(‘This is what I want, I really, really want.’ The Spice Girls, 1996)

Utilitarians have a goal, the greatest happiness of the greatest number. How is this goal best attained? Here are two contrasting answers.

First, let us suppose that there are experts in human psychology. They know because of their study and practical experience the causes of happiness and unhappiness in the human mind. Indeed, they know what makes each of us happy or unhappy better than we know ourselves. For we make mistakes, believe this or that will please us and, for one reason or another, it fails to live up to expectations or, conversely, we  believe that this or that will make us miserable and, to our surprise, we go  on to take much enjoyment in it.

The second approach is to eschew the whole notion of happiness experts and simply aver that the greatest happiness of the greatest number is best achieved by organising society in such a way that the wishes of everyone are fulfilled as far as that is possible.

For an objection to the first formula simply read Huxley’s Brave New World or consider the practical problems that have forever beset the attempted imposition of philosopher kings as advocated by Platonists. But what about the second version, a society set up on preference utilitarian principles whereby each individual has the fullest opportunity to satisfy his or her wants? Here is one consideration?

Twenty years ago I did not have a mobile phone. Furthermore, I lacked any desire to possess one. Most people shared my view and we managed the ups and downs of life in a satisfactory manner. But in the course of time a desire to own a mobile phoned arose and grew in me. Eventually, I bought one — my progress (or decline) from lack of desire to desire to possession.

The problem this little summary highlights is the tendency for desires to be stimulated by outside forces. (Put aside, by the way, the obvious point that what in one decade is deemed a frivolous luxury a decade later is considered a necessity without which people cannot effectively function.That is not the point here.) One day you have no wish to own X, whatever that is. A year or so later, as a consequence of advertising, peer pressure or whatever, you now have an overwhelming wish to own X, whatever that is.

Preference Utilitarianism in its second version equates happiness with the fulfilment of desires, but as far as I can tell, it does not distinguish between types of desire or make any allowance for the fact that some desires are ‘artificially’ promoted or instigated by those who stand to benefit from their satisfaction whereas others seem to emanate from a deeper source.

Here we get to the core of the problem. Surely, there is a need to know the difference between desires which are superficial, in some way externally promoted and those that are more deep-rooted, based on considered reflection about what it in ones best interests, between what I want and ‘what I really, really want’ (or perhaps need).

How do we make this distinction?


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Consciousness Matters takes a fresh look at an ancient problem, the relationship between consciousness and the material world. Have any of the theories put forward by philosophers to explain consciousness done it justice? Consciousness Matters does not claim to have the answers but tries to ask the right questions and to move the discussion forward.

Consciousness Matters is available on Amazon in paperback and Kindle formats.

For more detail see blog post 5th November 2017

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Readers who follow the ideas discussed in this blog may be interested to know about the following, an exhibition and web site, a talk and a book:

Brain Diaries, Modern Neuroscience in Action, a very informative site related to an exhibition currently on until 1st January 2018 in the Natural History Museum in Oxford, shows in a very accessible way how the brain changes in the course of a human life

TED talk:  Are you a mind with a body or a body with a mind?

Consciousness Matters by Oliver Leech
A book that discusses in a more extended way many of the topics raised in this blog
(available on Amazon in paperback and Kindle formats)

Consciousness Matters addresses the age-old problem of the relationship between consciousness and the material world. In the course of exploring some of the history of this major philosophical subject it looks at a range of materialist responses, such as mind-brain identity theory, behaviourism, functionalism and supervenience, as explanations for consciousness. Set against these positions is the view, first, that consciousness is neither material nor reducible to material and, second, that consciousness is a prerequisite for our knowledge of the material world. If the latter view is the case, the terms of the debate are shifted fundamentally. The theories of idealism and dualism of the material and the conscious are considered. In contrast to the dualism made famous by Descartes, according to which there is two-way causal interaction, the long-neglected theory of occasionalism is introduced and explained with reference to two significant philosophers associated with it. A case is made for a revival of occasionalism that takes into account a more modern perspective. The book ends with an acknowledgement that it has only scratched the surface of this vast and very challenging topic.





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Science is presented as a progressive march overwhelming in its path all form of superstition and ill-founded beliefs. An example of such a belief that fell victim to science more than a century ago is vitalism, the notion that living beings contained within them in addition to non–living matter, a spark of life, the élan vital, some non-physical entity or life force.

Of course, as I have mentioned before in the course of these blog posts, it is predicted by many that the nature of consciousness is the next and, perhaps, final obstacle to the complete victory of rationalism and science. The belief, a widely held one, is that at some time in the not-too-distant future consciousness will succumb to a physicalist account.

In his book The Identity of Man (1965) Jacob Bronowski (1908-1974) includes a quotation from John Tyndall (1820-1893), an eminent Victorian scientist. In 1874 Tyndall gave a speech to the British Association for the Advancement of Science in which, he asserted very controversially at that time, that religion should not be allowed to ‘intrude on the region of knowledge, over which it holds no command’. Tyndall was advocating a clear separation between science and religion, two distinct domains which do not overlap. In his day vitalism (rather than consciousness in ours) was the disputed area. Was it the case that living beings, including human beings were no more than complex collections of atoms and molecules obedient to a set of natural forces and law, that we are just bits and pieces of matter like stones, water, air? Or, in order to activate matter to become alive, was a divine spark needed?

Bronowski quotes form the lecture in which Tyndall is rephrasing some thoughts of Bishop Butler (1692-1752) in his The Analogy of Religion (1736).
‘Your atoms are individually without sensation, much more are they without intelligence. May I ask you, then, to try your hand upon this problem. Take your dead hydrogen atoms, your dead oxygen atoms, your dead carbon atoms, your dead nitrogen atoms, your dead phosphorus atoms, and all the other atoms dead as grains of shot, of which the brain is formed. Imagine them separate and sensationless; observe them running together and forming all imaginable combinations. This, as a purely mechanical process, is seeable by the mind. But can you see, or dream, or in any way imagine, how out of that mechanical act, and from these individually dead atoms, sensation, thought, and emotion are to rise? [my italics] Are you likely to extract Homer out of the rattling of dice, or the Differential Calculus out of the clash of billiard-balls?’

What struck me about this quotation, which, I have to admit, Bronowski has taken out of context, was that it addresses much more directly our contemporary concerns about consciousness than it does vitalism. He calls the ingredients out of which our body is made ‘dead’ atoms of various elements. The reader is asked to imagine them both in isolation and joined together, to visualise the mechanics of their activity. But next, when I was expecting some reference to the vitalist principle, the non-material force that, according to Tyndall was wrongly believed to galvanise them into becoming alive, he takes a different tack and invites us to consider the possibility of consciousness arising out of the purely physical process. The implication to me — and who knows for Tyndall? — is that we cannot imagine or in any way give an account of a connection between the physical activity of the body, the neurons in the brain to be more specific, and sensation, emotion and thought. We have hit the explanatory gap. We just cannot make any sense of how the rich phenomena of consciousness could be the outcome of the chemical and electrical activity of brain cells.

This post has taken a somewhat circuitous route to reach this point. A study of contemporary philosophy of mind shows that the nature of consciousness remains very much outside the compass of science and that there is no confidence that it will go the way of vitalism at any time soon or, indeed, ever. The problem has been around a long time and is not going away.

I wonder what Bishop Butler, John Tyndall and Jacob Bronowski would have made of this.

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I recently learned a new word from a BBC website article (July 2017) ‘petrichor’, a name for the smell of rain. It derives from two Greek words ‘petros’, meaning rock, and ‘ichor’, what the ancient Greeks called the fluid in the veins of their gods. The article tells me that according to studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology ‘raindrops trap tiny air bubbles as they hit the ground’ which ‘then shoot upwards through the raindrop and erupt into a fizz producing extremely fine liquid droplets that stay suspended in the air as aerosols of scent’.

I have always loved that distinctive aroma experienced on a walk just after rain has fallen, the first rain after a long dry spell, and I had associated it with trees, assuming that it was the effect of water on leaves. Maybe there is also such a fragrance in addition to that rising from the soil. Who knows?

What the article brings to mind is a thought about feelings and science. It is often the case — I probably should say always the case — that there is a scientific explanation, or at least the potential for one, underlying our emotional, romantic even spiritual feelings. Think of a sublime sunset, a thunderstorm of Gothic dimensions, an exquisite rainbow or the awe-inspiring display of the Northern lights, each one subject to a rational account in terms of physical cause and effect.

(Note, please, that I am not saying that there is a scientific explanation of the feeling itself. I am referring to the circumstances in the natural world that give rise to the feeling. It is these that are within the compass of science.)

It is tempting for the more hard-headed among scientists to dismiss the value of these feelings with a peremptory ‘It’s only…’ It’s only, in short, a set of physical events turning out in the only way they can under the power of natural forces that operate in accordance with natural laws.

The point of this post is to celebrate both positions: the clinical and the emotional, the objectively rational and the subjectively phenomenal. I see no reason why one cannot hold both in mind simultaneously.

There is a further point. I have observed that both theists and atheists report being enraptured by wonder and awe when they contemplate the universe. In the case of theists that response is held to be evidence of a creator of that wonder: in the case of the atheists no supernatural cause is deemed necessary.

For my own part, of course the natural world in both its spectacular and humdrum aspects is wondrous but beyond particular features of the universe is the wonder that there is anything at all, something rather than nothing. Wittgenstein put it very neatly: ‘Not how the world is, is the mystical but that it is.’

And as for this ultimate mystery, the mystery that there is something rather than nothing, what is this essential, minimal ‘something’, the material world or consciousness? Which is the more fundamental entity?

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‘It is in the brain that the poppy is red, that the apple is odorous, that the skylark sings.’ Oscar Wilde

I had not realised until by chance I came across the quotation above that Oscar Wilde had made any comment about the philosophy of mind. (Unfortunately, the context of the quotation I have not been able to find.)

He is surely right in saying that redness does not reside in the poppy  nor odour in the apple nor sound in the skylark. The poppy absorbs certain wavelengths of light and reflects others, the apple emits molecules which find their way into the human nose and the skylark’s throat sends waves through the surrounding air. There is no colour or smell or sound ‘out there’, only physical objects reacting to their environments.

But I don’t think that Oscar Wilde goes far enough in his challenge to common sense. For, surely, it is not correct to say that colour, smell and sound are in the brain. The brain is a material construct containing many billions of cells, each one a highly complex physical mechanism with mass, dimensions, location and it exists in the public domain, quite distinct from the private, subjective, phenomenal feel of a sense experience.

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Earlier this year I posted several pieces about purposeful behaviour in the animal world (‘Animal Architecture’, 24th January, ‘Animal Architecture 2’, 25th January, ‘Animal Architecture 3’, 10th February, ‘Animal Architecture 4’, 27th February).

Nest building in the behaviour of birds is a most persuasive instance of an animal activity which pursues a goal. In this category a very striking instance is the very complex behaviour of the weaver bird (‘Animal Architecture 2’). Furthermore, perhaps even more convincing is the activity of the piping plover which appears to involve a ‘deliberate’ intention to deceive another animal (‘Animal Architecture 4’).

I raise these cases in a spirit of enquiry. How does it come about in a cause-and-effect universe in which, according to our best understanding, every physical event that occurs has a physical cause, how in the midst of this closed system does there arise a set of events that we cannot escape from regarding as goal-seeking or purposeful?

Human beings, like nest building and cunning birds, are engaged in goal-seeking and purposeful behaviour. Human beings, as much as animals, are structures whose every cell and atom is derived from the physical stuff of the universe. Their bodies, their behaviour and activities, like those of their animal counterparts, operate under the power of natural forces and laws.

A distinctive property of humans (and, perhaps, some animals) is that there is in them an awareness of the purpose that is being sought in their behaviour. A bird builds a nest, I am assuming, without a conscious plan, a mental image of the intended result. A human builds a house fully aware of what he or she is about and why.

At some point in the history of the universe a new type of experience started to occur, consciousness of purpose.

How? Why?


On the mountain
streams and rainfall fill the tarn
and after swirls and ripples,
water settles, finds its level.
But it has no understanding why.

Pine trees flex within the bark,
Sap fed twigs and branches
spread, stretch, thicken
reaching for light.
But they have no understanding why.

A heron high on lollop wings
with sticks and grasses
for treetop nest
greets his mate with ritual nods.
But he has no understanding why.

A man, like them an outcrop of the planet,
rakes soil, draws a drill,
holds seeds in the hollow of his hand,
sows them one by one.
At last understanding.


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