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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.

Apr 27 21

Self after Death

by Bill Meacham

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

(4) Idem, p. 296.

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

(6) Wikipedia, “Nirvana.”


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

James, William. Psychology (Briefer Course). New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1892. Online publication as of 19 January 2021.

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

Wikipedia. “Nirvana.” Online publication as of 17 April 2021.

Nov 16 20

Some Aspects of Being Conscious

by Bill Meacham

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What he argues against is the following thesis:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

(3) Wikipedia, “Mental representation.”

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

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

(6) vanMarle, “Brainy Babies.”


Applebaum, Marc. “Key ideas in phenomenology: The natural attitude.” Online publication as of 13 November 2020.

Block, Ned. “On a confusion about a function of consciousness.” Behavioral And Brain Sciences (1995) vol. 18, pp. 227-287. Online publication as of 12 September 2014.

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 Talk About Subjectivity (Don’t Say ‘Consciousness’).” Online publication

vanMarle, Kristy. “Brainy Babies.” Online publication as of 14 November 2020.

Wikipedia. “Mental representation.” Online publication as of 12 November 2020.

Aug 4 20

Pragmatism and The Good

by Bill Meacham

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

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

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

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

Pragmatic Method

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

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

James’ formulation is similar:

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

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

Says Peirce,

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

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

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

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

Historical Conceptions of the Good

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

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

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

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

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

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

Goodness Considered Pragmatically

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Practical Import

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

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

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

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

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

Interconnected World

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

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

In another place he says

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

(6) Wikipedia, “Form of the Good.”

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

(8) Idem., 509b.

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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