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Aug 10 21

A Whiteheadian Solution to the Combination Problem

by Bill Meacham

Maybe it’s because of algorithms that know what I like to read about, but I see a lot of interest in panpsychism lately.(1) Today’s essay concerns an objection to that theory, the combination problem, and how the process metaphysics of Alfred North Whitehead can address it. Panpsychism without process is only part of the story. You need process to solve the combination problem.

Panpsychism is the metaphysical theory that everything has, as I like to say, an inside and an outside. The inside is the world as experienced by an entity, and the outside is the way that an entity is experienced by other entities. The inside is subjectivity or mind, the view of the world that each of us has privately. The outside is physical reality, describable from a third-person, neutral-observer point of view in mathematical and structural terms. Panpsychism is the view that everything, from the smallest quantum event to the most complex living being, has a mental, subjective, aspect as well as a physical aspect. The term comes from Greek for “all” and “soul” or “mind.”

Lapis Lazuli

Here’s an example. Imagine looking at lapis lazuli, a gemstone prized for its intense blue color. The color of the stone as we perceive it is part of our inside; it is something we experience. The color is known subjectively; each of us individually can see the blue color, but cannot directly know how it looks to anyone else. Nor can physical sciences such as physics, and chemistry tell us how it looks. We each have to look at it ourselves in order to know. The chemical composition of the stone, on the other hand, is something objectively knowable; anyone with suitable training can analyze it. That composition is part of the outside of the stone.

We human beings obviously have both an inside and an outside. The appearance of the stone is part of our inside along with our thoughts and emotions about it. How we appear to others, our height, weight, body-mass index, color of eyes, etc. are part of our outside. The stone obviously has an outside, but does it have an inside as well? Panpsychism says that, in a sense, it does.

The theory does not assert that stones have psyches in the same way that humans do. That would be ridiculous, as stones exhibit none of the complex behavior of humans. Instead, the most plausible version of the theory, which Galen Strawson calls “micropsychism,”(2) is that the elementary building blocks of the world take into account their world in a way analogous to but much simpler than the way we humans experience our world. Quantum entities such as muons, quarks and the like combine to form the everyday objects, living and non-living, that we are familiar with. Some combinations, like stones, have no subjectivity of their own. Others, living beings, do. But all are composed of entities that, like us, have both aspects.

This is a metaphysical view. It’s not verifiable by experiment, but makes sense in terms of theoretical consistency and coherence.(3) The aim of metaphysics (the speculative variety, not the analytic or logical variety) is to frame a system of general ideas that include every element of our experience. Metaphysically, it makes more sense to think of everything having an inside and an outside than it does to think of some things having both and some things having only one, an outside.

This idea is not uncontroversial. The most obvious objection is that it is too anthropomorphic; it interprets everything as being like us, having a point of view on the world, even though physical science shows no evidence of such a thing when it comes to inanimate matter. Hans Jonas, rooted in both existential phenomenology and in biology, has an answer. To construct a coherent metaphysics, he says, it is best to start with what we know most intimately, our own experience of ourselves as being composed of both mind and body. Our “psychophysical totality,” he says, “represents the maximum of concrete ontological completeness known to us.” From that starting point

[we proceed] by way of progressive ontological subtraction down to the minimum of bare elementary matter. … “Dead” matter, as one extreme of a spectrum, represents a limiting mode of the properties revealed by feeling life.(4)

Instead of assuming that the world is fundamentally full of unliving particles and then trying to figure out how our ability to be conscious arises from them, we start with the undeniable fact that we are conscious and figure out how unliving stuff fits into the picture. Anthropomorphism is thus not a bug but a feature.

A stronger objection is what is known as the “combination problem.” Assuming that elementary units of reality have some aspect of mind, how do individual minds combine to form the complexity of mental life that we know as our own experience? Keith Frankish says,

Panpsychists hold that consciousness emerges from the combination of billions of subatomic consciousnesses, just as the brain emerges from the organisation of billions of subatomic particles. But how do these tiny consciousnesses combine? We understand how particles combine to make atoms, molecules and larger structures, but what parallel story can we tell on the phenomenal side? … If billions of humans organised themselves to form a giant brain, each person simulating a single neuron and sending signals to the others using mobile phones, it seems unlikely that their consciousnesses would merge to form a single giant consciousness. Why should something similar happen with subatomic particles?(5)

This is not a new objection. Back in the 1890s, William James made a similar claim:

Where the elemental [mental] units are supposed to be feelings, the case is in no wise altered. Take a hundred of them, shuffle them and pack them as close together as you can (whatever that may mean); still each remains the same feeling it always was, shut in its own skin, windowless, ignorant of what the other feelings are and mean. … The private minds do not agglomerate into a higher compound mind.(6)

The problem with both of these formulations—and there are many more like them—is that they assume that the basic units of reality are like bits of stuff that have no connection with each other. Frankish likens subatomic particles to people sending signals via cell phone, certainly a less intimate relationship than speaking in person, let alone touching each other. James says mental units are isolated from each other and ignorant of the feelings of other units. If you start off assuming that the tiniest actual entities are mentally cut off from each other, then it is indeed hard to imagine how their mentalities could combine to form something more comprehensive. But that is not the only assumption you can make. A more coherent approach is to assume that the elementary entities are not bits of stuff but rather events and that those events are inherently intertwined and related to each other. That’s the approach taken by the 20th-century mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead.

Whitehead argues that reality consists of processes rather than material objects, and that processes are best defined by their relations with other processes, thus rejecting the theory that reality is fundamentally constructed by bits of matter that exist independently of one another.(7) His view is that the fundamental units of reality, the ultimate real entities, are occasions, not inert particles. Occasions are quite tiny. He wrote at a time when quantum mechanics was being developed, and no doubt the mysterious behavior of reality at the subatomic level informed his thinking. Entities submicroscopically small are not material as we generally think of it. Quantum-level entities do not bounce around at the mercy of external forces like billiard balls; instead, they seem to have a quasi-existence in a field of mere potentiality until they are detected; then they become actual. The interaction between them and someone or something else that detects them is essential to their existence. Reality at that level is relational and dynamic.

Lest this idea seem utterly baffling, remember our discussion of anthropomorphism. Whitehead’s speculative metaphysics seeks categories of explanation that can apply both to the quantum level of reality and to the world revealed by our unaided senses. In our everyday world it is undeniable that, unless we are asleep or sedated, we are aware of our surroundings and remember our past. And, of course, others can be aware of us. So Whitehead posits that subatomic actual occasions also are, in a way, aware of their surroundings and of their own past. Whitehead calls them “drops of experience, complex and interdependent”(8) and “occasions of experience.”(9) The tiniest actual occasion is structurally similar to a moment of rich human experience, albeit in a primitive, attenuated form.

These actual occasions, the least units of reality, are a bit like subatomic particles, with some important differences:

  • Each is momentary, coming into being, going through various phases and then passing away.
  • The final phase of an actual occasion is not fully determined by the beginning. There is room for novelty, for the possibility of something new coming into being.
  • Each actual occasion experiences, in a primordial way, its past and its present surroundings. It has an inside.
  • Each actual occasion is experienced by other actual occasions. It has an outside.
  • What we think of as a particle is actually a series of these actual occasions. A single electron is a series of momentary electron-occasions that form an enduring object much like the momentary frames of a movie form a continuous picture.
  • Nonliving things are composed of streams of actual occasions whose primordial experiences randomly cancel each other out. A stone as a whole does not have a mind.
  • The primordial experiences of the actual occasions that make up living things, such as plants, animals and human beings, bind together and reinforce each other, giving birth to a higher-level experience. Living things do have minds. The richest and most intricate example we know of is our own conscious experience.

The combination problem is to explain how they do that binding and reinforcing. The key lies in what Whitehead calls prehension, a technical term in his system.(10) In zoology and biology that term means the ability to grasp or seize something. Think of getting a drink of water; you reach out and pick up the glass in order to bring it to your mouth. It’s an active process. Similarly with vision. Most of the time we don’t just passively absorb what is before our eyes. Instead we pay attention to certain features of what surrounds us and let the rest recede into the background. We can think of paying attention as a visual form of reaching out and grasping.

Whitehead extends the term to encompass actual occasions, which do something similar. Each one comes into being by prehending the qualities of its predecessors and its surroundings and binding them together into a new occasion of experience.(11) It’s not a passive process. It’s not a matter of an entity coming into being and then merely absorbing impressions of its surroundings. The impressions—the prehensions, as Whitehead says—actually constitute the new occasion.(12) There’s nothing to the new occasion other than what is prehended.

And what is prehended is both physical and mental. Each actual occasion prehends all the aspects, both interior and exterior, of its prior actual occasion and of the actual occasions and enduring objects in its surroundings. Not only does it prehend the physical aspects of what surrounds it, it prehends the mental aspects as well. It does more than detect and incorporate the outward appearance of its neighbors. It also, as the hippies used to say, picks up their vibes.

To the best of my knowledge, Whitehead does not spell out the situation in precisely these terms, but the upshot is that actual occasions and the enduring objects that they make up are not shut in their own windowless skins as James asserts. Individuals are not as separate mentally as we think. Panpsychism says that mentality suffuses and pervades all beings. It can “leak,” as it were, from mind to mind.

Many of us have had mild psychic or telepathic experiences. A wife asks where her glasses are; her husband has a mental image of their location but does not say it out loud; and then she says “I bet they’re over here,” and so they are. One thinks of a friend, and then the friend calls or emails. Those who are talented with animals know that visualizing a desired scenario—that the animal be docile when approached, for instance—tends to make it happen. A comprehensive metaphysics needs to incorporate that aspect of full-blown human experience as well. The ability to prehend mentality is the micro-level basis of such phenomena.

And that is the solution to the combination problem. Actual entities prehend each other’s mentality, so the enduring entities that they are part of can combine into a more comprehensive mind.

But that happens only in living things. Why not in nonliving things?

If everything has both an inside and an outside, then the organization of the outside should have some bearing on the richness of the inside. What is unique about how matter is organized in living beings that would account for the emergence of our complex and vivid form of experience is what persists through time. The physical matter of nonliving things remains the same from time to time, and their form changes only through the impact of external forces. Living beings are the opposite: their physical matter is constantly changing over time, and only their form persists.

The physical matter of dead things just persists from moment to moment without changing, or changing only through external forces. In any given slice of time, the substance of a dead thing is the same as it is in any other slice of time. The totality of what it is can be encompassed in a single instant.

Living things are strikingly different. The physical matter that composes living things is constantly changing through metabolism, the process by which matter is ingested, transformed and excreted. What persists is not the matter itself but the form in which that matter is organized. A single slice of time does not encompass the unity of the living being at all. Only across time can we grasp its functional wholeness. I follow Hans Jonas here.(13) The sense of being a whole conscious entity emerges with metabolism, the ability of a simple organism to maintain its structure through time by exchanging physical matter with its environment. The physical matter changes, but the organizational form doesn’t. (Or, it does, but it evolves so there is a continuity.) The structure of the material aspect—a changing material process that has a unity of form over time—gives rise to a unity of experience over time, a macroexperience, which is of a higher order than the microexperiences of the constituent elements.

Living things, having a unity of form over time as their constituent material changes, are not mere aggregations. Their complex unity is accompanied by a complex mentality because the constituent actual occasions prehend the mental aspects of each other. The primordial experiences of the actual occasions composing living things, such as plants, animals and human beings, bind together and reinforce each other, giving birth to a higher-level coherence of experience. Contra James, the constituent minds are not entirely private, and they do agglomerate into a higher compound mind. Whitehead’s process metaphysics tells us how.


Notes

(1) For instance, Rosza, “Panpsychism.”

(2) Strawson, “Realistic Monism,” p. 25.

(3) Meacham, “Matter, Mind and Metaphysics.”

(4) Jonas, The Phenomenon of Life, pp. 23-24.

(5) Frankish, “Why panpsychism fails.”

(6) James, Principles of Psychology Vol. I, p. 160.

(7) Wikipedia, “Alfred North Whitehead.”

(8) Whitehead, Process and Reality, p. 28.

(9) Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, p. 221.

(10) Whitehead, Process and Reality, pp. 28-29, 32, 35.

(11) That’s a simplification. Actual occasions also incorporate into themselves what Whitehead calls “eternal objects”, but they are beyond the scope of this essay. See Process and Reality, pp. 35 and 37.

(12) Cobb, Whitehead Word Book, p. 32.

(13) Jonas, “Evolution and Freedom,” pp. 64-67.

References

Cobb, John B. Jr. Whitehead Word Book, Claremont, CA: P&F Press, 2008. Online publication https://www.informationphilosopher.com/solutions/philosophers/whitehead/WordBookWeb.pdf as of 8 August 2021.

Frankish, Keith. “Why panpsychism fails to solve the mystery of consciousness.” Online publication https://aeon.co/ideas/why-panpsychism-fails-to-solve-the-mystery-of-consciousness as of 19 January 2019.

James, William. The Principles of Psychology Vol. I. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1918. Online publication https://www.gutenberg.org/files/57628/57628-h/57628-h.htm as of 16 November 2020.

Jonas, Hans. The Phenomenon of Life. Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 2001.

Jonas, Hans. “Evolution and Freedom: On the Continuity among Life-Forms.” In Mortality and Morality: A Search of the Good after Auschwitz, ed. Lawrence Vogel. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1996.

Meacham, Bill. “Matter, Mind and Metaphysics.” Online publication https://www.bmeacham.com/blog/?p=951.

Rosza, Matthew. “Panpsychism, the idea that inanimate objects have consciousness, gains steam in science communities.” Online publication https://www.salon.com/2021/07/23/panpsychism-the-idea-that-inanimate-objects-have-consciousness-gains-steam-in-science-communities/ as of 28 July 2021.

Strawson, Galen. “Realistic Monism: Why Physicalism Entails Panpsychism.” Consciousness and its Place in Nature. Ed. Anthony Freeman. Charlottesville VA: Imprint Academia, 2006. pp. 3-31.

Whitehead, Alfred North. Adventures of Ideas. New York: The Free Press, 1967.

Whitehead, Alfred North. Process and Reality: An Essay in Cosmology. New York: Harper and Row Harper Torchbook, 1960.

Wikipedia. “Alfred North Whitehead.” Online publication https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alfred_North_Whitehead as of 5 August 2021.

Jun 4 21

Cognitive Phenomenology

by Bill Meacham

There is a peculiar debate in contemporary analytic philosophy about something called “cognitive phenomenology.” The debate is whether such a thing exists. I find it peculiar because it seems to me quite obvious that it does, but apparently some people find it equally obvious that it does not.

Cognitive phenomenology has to do with how cognition—thinking, reasoning, supposing, believing, etc.—appears from a first-person point of view. The disagreement is typical of first-person discourse. The first-person point of view is entirely subjective; there’s no objective way to resolve differences between one person’s findings and another’s, so the debate continues without hope of final resolution. That hasn’t stopped philosophy professors from arguing about it, and it won’t stop me either.

Phenomenology originated in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as a theoretical discipline, one most famously expounded by Edmund Husserl. The term comes from Greek roots meaning the study of appearances. The Encyclopædia Britannica defines it as

a philosophical movement …, the primary objective of which is the direct investigation and description of phenomena as consciously experienced, without theories about their causal explanation and as free as possible from unexamined preconceptions and presuppositions.(1)

Phenomenology is a species of introspection, but it differs from introspection done from within what Husserl calls the “natural attitude,” the naive taken-for-granted outlook on the world that most of us occupy most of the time.(2) In the natural attitude we presuppose that the objective world has factual, spatio-temporal existence. We assume that physical objects, other people, and even ideas are “just there.” We don’t question their existence; we view them as facts.

Phenomenological introspection is more rigorous. It examines first-person experience without bias (as much as possible; it’s difficult to be without bias altogether). The phenomenologist tries to set aside taken-for-granted beliefs about the objective reality of what is experienced such as physical objects, logical constructs, moral rules or whatever. Instead he or she focuses on the structure of the experience itself.

In the natural attitude, if you reflect on your experience of, say, a tree, you might notice aspects of the tree, its texture, color, height and so forth. You might know what kind of tree it is and even something about how it fits into its bioregion. You might also notice your emotional reaction to the tree as you regard it and your memories of other trees, your thoughts about trees in general. Throughout the examination you assume that the tree really exists even if you aren’t looking at it and that your emotions, memories and so forth are real, even if only in your own mind.

In the phenomenological attitude, you set aside questions of whether and in what way these things exist. You don’t assert that they don’t exist, but nor do you assert that they do. You just examine in some detail your experience of them. You might notice that in addition to the tree’s color, shape and so forth, other things are present in your experience. You have an expectation that if you walk around the tree, you will see its other side. When you move to the right or left or closer or farther away, the visual appearance of the tree changes, but you take it to be the same tree. You might focus more closely on just what constitutes this interpretation of sameness.

Cognitive phenomenology, however, is not a method of studying cognition. Recently and especially in the analytic tradition, the term “phenomenology” has been used to refer to what is studied rather than the method of studying it. In other words, to speak of someone’s phenomenology is to speak of the quality or structure or contents of that person’s experience rather than their study of their experience. To speak of cognitive phenomenology is to speak of the existence or presence in experience of cognitive phenomena.

What are cognitive phenomena? Well, that is the crux of the whole debate. Nobody doubts that we experience all sorts of phenomena, but are any of them specifically cognitive? Phenomenology as a method of inquiry can help answer this question.

We have perceptions; we see, hear, smell, taste and feel things. We feel our body through itches, tingles, cramps, pains, hunger, thirst, drowsiness and other bodily sensations. We have emotions and moods such as love, disgust, elation, despair, boredom, fear, anxiety and more. “Each of these kinds of conscious state has a distinctive phenomenal character” say Tim Bayne and Michelle Montague, the editors of a collection of essays on the subject.(3)

Galen Strawson, the author of one of those essays, says all these conscious states are types of “sense-feeling experience” and notes that

There’s a lot more to experience than sense/feeling experience. There’s also what I’ll call cognitive experience, or cognitive phenomenology. There’s meaning-experience, thought-experience, understanding-experience.(4)

Bayne and Montague give examples:

The stream of consciousness is routinely punctuated by episodes of conscious thought. We deliberate about what to have for lunch, we remember forgotten intentions, we consider how best to begin a letter or end a lecture, and we puzzle over the meaning of a friend’s remark and the implications of a newspaper headline.(5)

All these are types of cognitive experience. Oddly, however, “in analytic philosophy there is considerable resistance to the idea that anything rightly called ‘cognitive experience’ or ‘cognitive phenomenology’ exists.”(6) The issue seems to be that while instances of thinking, understanding, etc. include sensory-feeling phenomena, some say that there are no phenomena in addition to the sensory-feeling ones. Others, including Strawson, me and many others, say there are.

You would think that the question could be easily resolved. If you don’t know French, consider the sentence “Je suis deja parti.” If you don’t know German, consider the sentence “Ich bin schon gegangen.” If you don’t know Spanish, consider the sentence “Ya me fui.” Now consider the English translation, “I am already gone” or “I have already left.” (I assume you know English because otherwise you would not be reading this essay.) Is there a difference between hearing sounds in a language you don’t know and hearing sounds in a language you do know? If you find that there is, that difference is the presence of cognitive phenomena. The trick—and what makes the debate so intractable—is how to describe them.

I’ll give it a go. Following is my own phenomenological analysis. In this analysis I speak from a first-person perspective. I use “I” to mean I myself, the author, but I also mean to suggest that what I find true of my experience you will find true of yours.

Thoughts and other cognitions are objects of which I am conscious. They are not, of course, physical objects in the spatio-temporal world objectively available to all. In a sense they are only in my mind—certainly only I can be directly conscious of what I am thinking—but in a sense they are more than merely private mental objects, for they are sharable by others (others can think the same thoughts I do) and they have a certain stability and identity (I can think the same thought over and over again).

Thoughts have a two-fold nature. On the one hand they are simply there, present in experience; they are objects of which I am conscious. On the other hand they refer to something else, they are thoughts of something. I call these aspects of thoughts their material and their intentional aspect, respectively.

By “material aspect” I mean what Strawson calls sensory-feeling phenomena. I suspect that the material qualities of thoughts vary considerably from mind to mind. It is difficult for the phenomenological observer to distinguish the idiosyncratic from the general, that which is peculiar to oneself from those general structures shared by all. In my own case, I find four kinds of material qualities of thoughts: words and sounds, pictures, vague visual outlines or forms, and a kind of three-dimensional fantasy reality in which I participate as in a dream. If you are interested in the details, please refer to the appendix to this essay. I encourage you to study your own experience to see how you experience the material qualities of your thoughts.

These material qualities do not simply hover, statically, before the mind; the concrete reality is that one’s mental life is constantly in flux. Says Husserl, “Every experience is in itself a flow of becoming.”(7) Thoughts come and go, appear with vivid force and fade away, whether I am deliberately thinking them or not. Moreover, thoughts are connected or associated with each other. Thinking of something will lead me to think of something else, and that in turn to something else, whether I am idly daydreaming or thinking through a philosophical or political argument. The connections between thoughts are usually a function of their intentional aspect. (By “intentional” I mean directedness, a philosophical usage, not making plans to get something done.)

The intentional aspect is this: When I think of something, I do not simply have bare material content before my mind. I know that the thought refers to something other than itself; it is not simply an object before my mind, but a concept of something. When I think of my car, what strictly speaking I am conscious of is the material quality of the thought: words, pictures, etc., in focus or in the background. By means of the material quality of the thought I think of something else, the car.

This of-relationship is hard to grasp phenomenologically because it is not as plain and evident as the material quality of the thought. The intentional aspect of thought is found in the dimly apprehended fringe of mental objects that accompany the more vividly apprehended material qualities of thought that I focus on.

William James has captured what I am talking about. Research into the workings of the brain, the neurological substrates of perception and thought and the like has advanced greatly since his time, but his introspective account of mental life is still cogent. He says that

Every definite image in the mind is steeped and dyed in the free water that flows round it. With it goes the sense of its relations, near and remote, the dying echo of whence it came to us, the dawning sense of whither it is to lead. The significance, the value, of the image is all in this halo or penumbra that surrounds and escorts it….(8)

Connected with the focal nucleus of a thought, though at a more or less preconscious level, are associations with a large number of things, including other thoughts suggested by the focal thought, connotations, steps in reasoning, etc.; concepts of the surroundings or context of the intentional object; memories, perhaps, of having been in contact with that object and anticipations or at least imaginings of coming into contact with it again; knowledge of what the intentional object is good for, what it does, and what I can do with it; “recipes,” so to speak, for typical action relating to it, which I call latent action-schemata; and incipient impulses to action. All these things are present in the form of material contents, but in the dimly-apprehended fringe.

Now, this fringe, exactly because it is the fringe, and thus dimly apprehended, is hard to analyze in detail. It is only on occasion that I have been able evidently to “see” the fringe of a thought for what it is. Most of the time I simply have a vague feeling that the thought is a concept of its intentional object. Were that all there is to the story, my phenomenological account of intentionality would have to stop here, vague and ambiguous as it is. But there is more. In reflecting on my experience in general, taking into account evidence gained not only in strict phenomenological observation but also through thinking about the topic in other ways, I, the author, have come to agree with another observation that James makes, that the intentional aspect of thoughts consists in that they orient me to action regarding something beyond themselves, i.e., their intentional objects.

In a famous essay called “The Tigers of India,” James asks about the nature of conceptual knowledge. When we know that there are tigers in India, when, as I say, we are conscious of them in the mode “having them in mind,” James asks, “Exactly what do we mean by saying that we here know the tigers?” Most people, he says, would say that “what we mean by knowing the tigers is mentally pointing towards them as we sit here. But now what do we mean by pointing, in such a case as this?” Here is his answer:

The pointing of our thought to the tigers is known simply and solely as a procession of mental associates and motor consequences that follow on the thought, and that would lead harmoniously, if followed out, into some ideal or real context, or even into the immediate presence, of the tigers. It is known as our rejection of a jaguar, if that beast were shown us as a tiger; as our assent to a genuine tiger if so shown. It is known as our ability to utter all sorts of propositions which don’t contradict other propositions that are true of the real tigers. It is even known, if we take the tigers very seriously, as actions of ours which may terminate in directly intuited tigers, as they would if we took a voyage to India for the purpose of tiger-hunting and brought back a lot of skins of the striped rascals which we had laid low. In all this there is no self-transcendency in our mental images taken by themselves. They are one phenomenal fact; the tigers are another; and their pointing to the tigers is a perfectly commonplace intra-experiential relation . . . .(9)

The truth of James’ contention can be seen, not in simply contemplating a thought, but in following out the fringe, letting the material core of the thought fade away and be replaced by one or another of the associated ideas or of the impulses to action. The associated ideas are connected by virtue of the intentional object, not the material quality. (Some associations are not intentional. I might think of “car” and then “bar” and then “far,” but that’s not the kind of association I mean here.) Thoughts do not somehow magically have an “intentional quality” that hovers ghost-like above the material quality. On the contrary, the intentional aspect is found in the material fringe, which, if followed out, leads me to do something, either to think of it in a different context or to act toward it in some way. Thus, the specifically intentional aspect of thoughts consists in that they orient me to action regarding something beyond themselves, their intentional objects. Even when there is no question of overt action—I don’t plan, for instance, to go to India—,even when I am just contemplating, either idly musing or thinking something through, I feel that I am thinking about something, that my concepts are concepts of something. That feeling consists of immediate impulses to think more about the intentional object or related things, latent action-schemata, latent knowledge about the object or how to act regarding it, and incipient impulses to action, whether overt or just imagined, with concomitant evaluational feelings.

With this understanding of intentionality in mind, we can see the truth of James’ remark that the material qualities, the “imagery” and “mind-stuff,” don’t matter.(10) Whether I think the words, “my car,” or get a picture of my car or have it in mind by means of some other material quality, the important point is that I eventually be led to relate to the car in some other way, either by thinking about it or by dealing with it directly. It is not so much whether my thinking is primarily verbal or pictorial that is significant, but how my thoughts lead me to think of other concepts or act in the external world, and whether my concepts are shared by others, each in his or her or their own way.

This analysis allows us to understand the cognitive phenomenology controversy. What distinguishes a cognition from a mere idle phantasm is not its material quality, the sense-feeling phenomena, but the presence and function of the conceptual fringe. The conceptual fringe does have material qualities, but they are quite often dim and vague. Perhaps that’s why some think that cognitive phenomena don’t exist; they don’t perceive them. Or they do perceive them but take them to be just more sensory-feeling phenomena.

But those who think that there aren’t any distinctively cognitive phenomena because all phenomena are sensory-feeling in nature miss the point, which is that some phenomena are different. They have a characteristic way of appearing: in the penumbral fringe, not vividly in focus. And they have a specific function: they lead us to think in other ways about or to actually do something with their intentional objects. These are the cognitive phenomena. I suppose that you could lump them all together with the focally-attended-to sensory-feeling phenomena and say that they are all the same thing because they all have material qualities, i.e., they are all things we are or can become conscious of. I think it more useful to consider them separately because of their appearance and function, so I’m with those who want to put them into their own category.

And that is my take on the cognitive phenomenology controversy. I don’t suppose it will be the final word on the subject. It would be if everyone examined their own experience and came to the same conclusions. But if that happened, philosophers would have to find something else to argue about.

###

Appendix: The author’s introspection

Following is a description of my, the author’s, own experience. Yours might well be different. You can think of this as a report to be studied heterophenomenologically, if you like; it’s one data point to be evaluated in the context of others.(11)

In my own case, I find four kinds of material qualities of thoughts: words and sounds, pictures, vague visual outlines or forms, and a kind of fantasy or daydream reality in which I participate.

Words and sounds are exactly that; I think sentences or isolated words, or I hear tunes running through my mind. I may deliberately think them or they may be there without my having called them forth. Sometimes I say things as if to an unspecified companion. Sometimes I hear them as if spoken by someone else.

Pictures are much the same in that respect; most often I will simply have a flash of seeing something quite detailed and colorful. I find it more difficult deliberately to visualize a picture than to sound words to myself; perhaps I am simply more oriented through my ears than through my eyes. Both of these sorts of thoughts occur at varying levels of intensity and often they occur together.

It may be that I will hear clearly a phrase or a sentence, especially when I am deliberately thinking. Often, however, the sounds are fainter and harder to recognize, Sometimes I can stop and try to recognize what has just passed briefly through my mind and perhaps repeat it to myself, but sometimes it simply gets lost into oblivion. Thoughts on this level I call preverbal. “Preverbal” does not mean prior in time to the acquisition of language; it refers rather to thoughts that, were they more intense or present with more force, would be distinct words, phrases, sentences, etc.

A similar thing happens with pictures; there is a previsual level of images that aren’t quite intense enough for me to see clearly or recognize. Often, especially on the preverbal and previsual level, there occurs a sort of mixed-media thought form which consists of words and pictures together.

The ultimate vagueness of a picture is its outline or shape. Color seems to go first and then the details of the picture. Most of my visual thoughts are of this outline variety, where I will simply see geometrical shapes or lines standing out from that background. This type of thought is the way I chiefly apprehend abstract concepts. Visual gestalts like this often occur in a mixed mode with words, either explicit or preverbal. I can, for instance, visualize the shape of an argument, knowing where the argument begins and which way it moves; each part of the shape has a preverbal string of words attached to it, the words being (if I make them more distinct) the explicit verbalization of the concept involved and the visual aspect indicating the relations between the concepts. I often apprehend in this way concepts or arguments that I know well and have gone over often; I am so familiar with the ideas that this is a sort of shorthand for them. Sometimes, however, I will be working through a new idea and suddenly perceive it as related to other concepts by means of these visual gestalts. I discover things in this way. Again, there are different levels of intensity or force with which these gestalts are present. It often happens that I will have a vague intuition of such a shape and have to try to make it more clear and distinct. I can let my mind go blank and allow it to come forth, for instance, or I can go over the first couple of steps in a train of thought preverbally and hope that the rest will follow.

The final type of material quality of thought is not related to the first three in that it does not convey abstract concepts. It occurs when I imagine myself being in a real-life situation, often with other people. I get a full three-dimensional scene in which I am conscious of my surroundings and of myself, what I am doing and how I am feeling. If I didn’t know this was a fantasy I would be hallucinating. Sometimes I will imagine myself saying or doing things; sometimes I will see mostly the faces and actions of other people. This sort of thing happens in reveries and daydreams, in actual dreams, and sometimes deliberately, as when I anticipate a situation and rehearse what I shall say or do. As with the other forms, sometimes these imaginings are quite full and robust, and sometimes they are fainter and more like a mere outline.


Notes

(1) Spiegelberg and Biemel, “Phenomenology.”

(2) Husserl, Ideas, section 27, tr. Kersten, p. 51. Boyce translates the phrase natürlicher Einstellung as “natural standpoint.”

(3) Bayne and Montague, “Cognitive Phenomenology: An Introduction.”

(4) Strawson, “Cognitive Phenomenology: Real Life.”

(5) Bayne and Montague, “Cognitive Phenomenology: An Introduction.”

(6) Strawson, “Cognitive Phenomenology: Real Life.”

(7) Husserl, Ideas, section 78, tr. Gibson, p. 202.

(8) James, Principles of Psychology Vol. 1, p. 255.

(9) James, “The Tigers of India,” Chapter II in The Meaning of Truth.

(10) James, Principles of Psychology Vol. 1, p. 269.

(11) Dennett, “Who’s on first? Heterophenomenology explained.”

References

Bayne, Tim, and Michelle Montague. “Cognitive Phenomenology: An Introduction.” In Tim Bayne & Michelle Montague (eds.), Cognitive phenomenology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011, pp. 1-34. Online publication https://www.academia.edu/23294273/Cognitive_Phenomenology_An_Introduction as of 9 January 2019.

Dennett, Daniel. “Who’s on first? Heterophenomenology explained.” Journal of Consciousness Studies No. 10 (9-10):19-30 (2003). Online publication https://ase.tufts.edu/cogstud/dennett/papers/JCSarticle.pdf as of 28 May 2021.

Husserl, Edmund. Ideas Pertaining To A Pure Phenomenology And To A Phenomenological Philosophy. First Book: General Introduction To A Pure Phenomenology. Tr. F. Kersten. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 1983. Online publication http://www.dhspriory.org/kenny/PhilTexts/Husserl/Ideas1.pdf as of 24 October 2015.

Husserl, Edmund. Ideas: General Introduction to Pure Phenomenology. Translated by W. R. Boyce Gibson. New York: Collier Books, 1967.

James, William. The Meaning of Truth. Online publication https://www.gutenberg.org/files/5117/5117-h/5117-h.htm as of 9 June 2020.

James, William. The Principles of Psychology, Vol. I. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1918. Online publication https://www.gutenberg.org/files/57628/57628-h/57628-h.htm as of 16 November 2020.

Spiegelberg, Herbert, and Walter Biemel. “Phenomenology.” Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 2017: Encyclopædia Britannica, inc. Online publication https://www.britannica.com/topic/phenomenology as of 28 May 2020.

Strawson, Galen. “Cognitive Phenomenology: Real Life.” In Tim Bayne & Michelle Montague (eds.), Cognitive phenomenology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011, pp. 285-325. Online publication https://www.academia.edu/742477/Cognitive_Phenomenology_Real_Life as of 3 April 2021.

Apr 27 21

Self after Death

by Bill Meacham

This essay continues my earlier “Fearing Death“. There I explored how different assumptions as to whether there is life after the physical body dies have led thinkers in different directions. Here I explore further the implications of the idea of an afterlife. It brings up an interesting philosophical question, the nature of personal identity.

We do not need to affirm belief in an afterlife to consider the idea; instead, we can look on it as a thought experiment. If you did live on in some form after the physical body dies, how would you know that you are you? All this is speculative, of course, but apparently the transition from one form of existence, the physical, to another, whatever that may be, involves shedding layers of what we might call our self. The more that are shed, the closer the remainder would be to the essence of selfhood.

The layers I have in mind were delineated nicely by William James in his monumental Principles of Psychology(1896). He contrasts two senses of the term “self,” the empirical self and the pure ego.(1) The empirical self comprises everything that each of us can be conscious of and call “me.” The pure ego is what is conscious of all those things. In this thought experiment I focus only on the empirical self. Psychological research into the workings of the brain, the neurological substrates of perception and thought and the like has advanced greatly since James’ time, but his broad categories of selfhood are still quite applicable. There are three aspects to the empirical self, he says: the material, the social and what he calls the “spiritual,” which nowadays we should rather call the mental or psychological.(2)

The material self is our body. Each of us is a physical thing separate from other physical things. If someone asks where we are, the answer is where our physical body is located. If someone asks who ate the cookies, the culprit, if honest, says “I did,” meaning that his (or her or their) body physically ingested them. In such cases we identify ourself with our body; that is, we think of ourself as our body.

The social self is similar, but in the interpersonal realm rather than the physical. Each of us appears to and is known by other people. Insofar as we have an idea of how we appear, we can think of ourself as the person that the others know us as. In each relationship or in each social situation we have a persona or public personality; this is what James calls the social self. He says “A [person’s] Social Self is the recognition which he [or she or they] gets from his [or her or their] mates.”(3)

Finally, James speaks of the spiritual self, by which he means “[one’s] inner or subjective being, [one’s] psychic faculties or dispositions.”(4) This use of the term “spiritual” is a bit archaic; nowadays we would say “mental” or “psychological.” A better term might be “subjective self.”

With these categories in mind, let’s consider what might happen to you at the time of death. You would be removed from one world and inserted into another. I suppose it would be a bit like going through the transporter in Star Trek, in which one is beamed from one place to another instantaneously. Your surroundings would change, and you would find yourself all of a sudden someplace else.

But there is an obvious difference: you wouldn’t have a body. Nothing that has mass would accompany you to the afterlife. In Star Trek your whole body is transported and you with it; but in the moment of death, the physical body dies and is left behind. You would not have the bodily feelings that form a large part of your sense of self as a continuous entity. You might have memories and anticipations of such feelings, but over time your memories would fade and your anticipations, diminish. For those who have emotional attachment, perhaps pride, in their body, this might come as a shock. For those who lived their final days in pain, it might be quite a relief. But in any case, what James calls the material self would be gone, and you could not use it to know that you are you.

But you would be someplace; you would have a world surrounding you. How could this be? By definition in this thought experiment, the physical world is left behind. The answer is that your world would not be physical, but mental. It would be rather like a dream or a computer simulation or a virtual reality. And in this world you would most likely find other people. Your social self would survive.

Your sense of who you are depends on how people treat you. If they treat you as the same person over time, then you take yourself to be that person. In our thought experiment, we can assume that other people will be there, so you would have a sense of yourself as social. But what specifically shall we assume? Different religions paint different pictures. You might be with people you know or with people you don’t. You might be with angels. Or demons. You might be in a paradise or a hell or some kind of purgatory in between. The story is indeterminate; it could well be different for each person. (If you want more detail, please feel free to fill in here what makes sense to you.) Instead of positing specific scenarios, we can consider the structural characteristics of such a world.

One such characteristic is that the world, being something like a simulated virtual reality, would be formed by the minds of each of its participants. You would be living in a sort of shared hallucination. So long as everyone agrees on its features, the world would be stable. But you need not agree. You could exert some control over that world. The physical world has a certain stubbornness, a resistance to change. You can’t just make it different by wishing it so. But the mental world of the afterlife, we can assume, would be more mutable, just as your thoughts and imagination are now. If you have some presence of mind and find yourself somewhere you don’t want to be, you might be able to change it. (The techniques for acquiring such presence of mind and making such changes are taught in various wisdom traditions, but discussing them would take us too far away from our thought experiment.) If this assumption is correct, then a sense of yourself as an agent would endure. You would be an agent with respect to your surroundings by having some mental control over them. But that control would be limited by the others around you, who have similar powers. As in the physical world, you would be an agent among other agents in a social world.

So, we assume for the sake of this thought experiment, you would find yourself in a social world. Many people fervently hope to be reunited with loved ones and friends who have passed on. If such hopes come to fruition, then the social self would remain; you would know yourself as you despite the lack of a body. But what if familiar people were nowhere to be found? In that case, what would remain of you would be less substantial. You would have only your characteristic way of relating to people, your personality; you would not have expectations of their knowing who you are and treating you as who you have been. But you would still be social.

What if there were no people at all? That scenario could very well be quite unpleasant, especially for extraverts. We evolved in tribes, dependent on others for aid; and they in turn were dependent on us (or rather, our ancestors). “Mutual dependence is key” says ethologist Frans de Waal. “Human societies are support systems within which weakness does not automatically spell death.”(5) Banishment and solitary confinement are harsh punishments. If you were left completely alone, it might be terrifying.

But for others, the more introverted, it might not be a problem at all. For the sake of the thought experiment, let’s assume that you would not be in isolated hellish anguish, but only in a place with no people. Eventually your social self would fade away. Your personas, the ways you present yourself to others, would be gone. The only thing left would be your subjective or psychological self.

That self includes lots of things: thoughts, feelings, emotions, moods, memories, anticipations, plans, regrets, theories, conjectures, faculties, dispositions and more. Most, if not all, of these arise in relation to things and people external to us. As the physical and the interpersonal worlds fade away, so would most of the contents of your subjective self. Minute-to-minute incessant chatter would be silenced. Emotions would dissolve. You might run through favorite memories of what has passed and compulsive fantasies of what might have been, but after a time even these would become tiresome. Eventually the only thing remaining would be your core attitude toward life (or afterlife). For some of us, that attitude might be calm curiosity or benevolent interest; for others, fear or anger or despair.

What this analysis suggests is that the fundamental nature of selfhood is the manner in which one relates to one’s world. At the core of selfhood we do not find an enduring substantial thing like the Christian soul or the Hindu atman. Nor do we find a mere nothingness or void, as some interpretations of Buddhism and Taoism would have it. Instead, the core of selfhood is attitude, one’s fundamental approach to being in the world.

I think it best to end the thought experiment here. If we go any further, the self vanishes entirely. The result might be indistinguishable from death. Or it might be what the Buddhists call Nirvana, the extinguishing of the sense of a separate self into a state of happy quietude.(6) In either case, there is no need to fear it. What we can focus on instead is our manner of being in the here and now.


Notes

(1) James, Principles of Psychology, Vol. I, chapter X, p. 291.

(2) Material in this section comes from James, Principles of Psychology, Vol. I, chapter X, and Psychology (Briefer Course), chapter XII.

(3) James, Principles of Psychology, Vol. I, chapter X, p. 293.

(4) Idem, p. 296.

(5) de Waal, Our Inner Ape, p. 187.

(6) Wikipedia, “Nirvana.”

References

de Waal, Frans. Our Inner Ape. New York: Riverhead Books, 2005.

James, William. Psychology (Briefer Course). New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1892. Online publication https://www.gutenberg.org/files/55262/55262-h/55262-h.htm as of 19 January 2021.

James, William. The Principles of Psychology, Vol. I. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1918. Online publication https://www.gutenberg.org/files/57628/57628-h/57628-h.htm as of 16 November 2020.

Wikipedia. “Nirvana.” Online publication https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nirvana as of 17 April 2021.

Nov 16 20

Some Aspects of Being Conscious

by Bill Meacham

I have asserted that the way many people talk about being conscious, particularly the way they use the term “consciousness,” leads to confusion, because that term is too ambiguous. In fact, I advise not using it at all.(1) Philosopher Ned Block also believes that the term “consciousness” is ambiguous, but for different reasons. Unfortunately, his language suffers from the ambiguities that I warn against, making it harder to evaluate than it needs to be. In this essay I try to make sense of Block’s argument by restating it in my preferred terms.

Block starts his influential article, “On a confusion about a function of consciousness,” with these words:

Consciousness is a mongrel concept: there are a number of very different “consciousnesses.”(2)[227]

What does he mean by “consciousness?” In what sense are there many of them? And why is the second instance of that word in quotes and the first is not?

It soon becomes clear that when he talks about consciousness, he does not mean our general capacity to be conscious, nor does he mean the subject who is conscious; he means states or episodes of being conscious. He goes on to say that the concept conflates two meanings, which he calls “phenomenal consciousness” and “access consciousness.” Phenomenal consciousness is what I (and, I expect, most people) just call being conscious. Block says

Phenomenal consciousness is experience; what makes a state phenomenally conscious is that there is something “it is like” … to be in that state.[230]

Now, using the idiom “what it is like” to refer to one’s subjective state can be misleading, but its meaning is fairly clear. When we are conscious in phenomenal mode, things appear to us. We see colors and shapes, we hear sounds, we smell aromas, etc. When we are not conscious in phenomenal mode—when we are asleep or in a coma—such things don’t appear to us. Block calls such a state of being conscious “phenomenal” because it contains phenomena, things that appear. (The word “phenomena” comes from a Greek word meaning “appearances.”)

Block asserts that just having things appear to us is not all there is to being conscious. There is also what he calls “access consciousness.”

A state is access conscious … if, in virtue of one’s having the state, a representation of its content is (1) … poised for use as a premise in reasoning, (2) poised for rational control of action, and (3) poised for rational control of speech.[231]

In other words, when you are conscious of something in access mode, you are able to do something with it, such as reason about it, take some action on it or say something about it. You are able to do these things because you have a representation of it in your mind. A representation in philosophy is, roughly, a mental idea or image that stands for something else.(3) That something else may be real, like a specific tree or trees in general, or it may be unreal, like a unicorn. It may be absent, such as the Eiffel Tower when you are in Texas, or it may be present, like a tree right in front of you. The important point is that you have an idea of what you are conscious of and your idea enables you to take some action on it, either in your mind (reasoning) or in more than one person’s mind (talking) or in the world outside your mind (acting).

Block’s point is that merely being conscious of phenomena is not enough to guide action. He argues against psychological theories that take states or episodes of being conscious as purely phenomenal and then explain their function as giving input into the mental processes—he calls them an Executive System—that make decisions and guide action. Mere phenomena, he says, don’t provide such input.

What he argues against is the following thesis:

When consciousness is missing, subjects cannot report or reason about nonconscious contents or use them to guide action; we can conclude that a function of consciousness is to facilitate reasoning, reporting, and guiding action.[228]

Since the term “consciousness” is ambiguous, I restate this thesis as follows:

When people are not conscious, they cannot report or reason about nonconscious contents or use them to guide action; we can conclude that a function of being conscious is to facilitate reasoning, reporting, and guiding action.

He questions this assertion because it does not clearly distinguish between being phenomenally conscious—conscious merely of sights, sounds, etc.—and being conscious in a way that includes representations that enable access to things and states other than what is immediately present. Merely being phenomenally conscious, he thinks, would not have any bearing on thought, speech or action. You have to have some ideas or representations as well. That is, only if ideas or representations are present in a moment or episode of being conscious can we use what we are conscious of to think, speak and act.

Stated like this, the thesis might seem reasonable, but it raises some questions. Does being conscious of, say, a tree really include a representation of a tree? In our everyday life, in what Edmund Husserl calls the “natural attitude,” we just see a tree; it’s just there, real and straightforwardly existent.(4) Why posit representations in addition to the tree?

The answer is that we don’t posit them, we find them. They are there, but most often overlooked. To discern them we usually need to take a sort of mental step back from simple engagement with the tree to notice and think about the experience of seeing the tree. That is, we can notice what else is going on during the state of being conscious of the tree. This takes some practice, and it’s not surprising that most of us don’t do it much; but when we do, we find a whole melange of mental content: beliefs about what a tree is, memories of trees, expectations of what we will see if we walk around the tree and more.

There are times when the representational content in our experience becomes quite apparent. As a child perhaps you woke up in the night and saw a menacing figure near your bed, but when you turned on the light you saw that it was just a pile of clothes. The other day in a park I saw a building behind a hedge. I could clearly see its vertical sides, its flat surface and its horizontal balconies. I actually spent a bit of time looking at it, surprised to see a building there. But when I looked away and then back, the building was gone! It had been replaced by a small tree in front of some other foliage. Try as I might, I could not see the building again.

If such experiences are foreign to you, take a look at this image:

Is it rabbit or a duck? Think of it as a rabbit, and that’s what you see. Think of it as a duck, and that’s what you see. You can see it as either, but not both at the same time.

What happens in such cases is that one representation is replaced by another. The phenomenal content is the same; I still saw the same shapes and colors in the park, and the image’s black lines on a white background remain the same. What changes is the representation. The idea that constituted my recognition of a building was replaced by an idea that constituted recognition of a tree. The idea of a rabbit replaces the idea of a duck.

Experiences like this demonstrate that when we are conscious of something, there is a cognitive element as well as the bare sense data of colors and shapes, etc. That cognitive element is what makes a state or episode of being conscious have an access aspect as well as a phenomenal aspect.

(Strictly speaking according to Block, what constitutes the access aspect is that the cognitive element is actually used by other mental processes. “What makes a state A-conscious” he says “is what a representation of its content does in a system.”[232] But there has to be some representation in the state to start with in order for it to have an effect on another state, so that’s what I concentrate on here.)

So episodes of being conscious have two aspects, (a) that something appears and (b) that we have ideas, or representations, of what we are conscious of. The question is, are these two aspects found in every instance of being conscious. Can you have one without the other?

Block notes that most of the time the two aspects occur together:

A-consciousness and P-consciousness are almost always present or absent together …. This is, after all, why they are folded together in a mongrel concept.[242]

Stated this way, it sounds like A-consciousness and P-consciousness are two separate things. That’s one of the problems with using the term “consciousness.” It leads us to think of an object or a thing and in this case of two separate things. But Block does not mean to imply that there are two separate things. Restating this thought in clearer terms, we get

In moments or episodes of being conscious, the elements that enable access and the phenomenal elements are almost always present together. If one is missing, the other is also; and when both are missing, the person is not conscious at all.

My own phenomenological investigation leads me to think that the two aspects are so completely intertwined in any given moment of being conscious that it makes sense to include both in the definition of “being conscious.” But it is possible to imagine them being separate.

An example of what an episode of being conscious purely phenomenally might be is William James’ famous speculation about a new-born infant:

The baby, assailed by eyes, ears, nose, skin, and entrails at once, feels it all as one great blooming, buzzing confusion ….(5)

More recent research calls this idea into doubt—babies differentiate between objects and agents at a very early age and even have some notion of number(6)—but we can at least imagine such a state.

An example of being conscious purely in access mode is a self-driving car or a robot. Such devices detect and respond to their environment. They can make decisions, for instance whether to stop or slow down or go ahead. They can speak; think of Amazon’s Alexa and Google’s Assistant. But we doubt that the world appears to them phenomenally in any way at all.

Block does us a service. His distinction between these two aspects of being conscious allows him to argue quite plausibly that it is really the access aspect, not the phenomenal aspect, that gives episodes of being conscious their role in guiding our behavior. Given that understanding, we can tease apart the nuances of various disabilities like blindsight and other neurological disorders, theorize about how mental processes interact, speculate about the evolutionary advantages of being conscious and so forth. My purpose in this paper is not to weigh in on these issues. It is only to show that using clearer language makes the issues easier to understand and communicate.


Notes

(1) Meacham, “How To Talk About Subjectivity.”

(2) Block, “On a confusion about a function of consciousness.” All numbers in brackets refer to pages of this paper.

(3) Wikipedia, “Mental representation.”

(4) Applebaum, “Key ideas in phenomenology: The natural attitude.”

(5) James, Principles of Psychology, p. 488.

(6) vanMarle, “Brainy Babies.”

References

Applebaum, Marc. “Key ideas in phenomenology: The natural attitude.” Online publication https://www.saybrook.edu/unbound/phenomenology/ as of 13 November 2020.

Block, Ned. “On a confusion about a function of consciousness.” Behavioral And Brain Sciences (1995) vol. 18, pp. 227-287. Online publication http://www.nyu.edu/gsas/dept/philo/faculty/block/papers/1995_Function.pdf as of 12 September 2014.

James, William. The Principles of Psychology, Vol. I. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1918. Online publication https://www.gutenberg.org/files/57628/57628-h/57628-h.htm as of 16 November 2020.

Meacham, Bill. “How to Talk About Subjectivity (Don’t Say ‘Consciousness’).” Online publication https://bmeacham.com/whatswhat/TalkAboutSubjectivity_v4.html.

vanMarle, Kristy. “Brainy Babies.” Online publication https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/babies-do-the-math/201101/brainy-babies as of 14 November 2020.

Wikipedia. “Mental representation.” Online publication https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mental_representation as of 12 November 2020.

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.


Notes

(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.

(10) Dictionary.com.

(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.

References

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.

Dictionary.com. “Good.” Dictionary.com Unabridged (v 1.1). Random House, Inc. online publication http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/good 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 https://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/5116 as of 22 June 2020.

Meacham, Bill. How To Be An Excellent Human. Austin: Earth Harmony, 2013. Available at https://www.bmeacham.com/ExcellentHumanDownload.htm.

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 https://www.bmeacham.com/whatswhat/OP/Peirce_HowToMakeOurIdeasClear.html 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 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Form_of_the_Good 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: https://philosophynow.org/issues/138/The_Subject_of_Experience_by_Galen_Strawson. 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. An agent with choices; and
  8. 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 Academia.edu.) 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 bmeacham.com/blog/?p=1660.) 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!


Notes

(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.

References

Meacham, Bill. “How to Talk About Subjectivity (Don’t Say ‘Consciousness’)”. Online publication https://www.bmeacham.com/whatswhat/TalkAboutSubjectivity_v4.html and https://www.academia.edu/34066339/How_to_Talk_About_Subjectivity_Dont_Say_Consciousness_ 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.


Notes

(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.


References

Fischer, John Martin, and Benjamin Mitchell-Yellin. “Immortality and Boredom.” The Journal of Ethics (2014) 18:353–372. Available online at https://alaw003.wixsite.com/johnmartinfischer 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 https://bmeacham.com/ExcellentHumanDownload.htm.

Plato, “Laches.” Tr. Benjamin Jowett. Online publication http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/laches.html 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.


Notes

(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.

References

Alex, Bridget. “Neanderthal Brains: Bigger, Not Necessarily Better.” Online publication http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/crux/2018/09/21/Neanderthal-brains-bigger-but-not-necessarily-better/ as of 17 October 2019.

Akst, Jef. “Infographic: History of Ancient Hominin Interbreeding.” Online publication
https://www.the-scientist.com/magazine-issue/infographic–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
https://www.nhm.ac.uk/discover/who-were-the-neanderthals.html as of 13 October 2019.

O’Shea-Jhu, Dennis. “Short legs let Neanderthals climb mountains.” Online publication
https://www.futurity.org/short-legs-let-neandertals-climb-mountains/ 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
https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/science-shows-why-youre-smarter-than-a-Neanderthal-1885827/
as of 13 October 2019.

Tatersall, Ian. “Homo sapiens.” In Britannica Online Encyclopedia. Online publication
https://www.britannica.com/topic/Homo-sapiens as of 4 November 2019.

Than-Stanford, Ker. “Did disease buy time before Neanderthal extinction?” Online publication https://www.futurity.org/neanderthal-extincton-disease-transmission-2206732-2/ as of 14 November 2019.

Touropia. “10 Prehistoric Cave Paintings.” Online publication https://www.touropia.com/prehistoric-cave-paintings/ as of 12 November 2019.

Tuttle, Russell Howard. “Human evolution.” In Britannica Online Encyclopedia. Online publication https://www.britannica.com/science/human-evolution/ as of 4 November 2019.

Viegas, Jen. “Brain Reconstructions Suggest Reasons for the Decline of Neanderthals.” Online publication
https://www.seeker.com/culture/Neanderthals-may-have-gone-extinct-because-of-their-brain-morphology as of
13 October 2019.

Viegas, Jen. “Neanderthal DNA Influences the Looks and Behavior of Modern Humans.” Online publication
https://www.seeker.com/culture/behavior/neanderthal-dna-influences-the-looks-and-behavior-of-modern-humans as of 9 November 2019.

Wikipedia. “Neanderthal.” Online publication https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neanderthal as of 6 November 2019.

Wikipedia. “Neanderthal behavior.” Online publication https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neanderthal_behavior as of 6 November 2019.

Wikipedia. “Neanderthal extinction.” Online publication https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neanderthal_extinction 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.


Notes

(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.


References

Aristotle. Nichomachean Ethics. Tr. W.D. Ross. Introduction to Aristotle, Ed. Richard McKeon. New York: Random House Modern Library, 1947. Available online at http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/nicomachaen.html.

Aristotle. On the Soul. Tr. J.A. Smith. Introduction to Aristotle, Ed. Richard McKeon. New York: Random House Modern Library, 1947. Available online at http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/soul.html.

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 http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0022-362X%2819751120%2972%3A20%3C741%3AFA%3E2.0.CO%3B2-Q 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 http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/00048409112344881 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 http://www.jstor.org/stable/2183766 as of 22 May 2012.