Reading Colin McGinn

In June I visited Jason Anthony Pannone, the librarian at the Harvard Philosophy Department’s Robbins Library. Jason offers individual and group tutorials on locating materials in Harvard libraries. He gave me a number of tips on using the extensive Philosophy Resources at Harvard.

I was carrying Ted Honderich’s huge Theory of Determinism, and Jason mentioned a recent post on his Robbins Library Notes blog about the spat between Honderich and Cornell philosopher Colin McGinn.

The Making of a Philosopher, by Colin McGinn

I picked up a copy of McGinn’s popular “The Making of a Philosopher,” which follows McGinn from his undergraduate degree in psychology and an interest in Continental philosophy, especially Edmund Husserl, to his years in the center of Anglo-American Analytic (AAA) philosophy, from winning the John Locke Prize at Oxford to becoming a professor in the U.S. at Rutgers.

McGinn contrasts the perennial static condition of philosophy with the dynamic growth of science, with a wry comment on older scientists (like me) who venture into philosophy.

“I venture to suggest that philosophers tend on the whole to be persons of considerable intelligence, many of them highly competent at science, and endowed with excellent thinking skills. It’s not that if you let some real scientists loose on philosophical problems they would have all the answers for you in a matter of days. In fact, when scientists, particularly distinguished ones, try their hand at philosophy—usually after they have retired—the results are often quite inept, risibly so. So what is it that makes philosophy so hard? Why do we still have no proof that there is an external world or that there are minds other than our own? Why is freedom of the will still so hotly debated? Why do we have so much trouble figuring out what kind of thing the self is? Why is the relation between consciousness and the brain so exasperatingly hard to pin down?” (p.200)

McGinn describes three views of philosophy.

  • the traditional Platonic realm of elevated and profound study of ultimate reality, the soul, etc.
  • the analytic view that philosophy consists of a bunch of meaningless pseudo-questions, including the later Wittgenstein and Ordinary Language philosophers. ‘Thus we never normally say “the will is free” or “human actions are determined by law and causality” in ordinary speech, so these sentences are ipso facto under suspicion of meaninglessness. ‘ (p.202)
  • the view that philosophy is just immature science. ‘Here the idea is that what we now call philosophy is just the residue of problems left over as science has eaten up more and more of what used to be called philosophy.’ (p.203)

McGinn’s own view, dubbed “mysterian” by Owen Flanagan, is that our human intelligence, our epistemic apparatus, is just “not cut out for the job.”

“Perhaps, then, that is the explanation of philosophical intractability more broadly; philosophical problems are of a kind that does not suit the particular way we form knowledge of the world. The question then is what it is about the problems and our intelligence that makes the latter unsuited to the former.” (p.204)

Problems in Philosophy, by Colin McGinn

McGinn developed his mysterian ideas in his 1993 book Problems in Philosophy: The Limits of Inquiry. Then he wrote a popular treatment in The Mysterious Flame (1999).

“The central conjecture of my book is that there is a certain cognitive structure that shapes our knowledge of the world, and that this structure is inappropriate when it comes to key philosophical problems. I call this the CALM conjecture, short for Combinatorial Atomism with Lawlike Mappings. Roughly speaking, you understand something when you know what parts it has and how they are put together, as well as how the whole changes over time; then you have rendered the phenomenon in question–CALM.” (p.206)

“Natural entities are basically complex systems of interacting parts that evolve over time as a result of various causal influences. This is obviously true of inanimate physical objects, which are spatial complexes made of molecules and atoms and quarks, and subject to the physical forces of nature. But it is also true of biological organisms, in which now the parts include kidneys, hearts, lungs, and the cells that compose these. The same abstract architecture applies to language also: Sentences are complexes of simpler elements (words and phrases) put together according to grammatical rules. Mathematical entities such as triangles, equations, and numbers are also complexes decomposable into simpler elements. In all these cases we can appropriately bring to bear the CALM method of thinking: We conceptualize the entities in question by resolving them into parts and articulating their mode of arrangement.”

“Find the atoms and the laws of combination and evolution, and then derive the myriad of complex objects you find in nature. If incomprehension is a state of anxiety or chaos, then CALM is what brings calm. Question: Does CALM work in philosophy?”

“In Problems in Philosophy I argue that …[t}here are yawning gaps between [some] phenomena and the more basic phenomena they proceed from, so that we cannot apply the CALM format to bring sense to what we observe. The essence of a philosophical problem is the unexplained leap, the step from one thing to another without any conception of the bridge that supports the step. For example, a free decision involves a transition from a set of beliefs and desires to a particular choice; but this choice is not dictated by what precedes it—hence it seems like an unmediated leap. The choice, that is, cannot be accounted for simply in terms of the beliefs and desires that form the input to it, just as conscious states cannot be accounted for in terms of the neural processes they emanate from. In both cases we seem to be presented with something radically novel, issuing from nowhere, as if a new act of creation were necessary to bring it into being. And this is the mark of our lack of understanding. The existence of animal life seems like an eruption from nowhere (or an act of God) until we understand the process of evolution by natural selection; we can then begin to see how the transitions operate, from the simple to the more complex. But in philosophy we typically lack the right kind of explanatory theory, and hence find ourselves deeply puzzled by how the world is working.” (p.209)

“This message is not very congenial to the optimistic philosopher who wants to solve the deep problems that brought him or her to philosophy. For I am saying that this is a futile aim; my book could equally have been called The Futility of Philosophy…” (p.210)

On the contrary, I found McGinn’s CALM methodology quite congenial for understanding the classic “free-will” problem, in many ways because of the strong analogy with the process of evolution by gene variation and natural selection that works for him as an explanatory theory.

For what is Freedom but chance “combinatorial atoms,” possible thoughts or actions that can be combined in new ways as “alternative possibilities?”

And what is Will but the choice of an adequately determined mind acting in accordance with its character and values, making “lawlike mappings” of those fortuitous opportunities?

Going back to McGinn’s youthful training in ordinary language philosophy, which claimed the confusion was all the result of misuse of language, we can ask what is the ordinary use of “free will?”

As John Locke so clearly told us long ago, it is inappropriate to describe the Will itself as Free. The Will is a Determination. It is the Man who is Free. “I think the question is not proper, whether the will be free, but whether a man be free.” ” This way of talking, nevertheless, has prevailed, and, as I guess, produced great confusion.” (Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Book II, Chapter XXI, Of Power, section 24)

In our Cogito model, “Free Will” combines two distinct conceptual “atoms.” Free is the chance and randomness of the Micro Mind. Will is the adequate determinism of the Macro Mind. And these occur in a temporal sequence.

Compatibilists and Determinists are right about the Will, but wrong about Freedom.

Libertarians are right about Freedom, but wrong about the Will.

McGinn’s career as a professional philosopher turned on such a moment of freedom.  He was awarded the prestigious and remunerative (£150) John Locke Prize at Oxford. How he came to get it is a semi-causal chain started by a free action we should see as causa sui.

McGinn atttended A. J. Ayer’s class in which a single book would be elucidated in the course of the term.

“At the first session Ayer asked who had read the book to be discussed —The Nature of Things by Anthony Quinton. I happened to have just finished reading it, so I raised my hand; to my surprise no other hand went up, and a cold shiver went through me as Ayer fixed me with a beady eye. ” (p.78)

“The session continued, with Ayer giving the first presentation of the term, followed by what seemed to me like a very high-powered discussion, to which I did not even think of making a contribution. At the end of the class, however, Professor Ayer suddenly fixed gaze his on me, hunched at the back of the room, and announced, “The man at the back can pay for his virtue and give the presentation on chapter two for next week.” He didn’t even wait to see if I was agreeable to this brilliant suggestion. That was it: me, next week. ”

“I duly found myself in front of about forty clever people, ready to find fault with whatever I had to say. I read my essay aloud, staring self-protectively down at the page. When I had finished, I looked up, as red as a beetroot, with very clammy palms (which I always get when I am nervous), and Professor Ayer said, matter-of-factly, “Very good.”

“In order to improve my chances on the B.Phil I decided to enter for a voluntary examination called the John Locke Prize. This examination is for people aiming to win the prize of one hundred and fifty pounds, along with the prestige that goes with it. Traditionally, the brightest philosophy postgraduate at Oxford wins the prize…The examiners that year, 1972, for the John Locke Prize were Professor Ayer, Professor Hare (who had let me onto the B.Phil), and Brian Farrell, the Wilde Reader in Mental Philosophy—a fairly formidable crew.” (p.82)

“I turned up in “subfuse” for the first examination: white bowtie and shirt, dark suit, black shoes, cap and gown (this was compulsory: anything missing and you would be denied entry to the examination hall). I buckled down to the questions, writing about logical form, the coherence theory of truth, the nature of necessity, personal identity, the analysis of knowledge, and so on.”

“About a week later Professor Ayer informed me that my handwriting was so bad that I would need to have my papers typed by a professional typist in the presence of an invigilator to make sure I hadn’t cheated. Moreover, I would personally have to pay for this to be done. I expressed my misgivings, saying I had not acquitted myself at all well, and worried about the enormous expense of about fifty pounds that this was going to cost me. Ayer replied that I, or it, was “worth it,” so I reluctantly agreed—and anyway, you didn’t not do as Sir Alfred told you to do. I accordingly read my atrociously written papers aloud to a bored typist in the presence of an equally bored invigilator, who awoke to take exception to my inelegant use of the phrase “chunk of reality,” wincing all the way. I really must improve my handwriting, I thought. (Even today my writing is a miracle of illegibility.)”

“Then a week or so later, as I was sitting down for one of Kripke’s John Locke lectures, Professor Ayer conspicuously approached me in front of about five hundred people, clapped me on the back, and told me I had won the John Locke Prize—and by a wide margin. ”

Can you see the causal chain? Ayer picks out the one raised hand to lead the next discussion. He says “Very good.” He asks McGinn to invest £50 in a typed manuscript. McGinn, or it, is “worth it.” He claps McGinn’s back at the John Locke lecture.

Can you see the alternative possibilities? What if four students had raised their hands? Ayer might have selected the one closest to him to start next week.

Can you see the free action? McGinn raised his hand! There might have been others who read Quinton who did not. They did otherwise, as McGinn could have done otherwise.

McGinn’s reaction says it all.

“I wonder now what would have happened to me if Ayer had never asked me to have my papers typed (a highly unusual step, in fact), or if I had walked out when I felt like it or if I had just not sat for the John Locke Prize at all. Things would undoubtedly have been very different, and even now I feel a cold sweat at the alternative possibilities. Life and chance, chance and life.” (p.85)

I went back to read more of McGinn’s technical discussion of the free will problem in his Problems in Philosophy, and wrote him up for the Information Philosopher.

See Colin McGinn on I-Phi

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