing beings having long-term continuity over time. We wake up in the morning and, without having to think about it, recognize that we are the same person who fell asleep the night before.

Strawson thinks that this impression of sameness or continuity is an illusion. What is really real, he says, is conception 3, a subject of experience that exists only while it experiences. He says this partly on conceptual grounds—how can there be a ‘subject of experience’ when there is no experience?—and partly on methodological grounds: he thinks that when it comes to metaphysical discussions of selfhood, one has to start phenomenologically, by analyzing what is actually given in experience (pp.44-45). What is given in experience is episodic moments of experience, not an experience of continuity. As Strawson says, the basic form of our experience is “a gappy series of eruptions of consciousness out of non-consciousness” (p.73). (He adds, “although the gaps are not usually phenomenologically apparent”, which seems to call into question his phenomenological premise. This difficulty is resolved by affirming the need to observe more carefully than we usually do what actually goes on in our experience. He recommends the practice of mindfulness meditation to hone such an ability (p.70, p.154 fn. 51).)

One might reasonably ask then, where our sense of personal continuity comes from? How do we know we are the same person as we were, not only when we wake up in the morning, but from moment to moment?

In response, Strawson agrees with the great American psychologist and philosopher William James (1842-1910), who says that we each consist of a great many short-lived selves. Each momentary self appropriates the experience of its predecessor through the immediately preceding contents of experience forming part of the context in which each new moment of experience arises. This context is both outer and inner; both objective and subjective. Objectively, our present situation usually has an expected continuity with the situation previously experienced. We most often wake up in a familiar place and find it no surprise. Subjectively, we find we have familiar bodily sensations, as well as familiar thoughts, feelings, moods, and so forth. As Strawson says, we have a “constant background awareness of our own mental goings on” (p.47). This familiarity leads us to think of ourselves as the same person we were previously. This sense can change over time, of course. Our sense of self usually changes unnoticeably in small increments from moment to moment, and the difference becomes apparent only when contrasted to some far earlier time. In cases of religious or moral conversion, the change in sense of self may happen rapidly. But even in that case there is a sense of continuity: we know that we are the same person who was thinking differently before.

People disappearing
Image by Paul Gregory

So are we really only a gappy series of momentary subjects of experience; or are we really a continuous being who persists over time? There is no one correct answer to this question. The useful answer depends on the context of inquiry, on what issue we are trying to clarify. For most practical purposes we can confidently affirm that a human being is a persisting psychophysical whole. Certainly, it would be hard to get around in the social world without such a belief. But for questions of fundamental metaphysics, the gappy, momentary nature of serialized selfhood seems quite plausible. And if the Buddhists are to be believed, recognizing this lack of a permanent self is a step toward liberation from suffering. Strawson’s contribution is to clarify, sometimes in painstaking detail, just what is involved in such considerations.

The Nature of Reality

The idea of the unitive nature of moments of experience leads Strawson to a view of the ultimate nature of reality as well. He is a pluralist, believing that many things exist (using ‘thing’ in a loose sense). For instance, “there is a plurality of fundamental physical entities (leptons and quarks, say, or ‘fields’, ‘loops’, ‘field quanta’…) or as I will say ‘ultimates’.”(p.174). But he is also an attributive monist, saying that each of these ultimates is of the same kind; that each is composed of the same kind of stuff (again, using ‘stuff’ in a loose sense). Strawson’s model for the ultimate stuff is a moment of experience consisting of a ‘thin’ subject (conception #3) and its total experiential field. (His argument for this position can be read in his paper ‘Realistic Monism’, available on Each ultimate, or ‘concretely actualized’ entity, is, he says, “a concretely existing total experiential field and a concretely existing subject for whom that field is an experiential field” (p.185). This is just what process philosopher Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947) took to be the nature of what is ultimately real, which he variously called an actual entity, an actual occasion, and an occasion of experience (See Process and Reality, Part 1, Ch. 2, sec. 1, and Adventures of Ideas, p. 221.) So Strawson gives support for Whitehead’s process panpsychism, despite his reluctance to put himself in the same category as Whitehead.

Consciousness of Consciousness

One of Strawson’s many other themes is worth a mention. He claims that “All consciousness involves consciousness of that very consciousness” (p.143). Such involvement is ‘pre-reflective’, ‘immanent’, and ‘non-positional’ (p.155). In other words, this is not something you deliberately do.

Strawson claims to know the truth of these assertions from his examination of his own experience. I don’t find his argument here (such as it is) persuasive at all. In examining my own experience, I find numerous instances of being conscious that involve no trace of being conscious of being conscious – being absorbed in an engaging task, for instance, or in a good book. (I treat this question in detail in my essay “Being Conscious of Being Conscious” at Strawson can assert that when I am conscious I am always conscious of being conscious (in addition to whatever I am focusing on), but he can’t prove it. And I can’t prove that he’s wrong, either. The issue is about subjective experience, which is private, not public. We each experience the world from our own point of view, not anyone else’s. The point is that the idea is not amenable to objective verification. The best we can do is to describe our experience in terms that are as unambiguous as possible, so we can at least understand what the other is saying.

That itself is a difficult task, and unfortunately, Strawson is here not as careful with his vocabulary as he could be. It’s difficult because what we’re trying to talk about is not public, which means that the words that one person uses to describe their experience may not mean the same to someone else. The difficulty is compounded in English because we have relevant words that mean roughly the same thing. The words ‘conscious’ and ‘aware’, for instance, both translate to a single word in Spanish (consciente) and German (bewusst), so one might think that the two English words are synonyms. And so they are; but not quite. There is still ample room for ambiguity. Strawson says for instance, “By ‘awareness’ (the mass term) I’ll always mean ‘conscious awareness’… I’ll also use ‘consciousness’… for what I mean by ‘experience’ or ‘awareness’.” (p.137) In a footnote, he further contrasts this use of ‘awareness’ to one that means, roughly, knowledge. In this latter sense, one can be said to be aware of a great many things–the current crisis, for instance–even when in deep sleep. By ‘conscious awareness’, Strawson does not mean awareness in the sense of knowledge. Even so, if ‘awareness’ means ‘conscious awareness’, and he uses ‘consciousness’ to mean ‘awareness’, then ‘conscious awareness’ is synonymous with ‘conscious consciousness’, which is redundant.

He also says, “there are contexts in which it makes sense to speak of unconscious awareness” (p.193, fn. 11). What is this unconscious awareness? Substituting putative synonyms, we get ‘unconscious consciousness’, which is nonsense. Does he mean unconscious knowledge here? If so, he should say so.

Strawson may assume that his meaning is sufficiently clear in context. The words ‘consciousness’, ‘awareness’, and the like, are familiar ones. But too often readers think they know what a word means just because it is familiar. What they think it means might not be what the author intended. One would hope that a philosopher in the analytic tradition would take extra pains to be more careful about this, especially dealing with language so fraught with possibilities for misunderstanding.

That being said, this book is worthwhile. I have touched on only a few of its topics; there are a lot more. It’s not an easy book. Strawson’s work is difficult, but rewarding. If you want a popular, breezy run-through of some ideas on selfhood, then you’d best look elsewhere. But if you enjoy reading a text slowly and carefully, pausing to reflect on, understand, and perhaps argue with the author’s assertions, then The Subject of Experience should prove quite gratifying.

The Subject of Experience by Galen Strawson, Oxford University Press, 2017, $22 pb, 336 pages. ISBN: 978-0198801580

Jun 1 20

Sloppy Phenomenology

by Bill Meacham

The twentieth-century phenomenologists—Husserl, Heidegger, Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, de Beauvoir, et. al.—have done a great service to philosophy by emphasizing the first-person point of view. Many things become apparent when you quit looking at the world through the lens of objective scientific inquiry and instead pay attention to how it actually appears in your own experience. Neither viewpoint gives the whole truth, of course, but the phenomenological project as originated by Husserl encourages us to take into account aspects of the world that the objective approach tends to overlook: our essential interrelatedness with our surroundings that Heidegger calls Being-in-the-world; the way we, as embodied beings, perceive the world that Merleau-Ponty uses to clarify the relationship between mind and body; de Beauvoir’s emphasis on human freedom as the ultimate and unique end to which we should devote ourselves; and more.

The phenomenologists are exciting and provocative. They point out things that many of us overlook. Unfortunately, they are all too often sloppy thinkers as well. I have noted the faulty logic at the root Sartre’s analysis of what it is to be conscious. Today I want to point out some problems with Merleau-Ponty’s use of the term “consciousness.”

I don’t like the term “consciousness” because it is appallingly ambiguous. I have written a whole paper on the subject of how to speak about being conscious, which I’m told is fairly clear. Rather than summarize it, I urge you to read the paper itself.(1) In this essay I address some things Merleau-Ponty says in his influential and rather monumental Phenomenology of Perception.

  • “I discover in myself a sort of inner weakness that … exposes me to the gazes of others as one man among men or, at the very least, as one consciousness among consciousnesses.”(2)

Here the term “consciousness” seems to mean a conscious being, which might be human or might be something else, perhaps a non-human animal. Given the context, the meaning is not problematic. (Whether being perceivable by others is a weakness is another issue.) But consider this:

  • “… Consciousness itself [is] a project of the world.”(3)

Does “consciousness” here mean a conscious being? Probably not. Does it mean the ability to be conscious? Does it mean an episode or occasion of being conscious? My guess is that he means to say that every instance or occasion, or any typical instance or occasion, of being conscious is a project of the world. (What “project of the world” means I leave for another time.)

  • “But the notion of attention … has for itself no evidence from consciousness.”(4)

Does “consciousness” here mean episodes of being conscious, none of which provide evidence for the notion of attention? Perhaps it means a typical instance or episode of being conscious. (If so, is it really true that no episode of being conscious provides such evidence? That is a question for each of us to verify for ourself once we have sufficiently understood what Merleau-Ponty is asserting.)

  • “The determinate quality by which empiricism wanted to define sensation is an object for, not an element of consciousness ….”(5)

An object for consciousness, I take it, is an object of which we can be conscious, that we can perceive in some way. If so, “consciousness” means that which is conscious, the subject of an instance of being conscious of something. But what does he mean by “an element of consciousness”? “Consciousness” must mean something other than that which is conscious, because that which is conscious has no elements.

My guess is that he is alluding to Husserl’s distinction between noesis, structural elements in episodes of being conscious that help determine the manner in which we are conscious of something, and noema, the object of which we are conscious (which may or may not correspond to an actual object in the objective world we all inhabit). If I am right, “consciousness” in the latter phrase means a typical instance or state of being conscious of something. Merleau-Ponty is asserting that the qualities that we sense are not structural elements in such states but rather things (using the term “things” loosely) that we are conscious of through or by means of the structural elements. Regrettably, he uses the term “consciousness” in two different ways in the same sentence. No wonder the meaning is obscure.

I might be wrong about that, as I am just now diving into Merleau-Ponty, but my point is that one reason he is hard to understand is because he uses the term “consciousness” to mean different things in different places and does not make clear which sense he means in any given instance.

It’s already hard enough to speak in first-person generalities about experience because language is essentially public and we are trying to talk about what is private. Merleau-Ponty’s ambiguity makes it even harder. I am tempted to scold him: Bad phenomenologist!


(1) Meacham, “How to Talk About Subjectivity (Don’t Say ‘Consciousness’)”.

(2) Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, p. lxxvi.

(3) Idem, p. lxxxii.

(4) Idem, p. 7.

(5) Ibid.


Meacham, Bill. “How to Talk About Subjectivity (Don’t Say ‘Consciousness’)”. Online publication and as of 31 May 2020.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice, Phenomenology of Perception. Tr. Donald A. Landes. Abingdon, Oxfordshire, and New York: Routledge, 2012.

Apr 18 20

Being Immortal

by Bill Meacham

My essay “Fearing Death” examines whether we have any reason to fear being dead. That essay assumes that death will come to all of us eventually. But what if it didn’t? What if we could live forever? As it happens, a lively topic in current philosophy is whether it would be desirable to be immortal.(1) Is living forever something you would really, after some thought, want to do? In the jargon, is it choiceworthy?

I suppose that if, without thinking much about it, you fear being dead, then, sure, you would want to avoid that state. But the point of philosophy is to examine such unreflective attitudes to see if they really make sense. In order to do so, we sometimes look at counterfactuals, things that are not true but could be, to see what follows from our assumptions. The idea of immortality is a counterfactual. Obviously, nobody (that we know of) lives forever, although some live quite a long time. But what if we could? Would it be rational to choose to do so?

In order to answer the question, we need more details of what this hypothetical immortal life would be like. What if we lived forever but just kept getting sicker and more frail, eventually hanging on endlessly by a thread and in pain? Such a life would not be at all appealing. It would perhaps be more tempting if we could get “frozen” at a certain biological age and state of health.

Let’s imagine the best case: you get to pick your biological age and how healthy you will be. (Biological age is how old your body seems to be, no matter how old you really are chronologically. You could seem to be, say, 27 even after living hundreds or thousands of years.) So you choose an age at which your health and mental acuity were at their peak; 27 or so sounds good to me, but you get to choose. And, of course, even though you seem to be 27, you are still you on the inside with all your memories and knowledge of the world, which accumulate over time. And you choose your state of health, which most likely would be quite robust. You never get sick. Your bones are so strong as to be almost unbreakable, and if they did break, they would heal very rapidly. You are extremely fit; you can complete triathlons in record time with ease. And so forth. Given such a state, wouldn’t it be rational to live forever in it?

Oh, but wait, there are more things to consider. Are you the only immortal person, or are there others? Is everyone immortal, or only some of you? These scenarios are fodder for science fiction, of course, but they bear on the question. If you are the only immortal person you might get quite lonely after a while. You might have to hide your immortality in order to avoid being seen as a freak or a savior or a medical specimen. If you are part of a group, you would have company, but you might get sick and tired of the others. Or you might be endlessly anxious about your status in their eyes. If everyone became immortal and still bore children, the world would soon get seriously overpopulated.

And what sort of immortality would you choose to have? You could be biologically immortal, meaning you wouldn’t get sick and die but would still be vulnerable to severe trauma. You could die by getting shot or by drowning or by car crash or the like. In that case you might end up living a rather secluded and cautious, even fearful, life. Or you could choose absolute immortality, meaning you couldn’t be destroyed at all; you would be invulnerable. That would present another challenge: how to stay interested in life. After a while you might be so bored that you’d rather not live anymore. But you wouldn’t be able to kill yourself, so you would be consigned to an eternal hell of ennui and despair. But on another hand, if we assume that the universe is infinite and in constant motion, then there would always be the possibility of discovering something new. Hence you would not be bored. Maybe such a life would be worth living after all.

None of these considerations so far take into account the possibility of an afterlife, some kind of continued existence after the death of the physical body. (I am convinced there is an afterlife, but that’s another story. See my essay “An Impeccable Death.”) If you suspect that after your reprobate life you would end up in hell, you might well want to stay here. But if you believe, as many do, that this life is a vale of tears, full of suffering, you might view with horror the prospect of a sentence of endless imprisonment. If your life here is pretty good, you might want to stay. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, as we say in Texas. Or, even if your life here is good, you might have FOMO (fear of missing out) and be very curious about what is on the other side.

All this speculation may well seem to be irrelevant and silly, as we don’t actually expect to live forever, nor do we have the ability to choose the parameters of our immortal life. What’s the point, right? But there is a point. Actually there are two of them: to clarify the concept of a good life and to discover or decide how to live our own life.

Much of contemporary philosophy is concerned with clarifying the meaning and implications of concepts. Philosophers have been doing this ever since Socrates asked Laches what courage is.(2) The concept at issue here is the nature of a good life. By examining the counterfactual idea that we might live forever, we get clearer on what goodness is as it pertains to living. We find out what makes something, in this case a life, rationally desirable or worthwhile. But why do we want to know that? Well, one answer is that philosophers are curious folks and seem to enjoy this sort of analysis. But more deeply it’s not just goodness and life in the abstract that interest us, but our own lives.

We have a personal interest in what makes a good life, because we have to live one. That is, we have to live our life, and most of us would greatly prefer that it be one that is fulfilling and happy. The word “philosophy” comes from two Greek words, philia and sophia, that mean affection for wisdom. Wisdom is not just knowledge; it is knowledge of a particular sort, knowledge of how to live well.

So what can we learn about living well from this discussion of immortality? Each of us needs to answer for ourself, but some things seem clear. If you were to live forever, most likely you would prefer to be robustly healthy, of course, and you would want to keep your mental acuity. But would you prefer the company of other immortals or would you prefer the endless variety of newcomers being born, maturing and eventually dying? Or would you rather live alone? Whom to live with may be a personal preference, but you would probably not rather live alone, as the only thing that is capable of fully engaging the interest of a human mind is another human mind.

Regardless of whom you choose to be with, there is one person who would always be there: you yourself. What kind of person would you want to be if you had to live with yourself forever? I expect you’d want to be tranquil and content, not consumed with rage, hatred, jealousy, fear or any other afflictive emotion. You would want your internal state to be peaceful and free from sorrow. You would want to be pleased with how you have lived so far, happy with your current state, and looking forward to whatever comes next. You would want to live with beauty and harmony.

Now, you don’t have to hope to be immortal or wait until you are older than anyone else to want to find out how to live well. I’ve written a whole book on the subject, and I refer you to it rather than trying to summarize it here.(3) I just want to note one thing that is true of all humans and has a bearing on the issue: that we always find ourselves embedded in a world, situated in an environment. Our world is a web of interconnected processes, constantly changing, and each of us is one of them. In order to create beauty and harmony within our experience, we must create beauty and harmony, to the best of our ability, in the world because the world is the content of our experience.

To put it another way, everything, including every person, is related to everything else. In that case, it makes sense to try to maximize the good in all situations and to maximize what is good for all concerned. As you maximize the good of everybody and everything in the environment, you thereby promote your own health as well. (By “you” I mean everyone, each of us individually; and by “environment” I mean everything that surrounds us: people, animals, plants, non-living things, the earth, the atmosphere, the water, etc. Everything.)

If you were immortal, you would want to do that. So why wait? Start now.


(1) A good place to start is with Fischer and Mitchell-Yellin, “Immortality and Boredom.” Read it for an overview of some of the issues, then follow the citations.

(2) Plato, “Laches.”

(3) Meacham, How To Be An Excellent Human.


Fischer, John Martin, and Benjamin Mitchell-Yellin. “Immortality and Boredom.” The Journal of Ethics (2014) 18:353–372. Available online at as of 16 April 2020

Meacham, Bill. How To Be An Excellent Human: Mysticism, Evolutionary Psychology and the Good Life. Austin: Earth Harmony, 2013. Available at

Plato, “Laches.” Tr. Benjamin Jowett. Online publication as of 18 April 2020.

Nov 14 19

Neanderthals R Us

by Bill Meacham

Our closest living genetic relatives may be chimps and bonobos, but we have had even closer ones. Humans diverged from the ancestral line of primates to become a separate species about 5.5 million years ago. At that time we went our way, and the ancestors of chimps and bonobos went theirs. But those past 5.5 million years have seen a great variety of human-like creature of which we, Homo Sapiens, are only the latest. They have strange Latin names: ardipithecus, australopithecus, homo naledi, homo erectus and more. The most recent before us is homo neanderthalensis, the Neanderthals.(1)

Neanderthal face
Neanderthal man, Natural History Museum, London

The name “Neanderthal” (or “Neandertal”; the “th” is pronounced simply as “t”) comes from the place where this species’ skeletons were first discovered, the Neander valley (“Tal” in German), near Düsseldorf in western Germany. The Neanderthals show many similarities to us Homo Sapiens, but they died out about 40,000 years ago. We, obviously, have flourished. The question is, what is it about Sapiens that gave us the advantage?

We know quite a bit about this extinct species from archeology (“stones and bones”), of course, but also from DNA reconstruction and the new field of computational neuroanatomy. Sometime between 630,000 and 520,000 years ago the shared ancestors of Neanderthals and Sapiens diverged and embarked on separate evolutionary paths. Those who spread to the Middle East, Europe and western Asia eventually evolved into Neanderthals, whereas those in Africa gave rise to us modern humans, whom we have immodestly named Homo Sapiens, Latin for “wise human.”

Neanderthal range
Where Neanderthal remains have been found
Neanderthal man
Neanderthal man
Neanderthal Museum, Mettmann, Germany

At the time, during the Pleistocene epoch, the world was much colder; it was an ice age, although there were about a dozen warmer periods within it. In Africa, what is now the Sahara desert was periodically a moist and fecund savanna. Europe, bounded by glaciers in the north, was heavily forested. Humans in Africa became slender and hairless, adapted to remain cool in the heat and to be able to run long distances over grassy plains in pursuit of game. Humans in Europe became short and stocky, adapted to retaining body heat. Their upper leg was longer than that of Sapiens in proportion to the lower, probably an adaptation to climbing hills. Rather than running long distances to hunt, they sprinted, pursuing their prey in short bursts of speed. Their skulls were flatter and more elongated than ours, with protruding faces, prominent brows, large noses, and receding chins. Perhaps European fairy tales of gnomes and trolls are ancestral memories of human-like others who were shorter, lumpier, more deformed and—to modern eyes—uglier than we. Neanderthals lived in small and isolated populations of no more than about 3,000 individuals per region. Harsh climate and scarcity of resources likely contributed to keeping their numbers low.

Sapiens and Neanderthal skulls
Skulls of Sapiens (left) and Neanderthal (right)

Neanderthals were similar enough to Sapiens in biology and behavior that they interbred with us in several times and places between 100,000 and 40,000 years ago. About two percent of the DNA of modern humans of European descent come from Neanderthals. Asians and Melanesians have slightly more. Contemporary Africans have none. These genes seem to have contributed to lighter skin, lower blood levels of LDL (“bad”) cholesterol (thus reduced risk of heart disease) and higher levels of vitamin D (helpful in a gloomy climate). All of these would have contributed to genetic fitness. We should be grateful to our Neanderthal ancestors for helping the survival of our lineage.

Neanderthals had some of the same kind of cultural artifacts that Sapiens had: stone tools, ornaments made of bone and other materials and the like. Some of them buried their dead and may have painted designs on cave walls. But Neanderthal tool making changed little over hundreds of thousands of years; they were well adapted to their environment and had little impetus to change.

It is clear that Sapiens were smarter. Sapiens’ art, tools and cultural artifacts far outstrip those of the Neanderthals. Even if some cave paintings are Neanderthal—and that thesis is contentious—the famous paintings of lifelike animals in the caves of Chauvet, Altamira and Lascaux, clearly made by Sapiens, far transcend them. Neanderthal brains were about the same size as ours, but were constructed differently internally. They had more capacity devoted to vision and body control, with less left over for social interactions and complex cognition. We became smarter because of our environment. Sapiens evolved in the ancestral savanna for several hundred thousand years under changing climatic conditions while Neanderthals stagnated in Europe and western Asia. Sapiens were in constant contact with people from other tribes and became smarter because minds evolve by bumping up against other minds. Neanderthals, living in a harsher climate with less social contact, had less selection pressure to increase intelligence.

There are numerous conjectures about why Sapiens endured and Neanderthals went extinct. Perhaps our metabolism was more efficient. Perhaps we were less susceptible to Neanderthal diseases than they were to ours. Perhaps it was climate change: our physiology was better suited to the spreading grasslands of Europe as the forests receded, depriving the Neanderthals of their native habitat. Perhaps it was simply because we were smarter and could make better tools.

Yuval Harari plausibly speculates that Sapiens could outcompete their rival species because they had a greater capacity for communal social reality. Socially constructed realities such as shared mythologies and religion enabled Sapiens to coordinate the activities of a great many people, uniting bands of Sapiens more efficiently than relatively isolated Neanderthal tribes. Artifacts dispersed over many hundred miles indicate extensive Sapiens trading networks.

Such competition may well have been violent. It is not hard to imagine tribes of Sapiens warring against people who did not even look quite human, because we have a long history of warring against each other, who do. Sapiens bands would aggressively move in on the Neanderthals’ territory and chase them out or kill them in order to capture their resources. It would be a totally primate thing to do.

But competition didn’t have to be violent. Superior hunting techniques, especially in an environment that was becoming dryer and less forested, could have enabled Sapiens to capture more game, starving the Neanderthals out. The Neanderthals, facing food shortages, would have had to move away to find sustenance. After a while there was no place else to move to. It’s a sad story, really; it’s easy to feel a bit sorry for them.

Probably multiple causes contributed to Neanderthal decline, but our enhanced capacity to construct social realities stands out. That is quite a cognitive achievement, and understanding it is a key part of understanding who and what we are.

Philosopher John Searle calls socially constructed realities “institutional facts.”(2) They are facts that exist only by virtue of collective agreement or acceptance, and there are quite a number of them. Searle mentions money, property, marriages, governments, tools, restaurants, schools and many others. They exist only because we believe them to exist.

We don’t much notice socially constructed realities because they are just part of the background. We take for granted marriage, bankruptcy, nations, legal codes and lots of other things that don’t have physical existence (although they may well affect or be instantiated by physical things). They don’t have physical existence, but they are quite real in that they have real effects on people. Try telling the judge that you don’t have to obey the law because it doesn’t exist!

One of most prevalent socially constructed realities is morality. The details of what conduct is prohibited, allowed and required by the moral code may vary from culture to culture, but all cultures have sets of rules, whether stated explicitly or not, that specify how people are to act. And people in every culture—which is to say all people, as we never find humans in isolation—have internalized the moral code of their culture and have a conscience, a sense of right and wrong.

Because moral rules are socially constructed, they are subject to change if enough people agree. Over the years, moral codes have indeed changed for the better; we no longer tolerate slavery, for instance, and are becoming more accepting of sexual preferences that used to be thought depraved and sinful. As we learn to take the point of view of others, we promote kindness and compassion, which benefit all of us.

If we came across a band of Neanderthals today, hidden away in some remote valley, I hope we would care for them as much as we do for other endangered species. They were no less human than we, only different.


(1) There was a similar species in eastern Asia, the Denisovans, named after a cave in Siberia where their remains were first found. Their physique and lifestyle were probably comparable to Neanderthals. Also like Neanderthals, they went extinct shortly after Sapiens showed up in their territory. My comments about Sapiens’ cognitive superiority to Neanderthals apply also to Denisovans.

(2) Searle, The Construction of Social Reality, pp. 2, 28, 43-45.


Alex, Bridget. “Neanderthal Brains: Bigger, Not Necessarily Better.” Online publication as of 17 October 2019.

Akst, Jef. “Infographic: History of Ancient Hominin Interbreeding.” Online publication–history-of-ancient-hominin-interbreeding-66319
as of 30 September 2019.

Harari, Yuval Noah. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. New York, Harper-Collins, 2015.

Hendry, Lisa. “Who were the Neanderthals?” Online publication as of 13 October 2019.

O’Shea-Jhu, Dennis. “Short legs let Neanderthals climb mountains.” Online publication as of 6 November 2010.

Scientific American various authors. “Evolution: The Human Saga.” Scientific American, September 2014 Volume 311, Number 3.

Searle, John R. The Construction of Social Reality. New York: The Free Press, 1995.

Stromberg, Joseph. “Science Shows Why You’re Smarter Than a Neanderthal.” Online publication
as of 13 October 2019.

Tatersall, Ian. “Homo sapiens.” In Britannica Online Encyclopedia. Online publication as of 4 November 2019.

Than-Stanford, Ker. “Did disease buy time before Neanderthal extinction?” Online publication as of 14 November 2019.

Touropia. “10 Prehistoric Cave Paintings.” Online publication as of 12 November 2019.

Tuttle, Russell Howard. “Human evolution.” In Britannica Online Encyclopedia. Online publication as of 4 November 2019.

Viegas, Jen. “Brain Reconstructions Suggest Reasons for the Decline of Neanderthals.” Online publication as of
13 October 2019.

Viegas, Jen. “Neanderthal DNA Influences the Looks and Behavior of Modern Humans.” Online publication as of 9 November 2019.

Wikipedia. “Neanderthal.” Online publication as of 6 November 2019.

Wikipedia. “Neanderthal behavior.” Online publication as of 6 November 2019.

Wikipedia. “Neanderthal extinction.” Online publication as of 6 November 2019.

Sep 9 19

More About Function

by Bill Meacham

In my book and other writings I have appealed to the notion of function to explain how we can achieve a degree of satisfaction or fulfillment in our lives. Taking “function” to mean what we are good at or good for, I claim that doing our function well is key to our flourishing and is accompanied by a feeling of well-being. On a personal, idiosyncratic level, if you are good at sports but not math, you will be better off pursuing a career, or at least a hobby, in the former rather than the latter. On a generic level applicable to all humans, if we can figure out what human beings in general are good for or good at, we can have a happy life by developing and exercising those abilities. As Aristotle says,

[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.(1)

In this essay I examine more carefully just what the notion of function entails, summarizing some of the recent philosophical research on the topic.(2) The Greek word ergon in Plato and Aristotle, translated as “function” or “work”, means what something does or what it is there for(3), what good it does.(4) Modern analysis gives us more detail. Just as our understanding of physics has gone well beyond Aristotle, so has our understanding of what function really is.

First, note that there are two kinds of function, biological and instrumental. Biological functions are things such as these: 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; the function of a polar bear’s white fur is to provide warmth and camouflage in snow. In all these cases the function of the part contributes to the ongoing life and health of a living being.

Instrumental functions pertain to artifacts and involve a deliberate purpose. For instance, the function of a telephone is to enable people to talk to each other over long distances. The purpose of talking could be many things, such as making an appointment or finding out information or just chatting. The purpose of doing those things is to contribute to the ongoing life of a 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 deliberate purpose, whereas in the instrumental case the contribution is indirect and does involve deliberate purpose. The modern analysis attempts to find parallels between these two kinds of function.

In both cases a thing’s function is a subset of what it does. A heart does a number of things: it pumps blood, it makes a sort of thumping noise, it makes squiggly lines on an electrocardiogram. Why do we say that its function is to pump blood, but not to make noise? Because pumping blood contributes to the health of the animal, but making noise is just a byproduct. If there were a silent organ that pumped blood, it would be a heart; but if there were a noisy organ that sort of looked like a heart but did not pump blood, it would not.

Similarly, a telephone does more than one thing: it enables people to talk to each other over a distance, it holds down papers when placed on top of them, it annoys people when it rings in a library, and so forth. Why do we say that its function is to enable communication and not to make noise? Because enabling long-distance communication is what the artifact is designed to do. A silent artifact that enabled us to talk to each other over a distance would count as a telephone, but a thing that rings but doesn’t connect distant people for talking would not.

As you can see, the contribution of an organ to the health of its host animal is analogous to the contribution of an artifact to the purpose of the structure in which it is placed. Both are embedded in larger systems. A heart is one organ among many in an animal; a single telephone is one device among many in a communications network. The heart, when it functions well, keeps the animal alive; the telephone, when it works, enables the communications network to fulfill the purpose for which it was designed. In both cases the entity in question is good for something within a larger context.

But what something is good for is not in itself enough to call it a function. A heart is a good source of nutrients for someone (or something) who eats it, but that’s not the function it evolved to serve. If we just consider hearts in the abstract, we would not say that their function is to provide trace minerals and B vitamins to those who consume them, but to pump blood. A telephone might be good for acting as a paperweight, but that is not its function, or at least not the function it was designed for. If we just consider telephones in the abstract, we would not say that their function is to be paperweights, but to be communication devices.

In both cases, how something came to be is part of what we mean by “function.” The heart came to do what it does by means of evolution through natural selection. The telephone came to do what it does by means of deliberate design and manufacture. We can say that hearts exist because they pump blood, and they pump blood because they evolved to do so. (More precisely: because doing so caused the proliferation of ancestors of animals containing hearts.) We can say that telephones exist because they enable long-distance communication by voice, and they enable such communication because someone designed them to do so.

Philosophers have sparred about whether an organ can be said to have a function because it contributes to the well-being of a present-time organism or only because it contributed to the reproductive success of that organism’s ancestors. I think the distinction is a bit trivial because the present-time organism has the potential to be an ancestor of future organisms, and the traits that contribute to its well-being also contributed to that of its ancestors. In either case, contribution to the success of the larger system of which it is part is crucial. The organ replicates through generations because it contributes to the well-being—in evolutionary terms, the fitness—of the organism of which it is a part.

To sum up the discussion so far, the concept of biological function is exactly parallel to that of instrumental function.

Here is the biological account:

  • An element has a function if it contributes in some way to the ongoing health, operation or maintenance of the organism of which it is a part; and
  • It came about through a process of natural selection such that its operation gave a selectional advantage to the organism’s ancestors.

Here is the instrumental account:

  • An element has a function if it contributes in some way to the ongoing operation or maintenance of the artifact or system of artifacts of which it is a part; and
  • It came about by deliberate design.

Now, to return to the original question, we can ask what the functions of the human being are. I focus on the biological account because I don’t consider humans to be artifacts (although some theists might disagree). The modern concept of function goes beyond the ancient Greek idea of what work (ergon) something does, and now the reason why good functioning leads to well-being is clearer. If an organ functions well, it contributes to the functioning of the whole, which in turn nourishes the organ. But does it make sense to consider humans to be organs in some larger whole?

That’s a profound question. Before we attempt an answer, let’s remember that humans are, obviously, living beings. In order to have any effect at all on whatever larger system we might find ourselves in, we have to be alive. Aristotle distinguishes three ways beings can be alive. He calls ways of being alive “soul’ (psyche). Aristotle contrasts the human way of being alive with two others, that of plants and that of non-human animals. Plants, animals and humans are all alive. All have soul; not a soul, but soul in general; we can call it soulness. 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, according to Aristotle, the power to think rationally.(5)

The connection between functioning well and well-being is clear. 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 those things poorly. And human beings who think well have a better chance of surviving and thriving (for humans, reproducing is optional) than those who think poorly.

But humans do lots of things besides think. We can ride bicycles, play Frisbee, watch TV, argue with each other and do many other things. Which ones shall we look at to find out how to lead a fulfilling life? Plato says that a thing’s function is what only it does or what it does better than anything else.(6) Even so, there are quite a few things that humans do that other animals don’t do at all or don’t do as well. An Internet search for what makes humans special yields these and more:

  • We think symbolically and abstractly about objects, principles, and ideas that are not physically present.
  • We use language to communicate complex concepts and to coordinate social roles and group activities.
  • We have rich culture. We can transmit and replicate ideas, symbols and practices very quickly through writing, speech, gestures and rituals.
  • We cooperate in large, well-organized groups and employ a complex morality that relies on reputation and punishment.
  • We can understand what others are thinking and mentally take their point of view. We can intuit what another person is thinking so that we can both work together toward a shared goal.
  • We make tools of far greater complexity than the simple ones that apes, dolphins, birds and other animals use.
  • We create art and music.
  • We can pay attention to ourselves and think about our own thinking. This capacity is what I call second-order thinking, also known as meta-cognition and self-awareness. It is the foundation of our freedom to make choices and form our own destiny.

These are all functions in Plato’s sense; they are unique capacities that humans have. Arguably, doing any of them well enhances our ability to flourish and enjoy a sense of well-being. But what of the more recent understanding of function. Are humans anything like organs existing in a more comprehensive organism? If so, in what way do we contribute to the ongoing health, operation or maintenance of that organism?

Perhaps “organism” is too grandiose a term, being more metaphorical than literal, but it is undeniable that we exist and function within larger systems. We are embedded in nature; our role as creatures within a bioregion is quite analogous to that of organs within an organism. In addition, we are embedded in social systems: families, tribes, neighborhoods, cities, nations, clubs, religious assemblies, professional organizations, economic enterprises, political parties, sports teams and many more. Being with others is not optional for us; we must have ongoing and extensive contact with our fellows in order to survive and thrive.

Within these systems, our role is unique. Unlike nonhuman animals, we can choose our function. That is, we can choose whether and in what way our effects on the systems in which we are embedded enhance those systems. We can impose instrumental function on our biological and social foundations.

For example, in the natural realm a skillful homesteader can design and maintain a local ecosystem to be healthy and provide nourishment and benefit to its caretaker and to the plants and animals within it. My Permaculture teacher says the functions of humans (Permaculture calls them “services”) are to plan, to design and to haul around large amounts of stuff. But if the homesteader is not skillful, the ecosystem is likely to decline. In the larger ecosystem of our entire planet, we can collectively choose whether to take action to avert climate disaster or to stand back and let it get worse.

In social settings, there are numerous ways we can work for the greater good of our group or community and thereby increase our own well-being. We can volunteer to help out, we can take on leadership, we can be loving and kind to our neighbors, we can advocate for good policies, we can provide useful services, we can just smile and be friendly. Or not; it is up to us.

Plato says that the human soul’s function is deliberating, managing and ruling.(7) In other words, our function, if we choose to accept it, is to be stewards of our natural and social environment. But we can also ignore that opportunity. The potential for exercising a useful function is there, but it is up to us whether to actualize it. We can use our vast intelligence to function as stewards and take charge of the world in which we find ourselves situated. If we choose to exercise that function well, we flourish; if not, we don’t. The choice is ours.


(1) Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, I.7, 1097b 22-29.

(2) See Buller, Cummins, Millikan, Neander, Sober and Wright. In the years since Wright’s influential analysis in 1973 something approaching a consensus has emerged among analytic philosophers as to the meaning of the term “function.” As philosophers do, they have quibbled with each other about minor points, but the broad outline is clear. I am grateful to Professors Sinan Dogramaci and Ray Buchanan of the University of Texas at Austin for allowing me to sit in on their 2018 seminar on telos, function and explanation, where I was introduced to these thinkers.

(3) Wright, “Functions,” p. 146.

(4) Foot, Natural Goodness, p. 32.

(5) Aristotle, On The Soul, 2-3, 413a 20 – 415a 10.

(6) Plato, The Republic, 353a.

(7) Plato, The Republic, 353d.


Aristotle. Nichomachean Ethics. Tr. W.D. Ross. Introduction to Aristotle, Ed. Richard McKeon. New York: Random House Modern Library, 1947. Available online at

Aristotle. On the Soul. Tr. J.A. Smith. Introduction to Aristotle, Ed. Richard McKeon. New York: Random House Modern Library, 1947. Available online at

Buller, David J. “Introduction: Natural Teleology.” In Buller, David J., ed. Function, Selection and Design. Albany, New York: SUNY Press, 1999, pp. 1-27.

Cummins, Robert. “Functional Analysis.” The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 72, No. 20. (Nov. 20, 1975), pp. 741-765. Online publication as of 17 August 2007.

Foot, Phillippa. Natural Goodness. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Millikan, Ruth Garrett. “Proper Functions.” In Buller, David J., ed. Function, Selection and Design. Albany, New York: SUNY Press, 1999, pp. 85-95.

Neander, Karen. “The teleological notion of ‘function'”. Australasian Journal of Philosophy, Volume 69 Number 4, December 1991, pp. 454-468. Online publication as of 12 January 2018.

Plato. The Republic. Tr. Paul Shorey. The Collected Dialogues of Plato. Ed. Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns. New York: Pantheon Books, 1963.

Sober, Elliott. Philosophy of Biology, Second Edition. Boulder Colorado: Westview Press, 2000, pp. 86-88.

Wright, Larry. “Functions.” The Philosophical Review, Vol. 82, No. 2 (Apr., 1973), pp. 139-168. Online publication as of 22 May 2012.

Apr 1 19


by Bill Meacham

One of the main themes of my book How To Be An Excellent Human is that our happiness and fulfillment depend on how well we exercise our uniquely human abilities, the chief of which is second-order thinking, that is, thinking about our own thinking. It is variously known as self-awareness, self-knowledge, metacognition, mindfulness and emotional intelligence. A recent article on how to cope with procrastination nicely illustrates how we can use this ability effectively.

Procrastination, putting off something you know needs to be done in favor of doing something less important, is an example of what the ancient Greeks called akrasia, often translated as weakness of will. Literally it means lack of command, specifically lack of command over yourself. You suffer from akrasia when you know what’s good for you but do something else instead.(1)

The ancients puzzled over this phenomenon. Socrates thought it was merely a product of ignorance; if you do something harmful to you, you don’t really know what is good for you.(2) Aristotle had a more nuanced view, recognizing that people’s rational judgment can be overcome by emotion. You know what’s good for you, but your emotions influence you to do something else instead.(3)

And that is exactly what recent research says about procrastination. According to journalist Charlotte Lieberman, citing research by psychology professor Fuschia Sirois, procrastination is not due to a lack of time-management skills, but to lack of mastery over your emotions. For whatever reason, you find the prospect of the task before you distasteful. Perhaps it’s boring; perhaps it’s inherently stinky, dirty or in some other way disagreeable; perhaps it triggers insecurities or fear of failure. In any case, you’d rather do something else. Finding something else to do alleviates those unpleasant feelings, and the immediate relief acts as a reinforcer, making it harder to avoid procrastination in the future.

The momentary relief we feel when procrastinating is actually what makes the cycle especially vicious. In the immediate present, putting off a task provides relief — “you’ve been rewarded for procrastinating,” Dr. Sirois says. And we know from basic behaviorism that when we’re rewarded for something, we tend to do it again. This is precisely why procrastination tends not to be a one-off behavior, but a cycle, one that easily becomes a chronic habit.(4)

So what can we do about it? Sheer will power may work for some, but probably not for most of us. Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt says human nature is two-fold. Each of us is like a rider on an elephant. The rider part is how we like to think of ourselves, as rational beings in charge of our actions. The elephant part is the mass of instinctual desires and reactions that really, in a great many cases, determines what we do.(5) Imagine trying to stop a stampeding elephant by standing in front of it and waving your hands and shouting at it. That’s how ineffective our will power is during moments of procrastination. A more effective approach is to ride the elephant and gently nudge it in the direction you want to go. The trick as rider is to outwit the elephant. There are a number of ways to do so.

Lieberman suggests things you can do when faced with the temptation to procrastinate:

  • Notice and pay attention to what is going on in the moment when you feel tempted to procrastinate. How does your body feel? Where is there tension? What’s going on with your breath? Is is rhythmic or irregular? Is it slow and deep or fast and shallow? Putting your attention on these things interrupts the compulsion to do something other than what you know you should.
  • When tempted to procrastinate, consider, purely as an abstract exercise, what your next action would be if you were to undertake the task you want to avoid. Would you get out the vacuum cleaner? Would you put a date at the top of the document you need to write? Then do that little action, and start some momentum in the desired direction.

She also suggests things you can do ahead of time, when you are not faced with the task you are typically tempted to avoid and are not in the grip of the urge to procrastinate:

  • Make your temptations inconvenient. Put obstacles in the way of the things you typically do instead of what you really want to. For instance, if you compulsively check social media, delete such apps from your phone.
  • Make it as easy as possible to do what you rationally decide you want to. If you want to go to the gym before work but you’re not a morning person, sleep in your exercise clothes.

Education consultant Christopher Rim also recommends mindfulness: “If procrastination is spurred on by a knee-jerk reaction to a negative emotion, the first intervention has to be noticing … those negative emotions.”(6) And he suggests cultivating habits that promote getting things done:

  • Practice mindfulness on a regular basis, perhaps as a daily meditation, so you can more easily notice what goes on when you are tempted to procrastinate.
  • Learn to enjoy the feeling of accomplishment more than just being busy. Aim for getting things done rather than just working a lot.
  • “Touch it once.” When a text message or an email arrives or an idea comes up, deal with it immediately instead of putting it off. Do it right away, say “no,” delegate it, schedule it or ask for input; but don’t just put it aside.
  • Avoid perfectionism. Getting something done sooner is better than waiting until later to get it perfect. It is easier to deal with a first draft than an empty piece of paper or a blank word processing document.

All of these tricks and techniques—and there are more; this is not a complete list—are ways of exercising our capacity for second-order thinking.

Humans have far greater intelligence than other animals. We make plans, imagine states of affairs not immediately present and target our behavior to reach envisaged goals. When this intelligence is directed at affairs in the world, it is first-order thinking. It can range from the very simple, such as jotting down a grocery list, to the very complex, such as planning a multi-year project. Not only do we make plans, we execute them and accomplish our goals. We make corrections along the way to overcome obstacles and take into account changing circumstances. When this kind of observation, planning and execution is directed at ourselves, it is second-order thinking, also known as self-knowledge, self-awareness, self-reflection (as one examines one’s reflected image in a mirror), and metacognition.

We can turn our attention to ourselves in two ways: We can observe ourselves in action, in the moment; and we can think about ourselves before or after we do something. The first is the mindfulness recommended by Lieberman and Rim. The second is the habits and strategies they and others prescribe.

Second-order thinking is the peculiarly human virtue. By “virtue” I do not mean some kind of high moral standard, but what the Greeks called areté, or excellence at being effective in the world. For example, an excellent teacher imparts knowledge accurately and thoroughly, and an excellent student learns quickly and retains what he or she has learned.

But what do you do to be an excellent human as such, not just as occupying a particular social role? You use second-order thinking to improve your ability to master life. Second-order thinking enables us to hone and improve our first-order thinking and thereby accomplish our goals more effectively. Even better, it enables us to examine our goals themselves to see if they are really worth pursuing, but that’s a topic for another time. For now, take this advice about dealing with procrastination and see how you can apply it to other areas of your life. Your reward, I expect, will be a greater depth of satisfaction and fulfillment.


(1) Wikipedia, “Akrasia.”

(2) Plato, Protagoras, 358b-d.

(3) Kraut, “Aristotle’s Ethics.”

(4) Lieberman, “Why You Procrastinate.”

(5) Haidt, The Happiness Hypothesis, p. 4.

(6) Rim, “How To Defeat Procrastination.”


Haidt, Jonathan. The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom. New York: Basic Books, 2006.

Kraut, Richard. “Aristotle’s Ethics.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2018 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.) Online publication as of 30 March 2019.

Lieberman, Charlotte. “Why You Procrastinate (It Has Nothing to Do With Self-Control).” New York Times, 24 March 2019, page B8. Online publication as of 29 March 2019.

Plato. Protagoras. Collected Dialogues, pp. 308-352. Ed. Hamilton, Edith and Huntington Cairns. New York: Pantheon Books, Bollingen Foundation, 1963.

Rim, Christopher. “How To Defeat Procrastination With The Psychology Of Emotional Intelligence.” Online publication as of 29 March 2019.

Wikipedia. “Akrasia.” Online publication as of 30 March 2019.

Feb 28 19

Fearing Death

by Bill Meacham

Is there any reason to fear death? I don’t mean the process of dying. There are plenty of ways to die that would be extremely unpleasant, and it is reasonable to try to avoid them. I mean the state of being dead after the death of your body. Certainly, many people do fear being dead, but the philosophical question is whether it is rational to do so.

Rational arguments depend on premises, and there are several different assumptions that we can make in thinking about death. The first is whether we continue in some form or other after bodily death or not. If we assume that we don’t, one set of arguments ensues. If we assume that we do, the next questions are theological. Is there a God who will reward or punish us for our deeds in this life? If so we better figure out how to get rewarded. If not, we better figure out what else we need to do to end up in a happy state. Philosophers over the years have given different answers to these questions.

What if we don’t believe that we live on after the body dies? The ancients had an answer for that. A hundred or so years after Plato, Epicurus said we have no reason to fear death because we won’t be there to experience it! “Death does not concern us,” he said, “because as long as we exist, death is not here. And when it does come, we no longer exist.”(1)

Epicurus was a materialist; in his view reality is, fundamentally, material stuff. But what of the soul, or what we nowadays call the mind? Epicurus said it is identical to an organ in the body. He knew far less about physiology and neurology than we do now and thought the organ of thought resided in the chest. Now we say it is the brain. Such details aside, the point is that when the body dies, that organ dies and the mind or soul goes with it. There is nothing to fear about being dead because there will be nobody to experience that condition. Being dead is the complete absence of experiential mental states; it is an experiential blank. It won’t hurt; it won’t be pleasant; it won’t be anything. Hence, there is no reason to fear it.(2)

An extension of Epicurus’ argument proposed by his follower Lucretius says that the state of being dead is just like the state before being born; there is no reason to fear either one. Lucretius says,

Look back now and consider how the bygone ages of eternity that elapsed before our birth were nothing to us. Here, then, is a mirror in which nature shows us the time to come after our death. Do you see anything fearful in it?(3)

Heidegger agrees with Epicurus but has a different take on it. Being dead is the one aspect of human existence that cannot be described from a phenomenological, first-person point of view. You can’t even imagine it. But the human being (Dasein in his terminology), knowing that death is inevitable, can take an authentic stand toward his or her own life. The possibility of our own death is omnipresent, always there if we choose to pay attention to it. To live authentically is to live in the knowledge of our own finitude, a knowledge that allows each of us to make of our lives something of our own, not just something dictated by others—culture, family, school, religion, etc.—, which Heidegger calls the “they” (das Man).(4)

There is some question as to whether Heidegger, seemingly describing the structure of human existence generally, actually describes only his own idiosyncratic view of the world. He speaks of authentic being-towards-death as “anxious.”(5) Is being anxious a correct attitude toward life or just a morbid one? In order to make sense of Heidegger, we each need to examine our own experience and see if we find what he describes. I think that Heidegger’s anxiety is more a feature of him himself than of Dasein in general. A sense of authentic being-towards-death is better captured by poet Mary Oliver:

Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?(6)

Instead of feeling anxious about being dead, we can feel the excitement of making something of our life. In either case, if we are convinced that we will experience nothing after death because we won’t be around to experience anything, then Epicurus’ advice is cogent. There is no need to fear or worry about being dead.

That’s the rational position. But not many of us are entirely rational when it comes to contemplating our own death. Perhaps it’s because our animal bodies cling to life regardless of what we think, or perhaps it’s because we aren’t as clear-headed as Mary Oliver, but contemplating our own death does give most of us pause. The prospect of our death might fill us with regret at having to leave behind things or people, or perhaps the whole world, for which we have some fondness. We might fear having left unfinished something we wanted to accomplish or having left unreconciled a relationship that has become strained. Or we might just feel Heidegger’s vaguely unfocused anxiety. A poignant case in point is philosopher Herbert Fingarette, who lived a full and meaningful life and wrote a book on death in which he came to the same conclusion as Epicurus. But, as the short documentary “Being 97” reveals, at the end of his life he did indeed fear death and was puzzled and saddened by his failure to find the point of existence.(7)

The alternative to thinking that death is mere non-existence is to think that something, a soul or mentality or a point of view of some kind, does continue after the body dies. If you have such a belief, you expect to find yourself in a world after you die. That world will be different no doubt from the one you are in now, but you expect to have something before you, something to engage with. In short, life continues after death. In fact, death is not death, but only a transition into what we might call an afterlife. Then the question becomes not whether to fear death, but whether to fear the afterlife. Depending on your beliefs about what you think will happen and your assessment of how your life has gone, the prospect can be hopeful or terrifying.

Socrates said that if you have prepared yourself, you should welcome your transition to a better state. As portrayed by Plato in the Phaedo, Socrates says that the true philosopher should have no fear of death at all, as his whole life has been a preparation for that very event. According to accepted belief of the time, when you die, your soul separates from and leaves behind your body. The body dies but the soul lives on; and the philosopher’s soul, unencumbered by bodily distractions, can then enjoy the pleasure of pure knowledge of the Just, the Good, the Beautiful and so on.(8)

The Gnostics of the first couple of centuries of the Christian era had a similar view. They thought that this material world we live in was basically a sort of prison created, not by the supreme Godhead, but by a demented or at least incompetent lower god. We find ourselves thrown into a world à la Heidegger, but the world thwarts our desire to make sense of life and to actualize ourselves authentically because it is the result of the malignant designs of an inferior deity. While nature is, for modern Existentialism, merely indifferent, for the Gnostics it was actively hostile toward the human endeavor. Fortunately, there was a way out, at least for certain advanced souls. Such a soul could receive a supra-cosmic revelation in the form of a vision that would reveal the knowledge (gnôsis) that humankind is alien to this realm and possesses a “home on high” within the plêrôma, the Fullness, where all the rational desires of the human mind come to full and perfect fruition. Much like the ascetic philosopher idealized by Plato, the Gnostic strove to dissociate himself or herself from the material world. If successful, you could achieve some degree of release from suffering in this world, and even more so in the next. Death for the Gnostic, as for Socrates, was to be welcomed, at least if you were suitably prepared.(9)

And, of course, there is no shortage of alarming accounts of what will happen to you if you are not suitably prepared. A well-known example is the sermon by Christian preacher Jonathan Edwards in 1741, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” in which he warns those who fail to accept the grace of the Christ that they are in grave peril:

The Wrath of God burns against them, their Damnation do[es]n’t slumber, the Pit is prepared, the Fire is made ready, the Furnace is now hot, ready to receive them, the Flames do now rage and glow. The glittering Sword is whet, and held over them, and the Pit hath opened her Mouth under them. The Devil stands ready to fall upon them and seize them as his own.(10)

Terrifying indeed, and one reason why those who don’t like attempts to motivate by fear shun apocalyptic religions.

I could go on and on with examples, as the belief in life after death is widespread throughout human history. From primitive ancestor worship to present-day theistic religions, some themes are common:

  • There is something amiss about our life in this material world.
  • It can be better or worse in the afterlife.
  • Your state in the afterlife depends on how you comport yourself in this life.

I suspect that a great deal of people’s fear of death has to do with fear of going to hell or being punished in some way in the next life. Religious traditions tell us how to behave here in order to be in a good place there. The way to avoid fear of death, they say, is to do what the scriptures, teachings and elders say to do in order to end up in a happy state in the afterlife. Fear is appropriate if you believe that you have not fully lived up to what is required of you. Confidence is appropriate if you have been righteous and obedient. My mother, the wife of a Presbyterian minister, told me serenely shortly before her death, “I’ll be taken care of.”

The specifics of what is mandated by religion vary from culture to culture, but some of those teachings might indeed be divinely inspired. If you suspect that something happens to you after death but don’t want to blindly accept what you have been told without careful consideration, you can compare the teachings of various traditions and find those that are common to many or seem to be good advice for life in general. I’m thinking of things like treating others as you would have them treat you, helping the poor and needy, avoiding obsession with material things and the like. One of my favorites is from the prophet Zoroaster, who taught that Ahura Mazda, the supreme Wise Lord, desires our welfare. To that end, the Wise Lord commands us to have good thoughts, good words and good deeds.(11)

Most religions are dualistic, viewing the world as divided into opposites such as good and evil, body and soul, material life and spiritual life and the like. Within them, though, we find strains of mystical monism, the belief that despite the appearance of variety, in fact all is one. For the mystic, the transition to the afterlife is neither a calamitous loss of this life nor a triumphant gain of the next. Instead, it is but a step in the soul’s journey toward the One from whence it came.

This idea comes from the Sufi mystic Hazrat Inayat Khan. Before elaborating, let me acknowledge that I cannot speak from experience here, as I don’t have any personal memories of having died, nor of being in an afterlife. But I am convinced that life can continue after the death of the physical body. My daughter communicated with me shortly after she died in a car accident, and there was enough independent confirmation from various people to lead me to believe that it was not just a hallucination or wishful thinking. Please see my essay “An Impeccable Death” for the details.(12) Once I visited what is now a museum in Istanbul but was in former times a tekke, a gathering place for Sufi ceremonies of music and movement. I had a powerful sense of familiarity, as if I had been there before. There is no objective proof, of course, but I feel no hesitation in taking seriously what Inayat Khan says about the journey of the soul.

Now, about the soul: there has been much controversy about what the term “soul” means, whether the soul (whatever it is) exists, whether we have one, whether we are one and so forth. I don’t intend to resolve such questions; I just stipulate that what I mean by the term is the unobservable center around which the experience of each of us is organized and from which our actions emanate.(13) When we transition to the afterlife, the soul is what experiences whatever is there and acts in response.

And what will we find there? Basically, what we bring with us. We don’t bring anything material, of course. Nothing that has mass accompanies us to the afterlife. What does accompany us is intangible: our beliefs; our character; our habitual way of approaching the world and our emotional attitude toward it; the way we treat other people; in short, our personality.

Inayat Khan says that the world that appears to us then is influenced by what we believe now. A Christian finds a Christian world; a Hindu, a Hindu world; a Muslim, a Muslim one.(14) Those from other traditions or who espouse none will find different worlds, each a continuation of what they expect or hope or fear in this life. In short, what is left behind is material stuff, and what comes with us is a function of what we carry in our mind. Inayat Khan says,

Before the soul now is a world, a world not strange to it, but which it had made during its life on the earth. That which the soul had known as mind, that very mind is now to the soul a world; that which the soul while on earth called imagination is now before it a reality.(15)

According to Inayat Khan, the afterlife can be a heaven or a hell. What we can do now to influence the outcome is to cultivate the kind of world we would like to be in and to train ourselves to be the kind of person we would like to be while in that world. He continues,

What will be the atmosphere of that world? It will be the echo of the same atmosphere which one has created in this. If one has learned while on earth to create joy and happiness for oneself and for others, in the other world that joy and happiness surrounds one. And if one has sown the seeds of poison while on earth the fruits of these one must reap there.(16)

Your personality goes with you, so cultivate a beautiful and harmonious personality in this life, says the Sufi sage. (This is not a moral commandment, by the way, just very good advice.) Indeed, he devotes much of his writing to what he calls the Art of Personality, the point of which is to become a person who brings heavenly blessings wherever he or she goes. Heaven and hell are not reserved for the afterlife.

It is not that God from His infinite state rewards us or punishes us, or that there is one fold or enclosure called heaven, in which the virtuous are allowed to be, and another called hell, in which all the sinners are penned. In reality we experience heaven and hell in our everyday life all the time.(17)

And this brings us back to the original question, whether it is rational to fear the state of being dead. For those who believe that this one life is all we get and for those who believe that we live on after death, the advice is the same: cultivate tranquility and benevolence here and now. Become a person who radiates and embodies love, harmony and beauty.



(2) O’Keefe, “Epicurus.”

(3) Lucretius, Book III, vv. 972-75.

(4) Wheeler, “Martin Heidegger.”

(5) Heidegger, Being and Time, p. 311.

(6) Oliver, “The Summer Day.”

(7) Hasse, “Being 97.”

(8) Plato, Phaedo, 64a-67e. I say “his” because in Plato’s time philosophers were mostly male.

(9) Moore, “Gnosticism.”

(10) Edwards, “Sinners in the Hand of an Angry God.”

(11) Rose, Zoroastrianism, An Introduction, p. 18. See also Meacham, “Learning from Masters.”

(12) Meacham, “An Impeccable Death.”

(13) Meacham, How To Be An Excellent Human, p. 60.

(14) Khan, “Aqibat, Life After Death,” pp. 54-55.

(15) Khan, “The Soul, Whence and Whither,” p. 165.

(16) Ibid., p.168.

(17) Khan, “Aqibat, Life After Death,” p. 57.


Edwards, Jonathan. “Sinners in the Hand of an Angry God.” Boston: Kneeland and Green, 1741. Libraries at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Electronic Texts in American Studies. Online publication as of 25 February 2019.

Hasse, Andrew. “Being 97.” Online video publication as of 20 February 2019.

Khan, Inayat. “Aqibat, Life After Death.” The Sufi Message of Hazrat Inayat Khan Volume 5, pp. 37-78. London, Barrie and Jenkins, 1973. Available online at as of 25 February 2019.

Khan, Inayat. “The Soul, Whence and Whither?” The Sufi Message of Hazrat Inayat Khan Volume 1, pp. 107-186. London, Barrie and Jenkins, 1973. Available online at as of 25 February 2019.

Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. Tr. Macquarrie, John, and Robinson, Edward. New York: Harper and Row HarperSanFrancisco, 1962.

Lucretius. On The Nature Of Things. Tr. Martin Ferguson Smith. Cambridge: Hackett, 2001.

Meacham, Bill. “An Impeccable Death.” Online publication as of 25 February 2019.

Meacham, Bill. How To Be An Excellent Human: Mysticism, Evolutionary Psychology and the Good Life. Austin: Earth Harmony, 2013. Available at

Meacham, Bill. “Learning from Masters: Ethics and Cosmology in Zarathustra and Hazrat Inayat Khan.” Online publication as of 25 February 2019.

Moore, Edward. “Gnosticism.” The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Online publication as of 20 February 2019.

O’Keefe, Tim. “Epicurus.” The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ISSN 2161-0002. Online publication as of 16 February 2019.

Oliver, Mary. “The Summer Day.” New And Selected Poems. Boston, Beacon Press, 1992, p. 94.

Plato. Phaedo, tr. Hugh Tredennick. In The Collected Dialogues of Plato, ed. Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns. New York: Pantheon Books, 1961.

Rose, Jenny. Zoroastrianism, An Introduction. London and New York: I.B. Taurus, 2011.

Wheeler, Michael. “Martin Heidegger”. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy Winter 2018 Edition, ed. Edward N. Zalta. Online publication as of 17 February 2019.

Jan 30 19

How To Be An Excellent Human available online

by Bill Meacham

The full text of my book How To Be An Excellent Human is now available online. I have probably made about as much money as I am ever going to by selling the physical book, so now I am making it freely available. The point was never to make a lot of money but to get my ideas out to the world. Feel free to download it and share it with friends.

Here is where to find it:

Here is a summary of the book:

How can we live good, fulfilling lives? How can we be happy? These questions have been at the forefront of philosophy ever since Socrates, and this engaging book attempts an answer. It addresses the big questions of life:

  • How should we live our lives?
  • How should we decide how to live our lives? How should we even frame the question in the first place?
  • What is it to be human? What are we like, how do we function?
  • What is our place in the universe? How do we fit into the bigger picture? What is the bigger picture, the basic nature of all of reality?

The book is exciting and wide-ranging. It is philosophy, but don’t let that scare you off; it is philosophy made accessible to the general reader. The author is equally at home lucidly explaining how mystics make sense when they say that all is one and how evolution has provided us with powerful but fallible mental capacities. The book offers an exciting journey with stops along the way to consider consciousness, panpsychism, brain science, quantum physics, how we are like and unlike chimpanzees and bonobos, where morality comes from, how our emotions both guide us and trip us up, how our thinking works, how it sometimes fails and what we can do to fix it. Throughout, it recommends an approach to life that maximizes well-being, leading to the possibility of happiness and abundance for all.

The book covers a lot of ground, but it is quite approachable. You can read it straight through as an intellectually exciting story. Or you can dive in anywhere, dipping into chapters that pique your interest. In either case you will have fun reading it, and you will be rewarded with insights and ideas that will stimulate and delight your thinking.

Jan 11 19

On Consciousness (grumpy)

by Bill Meacham

I suppose my insistence on clarity of language about consciousness makes me a bit of a curmudgeon—or perhaps a bellyacher, crab, crank, grump or whiner—but I am appalled at some of the things people say about the topic. Here is an example:

Psychology professors Peter Halligan and David Oakley assert that being conscious is merely a byproduct of brain processes, a respectable position in philosophy of mind called Epiphenomenalism.(1) But when they try to say what they are talking about, all they do is repeat synonyms:

We all know what it is to be conscious. It is, basically, being aware of and responding to the world.

… while undeniably real, the “experience of consciousness” or subjective awareness is precisely that – awareness. No more, no less.

… subjective awareness [is] the intimate signature experience of what it is like to be conscious….(2)

So being conscious is being aware, being aware is having experience, and having experience is being conscious. These definitions are ridiculous. They are completely circular and shed no light on the subject. The problem is that “conscious” and “aware” are largely synonymous, which becomes apparent when you try to translate them into German or Spanish or Portuguese or any other language that has only one word where English has two. As Wittgenstein said, we are bewitched by our language.(3)

What should the authors have said instead? I have written a whole paper on the subject of how to speak about being conscious, which I’m told is fairly clear. Rather than summarize it, I urge you to read the paper itself.(4) In what follows I condense the authors’ argument and rephrase it in what I think is better terminology.

We all know what it is to be conscious. The world appears to us vividly, and we respond to it. The world includes public things such as trees and people and private things such as our thoughts and feelings. Some thoughts and feelings are conscious, meaning that they appear to us vividly and we can notice and focus on them. Others are less vivid; figuratively, they are in a sort of periphery. Some are so dim as to be not noticeable at all, and we call them unconscious. Here is a picture:

Many people think that we can control our conscious thoughts and feelings, and that they in turn can cause us to act in certain ways. But modern neuroscience tells us that that is not so.

The rest of the argument is clear enough in the authors’s own words:

There is now increasing agreement that most, if not all, of the contents of our psychological processes – our thoughts, beliefs, sensations, perceptions, emotions, intentions, actions and memories – are actually formed backstage by fast and efficient nonconscious brain systems. … Continuing to characterise psychological states in terms of being conscious and non-conscious is unhelpful.(5)

The authors conclude that conscious psychological processes and unconscious psychological processes are functionally the same; they are both caused by physical events in the brain. Whether they are conscious or not makes no difference in their causes or what they do. The only difference is that some are presented to us vividly enough that we notice and pay attention to them, and some aren’t.

That’s the argument. Whether it holds up or not is for another time. My only point in this essay is that it is quite possible to state the case in terms that are not circular and not ambiguous. Go forth and do likewise.


(1) Robinson, “Ephiphenomenalism.”

(2) Halligan and Oakley, “What if consciousness is just a product of our non-conscious brain?”

(3) Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, §109.

(4) Meacham, “How to Talk About Subjectivity (Don’t Say ‘Consciousness’)”.

(5) Halligan and Oakley.


Halligan, Peter, and David A. Oakley. “What if consciousness is just a product of our non-conscious brain?” Online publication as of 9 January 2019.

Meacham, Bill. “How to Talk About Subjectivity (Don’t Say ‘Consciousness’)”. Online publication and as of 9 January 2019.

Robinson, William. “Epiphenomenalism.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2015 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), Online publication as of 9 January 2019.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Philosophical Investigations, 3rd Edition. Tr. G.E.M. Anscombe. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1968 (1986). Online publication as of 25 October 2018.