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Nov 7 22

Sartre, Positionally

by Bill Meacham

Whenever you are conscious, you are conscious of something. Phenomenologists call this feature of being conscious “intentionality,” which means being aimed at or directed toward that something, whatever it may be, which they call the “intentional object.” “Intentionality” and its adjectival form, “intentional,” come from a Latin phrase meaning to aim an arrow; they are technical philosophical terms. Take a look at your own experience and you’ll see what they mean. This feature of being conscious is fairly obvious and non-controversial.

More controversial is what a great many phenomenologists assert: that in addition to being conscious of the intentional object, you are in some less focused way conscious of being conscious. I disagree and have explained my disagreement in some depth elsewhere.(1) One of the earliest and most forceful advocates of this position is Jean-Paul Sartre. In this essay I evaluate Sartre’s argument. (Spoiler alert: I find it lacking.)

In the introduction to his monumental Being and Nothingness Sartre says that

every positional consciousness of an object is at the same time a non-positional consciousness of itself.(2)

That’s not the clearest sentence ever written. What is a consciousness? What does it mean for it to be positional or not? I find Sartre’s obscure language quite aggravating. He sounds profound, but you don’t quite know what he is talking about. And when you figure it out, you find that he is wrong, as we shall see.

In order to decide whether Sartre is right, we have to know what he means by these terms, “consciousness” (“conscience” in the original French) and “positional” (“positionnelle”).(3) Let’s take “consciousness” first.

The term is ambiguous. It can refer to all sorts of things, from a state of being unsedated to the ground of all being. I’ve addressed this deficiency in another paper.(4) For now, we’ll focus on Sartre’s usage.

At one point he seems quite clear:

We said that consciousness is the knowing being in his capacity as being and not as being known.(5)

We don’t need to know in detail what Sartre means by “being” and “being known” to understand that “consciousness” means a conscious entity, a person or perhaps an animal. But if we substitute “conscious entity” for “consciousness” in the sentence cited above, we get this:

Every positional conscious entity of an object is at the same time a non-positional conscious entity of itself.

That makes no sense, so “consciousness” must mean something else. My best guess is that it means an episode or state of being conscious. If so, the sentence becomes this:

Every positional episode of being conscious of an object is at the same time a non-positional episode of being conscious of itself.

That is a bit awkward—what is a positional episode?—, so we might rephrase it as follows:

Every episode of being positionally conscious of an object is at the same time an episode of being non-positionally conscious of being conscious itself.

Both of these are somewhat opaque. Perhaps the meaning will become clearer when we understand what “positional” means. For Sartre, it is an adjectival form of the verb “to posit.” He says

All consciousness, as Husserl has shown, is consciousness of something. This means that there is no consciousness which is not a positing of a transcendent object ….(6)

This usage of “posit” is metaphorical. Usually the term refers to something linguistic, a step in an argument. It means to assume something as a fact or to put something forward as a basis of argument.(7) So how does being conscious of something posit that thing?

This is where Sartre builds on Husserl’s legacy. Phenomenological reflection reveals that there is a cognitive element in every moment of perceiving something. When you see a tree, for instance, you see colors and shapes but you also subliminally interpret those colors and shapes as a tree. The interpretive element, which Husserl calls “noesis”, is as much a part of your experience as the colors and shapes, but usually we don’t pay any attention to it. Analogously to positing a proposition as a basis for argument, when we perceive a tree we posit the tree as the intentional object we are seeing. Sartre calls it a “transcendent” object because it transcends or goes beyond what is immediately given in experience, the sense-data and the interpretive noeses. Husserl’s term is “noema.” Again, I discuss this in detail elsewhere.(8)

Being conscious of something such as a tree positionally means that we posit it as what we are conscious of. We take it to be an object apart from us. Figuratively speaking, we are over here, and we (again, subliminally) posit or suppose that what is over there is a tree. We take a position with respect to it; or, which amounts to the same thing, the tree is seen to be in a position with respect to us.

Fine, but what about “non-positional”? Well, it must indicate something that we do not posit, something that we do not take as an object, something with respect to which we do not take a position. Objects of which we are non-positionally conscious are those in the periphery or background of our experience rather than being in focus. Some examples are physical feelings that we do not attend to, such as the feeling of the shoes on our feet or the ambient sounds around us; fleeting emotional reactions to things we encounter; the experience of highway hypnosis in which we pay little or no attention to the surroundings but nevertheless navigate the road successfully; and many more. Clear and distinct perception is only one end of a continuum, at the other end of which are vague and indistinct presentations, emotional and physical feelings, and finally subliminally or subconsciously presented objects that we can become focally conscious of only with the greatest difficulty. Such objects in the periphery are what Sartre calls non-positional.

The question is whether, paraphrasing Sartre, something that can be referred to as being conscious of being conscious is always and necessarily present in the unattended-to periphery of our experience. My answer is No. It is not the case that every episode of being positionally conscious of an object includes at the same time being non-positionally conscious of being conscious. In my own experience I find that sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn’t. I argue for this thesis in some detail elsewhere.(9) In this essay I just want to examine Sartre’s evidence.

He gives as an example counting cigarettes:

If I count the cigarettes which are in that case, I have the impression of disclosing an objective property of this collection of cigarettes: they are a dozen. This property appears to my consciousness as a property existing in the world. It is very possible that I have no positional consciousness of counting them. … Yet at the moment when these cigarettes are revealed to me as a dozen, I have a non-thetic consciousness of my adding activity.(10)

“Non-thetic” means roughly “non-positional.” When we pay attention to something, our intentional object is like the thesis of an argument, the main thing being focused on. “Non-thetic,” obviously, means the opposite, something not focused on.

Here Sartre describes his own experience, and we have no reason to doubt him. While he focuses on the items being counted, his activity of counting is present in his experience in the background. And that background acquaintance with his activity, he says, is what enables him to report what he is doing.

If … anyone should ask, “What are you doing there?” I should reply at once, “I am counting.” This reply aims not only at the instantaneous consciousness [i.e. moment of being conscious] which I can achieve by reflection but at those fleeting consciousnesses [moments of being conscious] which have passed without being reflected on, those which are forever not-reflected-on in my immediate past. …(11)

The “instantaneous consciousness” achieved by reflection is simply noticing that he is counting. (Or that he was just now counting, since now he is thinking about counting rather than actually doing it.) He says that his background acquaintance with his activity in moments just past is what enables him to answer. So far, so good, but then he attempts to universalize the situation.

It is the non-thetic consciousness of counting which is the very condition of my act of adding. If it were otherwise, how would the addition be the unifying theme of my consciousnesses [moments of being conscious]? In order that this theme should preside over a whole series of syntheses of unifications and recognitions, it must be present to itself, not as a thing but as an operative intention …. (12)

By “syntheses of unifications and recognitions” he means the noetic, interpretive element in moments of being conscious by virtue of which our experience seems to be continuous. He says that he would not even know that he has been adding if not for the “non-thetic consciousness of counting,” by which I think he means the appearance of his activity of counting in the background or periphery of all the things present to him in his experience. His intention to count the cigarettes is operative, meaning not focused on but having an effect nevertheless.

But notice that he does not claim that he actually finds an appearance of counting in the periphery of every experience that results in knowing how many items there are. He says such an appearance “must be” there. It is an assumption, not a phenomenological observation.

The assumption of a background, or non-positional, appearance of counting is an explanation of how he is able to answer the question. But it’s not the only possible explanation. Sartre asserts that he must have been conscious of his experience, i.e. known what he was doing, all along in the background. Another explanation is that he could simply have recognized it based on tacit prior knowledge.

Suppose that you are concentrating on something: reading a book, perhaps, or fixing a broken pipe or working a difficult puzzle. Your attention is focused on the book (or more precisely the story or argument in the book), the pipe or the puzzle. Someone asks you what you are doing, and you tell them. How do you know? You have a flash of recognition. Perhaps that recognition comes from having been peripherally aware of your activity of concentrating. Or you could just as well simply see what you are doing and recognize it because of prior knowledge. You have read other books, fixed other things, worked other puzzles. Your knowledge of doing those things does not have to have been phenomenally present in the dim background while you were reading, repairing or working. What you know is tacit; you don’t pay attention to it, and you might not even be able to articulate it.(13) But you know it nevertheless.

We are seeking an explanation of how someone knows what they are (or have just been) doing when asked. We have two alternatives: (a) having been non-positionally conscious of it all along and (b) noticing it when asked and recognizing it based on tacit knowledge. How shall we choose? The best explanation is not that every episode of being conscious of something includes at the same time being non-positionally conscious of being conscious. Sometimes that may be true, but often it is not, at least in my experience. So I think Sartre is wrong.

One’s own experience is key to the whole question. I assert that I, the author, am not always non-positionally conscious of being conscious. Others assert not only that they are, but that everyone is, including me and you, dear reader. There’s no way to decide objectively which is true. The best each of us can do is to examine our own experience and decide for ourself.

As fascinating as the question is for some of us, no doubt it is pretty much irrelevant to most. But the activity of examining yourself is not irrelevant. Knowing yourself is key to a fulfilled and happy life. If you want such a life, examine yourself, exercise the distinctively human function of self-reflection and find out who and what you are.



(1) Meacham, “Being Conscious of Being Conscious.”

(2) Sartre, Being and Nothingness, p. liii.

(3) Sartre, Lêtre et le néant, p. 19. The sentence in French is “toute conscience positionnelle d’objet est en même temps conscience non positionnelle d’elle-même.”

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

(5) Sartre, Being and Nothingness, p. li.

(6) Ibid.

(7) as of 3 November 2022. See also and

(8) Meacham, “Under The Hood.”

(9) Meacham, “Being Conscious of Being Conscious.”

(10) Sartre, Being and Nothingness, p. liii.

(11) Ibid.

(12) Ibid.

(13) Wikipedia, “Tacit knowledge.”



Meacham, Bill. “Being Conscious of Being Conscious.” Online publication

Meacham, Bill. “How to Talk About Subjectivity (Don’t Say ‘Consciousness’).” Online publication and as of 2 November 2022.

Meacham, Bill. “Under The Hood.” Online publication

Sartre, Jean-Paul. Being and Nothingness. Translated by Hazel E. Barnes. New York: Philosophical Library, 1956. Available online at as of 27 April 2020.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. Lêtre et le néant: Essai d’ontologie phénoménologique. Corrected edition with index by Arlette Elkaïm-Sartre. Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 1943. Online publication
as of 12 October 2022.

Wikipedia. “Tacit knowledge.” Online publication as of 5 November 2022.

Aug 6 22

AI Sentience

by Bill Meacham
Digital AI face

Could an artificial intelligence (AI) be sentient? How could we tell? A recent opinion piece in the New York Times claims that AIs are not sentient.(1) The article raises an interesting question but does not adequately answer it, in part because it conflates sentience and intelligence and in part because its language is confused. Here is an example of the confusion:

There is no evidence this technology is sentient or conscious — two words that describe an awareness of the surrounding world.

This sentence is little more than a tautology, since in English “conscious” and “aware” mean the same thing.(2) It basically says that “sentient” means “conscious” and “conscious” means being conscious.

Here is another:

Sentience — the ability to experience feelings and sensations — is not something easily measured. Nor is consciousness — being awake and aware of your surroundings.

So sentience is the ability to experience — that is, the ability to be conscious of — feelings and sensations, and being conscious is (substituting equivalent words) being awake and conscious. That doesn’t tell us much.

Confused as this language is, we can agree that “sentient” means being conscious. But in what sense? Does it mean having the capacity to be conscious or actually being conscious during some period of time? Or both? Clearly if something has no ability to be conscious, it can’t be conscious in any given duration of time, so let’s say it means both. The author is claiming that AIs have no capacity to be conscious and are never conscious of their world. Unfortunately, he offers little evidence for his assertion.

Before we get there, let’s dispose of a related question, whether an AI can be intelligent. Here is a definition of intelligence:

The ability to learn — the ability to take in new context and solve something in a new way — is intelligence.

Obviously many AIs are intelligent, albeit artificially so. That’s the whole point of the AI enterprise, to create things that can learn and solve problems in a new way. When Google Assistant or Alexa hears what you say and gives a relevant and useful response, that’s AI at work. And we can judge how intelligent they are by the relevance of their responses. Siri, for instance, comes in a poor third in such a contest. But are they conscious?

We need to distinguish two aspects of being conscious, first pointed out many years ago by philosopher Ned Block.(3) He calls them “phenomenal consciousness” and “access consciousness,” which I prefer to restate as being conscious in phenomenal mode and being conscious in access mode. In phenomenal mode we see colors and shapes, we hear sounds, we smell aromas, etc. In access mode we have ideas or mental representations of what we are phenomenally conscious of, and these ideas enable us to do something with it, such as reason about it, say something about it or take some action on it. We are able to do these things with something of which we are phenomenally conscious because we have a representation of it in our mind.

In most cases the phenomenal aspect and the access-enabling aspect occur together. That’s why many use the term “conscious” to mean both. But some AIs are clearly conscious in access mode even though we doubt that they are conscious in phenomenal mode. An example 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 proceed or to slow down or speed up. 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.

And that’s the issue at hand, whether AIs can be truly phenomenally conscious. Are they — can they be — conscious of things in phenomenal mode, as we are when we are awake and alert? Does a world appear to them as it does to us?

The problem is that we can tell only inferentially. As the author says, whether something is sentient is “not something easily measured.” We have no direct access to someone else’s mind, let alone the mind of an AI. Hence, we can only ascertain the presence of mind from behavior.

Unfortunately, the author cites as evidence researchers who seem to conflate sentience, the ability to be phenomenally conscious, with intelligence.

“A conscious organism — like a person or a dog or other animals — can learn something in one context and learn something else in another context and then put the two things together to do something in a novel context they have never experienced before,” Dr. [Colin] Allen of the University of Pittsburgh said. “This technology is nowhere close to doing that.”

Alison Gopnik, a professor of psychology who is part of the A.I. research group at the University of California, Berkeley, agreed. “The computational capacities of current A.I. like the large language models,” she said, “don’t make it any more likely that they are sentient than that rocks or other machines are.”

The argument seems to be that current AIs are too dumb to be conscious. But that doesn’t follow at all. Plenty of conscious organisms are quite stupid.(4) Lack of intelligence is no evidence for lack of ability to be conscious, nor for failure to actually be conscious at any given time.

More likely, although not stated explicitly, is that the author and the researchers he cites are a bit narrow minded. They think that only living organisms can be phenomenally conscious and arrangements of silicon and metal obviously can’t. But that is just prejudice. We think other people are conscious because they are like us, and we know that we are conscious. Animals such as dogs and cats appear to be conscious because they behave like us and we can imagine inhabiting their point of view and seeing the world as they do. There are certain limits to such imagination, of course. Can we imagine how the world would appear to a bat?(5) Or an amoeba? It is even harder to imagine being an AI. But reality is not limited to what we can imagine.

A more plausible reason for doubting AI sentience, not mentioned by the author of the New York Times piece, is that a certain complexity of material substrate — neurons and brain cells in living beings — seems to be required for an organism to be conscious. And the more complex that substrate, the more vivid and intense the world appears to the organism and the more intelligent is its repertoire of behavior. On this view, because AIs lack such a complex substrate of living cells they can’t be conscious. But perhaps such complexity can be mirrored in non-living form. Perhaps it’s not the nature of the material substrate that counts but the complex patterns embodied in the substrate.

The authors disparage science fiction and accuse AI zealots of failing to distinguish science fiction from reality. But science fiction has much to offer. Consider the novels of Iain Banks known as the Culture Series. They are set in a utopian, post-scarcity society of humans, humanoid aliens and advanced superintelligent AIs living in artificial habitats spread across the galaxy.(6) The non-human AIs are characters in the stories as much as the humans are. They give every indication of being not only highly intelligent but also quite conscious of their world.

If such a world were to come to pass, we could distinguish between AIs and humans only by means of their appearance, not by whether they were sentient or not. That time has not yet come, but it may well be on its way. We may agree that today’s AIs most likely aren’t sentient, but we have no infallible way to decide for sure. And we certainly can’t be sure that future AIs won’t be. A bit of humility is called for here, as well as a sense of wonder, which underlies science fiction and philosophy both.




(1) Metz, “A.I. Is Not Sentient.” All quotations unless otherwise cited are from this article.

(2) The English language has two terms that mean roughly the same thing, “conscious” and “aware.” The former is from a Latin root, and the latter is from Old Saxon. (See, “Conscious” and “Aware.”) Many other languages have only one: “bewusst” in German and “consciente” in Spanish, for instance. The two English terms are interchangeable. The only exception to using them interchangeably is that sometimes “aware” connotes being informed or cognizant in a way that “conscious” does not. If you want to say that someone knows the rules, “She is aware of the rules” sounds better than “She is conscious of the rules.” But that is not the meaning in the sentence quoted.

(3) Block, “On a confusion about a function of consciousness.”

(4) Unattributed, “Top 10 Dumbest Animals in the World.”

(5) Nagel, “What Is It Like To Be A Bat?”

(6) Wikipedia, “Culture series.”



Block, Ned. “On a confusion about a function of consciousness.” Behavioral And Brain Sciences (1995) vol. 18, pp. 227-287. Online publication as of 6 August 2022.. “Aware.” Online publication, as of 4 May 2016. “Conscious.” Online publication, as of 4 May 2016.

Metz, Cade. “A.I. Is Not Sentient. Why Do People Say It Is?” Online publication as of 6 August 2022. If that link doesn’t work, try this one instead:

Nagel, Thomas. “What Is It Like To Be A Bat?” The Philosophical Review, Vol. 83, No. 4 (Oct., 1974), pp. 435-450. Online publication as of 29 April 2015.

Unattributed. “Top 10 Dumbest Animals in the World.” Online publication as of 6 August 2022.

Wikipedia. “Culture series.” Online publication as of 6 August 2022.

Jun 21 22

Moral confusion about abortion

by Bill Meacham

The controversy about abortion—whether it should be permitted or forbidden and under what circumstances—illustrates the problem with what I call the Rightness paradigm of ethical reasoning.(1) The Rightness paradigm frames discourse about what we should do in terms of what is right or wrong according to certain rules. It includes rules of law and etiquette as well as morality,(2) but my focus here is on morality. We will get to the details presently.


First, consider some recent findings about the effects of forbidding women to get abortions. Researchers tested the hypothesis that abortion harms the women who have them and found, to the contrary, that “in general, abortion does not wound women physically, psychologically, or financially. Carrying an unwanted pregnancy to term does.”(3) The researchers conducted a rigorous study, known as the Turnaway Study because it studied women who were turned away from abortion clinics. Most states ban pregnancy after a certain time, typically when the fetus is thought to be able to survive outside the womb. The researchers interviewed women who had an abortion shortly before that date and women who were turned away after. Both sets of women wanted the abortion, but one set was denied it and forced to carry the pregnancy to term. Both sets were similar in terms of demographics and socioeconomics, so the studies were “apples to apples.” The researchers recruited nearly 1,000 women to be interviewed every six months for five years. The results were striking.

Women who had their abortions generally did not regret having an abortion at all.

Afterward, nearly all said that termination had been the right decision. At five years, only 14 percent felt any sadness about having an abortion; two in three ended up having no or very few emotions about it at all. “Relief” was the most common feeling, and an abiding one.(4)

But women who got there too late and had to continue their pregnancy experienced an extraordinary range of bad effects.(5)

  • They were more likely to end up in poverty, had worse credit scores and were more likely to go through bankruptcy or eviction.
  • They were less likely to be in a good romantic relationship after two years and in fact were more likely to be with an abusive partner.
  • They were more likely to end up as a single parent.
  • They had more trouble bonding with their infants, were less likely to agree with the statement “I feel happy when my child laughs or smiles” and were more likely to say they “feel trapped as a mother.”
  • They were less likely to have aspirational life plans.
  • They were in worse health, having more hypertension and chronic pain.
  • Their children were less likely to hit developmental milestones and more likely to live in poverty.

And there are other deleterious effects on a woman’s health, particularly when she gets pregnant repeatedly in a short period of time, as is likely when abortion is unavailable. One expert called pregnancy “the ultimate stress test.” Possible complications include sciatica, pica, preeclampsia, perineal trauma and gestational diabetes. The lower the woman’s socioeconomic status and the darker her skin, the more likely she is to suffer from one or more of these ailments.(6)


In view of this rather depressing list of harms to women who want abortions and can’t get them, how can abortion opponents maintain their position? They do so because their morality tells them they must. The most common justification for opposing abortion is the following:

1. Murder, the intentional killing a human being, is wrong.

2. An unborn fetus is a human being.

3. Therefore abortion, the intentional killing of an unborn fetus, is murder and is wrong.

Now, there are a number of ways to counter this argument. The most obvious is to deny premise 2 by asserting that an unborn fetus is not a full human being, but merely a potential one. Oddly, since most abortion opponents are Christian, there is actually biblical support for this position. Exodus chapter 21, verses 22 and 23, says

When [two or more] parties fight, and one of them pushes a pregnant woman and a miscarriage results, but no other damage ensues, the one responsible shall be fined according as the woman’s husband may exact, the payment to be based on reckoning. But if other damage ensues, the penalty shall be life for life ….(7)

Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg comments

Two people are fighting; one accidentally pushes someone who is pregnant, causing a miscarriage. The text outlines the consequences: If only a miscarriage happens, the harm doer is obligated to pay financial damages. If, however, the pregnant person dies, the case is treated as manslaughter. The meaning is clear: The fetus is regarded as potential life, rather than actual life.(8)

This counter-argument depends on reframing what we consider to be the facts of the case. Other arguments in essence stipulate the facts but disagree about the moral implications.

For instance, we can assert that while killing a fetus is indeed wrong, it is even more wrong to deny a woman her freedom of choice. To force her to carry the fetus to term against her will is to make her a slave, an ultimate injustice. This is a typical form of argument in moral disputes. When one rule contradicts another, we have to rank them. The criteria for ranking are a matter of further dispute, however. In this case moral intuitions are in conflict; the intuition that the rules must be obeyed conflicts with the intuition that our actions must be fair.

A very influential essay by philosopher Judith Jarvis Thomson makes a slightly different argument based on notions of fairness. Imagine, she says, the following:

You wake up in the morning and find yourself back to back in bed with an unconscious violinist. A famous unconscious violinist. He has been found to have a fatal kidney ailment, and the Society of Music Lovers has canvassed all the available medical records and found that you alone have the right blood type to help. They have therefore kidnapped you, and last night the violinist’s circulatory system was plugged into yours, so that your kidneys can be used to extract poisons from his blood as well as your own. … Is it morally incumbent on you to accede to this situation?(9)

The analogy, of course, is with a fetus attached to its mother and dependent on her for life. After carefully teasing out many variations of the scenario she concludes that the answer to her question is No:

I am arguing only that having a right to life does not guarantee having either a right to be given the use of or a right to be allowed continued use of another person’s body — even if one needs it for life itself.(10)

The fetus, in other words, has no right to take over a woman’s body even for its continued existence. The woman has the right to terminate the relationship.

So far we have listed fairness arguments. Another has to do with prevention of harm. In view of the well-documented litany of ill effects of forced pregnancy listed above, many might argue that the danger of harm to the woman and her children outweighs any rights the fetus may have. That’s because their moral intuitions concerning avoidance of harm are stronger than their intuitions concerning respect for authority. But others obviously disagree because they have different moral intuitions. Again, moral intuitions are in conflict.

Moral intuitions

Moral intuitions are a key factor in the abortion controversy, so let’s take a closer look at them. They are ubiquitous. We all make moral judgments rapidly and without deliberative thought. We have an instinct for morals, a moral sense that seems to be built in. Most often our moral judgments are gut reactions that come first when we face a quandary, and we formulate reasons for our judgments afterwards. There are plausible evolutionary explanations for our sense of morality. We are ultra-social; we can’t survive in isolation and depend on our group for support, so we have evolved to have a finely tuned sense of how to get along.(11)

Moral judgments have specific cognitive, behavioral and emotional characteristics. Cognitively, the rules they evokes are taken to apply without exception. Prohibitions against rape and murder are believed to be universal and objective, not matters of local custom; and people who violate the rules are deemed to deserve condemnation. Behaviorally, we do in fact condemn moral offenders and praise those who obey the moral law. Emotionally, when our sense of morality is triggered, we feel a glow of righteousness when we abide by the rules, guilt when we don’t, a sense of anger or resentment at those who violate the rules and a desire to recruit others to allegiance to them.(12)

Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt has identified six domains of moral intuition, which he calls “Moral Foundations.” We all have a sense of morality, but different people have different intuitions in varying degrees.(13)

  • Caring and the Prevention of Harm. We feel an impulse to care for people who are needy, vulnerable or less fortunate than we are.
  • Fairness and Reciprocity. We want to make sure that people get what they deserve and don’t get away with more.
  • Ingroup Loyalty. We evolved as members of small tribal groups and are keenly attentive to threats or challenges to the group.
  • Authority and Respect. We feel an impulse to show respect to persons of higher rank and to treat subordinates protectively.
  • Purity and Sanctity. This one is the instinct to avoid contact with things or people we view as unclean or impure.
  • Liberty and Oppression. We have a visceral revulsion to those who dominate and misuse others.

Clearly, what’s going on in disagreements about abortion is conflict among these moral intuitions. The anti-abortion people are all about authority and respect. Moral rules are real, they say, and we are obligated to obey them, especially the one about murder. The laws have been handed down by authorities, in particular the God of Christianity, and we must respect them. The pro-choice folks feel more strongly about fairness and prevention of harm than about obedience to authority, and many feel a great distaste for being forcefully dominated. Both sides have a strong admixture of ingroup loyalty. The whole situation is a recipe for disaster.

The problem with the Rightness paradigm of morality is that there is no way to adjudicate moral disputes. We have no objective way to determine what the moral rules are. If there is some question about how tall the Eiffel Tower is, we can look it up and find the answer (300 meters, excluding antennas).(14) If there were some further question, we could go measure it. If there is some question about what follows from two premises, A implies B and A, we can consult the rules of logic and know that the conclusion is B. Anyone with suitable training and expertise can verify both physical and logical claims. But the same can’t be said for morality.

Morality is in a different ontological category. Moral rules are not real in the way physical things are, nor in the way logical and mathematical objects are. Instead, they are socially constructed. I’ve written a whole essay about this topic; here’s a summary.(15)

Social construction

Socially constructed facts are those that exist only because we agree that they exist. Some examples are money, property, marriages, governments and political boundaries. There are many more, and we could not live together without them. Take political boundaries. There is no bright line painted on the ground between, say, Texas and Louisiana. Laws and governance are different on each side of the border only because we all agree that they are. Or money. We take bits of paper or metal with certain markings on them to be media of exchange and stores of value, but their physical properties alone do not enable them to be used as money, even in the case of precious metals. They are money only because human beings use them as money, accept their use as money and have rules that govern their use as money.

Moral rules are like that. They exist independently of any particular person, but they are not independent of conscious agents altogether as physical and (arguably) mathematical/logical entities are. Moral entities are socially constructed within a community of practice, a social group, a culture or a society. Within such a community or society, everybody agrees (more or less) on what they are, everybody treats them the same way and everybody acts as if they are real. Just as there are consequences for the way we deal with physical objects, there are real consequences for the way we abide by moral rules or not, namely the reactions of others in the community. So, for members of such a community they are real.

And that’s why the controversy is so intractable. Each side thinks their moral intuitions and beliefs reflect reality and should be applied to everyone. If someone disagrees, they think that person must be mistaken or deluded at best or at worst downright evil. Neither side can persuade the other, so the conflict just goes on and on.

What can be done?

Fortunately, the situation is not hopeless. If you are of a philosophical bent and realize that morality is socially constructed, you have the freedom to examine your morality and change it if you like. That is easier said than done, of course. We can’t do away with having a sense of morality altogether. But we can see it for what it is, not a perception of an immutable set of laws external to us but an expression of who we are in community with others. If an element of our morality does not serve us—if it causes us to contract into fear or anger at those whom we consider enemies, or it causes us to miss out on opportunities for learning, or it stunts our growth so we fail to achieve our full potential—then we can, with patience and some help from others, change our moral outlook to become more inclusive, loving and compassionate. If we choose this path, it will not be because we have a moral obligation to do so (we don’t) but because it enhances our life and makes us more fulfilled and happy. I call this approach the Goodness Paradigm, which evaluates actions and policies in terms of their anticipated or hoped-for benefits rather than their adherence to moral rules.(16)

The culmination of this approach, which I call the Goodness Ethic, looks at benefits not just to each of us individually but to all concerned. It recognizes that everything is connected to everything else and that nothing exists in isolation. A change in an organism affects its environment, and a change in the environment affects the organism. So it makes sense to change our environment to be more nurturing for everyone involved, including us. Then we will thrive. The Goodness Ethic advises us to work for the good in all things. We are all in this life together, so let’s make it good for everybody.(17)

That’s on a personal level. It’s advice for enhancing your own life. But what about effecting societal change? What about changing abortion laws and policies to reduce the harms and injustices caused by rigid prohibitions against the procedure? Philosophers can be rightly criticized for living in ivory towers divorced from real life. I’m no exception, so all I can do is offer some ideas that seem sound to me.

One of my teachers has said that you can’t talk somebody into changing their mind, but sometimes you can listen them into it. Get to know people who think differently from how you do. Listen to them with empathy rather than arguing with them. Repeat what they say in your own words to make them feel heard. Find areas of agreement. Get enough emotional support for yourself to be able to keep doing this when the effort gets uncomfortable. There’s no foolproof recipe here, but the fundamental thing is to remember that deep down the person you are talking to is not your enemy no matter how much it might feel that way.(18)

The fact is that we are all connected. The hope is that we can recognize that fact and get along with each other. The way to do so is to open our hearts with compassion.


(1) Meacham, “The Good and the Right.”

(2) Meacham, “Ways to Say ‘Should’.”

(3) Lowrey, “The Most Important Study in the Abortion Debate.”

(4) Ibid.

(5) Ibid.

(6) Grose, “Pregnancy Can Affect the Body Forever.”

(7), “Exodus.”

(8) Ruttenberg, “My Religion Makes Me Pro-abortion.”

(9) Thomson, “A Defense of Abortion,” pp. 48-49.

(10) Idem., p. 56.

(11) Haidt and Joseph, “Intuitive Ethics.”

(12) Pinker, “The Moral Instinct.”

(13) Haidt, The Righteous Mind, pp. 123–127, “Moral Foundations Theory,” and pp. 170–176, “The Liberty/Oppression Foundation.” See also


(15) Meacham, Bill, “Reassessing Morality.”

(16) Meacham, “The Good and the Right.”

(17) Meacham, Bill, “This Goodness Ethic.” See also “Permaculture Ethics” and Part II of “Reassessing Morality.”

(18) Some resources include Barker, “This Is How To Change Someone’s Mind”; Brooks, “A Gentler, Better Way to Change Minds”; Gordon, Parent Effectiveness Training; Gordon, Leader Effectiveness Training. The latter two give specific verbal techniques for fostering understanding. See also The Re-evaluation Counseling Communities, “Re-evaluation Counseling” for how to get emotional support.


Barker, Eric. “This Is How To Change Someone’s Mind: 6 Secrets From Research.” Online publication as of 20 June 2022.

Brooks, Arthur C. “A Gentler, Better Way to Change Minds.” Online publication as of 20 June 2022.

Gordon, Thomas. Leader Effectiveness Training. New York: The Berkeley Publishing Group, 1997 and 2001.

Gordon, Thomas. Parent Effectiveness Training, revised edition. New York: Crown Publishing Group, 2019.

Grose, Jessica. “Pregnancy Can Affect the Body Forever. Have Abortion Foes Reckoned With That?” Online publication as of 18 June 2022.

Haidt, Jonathan. The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. New York: Pantheon Books, 2012.

Haidt, Jonathan, and Craig Joseph. “Intuitive ethics: How Innately Prepared Intuitions Generate Culturally Variable Virtues.” Daedalus, Fall, 2004, Vol. 133, No. 4 (Fall, 2004), pp. 55-66. Online publication as of 12 September 2017.

Lowrey, Annie. “The Most Important Study in the Abortion Debate.” Online publication as of 18 June 2022.

Meacham, Bill. “Permaculture Ethics and the Chain of Benefits.” Online publication

Meacham, Bill. “Reassessing Morality.” Online publication

Meacham, Bill. “The Good and the Right.” Online publication

Meacham, Bill. “The Goodness Ethic.” Online publication

Meacham, Bill. “Ways to Say ‘Should’.” Online publication

Pinker, Stephen. “The Moral Instinct.” New York Times, January 13, 2008. Online publication as of 13 January 2008.

Ruttenberg, Danya. “My Religion Makes Me Pro-abortion.” Online publication as of 18 June 2022. “Exodus.” Online publication as of 18 June 2022.

The Re-evaluation Counseling Communities. “Re-evaluation Counseling.” Online publication as of 20 June 2022.

Thomson, Judith Jarvis. “A Defense of Abortion.” Philosophy & Public Affairs, Autumn, 1971, Vol. 1, No. 1 (Autumn, 1971), pp. 47-66. Online publication as of 11 September 2021.

Apr 25 22

Under The Hood

by Bill Meacham

In order to understand the subjective self, it will be helpful to look “under the hood,” so to speak, at how episodes of being conscious are structured and how they work.(*) The subjective self, according to William James, is a person’s “inner or subjective being, [their] psychic faculties or dispositions.”(1) The subjective self, along with the physical self and the social self, is one aspect of the empirical self, our self as known to us and to others.

A standard method of investigating the subjective self, at which James was quite adept, is through introspection. A more rigorous way is phenomenology. I have discussed phenomenology elsewhere; here is a brief summary.

Phenomenology is biasless reflective examination of experience. It is a species of introspection, but it differs from introspection done from within what Edmund Husserl, the founder of phenomenology as a method, 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 you presuppose that the objective world exists even when you are not conscious of or thinking about it. To adopt a phenomenological attitude, you set aside questions of whether and in what way the world and things in it exist. That’s the biasless part. You don’t assert that they don’t exist, and you don’t assert that they do. You just examine in some detail your experience of them.

There is a difference between naively and straightforwardly experiencing something, say seeing a tree, and phenomenologically reflecting on that seeing. In the naive experience your attention is directed toward the tree. Certain interpretations or ideas about what you are looking at are present, but only operatively, in the background or “margin” of experience.(3) I mean interpretations such as that the object is a tree, that it is out there in the world perceivable by everyone, that if one walks around it one sees the other side, etc. Something is operative if it is present in and influencing the course of experience, but not focally, not in the spotlight of attention. “Operative” is contrasted to “thematic,” which means “present explicitly” or “focally attended to.”(4)

If you reflect on your experience of seeing a tree phenomenologically, you can make these operative interpretations thematic. You can notice them attentively along with the tree subjectively experienced through them. Thus you can apprehend the tree in a broader context, the context of the subjective elements that occur in your viewing of the tree.

Phenomenological reflection on an experience reveals the whole experience, not just its focal object. Husserl says that “reflection makes an object out of what was previously a subjective process.”(5) What was only operative, only in the background, in the original, un-reflected-upon experience becomes available for attentive inspection when you reflect on the experience.

And what do you (any of us) find there? Three components, which Husserl calls hyletic, noetic, and noematic.

The hyletic component is what Bertrand Russell and others in the analytic tradition call “sense data”: such things as colours, sounds, smells, hardnesses, roughnesses, and so on.(6) Husserl uses the Greek word for matter, hyle to mean the same thing.(7) Accordingly, I sometimes call it the material aspect of what we are conscious of. There’s quite a bit to say about the material qualities in experience, but that’s for another time, perhaps.

The noetic element, from the Greek nous, which means mind or intellect,(8) is what enables us to see discrete objects instead of mere colors and shapes. In a previous essay I used the “rabbit-duck” image, which can appear to be either a rabbit or a duck but not both at the same time, to illustrate the noetic element in episodes of being conscious. Another such image is the Necker Cube, a simple wire-frame, two dimensional drawing of a cube with no visual cues as to its orientation.(9)

Necker cube

If you look at it one way, you see it from the top. If you look at it another way, you see it from the bottom. But you don’t physically move in order to look at it in the two different ways. Something in your mind interprets it one way or the other. Husserl calls that mental something a “noesis” (plural “noeses”).(10) Noeses are cognitive elements that contribute significance to our experience such that we experience an orderly and coherent world of discrete objects, people, events, institutions, etc., instead of a chaotic flux of sensation. We can notice their effects in special cases, but we don’t usually pay attention to the noeses themselves. If we adopt a phenomenological stance, we can.

Husserl uses a related word, “noema” (plural “noemata”) to refer to the intentional object of our thought or perception, the tree in our example above. It is derived from a Greek word meaning “thought” or “what is thought about”.(11) Mind thinks by means of noeses, and what it thinks about are noemata. By “intentional object” I mean the object that the thought or perception is aimed at or directed toward. (“Intentional” comes from a Latin phrase meaning to aim an arrow at; it’s a technical philosophical term.)

The noema is the intentional object constituted from hyletic sense data by means of noeses. It is not the same as an actual physical object. The two views of the Necker cube are two different noemata. The pattern of black lines on a white background is the actual object that provides the hyletic component.

A woman I know was walking across her ranch one day and stepped over a vacuum cleaner hose. Then she thought “That’s odd. What is a vacuum cleaner hose doing here?” She turned and looked and saw that it was a snake. (Fortunately, she was wearing boots.) The snake had a grey and black pattern like the one on her vacuum cleaner hose at home. Before she recognized that it was a snake, her noeses had constituted their hyletic data into the noema that she perceived as a hose. Was it actually a hose? No. Did she really see a hose the first time? Yes, she did. That’s the power of noeses; they make us see things, often accurately but sometimes not.

But why should we care about this level of detail about what goes on in our experience? Well, the hope is that understanding will lead to wisdom.

Phenomenological investigation doesn’t initially come easy. In edge cases like the rabbit-duck and the Necker Cube the noetic elements are obvious, but in most of our everyday experience they aren’t. Adopting a phenomenological stance is a practice, and like any practice it works only if you do it. The more you do it, the better you get at it. But why make the effort?

Because in doing so you strengthen your ability to observe yourself in many ways, not just phenomenologically. Self-observation—which I call second-order thinking(12) and others refer to as meta-cognition or self-awareness—allows us to exert some control over who we are. We are a mixture of what Simone de Beauvoir calls freedom and facticity.(13) Facticity is just what we are and have little control over: the color of our eyes, how tall we are, the particular history that led us to where we are now. Our freedom consists in our ability to examine that facticity, to decide to change it if we can, and to go ahead and make the change.

Here’s a simple example. Suppose you have injured your shoulder, and it is stiff and painful. It lacks mobility. That’s a fact; it just is what it is. Your physical therapist prescribes certain exercises to loosen it, but it hurts to do them. That’s also just a fact. Your inclination is to avoid the exercises because they hurt. But you do them anyway, gritting your way through the pain, because you know that in the end the shoulder will have full mobility and function and won’t hurt anymore. That knowledge is the key to your freedom to change your body and improve your quality of life.

Here’s another, perhaps more cogent, example. Noeses are basically ideas that operate in the fringes or margins of our experience. The way we think of the world and what we believe to be true of it are highly influential factors in our perception of it. Being ideas, when made thematic and thought about our noeses are amenable to critical judgment. If we change our thoughts and beliefs, we change our perception of reality. And in doing so, at least in certain cases, we can actually change reality itself.

For instance, many people of European descent in Western industrialized nations feel uneasy, fearful or distrustful in the presence of someone with darker skin. That feeling is not the result of a reasoned judgment. It’s the result of social conditioning. Until you notice it, your perception of a person of color as menacing is constituted by noeses over which you have no control. They are a facticity. But once you notice your reactions and decide that they do not serve you well, you can change them. You can start by learning more about the history and psychology of racial tensions and by learning more about the cultures of the various people of color that you encounter. You can make efforts to get to know such people. You can discharge painful emotions that lock in your ideas and reactions. By changing your ideas, you change your noeses. People of color no longer appear menacing or distasteful. And in your interactions with them, they might begin to see you in a better light and change their behavior towards you.

This works a lot better in the social realm than in the physical realm. Confronted with a physical obstacle you may wish it away, but it won’t move by itself. In the social realm, however, you can change yourself and, with a bit of luck perhaps, change the way others perceive and act toward you.

The key to success is self-awareness. Inscribed on the temple to Apollo at Delphi were the words “Know Thyself.”(14) Phenomenology is one way to exercise this most human virtue.


(*) The phrase “under the hood” means something that is not immediately visible or obvious. It comes from the age of internal combustion engines and refers to the hood of a motor vehicle, which covers the engine.

(1) James, Principles of Psychology, Vol. I, chapter X, p. 296.

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

(3) Husserl, Ideas tr. Boyce Gibson, p. 107.

(4) Zaner, The Way of Phenomenology, p. 115.

(5) Husserl, Cartesian Meditations, p. 34.

(6) Russell, The Problems of Philosophy, Chapter 1.

(7) Husserl, Ideas tr. Boyce Gibson, pp. 226-228.

(8) Encyclopedia Britannica, “Nous.”

(9) Wikipedia, “Necker cube”.

(10) Husserl, Ideas, pp. 228, 230-231.

(11) Wikipedia, “Noema.”

(12) Meacham, How To Be An Excellent Human, Chapter 20, “The Human Virtue.”

(13) deBeauvoir, The Ethics of Ambiguity. See also my summary of the book at

(14) Wikipedia, “Delphi.”


De Beauvoir, Simone. The Ethics of Ambiguity. On-line publication as of 6 October 2011.

Encyclopedia Britannica Online. “Nous.” Online publication as of 19 April 2022.

Husserl, Edmund. Cartesian Meditations. Translated by Dorion Cairns. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1960.

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 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 Principles of Psychology, Vol. I. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1918. Online publication as of 16 November 2020.

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

Russell, Bertrand. The Problems of Philosophy (Project Gutenberg edition). Online publication as of 8 July 2018.

Wikipedia. “Delphi.” Online publication as of 10 May 2013.

Wikipedia. “Necker cube”. Online publication as of 17 April 2022.

Wikipedia. “Noema.” Online publication as of 10 April 2022.

Zaner, Richard M. The Way of Phenomenology. Pegasus Books. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Publishing Co., 1970.

Mar 23 22

Utilitarianism Fails

by Bill Meacham

One of the tools of contemporary analytic philosophy is the thought experiment, an imaginative scenario intended to help us clarify our concepts. Here’s one from Philippa Foot:

We are about to give a patient who needs it to save his life a massive dose of a certain drug in short supply. There arrive, however, five other patients each of whom could be saved by one-fifth of that dose. We say with regret that we cannot spare our whole supply of the drug for a single patient, just as we should say that we could not spare the whole resources of a ward for one dangerously ill individual when ambulances arrive bringing in victims of a multiple crash. We feel bound to let one man die rather than many if that is our only choice.(1)

The concept to be clarified here is moral. Foot assumes that saving five lives rather than one is obviously the morally correct thing to do. But is it?

John Taurek argues that there are cases in which it would be perfectly OK to save one instead of many. Suppose the one is a friend of the person dispensing drugs, and the others are strangers. Taurek thinks that it would be permissible to give it to the one:

Suppose this one person, call him David, is someone I know and like, and the others are strangers to me. I might well give all of my drug to him. And I am inclined to think that were I to do so I would not be acting immorally.(2)

In other words, his personal preference would override the moral obligation. But that means that the moral obligation would be, as he says, “feeble indeed,”(3) so feeble that perhaps it doesn’t even exist. Perhaps there is no moral obligation to save the many rather then the one.

Here we have conflicting moral intuitions. Foot thinks it is morally obligatory to save the many rather than the one, and Taurek disagrees. Is there a way to tell who is right?

Taurek goes on to spin out several variations of the scenario in hopes of further clarifying the issue. What if the one is on the verge of discovering some wonder drug or negotiating a lasting peace? Saving his life (let’s just assume for the moment that the person is male) would have greater benefit to humanity than saving the five, so we should save him. Or what if the one person is just an average guy, but the others are unworthy or deficient in some way. Maybe they are known criminals or brain-damaged infants. Would that change the situation?

Such considerations muddy the water, however. To really clarify the issue we need to compare apples to apples, considering the cases ceteris paribus, as philosophers say, all else being equal. Let’s assume that there is nothing special about any of the people involved. Then further variations of the thought experiment might shed more light. The way these experiments work is to take a situation and vary the details and see what emerges.

What if there were only one other person instead of five? Then there would be no moral obligation to favor one over the other. If that one person were our friend, it would certainly be OK to give the medicine to him. If we knew neither one, then we could just flip a coin. There would be no moral issue at all.

But the case of one versus many seems to be different. Many people, Foot among them, think there is an obligation to save the many because, in Taurek’s words, “it is a worse thing, other things being equal, that these five innocent persons should die than it is that this one should.”(4)

Let’s pause for a moment here to look at the language Taurek uses. We’ve been talking about moral obligation, which is in what I all the Rightness paradigm. It uses the terms “right” and “wrong” and their synonyms to evaluate actions.(5) The Rightness paradigm has to do with moral imperatives, rights and obligations; and these are couched in terms of what is right to do or refrain from doing. Now Taurek gives a justification for the supposed obligation in terms of goodness (“a worse thing”). Clearly he is referring to a Utilitarian view, that what one ought to do, morally, is to promote the greatest good for the greatest number of people.(6) Goodness language is different from rightness language, and we need to look closely to see if the intersection of the two actually makes sense.

To this end, Taurek tweaks the thought experiment slightly:

Suppose the drug belongs to your friend David. It is his drug, his required dosage. Now there are these five strangers, strangers to David as well as to you. Would you try to persuade David to give his drug to these five people? Do you think you should? Suppose you were to try. How would you begin? You are asking him to give up his life so that each of the five others, all strangers to him, might continue to live.(7)

The Utilitarian view is that David should indeed give up his life because five deaths are worse than one. (This assumes that death is a bad thing, which we can dispute, but let it go for now.) We tell David that making five people die is a worse outcome than just one. And he responds, “Worse for whom?” His own death is worse for him, and the death of each of the five others is worse for that person. But so what? David says,

I wouldn’t ask, nor would I expect, any of them to give up his life so that I, a perfect stranger, might continue to live mine. But why should you, or any of them, expect me to give up my life so that each of them might continue to live his?(8)

Taurek frames the controversy in moral (rightness) terms. He says that in keeping the drug for himself David wrongs no one. None of the five has a legitimate claim on the drug, and so the five together have no right to demand it. And this justifies his own giving the drug to the one rather than the many:

If it is morally permissible for David in this situation to give himself all of his drug, why should it be morally impermissible for me to do the same? It is my drug. … I violate no one’s rights when I use the drug to save David’s life.(9)

But Taurek is no different from anybody else in this regard.

And so I feel compelled to deny that any third party, relevant special obligations apart, would be morally required to save the five persons and let David die.(10)

So, what to do in this situation? Taurek suggests just flipping a coin.

Why not give each person an equal chance to survive? Perhaps I could flip a coin. Heads, I give my drug to these five. Tails, I give it to this one. In this way I give each of the six people a fifty-fifty chance of surviving. Where such an option is open to me it would seem best to express my equal concern and respect for each person. Who among them could complain that I have done wrong?(11)

At this point many of us might balk. Regardless of such casuistry, isn’t the suffering of the many five times worse than the suffering of the one? Taurek’s answer is No, it is not worse in any absolute sense. There is no absolute goodness or badness here, only goodness or badness for individuals.

Taurek’s problem with Utilitarianism is that individuals are separate beings, and you can’t sum up their pleasures or pains. Let’s assume that the death of any of the six would cause suffering, not for themselves because they’ll be dead, but for their friends and family. The death of five would cause more people to suffer than the death of one. But, says Taurek,

Suffering is not additive in this way. The discomfort of each of a large number of individuals experiencing a minor headache does not add up to anyone’s experiencing a migraine. In such a trade-off situation as this we are to compare your pain or your loss, not to our collective or total pain, whatever exactly that is supposed to be, but to what will be suffered or lost by any given single one of us.(12)

The death of one is no better or worse than the death of any of the five, and you can’t compare the one with the five as a whole because you can’t really add up the suffering of the five individuals. So Utilitarianism doesn’t work to justify saving the many rather than the one.

And that is Taurek’s conclusion. We are under no obligation, he says to save the many rather than the one. (He doesn’t think that we must save the one rather than the many, only that we may.) If we have no personal interest in the outcome—if none of them are friends, for instance—then we might as well flip a coin. And yet, rational or not, most people think that saving the many is what we should do. Flipping a coin feels a bit cold.

Let’s stop and take stock of the argument so far. What have we learned?

First, that intuition is a poor guide to reality. Which should we save, the one or the many? Some of us have the intuition that we are obliged to save the many. Others think we are not so obliged. The problem is that there’s no way to tell which intuition is right; there’s no objective measurement, nothing we can observe to answer the question. (The lack of a reliable method is evidence for moral anti-realism, the idea that there are no objective moral values or normative facts at all, but that’s a topic for another time.)

Another thing we have learned is that we can’t get a satisfactory answer to the question within the Rightness paradigm. Taurek tries. He does a good job of deflating the Utilitarian position and argues cleverly on legalistic grounds, looking at who is wronged and who has a valid claim, that we are not obliged to save the many. But recent research shows that by far the majority of people when faced with an actual dilemma, not just a thought experiment, do in fact act to save the many.(13) The Rightness paradigm can’t deal with this fact other than to figuratively throw up its hands and say that people aren’t rational. Which is true, but we aspire to be.

Fortunately, we are not stuck with this conundrum. There is another way to think about problems such as this, to frame the discussion in terms of goodness rather than rightness.(14) The Goodness paradigm, as I call it, uses “good” and “bad” rather than “right” and “wrong” to evaluate actions. It frames issues of what to do in terms of harms and benefits, that is to say, consequences, rather than moral rules. And an ethic rooted in the Goodness paradigm not only tells us that we should try to save the many but also gives us reasons why. But first we have to understand a bigger picture.

One of the basic facts about all things and persons is that everything is related to everything else. Nothing exists in isolation. A change in an organism affects its environment, and a change in the environment affects the organism. This is easy to see in our case. We humans are creatures whose essence is Mitsein, as Heidegger puts it, being-with.(15) It’s not merely that we sometimes or even often find ourselves in the proximity of others. Rather, in every facet of ourselves we find a connection with other people. Ethologists call us “obligatorily gregarious.”(16) We must have ongoing and extensive contact with our fellows in order to survive and thrive.

Here’s how this idea plays out in the conundrum of whether to save the one or the many. In fact, there is a way that the suffering of the many is additive. We feel empathy for others; we can imagine their pain and feel it, in an attenuated form, as if it were our own. Of course, there are limits. We easily feel empathy and compassion for individuals and small groups, probably for evolutionary reasons, that we evolved to live in tribes of 20 or 30 or so. It’s harder to feel empathy for a great many people such as those injured in a mass disaster. We get compassion fatigue.(17) But for a group of five, we certainly do feel their pain, and it is greater than the pain of only one. That’s why we feel an urge to save the many.

Given that everything is related to everything else, the Goodness Ethic, as I call it, advises us to try to maximize the good in all situations and to maximize what is good for all concerned.(18) It gives this advice because as we maximize the good of everybody and everything in the environment, we thereby promote our own health as well. This is enlightened self-interest, as opposed to unenlightened self-interest, which seeks to maximize one’s own welfare without regard to the effects of one’s actions on others. Commonly called “selfishness,” such an unenlightened approach is actually self-defeating.

Although similar, this is not Utilitarianism, which we have seen doesn’t give an adequate answer. Utilitarianism, even though expressed in terms of consequences, is actually a form of rules-based ethics. It’s in the Rightness paradigm, not the Goodness. For the Utilitarian, the amount of benefit or harm determines the moral rightness of action, and we are to maximize benefit because it’s our moral duty.

The Goodness paradigm, on the other hand, says no such thing. We are advised (not commanded) to maximize benefit because it’s better for us. So, yes, we should save the many, not because it’s our duty but because in doing so we become better humans.


(1) Foot, “The Problem of Abortion and the Doctrine of Double Effect,” p. 9.

(2) Taurek, “Should The Numbers Count?”, p. 295.

(3) Idem., p. 298.

(4) Idem., p. 296.

(5) Meacham, “The Good and The Right.”

(6) Wikipedia, “Utilitarianism.”

(7) Taurek, “Should The Numbers Count?”, p. 299.

(8) Ibid.

(9) Idem., p. 301.

(10) Idem., p. 303.

(11) Ibid.

(12) Idem. p. 308.

(13) Engber, “Does the Trolley Problem Have a Problem?”

(14) Meacham, “The Good and The Right.”

(15) Heidegger, Being and Time, p. 160, translator’s footnote 2.

(16) de Waal, Primates and Philosophers, p. 4.

(17) Dholakia, “How Long Does Public Empathy Last After a Natural Disaster?”

(18) Meacham, “The Goodness Ethic.”


de Waal, Frans. Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006.

Dholakia, Utpal. “How Long Does Public Empathy Last After a Natural Disaster?” Online publication as of 18 March 2022.

Engber, Daniel. “Does the Trolley Problem Have a Problem?” Online publication as of 18 March 2022.

Foot, Philippa. “The Problem of Abortion and the Doctrine of Double Effect.” The Oxford Review No. 5 (1967), pp. 5-15. Online publication,SP09/foot.pdf as of 12 March 2022. Reprinted in Foot, Virtues and Vices (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978), pp. 19-32).

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

Meacham, Bill. “The Good and The Right.” Online publication

Meacham, Bill. “The Goodness Ethic.” Online publication

Taurek, John M. “Should The Numbers Count?” Philosophy and Public Affairs Vol. 6, No. 4 (Summer, 1977),
pp. 293-316. Online publication as of 2 March 2015.

Wikipedia, “Utilitarianism.” Online publication as of 18 March 2022.

Feb 25 22

Greatest Hits

by Bill Meacham

I am happy to announce that my writing is now being featured on planksip, an online journal dealing with philosophy, culture and media. Or maybe it’s a magazine; it’s hard to tell. The website features articles on a wide range of topics embellished with engaging graphics, and its editor asked me to contribute. So I did. I picked 30-odd essays, a sort of Greatest Hits, and the site features a different one each day. There’s even a video of me giving a firehose of ideas about morality; look under “Co-Create” or find it on Youtube. There’s lots of fascinating content besides mine on planksip, so check it out at

Jan 17 22

Teleological Evolution

by Bill Meacham

Most modern accounts of evolution dismiss the idea that the process is in any way teleological, that is, directed toward a goal. Evolution is a blind, mechanical process, they say, that just happened to produce all the complex forms of life we know today, including human beings. There was no foresight or intention to do so. But Steve Talbott, Senior Researcher at The Nature Institute in upstate New York, disagrees. He thinks evolution does show foresight and intention, as does life in general. This essay examines the issue in some detail. This one is a bit longer than usual, but bear with me. It gets positively cosmic at the end.

I. Two kinds of explanation

There is an explanatory tension between teleological explanations, which look toward the future, and causal-mechanical explanations, which look toward the past; and that tension reveals fundamentally different ways of viewing the world.

Causal-mechanical explanations apply to the realm of the non-living, where desires and beliefs about the future play no part. That a gas expands when heated has nothing to do with its desire to keep its temperature constant, even though that is just what happens, nor its belief that by expanding it can do so. The standard approach to physical explanation is by appeal to physical laws, regularities of behavior that are so universal that we depend on them. In technical terms, this approach is called the deductive-nomological method of explanation. It accounts for particular events by showing how they can be deduced from law-like regularities that pertain to them. (The Greek word nomos means law.)(1) The law is that when gas is heated it always expands if it has room to do so. We heat some gas and confidently expect it to expand because that’s what gas always does. No agency is involved, and no view toward the future. The cause of the expansion, the heat we applied to it, lies entirely in the past.

Teleology looks toward the future. The word “teleology” comes from a Greek root, telos, that literally means end or conclusion, and by extension means goal or purpose, what is to be achieved at the end of striving toward something. A teleological account of an activity or behavior explains it by citing its purpose or goal. Such an explanation cites a future state of affairs toward which behavior is directed rather than an antecedent state that caused it.(2)

Teleology is most easily understood in human affairs. We act for reasons directed at the future all the time. We go to the store in order to buy some things we need or want. We go to work in order to earn money. We go to school in order to learn things. We study philosophy because we seek wisdom, or at least some intellectual entertainment. Our actions are based on our desires—to get some goods, some money, an education, wisdom, etc.—and our beliefs about what will bring our desires to fruition. We look to a future state of affairs to explain what we are doing. In a word, we are agents with desires, beliefs, goals and intentions.

We explain physical behavior causally and mechanically, and we explain human activity teleologically. Philosophical discussion abounds about whether human activity can be explained causally and mechanically as well. Do our beliefs and desires cause our behavior? In other words, is human activity caused by events in its past, just as physical movement is? In this essay I bypass that question, noting only that for practical purposes, teleological explanations do, in fact, succeed in accounting for a great deal of human behavior.

So far, so good. But what about biology—living organisms and systems—in general (of which humans are but one example)? It seems quite natural and appropriate to use teleology, or goal-directness, employing language such as “in order to,” to explain biological activity and function. A person goes to the kitchen in order get a drink; a cat climbs a tree to get away from a dog; a spider runs across its web in order to get to the prey ensnared there. “In order to” seems quite natural as an explanation for all these activities. A mammal sweats in order to keeps its temperature down; a polar bear has white fur in order to camouflage it against the snow; a heart beats in order to pump blood. All these functions seem to be designed to accomplish an end. “In order to” sounds reasonable here as well. But is that phrase a mere metaphor, or is there something real going on?

II. Function

It used to be thought that it is more than a metaphor. We understand function as a result of deliberate design from our experience as agents. The function of a carburetor is to mix fuel and air so they can burn in a controlled way, and it has that function because someone designed it so. For much of human history, people saw what looks like design in living organisms and thought it was evidence of a grand designer, God or at least a demiurge. But now we think that mechanical causality can account for the evolution of biological function with no need to appeal to a conscious designer. We think so because mechanical causality explains so much of the physical world, and organisms are, undeniably, physical entities. But in order to avoid appeal to a conscious designer, we need something to take its place. In recent years philosophers of biology have come to something of a consensus on the details of how causal-mechanical explanations can account for function.(3) That account contains two pieces: what something does and how it came to be.

We recognize function by what an element does to contribute to the larger system of which it is a part. If an element contributes in some way to the ongoing health, operation or maintenance of the system, we call that contribution its function. The carburetor, by enabling controlled combustion of fuel, enables the vehicle to move. The heart, by pumping blood, keeps the organism alive.

A thing’s function is more than just its effects. A heart both pumps blood and makes noise. Why do we say that pumping blood is its function and making noise is not? Because pumping blood contributes to the well-being of the organism, but making noise is just a byproduct. A silent heart would contribute to well-being just as well as a noisy one, but a heart-like organ that only made noise and did not pump blood would not.

Not all function is designed function. Take for example a piece of debris that lodges in a small stream, blocking the flow. As time passes, other bits of leaves, twigs, larger branches and so forth lodge there as well. After a while the pile of stuff has formed a check dam, not only impeding the flow but forming a small pond. In turn, grasses and other plants grow there, using the moisture for sustenance. We can say that the debris functions as a check dam and that its contribution is to nurture the plant life, but we don’t say that it is or was designed to do so. To fully attribute function to something, we need to take into account not only what it does but how it came to be. Mere accident does not suffice.

For agential functions, the history is obvious: someone decided what the element needed to do and designed it that way. For biological functions, the history is how the element contributed to the survival and reproduction of the organism’s ancestors, and thereby to its own continued existence. Primitive multi-celled animals had some way to move fluid around in their bodies. As time progressed and animals became more complex, the heart emerged as an organ to pump blood. Those animals with more efficient hearts had more offspring than those with less efficient hearts. Over aeons of time, the human heart as we know it came to exist.(4) In place of deliberately designed function, we have function produced through natural selection. By analogy, we can call this process design by natural selection, but no conscious, deliberate designer is postulated.(5)

The causal-mechanical explanation of biological function parallels the account of intentional design of an artifact by a conscious agent. Each has two parts. The agential account is this:

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

The causal-mechanical account is this:

  • An element has a function if it contributes in some way to 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.

(To be more precise, the element must have contributed to the differential fitness of the organism’s ancestors rather than to a specific existing organism. Evolutionary psychologists Tooby and Cosmides say “… the function of a design refers solely to how it systematically caused its own propagation in ancestral environments” and not to what it contributes to an existing organism’s well-being.(6) But in most cases the existing organism is similar enough to its ancestors that the distinction is moot.)

In both kinds of explanation, we can understand the function of something by asking three questions:

  • What contribution does it make to the whole of which it is a part?
  • What brought it to this state? How did it get here?
  • What does it aim at?

Only the third of these is specifically agential and properly called “teleological.” The causal-mechanical account of biological function reduces its apparent teleology to the kind of causality familiar to the physical sciences. We recognize the success of the physical sciences in explaining things and giving us the means to control them. We apply the same method to biology in hopes of replicating that success.

III. Biological teleology

But does the causal-mechanical account really explain biology sufficiently? Talbott thinks not. He argues that living beings are quite different from non-living things. Although some speak of plants and animals as sorts of machines, they are not like machines at all.

When we consider machines, we find parts arranged in certain ways to form wholes. Each part has a function that enables the machine as a whole to perform a function external to it, a function assigned by its designer. When we consider living organisms, we also find parts, i.e. organs, arranged to form wholes. Each organ contributes to the life of the whole, but each whole has functions that are internal to it. As Aristotle noted, the primary function of living beings is to stay alive. Without being alive, they cannot do anything else. (Plants, non-human animals and humans have different ways of staying alive, but that is a different topic.)

In machines, each part is exactly that, a part. It doesn’t do anything and does not make sense outside of the machine as a whole. But in living organisms, the parts are themselves wholes. We find, Talbott says, “wholes embedded within still larger wholes.”(7) Each cell is a whole of a sort. It has a boundary, the cell wall, and components within that boundary, such as the cytoplasm, the nucleus and so forth. Cells are contained within organs, such as the heart, the lungs, the liver and others. Each organ is also a whole of a sort, having a boundary that encloses the component cells. And organisms such as fungi, plants and animals are wholes, each having a boundary that encloses its component organs. Beyond individual organisms are ecosystems, which have boundaries that enclose their component organisms, and, still larger, ecozones, bioregions and the like. Wholes composed of other wholes are found throughout the entire web of life.

The operation of the parts of a machine can be described fully by reference to physical laws. The amount of fuel drawn into a carburetor depends precisely on the air pressure in the venturi tube. But the operation of the elements within living systems cannot be so precisely defined. We find uncertainty on several levels: the cell, the organ, the organism itself and, Talbott asserts, the evolution of generations of the organism over time.

The molecules within a cell move around in ways that would be extremely hard to predict in terms of physical law; they are functionally indeterminate. And even if we could determine them, the movements within each cell are so unique and nonrecurrent that no law-like regularity from cell to cell can be found. What does determine what they do is the cell as a whole. Talbott says

The cell as a whole exhibits its own specific character and regularity despite the virtually infinite degrees of freedom collectively possessed by its molecular constituents …. The detailed activity, with all its variability and lack of rigid constraint, turns out to be disciplined in a well-directed way toward fulfilling the needs of the cell. The details somehow participate in and reflect their larger context ….

And we find the same thing when we consider the embryonic development of organs. Again, Talbott:

If the experimentalist removes a limb bud from an embryonic amphibian, mixes up the entire cluster of cells, and then restores the now disordered group of cells to its proper context in the embryo, a normal limb will still develop. Extreme positional freedom among those cells is compatible with the ultimately reliable formation of the limb as a whole. In organisms more generally, an astonishing degree of cell-to-cell variation gives way to remarkably coherent results at the level of tissues and organs.

Similarly, a very young animal embryo contains relatively few different types of cells. They differentiate into hundreds of different cell types in the mature body: cells of the retina, of the heart, of the liver, the bones, the pancreas, the brain and more. What determines the ultimate destination of a specific stem cell? Not physical laws. Rather, says Talbott, it is the “power of the living organism as a whole.”

This power of the organism as a whole is central to Talbott’s conception of life. Following biologist Paul Weiss, he says “the character of a living context shapes and informs its parts, and cannot be understood as merely a deterministic result of those parts.” In other words, in living beings we find a top-down influence. What happens at a micro level is determined by the aims of the macro level, and not vice-versa. This happens at the level of molecules within cells, of cells within organs and of organs within organisms. And, says Talbott, it happens at the level of biological evolution as well.

Contrary to the usual causal-mechanical account of evolution, Talbott says that “organisms in populations thrive or die off in a manner governed by the evolutionary outcome toward which they are headed [and] the pattern of thriving and dying off … becomes what it is because of that outcome.” Somehow there is a species-level goal, and successive generations of organisms evolve toward it.

IV. Mentality

How can this be? The answer has to do with mind. First, note that the aims of the macro level are not the aims of an individual organism, but rather the aims of the type or form of the organism. The aims of an individual organism are things like chasing a particular prey animal for food or growing roots toward a particular source of water. The aims of the form of an organism are things like influencing stem cells to become the specific organs appropriate to that organism. Both types of aims involve envisioning something in the future rather than merely responding to things in the past. There is, fairly obviously, a mental component in each individual organism. Talbott asserts that a mental component is found in the form of the organism as well. He says,

We need to distinguish between the intelligence an organism possesses and that by which it is possessed—between the intelligence it consciously exercises (if any), and that which runs deeper …, between the intelligence employing a brain, and the still more profound intelligence capable of forming that brain.

He speaks of organic forms possessing “meaning,” “intentional narrative,” “narrative significance” and “purpose.” He says “biological processes in the present are always in some sense—and in a meaningful (‘thoughtful’), non-machine-like manner—orienting themselves toward a not-yet-realized future.” They possess “active biological wisdom and intention.” All of these words and phrases have to do with mind.

And he extends this way of thinking to the whole process of biological evolution:

Evolution has a living, well-organized, well-coordinated, well-directed character analogous to that of individual development. … Instead of saying, “The most successful reproducers determine the future of the species”, we should say, “Those organisms representing the future of the species determine, over the long haul, what sort of individuals will become the most successful reproducers”.

In other words, just as the biological development of individuals is purposive, future-oriented and teleological, so is the whole process of biological evolution of species.

V. The big picture: Panpsychism and beyond

All of this no doubt sounds a bit mystical, as well it might. In this view, mentality pervades much more than individual entities. It is obvious that we humans have a mental aspect. We observe ourselves thinking private thoughts, feeling private feelings, envisioning past and future events, planning future endeavors and the like. It is not hard to imagine animals and even plants having similar powers. I expect Talbott would agree that indeed every living being down to the simplest single-cell organism has some degree of mentality, the subjective aspect of its ability to take into account its surroundings.

Going further—and it is not clear that Talbott goes this far, but I will—the metaphysical theory of panpsychism asserts that mentality extends to the most basic units of physical reality. Everything has both a physical and a mental aspect, an aspect observable by many and an aspect observable only by one, the entity itself. The attempt to reduce biological teleology to a causal-mechanical model is based on the desire for a unified explanatory theory of everything, and because the causal-mechanical model works so well in so many domains, people attempt to extend it to the biological. I have argued that it would make more sense to go the other way around, to base our model of reality on what is living rather than one what is not. I think Talbott’s view of the directedness of biological evolution is at least compatible with such a panpsychist view. And it suggests something even more.

If we say that evolution is purposive and oriented toward a future goal, it seems reasonable to ask whose purpose it is and to what end state it is aimed. Talbott is not a theist. He disclaims the existence of an external guiding power, and he denies any conscious aiming or planning by a deity. He speaks instead of “the agency and developmental powers of organisms and communities of organisms.” Unfortunately, that is a bit vague. How can the form of an organism have developmental powers? How can a community of organisms have the singleness of purpose that directs the evolution of species to some end?

The answer is to assume that individuals are not as separate mentally as we think. Mentality suffuses and pervades all beings; and 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.(8)

If the assumption that mentality leaks from mind to mind is true—and it is highly speculative, but it accords with Talbott’s view—then the mental image of the fully developed state of an embryo of a certain species could be physically based in the merged mentality of all the individuals of that species. And the end state of evolutionary progress, or at least its direction, could be physically based in the merged mentality of all beings.

The merged mentality of all beings has been called by many names: the One, the All, Brahman, the Void, Allah, the Tao, God, the Spirit-that-moves-in-all-things and many others. For now I will call it the Oversoul, a translation of the Sanskrit word Paramatman, which means Supreme Self. The Oversoul knows all beings from the inside, as it were, by a kind of divine telepathy. It knows the world through each being’s senses. It sees the world through our eyes and hears through our ears. And it is not just a passive observer; it animates all beings as well. It is not an external god, but an internal presence. Thus it can envision exactly the sort of forward-looking aims that Talbott ascribes to the form of organisms and communities of organisms.

The great process panpsychist Alfred North Whitehead has a view of evolution quite similar to Talbott’s. He speaks of an “upward trend” of evolution toward increased complexity.(9) That trend is not driven by the past, but by a vision of the future. Whitehead says that the art of life is “first to be alive, secondly to be alive in a satisfactory way, and thirdly to acquire an increase in satisfaction.”(10) Given that the Oversoul animates all beings, that it is the source of life in all beings, it too has these aims. The evolutionary drive toward increased complexity and elegance of form is the Oversoul’s desire made manifest in the ongoing succession of generations of individual organisms. The Oversoul does not (I presume) envision a specific end state for each species. Instead, given the possibilities for change and adaptation at any given time, it acts as a lure, an attraction, persuading but not commanding new variations to emerge. We may say with the Sufi mystic that it aims at an increasingly rich state of love, harmony and beauty.

I am not a biologist and am not qualified to judge with authority Talbott’s assertions, but they certainly sound plausible. And, if my mystical speculations are correct, they have an implication for our conduct. If the aim of the Oversoul is increased satisfaction in love, harmony and beauty, then we can participate in that satisfaction ourselves by promoting love, harmony and beauty in all that we do.


(1) Hempel, “Two Models of Scientific Explanation,” pp. 46-49.

(2) Sehon, Teleological Realism, p. 13.

(3) See, for example, Neander, “The teleological notion of function.”

(4) Stephenson, et. al., “The vertebrate heart: an evolutionary perspective.”

(5) Ayala, “Darwin’s greatest discovery: Design without designer.”

(6) Tooby and Cosmides, “Toward Mapping the Evolved Functional Organization of Mind and Brain,” p. 180.

(7) Talbott, “Evolution As It Was Meant To Be — An Overview.” All subsequent references to Talbott are to this article.

(8) This idea is elaborated in my “A Whiteheadian Solution to the Combination Problem.”

(9) Whitehead, The Function of Reason, pp. 7, 24.

(8) Ibid., p. 8.


Ayala, Francisco J. “Darwin’s greatest discovery: Design without designer.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS) Vol. 104, Suppl. 1, 15 May 2007, pp. 8567–8573. Online publication as of 10 August 2018.

Hempel, Carl. “Two Models of Scientific Explanation”. In Yuri Balashov & Alexander Rosenberg (eds.), Philosophy of Science: Contemporary Readings. Routledge. pp. 45-55 (2002). Online publication as of 18 January 2018.

Meacham, Bill. “A Whiteheadian Solution to the Combination Problem.” Online publication

Neander, Karen. “The teleological notion of function.” Australasian Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 69, No. 4, December 1991. Online publication and as of 11 August 2018.

Sehon, Scott. Teleological Realism: Mind, Agency, and Explanation, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2005.

Stephenson, Andrea, Justin W. Adams and Mauro Vaccarezza. “The vertebrate heart: an evolutionary perspective.” Journal of Anatomy, 14 September 2017. Online publication as of 11 August 2018.

Talbott, Stephen L. (2019) “Evolution As It Was Meant To Be — An Overview.” Online publication as of 16 January 2022.

Tooby, John, and Leda Cosmides. “Toward Mapping the Evolved Functional Organization of Mind and Brain.” In Elliott Sober (ed.), Conceptual Issues in Evolutionary Biology, 3rd ed. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2006, pp. 175-195. Online publication as of 15 February 2018.

Whitehead, Alfred North. The Function of Reason. Boston: Beacon Press, 1929.

Oct 12 21

On Dennett’s Denial of Qualitative Experience

by Bill Meacham

A few weeks ago I hosted an online seminar for the Philosophy Club on Daniel Dennett’s surprising assertion that our experience has no qualitative or phenomenal features. I have posted the video on YouTube at, but it is two hours long, so here is a summary.

Dennett’s paper “Quining Qualia” attempts to convince us that there are no such things as qualia. “Qualia” is an unfortunate term of art in philosophy of mind. A plural term, it refers to the personal, subjective qualities of our experience; and it’s unfortunate because it has a number of different meanings.(1) Hence it’s unclear what an individual one would be. You would expect the singular to be “qualium,” but in the literature the singular is “quale” (pronounced “kwol-ay”).(2) And the plural of that term ought to be “quales,” but such is not the case.

Here is Dennett’s introduction to the term:

‘Qualia’ is an unfamiliar term for something that could not be more familiar to each of us: the ways things seem to us. As is so often the case with philosophical jargon, it is easier to give examples than to give a definition of the term. Look at a glass of milk at sunset; the way it looks to you—the particular, personal, subjective visual quality of the glass of milk—is the quale of your visual experience at the moment. The way the milk tastes to you then is another, gustatory quale, and how it sounds to you as you swallow is an auditory quale. These various ‘properties of conscious experience’ are prime examples of qualia.(3)

Dennett’s thesis is that “there are no such properties as qualia.”(4) In other words, he denies that there are any subjective, qualitative features of episodes of being conscious. The redness of a red apple, the greenness of a green one, the pain of a headache, the taste of a good Pilsner, the coolness of a morning breeze—all these are illusory, says Dennett; they don’t really exist.

Stated baldly like that, the thesis seems ridiculous. Subjective, qualitative features of being conscious may be ontologically different from physical things in that they are private, not public, but that hardly means they don’t exist.

Dennett tries to get us to understand his point of view by means of various “intuition pumps.” These are imaginative scenarios designed to undercut our everyday intuition that of course the color of an apple as it appears to us exists. Here’s one:

Suppose a red apple is set on the table before us. We can all agree that something is there, that it is an apple and that it is red. Those are the objective, public facts. But is my subjective quality of redness the same as yours? Perhaps if I could get in your mind somehow I might find that the color as it appears to you is different from the color as it appears to me. Is such a state of affairs possible? The standard answer to this conundrum is that (a) in normal life there is no way to verify or disprove the proposition that my quality of redness is different from yours and that (b) it doesn’t matter. We both learned words for color by being shown public colored objects, so our verbal behavior will match even if we experience entirely different subjective colors. This thought experiment shows that subjective qualities are irrelevant. But does it show that they don’t exist?

Here’s another intuition pump: Imagine two coffee tasters, Mr. Chase and Mr. Sanborn. They are in quality control, and their job is to ensure that the flavor of the coffee their company makes is consistent over time. After a few years Chase complains that although the flavor of the coffee has remained the same, he doesn’t like it as much any more. Sanborn complains that the flavor of the coffee has not remained the same; it has changed, and now he doesn’t like it any more either. One of them says the flavor has not changed, and the other says the flavor has changed. Which one is right? There’s no way to tell from their accounts of their subjective experience alone.(5)

Dennett observes that there are several ways to explain what has happened to these two gentlemen. In Chase’s case, perhaps the way the coffee tastes to him is the same as before (his coffee-taste qualia are unchanged), but his aesthetic standards have changed. Or perhaps his aesthetic standards are the same, but unbeknownst to him coffee now tastes different; its subjective flavor has shifted imperceptibly, little by little. Or perhaps it is some combination of the two.

Similarly for Sanborn. Perhaps the coffee does indeed taste different from before, and his aesthetic standards are the same. Or perhaps the coffee actually tastes the same, but his aesthetic standards have shifted, imperceptibly, little by little. Or perhaps it is some combination of the two.

In both cases, there are two neurophysiological factors to consider: perceptual processes that produce the felt sensations and cognitive processes that produce the aesthetic judgments about them. Maybe one has changed and the other has remained the same, or vice versa, or both have changed. We can’t tell without further testing, for instance having the two do blind taste tests to see whether they can really discriminate between slightly different flavors and whether they can detect instances of the same flavor. Dennett’s point is that the subjective aspects of each person’s experience alone can’t answer the question of what really happened since they first started tasting coffee.

Regardless of the outcome of tests, however, something private remains, right? The etiology of their experience doesn’t change the fact that each of them knows how the coffee tastes in the moment of tasting. Dennett’s objection to this observation is instructive. He says

But if absolutely nothing follows from this presumed knowledge—nothing, for instance, that would shed any light on the different psychological claims that might be true of Chase or Sanborn—what is the point of asserting that one has it?(6)

What is the point indeed? From a purely objective, third-person point of view, Dennett is right. Subjective qualities don’t matter, and it is useless to talk about them. But can we then infer that they don’t exist?

Dennett is not a dummy. The key to understanding him is that his whole approach to subjective qualities and to our capacity to be conscious in general is from a third-person point of view. This has been the case since early in his career. In 1987 he wrote “I propose to see … just what the mind looks like from the third-person, materialistic perspective of contemporary science.”(7) This approach is evident in several passages in “Quining Qualia.”

Far from being directly or immediately apprehensible properties of our experience, [qualia] are properties whose changes or constancies are either entirely beyond our ken, or inferrable (at best) from ‘third-person’ examinations of our behavioral and physiological reaction patterns.(8) (emphasis added)

Speaking of coming to like the taste of cauliflower after having detested it, he says

There is in any event no reason to be cowed into supposing that my cauliflower experiences have some intrinsic properties behind, or in addition to, their various dispositional, reaction-provoking properties.(9) (emphasis added)

Speaking of wearing glasses that invert the visual field, he says

Only a very naive view of visual perception could sustain the idea that one’s visual field has a property of right-side-upness or upside-downness independent of one’s dispositions to react to it.(10) (emphasis added)

What’s important to Dennett is what can be observed publicly: actual reactions and dispositions to react. Wondering about recognizing a bird call after hearing it once, he goes so far as to identify experience with overt reaction:

Nor can I know whether I would react the same (have the same experience) if I were presented with what was, by all physical measures, a [second bird call sound] identical to the first.(11) (emphasis added)

What’s going on here is a sort of willful blindness. Dennett starts by considering only third-person, objective evidence. Then he offers lots of intuition pump scenarios to show that the qualities of subjective experiences have no explanatory role to play. Then he asserts that therefore such subjective qualities don’t exist. The flaw is obvious: by what rule of inference can you move from something having no explanatory role to its non-existence? There is none.

If Dennett had been more explicit about his parameters in this paper—that he restricts his program to third-person observation—then his theory would at least elicit fewer howls of outrage.(12) If all you are going to consider is third-person objective evidence, then first-person subjective qualities are indeed irrelevant because you can’t measure them. Within that framework you can reasonably assert that for practical purposes they don’t exist. But that works only within the framework.

Dennett asserts that there can be no first-person science.(13) That’s plausible, but we are doing philosophy, not science. Philosophy in its original sense as the search for wisdom cannot afford to overlook the first person. Comments in the seminar by former teacher Phil Chan of San Diego illustrate what I am talking about.(14)

Chan once had a husband and wife in his class on color theory. The husband was a machinist whose approach to projects was to find ways to measure them. He wanted accuracy and precision. Trying to get a particular shade of red, he asked for the exact proportions of red and yellow pigments. But there was no way to tell because different paint manufacturers have different formulations with slightly different hues. His wife had a different approach. She would mix the colors on her palette and look at the result to see if it was what she wanted. If not, she would add a bit of this or a bit of that until she got the desired shade. The husband’s approach was quantitative, objective and measurable; the wife’s approach was experiential, subjective and feeling. Hers worked better.

The objective, third-person, scientific approach to inquiry has given us lots of wonderful things, like computers and medicines and all the other accoutrements of modern life. But a first-person, subjective approach to the qualities of things we experience gives us a richer understanding of life as it is lived and the possibility of acquiring the wisdom to live it well.


(1) Tye (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy), “Qualia.”

(2) Kind (Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy), “Qualia.”

(3) Dennett, “Quining Qualia,” p. 381.

(4) Ibid.

(5) Idem., pp. 389-391.

(6) Idem., p. 392.

(7) Dennett, The Intentional Stance, p. 7.

(8) Dennett, “Quining Qualia,” p. 396.

(9) Idem., p. 399.

(10) Ibid.

(11) Idem., p. 405.

(12) See, for instance, Strawson, “The Consciousness Deniers.”

(13) Dennett, “The Fantasy of First-Person Science.”

(14) Meacham, et. al. “On Dennett’s Denial of Qualitative Experience” starting at 1:50:30.


Dennett, Daniel. “Quining Qualia.” A. Goldman, ed. Readings in Philosophy and Cognitive Science. Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 1993, pp. 381-414. Online publication as of 23 August 2021.

Dennett, Daniel. The Intentional Stance. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1990.

Dennett, Daniel. “The Fantasy of First-Person Science.” Online publication as of 10 October 2021.

Kind, Amy. “Qualia.” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Online publication as of 9 October 2021.

Meacham, Bill, et. al. “On Dennett’s Denial of Qualitative Experience.” Online video as of 10 October 2021.

Strawson, Galen. “The Consciousness Deniers.” New York: New York Review of Books, 13 March 2018. Online publication as of 5 August 2018.

Tye, Michael. “Qualia.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2021 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), Online publication as of 9 September 2021.

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.


(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.


Cobb, John B. Jr. Whitehead Word Book, Claremont, CA: P&F Press, 2008. Online publication as of 8 August 2021.

Frankish, Keith. “Why panpsychism fails to solve the mystery of consciousness.” Online publication as of 19 January 2019.

James, William. The Principles of Psychology Vol. I. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1918. Online publication 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

Rosza, Matthew. “Panpsychism, the idea that inanimate objects have consciousness, gains steam in science communities.” Online publication 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 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.


(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.”


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 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 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 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 as of 9 June 2020.

James, William. The Principles of Psychology, Vol. I. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1918. Online publication as of 16 November 2020.

Spiegelberg, Herbert, and Walter Biemel. “Phenomenology.” Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 2017: Encyclopædia Britannica, inc. Online publication 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 as of 3 April 2021.