P H I L O S O P H Y P A T H W A Y S ISSN 2043-0728
Issue number 169
6th February 2012
I. 'What is a Human Being?' by Max Malikow
II. 'Freedom and Alternate Possibilities' by Jenny Gillett
III. 'Are We Three?' by Raam Gokhale
Since ancient times, philosophers have inquired about and debated
over that special quality which makes us 'human', that which
distinguishes you and me from a mere simulacrum of a human being: as
in ancient tales of stone statues given magical powers of speech and
movement, or the intelligent robots or androids of science fiction
novels. We know we are not just 'stuff' or complex physical
contraptions -- or do we?
The three contributors to this issue of Philosophy Pathways look at a
different aspects of this question:
Max Malikow, who teaches at Syracuse University, asks what is it that
we have that a robot or android would lack, for example, William
James' 'mechanical sweetheart' (an idea taken up by Philip K. Dick in
his novel which was remade as the movie 'Blade Runner'). What more is
there to having feelings or expressing emotions than being capable of
behaving in every way as if one has feelings or emotions?
Jenny Gillett, Curriculum Manager for the International
Baccalaureate, offers an exposition of an argument by the philosopher
Harry Frankfurt, designed to defend the view that free will is
compatible with determinism. If determinism is true, then in sending
out this issue of the e-journal today and not tomorrow there was no
other actual possibility for me, even though it seems to me, in
introspection, that I could have chosen to be lazy and taken the day
off. Does it therefore follow that my sense of freedom is merely a
Raam Gokhale, Editor of the Pune Journal of Philosophy, grapples with
the so-called 'hard problem of consciousness', dramatized in a much
discussed article by the philosopher Frank Jackson, about a scientist
of the future, Mary, who knows everything there is to know about red
and how it is perceived by human beings -- but has never experienced
red, or any colour. Is there something that Mary has missed,
something extra that physical science cannot explain?
I. 'WHAT IS A HUMAN BEING?' BY MAX MALIKOW
What a piece of work is man! How noble in reason! How
infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and
admirable! In action, how like an angel! In apprehension,
how like a god! The beauty of the world, the paragon of
animals; and yet to me, what is this quintessence of dust?
Man delights not me; no, nor woman neither; though by your
smiling you seem to say so.
- Hamlet, II.2.
For you created me in my inmost being;
you knit me together in my mother's womb,
I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
your works are wonderful,
I know that full well.
- Psalm 139: 13.14
The two quotations above express estimations of human beings that are
in diametric opposition. Speaking through Hamlet, Shakespeare is not
in the least impressed with us. To the contrary, the psalmist, King
David, characterizes us as divine creatures to be regarded with
admiration and awe. Which are we? What are we to conclude about our
species that includes both Jeffrey Dahmer, a serial murderer and
cannibal, and Mother Teresa, an altruistic Nobel laureate? It seems
the same capacities that empower us to behave nobly also enable us to
One means for addressing the question, 'What is a human being?' is to
compare and contrast us to things that are human-like but not actually
human. On May 6. 1997 reigning world chess champion Garry Kasparov
competed against an IBM computer named 'Deep Blue' in a six game
match. Kasparov won one game, lost one game, and played to a tie in
three others. Kasparov lost the sixth, tie-breaking game. How was the
experience of playing chess different for Kasparov than his computer
In Witchdoctors and Psychiatrists (1986) E. Fuller Torrey wondered if
a computer could function as a psychiatrist. He hypothesized such
therapy would take some form of the following interaction:
Computer: Hello, please tell me your name.
Computer: It's nice to meet you, Torrey. I would like to
discuss your problem with you. Please tell me first whether
you are male or female.
Computer: How old are you?
Computer: Are you married?
Computer: Now, how can I help you?
Me: I don't know.
Computer: Tell me something about your wife.
Me: She is a fine wife. We have a good marriage.
Computer: I understand. Now tell me something about your
Me: My father is dead. My mother has been sick.
Computer: Tell me more about her.
Me: She is getting better now.
Computer: Does your wife tend to be like your mother?
Me: No, not at all.
Computer: I understand. Now let me ask you something else
about your mother. Was she very strict in raising you?
Me: No, she was lenient. I made all my own decisions.
Computer: Does it bother you that you made all your own
Me: No, I like to.
Computer: Why do you like to?
Me: Because then I have created my own existential meaning.
Computer: I understand. Please tell me more about someone
close to you.
(I wasn't certain if the computer did understand or not. I
decided to test it and see how it handled hostility.)
Me: Why are you so insensitive?
Computer: I am doing my best under these conditions.
Me: You are just a crazy machine.
Computer: You seem interested in me personally.
Me: Who do you think you are?
Computer: Please think of me as a doctor trying to discuss
your feelings about people close to you. Call me anything
you wish (pp. 36-37).
Both IBM 'Deep Blue' and Torrey's 'computer psychiatrist' lacked
self-awareness. Gary Kasparov and E. Fuller Torrey knew they were men
engaged with a computer. Neither computer was aware of itself as a
computer interacting with a human being.
Personality is 'an individual's characteristic pattern of thinking,
feeling, and acting' (Myers, 2010, 553). Torrey believes the
personality of the therapist is one of the basic components of
effective psychotherapy (35). Lacking the capacity to experience
emotion, a computer cannot be said to have a personality. Describing
his therapeutic experience with a computer, Torrey reflected:
We went through an extensive history of my childhood,
illnesses, the kind of women who attract me, the kind of
men I admire, etc. The computer seemed interested in me and
apparently wanted to help me. It questioned, clarified,
focused, rephrased, and occasionally interpreted. It
sounded strangely like a therapist, and evoked feelings of
both fascination and disquiet (37).
A lack of feeling is integral to the plot of the science fiction
movie, 'I, Robot.' Set in the year 2035, Will Smith is in the role of
a detective who strongly dislikes the robots that have been developed
to serve human beings by doing their menial labor. The reason for
this aversion is an automobile accident in which Smith's character
(Del Spooner) was driving across a bridge when he was hit by another
car. Both cars fell into the water below and were sinking fast. A
robot jumped into the water and rescued Spooner, who was protesting,
trying to redirect the robot to save an eleven year-old girl in the
other car. Devoid of emotion, the robot responded: 'Your probability
of survival is 45 percent; the child's probability is 11 percent'
(Twentieth Century Fox, 2004). The girl drowned.
The eighteenth century German philosopher Immanuel Kant reduced the
study of philosophy to four questions, one of which is: What is a
human being? A later philosopher, William James, had this question in
mind when he created the problem of the 'mechanical sweetheart.' A
thought experiment, it describes the perfect lover, ideal in every
respect, including stunning physical beauty. James posed this
question: What if after falling in love you learned the 'sweetheart'
was actually an android and not a human being? This leads to other
questions: Would this awareness make a difference, since it could not
have been discovered by anything detectable by your senses? Further,
what would the android be missing? A spirit? A soul? What are they?
And, if they exist, how do they make human beings different from
One response to the question of the difference between a human being
and an android is the difference between a human being and an android
saying, 'I love you.' The android's expression would come from
programming; the human being's declaration would be driven by an
emotion. In addition, the programmed android would have no choice but
to say, 'I love you.' A human being could choose not to say it. While
there is no disputing that human beings experience emotions, there is
a long history of dispute among philosophers and psychologists as to
whether or not human beings actually possess free will. Concerning
this matter, Samuel Johnson observed: 'All theory is against the
freedom of the will; all experience for it' (Boswell, 2008, 273).
Human beings are distinguished from all other organisms in that they
have self-awareness, experience emotions, and, possibly, exercise
free will. In the poem 'An Essay on Man,' Alexander Pope directs each
of us to enrich our self-awareness by examining our emotions and
thoughts. He believed this to be a more fruitful deployment of
Know then thyself, presume not God to scan;
The proper study of mankind is man' (1733).
Similarly, Socrates taught, 'An unexamined life is not worth living'
(Plato, 399 B.C., 38a). The maxim 'know thyself' was inscribed in the
forecourt of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi. Computers and androids
are incapable of introspection and self-understanding. They cannot be
curious about feelings they do not have or actions that did not
originate with them.
Another means for pursuing an answer to Kant's question is to compare
human beings to animals by considering whether human beings have an
ethical obligation to treat animals humanely. The renowned
humanitarian Albert Schweitzer wrote:
To the person who is truly ethical all life is sacred,
including that which from the human point of view seems
lower... Will the time ever come when public opinion will
no longer tolerate popular amusements that depend on the
maltreatment of animals!' (1933, 235-237).
In his essay, 'Consider the Lobster,' David Foster Wallace questioned
the culinary practice of submerging lobsters in boiling water:
So then here is a question that is all but unavoidable...
and may arise in kitchens across the U.S: Is it right to
boil a sentient creature alive just for our gustatory
pleasure? A related set of concerns: Is the previous
question irksomely PC or sentimental? What does 'all right'
even mean in this context? Is the whole thing just a matter
of personal choice? As you may or may not know, a certain
well-known group called People for the Ethical Treatment of
Animals thinks that the morality of lobster-boiling is not
just a matter of individual conscience (243).
To be fair, Wallace presents the argument that the nervous system of
the lobster does not include a cerebral cortex, 'which in humans is
the area of the brain that gives the experience of pain' (245).
Still, he concludes, 'Since pain is a totally subjective mental
experience, we do not have direct access to anyone or anything's pain
but our own' (246).
If human beings have an ethical obligation to animals this has
implications for what it means to be human. The word humane is
defined as, 'having the good qualities of human beings, as kindness,
mercy, or compassion' (American Heritage Dictionary, 1973, 640). When
Robert Burns wrote, 'Man's inhumanity to man makes countless thousands
mourn' he was expressing dismay at our capacity for orchestrating pain
and suffering on each other (1784). It is tautological that we have no
expectation of humane behavior from animals. In contrast to animals,
the free will debate notwithstanding, we are expected to comport
ourselves with civility and in accordance with a moral code. Further,
we are responsible for the foreseeable consequences of our actions. To
this point, the philosopher Thomas Ellis Katen has posited:
Human beings come to terms with life and understand
themselves as human through such experiences as regret,
remorse, sorrow, and guilt. This entire mode of functioning
cannot be simply discounted. Free will is a working
assumption of human existence as it has evolved throughout
history, and moral experience is an all-important aspect of
that history. Precisely because human experience over the
course of history does found itself on a premise of
freedom, we have an excellent working criterion on the
basis of which we might justify free will... Since
determinism itself is only a theory and not an established
fact about the universe, why should we deny our experience
of freedom? (1973, 318).
This essay represents an attempt to answer the question, 'What is a
human being?' The comparison between computers and human beings
demonstrates the former lack the characteristics of self-awareness,
emotions, and free will (if it exists). William James' 'mechanical
sweetheart' thought experiment raises the following questions
concerning the composition of human beings: Do we have a spirit or
soul? If we do, how would this be a distinguishing human
characteristic? Finally, even if human beings have an ethical
obligation to treat animals with consideration, animals have no
ethical obligation to reciprocate. By definition, humane treatment is
required of human beings because only human beings can provide it.
Genesis, the first book of the Hebrew Bible, includes this narrative:
'So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created
him; male and female he created them' (Genesis 1:27). What does it
mean for man and woman to have been created in the image of God?
Theologian David Wells interprets the imago dei to mean human beings
are 'cognitive, reflective egos' (1982). Wells believes we have God's
qualities without God's quantities. As cognitive beings, we can
acquire knowledge, but we will never be omniscient. We are capable of
reflection, but our thoughts will never be as profound as God's:
'For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your
ways my ways,' declares the Lord. 'As the heavens are
higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts' (Isaiah 55:8,9).
We can develop self-knowledge (ego), but will never fully understand
American Heritage Dictionary. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company,
Boswell, T. (2008). The life of Samuel Johnson. New York: Penguin
Burns, R. (1784). 'Man Was Made to Mourn: A Dirge.'
Genesis 1:27. (1983). New International Version. Grand Rapids, MI:
Zondervan Bible Publishers.
Isaiah 55:8,9. (1983). New International Version. Grand Rapids, MI:
Zondervan Bible Publishers.
Katen, T.E. (1973). Doing philosophy. Englewood Cliffs, NJ:
Myers, D. (2010). Psychology (ninth edition). New York: Worth
Pope, A. (1986). Essay on man and other poems. Mineola, NY: Dover
Plato (399 B.C.). Apology.
Schweitzer, A. (1933). Out of my life and thought. Baltimore, MD:
John Hopkins University Press.
Torrey, E.F. (1986). Witchdoctors and psychiatrists: The common roots
of psychotherapy and its future. Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, Inc.
Twentieth Century Fox (2004). 'I, Robot.'
Wallace, D.F. (2006). 'Consider the Lobster.' Consider the lobster
and other essays. New York: Little, Brown and Company.
Wells, D. (1982). Unpublished lecture given at Gordon-Conwell
Theological Seminary (South Hamilton, MA) in a systematic theology
class in the fall semester.
Dr Max Malikow
Renee Crown Honors Program
(c) Max Malikow 2012
II. 'FREEDOM AND ALTERNATE POSSIBILITIES' BY JENNY GILLETT
Having alternate possibilities is frequently seen as a key
requirement of both free will and moral responsibility. However there
are those who have rejected this assumption, most notably Harry
Frankfurt. Frankfurt's 1969 article 'Alternative Possibilities and
Moral Responsibility' was hugely influential because of its
controversial claim that the Principle of Alternate Possibilities is
false, and that 'a person may well be morally responsible for what he
has done even though he could not have done otherwise' (1969:829).
Whether freedom requires alternate possibilities has important
consequences for the debate surrounding the compatibility of free
will and determinism; a rejection of the Principle of Alternate
Possibilities can be seen to considerably strengthen the
compatibilist position. It is also of central importance to the
related debate concerning the compatibility of moral responsibility
and determinism, as it has traditionally been argued that we can only
be held morally accountable for actions if we could have done
Many of the key issues surrounding whether freedom requires alternate
possibilities can be highlighted using the following simple example:
You are in a cafe and on the menu there is only one item, tomato
soup. Many would argue that as there is only one option you have no
choice, no freedom, about what you will order; there are no alternate
possibilities. However, if you were looking at a menu with twenty
different dishes on it and after considering the menu you chose and
ordered tomato soup, this would generally be seen to be an example of
you exercising your free will and choosing one option from a number of
alternative possibilities. However in a third scenario you consult the
menu with its twenty choices, and choose and order the tomato soup.
However, unbeknown to you, the cafe has actually sold out of
everything else on the menu other than tomato soup, so the only thing
you could have successfully ordered was tomato soup. Was that a free
choice? Many would want to say yes, yet in fact none of the other
choices from the menu were genuine alternate possibilities.
This example immediately raises two important questions; firstly what
exactly we mean by 'alternate possibilities', and secondly whether
they are necessary for freedom or moral responsibility. The Principle
of Alternate Possibilities, as formulated by Frankfurt, states that
'an agent is morally responsible for what he has done only if he
could have done otherwise' (1969:828). The phrase 'could have done
otherwise' is often seen as central to both free will and moral
responsibility, but it is not clear that this should automatically be
the case. Frankfurt rejects this claim, arguing the Principle of
Alternate Possibilities is false, and that neither freedom nor moral
responsibility demands that we have alternate possibilities.
In this way, it is indeed the case that IF the Principle of Alternate
Possibilities were true, and IF the truth of determinism ruled out us
having alternate possibilities, then the truth of determinism would
rule out us ever being free and morally responsible. However this
claim rests on two crucial and entirely questionable assumptions;
first that the Principle of Alternate Possibilities is true, and
second that determinism rules out what we really mean when we refer
to alternate possibilities.
Arguably the strongest argument in support of the claim that
determinism rules out alternate possibilities, and is therefore
incompatible with freedom, is the Consequence Argument. This argues
that if determinism is true then all acts are consequences of events
in the past and of laws of nature. Because we have no control over
events in the past or laws of nature, the consequences of these
things, including our actions, are not up to us (Van Inwagen, 1999).
The Consequence Argument gives incompatibilists a way to defend their
intuition that determinism undermines our ability to do otherwise and
therefore our freedom. Because determinism is seen as only allowing
for a single future, a single possible chain of events, it seems that
determinism cannot be compatible with the freedom to do otherwise. On
this view we are just the product of causes that began before we even
existed, which hard determinists argue show that we cannot be regarded
as being free and morally responsible agents.
In this way the Consequence Argument is arguably the most significant
challenge to compatibilism. However, it can be seen to rest on the
assumption that freedom requires alternate possibilities, which is
precisely the assumption that Frankfurt is attempting to challenge.
Part of the reason that alternate possibilities have been
traditionally seen as so vital to free will (as they are seen to be
in the Consequence Argument) can be argued to be based on a confusion
of coercion and merely lacking alternate possibilities. There often
seems to be an assumption that a lack of alternate possibilities is
synonymous with coercion or compulsion, in that if we only have one
option open to us it seems we are compelled to do it and it is not a
However while coercion involves a lack of choice, and coercion is
generally seen to exclude moral responsibility, this does not mean
that lacking alternate possibilities excludes moral responsibility;
there is an interesting distinction between performing an action to
which there are no alternate possibilities and performing an action
because there are no alternate possibilities. Although performing an
action because there are no alternate possibilities would seem to
undermine freedom and moral responsibility it is not the fact that
there are no alternate possibilities which makes this the case, it is
the fact that the lack of alternate possibilities was the motivation
for the action that is important. In this way, coercion excludes
freedom and moral responsibility, but it is a mistake to see coercion
and a lack of alternate possibilities as synonymous.
Buss and Overton (Eds), 2002, Contours of Agency: Essays on Themes
from Harry Frankfurt (London: Bradford)
Dennett, 1984, 'I could not have done otherwise - so what?' Journal
of Philosophy, Vol.81, pp553-565
Frankfurt, 1969, 'Alternate Possibilities and Moral Responsibility',
Journal of Philosophy, No.66, pp. 829-839
Kane, 1996, The Significance of Free Will (Oxford: Oxford University
Van Inwagen, 1978, 'Ability and Responsibility', Philosophical
Review, Vol. 87, pp. 201-224
________, 1999, 'Moral responsibility, determinism and the ability to
do otherwise', The Journal of Ethics, vol.3, pp341-350
________, 2000, 'Free Will Remains a Mystery', Philosophical
Perspectives, Vol.14, pp.1-20
Watson (Ed.), 2009, Oxford Readings in Philosophy: Free Will, 2nd
Edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press)
Widerker, 1995, 'Libertarianism and Frankfurt's attack on the
Principle of Alternate Possibilities', Philosophical Review, Vol.
(c) Jenny Gillett 2012
III. 'ARE WE THREE?' BY RAAM GOKHALE
A Mindful Trialogue
'I think therefore I am.' - Rene Descartes
'I feel I am, but I think I am not.' - Kedar Joshi
'If we can really understand the problem, the answer will
come out of it, because the answer is not separate from the
problem.' - J. Krishnamurti
Scene: The philosophy department at Tilak Maharashtra Vidyapith, a
university in Pune.
Players: Sushama, a professor at the Vidyapith, is a philosopher
who's joined our familiar friends Ram and Kedar. Actually since the
meeting is at her office, you could say Ram and Kedar have joined her.
Sushama: You two are quite the celebrities, being in the Pune papers
and all. In fact that's where I first read about your Pune Journal of
Philosophy. It made me want to get in touch with you. It struck me,
given our common interests, we could all benefit from collaborating
in our philosophical efforts.
Kedar: Well Ram and I usually discuss a philosophical topic, then he
goes off, usually on a tangent, and writes a Ram and Kedar dialogue.
We've written five so far and all but one has been published and by
published I mean outside Pune Journal of Philosophy. So we've
developed a somewhat successful formula; I don't know if we can
tinker with it and produce a 'trialogue' instead of a dialogue.
Ram: Hold on. I think a trialogue sounds intriguing. We can at least
give it a 'trial'. Sorry, sometimes I think I make bad puns for a
living instead of this non-profit Pune Journal of Philosophy which is
just a hobby. But seriously, the one dialogue we haven't had much
success with has been a philosophy of mind dialogue called 'From
Slumdog to Maddog'...
Kedar: My title...
Ram: Yeah, one editor said it was too filled with 'personal
pathologies' to be published... So anyway we've been meaning to
revisit philosophy of mind topics for a new dialogue but so far our
two-wheeler has lacked a kick-start.
Sushama: At nearly 80 years of age I don't know how much of a
kick-start I can provide. But tell me some of your ideas and I'll see
if I can contribute. Right now I'm working on my doctorate on the
subject of J. Krishnamurti's philosophy so I may also bring some
ideas from Indian philosophy to bear.
Kedar (snickering): It's commendable that you want to plunge right
into it but Ram here is very systematic, very top down. He always
starts with a title.
Ram: I know Kedar is mocking me but he's right about one thing.
Usually I have some idea of what direction the dialogue should take.
My fixing on the title, be it my own suggestion or another
participant's, is a concise way of getting participants to think
along the desired lines.
Sushama: Do you have a title in mind right now?
Ram: I do. It's 'Are We Three?'
Kedar: That's a new one. I thought we had agreed on my, 'The
Sushama: I like 'Self-Evident Mind' better, though I'm not sure
either is best. 'Are We Three?' just refers to the fact that this is
a trialogue doesn't it?
Ram: Well it's true I just now thought of it because it struck me
that for the first time, we are three...
Kedar: I get it. And you put it in the form of a question because
you're not sure whether the trial trialogue will peter out back into
Ram: No Kedar. I actually have high hopes for a trialogue. My title
has a double meaning. It superficially refers to the fact that it
takes three to make a trialogue. But on a deeper level it refers to a
philosophy of mind issue I want us to explore: is each of us
individually a composite of distinct selves, perhaps three in number?
Sushama: I agree that we're a multiplicity. But why do you fix on
three? Do you have in mind something like Freud's id/ ego/ superego
classification? You know Freud is very much out of fashion don't you?
Kedar: It's OK. Ram likes out of fashion things. His writing
philosophical dialogues itself is a case in point. I don't know if
anyone since Plato has written philosophical dialogues. As he says in
the banner of Pune Journal of Philosophy, he wants to make philosophy
entertaining. Personally I don't know if philosophy is entertaining
to anyone but philosophers. And they prefer academic treatises not
Ram: Uh, I can see a trialogue is going to be a challenge. It's like
playing rummy with three people instead of two: sometimes the wrong
person throws a card you want.
Sushama: OK we'll try to be more collaborative. Which card did you
want to pick up?
Ram: I just wanted to get back to the title and your observation
about Freud. It's true he's out of fashion but it's mostly for his
views on sexuality. Though Freud didn't know it at the time, the
anatomical evidence does suggest something like his id/ ego/ superego
classification being realized in the structure of the brain.
Specifically, the reptilian part of our brain is responsible for all
the primitive appetites, aggressions and fears, like Freud's id. The
mammalian part is responsible for all social and nurturing behaviors,
and mutual reciprocity and is, I think, the origin of Freud's
moralizing superego. And the cerebral cortex, the outermost region of
the brain, is the decider between these often conflicting impulses and
is like Freud's ego.
Kedar: You know Sushama, since he told me this a while ago, I did
some Wikipedia research. It says (pulls out a paper out of his black
bag and reads): 'Even though (Freud's) model is structural and makes
reference to an apparatus, the id, ego and super-ego are functions of
the mind rather than parts of the brain and do not correspond
one-to-one with actual somatic structures of the kind dealt with by
Ram: Well bully for Wikipedia. But seriously, there may be no
one-to-one correspondence, but when Freudians say the id is
operational in a person, I bet more of the reptilian brain lights up
than any other; and similarly for the other classifications. In fact
the study of the brain's structure sheds light on what the id, ego
and superego really are in the same way that chemistry has revealed
that water is really H2O. For example, we may discover that the
superego is divided between the mammalian brain and the cerebral
cortex, indicating there is a rational component to our social
Sushama: Perhaps this Freud vs. neuroscience debate is unproductive,
especially since none of us really know much about it. But isn't the
point that whether you're talking about the mind or the brain you are
talking about something which has three parts. I am not that familiar
with Freud or neuroscience but it reminds me of Plato's charioteer
Kedar: Uh, I don't know that one. Could somebody explain?
Sushama: Let me. Plato in his dialogue the Phaedrus compares the soul
to a chariot with an ego-like charioteer pulled in opposite directions
by a noble white horse which seems like Freud's superego and a baser
black horse which seems like his id. Plato views the charioteer as
only infrequently being swayed by the baser black horse. I think
Freud seems less original when seen in that historical context.
But Ram, before we see id/ ego/ superego everywhere -- ha, ha maybe I
see it in the three of us -- let's remember there have been other
tripartite divisions of the soul. Aristotle's division in De Anima of
the soul into vegetative, animal and human components in particular
comes to mind. And even to stick with modern psychology, I'm not sure
where the conscious/ unconscious/ subconscious distinction fits in all
Ram: You raise an interesting point. Historically I can make out two
types of theories about the mind, each motivated by a different goal.
Do you want your theory to explain human behaviour or do you want it
to explain human functioning.
Kedar: First I want you to explain the difference.
Ram: Gladly. Human behaviour is explained by the fact that we're
individuals living in society. We have our own desires but we've also
internalized society's expectations of us and we're constantly
balancing between these. And to the extent the balancing involves a
conflict between different desire-sets, you're going to view the mind
as composed of different personalities corresponding to the number of
But if you want to explain not human behaviour in society, but human
functioning in the world of forces, objects and other nonhuman
constraints, then positing different sub-personalities is no help.
Whatever personality-type is operating, it must deal with the world
using the one common body and so must interact with the world in the
one common way.
As people in midlife crises are fond of pointing out, we are not what
we do. The 'whys' of behaviour are explained by what we are, the
'hows' of function are explained by what our capacities are.
Sushama: I think you're right in assessing the difference between id/
ego/ superego as well as Plato's charioteer metaphor on the one hand
and Aristotle's vegetative, animal and human souls on the other; the
former explains behaviour in terms of sub-personalities and the
latter explains function in terms of capacities. But I'm less sure
how your distinction applies to the conscious/ unconscious/
subconscious classification. It applies to behaviour not function and
yet seems to be phrased in terms of capacities of the mind not
Ram: I would disagree with you. It's true the unconscious explains
behaviour, but it seems to lack a personality only when you consider
autonomous functions like regulating heartbeat. But that's not how
it's conceived by psychologists. The unconscious as a psychological
term is a faculty that works to suppress memories, emotions, etc.
that are too disturbing for the conscious mind to deal with. In that
way it has definite desires and manifests a secretive personality. So
in general I would say the distinction holds: behaviour is explained
by desires and motives and desires and motives constitute a
personality... so if you want to explain behaviour you'll postulate
sub-personalities -- if you want to explain function you'll come up
with different explanatory entities.
Kedar: You often bend over backwards to rescue a pet theory but here
you may be right. Still haven't we spent too much time on
behaviour-explaining theories to use your phrase? The more active
debate among philosophers of mind these days is about what you call
functional theories of mind.
Sushama: Yes, I would say functional theories of mind have ruled the
philosophical roost ever since Descartes characterized the mind as a
thinking substance. But in that way doesn't he represent a unified,
non-tripartite view of the mind?
Kedar: Yeah, from a functional viewpoint, I too would say, 'We Are
Ram: But let's not forget even Descartes' uses the term 'thinking' to
broadly gloss over three distinct activities he himself recognizes:
sense perception, rational thinking and belief formation. These are
echoed in modern computational theories of mind, which also seem to
affirm 'We Are Three'. Sense perception is receiving input, thinking
proper is processing input, and belief formation not to mention
willing the body to move is producing output.
To be sure the distinction is not always so clear-cut: after Marr's
work, which showed the eye solves differential equations in producing
a 3-D image, we know how process-laden some input like vision can be;
and keeping in mind AI's frame problem, we know how
belief-or-output-laden modeling a process like thinking or even
receiving input can be. Perhaps because one biological structure --
the neuron -- underlies all three, it's hard in practice to always
draw the distinction very finely. Still it's no accident that the
input/ process/ output distinction has intuitive appeal. On this
view, the mind is like a Turing machine, designed by evolution to
function in a competitive environment.
Sushama: Hmm... input/ processing/ output definitely sounds more
modern than sensing/ thinking/ willing ... but as different as the
activities are I can't help but like Descartes think there is some
one thing underlying them all, something more fundamental which we
should really identify with the mind, maybe consciousness, as
mysterious as that is. Besides being in a state, the 'machine' seems
to know what state it is in.
Kedar: That self-knowledge or consciousness is key. It shows that
unlike machines, our minds are not purely physical things. That is
the essence of the famous 'Mary's Room' argument.
Sushama: The debate between composite/ materialist and atomic/
nonmaterialist theories of mind is also present in Indian philosophy
in the Sankhya Darshan and Nyaya Darshan schools respectively. But
Mary's room is not 'sublet' in this corner of India. Perhaps you can
give a quick sketch of it.
Kedar: Sure. Mary is a super-scientist who has been reared in a black
and white room. She learns all the physical sciences from physics to
neurophysiology by way of lectures she sees on her black and white TV
set. Then one day she's let out of her room and sees colors for the
first time. She asks, pointing out the blueness of the sky, the
redness of a ripe tomato, 'What's that?' She's told by her liberators
that those are colors. She responds, 'No, before I was let out, I knew
all about colors -- that they were caused by differences in the
wavelengths of light -- but this is something completely new'.
Since Mary learns something new upon being let out of the black and
white room, what she learns -- what it is like to be conscious of
colors -- is not explicable in terms of her complete knowledge of the
Sushama: Interesting argument if a little too hypothetical. But I
think it's a bit hard to state. If I've understood correctly, the
argument is really about all sensations, not just colors, which
may've been chosen for dramatic effect. In other words, if Mary has
no physicalist account of colors, she should for the same reasons not
have had a physicalist account of what it's like to see black and
Ram: Forget seeing black and white. Consider the sense of smell.
Suppose Mary smells only disinfectant smells in the room and has a
physicalist account of them; then on being let out, she smells a
rose. This is arguably analogous to the original situation but it
would be unusual if Mary was puzzled to her physicalist core by the
smell of a rose; it would be unusual because there is no reason why a
biochemical account could be given of disinfectant smells but not the
smell of a rose.
Similarly consider the sensation of lifting weighted objects, where
also we may be more content with physicalist explanations, the point
being there is more resistance to physicalist explanations of vision
than some other sensations. And not coincidentally more of the brain
is devoted to visual stimuli than any other which fits right into the
Kedar: That's an interesting point. Others have also pointed out that
conscious experience changes with brain damage which is a physical
thing. But these arguments only show that physical things are
involved in perception, not that they constitute perception.
But perhaps we're getting ahead of ourselves. You two are right: the
argument is really about all sensations; it's just more dramatic with
colors. Sometimes I prefer how Leibniz puts it. I read in a Wikipedia
article that Leibniz asked his readers to imagine a person enlarged
so you could enter him like a mill...
Ram: Maybe the person could be called John Stuart Mill?
Kedar: You just can't help it can you? Anyway, Leibniz argued that
though you might see all sorts of things inside 'John Stuart Mill'
like gears, pulleys and levers, you would never see a sensation.
Both Leibniz's version and Mary's room show that sensations, and
therefore the mind, cannot be explained by purely physical processes.
Ram: Hold on. That's too quick. I read Jackson's paper, 'What Mary
Didn't Know' after you mentioned him. (turns to Sushama) Jackson is
the originator of the Mary's room argument and I didn't want to just
rely on Wikipedia summaries. Jackson formalizes his own argument as
follows (writes on a blackboard in Sushama's office):
(1) Mary (before her release) knows everything physical there is to
know about other people.
(2) Mary (before her release) does not know everything there is to
know about other people (because she learns something about them on
(3) There are truths about other people (and herself) which escape
the physicalist story.
For purposes of the argument, Jackson summarizes physicalism as
'If physicalism is true then if you know everything expressible in
explicitly physical language, you know everything.'
Kedar: I don't know why Jackson states the argument in terms of other
people. The argument is most forceful when restricted to what Mary
knows about herself. Despite knowing all physical facts, Mary doesn't
know what it's like to see red.
Ram: Perhaps Jackson wants to emphasize that it's a broader swath of
knowledge that is left out of the physicalist picture than just
personal knowledge. But I agree: the argument is most forceful when
confined to what Mary doesn't know about herself. That being
suggested by the title, it's curious Jackson doesn't flush out the
argument exclusively in those terms...
Kedar: Maybe unlike you, he doesn't start his article by coming up
with a title. Ha Ha.
Ram: Anyway, I wrote Jackson's version of the argument on the
blackboard because it is stated as a formal, deductive argument with
what I think are true premises. Therefore I believe the conclusion.
But I want to maintain that the nonphysicalist truths the argument
shows the existence of are fully explainable by purely physical
causes to the extent that they can be explained at all. Before her
release Mary, though she knows all physical facts about seeing red,
doesn't know what it is like to see red. But I don't think it shows
that seeing red is not caused by the eye being a certain way and the
tomato being a certain way, etc., i.e. by purely physical things. In
the future we may be able to build a robot that truthfully says, 'I
Kedar: How would you know the robot was being truthful?
Ram: We would presumably know whether we'd programmed the robot to
lie or not.
Sushama: No I think Kedar's point is that the robot could be
mistaken, not that he'd intentionally lie. For example, he might not
be able to see anything like we do -- just his programming dictates
that under certain conditions he'd say he sees red.
Ram: True, but we might also know whether the robot has been merely
programmed to simulate human behaviour or is actually exhibiting
human behaviour. I admit this is tricky. In fact Searle's Chinese
room argument seems to show that things like understanding a language
are impossible purely as a result of following a program or set of
instructions. Understanding has to come up out of the hardware
involved in what we've called input.
But if we have reason to think that the hardware is as appropriately
complex as our own, we might say the robot sees red purely as a
result of the hardware, i.e. physical things. Searle does allow for
Sushama: Hmm... I wonder if a color-blind scientist would be able to
build such a robot. Wouldn't that show the distinction you want to
make? The scientist wouldn't know what it's like to see red but he
would know all the things that go into seeing red because he's able
to reproduce them.
Kedar: You two are missing the point, the point Leibniz made when he
described walking into a person as into a mill. Even if the scientist
could build such a robot, the robot might know what it's like to see
red; the scientist, being color-blind, still wouldn't know. Mary's
room still works: there is a gap between all the physical
accompaniments of seeing red and the experience of seeing red. And
the EXPERIENCE of seeing red, seeing blue, etc. is what consciousness
is. So the scientist has no real understanding of consciousness even
though he's able to reproduce it. Consciousness may arise when
certain physical things are present but that would only show constant
conjunction not a causal relationship.
Sushama: Hold on Kedar. I think you're in danger of straying from
your best point. The color-blind scientist could use his knowledge of
neurophysiology to repair his own color-blindness. Still I think you'd
say he wouldn't by his physical tinkering have an explanation of what
it's like to see red. He would have an understanding of what it's
like to see red but that understanding isn't identical to the
knowledge involved in his self-repair. I think I agree with this.
But you should be wary of describing the gap in terms of constant
conjunction and causal connection. After all, following Hume, we know
in any causal chain, it's only constant conjunction we observe, not
some necessary causal connections. The feeling of necessary
connection comes from habit.
Ram: Good point. Maybe the habit of making a necessary connection
between seeing red and the usual physical accompaniments will arise
only after sufficient repetition, after not just the brilliant
scientist reproduces consciousness but every kid on the block has a
toy do-it-yourself consciousness kit. Seeing red may then become as
prosaic as the sensation of lifting a weight.
Kedar: Look: consciousness is most certainly a real event or
phenomenon. A real event or phenomenon cannot exist without the
existence of some real, physical substance or thing. Consciousness,
however, in logical or conceptual terms, is, SELF-EVIDENTLY,
absolutely distinct from any possible spatial structure or system;
most undeniably, no knowledge of any possible spatial structure or
system can give the knowledge of consciousness, the knowledge of what
it is really like seeing the color red for example. Furthermore, if A,
in logical or conceptual terms, is absolutely distinct from B, A
cannot be physically identical to B. Consciousness is, therefore, a
non-spatial physical thing.
Sushama: Whew! Now I see why you suggested 'The Self-Evident Mind' as
the title. But seriously, I think Ram would agree that consciousness
is not identical to physical objects and processes but he would
nevertheless say it is constituted by them. Isn't that right Ram?
Ram: Yep. Maybe I can summarize our disagreement as follows. I think
the physicalist story will someday give a full account of what's
involved in seeing red. Like Kedar I also think any physicalist
theory will fail to explain what it's like to see red. But if someone
asks me to explain what it's like to see red, what can I say? Maybe
I'd say, it's like seeing orange but without the yellow tinge. But if
someone asks me what it's like to see colors or be conscious, I'd be
at a loss, This is because explanations are always in terms of more
familiar things. I can't imagine anything more familiar than seeing
color or certainly being conscious. Therefore, I don't think we'll
ever have an explanation -- physicalist or otherwise -- of what it is
like to be conscious, though we may someday have an account -- I think
a physicalist account -- of what consciousness is. If the former is
what Chalmers has called 'the hard problem of consciousness', I think
it should be called the impossible problem of consciousness.
Sushama: I agree that the problem may be insoluble but I think you
want to therefore characterize it as a pseudo-problem and that I
disagree with. We may be tempted to compare physicalist attempts to
understand consciousness with 18th century attempts to understand
electricity. This may make us think that the former too though
initially mysterious will ultimately be brought within the
physicalist fold. But there's a crucial disanalogy between the two:
'What is consciousness?' can be interpreted as two distinct
questions: 'What causes consciousness?' And 'what is it to be
conscious?' 'What is electricity?' can only be interpreted as 'What
causes electricity?', 'What is it to be electricity?' being
meaningless. Maybe physicalists have gotten so used to explaining
phenomena where only the one question is applicable that they, I
think erroneously dismiss those who entertain the other question. But
the blame is not all one way. Those who entertain the 'what is it to
be conscious?' question, think that because there is no physicalist
answer to that question, therefore there must be a gap in the
physicalist answer to the 'what causes consciousness?' question, a
gap they try, like our friend here, to fill by postulating
non-spatial things. Needless to say, these things don't answer either
Ram: That's a very good way of putting it Sushama. The distinction
you're making is essentially made by Earl Conee, between acquaintance
knowledge and propositional knowledge. But your way of putting it
almost inclines me to see the hard problem as a legitimate problem.
Still I don't think we'll ever solve it because we'll never find
anything as familiar to us as the feeling of consciousness to explain
consciousness by. If non-physicalists would grant that we could have a
purely physicalist account of what causes consciousness, I and most
physicalists would be happy.
Kedar: Far be it from me to stand in the way of your happiness but am
I wrong or are you willing to concede consciousness is an atomic,
fundamental component of the world? Consciousness, like any
self-evident logical or mathematical fact or proposition, cannot be
decomposed or explained. It's an atomic thing, an entity that is
logically and physically indivisible. It's a non-spatial atom.
Ram: Well since not even the atom is atomic, I should be wary of
conceding anything is atomic. I think consciousness has only physical
causes but what is it to be conscious can only be answered by the
likes of poets not scientists nor, for that matter, philosophers. So
when considering that question, maybe it can be regarded as atomic.
But what is it to be conscious is not a question about anything so
public as the world. The world is that which we can agree on, and
what is it to be conscious may be different from person to person as
well as be different for the same person at different times.
Sushama: I think this is as much agreement as we're likely to have on
the subject, so let's move on. Being confined to Mary's room is
starting to make me claustrophobic. Either claustrophobic or
forgetful -- how did we get here?
Kedar: We were entertaining the possibility that we are three and
Sushama was suggesting that on a fundamental level, something like
consciousness may underlie all the different divisions we may make of
the mind be they functional or behaviour explaining. That led us to
take up the 'what is consciousness' question.
Sushama: Good summary but identifying consciousness as the
characteristic which makes us one in spite of being three is
problematic. It's true that we can be potentially conscious of
everything that we characterize as the mental, but we're not always
self-conscious in this way, nor do I think this self-consciousness is
a desired state.
Did you know children have to learn to use the pronoun 'I'? In the
beginning they only refer to themselves in the third person.
Krishamurti thinks we all need to observe our internal processes to
understand this 'I'. When there is awareness of our thinking or any
other mental process, the I doing the thinking disappears. Only then
do you have true peace, true love. So rather than characterize the
mental as the potentially conscious, I would characterize it as the
potentially unconscious in the sense of beyond the self-conscious.
Kedar: The unconscious -- is that anything like the undead?
Ram: C'mon Kedar! Sushama took our Western approach to philosophy of
mind seriously. We owe her the same courtesy. In fact, if what it is
to be conscious can be better answered by poets than scientists, we
can benefit from taking Krishnamurti seriously.
Sushama: Thank you, Ram. I really don't have much more to add. Except
to say that Krishnamurti didn't think we could actively seek the
self-transcendent state. He says, I forget where, 'That which is
eternal, timeless and immeasurable comes into being. You cannot go to
it; it comes to you.' I think by this he means that meditation or
acutely observing your inner processes can only leave you open to the
experience of the eternal, timeless and immeasurable. Actively seeking
it out, you'll only be injecting the I into your experience and so
you'll be frustrated. Acutely observe yourself and the self will
disappear and then the eternal will come to you.
Kedar: Hmm... observe the self and the self disappears. Sounds a
little like Hume's bundle theory of consciousness, where even the 'I'
is just another idea. But I don't see how realizing as I do that the
bundle theory is true will leave me open to peace and love.
Ram: Sushama, I can't claim to have experienced anything like what
Krishnamurti describes. But maybe I can transcend the self not by
self-observation but acutely observing others. Maybe writing
dialogues makes me sympathetic to others' views more keenly then if I
just listened to them. To do them poetic justice, I have to take them
much more seriously than I would otherwise.
We are collectively three but maybe after our discussion, each of us
is individually three as the words of the others reverberate inside
us. After all, I now take the hard problem of consciousness more
seriously though not as seriously as Kedar would wish.
Earlier we discussed my preference for dialogues over academic
treatises. The debate is as old as Plato and Aristotle. Aristotle if
you remember disparaged Plato's reliance on the dialectic, saying
that we think more clearly in isolation than with others. Though I'll
have to write the trialogue in isolation, I hope your words and
thoughts continue to reverberate in me, making me in effect three.
(c) Raam Gokhale 2012
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