Author Archives: surtymind

About surtymind

My name is David King my primary interests are Cognitive Science, Linguistics, Neuroscience, Analytic Philosophy, Philosophy of language, Philosophy of Mind, Philosophy of Psychology, Philosophy of Biology, Philosophy of Psychoanalysis. This blog is dedicated to discussing a variety of issues on the intersection between philosophy and science. In particular I will be discussing issues relating to the philosophy of mind, and the philosophy of linguistics. I will also explore the nature of naturalism as a philosophical issue. A lot of the blog will centre on triangulating my position with those of contemporary thinkers like Noam Chomsky, Daniel Dennett, Jerry Fodor, Thomas Nagel etc. I will engage with aspects of a lot of contemporary philosophers and scientists in an attempt to construct an entirely naturalistic picture of the mind. Other topics dealt with will be intellectual disability and radical interpretation. I will discuss Artificial Intelligence, Animal Cognition.

Psychological Influences on Russell’s Philosophical Positions

“Philosophy still has to learn that it is made by human beings and depends to an alarming degree on their psychic constitution. In the critical philosophy of the future there will be a chapter on ‘The Psychopathology of Philosophy’. Hegel is fit to bust with his presumption and vanity. Nietzsche drips with outraged sexuality, and so on. There is no thinking qua thinking, at times it is a pisspot of unconscious devils, just like any other function that lays claim to hegemony. Often what is thought is less important that who thinks it. But this is assiduously overlooked. Neurosis addles the brain of every philosopher because he is at odds with himself. His philosophy is nothing but a systematized struggle with his own uncertainty.” ( C.G. Jung 1943 Quote taken from Scharfstein ‘The Philosophers’ p. 377)

In my last piece I discussed Bertrand Russell’s strange views on mental imagery. How in some places Russell argued that he was an extremely poor mental imager; while his 1919 paper ‘On Propositions’, Russell argued that he knew from direct experience that mental imagery existed; and furthermore, real thinking would be impossible without the use of mental imagery. In a personal communication philosopher David Berman made a couple of comments which may be useful in helping further our understanding of Russell’s strange seemingly and contradictory views on mental imagery.
Berman works in the area of psychological philosophy and has developed a typology that he uses to help him understand the distinctive views held by the great philosophers throughout history. According to Berman there are two main types of philosopher (1) The Conscious type: Berkeley, Descartes, Socrates (2) The Material type: Hobbes, Spinoza, James. Berman also argues that there is a third though less fundamental type (3) The socio-linguistic type; Hegel, Russell, Rorty. He argues that some philosophers are a combination of types with one aspect or type being major and the other minor. Thus you can get philosophers who are a combination of the Consciousness Type and the Socio-linguistic type with the Socio-linguistic type being dominant or vice-versa. On Berman’s typology Bertrand Russell was Socio-linguistic thinker (major) and a material type (minor). I have discussed Berman’s typology in more detail in this blog-post .
In a general sense Berman justifies his typology by studying (1) Strong distinctive mental types living or dead, (2) his interviews with people who have distinctive mental types, eidetic imagers, people with Synesthesia, etc (3) detailed studying and reporting on his own introspective experiences, (4) detailed studies of the great philosophers texts and lives (Berman: Penult p. 5). General justifications aside we will now discuss how Berman deals with the specific case of Russell and how his typology relates to his philosophy.
In his ‘Manual of Experimental Philosophy’ Berman discussed a curious incident in Russell’s mental development. In his ‘Problems of Philosophy’ Russell argued that mental acts are directly observable and patently real. However, a few years later under the influence of James, Russell argued, not only that mental acts didn’t exist, but they were theoretical constructs not something we directly observe. This change of mind is frankly bizarre. It would be one thing if Russell, originally conceived of mental acts as a theoretical construct and later changed his mind, and argued that his philosophical position would be more parsimonious without the theoretical construct. But the fact that Russell originally argued that he could directly observe mental acts and later argued that we don’t observe them calls for an explanation. How could Russell be so sure that he observed mental acts in his earlier philosophy, and then later deny that he observed them?
Russell’s answer was that he was driven by a theoretical need to destroy idealism to postulate mental acts. On Russell’s account when he thought he was observing mental acts he was engaging in a form of wishful thinking. Using his typology Berman argues that Russell’s views on mental acts are evidence of the type of mind that Russell had. A person with vivid conscious experiences (someone like Descartes, Berkeley), would find it difficult to confuse a wish with something they directly introspectively experience because of their transparent access to their own conscious experiences. However, if according to Berman’s typology Russell is a socio-linguistic thinker who is excellent at thinking themselves into of the systems of philosophers; this would offer a compelling explanation of Russell’s strange views on mental acts. As a socio-linguistic thinker Russell’s direct experiences would be less direct than those of a type 1 or a type 2 thinker. Hence, for Russell when he claimed he was observing mental acts; presumably he meant observation in a less fundamental more theory laden manner than type 1 or type 2 thinkers would.
Berman’s typology could be used as a possible explanation of Russell’s strange views on mental imagery that we discussed in our last blog-post: . Again the fact that Russell argues in places that he is a poor mental-imager, and in other places argues that mental-imagery is indispensible for thinking could be evidence of the socio-linguistic nature of his thinking. Russell’s focus is so driven by conceptual concerns that he is unaware of how these conceptual arguments are undermined by his own reports of his experiences. I think that Berman’s typology goes some way towards explaining Russell’s seemingly contradictory views on the nature of mental imagery. However, as I noted in the last blog-post they don’t explain the nature of Russell’s reports of the emotional determinants of when he experiences mental imagery. So while I think that Berman’s typology is a useful partial explanation of Russell’s views I don’t think the typology goes far enough in helping us understand Russell’s claims. While most of the time Russell was the socio-linguistic thinker, that Berman describes, Russell had another side which he only became aware of from time to time. It was this side of him that he attempted to destroy with a cold rationality; he used this rationality try and contain his deep emotional experiences.
We saw above that Berman’s tripartite typology was a useful tool in helping us understand Russell’s philosophical claims about mental acts and mental imagery. Berman also uses another typology to help him understand different views held by the great philosophers. This typology distinguishes between philosophers who are primarily tactile thinkers (TT) or visual thinkers (VT). Berman argues that Russell is a TT and this fact influences Russell’s philosophical views on some subjects.
In his ‘Problems of Philosophy’, Russell famously analysed his experience of a table he was sitting on front of. Berman sensibly argues, that studying the nature of Russell’s description of his experience of the table, is an excellent way of discovering the type of mind Russell had.
In his problems of philosophy Russell had used various different intuition pumps to get his readers to note that they don’t directly perceive material things but rather we are directly acquainted with sense-data which we use to represent the material object. But Russell noted that despite his arguments showing that we don’t directly experience matter, people instinctively think they do experience matter. He locates this instinctive belief in the existence of matter in our sense of sight. Russell argues that as a result of our sense of sight we are led instinctively to believe that matter exists. Interestingly Russell doesn’t argue that our other senses e.g. touch lead us instinctively to believe in matter.
On Berman’s view when Russell claims that we instinctively believe in the existence of matter because of our sense of sight, and not because of our other senses; Russell is actually describing his own unique way of conceiving the world and isn’t picking out a universal trait shared by all humans.
In my previous blog-post I briefly discussed Russell’s claim that Bergson was a strong mental-imager. Russell had argued that both Watson and Bergson were building up their philosophies because of their idiosyncratic psychological capacities. However, Berman has noted that Russell’s views on Bergson’s capacity for Mental-Imagery were actually mistaken. In his Penult Berman cites the testimony of Bergson’s friend H-Wildon Carr:
“Anyone can who has the psychological habit of introspection can test for himself the prevailing character of his imagery and so can know whether he is or is not a visualizer, and if that is so I can settle the question finally so far as Bergson is concerned for I have learnt on his own authority that he is not” (Carr 1912 quote taken from Berman ‘Penult p. 73)
So according to Bergson himself he was a poor at forming mental imagery. So Russell’s conjecture about Bergson is directly contradicted by Bergson’s direct report of his own introspection. Furthermore in his Penult when he analysed Bergson in a similar manner to the way he analysed Russell; Berman claimed that Bergson was a tactile thinker. As Berman noted this discovery is a bit odd; as if Bergson and Russell were the same mental type then it is odd that they disagreed so violently about philosophy. To address this difficulty Berman appealed to his other typology of (1) Conscious Thinker, (2) Material Thinker, (3)Socio-linguistic thinker.
On Berman’s taxonomy both Bergson and Russell are tactile thinkers. However, On Berman’s taxonomy Russell’s major type was the socio-linguistic type. As we saw above the socio-linguistic type has less fundamental experiences and hence relies more on socio-linguistic understanding. Berman argues that because Russell was a Socio-linguistic thinker primarily and only secondarily a tactile thinker he relied more heavily on socio-linguistic knowledge than his own experiences in developing his own theory of the world. According to Berman, Bergson was primarily a tactile thinker, and developed his philosophy based on his direct experiences of reality. Hence, Berman has a justification based on his overall typology of why despite the fact Bergson and Russell were tactile types they ended up holding opposing philosophical views.
However, despite the plausibility of Berman’s claim that Russell was a socio-linguistic type, Berman went overboard in the level of superficiality he accused Russell of engaging as a result of his mental type. At one point in his Penult Berman accused Russell of bowing down to science when trying to do metaphysics. I think that this is grossly unfair. Russell did think that science was our best way of discovering the nature of reality but he never “bowed down” to science. Thus, for example while Russell did make use of behavioural science in his philosophy of language and mind. He was very critical of behavioural science on a number of grounds. Firstly, Russell was critical of Watson’s denial of the existence of mental imagery, Russell argued that it could be shown using the testimony of introspection that Mental Imagery existed. Secondly, Russell argued that basic facts from the science of perception and physics undermined the behaviourist’s claims to be making objective observations. Thirdly, while he thought behavioural science was of some use in epistemology, it didn’t have the conceptual resources to deal with some epistemic problems (such as the problem of the scepticism).
Furthermore, while Russell relied on physics in developing his metaphysical world views he was critical of some physicists interpretations of what science told us. Thus Russell argued that Eddington was badly wrong in claiming that science and religion were compatible. When it comes to the work Russell is most celebrated for his ‘Principles of Mathematics’, ‘Principia Mathematica’ and his ‘On Denoting’, Russell not only wasn’t bowing down to science, he was developing theories that went beyond any science of the time. The evidence from his critical engagement with behavioural science, his disputes with physicists like Eddington, and his own original philosophical contributions, are unambiguous refutations of Berman’s claims that Russell merely bowed down to science when engaging in philosophy.
However, even if Berman does go too far in his characterisation of Russell as bowing down to science when developing his metaphysics; he is surely correct in his assertion that Russell was primarily a socio-linguistic thinker. And Berman’s taxonomy divided into major and minor types does offer a partial explanation of why Bergson and Russell’s philosophies differed despite them both being tactile types.
As we discussed in my last blog-post, contingent facts about Russell’s life that were out of his control; such as the death of his parents when he was a child, and his being brought up by his puritanical grandmother, had a deep influence on his intellectual and emotional development. Such accidents of history and the philosopher’s defensive reactions to these experiences will influence their worked out philosophies as adults. For an example of emotions and their relation to a philosopher’s system see my blog-post on Quine and Emotions: . So while Berman is surely correct in emphasising differences in typology resulting in Bergson and Russell’s different philosophy; he is only telling half the story by neglecting contingent facts of life that may have played an even bigger role in the differences between their philosophies.
There have been some attempts to interpret philosophical systems in light of contingent facts about the life of a philosopher; thus in his ‘The Philosophers: Their Lives and the nature of their Thought’ Scharfstein discussed atomism as a philosophical doctrine. He noted that in ancient times the debate between atomists such as Democritus and their opponents were done at a time when we had a very poor scientific understanding of the nature of the world. Given the limited evidential basis informing the ancient discussions of the validity of atomism Scharfstein speculated that a major component in the position philosophers took in these debates was their concrete experience of reality .
Scharfstein didn’t just discuss atomism in relation to pre-scientific speculation about the nature of the physical world. He also discussed a peculiar form of atomism that has been prevalent amongst philosophers discussing their selves, their perceptions and the nature of their thought. In this case he also thought that discussions of the nature of the philosopher’s psychology would reveal why they were drawn to atomism:
“Therefore, when I think of the atomism of Hume, James, Russell, and Wittgenstein, I conclude that it must have been their inward experiences that made them receptive to the atomic disintegration of the self” (Scharfstein: ‘The Philosophers’ p. 77).
Scharfstein argued that the psychology underlying the atomism was informed by a deep depression suffered from all of these atomistic philosophers:
“Hume, James, Russell, and Wittgenstein were all undermined by suffering…underwent deep depressions, and all were tempted by suicide-Hume on only one occasion however. All four of these adopted approximately Buddhist solutions to the pains of life… Mach…was isolated, lonely and sensitive…like James, Russell, Hume, and Wittgenstein he adopted a near Buddhist solution.” (ibid p. 78)
Scharfstein’s analysis is interesting but he provides virtually no evidence to support his position. Obviously, undergoing great depressive periods isn’t sufficient to make one an atomist in the above sense. If it were then psychiatric wards would be full of people espousing atomistic philosophies. Furthermore, plenty of philosophers have suffered periods of depression and haven’t become atomistic philosophers; Schopenhauer is a notable example. Nonetheless despite the fact that Scharfstein’s analysis isn’t overly convincing it does remind us that contingent accidents life can play a role in the philosophy that a person adopts or creates. Bergson, and Russell may have both been tactile thinkers but they lived very different lives and had different aptitudes that may have lead them to adopting their different overall philosophies.
In my next blog-post I will flesh out Bergson and Russell’s philosophies and how it related to their lived experiences. I will then try to disambiguate the degree to which their typologies influenced their philosophical systems; and compare the influence of typology with the influence of accidents of their biography on their respective philosophies.

Bertrand Russell: Unconscious Terrors; Murder, Rage and Mental Imagery.

In his 1919 paper ‘On Propositions: What they are and how they mean’ Bertrand Russell attempted to solve a problem which had bothered him since 1903 but to which he could not find a solution. The problem which concerned Russell was called the problem of the unity of the proposition. Russell made various different attempts to solve this problem culminating in his 1913 ‘Theory of Judgement’ which was severely criticised by Wittgenstein and led to Russell abandoning his theory of judgement. Since his ‘Principles of Mathematics’ Russell had difficulties in accounting for the unity of the proposition. His technique of logical analysis involved him analysing propositions down to their basic atomic components. However, the problem was that once he did this he found it difficult to reconstruct the propositions in a way that had sense. If we take the proposition ‘The dog is bigger than the cat’, in the proposition one has two different nouns and a two place predicate. The problem is that if we treat the two place predicate ‘is bigger than’ and nouns ‘The dog’ and ‘The Cat’ as separate atoms, then we are left with the difficulty of how these atoms can be related to each other in a sensible manner. If we take the two nouns as separate atoms and the relational predicate as another atom; then the question becomes as to how the atoms are related together. If we say the relational predicate is related to the atoms by another relation we will go on an infinite regress of relations relating relations. But if we say that the relation intrinsically relates the two atoms we are pointing towards a mystery as opposed to solving it. Russell eventually decided that the atoms are related by a process of judgment by a subject. But he had intractable difficulties in explicating the nature of the subject or the nature of the atoms the subject was supposedly organising.
Around 1919, while in prison, Russell came to believe that solving the difficulty (which relates to symbolism) would of necessity involve psychological data. So Russell turned his attention to psychology. His primary area of interest was the behaviourism of J.B. Watson, however while Russell was impressed with Behavioural science, he found one major difficulty with it. Watson’s behaviourism involved denied that mental imagery existed and explained away mental imagery interms of muscular movements. Russell strongly disagreed with this approach:
“When Professor Watson says: “I should throw out imagery altogether and attempt to show that practically all natural thought goes on in terms of sensori-motor processes in the larynx (but not in terms of imageless thought”, he is it seems to me, mistaking a personal peculiarity for a universal human characteristic.” (Bertrand Russell ‘On Propositions’ p. 293)
Above Russell is criticising Watson for engaging in the typical mind fallacy when theorising about mental imagery. On Russell’s hypothesis; Watson has an inability to call up mental imagery and confusedly mistakes his inability as a universal trait shared by all humans. This inference of Watson’s is obviously an invalid one; and Russell cites the work of Francis Galton who demonstrated empirically that most humans were able to create mental imagery (though the degree to which they could do so varied).
Russell also noted that Galton’s study of mental imagery demonstrated that people’s ability to form mental images decreased as they got older. Russell speculated that perhaps Watson had lost the ability to form mental imagery through hard abstract work in behavioural science. This conjecture of Russell’s has been verified in a close scholarly study of Watson’s evolving views on mental imagery; ‘The First Modern Battle for Consciousness: J B Watson’s Rejection of Mental Imagery’ by Berman and Lyons. Through a close textual analysis of Watson’s writing throughout his career they demonstrated that early in his career Watson admitted to experiencing mental imagery while later in his career he claimed an inability to form mental imagery. Berman and Lyons argue convincingly that Watson’s change of mind resulted from him losing the ability to form mental imagery later in life. So Russell’s conjecture about Watson’s capacity to form mental imagery does seem to have been on the mark. Likewise Russell was surely correct to charge Watson with engaging with the typical mind fallacy.
Russell argued convincingly that the existence of mental imagery was a clear refutation of the type of behaviourism that Watson was endorsing. However, Russell made further uses of mental imagery in trying to solve the unity of the proposition which resulted in Russell having to incoherently attack his own ability to form judgements. When discussing the meaning of words Russell made the following point:
“So far we have found four ways of understanding words:
(1) On suitable occasions you use the word properly.
(2) When you hear it, you act appropriately.
(3) You associate the word with another word (say in a different language) which has the appropriate effect on behaviour.
(4) When the word is first being learned, you associate it with an object. The word ‘motor!’ can make you leap aside, just as motor can, but it cannot break your bones. ( Russell ‘On Propositions’ p. 301)

Russell’s account of the nature of words is thus far pretty comprehensive; and as he notes holds no difficulties for the behaviourist. But Russell argues that such usage of words is limited to what he calls demonstrative language; picking out and discussing objects in the immediate environment. Another important use of language is narrative use of language which involves telling someone about some remembered event. On Russell’s account a narrative use of language typically involves the formation of mental images in the speaker discussing the remembered event, and the formation of mental images in the mind of the person who listens to and understands what the speaker is saying. Russell notes:
“It is clear that, in so far as the child is genuinely remembering, he has a picture of the past occurrence, and the words are chosen so as to describe the picture; and in so far as the hearer is genuinely apprehending what is said, the hearer is acquiring a picture more or less like that of the child… it is nevertheless the possibility of a memory image in the child and an imagination image in the hearer that makes the essence of the ‘meaning’ of the words. In so far as this is absent, the words are mere counters, capable of meaning, but not at the moment possessing it. We may say that while, words used demonstratively describe and are intended to cause sensations, the same words used in narrative describe and are intended to cause images.” (Russell ‘On Propositions’ p. 302)

Based on the above line of reasoning Russell concludes that there are two other main ways that words can mean as well as the four mentioned above. (5) Words can be used to describe or recall a memory image, (6) Words can be used to describe or recall an imagination image. Russell notes that 5 and 6 are the essence of the meaning of words.
Russell uses such mental imagery in attempting to solve the problem of the unity of the proposition:
“I have a complex image, which we may analyse, for our purposes, into (a) the image of the window, (b) the image of the fire, (c) the relation that (a) is to the left of (b). The objective consists of the window and the fire with the very same relation between them. In such a case, the objective of a proposition consists of the meanings of its constituent images related (or not related, as the case may be) by the same relation as that which holds between the constituent images in the proposition. When the objective is that the same relation holds, the proposition is true; when the objective is that the same relation does not hold, the proposition is false.” (Russell ‘On Propositions’ pp. 316-318)

Russell’s attempted solution to the problem of the unity of the proposition involves the postulation of mental imagery. Likewise he argues that mental imagery is the essence of the meaning of words in most cases. This position raises a number of difficulties for Russell. As we saw above Russell argued that Watson didn’t have the ability to form mental imagery. But if we assume with Russell that Watson didn’t have the capacity to form mental imagery then this raises questions with Russell’s theory of meaning. Watson is perfectly capable of reasoning verbally about things in the past and things in the future. Russell respected Watson enough to ask him to read and comment on his ‘Analysis of Mind’. In practice Russell acted as though Watson was a thinker who was capable of meaning things by his words. Yet on Russell’s theory; he should have judged Watson’s speech which didn’t involve mental imagery as follows:
“it is nevertheless the possibility of a memory image in the child and an imagination image in the hearer that makes the essence of the ‘meaning’ of the words. In so far as this is absent, the words are mere counters, capable of meaning, but not at the moment possessing it.” (ibid p. 302)

If Russell was true to his word he should have judged a non-imager like Watson’s speech as a meaningless counter. That Russell didn’t adopt this extreme approach in interpreting the verbal utterances of Watson is evidence that Russell didn’t fully endorse his theory in practice.
But things get much worse for Russell’s theory when consider how he uses it to deal with the problem of the unity of the proposition. On Russell’s view our mental imagery of a state of affairs is true when the imagery is isomorphic with the state of affairs it depicts and false when it isn’t. Russell thinks this isomorphism between our mental images and the reality it depicts solves the unity of the proposition problem. But we saw earlier that Russell argued that Watson was incapable of forming mental imagery. Based on this fact Russell would have to conclude that Watson was incapable of judging statements such as ‘the cat is on the mat’. This is a fantastical result.
However things get even more fantastical when we consider what Russell said about his own mental imagery. In his ‘Philosophy of Logical Atomism’ written the year before his paper on Propositions Russell made the following claim:
“That, of course, is especially likely in very abstract studies such as philosophical logic, because the subject-matter that you are supposed to be thinking of is so exceedingly difficult and elusive that any person who has ever tried to think about it knows you do not think about it except perhaps once in six months for half a minute. The rest of the time you think about the symbols, because they are tangible, but the thing you are supposed to be thinking about is fearfully difficult and one does not often manage to think about it. The really good philosopher does once in six months think about it for a minute. Bad philosophers never do.” (Bertrand Russell ‘The Philosophy of Logical Atomism’ p. 185)
Above Russell argues that the philosopher (including Russell) when thinking about abstract matters in logic can rarely get to the thing itself and instead has to think purely in symbols. Yet in his ‘On Propositions’ written less than a year later Russell argues that when a person is thinking in symbols they are using counters, capable of meaning but without imagery devoid of meaning. This would mean that Russell only thinks meaningfully only once every six months for a half a minute.
Of course a defender of Russell could argue that he is in the above quote talking about one of the most difficult subjects known to man and that when it comes to more prosaic subjects he can think in images for a much longer period. But even this defence of Russell doesn’t fit with the facts we know about his intellectual capacities.
In his masterful biography of Russell Ray Monk noted that Russell read Williams James’s Principles of Psychology and found James’s account of people having different capacities to form Mental Imagery fascinating. In a section where James discussed Galton’s breakfast table test; James noted:
An exceptionally intelligent friend informs me that he can frame no image whatever of the appearance of his breakfast-table…the ‘mind-stuff of which this ‘knowing’ is made seems to be verbal images exclusively.
In the margins where Russell wrote about the above example, he noted ‘this is almost my own case’ (ibid p. 86). Furthermore when Russell was psychologically tested by Crawshay-Williams, the results indicated that Russell was primarily a verbal thinker.
It is both fascinating and strange that Russell who by his own acknowledgement (and according to a psychologist who tested him), was a poor Visual Imager; would construct a theory of judgement that meant he was virtually incapable of forming any judgements. The examples, Russell gave of using imagery that were isomorphic to mind independent facts seem to be the very facts he would be incapable of forming. So, for example, if he were incapable of forming an image of his breakfast table he couldn’t judge whether the salt was to the right of his cup of tea. He could use verbal reasoning to make this judgement but according to Russell this type of judgment wouldn’t be an example of real thinking.
The question which now needs to be asked is why would Russell sketch a theory of thinking that implied that he could rarely think? Russell’s reliance on imagery becomes even more strange when one thinks on the philosopher who Russell spent a lot of his time criticising; Henry Bergson. After meeting and talking with Bergson; Russell made the following comment:
“I didn’t find out anything except, even more strongly, what one gathers from his books, that he is a very vivid visualiser, but has little auditory or tactile imagination-his whole philosophy is dominated by a sense of sight” (ibid p. 239)
It is surprising to find that Russell’s theory in ‘On Propositions’ results in a state of affairs where Russell is arguing that Bergson, (who he strongly disagrees with) is capable of meaning; whereas Russell most of the time is just using counters and not thinking.
It is difficult to understand what could lead Russell to advocate a view made meaning so parasitic on something Russell claimed to be incapable of. Could Russell really think that he wasn’t meaning anything when he spoke?
Strangely enough; there is a sense in which Russell did take his public utterances to be somewhat meaningless. Russell’s childhood was tragic. At the age of two his mother and sister died. His father died a year later. Russell was then brought up by his grandparents. After his grandfather died and his brother was sent off to boarding school Russell was brought up at home by his puritanical grandmother. Russell learned early to form polite chat at home with his grandmother and to keep his real thoughts and feelings to himself. Later on in life when he was informed about psychosis being a major factor in his family he came to associate these thoughts and feelings with fears of going insane.
Nonetheless, despite outward appearances Russell had a rich fantasy life and felt resentful at his grandmother and his life in general. Throughout his life he would swing between finding people he believed could penetrate to the true him; artists like Joseph Conrad and D. H. Lawrence or his lover Lady Ottoline, to disenchantment when relations strained with these muses. When this happened Russell would throw himself into his mathematical logic and regressed to the way of acting he maintained with his grandmother:
“Everything vital and important to him was kept hidden behind a polite, stiff and priggish exterior” (Monk ‘Russell p. 158)
“And, just as he had then, so he now tried desperately ‘to avoid all deep emotion’ and to live once more on the surface” (ibid p.305)
But what is the nature of this self, he believed, these artists grasped about him? When discussing his bond with Conrad; Russell noted:
“It had to do with our shared ‘Satanic Mysticism’, the truth of which he had never been convinced about, but ‘in moments of intense emotion it overwhelms me.’ It consists in thinking there are two levels: ‘one of science and common sense, and another, terrifying, subterranean and periodic, which in some sense held more truth than the everyday view.” (ibid p. 317)
So for Russell at some level; the subterranean depths were more real than the level of science and common sense. But what did these subterranean depths consist of? A further discussion of Russell’s capacity for mental imagery is revealing.
Despite what we discussed above; Russell could form some mental imagery. While living abroad and away from his girlfriend he commented in a letter that:
“I have lost the power of visualising thee, which I only keep a few days of parting” (ibid p. 87)
So when it came to someone he was emotionally and sexually attached to he could form mental images. Furthermore, and more disturbingly, when noting his violent tendencies he also noted that these violent thoughts gave him burning hot imagery:
“I remember when I wanted to commit murder, the beginning was a sudden picture (I hardly have pictures at ordinary times) of a certain way of doing it, quite vivid, with the act visible before my eyes. It lived with me then for ever so long, always haunting me; I took to reading about murders and thinking about them, and always with that picture before me. It was only hard thinking that kept me straight at the time- the impulse was not amenable to morals, but it was amenable to reasoning that this was madness.” (ibid p. 256)
So with someone he cared deeply about he could form some mental imagery even if he couldn’t maintain the imagery for long without contact with that person. His imagery improved as we saw when he was highly emotional; for example in the disturbing example of his fantasies of murder. However, he didn’t always need to be strongly aroused by love or hate to form mental images:
“Bates bores me while I am reading him, but leaves pictures in my mind which I am glad of afterwards.” (ibid p.529)
But in again his forming images is related to reading fiction. For Russell, mental imagery is restricted to lovers, hated people he thinks violent thoughts about, and to the realm of fiction. In other words, for Russell mental images are primarily the realm of fantasy. Yet in his paper in propositions he thinks that the essence of thinking is in images. He goes as far as to say that true thinking cannot occur without such images.
It is a reasonable conjecture that Russell growing up in Victorian society with a puritanical grandmother taking care of him, resulted in him hiding all his passions and bad thoughts from public consumption; even from himself at times. But at an unconscious level he always thought that this hidden self was his real self (as opposed to a just another aspect of his evolving personality). Russell was terrified that at his core he had inherited insanity from his family. His sometimes violent fantasies became associated with this madness and these fantasies, typically accompanied by imagery, became associated with what he unconsciously believed was the truth. His public philosophy which he constructed without mental imagery became unconsciously associated with a meaningless facade.
It is my contention that Russell’s ‘On Propositions’ was an unconscious confession that his public philosophy was a meaningless facade, and that his true nature was the self revealed in his intense imagery of lovers, enemies, fiction and madness itself.

What is Truth? Part 1: Correspondence.


When trying to elucidate is the nature of truth; it is best to start with our intuitive conception of the concept, and see whether it stands up to critical scrutiny. Most people uncontaminated by philosophy would cash out truth as in terms of correspondence. The correspondence they would try to elucidate would be between either a thought or a statement and a state of affairs in the world. On this picture something is true if and only if the statement/thought corresponds with a state of affairs in the world.


            When trying to elucidate this correspondence theory of truth it is important to do so in reference to a series of examples. Some examples seem to perfectly fit the correspondence theory of truth, while other examples are more problematic. A nice clear example which seems to fit the correspondence theory of truth is the statement (1) Grass is Green. Statement (1) is true if grass is green and false if it is not. The true statement results from a correspondence between a fact and the state of affairs in the world that the statement represents. On the face of it (1) is a perfect example of a correspondence between a statement and a state of affairs in the world; hence it is a nice illustration of a particular instance of the correspondence theory of truth that we can use to see if it generalises to all supposed true statements.


            Obviously, however, before we proceed to test whether we can generalize from example (1) to other examples of true statements we need to first analyse the nature of the purported correspondence occurring with example (1). Now if we are arguing that the statement corresponds with a state of affairs in the world we are committed to the view that words in the sentence correspond to objects or properties in the world and that the structural features of the sentence are isomorphic with the structural features of the world.


            If we begin with first with structural features of our statement (1) Grass is green. On the face of it (1) involves picking out an object (grass) and predicating to the object the property of greenness. If the statement is true the then the object picked out by the statement (grass), will in fact be green hence the statement will correspond with a state of affairs in the world. Other structural variants of the sentence would be nonsensical as they wouldn’t pick out any sensible structural features of the world. Thus take (2) Is grass green. There are various different ways of interpreting (2) the most obvious one being that by moving ‘is’ to the front of the sentence (2) unlike (1) is no longer a statement but a question. On this plausible interpretation; a simple structural change to the sentence stops it from being a statement. Another possible structural change is illustrated by (3) Green is grass. Now (3) from a structural point of view is a statement. However, on the face of it, the statement seems to be senseless. There are various different ways of parsing the statement one could read it as treating ‘Green’ as an object and predicating ‘grassness’ as a property of the ‘green’. But the preceding interpretation seems barely intelligible. There are other ways of treating (3) a more plausible way of interpreting it would involve pragmatic features that would mean that green is understood in terms of a particular paradigm; ‘grass’. However, while a theory of linguistic usage of this form could be sketched it would involve considerations that would go well beyond any simple sketch of the truth of the statement being simply a correspondence with non-linguistic facts.


            So it could be argued that (1) is the only structural combination of the three words ‘grass’, ‘is’, and ‘green’ that makes sense as a statement; and this is because the structural features of (1) directly mirror the structural features of the world. So in the simple example of (1) we need to posit a kind of structural isomorphism between the sentence and the state of affairs in the world it picks out.


            This account of a mirroring relation between sentences and the states of affairs in the world they pick out works well for a variety of different sentences. A sentence such as (5) The cat is on the mat. Is a perfect exemplar of a statement having structural features in common with states of affairs in the world. The examples I have given are extremely simple ones, and obviously any attempt to generalize the structural isomorphism between syntax and structural features of reality in true sentences will raise a lot of technical difficulties when discussing more complex syntactic structures. However, for now, let us stick with our simple example (1) and discuss it in relation to relation to the semantic features of the sentence; what sense we can make of explicating the truth of the sentence in terms of correspondence.


            As I said above (1) would be a clear example of a true sentence for a person uncontaminated by philosophy. It is a reasonable conjecture that most people would think that (1) is true because it corresponds with a particular state of affairs in the world. Of course a moment of reflection will show that things are not as simple as they seem. Firstly, statement (1) ‘Grass is green.’ is a general statement, so its truth value cannot be cashed out by a single state of affairs. In (1) the word ‘Grass’ isn’t being used to pick out a particular blade of grass. Nor is ‘Grass’ being used to pick out a particular patch of grass. In (1) ‘Grass’ is being used to pick out a particular category of things in the world that we use the label ‘Grass’ to describe. When it comes to ‘Green’ it isn’t referring to a particular green thing in the world; rather it is describing a property which different things in the world have or don’t have. The word ‘is’ should be treated as a relational predicate that links the property with the object in the sentence.


            With the above little bit of complexity acknowledged we can no longer simply assert that (1) is true because it corresponds with a particular state of affairs in the world. If we consider ‘Grass’ as a general term that picks out a type of entity in the world, and not a particular entity, then our analysis becomes more complex. When we are speaking of what a word refers to we run the risk of presenting a misleading picture of what reference entails. As has long been noted in the philosophical literature (see Strawson 1971), words don’t refer; rather words are used by people to refer to things. So when we are discussing a reference relation between a word and an object in the world we need to keep in mind the context the word is used in.


            In trying to understand the reference of the word grass ‘Grass’, we will obviously need to have a theory as to the nature of reference. When thinking about reference it is best to begin with concrete acts of reference in a shared world of experience; and building up a theory of how we refer to abstract entities such as numbers, sets, etc. after we have accounted for simpler forms of reference.


            Reference is typically a social skill and involves communication between at least two parties about a shared world of experience[1]. Reference is possible without linguistic communication. A non-linguistic example of reference is pointing. The ability to interpret pointing is a human universal[2], but it is not shared by most other animals. Non-human primates, don’t use pointing as a tool to refer to the non-human world. In fact few animals are proficient at interpreting pointing. An exception to the rule that most non-human animals have trouble interpreting pointing; is domestic dogs. Wolves who domestic dogs evolved from cannot typically interpret pointing; but domestic dogs have somehow evolved the skill. Domestic dogs were primarily selected for by humans for their social abilities. It is probably no coincidence that domestic dogs who were selected for empathy with the humans they live with, have developed the capacity to interpret human gaze direction and pointing. However, an analysis of the evolution of domestic dog’s capacity to interpret gaze direction and pointing is beyond the scope of this paper.


            Normally developing humans have the capacity to interpret the eye gaze of their fellow humans as directed towards objects in their shared environment, and to interpret our fellow humans pointing as referring to objects in our shared environments. In order to interpret eye gaze or pointing as indicating an object in a shared world of experience a creature needs what anthropologist Tomasello calls shared intentionality. At a minimum the humans need to view each other as agents with a point of view about the world and as agents who may want to communicate useful information about the world to another agent.


            Animals who have the capacity for shared intentionality and the capacity to interpret eye gaze, and pointing; have the rudiments of reference in place. They can refer to objects in the mind independent world and can judge whether the person they are communicating is interpreting the reference correctly or not. So we can now see that with triangulation on a shared object of experience, comes the capacity for reference, and for correct or incorrect interpretations (Davidson 2001). Furthermore, the ability to use words, though more complex than bare pointing, still relies heavily on the foundation of shared intentionality and pointing. 


            So with two primitive humans who are interacting with each other in a particular environment; if one human points to grass in the environment, the other human can judge, either correctly or incorrectly, that that is what his partner was referring to. Of course without the linguistic abilities these creatures will remain at a primitive stage of communication and they won’t have the capacity to make statements about the aspect of reality they are referring to.


            In the philosophy of language there is a debate in the theory of meaning that is divided into two main camps: the descriptive theory of meaning (Frege, Russell, the Later Wittgenstein), and the direct reference theory of meaning (Kripke, Putnam). Roughly speaking the descriptive theory of meaning argues that our words manage to refer by picking out an object in the world via a description (or a cluster of descriptions). While the direct reference theorist argues that we pick out objects directly and our words keep their meaning by tracking the same object throughout time.


            The debate between descriptive theorists and direct reference theorists is at an impasse and at the moment amounts to nothing more than an appeal to competing intuitions. However there has been some excellent work in perceptual psychology and philosophy (see Fodor and Pylyshyn 2013) has provided a good perceptual grounding for direct reference theorists[3]. In this piece I am going to work within a direct reference theory of meaning and causal theory of meaning. Though given that the debate between descriptive theories of meaning and direct reference theorists hasn’t been decided any conclusions I make will be vulnerable to the outcome of this debate on the theory of meaning. Such is life.


            So in our (very) conjectural story truth enters the scene with triangulation on shared objects of experience between agents communicating with each other and judging whether the other has interpreted the others pointing correctly or not[4]. Our similar perceptual apparatus, and similar embodied nature, as well as our emphatic understanding of each other[5] makes this triangulation mostly successful.


            In going from triangulation using pointing and eye gaze to the use of words and the combining of these words with syntax we move into deep waters. In studies of the evolution of language there is lots of data and competing theories but no theory which stands out as the obviously correct one. Tomasello argues that language evolved from gestures and that spoken words came later. Everett argues that speech and gesture evolved together. While Chomsky almost entirely ignores gesture and traces the origins of language to a mutation which gave us syntactic structure. The dates of when language evolved are again radically different depending on the theorist; Everett places the evolution of language at about 1.5 million years ago, Tomasello argues that it evolved 200,000 years ago, while Chomsky argues that language evolved 50,000 years ago because of a random mutation.


            Obviously any discussion of how language evolved cannot be undertaken in this paper, as to discuss the issue in the detail, would require at least a book length treatment. And as our topic here is on the nature of truth and not the evolution of language we need to keep our focus on the salient issues and avoid getting bogged down into a morass of irrelevant detail.


            For our purposes we need only note that the next step that our primitive human must make beyond pointing; is to be able to pick out an object, and say something about it. This would involve our primitive man developing subject predicate structure. So for simplicity sake let us pretend that our primitive man is speaking proto-English. He can point to objects, can name the objects and say things about them. At this point our primitive man will have the capacity to say ‘Grass is green’ and the members of his tribe will be able to judge whether what he has said was correct or incorrect.


            Based on our causal theory of meaning we will assume that grass was originally picked out because of its bare perceptual features and given a name which was passed on to other members of the community. In this sense grass will have an extension that is recognised by most members of the community; based on the perceptual features of the environment. Presumably one of the key perceptual features of grass as-well as its shape will be its colour. So it will be partly built into the concept of grass that it is green. So most people who understand the concept of grass will agree that it is green; it will be part of the concept of grass that it is green.


            However, despite the fact that greenness will be one of the perceptual features used to pick out grass, it would be a mistake to assume that the greenness of grass is a conceptual truth. It is an obvious fact of experience that grass isn’t always green. During hot weather grass can turn brown and yellow. The greenness of grass may be a typical perceptual feature of grass but something can be grass and not be green.


            So when the general statement (1) “Grass is green” is asserted; the response won’t be true of false but rather a sensible person will reply that it is typically green though not always. The preceding response won’t rely on a simple correspondence between a statement and a state of affairs but will rather involve an averaging many perceptual experiences.


            Above we were speaking about a person who was answering the question based on their own casual experiences interacting with the world on a daily basis. However it is important to note that we have more precise ways of classifying the world and the entities it contains; than casual induction. Scientific analyses often categorise things in more precise ways than our ordinary perceptual judgements do. So, for example, while people may classify Whales as Fish, or the Moon as a Planet, scientific analysis divided up the world in a more precise manner using an intricate network of theory. Hillary Putnam calls this the division of linguistic labour where we use our concepts based on loose perceptual features but rely on scientific analysis to give the extensions of our concepts in a more finely grained manner. However, when it comes to a scientific analysis of something like grass, simple correspondence between statement and fact becomes less plausible. A scientific theory is a interconnected network of theoretical and empirical facts which are used to predict and control the data of experience. A scientific analysis of something like grass will not involve a simple statement that corresponds with non-linguistic facts; rather it will be a network of statements that are connected to experience only at the periphery (Quine 1951).


            We saw above that our ordinary language interpretation of (1) “Grass is green”, doesn’t yield to an unproblematic correspondence between statement and fact. Neither do we get an unproblematic correspondence between statement and fact when we resort to a scientific interpretation of (1). However it could be argued that (1) would yield to an unproblematic correspondence if we add the demonstrative ‘this’ to (1) to yield (6) This grass is green.


            The use of the demonstrative ‘this’ in (6) seems to give us a simple correspondence between statement and mind independent fact. We no longer have to worry about yellow grass and we can simply assert correctly that the grass in front of us is green. However, even here we run into some problems when we try to cash out the statement in terms of correspondence with mind independent fact. As it is unclear that green is in fact a property that exists in the mind independent world.


            As every school child knows, the standard scientific theory of colours are that they are a secondary quality that are created as a result of light reflecting off objects and hitting our retinas, resulting in information being translated along our neurons until the hit the occipital lobe in our brains, which results (nobody knows how) in our conscious experience of colour. So it is unclear whether we can cash out the greenness of grass in terms of simple correspondence with mind independent facts[6]. So even with the simple sentences like “This grass is green” cannot be explicated in terms of simple correspondence between statement and fact.


            It could be argued that I am by focusing on a secondary quality like colour I am making things too hard for those who are pushing for a correspondence theory of truth. However, this interpretation is incorrect. As Berkeley showed three hundred years ago even primary qualities don’t yield unproblematic access to a mind independent world.


            In this piece I tried to begin with a simple statement and explicate it in terms of a correspondence theory of truth. My plan was to begin with a simple statement demonstrate the correspondence there before moving on to more complex statements. However, I discovered that even with the simple statements an analysis in terms of correspondence proved impossible. There no generalisation from simple statements to more complex statements was possible. In the next blog-post I will discuss the coherence theory of truth and see if it fares any better as a theory than the correspondence theory did.


[1] See Davidson ‘What Thought Requires’ 

[2] By a human universal I mean that the skill of interpreting pointing is shared by all normal humans; some humans with autism or various different types of intellectual disabilities have trouble interpreting pointing.

[3] Though there are some dissenting voices see Churchland 2013 and Burge 2007.

[4] This picture was first argued for by the philosopher Donald Davidson…Though Davidson was pretty sketchy on the nature of the cognitive architecture responsible for this capacity. Michael Tomasello, more than any other, theorist has helped us fill in the empirical details missing from Davidson’s logical reconstructions.

[5] For a discussion of empathy see Quine 1990.

[6] Some philosophers and scientists reject the division of the world into primary and secondary qualities, for example Daniel Dennett, and some direct realists about colour. However their position is a minority one and as far as I am aware no direct realist has any account for how the mind manages to remain in direct contact with the mind independent world.


Edward Witten, New Mysterianism, and Physics Worship

“Incurable optimist that I am, I find this recent invasion by physicists into the domains of cognitive neuroscience to be a cloud with a silver lining: for the first time in my professional life, an interloping discipline beats out philosophy for the prize of combining arrogance with ignorance about the field being invaded. Neuroscientists and psychologists who used to stare glassy-eyed and uncomprehending at philosophers arguing about the fine points of supervenience and intensionality-with –an-s now have to contend in a similar spirit with the arcane of quantum entanganglement and Bose-Einstein condensates. It is tempting to suppose that as it has become harder and harder to make progress in physics, some physicists have sought greener pastures where they can speculate with even less fear of experimental recalcitrance of clear contradiction.” (Dennett ‘Sweet Dreams: Philosophical Objections to a Science of Consciousness’ p. 10)
In this blog-post I will evaluate physicist Edward Witten’s claim that consciousness will remain a permanent mystery that science will never reduce to basic physics. In the first half of the blog-post I will evaluate Witten’s argument (such as it is), and criticise his view as lacking in sufficient justification. I will discuss why people seem so impressed by Witten’s claim despite the lack of evidence presented by him. In the second half of the blog-post I will attempt to present a philosophical justification for why Witten may hold the views on the mind that he does and show that a possible argument for his position is constructible but that Witten hasn’t presented this argument himself.
Part 1: An evaluation of Witten’s “argument” for the non-reducibility of consciousness to physics.
A little over two years ago Edward Witten declared in an interview that consciousness would more than likely forever remain a mystery which science couldn’t explain. Witten’s entire argument went as follows: Future Science will make great progress in giving functional explanations of how the brain is implemented in causing consciousness. However, it is unlikely that future science will ever get a handle in explaining why consciousness has the form that it does. Witten says he finds it inconceivable that future science will ever explain the hard problem of consciousness. He went on to speculate that he believed that science is more likely to explain the nature of big bang than it is to solve the hard-problem of consciousness.
On the face of it Witten hasn’t said anything particularly controversial. Most theorists working on consciousness are aware of the so-called hard problem of consciousness and there are various competing approaches to deal with the problem. What is surprising though is that people found Witten’s speculations particularly interesting. Given that Witten didn’t provide a single piece of evidence to support his claim, but simply asserted that he personally didn’t think there would be any progress in a field he doesn’t work in, one would imagine that his speculations would have evinced a shrug of the shoulders. But no his speculations made news. Scientific American writer John Horgan wrote a piece about how the most brilliant physicist the world has seen since Einstein has come out as a mysterian about consciousness. Horgan noted that Witten was adopting a position similar to philosopher of mind Colin McGinn and linguist and cognitive scientist Noam Chomsky. There was an air of triumph in Horgan’s article he seemed delighted to have a famous scientist on board with the mysterian position. Why Horgan was so happy is unclear. Witten didn’t present a brilliant argument to support his position, nor did he present any empirical data to support his position. All Witten did in the short interview was assert that he personally found it difficult to conceive of a solution to the hard problem of consciousness. Yet some people take this bland assertion by Witten as a vindication of the fact that consciousness will permanently remain a mystery to science.
Since there seems to be no logical reason why one would be impressed with Witten making an assertion, for which he provided no evidence, one is left to speculate why Horgan and others were so excited about Witten’s claim. One obvious reason why a person would be so impressed by Witten’s non-argument is that he is a physicist. Physics is our most basic science, and theoretically we would like to reduce all other claims to the basic facts of physics. When an expert in physics claims that such a reduction is impossible one should take notice. Such an expert in physics will know more about the fundamental facts that govern our cosmos than philosophers like Daniel Dennett or Patricia Churchland will know. So perhaps an expert like Witten given his superior knowledge of physics; should be taken seriously, when he makes claims about the reduction of something to basic physics. Perhaps. Though given that Witten didn’t present a single piece of evidence to support his position; I would argue scepticism would be a more appropriate response, rather than the howls of delight that greeted Witten’s assertion.
At the very least if we are to argue that Witten’s claim has any validity he should be interviewed to try to understand precisely how he proposes to support his claim. Furthermore when discussing the reduction of x to y; it should be acknowledged that while Witten is legitimately considered an expert on x, there is no reason whatsoever to believe that Witten knows anything about y. In other words, while everyone agrees that Witten is an expert on physics he has never demonstrated any competence or understanding of the various sciences related to the mind; neuroscience, cognitive science, behavioural science, anthropology, philosophy of mind, phenomenology etc. This should be a worry for the people who want to treat Witten as the ultimate authority on the nature of the mind and its relation to physics. I would imagine that those who aren’t worried will fall into two camps (1) Those who have documented evidence on Witten’s expertise on the nature of the mind and consciousness, (2) Methodological Dualists who think that while we need to rely on the standard methods of science to understand all other aspects of the physical world, but that when it comes to humans above the neck casual reflection is sufficient achieve understanding .
I doubt that anyone will present evidence of Witten’s years of engagement with the sciences of the mind; though I would love if they did, I suspect the reason Witten worshipers don’t think he needs any training on the mind is because they are implicit methodological dualists. It strains credulity, given the stunning amount we have learned in the sciences of the mind over the last hundred and fifty years, that anyone could hold such an absurd anti-scientific world view. Nonetheless, a substantial amount of philosophers and physicists believe that when it comes to human consciousness, casual reflection on the contents of experience is sufficient to justify wide ranging metaphysical conclusions.
Science and Introspection: A Brief Interlude
As stated above it is unclear whether Witten has any knowledge of the relevant sciences of the mind; or whether he is just using his intuitive understanding of the consciousness to demonstrate that it cannot be reduced to physics. If Witten, or his followers are merely relying on casual introspection to support their claims, caution is warranted; scientific experimentation has demonstrated that consciousness may not be all that it pre-theoretically seems to be.
In Nick Chater’s 2018 book ‘The Mind is Flat’, he argues that current experimental data demonstrates that our mind doesn’t have the structure that casual introspective inspection implies. There is a certain sense in which Chater’s book reads like an updated version of Dennett’s 1991 ‘Consciousness Explained’. In fact Chater begins his book with a quote from Dennett’s ‘Consciousness Explained’:
“When we claim to be just using our powers of inner observation, we are always actually engaging in a sort of impromptu theorizing-and we are remarkable gullible theorizers, precisely because there is so little to ‘observe’ and so much to pontificate about without fear of contradiction” (Dennett ‘Consciousness Explained p. 68)
Chater argues in a similar manner to Dennett. He thinks that our so called introspective observation is a kind of impromptu theorising. Chater even uses the same example as Dennett to illustrate his point. It seems upon casual inspection that our entire visual field is in colour. An experiment which anyone can do is to place a playing card on front of you and to then move it to the periphery of one’s visual field. A typical person who is asked would guess that the card will be seen in colour whether it is at the centre or at the periphery of one’s visual field. However, as anyone who has done the experiment would attest when the card is at the periphery of one’s visual field it actually appears to be black and white. The result of this simple test, Dennett and Chater argue, shows that sometimes our supposed direct introspective experiences are actually just implicit theories we are using.
Chater presents a list of experimental data to show that introspection isn’t as reliable as we may uncritically assume:
(1) Impossible Objects: These are objects created by the Swedish artist Oscar Reutervard. These works of art give the appearance of being three dimensional objects. However when we analyse the objects we discover that the objects would be impossible to build as three dimensional. Chater draws three conclusions from these impossible objects (A) We aren’t inspecting some inner object that the mind has constructed as a mirror of reality, the mind is better thought of as an inference machine than as mirror of reality (B) We aren’t inspecting these impossible objects as a coherent whole, rather the mind is inspecting different parts of the object at different times in a piecemeal way. (C) Our misplaced confidence in introspection. We assume we are inspecting an actual three dimensional object, but we are in fact doing no such thing.
(2) Our assumption is that our visual field is uniform that we see colour at the periphery of our visual field. However, it is well known experimentally that our peripheral vision is both blind and blurry (‘The Mind is Flat’ p. 42). So again what we think we are experiencing through casual introspection, is now revealed to be false through detailed experimental studies. As Chater notes when discussing simple illusions: “Our visual experience can depend, rather dramatically, on where we are looking-and we are certainly unable to ‘load up’ this entire image into our minds- even though it is actually very simple and repetitive.” (ibid p. 43).
(3) Our intuition that we can see words all over the page when we read it is also an illusion. Chater discussed experimental data which uses ‘eye gaze tracking devices’ to demonstrate that in computer screen tests which consist of mostly blanked out words, interspersed with windows of words, if the computer maps the windows of texts to the eye gaze movements the person will not be aware that the screen consists of mostly blanked out words. Chater draws the following conclusion from the study: “The results suggest that the eye and the brain picks up little outside a very narrow ‘window’. Indeed, we can go a bit further the evidence suggests that we can only read one word at a time…Looking at a crowd, it turns out that you can only recognize one person at a time; looking at a colourful scene, you can only report colours or details of things that you are looking at directly. This does not imply, of course, that you pick up no information at all about objects you are not attending to- just that this information is extremely sparse. (ibid p. 46)
Other pieces of evidence which can be used to demonstrated that our consciousness experience isn’t as detailed as we like to think is the phenomenon of change-blindness. Change-blindness has been studied many different times experimentally. In his 2005 book ‘Sweet Dreams: Philosophical Objections to a Science of Consciousness’ discussed the phenomenon of change-blindness and the difficulties that it raises for defenders of qualia.
In his classes Dennett often used a demonstration from an experimental study by Rensink et al ‘To See or Not to See: The Need for Attention to Perceive Changes in Scenes’ (1997), as a way of tapping his students intuitions about the notion of qualia. In the demonstration two almost identical photographs are shown for almost 250 milliseconds each, separated by a 290 millisecond mask. This is repeated in alternation till the subject notices a difference between picture A and picture B. It usually takes between 20 and 30 seconds till people notice the differences between the pictures ( ‘Sweet Dreams’ p. 82).
When Dennett presents this test to his students, after they have finished it and indicated that they noticed the changes between the pictures, he asks them a question:
“Now before you noticed the panel changing colour, were your colour qualia for that region changing? We know that the cones in your retinas in the regions where the light from the panel fell were responding differently every quarter of a second, and we can be sure that these differences in transducer output were creating differences farther up the pathways of colour vision in your cortex. But were your qualia changing back and forth- white/brown/white brown-in time with the colour changes on the screen? Since one of the defining properties of qualia is their subjectivity, their “first-person accessibility,” presumably nobody knows – or could know- the answer to this question better than you. So what is your answer? Were the qualia changing or not? (ibid p. 83)
Dennett’s question is an important one to ask. It is sometimes assumed that we have direct access to our subjective experiences, that we know them in an intimate way that isn’t accessible to third person science. In the philosophical literature, these direct experiences are known as; qualia. But as Dennett notes the phenomenon of change blindness casts serious doubts on whether we understand qualia as directly as we think we do.
There are three possible answers to Dennett’s above question. (1) Yes my colour qualia were changing even though I wasn’t aware of that fact. (2) No my colour qualia wasn’t changing despite the changes occurring in my brain as I viewed the images (3) I don’t know (various reasons I don’t know could be): (A) I now am aware that I never really understood the concept of qualia all along, (B) I do understand the concept of qualia but I have no first person access to my qualia in this case, and third person science cannot get access to this qualia either.
Obviously any of the above answers will cause serious difficulties for the concept of qualia. The experiment shows that we don’t just have unproblematic access to our subjective states. None of the experimental data discussed by Dennett or Chater will be news to students of consciousness. Philosophers, psychologists, neuroscientists etc have debated the significance of these experimental data and what they demonstrate about the nature of consciousness for years. I don’t bring up this data because I think it is conclusive against introspection as a tool; in fact I don’t think the experiments do rule out careful introspection as a tool. I bring up this data because there is no evidence whatsoever that Witten claims about the nature of consciousness and its relation to physics deal with any of this experimental work in the science of the mind.
Consciousness seems to be unique to those who are interested in understanding how the mind works. No serious student of language argues that by virtue of being a language using creature we can casually reflect on the nature of language and make pronouncements on syntactic structure. Imagine the response if some physicist, who the popular press labelled the new Newton, pronounced that he believed by casual reflection on his own language using abilities that, it is more likely that we would understand the big bang than that we would ever reduce syntactic structure to basic physics.
I am certain that any responsible linguist, would adduce a series of facts that have been discovered re-the empirical research into syntax. She would then ask whether the physicist demonstrated any understanding of the relevant facts; whether the physicist’s intuitive understanding of syntax matched the precise models that have been created by scientific investigation. With this done it would then be a matter of demonstrating to the physicist that her conception of syntax wasn’t sufficiently precise enough to understand the nature of the subject matter, scientific research was needed, not casual reflection on one’s own experience as a native speaker of English . However, if the physicist was open minded and wanted to learn what science has told us about the nature of syntax, the physicist could become a productive collaborator on the project.
However, in the case of Witten and consciousness things are more difficult to ascertain, as we don’t know why he thinks that consciousness cannot be reduced to physics. All we have to go on are Witten’s bland assertions, and the howls of delight by mysterians to have an authority of a physicist on their team. Until Witten, or his supporters, manage to flesh out his views on consciousness, and whether they are sensitive to the relevant scientific facts it is very difficult to judge the truth value of his claims.
It is ironic that mysterians feel so desperately insecure about their philosophical stance that they feel the need to appeal to the authority of people like Witten, because the mysterian position is a perfectly sensible one. Rather than engaging in appeals to authority, I would suggest that a more sensible approach to adopt would be to simply outline your own reason for thinking that mysterianism is more likely to be true than its competitors.

Part 2: A Proposed Explication of why Witten is a Mysterian
There are various different difficulties with trying to explicate consciousness interms of underlying brain states. Over the last fifty or so years as we have learned more and more about behavioural distinctions between different types of consciousness, and have developed good psychological models to explain various different types of conscious and unconscious states it has become much more tractable to study the neural correlates of consciousness.
However, it has been noted by a number of theorists, that none of these studies demonstrate why the particular conscious states have the qualitative feel that they do. There are a number of different ways of explicating this intuition which are now pretty standard. It is worth though briefly mentioning through famous intuition pumps which are designed to make the difficulties of reducing consciousness experience to the physical more salient.
(1) What is it like to be a bat?
The philosopher Thomas Nagel’s famous 1974 paper ‘What is it like to be a bat?’, was a thought experiment which was designed to illustrate the illusive nature of subjective experience from a third person perspective. Nagel noted that a scientist who is studying the bat, has a variety of different avenues available to him in his study. The scientist can study the bat from the point of view of behavioural tests, naturalistic observations, neuroscientific studies etc. However, Nagel argued that the Bat has a subjective world of his own which will be missing from any third person study done by the scientist. The Bat as he flies about will have a world of experience which will have a specific quality that will forever elude any understanding from the point of view of third person science.
Nagel believes that by reflecting on the subjective world of the bat it should be obvious that it’s direct first person experience is not the kind of thing which we could understand by appeal to third person science. In his ‘Consciousness Explained’ Dennett noted that Nagel’s choice of a Bat as his example was inspired. A bat as a mammal is enough like us to make us confident that it is conscious creature. If Nagel had chosen a fly or an earthworm as his exemplar a lot of people would have been less confident that there was any reason to believe that the creature in question was conscious. While if Nagel had chose a fellow primate who is much closer to us biologically a lot of people wouldn’t have been as confident in Nagel’s intuition that we couldn’t understand its mental states using third person science.
Nagel’s thought experiment has influenced a lot of scientists and philosophers that our subjective states and their precise nature are something that we cannot understand using third person science. And his thought experiment does have some initial plausibility. It does seem plausible to assume that Bat’s have subjective states which can only be truly understood through direct experience, and that third person science doesn’t tell us about these states or about how they are realised.
This of course leads us to the question of whether when Witten is arguing that the mind will never be explained interms of physics; he is pumping a similar intuition to Thomas Nagel? Witten does seem to be alluding to the so called Hard-Problem of consciousness when he asserts his mysterian position. Like Nagel, Witten argues that, while science will eventually give us a good functional understanding of the workings of the neural correlates of consciousness; but the actual subjective states we have; and why they have the quality they have, is something that won’t be accounted for by third person science.
In terms of the conclusions they adopt Nagel and Witten seem to be reading from the same page. Whether they reached their conclusions via similar arguments is a different question. Nagel’s thought experiment involved reflections on the conscious experience of a Bat, and his argument is meant to go through for all conscious creatures. Witten never mentioned whether he was referring to the consciousness of all mammals, or just human consciousness, whether he thought all animals or even insects were conscious. Whether there were different kinds of consciousness, and if so whether all of these different types of conscious states were equally un-amenable to scientific reduction. When Witten argues that consciousness isn’t suitable for scientific reduction it isn’t clear what the extension of consciousness is for him, or whether he is appealing to the type of intuitions that moved Nagel.
(2) The Problem of Mary:
While the relation of the intuitions that Nagel was pumping to the intuitions that Witten is pumping are difficult to demarcate; another intuition pump may be closer to the concerns that move Witten. I am thinking of Frank Jackson’s famous thought experiment about Mary a colour blind neuroscientist who in the thought experiment knows all the scientific facts that there are to know about the physics and psychology of colour vision. One day Mary has her colour vision fixed and she begins to perceive colour for the first time. The question then asked is whether Mary will learn anything new about colour vision when she first sees the colour red.
The conclusion typically drawn is that despite knowing all of the physical facts about colour vision, Mary would indeed learn something new when she first saw red. She would learn what red is like from the first person point of view. The intuition being pumped here is that no amount of third person science would be sufficient to generate direct first person experience.
A typical objection to the Mary thought experiment is that we have absolutely no idea of what it would be like to know ALL the scientific facts about colour vision. Given the obvious fact that we truly do not have any conception of what it would mean to know all the facts about colour vision; any extrapolations we make about what Mary would learn are entirely baseless.
A defender of Witten could argue that given that he is one of the more knowledgeable physicists alive today; his intuitions about having all physical knowledge of X would be more robust than your average philosopher. So we should take his intuitions about the Mary case more seriously than the intuitions of the average philosopher. Such a critic would have a point. However, once we acknowledge two points Witten’s intuitions on Mary seem just as un reliable as anyone else’s intuitions. (1) Witten may know a lot about physics but this doesn’t really give him much insight into what it would be like to know everything about the physics (unless we add the implausible premise that Witten is close to a complete theory of everything), (2) While Witten may know a lot about physics, there is no evidence he knows anything whatsoever about perceptual psychology. So there is really no compelling reason to think that Witten is any more capable of understanding how someone with ALL knowledge of colour vision would react upon receiving their sight than anyone else.
Again though it is unclear given the lack of detail in Witten’s argument for mysterianism whether his intuitions on the topic are derived from the intuitions pumped by Nagel or Jackson. The only theorist Witten does mention in his interview was the mathematician and physicist Roger Penrose. Penrose in his 1989 ‘Shadows of the Mind’ famously argued that the mind cannot be a computational device. He noted that Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem proved the incompleteness of mathematics by showing that in any mathematical proof we will be intuitively able to recognise certain truths that cannot be formally proven within the system. If someone argued that the brain was a computational device then they wouldn’t be able to explain how we grasp certain truths which cannot be computationally explicated. Therefore, Penrose argued, since the computational theory of mind is our best working model of the brain, and it can be proven mathematically to be incomplete, we must draw the conclusion that we don’t have a physical explanation of our mental capacities.
Again with Penrose’s argument we have no idea whether it is guiding Witten’s intuitions. All Witten did say re- Penrose was that he didn’t think that Penrose’s supposed solution to the problem would work.
At this stage even though we cannot say for sure what intuitions Witten was relying on re the non-reducibility of consciousness to physics, we at have at least briefly discussed a few problems with reductionism which may have influenced Witten. We will now proceed to discuss how these difficulties may have led to Witten being a mysterian about consciousness.
(3) Mysterianism as a Philosophical position:
A philosopher who is arguing that there are problems with reducing psychological predicates to physical predicates doesn’t automatically have to become a mysterian. As we briefly discussed above Roger Penrose thinks that understanding consciousness in terms of basic physics is at present not tractable. But he argues that if we make suitable modifications to our understanding of basic physics then this may solve the problem. So Penrose, despite having difficulties with current attempts to reduce the mind to the brain, doesn’t adopt a materialist approach to the mind body problem.
Furthermore, other scientists who don’t think that the mind can be reduced to physics aren’t directly led to a mysterian solution. There are various different approaches adopted by scientists and philosophers on this topic. There is the neutral monism of Ernst Mach, John Dewey, Bertrand Russell, and William James. There is Eliminative Materialism held by the Churchland’s (who are eliminativists about propositional attitudes but not consciousness), Keith Frankish seems to be an eliminativist about consciousness and to a degree Dan Dennett is too (Dennett is not an eliminativist about propositional attitudes but seems to be about consciousness). Anomalous Monism argued for by Donald Davidson. Panpsychism has defenders in people like Galen Strawson, and David Chalmers amongst others. There many other competing views; epiphenomenalism, property dualism, substance dualism etc.
I do not here have space to evaluate these various competing positions in understanding the relation of the mind to the body. I just bring them up to demonstrate that many, philosophers and scientists see great difficulties in reducing the mind to the body; however they are not led by these difficulties to a mysterian position. So even if Witten did accept some of the difficulties put forth by Nagel, Jackson, and Penrose with reducing the mental to the physical; it should be noted that mysterianism doesn’t automatically follow from these difficulties.
Mysterianism typically starts out with the commonsense position that humans being animals will have limits to the things they can understand. Chomsky described the position as follows:
“As for the matter of cognitive reach, if humans are part of the natural world, not supernatural beings, then human intelligence has it scope and limits, determined by initial design. We can thus anticipate that certain questions will not fall within their cognitive reach, just as rats are unable to run mazes with numerical properties, lacking the appropriate concepts. Such questions, we might call ‘mysteries-for-humans’, just as some questions pose ‘mysteries-for-rats’. Among these mysteries may be questions we raise, and others we do not know how to formulate properly or at all.” (Chomsky ‘New Horizons in the study of Language and Mind’ p.107)

This position is perfectly sensible; as a human animal whose brain can only operate within certain fixed parameters it is perfectly sensible to suggest that there may be some problems which our brain is incapable of solving. Chomsky has suggested that ‘consciousness’ and ‘Freewill’ may fall with the realm of mysteries for those with human type intelligence.
Chomsky though is careful to note that he is only suggesting that ‘consciousness’ may be a permanent mystery to human intelligence. He isn’t claiming to have proof that consciousness falls within the mystery category. It is one thing to argue that humans being animals with a fixed cognitive structure may have cognitive limitations which makes some questions unanswerable for us. It is another thing to draw an actual line which demonstrates precisely where this line falls and to place certain subject matters on one side or the other of the problems/mysteries divide.
Colin McGinn argued that we have good reason to think that consciousness falls within the mystery category. As we saw above we have many different competing candidates for dealing with consciousness and at present we don’t have any way of deciding between these positions. McGinn thinks that the reason we cannot decide between these various positions, is because consciousness is beyond our capacity to understand. He argues that while we have made great progress in the last 2000 years in understanding cognitive structures in the brain, neural correlates of consciousness, etc we have made very little progress in understanding the hard problem of consciousness. He thinks that the best explanation of this difficulty in solving the hard problem of consciousness is that it is a mystery for creatures of our cognitive structures.
Personally I don’t agree with McGinn’s position that the hard problem of consciousness is a mystery. I don’t think that the disputes between the various different competing camps is as tractable as Mcginn thinks. Nonetheless I think that Chomsky is certainly correct in raising the possibility that consciousness may be a permanent mystery to humans.
As I said at the outset it is difficult to know why Witten is pessimistic about the possibility of reducing psychology to physics as he doesn’t present an argument. I have thus far sketched a possible justification for Witten. (1) People like Nagel, Jackson, and Penrose have presented good arguments that indicate that it may not be possible to explain subjective states in terms of third person science. (2) Chomsky has shown that humans being animals may have cognitive limitations which may mean that certain subjects will remain permanent mysteries for them, (3) Given the seemingly intractable situation with competing theories of how to reduce the mind to the body it is plausible that consciousness falls within the realm of mysteries.
Whether Witten is actually arguing in this manner is difficult to know as he is so sketchy of his reasoning on the topic. Anyway my reconstruction of Witten’s possible reasoning processes is the only sensible justification I can give of his vague comments.

Bertrand Russell, Little Albert and Murderous Rage

“This principle, as the reader will remember, states that, if a certain event calls out a certain response, and if another event is experienced just before it, or at the same moment, in time that other event will tend to call out the response which, originally, only the first event would call out. This applies to both muscles and to glands; it is because it applies to glands that words are capable of causing emotions. Moreover, we cannot set limits to the length of the chain of associations that may be established. If you hold an infant’s limbs, you call out a rage reaction; this appears to be an ‘unlearned reaction’. If, you and no one else, repeatedly hold an infant’s limbs, the mere sight of you will call out a rage reaction after a time. When the infant learns to talk your name may have the same effect. If, later, he learns you are an optician, he may come to hate all opticians; this may lead him to hate Spinoza because he made spectacles, and thence he may come to hate metaphysicians and Jews. For doing so he will no doubt have the most admirable reasons, which will seem to him to be his real ones; he will never suspect the process of conditioning by which he arrived at his enthusiasm for the Ku Klux Klan.” (Bertrand Russell ‘An Outline of Philosophy’ pp. 88-89)
In the above incredible passage Russell presents a toy example of how through a process of classical conditioning a child as he grows up into an adult could end up developing an irrational hatred of a particular group. On this picture a child would begin with an instinctive anger about being having his limbs held. Only one person is guilty of holding the child’s limbs, and that person is a visiting scientist. Through classical conditioning the child eventually comes to associate the scientist with being held. The mere sight of the scientist is enough to get the child to feel rage. In this respect the child is like Pavlov’s dog who salivates every time he hears a bell ring. Russell’s extrapolations are thus far consistent with known scientific data . Russell’s example is similar to the studies done by both Pavlov and Watson in classical conditioning. In Pavlov’s famous experiment the dog has an unconditioned reaction to food being presented (he salivates), and through conditioning; a bell being rung just before the food is presented, the dog salivates at the sight of the bell. The dog salivating to the bell is called a conditioned response. Russell’s toy example is similar in that the rage is an unconditioned response to being held and the conditioned response is the rage elicited at the sight of the scientist. Russell’s toy example stands up to critical scrutiny so far. Though to be more complete in his analysis, he should have discussed the fact that such conditioning processes wouldn’t necessarily continue on indefinitely, once the scientist had discontinued with the practice of holding the child’s limbs. Russell’s analysis implies that this classical conditioning will necessarily continue on to adulthood resulting in poorly understood rage. However in Pavlov’s original experiments it was noted that after a period of time where the unconditioned stimulus (the food) is presented without the conditioned stimulus (the bell), the dog ceases to salivate at the sight of the bell. Russell though is just uncritically assuming that the conditioned stimulus will continue throughout the child’s life.
The evidence for extinction occurring in classical conditioning is overwhelming. There have hundreds of studies done on extinction in behavioural science in the years since Russell wrote his ‘An Outline of Philosophy’. Russell cannot be held to account for not predicting the results of experiments which were not yet performed. Nonetheless, he is guilty of uncritically assuming that the effects of the conditioning will continue throughout the child’s life. This assumption was unjustified; even Pavlov writing years before Russell had noted the effects of extinction on conditioning.
A possible reason for Russell assuming that the effects of the conditioning would remain throughout the child’s life, were the existence of phobias. Some people spend their entire lives afraid of certain creatures because of experiences in their childhood. Russell greatly admired the work of J.B. Watson and discussed his work in ‘An Outline of Philosophy’ in great detail. Watson’s experiment with Little Albert was viewed at the time as a way of inducing a phobia in the child using classical conditioning. The child Little Albert is introduced to a white rat which he plays with for a while. Watson then makes a loud noise every time the child went to touch the rat. After a while the child is presented with the white rat and immediately becomes upset at the sight of the white rat despite no loud noise being made. It is then shown that the child generalises his fear of the rat to other furry creatures such as dogs, teddy bears etc. Russell may have extrapolated from the demonstrative fact that some people have irrational phobias in adulthood, and Watson inducing a phobia in a child through classical conditioning to the conclusion that adult phobias are the result of unintended classical conditioning of children in childhood. Such a conclusion obviously doesn’t follow from facts Watson presented. There wasn’t any evidence that Watson’s classical conditioning would last into adulthood.
If Russell had asserted that it was possible that adult phobias were the result of classical conditioning then his assertion would have been a reasonable hypothesis worth trying to test. However, Russell instead just assumed that classical conditioning in childhood would last into adulthood. It is possible that Psychoanalysis, which when Russell was writing his ‘Outline of Philosophy’ was world famous, implicitly influenced Russell’s thinking. Freud claimed to have demonstrated that childhood trauma can unconsciously influence adult behaviour and thought processes. Freud had justified his claim with his clinical work with patients who he claimed he cured by bringing their unconscious traumas to consciousness. Freud even argued that a lot of our explanations of our behaviour could be shown to be merely rationalizations that do not correspond with the real causes of our behaviour. As we saw above Russell made a similar point to Freud about the adult giving a rationalization to explain his racist views.
Given the esteem that Freud’s views on the importance of childhood experiences in determining adult behaviour, was held in when Russell wrote his ‘An Outline of Philosophy’, it is highly probable that Russell was influenced by Freud’s views. This would make sense of Russell’s uncritical assumption that classical conditioning of rage to a particular person would last into childhood. Russell may have reasoned as follows: (1) We know from Freud’s clinical work that trauma from childhood can last into adulthood, (2) Watson induced a phobia into Little Albert using classical conditioning, (3) Given Freud’s discoveries it is reasonable to assume that the classical conditioning used by Watson could last into adulthood, (4) Watson’s experiments are an excellent tool to explain adults with irrational phobias, this is indirect evidence that the conditioning lasts into adulthood. Obviously, if this was Russell’s reasoning process then it was non-demonstrative. Nonetheless it could be considered a reasonable inference to the best explanation. Russell’s imagined reasoning process would have been reasonable at the time. But since then the amply demonstrated notion of extinction in classical conditioning and the many methodological flaws with Freud’s psychoanalysis casts serious doubt as to whether the classical conditioning Russell is appealing to would actually continue to affect the adult’s behaviour. On the other hand, the existence of spontaneous recovery of conditioned responses after they have undergone extinction could be used as a point in Russell’s favour.
For the sake of argument we will assume that Russell’s view that the classical conditioning will continue to affect the child into adulthood is correct. And move on to the next step in the above passage by Russell. He goes on to note that this form of conditioning can be extended indefinitely. Thus when the child learns to associate a name (e.g. ‘J.B Watson’) with the person who held him, the name will then elicit the same feeling of rage. Russell’s extrapolation that the name will have the same effect as the person does is again probably based on Watson’s experiment with Little Albert.
In Watson’s experiment he purported to have shown that Little Albert generalized his fear of rats to other furry animals. Russell seemed to be thinking about Albert’s purported generalization to other furry animals as a reason to assume that the child in his above example will follow a similar process. Thus the child will unconsciously move from feeling rage at the adult being present, to feeling rage when he speaks or hears the adult’s name. Russell speculates that if the child learns that the scientist who abused him was also an optician; he could hate all opticians. This could lead to him hating Spinoza who was an optician and because Spinoza was a metaphysician and a Jew, the child could generalize to a hatred of all Jews and Metaphysicians.
The process that Russell is invoking is commonly referred to as ‘stimulus generalization’ and has been well studied and shown to have effects in both classical conditioning and operant conditioning. While people have made some legitimate methodological criticisms (and ethical criticisms) of Watson’s Little Albert Experiment, there have been hundreds of better constructed experiments verifying the effect in the last ninety years. So to a degree one could argue that Russell’s toy example invoking generalization is corroborated to some degree by experimental data.
Russell’s image is of a child as a result of classical conditioning and stimulus generalization developing strange aversions which as an adult are rationalized; while the real cause is something much different. One of the problems with this emphasis is that one is at a loss to explicate precisely what features will be generalized, and why. In Watson’s Little Albert experiment the child generalized to ‘small furry things’, while in Russell’s toy example the child over a period of years generalized from the person, to the name, to a description of the person An Optician, to all Opticians, to contingent features of particular opticians.
There seems to be no reason why a person would generalize in a particular way as opposed to another way. On Russell’s view the child is implicitly using the propositional function ‘x makes me angry’ and ‘x is the scientist’. However the when the child learns that the scientist is an optician he makes the further illicit inference: x makes me angry, x is an optician therefore opticians make me angry. But there are countless different facts about the scientist that are discoverable by child. The experimentalist is a scientist, he is an optician, he is a man, he could be short, fat, thin, hunchbacked or could have any other number of features. There seems to be no reason that the child would unconsciously generalize in one way or another on Russell’s account. So while Russell’s hypothesis has some good scientific data underlying it, he hasn’t presented a model that can predict in detail they way a person will generalize unconsciously. Nonetheless he has presented a useful explanatory model that can be used to explain people holding odd beliefs that they give unconvincing reasons for why they hold them.
Interestingly the principle of generalization was proposed by psychoanalyst Matte Blanco as one of the key features of unconscious thinking. Blanco used Russell and Whitehead’s Principia-Mathematica to formalise Freud’s theory of the unconscious. One difficulty with Blanco’s work is that he didn’t have a compelling causal account of the principle of generalization and his approach at times had a Cartesian disembodied feel. Watson’s work on classical conditioning and stimulus generalization would have been a useful tool to help give a naturalistic account of the purported structure of the unconscious mind.
It is interesting to note that Russell read a paper by Blanco where the principle of generalization is discussed in detail. Russell sent Blanco a note to say that he admired Blanco’s work. It is tantalizing to speculate whether Russell put together his own use of stimulus generalization expressed in his ‘An Outline of Philosophy’ with Blanco’s similar principle. Unfortunately there isn’t a record of Russell’s thoughts on Blanco’s ‘The Unconscious as Infinite Sets’.
As noted above there are plenty of criticisms of the methodology used by psychoanalysts. So people may not be overly impressed that some aspects of psychoanalysis seem to be in agreement with Russell’s hypothesis. It is worth noting though that Relation Frame Theory and its clinical off shoot Acceptance and Commitment Therapy also makes use of implicit generalizations to explain the behaviour of people with various kinds of behavioural problems.
Neither Blanco’s work or work in Relation Frame Theory are yet predictive of what type of generalizations a person will generate in a given instance. They are rather retrospective theories that can be used to explain the verbal behaviour of the patients that they deal with. Nonetheless I think it is fair to say that at present Russell’s speculation while not proven correct; is given what contemporary data tell us, a reasonable hypothesis.

Unconscious Logic and the Myth of the Given

Matte Blanco was a psychoanalyst who attempted to formalise Freud’s theory of the unconscious using the formal logic of Russell and Whitehead. Freud famously argued that the majority of our mental states are governed by unconscious ideas and feelings. Based on his clinical work Freud argued that our unconscious mind had the following five characteristics. (1) Absence of mutual contradiction between the presentations of its various impulses, (2) Displacement, (3) Condensation, (4) Absence of Time (5) Replacement of external by psychic reality (‘The Unconscious as Infinite Sets’ pp. 36-37). Freud noted that unconscious thinking that followed the logic of the above five principles would obviously differ dramatically from ordinary Aristotelian Logic. However he never managed to make explicit precisely how the logic of the unconscious actually worked from a formal point of view. Blanco argued that using two basic principles he could model the alternative logical principles that governed the unconscious.
The first principle that Blanco used was called The Principle of Generalization, and the second was called The principle of Symmetry. Blanco sensibly conceived of the mind as a classificatory system, which was constantly at work organising experience into different categories. This conception of the mind is pretty standard and most psychologists would accept that categorisation is an essential feature of the human (and non-human animal) minds. However, Blanco argued that at an unconscious level we categorise in strange ways that don’t fit with standard conscious ways of categorising our experiences. Blanco called this aspect of categorisation the principle of generalisation. Basically the idea is that our unconscious mind is driven to generalize to more and more abstract sets. Blanco notes that the unconscious mind treats a particular thing as though it were a member of a particular set which contains other members, it treats this set as a subset of a more general set, and treats this more general set as a subset of a still more general set and so on (Blanco ‘The Unconscious as Infinite Sets p. 38)
A concrete example of the above would be treating the furry thing sitting beside me as a member of the set of dogs, and the set of dogs as a subset of the more general set of mammals, and treating mammals as a subset of the more general set of animals etc. Now categorising things according to these principles seems to be just a standard way we consciously order the data of our experiences. But Blanco argues humans typically use these generalisations unconsciously and hence are not aware of the type of categories we are placing in that we are interacting with. Not all generalizations will carve nature at the joints in the way that the above example of the set of dogs does, and our childhood experiences will ensure that we use strange generalizations on an unconscious level.
Blanco supplements his principle of generalisation with a further clause. He argues that when the unconscious mind is engaging in generalisation it operates in a strange way. When the mind is generalising it prefers propositional functions which in one aspect bring about increasing generality, and in another aspect keep particular characteristics of the individual thing to which they started (ibid p.38).
Blanco’s second principle is his principle of symmetry where he argues that an unconscious level the mind treats the converse of any relation as identical with the relation (ibid p. 38). So while the conscious mind treats a relation such as ‘John is the father of Peter’ as an asymmetrical relation, at an unconscious level the mind selectively treats this relation as symmetrical. Thus at an unconscious level the mind would think that because ‘John is the father of Peter’ then ‘Peter is the father of John’. Blanco justifies modelling the unconscious mind this way because he thinks it can explain otherwise inexplicable facts about the behaviour of schizophrenics, neurotics, of dream experiences etc. As a psychoanalyst Blanco was obviously a keen follower of Freud and was trying to explain similar clinical data. However Blanco believed that he had achieved a nice tidying up of Freud’s explication because Blanco’s two principles could explain Freud’s conception of the unconscious in a simpler and clearer manner than Freud managed.
In a 1984 paper ‘Understanding Matte Blanco’ the logician, philosopher and psychoanalyst Ross Skelton criticised Blanco’s conception of the unconscious on formal grounds. Skelton argued that Blanco’s conception of the unconscious resulted in a state of affairs where the unconscious accepted contradictory facts as both being true. Skelton demonstrated that it would be impossible to model the unconscious in this way since in a system that accepted true contradictions anything could be proven. Since Skelton wrote his criticism there has been some brilliant work done by Graham Priest which takes some of the sting out of Skelton’s objection. However, I will not here discuss the formal way to reply to Skelton’s criticism. Here I want to focus on a curious aspect of the Blanco’s reply to Skelton.
Blanco acknowledged the logical point that Skelton made and the difficulties it posed but he then made two extremely strange replies to Skelton. Firstly he noted the following:
“Incidentally, though Ross Skelton explicitly directs his criticisms to me, it can, in my opinion, be said that his remarks could apply with equal right to Freud and to the unconscious. In order to be unambiguous I think he should establish whether he thinks that it is my formulation that is not a true reflection of Freud’s discoveries, and give the reasons for this.” (Matte Blanco: Understanding Matte Blanco)
I cannot speak for Skelton but personally I think that Blanco manages to brilliantly summarise Freud’s views and manages to capture the logic of Freud’s views on the unconscious accurately. Blanco though wonders incredulously whether Skelton thinks that Freud is wrong about the nature of the unconscious. Blanco seems to think that if Skelton’s arguments carried through to Freud as much as they did to Blanco that this would undermine Skelton’s argument. Blanco’s bringing in Freud seems to play no role other than an appeal to the authority of Freud. But I see no reason why this authority should be bowed too. If Skelton’s arguments go through against Freud, then they go through, there is no reason to not follow the logic where it leads simply because of who Freud was.
Blanco then offers another criticism of Skelton’s argument. He notes the following:
“I understand that this is very strange, and, therefore, hard for a logician to swallow. But, in my opinion, it reflects very faithfully the behaviour of the unconscious and Freud’s description of it. All the characteristics of the unconscious described by Freud are bi-logical structures…I must add that I do not believe that he is criticizing the unconscious for daring to neglect the rules of logic…As just said, I exclude that he wishes to criticize the unconscious. But if there is anybody who does not respect the laws of logic he is not Freud nor myself but precisely the unconscious. If such is the case, as Freud is sure it is and I am convinced by him, then one would ask (to put it with the words of a well-known song): ‘what should we do with the drunken sailor?” (Matte Blanco ‘Understanding Matte Blanco’)
Above we can see Blanco treat Freud’s conception of the unconscious as a thing that exists and has been observed. Skelton is arguing that you cannot construct a model of the unconscious using the logical principles Blanco proposes. Blanco’s incredulous reply is that the unconscious exists and is directly observed, if it doesn’t conform to the stringent ideals of the logician then so much the worse for the logician.
In his book on Blanco ‘Unconscious Logic’, Eric Rayner summarised Blanco’s argument as follows:
“Negation and its absence are both at the very core of any bi-logical thought. A serious difficulty appears to arise here. It is obvious that valid inference depends upon the logical consistency inherent in ordinary conscious level, traditional two valued logic. It has already been said that the essence of two-valuedness is that things which ‘are so’ and not ‘not so’ at the same time. Here the non-contradiction ‘If A then Not A’ is crucial. However, if Matte Blanco is proposing a system where this principle of contradiction can be absent, then surely everything and nothing can be explained by it and the theory is useless. This has been skilfully argued by Skelton (1984). Matte Blanco (1984) argued back that he was sorry; he did not invent the way the unconscious levels of the mind work. ( Eric Rayner ‘Unconscious Logic p. 46)
Rayner explicates Blanco’s reply as if the unconscious was an a-theoretical entity which was discovered and its nature is what it is, whether it conforms to our logic or not.
Blanco’s reply can be explicated using a concrete analogy. Blanco and Freud are like brave explorers who discovered the duckbilled-platypus, but who are confronted by theorists like Skelton who deny that the platypus exists. Blanco just needs to reply to the silly theorist by pointing at the platypus and thereby showing the errant theorist that reality is more complex than his a priori intuitions imagined.
However, the problem with the above image is that we don’t directly see the unconscious it is rather a theoretical construct we use to explain the behaviour of humans. Blanco seems to think otherwise:
“At this point I invite the reader to reflect on two points: the first is that the principle of symmetry is a logical way of describing and of arriving at the absence of negation which Freud observed directly in his study of patients and of dreams…” (Matte Blanco ‘The Unconscious as Infinite Sets’ p. 50)
Above you can see Blanco speak of Freud “directly observe” the unconscious ( Blanco even italicized ‘directly’ for emphasis). However as Blanco was well aware Freud never observed the unconscious, rather he inferred its existence. In his 1915 paper ‘The Unconscious’ Freud argued that it was necessary to postulate the existence of the unconscious to explain otherwise inexplicable facts. Freud used the postulation of the unconscious to explain the nature of parapraxes, jokes, dreams etc. He argued that the best way to explain these behaviours was to postulate the unconscious. Freud made the following point “A gain in meaning is a perfectly justifiable ground for going beyond direct experience” ( Freud ‘The Unconscious’ p. 159). Freud was working in Vienna where the positivist Mach was treated like a God, where logical positivism was on the brink of springing forth. But Freud never went along with the widely held prejudice of the Vienna of his time against theoretical postulates. His unconscious was precisely such a postulate, and one that bore some interesting fruit.
So we can see that Blanco’s reply to Skelton was a nonsense. The Unconscious was a theoretical model to explain human behaviour, and Skelton’s argument proposed that such a model couldn’t be constructed in a meaningful manner . Blanco’s pretence that the unconscious had already been directly observed was a bluff, the fact is that he had a model and he didn’t know how to complete it. So the question begging assumption that his model of the unconscious had already been discovered was a way of pretending that the technical criticisms he was facing were irrelevant.
The above criticism seems a bit harsh on Blanco. However I don’t mean it to be interpreted in that way. Blanco was a brilliant theorist and psychoanalyst. His work was groundbreaking. When I argue he was bluffing I don’t necessarily mean that he was doing this at a conscious level. He may not have been aware of what drove his rhetorical stance.
Furthermore there is a sense in which Blanco had a point in his criticism of Skelton’s argument. Research in quantum mechanics has put pressure on our intuitive understanding of the law of non-contradiction. At one point Kant believed that we knew a priori that space operated according to the principles of Euclidean Geometry. However both empirical and theoretical research showed that non-Euclidean Geometries are better ways to model space. So Blanco wasn’t being absurd in thinking that the discoveries being made through the theoretical postulate of the unconscious shouldn’t just cave to a logical argument. The incredible predictive capacity of quantum mechanics forced philosophers to try to develop different logical models to explain the data. Likewise Blanco could have argued that the gain in understanding by adopting a psychoanalytic perspective should make us consider developing a different logical system to model the unconscious mind.
Skelton’s argument indicated that Blanco’s model didn’t seem up to the job. But today there exist more flexible logics which seem up to the task. It will be interesting to see if these models are more successful in accounting for the clinical data than Blanco’s model was.

Fuzzy Sets: Intellectual Dark Web, New Atheism, Logical Positivism and Behaviourism

In this blog-post I will be discussing the Intellectual Dark Web and trying to understand what its distinctive features are supposed to be. To help understand what the features of the group are I will discuss it in relation to three other groups. This first group I will compare it to will be New Atheism in particular as it is represented by the famous Four Horsemen of Atheism. I will then compare it to two major research programmes in the last Century the Vienna Circle and Behaviourism. The purpose of these comparisons will be to evaluate the degree to which the Intellectual dark web compares with these groups in the clarity of its purposes and what they aim to achieve.
Before proceeding to the comparison I need to make a couple of brief caveats. Firstly, to forestall an obvious complaint, I am in no way comparing the intellectual importance of these respective groups. I hope it should be obvious that I am in not arguing that people like Joe Rogan, and Jordan Peterson belong in the same intellectual universe as Ludwig Wittgenstein, Rudolph Carnap or B.F. Skinner. I feel embarrassed even having to make this point; but I will do so to avoid confusion.
Another complaint could be that I am not comparing like with like. The Vienna Circle and the Logical Positivism it developed was an actual research programme, and the same is obviously true of Behaviourism. But the Four Horsemen of Atheism and the new atheism they were leaders of wasn’t a scientific research programme. Rather it was better to think of them as a political movement interested in treating questions about religion and God by the standard methods of science. I think that this is a legitimate criticism. However it doesn’t really affect anything I am arguing here as I am just trying to clarify what type of group the Intellectual Dark Web is, and how it compares with other intellectual groups. I am not offering any criticisms of the Intellectual Dark Web for not being a scientific research programme.
The Four Horsemen of Atheism
Intellectual life, like all areas of life, is pervaded with territorial allegiances. Thinkers form groups which they use to separate themselves from those whom they think of as holding a different ethos about life. In the act of naming a group the members of the group become associated with the name and sometimes people have difficulties disambiguating members of the group. Ten years ago four academics met up to discuss and critique religion from a scientific and philosophical point of view. The four thinkers were Dan Dennett, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and Richard Dawkins; all were already famous atheists and known as members of so called new atheism (which was considered more aggressive than traditional atheism). Prior to meeting in Hitchens’ apartment to discuss the question of religion all four of them had authored a book criticising religion and belief in God. Sam Harris published his ‘End of Faith’ in 2004, Dawkins published his ‘The God Delusion’ in 2006, Dennett published ‘Breaking the spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomena’ in 2006, and Hitchens published his ‘God is not Great in 2007. All four books were massive successes, and prior to writing the books they were already famous for their atheism. So in 2007 when they met up to discuss religion and God and released the discussion to the general public there was huge interest. They became known as the four horsemen of atheism and set off millions of internet debates.
What was interesting about these debates was that in some circles ‘The Four Horsemen’ were treated as though they were identical people who agreed on every topic. The four horsemen were all sceptics about religion and its effects on society and were all atheists; however they obviously didn’t agree on everything. Harris and Dennett disagreed on the nature of consciousness, and on freewill. Dennett and Dawkins disagreed about the use of the term ‘Design’ in evolutionary explanation. Dawkins politics was slightly more leftwing than Hitchens etc. Yet even when these differences were pointed out some people couldn’t separate out the members of it group. It was like as if the existence of a label for the four thinkers worked against some people’s capacity to distinguish between the members of the group. Nonetheless the label was helpful to the members of the group. It was a nice marketing tool, and it helped to entice guys who liked Hitchens’ writing to read the other four horsemen and vice-versa.
The Intellectual Dark Web
Flash-forward twelve years and one of the Four Horsemen of Atheism, Sam Harris appears in a photo shoot for a group called the Intellectual Dark Web. A New York Times Article is written by Bari Weiss on the Intellectual Dark Web , complete with the shadowy photos illustrating the leaders of this new movement. They are described as brave renegades fighting against the shadowy forces of political correctness. The article is an instant marketing success and the internet explodes with argument after argument.
The IDW is a much larger group of thinkers than the Four Horsemen. Bari Weiss listed members of it as including Sam Harris, Brett Weinstein, Eric Weinstein, Jordan Peterson, Christina Hoff Summers, Ben Shapiro amongst many others. What makes someone a member of the IDW? Barri Weiss offers the following vague unhelpful definition:
“Most simply, it is a collection of iconoclastic thinkers, academic renegades and media personalities who are having a rolling conversation — on podcasts, YouTube and Twitter, and in sold-out auditoriums — that sound unlike anything else happening, at least publicly, in the culture right now. Feeling largely locked out of legacy outlets, they are rapidly building their own mass media channels.”
She notes that these iconoclastic thinkers are committed to disagreeing strongly with each other while also remaining civil when engaging in this discourse. A couple of lines down, without a hint of irony she gleefully notes that Jordan Peterson responded to an article by Pankaj Mishra which criticized Peterson, by calling Mishra a sanctimonious prick who Peterson would like to slap. Bari Weiss who claimed that to be a member of the IDW is to remain civil while having intellectual disputes; didn’t seem to spot any difficulty in the aggressive uncivil behaviour of one of the leaders of the IDW when someone criticises him.
This is one of the problems with the IDW, it extension is extremely vague. If the being civil to ones critics was a key defining property of its members than Peterson wouldn’t be included in the group. If being banned from your institute because of political correctness was a key criterion for being a member then Sam Harris couldn’t be a member. And the attempt to individuate them as iconoclastic thinkers who are having discussions on podcasts and on twitter etc is equally hopeless. Philosopher Robert Wright has appeared on Sam Harris’s podcast to discuss Buddhism, Harris has appeared on the Very Bad Wizard podcast and vice-versa, and of course Wright has appeared on the Very Bad Wizard podcast and one of the Very Bad Wizard’s (Tamler Sommers), has appeared on Wright’s podcast. Similarly, people like Russell Brand have had Jordan Peterson and Sam Harris on their podcast, Brand has appeared on the Joe Rogan podcast to discuss politics, religion etc. So do the Very Bad Wizards, Russell Brand, or Robert Right belong in the IDW? If not why not? They are an iconoclastic bunch of thinkers who are having an ongoing online discussion, they are committed to civil discussion with each other (I haven’t heard any of them threaten to punch a critic in the face yet). Admittedly they haven’t faced trouble in a University over their political views, then again neither has Harris and he is a member of the IDW.
When people interview members of the IDW they typically emphasise that they all hold different views on a variety of different topics and so, for example, Harris shouldn’t be held responsible for the views of Jordan Peterson. This is similar to the way it would have been a mistake to assume that all of the members of The Four Horsemen held the same views on consciousness. However, there is one clear difference with the four horsemen they claimed to be in agreement on their atheism and on the fact that atheists should be more critical towards religion than had typically been the case. So there were certain key features that the members of the group all shared in common and this was clearly delineated. With the IDW this is not the case. There seem to be no core beliefs that hold them together in a set that exclude people who are not members e.g. Massimo Pigliucci, Robert Wright etc. It is hard to view the IDW as anything other than a marketing plan of a group of friends to promote each-others work.
Even the members of the IDW don’t seem to agree on the significance of the group or what it stands for. In pod-cast Sam Harris portrayed the whole thing as a bit of a joke that isn’t meant to be taken that seriously. Eric Weinstein, on the other-hand, argued that he came up with the name IDW in a deliberate manner to implicitly force the mainstream media (who according to Weinstein have some problem with them), to inadvertently promote the group. It is as difficult to know whether Harris’s account of the IDW or Weinstein’s is meant to be the authoritative, as it is to know what the criterion for membership of the IDW is meant to be. At the moment the so called IDW seems to be little more than a marketing plan to bring attention to a group of podcasts.
The Vienna Circle and Logical Positivism
Of course, just because something has an inauspicious beginning doesn’t mean that it isn’t capable of being developed further once a bit more thought is put into the project. One of the more famous groups in the history of philosophy is the Vienna Circle, they are now remembered as logical positivists, but they began as a discussion group between a few PhD students interested in science, mathematics, logic and philosophy. The group eventually became known because of their joint manifesto on the nature of the movement, and popular books designed to spread it, but in the beginning they were a group held together by shared interests not by an official doctrine.
The unofficial head the group was Moritz Schlick who was trained as a physicist but was working as a professional philosopher. Schlick was known as “Einstein’s Pet Philosopher”, and wrote a book outlining the philosophical implications of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. But he soon came under the sway of another great man: Ludwig Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein’s Tractatus became a kind of bible for the group. His use of Frege and Russell’s logic to draw limits to what could sensibly be said about reality was exactly what the logical positivists were looking for in their battle against metaphysics. Wittgenstein seemed to have provided a clear criterion that could be used draw a line to demonstrate when claims that had been made were not empirical but were metaphysical nonsense.
However despite his work being central importance to the Vienna Circle, Wittgenstein wasn’t exactly a member. The group did manage to get him to attend some of the meetings, but he didn’t attend regularly and he didn’t approve of the views of many members of the group. Furthermore despite his work being of central importance to the group, there was not universal agreement on how his work was to be interpreted. Some members of the group such as Otto Neurath sneered at the reverence that Wittgenstein was held in by Schlick and Waisman; and argued that Wittgenstein was treated like the leader of a religious cult instead of as a fellow logician. Others such as Carnap was impressed with Wittgenstein’s work; but didn’t agree with all of it. One of the difficulties with Wittgenstein’s work was that it purported to divide statements into three subcategories: empirical propositions, logical and mathematical propositions (construed as tautologies), and metaphysical sentences (nonsensical sentences). The difficulty was that the propositions of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus were not in any obvious sense either tautologies or empirical propositions. They seemed on the face of it to be metaphysical claims which on Wittgenstein’s theory were nonsensical so the entire book could be construed as building up its arguments using nonsensical claims.
The important point to note is that the logical positivists didn’t all agree on how to deal with this problem. Despite being members of a single group they didn’t all agree on either the importance of Wittgenstein’s work, nor on how to deal with difficulties interpreting his Tractatus. And this wasn’t the only point of dispute within the group. There was an intractable debate on the status of protocall sentences that virtually none of the members of the circle could agree on. Nonetheless despite holding many disagreements there were core principles that held the group together. They were all empiricists, promoting a science based world view and who thought that the new logic was the best way of systematizing our best scientific theory of the world.
So the Logical Positivists, like the Four Horsemen, disagreed on many subjects but they were held together by a core set of beliefs on certain topics, in this way they differed from the IDW which doesn’t seem to be held together by any core beliefs that separates them from people who were not members of the IDW. However as we saw above when the Logical Positivists began meeting first they were just some like minded friends interested in a science based world view. It was only later that they developed an explicit manifesto about what the group represented. Likewise the IDW as far as I can see at the moment is nothing but a collection of friends who are promoting each-others work. But it is possible that like the Vienna Circle the IDW could eventually develop a set of core principles that they stand for. It is just that as things stand there seems to be no core principles they stand for that can be used to differentiate them from anyone else.
The Behaviourists
Of course even having a manifesto doesn’t guarantee unity on core topics. J B Watson’s ‘Psychology as the Behaviourist Views It’, could be viewed as the document that launched behavioural psychology . It has been a hundred years since Watson wrote his famous text and to this day a lot of scientists still identify as behaviourists. However, it would be a difficult task to extrapolate precisely what it is that makes one a behaviourist other than an emphasis on behaviour and scepticism about introspection as a tool.
Watson and Skinner are probably the two most famous behaviourists, they disagreed on many things. Watson was a stimulus response theorist, while Skinner used the three term contingency to explicate behaviour. Watson argued that we couldn’t study private events scientifically, while Skinner argued that private events are a form of behaviour that can be studied in the same way as any other behaviour. However, even amongst the neo-behaviourists who tried to move beyond Watson’s behaviourism there wasn’t a homogenous set of beliefs held by all of them. Thus Edward C Tolman believed that it was acceptable for a behaviourist to use inferred constructs, and cognitive concepts, Clark L Hull argued that behaviourists could use inferred constructs but not cognitive concepts, while Skinner argued against inferred constructs, and cognitive concepts (‘Logical Positivism and Behaviourism’ p. 305). While Hull argued that behaviourism should be a deductive science, Skinner and Clark argued that it should be an inductive science (ibid p. 305).
Tollman considered himself a behaviourist and is considered a behaviourist to this day, however given that he allowed cognitive constructs and inferred entities it is difficult to see why his views should be considered any different than those of a contemporary cognitive scientist. Behaviourism started as a reaction against the introspective tradition in psychology and most cognitive scientists would agree that introspection is a bad tool to rely on in science. With some behaviourists such as Tolman it is hard to find a line that distinguishes them from non-behaviourists; whereas with others such as Skinner the line is a bit clearer.
Behaviourism like both logical positivism and the four horsemen of atheism was largely defined by what they were against; Introspective Methods in psychology, Metaphysics and a belief in God. In the hundred or so years since Behaviourism was first proposed as a method, it has branched off in many different directions; methodological behaviourism, radical behaviourism, applied behavioural analysis, relational frame theory etc. Some behavioural theories can be clearly distinguished from other branches of psychology such as cognitive science, while it more difficult to distinguish some kinds of behaviourism from cognitive science.
It is clear though what it was the behaviourists were reacting against and that the movement developed in concrete ways and was successful in dealing with most of the problems that it set itself. This distinguishes it from the IDW, it is unclear who they are opposing, what makes them different than people who aren’t members of the group, and what would constitute the group being successful.
In our comparison of the IDW with other groups we have noted that unlike all of the other groups there appears to be no clear criterion as to what makes someone a member of the group. This isn’t a devastating indictment of the group, as it is possible that overtime they will develop a coherent ethos. Nonetheless as things stand the IDW is a group of individuals that seems to be grouped together on the basis of mutual marketing and nothing else.


Russell: Negation and Innate perceptual Judgements

In Russell’s ‘An Inquiry into Meaning and Truth’ he discussed how we apply propositions involving ‘negation’ and the relation of these propositions to experience. Russell’s primary concern was how experience could show that a proposition is false. He noted that while negative propositions seem to have an immediate relation to experience they in fact involve not immediate experience; but perceptual judgements. Thus suppose we are told that the fridge contains cheese and butter. When we look in the fridge we immediately see the cheese, however when we look in the fridge we also discover that there is no butter. Russell thinks that discovering that cheese is in the fridge and discovering that butter is not in the fridge are not of the same logical type.
When we look in the fridge we do not see the absence of butter, rather we see a series of products. We then judge that these products are not butter, and as they are only products in the fridge, we judge that there is not butter in the fridge. Russell also notes that to make a negative judgement involves linguistic capacities. If a non-linguistic creature peered into the larder and just looked at what was there and made arbitrary judgements about what was not there; the creature could make an infinite amount of judgements as to what was not in the larder. There are a potential infinite amount of objects that are not in the larder at any given moment. He argues that when one involves linguistic communication this potentially infinite amount of negative judgements gets paired down. Thus, if someone will says ‘there is butter and cheese in the fridge’, this will make it more likely that the other person will make the judgement that there is ‘no butter in the fridge’ when they do the relevant search.
Russell’s discussion of negative propositions is admirably done in relation to concrete examples. He asks us to consider a very simple negation: ‘This is not white’. We are to imagine that we said the above statement in response to a judgement about laundry (An Inquiry into Meaning and Truth p. 77). So we have in our minds eye the proposition ‘this is white’ but your direct experience elicits the proposition ‘this is grey’. The question is how do we go from the proposition in our minds eye, the proposition elicited by our direct experience to the negative judgement ‘this is not white’?
Russell offers two possible ways to arrive at the negative proposition:
(1) You know the general proposition ‘what is grey is not white’, and from this together with ‘this is grey’ you derive the proposition ‘this is not white’.
(2) You confront the word ‘white’ with what you see and perceive an incompatibility. (ibid p. 77)
Russell notes that from the point of view of pure logic (1) or (2) must be the correct answer. As from you cannot logically derive conclusions that are negations from premises which don’t contain negations (ibid p. 77) So if we are to have negative propositions they need to either be basic propositions, either pure negations as in (2) or derived from implications of the ‘form p and not q’ as in (1). Logic allows no other possibility.

The Case of Incompatible Colours
“…Two different colours cannot coexist at the same place in one visual field. Position in the visual field is absolute, and may be defined by relation to the centre of the field by means of two angular coordinates which we may call ⱷ, ⱸ. I am saying that we know the following proposition: ‘at a given time and in a given visual field, if the colour A is at the place ⱷ, ⱸ, no other colour B is at this place’. More simply: ‘this is red’ and ‘this is blue are incompatible.” (ibid p.78)
Russell argues that the above generalisation is one that we intuitively know to be true but how we know it to be true is difficult to ascertain. According to Russell it isn’t a logical truth as Red and Blue are not logically incompatible, nor does it appear to be a truth which is derived from experience.
Russell notes that there are many other sensible qualities which we immediately recognise to be incompatible, he gives a variety of different examples such as ‘hard’ and ‘soft’, ‘hot’ and ‘cold’, ‘sweet’ and ‘sour’ etc (ibid p. 78).The important point about the preceding examples is that they are not examples of logical incompatibility. He argues that if we take these incompatibilities as basic propositions, they must be grounded on the basic general proposition (which is a more abstract version of (1) above):
(3) “For all possible values of x, ꬿx implies not ꬸx. Here ‘ꬿx’ may be ‘x is blue’, and “ꬸx’ may be ‘x is red’.” (ibid p. 78)
Russell argues that with the help of the general proposition above we can infer from seeing that ‘x is red’ that ‘x is not blue’. The important point to note here is that the inference ‘x is not blue’ is derived from a non-empirical proposition (3) above. Russell is not very happy with the above conjecture as to how we arrive at our negative proposition ‘x is not blue’. However he is not very clear on why he is unhappy with his conjecture he merely vaguely claims that the conjecture is not very plausible or satisfying. He then moves on to a different attempt to solve the problem which he also finds unsatisfactory. However before delving into his second attempt to solve the problem of negation I will critically evaluate Russell’s first attempt to solve the problem of negation.
Russell, Evolution and Innate apparatus
Russell found his above explanation implausible. One of the reasons for this was that he preferred to justify his speculations on empiricist grounds and was reticent to use rationalist explanations. Rationalist explanations were generally held in pretty low esteem at the time Russell was writing. There were a number of reasons that rationalism was not looked upon unfavourably at the time. Rationalists such as Descartes, Spinoza and Leibniz were at the forefront of the scientific revolution. However their rationalist explanations of the success of science came under severe pressure through arguments of the empiricist philosophers who contended that empiricist explications of the sciences explained its success better. One difficulty that empiricists had with rationalist explanations was that it was utterly mysterious how we derived our capacity of so called ‘a priori’ knowledge. Prior to the scientific revolution and the birth of rationalist tradition; philosophers such as Plato and Saint Augustine argued that humans had innate knowledge in areas such as morality, mathematics etc. However they had no convincing explanation of this a priori knowledge. Plato argued that we had innate ideas acquired in a prior life that we could remember by contemplation of the forms, while Saint Augustine claimed we arrive at this universal knowledge through a revelation from god. None of the rationalists had a more compelling explanation of how we acquire non empirical knowledge of things like mathematical truth; for example, Descartes had to bring God into the picture as a guarantor of the validity of our logical and mathematical truths.
Philosophers in Russell’s time were impressed by the empiricist criticism of rationalist epistemology; however, they weren’t convinced that the great empiricists (Locke, Berkeley, Hume) had a compelling account of mathematical knowledge etc. In ‘Inquiry into Meaning and Truth’ Russell wasn’t interested giving an explanation of how we acquired our mathematical knowledge. Rather he was trying to demonstrate how we derive our knowledge claims from basic perceptual beliefs. In his introduction to ‘An Inquiry into Meaning and Truth’ Russell noted:
“I shall, throughout this book, try to avoid the consideration of logical and mathematical knowledge, which does not raise the problems which I wish to discuss. My main problem, throughout, will be the relation of basic propositions to experiences, i.e., of the propositions that come first in the epistemological order to the occurrences which, in some sense, are our grounds for these propositions.” (ibid p. 16)
He was interested in analysing our language, and discovering how we go from simple object languages which pick out perceptual features of our environment, to a secondary language which included logical constants, true and false, and so on up the hierarchy of languages. But as we saw above when moving from the object language to the meta language Russell immediately ran into difficulties as to how we could do this based entirely on perceptual experiences. He was forced to admit the unempirical basic proposition which is necessary to form negative judgements from experiences:
(3)“For all possible values of x, ꬿx implies not ꬸx. Here ‘ꬿx’ may be ‘x is blue’, and “ꬸx’ may be ‘x is red’.” (ibid p. 78)
Russell was uncomfortable with appealing to an unempirical basic proposition but didn’t have any other compelling way to explain our knowledge in this domain. As we saw above though appeals to non-empirical knowledge had a chequered history in philosophy. An atheist philosopher like Russell, who had strong empiricist leanings, would have been extremely uncomfortable with the explanations of non-empirical knowledge that philosophers such as Plato, Augustine and Descartes provided. While Russell was prepared to countenance unempirical knowledge, he was extremely uncomfortable with doing so and only did so if he had no other choice.
An avenue available to Russell to explain non-empirical knowledge was the theory of evolution. Yet Russell, unlike later philosophers, such as Chomsky and Quine never made much use of this avenue. When Russell was considering how a human could derive negation from experience he didn’t sufficiently appreciate how important negation or proto-negation would be to living creatures in the wild.
Russell gave the example of a person looking in the fridge and forming the judgement that ‘there is no butter in the fridge’. He then tried to analyse how the person would be capable of forming the judgement and considered a variety of different difficulties with his explanations. But better question with more immediate consequences would be how could a mouse form the proposition ‘there is no cat in this field’?
If we consider the question about a mouse forming a negative proposition from an evolutionary perspective; things look much different. Russell noted that we cannot form a negative proposition purely from the fact that something is not present in the field. There are an infinite amount of possible entities that are not present in the field. So the mouse going into the field would have to make an infinite amount of judgements about what is not present in the field. Of course from an evolutionary perspective such a situation would not occur. A mouse isn’t just some blank slate who forms its judgements entirely based on empirical observation. A mouse will have particular concerns and interests that will limit the type of hypotheses it makes. A creature that couldn’t make snap judgements as to whether there were no predators in the field before entering it to eat would be culled by natural selection in no time. Animals pausing to consider the infinite possibilities of counterfactual entities before acting wouldn’t last long enough to pass on their genes in the time constrained environment that natural selection acts on.
A logician like Russell didn’t consider the time and energy constraints on a living creature trying to survive in its environment. Natural Selection builds cheap fast brains that do the minimum; i.e. try to survive long enough to pass on their genes to the next generation. Such a creature will not will not consider logical possibilities; rather they will be concerned with salient information, the salience being primarily what will get me food for energy, what will help me find a mate, and what danger may be nearby.
With this fact in mind, Russell’s question about the perceptual basis of forming negation takes on a different hue. The non-linguistic creature will have expectations of what there is in the world it is exploring and a quick glance will tell the creature that some things that it expects to be there are in fact not there. From here is a short step for the creature to form the judgement ‘there is no cat in the field’. So from an evolutionary perspective there is little reason to follow Russell in arguing that forming perceptual judgements of negation must involve linguistic capacities.
Likewise, there is little reason to follow Russell in worrying about the fact that he has to use non empirical axioms to show how we derive negative propositions. From an evolutionary point of view we would expect any creature to come to the learning situation choc o bloc with innate apparatus.
An obvious objection to my above discussion is that it relies on the unargued assumption that non-linguistic creatures use propositional attitudes when thinking. However, my argument isn’t actually reliant on this assumption. I am arguing that IF non linguistic creatures think using propositional attitudes, natural selection will have build constraints in to the possibilities the creatures will entertain when judging what is or is not in the environment, and these innate constraints will make it much easier to form negative judgements.
Russell’s Second Way of Forming Negation
We saw above that Russell had little reason to be so wary about appealing to unempirical knowledge once we adopt an evolutionary perspective. Russell offered another way we a creature could acquire negation. This way involved comparing a word such as ‘white’ and judging whether the environment contained this entity. Russell seemed to view this explanation as in competition with his first explanation in terms of non-empirical grasping of incompatibility. However, there is no reason to view these explanations as in competition they could both play a role in people acquiring the use of negation.
On difficulty with Russell’s discussion of our use of word’s was that he didn’t really appreciate the role of reinforcement shaping how language is used. To this end I think that using Skinner’s work on Verbal Behaviour would help push Russell’s explication in the right direction.
In his ‘Verbal Behaviour’ Skinner discussed the type of perceptual experiences which would work to elicit the response ‘Not Red’. While Russell was concerned with the fact that we seem to be able to form non-empirical judgements about our perceptual field:
“I am saying that we know the following proposition: ‘at a given time and in a given visual field, if the colour A is at the place ⱷ, ⱸ, no other colour B is at this place’. More simply: ‘this is red’ and ‘this is blue are incompatible.” ( An Inquiry into Meaning and Truth p.78)
Skinner was more concerned with the environmental and social contingencies which would shape our response ‘Not Red’:
“The stimuli which continue to strengthen Red and which therefore continue to produce the qualified Not Red are only those situations which are similar to red. Blue will not only not evoke Red, it will not evoke Not red. A strong reddish-orange, may however, do so. Additional verbal stimulation- for example, the echoic prompt red- may, of course evoke the response Not red in the presence of a blue object” ( B.F. Skinner ‘Verbal Behaviour p. 324)
When Skinner is discussing negation he does so in relation to what he calls a qualifying autoclitic. He defines a qualifying autoclitic as “a function that qualifies the tact in such a way that the intensity or direction of the listener’s behaviour is modified” (ibid p. 322). In this respect Skinner asks us to consider the qualifying autoclitic of ‘No’. ‘No’ can be used to qualify any tact. The tact ‘rain’, which is under the control of a particular environmental event, could theoretically be metaphorically extended to include such things as a water sprinkler and metonymically extended to a dark grey sky. If the verbal community that a speaker is a member of doesn’t reinforce such metaphorical and metonymical extensions, or even punishes it, this type of Verbal Behaviour will decrease in use.
Skinner notes that ‘no’ is used a lot of times as a mand to change behaviour. Thus if a child is playing with something dangerous the parent will say ‘no’. In this instance ‘no’ functions as a mand to change ones behaviour; to stop doing what one is doing. This use of ‘no’ as a mand also occurs with verbal behaviour. Thus if a child pronounces a word wrong or uses it in the wrong circumstances the parent will say ‘no’ and may follow the ‘no’ with an explanation of what is wrong with the behaviour. So a child growing up will pretty quickly come to understand that ‘no’ is a mand to stop or change what you are doing.
When a person is using a tact such as ‘Red’, it is possible to modify the tact by using the qualifying autoclitic ‘no’. A person who has grasped the use of no as a mand to modify behaviour could of course apply it to his own verbal behaviour. He could apply it to any statement about our perceptual experiences and modify the intensity or direction of the statement. Thus when the person sees a dog he could use the tact ‘cat’ and qualify it by saying ‘no-cat’, meaning that the tact that ‘there is a cat present’ is false. However Skinner argues that a person will only qualify a tact with a ‘no’ in certain circumstances. As we saw above he gives us the example of something red; he notes that ‘red’ is unlikely to evoke either ‘blue’ or ‘not-blue’. The rationale for this is that we wouldn’t use a qualifying negation for no reason. Something reddish may act as a stimulus for us saying ‘not-red’ as it is close enough in hue to red to be confused with it so we could use a qualifying tact to ‘not-red’ upon being presented with a redish orange object. If a person were to say ‘not-blue’ in the presence of a red object it may be in response to a query from a person who doesn’t know the colour of the object and wrongly guesses that it is blue . The important point to note is that Skinner is using both context and intersubjective communication as a key to understanding how the qualifying autoclitic ‘no’ is typically used.
Skinner’s emphasis on intersubjective communication and social reinforcement is important as a way of supplementing Russell’s account. A person may eventually learn to use the word ‘white’ and check if there are any objects in the environment matching it but and therefore derive the negative judgement ‘not white’ but this process will be reliant on two more fundamental processes. (1) Our innate biologically given expectations of what is salient in our environment (2) Shaping by our sociolinguistic group in how to appropriately use the word ‘no’.

Bertrand Russell and B.F. Skinner on Meaning.

Bertrand Russell played a formative role in the development of B.F. Skinner as an intellectual. Skinner noted in his autobiography ‘The Shaping of a Behaviourist’, that it was Russell writings on behaviourism that led to Skinner becoming a behaviourist. Skinner though, despite his admiration for Russell, disagreed with him on a variety of different topics. A key area of disagreement between Skinner and Russell was on the use of the notion of ‘meaning’. In his ‘An Inquiry into Meaning and Truth’ Russell introduced meaning as an explanatory explanation in verbal behaviour:
“Just as jumping is one class of bodily movements, and walking another, so the uttered word ‘dog’ is a third class of bodily movements…Words, spoken, heard, or written, differ from other classes of bodily movements, noises, or shapes, by having meaning”
(An Inquiry into Meaning and Truth pp. 22-23)
Skinner argued that Russell’s appeal to meanings in his explanation was superfluous:
“Our subject matter is verbal behaviour, and we must accept this in the crude form in which it is observed. In studying speech, we have to account for a series of complex muscular activities which produce noises. In studying writing or gesturing, we deal with other sorts of muscular responses. It has long been recognized that this is the stuff of which languages are made, but the acknowledgement has usually been qualified in such a way as to destroy the main point…Bertrand Russell asserts that “just as jumping is one class of movement…so the word ‘dog’ is [another] class,” but he adds that words differ from other classes of bodily movements because they have “meaning.” Here something has been added to an objective description.” (‘Verbal Behaviour” p. 13)
Skinner’s point is wildly at odds with our everyday phenomenology. It seems to be just obvious that our words have meaning. To say that a word like ‘dog’ means something; doesn’t seem to be adding anything to the objective description. If a person says ‘dog’ and means by that what everyone else would describe as a cat we would say that the person did not understand the meaning of the term ‘dog’. So Skinner’s views are very counterintuitive from a commonsense perspective, and Russell’s views are much more congenial from the intuitive perspective. Obviously though scientific debates are not decided by commonsense, if they were we could rule out discoveries in relativity theory and quantum mechanics by fiat.

Russell on Meaning:
Russell’s views on the nature of meaning and propositions changed throughout his career. I will not here track Russell’s various changes of minds on the topic over the course of his entire intellectual development. Rather, I will be concerned with Russell’s take on meaning in his IMT, and how this relates to Skinner’s position in his ‘Verbal Behaviour’.
Russell’s theory is highly dependent on his postulation of the existence of propositions. For Russell a proposition is something that can be said in any language. He gives the example of the sentence ‘Socrates is Mortal’ and ‘Socrate est mortel’; these are sentences spoken is different languages which express the same proposition. Russell defines a proposition as “all the sentences which have the same meaning as some given sentence” (IMT p. 10). Given that his definition of proposition relied on undefined terms such as ‘meaning’ and ‘sentence’, Russell tried to offer definitions of them. He defined sentences as either a single word or a combination of words put together by syntactic rules.
Russell explicated ‘meaning’ in terms of natural language. He broke languages down into languages on different logical hierarchies; his reasoning for doing this was to avoid the semantic paradoxes. The most basic form of a language is what Russell calls the object language. Russell describes the object language as follows:
“We can now partially define the primary language or object-language as a language consisting wholly of ‘object-words’, where ‘object-words’ are defined, logically, as words having meaning in isolation, and psychologically, as words which have been learnt without its being necessary to have previously learnt any other words” (IMT p. 62)
The object language excludes the concepts of ‘true’ and ‘false’ as these terms when applied to the nth language belong to the nth+1 language (ibid p. 60). The object language also excludes the logical connectives ‘or’ ‘and’ ‘negation’ etc, as these words have no meanings in isolation and must be applied to words of our object language which are created prior to the secondary language.
Russell’s picture of the child learning his first words in the object language involves the child learning to associate certain sounds with objects in the environment. And understanding certain sounds in the environment used in the absence of those objects, which typically result in the absent object appearing. The child then learns to mouth the sounds in the presence of the object, and then to mouth the sound in the absence of the object, in order to get the object brought to him (IMT p. 63). Russell’s description of the child mouthing his first words is very similar to Skinner’s explications interms of Tacts and Mands .
When Russell discussed object words he said that the child learns the meaning of an object word by hearing it said frequently in the presence of the object. Russell claimed that this process can be accounted for as a form of association. The child learns to associate the sound with the object and the object with the sound. This is similar to Skinner’s discussion of Tacts, except Skinner doesn’t rely on a process of association; rather Skinner works with a system of differential reinforcement which is used to increase the probability that the child will say the word in the presence of the object.
Russell’s account of meaning is that the meaning of the object word is the object it is associated with. Eventually the child will be able to understand the object that the word means even in the absence of the object. The sense that Russell uses meaning in this account isn’t on the face of it particularly esoteric. The meaning of the word ‘Mama’ is the object typically associated with the sound.
On this Russelian picture we don’t just learn the meaning of proper nouns by direct association; we also learn the meaning of general nouns, of verbs, and of prepositions, as a result of direct conditioning to objects in the world. (‘An Inquiry into Meaning and Truth’ p. 69). Russell though doesn’t offer any help as to how people abstract out verbs, prepositions and nouns through direct association with objects in the world. Russell just asserts that these different functional features of language are learned through direct conditioning and distinguishes them from elements of the meta-language (truth and false predicates, logical particles), that are not part of the object language.
Skinner criticisms of Russell on Meaning:
As we saw above Russell’s theory of meaning for the object language is relatively straight forward and minimalist; Russell doesn’t postulate explanatory fictions willy-nilly. Yet despite this fact Skinner is critical of Russell for unwarrantedly going beyond the empirical facts when describing linguistic behaviour.
Skinner argued that Russell’s account of meaning relied on the notion of a proposition and that Russell hadn’t properly defined what a proposition is. As we saw above Russell described a proposition as something that could be said in any language. To this Skinner replied that this supposed explanation doesn’t tell us what a proposition is; or what it is made of (‘Verbal Behaviour’ p. 8). This criticism of Skinner’s is open to the objection that when a scientist proposes a theoretical entity to explain otherwise inexplicable behaviour, the onus isn’t on the scientist at the outset to settle the ontological status of the theoretical construct. Biology would be in a terrible state today if when the gene was first postulated it was rejected out of hand because we didn’t have a precise characterisation of its physical structure. In the case of the gene; we had a theoretical entity to explain otherwise inexplicable facts of heredity, and we later developed an accurate model which filled about the actual details about the physical structure of the gene. By parity of reasoning if Skinner believed that postulating genes as an explanatory explanation prior to characterising its precise physical nature was ok, then there is little reason to hold proponents of propositions to a higher standard than we held proponents of genes.
Skinner though could cast a serious doubt on the above analogy by arguing that propositions, unlike genes, do not explain otherwise inexplicable facts? One area where propositions were used was as an explanatory tool to explain different languages of the world being able to say the same thing. Skinner though rejected the claim that propositions were a necessary tool to explain the various different languages of the world:
“The audience variable is important in interpreting the traditional notion of “proposition.” If we define a proposition as “something which may be said in any language,” then instead of trying to identify the “something,” we may ask why there are different languages. The answer is that different contingencies of reinforcement involving single state of affairs are maintained by different verbal communities. A proposition is not “free to be expressed in any one of many forms,” for the form is to be determined by other variables, among them the audience. If there were only one standard and consistent verbal community, a proposition could be, though perhaps not happily, identified with “the response which expresses it.” When there are many different communities and as many different audiences, the “something” common to all of the resulting alternative “expressions” cannot be identified with a verbal form. The only common factor is among the controlling variables…there is no true synonymy in the sense of choice of different forms. When all the features of the thing described have been taken into account and when the audience has been specified, the form of response is determined.” (‘Verbal Behaviour’ pp. 174-175)
Skinner’s argument above is that the proposition isn’t a necessary theoretical postulate. We can explain the different languages in the world not by appeal to them all sharing the same internal propositional structure. Rather we can explain the different languages of the world in terms of different types of audience control.
Obviously in the sixty years since Skinner wrote ‘Verbal Behaviour’ there has been a lot of experimental data gathered on the degree to which the audience controls the form of language (e.g. Brown and Hanlon 1970, Choinard and Clark 2002, Ochs and Schieffelin 1986, etc). Furthermore there have been models developed that accept that the linguistic environment plays a big role in the structure of language, but also argues that this role is constrained by genetic instructions on the form language must take (Chomsky 1981). Models such as Chomsky 1981, don’t postulate the existence of propositions in the sense that Russell uses the term , but nor do they place almost total control of the structure of language to the linguistic audience a la Skinner. It is not the purpose of the present piece to evaluate how Skinner and Russell’s views stand up vis-a-vis contemporary linguistic science. My primary point is simply that Skinner offered an alternative conception of language that suggested that propositions weren’t a necessary postulate in explaining our linguistic behaviour. To this degree, Skinner conception showed that Russell’s adoption of propositions as explanatory tools, wasn’t dictated by necessity, but instead only seemed necessary because the alternative of different audiences controlling different linguistic shapes wasn’t even considered.
Russell further argued that a proposition was all the sentences that have the same meaning as some given sentence. Skinner correctly noted that this explanation was vacuous because we still entirely lacked an explication of what the supposed meaning of said “given sentence” was (‘Verbal Behaviour’ p. 8). Skinner noted that instead of relying on the undefined and poorly understood notion of ‘meaning’ to explain the proposition we could instead drop the unnecessary posit of a proposition and focus on the external contingencies which shaped linguistic behaviour. It was in this sense that Skinner believed that Russell was going beyond the facts when he tried relied on notions such as ‘meaning’.
A clear objection to the above argument of Skinner’s is that he hasn’t shown that the notion of ‘meaning’ isn’t necessary to explain linguistic behaviour, rather he has just shown that ‘meaning’ isn’t sufficient to justify the postulation of ‘propositions’. When discussing Russell’s conception of the object language above we noted that his explication of meaning was fairly prosaic and one that most people uncontaminated by philosophy would accept as obviously correct.
For Russell the meaning of a word in the object language was simply derived from the pairing of the sound with a corresponding object or event in the mind independent world. The child would eventually learn to remember that the sound typically signified the said object by remembering which object is typically associated with the sound.
Skinner though had serious difficulties with Russell’s crude referential explication of meaning. Skinner notes that when we move from simple cases like simple proper nouns, referential semantics begins to seem much less plausible. Skinner cites a series of words such as ‘atom’, ‘gene’, ‘minus one’, ‘the spirit of the times’, ‘nevertheless’, ‘although’ and ‘ouch’ which resist any simple attempt of definition interms referential semantics (‘Verbal Behaviour’ p. 8). Russell though wouldn’t be overly worried by Skinner’s examples. In his IMT Russell wasn’t arguing that ALL our words were derived from association with mind independent objects. Rather, Russell was arguing that some of our words were learned by association with objects in the world, and the rest of our concepts were built up in terms of various different ways of combining these sensory words into more complex meanings. Russell considered his IMT a way of using the insights of philosophers like Hume and Berkeley’s insights with into perception, with the logical analysis preferred by the logical positivists. So given Russell’s aim in IMT it is no surprise that his account of meanings bears a strong similarity to Hume’s account of simple and complex ideas.
Russell’s account of how we combine our basic object words to produce more complex ones is extremely vague. He speaks of us leaning new words based on dictionary definitions; but notes that we understand these definitions interms of words we have already learned through association with objects in the world. This is a battle that is still raging today; even contemporary psychologists such as Susan Carey who argues that we learn our new concepts by combining our primitive concepts through analogy hasn’t come even close to filling in the details. So Russell can be forgiven for being a bit vague on the details when he wrote IMT eighty years ago.
Even if Skinner accepted Russell’s vague account of how we learn complex meanings, he still had difficulties with Russell’s account of how we learn object words. Skinner noted that when we used words like ‘Cat’ it was unclear whether the word was referring to one particular cat, or the set of all cats etc (Verbal Behaviour p. 8). This objection though would have raised little difficulties for Russell:
“Thus, by the usual pleasure pain mechanism which is employed in training performing animals, children learn, in time, to utter noises appropriate to objects that are sensibly present…a child learning the object-language applies Mill’s Cannons of Induction, and gradually corrects his mistakes. If he knows a dog called ‘Caesar’, he may think this word applies to all dogs. On the other hand, if he knows a dog who he calls ‘dog’, he may not apply this word to any other dog. Fortunately many occurrences fit into natural kinds; in the lives of most children, anything that looks like a cat is a cat, and anything that looks like one’s mother is one’s mother. But for this piece of luck learning to speak would be very difficult.” (‘An Inquiry into Meaning and Truth’ pp. 66-72)
The first part of Russell’s account of using nouns like ‘dog’, ‘cat’, ‘mama’, etc is somewhat congenial with Skinner’s account. When Russell talks about the pleasure pain mechanism that is used in training performing animals, he is talking about the method of classical conditioning used by Pavlov and Watson in their labs. Despite the difference between classical conditioning and Skinner’s operant conditioning , it is obvious that operant conditioning would have been useful tool that fit perfectly with Russell’s account of how we learn the object language. So to an extent Skinner and Russell would have agreed that reinforcement for mouthed verbal behaviour would have played a role in helping the speaking subject understand words in the object language. Operant conditioning would help explain whether words such as ‘Dog’ were meant to refer to a particular type of animal; as opposed to being a name of a particular dog, as a result of the contingencies of reinforcement the child encountered in her environment.
But Russell’s second move to argue that the child generalizes sounds like ‘Dog’ to the whole species because of a propensity of the world to fit into natural kinds wouldn’t have been as congenial to Skinner. In ‘Verbal Behaviour’ in his chapter on Tacts Skinner discussed our process called generic extension. A clear example of generic extension would be a person using the word ‘chair’ to denote a new entity. Whether this new use gets accepted by the reinforcing community will be decided based on practical considerations such as, can we do the same things with it we can typically do with a chair? Skinner notes that if we want to discuss the “essence” of the word chair our best practice would be to look at the contingencies of reinforcement within the community (‘Verbal Behaviour’ p. 91). So control of the extension of the term ‘chair’ will be a social community issue. People will still be reinforced for using the term ‘chair’ in response to certain kinds of objects but the reinforcement and hence survival of how the term is going to be used is ultimately controlled by the socio-linguistic community. Skinner’s pragmatic approach focuses on sociolinguistic reinforcement to explain that words, so called essence, are not necessarily the result of correspondence with set patterns in the environment.
An obvious criticism of my explication of Skinner’s take is that it involved a bit of shuffling of the deck. Russell was speaking about words that pick out natural kinds in the environment such as ‘Cat’, or ‘Dog’ whereas I am speaking about an artefact such a ‘Chair’. However, I don’t think that this distinction makes much of a difference in this case. The standard usage of ‘fish’ picks out many different things, depending on the usage of the particular linguistic community. To a lot of people a Whale is a fish, and people will be reinforced for speaking this way. However in the biological community speaking of a Whale as a fish may elicit either negative reinforcement or punishment. So even when it comes to words about living creatures our usage in general will be controlled primarily by socio-linguistic reinforcement and the shared world we live in.
I am not here arguing that there is no fact of the matter on whether a Whale is a Fish. When one is making truth claims about the world; certain categorisations would be disastrous and hence they are not used by scientists. Given the pragmatic success of science people typically accept the scientific definition of terms, though they may not pay much heed to such definitions in their daily life. However to discuss this topic in detail I will need to delve into Russell and Skinner’s respective views on the pragmatic theory of truth. That topic though will have to be postponed until after my next blog-post where I compare Skinner and Russell’s respective take on how children acquire logical behaviour and how the developing child applies this behaviour to the object language.

Peterson, Harris, and The Spectre of Postmodernism.

Jordan Peterson is a cultural phenomenon. His views reach much larger audience than your typical academic. There are various different theories as to reasons for his popularity; some more plausible than others. I suggest that one reason that he is so popular is that his writing has a practical quality which is very different from the typical abstract way of writing that is the norm in academic spheres. Peterson is a clinical psychologist, who uses his experiences with his patients and his experiences with his own family and friends to give his theorising a practical feel. Peterson writes with real emotion and discusses real world problems in a practical manner that people can understand and relate to.
Another reason he is popular has to do with the image he projects of himself as a tough-minded man of action. His bio at the end of his new book ‘12 Rules for Living’ presents a compelling image:
“Jordan B Peterson, raised and toughened in the frigid wastelands of Northern Alberta, has flown a hammerhead roll in a carbon fiber stunt plane, piloted a mahogany racing sail boat around Alcatraz Island, explored an Arizona Meteorite crater with a group of astronauts, and built a Kwagu’l ceremonial bighouse on the upper floor of this Toronto home after being invited into and named by that Canadian First Nation. He’s been a dishwasher, a gas jockey, bartender, short-order cook, beekeeper, oil derrick bit re-tipper, plywood mill labourer and railway line worker. He has taught mythology to Lawyers, doctors and business people…” (‘12 rules for Life bio’ page)
The message is clear, Peterson is no nerd, no academic lightweight afraid of his own shadow, on the contrary, Peterson is a man of the people. In his introduction to ‘12 Rules for Life’, Peterson’s friend the neuroscientist Norman Doidge presents a picture of Peterson as a hard man in cowboy boots, a kind of academic Clint Eastwood. When Peterson argues against PC rules he is portrayed as a grizzled tough guy who takes no messing from weak lefty academics. He is like a latter day Mcgarnicle who is tired of being held back by his pen pushing Captain: .
Peterson is adored for standing up to silly academics like the postmodernists who deny obvious facts about reality. Yet despite this public persona, Peterson holds views on the nature of truth that aren’t that dissimilar to the views of the postmodernists he criticises.
Part 1: Peterson and Postmodernism:
One of Peterson’s main fears, which he speaks about again and again, is the fear of what he calls Cultural Marxism. In his book ‘12 Rules For Life’ Peterson discusses Marxism and its consequences. Peterson notes the incredible popularity that Marxist ideas held for intellectuals in the early twentieth century. However, he argued that as people began to understand the incredible suffering that was being caused around the world in Marxist countries, they began to have doubts about the underlying philosophy. Peterson claimed that the publication of Solzhenitsyn’s ‘The Gulag Archipelago, destroyed any credibility of Marxism. Solzhenitsyn’s book, supposedly conclusively showed that the horrors of Marxism were not an idiosyncratic result of particular implementations of Marxism, but were systemic to the entire philosophy (‘12 Rules for Living’ p. 308). Given what Peterson believed was the total destruction of Marxism, not all public intellectuals wanted to directly associate with it. Therefore some intellectuals felt that it was necessary to transform Marxism into a different form while maintaining its spirit. Peterson charges Derrida with being a Marxist who simply substituted the idea of power for the idea of money. This approach led to postmodernist academics looking for power-relations in all areas and thinking it was their job to unmask these implicit relations. Thus such thinkers began to see things like scientific facts as playing a role in maintaining power of certain groups, even notions such as logic were viewed as a structure used to dominate. Peterson didn’t argue that power relations weren’t a factor in our scientific theorising, he just argued that it played smaller role than some postmodernists believed it did.
These postmodernist views when carried to their logical extension seem to lead us to a situation where we cannot evaluate any claim whatsoever as our entire logical and epistemological techniques are claimed to have been invalidated by postmodern analysis. Peterson thinks that adopting this approach, will lead to a disaster, where any claim is as good as any other, and hence we are vulnerable to power mongers who will use this nihilistic vacuum to seize power.
Part 2: Peterson on Truth:
I won’t here evaluate the validity of Peterson’s analysis of Marxism and postmodernism as I don’t know enough about Marxist history and its relation to postmodernism to have a strong opinion. What I will discuss is a criticism of postmodernism that Peterson makes in his 12 rules for living and relate it to his discussion of truth he had with Sam Harris last year. Peterson made the following point about postmodernists:
“The insane and incomprehensible postmodern insistence that all gender differences are socially constructed…The fact that such statements lead immediately to internal inconsistencies within this ideology is never addressed. Gender is constructed, but an individual is unarguably considered a man trapped in a woman’s body (or vice versa). The fact that both of these cannot be logically true, is just ignored (or rationalized away with another appalling post modern claim: that logic itself-along with the techniques of science-is merely part of the oppressive patriarchal system).” ( ‘12 Rules For Living’ p. 315)
The actual example that Peterson gives isn’t important. Rather what is important is that he argues that (1) Postmodernism leads to inconsistent positions. And Postmodernists typically ignore this inconsistency. (2) To the extent that Postmodernists try and resolve these difficulties they resort to the desperate dodge of claiming logic is just a tool in an oppressive patriarchal system.
The issue of whether Peterson has postmodernists correctly or not is a complex one that we can ignore here. Peterson presents no textual evidence to demonstrate which postmodernists hold this inconsistent view, nor does he discuss postmodernist takes logic in any detail. The important point is that Peterson charges postmodernists with espousing absurd and inconsistent views, and trying to hold onto them by bending logic to support their views on the nature of sex and power.
In his discussion with Sam Harris on the nature of truth last year Peterson argued for an idiosyncratic view on truth that on the face of it is similar to the postmodernist views on truth that he is so critical of.
In his discussion with Harris, Peterson argued that there is a fundamental contradiction between the Darwinian World View and the Newtonian World View. The Darwinian sense of truth is that we are creatures created by the contingent processes of natural selection who can construct theories that help us cope with the flux of reality. On this Darwinian conception our best theories are the ones that lead to our survival. If a theory leads to the destruction of all life then it is by definition untrue. Peterson notes: “Truth is that which serves life” (57 minutes of Harris/Peterson discussion). The Newtonian conception of truth is that there are ultimate truths about the mind independent world that are true whether they lead to our survival or not.
On the Darwinian Picture we have no guarantee that we know the truth. Our theories may have passed the test of keeping us alive so far. But this fact may not continue. Our theories could result in us dying tomorrow and hence on Peterson’s world view our theories would have to be turned out to be simply false (because not they didn’t lead to survival). Peterson links this view with the pragmatist theory of truth (he mentions Dewey and James).
Peterson casually mentions that he is operating with the conception that science is a tool that is useful for certain purposes rather that something that describes reality either correctly or incorrectly. He doesn’t really cash-out this Wittgensteinan point in any detail. But his primary claim seems to be that science is a tool that is useful for various purposes and that if these tool leads to the destruction of all life then the tool has not been pragmatically efficient and hence we can say the scientific theory is false. This is a crude equating of truth with use; useful theories being theories that stop all life from dying. It is worth noting that American Pragmatists such as James, Peirce had a much more multilayered view of useful tools and didn’t rely on such crude pictures where useful theories are judged primarily on whether they lead to death or not. So Peterson’s placing himself in the pragmatist tradition is dubious.
Harris responds to Peterson’s expounding of Darwinian Truth by making the following point:
“It is undeniable that there were facts before there were any creatures to understand the nature of those facts…physical reality has a character whether or not there are apes around to talk about it”. (Harris/Peterson discussion 51 mins)
Peterson responds to the above claim using what he calls the Is it True Enough Objection:
“In order to establish an objective fact we have to parameterize the search, we have to narrow the search; we have to exclude many many things. And I think sometimes when we do that we end up generating a truth, and I would say that it is a pragmatic truth, that works within the confines of the parameters that have established around the experiment, but then when launched up off into the broader world; much of which was excluded from the theorising, the results can be catastrophic. I would say that that is a kin to the problem of there is operationalizaton where you reduce the phenomena to something that you can discover and discuss scientifically and then there is generalization back onto the real world. And one of the things that you see happen very frequently is that the operationalization succeeds but the generalization fails miserably.” (Harris/Peterson debate 52.30 mins)
This reply of Peterson involves distinguishing between micro-claims which are facts within a system and macro-claims which are the truth of the overall system. Peterson thinks that there are facts, and that we can say are facts at the micro-level, but that future science may show that these facts are not true as our theory of the world evolves.
Most of the discussion that follows from this is Harris giving a series of micro-examples and saying that it would be absurd to argue that these micro truths would turn out to be false if they led to the death of all life. Peterson typically replied to these criticisms by holding strong on his definition of truth as what life serves. Harris gives various micro examples and Peterson replies to them as follows:
“Within the context of that micro example, truth is not malleable by situation…ok I buy that. But the problem is that that micro example isn’t separate in the actual world, from the macro examples, which would be let’s call it the scientific method as such. And there may be local applications of the scientific method where the local facts generated are sufficiently context independent so you can’t make any contextual claims. But I could say well it turned out in a thousand years that that empirical game was fatal, so the micro facts in that game were false you just couldn’t see it at the time”. (Harris/Peterson debate 1.06).
The debate between Harris and Peterson doesn’t reach a resolution. Harris keeps putting forth micro examples and Peterson keeps arguing that they don’t prove what Harris thinks they do. One of the micro examples was particularly instructive and touches on some of the issues Peterson discussed in relation to postmodernism.
Harris makes the following point:
“It seems to me that I can make statements about reality which neither of us can know to be true, we just don’t have the tools where not going to take the time to do it. But we know there is a fact of the matter whether or not we can get the data in hand. So I could say for instance you have an even number of hairs on your body. I don’t know that that’s true but I know that I have a 50% chance of being right about that. And this is not a non-binary possibility, this is a binary one (assuming you have hair on your body)…now what do you think about that?”(Harris/Peterson debate 1 02)
Peterson makes his standard claim about it being a micro example that only works because it is divorced from the rest of our theory of the world and both theorists went around in their typical circle. I think though that if we switch the example a bit it will raise a problem for Peterson. Suppose we ask Peterson about whether he thinks the following proposition is true (1) Either Peterson has an even number of hairs or an odd number of hairs on his body but not both. I assume that Peterson would reply that he accepts the truth of (A) at the micro level, but it isn’t necessarily true at the macro level. This would seem to be the answer that his theory of truth dictates. So the above example involves use a law of logic; the law of non-contradiction to make a claim about Peterson’s body. Peterson accepts the law of non-contradiction as something that can tell us truths about the world at the micro-level. However, if the law of non-contradiction when generalized wiped out all life, then retrospectively the law of non-contradiction wouldn’t have been a good guide to judging whether the hairs on Peterson’s body were even or odd.
It should be obvious that Peterson’s above answer is perilously close to the one gave by the postmodernists. Recall above that Peterson criticised the Postmodernist for seeming to accept inconsistent truths ( (1) Sex is entirely socially constructed (2) People are to be automatically to be believed if they say they were born into the wrong biological body). Unlike the postmodernist Peterson doesn’t accept an inconsistent belief. However like the postmodernist Peterson is prepared to disavow a truth of logic if it leads to all life being destroyed. In a similar sense the postmodernist is prepared to bend the rules of logic if he believes that they are tools of power which lead to oppression. So despite being outraged with the Postmodernist for modifying logical truths within their system, it would appear that Peterson is doing the same when he admits that basic logical laws will have to be modified if they lead to disastrous consequences for life.
A possible defence of Peterson is that his system doesn’t accept contradictions within his micro-system, and only admits the bare possibility that the law of contradiction may need to be revised at the limit. This is different than the cavalier manner in which postmodernists accept contradictions into their system of the world. I think that this defence of Peterson is on point. A good way of bringing out this point is to use what Quine called ‘The Maxim of Minimum Mutilation’. If we have a theory of the world that makes various wrong predictions about the world we don’t automatically have to rescind the entire theory. We can modify the theory by changing certain sentences within the theory that implied the false predictions. When deciding which sentences to rescind we should pick the ones at the periphery of the theory which will do the least damage to the overall theory and save us from our making our false predictions. In this vein we would rescind logical and mathematical theories last as they infiltrate our total web of beliefs the most and changing these laws would reverberate throughout our entire theory. However in some circumstances we may have no choice but to modify some logical laws. In his Two Dogmas of Empiricism Quine noted that some scientists even considered revising the law of excluded middle as a way simplifying calculations in Quantum Physics (Two Dogmas of Empiricism p. 42) . In this sense with a bit of work one could build up Peterson’s picture into a type of Quinean Naturalism.


Part 3: Peterson, Morality and Survival:
The above picture is somewhat congenial with the overall conception that Peterson has sketched; where even basic facts can be revised based on pragmatic considerations such as simplicity, predictive utility etc. However Peterson would differ from the Quinean Picture in one key sense. Peterson thinks that moral facts are a key criterion in deciding whether an overall theory is correct or not. Peterson argues that: “It was necessary for our attitude towards science to be nested in something else, which was a higher moral conception” (Harris/Peterson debate 58mins).
Peterson’s claim that scientific truths must be nested within moral truths is barely intelligible from my own naturalistic perspective. Peterson would again justify his claim by pointing out that our moral attitudes will have consequences for our behaviour when doing science that could lead to our undoing. So based on Peterson’s definition of truth as; “what serves life”, one cannot divorce truth from our moral attitude. So given his strange definition of truth, Peterson is right on his own terms. However, I think the empirical data suggests that Peterson may be incorrect on the pragmatic utility of adopting ancient moral systems to help us cope with the flux of reality.
When discussing morality and scientific endeavours Peterson adopts an apocalyptic tone:
“That’s partly why the scientific endeavour as it’s demolished the traditional underpinnings of our moral systems, has produced an emergent nihilism and hopelessness among people that makes them more susceptible to ideological possession. I think it’s a fundamental problem. I do think that that the highest truths are moral truths, I am thinking of that from a Darwinian Perspective.” (Harris/Peterson debate 1Hr)
In the above quote Peterson notes that our scientific endeavour when divorced from a moral perspective has lead us to a nihilistic state where our most basic values were torn down. Without our basic values we were susceptible to ideological possession that resulted in the horrors of Marxism, and the Horrors of the Nazis. Peterson never places any numbers on his argument. Do the deaths and suffering caused by Marx and Nazi’s make the world a more violent and dangerous place than in the past?
One could argue that Peterson is being naive in arguing that we are more susceptible to ideological possession in the post Darwinian world. Pre-Darwin we were after all susceptible to ideological possession in the form of various different religious systems which were used as reasons for countless wars.
However, Peterson doesn’t think of our Judeo-Christian tradition an ideological possession, rather Peterson thinks these ancient stories are archetypes which are universal amongst humans and reveal deep truths that we ignore at our peril. When discussing atheism Peterson’s views that true moral systems are derived from the Judeo-Christian faith are apparent:
“You might object, “But I’m an atheist.” No, you’re not (and if you want to understand this, you could read Dostoevsky’s ‘Crime and Punishment’, perhaps the greatest novel ever written, in which the main character, Raskolnikov, decides to take his atheism with true seriousness, commits what he as rationalized as a benevolent murder, and pays the price). You’re simply not an atheist in your actions, and it is your actions that most accurately reflect your deepest beliefs-those that are implicit, embedded in your being, underneath your conscious apprehensions and articulable attitudes and surface level knowledge. You can only find out what you actually believe (rather than what you think you believe) by watching how you act. You simply don’t know what you believe, before that. You are simply too complex to understand yourself” (Peterson ‘12 Rules for Life’ p. 103)
“Even when the modern atheists opposed to Christianity belittle fundamentalists for insisting, for example, that the creation account in Genesis is objectively true, they are using their sense of truth, highly developed over the centuries of Christian culture, to engage in such argumentation” (ibid p. 189)

Claims such as these have very little credibility from an historical point of view. Peterson is entirely ignoring people such as Plato, Aristotle, Euclid etc and is pretending that our entire moral culture was built on the back of Christian dogma. At the very least one would think that Peterson would discuss the use made of Plato by St. Augustine, or the use made of Aristotle by St. Aquinas. Christian culture didn’t arise in a cultural vacuum. The central tenants of Christian Moral systems were modified by millennia of rational thought. Peterson doesn’t really engage with this rational process at all. He seems content to argue that these moral values were simply universal archetypes that we ignore at our peril.
One point worth noting is that in his ’12 Rules’ Peterson cites approvingly Pinker’s book ‘The Better Angel’s of our Nature’. But Peterson doesn’t note a serious difference between his views and Pinker’s. Pinker citing long term statistical data argues that since the enlightenment things have on average been getting progressively better; less violence, people living longer etc. Yet Peterson claims, without providing evidence, that we have entered an age of nihilism as a result of our increasing secularisation. Pinker’s data presents the complete opposite picture. Given the fact that Peterson’s entire argument on truth relies on pragmatic utility and moral ideals at the very least he needs to deal with this data and present an argument as to why it doesn’t hold up. It would seem that based on Peterson’s strange definition of truth as “That which serves life”, our secular Enlightenment moral systems, are more likely to lead us to the truth than Christian dogmas will.