–Arts and letters for the modern age–

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–Arts and Letters for the Modern Age–

Prolegomena to a Pluralist Metaphysics

by | Dec 29, 2022

Originally, these prolegomena were published in separate installments, over a period of months.  I have since edited and consolidated them into a single statement that represents the most complete summary of my current philosophical views.


[1] Initial Impressions

These sketches comprise prolegomena to a pluralist metaphysics. I doubt that I ever will do a full treatment beyond this. As those who have read my essay in Philosophy Now will know, I think that most significant philosophical positions suffer from indeterminacy; that the most valuable work we philosophers do is accomplished during the initial forays into a subject; and that it doesn’t take very long before philosophical pursuits suffer diminishing returns. A metaphysics cannot be proven or otherwise demonstrated and competing metaphysical views may be empirically equivalent (as metaphysical Realism and Anti-Realism are), so a thorough and well-drawn impression is sufficient. Put concisely, prolegomena are all that is really needed.

There are certain theses that one could only credibly advance in an intellectually desperate context; which, in ordinary circumstances, would be non-starters. I include among these Panpsychism (muons are conscious), Illusionism and Eliminative Materialism (nothing is conscious), Dualism [psychological and metaphysical] (minds are spirits and tables and chairs are “copies” of eternal, non-material Forms) and Determinism (no one has agency). That so many intelligent and knowledgeable philosophers today embrace views like these and are taken seriously indicates that they – and we – feel ourselves to be in desperate times. The question is “why?” 

I want to suggest that a number of core assumptions under which we have been operating – some for decades; some for a century; some going back to the Enlightenment – have yielded problems that seem to force us in these desperate directions. A return to philosophical normalcy will require critical examination of these assumptions and the development of alternatives. My suggestion here will be that a pluralistic, Sellarsian metaphysics is one such alternative. I call it “Sellarsian,” because there is significant disagreement as to how Sellars’ paper on the Scientific and Manifest images should be interpreted and because it makes no difference to my project whether my version of Sellars is historically true to the man or not.

In these initial impressions, I want to describe the most significant of these core assumptions and point to some of the ways in which they lead to the desperate philosophical positions I have mentioned.

Materialism – The view that everything that exists is made of matter/energy. I will use the term ‘physicalism’ to refer to this thesis within the philosophy of mind. 

Ontological commitment and hypostatization – Many think of our ontological commitments as representing our view of which entities exist, and when we think of entities, we think of things in the sense of discrete objects in space. That is, we tend to hypostatize our ontological commitments and to think of existing as something that things, in this sense, do.

Explanatory unity – For any number of reasons – the generality of physics; Materialism (as described above); methodological and psychological commitments to parsimony – many have thought that all of our explanatory frameworks should ultimately cohere with one another and form what is essentially a single framework.  

The assimilation of reasons and causes/actions and events – As a result of philosophical developments in the 1950’s and 60’s, many philosophers are inclined to assimilate reasons and causes: to say that reasons are causes and vice versa; that the beliefs and desires to which we refer in explaining our actions are causes of those actions, just as the motions of certain billiard balls are the causes of and explain the motions of other billiard balls. They are also inclined to assimilate actions with motor movements and thus, with events, understood more generally.

Let’s look now at some of the ways these assumptions intersect to create the kinds of problems with regard to which we turn to “desperate” positions to solve.

First, with respect to so many of the things that we encounter in our daily lives the idea that they are “made of” matter/energy – or indeed, “made of” anything – is obscure at best. Parking regulations certainly exist (park in a handicapped spot, when you lack the proper tags, and see what happens to you), but are they “made” of matter/energy or of anything else? People obviously exist and possess a number of body parts that also exist, but are people “made of” matter/energy in the way that the parts of peoples’ bodies are? Again, the notion is obscure.

This Materialism-induced puzzle metastasizes when one takes some of the other assumptions on board, leading philosophers (and some aspirant philosophers)  down one hopeless rabbit-hole after another. See how many “desperate” philosophical positions you can spot:  

–If something exists, then it must be a “thing,” but what kind of a “thing” is a non-matter, non-energy thing? It must be a transcendent thing! But what kind of thing is that? And how does such a thing interact with the things that are made of matter/energy? 

–Since all things that exist are material and these are things and exist (laws, regulations, people, etc.), they must be material. So, we must find some way to reduce laws, regulations, people, etc. to biological and ultimately, physical entities.

–Reductionism is a bust. Those things that we thought existed and which don’t reduce to material things must not exist after all, so we should ontologically eliminate them. But what attitude do we take regarding them, given their elimination? We could treat them as illusions: People don’t really exist, but rather are a useful illusion, sort of like the icons on your computer desktop! Or we could think of them as harmful, distracting falsehoods that should be purged from our language; comparable to earlier non-existent entities like phlogiston and the luminous ether!

Even with regard to the kinds of things about which saying that they are “made of” matter/energy is somewhat more intelligible, the manner in which they are so “made” is not particularly straightforward. Saying that my desk is made of matter/energy makes more sense than saying that a parking regulation or person is, but physicists tell me it’s made of molecules and atoms and subatomic particles, whereas it seems to me to be made of wood, metal, and paint and even more so, out of legs, a desktop, drawers, etc. As a result, given the same underlying assumptions – Materialism and a hypostatized conception of ontology – one can take the aforementioned “desperate” moves employed in the philosophy of mind and apply them to the metaphysics of the “furniture” of daily life, yielding reductionist, eliminativist, illusionist, and even Platonist treatments of tables, chairs, etc. “Tables are mostly empty space,” and that kind of thing. (When told such nonsense, I sometimes experience a momentary desire to smash the object in question over the speaker’s head.)

Second (and as already indicated), philosophical developments in the 1950’s and 60’s led many philosophers to assimilate reasons and causes. We say of a teenager that he went to the mall, because he wanted to meet girls, and we say of an 8-ball that it went into the corner pocket, because it was struck by the cue ball, and we interpret the ‘because’ in the analysis of the teenager’s actions in the same way that we interpret the ‘because’ in the analysis of the 8-ball’s movements. In doing so, we identify the teenager’s actions with the relevant motor movements – i.e. the motions of his arms, legs, and other body parts – and by extension, assimilate them with the movements of the billiard balls.

As a result, a number of mystifying problems arise pertaining to agency, so-called “free will,” with even more puzzling implications for ethical responsibility. Once again, see how many “desperate” philosophical positions you can spot.

–If something’s movements are caused, then they are determined, in the sense that they are governed by physical laws. The 8-ball cannot decide not to go into the pocket, upon being struck, for example. That means that if human actions are caused, they too are determined and governed by physical laws, which means that we do not choose to act or not to act in the ways we do, either. Human beings lack agency, and we should take a deterministic view of our behavior. (Though as Chesterton pointed out in Orthodoxy [1908], it then becomes difficult to make sense of thanking someone for passing the mustard.)

–If human beings lack agency, then it is senseless to view our behavior through a moral lens. As a result, we should drop moral discourse and judgment; abandon notions like accountability and responsibility; and move Beyond Freedom and Dignity, as B.F. Skinner recommended we do, in 1971.

–We cannot do away with the concept of moral responsibility, given how much of our social forms of life and practices depend on it. Of course, this concept presupposes that we have agency, but given Materialism and the assimilation of reasons and causes and actions and events, our behavior is entirely caused and law-governed, which would entail that we lack agency. Consequently, we must reject materialism and assume a transcendent person; a noumenal or Cartesian or other such sort of self. 

–Both of these conclusions are unacceptable. Yes, our behavior is caused, and yes, that would seem to suggest that we lack agency, but we are accountable and responsible for our actions, nonetheless. Thus, we must find some sort of agency-light – short of full-blown “freedom” – and explain why being caused is compatible with it and thus, with responsibility. (Trigger endless iterations and variations on Compatibilism).

Hopefully, my readers can see the trend here. One could produce many more examples. And hopefully, you’ll also see that they are hopeless; not just because so many are batshit crazy, but because they are subject to endless iterations and unresolvable disputation. A really thorough treatment would require painstaking illustration of this, something I am not going to do, as I am content to leave it as a provocation. What I want to do next is begin sketching some of the ways in which a pluralist metaphysics and Sellarsian approach to inquiry can help us to avoid starting down these rotten roads to begin with.


[2] The Scientific and Manifest Images

To the extent that there is a “foundational” element to my analysis of the mistake underlying the assumptions I’ve been talking about, it is to be found in Wilfrid Sellars’ paper, “Philosophy and the Scientific Image of Man.” [PSIM] As already mentioned, there is significant disagreement as to the correct reading of Sellars’ landmark paper, yielding wildly contradictory interpretations among Sellarsians (the eliminativist Churchlands and humanist, Richard Rorty, for example, both have claimed PSIM as an influence), but as my efforts here are not historical in character, these disputes are irrelevant. The ideas I will employ are derived from PSIM, but if it turns out that they are at odds with what Sellars thought he was doing, so be it. Let them belong to a fictional Winthrop Smellars for all I care. [For more regarding my take on Sellars, see the dialogue I did with CUNY’s Massimo Pigliucci on PSIM.]

The relevant kicking-off point for my purposes in PSIM is the following passage:

[T]he philosopher is confronted not by one complex many dimensional picture, the unity of which, such as it is, he must come to appreciate; but by two pictures of essentially the same order of complexity, each of which purports to be a complete picture of man-in-the-world, and which, after separate scrutiny, he must fuse into one vision. Let me refer to these two perspectives, respectively, as the manifest and the scientific images of man-in-the-world…

These images exist and are as much a part and parcel of the world as this platform or the Constitution of the United States. But in addition to being confronted by these images as existents, he is confronted by them as images in the sense of ‘things imagined’ — or, as I had better say at once, conceived; for I am using ‘image’ in this sense as a metaphor for conception, and it is a familiar fact that not everything that can be conceived can, in the ordinary sense, be imagined. The philosopher, then, is confronted by two conceptions, equally public, equally non-arbitrary, of man-in-the-world and he cannot shirk the attempt to see how they fall together in one stereoscopic view. (Part I, ¶s 11; 12)

The Scientific Image is one that (to the extent such a thing is possible) attempts to provide a picture of the world as it exists in the absence of persons, their points of view, and the things that follow from those points of view. Its aim is to be as “objective” as possible, in the ordinary sense of the word. It proceeds entirely by way of third-person investigation and is a picture of us and of the world painted entirely in terms of quantifiable magnitudes and mechanistic explanations, suitably refined and complicated by modern biology and 20th and post-20th century physics.

With respect to the Manifest Image, Sellars emphasizes that it should not be understood as in any way primitive or pre-scientific. That would be what he refers to as “the Original Image” – our earliest, pre-scientific and to a degree, “pre-rational” picture of ourselves and of the world – the Manifest Image of which is a “refinement” that continues to be built alongside the Scientific.  

I have characterized the manifest image of man-in-the-world as the framework in terms of which man encountered himself. And this, I believe, is a useful way of characterizing it. But it is also misleading, for it suggests that the contrast I am drawing between the manifest and the scientific images, is that between a pre-scientific, uncritical, naive conception of man-in-the-world, and a reflected, disciplined, critical – in short a scientific – conception. This is not at all what I have in mind. For what I mean by the manifest image is a refinement or sophistication of what might be called the ‘original’ image; a refinement to a degree which makes it relevant to the contemporary intellectual scene. 

I mean the sort of refinement which operates within the broad framework of the image and which, by approaching the world in terms of something like the canons of inductive inference defined by John Stuart Mill, supplemented by canons of statistical inference, adds to and subtracts from the contents of the world as experienced in terms of this framework and from the correlations which are believed to obtain between them. Thus, the conceptual framework which I am calling the manifest image is, in an appropriate sense, itself a scientific image. It is not only disciplined and critical; it also makes use of those aspects of scientific method which might be lumped together under the heading ‘correlational induction’. (Part II, ¶s 4; 5)

The Manifest Image is the picture of us and of the world that includes persons, their points of view, and the things that follow from those points of view. It is a world characterized not only in quantitative but also in qualitative terms; a world in which first- as well as third-person accounts of things are included; a world in which people do and create things for reasons; and thus, a world in which the available explanations must not be restricted to the mechanical (broadly speaking) but must also include the teleological. It is a world, consequently, that is centered around values; those things that we represent as being good and which comprise the ends towards which our reasons and actions and forms of life point. As Sellars describes it, “there is an important sense in which the primary objects of the manifest image are persons” [Part II, ¶15], after which he goes on to say that:

…the conceptual framework of persons is the framework in which we think of one another as sharing the community intentions which provide the ambience of principles and standards (above all, those which make meaningful discourse and rationality itself possible) within which we live our own individual lives. A person can almost be defined as a being that has intentions. [Part VII, ¶7]

These person-centered elements of the world clearly exist, in that they are the values of bound variables that occur in true statements, and it will be my view that this (suitably modified) is all that existing consists of. Obviously, this is the view of existence that W.V.O. Quine promotes in “On What There Is,” though he limits his ontological commitments to those bound variables that operate in true statements belonging to our best scientific theories, a constraint that is neither credible nor necessary, as we soon will see. 

Equally clearly, however, these person-centered elements have no place in the Scientific Image. They cannot be investigated entirely in the third person, nor can they be characterized in terms of quantifiable magnitudes, nor can they be explained or understood entirely in terms of “mechanistic” causality. As we’ve just observed, the explanations of people’s reasons and actions and the institutions and forms of life that we create by way of them are ultimately teleological in nature, and teleological explanations have had no place in natural science since the 17th century. (Even in biology, where explanations may be teleonomic, but never teleological.)

Sellars describes this state of affairs as a “clash” between the images, and the ways in which some have tried to resolve this clash should be familiar by this point in our discussion. There is of course the reductionist solution (“Manifest objects are identical with Systems of imperceptible particles in that simple sense in which a forest is identical with a number of trees”); the representationalist – or on certain ways of thinking about it, illusionist – solution (“Manifest objects are ‘appearances’ to human minds of a reality which is constituted by systems of imperceptible particles”); and even a third solution, which is hard to imagine anyone other than a stray theist or Christian apologist offering today, according to which the representation/illusion is the other way ‘round (“Manifest objects are what really exist; systems of imperceptible particles being ‘abstract’ or ‘symbolic’ ways of representing them.”) Refreshingly, given contemporary predilections, Sellars suggests that this option should be taken as seriously as the others. (Part V, ¶2) 

Reductionism has been a bust for decades, regardless of the fact that some seem determined to continue pursuing it. I will only briefly summarize the reasons why in these prolegomena, and I am not going to explain why eliminativism and illusionism and panpsychism are also hopeless. They are among the “desperate” solutions these prolegomena are designed to help us avoid, and I’ve addressed them elsewhere, including  in another dialogue with Massimo Pigliucci, where we discussed contemporary efforts to characterize consciousness as an illusion or as an elementary, non-material property of matter, as panpsychists do. 

The fact is that persons, reasons, actions, and the institutions and forms of life created by them are never going to be reduced wholesale to elements within the Scientific Image, nor can or should they be assimilated piecemeal with elements therein (or based in nothing but science-fiction, which is what Panpsychism is). Sellars explicitly warns against such “piecemeal reductions” in PSIM, crediting Wittgenstein with exposing the folly in attempting to do so: 

[T]he so-called ‘analytic’ tradition in recent British and American philosophy, particularly under the influence of the later Wittgenstein, has done increasing justice to the manifest image, and has increasingly succeeded in isolating it in something like its pure form, and has made clear the folly of attempting to replace it piecemeal by fragments of the scientific image. (Part III, ¶3)

The folly involved is that of committing repeated, systematic category errors, and all of the myriad assimilations people would like to make between the Scientific and Manifest Images and their respective ontologies involve such errors in one way or another: the assimilation of persons and human bodies or body parts; reasons and causes; actions and events; the common “furniture” of life and lattices of atoms or quanta or what have you. All represent a misunderstanding of how the Scientific and Manifest Images relate, and all, when they inevitably fail, push us to embrace the sorts of “desperate” solutions we’ve been discussing.

Sellars famously describes the relationship between the Manifest and Scientific Images and between both and the world as being “stereoscopic” in nature (a stereoscope being a device by which separate left-eye and right-eye images, when viewed simultaneously, yield a single, three-dimensional image.) (Part I, ¶ 10) The idea is that a complete picture of the world and of ourselves in it requires both the Manifest and Scientific Images; that a single Image can only be produced as a result of looking through the two; that neither can replace or somehow “absorb” the other and yield a complete picture.

This doesn’t bother anyone too much, so long as it is meant only epistemically. Where people begin to lose their minds and start flailing about with one “desperate” view after another, is when the stereoscopic vision is played out in the metaphysical arena, for it indicates a pluralist metaphysics, which to most philosophers raises puzzling, seemingly intractable problems, all of which will be familiar to anyone who has studied the philosophy of mind and its history, which has forever been stalked by the specter of metaphysical Dualism.


[3] Ontological Commitment

Regarding the philosophical assumptions we’ve been talking about, one of the most damaging is what I have been referring to as the “hypostatic” conception of ontology: that to be is to be a thing; that existing is something that things – in the sense of discrete objects and substrates – do. 

It is because of this assumption that so many of the most mundane, obviously existing things cause such terrible headaches for philosophers. People clearly exist – there are three in my house right now – but what kind of things are they? Efforts to suggest that ‘person’ and ‘human being’ are equivalent lead us down various reductionist holes, the failures of which then lead some to the “desperate” positions already mentioned: Dualism (people are spiritual entities (whatever those are supposed to be)); Eliminativism (there are no people); Illusionism (people are an illusion (useful or unuseful)); etc. But why think that people are “things” at all? Just because they exist? That’s the hypostatic conception of ontological commitment at work, and I see no reason to accept it.

In “On What There Is,” W.V.O. Quine admits that his theory of ontological commitment (more on which in a moment) implies that numbers and sets and the like exist. (“We commit ourselves to an ontology containing numbers when we say there are prime numbers larger than a million…”) If they don’t, then the truth-conditions of statements concerning them are going to be difficult to make sense of, and they can’t be spirited away by clever analysis, as Russell did with the (non-existing) “present King of France,” in On Denoting, a method Quine is happy to employ in dealing with statements about non-existing entities. 

But, this may strike philosophers as leading to thorny problems, such as the dilemma described in Paul Benacerraf’s famous paper, “Mathematical Truth.” If numbers and sets and the like exist, then what kinds of things can they be?  Well, they obviously aren’t material – what is 7 made of? – so they must be Platonic things; so-called “abstract objects.” But then, how do we know anything about them, insofar as we can have no perceptual or other causal interaction with things that are not material? And with that, we’re off to the crazy races. 

Quine notes that the conceptual places in which these races end – Nominalism, Platonism, Conceptualism, etc., – haven’t changed much since the Middle Ages, which alone suggests that something is amiss. But, why think numbers or sets are “things” (in the sense of discrete objects and substrates) at all? Thinking they are or that they must be if they exist is just the hypostatic conception of ontological commitment again, and as I just said, I see no reason to accept it, especially as nobody has offered one.

I want to agree with Quine that to exist is no more (nor less) than to be the value of a bound variable in a true statement, with the recognition, of course, that there may be some complexities with which we will need to contend (what appear to be true statements about and in fictions, for example). And I will want to emphasize – as Quine does not, other than indirectly – that ontological commitment implies nothing about “thingness”; indeed, that it suggests nothing at all about the manner of being, in which the ontologically committed-to participate. But, I want to reject his claim that ontological commitment should be reserved for or restricted to that which must exist in order for the statements of our best scientific theories to be true, as this either would require us to say that some of the most obviously existing things do not, in fact exist or else to stretch the expression ‘scientific theory’ in such a way as to render it useless. Then again, it’s not entirely clear that this way of describing Quine gets him quite right. What he actually says is:

Our acceptance of an ontology is, I think, similar in principle to our acceptance of a scientific theory, say a system of physics: we adopt, at least insofar as we are reasonable, the simplest conceptual scheme into which the disordered fragments of raw experience can be fitted and arranged. Our ontology is determined once we have fixed upon the over-all conceptual scheme which is to accommodate science in the broadest sense…

If we reject the hypostatic understanding of ontological commitment, then it is not obvious to me that tables, chairs, people, and parking regulations render our “over-all conceptual scheme” unable to “accommodate science in the broadest sense.” Such commitments in no way contradict or clash with science, if we do not understand them as saddling us with strange objects or with substances existing in strange manners. So, the emendation of Quine that I have suggested may not even be necessary.

Adopting a non-hypostatic, Quinean conception of ontological commitment thus makes it possible for us to reject materialism, and as a result, the problems that are supposed to arise either from being forced to countenance such things or by “eliminating” them (or treating them as “illusions”) disappear. Non-material things exist – people and municipalities and parking regulations for example – but that does not mean they are immaterial things, but only that they aren’t things at all. The protest “but what are they, then?” is inapt, because it presumes existing without thingness is problematic or strange, an idea that is born neither of our ordinary language or behavior, but of peculiar, distinctly philosophical predilections and scruples that should be and are easily dropped.   

Note that all of the so-called “interaction” problems that we encounter in philosophy, whether in the philosophy of mind (“how does a non-physical mind interact with a physical body?”), the philosophy of mathematics (“how do we, material beings, have knowledge of non-material, mathematical entities, with which we cannot causally interact?”), etc., depend on the hypostatic understanding of ontological commitment. And think about what strange problems they are.  Does anyone puzzle over how they interact with other people or with their bicycles or with parking regulations? Of course not, and that’s because they haven’t embraced a set of assumptions that turn such mundane interactions into problems. My point here is intended to be reminiscent of some of Austin’s criticisms of philosophers’ uses of terms like ‘material object’ and ‘illusion’, in Sense and Sensibilia. [1962] Problems appear when philosophers substitute philosophical conceptions of ordinary notions for the real thing; when they take cups and saucers and the like and abstract them as “material objects” or some other such invented notion. They do not arise merely from the ordinary notions themselves.  

How a teenage boy believing that there are girls in the mall and wanting to meet girls “makes” his going to the mall happen or “how it is possible for me to know” that 2+2=4 are only puzzling for people in the grip of these kinds of assumptions (and of notions born of those assumptions), none of which anyone need accept. One of those assumptions, as we’ve just seen, is that ontological commitment is hypostatic. But there are others, equally as significant, to which I now turn my attention.


[4] Actions, Reasons, Causes, and Ends

The second most important assumption that has led philosophers to despair and adopt crazy views is that reasons are causes. More specifically: when we say something like, “John went to the mall, because he wanted to meet girls and believed he would find girls at the mall,” we are using ‘because’ in the same way we do when saying things like, “the 8-ball went into the corner pocket, because it was struck by the cue ball.”

The idea, then, is that our reasons for acting should be taken straightforwardly as causes of those actions, in the same way that antecedent events may serve as causes of subsequent events, in what I’ll broadly refer to as “mechanics.” Of course, this depends on the further identification of actions with events, and it is this identification when combined with the view that reasons are causes that gives us all of the problems that we refer to under the umbrella of “free will.” These, then, lead us directly to crazy, desperate philosophical positions that are supposed to solve that problem, whether Radical Libertarianism (we are uncaused); Hard Determinism (we have no agency); and so on, with all the difficulties to which they give rise, especially in the area of Ethics.

It would seem clear that actions are not merely events, and specifically cannot be identical with bodily movements. After all, the very same bodily movements may constitute entirely different actions, depending on both the intentions of the actor and the context in which the bodily movements occur, against a backdrop of certain common understandings within a community. If a student raises a hand in my wife’s high school English class, he is asking a question or making a request – usually to go to the bathroom – but if I am standing curbside in New York City and raise my hand in the face of the oncoming traffic, I am hailing a taxi. And if my arm shoots up in precisely the same manner, as the result of an errant muscle spasm, I haven’t done anything at all, in the relevant sense of ‘doing’. 

Consider that if, in the first case, my wife had called a taxi for the student, there is a clear sense in which she would have made a mistake. If, in the second case, someone had told me that I can go to the bathroom, he also would have made a mistake. And if, in the third, anyone had responded in either of these ways – or in any other like them – they would have made a mistake too. The first two mistakes involve misidentification as to which action I have performed, and the third mistake involves thinking that I’ve acted at all.  

Actions consist of bodily movements, under interpretations that belong to a larger narrative structure whose logic is teleological, not mechanical. The student raises his arm in my wife’s class in order to request permission to go to the bathroom, the doing of which he represents as a good. The same with raising my arm on the street corner in order to hail a taxi, the accomplishment of which I represent as a good (instrumental to the fulfilling of the desire to get to a specific place, the accomplishment of which is also represented as a good). And it’s because of these reasons and ends that these motor movements are interpretable as actions in the first place, as well as being interpretable as the specific actions that they are. This is why, in his essay, “Reasons to Believe” (1991), John Greenwood maintained that:

Many practicing psychologists…are not particularly concerned with the explanation of human behaviors or physical movements, per se. They are instead concerned to provide empirically supported explanations of socially meaningful human actions…Thus, for example, diverse behaviors such as raising an arm, moving a switch on a shock generator, and tampering with a colleague’s brake cable are all constituted as aggressive actions by being represented by the agent as directed toward the injury of another…

To abandon the ontology of folk psychology would be to abandon the very subject matter of much psychological science.  [p. 71] 

In seeking explanations of what someone has done, everything depends on what we are trying to understand. If I want to know how it is that people’s arms go up or their legs carry them onto and off of buses and in and out of malls, the relevant explanations are going to be physiological and consequently, causal. But if I want to know why a boy got on the bus so that he might arrive at the mall, rather than, say, riding his bike down the street to his best friend’s house, then the relevant explanations are going to lie in his reasons and will be teleological: he got on the bus to go to the mall, because he wanted to meet girls and because at that time he represented meeting girls as an overriding good. Had he represented hanging out with his best friend as an overriding good, he would have gotten on his bike and ridden down the street instead.  

Why do we want the second kind of explanation? Why are we interested in people’s actions and the reasons for them and not just in their motor movements and their causes? A prominent reason is that we want to render their actions intelligible from their point of view so that they – both the people and their actions – can be situated within a normative framework.  If the boy had promised his best friend that he would hang out with him, but stood him up and went to the mall instead, the friend would want to know his reasons so as to be in the position to render a normative judgment – “You promised we’d hang out, but then you stood me up to go meet girls at the mall? Not cool!” – the point being that meeting girls is not a sufficiently important good to override a promise to meet your best friend. But if the boy had stood his friend up, not to go to the mall, but because he had to rush to the hospital to see his mother, who had just been in a car accident, his friend likely would have said, “Oh, man, I’m so sorry! I totally understand!” acknowledging, thereby, that visiting his mother in the emergency room was a more pressing good than keeping his promise to hang out.

I will suggest, along with Sellars, that this narrative, teleological, normative frame and the forms of life that arise from it, is what defines and constitutes the distinctive world of persons. People; intentions; valuations; reasons; and actions. These are the elements that create the social, political, and moral worlds in which we operate. As Sellars wrote, in the very last paragraph of PSIM:

[T]he conceptual framework of persons is the framework in which we think of one another as sharing the community intentions which provide the ambience of principles and standards (above all, those which make meaningful discourse and rationality itself possible) within which we live our own individual lives.

These worlds and the people and forms of life that sustain them are not reducible to anything within the Scientific Image. They are not eliminable as unreal or as “illusions.” They are not “made of” and do not “consist in” weird, spooky, non-physical substances or processes. And they are part of the world. Indeed, for us, they are the most significant part of it; the part in which we spend the vast majority of our time and on which we expend the greatest amount of our energies which is why, as Sellars explained, “the conceptual framework of persons is not something that needs to be reconciled with the scientific image, but rather something to be joined to it.”

If we take the road I am suggesting, here, we will find ourselves spared everything to do with the wretched “free will” problem. Agency is the capacity to do things for various reasons that are related teleologically to the conception of various things as goods. That we have such agency and do such things, for such reasons, is demonstrable: any of us can point to any number of examples, on any given day. That there are causal forces operating on the motor movements involved doesn’t change this in any way, as actions are not identical with motor movements, reasons are not causes, and reasons are related to actions teleologically, not mechanically. The determinist’s position, then, involves basic category errors; the sorts that involve importing concepts, piecemeal, from the Scientific Image to the Manifest Image, which Sellars has warned explicitly against. Motor movements are caused. Actions are interpreted and reasoned.

The position for which I am advocating also makes quick work of Frankfurt-style cases. Once we distinguish actions from mere motor movements and reasons from causes, it’s very easy to see that the voter in the Frankfurt case isn’t the one who voted – despite it being his arms, hands, and fingers that were involved – but rather the mad scientist. Voting, of course, is an action, and not merely an event. If I hypnotize a student to rob a bank, then despite the fact that the relevant motor movements were his, the action – i.e. the robbing – was done by me. (As the consequence of my reasons and my ends, the robbery is my action, regardless of what material mechanisms were employed in effecting it.)

Now, Crispin Sartwell is a hard determinist, and in a conversation we had on this subject, he suggested that we do not act at all. Rather, we engage in entirely caused and determined motor movements, for which we then offer post-hoc reconstructions, in a teleological vein, largely for the purpose of self-ennoblement. His example drew from his own experiences with addiction. I’m sure we will have further opportunity to discuss not just the example but the more general point in some future dialogue. But let me start us off, here, by saying the following: (1) I am entirely open to the suggestion that some of our actions may have turn out really to just been mere motor movements; that we might be mistaken in thinking we’ve acted and not just moved; (2) I doubt very seriously that one can plausibly argue that this is the majority or even a plurality of cases; (3) the implications of such a hard determinism, especially in the moral sphere, risk saddling us with far greater and more numerous implausibilities than the idea that mundane observation that we do, in fact, genuinely act much of the time if not most of it; and finally, (4), even on Crispin’s account there still will be cases of genuine action, if only those involving the sorts of ennobling self-deceiving post-hoc reconstructions he describes.


[5] People

I shouldn’t need to tell anyone that there are people. You’re a person, as am I. There likely are others in your house. Certainly, there are more on the street. I understand from a not entirely reliable authority that Hell consists of them. Clearly, uncontroversially, obviously, people exist. They aren’t illusions. They aren’t like desktop icons on a computer. And they aren’t “ugly bags of mostly water,” as described by a strange alien species in Star Trek: The Next Generation, and as believed, essentially, by every reductionist who has addressed the subject.

People also aren’t spirits. They aren’t souls. They aren’t any kind of weird substance that “inhabits” bodies. People have bodies, of course, but they don’t “inhabit” them and aren’t independent of them, in the way that I inhabit my house and am independent of it. 

So, what are people then? This is easy to answer and – like the question as to whether there are people – shouldn’t have to be told to anyone. People are friends and neighbors. People are parents and siblings. People are plaintiffs and defendants. People are entertainers and fans.  People are heroes and villains. Etc.

“No!” I can hear philosopher after philosopher protest in exasperation, “What are people.” And what they mean, what they are asking, what they really want to know is what are people made of?

I’m not playing. I didn’t go through all the trouble of explaining the mistake involved in assuming that ontological commitment should be understood hypostatically, in order to have a ridiculous conversation about what people are “made of,” any more than I did it in order to argue about what parking regulations are made of. So, I repeat: To say, “There is an X” is not to say, “There is a discrete object in space or a substrate.” That’s not what it means. They’re not materially equivalent or equivalent in any other sense. It’s just a mistake. An understandable mistake, given how we perceive the world, but a mistake, nonetheless. People do not have thingness, as I’ve described it earlier, any more than do countries, laws, or the other elements of our social ontologies.

So, when someone asks, “What are people,” the sort of itemized list I offered is the correct and only possible answer. And it is sufficient to explain everything we want to know about them.  People are those who exist and operate within social, intentional and teleological forms of life and whose activities and character are subject to normative description. It is this that every “People are …” that I listed have in common. It is why John Locke deemed ‘person’ a forensic term. And it’s why Sellars, in the final paragraphs of PSIM, wrote:

To think of a featherless biped as a person is to think of it as a being with which one is bound up in a network of rights and duties. From this point of view, the irreducibility of the personal is the irreducibility of the ‘ought’ to the ‘is’. But even more basic than this (though ultimately, as we shall see, the two points coincide), is the fact that to think of a featherless biped as a person is to construe its behaviour in terms of actual or potential membership in an embracing group each member of which thinks of itself as a member of the group. Let us call such a group a ‘community’. Once the primitive tribe, it is currently (almost) the ‘brotherhood’ of man, and is potentially the ‘republic’ of rational beings (cf. Kant’s ‘Kingdom of Ends’). An individual may belong to many communities, some of which overlap, some of which are arranged like Chinese boxes. The most embracing community to which he belongs consists of those with whom he can enter into meaningful discourse.


[T]he conceptual framework of persons is the framework in which we think of one another as sharing the community intentions which provide the ambience of principles and standards (above all, those which make meaningful discourse and rationality itself possible) within which we live our own individual lives. A person can almost be defined as a being that has intentions.

What trips up so many philosophers is that they think there is some great mystery involved in understanding the relationship of a person to his or her body. But there is no such mystery. People have views, and in doing so, use their brains. Brains, however, do not have views. People go on bike rides, and in doing so they use various bones and muscles. Bones and muscles don’t go on bike rides. People go to the store and shop for groceries and bring them home, and in doing so they use their bodies, but, of course, bodies don’t go to the store, shop for groceries, or bring them home.

The relationship between persons and their bodies is like the relationship between their actions and their motor movements, and both, taken together, represent the relationship between the Manifest and Scientific Images, taken as a whole. There is no problem in understanding the relationship of actions to motor movements or people and their bodies, because that relationship is not one involving material substances interacting with weird, non-material ones or substances interacting with other substances at all. Rather, it is a relationship between the world conceived in terms of quantifiable magnitudes and causality and the world conceived in terms of reasons, actions, and ends. That relationship is complementary, not contradictory, and involves no reaching across disparate substrata or different worlds. Rather, it is one that arises out of a single world that has people in it; people whose representations and points of view with regard to that world, create the space of reasons in which we spend much if not most of our time and energies.


[6] The Question of Explanatory Unity

In the 20th century, the discussion of explanatory unity/disunity was focused on the logical positivist inspired idea of the unity of the sciences. As Jerry Fodor, an advocate of explanatory disunity described it, in his landmark paper, “Special Sciences (Or: The Disunity of Science as a Working Hypothesis”:

[Philosophers] wish to endorse the generality of physics vis a vis the special sciences: roughly, the view that all events which fall under the laws of any science are physical events and hence fall under the laws of physics.  For such philosophers, saying that physics is basic science and saying that theories in the special sciences must reduce to physical theories have seemed to be two ways of saying the same thing…

What has traditionally been called ‘the unity of science’ is a much stronger, and much less plausible, thesis than the generality of physics.  If this is true it is important… Reducibility to physics is taken to be a constraint upon the acceptability of theories in the special sciences, with the curious consequence that the more the special sciences succeed, the more they ought to disappear… [T]he assumption that the subject-matter of psychology is part of the subject-matter of physics is taken to imply that psychological theories must reduce to physical theories…  

I wrote an essay on Fodor’s “Special Sciences” paper, so I’m not going to do a close reading of it here. Suffice it to say the following, in a summary capacity: 

–By ‘special sciences’, Fodor intends mainly psychology and the social sciences.

–The primary explanatory mechanism of a science is its laws. (I should add that the argument need not depend on any particular account of what scientific laws are.)

–Scientific laws describe relations between a science’s kinds.

–To show that a law of one science is equivalent to another, one must show that the kinds described by that law have material equivalents in the other science.

–Social-scientific kinds are only equivalent to disjunctions of physical scientific kinds, often of indefinite length.

–These disjunctions are not kinds in any science. 

–The laws describing the relations between these disjunctive kinds are not laws in any science.

If social-scientific laws cannot be reduced to physical laws, then social-scientific explanations cannot be equivalent to physical explanations, which demonstrates that the social and physical sciences are not and cannot be explanatorily unified. Of course, laws/explanations in biology (which are teleonomic) cannot be reduced to laws/explanations in physics (which are not teleonomic) either, as Massimo Pigliucci pointed out in a dialogue devoted to the subject of teleology/teleonomy – so it would appear that explanatory disunity is ubiquitous across the sciences; that it is the rule, not the exception.

Some have tried to embrace a non-reductive physicalism that depends on the idea that psychosocial properties supervene upon physical ones. By ‘supervene’ I mean nothing beyond the standard philosophical use of the term

A set of properties A supervenes upon another set B just in case no two things can differ with respect to A-properties without also differing with respect to their B-properties.

Supervenience is invoked to retain the idea that there is a strict “dependence” of the psychosocial on the physical, without offering any account of what the dependence consists of, which is what differentiates it from the reductionist approach. This strikes me as objectionable, in that it comes down merely to asserting a dependence relation without either justifying or explicating it. This essentially is what Stephen Schiffer said in Remnants of Meaning [1987]:

[C]ould being told that non-natural moral properties stood in the supervenience relation to physical properties make them any more palatable? On the contrary, invoking a special primitive metaphysical relation of supervenience to explain how non-natural moral properties were related to physical properties was just to add mystery to mystery, to cover one obscurantist move with another.

There is of course the further problem that given an externalist conception of mental content (the only viable notion, as far as I am concerned, in light of the sorts of problems Wittgenstein raises with his rule-following and private language arguments, not to mention Hilary Putnam’s twin-earth thought experiment), one could duplicate a person atom by atom and that person nonetheless could be in different psychological states, since the content of those states is determined by their external relations, not just to things in the world, but to the representations, interpretations – and more broadly, the forms of life – of other people in the world. Put another way, if “meaning ain’t in the head,” as Putnam famously put it, the psychosocial will not supervene on the physical, and this really should come as no surprise. Actions neither reduce to, nor supervene upon motor movements (physical events), which is why two identical sets of motor movements may constitute entirely different actions, depending on their context/interpretation, and similarly, thoughts do not supervene on neurological (physical) events, given that two entirely identical neurological events can constitute different thoughts, given their context/interpretation. Thoughts and actions are irreducibly social entities – understood non-hypostatically, of course – and are part of the space of reasons and ends which means that they belong entirely to the Manifest Image.

So much effort has gone into exploring the ways in which explanatory unity might be realized that few have bothered to ask why it even should be considered a reasonable goal. And those like Fodor who have opposed the idea of explanatory unity, have proceeded primarily from the angle of its not being achievable, rather than its being an unreasonable/undesirable goal to begin with.

That there is just one world would not seem any kind of reason for thinking that there should just be one account of it. Certainly, the fact that there is but a single world implies that the things we know about it cannot be mutually contradictory; that is, they must be consistent with one another. But the desire for explanatory unity is not simply the desire that the various things we know about the world should not contradict one another – that what we know, say, about legislation and law in democracies should be consistent with what we know about the characteristics of elementary particles – but rather that all the things we know should cohere, by which is meant not merely that A and B are consistent, but that they are mutually supporting and reinforcing. I see no reason for thinking this is true.  

Of course, I have said that the Manifest and Scientific Images are complimentary, in that taken together, they give us a complete and single picture of the world. The manner in which they do so is in the manner of a stereoscope, but this does not require or even suggest that the two images cohere with one another or that they should be taken as part of a single explanatory framework. And that there is a single picture as a result of this combination no more requires or entails explanatory unity than does the fact that there is just one world.


[7] Philosophy, Science, and “Common Sense”

As these prolegomena wind down, I want to step back and speak a bit more generally about the conception of philosophy – and of inquiry more generally – from which they spring. Sellars, in the opening paragraphs of PSIM gave his own account of what he takes philosophy to be doing:

The aim of philosophy, abstractly formulated, is to understand how things in the broadest possible sense of the term hang together in the broadest possible sense of the term. Under ‘things in the broadest possible sense’ I include such radically different items as not only ‘cabbages and kings’, but numbers and duties, possibilities and finger snaps, aesthetic experience and death. [¶1]

I largely agree but want to be more explicit. Philosophy… 

(a) describes and analyzes the logics, grammars, ontologies, and epistemologies of the different types of discourses/investigations/forms of life in which we engage, and 

(b) endeavors to develop a framework within which these all can be understood as pictures of/activities within/lives belonging to a single world.

It is important to emphasize that philosophy is form of inquiry that takes place from within the Manifest Image. It considers the world as it is, including persons, their representations, points of view, and values, and when it engages with science, it does so with the aim of rendering its investigations and results intelligible from a human point of view and with regard to human interests. As Massimo and I discussed on another occasion,  scientific investigation is an activity that people engage in, which is why its essentially quantitative content appears within a narrational, qualitatively inflected frame. A truly “perspectiveless” science, if such a thing were even imaginable, would consist of nothing but statistics. 

The Scientific Image aims at as perspectiveless a perspective as possible, by limiting its investigations to that which can be observed, in a highly disciplined way, from a third-person point of view and by restricting its scope to the study of quantifiable magnitudes. This is why between the two, the Scientific Image represents a greater degree of abstraction than the Manifest Image and is methodologically dependent upon it, as Sellars explains:

There are as many scientific images of man as there are sciences which have something to say about man. Thus, there is man as he appears to the theoretical physicist – a swirl of physical particles, forces, and fields. There is man as he appears to the biochemist, to the physiologist, to the behaviourist, to the social scientist; and all of these images are to be contrasted with man as he appears to himself in sophisticated common sense, the manifest image which even today contains most of what he knows about himself at the properly human level. Thus the conception of the scientific or postulational image is an idealization in the sense that it is a conception of an integration of a manifold of images, each of which is the application to man of a framework of concepts which have a certain autonomy…Thus ‘the’ scientific image is a construct from a number of images, each of which is supported by the manifest world.

The fact that each theoretical image is a construction on a foundation provided by the manifest image, and in this methodological sense pre-supposes the manifest image…

It is because philosophy belongs to the Manifest Image that the basic conditions of adequacy for philosophical theories lie in ordinary experience and language – what in philosophy is called “common sense” – and I want to suggest that the Scientific Image’s dependence on the Manifest means that the same is ultimately true of it as well. It is in acknowledgment of this that the late Stanley Rosen wrote the following, in Metaphysics in Ordinary Language [1999] [my emphasis]:  

My thesis is not simply that there is an ordinary language, reflective of the common stratum of human nature… I also claim that this ordinary language is retained as a basis… of all technical dialects.  It is this basis that serves as the fundamental paradigm for the plausibility or implausibility of theoretical discourse and particularly of philosophical doctrines. It is not satisfactory to evaluate philosophical doctrines on a purely technical or formal level because these grounds cannot establish their own validity or authority… [pp. 227-228]

It is important to remember that by ‘conditions of adequacy’ we do not imply or suggest that the elements of common sense (meaning, again, ordinary experience and language) constitute epistemic foundations or that they are infallible, indubitable, certain, etc. They do not and are not. Rather, they represent the conditions under which the relevant inquiry or activity takes place and sometimes even its very subject matter and consequently function as constraints on what count as acceptable theories.

This is perhaps easiest to see in ethical and aesthetic theorizing.  As W.D. Ross observed in The Right and the Good [1930], the feelings of obligation that we already have provide the subject-matter and motivation for moral theorizing, just as our experiences of beauty and ugliness provide the subject-matter and motivation for aesthetic theorizing. And just as no aesthetic theory could ever override my experiencing something as beautiful, no moral theory can ever override a feeling of obligation. This does not mean that either our experiences of beauty of obligation are infallible or that we never can change our minds with regard to such things but rather that our experiences of beauty and feelings of obligation constitute the ultimate arbiter. This is why virtually every objection to a moral theory aside from those concerned with matters of internal consistency involves pointing out some way in which the theory contradicts the moral intuitions we already have in one way or another.  

It is worth noting that we can say much the same about scientific theorizing. It is motivated by and its subject matter consists of that which we observe and experience in the world. Of course, these observations and experiences are not certain and do not constitute epistemic foundations of any kind, but rather are fallible and may be revealed as being illusory. Nonetheless, they constitute the ultimate conditions of adequacy for any scientific theory: bogus experiences and observations are ultimately revealed by better ones, not by theories, and no theory or element therein stands outside the jurisdiction of observation and experience. As Quine famously pointed out in “Two Dogmas of Empiricism,” [1951] even the most seemingly unmovable principles may be contradicted, given a sufficient confrontation with experience.

The totality of our so-called knowledge or beliefs, from the most casual matters of geography and history to the profoundest laws of atomic physics or even of pure mathematics and logic, is a man-made fabric which impinges on experience only along the edges. Or, to change the figure, total science is like a field of force whose boundary conditions are experience. A conflict with experience at the periphery occasions readjustments in the interior of the field. Truth values have to be redistributed over some of our statements.

Any statement can be held true come what may, if we make drastic enough adjustments elsewhere in the system. Even a statement very close to the periphery can be held true in the face of recalcitrant experience by pleading hallucination or by amending certain statements of the kind called logical laws. Conversely, by the same token, no statement is immune to revision.

As far as we know, human beings are the only creatures who theorize and more broadly, engage in epistemic activities. Inquiry begins from and ultimately takes as its subject matter that which falls under the purview of human experience and is articulable in human language which means that at the end of the day, human experience and language impose the basic conditions of adequacy on all inquiry. Philosophy makes a fundamental mistake when it conceives not just of what it does, but what any inquiry does, as being in any way transcendent or as involving transcendent principles. In “The Human Prejudice,” [2005] Bernard Williams observed that –

It is a muddle between thinking that our activities fail some test of cosmic significance, and (as contrasted with that) recognizing that there is no such test. If there is no such thing as the cosmic point of view, if the idea of absolute importance in the scheme of things is an illusion, a relic of a world not yet thoroughly disenchanted, then there is no other point of view except ours in which our activities can have or lack a significance.

– and I would maintain that the same is true epistemically. So, just as utilitarians are mistaken in believing that the principle of utility represents some disinterested, demonstrable, neutral principle that is part of some independent moral reality, when in fact it is an expression of human experience and interests, so we are mistaken in thinking that theorizing of any kind operates outside of or transcends or otherwise escapes human experience and language.


[8] Concluding Thoughts

The aim of these prolegomena has been to advocate on behalf of a pluralist metaphysics, but what is a metaphysics? Prior to the Scientific Revolution and Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries, a metaphysics was a First Philosophy: a set of propositions the purpose of which is to describe the most fundamental aspects of being, per se. Aristotle’s numerous scientific treatises may have been based in empirical investigation, but his metaphysical investigations are rationalistic and a priori. For example, when Aristotle concludes, in Metaphysics Zeta, that the most fundamental element of reality is Form – in apparent contradiction to his earlier claim in the Categories that it is the discrete, individual object that is metaphysically fundamental – it is not on the basis of empirical investigation, but a series of deductions.  

The notion that one can obtain substantive knowledge this way may have been credible, when the world was just one part of a larger “reality” infused with divinity and divine purpose; a manifestation of ultimately supernatural, supersensible agents and forces, but today it no longer is. That analytic philosophers have revived this discredited conception of metaphysics – inspired, post-Kripke, by a hypostatic treatment of modal logic of all things – is depressing, though unsurprising. A good part of the history of philosophy is an exercise in philosophers repeating things that were once understood but have been forgotten or which have been willfully ignored.

So, when I say that I am sketching the outlines of a metaphysics, I am not suggesting a First Philosophy or an account of the most fundamental aspects of being. Indeed, I am not engaging in the project of pre-modern metaphysics or its ill-conceived offspring in any way. A metaphysics is simply one part of a philosophy, and a philosophy – as I described it in the previous section – is something that: (a) describes and analyzes the logics, grammars, ontologies, and epistemologies of the different types of discourses/investigations/forms of life in which we engage, and; (b) endeavors to develop a framework within which these all can be understood as pictures of/activities within/lives belonging to a single world.

Once we understand that there is just the world and no further “reality” beyond, below, above, adjacent to, or slightly askew from it – no intelligence-infused substrate or space beyond the proverbial veil – it is easy to see that all substantive knowledge must begin with experience: from our ordinary, common encounters with people and events and things to the highly disciplined and controlled observations and experiments conducted within the context of the sciences. The result of our myriad investigations and analyses of these experiences is a series of “pictures” of different parts (aspects, dimensions, etc.) of the world that can be placed alternatively within the Manifest and Scientific Images, as we have been discussing them throughout. Our metaphysics is the philosophical account we give of the ontological commitments we make as a result of these encounters and investigations and the principles of individuation that governs the “things” to which we commit. 

Humanism is the view that we – people – are special, an idea born of our alleged likeness to God. It survived the intellectual secularization of the 17th and 18th centuries, because this likeness was always understood as being metaphorical; as lying in our capacity for theoretical and practical reason, agency, and artistic creation, in the broad sense of the term (i.e. including everything from bridge-building to poetry writing). The fraying of the humanistic idea today is due to a series of self-inflicted blows to our collective morale in the form of wars, genocides, and horrific sociopolitical experiments and more recently, an increasingly confused understanding of our relationship to nature and in particular, to wild and domesticated animals.

But, there is yet another sense in which we are special. The appearance in the world of mammals capable of certain kinds of thinking, language, and action meant the emergence of a discursive, axiological, and active space within which what I have been calling “social reality” arises and persists. We add a dimension to the world by way of our activity that would not be there otherwise and which requires us to countenance the existence of all sorts of “things” – institutions, political entities, laws, moral principles, political systems, etc. – that also would not be a part of the world otherwise. This even includes us, qua people, the identity conditions and principles of individuation for whom are dependent on this social reality.

The specialness I am thinking of, then, is not that expressed by Kant in the sections of the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals devoted to our place in the so-called “Kingdom of Ends” but rather specialness in the sense of introducing a number of distinct and important complexities that function as constraints on any account of the world that purports to be adequate and complete.

The world just is the world. It is only when there are people who desire and endeavor to understand that world that there come pictures of it. Some of these pictures belong to the Scientific Image and are concerned with the world in its depersonalized state. Others belong to the Manifest Image and are focused on the world in its personalized state. Yet it is important to remember that even the Scientific Image, being an image, depends upon people to whom it is such, and consequently, it is infused with personalized elements: most significantly, as discussed earlier, a narrative structure and form. This is why, as we’ve already seen, Sellars insists that “each theoretical image is a construction on a foundation provided by the manifest image, and in this methodological sense presupposes the manifest image.” [Part IV, ¶5] 

For the sorts of reasons discussed over the course of these prolegomena – a hypostatic conception of ontological commitment; a desire for explanatory unity; a failure to properly distinguish the logic of reasons from the logic of causality – philosophers have expended enormous effort in reductive and eliminativist projects, pointing in both directions. These philosophers, whether Idealists (who want to reduce the Scientific to the Manifest) or reductive/eliminative materialists (who want to reduce/eliminate the Manifest to/in favor of the Scientific) share a common monistic impulse; a conviction that the world is fundamentally, metaphysically homogeneous. And the failure of their reductive and eliminative projects has led philosophers either to re-embrace earlier, discredited philosophies or to develop the kinds of new “crazy” ones that served as the initial spark for these prolegomena.

The metaphysical heterogeneity and pluralism that I have proposed is aimed at cutting off these ill-conceived and misguided philosophical developments at their roots. Sellars’ conception of two “Images,” Scientific and Manifest, which describe the world in its two most fundamental aspects, personalized and depersonalized, which can be combined – but only in a stereoscopic fashion – to yield a single, though irreducibly heterogeneous and complex picture of the world, seems the ideal framework within which to do so.

Returning to the matter of humanism for a moment and as a final note, there is a certain irony in the fact that the whole idea of divine intelligences occupying a supra-sensible, transcendent space was in part motivated by an inability to see how the world could be intelligible otherwise, but as it turns out, this intelligibility is entirely (and merely) a matter of the world including within it intelligent animals like us. It is an intelligibility that lies in the world’s representation, not in the world itself, an insight that we owe to Kant and his first Critique. And it is an intelligibility that can survive neither the aspirant-quasi supernaturalism of the idealists and panpsychists, nor the representation-abolishing efforts of the reductive and eliminative materialists.


[9] Postscript (Some Stuff about God and Philosophy)

A common mistake that people (and philosophers, especially) make is to look for intelligibility in the wrong place. This is made worse by the fact that beyond intelligibility we also seek approval of – even permission for – our beliefs and actions, as the cause of understanding and virtue is rarely well-served by insecurity.

Philosophers like to assuage their epistemic and moral insecurities by appeals to neutral, human/person-independent standards. That there are no such standards (nor could there be) is why these appeals and the accompanying theorizing never come to anything but stalemate and deadlock and finally, skepticism or fancy. Modern moral philosophers think that moral philosophy provides a “view from nowhere” from which to determine how we should and shouldn’t act, but moral inquiry and discourse are only comprehensible as expressions of human sensibilities. There is no way to deduce or otherwise demonstrate the truth of moral principles or the correctness of particular moral judgments. As Williams put it in “The Human Prejudice”:

If there is no such thing as the cosmic point of view, if the idea of absolute importance in the scheme of things is an illusion, a relic of a world not yet thoroughly disenchanted, then there is no other point of view except ours in which our activities can have or lack a significance.

It is no accident that the characteristics that every moral philosophy identifies as morally significant – happiness and suffering; liberty and agency; rationality and dignity – are all things that happen to be of great importance to us. When was the last time a moral philosopher suggested that having an exoskeleton or hibernating or undergoing metamorphosis is what makes something deserving of moral consideration? Don’t hold your breath waiting. And understand that the retort that these are morally insignificant characteristics does not contradict the point I am making but rather, confirms it.

Human motivation and personality are complex, and as often as not, insecurity and arrogance cohabit within a single person. The desire that there should be an independent, authoritative standard of belief and conduct and that finding it should be the object of moral philosophy is motivated not just by the desire to be given permission to think and act as we do, but by the ambition to be in the position of granting such permission (or not) to others. We like to pretend that our demands on other people aren’t merely expressions of what we want but reflect some standard that floats above in the logical ether, and such a stance confers a significant rhetorical and discursive advantage, even if its actual authority is, as G.E.M. Anscombe put it in “Modern Moral Philosophy,” [1958] is “mesmeric.” 

The inclination we are discussing is ultimately atavistic and hearkens back to religious ways of thinking and to childhood. Looking for neutral, transcendent standards that could provide some kind of ultimate authority began as a quest for God, and the modern philosophical version is just a secularized variety of it. The comfort and authority we once received from the deity we now find in a priori metaphysics and deductive logic. “God says so” becomes “Logic and Reality say so.” (Apparently, Philip Goff, panpsychist extraordinaire, now thinks that not only is consciousness built into “fundamental reality,” but morality too.)

Speaking of God, one of the most common arguments one finds across the spectrum of Christian apologetics is that he is necessary to render morality as a whole intelligible and to provide epistemic foundations for moral claims. It is an odd argument, given the attitudes and behaviors ascribed to the god in question in the relevant canonical texts. After all, this is the god who not only ordered his followers to commit genocide but who did so himself, by way of a global flood. This is the god who damns people to eternal torment, even for minor transgressions. This is the god who instructs angels to torture innocent people and who murders people’s children. This is the god who, morally speaking, is worse than our worst psychopaths. So, how could he possibly render morality intelligible or provide epistemic foundations for particular moral claims?

The standard move in response to this objection is to claim the inscrutability of God’s morality and of God himself. The apologist tells us that there is a good to all the apparent horrors God orders or commits in the Bible, but we are incapable of seeing it. He tells us that the characterizations of God one finds in the Scriptures are metaphors, whose purpose is to help us get a sense of the Creator, despite his being inscrutable to us. But this worsens the problem rather than solving it. God is supposed to make human morality intelligible. God is supposed to provide epistemic foundations for human moral claims. A god whose morality involves doing and commanding things that are directly contradictory to what we normally think of as moral and whose character directly contradicts what we ordinarily take to be virtuous – or is inscrutable – can do neither. 

The only coherent role a god – any god – could play with regard to the intelligibility and justification of the moral would be as a super version of us. If you tell me that we can try to make sense of morality by imagining what a perfectly moral person would be like and calling that person ‘God’, then that makes sense. (Leo Tolstoy, in his famous work in the philosophy of art, argued that the “religious perception” of a people consists of their conception of their own perfection.) The trouble is that neither the Christian god nor the god of any other traditional religion can plausibly play such a role for us today. Gods are only comprehensible as part of an exercise in imagining human perfection, but the conception of perfection found in the traditional religions is archaic; a reflection of the values and mores of people living in very ancient and cruel times. For a god to play such a role today, he or she will have to represent an idealization of contemporary values and mores, and as these inevitably will change in the future, any conception of god will have to keep changing as well. 

The argument presented throughout these prolegomena has been that we feel forced to adopt “crazy” positions as a result of what seem to be a number of highly significant but unsolvable problems, but that in fact, these problems are illusory; the result of our sustaining a number of incorrect, but longstanding and widespread ideas and inclinations. These include:

[1] A hypostatic conception of ontological commitment.

[2] Conflating reasons and causes, actions and events.

[3] A commitment to explanatory unity.

These latest thoughts, however, suggest that I should add a fourth – 

[4] The belief that the intelligibility and understanding we seek is of something that lies beyond human experience, representation or sensibility. 

The point is not that the world or morality are “in my mind or anyone else’s. (I can hear Sartwell complaining along these lines right now.) Of course they aren’t. Rather, the point is that it is our experience of the world and of morality that we wish to render intelligible, not some thing-in-itself; that what counts as intelligible – what constitutes intelligibility – with regard to some object of inquiry is as much dependent on the one engaged in the inquiry as it is on the object itself.