Reflections on BEING

Being is one of those ideas only philosophers worry about, and not even all of them. There’s a good reason for that. I’ve recently read a few philosophers who touch on the subject. Harman and DeLanda debate what being is in “The Rise of Realism” (2017), while Umberto Eco devotes a chapter to it in his “Kant and the Platypus (1997), and Meillassoux touches on it in “After Finitude” (2015). Eco’s essay ties the others together and points out that being appears to mind only against the possibility of “not being”, and that concept presupposes language that discloses limits to our capacity to rationalize experience. Eco is clear however in that being, should it be more than a mere fantasy of mind, must precede mind. It must be, ontologically, mind-independent, though it becomes visible only to mind and by way of a linguistic shadow.

I am not convinced of that last part. A shadow yes, a blindspot to mind like the blindspot on the human retina caused by the placement of the optic nerve. But it is a phenomenal blindspot and prelinguistic; a genuine epistemological limit. At the same time it is no mere coincidence the recognition, the conceptualization, of this blindspot happens only in humans who also notice that it necessarily reflects itself in language.

So what am I talking about? As philosophers discuss it this purported ontological reality splits into two levels, the particular, and the universal. In the particular philosophers speak of an essence that lies at the core of every particular in this universe, from quarks to all their assemblies both natural and artifactual taken as discrete objects. Every rock, grain of dust, star, animal, statue, and more. Harman extends object-ness to every mind, thought (even outright fantasy), and relation, even to such arbitrary sets as my right arm, the statue of liberty, and the present queen of England. The being of these particulars is what, in addition to their properties, histories and relations, makes up their individual existence.

This being is sometimes associated with what medieval scholars called “haecceity”, or “thisness”, distinguishing particulars from those otherwise identical. The question comes down to whether this impenetrable essence exists mind-independently, or is merely a mirage a product, ultimately, of the nature of human, language-using, consciousness. It has to be human mind specifically because there is no evidence that higher animals (who I take it have sophisticated subjective arenas adapted to their way of life) concern themselves with being. They do not recognize any blindspot.

Harman says every particular, even imaginary ones, have being. DeLanda denies this. In DeLanda’s view, if we could (and we cannot) know every micro detail about some particular object, if we could know its entire history, including details of all its relations with other objects, if we could literally exhaust all of what could theoretically be known about an object, then we would exhaust the object, encompassing all of what that object is leaving nothing left over. Harman insists that even that would not exhaust the object itself; haecceity is logically prior to everything else. So who is right here? It seems to me that ontologically this is a tossup. Both DeLanda and Harman concede that “knowing every micro detail” is an impossible goal. Mind comes up against a limit. We cannot ever know every detail so how can we be sure there is something left over? Perhaps DeLanda is right in that being lies at this asymptotic limit. It is nothing more than a word standing for “those details we can never know”.

An honest ontologist has no business insisting on residual being one-way or another. Epistemologically the situation is different. Like being itself, only humans, using language, concern themselves with epistemology. Recognizing a “limit to what can be known” about any particular is in part to accept that something more might lie beyond “what can be known”. To label that possibility ‘being’ is simply to name that which we cannot know but perhaps is. What this represents ontologically is indeterminate, but for human mind, recognizing that a blindspot exists, being seems a reasonable and possibly useful hypothesis. It is reasonable, because we cannot communicate (language) without presupposing existence. Useful because it gives us a reason to reject idealism, to assume there is a mind-independent world.

This brings us to the universal. As associate the particular with haecceity, the universal relates to something the scholars called quiddity. Quiddity is the aboutness of something, that which is common to its type. Kitty cats and lions are both feline. What justifies our carving out this class and assigning to it both kitty cats and lions but not poodles? Today most people would answer with DNA, jaw and tooth shapes, claws, and many other morphological features, but the scholars knew about most of those as well. Their interest was in the logical principles that characterize classes or kinds and what must be the case, ontologically, to make the classification work.

Like haecceity, quiddity might be no more than a stand-in for those principles and if we could theoretically know every one of them down to their finest detail, there wouldn’t be anything left. But what is interesting about quiddity is it applies up the whole chain of nested classes to the whole universe. It is the something in the question “why is there something rather than nothing?” What is common to everything there is (we can debate the details of that if we want) and does not belong to what is not? That would be being.

So what does everything that exists have in common? Trivially, they have existence. Is there anything more to it than this? Once again human mind cannot resolve the ontological question. At least everything that exists must, perforce, have existence. But are existence and being simply synonyms, or must something have being to exist? It doesn’t matter here any more than it did for particulars.

We cannot in principle exhaust existence (witness the endless debate in which philosophers engage on “what exists”) so how could we hope to discover, in any positive way, what might be left over if we did exhaust it! But in this case, we fare no better epistemologically. Mind at least can grasp the particularity of particulars. Human mind can become aware of a blindspot, the inability to encompass every detail, but at least as concerns the particular we are justified in creating a word for “that which we cannot know about this”. As concerns the universal, we cannot even to that or if we do, it cannot be justified.

As concerns the global being, even human mind has nothing to grasp onto. Metaphysically speaking there can be nothing to grasp onto because unlike a particular rock or even thought, mind itself is a part of that universal. Mind exists in some sense and so “has existence” (and so being if everything else has it) in common with everything else. This also holds for language which also exists and has existence (at least) in common with everything else. To be able to speak about something presupposes being able to distinguish that something from everything else. But as concerns universal being, that which everything has in common, is to presuppose a reality-foundation (or reality concept) for which in principle there are no distinctions to be made. Existence alone is uni-vocal, something everything has in common, how much more so being if there is indeed any such thing.

Where does this leave us on the matter of being? I would say in an ambivalent position. I believe every language has some equivalent to the English verb “to be”. In English this construct and its conjugates applies to material objects (“that is a horse”), and actions, attitudes, or states (“to be creative”, “to be good”, “to be a disaster”) whether those of the physical world or strictly the subjective arena (“to be depressed”). It might perhaps be this broad application that persuades Harman to grant equivalency of existence (being an object) to everything from rocks to thoughts and all their relations (“to be taller than”). But perhaps this is merely an affect of language and should not be counted in an ontology?

If I teach my daughter the word cat, and eventually she displays an ability to tell cats from other animals, has she implicitly understood quiddity or is she merely learning to identify the morphological characteristics that distinguish cats from other animals most of the time? Suppose if she comes to know a particular cat as “Ben”. Has she thereby grasped the notion of haecceity or merely understood that “Ben” is one particular cat easily distinguished from others by subtlties of size, coloration, and so on? Eco insists that all of human language automatically and necessarily involves a generalization from the particular to the class, at least as concerns naming things, but as it turns out in many other contexts as well. Even grasping the idea that Ben is a “particular cat” implies there are “other cats” who are not Ben.

From how we use ‘being’ and how we try to talk about it using language we should infer nothing more than that it names, by implication, or gives some reference to our mental blindspot, that which we suppose exists in the form of something we cannot know, something our cognitive capacities cannot in principle encompass. There must be such a blindspot. Why? Because everything that we are counting as subjective experience and the world in which it is immersed has existence in common. We cannot get outside this commonality to distinguish it from anything else. It is the something that we cannot name because it has no particular about which to generalize and applies equally to being in the universal and the particular. Is there anything in common between all cats besides their various biophysical properties (including for example being born of other cats), with characteristic behaviors and relations?

Concerning thinking and experience (including the experience of thinking) if there is a common factor besides the properties we could theoretically come to know (and bearing in mind that even in theory we cannot come to know every micro detail of those properties), it might as well not be there. ‘Being’ stands for the blindspot. It stands for something that might exist (ontologically) besides all the micro details of properties, relations, and history (Harman), or it stands for the theoretical sum total of such properties which we can only asymptotically approach (DeLanda).

As concerns anything that philosophy might explore it doesn’t matter. What the notion of being delivers, philosophically, is purely epistemological; there must be a blindspot, there are things the human mind cannot know and because we cannot know them (like Rumsfeld’s “unknown unknowns”) we cannot name them. We can only refer to them indirectly with being.

So why does this blindspot belong only to human experience? Eco thinks it is language, the necessarily limited product of limited mind, that reveals the blindspot we call being. I do not believe this is correct. It is only a coincidence that human beings recognize the blindspot and happen to have language that we use to try to make sense of it. I agree with Eco that only a “rational animal” with a sufficiently powerful language, can attempt some evaluation of the blindspot, but I think we develop the language, words like ‘being’, because there is something about our prelinguistic experience that suggests the need.

Does lion consciousness then lack such a blindspot? No, there is a blindspot in all animal consciousness, but it is invisible to even the higher animals. There is nothing in what it is like to be a lion that suggests anything like the need for an idea of being. It isn’t that lions don’t have “the language”. They don’t have any need for such language because there is nothing about the way they experience the world that suggests it.

If it isn’t language that reveals the blindspot, what then is it? The key here is personality, in oversimplified terms the agent that appears to itself as a locus of experience. As Hume famously noted (and thus put a stranglehold on philosophy since his day) we cannot find our personality when we look for it, we only find our own minds (perceptions, memories, and so on). Hume was technically correct. His mistake was concluding that therefore, there was nothing there. Hume also derided being. He is one of those philosophers who simply does not believe mind might have “blindspots”, a philosophical hubris shared by many philosophers down to the present day.

But the blindspot that makes personality invisible is not the same as the one obscuring being though the principle underlying both is the same. You cannot analyze that which you do not ‘transcend’ is the sense of “rising above” or in some sense being “distinct from”. We cannot evaluate being because everything in the universe, including mind, takes part in it equally. It might as well not be there because it, should it even be real, is a common denominator of all mind-dependent and mind-independent reality. By contrast, we cannot evaluate personality because we are it and we cannot distinguish ourselves from ourselves. But unlike being, personality must exist because it is that in our experience which is partially distinct from mind and thereby provides for the possibility of self-evaluation of mind. It is only “partially distinct” because it exists in some sense in and expresses only through mind. No matter what we, as agents, experience or choose we experience and choose in mind. This partial transcendence explains why a first person analysis of mind always ends in philosophically slippery speculations that are not ever definitively closed. Unlike lions, we are reflexively aware of mind, but because we are “personalized minds” we cannot distinguish the personal from mind as such.

I have written much more on the subject of personality and its relation to mind in other essays. See “Why Personality”, “Why Free Will”, and “Physics and the Evidence for Non-Material Consciousness” among others. My point of raising it here has only to do with why it is that humans, persons have any epistemological purchase on being at all. As I have already noted, this purchase is something of a negative quality. We experience a hole, an empty place in our examination of experience and unlike personality, we cannot ever know if that emptiness represents anything positive that belongs in our ontology.

Searle on the Ontology of Social Reality

This is a very natural pair of reviews. Both focus on the same subject, the social world and how such social phenomena come about be they marriages, sporting events, cocktail parties, governments, or money. He is not concerned with the history of these things, but their ontological structure and how that structure is brought into existence. Searle devotes particular attention to how language, a special social phenomena with correspondingly unique properties. It is precisely language, particularly its capacity to make declarations (“I anoint you King”), and that these declarations can be compounded, that bring about both informal (cocktail parties) and formal (governments, money) social institutions. Language is not necessary to social organization as such. Higher animals engage in social behaviors without the benefit of language. But social behaviors are not institutions. Only humans create institutions, and declarative language is both necessary and sufficient. As Searle puts it, once you have language you already have [at least one] a social institution.

Naturally this raises some epistemological issues. Searle doesn’t much address libertarian free will in the earlier book, but in the later he has to address it because he recognizes that the obligations and powers of institutions, even abstract ones like money, ultimately devolve onto individuals. But obligations and powers stemming from the declarative utterances of individuals (many of course codified into such things as laws and constitutions) simply make no sense if their creation and subsequent behavioral acceptance was determined by physics. I would take the successful creation of functioning and persistent institutions to be evidence of the metaphysical genuineness of free will, but Searle refuses to go there, asserting nevertheless that it might be an illusion. He does not note that if illusion, nothing of philosophy makes any sense either.

At the end of the later book Searle addresses the subject of rights. He seems to recognize that there is no such thing as a “natural right” or “absolute right” outside of a social context. The consequences of being unarmed and meeting a hungry lion on the savanna should put paid to the idea of natural or absolute rights, but he wants to give a sensible context to the terms even within a social context. He tries, but I’m not sure he succeeds. Perhaps this is but a linguistic disagreement between us. Even to communicate the concept of a natural or absolute right requires language, and as Searle points out this puts the notions squarely into a social context from their inception.

The Construction of Social Reality (1997)

In an earlier review of a later book (“Seeing Things as they Are” 2015) I said Searle’s argument for “direct realism” was a bit circular. In this earlier book, he addresses that very circularity.

This book is about the physical and conceptual structure of social reality, such things as money, marriage, government, corporations, and cocktail parties. Searle points out that many animals live and cooperate in packs and so exhibit a “social reality”. All it takes to be social is for two people, or animals, to do something together. If you and I decide to go for a walk together, that, our walk, is a social fact. If we agree that a screwdriver is useful for driving screws, our agreement takes place in a social and linguistic framework in that we both know what screwdrivers and screws are for. But neither the walk, nor the screwdriver are institutional. Walking is something that humans are able to do by their physical constitution and the same goes for the screwdriver’s ability to drive screws. But other objects (coins) can also drive screws and if they can do that it is also thanks to their physical constitution.

Institutions are different. Money is not valuable intrinsically because of the properties of colored paper. It is valuable because it is embedded in an institution that applies symbols to physical things (like printed money) granting them powers they do not have merely as a product of their physics. These symbolic applications can be compounded endlessly yielding more and more complex institutions into which subsequent generations are born and raised against a background of these already symbolized and so constructed social realities. Language, that which we use to assign these symbols, is itself a socially constructed phenomenon and special because it is the institution that originates in a pre-linguistic but already social (in the animal way) context. Apart from the bodies that utter them, words work because they are symbols from the beginning. Paper colored and printed in a certain way by a certain institution (a mint) is, after all, physical. The government itself rests, ultimately, on something physical, a constitution, which is recorded in one form or another. Records (whether in language on paper, pictures, bits encoded in a computer, or uniforms conveying certain assigned powers to their wearer) are often the “at bottom” physical manifestations of our symbolic institutions. Every dollar bill is a record. Here (as I suspected) Searle and M. Ferraris (“Documentality”) come together. All of these are physical RECORDS that constitute the foundations of “from that point on” persisting social institutions. We connect the raw physical thing to the constructed institution by language.

If all of this seems too quick and over simplified, it is here in this review, but not in the book. Searle takes us through the argument that social institutions are, step by step, constructed by such symbolic assignments. “X has power to Y in context C” being the fundamental form of all institutional facts. This structure can be infinitely recursed. “Y’s” can become “X’s” and “C’s” can become “Y’s” generating symbolic constructs (social facts) recursively and Searle takes us through numerous examples demonstrating how it is that our complex social reality can be generated from the same structure which, when fully unpacked, and except for language, always finds its bottom in some physical X. Thus society grows out of the physical foundations of the world and is continuous with it.

In the book’s last three chapters, Searle connects all of this to the ontological reality of the physical world and our shared experience. Physical reality must exist in order that any statements about it are intelligible, and specific forms of physical reality (like Mt. Everest or the screwdriver) must exist and be shareable, part of our “public reality”, or we could not be sure, when we communicate (a social phenomenon) that our meanings are ever understood. If I say “the cat is on the mat” we take for granted that we know what we mean by ‘cat’, ‘mat’, and ‘on’, not to mention an enormous background of experience in physical and social reality such that we understand and agree on a reasonable range of contexts for cats, mats, and so on. Searle essentially argues that it is our capacity to communicate and construct social realities out of physical realities, that demonstrate the independent correspondence between our epistemic categories and the external world. None of this would work if not for mind-independent things structured much as (if not always exactly) we take them to be. Our capacity to communicate rests on the correspondence between language-reflected concept and mind-independent fact.

I would give this book six stars if I could. Searle is exceptionally good at getting at what he means in plain English. Anglo-analytic philosophy at its best, and about a meaningful subject!

Making the Social World: The Structure of Human Civilization (2010)

This book written in 2010 amounts to a reprise of Searle’s earlier “The Construction of Social Reality” (1997) which I have also reviewed. In the introduction to this book Searle says there were a few issues not sufficiently clarified and his aim is to clarify them.

The two books are about the same length, but Searle manages to say much more in this one about language, free will, and the sensibility of “human rights” outside formal institutional contexts. How does he manage this feat? In the earlier book he very carefully constructs his primary insight into the structure of social institutions and carefully demonstrates its application to a wide range of social phenomena like cocktail parties, sports, money, and government. In this book, he is able to state that fundamental argument more succinctly (he’s had a lot of time to work with it after all), embedding it more firmly into a clarified examination of the nature of human language as it relates to the development of social phenomena. As a result, there is nothing in the first book that isn’t also in this second one, but for some readers the main argument, the structure of all social contexts, might be stated a little too quickly here. I had no problem with it, but then I had already read the earlier book.

But despite the extensions and clarifications here, Searle still leaves a few things not clarified. He distinguishes between negative and positive rights. “Free speech” is a negative right because it requires nothing else of others besides letting me speak my mind. By contrast, a right to clean water (a UN declaration says this is a right) is a positive right because it puts an obligation on everyone else in the world to contribute to providing such a right. Searle rightly points out that positive rights are thus more problematic than negative rights, but he does not note that the UN declaration of such positive rights puts the onus of obligation on governments rather than mere individuals. He also uses a strange example, the right (in the context of the social institution of marriage) of a spouse to be consulted by their spouse before the latter commits to some life changing course of action. This is not a negative right as he seems to cast it, but a positive right, the corresponding obligation being on the spouse contemplating the act.

Finally, Searle tries to make sense of the notions of “natural” and “absolute” rights, those that exist by virtue of our being human beings outside any social context. I do not think he clarifies these ideas fully. An unarmed man encountering a hungry lion on the savanna will be eaten by the lion ninety nine times out of a hundred and that puts paid to any such thing as “natural rights” outside social contexts.

Despite getting a little loose with the notion of “human rights” at the end of the book, this is a superb portrait of the ontological structure of social reality. In a last section, Searle points out that most social scientists do not think that a grasp of social ontology really helps them with their work but they are mostly wrong about this. Most social science (for example) begins by assuming language and then asks how social reality is constructed with it. By contrast Searle notes that once you have a language, you already have a significant social context.

Book Review: Mind: A Brief Introduction by J. Searle

Below is the text of my Amazon review of John Searle’s “Mind”, an introduction to the philosophy of mind published in 2004. In this book Searle does a superb job of analyzing the structure of our mental processes, but he runs into problems trying to get a handle on free will and personal agency. Rather than comment on these two issues as a part of this review I have written an article on the subject located here.

“Mind: A Brief Introduction” by John Searle 2004

Another good book from a good philosopher, Searle’s review and proposals concerning the philosophy of mind. He sets out reviewing the dominant threads in the development of philosophy of mind noting and striking at their particular weaknesses. Searle dismisses property and substance dualism but also strikes at the weaknesses of various branches of materialist thinking on the subject. He then proposes his own theory, one that is fundamentally materialistic (physics being for Searle the ultimate basis of all things), but different in that it takes mental properties seriously but rests them firmly on what amounts to “the power and functional purpose of brains”.

Searle is an honest philosopher. He states his assumptions, makes clear his reasoning, and knows when his approach to the subject hits a wall that he has not (perhaps yet) found a way round. In this book, like everyone else, he cannot reduce-away the gap between the objective ontology of brains and the subjective ontology of experience. He points out that while every other phenomena in the physical universe can be both logically and physically reduced to some more fundamental phenomena, subjective experience cannot be logically reduced precisely because it is subjective while everything else is objective, public. Of course he assumes that there is some underlying, solely physical, foundation which will become known in time.

The book covers consciousness taken as a whole, a gestalt, and also intentionality (the “about-ness” of our thinking), the aspectral nature of all consciousness, emotions, desires, beliefs, and with these also acts: decisions and volitional control of the body. There is also a chapter on the unconscious, and that too fits perfectly well into his view of what mind is.

Searle runs into two other barriers not normally acknowledged by other philosophers. In a chapter on [libertarian] free will, he says that from a psychological point of view, free will must be real, but from his own view that consciousness is just what the brain does in the same sense that kidneys filter blood, he admits that he cannot figure out how free will could work. He alludes to a popular view that quantum mechanics might have something to do with this, but is honest enough to admit that this idea still does not really answer the question.

The other barrier is that of personal identity, the conviction that although my body and character change I remain, to myself subjectively, the same person today as I was a month or a decade back and that I can plan for the future when, presumably, this same person will still be around to enjoy the fruits of present labor. Here he addresses the “continuity of memory” theory to personal identity and accepts that this is important but is insufficient to explain the phenomenon. That these are MY memories still presupposes some “I” whose memories they are. He denies the “I” is substantive, but merely a functional hypothesis that we must have to make experience intelligible. He admits that he does not know how to get deeper into it than that.

The book is well written (could Searle do otherwise?) with little formality. His assumptions and arguments are clearly made in plain English. It isn’t an encyclopedic introduction to the philosophy of mind, but it does touch briefly on the main threads of the field as explored by Western philosophers for the past 300 or so years. His own theory, well expounded, illustrates how subtle and problematic some of the questions in the field can be. A good read. Highly recommended.

Comments on “Mind” by John Searle

In a wonderfully written book, “Mind” (2004 — see my Amazon review here) John Searle introduces us to issues in the philosophy of mind and promotes his own version of a theory of mind. While carefully rejecting present views of dualism (substance and property versions), and a larger set of variations grounded in materialism. He proposes his own view grounded, in the end, in materialism, but claims to avoid all the problems with other versions. What makes his version materialistic is that he assumes both the necessity and sufficiency of brains to be causally responsible for consciousness, that is agent subjectivity and intentionality. In large part, it is because of the causal relationship that presentation to consciousness via sensory experience, and causal action by an agent who can “make things happen” that the “interaction problem” (the “mind-body problem”) largely disappears in Searle’s philosophy of mind.

But it never completely disappears. Searle runs into problems with free will and personal identity that the theory fails to accommodate. Free will does fit into his view of mind as it relates both to the individual and the collective. It has “conditions of satisfaction” that can be easily specified in Searle’s terms. Personal identity is far more problematic. I discuss both below.

While the necessity of brains to consciousness is these days not controversial, Searle’s assumption of their sufficiency begs the question in the debate between dualists (particularly substance dualists) and materialists, including Searle. It is precisely the point of the debate here that no one has established sufficiency of brains to minds, and it turns out the whole debate turns on what evidence there might be that brains are insufficient. It turns out the evidence, not proof, comes from physics itself; the causal closure principle!

Searle implicitly recognizes this “begging of the question”. At the end of chapter 4, having said that he belives his arguments fully refute the various materialist variations he explores, he says this about dualism.

“Notice that these arguments still leave dualism as a logical possibility, though I think extremely unlikely, that when our bodies are destroyed, our souls will go marching on. I have not tried to show that this is an impossibility (indeed I wish it were true), but rather that it is inconsistent with just about everything else we know about how the universe works and therefore it is irrational to believe in it.”

I do not believe he really “wishes it were true”. If he did, he might have found a more sophisticated version of the argument. He also says, in the same conclusion to chapter 4 that as goes the two ontological realms (the mental and the physical), “No one has ever succeeded in giving an intelligible account of the relationships between these two realms”. Part of the purpose of this essay is to give such an account consistent with his structural analysis of mind. In the end, the precise mechanism of the connection remains a mystery, but in my view, it is no longer a connection between realms. One problem is that by “how the universe works” Searle is speaking of the discoveries of science, starting with physics. In physics, there simply is no evidence of any positive reality added from elsewhere (besides brains) that could constitute consciousness some separate thing added to physics. Physics finds no other realm and that is certainly true! There is no other realm that physics can possibly detect. But for physics to declare, blithely, that “nothing other than physics exists” obviously begs the question, something even physicists (those not pushing some vested interest) admit. This blatant assumption impacts both substance and property dualism.

Property dualism is a materialism where brains are necessary and sufficient causally, but what they cause comes, inexplicably, to take on a being of its own. Property dualism says that a new ontological realm emerges from physics, and once emerged has independent properties that are ontologically objective and yet remain interactive with physics. Property dualism springs from materialism and either proposes a new, fundamentally different ontology springing (who knows how) from the material, or it falls into epiphenomenalism. The core of this view falls into the same trap as many nondualistic (materialist) explanations, the naked assumption that “nothing but physics” is manifesting any such ontologically novel realm.

As for substance dualism, Searle refers explicitly to a strictly Cartesian version. In this variation, God in some direct way imposes mind on bodies. Brains are not even directly involved, although even Descartes recognized that some connection must exist between them. This view leads to all sorts of distractions (souls, disembodied minds) that are not, in fact, entailed even by a “mind realm”. Searle believes the whole idea of an ontologically objective “mental realm” (substance or property) is the root of dualist problems and he is right, but for some of the wrong reasons. His reasons stem, mostly, from belief expressions that come down to us through the history of religious institutions. These beliefs are vague and confused and may not properly distinguish between mind, soul, person, or spirit. All this vagueness was present in Descartes, and everyone (dualist or anti-dualist) since Descartes has simply imported it into their idea of what dualism must entail. Property dualism of course looses the disembodied soul notion but still comes out to an ontologically objective “realm” that brains produce. I agree with Searle, this is the wrong way to look at it.

There are more sophisticated versions of a proper substance dualism argument, but it remains the case that some of what is substantial about substance dualism has to come from something that is itself nonmaterial. This typically ends in God because that is what humans have thought must ground anything nonphysical. Once you have God, the physical too becomes grounded, and the fact of interaction between whatever it is that constitutes the mental and the physical is no longer a surprise. Nevertheless, the mystery of the interaction mechanism remains. But we need not go as far as God to paint a more sophisticated substance dualism; we can start with physics. The principle of causal closure stated briefly is that physics comes from and produces only physics. Subjective experience, being in its essential nature nonphysical, cannot emerge from physics, at least not physics alone!.

Consider a radio, powered up, properly functioning, playing some music. The music issues from the proper functioning of the radio in a way analogous to subjective mind’s issuing from our brains. Clearly the music (technically pressure waves of a certain type) is not the radio itself. But there is no music realm, only music which stops (or becomes distorted) the moment the radio stops functioning properly. Note now the properly functioning circuitry of the radio is 99% responsible for the music, but not 100%. There is something else, in this case a physical electromagnetic wave, that carries information to which the circuitry of the radio is (through a complex convolution of electron perturbation) sensitive. The important point here is the music is not merely added to the radio the way Descartes added mind to body. That is why, in the case of the music, there is no realm. The radio is responsible, the cause, of the music, and brains are similarly the cause of consciousness.

Consciousness is not added to brains, but stems from them. However, the radio while necessary is not sufficient to produce any music at all without the information bearing (and electron perturbing) radio wave to which its functioning circuits are sensitive. The music (strictly speaking the configured pressure wave) is the expression of that sensitivity transformed through the radio’s circuitry. Something to which the brain is sensitive results in a metaphorical interpretation we experience literally as experience. There is no realm because mind as such is not added from the outside to brains. Mind, subjectivity, springs from brains in response to or as a result of (transformed by brain circuitry) sensitivity to something nonphysical that must, nevertheless, exist inside the physical universe.

We must posit something, we need not go all the way to God, existing inside (is a part of) the physical universe that has three qualities. 1) It cannot itself be physical. 2) it must be able to affect brains, or put another way, brains must be sensitive to or detect this something. 3) it must be everywhere in the physical universe such that where ever the right circuitry comes to be in the universe, a subjective experience, attached to that circuitry, appears in or rather as some subject. This “hybrid-substance dualism” says this: Consciousness emerges from brains. Consciousness is not added to brains from the outside but emerges in functioning brains themselves in conjunction with or as a result of (causal) interaction with some entity that is not itself material.

Why not material? Because the material alone, the brains, cannot invoke the nonmaterial which is the essential characteristic of a subjective awareness! This is my core assumption, and I justify it not by religion but physics! No physics has demonstrated the emergence of a nonphysical phenomenon from nothing but physical forerunners (causes). It is also a fact that the only seemingly nonphysical phenomenon we know is consciousness, subjectivity, itself. Given what it is physics is competent to explore, the physical, and that we have a manifestly nonphysical subjective experience that is clearly reliant on brains, the only legitimate assertion physics can make about mind is that we cannot possibly know if physics is sufficient to produce it. This does not prove “physics doesn’t produce it”, but it also gives us no justification to say that it does.

In both of my books and a few essays here on the blog I call this entity “Cosmic Mind”, but that has the unfortunate connotation that it is itself a thinking entity or that it amounts to panpsychism. Neither is the case. Perhaps a better name might be “Cosmic Mind Field” (CMF). Existing in time and pervading all space. It is nevertheless not a panpsychism because it evokes consciousness only in brains, not rocks, individual living cells, or thermostats. But it must function as a field (albeit not electromagnetic) because it performs where ever functioning brains are present and evokes a continuum of consciousness from brains of varying levels of complexity.

Perhaps there is “something it is like to be a fish or a lizard, but we have good reason to believe that whatever that is, the consciousness of lions, apes, and parrots is richer, and that of humans richer still. Like two radios of different quality, the more primitive brains invoke a more primitive and limited consciousness in the same way the lower quality radio reproduces less of the information present in the electromagnetic wave.

This picture allows Searle’s view of consciousness to go through. Brains being causal entities evoke consciousness. There is no mystery of “causal mind” because brains do all the causing. Searle’s analysis of “aspectual intentionality”, qualia (aspectual perception), belief, desire, the subconscious, and so on all can go through as he supposes they do. My proposal avoids the Cartesian “realm business”. Mind is not some realm imposed on bodies, but stems from them. At the same time it resolves the causal closure dilemma. Mind is nonphysical because its invocation from brains isn’t entirely physical but depends on the brain’s sensitivity to the CMF.

But what is that exactly? It is precisely because the only handle we have on objective (mind-independent) ontology is perceptual and therefore physical that we cannot say. We cannot detect the CMF with physical instruments, nor conceive of any experiment that would isolate it from other phenomena because we can only so isolate physical phenomena! CMF sensitivity is common to all consciousness. There is nothing that we have from within consciousness that isolates the effect of the CMF because consciousness is that effect. But human consciousness at least effects a partial escape from this. I will come to that a bit below.

The Free Will Problem

In Mind Searle runs into two problems he cannot fit into his analysis, free will and personal identity. As concerns free will Searle admits he cannot reconcile even a causally efficacious consciousness with free will on the brain side. On the psychological side, from within subjectivity, he cannot shake the conviction that free will must somehow be genuine. We presuppose it in everything we do and every utterance we make. Does my model help us here? I could always say that free will is just a power (more in man than in fish) that consciousness has. Searle would rightly object that this doesn’t explain anything new. It doesn’t explain the ontological ground of the freedom. How in a universe of random (quantum) and deterministic phenomena does anything (even the nonmaterial) become free in the volitional sense?

This is both a physical and a metaphysical problem. It’s hard enough to accept that physics alone is sufficient to cause consciousness. Now it also happens that this consciousness is volitional, its choices neither determined nor random (both purposeless) but now directed and purposeful? The CMF is becoming extraordinary indeed.

The metaphysical issue is not merely the possibility of volition in the universe, though that is one issue. Like consciousness, free will must be possible as its exercise supports our entire intentional state. As with consciousness, free will’s possibility is something physical law makes room for. What physical law demands is that physical causal chains have some physical starting point. Physics allows its macro-deterministic behavior to arise from randomness, the quantum vacuum. If physicists were being honest, they could not rule out that something else, something not visible to scientific method, can also start causal chains.

Volitionally initiated causal chains, the causal part, all begin with some macro-physical starting point; for example the motion of a hand or a speech act. They are not causal chains until that point. But physics cannot preclude that, perhaps simultaneous with neural activity, a volitional act neither determined nor random, initiates that chain. It is, in other words, logically possible that physics alone is not enough to explain the appearance of a third source of causal chains; volition. Not only is this logically possible, physics itself recommends the conclusion. In centuries of sophisticated experiments and observation physics has found only determinism and randomness. Why should physicists concede the possibility of a type of cause they cannot, even in principle, detect? Because unlike other hypothetical entities (ghosts) and powers (remote viewing), free will is presupposed in virtually every decision we make as human beings. Volitional capacity is the closest thing to “obvious in our experience” besides experience itself. Not only must we presuppose it, our entire culture, language, art, institutions, cleverly designed experiments, and engineering feats, all imply free will.

In “Making the Social World” (2011) Searle devotes a chapter to language and the commonalities and differences between pre-linguistic and linguistic mind. He lists five possible types of “linguistic utterances”: Assertives, Directives, Commissives (e.g. promises), Expressives (e.g. apologies), and Declarations (e.g. “I pronounce you husband and wife”). The first four of these all have pre-linguistic forms (beliefs, desires, intentions, and emotions respectively) but Searle says that Declarations, making something real (e.g. a married couple) merely by declaring it, has only a linguistic form. Searle does not recognize that free exercise of will is precisely a pre-linguistic declarative. It “makes something real” by willing it, and has the same “two directions of fit with the world” as declarations.

One freely chooses (Searle’s “prior intention”, “will-to-world fit”, “world-to-will” cause) and then freely acts (“intention-in-action”, “world-to-will fit”, “will-to-world” cause). The “conditions of satisfaction” for free will are the same, indeed a combination of, those of perception and action, homologous to linguistic declarations. If I think I am free, that belief can only be true if I really am free. If I act freely and introduce into the world a new [physical] causal chain that action is satisfied only by a genuinely new causal chain initiated by a free choice. If this analysis is correct, then free will is a property of consciousness in the same sense as intentionality and the CMF must, in some sense be its metaphysical ground.

The Identity Problem

Searle demurs on free will’s “ontologically objective” reality, but he cannot bring himself to do the same for agent-identity. To be conscious, to have purposes, to choose, are, in human experience, the consciousness, intentionality, and volitional elections of an agent. All of our experience presupposes agency, some singular identity that recognizes the change all around it by reference to its constitutive changelessness. Searle doesn’t use the word ‘changeless’, but his examples are telling.

He shows that memories do not explain the phenomenon. There is an image in my mind from when I was two. I believe it is real because my parents explained to me once what it was when I was a little older. But then there is a gap and the next memories (few) I have are of events taking place when I was four. Gradually, the gaps become smaller and the number of memories grows, but gaps persist here and there even to recent times. And yet, I have the unshakable conviction, as much as the conviction that a persistent “I”, the same person, have existed since that earliest memory.

I had that memory and I have all the other memories, the same I despite gaps in the memory record spanning years! What about the future? I can plan for a future, say going to graduate and postgraduate school to become a philosopher. I can act today so eight or ten years from now I, the same I who today applies to graduate schools, becomes a philosopher. Looking backwards from that time, I will be the same person who filled out those first applications. I will recognize this. If my brain has functioned normally throughout that time, its truth (reality-representation) is immediately apparent. The “conditions of satisfaction” for changelessness are met.

Searle believes it necessary to posit some functional entity that stands for this “I”. He does not hesitate to declare that it cannot be a substance, but something must stand antecedent, logically anterior, to consciousness itself. As we experience it, agency is inseparable from our (that is human-subjective) exercise of will. Both the freedom and the will in “free will” seem, in our phenomenal arena, to come from, to be the will of, my agent-self, my “I”.

Is Searle’s “functional entity” helpful here? What does it mean for a functional entity to be changeless? How does this property emerge in a universe where everything else from physics to thought is constantly in flux? How does a functional entity dependent in some necessary sense on both a changeable brain and changeable consciousness gain this quality? Searle’s suggestion is merely a stand-in, but the qualities it must have suggest more.

Functions are processes. A changeless process is logically impossible. The agent can only be a substance whose persistence, at least, is logically possible. If that is the case agency cannot take origin in mind. The always-changing cannot produce changeless substance any more than physics alone can produce nonmaterial mind. Agency is always experienced and expressed in mind, but its metaphysical source must be external to it.

It is this substantial agency that makes possible the capacity to partially escape otherwise transparent subjectivity, something it appears only humans can do. By this I refer to our capacity to analyse mind itself. Lions have some sense of individuation from the world, but do not exhibit any ability to think about their consciousness as such. Only humans do this, and while language seems to be necessary in the exercise of this capacity it isn’t sufficient for its appearance. Even though what we experience of our own identity is experienced only in and through mind, only the existence of something in someway distinct from mind can provide a sort of “binocular perspective” that enables us to say something about mind itself, to describe our subjectivity (to ourselves or others) as if, as it were, from a third person perspective. I have much more to say about this in my essay “Why Personality”.


Putting it All Together

Both free will and identity raise extraordinary ontological issues. For mind, it seems an extraordinary coincidence that this CMF happened to be around to evoke consciousness from a certain organization of matter, especially as both the consciousness and the life on which it rests were contingent. Not only is the CMF implicated in consciousness (which at least we can suppose is generated by brains as music is generated by the radio), but also volition, something for which physics and philosophy cannot even account for logically let alone physically!

Identity is even more remarkable. It is one thing to suppose that some nonmaterial reality can arise out of the purely physical. It is even more of a stretch to demand that an entity that never changes in time arises in a time-drenched universe in which everything else changes! The absurdity of these impossibilities ends in two extreme positions, denial that nonmaterial phenomena exist, including consciousness, or that its existence must be purposeful. This is to say the antecedent presence of the CMF, is not an accident, but produced for the purpose of causing consciousness with free will when the right material organization comes along. Of course this has further teleological implications.

Searle insists that all explanations find their ground in physics, material reality, but he is left with three problems resulting from this demand; the mind-body problem, free will, and timeless agency. Starting with consciousness as such we have Searle’s assertion that it is just “what brains do” but he knows his explanation does not cross the gap. Anomalous monism (Davidson, Nagel) or panpsychism (Chalmers) also fail to bridge the gap. If, as these philosophers insist, mind is nothing more than an expression of undiscovered physics then we should find evidence in physics for the emergence of something (besides mind which begs the question) even minimally nonphysical.

My own solution, the CMF, doesn’t get to the details either, but it explains why what we seek is not found in physics. It isn’t there. If the CMF and brains interact (which they seem obviously to do) then either we are back to impossible physics, or there is a third entity responsible for both. When we discover interaction between two otherwise discontinuous phenomena in the physical world we take this discovery to be evidence of some third phenomenon that mediates the interaction. In proposing such an entity, a common source of physics and mind, we are doing nothing new philosophically speaking.

The CMF makes consciousness possible, evoking subjectivity from brains, but by itself doesn’t give us free will. If free will, obviously exercised in and by mind, has a ground it must come also from our third entity. That entity must itself be willful, purposeful. It is reasonable to locate free will in mind, a power of consciousness, because its operation fits perfectly into Searle’s structural analysis of intentionality in language and both exhibit constraint by time. We choose only in the present and both the choices made and the conscious arena in which they take place are constantly changing.

But the same cannot be said of human subjective agency. This also exists in time and expresses in mind; I am here in the universe after all. But unlike everything else agency does not change. Our consciousness is always changing and our will (free or not) can act only in the present, but all this change takes place within a phenomenology of changeless self. This is such an extreme problem for Searle that he proposes a functional entity in some sense independent of both mind and physics. But just as we never see physics resulting in the nonphysical, it cannot yield up a changeless entity antecedent even to mind. Moreover, it is this agency that enables us to reflexively examine mind itself, something it could not do if it was not in ontologically distinct from mind.

Function resting on a constantly changing consciousness cannot be changeless. Unlike volition, changeless agency cannot be a product of the time-constrained CMF. Our antecedent and ontologically objective source must also be a timeless agency, able to add this agency to time-constrained mind. With this step we are all the way to a personal God outside time.

Granted this is a truncated argument. Searle is honest enough to admit that substance dualism remains logically possible but rejects it on the grounds that it adds nothing useful to the philosophy of mind. But Searle does not get any closer to the secret of subjectivity emerging out of physics alone other than to insist that it does. The dualism I propose takes nothing away from his analysis of the structure of consciousness as we experience it. My analysis of free will (above) shows that Searle’s basic insights about mind remain sound. Free will fits into his ideas about the relation of mind to language, better in fact than in his own analysis!

While not popular with physicists or philosophers, God, like dualism, always remains logically possible. Moreover, while theism does not explain the details, it does account for free willed nonmaterial agency outside physics. It tells us why physics cannot find these in physics itself but yet experiences (presumably in the minds of physicists and philosophers) them in a physical universe otherwise governed by deterministic process resting on the randomness of quantum mechanics.

That we have agency and do exercise free will is so obvious to me that I will make the extraordinary claim that what motivates most free will and agent denial is not physics as such which says only “physics cannot account for it”, but precisely that accepting the ontological objectivity of free will agency too easily opens the door to theism. Of course physicists and philosophers will greet this claim with derision but the fact remains that, in the end, only God can provide the ontological ground for both free will and agency.


Searle’s Quantum Mistake

In a chapter on free will (of the libertarian sort) Searle runs into something of a wall. He concedes that psychological freedom must be real, but he cannot reconcile this with what is ultimately physical biology (brains) both necessary and sufficient to produce consciousness, the arena in which psychological free will operates. He speculates on a popular suggestion, that quantum behavior, some quantum randomness essential to the brain’s function, is in some part responsible for a genuine (ontologically objective) volitional will. Searle knows that randomness is not volitional freedom, but he says that it is possible that something about the brain transforms the randomness into volitional freedom in agent consciousness.

But he doesn’t like this solution because it makes the brain different from all other organs in that only the brain requires quantum processes in its role. I believe he is mistaken here. There is good reason to suppose that life itself rests to some degree on quantum phenomena. Every bacterium, amoeba, or living cell in an organ of the body lives because quantum phenomena are an intimate part of the mechanics of living processes. The brain then would be no different from any other life in this respect though it may (I suspect does) further constrain (in Terrence Deacon’s sense, see “Incomplete Nature”) the quantum processes necessary for life. That is the brain utilizes quantum processes in some quantitatively or qualitatively “enhanced way” as compared to life in general, but it is no longer unique in its dependency on quantum process generally.

Suppose I am right here. Does it help us answer the free will question as concerns biology? No. There always remains the gap between physics and the subjective experience. How do “enhanced quantum constraints” become volitional, or for that matter subjective? The interaction problem always remains. But my suggestion does clear one of Searle’s objections to the involvement of quantum phenomena with the phenomenal experience of consciousness and free will; quantum processes are essential to life generally.

Two More by Zizek

Picture of me blowing smoke

Here are reviews of two books by Slavoj Zizek. “Refugees” (2016) is much more social commentary than philosophy concerning as it does a more specific “current event”, the matter of Middle Eastern and North African refugees in Europe. Beginning in earnest a few years ago now, the issue has passed from most American headlines. But this social phenomenon remains pressing for all the peoples involved and may grow again to numbers well beyond the capacity of European (not to mention American) governments to process and absorb. Written only a year earlier, “Trouble in Paradise” (2015), is commentary on a wider (but still present) phenomenon, global capitalism (mostly since the collapse of the Soviet Union), and what hope there is that something better can be brought to political and economic fruition before ecological catastrophe kills us all. Hint: I do not hold out much hope and I do not believe Zizek does either.

Zizek analyzes both the “human condition” and the inconsistencies inherent in global capitalism. He says in effect “something must change or we are headed for disaster”, but I get the sense that he knows full well that disaster will be the outcome no matter what happens in the near to medium term. In the first review below I take note of Zizek’s reliance (over much I think) on abstract cultural artifacts, namely fiction represented in contemporary literature and film. I only want to note here that this is not a problem only here in this book, but I suppose in Zizek’s style, for I remember it from his earlier “Living in End Times” reveiwed here.

Zizek’s atheism also gets in his way alas. It is one thing to critique the “institutional church” in social, political, and economic dimensions. But throwing the baby (God) out with the bath water (institutional religion) cannot help but further distort his picture of history as a whole. Since the literature he chooses as foundation for examining the human condition as such is also either atheist or non-committal on the subject, the distortion (if there happens to be a God) is self-reinforcing. But it is also the case that this literature reflects the real culture of the present day in which most people are functional atheists. People, the majority of people on Earth, claim to believe in God, but the God they believe in is often limited, fickle, inconsistent, and intolerant, sometimes even justifying horrific evil. Zizek’s analysis of religion is mostly wrong, but by analyzing this mistaken notion of God he does achieve genuine insight into the nature of real people and history because that is the God in which they believe. Alas for both him and us, those insights do not give us a lot of confidence that things will ever get better any time soon.

Trouble in Paradise: From the End of History to the End of Capitalism

I still enjoy reading Zizek, but I find so many problematic issues in his views. His style and sense of (sometimes twisted) humor are on full display in this, something of a reprise of his “Living in End Times”, but much less heavy on the triumverate of Hegel, Lacan, and Badiou. All three appear of course along with many others, philosophers, novelists, film makers, and so on. His hammer falls squarely on Capitalism generally, and global Capitalism in particular. The book’s over-arching subject is the socio-political-economic situation of our present world. Zizek’s scholarship is as broad here as always.

It isn’t possible to say “there is no truth” in Zizek’s analysis. Published in 2015 he makes a statement that proves to be a prescient prophecy in his own terms: “…if moderate liberal forces continue to ignore the radical Left, they will generate an insurmountable fundamentalist wave”. Isn’t this exactly what happened in the 2016 presidential elections in the U.S? Once she gained her party’s nomination, Hillary Clinton more or less ignored her primary opponent’s positions along with his substantial base who, while not radical, were to the political left of her. Sanders’ supporters are here exactly in the position of the “ignored left” of which Zizek speaks. As a result, a large cohort of Bernie’s supporters in critical states simply did not vote and effectively cost Clinton the election.

Having established that Capitalism is a part of the problem Zizek calls for something else, but what? He would like, I think, to see a more egalitarian world, something of a more level playing field economically at least, but in the first half of his book he recognizes that the inclusive forces that initiate a true “emancipatory movement” (Zizek is careful to distinguish these from purposeless violence, though they can and perhaps must [Zizek’s opinion] have a violence of their own) are never the forces that ultimately take power if the movement succeeds in its initial aim; ridding themselves of an unjust regime in the aegis of some particular master.

If nothing else history teaches us that some less inclusive (often out-rightly intolerant) agency, whether of the left or right, has always got the edge in the in-between time, when the government has collapsed but nothing yet has crystallized in its place. Zizek cites numerous examples of this process. Zizek well knows that today, with more than seven billion people on Earth, any transition, even leading to a better outcome eventually (something highly unlikely in itself), would if globalized, precipitate the death of billions! He also knows that this fate likely awaits us anyway as ecological catastrophe catches up with us eventually. Perhaps that is the ultimate fountain of Zizek’s inclination to an “any movement having some genuine aim is better than nothing” position.

But while there is truth in Zizek’s analysis, it is distorted, in my opinion, by his reliance on art, particularly literature and film (along with a few jokes) to support his over all view of human nature. Fiction is wonderful for highlighting particular characteristics of the human condition, for contrasting them to a real environment that otherwise might swamp them out. But their very value in this regard is also a liability because they accomplish their mission precisely by distorting reality.

I think it is unfortunate also that Zizek uses the word ‘violence’ as ambiguously as he does. In an appendix, among many other things, he mentions this and addresses one of his critics. I would take a different tack. Earlier in the book he uses the Christian notion of ‘agape’ as an example of violence because it aims at precipitating the destruction of the existing (speaking of Biblical times) order. An atheist by reputation and declaration, Zizek cannot but have a distorted view of theology. A true “emancipative act” need not be violent in the normal sense of that term. Christian emancipation in the proper sense has nothing to do with the politico-economic order as such (be it Biblical Rome or modern global Capitalism). In the Christian sense, agape is “beyond the law” (among the senses of violence he seems to mean) because it goes farther than the law being more just, more fair; an act that would be approved by the law.

Zizek is surely right that anything that is aimed at the politico-economic order, if successful, will surely precipitate violence of the literal kind as it collapses, but that is a distinction, the violence (or lack of violence) of the act versus the violence it precipitates elsewhere, he seems not to recognize. Was the violence of the Jacobins who commandeered the French Revolution greater than the violence the European system visited on countless peasants for hundreds of years? Perhaps not, but the same cannot be automatically said today of violence perpetrated by left or right in relation to the overall impact of global Capitalism. For one thing, in the 18th century there were fewer people in all of Europe than live today in any one of its countries.

In this book, Zizek has a decision to make. Global Capitalism is a fact and seven-and-a-half billion people on Earth is also a fact. Zizek insists that no amount of “adjustments to the present system” can over-come its inherent contradictions. True as this is, he surely sees that such adjustments can extend the life of the inconsistent system precisely by, perhaps periodically, ameliorating excessively wide discrepancies. He describes such adjustments. If he understood the distorting nature of his reliance on fiction to provide his archetypes, he might realize that “adjustment” constitutes a more ethical course under the circumstances than even a successful emancipatory event. In the end the most pressing issue is the future ecological catastrophe. While Capitalism is certainly a contributor, there doesn’t seem to be any likely outcome of an “emancipatory event” that would halt the slide to that disaster anyway. Perhaps I am even more of a pessimist than Zizek?

Refugees, Terror and Other Trouble with the Neighbors: Against the Double Blackmail

Think of this little book as “applied Zizek”. It isn’t philosophy, it is social commentary and Zizek is one of today’s premier social commentators. Having written this book, Zizek has been accused by the left of being a fascist ideologue, and by the right of being an old-style communist ideologue. I have never taken him to be either and I read his little book to see for myself.

Zizek is here a “discerner of nuance” of every sort: sociopolitical, geopolitical, historical, environmental, economic, psychological, ethical ideological, and so on. His subject is the European refugee crisis spawned by ongoing wars in Iraq, Syria, and Libya, though he brings to the subject plenty of historical material demonstrating exactly the sort behavior (good and bad, even outrightly evil) seen in all parties to the present matter. This includes the refugees themselves, but also the governments and peoples of nations who are parties in the conflicts, and of course the corrosive effects of the present economic order. No one calls a spade a spade like Zizek, and it seems precisely his point in this book to note that there are spades everywhere, on every side, in the present context and none of them is without precedent in the history of the last few centuries. He draws his examples from every peoples on every continent, and this is how he opens himself to be a target of every side.

So what is to be done now, and in particular by Europe? Here Zizek seems to despair of an answer. Perhaps anything (to the right? To the left?) is better than nothing, anything that advances some vision. But he is well aware that no vision will actually come out as intended, and he spends time examining what must be done as concerns so much of the violent behavior of refugees that has no vision but the destruction of their own present environment. He concedes that much of what is being done (police raids, information gathering, and such) must to some extent be done, but he tries to discern the productive from the counter productive. His most concrete recommendation is to militarize, literally give to the army, the job of gathering refugees in temporary camps near to their points of origin, seeing to their registration, and then to safe passage into Europe. The military is expert at large scale organization, this a logical suggestion, but then what?

Ironically, as this was published in 2016, Zizek seems to assume that the nations of the European Union will each take their share of refugees! This is not taking place now in 2017 and the reasons it is not are all fully anticipated in Zizek’s analysis from politics, economics, racism, and the mindless violence of SOME individuals! Zizek sees both the rationale behind the backlash, and feels the ethical weight (on Europe) of at least some measure of responsibility. Is that not the attitude Christians are supposed to take? Can ethics and political will ever be genuinely reconciled; especially “on the ground”?

Even this is not the end of the matter, as bad as the situation can yet become as goes Europe (and by extension the United States) with refugees fleeing wars in which all these parties (including other Arab powers who take no refugees) have a part, reasonable projections for the future of our globe portend an even greater world-wide refugee crisis in the offing spawned by environmental disaster, political fragmentation, anti-globalism, and the inevitable economic dislocations that will follow from these. Is capitalism and globalism (including the colonialism of the last few centuries) largely to blame for all this? You bet! But Zizek also knows that it is too late simply to abandon their present manifestations wholesale! It is in calling attention to all this nuance that he makes himself a target for everyone. And the book can also be read as a kind of plea. Zizek fully admits that he does not know of a “solution” that is politically acceptable, economically feasible, and ethically justifiable all at the same time. But he pleads of those who have the power to do this to prepare some plan for that inevitable future.

If you aren’t afraid of seeing all the spades called out, including perhaps one or two that you might presently hold, and if you can stomach the answer that there may not be a realistic answer, a future in which millions don’t die, this will be a good book for you.

John Searle: Seeing Things as they Are


I gave this book 5 stars in my review and possibly I should have left it at 4. Not only is Searle a bit over confident about consciousness in general (this is not the book’s focus but he does review his position because most perception happens in consciousness), and the validity of his somewhat circular argument for the nature of perception. However for other reasons (I am after all a realist philosopher) I do believe that his description of what it is that perception delivers to mind is correct, and he very effectively compares and contrasts that description to most of the other dominant philosophical threads on the subject. Thus even if his own view is not so perfectly supported, his demolition of competing views is effective.

Searle’s work dovetails with that of Maruzio Ferraris just about perfectly. I mention this in the review, but I want to say something more about the connection here. Both philosophers might be called “common sense realists” despite their emerging from radically different backgrounds; Searle from Anglo-analytic realism, and Ferraris from Continental anti-realism. For Ferraris, the evidence that our senses present (Searle’s term) already structured mind-independent reality is its unamendability. In terms of “objective ontology” a tree cannot be wished or for that matter simply pushed out of your path. In relation to subjective ontology (what vision presents to mind) you cannot simply “see it” ten feet to the left. By contrast, if you close your eyes and merely imagine the tree, you can, in your imagination, move it anywhere you wish. Reality (Ferraris again) also provides affordances. With the proper tools, you can cut the tree down and make a shelter from it. In Searle’s terms, mind-independent reality responds to (fits) our acts upon it.

I have two more books from Searle to read, the subject being social reality. I expect to find more parallels with Ferraris. For Ferraris, the ontologically objective basis of social reality is located in documents, from constitutions and laws to parking tickets and restaurant menus. One of the first things Searle mentions among constructed social phenomena is money, one of Ferraris’ recorded documents whether represented in bills, coins, or bits in computer memory. I expect to find these parallels because both Ferraris and Searle are genuine realists as compared to “speculative realists” like Harman and Meillassoux. For genuine realists the bottom line, the philosophical starting or ending (depending on which way you look at it) has to be, well, logically prior and already structured mind-independent “objective reality”. If realism is true, then all realists have to agree on (start or end with) the same mind-independent reality. This is clearly not the case with the “speculative realists” (see my “Problems with Object Oriented Ontology” and its links). Harman and Meillassoux come to different and mutually exclusive conclusions about what constitutes the mind-independent world because they are not fundamentally realists at all.

Seeing Things as They Are: A Theory of Perception (Kindle Edition 2015)

A very good book. Searle’s focus is on perception, particularly vision, but he brings the other senses in as well. He begins by reviewing what he calls the “bad argument” which he claims has misled philosophy for the past few hundred years. His review of the “bad argument” is straight forward but its badness springs directly from its opposition to his own view which he calls “direct realism”, a term he prefers to “naive realism” which nevertheless also fits his position. Searle’s view is like a glass of cool water on a hot day. I would call it “common sense realism”, but M. Ferraris has already adopted that phrase for his “new realism”. The two views have much in common, but Ferraris’ focus is not perception as such. I have reviewed a few of Ferraris’ books elsewhere on Amazon.

In an early chapter on consciousness in general Searle burnishes his materialist credentials by declaring (at least as concerns life on Earth) that consciousness is necessarily associated with brains (which is uncontroversial), but he also declares that brains alone are sufficient to produce consciousness, something that no one (on Earth) knows for sure. This precisely why there is a “hard problem of consciousness”. He repeats this claim a few times but his theory of perception does not hang on it. Another quibble is that he is a little sloppy as concerns statements of cosmological fact. In one of his examples he says “I look at the star and know it ceased to exist millions of years ago”. He could only mean “I look at the stellar explosion” (a nova or supernova) and know it ceased to exist millions of years ago.” If he “sees the star” then the light of its demise has not reached us yet and he could not know that it has already ceased to exist.

Searle begins by recognizing that when we experience something visually, what we have is a “subjective ontology”, a phenomenal experience that philosophers for centuries have called a “sense datum”. The “bad argument” comes down to the belief that this sense datum is really all we KNOW and that for all we know there is nothing about “objective ontology”, the structure of the mind-independent world, to which we have access unless the sense datum represents the objective to the subjective. What has confused philosophy for centuries is the matter of how (or if) this representation actually works. Searle’s argument here is very simple. Our senses, particularly vision and touch, do not merely represent the world, but PRESENT it, presentation being a special case of representation. What constitutes presentation specifically is that there are “conditions of satisfaction” for the presentation. If I see a tree, the sense datum is satisfied (and so presented and not merely represented) by there being an actual tree where I see it. This accounts for hallucinations. If the identical sense datum is hallucinated then the satisfaction criteria are not met, no tree is present where I appear to see it.

Presentation is causal with the direction of cause going from world to mind, objective to subjective. Response (what Searle calls “direction of fit”), on the other hand goes from mind to world. Searle also gets a bit into “action” because it happens that its connection between mind and world is the inverse of perception. Cause goes from mind to world and the “direction of fit” from world to mind. This ties in beautifully with Ferraris’ concepts “unamendability” (perception) and affordance (action). Searle recognizes the matter of will, free will, comes up here but he demurs. I would like to see him talk about it somewhere.

Searle goes on to flesh out perception with a distinction between basic presentational properties like shape, color, motion, and so on, and those properties that require background knowledge on the part of the receiver. Perception is hierarchical. This accounts for the distinction between seeing a shape and color (basic perception) and seeing “an automobile”, and further up the hierarchy (additional background), recognizing “my car”. Importantly, “conditions of satisfaction” lie all the way up the hierarchy and they really apply TO THE OBJECT. The base phenomenology is not only a black object of such and such a size, but a car, and furthermore, it really is my car! All of this makes perfect sense to me, but then I am also a realist. It is hard to imagine not living one’s life in a realist mental environment. If you are about to step off a curb into a lane of traffic but have a visual experience of a black object about the size of a car hurtling down the same lane towards you, you likely ASSUME that the object IS a car and that it makes sense not to step into the lane. You take for granted that the object is being presented and not merely represented to you.

Philosophically though, Searle’s perception requires two assumptions. First that your brain and sensory system are operating within normal parameters, and second that the mind-independent world is genuinely structured AS PRESENTED. It is this mind-independent structure (including I believe its causal relations) that constitutes the “conditions of satisfaction” of the presentation which rests also on the causal relations between perception and the perceived object! For Searle to get his theory of perception out, he has to presuppose that the world is real and already structured having causal properties. The apropos structure must be present to be presented. This is the very assumption that anti-realists want desperately to avoid and it makes Searle’s argument circular. Because of the causal properties, the demand that we live AS IF the world is presented breaks the tie in favor of Searle’s position (and against anti-realism), but I do not recall him acknowledging this circularity..

Apart from this omission, the book is a very refreshing departure from all the anti-realism I’ve been reading lately. It is not a long or very technical read. I highly recommend it.

Problems with Object Oriented Ontology

Graham Harman is a popular guy in philosophy circles these days. Sometimes associated with  Maruzio Ferraris, Manuel DeLanda, and Quentin Meillassoux as one of the “New Realists”, he is also, with DeLanda and Meillassoux, known as a “speculative realist”. Although this essay is mostly about Harman (I have written about Meillassoux and Ferraris elsewhere on the blog) I first try to provide some perspective on them as a group.

All four emerged (in their fundamental epistemology and ontology) from late 19th and early 20th century continental anti-realism with its own roots going back to Kant. All four accept that from our inescapable subjective viewpoint we cannot in the end simply assume that, as concerns the appearance of an external world, what we see is what we get, a view called “naive realism”. Even non-continental realist schools recognize this in theory. Some analytic realists agree there is a “representation problem” but discount that it blocks-out as much of the mind-independent world as anti-realists claim. This partly explains their drift in a scientistic direction. John Searle (“Seeing Things As They Are” 2015) by contrast defends naive realism (he calls it “direct realism”) by distinguishing between presentation (what the senses, especially vision and touch, deliver) and representation. Among other things presentations cannot be manipulated at will (connecting up with Ferraris’ concept of “unamendability”) while representations can be manipulated. I will have a review of Searle’s book soon, but for now back to the continentals.

Of the four philosophers named above, only Ferraris has shaken fully loose of the anti-realist cloud (see my article on anti-realism). Ferraris takes a position that what you see is close to what you get. The mind independent world is self-structured (stars, galaxies, primitive life) is all real and already jointed long before mind comes along to recognize and react to the joints. That mind does recognize and react to the joints is a phenomenon fully within the process of world-self-structuring. Mind is a means (not necessarily the only means) of mediating between sensory input (evolved) and behavioral response which partly directs the future of that organism and its community. Ferraris does not think that fish-mind, lion-mind, bird-mind, and human-mind, all mediate the joints in the same way. But the structure of all these forms of consciousness do reflect mind-independent joints, those the animal’s survival depends upon. The evidence for this is the way those world-structures push back at us as well as the manipulative potentials their regularity affords to mind. Ferraris’ ontology is fully real then.

Epistemologically speaking, mind is not merely guessing at what might be “out there”, but knows it at a graining suitable to its daily navigation about the world. Human mind knows the natural world from a far more sophisticated viewpoint yet remains analogous to the viewpoints of higher animals. But humans are in addition able to frame their own abstractions, additional joints, on top of the natural world making recursive use of the affordances (Ferraris’ term) given to us by the regularity of the resistance (we cannot change the past, running into a wall hurts, we cannot fly merely by wishing it), of the world. For Ferraris both the resistance and affordance are epistemological evidence that ontology is “more or less” what epistemology represents.

Meillassoux and Harman are different. I think DeLanda belongs in this group but I have read but little of DeLanda and must limit myself to points he makes in his jointly authored book (“The Rise of Realism” 2017) with Harman. Harman and Meillassoux have not shaken themselves free of the anti-realist fog. In the end, neither can accept that what seems real and jointed about the mind-independent world to consciousness very much likely is real and that the independent joints are close to where we perceive them to be! This is the reason this group are “speculative”, a fitting moniker. If we do not have a good reason to believe the mind-independent world approximates what it appears to be, then in the end the best that can be done by ontology is to speculate about it and hope the speculation serves to enhance insights in some other arena of philosophy or science.

Of the two Meillassoux (from his major work “After Finitude” [2010]) is the more careful analyst. He begins in essence with a traditional anti-realist assumption; the Principle of Sufficient Reason is not necessarily true of the mind-independent world. He concedes that it appears to hold and that it must indeed hold for long periods (essentially an anthropic argument) but in the end he concludes that it need not necessarily hold out beyond what we can perceive in space or in time. That’s fair enough. He starts with an assumption and traces it to a logical conclusion. I think he is wrong because his fundamental assumption is wrong (I’m a realist theologian after all) but I do not fault the quality and professionalism of his reasoning from assumption to conclusion. He reminds me, in style not content, of some modern analytic philosophers like Lowe (recently deceased), Chalmers, Searle, and Deacon among many others.

Harman does not seem (anywhere that I can find) to build his ontology he rather asks us to accept a purely speculative proposal in the hope that it will be useful. Like Ferraris, Harman believes the mind-independent world is already structured as concerns particulars, that is there are particulars along with various relations between them. But Harman asks us to accept for the sake of argument) that “the real” is made up of nothing but individual objects. Further, ‘object’ includes everything from atoms to asteroids, stars, events of all kinds, and thoughts. The last includes both subjective relations (that tree over there as I experience it) and fantasies (the pink elephant I see floating in front of me).

Objects must exist before they can have properties through which they have relations with other objects. Thus Harman introduces an essence or haecceity but it seems to do nothing except stand in for “that which has properties” and grounds its causal potential. The object’s properties, even the complete history and future of its properties (and relations into which they enter) down to the finest detail, does not exhaust the being of the object. This is one place where DeLanda diverges, but for Harman, something is deeper than the object’s complete history and it comes down to the object’s being or essence. Being in his context seems to be a placeholder for “that which must exist but cannot be known”!

From the moment an object exists it has properties that enter relations with other objects through their properties. These relations too are objects as real as their relata, and further, the properties are also objects with their own haecceity, further properties, and so relations. If this looks like the beginning of an infinite regress it is and Harman has no real answer for it. What he offers is the observation that objects do not persist indefinitely. Objects and relations can come and go, sometimes transform into new objects or cause there to become objects that until that time did not exist. But none of this avoids the regress problem. Even considered syncronically (at a point in time), every property and relation in the universe is itself an object related to every other relation and object in multiple ways. This is already a well-neigh infinite number of objects. Physicists estimate there are 10^80 protons in the universe. That makes the number of relations (all objects) between protons alone 10^80^80! But nowhere (in the four books I’ve read) does Harman make a case for the object-hood of properties. The sun is hot and my hallucinated elephant is pink, but hotness and pinkness are not objects in any normal uses of that word. Anything that can be bounded, anything whose joints can be delineated, is an object. But while my pink elephant can be bounded, its pinkness cannot in any way that Harman makes comprehensible. Harman has a problem with universals.

Harman sets this problem aside and moves on however. While all of these objects are equally real (ontology) they are not all “equally important”. Harman knows that importance can be importance to human mind or animal mind but he also suggests a possible mind-independent measure of importance in the form of a “symbiotic object”. Objects of all kinds come and go. Some never persist long enough to express causal relations but most have at least some small effect on their environment. The encounters between properties in their multiple relations, have causal implications for Harman that he calls a species of non-theistic “occasional cause”.

Some few of these object-relations have widespread and long-perduring outcomes. For example (mine, not Harman’s) the iron asteroid that struck Earth 5 billion years ago forming Earth’s core, producing a magnetic field, fueling future tectonic processes, and perhaps even creating our moon with all of its knock-on (hence symbiotic) effects, would be an “important object” that uncontroversially predates mind (on Earth at least). But where to place symbiosis? Start with the asteroid, but then it also has to be the asteroid-Earth-relation, the event (another object) of the impact, and so on. One symbiotic object produces many following object-event-relations. Does the symbiosis apply to all of them? I don’t think Harman would have a problem spreading out the symbiotic credit as it were, but the flatness of his ontology prevents him from drawing any hard lines. Any event, no matter how trivial (like the gravity of any mass) must have some effect on the world-line of any larger event with which it has now, or had in the past a relation. Harman is explicit about all of these objects (not only records in the present) being equally real even if only at some past time.

Here’s where it gets tricky. Even that subset of events with enough world-line effect merely to be recorded such that they appear as present records (physical evidence of their reality, not only formal documents) of past events may or may not be symbiotic in Harman’s view. Surely some recorded events (and by extension their records) were, and perhaps continue to be, more significant than others. There is a continuum of importance. Further, the effect of an event, any event, on a larger world-line spreads out towards the future resulting in an infinitely fine continuum of importance. Ontologically then there is nothing to divide the important from the unimportant (a classic sorites problem). The only relations in which mind-independent objects exhibit a property of importance are mind-dependent objects (see ‘sensual-objects’ below). I do not see how Harman can defend a line between unimportant and important without eventual reference to mind? The asteroid impact predated mind, but its importance stems from its causal impact on the evolution of mind, and in particular human mind, becoming aware of it.

Harman also introduces us to “dormant objects” which are more problematic than symbiotic objects. A “dormant object” emerges from its constituent relations but does not participate in any relations of which it is a constituent. A dormant object “has no effects”. Is such a thing even possible? An object must exist to have properties, but once it exists it immediately has properties and these enter into relations. There are no objects (mental or otherwise as we shall see) that do not immediately have properties and just as immediately (or at least at the speed of light) enter into relations. Perhaps such relations are trivial (analogous to the gravity of a proton) by our lights but they cannot be nonexistent.

In the end there is a top-of-the-chain relation between every particular and every other particular in the universe. This is not an “all is one” view like that of Heidegger or Whitehead because the relation of everything to everything else is no more or less real than the relation between any two atoms or thoughts anywhere in the universe. It is possible, given all the spatially or temporally extended relations, even the most trivial of events will turn out to be symbiotic when viewed over wide enough scales. Again Harman has no way to draw a line other than by “significance to mind”.

Harman also distinguishes between “real objects” and “sensual objects” where ‘real’ here means “mind independent”. The pink elephant floating in front of me is a sensual object as is the relation (resulting in a cognitive acquisition) between my mind and a mind independent tree. Both of these objects are (or might be) causally efficacious; having an influence on a subsequent world-line. If I see the pink elephant while driving I might swerve and cause an accident. If I am driving down a dirt road and see a tree in the middle of it I had better swerve to avoid an accident. I have no problem with this distinction, but it risks un-flattening Harman’s ontology. It at least takes a small step towards an ontological dualism (mind vs everything else) he wants very much to avoid. The move adds epistemology to ontology. The “objects of our minds” are like any other object except that they are ours, belong to an individual subjectivity, while all the other objects are not ours, not a property of a subjectivity! If this is, for Harman, an epistemological distinction without ontological weight, then we cannot possibly know, but only claim by speculative fiat, that all objects, sensual or otherwise, are “equally real”. I do not see how he can have it both ways.

Also problematic is Harman’s claim that “matter doesn’t exist”. I cannot find a way to make sense of this claim in the context of his “Object Oriented Ontology” (OOO). At first I thought perhaps he was suggesting the quantum wave function is the “real real” (some physicists believe this) and matter is merely a second-order by-product. But he doesn’t much talk about the wave function and he cites an example of two tectonic plates opposing each other “rock to rock” which seems material enough to me.

Another possibility is that Harman makes no room for universals. Red doesn’t exist only individual red objects. ‘Animals’ are not an object, only particular animals. But Harman considers sets to be good sensual objects and “classes” or “kinds” are merely another way to refer to sets. Red perhaps doesn’t work here because it is purely sensual, but ‘animals’ does. ‘Animals’ is a concept and so a sensual object. But it is not like the pink elephant because there are mind-independent individual animals tieing the sensual object to the mind-independent realm. Why can’t matter be a property common to some non-sensual objects?

Maybe this claim is about relations? Being (objects existing) entails relation and perhaps in the end relations (mental or entirely mind-independent) are the only objects we can talk about. But that wouldn’t imply that matter didn’t exist only that it might not exist. Relations are not made of matter but some of their relata might be. If existence is logically prior to properties and relations but we cannot grasp all of that in which this existence consists, who is to say that matter is not a part of the essense of some objects? From inside the phenomenal, direct access only to sensual objects, nothing entails or even implies that some non-sensual objects are not matter. OOO must remain ambivilant about this and this is not the end of the problem. Relata, for example non-sensual rocks, are also relations (between atoms) and they in turn are relations (between particles) and so on (infinitely alas) and so in the end there are no relata only relations and Harman is, in effect, defining matter away.

Haecceity seems to be something of a substitute for matter at least as concerns traditionally material objects. OOO here comes down to “there is a mind independent real but in the end we can never experience or embrace the core of it only its effects; manifestations in properties and relations.” But even granting this, the immateriality of properties and relations then cannot stand as evidence for or against the ontological genuineness of matter! If we cannot know “the core of being” then we cannot know that some of it is or is not matter.

I return to the question of what Harman gets out of this? The point of ontology is to be useful at least to other philosophical arenas (epistemology, ethics, aesthetics) and perhaps human endeavor in general whether in the hard or soft sciences, arts, politics, and so on. One thing he might get is univocality of cause. Harman says that cause is fundamentally “agent cause” because an object’s causal potential is some part of its withdrawn essence. But an object’s causal potential expresses through its properties and their relations with other objects. The agent (essence) is the secret of an object’s causality, but what objects manifest to one another are their properties and what mind recognizes of cause is revealed in object-relations.

Physical cause and mental cause are both “occasional” outcomes of relations derived ultimately from properties manifest by being. If this is so then “causal agency” is, ontologically speaking, an assertion of faith, a speculation. All that we know of cause is more suitably described in event or process terms. The ontological (object) status of events or discrete process has no epistemological bearing. Proposing a universal causal manifestation in relations (however grounded in a haecceity we cannot know) tells us nothing new. If everything is a relation, how could cause not express itself in or thru relation? Individual essences, events, and relations are all objects of equal ontological status. Cause therefore belongs to everything equally.

Like the continental tradition generally, Harman takes an interest in the social sciences. In “Immaterialism” (2016) he offers us an example of applied OOO in the form of a corporate history. A corporation is, after all, an object like everything else. It has a historical duration. It has relations to people, events, recordings (documents), and such; the stuff of its daily doings (all objects). Corporations also have relations to later historical events (more objects). The corporation he chooses is the Dutch East India Trading Company, known in Harman’s book by its Dutch initials VOC.

The VOC is an interesting choice because it has a clearly bounded history (1605 to 1795). It illustrates an object’s coming into existence and going from it. At the same time, undergoing many transformations and a participant (not to mention instigator) in many historical events, it shows the ability of objects to transform without thereby ceasing to exist and become new objects at every turn. He also explains here symbiotic objects and dormant objects using the same object, a document (policy statement) introduced by the corporation’s most notorious Governor-General in 1619.

What makes this document symbiotic? It had a far reaching effect on the actions (decisions taken by directors, employees, and so on) of the VOC for the next hundred years as compared (I suppose) to most of the thousands of other documents (minutes of board meetings, policy statements, and so forth) generated during that time; a clear “disproportionate effect”. How then could it also be dormant, an object with “no upward relation”? Harman tries to throw a little too much in here I think. The document was first dormant because it had no particular effect on the actions of the corporation until a few years after its introduction.

But how could Harman possibly know this? He does not know of any immediate effects precipitated by that document, but he cannot claim that there weren’t any. Sitting in the room, when the document was introduced were a pair of investors. One ran home immediately to his wife and said: “The governor general is a monster. We must sell everything we have and divest ourselves of VOC stock now!” The other investor likeways ran home to his wife and said: “that man is brilliant. We must divest of everything elsewhere and double down on VOC!” Now Harman might reply that yes after all there is no absolute but only relative dormancy. That my example is hypothetical and does not come down to us in the historical record (another object) is evidence that relations can be more or less fecund. But such a reply makes importance “importance to human mind”. Only humans care about documents or for that matter “the historical record”. What makes this document important is that it had disproportionate effect, over time, on the decisions of human beings and those, in turn, effected the lives of other humans. Our judgments of relative importance or unimportance are always judgments (themselves always sensual objects) with respect to their effects, ultimately, on other humans.

Immaterialism is given over to much detail on the doings of the VOC and in particular its doings after the introduction of that document. I can only imagine the idea is to show how relations can play themselves out. But in giving us this admittedly interesting history and connecting it up to a particular document Harman does no more than give us a description of decisions (on the part of people) and events (naval battles, enslavement, genocide) that read like a history told by any other historian. Harman neatly divides up traditional objects (cannon, ships, documents), people (decision makers and their decisions), and events (naval battles, invasions) that stand out primarily because they have come down to us in the historical record. Of course Harman ignores many records so he can thread these particulars together in a cohesive story and not write a thousand page book. The problematic part is that in describing all of this, Harman uses the conventional language of objects, relations, and events. Whether all of these are ontologically objects, makes not the slightest difference to the story. Whether or not a particular naval battle or act of genocide had a withdrawn essence that we cannot know simply has no bearing. “Everything is an object and all objects are equally real” doesn’t add anything to our grasp of this history.

Like Meillassoux, Harman is stuck behind the anti-realist wall. There is no hole in the wall for Meillassoux. His conclusions are purely inferences based on an epistemological assumption (the Principle of Sufficient Reason is true only for epistemology and not for ontology) about ontology. This restricts him to a very limited and tentative set of speculative conclusions about the nature of the mind-independent world. Mind independent contingency (for example) entails time and space apart from our mental categories. Beyond this, he cannot say anything about the structure of the extra-mental other than that it appears stable (for now) and is of necessity entirely contingent.

Harman also is not able to say very much about what is mind independent beyond that it is real and divided up into objects having infinite relations. Of course he can distinguish between rocks, rock concerts, and pink elephants because their properties vary, but these distinctions, these joints, are picked out by mind. Harman insists that they are real independent of mind, but his ontology supports this assertion only because every possible object-relation is real. Harman can go a bit further than Meillassoux because, while the mental arena cannot contact the core of any object, it does contact relations, and we are able to explain much using a language of relations as Harman does with the VOC. There is, in effect, a hole in Harman’s wall that lets [some] relations through to mind. The external relation between the tree and me invokes a sensual-object, my perception of the tree, in my mind. This is what allows Harman to say anything at all about the mind-independent world.

Harman’s mind-independent world is therefore a little richer than Meillassoux’s but on the other hand Meillassoux reasons himself to what he concludes about the world from a few assumptions. Harman simply intuits a solution and hopes that other work (like history, political science, art) will demonstrate its usefulness. Only Ferraris manages to get past the wall altogether by connecting up unamendability (a fixed past and the constraints of natural law) and affordance (opportunities, realizable potentials) the world presents to us and so realizes that there is no wall, only a screen, and the screen lets much through to mind which evolved in response to its transparency.