Friday, September 15, 2017

McGinn on mind and space

Thoughts and experiences seem to lack spatial location.  It makes sense to say of a certain cluster of neurons firing that they are located several centimeters in from your left ear.  But it seems to make no sense to say that your experience of feeling nervous, or your thought about the Pythagorean Theorem, is located several centimeters in from your left ear.  After all, no one who opened up your skull or took an X-ray of your head would see the thought or the experience, nor would either be detectible through any other perceptual means.  In his book The Mysterious Flame: Conscious Minds in a Material World, Colin McGinn defends this commonsense supposition that mental states and processes are not locatable in space.

This is one reason McGinn does not subscribe to any of the standard versions of materialism (though he is not a dualist either).  Material things and processes are spatially locatable, so that it cannot, in any straightforward sense, be said that a thought or experience is identical to a material thing or process.  Or at least, this conclusion seems to follow, in McGinn’s view, unless we come up with some alternative conception of space.

Putting aside for purposes of the present post what McGinn has to say about the possibility of an alternative conception of space, let’s consider a speculation that he develops on the basis of the ordinary notion of space.  Time and space as we know them now came into being, it is commonly held, with the Big Bang.  McGinn suggests that the Big Bang must have had a cause.  Not being a theist, he does not think of this as a divine cause.  But he does think that, since it was the cause of the existence of space, it must itself be non-spatial. 

Now, the problem that mind and space pose for materialism, in McGinn’s view, is that it is difficult to see how matter, which is spatial, can give rise to mind, which is non-spatial.  Yet the example of the Big Bang, he suggests, shows that the causal relation can go in the other direction.  That is to say, the non-spatial can give rise to the spatial.  How this works is not something McGinn claims to understand.  His claim is only that it does seem to happen.  Furthermore, there is, he acknowledges, an obvious causal relation of some sort between mental events and material events in the brain.  So, if it is reasonable to think that the non-spatial can give rise to the spatial, it seems no less reasonable to think that the spatial can give rise to the non-spatial.  In McGinn’s view, there is arguably some kind of natural process by which one gives rise to the other and vice versa.

The idea is reminiscent of Plato’s cyclical argument in the Phaedo, which holds that things arise out of their opposites (though McGinn does not deploy the idea to argue for the soul’s immortality, as Plato does).  If the spatial and non-spatial can give rise to one another, then maybe, McGinn suggests, what is happening when brain events give rise to mind is a kind of miniature and partial reversal of the process that caused the Big Bang.  McGinn is well aware that this sounds pretty weird.  But he is just “spit-balling” rather than putting it forward as a settled opinion, and he thinks that accounting for the mind is in any case bound to require entertaining some unusual possibilities.

Now, McGinn treats the non-spatial as if it were distinct from the mental.  He seems to suppose that, just as space may or may not contain some particular material object, so too the non-spatial, whatever it is like, may or may not contain mental states and processes.  His proposal seems to be that the non-spatial reality that preceded the Big Bang was non-mental, and that when the brain gives rise to the mind, what happens is that it generates a non-spatial reality to which mental features are somehow at the same time added.

But why suppose that this is what is going on?  It is, after all, controversial whether space could exist in the absence of any matter whatsoever.  Space could exist whether or not chairs or trees exist, but it is not so clear that it could exist if there were no physical objects at all.  So, by analogy, why suppose that non-spatial reality could exist in the absence of any mental features whatsoever?  Why not suppose instead that for the non-spatial to exist is ipso facto for something mental to exist?  As far as I can tell, McGinn gives no explicit reason for denying this.  He just takes it for granted that some kind of non-spatial reality could exist completely apart from the mental.

To be sure, McGinn does note that numbers are examples of things that do not exist in a spatial way.  You can perceive the numeral “3,” but you cannot perceive the number 3.  So might McGinn not argue that numbers and other mathematical objects provide a model for what it would be for a non-spatial reality to exist apart from anything mental?

But there are a couple of problems with this suggestion.  First, abstract objects like numbers are generally understood to be causally inert.  The number 3, for example, can’t do anything.  Yet the non-spatial kind of reality McGinn posits is supposed to be causally efficacious.  It can cause the Big Bang, for example.  So, what McGinn needs to show is that there could be something that is non-spatial, non-mental, and causally efficacious all at the same time.  Numbers and other abstract objects don’t provide examples of that.

Another problem is that it is debatable whether numbers and other abstract objects really can exist apart from minds in the first place.  Aristotelian realists argue that they cannot.  Abstract objects, on their view, exist only in intellects which abstract them from concrete individuals.  The universal TRIANGULARITY, for example, exists only in intellects which abstract that pattern from concrete individual triangles.   THREENESS is another abstraction that exists only in an intellect that abstracts that pattern from concrete individuals.  And so forth.  (See chapter 3 of my book Five Proofs of the Existence of God for a defense of this view – or to be more precise, for a defense of the Scholastic realist variation on the Aristotelian view.)

Suppose, then, that McGinn is wrong, and that any concrete and causally efficacious non-spatial reality would be mental in its nature.  Then, for one thing, when brains generate minds (as he says they do), there aren’t two things going on here, viz. the generation of something non-spatial and then a separate act of addition to this non-spatial reality of mental properties.  Rather, there is just one thing, the generation of a non-spatial-cum-mental reality.  For another thing, and perhaps more momentously, for the Big Bang to have been generated by a non-spatial reality would ipso facto for it to have been generated by a mind of some sort

Would this amount to a theistic scenario – to God’s creating the universe at the Big Bang?   No, not necessarily, and certainly not without further argumentation.  For one thing, there is nothing in the cyclical scenario described by McGinn that would entail that the non-spatial cause of the Big Bang is infinite in nature, or something that exists of absolute necessity, or that it has the other divine attributes.  It could be a merely finite (if still impressive) mind of some sort.

For another thing, the cyclical process posited by McGinn would in fact if anything point away from a truly theistic scenario.  He thinks of the non-spatial giving rise to the spatial and vice versa.  He also thinks of the spatial as giving rise to finite, human non-spatial minds.  So, even if he were to accept that the cause of the Big Bang was a mind of some sort, his model would seem to entail (by analogy with the spatial to non-spatial direction of causation) that it might be a merely finite mind, and a mind that itself arose from some previous spatial reality.  Those are not conclusions that are compatible with genuine theism (certainly not classical theism).

If McGinn’s supposition that the non-spatial reality that he speculates may have caused the Big Bang would be non-mental is motivated by a desire to avoid theism – though I hasten to add that he does not say or imply that it is – then he needn’t have worried.  Though McGinn’s speculations go well beyond anything most materialists would be comfortable with, they are still pretty firmly within a naturalist framework, broadly construed.  McGinn advocates expanding our conception of the natural world, even radically.  But that is a different thing from the view that there is something beyond the natural world.  (McGinn’s naturalism is more like Thomas Nagel’s than like Alex Rosenberg’s, but it is still naturalism.)


  1. The Augustinian proof has come to be my favourite!

    1. I like it, but I think it just treads into way too many controversial philosophical waters to be as effective as the other proofs.

      One thing needed for this proof to be more effective (admittedly there is just not room for everything in an already awesome and jam-packed book) is more interaction with William Lane Craig's anti-realist position with respect to abstract objects. He's done a ton of work on this and rejects realism.

    2. I should note that Feser does quote William Lange Craig and draw upon arguments from one of Craig's interlocutors (Greg Welty), but what's needed is a presentation Craig's arguments FOR the anti-realist position, followed by rebuttal. And I get there may not be space for that in this book.

    3. @JohnD,

      Does the Augustinian proof depend on the PSR? I've read Callum state that only 4 out of 5 proofs depend on it.

      If it doesn't depend on PSR, then this could most likely be one of the strongest proofs for God out there.

    4. JoeD,

      No it doesn't depend in the PSR (at least as one of its stated premises). But, in an incidental way, I think Feser (and others) will argue that the PSR is something we all accept when making rational arguments.

      However, I think the biggest hurdle to the Augustinian argument is overcoming the anti-realist objections of William Lane Craig. He argues that NO abstract objects are real (in the sense that realists mean). And if that's true, then the Augustinian proof has no force at all.

    5. Actually, I recall Feser stating that the Augustinian argument is not just about abstract objects, but also about propositions, possible worlds and other universals.

      What is most interesting though is the possible worlds bit. If I recall correctly, WLC accepts the modal account of possible worlds, which means at least some realism about logical possibilities must be true.

      And if realism about logical possibilities is true, then we can ask what exactly grounds them as such. One answer of course is the Augustinian argument, but another is to remember Aristotle and how all possibilities are such only insofar as there is something real to ground them. The ground of all logical possibilities would thus have to be more actual than they are, and in fact the most actual thing that there is, and these logical possibilities would also have to be present virtually and thus would also have intellect.

      This also means that God is the source of logic itself, as the law of non-contradiction would be the anchor that holds all of these possibilities together and would be the actuality that's at the top of the queue.

      I do not know if this argument is a sub-category of the Augustinian argument, or if it's independent from it; but either way it is certainly related to it in some way.

    6. Re: "What is most interesting though is the possible worlds bit. If I recall correctly, WLC accepts the modal account of possible worlds, which means at least some realism about logical possibilities must be true."

      While Dr. Craig does use possible world talk in various contexts, that does not commit him to a realist position with regard to those things. In fact, I'm fairly sure he is an anti-realist about abstract objections, possible worlds, propositions, etc. all of those. He does not think they can be said *exist* in a meaningful sense, and so they do not need any grounding (in God or otherwise). Here's two questions of the week where Craig discusses the matter:


      If the anti-realism position is true, then the Augustinian argument is not going to work.

      Feser puts forth several lines of argument for realism in the book. However, I have a feeling Craig deals with all of those in his extensive work on the subject. What's needed to sure up the Augustinian proof is a response to Craig's anti-realism.

    7. @JohnD,

      Actually, I don't think that we need to establish realism about possible worlds in order to make the argument I describe work.

      All we need is to admit that they are in fact possible , which they clearly are given they are limited by the law of non-contradiction and are in fact anchored by it.

      If they are even as much as possible, that entails, if you remember your Aristotle, that they can be actualised by something.

      By what can they be actualised? By something that is already actual, something to which they stand as mere possibility / potentiality, and that can only be something that is pure act, and which would possess these possibilities virtually and in an analagous fashion to the way our intellects possess forms, which means that it also has intellect.

      This would imply, though, that this argument may in fact be independent from Augustine's since one does not need to accept realism about abstract possibilities.

      Either that, or the case for realism about abstract possibilities is so strong here that rejection of realism would amount to having to admit that logical possibilities somehow aren't actual possibilities.

    8. JoeD,

      Good points.

      Re: If they are even as much as possible, that entails, if you remember your Aristotle, that they can be actualised by something.

      I think the reply here would be that logical possibility does not entail metaphysical possibility (unless you already believe God exists and can actualize any logically possible state of affairs, but that would beg the question).

      So, you would need an independent argument for the metaphysical possibility of possible worlds before you can get to a purely actual actualizer. And I just don't see how you can get there.

      The objector could argue that possible worlds can be actualized by something only if something to actualize them exists. Otherwise, speaking of them as possible is just a semantic description and on further analyses they may not be metaphysically possible after all.

    9. @JohnD,

      Logical possibility may not entail metaphysical possibility, but I do not think that this is a good response.

      For we would still have to account for the very fact that something would be logically possible and would thus belong to the realm of possibility, even if it were a very weak realm of it.

      As for the metaphysical possibility of possible worlds, I do not think that we need to establish that, because what the argument is essentially about is logical possibility as such, not mere metaphysical possibility.

      And as for the idea that we would need to argue for the existence of a purely actual actualiser, the argument's primary premise is that possibilities only exist insofar as there is something real to ground them and that possibilities can't make themselves into a reality.

      If that premise is true, then it seems to follow that logical possibilities exist only because there is something fundamentally real out there that could in principle actualise them.

    10. Re: "For we would still have to account for the very fact that something would be logically possible and would thus belong to the realm of possibility, even if it were a very weak realm of it."

      The objector could say logical possibility is simply whatever is not logically contradictory. In other words, saying something is "logically possible" is equivalent to saying that it is "not logically contradictory."

      Re: " the argument's primary premise is that possibilities only exist insofar as there is something real to ground them and that possibilities can't make themselves into a reality."

      Logical possibility is grounded in the law of non-contradiction, right? So, unless we adopt realism about the law of non-contradiction, I still don't see how this argument gets to an actualizer.

      Don't misunderstand me, I'm not saying the Augustinian proof is bad (or the version you're discussing is bad). I think it's a good argument. But it seems to me the realism has to creep in somewhere, otherwise the argument won't work.

      But I'm open to being shown otherwise.

    11. @JohnD,

      Re: ''The objector could say logical possibility is simply whatever is not logically contradictory. In other words, saying something is "logically possible" is equivalent to saying that it is "not logically contradictory." ''

      I admit that it is right to posit a big difference between what is merely logically possible - which is very abstract and will work in different, mutually exclusive metaphysics - and what is metaphysically possible - which is much more down to earth based than mere logical possibility.

      But it still leaves the realm of logical possibility open for exploration, especially as God's omnipotence means he can in fact do everything that is logically possible in the end.

      As for the objection that logical possibility simply means what is not contradictory, I think this can be answered by pointing out how you could say the same thing about physical possibility.

      For example, it is physically possible to heat up a glass of coffee and reconstruct it's atomic structure so that it forms a piece of coal and ozone gas.

      Such a thing is physically possible - but we could say that physical possibility is whatever doesn't contradict the laws of physics. In other words, saying that something is physically possible is equivalent to saying that it doesn't contradict the laws of physics.

      Furthermore, another answer I think could be given to the objection would be that it's a distinction without a difference. Even if we view logical possibility as simply that which is compatible with the PNC, we would still have something that limits possibility according to a certain standard.

      And that standard / limiter just so happens to be the PNC, which still means there is a certain framework that we can work with to try to see if any of the limits entailed by PNC could be played with by actualising them - plus, the purely actual actualiser would in fact be the source of logic, or even Logic Itself, and the PNC would simply follow from His nature.

      Re: ''Logical possibility is grounded in the law of non-contradiction, right? So, unless we adopt realism about the law of non-contradiction, I still don't see how this argument gets to an actualizer.''

      Well, it's hard for me to see how anyone could be a non-realist about something like the PNC.

      But even if we grant non-realism about the PNC, it still seems as if a limiting principle would follow which would also contain all possibilities adjacent to it.

      Heck, one thing philosophers use to try to establish or take down arguments is the principle of non-contradiction itself when using a proof by contradiction, or by pointing out how a certain position is impossible because it entails a logical contradiction.

      If we admit that the PNC is something which can be used to absolutely rule out certain things from being true, then it also seems reasonable that things which aren't contradictory would be thus ''possibilities'' at least in a relative sense in terms of not being contradictory.

      However, if we grant that some things are possible when they don't violate the PNC, then it seems that a somewhat realist conclusion still follows.

  2. Dr. Feser, do you have any work in the area of philosophy of mind in the works? Your work on natural theology has been valuable but you are also one of the best sources for philosophy of mind in my view, posts like these are always appreciated

    1. He has already published a book titled "Philosophy of Mind"

  3. Early in the post I was reminded of Nagel. Toward the end of Mind and Cosmos he suggests that something like Aristotle's teleology might be inherent in nature. Which to me raises the question whether the "non-spatial" causes MUST be efficient causes, or whether final causes will apply.

    This is a form of a more general problem. Even for those who accept A-T, or something like it, it is hard to shake the deeply planted assumption that "cause" just means "efficient cause", even when one intends to deny that. (Or that all movers are and must be efficient causes. Is that true?) Recall that though St Thomas argued that final causality ultimately pointed to God, Aristotle did not.

    In any case, doesn't McGinn's case lead away from modern mechanistic views of causation? Or am I missing something?

    1. @ George LeSauvage

      ”Early in the post I was reminded of Nagel. Toward the end of Mind and Cosmos he suggests that something like Aristotle's teleology might be inherent in nature.

      I have always wondered if Aristotle’s four forces are to be understood metaphysically or epistemically. That is as inherent in nature itself or inherent to the intelligibility of nature, namely to how one must think to make sense of nature. The difference is subtle but important. Thus the epistemic view is undeniable: To fully understand some object X one must understand its relation to the rest of reality and thus both how it was caused to come about (the efficient cause) and what it will cause to come about (the final cause). But the metaphysical view which entails teleology independently from intelligibility appears to an ad-hoc means of introducing the premise that reality is inherently purposeful. Which to a naturalist looks like begging the question.

      Further I wonder how Aquinas would react if he knew that according to our understanding of the laws of matter the whole material world’s end will be the heat death – a state of maximal entropy and minimal meaning.

  4. As I understand it, since the intellect is immaterial, it requires God to be it's creator.

    Since I grant that the intellect is immaterial, I have to ask, why exactly is it that only God can be the cause of it?

    One argument I've been toying around with is the idea that, since the intellect can grasp that
    if the natural order were to stop existing, the proposition that the natural order has indeed stopped existing would be true.

    However, such a proposition would lie outside the natural order, and the concepts that it's made out of as well.

    Since the intellect can grasp things (i.e. status of truth or falsity, abstract concepts) which are outside the natural order, it follows that only something that is itself outisde the natural order could be the cause of the intellect, namely, God.

  5. As for space being dependent on material reality, this doesn't seem to be quite right.

    Take the existence of vacuums as an example.

    Right now, the air that sorrounds us is filled with oxygen and other gases. Now let us use a suction to suck out all of the gases that are located within a section of space. Even when we have done that, we are still left with all sorts of particles and atoms in the piece of space still buzzing around. But let's try using our suction to suck out even those things. We are still left even now with fluctuating energy, electromagnetic waves and all sorts of other things that aren't particles.

    Again, let's remove even those things from space and create an even emptier vacuum. Now let us finally remove all of the other remaining things such as photons, gravitons, bosons, dark energy and all aspects of the quantum vacuum from that piece of space. Once we have removed all physical things from a piece of space, we are left with truly empty space that actually does exist.

    If space were to be dependent on matter, such a vacuum wouldn't be possible, yet it seems to be clearly possible, at least conceptually.

    Another important thing is the fact that, even though a perfect vacuum cannot be achieved in a laboratory, there are in fact sometimes small volumes which, for a brief moment, happen to have no particles of matter in them.

    1. Formerly, people thought that if matter disappeared from the universe, space and time would remain. Relativity declares that space and time would disappear with matter.
      -- Albert Einstein

  6. Good observations. I have some observations, and I hope you will find them thought provoking.

    "abstract objects like numbers are generally understood to be causally inert. The number 3, for example, can’t do anything."

    How about an "algorithm for sorting lists"? It exists in the "space of all possible algorithms" just like the number 3 exists in the "set of natural numbers", and it actually does something (sorts lists).

    "whether numbers and other abstract objects really can exist apart from minds in the first place."

    Good question. As a computer scientist I believe they do. You could write a really "dumb" program that generates mathematical theorems by brute force by simply combining a set of typographical entities. So it's just combinatorics.

    Eventually, you will stumble upon what we call Pythagorean theorem. Or upon theorems which have never been discovered by us, but they still "mean something". Whether humans exist or not, the theorems are still "there", in the possibility space.

    Or you could write another "dumb" program that simply generates algorithms. Eventually you will stumble upon a subroutine that sorts lists. That program will still sort lists, even though we didn't design it. It was simply there, waiting to be discovered, just like the N'th integer has the same properties, no matter who goes exploring for it.

    Does this make sense? It does to me, I've been experimenting with these concepts for a while now.

    I firmly believe all higher-level entities which we call "abstract" are an intrinsic part of the nature of existence. (ie. the world exists in such a way as to be possible for them to arise, they were "in the books" from the beginning, not unlike organic molecules).

    1. But we would not know if the assembled theorem were meaningful unless we already know the meanings. It's like the monkeys pounding the keyboard. A string of symbols can only be recognized as HAMLET if we already know HAMLET.

    2. I would disagree that "an algorithm for sorting lists" actually does something ("sort lists,") at least *as an abstract object.* Concrete things -- computers in particular configurations, for example -- that embody that algorithm will sort lists. But the algorithm itself, as an abstract, uninstantiated universal, does nothing.

    3. Concrete things -- computers in particular configurations, for example -- that embody that algorithm will sort lists. But the algorithm itself, as an abstract, uninstantiated universal, does nothing.

      Exactly. I was thinking the same thing.

    4. That is a valid comment, the fact that all abstract, uninstantiated universals are inert until they get instantiated.

      My comment refered to a universal that does something once instantiated. And instantiating an algorithm inside a computer is trivial. A number does nothing, it's just a pattern of electrons inside the memory. But an algorithm affects changes.

      At any one point, the physical world is bound to be instantiated in *some* way.

      Take a chess board with pieces on it. The set of all possible board states is finite and is known. Any way you arrange the pieces, one of the potential states is the actual one. So instantiation is not even optional.

    5. I don't understand your response. Most chess positions will *never* be instantiated. (And it would be quite possible for chess not to have been invented, in which case none of them would have been.)

      And of course, quicksort was never instantiated (so far as we know) until the second half of the twentieth century. So how is instantiation not even optional?

      In any event, given your opening agreement, I think your initial post loses any interesting point of disagreement with Professor Feser. Feser's point is about universals, not various things that can be said to instantiate them. (Equations, too, could be said to "do something" when instantiated in laws of physics, and ditto for laws, etc., etc. Concrete objects do things while instantiating all manner of different abstract objects. The point is that the *abstract objects* do not do anything.)

    6. When I said that instantiation is "not even optional", I meant that there is nothing concrete which isn't also abstractable in several ways.

      So this might be an avenue into the original question: universals constrain how the concrete is manifested.

  7. The mind does not exist in space. The mind exists only in time. But the mind arises in the Transcendental Being or Consciousness, which is prior to time.
    The body does not exist in time. The body exists only in space. But the body spontaneously arises in Infinite Energy, which is prior to space.
    The body-mind, or the individual and apparently independent psycho-physical being, exists only as a temporary and dependent pattern within the space-time continuum, or the Vast and Multi-Dimensional Realm of Nature. But the Truth, Condition, or Real Identity of the body-mind and the entire Realm of Nature is the Infinitely Radiant Transcendental Being.
    When "I" is understood, when personal existence is intuitively re-cognized and Realized to be arising within the Infinite Radiance of Transcendental Being, then there is only Happiness, whatever experience arises as the body-mind.
    When "I" is spontaneously penetrated and Released into Ecsatasy, or Identification with the Real Condition of all beings and all phenomenal dimensions of the Realm of Nature, then there is Liberation from all the implications of psycho-physical existence and experience.
    Therefore, only tacit Identification with the Radiant Transcendental Being provides the Basis in Truth from which "I" and the Realm of Nature can be understood.

  8. The big bang is a unsupported hypothesis.
    Anyways is the soul not a thing? Not material in this universe but still material in another reality.
    Its something!
    I conclude the error in all these things is not seeing the soul in a body/skull and then its Simply reasding the memory. The memory is of the material world.
    The interface between the soul and memory is the operation of conscience etc.
    Our soul doesn't care about neurons etc but only about the memory. Which in the bible is called the mind.
    The number three is not just in the bsoul. Its in the memory too.

  9. I doubt the premise that thoughts are not locatable spatially. They are locatable spatially, just not with a certain kind of precision. So:-

    "I thought about a green apple on 3 October at about 14:50, in the bedroom of my flat in London [postcode redacted :) ]."

    This points to thought as being, not something containable by a physical object, but rather as conceptual shorthand for a whole bunch of things located in time and space (perhaps some faint echo in the brain of the visual pattern of an apple, but encoded in some way, perhaps combined with a faint subvocalization of "apple", and some even fainter ancillary subvocalizations and fleeting images.