Arguing Idealisms: Epistemological

I have been having a whole bunch of fun thinking about idealism lately (and then immediately putting on my unoriginal theologian’s hat) [1].  Of course, there is a raft of meanings that people attach to the term idealist and obviously I can’t be meaning all meanings all the time, so I will only be speaking here about those that I find particularly compelling.  First, there is epistemological idealism, a family of views [2] that concerns itself with the contents of experience and which asserts that we cannot know objects in a mind-independent way (how this washes out is somewhat different for each theorist).  Then there is ontological idealism, which makes the much stronger assertion that reality is, in one way or another, at base fundamentally mental, not material.  I am going to present, across an indeterminate number of posts, some arguments for each that I have cooked-up myself.  I make no claim that these arguments are original to the history of philosophy – I wouldn’t know because during my undergraduate degree idealism wasn’t a big topic of discussion, due to too much worrying about free will in light of the obvious fact (?!) of causal determinism – but at least they are my own.  On, then, to…

Epistemic Idealism:

Of the two, epistemological idealism (henceforth: EI) is by far the easier to argue for and is actually, I have found, a quite common, if very much implicitly held, belief among scientifically literate people (and others besides) [3].  To put my cards on the table, I take EI very seriously – I haven’t encountered an argument yet that seriously threatened idealist skepticism of knowledge about the external world.  Although I may deal with such criticisms in some future post, at present I am interested in presenting my own reasons for accepting EI.  As such, I present the following argument:

Say I have two apples (yum!) and I want to know what colour they are.  No problem, I just look at them – “oh, one is red and one is green” – and that would count as sufficient evidence for most people that one of the apples is red and the other is green.  They could repeat the experiment and confirm my results.  If there was a large enough group of people, however, there would inevitably be a few colour blind people who would insist that “there are two green apples and what the heck is this ‘red’ thing you people are always on about?”  They would be doing the same experiment and actually getting different results.

A simulation of how the colour sighted and the colour blind would see the apples.

We cannot merely dismiss the colour blind as being wrong about the colour of the apples simply because there are fewer of them – after all, if we were in a hypothetical colour sighted minority we wouldn’t accept that red doesn’t exist simply because most everyone else couldn’t recognize it.  So what becomes obvious is that we have a problem, which is that the apples seem to be differently coloured (red and green) only within certain frames of reference (i.e. those including organisms with perceptual apparati like that of colour sighted human beings), while they are identically coloured within other frames of reference (e.g. those of colour blind human beings).  With this recognition it becomes easy to imagine further frames of reference in which the apples seem to be multi-coloured, or to have no colour at all, or even to be visually absent (e.g. worms don’t have eyes).

Still, the question stands: what colour(s) are the apples?  What is obvious is that we cannot answer the question by piling up a list of the apples’ seemings-to-be across the complete set of possible and actual frames of reference for the apples.  That such a piling-up of seemings will bring us closer to the facts of the matter is difficult to believe, particularly since in only a trivial number will they even have colour, let alone be red and/or green [4].  What we want to know is what colour the apples are independent of how they seem – that is, what colour are they from no frame of reference?  Unfortunately, this is impossible to answer.

For example, we might try to resolve the issue by use of science.  We know that our perceptual apparatus works in particular ways and acknowledges different colours in response to certain wavelengths of light reflected from the surface of objects, so we could simply measure the reflectivity properties of the apples.  But if that is what we choose to do, although we would be learning something potentially interesting and useful about them, we nevertheless wouldn’t have ascertained what colour they are, merely something about their light-reflective properties.  Or we could measure the wavelength of the light reflected from the apples, but again we will not have identified what colour the apples are.  We could note what is going on in our nervous systems when the light reaches our eyes, but certainly whatever that research reveals would definitely not tell us anything about the apples!

This argument, while familiar to any who have spent much time learning about human perceptual systems, is still, however, one step away from full-blown EI.  I will now take us the rest of the way.

In a deeper sense, the question of what colour the apples are is incoherent.  Remembering that we cannot identify the colour(s) of the apples except from some frame of reference, for there to be the seeing of a red and a green apple requires the presence of both the apples and of a perceiver capable of the perception of red and green alike.  I can see both colours but colour blind people can’t, even if we are looking at the same objects.  The apples are able to cause different perceptions of colour in different organisms on the basis of those organisms’ perceptual faculties being of the sort that are capable, in conjunction with the right external causes, of producing ‘red’- and ‘green’-experiences.  Were there no such organisms, there would be no such thing as experiences of ‘red’ or ‘green’.  So to ask what colour the apples are from no frame of reference in particular is to ask what the non-experience of experiential qualities – as caused by some object(s) – must be like, which is an obvious non-starter.

The implication of this is that colour is not a property of the objects at all!  Rather, colour is a perceptual experience that may be said to have been caused along the lines explained above, so the very most we could say about the apples is that they have the property of being the sort of things that can cause ‘red’- or ‘green’-experiences (under the right conditions).  Now, the same holds true for all properties and all objects.  A challenge for the reader: identify even a single property of some object that is not relative to some particular frame of reference.  I believe that there is nothing – nothing – that may be posited as an observer-independent property of any perceived object whatsoever.  In fact, we do no not perceive objects at all – there are only our perceptions.  This is EI.


[1] What can I say?  I was always kind of weird – definitely never much of an outdoors kid (sorry, Dad).

[2] Just assume from here on that I am speaking about families of views.  It’s too much work to provide an in-depth and subtle comparison between, say, Berkeley and Kant.  In addition, I would have to understand Kant.  Ha! :S

[3] Which brings me sharp jolts of Schadenfreude any time it becomes apparent.  The irony of my sciencey friends making idealist arguments about perception when the very thought of idealism itself is repellent to them… it’s just too delicious.

[4] I suppose one could say that God could clear it up, that if any frame of reference is objective, it’s his.  To  which I would respond: “what, does God have eyes?”


Anatta and Sunyata: Substantially Different Concepts?

(Did you get the joke?)

Perhaps someone out there with deeper knowledge of the doctrinal subtleties of this can help clear this up for me, but I have to admit that I’m hard pressed to find a big, hairy difference between the two.

Anatta can be interpreted strictly to mean that there is nothing whatsoever that arises in perception that is or is a property of a self, soul, me, etc.  This would be a completely accurate interpretation.  This is also exactly identical to the emptiness of ‘the self’.  So far, so good.  But if we allow a somewhat greater degree of freedom in interpretation, we could say that anatta also applies to all phenomena, not simply the putative self – all things are without their own self-nature (that is, there is nothing that is or is a property of a self of those objects).  How do we know this?  Anicca: if things had their own self-nature, they would not change, now would they?  Which is precisely the evidence brought out to support the supposedly different (and putatively superior) Mahayana doctrine of emptiness.

Now, of course, anatta is (almost?) always used in Theravada parlance to refer to one’s own self, soul, me, ‘I’ (etc.) as a matter of training.  Theravada theory and practice aims to  produce arahants through the clear perception of the emptiness of their own selves – it is not entirely clear whether it follows from this that arahants must therefore have overcome the misperception of inherent existence (or self) in external objects as well.  Regardless, this seems much less different than the sectarian cheerleaders for ‘higher’ yanas seem to suggest – it seems as though Theravadins do not talk about emptiness much because it’s not really relevant to their aims.  Does it boil down to this, or is there a real distinction that I’m missing here?

Postmodernism Taken Too Far, Not Taken Far Enough

A little while back I was having a conversation with a fellow student with whom I share a goodly number of perspectives.  Our conversation began on the topic of the absence of free will (of the kind that most take it for granted that we have) and the worry about the justice of punishment in light of that fact (if it is a fact)[1], but then it drifted into a general conversation about the ideological state of the West generally.  Interestingly, we both agreed that postmodernism (I doubt that I shall need to explain this idea to my readership) has proven a significant failure.  [2]  Now, we agreed that postmodernism had some useful perspectives on many issues – indeed, postmodern thought has definitely influenced my ways of thinking about things and I would be remiss in not saying so – but its over-application, or its being taken to extremes, has proven disastrous.

Take, for example, the doctrine that maintains that all beliefs are really ideologies of power, that all beliefs serve the political purposes of particular actors.  I think that there is some valuable insight here – particularly that beliefs and ideologies are used for power-politicking, and that the social and political order is always justified (at least in part) on the basis of claims about how the world ‘really’ is.  Also of importance is the insight that there is no uncontroversially objective access to reality, that the things we believe will invariably reflect our desires and needs.  These are some very important things to acknowledge, but when they are over-applied to the world, they result in obviously stupid notions.  For example, that the whole of modern science is just another ideology of power [3], so that any and all purported sex-based neurological distinctions are fabrications intended to promote patriarchal norms (Newton’s Principia ought to be renamed Newton’s Rape Manual).

The same analysis applies to ethics (and particularly to cross-cultural ethics).  Since ethical systems are based in the particularities of different cultures and their power structures, there actually is no way to judge between them, since any judgements we may make about another culture’s practices (e.g. slavery, female circumcision, burkas) will be done on the basis of our own beliefs.  As such, we cannot judge their moral validity without either making a category mistake [4] or doing violence on that culture: nonsense or imperialism.  This, too, should strike us as obviously wrong – though it may be true that I will be imposing my values on another culture should I argue that slavery or the burka are bad, it shouldn’t follow that what I am saying is without meaningful content or that it should not be said.  [5]

I have this suspicion, however, that these stances are the result of a failure to take postmodern ways of thought seriously enough.  If we accept that our beliefs are grounded in the social fabric, that our epistemology is tainted, this makes the giving of reasons even more important.  We can no longer trust that authorities [6] are right, so the justifications of their arguments are crucial.  Though we have to maintain a rigorously skeptical epistemology, we nevertheless can acknowledge that there are better and worse justifications for claims, justifications that are good enough to confirm belief and to act upon.  Similarly for cultural practices – their very groundlessness is what allows for their proliferation and creative variety.  We do not necessarily do wrong by promoting our way of life, since there is no one way of life that makes a fit for all human beings everywhere and throughout history – if we appreciate our way of life, that is enough to justify our partisanship, and if we don’t, that is justification enough to strive for reform.

Or am I missing something?  Maybe what I am suggesting is totally incompatible with postmodernism, rightly considered.  In that case, transcendence is required.  How to do it?


[1] This was the upshot of a class we both took on the topic of free will.

[2] I wonder whether this is evidence of an impending generational shift in ideas.  I sincerely hope so, since I am not a great fan of PM in the way it has influenced politics and much of academe.

[3] Not that this doesn’t mean politics doesn’t enter into scientific research – it certainly does, just not in the way that postmodernists claim.  From what I can tell, politics’ greatest impact on scientific institutions and inquiry is by influencing what the research questions will be.

[4] Since our values are incommensurable, judging a practice as ‘bad’ would be like judging a song for being inadequately red.

[5] Besides which, it is unclear to me how the giving of reasons can be considered ‘imperialism’.  Isn’t imperialism ultimately backed up by the application of force?  Aren’t reason-givings attempts to persuade without relying on force?

[6] Authorities of any sort, that is, not just the typical authorities pointed to by most postmodern theorists.

A Response to a Vegan Critic

In the comments section to my last post on vegetarianism, vlastimilvohanka posted some of his friend’s criticisms of my piece.  Three of the four were without philosophical content and so rather beside the point on a philosophy blog (but if you wish, you can find my response to them here).  The last one, however, was more philosophically substantive and, I believe, worth addressing:

4.  Even if the author did need dairy and eggs to survive, he makes a serious mistake when he reasons that if his diet supports industries that kill intelligent animals, he might as well go ahead and eat meat, thus supporting even more industries that kill animals. This would be like a general saying, “In order to defend ourselves, we must kill enemy combatants. But if we’re going to do that, we are no longer morally pure. We might as well go ahead and kill the women and children too.” The flaw in this reasoning should be obvious.

As I understand it – interpretation is required, unfortunately, since the author fails to make his reasoning explicit – the critique is dependent upon two different but closely linked claims. The first is that my claim “that the only morally consistent vegetarianism is veganism” is, in a word, wrong. There is room, on what I take to be my critic’s view, for the identification of a moral imperative for harm reduction with moral vegetarianism. The second is that from lacto-ovo vegetarianism’s failure to meet ethical purity standards, it does not follow that a vegetarian ought to abandon their vegetarianism for omnivory instead. It is these arguments that I will address here.

1.      Some Preliminary Statements and Definitions

I don’t suppose that it shall be necessary to define omnivory, while veganism is (or can be) defined simply as an avoidance of all animal products tout court. What stands in need of definition are ‘vegetarianism’ and its cognates. For the duration of this essay, by ‘vegetarian’ I shall be referring not to veganism (which is itself a variety of vegetarianism), but only to those diets that exclude flesh foods while accepting other animal products. On this definition, lacto-, ovo-, and lacto-ovo vegetarianism count, while pescetarianism – a diet that includes seafood but excludes all other flesh foods – does not (but, for some bizarre reason, is considered by many to be included under the vegetarian umbrella). Also, the mental distinction between vegetarianism as a dietary description and vegetarianism as a moral doctrine must be assiduously maintained – therefore, I shall be differentiating between the two as, respectively, ‘vegetarianism’ and ‘moral vegetarianism’ (the same goes for veganism and omnivory). This distinction is an important one to make, since a mere diet cannot be subject to claims of consistency or inconsistency, but a moral doctrine that prescribes a certain diet or set of specific dietary restrictions (e.g. abstention from pork products or the use of yeast in baking) most certainly can. Therefore, at risk of belabouring the point, I am confining myself to the discussion only of moral vegetarianism – the avoidance of flesh foods for reasons of personal distaste or the pursuit of expected health benefits resulting from their abandonment will not be under consideration here.  How, then, is moral vegetarianism to be defined?

As I understand it, the key doctrine of moral vegetarianism is that killing an animal is a wrong or, what is the same, impermissible act[1].  There are different routes used by vegetarian theorists to arrive at this point – for some it is axiomatic, for others it may be based upon animal consciousness or religious imperatives, and there are many more possible justifications for the doctrine – but that this is the crucial component of any moral vegetarianism cannot seriously be denied (the moral case for omnivory, for example, rests on the assumption, whether explicit or implicit, that killing an animal is not wrong simpliciter).  From this disavowal of killing, it is a short step to arguing against the permissibility of the consumption of meat, for obvious reasons.  What differentiates moral vegetarianism from moral veganism (which concurs with this line of argument so far) is that the former permits the use and consumption of animal products which are not harvested through killing (lacto-ovo vegetarianism), whereas the latter, for various reasons, does not.  Of course, I recognize that there is little chance that this (or any given) definition will command universal assent, but this particular account has, I believe, two particular virtues.  The first is that it is general enough and, I think, close enough to the doctrinal core of all moral vegetarianisms that it is a good enough proxy for any of them.  Second, is that this is the skeleton of the moral case for vegetarianism that I found compelling and, since the original essay was specifically about my reasons for and against adhering to a vegetarian diet, this is the appropriate definition to use.  Others may wish to argue for alternative core doctrines for moral vegetarianism, but they shall have to do so on their own time.

2.      My Basic Argument for Moral Inconsistency

The original argument I made was as follows.  If we turn our attention to dairy production, some of its realities become readily apparent.  Just as is the case for humans and other mammalian species, the milk given by dairy cows is intended for the nourishment of their offspring.  This means that in order to give milk dairy cows must be made and kept pregnant.  Like most mammalian species, the sex ratio for dairy cows is approximately 1:1 – for every female calf born, there is (statistically speaking) a male calf born.  The implication of this is that, as far as dairy production is concerned, just fewer than half of all calves are of no use (only a very small number of bulls is required to make and keep an army of dairy-cows pregnant).  Given that this is the case, something or other must be done with all these surplus males.  Even if a dairy-farmer wished to keep the males alive and well, the sheer (and growing) number of them would very quickly prove to be prohibitive[2] – ultimately, the solution is culling.  Much the same may be said for egg production.  With this fact in mind, the inconsistency of the moral case for a vegetarian diet is readily apparent.  Moral vegetarianism is premised upon the doctrine that the killing of animals is wrong, but dairy and egg production for the sake of human consumption necessitates the killing (of a very large number) of animals.  It is certainly not clear to me what meaningful difference exists between the killing of a cow so that one may eat steak and the killing of a cow so that one may drink milk or eat cheese – it seems a distinction without a difference.  For this reason, I suggest that a moral vegetarianism worth its salt actually cannot tolerate the adherence to a mere (lacto-ovo) vegetarian diet and must instead promote a vegan diet[3].  But even if this argument is right, there may be some means by which we might still reconcile moral vegetarianism to (dietary) vegetarianism, so the question is whether there is some other justification of vegetarianism that could be called a moral vegetarianism?

3.      The Inconsistency of Moral Vegetarianism as Harm Reduction

My critic’s example of the war-time general deciding to massacre civilians as a clear example of a moral wrong actually suggests a way to potentially save moral vegetarianism.  The implication of the example is, of course, that the general would be acting as morally as possible (given the circumstances) if he made all efforts to minimize the harms caused by his army.  Likewise, moral vegetarianism could be construed as the moral claim that killing animals for food is wrong and therefore, a minimization of harm (measured, in part, as number of animals killed) is imperative.  Unfortunately for moral vegetarians, this too is an inconsistent position, both for theoretical and practical reasons.

I first turn my attention toward the theoretical inconsistency of moral vegetarianism as harm reduction.  The main problem for this construal of moral vegetarianism is that it elides the distinction between what is wrong or impermissible and what is merely unfortunate or undesirable.  Generally, we think that if something is wrong, it simply ought not to be done, not that it ought to be done less frequently or to lesser extremes.  Take the example of torture – one thinks either that torture qua torture is wrong and ought not to be done, or that torture is acceptable under some certain set of circumstances (and provided the methods used are not disproportionate, etc.)[4].  Given this, it is difficult to see how a ‘moral vegetarianism’ that is equivalent to a harm reduction approach actually is a moral vegetarianism.  This is because even with the universal adoption of lacto-ovo vegetarianism by the population, it would still be the case that many animals will be killed to enable egg and dairy consumption.  Moral vegetarianism, however, takes it for granted that killing animals is impermissible.  ‘Moral vegetarian’ harm reduction must ultimately amount to the adoption of a vegan diet.  Otherwise, if instead ‘moral vegetarianism’ takes the position that such killing is merely unfortunate and worth minimizing, it is unclear what differentiates that position from a compassionate omnivory – especially in light of what is said below.

There is a very serious practical problem for the position that moral vegetarianism can be equivalent to harm reduction.  The problem is this – any harm reduction approach that is not vegan will necessarily demand the consumption of meat.  The reasoning is as follows.  All humans have a certain set of nutritional needs that must be satisfied in order to survive and to flourish.  If we are to allow the consumption of eggs and dairy products to meet some or all of those needs, there will necessarily be animals slaughtered.  Now we have a choice – we can either eat the slaughtered animals or not.  Obviously, if we are going to keep to a vegetarian diet we are not going to eat them.  Unfortunately, this will have the end result that more animals will be slaughtered than if we chose to eat the already dead ones.  This is because animal flesh is incontrovertibly a rich source of nutrition for human beings, a much richer source than either of eggs or dairy.  If we consumed the dead animals, we would much more quickly satisfy our nutritional needs than without doing so, but since we have chosen not to, we will have to make up the deficit through other means.  This most probably would mean more eggs and dairy, which means more producing animals, which means more animals slaughtered.

Of course, it will be argued that we could make up the difference elsewhere, through farming beans or somesuch – we could even use the slaughtered animals as fertilizer.  But this proposed solution fails.  One, it raises the question of why, if we are able to meet our nutritional needs without animal products (that is, on a vegan diet) and we are interested in minimizing harm, we would opt to consume eggs and dairy in the first place.  Second, it fails to account for the fact that with every step in the process, nutritional value is lost.  In the transition from slaughtered animal to fertilizer, we lose a lot of nutritional value, and so again for the transitions from fertilizer to plant food to processed plant food, etc.  Every bit of nutritional value lost at every point along the chain will eventually equal the nutritional value of a whole slaughtered animal, at which point that animal has been killed for no reason and harm is no longer at a minimum.  Third, it raises questions about for whose sake we are committed to our vegetarianism.  After all, it makes absolutely no difference to the dead animal what our intentions were when we killed it or what our plans are for its body once it is dead.  It begins to look suspiciously like we are avoiding eating the slaughtered animals not because we are actually committed to minimizing harm, but because we are squeamish about the implications of our failure (for whatever reason) to advocate veganism.

4.      From Inconsistency to Either Veganism or Omnivory

So, to briefly recap, moral vegetarianism is inconsistent in its advocacy of mere vegetarianism, because both egg and dairy production necessitate the killing of many animals, which stands in direct contradiction to the moral impermissibility of killing.  In order to avoid this inconsistency, moral vegetarianism must advocate vegan diets.  If moral vegetarianism is construed as harm reduction, however, it once again either collapses into veganism, or is inconsistent.  If it is inconsistent, it is because it willingly permits the slaughter of animals despite its own position that killing animals is impermissible.  Harm reduction plus the moral impermissibility of killing animals amounts to veganism, while harm reduction that admits the permissibility of killing animals is not meaningfully different from a compassionate omnivory.

What my critic accuses me of, and what I am eminently not guilty of, is having, at this point, decided that because my diet already causes some harm, then, for this reason alone, I “might as well go ahead and eat meat,” just as the general might as well go ahead and massacre the civilians[5].  This is so obviously stupid a thought, and so obviously not what took place (to quote myself: “[a]ll this led me to a reevaluation of what morality demanded of me as regards meat and meat-eating”) that it cannot have escaped his notice.  Indeed, his usage of “might as well” is intended to suggest the occurrence of a logical non sequitur where in fact there was none.  I say this because from the inconsistency of moral vegetarianism alone, omnivory clearly isn’t the only theoretical possibility – veganism is also an option (what isn’t an option, however, is to continue to eat eggs and dairy while imagining oneself some sort of morally superior being).  Having reached this point (and vegetarians who have read this essay will now be well on their way) one is faced with the stark reality of one’s diet.  Either killing to eat is wrong and should not be done at all, or it is not wrong to kill in order to eat.

Furthermore, if it is not wrong to kill in order to eat, it is hard to see any principled limiting factors on how often or how many animals one is permitted to eat (though numerous unprincipled factors will sway one’s judgement on this count).  For instance, if it is acceptable to swat one mosquito to save oneself from contracting a blood-borne disease, it is acceptable to swat any number of them – an endless addition of zeros still sums to zero.  And to return to his analogy of the war-time general, if it is acceptable to kill one enemy soldier in order to win a war, then it is acceptable to kill any number of enemy soldiers to win the war.  From this it does not follow that killing civilians is acceptable – this because killing civilians is an entirely different class of action from killing enemy combatants.  The real-world equivalent of his massacre analogy is if one were to make the leap from “killing animals to eat is morally permissible” to “killing animals for any reason whatsoever (e.g. fun, curiosity) is morally permissible.”  That would be a non sequitur, but it is certainly not what I have argued for.

Here, then, is the real crux of the issue – he and I have irreconcilable differences of opinion over the nutritional feasibility of veganism.  I think it can’t work and that to think the opposite is to be ignoring reality in favour of an ideology.  He obviously thinks me stupid (or evil, or deluded), else his critique wouldn’t have had the tone that it did[6, 7].  But if I am right about veganism being an inadequate diet for human flourishing (and the evidence in favour of veganism is less than overwhelming), then it can no more be wrong for a human being to consume animals for sustenance than it is for the wolf, barring some cosmic principle of morality that puts me and the wolf equally in the wrong.  If I am incorrect, however, then veganism is the only morally consistent position left (and vegans should be pleased about this).  The fact remains, however, that one either believes that killing animals in order to eat is wrong, or it isn’t.  I made my choice.



[1] Some moral vegetarianisms may build in exceptions to this doctrine, just as many moral theorists allow that killing a human in self-defence is permissible.  Tom Reagan, for instance, permits the killing and consumption of animal flesh in life-or-death situations.

[2] This is so for reasons of cost, but also for reasons of pure practicality.  Feeding and housing these animals would prove very difficult to do, requiring ever greater utilization of unmolested natural lands for farming (for feed) and for living-space for these animals.  Not to mention, bulls do not get along well.

[3] Perhaps, in some science fiction future wherein we have altered the genetic code of dairy cows such that the sex ratio is precisely set so as to avoid the need for culls, this will no longer be the case, but so long as dairy production remains what it is, veganism is the only morally consistent vegetarianism.

[4] This is not to say, of course, that if one believes something to be wrong he cannot argue for taking measures intended to effect a general reduction in its occurrence (for instance, making illegal the manufacture, sale, and possession of date rape drugs).  What it does mean, however, is that harm reduction is ultimately inappropriate for something that is wrong, especially when it is as susceptible to control as what we put in our mouths.

[5] I feel that I ought to point out just how absurd the posited moral equivalence between a militarily pointless massacre of civilians and the slaughtering of chickens to make soup really is.  I can’t imagine that anyone who isn’t a vegan would accept that these cases really are analogous.

[6] But then, the criticism wasn’t really directed at me (I only know of it because his friend reposted here) – it was really for the benefit of his fellow vegans.

[7] Update: He responds in the comment below that he did not intend to make this impression.  I think it appropriate to mention this and I have apologized for my cognitively structuring his comments in a negative way.

Gee Whiz!: Extensive Exuberance and Cognitive Confabulation

The dynamic duo! Hmm, they sure do look happy…

Andy Clark and David Chalmers present a view of the mind in their appropriately titled article, The Extended Mind, that is, in a word, incredible.  It is my aim in this paper to demonstrate why one should find their view to be so, in terms both of its functionalist foundations and for its strongly counter-intuitive consequences (particularly as these concern personal identity).  Before I can present my criticism, however, the view itself must be presented.

Put succinctly, Clark and Chalmers’ view is that cognition and the mind literally extend beyond the boundaries of our physical bodies and out into the surrounding environment – as they put it, “[c]ognitive processes ain’t (all) in the head!”  One may, at this juncture, be tempted simply to proclaim their insanity and to leave it at that (I certainly am) but the pair has a reasonable seeming set of conditions for their view that, when satisfied, makes it much less obviously crazy seeming.  The first condition states that “[i]f, as we confront some task, a part of the world functions as a process which, were it done in the head, [sic] we would have no hesitation in recognizing as part of the cognitive process, then that part of the world is… part of the cognitive process.”  However, it is not simply that there is something outside the skull that performs a cognitive function that is then employed by another entity1 that makes external thing a part of the entity’s mind.  In order for this to be so, a second condition must be met – if any feature of the external world is to be considered a part of a mind, then it must be integrated with other components (some of which might be, for instance, a human mind as ordinarily understood) into a ‘coupled system’.  These coupled systems are characterized by dynamic, two-way interactions among their constituent parts, all of which “play an active causal role” (Clark and Chalmers 8).  These are, of course, functionalist criteria – whatever plays a certain functionally defined role for a system just is whatever that role picks out (e.g. pain) (Putnam 161 -163).  Examples help to make clear how this might work and the dynamic duo is kind enough to indulge their readership with two.

The first is a study conducted on the mental rotation of objects by human subjects with and without the aid of Tetris.2  The upshot of the study was that although players are capable of altering the positions and rotations of the game’s variously shaped blocks, when the game itself was used to do these tasks at the behest and on behalf of the human player, the speed at which these tasks were accomplished improved dramatically.  This is all to say that, insofar as a human subject of the study was instructed to manipulate shapes and the Tetris program was used to facilitate that task, the program itself became part of the subject’s cognition (Clark and Chalmers 7-8).

The second example is a story about two people, Inga and Otto, who want to visit the Museum of Modern Art.  Inga is a neurotypical human being and so, when she decides that she wants to go to MOMA, she simply remembers (perhaps with a little effort) where it is located (53rd Street) and is off on her merry way.  Otto, too, wants to go to MOMA, but it is not so simple for him – he (sadly) has a strange disorder that prohibits him from remembering information like telephone numbers or addresses.  Fortunately, he has a notebook that he uses to store just this sort of information, so when the urge to go strikes him, he looks up the address and then is also off on his merry way.  Clark and Chalmers assert on the basis of this example that both Inga and Otto have the belief that MOMA is located on 53rd Street – the only difference between the two cases being that Inga’s belief is stored internally and Otto’s is stored ‘externally’in his notebook (Clark and Chalmers 12-13).  Not to belabour the point, but the externality of the belief that is referred to here must be interpreted as ‘physically external to the organism Otto’ and not ‘external to Otto’s mind’, since the point that Clark and Chalmers are trying to make precisely is that the belief is still internal to Otto’s mind, never mind where it’s physically stored.

If these examples prove Clark and Chalmers’ view right, then they do so by demonstration that the functionalist criteria that the view rests upon can be satisfied by external objects.  On first glance, they appear to do just this, but looks can be deceiving.  First, there is the matter of the functional roles these facets of the external world are supposed to play in the examples.  Secondly, there is the question of whether these external features of the world do in fact form dynamically coupled systems with human agents.

From the Tetris case, although the program is doing some of the shape-rotating for the subject, it’s not clear that when she uses the program she is anymore engaged in the mental rotation of shapes – instead, it seems she has shifted to doing something rather like manipulating physical blocks.  The key to understanding this, I think, is that she is only aware of the blocks as ‘objects’ in her visual field (one of the ways we are aware of physical objects we can’t touch) and that when she presses the ‘rotate’ button, the program represents them as reoriented in physical space.  It is unclear to me how this is substantially different from moving physical shapes with her own two hands.  On this analysis, the program actually satisfies the functionally defined role of physical manipulation and not that of mental rotation.  Moreover, if I am correct about this, then the seemingly ‘dynamic’ mutual causal interaction no longer seems so dynamic.  This is so because the subject is relating to the program as though she were relating to actual physical objects instead of to a dynamic computational mechanism and as physical objects specifically of the sort that do not initiate causal sequences on their own.

A dynamically coupled system!

Then there is the matter of Otto and his notebook.  Clark and Chalmers insist that Otto, just like Inga, has the belief that MOMA is on 53rd, only that his belief is relevant to what is written in his notebook.  What seems important about this example, however, is that the notebook stands in for Otto’s memory, not his beliefs3, so the question is really a matter of whether what is written in the notebook counts as memories – that is, does it perform the functionally defined role of memories?  On the one hand, it is stored information authored by Otto, so it actually seems like the notebook might be a good candidate for memories.  However, there are some common counter-examples that belie this appearance.  For example, if someone were to unearth a piece of work one evidently did but has no recollection of (say, old papers from grade school), it would seem incorrect to say that, in reading it, one is ‘remembering’ what he wrote – it seems more accurate to say that he is ‘learning’ what he wrote.  This example exactly parallels Otto’s since Otto has no recollection whatsoever of what he has written and (presumably) only knows that he is its author precisely because it is in his notebook.  So there is something strange about the contents of the notebook being memories.

Furthermore, there is the problem of whether Otto and his notebook truly comprise a dynamic coupled system.  Again, it is not at all clear that they do – especially since all the obvious causal activity comes from Otto’s side, whether that means his writing in it, searching through it to find pertinent information, etc.  Clark and Chalmers might respond that, nevertheless, what is written in the book causes some effect or other in Otto’s brain, which effect plays the role of ‘memory’ and forms the basis of statements about belief.  However, what is written in the notebook is mere ink on paper and requires interpretation before it can do anything like direct Otto to 53rd Street.  Thus for human infants, the illiterate, non-English speakers, and animals (to name a few) the notebook and its contents would not have this sort of causal efficacy.  The question seems to be whether the effect ostensibly ‘caused’ by what is written in the notebook can really be substantially attributed to it in light of the fact that practically all the action is taking place within Otto’s brain.  Once the words have been taken in and fed to the brain’s interpretive faculties (via the visual processing centres, etc.) the notebook has no further essential causal role to play in Otto’s ‘remembrance’.  I think that, while it is necessary to have causal inputs to have meaningful engagement with the external world, it makes little sense to say that the external world becomes a single thing with any agent.

This last brings me, finally, to the view’s consequences.  Leaving behind the matter of whether the functionalist criteria gives us what Clark and Chalmers suppose, if it is granted that they do, truly bizarre results emerge.  Firstly, say that Otto and the notebook have formed a dynamically coupled system and that the notebook is serving as his memory.  This raises an important question – who exactly is ‘remembering’?  It is unclear whether it is Otto, the notebook, or the whole system that is ‘remembering’ MOMA’s location, or which has beliefs about it.  It does not follow from Otto’s being a necessary part of the cognitive system that he has the memory, just as it does not follow from the eyes being a necessary part of the visual system that they see anything at all.

That explains a lot.

Secondly, the view makes a complete hash of personal identity.  If someone is using a search engine, the computer will have become part of his mind, until he stops using the computer and moves on to playing music (say), at which point a musical instrument might well count as part of his mind.  There no longer remains a clear or meaningful boundary that delimits self from not-self on this view, but experientially it does not seem that way – he and the computer very much ‘feel’ like different things to him.  Then there are cases where two or more minded beings could plausibly be said to be dynamically coupled systems – say, in a predator-prey relationship.  The fox and the field mouse are definitely mutually causally efficacious and dynamically so.  Furthermore, they could plausibly be construed as playing a functionally defined mental role for the other (‘predator’ or ‘prey’).  If this works, it has two very strange consequences.  One, the predator and prey actually don’t have any clearly distinct identities, but sort of bleed into one another.  Two, part of the prey’s own mind is trying to kill it!  Obviously, these are not good consequences for the view.

In this paper, I provided Andy Clark and David Chalmers’ view that cognition and the mind literally extend into space.  I explored their functionalist account of how this might work and attempted to demonstrate that these criteria actually cannot be met by such external features of the world.  I then provided some considerations of the counter-intuitive consequences the view would have, were it correct.  On the basis of these arguments, I believe I have proven true my thesis that their position is incredible.


1 Although it is not discussed by Clark and Chalmers, it is not obvious that there is any reason why some other species of animal could not also have its mind or cognitive states extend into the environment.  Indeed, it is probable that, should the view pan out, there are species known to us for whom this is the case.

 2 Tetris is a popular video game in which the player “arranges the blocks that fall endlessly from up above.”  See:

3 I must admit some perplexity why they decided to focus on Otto’s beliefs.  In more cynical moments, I suspect it is because beliefs are slippery things to functionally define in a way that memories are not and, as such, allow lots of problems to go unnoticed.

Some More Words on Agnostic Atheism

I was having a conversation with an atheist friend of mine and he suggested (actually, ‘suggested’ is much too weak a description of what he did) that my agnostic atheism is hopelessly confused.  He gave two  somewhat related reasons that struck me as being worth addressing.  The first is that, although he was willing to concede that atheism ought properly to be considered a belief claim, he nevertheless felt that one who believes that ‘there is no God’ necessarily cannot also believe that ‘whether or not there is a God is beyond our capacity to know’ – to do so is to somehow do something that is contradictory.  The second reason was that the agnosticism takes away reasons for adopting the atheism.

The first is actually not that difficult a matter to address.  Obviously, in one sense he was cutting himself off at the knees by granting that atheism ought to be considered a belief claim rather than a knowledge claim.  If the one claim is that ‘I know x‘ and the other is that ‘I cannot know x‘, there is an obvious contradiction there.  But there is nothing at all inherently contradictory if the first of the two statements were to be replaced with ‘I believe x‘.  For example, suppose I believed that I will be receiving a pink slip today (perhaps the company is in some tough times and layoffs have been announced).  This is in no way incompatible with my acknowledgement that I do not know whether or not I will actually receive a pink slip (maybe I sit somewhere in the middle of the seniority ladder and the management hasn’t announced how many they will be laying off).  The same applies to agnostic atheism.

The second criticism is perhaps more damning.  To take a stance on the question (whether that be some species of theism or atheism) is to make quite a strong commitment, even if that stance is ‘merely’ a matter of belief rather than knowledge.  Given that this is so, wouldn’t it just be best to acknowledge that one cannot know and leave it at that?  While it would certainly be a ‘safer’ position, I don’t think that it is a better one.  While the epistemic requirements for knowledge (especially of this kind) are rather high (I am here assuming some JTB+), there are certainly reasons for deciding more or less tentatively in favour of one proposition over another.  For example, I believe (rather strongly) that my house keys are where I left them when I got home yesterday.  Of course, I do not ‘know’ this – perhaps my wife, for what would clearly be a good reason, had occasion to move them – but, nevertheless, I have some pretty good reasons for thinking so.  The same can hold for theism or atheism.  For example, I see Darwinian natural selection as an adequate explanation of apparent design, which makes a designer superfluous to the whole process, while a theist might point to what he sees as the unintelligibility of morality without a lawgiver as evidence in favour of God.

Of course, the coherence of my position really does depend on whether theism/atheism really are belief – but not knowledge – claims.  I think so, but that is a matter for another day.

Essay: On the Impression of Time

David Hume

What you will find below is one of the short papers written for the Hume seminar I took last year.  I think it safe to finally start posting essays without danger of being kicked out of school.  So without further comment:

 On the Impression of Time

In this paper I shall investigate the explanation Hume gives in A Treatise of Human Nature of how the human mind comes to perceive, in the changing series of its perception, a flowing of time, as discussed in “Of the other qualities of our ideas of space and time” ( –  I will provide reasons for believing that this view is untenable as it stands.  I will also argue that his account of time cannot be rescued, for the best available means of doing so would have significant knock-on effects on his general understanding of perception, effects which are contrary to experience.  Interestingly, revision to his account of the perception of time will also have effects upon his understanding of perception.

For Hume, “[t]he idea of time, [is]… deriv’d from the succession of our perceptions of every kind, ideas as well as impressions,” and that without this “succession of ideas and impressions… [it would not be] possible for time alone ever to make its appearance” ( –  There are several reasons to suppose this plausible.  Firstly, Hume points out that for a man who is asleep there is no experience of time, nor is there for one who is “strongly occpy’d with one thought,” though in this latter case he actually means that “according as his perceptions succeed each other the greater or less rapidity, the same duration appears longer or shorter to his imagination…”  Further, Hume illustrates with an example of how when we spin a burning coal, we are able only to perceive a ring of fire as a static object and perceive no change in it and therefore no ‘time’ (

Hume hastens to point out, however, that “[t]he idea of time is not deriv’d from a particular impression mix’d up with the others, and plainly distinguishable from them; but arises altogether from the manner, in which impressions appear to the mind, without making one of the number (  Our experience of time is not something over and above our experience of the impressions (and ideas of these impressions) themselves, but is rather the collection of these that furnish the experience of time.  He illustrates this by using the example of five notes played in succession on a flute; the notes are played and they are perceived (as impressions and ideas) and there is no sixth idea or impression of reflection that constitutes the experience of time.  The only thing of importance here is, as Hume emphasizes, the manner in which they arise: “here it only takes note of the manner [emphasis original], in which the different sounds make their appearance…” (

Is this a satisfactory account of how we come to have the impression (and idea) of time?  In its broadest outlines this account certainly seems to accord with how humans experience the world: I have never known a feeling of time while in a deep (i.e. dreamless) sleep and everyone has experienced the ‘timelessness’ of a wandering mind.  But any explanation of human temporal perception must account for these common observations, and to do so is a low hurdle to overcome, while there are difficulties for Hume in the technical aspects of his theory.  Since Hume is building upon the account of perception that he provided at the beginning of the Treatise, the perception of time must be consonant with that account.  So first I shall grant his claim that without a continually changing series of perceptions, whether of impressions or ideas, there could be no experience of time, since this seems a plausible point.

The objection is as follows.  Hume is insistent that there is no idea or impression over and above the series of perceptions that may be identified as a separate impression of time.  If this point holds then, when hearing the five notes of the flute, I can only perceive a particular impression of a note (or the idea of that impression) at any given instant.  If this is true, then would it not appear to my perceptual faculty that, at any given instant, whatever it is that is being perceived would appear to be an unchanging object?  A reason to think this might be the case is that while perceiving that impression I am denied, by Hume’s account, any impression of reflection combining the ideas of a previously heard note with the idea of the present one.  If this is the case, I can have no recollection or knowledge of any previous impression(s) or idea(s) to indicate that the current impression has not always been.  Without such an impression of reflection it seems to me that change could not be perceived; that in the next instant there would be the perception of a different idea or impression does not resolve the matter, since that too would have the appearance of an unchanging object for the same reasons as given above.  And since, for Hume, the perception of time is a function of the perception of change, then without any change being perceptible, time must also be unable to appear to us.

If anyone should wish to rescue Hume’s account from this difficulty, she would necessarily be confined to the use of our original ideas and impressions of the notes, since the impressions of reflection have been ruled out due to their derivation from our ideas (1.1.2).  How might such a defense me made?  A possible solution might be to allow a ‘piling-up’ of our impressions and ideas, such that their durations overlap and are perceived simultaneously, so that there would be awareness of change without requiring any impressions of reflection.  Although Hume does not address the issue of whether our perceptions have the characteristic of persisting for durations or whether they may be so layered, it is plain that if this attempt to save his account of temporal perception is successful, it will be so by virtue of how it emends his account of basic perception.  If the manoeuvre fails, then it will be precisely because humans are not in actuality such inveterate multi-taskers.

While some would no doubt disagree, upon careful self-reflection, I cannot find any evidence that I am capable of simultaneous perception – it appears to me that I can only perceive one thing at a time (although what is perceived changes extremely quickly).  Since it seems that I am not actually able to perceive more than one idea or impression at a time, I must conclude that this method of layering perceptions cannot be a valid means of rescuing Hume’s position.  Consequently, I believe that his account requires revision.

It would be a simple matter to make his theory of the perception of time consonant with his general theory of perception and our lived experience, but it requires the affirmation of just that which he denies – that is, that the perception of time is a species of impression of reflection.  On this view, it is the case that the perception of time is a complex idea that compares current impressions with the ideas of previous impressions and notes the relative vivacity of each and their progressive diminishment in vivacity as new impressions arise.  Thus, the perception of time does not arise simply from an experience of the manner in which perceptions arise, without remainder.  Happily, this hypothesis actually helps explain how it is that one who is lost in thought experiences time more slowly than otherwise – the sustained focus upon the thought reduces the number of other impressions crowding upon the mind, meaning the vivacity of the idea of the thought competes with fewer other ideas and therefore appears stronger than it otherwise would.  Therefore, it would appear to change more slowly and consequently time would appear slower as well.  Unhappily, however, even this view would have impacts upon Hume’s basic understanding of perception.  Specifically, since it does appear that we only perceive the impressions of the flute notes and their ideas, our perceptual apparatus must operate much more quickly than we typically take for granted!

Although it is presumptuous in the extreme, I have here outlined Hume’s account of how we come to perceive time and the reasons why I find it untenable.  An exploration of possible resolutions to it were explored and I found in favour of the revision of the account he gave to one that classifies the perception of time as an impression of reflection.  I did so because to believe otherwise would require the acceptance of a state of affairs about human perception (namely, simultaneity) that I do not believe obtains.  Consequently, I asserted that the impression of time must be an impression of reflection, contrary to Hume’s position.