Conversing with a Philosopher…

I have spent the last 6 1/2 years living in Scotland. During that period I was a Masters student, a PhD student, and then (briefly) a full time tutor. Moreover, I was doing this in a Philosophy department.  If there is one thing that happens in upper level academic environments like this (especially Philosophy), it is the need to constantly demand evidence and support for the statement(s) people you are conversing with have. You are trying to work out the different lines of reasoning behind their claims so that you can trace step-by-step the journey they are making from one point to another, and see if it all holds up. As you adjust to this environment (from Masters student, to PhD student, to full Academic), the conversational intensity and demands grow. At first this can be quite daunting – even off-putting – but after a while you acclimate yourself to this environment and sometimes you even come to enjoy the demanding give-and-take of a rigorous philosophical exchange, and look forward to a competitive head-to-head of critical reasoning.  Conversations with your colleagues and students are all based on this demanding requirement for an exchange of evidence and reasoning. The vast majority of my Scottish friends were academics, so that has been virtually all I’ve known for the last 6 1/2 years in a postgrad environment.

But now I’ve left Scotland and have returned to Minnesota (where I am currently not employed in academia), and virtually none of the people I know here are even remotely academic.  I have found in the few weeks I’ve been back, that my interactions with people can quickly be misunderstood, with the person I am conversing with thinking I am being confrontational with them (or that I’m being ‘a bit of a dick’).  They sometimes are taken aback and wonder why I am being ‘confrontational’. But this is not my intention at all, I simply want to understand the different threads of their thought and reasoning, and to work out how it all fits together within a larger framework (I want to see the fine points of their argument as well as the ‘big picture’).

Philosopher’s are naturally skeptical of claims that people make. So if you find yourself in conversation with a philosopher like myself, please don’t take personal offense to my questions. I am simply seeking clarity of thought, and I am used to the rigorous and forthright demands for evidence that one finds in a lively academic environment. I am not trying to ‘be a dick’, or trying to humiliate you, or find some creative ‘intellectual’ way to put you down and make you feel stupid. In fact, it is quite the opposite, for if I am spending a good deal of time with you, and asking you a lot of questions, then this is because I am very much interested in what you have to say and want to know more. My questioning  –  and the way I am going about doing it – is so that I can get hold of the best and strongest argument you have for your viewpoint. Instead of seeing me as wanting to tear your idea apart, think of me as trying to sort through your idea and bring forth your strongest position. As a philosopher I seek clarity, I have been training in this for over a dozen years (when you add together my undergraduate and postgraduate years of study). It is possible that I might not just come to understand what you are saying, but also that I might be able to help you draw out and clarify your position even further. Think of me as your conversational and intellectual ally and friend.

In the original Greek ‘Philosophy’ means ‘love of wisdom’, and I take that idea very seriously. I can never claim to be of the same calibre as Socrates, and yet I strive to follow in his footsteps in the way he drew is friends close to him and attempted acquire a greater understanding of concepts and ideas through extended dialogue and conversation. If there is one thing I’ve learned in my philosophical journey so far, it’s that a viewpoint can acquire a stronger foundation the more it is analyzed and assessed.  I know there are a lot of people who we converse with out there who are ‘dicks’ and love to take on the role of a troll and sabotage conversations, but a philosopher might just be your friend.

Before I end, there is one concern I have regarding this matter, and that is whether I can maintain the stricter and more demanding philosophical/academic approach I’ve acquired in analyzing ideas in conversation, with the expectation which the non-academic is familiar with. I hope this gap can be bridged, but does doing so mean the philosopher has to ‘lower’ their methods and approach, or can we expect to ‘raise’ the level of normal, everyday discourse?

What are the Minimal Conditions for Human Selfhood?

[Originally published on 13 November 2013.  This summarizes some of the main points of my PhD Thesis]

Have you ever wondered what makes up your sense of self?  One popular interpretation is based on the narratives we tell about ourselves and others tell about us.  This ‘narrative self,’ unsurprisingly, has a strong basis in language use.  Another recent trend to emerge is simply to declare the self an ‘illusion.’

What I have been interested in, is to go back and get at the core or foundation of what makes up ‘the Self’ – the most minimal element.  In my view, those who declare it an illusion are not so much providing an explanation, but just explaining it away.  As for the advocates for a ‘narrative self,’ I agree that an autobiographical and narrative element are vital to a mature, developed and robust sense of human self, however, I think there is something which lies behind the narrative self, something which lays the foundation for it, and once the narrative self emerges, this ‘minimal’ self remains with it, continually influencing it throughout our life.

The minimal self is the experiential subject.  The minimal self is the subjectivity of experience; it is the sense of first-person mineness which our experiential life contains. This phenomenological mineness is formed through a bodily and dynamic integration of sensorimotor coupling and affective experience. The data I use to support this draws on the primal and evolutionary basic affects (i.e. moods, feelings, and emotions) that all animals possess prior to any higher-level – or second-order – cognitive development and language use. It also draws on infant development studies and how they make sense of their world.

I want to argue that the minimal conditions of self are based in bodily movement.  Although this is now changing, for a long time the things that were emphasized as vital to selfhood were language use, and rational thought (which allow us to create the narrative stories we tell about ourselves and others). But there is something deeper.  New research is showing that: (i) Affects underly and colour our rational thinking.  (ii) Bodily movement seems to underly verbal lanuage use.  (iii) Affects and Bodily movement are interwtined.  Affects are based in Kinaesthetics (Kinaesthesia is the unconscious perception of movement and spatial orientation which arises from stimuli within the body), the felt process of bodily movement and engagement with the environment.

The Minimal Kinasethetic Self is at its most basic, the experiential subject.  A minimal sense of self exists whenever there is self-awareness (although much of this is pre-reflective, and lies behind our conscious awareness).  How does this self-awareness emerge?  It is formed by a bodily and dynamic integration of three components: the sensorimotor, spatial perspectivity, and affective experience.  It is, ontologically speaking, the lived body in enactive engagement with the environment.

The minimal self is the simplest structure that can exist which we can call a self. It anchors and forms the foundation for the later ‘narrative’ self, which emerges from it and which is continually influenced by it. The minimal form of selfhood is necessary but not sufficient for more complex forms of selfhood (that is, a ‘full’ or ‘robust’ self would include both the minimal self and the narrative self).  What does this mean and what is the supporting evidence?

Infant Development.  A first line of evidence comes from work done by psychobiolgists, developmental psychologists, and infant and child psychologists (e.g. Daniel Stern, Colwyn Trevarthen, Vasudevi Reddy). Studying human development from its time within the womb, to the first few years of life, have shown a developmental history which is based in affective attunement with the caregiver and a bodily exploration of its immediate environment which lays the bodily/affective foundation for later self development.

Referring to infants and our evolutionary ancestors as ‘pre-lingusitic’ or ‘proto-lingusitic’ shows a strong linguistic bias. The most important element of selfhood emerges through bodily affects produced in the processes of bodily movement (kinaesthetics). We should probably refer to our language self (or narrative self – which comes later) as ‘post-kinetic’ and make body and affects primary and language secondary. We are bodily affective beings first and language users second.

Mirror Neurons.  A second line of evidence comes from work done with mirror neurons (see Giacomo Rizzolatti and Corrado Sinigaglia).  It needs to be pointed out that our understanding of mirror neurons is quite early at this point, so we need to be wary of relying too much on them for an explanation.  But at a minimum, it seems that mirror neurons can provide one of the explanatory elements for how the meaning of people’s movement is understood and interpreted by us.

Gesturing.  Developmental psychologists (such as Susan Goldin-Meadow) who study gesturing, with children, the blind, and the deaf, are providing evidence that our use of verbal language use has its basis and origins in gesturing and bodily movement.  Restrict bodily movement and development, and you will impair the person’s ability to express themselves.

Evolutionary Origins of Affects.  Affects are involved in brain processes which make up our primary sense of self.  This primary self gets elaborated upon at higher levels of cognition.  Different evolutionary layers exist in the brain (eg. the reptilian brain, the mammalian brain, etc).  Affective neuroscience (see work by Jaak Panksepp) and evolutionary studies are showing us that there are primal, action-based emotions (e.g. seeking, fear, rage, lust, care, panic, play), which are triggered, moulded, and refined by our life experiences.  This research also shows that these primal, action-based affects are not something simply human-based, but are something we have in common with our primate and mammalian cousins.  These primal affects emerge through and with movement (e.g. ‘seeking’ involves movement that deals with our appetitive desires, such as our exploration for food; it reflects our goal-directed urges.  And ‘fear’ is manifested with body tenseness and sometimes shaking, or shivering).

Affects as Creating our Relationship to the World.

If we examine the phrase ‘the feeling of being…’ (as philosopher Matthew Ratcliffe has done), we find that the everyday usage of this term is usually completed by words and phrases such as: ‘flawed and diminished’, ‘lost’, ‘in control’, ‘empty’, ‘watched’, ‘there’, ‘abandoned’, etc.  These descriptions reflect our relationship with the world – the different ways in which the world may appear familiar/unfamiliar, real/unreal, or disant/close.  Our intentional states, one could argue, always incorporate a feeling of some kind that alters how the world and its objects appear to as meaningful or valuable.

If we look at a sufferer of severe depression, we see that they experience:

(i) A shift in bodily feeling.  A feeling of meaninglessess may ‘take up bodily occupancy in the eyelids,’ or the the heart and lungs ‘hurt’ and there is a ‘contraction of muscles involuntarily.’

(ii) Objects and situations appear different to them.  They may describe a detachment from the ‘nourishing earth.’  Happenings in the past become ‘intolerable,’ as well as all ‘the moments to come’ in the future.  Past situations are reinterpreted, and future possibilities take on a completely different character.

(iii) The person’s relationship with the world takes on a different tone.  Life itself becomes ‘meaningless.’  One’s outlook on life and the world is viewed as ‘tumbleweed’ – a weed blown about without control by the chance character of the wind – that ‘thrives on thin air.’  [Quotes taken from Andrew Solomon’s book ‘The Noonday Demon’]

Consciousness Studies.  A couple different theories of consiousness can explain how this might work:

1. Dual-Process Theory of Consciousness (see work by Keith Frankish, Peter Carruthers, Jonathan B.T. Evans).  This theory makes a distinction between what is called ‘System 1’, which encompasses an evolutionarily old, pre-relective intuitive system, and ‘System 2’, which is evolutionarily recent, conscious, reflective, and uniquely human.

2. Nested Neural Hierarchy (see Todd Feinberg).  This breaks things down into three hierarchically arranged interrelated systems: the ‘interoself,’ which deals with the homeostatic and self-preservative functions, the ‘exterosensorimotor system,’ which deals with responsiveness to the external environment, and the ‘integrative self system,’ which assimilates and mediates the organisms internal with the external environment.

All this empirical data, I think can be pulled together and united under two research paradigms – Phenomenology and Enactivism.

Phenomenology.  Phenomenology had its modern development in the early-to-mid 20th century through the work of the philosophers Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty.  Phenomenology is concerned with articulating the ‘conditions of possibility’ of our experience. Phenomenology is the collection of the situations which we find ourselves involved.  Our experiences are charged  with significance and meaning. Most of the time this goes un-noticed, or we take it for granted. Phenomenology seeks to analyze this.  Phenomenology tries to show us how phenomena manifest themselves in our consciousness, along with its shape and structure (as was briefly done above regarding the feeling of being severely depressed). It is an enterprise which tries to describe things as they appear to our consciousness.  One of its core ideas is that we as agents of thought and action are already situated in a world; we are agents already in-the-world engaged in pragmatic and socially defined projects.

Phenomenology regarding the minimal self emphasizes the sense of givenness, ownership, and mineness that accompanies our experiences.  As Dan Zahavi says “The mineness is not something attended to, it simply figures as a subtle background presence” (Zahavi, Subjectivity and Selfhood, 124).  The minimal sense of self does not stand apart from, or above our experience, the mineness experienced is pre-reflective, it lies before any attempt on our part to consider, analyze, or reflect upon what our experience is.

Enactivism.  Evan Thompson, one of the main proponents of enactivism, has proposed the following ideas that serve to characterize the view, some of these points are:

1. Living organisms “are autonomous agents that actively generate and maintain themselves, and…enact or bring forth their own cognitive domains…and their own coherent and meaningful patterns of activity.”

2. “[C]ognition is the exercise of skilful know-how in situated and embodied action.”

3. “[A] cognitive being’s world is not a prespecified, external realm, represented internally by its brain, but a relational domain” (Thompson, Mind in Life, 13).

Enactivism says there is a sensorimotor coupling that occurs between us and the environment in a way which modulates the dynamic patterns of our self development. The laying down of these basic patterns helps make us who we are – by giving rise to the phenomenological mineness highlighted above.  The infant studies I looked at (amongst other areas) fit within an enactive approach quite well, as we see infants, both on their own and with others developing and maintaining meaning and continuity while they also generate new and novel elements of meaningful activity.

Where phenomenology attempts to analyze the ‘structures of experience’, but falls short in explaining what those structures are or look like, I think enactivism provides a way to articulate what those phenomenological structures are.

This theory of minimal self has ethical implications as well, for if we consider someone who has extreme Alzheimer’s, and they lose *all* narrative access to their own stories of self, friends and family (i.e. they no longer remember who they are or anyone else), they may still have a minimal self, in that their basic gestures, mannerisms, posture, basic like/dislike for a certain food, etc, may remain.

Additionally, consider someone in a persistent vegetative state (PVS). Their higher level functioning is gone. They no longer have higher level, narrative, cognitive thoughts at all. If you ‘pull the plug’ on them, they won’t ‘think’ anything as they die, yet they might still feel the basic, primal feeling of starving to death as the feeding tube is pulled out and their body fades away. They may no longer be a ‘full’ self or person, but they might still possess a ‘minimal’ self. And I suppose now we would have to wonder what that means – if anything – when it comes to the ethical dilemmas of a PVS patient, or a person with the worst case Alzheimer’s. Higher order language and thought is gone, but feelings and moods may still exist – a sense of ‘mineness’, perhaps. How much value should we put on this?  Does this warrant a change in our practices?

I list a few of the useful books that one could examine to get a clearer grasp on these ideas below.

Shaun Gallagher (ed.) The Oxford Handbook of the Self

Shaun Gallagher ‘How the Body Shapes the Mind’

Dan Zahavi ‘Subjectivity and Selfhood: Investigating the First-Person Perspective’

Maxine Sheets-Johnstone ‘The Corporeal Turn: An Interdisciplinary Reader’

Daniel N. Stern ‘Forms of Vitality: Exploring Dynamic Experience in Psychology, the Arts, Psychotherapy, and Development’

Evan Thompson ‘Mind in Life: Biology, Phenomenology, and The Sciences of Mind’

Matthew Ratcliffe ‘Feelings of Being: Phenomenology, Psychiatry, and the Sense of Reality

What is a Law of Nature?

[Originally published 29 January 2013]

We’ve all heard references to ‘laws of nature’, but have you ever wondered what is really meant by that? Let us think about this a bit more deeply.

The Regularity Theory

Perhaps you support this theory of laws, which says that the world possesses certain fundamental truths, or facts, or things, and that a law of nature explains why there are such regularities (examples of regularities include the boiling point of water being 100 degrees, gravitational attraction, or how a species produces offspring).

Yet, there are other views, for depending on the scientist or philosopher you talk to, laws of nature can be understood in many different ways:

Let us reconsider the Regularity theory of laws of nature (as being understood as regularities of universals (*) that occur in every instance). Water doesn’t always boil at 100 degrees (pressure can change the boiling point). When it comes to species propagation, at some point a descended organism may become a member of a different species from its distant ancestor. So it would seem that regularity is less than universal.  A regularity view can probably only be said to be true ceteris paribus (other things being equal).  Can the regularity theory still be defended?

Best Systems Theory

The ‘Best Systems’ theory says that whether something is a law is not because of some purely intrinsic feature that it possesses, but instead, something is a law when it is part of a system which can provide part of a systematic account of the world’s history.  The laws must cohere with each other in a systematic unity.  This view doesn’t rely on just regularities, but rather on the whole history of the world, which includes the regularities and anything else.  Of course, the problem with this type of coherence theory, is that an element of subjectivism is brought into the idea of laws, it is not entierly an objective matter, for we might very well find other systematizations of the same history which can be considered ‘best.’

Constructive Empiricism

The philosopher Bas van Frassen has a view called ‘Constructive Empiricism’ which says that “science aims to give us theories which are empirically adequate.” And that “the belief involved in accepting a scientific theory is only that it ‘saves the phenomena’, that is that it correctly describes what is observable.”  He is saying that laws are nothing more than a set of important features of some model that has been adopted.

Consider this elaboration of van Frassen by Stephen Mumford (who doesn’t necessarily support this view): “Science tells us what the particular, observable patterns in the world are, usually expressed in mathematical form.  It does not tell us in more general terms what it is to be a law of naure, what a law of nature does and by what means it conducts its business.  In ‘saving the phenomena’, science gives these metaphysical concerns a wide berth.  What matters, for science, is the epistemic integrity of the discovered patterns explicated in terms of explanation, sustaining of counterfactuals and supporting inductive inference.”  What do you make of van Frassen’s theory?


The last view I will present (just to keep this note short, for Philosophy of Science and Metaphysics has produced many considerations of what constitutes a ‘law of nature’!) is the ‘Essentialist’ theory.  This view – best put forth by Brian Ellis – says that there are natural kinds (**) in nature, and these are what they are irrespective of what our thoughts are about them.  Sometimes it is said that nature has ‘joints’, or ‘real cleavages’, essentialism says that science discovers what these are, rather than invents them.  Ellis structures these ‘real’ natural kinds in a hierarchical structure, with the most basic at the bottom (something like physics), and the most general kinds at the top (think of the world).  The laws of nature spell out for us the essential properties of these natural kinds.

But there is more to this, because for Ellis, an understanding of some particular entity is to be understood entirely by its essential or dispositional properties (think of the negative charge of an electron, chemical reactions, or energy transfer processes).  This means for Ellis that the essential or dispositional properties are the laws of nature.  Which leads to one possible conclusion which might concern some people: If this is true, then what purpose is there in even speaking of laws of nature?  Is there any reason to bring them up at all if everything can be explained by the activity and dynamism of the particulars themselves?

I will leave you with some final thoughts regarding Laws of Nature: Are the law of nature we are considering just the pattern we see in some natural occurence, or are they something which underlies and produces the pattern? What do you think?

Mumford says in regards to laws of nature that: “What we lack are clear and uncontroversial necessary and sufficient conditions for lawhood.”

* Universals in philosophy are defined as a property or relation that can be instantiated by several particular things (eg. a red object is an instance of redness).  But some metaphysicians raise concerns with this concept, for how do we perceive the general property as well as the particular instance of it?  Can sharing the same property be analyzed in terms of resemblance?

** Natural Kinds are also controversial in philosophy, for example: if nature can be divided into different categories or species, is this ‘carving of nature at the joints’ something that can be considered a real division, or is it more historical or theoretical based on the scientific taxonomic system in use at the time.

[The discussion for this note drew in part on Stephen Mumford’s book “Laws in Nature.”]

Two different ways of Looking at and Interpreting the World (A Heideggerrian Critique of Cartesianism)

[Originally published on 13 March, 2013]

How do we interpret/understand objects in the world?

Consider how we might analyze a ball of wax.  Descartes (in his second Meditation), discusses and analyzes a ball of wax as it takes different forms. He points out that it may have a certain look, feel, smell, etc, in its many forms (depending on whether it is heated up and melts, for instance), but these, Descartes says, are mere ‘accidents’ of this substance under different circumstances which the wax ball finds itself in.

But this approach of Descartes, according to Heidegger, has left the world a very sterile place. Descartes is not taking into account the different purposes, services, and functions that an entity like a ball of wax has as possibilities. That is, a ball of wax as Heidegger sees it can be poured into a mould to make a candle, or it can be used to seal a letter – Heidegger wants to know what the wax means to the person who is performing these different activities.

But surely, you might say, Heidegger is now attributing some very subjective characteristics to the wax ball, for if we are to understand the ball of wax, we need to look at it in an abstract, distant, and sterile way – this is the only way we can objectively analyze it. For example, think of how a ‘primitive’ person may see something and interpret this as an animal spirit, or a child may see a fluffy caterpillar and interpret it as a small stuffed animal. We would say that the primitive person and the child were mistaken.  Taking this into account, surely the Cartesian method of breaking things down into abstract terms allows us to avoid this problem?

But a Heideggerrian can reply that when you are attributing purely abstract characteristics to an object (and to the world in general), that this is also a subjective imposition. The Heideggerrian might say that the ball of wax is not some kind of ‘extended substance’  with different ‘accidental’ characteristics of ‘warmth,’ or ‘softness’ or ‘hardness’ that are added to it under different circumstances, rather, a ball of wax is something we use (i.e. to seal letters, or to make candles). Thus, we could say that the Heideggerrian is providing us with a description of the wax and indeed is  telling us something about the world – primarily what it is used for, and it is this use which the Heideggerrian would state is primary; any abstract analysis is secondary to this.

The Cartesian can reply by looking at the ball of wax moulded into a candle and say that this is what it is, and that this is true independent of anyone’s interpretation.

But the Heideggerrian says: ‘How do you know that?’ ‘You have come to this conclusion by thinking!’ The Cartesian approach, says the Heideggerrian, simply tells us how we can think about it.  Heidegger says that we don’t ever hear “noises or complexes of sounds, [instead we hear] the creaking of wagon wheels, or the motor-cycle, the north wind, the woodpecker tapping, the fire crackling…It requires a very artificial and complicated frame of mind to ‘hear’ a ‘pure noise.'” (Being & Time, 207).  A Cartesian worldview rests on many unexplored assumptions regarding the phenomena it targets.

What about the External World and Reality itself?

The Cartesian sometimes puzzles over trying to ‘prove’ the existence of an external world which has large numbers of isolated objects and subjects.  Heidegger says that Dasein (the human way of existing) is already in the world. Dasein is constituted by the world.  When one tries to ‘prove’ that the world exists, they have overlooked the a priori nature of our Being-in-the-world.

Heidegger is in part both a realist and an idealist. He is a realist in that he accepts the present-at-hand (or ontic, or scientific) objects that are in the world. Yet he shares with the idealist that one has to begin with a description – or an awareness – of the self or subject. Our self is already in a world, and we cannot isolate it except in circumstances of abstraction.

Rather than start – as the Cartesian does – with ‘the problem of reality,’ the Heideggerrian wants to start with ‘the problem of existence.’  Reality (and let me emphasize this clearly, we are not referring to the things within reality), could not exist without human beings – reality is a mode of human existence.  Reality is simply a mode of our interpretation of the world, as a result, it depends on us existing.  Any talk we might engage in about ‘substances’, ‘things’, and ‘reality’ are all derivative.  The whole, as significance, is prior to its parts.  Our commonsense understanding of the world is a knowing-how, not a propositional knowing-that.  Facts and rules are meaningless by themselves, they need to be assigned relevance by us.  Whatever shows up as intelligible for us, shows up or emerges from a background of significance.

[A large part of this note relies on an interpretation given by Michael Gelven in his book “A Commentary on Heidegger’s Being and Time.”]

What is Phenomenology?

[Originally published 26 February, 2013]

Phenomenology is concerned with articulating the ‘conditions of possibility’ of our experience. The lifeworld is a core concept in phenomenology. It is the collection of all the situations in which we find ourselves involved. It is our lived world as it opens up for us in all its possibilities.  Our experiences are charged  with significance and meaning. Phenomenology seeks to analyze the meaningful background for all our possible and actual actions. Most of the time this lifeworld goes un-noticed, or is taken for granted by us. Phenomenology tries to show us how phenomena manifest themselves to our consciousness, along with its shape and structure. It is an enterprise which tries to describe things as they appear to our consciousness.

One of its core ideas is that we as agents of thought and action are already situated in a world. Instead of examining experiences as they are empirically perceived as some type of ‘real fact,’ it is concerned with examining the pure essences of experience as they are intuitively given to us in their generality. It seeks to describe the experience of meaning. There is no ‘first fact’ which is preceded by a series of other facts. Instead, our instances of consciousness are already situated in a specific circumstance. There is an emphasis on ‘intentionality’ – all of our experiences are of or about some object or state of affairs. We as agents are already in-the-world engaged in pragmatic and socially defined projects.

This approach does not support the reductionistic tendencies we see in some sciences. Instead of being concerned with how things in reality actually are, it is instead focused on how we experience things in consciousness. Consciousness is our window onto the world.  All the knowledge we possess comes to us through consciousness. This is why phenomenologists give primacy to this, over how things ‘actually are in reality.’ Since, epistemologically speaking, our conscious perspective comes first, we need to be concerned about the condition of our perspectival window onto the world first, before we can attempt to understand what is outside this window.

Consider the following ‘naturalistic’ explanation of the phenomenal world, and compare it with the phenomenological description just below. First, ponder this quote from the philosopher W.V.O. Quine (from the ‘Ways of Paradox’):

“I am a physical object sitting in a physical world.  Some of the forces of this physical world impinge on my surface.  Light rays strike my retinas; molecules bombard my eardrums and fingertips.  I strike back, emanating concentric air waves.  These waves take the form of a torrent of discourse about tables, people, molecules, light rays, retinas, air waves, prime numbers, infinite classes, joy and sorrow, good and evil.”

Now compare that with this piece from Edmund Husserl’s Ideas:

“I am conscious of a world endlessly spread out in space, endlessly becoming and having endlessly become in time.  I am conscious of it: that signifies, above all, that intuitively I find it immediately, that I experience it.  By my seeing, touching, hearing, and so forth, and in the different modes of sensuous perception, corporeal physical things with some spatial distribution or other are simply there for me, ‘on hand’ in the literal or figurative sense, whether or not I am particularly heedful of them and busied with them in my considering, thinking, feeling, or willing.  Animate beings too – human beings, let us say – are immediately there for me: I look up; I see them; I hear their approach; I grasp their hands; talking with them I understand immediately what they mean and think, what feelings stir within them, what they wish or will.”

Edmund Husserl, instead of trying to use empirical methods, attempted to use a ‘transcendental attitude’ and implement a ‘transcendental reduction.’ He sought out the conditions of possbility for knowledge. Martin Heidegger thought that what shows itself to us is not necessarily the things in consciousness, but to some degree Being itself. He engaged in an examination of the question of the meaning of Being – fundamental ontology – via the manner in which it appears – or is hidden – to us in our experience. There is a high degree of hermeneutics (or interpretation) in phenomenology as practiced by Heiddeger. Maurice Merleau-Ponty shifted the approach and attempted to integrate phenomenology with psychology and neurology, with an emphasis on the body and our embodied existence. He drew heavily on experimental case studies to understand more clearly phenomenological experience.  He tried to bring phenomenology into the sciences to show how life is lived. Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir tied phenomenology in with existentialism, and Karl Jaspers put it to work in psychiatry. It’s incorporation into guiding and influencing scientific approaches, analysis, and practice, have resulted in the creation of Existential Phenomenological Counselling and Daseinanalysis, and the influence of Ecological-Embodied-Enactive Cognition in recent Cogntive Science.

Whereas early on Husserl was sceptical of phenomenology becoming ‘naturalized,’ it has progressed much since, and in recent years there have been several attempts to ‘naturalize’ phenomenology. Nowadays there are three main approaches. One is ‘formalized’ phenomenology, where the phenomenological analysis of lived experience that has been done is translated into a formal (almost mathematized) language that allows areas like psychology to improve their ability to formulate experienced intersubjective shared meaning. ‘Neurophenomenology’ utilizes dynamic systems theory to try and show that we can’t just rely on explanations that are based on purely mechanical interactions of parts in isolated moments of time. Genuine interaction is non-linear, and is based on reciprocal, dynamic interaction. There is a process of self-organization and sense-making based on our brain/body/environment coupling together. To do neurophenomenology practicioners need to be trained in phenomenological methods. Lastly, we have what is called ‘front-loaded’ phenomenology. Instead of beginning with empirical results (such as ‘formalized’ phenomenology), or with training subjects (as is done in ‘neurophenomenology), front-loaded phenomenology begins with the specific design of experiments based on the insights of phenomenology.

[The above discussion drew heavily from the following books (shown below): ‘Phenomenology’, by Shaun Gallagher.  ‘Understanding Phenomenology’, by David R. Cerbone.  ‘Introduction to Phenomenology’, by Dermot Moran.]



What is a Person?

[Originally published 19 December, 2012]
Here is a philosophical question for you all to ponder – What is a ‘Person’? When would we assign personhood to some entity? Dan Dennett has put forth six (necessary but not sufficient) Conditions of Personhood. They are:

1. Rationality. A person is a rational being.

2. Subjects of Intentional ascriptions. They are beings to which we attribute states of consciousness.

3. A certain stance or attitude is taken toward them. This brings in the idea that they are to be treated as moral objects.

4. Reciprocity. They can reciprocate when a certain stance is taken in regard to them. This introduces the idea that they are moral agents.

5. They are users of verbal language.

6. They are distinguished from other entities by being conscious in some special way (such as self-conscious).


What do you think – are these what you would consider the necessary conditions of Personhood?

Think about this in relation to a foetus developing into an infant – when does personhood emerge, is it after they achieve all of these categories?

Think about other animals – are they ‘persons’ under these criteria? What about a computer/machine – are these the right criteria to apply to artificially created entities?

What about some potential alien lifeforms – what would it take before we consider them ‘persons’?

And of course, in the US, corporations have been given personhood – do they meet these criteria?


One philosopher – Kathleen Wilkes – has said we should add a seventh category – Construction and Use of Tools. She argues that this is just as significant as language use.


Would you add or subtract any of these conditions?

Our Alienation in the Modern World Today – are Rollo May’s view still relevant?

[Originally published 20 July, 2013]

I have some questions regarding modern society for those who are up for a bit of philosophical reflection. I have been reading the book ‘Man’s Search for Himself,’ which was written by existential psychologist Rollo May in 1953. It seems to me that his observations 60 years ago still ring true to a significant degree today. I am curious as to what other people think (keep in mind he was writing for primarily an American audience, but I think it can fit other societies as well).

His starts off early on with: “people today no longer live under the authority of church or moral laws, but under ‘anonymous authorites’ like public opinion.  The authority is the public itself, but this public is merely a collection of many individuals each with his radar set adjusted to finding out what the others expect of him.” (p.12)

It is in part because of this that he says we feel ‘hollow’ – that we have a sense of alienation and loneliness in the world.  A few pages later he elaborates on this idea:

“[O]ur society lays such a great emphasis on being socially accepted.  It is our chief way of allaying anxiety, and our chief mark of prestige.  Thus we always have to prove we are a ‘social success.'” (p.14)

Regarding how we communicate, May says “What is important is not what is said, but that some talk be continually going on.” (p.16)  “Every human being gets much of his sense of his own reality out of what others say to him and think about him.” (p.17)

Assuming you think this might have been true in his time, do you think it is still true now with the advent of things like the internet and online social media?  Is it worse now?  Better?  Different somehow?

What about our modern mind-set or worldview?  May thinks that some of the problem has to do with our impersonal, mechanical worldview:

“Modern Western man, trained through four centuries of emphasis on rationality, uniformity, and mechanics, has consistently endeavored, with unfortunate success, to repress the aspects of himself which do not fit these uniform and mechanical standards.” (p.18)

In May’s time he saw this reflected in fascist and nazi totalitarianism (think Hitler or Mussolini, which were quite prominent in his mind at the time since WWII had just recently ended).  If his assessement of ‘modern’ anxiety has truth to it, in what ways might it be reflected in our even more recent world – what current events might align themselves and support this interpretation?

One of the roots of our malady, according to May, was that we were experiencing the loss of the centre of our societal values.  Here are his thoughts on the progression of our values and goals over time:

“One of the two central beliefs in the modern period since the Renaissance has been in the value of individual competition.  The conviction was that the more a man worked to further his own economic self-interest and to become wealthy, the more he would contribute to the material progress of the community. […] In our present day of giant business and monopoly capitalism how many people can become successful as individual competitors?” (p.28, 29)

“The second central belief in our modern age has been the faith in individual reason…individual reason also meant ‘universal reason’ […] reason became separated from ’emotion’ and ‘will’ […] we find reason (now transformed into intellectualistic rationalization) used in the service of compartmentalizing the personality.” (p.30-31)

What of these two points – is our focus on individual competition still workable in a world of global corporations stomping out home-grown businesses?  What about the separation of intellect and emotion (with the emphasis on intellect and rationality being ‘good’ and emotion being ‘less good’)?

May saw authoritarianism appearing and growing in business, politics, religion, and science.  He also thought that where – during the Renaissance – there was an enthusiasm for nature in its many forms, that since (at least) the 19th c., the world has become ‘disenchanted,’ and that our primary concern is now to ‘master and manipulate nature’ (there is now a clear dualistic separation between ‘us’ and ‘nature’ which further increases our alienation and sense of anxiety and loneliness).  Is this true?

Lastly (for what I want to cover in this note), what about our selfhood and the way we go about living our lives? Consider one of the modern trends in our society – activity.  May thinks we use activity as a substitute for awareness:

“By activism we mean the tendency, so common in this country, to assume that the more one is acting, the more one is alive…Many people keep busy all the time as a way of covering up anxiety; their activism is a way of running from themselves.  They get a pseudo and temporary sense of aliveness by being in a hurry, as though something is going on if they are but moving, and as though being busy is a proof of one’s importance. [He thinks we should re-think this:] Aliveness often means the capactity not to act, to be creatively idle…Self-awareness…brings back into the picture the quieter kinds of aliveness.” (p.83, emphasis mine)

What do you think – are we too busy rushing around trying to ‘do things’ and convincing ourselves that this is good and healthy for us?  Are all these so-called ‘accomplishements’ we think we are achieving necessary or even real?

What Is Religion?

[Originally published 25 August, 2014]

Religion can be difficult to define – what should be included or excluded in the definition?  Scholars in different disciplines have emphasized different aspects of what religion might encompass.  In the book ‘Expressing the Sacred,’ James L. Cox initially puts forth 17 definitions which have been organized into 5 categories (although a definition might actually fit within more than one category, and you might even want to mix and match definitions, or even think there are other and better definitions that aren’t covered in the list provided).  I present the list below.

What Do You Think?  Do these definitions provide you with an agreeable definition of what religion is and what it encompasses?


1. Theological definitions (A theological definition makes the central criterion of religion belief in a transcendent power which is usually personified as a Supreme Being, but is sometimes conceived as being diffused through powerful spiritual beings, or is held to be an impersonal, mysterious, supernatural force):

a. Religion is believing in God.

b. Religion is belief in spiritual beings.

c. Religion is the life of God in the soul of man.

d. Religion is a mystery, at once awesome and attractive.


2. Moral definitions (A moral definition makes the central criterion of religion a code of correct behaviour generally affirmed by believers as having its source in an unquestioned and unquestionable authority):

a. Religion is leading a good life.

b. Religion is morality tinged with emotion.

c. Religion is the recognition of all our duties as divine commands.

d. Religion is a sum of scruples which impede the free use of our faculties.


3. Philosophical definitions (A philosophical definition makes the central criterion for religion the posting of an idea or concept which the believer interprets as ultimate or final in relation to the cosmic order and to human existence):

a. Religion is what man does with his solitariness. 

b. Religion is the relation of man to his own being, but as a being outside of himself.

c. Religion is ultimate concern.


4. Psychological definitions (A psychological definition makes the central criterion of religion feelings or emotions within people which cause them to appeal to forces greater than themselves to satisfy those feelings):

a. Religion is the result of seeking comfort in a world which, dispassionately considered, is a kind of terrifying wilderness.

b. Religion is some kind of profound inner experience.

c. Religion is a universal obsessive neurosis.


5. Sociological definitions (A sociological definition makes the central criterion of religion the existence of a community of people which is identified, bound together and maintained by its beliefs in powers or forces greater than the community itself):

a. Religion is the opium of the people.

b. Religion is the conservation of values.

c. Religion is the co-operative quest after a completely satisifying life.


Looking through the list above (and confining ourselves to just what is on the list), I think religion probably possesses elements that can be drawn from all 5 of the categories.  So for the ‘average’ religious believer (whatever that might mean!) I might think that religion is most basically connected with 3c (ultimate concern), but this idea then gets narrowed down and more focused when you include the belief in spiritual beings (1b), a desire on the part of the religious person to lead a good life (2a), a need to engage in a co-operative quest after a satisfying life (5c), and a seeking for some kind of profound inner experience (4c).


Alternatively, if we were to look at a fundamentalist religious individual, then we might find that they believe in a God (1a), seek a being outside of themselves (3b), they may recognize all duties as divine commands (2c), their conservatism might enforce a conservation of values (5b), and they may very well have an obsessive neurosis (4c).


I think we also have to ask – what of non-religious people?  Do they fit within any of these categories?  If so, are we all to some degree religious, or do we need to come up with a new term?


[The above table was taken from: James L. Cox, “Expressing the Sacred: An Introduction to the Phenomenology of Religion” (1996), pages 4-8.]

The Non-fiction Books that have Influenced Me

Over the years there have been many deep and insightful books which have shaped my thought and how I view and interpret the world.  I include the list below both as a reminder to myself of the books worth revisiting, as well as for friends who are interested in the ideas which have helped shape me and who might be interested in exploring on their own (I will update this list as time progresses).

  • Isaac Asimov was the first author who got me fascinated about the world around me and interested in trying to understand it.  As a teenager, back in a time when I never thought I would ever be able to attend university, let alone eventually get a PhD, his books filled me with wonder, excitement, and a desire to learn more.  These were some of the non-fiction books which had the greatest impact on me at that young age:

Isaac Asimov:

Exploring the Earth and the Cosmos

The Roving Mind

Extraterrestrial Civilizations

Asimov’s Chronology of the World

In Memory Yet Green: The Autobiography of Isaac Asimov, 1920-1954

In Joy Still Felt: The Autobiography of Isaac Asimov, 1954-1978

  • Sometimes you discover a book which stands out from all others; it changes how – and what – you think, and ends up transforming you as a person. This book did that for me:

Martin Heidegger: Being and Time

  • Existential Philosophy, Psychology and Theology.  Great books to read if one is interested in examining and understanding the mysteries of human existence, and reflect upon the descriptive experiences of these struggles in the world.

Emmy van Deurzen: Everyday Mysteries: A Handbook of Existential Psychotherapy

Rollo May: Man’s Search for Himself

Viktor Frankl: Man’s Search for Meaning: an Introduction to Logotherapy

Karl Jaspers: Philosophy of Existence

Jean Wahl: Philosophies of Existence

Martin Buber: I and Thou

Paul Tillich:

The Courage to Be

The Dynamics of Faith

  • History of Science, Science and Religion, Religious Studies.  Key texts useful for getting a clear grasp of the development of science, its relationship with religion, and the core features of what makes up religion.

Edward Grant:

The Foundations of Modern Science in the Middle Ages: Their Religious, Institutional and Intellectual Contexts

Science and Religion 400 B.C. – A.D. 1550: From Aristotle to Copernicus

David C. Lindberg: The Beginnings of Western Science: The European Scientific Tradition in Philosophical, Religious, and Institutional Context, Prehistory to AD 1450.

John Hedley Brooke: Science and Religion: Some Historical Perspectives

Gary B. Ferngren (editor): Science and Religion: A Historical Introduction

Ronald L. Numbers (editor): Galileo Goes to Jail and other Myths about Science and Religion

Ronald L. Numbers and David C. Lindberg (editors): God and Nature: Historical Essays on the Encounter between Christianity and Science

James Hannam: God’s Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science

Robert N. Bellah: Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age

James L. Cox: Expressing the Sacred: An Introduction to the Phenomenology of Religion

Mircea Eliade: The Sacred & Profane: The Nature of Religion

Rudolph Bultmann: Primitive Christianity: In its Contemporary Setting

  • Works roughly located within the American Pragmatic Naturalist school of thought.  These are great books to get oneself acquainted with philosophy, science, history and culture.  It is an area of philosophy which is highly neglected these days, which is unfortunate, since I think these writers have important things to say:

John Ryder:

American Philosophic Naturalism in the Twentieth Century (editor) 

The Things in Heaven and Earth: An Essay in Pragmatic Naturalism

Thomas M. Alexander: The Human Eros: Eco-Ontology and the Aesthetics of Existence

James S. Gouinlock: Eros and the Good: Wisdom According to Nature

John Lachs: Stoic Pragmatism

Lawrence E. Cahoone: The Orders of Nature

Justus Buchler:

Nature and Judgment

Metaphysics of Natural Complexes

John Herman Randall Jr.:

Nature and Historical Experience: Essays in Naturalism and in the Theory of History

The Making of the Modern Mind: A Survey of the Intellectual Background of the Present Age

John Dewey:

Experience and Nature

Reconstruction in Philosophy

A Common Faith

The Essential Dewey (2 volumes)

Roy Wood Sellars: Reflections on American Philosophy from Within

George Santayana: The Essential Santayana

Will Durant:

The Story of Philosophy

The Story of Civilization (11 volumes, plus 1 supplement)

  • Texts I drew upon for my PhD, covering Selfhood, Phenomenology and Enactive/Embodied Cognition:

Maurice Merleau-Ponty: Phenomenology of Perception

Martin Heidegger: Being and Time

Shaun Gallagher:

How the Body Shapes the Mind


Shaun Gallagher and Dan Zahavi: The Phenomenological Mind: An Introduction to Philosophy of Mind and Cognitive Science

Dan Zahavi: Subjectivity and Selfhood: Investigating the First-Person Perspective

Evan Thompson: Mind in Life: Biology, Phenomenology, and the Sciences of the Mind

Mark Siderits, Evan Thompson, and Dan Zahavi (editors): Self, No Self? Perspectives from Analytical, Phenomenological, & Indian Traditions

Francisco Varela, Evan Thompson, and Eleanor Rosch: The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience

John Stewart, Olivier Gapenne, and Ezequiel A. Di Paulo (editors): Enaction: Toward a New Paradigm for Cognitive Science

Maxine Sheets-Johnstone:

The Primacy of Movement

The Corporeal Turn: An Interdisciplinary Reader

Mark Johnson: The Meaning of the Body: Aesthetics of Human Understanding

Matthew Ratcliffe: Feelings of Being: Phenomenology, Psychiatry, and the Sense of Reality

Michael Wheeler: Reconstructing the Cognitive World: The Next Step

Daniel Kolak and Raymond Martin (editors): Self & Identity: Contemporary Philosophical Issues

Antonio Damasio:

The Feeling of What Happens: Body, Emotion, and the Making of Consciousness

Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain

Todd Feinberg:

Altered Egos: How the Brain Creates the Self

From Axons to Identity: The Neurological Explanation of the Nature of the Self

Jonathan St. B.T. Evans and Keith Frankish (editors): In Two Minds: Dual Processes and Beyond

Daniel N. Stern:

The Interpersonal World of the Infant: A View from Psychoanlaysis and Developmental Psychology

Forms of Vitality: Exploring Dynamic Experience in Psychology, the Arts, Psychotherapy, and Development

  • Works I consulted related to my Masters research on Personal Identity:

Lynne Rudder Baker:

Bodies and Persons: A Constitution View

The Metaphysics of Everyday Life: An Essay in Practical Realism

Saving Belief: A Critique of Physicalism

Explaining Attitudes: A Practical Approach to the Mind

Eric Olson:

The Human Animal: Personal Identity Without Psychology

What Are We? A Study in Personal Ontology

Julian Baggini: The Ego Trick: What Does it Mean to be You?

Kathleen V. Wilkes: Real People: Personal Identity Without Thought Experiments

  • Classic Works of Philosophy:

Patricia Curd (editor): A Presocratics Reader


The Republic


Lucretius: On the Nature of the Universe

David Hume: An Enquiry on Human Understanding

John Stuart Mill: On Liberty

Ludwig Feuerbach:

The Essence of Christianity

Principles of the Philosophy of the Future

Arthur Schopenhauer:

The World as Will and Representation (2 volumes)

On the Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason

Friedrich Nietzsche: The Portable Nietzsche

Henri Bergson:

Mind and Matter

An Introduction to Metaphysics

Bertrand Russell: The Problems of Philosophy

Gaston Bachelard: The Poetics of Space

Jean-Paul Sartre: The Transcendence of the Ego

Maurice Merleau-Ponty:

Phenomenology of Perception

The World of Perception

Martin Heidegger:

Being and Time

Introduction to Metaphysics

  • Humanism.  There have been many books written discussing and promoting a secular, non-religious Humanist life stance, but in my view, only a select few had the right pluralistic and expansive vision for what it is and what it can achieve:

Corliss Lamont: The Philosophy of Humanism

Paul Kurtz:

Meaning and Value in a Secular Age: Why Eupraxsophy Matters

Living Without Religion: Eupraxophy

Embracing the Power of Humanism

Toward a New Enlightenment: The Philosophy of Paul Kurtz

The Courage to Become: The Virtues of Humanism

Forbidden Fruit: The Ethics of Secularism


  • Cultural Criticism:

Morris Berman:

The Twilight of American Culture

The Reenchantment of the World

Neil Postman: Amusing Ourselves to Death

  • Miscellaneous:

Charles Darwin:

The Voyage of the Beagle

Origin of Species


Darwin (Norton Critical Edition)

Oliver Sacks:


The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat

Carl Jung: The Basic Writings of C.G. Jung (Modern Library edition)

Anthony Stevens: The Two Million-Year-Old Self

Steven Mithen: The Prehistory of the Mind: The Cognitive Origins of Art, Religion, and Science

Raymond Tallis: Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis, and the Misrepresentation of Humanity

Susan Blackmore: Consciousness: A Very Short Introduction

Being and Time Roving Mindmeaning and value 2The Courage to BeZahavi_Subjectivity and Selfhood    corporeal turn