TA 110 (Butterfield)


Commentary 4   (to C2, Blackburn)





by Herbert FJ Müller

20 October 2008, posted 25 October 2008




Since according to Simon Blackburn (see C2 to TA110)  the work of C.B. Martin is one of the sources of the contemporary rebound of metaphysics  -  which I find puzzling  -  I bought his recent book.   I want to compare his proposal on ‘The Mind in Nature’ with the constructivist view (vGlasersfeld and others) that subject-exclusive metaphysics-ontology needs to be changed to subject-inclusive reality-design in the unstructured mind (zero-derivation (0-D), or working-, or as-if-, metaphysics-ontology).   Both views attempt to understand the mind-brain relation  (including the so-called  ‘consciousness problem’).   I found the book stimulating and tightly argued  -  though not easy to read.







Martin writes that firstly he defends a basic ontology :  realism of dispositions – ‘causal powers’ – and a rejection of attempts to reduce dispositions to conditionals (p.xv), that is,  (p.1) he argues against an ‘operationalist account (which he calls ‘old-fashioned’, p.77; but what about metaphysics which been around since Parmenides ?   and he writes  ‘Mother Nature is not purely functionalist any more than She is operationalist’;  p.114).   Dispositions exist even when they are not manifested (p.2), and every disposition is a holistic web even when its manifestations do not exist (p.8).    Blackburn has (in C2) discussed some complications of the dispositional argumentation, in particular the so-called ‘finkish’ dispositions (this term was apparently introduced by David Lewis in 1997).



Secondly he discusses ‘the vegetative mind’, the hypothalamus in particular, as a non-conscious and non-mental system in our body.  He likes it because it interacts with the environment within the body but external to the hypothalamus, and because it makes use of negative and positive feedback and feedforward. 



The third focus is on conscious systems.  ‘The conscious life is marked by the inner life of percept and percept-like dreamings and images.’   As one might expect, the conceptual difficulties become prohibitive when a (mind-exclusive) ontology of the mind is attempted.  To illustrate (p.8 :)  ‘What appears to be peculiar to the mental case is the capacity to be directed to an individual x  rather than any other that may be qualitatively similar’, and he wants to (p.11 :)  develop a physicalist, although not ‘materialist’, account of the qualities of consciousness’.   (p.143 :) ‘if beliefs and desires are in large part dispositional, their ‘thatness’ and ‘for-ness’ should not be expected as coming from their causes.  An explanation is needed for why, in this particular case at least, the directedness and selectivities of the mental dispositional state can, very specially and as an understandable exception, be found in its cause. ... ’ 



A short section entitled ‘Mental Chauvinism’ (pp.138-9) deals  with ‘internal signaling’ as an objective function, and he adds :  ‘I shall be a mental chauvinist ... holding in special regard ... those qualities that make our internal qualities turn out to be simple ... or complex ... They are the light of the world ...’ .   (p.145 :)  ‘My task will be to try to describe the  part  that the observer plays as a reciprocal disposition partner in the mutual manifestation that constitutes perceiving.’   (p.159 :)  ‘The private world problem : ... If you get rid of sensations, there is still a causal intermediary (that can act as a distorting medium full of possible epistemic mischief) between belief and the perceptual object of belief :  the processing of sensory input.  But sensory input is not belief, and processing is not belief. ... these intermediaries [are] internal to the agents ...  [with or without] sensations’   







My main interest in Martin’s book has been  to find out  why he prefers ‘ontology’ over what he calls  operationalism’ (but he does not discuss Bridgman’s work).   So far as I can determine, he does not really pose this question, nor answer it, in a systematic manner.  There are some statements that touch on this question.    For instance (p.177 :)  ‘Mental phenomena have long seemed mysterious to philosophers.  Jerry Fodor asks, ‘How can anything manage to be about anything :  and why is it that only thought and symbols succeed ?  ... We think of the world as being populated by all sorts of things ... that simply are ’.   (p.182 :)Dispositionality is utterly fundamental, but physical properties, states, and entities are not exhausted by their dispositionality.   Operationalism is not true.  Why, then, should mental properties, states, and entities be exhausted by their dispositionalities ?   Functionalism is not true.   Even if knowledge of physical x or mental y necessarily involves the causal disposition of x and y to affect an agent's belief that x or belief that y, that does not establish that what the agent knows is only the causal disposition or function to make that agent believe x or believe y.  We should not think all is disposition in either the nonpsychological or the psychological domains.

(p.182 :) The lives of most honest dispositional states are spent largely in the presence of conditions that prevent  those states from having any man­
ifestations whatsoever.  Any particular set of manifestation conditions for a kind of manifestation has to exclude other  sets of manifesta­tion conditions and consequently prevents the dispositional state from manifesting manifestations suited to the excluded conditions.’

(p.24-25) ‘Truth is a relation between two things — a representation (the truth bearer) and the world or some part of it (the truthmaker).  The Truthmaker Principle is intended to capture this fact.  It is not meant to suggest that things in the world actually make truths as fire makes heat; it is not the 'make' of the sort in which they (in and of themselves) cause things called 'truths' to come into existence. A world in which there were no representations (i.e. no truth bearers) would be a world in which there were no truths.’ 


The encompassing aspect of experience (see below) becomes a problem for subject-exclusive objectivists like Martin.  The situation is further complicated by his wish to replace ‘objects’ by spatio-temporal relations (p.198).   That seems to be related to his proposal (p.11)  to ‘develop a physicalist, although not ‘materialist’, account of the qualities of consciousness’.   And he wants to find the difference between appearance and reality (p.197).


Another example he gives is the emphasis on mathematical analysis in particle physics which he labels Pythagoreanism  -  he says that it means that ‘all is numbers’ (p.73);  but it seems to me that the use of statistics does not automatically imply Pythagorean-type  worship of numbers as the essence of reality;  that   ‘the numbers are all there is’   only follows in case he ascribes his own metaphysical commitment to the statisticians.   






My comments deal with some of those aspects of Martin’s book which I think I understand.   In general terms I found his presentation clearly reasoned but the conclusions unconvincing, due to erroneous pre-suppositions.


Martin’s argumentation implies the assumption that reality is pre-structured in and by itself, without any subject’s participation (mind-independent-reality, MIR-belief, ‘given structures’), including in particular (MIR-)‘dispositionality.   We think of the world as being populated by all sorts of things ... that simply are ’.   This is MI-Realism, the same as the one of Hermann Weyl.   It accommodates, and indeed implies, Martin’s assertion that ‘operationalism is not true’ (and likewise for ‘functionalism’), meaning :  it does not imply MIR-belief, i.e., it does not ‘refer’ to an assumed pre-established and pre-structured mind-external reality (which he thinks ensures truth if referred to). 


This kind of reasoning also implies that the mind (subjective experience) either does not exist, or is irrelevant, or an undesirable aspect of thinking; at one point, Martin calls it a ‘joke’
(p.158).   That view is in agreement with Wittgenstein’s opinion that referring to subjects is a ‘disease of thinking’ (1953-58, Part I, §255, §593ff).  If that is indeed Martin’s opinion (like that of other analytical philosophers), I don’t understand why he wants to explain ‘the mind in nature’, unless he only wants to remove it as an undesirable artefact.  -  Now in another statement (pp.138-9) he claims, simultaneously, to be a ‘mental chauvinist’.   But this mostly emotion-based avowal (that mental states  ‘are the light of the world’),  like his other statements, misses the crucial point :  that nobody can start from anywhere but from his subject-inclusive experience.   That is a fundamental situation which cannot be changed;   it has nothing to do with chauvinism.  


Subjective experience ‘encompasses’ mental structures, as Jaspers (1947) has emphasized.   This concerns for instance ‘objects’, ‘dispositions’, ‘spatio-temporal relations’, and indeed ‘time’ and ‘space’ (the latter two in contrast to the 1908 opinion of Hermann Minkowski; see also Harig 2008).   It answers Fodor’s question how something can be about something else :  we always think about something, it is the starting situation.   His question is an artefact produced by his MIR-belief.   Mental states are indeed inaccessible to those who believe in the primacy of MIR, but not to ‘philosophers’ in general, as Martin claims (p.177).   Experience cannot itself become a mind-internal structure, since it would have to encompass itself.  That implies for instance that mind cannot become an object, or more generally, an aspect of nature.  And the private world is not a ‘joke’, but everyone’s  only possible start point for thinking   -   and also for any other kind of experience including toothaches or falling in love. 


If you want to use a mental structure it has to be momentarily fixed in order to be functional (like the position of the racket when playing ping-pong).  It ‘cannot change’ (Parmenides, Zeno), it ‘has no windows’ (Leibniz), it must be ‘frozen in time’ (Blackburn), or at least frozen for an instant.  This is straight-forward, I suggest.  You are then no longer confronted with the kind of complicated situation which Martin outlines (utterly fundamental outside-the-mind dispositions, but which mostly cannot be manifested, for instance because they are ‘finkish;  or self-pre-assembled objects which dissolve into ‘spatio-temporal relations’, etc.).    There is, nevertheless, a good reason for  Martin’s critique of ‘objects’ as basic elements of reality :  we tend to mis-interpret gestalt-formations as MI-Realities.   Objects, like gestalt-formations in general, are our tools in thinking; mostly they work well, but  not always.


It follows that ‘the mind in nature’ is the wrong proposition.  It means an inversion of thinking and should be replaced by ‘nature in mind’.   The mind is not a ‘physicalist’ product of the brain (although there is no mind without brain), but the brain and its functions are mental structures (see TA45 in KJF).   ‘Mother Nature’ is a mental construct, an invented source of imaginary mind-independent realities and certainties, which has replaced, since about Descartes, the one of ‘Father God’, which in turn had replaced that of the Greek and Roman Pantheon since the time of the emperor Constantine.   A difference between the naturalistic and theistic constructs is that nature excludes the ‘subject’ and furthermore the ‘all’ as their element in which they function, while the theistic constructs allow for the subject as God-like soul, and for the all as a divine aspect. 


The naturalistic view, for instance in the form of positivism, thus leaves the postulated outside reality suspended in mid-air.  That is, I suppose, the reason why, lacking the necessary correction, it has now once again crashed back into MIR-belief in the form of (medieval, as Blackburn puts it) metaphysics.   But perhaps the time has now come for the awareness that metaphysics-ontology   -   the notion that mental structures are somehow  ‘given to us’  by some fictitious agency that is outside, ‘ontically’ separate from us,   or else found (‘aletheia’)    in ready-made pre-structured form   -   is  not  ‘utterly fundamental’.    Instead it is a mind-internal   scaffolding for thinking :  makeshift, temporary-only.   Thinking creates only pragmatic structures,  and pragmatic differences between structures.


Metaphysics goes back to an opinion which Parmenides said a goddess conveyed to him :  that 'it is and cannot not be', (
στι γρ εναι, μηδν δ᾿οκ στιν -  Fragm. B6),  apparently independent of thinking (i.e., excluding the subject).   From Parmenides it was accepted by Plato and Aristotle;  and thereafter, as Whitehead observed :  ‘The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.’ (1927 p.39)


But the goddess told Parmenides also that 'knowing and being are identical' (
το γαρ αυτό νοεΐν εστίν τε καΐ είναι Fragm. Β 1.3), implying the subject’s thinking activity.  And this is where the needed correction of the inversion comes from :  the subject, not an imaginary authority called nature, is in charge of pragmatically structuring ongoing subject-and object-and-all-inclusive experience.   Parmenides seems to have thought that the two opinions are mutually compatible, though I find it difficult to see how that can be. 


Constructivism adds that the mental structures are created as needed within subject-inclusive ongoing experience.  0-D emphasizes furthermore that this pragmatic structuring occurs within an otherwise unstructured background.  This background has often been recognized; it had different names throughout history :  for instance, with varying connotations, Anaximander’s ‘apeiron’, Buddhism’s ‘nirvana’, or Locke’s ‘tabula rasa’.   In addition to this no-structure-space view, that interpretation also agrees with Herakleitos no-structure-time  view that ‘everything flows’.    We are active in creating ad-hoc structures for stability and effectiveness of thought and action, try them out, and modify or change them as required.  They are in principle frozen in a form that can be both infinitely brief (‘now’ without duration) and infinitely small (‘dimension-less’ points in mathematics), even though they are used in the course of long duration efforts with much generalization.  If desired, one may call this set of structures ‘working-reality’, in analogy to ‘working-hypothesis’.  (For further aspects of the 0-D view, see my articles in KJF and in the e-journal ‘Constructivist Foundations’). 


Thus in summary, although I disagree with Martin’s assumptions and conclusions, I found his book well-argued, and reading it a worthwhile exercise for testing my own position.





Glasersfeld, E. von (1991)  Knowing without metaphysics: Aspects of the radical constructivist position. In: Steier F. (ed.) Research and reflexivity. Sage Publications: London, pp. 12–29.  Also available in the Karl Jaspers Forum as Target Article 17 :  http://www.kjf.ca/17-TAGLA.htm 

Harig, L. (2008)  Unsereiner in der Welt [on Minkowski & Presselschmidt] Frankfurter Allg. Ztg.,  20 Sept 2008, p. Z 3

Jaspers, K. (1947 / 1991) Von der Wahrheit.  Piper: München.

Kranz, W. (1949)  Vorsokratische Denker. Auswahl aus dem Überlieferten. Griechisch und Deutsch.  Weidmann : Frankfurt/M.


Martin, C.B. (2008) The Mind in  Nature.  Oxford  University  Press.


Whitehead, A N (1927 / 1978)   Process and Reality.  The Free Press :  New York.


Wittgenstein, L. (1953-58) Philosophische Untersuchungen - Philosophical investigations. 2nd Edition.  Blackwell: Oxford.


Herbert FJ Müller
     e-mail <Herbert.muller (at) mcgill.ca>