Religion and Neurobiology

Religion is a societal entity that has subsisted since the earliest record of man’s existence. There are a multitude of religions as well as varying degrees of faith. Many religious convictions are based on spiritual knowledge or simple belief. However, science often searches for physical and mechanical understanding of knowledge. There are many issues in which science and religion clash. These issues range from the beginning of life, evolution versus creationism, to the idea of existence after death. As the advancement of science continues, physical explanations for life’s occurrences are presented. Do these explanations disprove religious accounts? Will science eventually disprove religion and render it useless? This question is analyzed in the occurrences of Near Death Experiences (NDE’s).

An NDE is defined as “a lucid experience associated with perceived consciousness apart from the body occurring at the time of actual or threatened imminent death (1).” Death is the final, irreversible end (2). It is the permanent termination of all vital functions. The occurrence of an NDE is not a rarity. Throughout time and from across the globe NDE’s have been described by many, and in these accounts there are several similarities among them. The commonalities of an NDE include a feeling of peace and connection with the universe, a sense of release from the body (often called an Out of Body Experience or OBE), a movement down a dark tunnel, the vision of a bright light, and the vision of deities or other people from their lives (2). Not every NDE contains each of these events, these are merely the most common similar events described. An NDE can range in magnitude from having all of these events occur to having none of them occur (2). There are two theories explaining the similarities among NDE’s. The scientific explanation describes a situation in which a mixture of effects due to expectation, administered drugs, endorphins, anoxia, hypercarbia, and temporal lobe stimulation create a unified core experience (3). The religious explanation claims that they are a glimpse of existence after death. The unified core experience is due to there being a destination after the body dies with a similar path for all. These two theories debate whether an NDE is simply the neural activity preparing the body for death or a preview of the beyond. To further understand the occurrences of an NDE neurobiological research has believed to have mapped the neural activity of an NDE.

The most common similarity of NDE’s is the feeling of peace, tranquility, spirituality, and oneness with all (3). This occurrence has been discovered to be associated with the release of endorphins as well as reactions between the right and left superior parietal lobe (4) (5). The right portion of this area of the brain is known to be responsible for the sense of physical space and body awareness. It is responsible for orienting the body. The left portion of the parietal lobe is responsible for the awareness of the self. During an NDE neural activity in these areas shuts down. The result of this is an inability for the mind to have distinction between the self and non-self. All of space, time, and self becomes one (4) (5). Essentially one feels as being the infinite, rather than part of the infinite because there is no realization of self. However, other aspects of the brain are still functioning and thoughts are occurring. These other thoughts are believed to be associated with the visions perceived (4). If a persons thoughts are focused on a deity or personal relation, without the ability to comprehend self, time, and space, the person may in fact see an image of that focused thought because visual neurons are still intact. It is the relation of neural inactivity in the parietal lobe combined with other activities within the human brain that are responsible for most aspects of an NDE (2) (3) (4).

The understanding of neural relationships during NDE’s has culminated in the ability to reproduce each phenomena in a controlled setting. It has been found that the intravenous administration of 50-100 mg of ketamine can safely reproduce all features of an NDE (2) and electrical stimulation of the right angular gyrus portion of the brain can safely reproduce an out of body experience (6). Scientific research has even explained why religion is emphasized during an NDE. Activation in the temporal lobe region, known as the “God Spot (7)” during an NDE is reported to stimulate religious themed thoughts (8). This research has major implications in the battle of science versus religion. It provides evidence that specific brain activity can create the perception of religion and divinity. If this is true than this brain activity can be turned off and in effect remove religion from our lives. Many wars would be stopped, borders would open up, life as we know it would change completely. However, there are many faults to this theory. The major error in the idea that understanding the mechanical brain activity of NDE’s and religion makes them useless is the assumption that the experience only exists within the brain. Begley (5) uses an example of apple pie to illustrate this point. Upon the site of a pie, the neural activity linking site, smell, memory, and emotion can all be mapped quite clearly. However, this mapping of activity does not disprove the existence of the pie. This is the precise reason the existence of God or any other religious deity or beliefs cannot be disproved. It is just as simple to believe that viewing the mechanics of the brain during an NDE or religious experience is like getting a glimpse of the tool or hardware used to experience religion (9). However, this does not prove the existence of a God, or any other belief, either. It is the principle that understanding the neurobiological mechanics of religion cannot disprove or prove the existence of God, religion, or spirituality that makes it improbable that science will eliminate religion.

Believing that science will eventually do away with religion wrongly assumes that knowledge of the mechanics of the brain and universe are capable of eradicating the importance of religion to humankind. Religion is present in society for a plethora of reasons branching far beyond the mere belief in an existence of a God. The multitude of religions, deities, and even atheism is evidence of this. Among many, the reasons for religion include fear, comfort, stability, and tradition. The NDE provides an excellent example of one of the importance’s of religion, the existence of life after death. Existence after death refutes the idea that we are simply organic material organized in a certain fashion with a certain time span of functionality. The religious belief than an DNE is a glimpse of our existence beyond life is valuable for peoples behavior in life, not just as evidence of a theory. In very few NDE’s do negative feelings occur. People often describe a “heavenly” light rather than a hell (1) (10) . This may be because of the power of suggestion (3) in that it is a common societal belief that when a person dies they are supposed to see a tunnel, a light, an angel, and heaven. So when an NDE occurs, this is what the person sees because it follows their thought process. Not many people believe that when they die they are going to go to hell. The idea of existence of a better place after death comforts and eases the pain of many who suffer in life. It can provide them with hope through troubling time whether they believe in Jesus, Buddha, Elijah, or no God at all. Religion is a tool of mankind to sustain a belief. The reasons for that belief vary among people and religions but the importance is in believing. Having a belief can instill a sense of pride, confidence, comfort, strength, and much more in a person. A single belief can provide a purpose for life. The actual beliefs of each religion are only important to the individual. However, the idea of belief itself is important to the foundations of religion. The importance of religion to mankind makes it improbable society will ever allow scientific understanding to overrule religion. Science may disprove religious stories such as Moses’ parting of the red sea, but the importance of religion goes beyond the stories. Religion is indispensable because it is a belief. For this reason science is incapable of eliminating religion.

1)Near-Death Experience, Religion, and Spirituality, a religion and spirituality article related to NDE’s
2)Ketamine Model of the NDE, Drug induced replication of the NDE
3) Blackmore, Susan. “Near Death Experiences,” Royal society of Medicine. Vol. 89. February 1996, pp. 73-76.
4)Why God Won’t Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief, Excerpts from the author
5) Begley, Sharon. Religion and the Brain. Newsweek, May 7, 2001, p. 50.
6) Blanke, O., Ortigue, S., Landis, T., Seeck, M. Stimulating Illusory Own-Body Perceptions,” Nature. Vol. 419. September 19, 2002. pp. 269-270.
7)God on the Brain, An article on the cross between neurobiology and faith
8)Meridian Institute, Transformational experiences
9)Tracing the Synapses of our Spirituality, Examination of brain and religion
10)Susan Blackmore Home Page, Experiences of Anoxia


Can Science Replace Religion? Analyzing the Neurobiology and Neurotheology of the Near Death Experience, Bradley Corr

Real Self-Deception

Self-deception poses tantalizing conceptual conundrums and provides fertile ground for empirical research. Recent interdisciplinary volumes on the topic feature essays by biologists, philosophers, psychiatrists, and psychologists (Lockard & Paulhus 1988, Martin 1985). Self-deception’s location at the intersection of these disciplines is explained by its significance for questions of abiding interdisciplinary interest. To what extent is our mental life present–or even accessible–to consciousness? How rational are we? How is motivated irrationality to be explained? To what extent are our beliefs subject to our control? What are the determinants of belief, and how does motivation bear upon belief? In what measure are widely shared psychological propensities products of evolution?<1>


A proper grasp of the dynamics of self-deception may yield substantial practical gains. Plato wrote, “there is nothing worse than self-deception–when the deceiver is at home and always with you” (Cratylus 428d). Others argue that self-deception sometimes is beneficial; and whether we would be better or worse off, on the whole, if we never deceived ourselves is an open question.<2> In any case, ideally, a detailed understanding of the etiology of self-deception would help reduce the frequency of harmful self-deception. This hope is boldly voiced by Jonathan Baron in a book on rational thinking and associated obstacles: “If people know that their thinking is poor, they will not believe its results. One of the purposes of a book like this is to make recognition of poor thinking more widespread, so that it will no longer be such a handy means of self-deception” (1988, p. 39). A lively debate in social psychology about the extent to which sources of biased belief are subject to personal control has generated evidence that some prominent sources of bias are to some degree controllable.<3> This provides grounds for hope that a better understanding of self-deception would enhance our ability to do something about it.
My aim in this article is to clarify the nature and (relatively proximate) etiology of self-deception. Theorists have tended to construe self-deception as largely isomorphic with paradigmatic interpersonal deception. Such construals, which have generated some much-discussed puzzles or “paradoxes,” guide influential work on self-deception in each of the four disciplines mentioned (e.g., Davidson 1985, Gur & Sackheim 1979, Haight 1980, Pears 1984, Quattrone & Tversky 1984, Trivers 1985).<4> In the course of resolving the major puzzles, I will argue that the attempt to understand self-deception on the model of paradigmatic interpersonal deception is fundamentally misguided. Section 1 provides background, including sketches of two familiar puzzles: one about the mental state of a self-deceived person at a given time, the other about the dynamics of self-deception. Section 2, drawing upon empirical studies of biased belief, resolves the first puzzle and articulates sufficient conditions for self-deception. Section 3 challenges some attempted empirical demonstrations of the reality of self-deception, construed as requiring the simultaneous possession of beliefs whose propositional contents are mutually contradictory. Section 4 resolves the dynamic puzzle. Section 5 examines intentional self-deception.
Readers should be forewarned that the position defended here is deflationary. If I am right, self-deception is neither irresolvably paradoxical nor mysterious and it is explicable without the assistance of mental exotica. Although a theorist whose interest in self-deception is restricted to the outer limits of logical or conceptual possibility might view this as draining the topic of conceptual fun, the main source of broader, enduring interest in self-deception is a concern to understand and explain the behavior of real human beings.
1. Three Approaches to Characterizing Self-Deception and a Pair of Puzzles
Defining ‘self-deception’ is no mean feat. Three common approaches may be distinguished. One is lexical: a theorist starts with a definition of ‘deceive’ or ‘deception’, using the dictionary or common usage as a guide, and then employs it as a model for defining self-deception. Another is example-based: one scrutinizes representative examples of self-deception and attempts to identify their essential common features. The third is theory-guided: the search for a definition is guided by common-sense theory about the etiology and nature of self-deception. Hybrids of these approaches are also common.

The lexical approach may seem safest. Practitioners of the example-based approach run the risk of considering too narrow a range of cases. The theory-guided approach (in its typical manifestations) relies on common-sense explanatory hypotheses that may be misguided: ordinary folks may be good at identifying hypothetical cases of self-deception but quite unreliable at diagnosing what transpires in them. In its most pristine versions, the lexical approach relies primarily on a dictionary definition of ‘deceive’. And what could be a better source of definitions than the dictionary?
Matters are not so simple, however. There are weaker and stronger senses of ‘deceive’ both in the dictionary and in common parlance, as I will explain. Lexicalists need a sense of ‘deceive’ that is appropriate to self-deception. On what basis are they to identify that sense? Must they eventually turn to representative examples of self-deception or to common-sense theories about what transpires in instances of self-deception?

The lexical approach is favored by theorists who deny that self-deception is possible (e.g., Gergen 1985, Haight 1980, Kipp 1980). A pair of lexical assumptions are common:

1. By definition, person A deceives person B (where B may or may not be the same person as A) into believing that p only if A knows, or at least believes truly, that ~p (i.e., that p is false) and causes B to believe that p.

2. By definition, deceiving is an intentional activity: nonintentional deceiving is conceptually impossible.

Each assumption is associated with a familiar puzzle about self-deception.

If assumption 1 is true, then deceiving oneself into believing that p requires that one know, or at least believe truly, that ~p and cause oneself to believe that p. At the very least, one starts out believing that ~p and then somehow gets oneself to believe that p. Some theorists take this to entail that, at some time, self-deceivers both believe that p and believe that ~p (e.g., Kipp 1980, p. 309). And, it is claimed, this is not a possible state of mind: the very nature of belief precludes one’s simultaneously believing that p is true and believing that p is false. Thus we have a static puzzle about self-deception: self-deception, according to the view at issue, requires being in an impossible state of mind.
Assumption 2 generates a dynamic puzzle, a puzzle about the dynamics of self-deception. It is often held that doing something intentionally entails doing it knowingly. If that is so, and if deceiving is by definition an intentional activity, then one who deceives oneself does so knowingly. But knowingly deceiving oneself into believing that p would require knowing that what one is getting oneself to believe is false. How can that knowledge fail to undermine the very project of deceiving oneself? It is hard to imagine how one person can deceive another into believing that p if the latter person knows exactly what the former is up to. And it is difficult to see how the trick can be any easier when the intending deceiver and the intended victim are the same person.<5> Further, deception normally is facilitated by the deceiver’s having and intentionally executing a deceptive strategy. If, to avoid thwarting one’s own efforts at self-deception, one must not intentionally execute any strategy for deceiving oneself, how can one succeed?
In sketching these puzzles, I conjoined the numbered assumptions with subsidiary ones. One way for a proponent of the reality of self-deception to attempt to solve the puzzles is to attack the subsidiary assumptions while leaving the main assumptions unchallenged. A more daring tack is to undermine the main assumptions, 1 and 2. That is the line I will pursue.
Stereotypical instances of deceiving someone else into believing that p are instances of intentional deceiving in which the deceiver knows or believes truly that ~p. Recast as claims specifically about stereotypical interpersonal deceiving, assumptions 1 and 2 would be acceptable. But in their present formulations the assumptions are false. In a standard use of ‘deceived’ in the passive voice, we properly say such things as “Unless I am deceived, I left my keys in my car.” Here ‘deceived’ means ‘mistaken’. There is a corresponding use of ‘deceive’ in the active voice. In this use, to deceive is “to cause to believe what is false” (my authority is the Oxford English Dictionary). Obviously, one can intentionally or unintentionally cause someone to believe what is false; and one can cause someone to acquire the false belief that p even though one does not oneself believe that ~p. Yesterday, mistakenly believing that my son’s keys were on my desk, I told him they were there. In so doing, I caused him to believe a falsehood. I deceived him, in the sense identified; but I did not do so intentionally, nor did I cause him to believe something I disbelieved.
The point just made has little significance for self-deception, if paradigmatic instances of self-deception have the structure of stereotypical instances of interpersonal deception. But do they? Stock examples of self-deception, both in popular thought and in the literature, feature people who falsely believe–in the face of strong evidence to the contrary–that their spouses are not having affairs, or that their children are not using illicit drugs, or that they themselves are not seriously ill. Is it a plausible diagnosis of what transpires in such cases that these people start by knowing or believing the truth, p, and intentionally cause themselves to believe that ~p? If, in our search for a definition of self-deception, we are guided partly by these stock examples, we may deem it an open question whether self-deception requires intentionally deceiving oneself, getting oneself to believe something one earlier knew or believed to be false, simultaneously possessing conflicting beliefs, and the like. If, instead, our search is driven by a presumption that nothing counts as self-deception unless it has the same structure as stereotypical interpersonal deception, the question is closed at the outset.
Compare the question whether self-deception is properly understood on the model of stereotypical interpersonal deception with the question whether addiction is properly understood on the model of disease. Perhaps the current folk-conception of addiction treats addictions as being, by definition, diseases. However, the disease model of addiction has been forcefully attacked (e.g., Peele 1989). The issue is essentially about explanation, not semantics. How is the characteristic behavior of people typically counted as addicts best explained? Is the disease model of addiction explanatorily more fruitful than its competitors? Self-deception, like addiction, is an explanatory concept. We postulate self-deception in particular cases to explain behavioral data. And we should ask how self-deception is likely to be constituted–what it is likely to be–if it does help to explain the relevant data. Should we discover that the behavioral data explained by self-deception are not explained by a phenomenon involving the simultaneous possession of beliefs whose contents are mutually contradictory or intentional acts of deception directed at oneself, self-deception would not disappear from our conceptual map–any more than addiction would disappear should we learn that addictions are not diseases.
A caveat is in order before I move forward. In the literature on self-deception, “belief,” rather than “degree of belief,” usually is the operative notion. Here, I follow suit, primarily to avoid unnecessary complexities. Those who prefer to think in terms of degree of belief should read such expressions as “S believes that p” as shorthand for “S believes that p to a degree greater than 0.5 (on a scale from 0 to 1).”
2. Motivated Belief and the Static Puzzle
In stock examples of self-deception, people typically believe something they want to be true–that their spouses are not involved in extramarital flings, that their children are not using drugs, and so on. It is a commonplace that self-deception, in garden-variety cases, is motivated by wants such as these.<6> Should it turn out that the motivated nature of self-deception entails that self-deceivers intentionally deceive themselves and requires that those who deceive themselves into believing that p start by believing that ~p, theorists who seek a tight fit between self-deception and stereotypical interpersonal deception would be vindicated. Whether self-deception can be motivated without being intentional–and without the self-deceiver’s starting with the relevant true belief–remains to be seen.
A host of studies have produced results that are utterly unsurprising on the hypothesis that motivation sometimes biases beliefs. Thomas Gilovich reports:

A survey of one million high school seniors found that 70% thought they were above average in leadership ability, and only 2% thought they were below average. In terms of ability to get along with others, all students thought they were above average, 60% thought they were in the top 10%, and 25% thought they were in the top 1%! . . . A survey of university professors found that 94% thought they were better at their jobs than their average colleague. (1991, p. 77)

Apparently, we have a tendency to believe propositions we want to be true even when an impartial investigation of readily available data would indicate that they probably are false. A plausible hypothesis about that tendency is that our wanting something to be true sometimes exerts a biasing influence on what we believe.
Ziva Kunda, in a recent review essay, ably defends the view that motivation can influence “the generation and evaluation of hypotheses, of inference rules, and of evidence,” and that motivationally “biased memory search will result in the formation of additional biased beliefs and theories that are constructed so as to justify desired conclusions” (1990, p. 483). In an especially persuasive study, undergraduate subjects (75 women and 86 men) read an article alleging that “women were endangered by caffeine and were strongly advised to avoid caffeine in any form”; that the major danger was fibrocystic disease, “associated in its advanced stages with breast cancer”; and that “caffeine induced the disease by increasing the concentration of a substance called cAMP in the breast” (Kunda 1987, p. 642). (Since the article did not personally threaten men, they were used as a control group.) Subjects were then asked to indicate, among other things, “how convinced they were of the connection between caffeine and fibrocystic disease and of the connection between caffeine and . . . cAMP on a 6-point scale” (pp. 643-44). In the female group, “heavy consumers” of caffeine were significantly less convinced of the connections than were “low consumers.” The males were considerably more convinced than the female “heavy consumers”; and there was a much smaller difference in conviction between “heavy” and “low” male caffeine consumers (the heavy consumers were slightly more convinced of the connections).
Given that all subjects were exposed to the same information and assuming that only the female “heavy consumers” were personally threatened by it, a plausible hypothesis is that their lower level of conviction is due to “motivational processes designed to preserve optimism about their future health” (Kunda 1987, p. 644). Indeed, in a study in which the reported hazards of caffeine use were relatively modest, “female heavy consumers were no less convinced by the evidence than were female low consumers” (p. 644). Along with the lesser threat, there is less motivation for skepticism about the evidence.
How do the female heavy consumers come to be less convinced than the others? One testable possibility is that because they find the “connections” at issue personally threatening, these women (or some of them) are motivated to take a hyper-critical stance toward the article, looking much harder than other subjects for reasons to be skeptical about its merits (cf. Kunda 1990, p. 495). Another is that, owing to the threatening nature of the article, they (or some of them) read it less carefully than the others do, thereby enabling themselves to be less impressed by it.<7> In either case, however, there is no need to suppose that the women intend to deceive themselves, or intend to bring it about that they hold certain beliefs, or start by finding the article convincing and then get themselves to find it less convincing. Motivation can prompt cognitive behavior protective of favored beliefs without the person’s intending to protect those beliefs. Many instances of self-deception, as I will argue, are explicable along similar lines.
Beliefs that we are self-deceived in acquiring or retaining are a species of biased belief. In self-deception, on a widely held view, the biasing is motivated. Even so, attention to some sources of unmotivated or “cold” biased belief will prove salutary. A number of such sources have been identified in psychological literature. Here are four.<8>

1. Vividness of information. A datum’s vividness for an individual often is a function of individual interests, the concreteness of the datum, its “imagery-provoking” power, or its sensory, temporal, or spatial proximity (Nisbett & Ross 1980, p. 45). Vivid data are more likely to be recognized, attended to, and recalled than pallid data. Consequently, vivid data tend to have a disproportional influence on the formation and retention of beliefs.<9>

2. The availability heuristic. When we form beliefs about the frequency, likelihood, or causes of an event, we “often may be influenced by the relative availability of the objects or events, that is, their accessibility in the processes of perception, memory, or construction from imagination” (Nisbett & Ross, p. 18). For example, we may mistakenly believe that the number of English words beginning with ‘r’ greatly outstrips the number having ‘r’ in the third position, because we find it much easier to produce words on the basis of a search for their first letter (Tversky & Kahnemann 1973). Similarly, attempts to locate the cause(s) of an event are significantly influenced by manipulations that focus one’s attention on a potential cause (Nisbett & Ross, p. 22; Taylor & Fiske 1975, 1978).

3. The confirmation bias. People testing a hypothesis tend to search (in memory and the world) more often for confirming than for disconfirming instances and to recognize the former more readily (Baron 1988, pp. 259-65; Nisbett & Ross, pp. 181-82). This is true even when the hypothesis is only a tentative one (as opposed, e.g., to a belief one has). The implications of this tendency for the retention and formation of beliefs are obvious.

4. Tendency to search for causal explanations. We tend to search for causal explanations of events (Nisbett & Ross, pp. 183-86). On a plausible view of the macroscopic world, this is as it should be. But given 1 and 2 above, the causal explanations upon which we so easily hit in ordinary life may often be ill-founded; and given 3, one is likely to endorse and retain one’s first hypothesis much more often than one ought. Further, ill-founded causal explanations can influence future inferences.
Obviously, the most vivid or available data sometimes have the greatest evidential value; the influence of such data is not always a biasing influence. The main point to be made is that although sources of biased belief can function independently of motivation, they may also be primed by motivation in the production of particular motivationally biased beliefs.<10> For example, motivation can enhance the vividness or salience of certain data. Data that count in favor of the truth of a hypothesis that one would like to be true might be rendered more vivid or salient given one’s recognition that they so count; and vivid or salient data, given that they are more likely to be recalled, tend to be more “available” than pallid counterparts. Similarly, motivation can influence which hypotheses occur to one (including causal hypotheses) and affect the salience of available hypotheses, thereby setting the stage for the confirmation bias.<11> When this happens, motivation issues in cognitive behavior that epistemologists shun. False beliefs produced or sustained by such motivated cognitive behavior in the face of weightier evidence to the contrary are, I will argue, beliefs that one is self-deceived in holding. And the self-deception in no way requires that the agents intend to deceive themselves, or intend to produce or sustain certain beliefs in themselves, or start by believing something they end up disbelieving. Cold biasing is not intentional; and mechanisms of the sort described may be primed by motivation independently of any intention to deceive.
There are a variety of ways in which our desiring that p can contribute to our believing that p in instances of self-deception. Here are some examples.<12>

1. Negative Misinterpretation. Our desiring that p may lead us to misinterpret as not counting (or not counting strongly) against p data that we would easily recognize to count (or count strongly) against p in the desire’s absence. For example, Don just received a rejection notice on a journal submission. He hopes that his article was wrongly rejected, and he reads through the comments offered. Don decides that the referees misunderstood a certain crucial but complex point and that their objections consequently do not justify the rejection. However, as it turns out, the referees’ criticisms were entirely justified; and when, a few weeks later, Don rereads his paper and the comments in a more impartial frame of mind, it is clear to him that the rejection was warranted.

2. Positive Misinterpretation. Our desiring that p may lead us to interpret as supporting p data that we would easily recognize to count against p in the desire’s absence. For example, Sid is very fond of Roz, a college classmate with whom he often studies. Wanting it to be true that Roz loves him, he may interpret her refusing to date him and her reminding him that she has a steady boyfriend as an effort on her part to “play hard to get” in order to encourage Sid to continue to pursue her and prove that his love for her approximates hers for him. As Sid interprets Roz’s behavior, not only does it fail to count against the hypothesis that she loves him, it is evidence for the truth of that hypothesis.

3. Selective Focusing/Attending. Our desiring that p may lead us both to fail to focus attention on evidence that counts against p and to focus instead on evidence suggestive of p. Attentional behavior may be either intentional or unintentional. Ann may tell herself that it is a waste of time to consider her evidence that her husband is having an affair, since he loves her too much to do such a thing; and she may intentionally act accordingly. Or, because of the unpleasantness of such thoughts, Ann may find her attention shifting whenever the issue suggests itself.

4. Selective Evidence-Gathering. Our desiring that p may lead us both to overlook easily obtained evidence for ~p and to find evidence for p that is much less accessible. A historian of philosophy who holds a certain philosophical position hopes that her favorite philosopher (Plato) did so too; consequently, she scours the texts for evidence of this while consulting commentaries that she thinks will provide support for the favored interpretation. Our historian may easily miss rather obvious evidence to the contrary, even though she succeeds in finding obscure evidence for her favored interpretation. Selective evidence-gathering may be analyzed as a combination of ‘hyper-sensitivity’ to evidence (and sources of evidence) for the desired state of affairs and ‘blindness’–of which there are, of course, degrees–to contrary evidence (and sources thereof).<13>
In none of the examples offered does the person hold the true belief that ~p and then intentionally bring it about that he or she believes that p. Yet, assuming that my hypothetical agents acquire relevant false beliefs in the ways described, these are garden-variety instances of self-deception. Don is self-deceived in believing that his article was wrongly rejected, Sid is self-deceived in believing certain things about Roz, and so on.
It sometimes is claimed that while we are deceiving ourselves into believing that p we must be aware that our evidence favors ~p, on the grounds that this awareness is part of what explains our motivationally biased treatment of data (Davidson 1985, p. 146). The thought is that without this awareness we would have no reason to treat data in a biased way, since the data would not be viewed as threatening, and consequently we would not engage in motivationally biased cognition. In this view, self-deception is understood on the model of intentional action: the agent has a goal, sees how to promote it, and seeks to promote it in that way. However, the model places excessive demands on self-deceivers.<14> Cold or unmotivated biased cognition is not explained on the model of intentional action; and motivation can prime mechanisms for the cold biasing of data in us without our being aware, or believing, that our evidence favors a certain proposition. Desire-influenced biasing may result both in our not being aware that our evidence favors ~p over p and in our acquiring the belief that p. This is a natural interpretation of the illustrations I offered of misinterpretation and of selective focusing/attending. In each case, the person’s evidence may favor the undesirable proposition; but there is no need to suppose the person is aware of this in order to explain the person’s biased cognition.<15> Evidence that one’s spouse is having an affair (or that a scholarly paper one painstakingly produced is seriously flawed, or that someone one loves lacks reciprocal feelings) may be threatening even if one lacks the belief, or the awareness, that that evidence is stronger than one’s contrary evidence.
Analyzing self-deception is a difficult task; providing a plausible set of sufficient conditions for self-deception is less demanding. Not all cases of self-deception need involve the acquisition of a new belief. Sometimes we may be self-deceived in retaining a belief that we were not self-deceived in acquiring. Still, the primary focus in the literature has been on self-deceptive belief-acquisition, and I will follow suit.

I suggest that the following conditions are jointly sufficient for entering self-deception in acquiring a belief that p.

1. The belief that p which S acquires is false.

2. S treats data relevant, or at least seemingly relevant, to the truth value of p in a motivationally biased way.

3. This biased treatment is a nondeviant cause of S’s acquiring the belief that p.

4. The body of data possessed by S at the time provides greater warrant for ~p than for p.<16>

Each condition requires brief attention. Condition 1 captures a purely lexical point. A person is, by definition, deceived in believing that p only if p is false; the same is true of being self-deceived in believing that p. The condition in no way implies that the falsity of p has special importance for the dynamics of self-deception. Motivationally biased treatment of data may sometimes result in someone’s believing an improbable proposition, p, that, as it happens, is true. There may be self-deception in such a case; but the person is not self-deceived in believing that p, nor in acquiring the belief that p.<17>
My brief discussion of various ways of entering self-deception serves well enough as an introduction to condition 2. My list of motivationally biased routes to self-deception is not intended as exhaustive; but my discussion of these routes does provide a gloss on the notion of motivationally biased treatment of data.
My inclusion of the term ‘nondeviant’ in condition 3 is motivated by a familiar problem for causal characterizations of phenomena in any sphere (see, e.g., Mele 1992a, ch. 11). Specifying the precise nature of nondeviant causation of a belief by motivationally biased treatment of data is a difficult technical task better reserved for another occasion. However, much of this article provides guidance on the issue.
The thrust of condition 4 is that self-deceivers believe against the weight of the evidence they possess. For reasons offered elsewhere, I do not view 4 as a necessary condition of self-deception (Mele 1987a, pp. 134-35). In some instances of motivationally biased evidence-gathering, e.g., people may bring it about that they believe a falsehood, p, when ~p is much better supported by evidence readily available to them, even though, owing to the selectivity of the evidence-gathering process, the evidence that they themselves actually possess at the time favors p over ~p. As I see it, such people are naturally deemed self-deceived, other things being equal. Other writers on the topic do require that a condition like 4 be satisfied, however (e.g., Davidson 1985, McLaughlin 1988, Szabados 1985); and I have no objection to including 4 in a list of jointly sufficient conditions. Naturally, in some cases, whether the weight of a person’s evidence lies on the side of p or of ~p (or equally supports each) is subject to legitimate disagreement.<18>
Return to the static puzzle. The primary assumption, again, is this: “By definition, person A deceives person B (where B may or may not be the same person as A) into believing that p only if A knows, or at least believes truly, that ~p and causes B to believe that p.” I have already argued that the assumption is false and I have attacked two related conceptual claims about self-deception: that all self-deceivers know or believe truly that ~p while (or before) causing themselves to believe that p, and that they simultaneously believe that ~p and believe that p. In many garden-variety instances of self-deception, the false belief that p is not preceded by the true belief that ~p, nor are the two beliefs held simultaneously. Rather, a desire-influenced treatment of data has the result both that the person does not acquire the true belief and that he or she does acquire (or retain) the false belief. One might worry that the puzzle emerges at some other level; but I have addressed that worry elsewhere and I set it aside here (Mele 1987a, pp. 129-30).
The conditions for self-deception that I have offered are conditions specifically for entering self-deception in acquiring a belief. However, as I mentioned, ordinary conceptions of the phenomenon allow people to enter self-deception in retaining a belief. Here is an illustration from Mele 1987a (pp. 131-32):

Sam has believed for many years that his wife, Sally, would never have an affair. In the past, his evidence for this belief was quite good. Sally obviously adored him; she never displayed a sexual interest in another man . . .; she condemned extramarital sexual activity; she was secure, and happy with her family life; and so on. However, things recently began to change significantly. Sally is now arriving home late from work on the average of two nights a week; she frequently finds excuses to leave the house alone after dinner; and Sam has been informed by a close friend that Sally has been seen in the company of a certain Mr. Jones at a theater and a local lounge. Nevertheless, Sam continues to believe that Sally would never have an affair. Unfortunately, he is wrong. Her relationship with Jones is by no means platonic.

In general, the stronger the perceived evidence one has against a proposition that one believes (or “against the belief,” for short), the harder it is to retain the belief. Suppose Sam’s evidence against his favored belief–that Sally is not having an affair–is not so strong as to render self-deception psychologically impossible and not so weak as to make an attribution of self-deception implausible. Each of the four types of data-manipulation I mentioned may occur in a case of this kind. Sam may positively misinterpret data, reasoning that if Sally were having an affair she would want to hide it and that her public meetings with Jones consequently indicate that she is not sexually involved with him. He may negatively misinterpret the data, and even (nonintentionally) recruit Sally in so doing by asking her for an “explanation” of the data or by suggesting for her approval some acceptable hypothesis about her conduct. Selective focusing may play an obvious role. And even selective evidence-gathering has a potential place in Sam’s self-deception. He may set out to conduct an impartial investigation, but, owing to his desire that Sally not be having an affair, locate less accessible evidence for the desired state of affairs while overlooking some more readily attainable support for the contrary judgment.
Here again, garden-variety self-deception is explicable independently of the assumption that self-deceivers manipulate data with the intention of deceiving themselves, or with the intention of protecting a favored belief. Nor is there an explanatory need to suppose that at some point Sam both believes that p and believes that ~p.
3. Conflicting Beliefs and Alleged Empirical Demonstrations of Self-Deception
I have argued that in various garden-variety examples, self-deceivers do not simultaneously possess beliefs whose propositional contents are mutually contradictory (“conflicting beliefs,” for short). This leaves it open, of course, that some self-deceivers do possess such beliefs. A familiar defense of the claim that the self-deceived simultaneously possess conflicting beliefs proceeds from the contention that they behave in conflicting ways. For example, it is alleged that although self-deceivers like Sam sincerely assure their friends that their spouses are faithful, they normally treat their spouses in ways manifesting distrust. This is an empirical matter on which I cannot pronounce. But suppose, for the sake of argument, that the empirical claim is true. Even then, we would lack sufficient grounds for holding that, in addition to believing that their spouses are not having affairs, these self-deceivers also believe, simultaneously, that their spouses are so engaged. After all, the supposed empirical fact can be accounted for on the alternative hypothesis that, while believing that their spouses are faithful, these self-deceivers also believe that there is a significant chance they are wrong about this. The mere suspicion that one’s spouse is having an affair does not amount to a belief that he or she is so involved. And one may entertain suspicions that p while believing that ~p.<19>
That said, it should be noted that some psychologists have offered alleged empirical demonstrations of self-deception, on a conception of the phenomenon requiring that self-deceivers (at some point) simultaneously believe that p and believe that ~p.<20> A brief look at some of this work will prove instructive.

Ruben Gur and Harold Sackheim propose the following statement of “necessary and sufficient” conditions for self-deception:

1. The individual holds two contradictory beliefs (p and not-p).

2. These two contradictory beliefs are held simultaneously.

3. The individual is not aware of holding one of the beliefs (p or not-p).

4. The act that determines which belief is and which belief is not subject to awareness is a motivated act. (Sackheim & Gur 1978, p. 150; cf. Gur & Sackheim 1979; Sackheim & Gur 1985)

Their evidence for the occurrence of self-deception, thus defined, is provided by voice-recognition studies. In one type of experiment, subjects who wrongly state that a tape-recorded voice is not their own, nevertheless show physiological responses (e.g., galvanic skin responses) that are correlated with voice recognition. “The self-report of the subject is used to determine that one particular belief is held,” while “behavioral indices, measured while the self-report is made, are used to indicate whether a contradictory belief is also held” (Sackheim & Gur 1978, p. 173).
It is unclear, however, that the physiological responses are demonstrative of belief (Mele 1987b, p. 6).<21> In addition to believing that the voice is not their own (assuming the reports are sincere), do the subjects also believe that it is their own, or do they merely exhibit physiological responses that often accompany the belief that one is hearing one’s own voice? Perhaps there is only a sub-doxastic (from ‘doxa’: belief) sensitivity in these cases. The threshold for physiological reaction to one’s own voice may be lower than that for cognition (including unconscious belief) that the voice is one’s own. Further, another team of psychologists (Douglas & Gibbins 1983; cf. Gibbins & Douglas 1985) obtained similar results for subjects’ reactions to voices of acquaintances. Thus, even if the physiological responses were indicative of belief, they would not establish that subjects hold conflicting beliefs. Perhaps subjects believe that the voice is not their own while also “believing” that it is a familiar voice.
George Quattrone and Amos Tversky, in an elegant study (1984), argue for the reality of self-deception satisfying Sackheim and Gur’s conditions. The study offers considerable evidence that subjects required on two different occasions “to submerge their forearm into a chest of circulating cold water until they could no longer tolerate it” tried to shift their tolerance on the second trial, after being informed that increased tolerance of pain (or decreased tolerance, in another sub-group) indicated a healthy heart.<22> Most subjects denied having tried to do this; and Quattrone and Tversky argue that many of their subjects believed that they did not try to shift their tolerance while also believing that they did try to shift it. They argue, as well, that these subjects were unaware of holding the latter belief, the “lack of awareness” being explained by their “desire to accept the diagnosis implied by their behavior” (p. 239).
Grant that many of the subjects tried to shift their tolerance in the second trial and that their attempts were motivated. Grant, as well, that most of the “deniers” sincerely denied having tried to do this. Even on the supposition that the deniers were aware of their motivation to shift their tolerance, does it follow that, in addition to believing that they did not “purposefully engage in the behavior to make a favorable diagnosis,” these subjects also believed that they did do this, as Quattrone and Tversky claim? Does anything block the supposition that the deniers were effectively motivated to shift their tolerance without believing, at any level, that this is what they were doing? (My use of “without believing, at any level, that [p]” is elliptical for “without believing that p while being aware of holding the belief and without believing that p while not being aware of holding the belief.”)
The study does not offer any direct evidence that the sincere deniers believed themselves to be trying to shift their tolerance. Nor is the assumption that they believed this required to explain their behavior. (The required belief for the purpose of behavior-explanation is a belief to the effect that a suitable change in one’s tolerance on the second trial would constitute evidence of a healthy heart.) From the assumptions (1) that some motivation M that agents have for doing something A results in their doing A and (2) that they are aware that they have this motivation for doing A, it does not follow that they believe, consciously or otherwise, that they are doing A (in this case, purposely shifting their tolerance).<23> Nor, a fortiori, does it follow that they believe, consciously or otherwise, that they are doing A for reasons having to do with M. They may falsely believe that M has no influence whatever on their behavior, while not possessing the contrary belief.
The following case illustrates the latter point. Ann, who consciously desires her parents’ love, believes they would love her if she were a successful lawyer. Consequently, she enrolls in law school. But Ann does not believe, at any level, that her desire for her parents’ love is in any way responsible for her decision to enroll. She believes she is enrolling solely because of an independent desire to become a lawyer. Of course, I have simply stipulated that Ann lacks the belief in question. But my point is that this stipulation does not render the scenario incoherent. My claim about the sincere deniers in Quattrone and Tversky’s study is that, similarly, there is no explanatory need to suppose they believe, at any level, that they are trying to shift their tolerance for diagnostic purposes, or even believe that they are trying to shift their tolerance at all. These subjects are motivated to generate favorable diagnostic evidence and they believe (to some degree) that a suitable change in their tolerance on the second trial would constitute such evidence. But the motivation and belief can result in purposeful action independently of their believing, consciously or otherwise, that they are “purposefully engaged in the behavior,” or purposefully engaged in it “to make a favorable diagnosis.”<24>
As Quattrone and Tversky’s study indicates, people sometimes do not consciously recognize why they are doing what they are doing (e.g., why they are now reporting a certain pain-rating). Given that an unconscious recognition or belief that they are “purposefully engaged in the behavior,” or purposefully engaged in it “to make a favorable diagnosis,” in no way helps to account for what transpires in the case of the sincere deniers, why suppose that such recognition or belief is present? If one thought that normal adult human beings always recognize–at least at some level–what is motivating them to act as they are, one would opt for Quattrone and Tversky’s dual belief hypothesis about the sincere deniers. But Quattrone and Tversky offer no defense of the general thesis just mentioned. In light of their results, a convincing defense of that thesis would demonstrate that whenever such adults do not consciously recognize what they are up to, they nevertheless correctly believe that they are up to x, albeit without being aware that they believe this. That is a tall order.
Quattrone and Tversky suspect that (many of) the sincere deniers are self-deceived in believing that they did not try to shift their tolerance. They adopt Sackheim and Gur’s analysis of self-deception (1984, p. 239) and interpret their results accordingly. However, an interpretation of their data that avoids the dual belief assumption just criticized allows for self-deception on a less demanding conception. One can hold (a) that sincere deniers, due to a desire to live a long, healthy life, were motivated to believe that they had a healthy heart; (b) that this motivation (in conjunction with a belief that an upward/downward shift in tolerance would constitute evidence for the favored proposition) led them to try to shift their tolerance; and (c) that this motivation also led them to believe that they were not purposely shifting their tolerance (and not to believe the opposite). Their motivated false beliefs that they were not trying to alter their displayed tolerance can count as beliefs that they are self-deceived in holding without their also believing that they were attempting to do this.<25>
How did the subjects’ motivation lead them to hold the false belief at issue? Quattrone and Tversky offer a plausible suggestion (p. 243): “The physiological mechanism of pain may have facilitated self-deception in this experiment. Most people believe that heart responses and pain thresholds are ordinarily not under an individual’s voluntary control. This widespread belief would protect the assertion that the shift could not have been on purpose, for how does one ‘pull the strings’?” And notice that a belief that one did not try to alter the amount of time one left one’s hand in the water before reporting a pain-rating of “intolerable,” one based (in part) upon a belief about ordinary uncontrollability of “heart responses and pain thresholds,” need not be completely cold or unmotivated. Some subjects’ motivation might render the “uncontrollability” belief very salient, e.g., while also drawing attention away from internal cues that they were trying to shift their tolerance, including the intensity of the pain.
Like Quattrone and Tversky, biologist Robert Trivers (1985, pp. 416-17) endorses Gur and Sackheim’s definition of self-deception. Trivers maintains that self-deception has “evolved … because natural selection favors ever subtler ways of deceiving others” (p. 282, cf. pp. 415-20). We recognize that “shifty eyes, sweaty palms, and croaky voices may indicate the stress that accompanies conscious knowledge of attempted deception. By becoming unconscious of its deception, the deceiver hides these signs from the observer. He or she can lie without the nervousness that accompanies deception” (pp. 415-16). Trivers’s thesis cannot adequately be assessed here; but the point should be made that the thesis in no way depends for its plausibility upon self-deception’s requiring the presence of conflicting beliefs. Self-deception that satisfies the set of sufficient conditions I offered without satisfying the “dual belief” requirement is no less effective a tool for deceiving others. Trivers’s proposal hinges on the idea that agents who do not consciously believe the truth (p) have an advantage over agents who do in getting others to believe the pertinent falsehood (~p): consciousness of the truth tends to manifest itself in ways that tip one’s hand. But notice that an unconscious belief that p provides no help in this connection. Indeed, such a belief might generate tell-tale physiological signs of deception (recall the physiological manifestations of the alleged unconscious beliefs in Gur and Sackheim’s studies). If unconscious true beliefs would make self-deceivers less subtle interpersonal deceivers than they would be without these beliefs, and if self-deception evolved because natural selection favors subtlety in the deception of others, better that it evolve on my model than on the “dual belief” model Trivers accepts.
In criticizing attempted empirical demonstrations of the existence of self-deception on Sackheim & Gur’s model without producing empirical evidence that the subjects do not have “two contradictory beliefs,” have I been unfair to the researchers? Recall the dialectical situation. The researchers claim that they have demonstrated the existence of self-deception on the model at issue. I have shown that they have not demonstrated this. The tests they employ for the existence of “two contradictory beliefs” in their subjects are, for the reasons offered, inadequate. I have no wish to claim that it is impossible for an agent to believe that p while also believing that ~p.<26> My claim, to be substantiated further, is that there is no explanatory need to postulate such beliefs either in familiar cases of self-deception or in the alleged cases cited by these researchers and that plausible alternative explanations of the data may be generated by appealing to mechanisms and processes that are relatively well understood.
4. The Dynamic Puzzle
The central challenge posed by the dynamic puzzle sketched in Section 1 calls for an explanation of the alleged occurrence of garden-variety instances of self-deception. If a prospective self-deceiver, S, has no strategy, how can S succeed? And if S does have a strategy, how can S’s attempt to carry it out fail to be self-undermining in garden-variety cases?
It may be granted that self-deception typically is strategic at least in the following sense: when people deceive themselves they at least normally do so by engaging in potentially self-deceptive behavior, including cognitive behavior of the kinds catalogued in Section 2. Behavior of these kinds can be counted, in a broad sense of the term, as strategic, and the behavioral types may be viewed as strategies of self-deception. Such strategies divide broadly into two kinds, depending on their locus of operation. Internal-biasing strategies feature the manipulation of data that one already has. Input-control strategies feature one’s controlling (to some degree) which data one acquires.<27> There are also mixed strategies, involving both internal biasing and input control.
Another set of distinctions will prove useful. Regarding cognitive activities that contribute to motivationally biased belief, there are significant differences among (1) unintentional activities (e.g., unintentionally focusing on data of a certain kind), (2) intentional activities (e.g., intentionally focusing on data of a certain kind), and (3) intentional activities engaged in with the intention of deceiving oneself (e.g., intentionally focusing on data of a certain kind with the intention of deceiving oneself into believing that p). Many skeptical worries about the reality of self-deception are motivated partly by the assumption that 3 is characteristic of self-deception.
An important difference between 2 and 3 merits emphasis. Imagine a twelve-year-old, Beth, whose father died some months ago. Beth may find it comforting to reflect on pleasant memories of playing happily with her father, to look at family photographs of such scenes, and the like. Similarly, she may find it unpleasant to reflect on memories of her father leaving her behind to play ball with her brothers, as he frequently did. From time to time, she may intentionally focus her attention on the pleasant memories, intentionally linger over the pictures, and intentionally turn her attention away from memories of being left behind. As a consequence of such intentional activities, she may acquire a false, unwarranted belief that her father cared more deeply for her than for anyone else. Although her intentional cognitive activities may be explained, in part, by the motivational attractiveness of the hypothesis that he loved her most, those activities need not also be explained by a desire–much less an intention–to deceive herself into believing this hypothesis, or to cause herself to believe this. Intentional cognitive activities that contribute even in a relatively straightforward way to self-deception need not be guided by an intention to deceive oneself.<28>
For the record, I have defended a detailed account of intentions elsewhere (Mele 1992a, chs. 7-13). Intentions, as I view them, are executive attitudes toward plans, in a technical sense of “plan” that, in the limiting case, treats an agent’s mental representation of a prospective “basic” action like raising his arm as the plan-component of an intention to raise his arm. However, readers need not accept my view of intention to be persuaded by the arguments advanced here. It is enough that they understand intentions as belonging no less to the category “mental state” than beliefs and desires do and that they view intending to do something, A, as involving being settled (not necessarily irrevocably) upon A-ing, or upon trying to A.<29> Notice that one can have a desire (or motivation) to A without being at all settled upon A-ing. Desiring to take my daughter to the midnight dance while also desiring to take my son to the midnight movie, I need to make up my mind about what to do. But intending to take my daughter to the dance (and to make it up to my son later), my mind is made up. The “settledness” aspect of intentions is central to their “executive” nature, an issue examined in Mele 1992a.<30>
My resolution of the dynamic puzzle about self-deception is implicit in earlier sections. Such strategies of self-deception as positive and negative misinterpretation, selective attending, and selective evidence-gathering do not depend for their effectiveness upon agents’ employing them with the intention of deceiving themselves. Even the operation of cold mechanisms whose functioning one does not direct can bias one’s beliefs. When, under the right conditions, such mechanisms are primed by motivation and issue in motivated false beliefs, we have self-deception. Again, motivation can affect, among other things, the hypotheses that occur to one and the salience of those hypotheses and of data. For example, Don’s motivational condition favors the hypothesis that his paper was wrongly rejected; and Sid’s favors hypotheses about Roz’s behavior that are consistent with her being as fond of him as he is of her. In “testing” these hypotheses, these agents may accentuate supporting evidence and downplay, or even positively misinterpret, contrary data without intending to do that, and without intending to deceive themselves. Strategies of self-deception, in garden-variety cases of this kind, need not be rendered ineffective by agents’ intentionally exercising them with the knowledge of what they are up to; for, in garden-variety cases, self-deceivers need not intend to deceive themselves, strategically or otherwise. Since we can understand how causal processes that issue in garden-variety instances of self-deception succeed without the agent’s intentionally orchestrating the process, we avoid the other horn of the puzzle, as well.
5. Intentionally Deceiving Oneself
I have criticized the assumptions that self-deception entails intentionally deceiving oneself and that it requires simultaneously possessing beliefs whose propositional contents are mutually contradictory; and I have tried to show how occurrences of garden-variety self-deception may be explained. I have not claimed that believing that p while also believing that ~p is conceptually or psychologically impossible. But I have not encountered a compelling illustration of that phenomenon in a case of self-deception. Some might suggest that illustrations may be found in the literature on multiple personality. However, that phenomenon, if it is a genuine one, raises thorny questions about the self in self-deception. In such alleged cases, do individuals deceive themselves, with the result that they believe that p while also believing that ~p? Or do we rather have interpersonal deception–or at any rate something more closely resembling that than self-deception?<31> These are questions for another occasion. They take us far from garden-variety self-deception.
Intentionally deceiving oneself, in contrast, is unproblematically possible. Hypothetical illustrations are easily constructed. It is worth noting, however, that the unproblematic cases are remote from garden-variety self-deception.
Here is an illustration. Ike, a forgetful prankster skilled at imitating others’ handwriting, has intentionally deceived friends by secretly making false entries in their diaries. Ike has just decided to deceive himself by making a false entry in his own diary. Cognizant of his forgetfulness, he writes under today’s date, “I was particularly brilliant in class today,” and counts on eventually forgetting that what he wrote is false. Weeks later, when reviewing his diary, Ike reads this sentence and acquires the belief that he was brilliant in class on the specified day. If Ike intentionally deceived others by making false entries in their diaries, what is to prevent us from justifiably holding that he intentionally deceived himself in the imagined case? He intended to bring it about that he would believe that p, which he knew at the time to be false; and he executed that intention without a hitch, causing himself to believe, eventually, that p. Again, to deceive, on one standard definition, is to cause to believe what is false; and Ike’s causing himself to believe the relevant falsehood is no less intentional than his causing his friends to believe falsehoods (by doctoring their diaries).<32>

Ike’s case undoubtedly strikes readers as markedly dissimilar to garden-variety examples of self-deception–for instance, the case of the woman who falsely believes that her husband is not having an affair (or that she is not seriously ill, or that her child is not using drugs), in the face of strong evidence to the contrary. Why is that? Readers convinced that self-deception does not require the simultaneous presence of beliefs whose propositional contents are mutually contradictory will not seek an answer in the absence of such beliefs in Ike. The most obvious difference between Ike’s case and garden-variety examples of self-deception lies in the straightforwardly intentional nature of Ike’s project. Ike consciously sets out to deceive himself and intentionally and consciously executes his plan for so doing; ordinary self-deceivers behave quite differently.<33>

This indicates that in attempting to construct hypothetical cases that are, at once, paradigmatic cases of self-deception and cases of agents intentionally deceiving themselves, one must imagine that the agents’ intentions to deceive themselves are somehow hidden from them. I do not wish to claim that “hidden-intentions” are impossible. Our ordinary concept of intention leaves room, e.g., for “Freudian” intentions, hidden in some mental partition. And if there is conceptual space for hidden intentions that play a role in the etiology of behavior, there is conceptual space for hidden intentions to deceive ourselves, intentions that may influence our treatment of data.

As I see it, the claim is unwarranted, not incoherent, that intentions to deceive ourselves, or intentions to produce or sustain certain beliefs in ourselves–normally, intentions hidden from us–are at work in ordinary self-deception.<34> Without denying that “hidden-intention” cases of self-deception are possible, a theorist should ask what evidence there may be (in the real world) that an intention to deceive oneself is at work in a paradigmatic case of self-deception. Are there data that can only–or best–be explained on the hypothesis that such an intention is operative?

Evidence that agents desirous of its being the case that p eventually come to believe that p owing to a biased treatment of data is sometimes regarded as supporting the claim that these agents intended to deceive themselves. The biasing apparently is sometimes relatively sophisticated purposeful behavior, and one may assume that such behavior must be guided by an intention. However, as I have argued, the sophisticated behavior in garden-variety examples of self-deception (e.g., Sam’s case in Sec. 2) may be accounted for on a less demanding hypothesis that does not require the agents to possess relevant intentions: e.g., intentions to deceive themselves into believing that p, or to cause themselves to believe that p, or to promote their peace of mind by producing in themselves the belief that p. Once again, motivational states can prompt biased cognition of the sorts common in self-deception without the assistance of such intentions. In Sam’s case, a powerful motivational attraction to the hypothesis that Sally is not having an affair–in the absence both of a strong desire to ascertain the truth of the matter and of conclusive evidence of Sally’s infidelity–may prompt the line of reasoning described earlier and the other belief-protecting behavior. An explicit, or consciously held, intention to deceive himself in these ways into holding on to his belief in Sally’s fidelity would undermine the project; and a hidden intention to deceive is not required to produce these activities.

Even if this is granted, it may be held that the supposition that such intentions always or typically are at work in cases of self-deception is required to explain why a motivated biasing of data occurs in some situations but not in other very similar situations (Talbott 1995). Return to Don, who is self-deceived in believing that his article was wrongly rejected. At some point, while revising his article, Don may have wanted it to be true that the paper was ready for publication, that no further work was necessary. Given the backlog of work on his desk, he may have wanted that just as strongly as he later wanted it to be true that the paper was wrongly rejected. Further, Don’s evidential situation at these two times may have been very similar: e.g., his evidence that the paper was ready may have been no weaker than his later evidence that the paper was wrongly rejected, and his evidence that the paper was not ready may have been no stronger than his later evidence that the paper was rightly rejected. Still, we may suppose, although Don deceived himself into believing that the article was wrongly rejected, he did not deceive himself into believing that the article was ready for publication: he kept working on it–searching for new objections to rebut, clarifying his prose, and so on–for another week. To account for the difference in the two situations, it may be claimed, we must suppose that in one situation Don decided to deceive himself (without being aware of this) whereas in the other he did not so decide; and in deciding to do something, A, one forms an intention to A. If the execution of self-deceptive biasing strategies were a nonintended consequence of being in a motivational/evidential condition of a certain kind, the argument continues, then Don would either have engaged in such strategies on both occasions or on neither: again, to account for the difference in his cognitive behavior on the earlier and later occasions, we need to suppose that an intention to deceive himself was at work in one case and not in the other.

This argument is flawed. If on one of the two occasions Don decides (hence, intends) to deceive himself whereas on the other he does not, then, presumably, there is some difference in the two situations that accounts for this difference. But if there is a difference, D, in the two situations aside From the intention-difference that the argument alleges, an argument is needed for the claim that D itself cannot account for Don’s self-deceptively biasing data in one situation and his not so doing in the other. Given that a difference in intention across situations (presence in one vs. absence in the other) requires some additional difference in the situations that would account for this difference, why should we suppose that there is no difference in the situations that can account for Don’s biasing data in one and not in the other in a way that does not depend on his intending to deceive himself in one but not in the other? Why should we think that intention is involved in the explanation of the primary difference to be explained? Why cannot the primary difference be explained instead, e.g., by Don’s having a strong desire to avoid mistakenly believing the paper to be ready (or to avoid submitting a paper that is not yet ready) and his having at most a weak desire later to avoid mistakenly believing that the paper was wrongly rejected? Such a desire, in the former case, may block any tendency to bias data in a way supporting the hypothesis that the paper is ready for publication.<35>

At this point, proponents of the thesis that self-deception is intentional deception apparently need to rely on claims about the explanatory place of intention in self-deception itself, as opposed to its place in explaining differences across situations. Claims of that sort have already been evaluated here; and they have been found wanting.

Advocates of the view that self-deception is essentially (or normally) intentional may seek support in a distinction between self-deception and wishful thinking. They may claim that although wishful thinking does not require an intention to deceive oneself, self-deception differs from it precisely in being intentional. This may be interpreted either as stipulative linguistic legislation or as a substantive claim. On the former reading, a theorist is simply expressing a decision to reserve the expression ‘self-deception’ for an actual or hypothetical phenomenon that requires an intention to deceive oneself or an intention to produce in oneself a certain belief. Such a theorist may proceed to inquire about the possibility of the phenomenon and about how occurrences of self-deception, in the stipulated sense, may be explained. On the latter reading, a theorist is advancing a substantive conceptual thesis: the thesis that the concepts (or our ordinary concepts) of wishful thinking and of self-deception differ along the lines mentioned.

I have already criticized the conceptual thesis about self-deception. A comment on wishful thinking is in order. If wishful thinking is not wishful believing, one difference between wishfully thinking that p and being self-deceived in believing that p is obvious. If, however, wishful thinking is wishful believing–in particular, motivationally biased, false believing–then, assuming that it does not overlap with self-deception (an assumption challenged in Mele 1987a, p. 135), the difference may lie in the relative strength of relevant evidence against the believed proposition: wishful thinkers may encounter weaker counter-evidence than self-deceivers (Szabados 1985, pp. 148-49). This difference requires a difference in intention only if the relative strength of the evidence against the propositions that self-deceivers believe is such as to require that their acquiring or retaining those beliefs depends upon their intending to do so, or upon their intending to deceive themselves. And this thesis about relative evidential strength, I have argued, is false.

Consciously executing an intention to deceive oneself is possible, as in Ike’s case; but such cases are remote from paradigmatic examples of self-deception. Executing a “hidden” intention to deceive oneself is possible, too; but, as I have argued, there is no good reason to maintain that such intentions are at work in paradigmatic self-deception. Part of what I have argued, in effect, is that some theorists–philosophers and psychologists alike–have made self-deception more theoretically perplexing than it actually is by imposing upon the phenomena a problematic conception of self-deception.
6. Conclusion
Philosophers’ conclusions tend to be terse; psychologists favor detailed summaries. Here I seek a mean. My aim in this paper has been to clarify the nature and relatively proximate etiology of self-deception. In sections 1-4, I resolved a pair of much-discussed puzzles about self-deception, advanced a plausible set of sufficient conditions for self-deception, and criticized empirical studies that allegedly demonstrate the existence of self-deception on a strict interpersonal model. In section 5, I argued that intentionally deceiving oneself is unproblematically possible (as in Ike’s case), but that representative unproblematic cases are remote from garden-variety instances of self-deception. Conceptual work on self-deception guided by the thought that the phenomenon must be largely isomorphic with stereotypical interpersonal deception has generated interesting conceptual puzzles. But, I have argued, it also has led us away from a proper understanding of self-deception. Stereotypical interpersonal deception is intentional deception; normal self-deception, I have argued, probably is not. If it were intentional, “hidden” intentions would be at work; and we lack good grounds for holding that such intentions are operative in self-deception. Further, in stereotypical interpersonal deception, there is some time at which the deceiver believes that ~p and the deceived believes that p; but there is no good reason to hold, I have argued, that self-deceivers simultaneously believe that ~p and believe that p. Recognizing these points, we profitably seek an explanatory model for self-deception that diverges from models for the explanation of intentional conduct. I have not produced a full-blown model for this; but, unless I am deceived, I have pointed the way toward such a model–a model informed by empirical work on motivationally biased belief and by a proper appreciation of the point that motivated behavior is not coextensive with intended behavior.

I conclude with a challenge for readers inclined to think that there are cases of self-deception that fit the strict interpersonal model–in particular, cases in which the self-deceiver simultaneously believes that p and believes that ~p. The challenge is simply stated: Provide convincing evidence of the existence of such self-deception. The most influential empirical work on the topic has not met the challenge, as I have shown. Perhaps some readers can do better. However, if I am right, such cases will be exceptional instances of self-deception–not the norm.<36>
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1. I have addressed many of these questions elsewhere. Mele 1987a argues that proper explanations of self-deception and of irrational behavior manifesting akrasia or “weakness of will” are importantly similar and generate serious problems for a standard philosophical approach to explaining purposive behavior. Mele 1992a develops an account of the psychological springs of intentional action that illuminates the etiology of motivated rational and irrational behavior alike. Mele 1995 defends a view of self-control and its opposite that applies not only to overt action and to belief but also to such things as higher-order reflection on personal values and principles; this book also displays the place of self-control in individual autonomy. Several referees noted connections between ideas explored in this article and these issues; some expressed a desire that I explicitly address them here. Although I take some steps in that direction, my primary concern is a proper understanding of self-deception itself. Given space constraints, I set aside questions about the utility of self-deception; but if my arguments succeed, they illuminate the phenomenon whose utility is at issue. I also lack space to examine particular philosophical works on self-deception. On ground-breaking work by Audi (e.g., 1985), Bach (1981), Fingarette (1969), Rorty (e.g., 1980), and others, see Mele 1987b; on important work by Davidson (1982) and Pears (1984), see Mele 1987a, ch. 10.

2. On the occasional rationality of self-deception, see Audi 1985, 1989, and Baron 1988, p. 40. On the question whether self-deception is an adaptive mechanism, see Taylor 1989 and essays in Lockard & Paulhus 1988.

3. For example, subjects instructed to conduct “symmetrical memory searches” are less likely than others to fall prey to the confirmation bias (see Sec. 2), and subjects’ confidence in their responses to “knowledge questions” is reduced when they are invited to provide grounds for doubting the correctness of those responses (Kunda 1990, pp. 494-95). Presumably, people aware of the confirmation bias may reduce biased thinking in themselves by giving themselves the former instruction; and, fortunately, we do sometimes remind ourselves to consider both the pros and the cons before making up our minds about the truth of important propositions–even when we are tempted to do otherwise. For a review of the debate, see Kunda 1990. For a revolutionary view of the place of motivation in the etiology of beliefs, see Ainslie 1992.

4. Literature on the “paradoxes” of self-deception is reviewed in Mele 1987b.

5. One response is mental partitioning: the deceived part of the mind is unaware of what the deceiving part is up to. See Pears 1984 (cf. 1991) for a detailed response of this kind and Davidson 1985 (cf. 1982) for a more modest partitioning view. For criticism of some partitioning views of self-deception, see Johnston 1988 and Mele 1987a, ch. 10, 1987b, pp. 3-6.

6. This is not to say that self-deception is always “self-serving” in this way. See Mele 1987a, pp. 116-18; Pears 1984, pp. 42-44. Sometimes we deceive ourselves into believing that p is true even though we would like p to be false.

7. Regarding the effects of motivation on time spent reading threatening information, see Baumeister & Cairns 1992.

8. The following descriptions derive from Mele 1987a, pp. 144-45.

9. For a challenge to studies of the vividness effect, see Taylor & Thompson 1982. They contend that research on the issue has been flawed in various ways, but that studies conducted in “situations that reflect the informational competition found in everyday life” might “show the existence of a strong vividness effect” (pp. 178-79).

10. This theme is developed in Mele 1987a, ch. 10 in explaining the occurrence of self-deception. Kunda 1990 develops the same theme, paying particular attention to evidence that motivation sometimes primes the confirmation bias. Cf. Silver et al. 1989, p. 222.

11. For a motivational interpretation of the confirmation bias, see Frey 1986, pp. 70-74.

12. Cf. Mele 1987a, pp. 125-26. Also cf. Bach 1981, pp. 358-61 on “rationalization” and “evasion,” Baron 1988, pp. 258 and 275-76 on positive and negative misinterpretation and “selective exposure,” and Greenwald 1988 on various kinds of “avoidance.” Again, I am not suggesting that, in all cases, agents who are self-deceived in believing that p desire that p (see n. 6). For other routes to self-deception, including what is sometimes called “immersion,” see Mele 1987a, pp. 149-51, 157-58. On self-handicapping, another potential route to self-deception, see Higgins et al. 1990.

13. Literature on “selective exposure” is reviewed in Frey 1986. Frey defends the reality of motivated selective evidence-gathering, arguing that a host of data are best accommodated by a variant of Festinger’s (1957, 1964) cognitive dissonance theory.

14. For references to work defending the view that self-deception typically is not intentional, see Mele 1987b, p. 11; also see Johnston 1988.

15. This is not to deny that self-deceivers sometimes believe that p while being aware that their evidence favors ~p. On such cases, see Mele 1987a, ch. 8 and pp. 135-36.

16. Condition 4 does not assert that the self-deceiver is aware of this.

17. On a relevant difference between being deceived in believing that p and being deceived into believing that p, see Mele 1987a, pp. 127-28.

18. Notice that not all instances of motivationally biased belief satisfy my set of sufficient conditions for self-deception. In some cases of such belief, what we believe happens to be true. Further, since we are imperfect assessors of data, we might fail to notice that our data provide greater warrant for p than for ~p and end up believing that p as a result of a motivationally biased treatment of data.

19. This is true, of course, on “degree-of-belief” conceptions of belief, as well.

20. Notice that simultaneously believing that p and believing that ~p–i.e., Bp & B~p–is distinguishable from believing the conjunction of the two propositions: B(p & ~p). We do not always put two and two together.

21. In a later paper, Sackheim grants this (1988, pp. 161-62).

22. The study is described and criticized in greater detail in Mele 1987a, pp. 152-58. Parts of this section are based on that discussion.

23. For supporting argumentation, see Mele 1987a, pp. 153-56.

24. As this implies, in challenging the claim that the sincere deniers have the belief at issue, I am not challenging the popular idea that attempts are explained at least partly in terms of pertinent beliefs and desires.

25. Obviously, whether the subjects satisfy the conditions offered in Section 2 as sufficient for self-deception depends on the relative strength of their evidence for the pertinent pair of propositions.

26. Locating such cases is not as easy as some might think. One reader appealed to blindsight. There is evidence that some people who believe themselves to be blind can see (e.g., Weiskrantz 1986). They perform much better (and in some cases, much worse) on certain tasks than they would if they were simply guessing, and steps are taken to ensure that they are not benefitting from any other sense. Suppose some sighted people in fact believe themselves to be blind. Do they also believe that they are not blind, or, e.g., that they see x? If it were true that all sighted people (even those who believe themselves to be blind) believe themselves to be sighted, the answer would be yes. But precisely the evidence for blindsight is evidence against the truth of this universal proposition. The evidence indicates that, under certain conditions, people may see without believing that they are seeing. The same reader appealed to a more mundane case of the following sort. Ann set her watch a few minutes ahead to promote punctuality. Weeks later, when we ask her for the time, Ann looks at her watch and reports what she sees, “11:10.” We then ask whether her watch is accurate. If she recalls having set it ahead, she might sincerely reply, “No, it’s fast; it’s actually a little earlier than 11:10.” Now, at time t, when Ann says “11:10,” does she both believe that it is 11:10 and believe that it is not 11:10? There are various alternative possibilities. Perhaps, e.g., although she has not forgotten setting her watch ahead, her memory of so doing is not salient for her at t and she does not infer at t that it is not 11:10; or perhaps she has adopted the strategy of acting as if her watch is accurate and does not actually believe any of its readings. (Defending a promising answer to the following question is left as an exercise for the reader: What would constitute convincing evidence that, at t, Ann believes that it is 11:10 and believes that it is not 11:10?)

27. Pears identifies what I have called internal biasing and input-control strategies and treats “acting as if something were so in order to generate the belief that it is so” as a third strategy (1984, p. 61). I examine “acting as if” in Mele 1987a, pp. 149-51, 157-58.

28. For further discussion of the difference between 2 and 3 and of cases of self-deception in which agents intentionally selectively focus on data supportive of a preferred hypothesis (e.g.) without intending to deceive themselves, see Mele 1987a, pp. 146, 149-51.

29. Readers who hold that intending is a matter of degree should note that the same may be said about being settled upon doing something.

30. For criticism of opposing conceptions of intention in the psychological literature, see Mele 1992a, ch. 7. On connections between intention and intentional action, see Mele 1992a, 1992b, and Mele & Moser 1994.

31. Similar questions have been raised about partitioning hypotheses that fall short of postulating multiple personalities. For references, see Mele 1987b, p. 4; cf. Johnston 1988.

32. On “time-lag” scenarios of this general kind, see Davidson 1985, p. 145; McLaughlin 1988, pp. 31-33; Mele 1983, pp. 374-75, 1987a, pp. 132-34; Sackheim 1988, p. 156; Sorensen 1985.

33. Some readers may be attracted to the view that although Ike deceives himself, this is not self-deception at all (cf. Davidson 1985, p. 145; McLaughlin 1988). Imagine that Ike had been embarrassed by his performance in class that day and consciously viewed the remark as ironic when he wrote it. Imagine also that Ike strongly desires to see himself as exceptionally intelligent and that this desire helps to explain, in a way psychotherapy might reveal to Ike, his writing the sentence. If, in this scenario, Ike later came to believe that he was brilliant in class that day on the basis of a subsequent reading of his diary, would such readers be more inclined to view the case as one of self-deception?

34. Pears 1991 reacts to the charge of incoherence, responding to Johnston 1988.

35. Talbott suggests that there are different preference rankings in the two kinds of case. (The preferences need not be objects of awareness, of course.) In cases of self-deception, the agents’ highest relevant preference is that they believe “that p is true, if p is true”; and their second-highest preference is that they believe “that p is true, if p is false”: self-deceiving agents want to believe that p is true whether or not it is true. In the contrasting cases, agents have the same highest preference, but the self-deceiver’s second-highest preference is the lowest preference of these agents: these agents have a higher-ranking preference “not to believe that p, if p is false.” Suppose, for the sake of argument, that this diagnosis of the difference between the two kinds of case is correct. Why should we hold that in order to account for the target difference–namely, that in one case there is a motivated biasing of data and in the other there is not–we must suppose that an intention to deceive oneself (or to get oneself to believe that p) is at work in one case but not in the other? Given our understanding of various ways in which motivation can bias cognition in the absence of such an intention, we can understand how one preference ranking can do this while another does not. An agent with the second preference ranking may be strongly motivated to ascertain whether p is true or false; and that may block any tendency toward motivated biasing of relevant data. This would not be true of an agent with the first preference ranking.

36. Parts of this article derive from my “Two Paradoxes of Self-Deception” (presented at a 1993 conference on self-deception at Stanford). Drafts were presented at the University of Alabama, McGill University, and Mount Holyoke College, where I received useful feedback. Initial work on this article occurred during my tenure of a 1992/93 NEH Fellowship for College Teachers, a 1992/93 Fellowship at the National Humanities Center, and an NEH grant for participation in a 1993 Summer Seminar, “Intention,” at Stanford (Michael Bratman, director). For helpful written comments, I am grateful to George Ainslie, Kent Bach, David Bersoff, John Furedy, Stevan Harnad, Harold Sackheim, and BBS’s anonymous referees.




Boston, MA—Prominent neuroscientists, theologians and bioethicists gathered at MIT on Sunday for a 3 day conference, Our Brains and Us: Neuroethics, Responsibility, and the Self, sponsored by the Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion at the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

To a certain extent the title of the conference seems a bit strange to those who think that our brains pretty much are “us.” Brains are the organs in which our desires, memories, hopes, plans, and character all reside. We recognize the centrality of the brain to our personhood when we consider the question: would you prefer to be the donor or the recipient of a brain transplant?

The conferees are considering such issues as: If a brain scanning technology could reliably predict that someone will commit violence, should they be subject to prior restraint, or required to take medications that would moderate that tendency? Do people who have suffered painful abuse have an obligation to retain that memory or do they have the right to blunt it? Perhaps perpetrators of violence should be required to retain the memory of their evil, while victims would be allowed to moderate their recollections?

They are also debating questions of what constitutes neural normalcy: When can outsiders legitimately intervene to correct another person’s eccentricities? Religious scholar David Hogue suggests that modern neuroscience is encouraging unjustified notions of “perfectability” and that we “run the risk of becoming gods.”

Besides these large questions, neuroscientists are displaying some of the findings of their field. Floyd Bloom from the Scripps Research Institute showed a brain scan of two players engaged in a kind of tit-for-tat game in which one player learns to trust another. The interesting aspect of the brain scan was that areas of the basal ganglia associated with feelings of reward “light up” as the player comes to trust the other player. Positive social interaction elicits the same internal reward system that food, water and sex do. Have neuroscientists identified “trust” in the brain? University of Pennsylvania brain researcher Martha Farah reviewed the latest brain scanning literature which has tried to prove the hypothesis that there is a “self module” in the brain—that is, a network of brain cells that would respond predictably when a brain considers itself and its body. Farah’s review found that current brain imaging studies could not in fact confirm such a claim. There does seem to be a module (network) devoted to identifying “persons” that helps us predict the behavior of others in terms of reasons; assumes a continuity of identity of other persons; and enables us to assign blame and punish others.

Author Andrew Solomon’s struggle with depression led him to extensive study of neuroscience research. Solomon noted that in the past psychiatrists would argue that depression caused by psychological trauma (say child abuse or surviving the Holocaust) would be better treated by psychological means, such as talk therapy, whereas depression that doesn’t seem to come from any specific incident but seems to arise from a neurochemical shift is more amenable to drug treatments. Solomon pointed out that brain researcher Eric Kandel has found that talk therapy and anti-depressant drugs induce the same set of physical changes in the brain.

On the religious front, theologian Nancey Murphy from Fuller Theological Seminary described some remarkably interesting scholarly research that suggests that the early Christians did not subscribe to the idea of an immaterial soul separate from the body. Murphy argued that the idea of an immaterial soul was smuggled in when Hebrew scriptures were translated into Greek around 250 BCE. For example, the Hebrew word nefesh, which referred to the whole living person, was translated as psyche, or soul. In Hebrew thought, the concept of spirit stands the whole person in relation to God, not some separable part of a person. Murphy argued that New Testament authors were not teaching about the metaphysical condition of human beings or asking whether there is a period of conscious existence between death and bodily resurrection. “The Christian hope for eternal life is staked on bodily resurrection, not on the existence of an immaterial soul,” concluded Murphy. “Thus contemporary believers can formulate their views in conformance with science. There is no conflict between science and religion.”

Finally, David Hogue asked, “Is there anything the neuroscience will not be asked to explain? I suspect that the answer is ‘no'”. He seemed rather glum about the prospect.

To a certain extent the title of the conference seems a bit strange to those of us who think that our brains pretty much are “us.” Brains are the organs in which our desires, memories, hopes, plans, and character all reside. We recognize the centrality of the brain to our personhood when we consider the question: would you prefer to be the donor or the recipient of a brain transplant?

The conferees are considering such issues as: If a brain scanning technology could reliably predict that someone will commit violence, should they be subject to prior restraint, or required to take medications that would moderate that tendency? Do people who have suffered painful abuse have an obligation to retain that memory or do they have the right to blunt it? Perhaps perpetrators of violence should be required to retain the memory of their evil, while victims would be allowed to moderate their recollections?

They are also debating questions of what constitutes neural normalcy: When can outsiders legitimately intervene to correct another person’s eccentricities? Religious scholar David Hogue suggests that modern neuroscience is encouraging unjustified notions of “perfectability” and that we “run the risk of becoming gods.”

Besides these large questions, neuroscientists are displaying some of the findings of their field. Floyd Bloom from the Scripps Research Institute showed a brain scan of two players engaged in a kind of tit-for-tat game in which one player learns to trust another. The interesting aspect of the brain scan was that areas of the basal ganglia associated with feelings of reward “light up” as the player comes to trust the other player. Positive social interaction elicits the same internal reward system that food, water and sex do. Have neuroscientists identified “trust” in the brain? University of Pennsylvania brain researcher Martha Farah reviewed the latest brain scanning literature which has tried to prove the hypothesis that there is a “self module” in the brain—that is, a network of brain cells that would respond predictably when a brain considers itself and its body. Farah’s review found that current brain imaging studies could not in fact confirm such a claim. There does seem to be a module (network) devoted to identifying “persons” that helps us predict the behavior of others in terms of reasons; assumes a continuity of identity of other persons; and enables us to assign blame and punish others.

Author Andrew Solomon’s struggle with depression led him to extensive study of neuroscience research. Solomon noted that in the past psychiatrists would argue that depression caused by psychological trauma (say child abuse or surviving the Holocaust) would be better treated by psychological means, such as talk therapy, whereas depression that doesn’t seem to come from any specific incident but seems to arise from a neurochemical shift is more amenable to drug treatments. Solomon pointed out that brain researcher Eric Kandel has found that talk therapy and anti-depressant drugs induce the same set of physical changes in the brain.

On the religious front, theologian Nancey Murphy from Fuller Theological Seminary described some remarkably interesting scholarly research that suggests that the early Christians did not subscribe to the idea of an immaterial soul separate from the body. Murphy argued that the idea of an immaterial soul was smuggled in when Hebrew scriptures were translated into Greek around 250 BCE. For example, the Hebrew word nefesh, which referred to the whole living person, was translated as psyche, or soul. In Hebrew thought, the concept of spirit stands the whole person in relation to God, not some separable part of a person. Murphy argued that New Testament authors were not teaching about the metaphysical condition of human beings or asking whether there is a period of conscious existence between death and bodily resurrection. “The Christian hope for eternal life is staked on bodily resurrection, not on the existence of an immaterial soul,” concluded Murphy. “Thus contemporary believers can formulate their views in conformance with science. There is no conflict between science and religion.”

Finally, David Hogue asked, “Is there anything the neuroscience will not be asked to explain? I suspect that the answer is ‘no'”. He seemed rather glum about the prospect.

Minds on Brains, Hobnobbing with neuroscientists and theologians, Matt Welch, April 18, 2005



Seeing and Knowing

The present paper has two major goals, one of which is to argue that seeing is not always perceiving and the other of which is to argue that visual perception alone leads to knowledge of the world. Let me immediately try to make these two cryptic claims more transparent. Not all human vision has been designed to allow visual perception. Seeing can and often does make us visually aware of objects, properties and facts in the world. But it need not. Often enough, seeing allows us to act efficiently on objects of which we are dimly  aware, if at all. While moving at high speed, for example, experienced drivers are sometimes capable of avoiding an interfering obstacle of whose visual attributes they become fully aware afterwards. One may efficiently either catch or avoid being hit by a flying tennis ball without being aware of either its color or texture. This is the sense in which seeing is not always perceiving. If so, then the question arises as to the nature, function and cognitive role of non-perceptual vision. Here, I will make two joint claims. First of all, I will try to argue that the main job of human visual perception is to provide visual information for what functionalist philosophers have called  the “belief box”. In other words, visual percepts are inputs to further conceptual processing whose output can be stored in the belief box. Secondly, I will try to argue that the function of that part of the visual system that produces what I shall call “non-perceptual” or more often “visuomotor” representations is to provide visual guidance to the “intention box”. More specifically, I will argue that, unlike visual percepts, visuomotor representations — which, I shall claim, are genuine representations — present visual information to motor intentions and serve as inputs to “causally indexical” concepts. On the joint assumptions (that I accept) that in the relevant propositional sense, only facts can be known, and that one cannot know a fact unless one believes that this very fact (or state of affairs) holds, then it follows from my distinction between perceptual and visuomotor processing that only visual perception can give rise to “detached” knowledge of the mind-independent world.

I. Not all seeing is perceiving
I.1. The dualistic model of the human visual system
            In their (1982) paper “Two Cortical Visual Systems”, the cognitive neuroscientists Leslie Ungerleider and Mortimer Mishkin posited an anatomical distinction between the ventral pathway and the dorsal pathway in the primate visual system (see Figure 1). The former projects the primary visual cortex onto inferotemporal areas. The latter projects the primary visual cortex onto parietal areas, which serve as a relay between the primary visual cortex, the premotor and the motor cortex. Ungerleider and Mishkin based their anatomical distinction on neurophysiological and behavioral evidence gathered from the study of macaque monkeys. They performed intrusive lesions respectively in the ventral and in the dorsal pathway of the visual system of macaque monkeys and they found the following double dissociation. Animals with a lesion in the ventral pathway were impaired in the identification and recognition of the colors, textures and shapes of objects. But they were relatively unimpaired in tasks or spatial orientation. In tasks of spatial orientation, they were presented with two wells one of which contained food and the other of which was empty: the former was closer to a landmark than the latter (see Figure 2). Animals with a ventral lesion could accurately use the presence of the landmark in order to discriminate the well with food from the well without. By contrast, animals with a dorsal lesion were severely disoriented, but their capacity to identify and recognize the shapes, colors and textures of objects were well-preserved. On this basis, Ungerleider and Mishkin (1982) concluded that the ventral pathway of the primate visual system is the What system and the dorsal pathway of the primate visual system is the Where system.

            In their (1995) book, The Visual Brain in Action, the cognitive neuroscientists David Milner and Mel Goodale presented a number of arguments in favor of a new interpretation of the dualistic model of the human visual system. On their view, the ventral stream of the human visual system serves what they call “vision-for-perception” and the dorsal stream serves what they call “vision-for-action”. The important idea underlying Milner and Goodale’s dualistic model of human vision is that one and the same visual stimulus can be processed in two fundamentally different ways. Now, two caveats are important here. First of all, it is quite clear, I think, that, as Austin (1962) emphasized, humans can see a great variety of things: they can see e.g., tables, trees, rivers, substances, gases, vapors, mountains, flames, clouds, smoke, shadows, holes, pictures, movies, events and actions. Here, I will not examine the ontological status of all the various things that human beings can see and I shall restrict myself to seeing ordinary middle-sized objects that can also happen to be targets of human actions. Secondly, it is no objection to the dualistic model of the human visual system to acknowledge that, in the real life of normal human subjects, the two distinct modes of visual processing are constantly collaborating. Indeed, the very idea that they collaborate — if and when they do — presupposes that they are distinct. The trick of course is to find experimental conditions in which the two modes of visual processing can be dissociated. In the following, I will provide some examples drawn first from the psychophysical study of normal human subjects and then from the neuropsychological study of brain-lesioned human patients.

I.2. Psychophysical evidence
            Bridgeman et al. (1975) Goodale et al. (1986) found that normal subjects can point accurately to a target on the screen of a computer whose motion they could not consciously notice because it coincided with one of their saccadic eye movement (see Jeannerod, 1997: 82). Castiello et al. (1991) found that subjects are able to correct the trajectory of their hand movement directed towards a moving target some 300 milliseconds before they became conscious of the target’s change of location. Pisella et al. (2000) and Rossetti & Pisella (2000) performed experiments involving a pointing task in which subjects were presented with a green target towards which they were requested to point their index finger. Some of them were instructed to stop their pointing movement towards the target when and only when it changed location by jumping either to the left or to the right. Pisella et al. (2000) and Rossetti & Pisella (2000) found a significant percentage of very fast unwilled correction movements generated by what they called the “automatic pilot” for hand movement. In a second experiment, Pisella et al. (2000) presented subjects simultaneously with pairs of a green and a red target. They were instructed to point to the green target, but the color of the two targets could be interchanged unexpectedly at movement onset. Unlike a change of target location, a change of color did not elicit fast unwilled corrective movements by the “automatic pilot”. On this basis, Pisella et al. (2000) draw a contrast between the fast visuomotor processing of the location of a target in egocentric coordinates and  the slower visual processing of the color of an object.

            One psychophysical area of particular interest is the study of visual size-contrast illusions. One particularly well-known such illusion is the Titchener or Ebbinghaus illusion. The standard version of the illusion consists of the display of two circles of equal diameter, one surrounded by an annulus of circles greater than it, and the other surrounded by an annulus of circles smaller than it. Although they are equal, the former looks smaller than the latter (see Figure 3). One plausible account of the Titchener illusion is that the array of smaller circles is judged to be more distant than the array of larger circles. Visually based perceptual judgments of distance and size are typically relative judgments: in a perceptual task, one cannot but fail to see some things as smaller (or larger) and closer (or further away) than other neighboring things that are parts of a single visual array. In perceptual tasks, the output of obligatory comparisons of sizes, distances and positions of constituents of a visual array serves as input to perceptual constancy mechanisms. As a result, of two physically equal objects, if one is perceived as more distant from the observer than the other, the former will be perceived as larger than the latter. A non-standard version of the illusion consists in the display of two circles of unequal diameter: the larger of the two is surrounded by an annulus of circles larger than it, while the smaller of the two is surrounded by an annulus of circles smaller than it, so that the two unequal circles look equal.

            Aglioti et al. (1995) designed an experiment in which they replaced the two central circles by two graspable three-dimensional plastic disks, which they displayed within a horizontal plane. In a first row of experiments with pairs of unequal disks whose diameters ranged from 27 mm to 33 mm, they found that on average the disk in the annulus of larger circles had to be 2,5 mm wider than the disk in the annulus of smaller circles in order for both to look equal. These numbers provide a measure of the delicacy of the human visual system. Finally, Aglioti et al. (1995) alternated presentations of physically unequal disks, which looked equal, and presentations of physically equal disks, which looked unequal. Both kinds of trials were presented randomly and so were the left vs. right positions of either kind of stimuli. Subjects were instructed to pick up the disk on the left between the thumb and index finger of their right hand if they thought the two disks to be equal or to pick up the disk on the right if they judged them to be unequal.

            The sequence of subjects’ choices of the disk on the right or the disk on the left provided a measure of the magnitude of the illusion prompted by the perceptual comparison between two disks surrounded by two distinct annuli. In the visuomotor task, the measure of grip size was based on the unfolding of the natural grasping movement performed by subjects while their hand approached the object. During a prehension movement, fingers progressively stretch to a maximal aperture before they close down until contact with the object. It has been found that the maximum grip aperture (MGA) takes place at a relatively fixed point, i.e., at about 60% of the duration of the movement (cf. Jeannerod, 1984). In non-illusory contexts, MGA has been found to be reliably correlated with the object’s physical size. Although much larger, it is directly proportional to the actual physical size of the object. MGA cannot depend on a conscious visual comparison between the size of the object and subjects’ hand during the prehension movement since the correlation between MGA and object’s size is reliable even when subjects have no visual access to their own hand. Rather, MGA is assumed to result from an early anticipatory automatic visual process of calibration. Thus, Aglioti et al. (1995) measured MGA in flight using optoelectronic recording.

            What Aglioti et al. (1995) found was that, unlike comparative perceptual judgment expressed by the sequence of choices of either the disk on the left or the disk on the right, the grip was not significantly affected by the illusion. The influence of the illusion was significantly stronger on perceptual judgment than on the grasping task. This experiment, however, raises a number of methodological problems. The main issue, raised by Pavani et al. (1999) and Franz et al. (2000), is the asymmetry between the two tasks. In the perceptual task, subjects are asked to compare two distinct disks surrounded by two different annuli. But in the grasping task, subjects focus on a single disk surrounded by an annulus. So the question arises whether, from the observation that the comparative perceptual judgment is more affected by the illusion than the grasping task, one may conclude that perception and action are based on two distinct representational systems.

            Aware of this problem, Haffenden & Goodale (1998) performed the same experiment, but they designed one more task: in addition to instructing subjects to pick up the disk on the left if they judged the two disks to be equal in size or to pick up the disk on the right if they judged them to be unequal, they required subjects to manually estimate between the thumb and index finger of their right hand the size of the disk on the left if they judged the disks to be equal in size and to manually estimate the size of the disk on the right if they judged them to be unequal (see Figure 4). Haffenden & Goodale (1998) found that the effect of the illusion on the manual estimation of the size of a disk (after comparison) was intermediary between comparative judgment and grasping.

            Furthermore, Haffenden & Goodale (1998) found that the presence of an annulus had a selective effect on grasping. They contrasted the presentation of pairs of disks either against a blank background or surrounded by an annulus of circles of intermediate size, i.e., of size intermediary between the size of the smaller circles and the size of the larger circles involved in the contrasting pair of illusory annuli. The circles of intermediate size in the annulus were slightly larger than the disks of equal size. When a pair of physically different disks were presented against either a blank background or a pair of annuli made of intermediate size circles, both grip scaling and manual estimates reflected the physical difference in size between the disks. When physically equal disks were displayed against either a blank background or a pair of annuli made of circles of intermediate size, no significant difference was found between grasping and manual estimate. The following dissociation, however, turned up: when physically equal disks were presented with a middle-sized annulus, overall MGA was smaller than when physically equal disks were presented against a blank background. Thus, the presence of an annulus of middle-sized circles prompted a smaller MGA than a blank background. Conversely, overall manual estimate was larger when physically equal disks were presented against a background with a middle-sized  annulus than when they were presented against a blank background. The illusory effect of the middle-size annulus presumably arises from the fact that the circles in the annulus were slightly larger than the equal disks. Thus, whereas the presence of a middle-sized annulus contributes to increasing manual estimation, it contributes to decreasing grip scaling. This dissociation shows that the presence of an annulus may have conflicting effects on perceptual estimate and on grip aperture.

            Finally, Haffenden, Schiff & Goodale (2001) went one step further. They presented subjects with three distinct Titchener circle displays one at a time, two of which are the traditional Titchener central disk surrounded by an annulus of circles either smaller than it or larger than it. In the former case, the gap between the edge of the disk and the annulus is 3 mm. In the latter case, the gap between the edge of the disk and the annulus is 11 mm. In the third display, the annulus is made of small circles (of the same size as in the first display), but the gap between the edge of the disk and the annulus is 11 mm (like the gap in the second display with an annulus of larger circles) (see Figure 5). What Haffenden, Schiff and Goodale (2001) found was the following dissociation: in the perceptual task, subjects estimated the third display very much like the first display and unlike the second display. In the visuomotor task, subjects’ grasping in the third condition was much more similar to grasping in the second than in the first condition (see Figure 6). Thus, perceptual estimate was far more sensitive to the size of the circles in the annulus than to the distance between target and annulus. Conversely, grasping was far more sensitive to the distance between target and annulus than to the size of the circles in the annulus. The idea here is that the annulus is processed by the visuomotor processing as a potential obstacle for the position of the fingers on the target disk.

            From this selective review of evidence on size-contrast illusions, I would like to draw two temporary conclusions. First of all, visual perception and visually guided hand actions directed towards objects impose different computational requirements on the human visual system. As I said above, visually based perceptual judgments of distance and size are typically relative comparative judgments. By contrast, visually guided actions directed towards objects are typically based on the computation of the absolute size and the egocentric representation of the location of objects on which to act. In order to successfully grab a branch or a rung, one must presumably compute the distance and the metrical properties of the object to be grabbed quite independently of pictorial contextual features in the visual array.

            Second of all, what the above experiments suggest is not that, unlike perceptual judgments, the visuomotor control of grasping is immune to illusions. Rather, both perceptual judgment and the visuomotor control of action can be fooled by the environment. But if so, then they can be fooled by different features of the visual display. The effect of the Titchener size-contrast illusion on perceptual judgment arises mostly from the comparison between the diameter of the disk and the diameter of the circles in the surrounding annulus. The visuomotor processing, which delivers a visual representation of the absolute size of a target of prehension, is so sensitive to the distance between the edge of the target and its immediate environment that it can be led to process two-dimensional cues as if they were three-dimensional obstacles. I take this last point quite seriously because I claim that it is evidence that the output of the visuomotor processing of the target of an action can misrepresent features of the distal stimulus and is thus a genuine mental representation.

I.3. Neuropsychological evidence
            In the 1970’s, Weiskrantz and others discovered a neuropsychological condition called “blindsight” (see Weiskrantz, 1986, 1997). Since then, the phenomenon has been extensively studied and discussed by philosophers. Blindsight results from a lesion in the primary visual cortex anatomically located prior to the bifurcation between the ventral and the dorsal streams. The significance of the discovery of this phenomenon lies in the fact that although blindsight patients have no phenomenal subjective visual experience of the world in their blind field, nonetheless it was found out that they are capable of striking residual visuomotor capacities. In situations of forced choice, they can do such remarkable things as grap quandragular blocks and insert a hand-held card into an oriented slot. According to most neuropsychologists who have studied such cases, in blindsight patients, the visual information is processed by subcortical pathways that bypass the visual cortex and relay visual information to the motor cortex.

            In the early 1990’s, DF, a British woman suffered an extensive lesion in the ventral stream of her visual system as a result of poisoning by carbon monoxide. She thus became an apperceptive agnosic, i.e., a visual form agnosic patient (see Farah, 1990 for the distinction between apperceptive and associative agnosia). Following the discovery of blindsight, the main novelty of the neuropsychological description of patient DF’s condition — first examined by Goodale et al. (1991) and his colleagues — lies in the fact that DF’s examination did not focus exclusively on what she could not do as a result of her lesion. Rather, she was investigated in depth for what she was still able to do.

            Careful sensory testing of DF revealed subnormal performance for color perception and for visual acuity with high spatial frequencies, though detection of low spatial frequencies was impaired. Her motion perception was poor. DF’s perception of shape and patterns was very poor. She was unable to report the size of an object by matching it by the appropriate distance between the index finger and the thumb of her right hand. Her line orientation detection (reveald by either verbal report or by turning a hand-held card until it matched the orientation presented) was highly variable: although she was above chance for large angular orientation differences between two objects, she fell at chance level for smaller angles. DF was unable to recognize the shape of objects. Interestingly, however, her visual imagery was preserved. For example, although she could hardly draw copies of seen objects, she could draw copies of objects from memory — which she then could hardly later recognize.

            By contrast with her impairment in object recognition, DF was normally accurate when object orientation or size had to be processed, not in view of a perceptual judgment, but in the context of a goal-directed hand movement. During reaching and grasping between her index finger and thumb the very same objects that she could not recognize, she performed accurate prehension movements. Similarly, while transporting a hand-held car towards a slit as part of the process of inserting the former into the latter, she could normally orient her hand through the slit at different orientations (Goodale et al., 1991, Carey et al., 1996). When presented with a pair of rectangular blocks of either the same or different dimensions and asked whether they were the same or different, she failed. When she was asked to reach out and pick up a block, the measure of her (maximal) grip aperture between thumb and index finger revealed that her grip was calibrated to the physical size of the objects, like that of normal subjects. When shown a pair of objects selected from twelve objects of different shapes for same/different judgment, she failed. When asked to grasp them using a “precision grip” between thumb and index finger, she succeeded.

            Conversely, optic ataxia is a syndrome produced by lesions in the dorsal stream. An optic ataxic patient, AT, examined by Jeannerod et al. (1994) shows the reversed dissociation. While she can recognize and identify the shape of visually presented objects, she has serious visuomotor deficits: her reach is misdirected and her finger grip is improperly adjusted to the size and shape of the target of her movements.

            At bottom, DF turns out to be able to visually process size, orientation and shape required for grasping objects, i.e., in the context of a reaching and grasping action, but not in the context of a perceptual judgment. Other experimental results with DF, however, indicate that her visuomotor abilities are restricted in at least two respects. First, in the context of an action, she turns out to be able to visually process simple sizes, shapes and orientations. But she fails to visually process more complex shapes. For example, she can insert a hand-held card into a slot at different orientations. But when asked to insert a T-shaped object (as opposed to a rectangular card) into a T-shaped aperture (as opposed to a simple oriented slit), her performance deteriorated sharply. Inserting a T-shaped object into a T-shaped aperture requires the ability to combine the computations of the orientation of the stem with the orientation of the top of the object together with the computation of the corresponding parts of the aperture. There are good reasons to think that, unlike the quick visuomotor processing of simple shapes, sizes and orientations, the computations of complex contours, sizes and orientations require the contribution of visual perceptual processes performed by the ventral stream — which, we know, has been severely damaged in DF.

            Secondly, the contours of an object can and often are computed by a process of extraction from differences in colors and luminance cues. But normal humans can also extract the contours or boundaries of an object from other cues — such as differences in brightness, texture, shades and complex principles of Gestalt grouping and organization of similarity and good form. Now, when asked to insert a hand-held card into a slot defined by Gestalt principles of good form or by textural information, DF failed (see e.g., Goodale, 1995).

            Apperceptive agnosic patients like DF raise the question: What is it like to see with an intact dorsal system alone? I presently want to emphasize what I take to be a crucial characteristic of the content of visuomotor representations jointly from the examination of DF’s condition and from the visuomotor representations of normal subjects engaged in tasks of grasping illusory displays such as Titchener circles. As I said above, a visual percept yields a representation of the relative size and distance of various neighboring elements within a visual array. I take it that it is of the essence of a percept that the processing of such visual attributes of an object as its size, shape and position or distance must be available for comparative judgment. By contrast, a visuomotor representation of a target in a task of reaching and grasping provides information about the absolute size of the object to be grasped. Crucially, the spatial position of any object can be coded in at least two major coordinate systems or frames of reference: it may be coded in an egocentric frame of reference centered on the agent’s body or it may be coded in an allocentric frame of reference centered on some object present in the visual array. The former is required for allowing an agent to reach and grasp an object. The latter is required in order to locate an object relative to some other object in the visual display.

            Consider e.g., a visual percept of a glass to the left of a telephone. In the visual percept, the location of the glass relative to the location of the telephone is coded in allocentric coordinates. The visual percept has a pictorial content that, I shall argue momentarily, is both informationally richer and more fine-grained than the verbally expressible conceptual content of a different representation of the same fact or state of affairs. For example, unlike the sentence ‘The glass is to the left of the telephone’, the visual percept cannot depict the location of the glass relative to the telephone without depicting ipso facto the orientation, shape, texture, size and color of both the glass and the telephone. Conceptual processing of the pictorial content of the visual percept may yield a representation whose conceptual content can be expressed by the English sentence ‘The glass is to the left of the telephone’. Now the visuomotor representation of the glass as a target of a prehension action requires that information about the size and shape of the glass be contained within a representation of the position of the glass in egocentric coordinates. Unless the telephone interferes with the trajectory of the reaching part of the action of grasping the glass, when one intends to grasp the glass, one does not need to represent the spatial position of the glass relative to the telephone.

            We know that patient DF cannot match the orientation of her wrist to the orientation of a slot in the context of a perceptual task, i.e., when she is not involved in the action of inserting a hand-held card into the slot. She can, however, successfully insert a card into an oriented slot. She cannot perceptually represent the size, shape and orientation of an object. However, she can successfully grasp an object between her thumb and index finger. So the main relevant contrast revealed by the examination of DF is that while she can use an effector (e.g., the distance between her thumb and index finger or the rotation of her wrist) in order to grasp an object or to insert a card into a slot, i.e., in the context of an action, she cannot use the same effector to express a perceptual judgment. What is the main difference between the perceptual and the visuomotor tasks? Both tasks require that visual information about the size and shape of objects be provided. But in the visuomotor task, this information is contained in a representation of the spatial position of the target coded in an egocentric frame of reference. In the perceptual task, information about the size and shape of objects is contained in a representation of the spatial position of the object coded in an allocentric frame of reference. Normal subjects can easily switch from one spatial frame of reference to the other. Such fast transformations may be required when e.g., one switches from counting items lying on a table or from drawing a copy of items lying on a table to grasping one of them. However, DF’s visual system cannot make the very same visual information about the size, shape and orientation of an object available for perceptual comparisons. In DF, information about the size and the shape of an object is trapped within a visuomotor representation of its location coded in egocentric coordinates. It is not available for recoding in an allocentric frame of reference. Coding spatial relationships among different constituents of a visual scene is crucial to forming a visual percept. By contrast, locating a target in egocentric coordinates is crucial to forming a visuomotor representation on the basis of which to act on the target.

II. Visual knowledge of the world

            Although , if the above is on the right track, not all human vision has been designed to allow visual perception, nonetheless one crucial function of human vision is visual perception. Like many psychological words, ‘perception’ can be used at once to refer both to a process and to its product. There are two complementary sides to visual perception: there is an objective side and a subjective side. On the objective side, visual perception is a fundamental source of knowledge about the world. Visual perception is indeed a — if not “the” — paradigmatic process by means of which human beings gather knowledge about objects, events and facts in their environment. On the subjective side, visual perception yields a peculiar kind of awareness of the world, namely: sight. Sight has a special kind of phenomenal character (which is lacking in blindsight patients). The phenomenology of human visual experience is  unlike the phenomenology of human experience in sensory modalities other than vision, e.g., touch, olfaction or audition.

            On my representationalist view (close to Dretske, 1995 and Tye, 1995), much of the distinctive phenomenology of visual experience derives from the fact that the human visual system has been selected in the course of evolution to respond to a specific set of properties. Visual perception makes us aware of such fundamental properties of objects as their size, orientation, shape, color, texture, spatial position, distance and motion, all at once. One of the puzzles that arises from neuroscientific research into the visual system (and which I will not discuss here) is the question of how these various visual attributes are perceived as bound together, given the fact that neuroscience has discovered that they are processed in different areas of the human visual system (see Zeki, 1993). Unlike vision, audition makes us aware of sounds. Olfaction makes us aware of smells and odors. Touch makes us aware of pressure and temperature. Although shape can be both seen and felt, what it is like to see a shape is clearly different from what it is like to touch it. Part of of the reason for the difference lies in the fact that a normally sighted person cannot see e.g., the shape of a cube without seeing its color. But by feeling the shape of a cube, one does not thereby feel its color.

            I will presently argue that visual perception is a fundamental source of knowledge about the world: visual knowledge. I assume that propositional knowledge is knowledge of facts and that one cannot know a fact unless one believes that this fact obtains. I accept something like Dretske’s (1969) distinction between two levels of visual perception: nonepistemic perception (of objects) and epistemic perception (of facts). Importantly, on my view, the nonepistemic perception of objects gives rise to visual percepts and visual percepts are different from what I earlier called visuomotor representations of the targets of one’s action. What Dretske (1969) calls nonepistemic seeing is part of the perceptual processing of visual information. In the previous section, I gave empirical reasons why visual percepts differ from visuomotor representations. Unlike the visuomotor representation of a target, a visual percept makes visual information about colors, shapes, sizes, orientations of constituents of a visual display available for contrastive identification and recognition. This is why visual percepts can serve as input to a conceptual process that can lead to a peculiar kind of knowledge of the world — visual knowledge. Visual percepts serve as inputs to conceptual processes, but percepts are not concepts: perceptual contrasts are not conceptual contrasts. My present task then will be to show that the claim that visual perception can give rise to visual knowledge of the world is consistent with the claim that visual percepts are different from thoughts and beliefs. Visual percepts lead to thoughts and beliefs, but it would be a mistake to confuse the nonconceptual contents of visual percepts with the conceptual contents of beliefs and thoughts.

II. 1. Percepts and thoughts

         As many philosophers of mind and language have argued, what is characteristic of conceptual representations is that they are both productive and systematic. Like sentences of natural languages, thoughts are productive in the sense that they form an open ended infinite set. Although the lexicon of a natural language is made up of finitely many words, thanks to its syntactic rules, a language contains indefinitely many well formed sentences. Similarly, an individual may entertain indefinitely many conceptual thoughts. In particular, both sentences of public languages and conceptual thoughts contain such devices as negation, conjunction and disjunction. So one can form indefinitely many new thoughts by prefixing a thought by a negation operator, by forming a disjunctive or a conjunctive thought out of two simpler thoughts or one can generalize a singular thought by means of quantifiers. Sentences of natural languages are systematic in the sense that if a language contains a sentence S with a syntactic structure e.g., Rab, then it must contain a sentence expressing a syntactically related sentence, e.g., Rba. An individual’s conceptual thoughts are supposed to be systematic too: if a person has the ability to entertain the thought that e.g., John loves Mary, then she must have the ability to entertain the thought that Mary loves John. If a person can form the thought that Fa, then she can form both the thought that Fb and the thought that Ga (where “a” and “b” stand for individuals and “F” and “G” stand for properties). Both Fodor’s (1975, 1987) Language of Thought hypothesis and Evans’ (1982) Generality constraint are designed to account for the productivity and the systematicity of thoughts, i.e., conceptual representations. It is constitutive of thoughts that they are structured and that they involve conceptual constituents that can be combined and recombined to generate indefinitely many new structured thoughts. Thus, concepts are building blocks with inferential roles.

            Because they are productive and systematic, conceptual thoughts can rise above the limitations imposed to perceptual representations by the constraints inherent to perception. Unlike thought, visual perception requires some causal interaction between a source of information and some sensory organs. For example, by combining the concepts horse and horn, one may form the complex concept unicorn, even though no unicorn has or ever will be visually perceived (except in visual works of art). Although no unicorn has ever been perceived, within a fictional context, on the basis of the inferential role of its constituents, one can draw the inference that if something is a unicorn, then it has four legs, it eats grass and it is a mammal.

            Hence, possessing concepts is to master inferential relations: only a creature with conceptual abilities can draw consequences from her perceptual processing of a visual stimulus. Thought and visual perception are clearly different cognitive processes. One can think about numbers and one can form negative, disjunctive, conjunctive and general thoughts involving multiple quantifiers. Although one can visually perceive numerals, one cannot visually perceive numbers. Nor can one visually perceive negative, disjunctive, conjunctive or general facts (corresponding to e.g., universally quantified thoughts).

            As Crane (1992: 152) puts it, “there is no such thing as deductive inference between perceptions”. Upon seeing a brown dog, one can see at once that the animal one faces is a dog and that it is brown. If one perceives a brown animal and one is told that it is a dog, then one can certainly come to believe that the brown animal is a dog or that the dog is brown. But on this hybrid epistemic basis, one can think or believe, but one cannot see that the dog is brown. One came to know that the dog is brown by seeing it. But one did not come to know that what is brown is a dog by seeing it. Unlike the content of concepts, the content of visual percepts is not a matter of inferential role. As emphasized by Crane (ibid.), this is not to say that the content of visual percepts is amorphous or unstructured. One proposal for capturing the nonconceptual structure of visual percepts is Peacocke’s (1992) notion of a scenario content, i.e., a visual way of filling in space. As we shall see momentarily, one can think or believe of an animal that it is dog without thinking or believing that it has a particular color. But one cannot see a dog in good daylight conditions without seeing its particular color (or colors). I shall momentarily discuss this feature of the content of visual percepts, which is part of their distinctive informational richness, as an analog encoding of information.

            In section I.3, I considered the contrast between the pictorial content of a visual percept of a glass to the left of a telephone and the conceptual content expressible by means of the English sentence: ‘The glass is to the left of the telephone’. I noticed that, unlike the English sentence, the visual percept cannot represent the glass to the left of the telephone unless it depicts the shape, size, texture, color and orientation of both the glass and the telephone. I concluded that an utterance of this sentence conveys only part of the pictorial content of the visual percept since the utterance is mute about any visual attribute of the pair of objects other than their relative locations. But, further conceptual processing of the conceptual content conveyed by the utterance of the sentence may yield a more complex representation involving, not just a two-place relation, but a three-place relation also expressible by the English predicate ‘left of’. Thus, one may think that the glass is to the left of the telephone for someone standing in front of the window, not for someone sitting at the opposite side of the table. In other words, one can think that the glass is to the left of the telephone from one’s own egocentric perspective and that the same glass is to the right of the telephone from a different perspective. Although one can form the thought involving the ternary relation ‘left of’, one cannot see the glass as being to the left of the telephone from one’s own egocentric perspective because one cannot see one’s own egocentric perspective. Perspectives are not things that one can see. This is an example of a conceptual contrast that could not be drawn by visual perception. Thus, unlike a thought, a visual percept is, in one sense of the word, “informationally encapsulated”. Thought, not perception, can, as Perry (1993) puts it, increase the arity of a predicate. Notice that percepts can cause thoughts. This is one way thoughts arise. Thoughts can also cause other thoughts. But presumably, thoughts do not cause percepts.

II. 2. The finegrainedness and informational richness of visual percepts

            Unlike thought, visual perception has a spatial, perspectival, iconic and/or pictorial structure not shared by conceptual thought. The content of visual perception has a spatial perspectival structure that pure thoughts lack. In order to apply the concept of a dog, one does not have to occupy a particular spatial perspective relative to any dog. But one cannot see a dog unless one occupies some spatial standpoint or other relative to it: one cannot e.g., see a dog simultaneously from the top and from below, from the front and from the back. The concept of a dog applies indiscriminately to poodles, alsatians, dalmatians or bulldogs. One can think that all dogs bark. But one cannot see all dogs bark. Nor can on see a generic dog bark. One must see some particular dog: a poodle, an alsatian, a dalmatian or a bulldog, as it might be. Although one and the same concept — the concept of a dog — may apply to a poodle, an alsatian, a dalmatian or a bulldog, seeing one of them is a very different visual experience than seeing another. One can think that a dog barks without thinking of any other properties of the dog. One cannot, however, see a dog unless one sees its shape and the colors and texture of its hairs.

            Thus, the content of visual perceptual representations turns out to be both more finegrained and informationally richer than the conceptual contents of thoughts. There are three paradigmatic cases in which the need to distinguish between conceptual content and the nonconceptual content of visual perceptions may arise. First, a creature may be perceptually sensitive to objective differences for which she has no concepts. Secondly, two creatures may enjoy one and the same visual experience, which they may be inclined to conceptualize differently. Finally, two different persons may enjoy two distinct visual experiences in the presence of one and the same distal stimulus to which they may be inclined to apply one and the same concept.

            Peacocke (1992: 67-8) considers, for example, a person’s visual experience of a range of mountains. As he notices, one might want to conceptualize one’s visual experience with the help of concepts of shapes expressible in English with such predicates as ‘round’ and ‘jagged’. But these concepts of shapes could apply to the nonconceptual contents of several different visual experiences prompted by the distinct shapes of several distinct mountains. Arguably, although a human being might not possess any concept of shape whose finegrainedness could match that of her visual experience of the shape of the mountain, her visual experience of the shape is nonetheless distinctive and it may differ from the visual experience of the distinct shape of a different mountain to which she would apply the very same concept. Similarly, human beings are perceptually sensitive to far more colors than they have color concepts and color names to apply. Although a human being might lack two distinct concepts for two distinct shades of color, she might well enjoy a visual experience of one shade that is distinct from her visual experience of the other shade. As Raffman (1995: 295) puts it, “discriminations along perceptual dimensions surpasses identification […] our ability ro judge whether two or more stimuli are the same or different surpasses our ability to type-identify them”.

            Against this kind of argument in favor of the nonconceptual content of visual experiences, McDowell (1994, 1998) has argued that demonstrative concepts expressible by e.g., ‘that shade of color’ are perfectly suited to capture the finegrainedness of the visual percept of color. I am willing to concede to McDowell that such demonstrative concepts do exist. But I agree with Bermudez (1998: 55-7) and Dokic & Pacherie (2000) that such demonstrative concepts would seem to be too weak to perform one of the fundamental jobs that color concepts and shape concepts must be able to perform — namely recognition. Color concepts and shape concepts stored in a creature’s memory must allow recognition and reidentification of colors and shapes over long periods of time. Although pure demonstrative color concepts may allow comparison of simultaneously presented samples of color, it is unlikely that they can be used to reliably reidentify one and the same sample over time. Nor presumably could pairs of demonstrative color concepts be used to reliably discriminate pairs of color samples over time. Just as one can track the spatio-temporal evolution of a perceived object, one can store in a temporary object file information about its visual properties in a purely indexical or demonstrative format. If, however, information about an object’s visual properties is to be stored in episodic memory, for future reidentification, then it cannot be stored in a purely demonstrative or indexical format, which is linked to a particular perceptual context. Presumably, the demonstrative must be fleshed with some descriptive content. One can refer to a perceptible object as ‘that sofa’ or even as ‘that’ ( no sortal). But presumably when one does not stand in a perceptual relation to the object, information about it cannot be stored in episodic memory in such a pure demonstrative format. Rather, it must be stored using a more descriptive symbol such as ‘the (or that) red sofa that used to face the fire-place’. This is presumably part of what Raffman (1995: 297) calls “the memory constrainst”. As Raffman (1995: 296) puts it:

the coarse grained character of perceptual memory explains why we can recognize ‘determinable’ colors like red and blue and even scarlet and indigo as such, but not ‘determinate’ shades of those determinables […] Because we cannot recognize determinate shades as such, ostension is our only means of communicating our knowledge of them. If I want to convey to you the precise shade of an object I see, I must point to it, or perhaps paint you a picture of it […] I must present you with an instance of that shade. You must have the experience yourself .

            Two persons might enjoy one and the same kind of visual experience prompted by one and the same shape or one and the same color, to which they would be inclined to apply pairs of distinct concepts, such as ‘red’ vs ‘crimson’ or ‘polygon’ vs ‘square’. If so, it would be justified to distinguish the nonconceptual content of their common visual experience from the different concepts that each would be willing to apply. Conversely, as argued by Peacocke (1998), presented with one and the same geometrical object, two persons might be inclined to apply one and the same generic shape concept e.g., ‘that polygon’ and still enjoy different perceptual experiences or see the same object as having different shapes. For example, as Peacocke (1998: 381) points out, “one and the same shape may be perceived as square, or as diamond-shaped […] the difference between these ways is a matter of which symmetries of the shape are perceived; though of course the subject himself does not need to know that this is the nature of the difference”. If one mentally partitions a square by bisecting its right angles, one sees it as a diamond. If one mentally partitions it by bisecting its sides, one sees it as a square. Presumably, one does not need to master the concept of an axis of symmetry to perform mentally these two bisections and enjoy two distinct visual experiences.

            The distinctive informational richness of the content of visual percepts has been discussed by Dretske (1981) in terms of what he calls the analogical coding of information.[1]  One and the same piece of information — one and the same fact — may be coded analogically or digitally. In Dretske’s sense, a signal carries the information that e.g., a is F in a digital form iff the signal carries no additional information about a that is not already nested in the fact that a is F. If the signal does carry additional information about a that is not nested in the fact that a is F, then the information that a is F is carried by the signal in an analogical (or analog) form. For example, the information that a designated cup contains coffee may be carried in a digital form by the utterance of the English sentence ‘There is some coffee in the cup’. The same information can also be carried in an analog form by a picture or by a photograph. Unlike the utterance of the sentence, the picture cannot carry the information that the cup contains coffee without carrying additional information about the shape, size, orientation of the cup and the color and the amount of coffee in it. As I pointed out above, unlike the concept of a dog, the visual percept of a dog carries information about which dog one sees, its spatial position, the color and texture of its hairs, etc. The contents of visual percepts are informationally rich in the sense of being analog. A thought involving several concepts in a hierarchically structured order might carry the same informational richness as a visual percept. But it does not have to. As the slogan goes, a picture is worth a thousand words. Unlike a thought, a visual percept of a cup cannot convey the information that the cup contains coffee without conveying additional information about several visual attributes of the cup.

            The arguments by philosophers of mind and by perceptual psychologists in favor of the distinction between the conceptual content of thought and the nonconceptual content of visual percepts is based on the finegrainedness and the informational richness of visual percepts. Thus, it turns on the phenomenology of visual experience. In section I, I provided some evidence from psychophysical experiments performed on normal human subjects and from the neuropsychological examination of brain lesioned human patients that point to a different kind of nonconceptual content, which I labelled “visuomotor” content. Unlike the arguments in favor of the nonconceptual content of visual percepts, the arguments for the distinction between the nonconceptual content of visual percepts and the nonconceptual content of visuomotor representations do not rely on phenomenology at all. Rather, they rely on the need to postulate mental representations with visuomotor content in order to provide a causal explanation of visually guided actions towards objects. Thus, on the assumption that such behaviors as grasping objects can be actions (based on mental representations), I submit that the nonconceptual content of visual representation ought to be bifurcated into perceptual and visuomotor content as in Figure 7:

conceptual content                                                           nonconceptual content

                                                            perceptual content                            visuomotor content

Figure 7

II. 3. The interaction between visual and non-visual knowledge

            Traditional epistemology has focused on the problem of sorting out genuine instances of propositional knowledge from cases of mere opinion or guessing. Propositional factual knowledge is to be distinguished from both nonpropositional knowledge of individual objects (or what Russell called “knowledge by acquaintance”) and from tacit knowledge of the kind illustrated by a native speaker’s implicit knowledge of the grammatical rules of her language. According to epistemologists, in the relevant propositional sense, what one knows are facts. In the propositional sense, one cannot know a fact unless one believes that the corresponding proposition is true, one’s belief is indeed true, and the belief was not formed by mere fantasy. On the one hand, one cannot know that the cup contains coffee unless one believes it. One cannot have this belief unless one knows what a cup is and what coffee is. On the other hand, one cannot know what is not the case: one can falsely believe that e.g., the cup contains coffee. But one cannot know it, unless a designated cup does indeed contain some coffee. True belief, however, is not sufficient for knowledge. If a true belief happens to be a mere guess or whim, then it will not qualify as knowledge. What else must be added to true belief to turn it into knowledge?

            Broadly speaking, epistemologists divide into two groups. According to externalists, a true belief counts as knowledge if it results from a reliable process, i.e., a process that generates counterfactually supporting connexions between states of a believer and facts in her environment. According to internalists, for a true belief to count as knowledge, it must be justified and the believer must in addition justifiably believe that her first-order belief is justified.  Since I am willing to claim that, in appropriate conditions, the way a red triangle visually looks to a person having the relevant concepts and located at a suitable distance from it provides grounds for the person to know that the object in front of her is a red triangle, I am attracted to an externalist reliabilist view of perceptual knowledge.

            Although the issue is controversial and is by no means settled in the philosophical literature, externalist intuitions suit my purposes better than internalist intuitions. Arguably, one thing is to be justified or to have a reason for believing something. Another thing is to use a reason in order to offer a justification for one’s beliefs. Arguably, if a perceptual (e.g., visual) process is reliable, then the visual appearances of things may constitute a reason for forming a belief. However, one cannot use a reason unless one can explicitly engage in a reasoning process of justification, i..e., unless one can distinguish one’s premisses from one’s conclusion. Presumably, a creature with perceptual abilities and relevant conceptual resources can have reasons and form justified beliefs even if she lacks the concept of reason or justification. However, she could not use her reasons and provide justifications unless she had language and metarepresentational resources. Internalism derives most of its appeal from reflection on instances of mathematical and scientific knowledge that result from the conscious application of explicit principles of inquiry by teams of individuals in the context of special institutions. In such special settings, it can be safely assumed that the justification of a believer’s higher-order beliefs do indeed contribute to the formation and reliability of his or her first-order beliefs. Externalism fits perceptual knowledge better than internalism and, unlike internalism, it does not rule out the possibility of crediting non-human animals and human infants with knowledge of the world — a possibility made more and more vivid by the development of cognitive science.

            On my view, human visual perceptual abilities are at the service of thought and conceptualisation. At the most elementary level, by seeing an object (or a sequence of objects) one can see a fact involving that object (or sequence of objects). By seeing my neighbor’s car in her driveway, I can see the fact that my neighbor’s car is parked in her driveway. I thereby come to believe that my neighbor’s car is parked in her driveway and this belief, which is a conceptually loaded mental state, is arrived at by visual perception. Hence, my term “visual knowledge”. If one’s visual system is — as I claimed it is — reliable, then by seeing my neighbor’s car — an object — in her driveway, I thereby come to know that my neighbor’s car is parked in her driveway — a fact. Hence, I come to know a fact involving an object that I actually see. This is a fundamental epistemic situation, which Dretske (1969) labels “primary epistemic seeing”: one’s visual ability allows one to know a fact about an object one perceives.

            However, if my neighbor’s car happens to be parked in her driveway if and only if she is at home (and I know this), then I can come to know a different fact: I can come to know that my neighbor is at home. “Seeing” that my neighbor is at home by seeing that her car is parked in her driveway is something different from seeing my neighbor at home (e.g., seeing her in her living-room). Certainly, I can come to know that my neighbor is at home by seeing her car parked in her driveway, i.e., without seeing her. “Seeing” that my neighbor is at home by seeing that her car is parked in her driveway is precisely what Dretske (1969) calls “secondary epistemic seeing”. Secondary epistemic seeing lies at the interface between pure visual knowledge of facts involving a perceived object and non-visual knowledge that can be derived from it.

            This transition from seeing one fact to seeing another displays the hierarchical structure of visual knowledge. In primary epistemic seeing, one sees a fact involving a perceived object. But in moving from primary epistemic seeing to secondary epistemic seeing, one moves from a fact involving a perceived car to a fact involving one’s unperceived neighbor (who happens to own the perceived car). This epistemological hierarchical structure is expressed by the “by” relation: one sees that y is G by seeing that x is F where x ≠ y. Although it may be more or less natural to say that one “sees” a fact involving an unperceived object by seeing a different fact involving a perceived object, the hierarchical structure that gives rise to this possibility is ubiquitous in human knowledge.

            One can see that a horse has walked on the snow by seeing hoof prints in the snow. One sees the hoof prints, not the horse. But if hoof prints would not be visible in the snow at time t unless a horse had walked on that very snow at time t – 1, then one can see that a horse has walked on the snow just by seeing hoof prints in the snow. One can see that a tennis player has just hit an ace at Flushing Meadows by seeing images on a television screen located in Paris. Now, does one really see the tennis player hit an ace at Flushing Meadows while sitting in Paris and watching television? Does one see a person on a television screen? Or does one see an electronic image of a person relayed by a television? Whether one sees a tennis player or her image on a television screen, it is quite natural to say that one “sees that” a tennis player hit an ace by seeing her (or her image) do it on a television screen. Even though, strictly speaking, one perhaps did not see her do it — one merely saw pictures of her doing it —, nonetheless seeing the pictures comes quite close to seeing the real thing. By contrast, one can “see” that the gas-tank in one’s car is half-full by seeing, not the tank itself, but the dial of the gas-gauge on the dashboard of the car. If one is sitting by the steering wheel inside one’s car so that one can comfortably see the gas-gauge, then one cannot see the gas-tank. Nonetheless, if the gauge is reliable and properly connected to the gas-tank, then one can (perhaps in some loose sense) “see” what the condition of the gas-tank is by seeing the dial of the gauge.

            One could wonder whether secondary epistemic seeing is really seeing at all. Suppose that one learns that the New York Twin Towers collapsed by reading about it in a French newspaper in Paris. One could not see the New York Twin Towers — let alone their collapse — from Paris. What one sees when one reads a newspaper are letters printed in black ink on a white sheet of paper. But if the French newspaper would not report the collapse of the New York Twin Towers unless the New York Twin Towers had indeed collapsed, then one can come to know that the New York Twin Towers have collapsed by reading about it in a French newspaper. There is a significant difference between seeing that the New York Twin Towers have collapsed by seeing it happen on a television screen and by reading about it in a newspaper. Even if seeing an electronic picture of the New York Twin Towers is not seeing the Twin Towers themselves, still the visual experience of seeing an electronic picture of them and the visual experience of seeing them have a lot in common. The pictorial content of the experience of seeing an electronically produced color-picture of the Towers is very similar to the pictorial content of the experience of seeing them. Unlike a picture, however, a verbal description of an event has conceptual content, not pictorial content. The visual experience of reading an article reporting the collapse of the New York Twin Towers in a French newspaper is very different from the experience of seeing them collapse. This is the reason why it may be a little awkward to say that one “saw” that the New York Twin Towers collapsed if one read about it in a French newspaper in Paris as opposed to seeing it happen on a television screen.

            Certainly, ordinary usage of the English word ‘see’ is not sacrosanct. We say that we “see” a number of things in circumstances in which what we do owes little — if anything — to our visual abilities. “I see what you mean”, “I see what the problem is” or “I finally saw the solution” report achievements quite independent of visual perception. Such uses of the verb ‘to see’ are loose uses. Such loose uses do not report epistemic accomplishments that depend significantly on one’s visual endowments. By contrast, cases of what Dretske (1969) calls secondary epistemic seeing are epistemic achievements that do depend on one’s visual endowments. True, in cases of secondary epistemic seeing, one comes to know a fact without seeing some of its constituent elements. True, one could not come to learn that one’s neighbor is at home by seeing her car parked in her driveway unless one knew that her car is indeed parked in her driveway when and only when she is at home. Nor could one see that the gas-tank in one’s car is half-full by seeing the dial of the gas-gauge unless one knew that the latter is reliably correlated with the former. So secondary epistemic seeing could not possibly arise in a creature that lacked knowedge of reliable correlations or that lacked the cognitive resources required to come to know them altogether.

            Nonetheless secondary epistemic seeing has indeed a crucial visual component in the sense that visual perception plays a critical role in the context of justifying such an epistemic claim. When one claims to be able to see that one’s neighbor is at home by seeing her car parked in her driveway or when one claims to be able to see that the gas-tank in one’s car is almost empty by seeing the gas-gauge, one relies on one’s visual powers in order to ground one’s state of knowledge. The fact that one claims to know is not seen. But the grounds upon which the knowledge is claimed to rest are visual grounds: the justification for knowing an unseen fact is seeing another fact correlated with the former. Of course, in explaining how one can come to know a fact about one thing by knowing a different fact about a different thing, one cannot hope to meet the philosophical challenge of scepticism. From the standpoint of scepticism, as Stroud (1989) points out, the explanation may seem to beg the question since it takes for granted one’s knowledge of one fact in order to explain one’s knowledge of another fact. But the important thing for present purposes is that — scepticism notwithstanding — one offers a perfectly good explanation of how one comes to know a fact about an object one does not perceive by knowing a different fact about an object one does perceive. The point is that much — if not all — of the burden of the explanation lies in visual perception: seeing one’s neighbor’s car is the crucial step in justifying one’s belief that one’s neighbor is at home. Seeing the gas-gauge is the crucial step in justifying one’s belief that one’s tank is almost empty. The reliability of visual perception is thus critically involved in the justification of one’s knowledge claim. In cases of primary epistemic seeing, the reliability of one’s visual system provides justifications for one’s visual knowledge in the sense that it provides one with reasons for believing that the fact involving an object one perceives obtains. In secondary epistemic seeing, one claims to know a fact that does not involve a perceived object. Still, the reliability of one’s visual system plays an indirect role in cases of secondary epistemic seeing in the sense that it provides grounds for one’s visual knowledge about a fact involving a perceived object, upon which one’s knowledge of a fact not involving a perceived object rests.

            Thus, secondary epistemic seeing lies at the interface between an individual’s visual knowledge (i.e., knowledge formed by visual means) and the rest of her knowledge. In moving from primary epistemic seeing to secondary epistemic seeing, an individual exploits her knowledge of regular connections. Although it is true that unless one knows the relevant correlation, one could not come to know the fact that the gas-tank in one’s car is empty by seeing the gas-gauge, nonetheless one does not consciously or explicitly reason from the perceptually accessible premiss that one’s neighbor’s car is parked in her driveway together with the premiss that one’s neighbor’s car is parked in her driveway when and only when one’s neighbor is at home to the conclusion that one’s neighbor is at home. Arguably, the process from primary to secondary epistemic seeing is inferential. But if it is, then the inference is unconscious and it takes place at the “sub-personal” level.

            What the above discussion of secondary epistemic seeing so far reveals is that the very description and understanding of the hierarchical structure of visual knowledge and its integration with non-visual knowledge requires an epistemological and/or psychological distinction between seeing of objects and seeing facts — a point much emphasized in Dretske’s writings on the subject — or between nonepistemic and epistemic seeing. The neurophysiology of human vision is such that some objects are simply not accessible to human vision. They may be too small or too remote in space and time for a normally sighted person to see them. For more mundane reasons, a human being may be temporarily so positioned as not to be able to see one object — be it her neighbor or the gas-tank in her car. Given the correlations between facts, by seeing a perceptible object, one can get crucial information about a different unseen object. Given the epistemic importance of visual perception in the hirarchical structure of human knowledge, it is important to understand how by seeing one object, one can provide decisive reasons for knowing facts about objects one does not see.


II. 4. The scope and limits of visual knowledge

            I now turn my attention again from what Dretske calls secondary epistemic seeing (i.e., visually based knowledge of facts about objects one does not perceive) back to what he calls primary epistemic seeing, i.e., visual knowledge of facts about objects one does perceive. When one purports to ground one’s claim to know that one’s neighbor is at home by mentioning the fact that one can see that her car is parked in her driveway, clearly one is claiming to be able to see a car, not one’s neighbor herself. Now, let us concentrate on the scope of knowledge claims in primary epistemic seeing, i.e., knowledge about facts involving a perceived object. Let us suppose that someone claims to be able to see that the apple on the table is green. Let us suppose that the person’s visual system is working properly, the table and what is lying on it are visible from where the person stands, and the lighting is suitable for the person to see them from where she stands. In other words, there is a distinctive way the green apple on the table looks to the person who sees it. Under those circumstances, when the person claims that she can see that the apple on the table is green, what are the scope and limits of her epistemic claims?

            Presumably, in so doing, she is claiming that she knows that there is an apple on the table in front of her and that she knows that this apple is green. If she knows both of this, then presumably  she also knows that there is a table under the apple in front of her, she knows that there is a fruit on the table. Hence, she knows what the fruit on the table is (or what is on the table), she knows where the apple is, she knows the color of the apple, and so on. Arguably, the person would then be in a position to make all such claims in response to the following various queries: is there anything on the table? What is on the table? What kind of fruit is on the table? Where is the green apple? What color is the apple on the table? If the person can see that the apple on the table is green, then presumably she is in a position to know all these facts.

            However, when she claims that she can see that the apple on the table is green, she is not thereby claiming that she can see that all of these facts obtain. What she is claiming is more restricted and specific than that: She is indeed claiming that she knows that there is an apple on the table and that the apple in question is green. Furthermore, she is claiming that she learnt the latter fact — the fact about the apple’s color — through visual perception: if someone claims that she can see that the apple on the table is green, then she is claiming that she has achieved her knowledge of the apple’s color by visual means, and not otherwise. But she is not thereby claiming that her knowledge of the location of the apple or her knowledge of what is on the table have been acquired by the very perceptual act (or the very perceptual process) that gave rise to her knowledge of the apple’s color. Of course, the person’s alleged epistemic achievement does not rule out the possibility that she came to know that what is on the table is an apple by seeing it earlier. But if she did, this is not part of the claim that she can see that the apple on the table is green. It is consistent with this claim that the person came to know that what is on the table is an apple by being told, by tasting it or by smelling it. All she is claiming and all we are entitled to conclude from her claim is that the way she learnt about the apple’s color is by visual perception.

            The investigation into the scope and limits of primary visual knowledge is important because it is relevant to the challenge of scepticism. As I already said, my discussion of visual knowledge does not purport to meet the full challenge of scepticism. In discussing secondary epistemic seeing, I noticed that in explaining how one comes to know a fact about an unperceived object by seeing a different fact involving a perceived object, one takes for granted the possibility of knowing the latter fact by perceiving one of its constituent objects. Presumably, in so doing, one cannot hope to meet the full challenge of scepticism that would question the very possibility of coming to know anything by perception. I briefly turn to the sceptical challenge to which claims of primary epistemic seeing are exposed. By scrutinizing the scope and limits of claims of primary visual knowledge, I want to examine briefly the extent to which such claims are indeed vulnerable to the sceptical challenge. Claims of primary visual knowledge are vulnerable to sceptical queries that can be directed backwards and forwards. They are directed backwards when they apply to background knowledge, i.e., knowledge presupposed by a claim of primary visual knowledge. They are directed forward when they apply to consequences of a claim of primary visual knowledge. I turn to the former first.

            Suppose a sceptic were to challenge a person’s commonsensical claim that she can see (and hence know by perception) that the apple on the table in front of her is green by questioning her grounds for knowing that what is on the table is an apple. The sceptic might point out that, given the limits of human visual acuity and given the distance of the apple, the person could not distinguish by visual means alone a genuine green apple — a green fruit — from a fake green apple (e.g., a wax copy of a green apple or a green toy). Perhaps, the person is hallucinating an apple when there is in fact nothing at all on the table. If one cannot visually discriminate a genuine apple from a fake apple, then, it seems, one is not entitled to claim that one can see that the apple on the table is green. Nor is one entitled to claim that one can see that the apple on the table is green if one cannot make sure by visual perception that one is not undergoing a hallucination. Thus, the sceptical challenge is the following: if visual perception itself cannot rule out a number of alternative possibilities to one’s epistemic claim, then the epistemic claim cannot be sustained.

            The proper response to the sceptical challenge here is precisely to appeal to the distinction between claims of visual knowledge and other knowledge claims. When the person claims that she can see that the apple on the table is green, she is claiming that she learnt something new by visual perception: she is claiming that she just gained new knowledge by visual means. This new perceptually-based knowledge is about the apple’s color. The perceiver’s new knowledge — her epistemic “increment”, as Dretske (1969) calls it — must be pitched against what he calls her “proto-knowledge”, i.e., what the person knew about the perceived object prior to her perceptual experience. The reason it is important to distinguish between a person’s prior knowledge and her knowledge gained by visual perception is that primary epistemic seeing (or primary visual knowledge) is a dynamic process. In order to determine the scope and limits of what has been achieved in a perceptual process, we ought to determine a person’s initial epistemic stage (the person’s prior knowledge about an object) and her final epistemic stage (what the person learnt by perception about the object). Thus, the question raised by the sceptical challenge (directed backwards) is a question in cognitive dynamics: How much new knowledge could a person’s visual resources yield, given her prior knowledge? How much has been learnt by visual perception, i.e., in an act of visual perception? What new information has been gained by visual perception?

            So when the person claims that she can see that the apple on the table is green, she no doubt reports that she knows both that there is an apple on the table and that it is green. She commits herself to a number of epistemic claims: she knows what is on the table, she knows that there is a fruit on the table, she knows where the apple is, and so on. But she merely reports one increment of knowledge: she merely claims that she just learnt by visual perception that the apple is green. She is not thereby reporting how she acquired the rest of her knowledge about the object, e.g., that it is an apple and that it is on the table. She claims that she can see of the apple that it is green, not that what is green is an apple, nor that what is on the table is an apple. The claim of primary visual knowledge bears on the object’s color, not on some of its other properties (it’s being e.g., an apple, a fruit or its location). All her epistemic claim entails is that, prior to her perceptual experience, she assumed (as part of her “proto-knowledge” in Dretske’s sense) that there was a apple on the table and then she discovered by visual perception that the apple was green.

            I now turn my attention to the sceptical challenge directed forward — towards the consequences of one’s claims of visual knowledge. The sceptic is right to point out that the person who claims to be able to see the color of an apple is not thereby in a position to see that the object whose color she is seeing is a genuine apple — a fruit — and not a wax apple. Nor is the person able to see that she is not hallucinating. However, since she is neither claiming that she is able to see of the green object that it is a genuine apple nor that she is not hallucinating an apple, it follows that the sceptical challenge cannot hope to defeat the person’s perceptual claim that she can see what she claims that she can see, namely that the apple is green. On the externalist picture of perceptual knowledge which I accept, a person knows a fact when and only when she is appropriately connected to the fact. Visual perception provides a paradigmatic case of such a connexion. Hence, visual knowledge arises from regular correlations between states of the visual system and environmental facts. Given the intricate relationship between a person’s visual knowledge and her higher cognitive functions, she will be able to draw many inferences from her visual knowledge. If a person knows that the apple in front of her is green, then she may infer that there is a colored fruit on the table in front of her. Given that fruits are plants and that plants are physical objects, she may further infer that there are at least some physical objects. Again, the sceptic may direct his challenge forward: the person claims to know by visual means that the apple in front of her is green. But what she claims she knows entails that there are physical objects. Now, the sceptic argues, a person cannot know that there are physical objects — at least, she cannot see that there are. According to the sceptic, failure to see that there are physical objects entails failure to see that the apple on the table is green.

            A person claims that she can know proposition p by visual perception. Logically, proposition p entails proposition q. There could not be a green apple on the table unless there exists at least one physical object. Hence, the proposition that the apple on the table is green could not be true unless there were physical objects. According to the sceptic, a person could not know the former without knowing the latter. Now the sceptic offers grounds for questioning the claim that the person knows proposition q at all — let alone by visual perception. Since it is dubious that she does know the latter, then, according to scepticism, she fails to know the former. Along with Dretske (1969) and Nozick (1981), I think that the sceptic relies on the questionable assumption that visual knowledge is deductively closed. From the fact that a person has perceptual grounds for knowing that p, it does not follow that she has the same grounds for knowing that q, even if q logically follows from p. If visual perception allows one to get connected in the right way to the fact corresponding to proposition p, it does not follow that visual perception ipso facto allows one to get connected in the same way to the fact corresponding to proposition q even if q follows logically from p.

            A person comes to know a fact by visual perception. What she learns by visual perception implies a number of propositions (such as there are physical objects). Although such propositions are logically implied by what the person learnt by visual perception, she does not come to know by visual perception all the consequences of what she learnt by visual perception. She does not know by visual perception that there are physical objects — if she knows it at all. Seeing a green apple in front of one has a distinctive visual phenomenology. Seeing that the apple in front of one is green too has a distinctive visual phenomenology. There is something distinctively visual about what it is like for one to see that the apple in front of one is green. If an apple is green, then it is colored. However, it is dubious whether there is a visual phenomenology to thinking of the apple in front of one that it is colored. A fortiori, it is dubious whether there is a visual phenomenology to thinking that there are physical objects. Hence, contrary to what the sceptic assumes, I want to claim, as Dretske (1969) and Nozick (1981) have, that visual knowledge is not deductively closed.

III. The role of visuomotor representations in the human cognitive architecture

            In the present section, I shall sketch my reasons for thinking that visuomotor representations do not lead to detached knowledge of the world. Rather, they serve as input to intentions in at least two respects: on the one hand, they provide visual guidance to what I shall call “motor intentions”. On the other hand, they provide visual information for “causally indexical” concepts. I will start by laying out the basic distinction between two different kinds of “direction of fit” that can be exemplified by mental representations.

III.1. Direction of fit

            Whereas visual percepts serve as inputs to the “belief box”, visuomotor representations, I now want to argue, serve is inputs to a different kind of mental representations, i.e., intentions. As emphasized by Anscombe (1957) and Searle (1983, 2001), perceptions, beliefs, desires and intentions each have a distinctive kind of intentionality. Beliefs and desires have what Searle calls “opposite direction of fit”. Beliefs have a mind-to-world direction of fit: they can be true or false. A belief is true if and only if the world is as the belief represents it to be. It is the function of beliefs to match facts or actual state of affairs. In forming a belief, it is up for the mind to meet the demands of the world. Unlike beliefs, desires have a world-to-mind direction of fit. Desires are neither true nor false: they are fulfilled or frustrated. The job of a desire is not to represent the world as it is, but rather as the agent would like it to be. Desires are representations of goals, i.e., possible nonactual states of affairs. In entertaining a desire, it is so to speak up for the world to meet the demands of the mind. The agent’s action is supposed to bridge the gap between the mind’s goal and the world.

            As Searle (1983, 2001) has noticed, perceptual experiences and intentions have opposite directions of fit. Perceptual experiences have the same mind-to-world direction of fit as beliefs. Intentions have the same world-to-mind direction of fit as desires. In addition, perceptual experiences and intentions have opposite directions of causation: whereas a perceptual experience represents the state of affairs that causes it, an intention causes the state of affairs that it represents.

            Although intentions and desires share the same world-to-mind direction of fit, intentions are different from desires in a number of important respects, which all flow from the peculiar commitment to action of intentions. Broadly speaking, desires are relevant to the process of deliberation that precedes one’s engagement into a course of action. Once an intention is formed, however, the process of deliberation comes to an end. To intend is to have made up one’s mind about whether to act. Once an intention is formed, one has taken the decision whether to act. I shall mention four main differences between desires and intentions.

             First, although desires may be about anything or anybody, intentions are always about the self. One can only intend oneself to do something. Second, unlike desires, intentions are tied to the present or the future: one cannot intend to do something in the past. Third, unlike the contents of desires, the contents of intentions must be about possible nonactual states of affairs. An agent cannot intend to achieve a state of affairs that she knows to be impossible at the time when she forms her intention. Finally, although one may entertain desires whose contents are inconsistent, one cannot have two intentions whose contents are inconsistent.

         Reaching and grasping objects are visually guided actions directed towards objects. I assume that all actions are caused by intentions. Intentions are psychological states with a distinctive intentionality. As I said earlier, intentions derive their peculiar commitment to action from the combination of their distinctive world-to-mind direction of fit and their distinctive mind-to-world direction of causation. I shall now argue that visuomotor representations have a dual function in the human cognitive architecture: they serve as inputs to “motor intentions” and they serve as input to a special class of indexical concepts, the “causally indexical” concepts.

III.2. Visuomotor representations serve as inputs to motor intentions

            Not all actions, I assume, are caused by what Searle (1983, 2001) calls prior intentions, but all actions are caused by what he calls intentions in action, which, following Jeannerod (1994), I will call motor intentions. Unlike prior intentions, motor intentions are directed towards immediately accessible goals. Hence, they play a crucial role, not so much in the planning of action as in the execution, the monitoring and the control of the ongoing action. Arguably, prior intentions may have conceptual content. Motor intentions do not. For example, one intends to climb a visually perceptible mountain. The content of this prior intention involves e.g., the action concept of climbing and a visual percept of the distance, shape and color of the mountain. In order to climb the mountain, however, one must intentionally perform an enormous variety of postural and limb movements in response to the slant, orientation and the shape of the surface of the slope. Human beings automatically assume the right postures and perform the required flexions and extensions of their feet and legs. Since they do not possess concepts matching each and every such movements, their non-deliberate intentional behavioral responses to the slant, orientation and shape of the surface of slope is monitored by the nonconceptual nonperceptual content of motor intentions.

            Not any sensory representation can match the peculiar commitment to action of motor intentions. Visuomotor representations can. Percepts are informationally richer and more fine-grained than either concepts or visuomotor representations. As I claimed above, visual percepts have the same mind-to-world direction of fit as beliefs. This is why visual percepts are suitable inputs to a process of selective elimination of information, whose ultimate conceptual output can be stored in the belief box.

            I shall presently argue that visuomotor representations have a different function: they provide the relevant visual information about the properties of a target to an agent’s motor intentions. Indeed, I want to think of the role of the visuomotor representation of a target for action as Gibson (1979) thought of an affordance. However, unlike Gibson (1979), who did not make a distinction between perceptual and visuomotor processing, I do not think of the visuomotor processing of a target as a “direct pick up of information”. I think that visuomotor representations are genuine representations. My main reason for thinking of the output of the visuomotor processing of a target as a genuine mental representation — and for thinking of grasping as a genuine action, not a behavioral reflex — is that Haddenden, Schiff & Goodale’s (2001) experiment suggests that the visuomotor processing of a target can be fooled by features of the visual display: it can be led to process two dimensional cues as if they were three dimensional obstacles. If the output of the visuomotor processing of a display can misrepresent it, then it represents it.

            Unlike visual percepts whose single role is to present visual information for further processing the output of which will be stored in the belief box, visuomotor representations are hybrid: as Millikan (1996), who calls them “pushmi-pullyu representations” has perceptively recognized, they have a dual role. I slightly depart from Millikan (1996), however, in that, unlike her, I assume that visuomotor representations, not motor intentions, have a double direction of fit. Visuomotor representations present states of affairs as both facts and goals for immediate action. On the one hand, they provide visual information for the benefit of motor intentions. On the other hand, their content can be conceptualized with the help of a special class of indexical concepts: causal indexicals. Whereas visual percepts must be stripped of much of their informational richness to be conceptualized, visuomotor representations can directly provide relevant visual information about the target of an action to motor intentions. To put it crudely, it follows from the work summarized in Jeannerod (1994, 1997) that the content of a motor intention has two sides: a subjective side and an objective side. On the subjective side, a motor intention represents the agent’s body in action. On the objective side, it represents the target of the action. Visuomotor representations contribute to the latter. Their ‘motoric’ informational encapsulation makes them suitable for this role. The nonconceptual nonperceptual content of a visuomotor representation matches that of a motor intention.

            Borrowing from the study of language processing, Jeannerod (1994, 1997) has drawn a distinction between the semantic and the pragmatic processing of visual stimuli. The view I want to put forward has been well expressed by Jeannerod (1997: 77): “at variance with the […] semantic processing, the representation involved in sensorimotor transformation has a predominantly ‘pragmatic’ function, in that it relates to the object as a goal for action, not as a member of a perceptual category. The object attributes are represented therein to the extent that they trigger specific motor patterns for the hand to achieve the proper grasp”. Thus, the crucial feature of the pragmatic processing of visual information is that its output is a suitable input to the nonconceptual content of motor intentions.

III.3. Visuomotor representations serve as inputs to causal indexicals

            I have just argued that what underlies the contrast between the pragmatic and the semantic processing of visual information is that, whereas the output of the latter is designed to serve as input to further conceptual processing with a mind-to-world direction of fit, the output of the former is designed to match the nonconceptual content of motor intentions with a world-to-mind direction of fit and a mind-to-world direction of causation. The special features of the nonconceptual contents of visuomotor representations can be inferred from the behavioral responses which they underlie, as in patient DF. They can also be deduced from the structure and content of elementary action concepts with the help of which they can be categorized.

            I shall presently consider a subset of elementary action concepts, which, following Campbell (1994), I shall call “causally indexical” concepts. Indexical concepts are shallow but indispensable concepts, whose references change as the perceptual context changes and whose function is to encode temporary information. Indexical concepts respectively expressed by ‘I’, ‘today’ and ‘here’ are personal, temporal and spatial indexicals. Arguably, their highly contextual content cannot be replaced by pure definite descriptions without loss. Campbell (1994: 41-51) recognizes the existence of causally indexical concepts whose references may vary according to the causal powers of the agent who uses them. Such concepts are involved in judgments having, as Campbell (1994: 43) puts it, “immediate implications for [the agent’s] action”. Concepts such as “too heavy”, “out of reach”, “within my reach”, “too large”, “fit for grasping between index and thumb” are causally indexical concepts in Campbell’s sense.

            Campbell’s idea of causal indexicality does capture a kind of judgment that is characteristically based upon the output of the pragmatic (or motor) processing of visual stimuli in Jeannerod’s (1994, 1997) sense. Unlike the content of the direct output of the pragmatic processing of visual stimuli or that of motor intentions, the contents of judgments involving causal indexicals is conceptual. Judgments involving causally indexical concepts have low conceptual content, but they have conceptual content nonetheless. For example, if something is categorized as “too heavy”, then it follows that it is not light enough. The nonconceptual contents of either visuomotor representations or motor intentions is better compared with that of an affordance in Gibson’s sense.

            Causally indexical concepts differ in one crucial respect from other indexical concepts, i.e., personal, temporal and spatial indexical concepts. Thoughts involving personal, temporal and spatial indexical concepts are “egocentric” thoughts in the sense that they they are perception-based thoughts. This is obvious enough for thoughts expressible with either the first-person pronouns ‘I’ or ‘you’. To refer to a location as ‘here’ or ‘there’ and to refer to a day as ‘today’, ‘yesterday’ or ‘tomorrow’ is to refer respectively to a spatial and a temporal region from within some egocentric perspective: a location can only be referred to as ‘here’ or ‘there’ from some particular spatial egocentric perspective. A temporal region can only be referred to by ‘today’, ‘yesterday’ or ‘tomorrow’ from some particular temporal egocentric perspective. In this sense, personal, temporal and spatial indexical concepts are egocentric concepts.[2] Arguably, egocentric indexicals lie at the interface between visual percepts and an individual’s conceptual repertoire about objects, times and locations.

            Many philosophers (see e.g., Kaplan, 1989 and Perry, 1993) have argued that personal, temporal and spatial indexical and/or demonstrative concepts play a special “essential” and ineliminable role in the explanation of action. And so they do. As Perry (1993: 33) insightfully writes: “I once followed a trail of sugar on a supermarket floor, pushing my cart down the aisle on one side of a tall counter and back the aisle on the other, seeking the shopper with the torn sack to tell him he was making a mess. With each trip around the counter, the trail became thicker. But I seemed unable to catch up. Finally it dawned on me. I was the shopper I was trying to catch”. To believe that the shopper with a torn sack is making a mess is one thing. To believe that oneself is making a mess is something else. Only upon forming the thought expressible by ‘I am making a mess’ is it at all likely that one may take appropriate measures to change one’s course of action. It is one thing to believe that the meeting starts at 10:00 AM. It is another thing to believe that the meeting starts now, even if now is 10:00 AM. Not until one thinks that the meeting starts now will one get up and run. Consider someone standing still at an intersection, lost in a foreign city. One thing is for that person to intend to go to her hotel. Something else is to intend to go this way, not that way. Only after she has formed the latter intention with a demonstrative locational content, will she get up and walk.

            Thus, such egocentric concepts as personal, temporal and spatial indexicals and/or demonstratives derive their ineliminable role in the explanation of action from the fact that their recognitional role cannot be played by any purely descriptive concept. Recognition involves a contrast but it can be achieved without recourse to a uniquely specifying definite description. Indexicals and demonstratives are mental pointers that can be used to refer to objects, places and times. Personal indexicals are involved in the recognition of persons. Temporal indexicals are involved in the recognition of temporal regions or instants. Spatial indexicals are involved in the recognition of locations. To recognize oneself as the reference of ‘I’ is to make a contrast with the recognition of the person one addresses in verbal communication as ‘you’. To identify a day as ‘today’ is to contrast it with other days that might be identified as ‘yesterday’, ‘the day before yesterday’, ‘tomorrow’, etc. To identify a place as ‘here’ is to contrast it with other places referred to as ‘there’.

            Although indexicals and demonstratives are concepts, they have non-descriptive conceptual content. The conceptual system needs such indexical concepts because it lacks the resources to supply a purely descriptive symbol, i.e., a symbol that could uniquely identify a person, a time or a place. A purely descriptive concept would be a concept that a unique person, a unique time or a unique place would satisfy by uniquely exemplifying each and every of its constituent features. We cannot specify the references of our concepts all the way down by using uniquely identifying descriptions on pain of circularity. If, as Pylyshyn (2000: 129) points out, concepts need to be “grounded”, then on pain of circularity, “the grounding [must] begin at the point where something is picked out directly by a mechanism that works like a demonstrative” (or an indexical). If concepts are to be hooked to or locked onto objects, times and places, then on pain of circularity, definite descriptions will not supply the locking mechanism.

            Personal, temporal and spatial indexicals owe their special explanatory role to the fact that they cannot be replaced by purely descriptive concepts. Although they allow recognition by nondescriptive means, their direction of application is mind-to-world. Causally indexical concepts, however, play a different role altogether. Unlike personal, temporal and spatial indexical concepts, causally indexical concepts have a distinctive quasi-deontic or quasi-evaluative content. I want to say that, unlike that of other indexicals, the direction of fit of causal indexicals is hybrid: it is partly mind-to-world, partly world-to-mind. To categorize a target as “too heavy”, “within reach” or “fit for grasping between index and thumb” is to judge or evaluate the parameters of the target as conducive to a successful action upon the target. Unlike the contents of other indexicals, the content of a causally indexical concept results from the combination of an action predicate and an evaluative operator. What makes it indexical is that the result of the application of the latter onto the former is relative to the agent who makes the application. Thus, the job of causally indexical concepts is not just to match the world but to play an action guiding role. If it is, then presumably causal indexicals have at best a hybrid direction of fit, not a pure mind-to-world direction of fit.

            In the previous section, I have argued that, unlike visual percepts, visuomotor representations provide visual information to motor intentions, which have nonconceptual content, a world-to-mind direction of fit and a mind-to-world direction of causation. I am presently arguing that the visual information of visuomotor representations can also serve as input to causally indexical concepts, which are elementary contextually dependent action concepts. Judgments involving causally indexical concepts have at best a hybrid direction of fit. When an agent makes such a judgment, he is not merely stating a fact: he is not thereby coming to know a fact that holds independently of his causal powers. Rather, he is settling, accepting or making his mind on an action plan. The function of causally indexical concepts is precisely to allow an agent to make action plans. Whereas personal, temporal and spatial indexicals lie at the interface between visual percepts and an individual’s conceptual repertoire about objects, times and places, causally indexical concepts lie at the interface between visuomotor representations, motor intentions and what Searle calls prior intentions. Prior intentions have conceptual content: they involve action concepts. Thus, after conceptual processing via the channel of causally indexical concepts, the visual information contained in visuomotor representations can be stored in a conceptual format adapted to the content and the direction of fit of one’s intentions — if not one’s motor intentions, then perhaps one’s prior intentions. Hence, the output of the motor processing of visual inputs can serve as input to further conceptual processing whose output will be stored in the ‘intention box’.


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[1]  For discussion, see Jacob (1997, ch. 2).

[2] The egocentricity of indexical concepts should not be confused with the egocentricity of an egocentric frame of reference in which the visual system codes e.g., the location of a target. The former is a property of concepts. The latter is a property of visual representations. One crucial difference between the egocentricity of indexical concepts and the ecogentricity of an egocetnric frame of reference for coding the spatial location of a target is that, unlike the latter, the former involves a contrast: if e.g., something is here, it is not there. 


Paper for the Summer School in Analytic Philosophy, on Knowledge and Cognition, July 1-7, 2002. Seeing, Perceiving and Knowing, Pierre Jacob,


Neurobiology & Faith

The Humanizing Brain: Where Religion and Neuroscience Meet By James B. Ashbrook and Carol Rausch Albright. Pilgrim, 233 pp., $20.95.

In late 1997, an unusual story about the discovery of a”God-spot” in the brain began to appear in newspapers and newsmagazines. In a series of tests, epileptic patients with heightened brain activity in the temporal lobe showed hypersensitivity to religious words and phrases. Some news services announced that scientists had discovered the source of religious experiences. On Internet discussion groups, atheists crowed that religion had been proven to be nothing more than a dysfunction of the brain. Some theists countered, equally glibly, that God had designed our brains to be receptive to the divine; consequently, atheists seemed to be missing a vital piece of equipment.

Researchers had indeed found a region of the brain that could be linked to religious experience, but they neither claimed that this region was the cause of all such experiences nor sought to disparage or “reduce” religion or religious experience. What they had discovered, rather, was that what goes on in the brain is profoundly connected to what goes on in the mind, even in the most sublime of all experiences. They also demonstrated that neuroscience is becoming increasingly important for thinking about some of the basic claims of religion.

James Ashbrook and Carol Rausch Albright seek to break new ground in the dialogue between religion and science. They also hope to demonstrate that neuroscience is not only the appropriate but the preferred partner in that dialogue.

There has never been a better time to make this argument. President George Bush and the U.S. Congress declared the 1990s the decade of the brain, and it has lived up to that declaration. Spurred by the development of advanced scanning techniques such as PET (Positron Emission Tomography) and MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging), neuroscientists are getting glimpses of the brain in action. These maps allow them to observe the brain as it never has been seen before.

This culmination of more than 100 years of serious brain research is finally allowing us to ask some truly interesting questions: Where do emotions come from and why do we have them? How do we think and learn? How does the three-pound, gelatinous mass that we call the brain produce our identities? Though final answers are still a long way off, it is significant that we can now begin to frame such questions in a scientific way. In some cases, the answers seem startling. Far from endorsing a simple reduction of mind to mere neurons, many neuroscientists are embracing paradigms that emphasize the holistic character of brain function and the ways that reason and emotion interplay to make up a self.

This book is neither a neuroscience textbook nor a systematic theology. Rather, it is a working-out of theology through the lens of the neurosciences. Ashbrook, who before his recent death was a pastoral theologian and professor emeritus of religion and personality at Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary, and Albright, executive editor of Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science, seek to develop a “neurobiology of faith.” To do so is possible because the brain holds a peculiar place in the universe–and, more specifically, in our universe. We ourselves, in a sense, are brains. To study the brain is to study ourselves, but in a way that makes us both subject and object. It is as if we were trying to look both in and out of the window at the same time.

Furthermore, to study ourselves, the authors claim, is to study God. Ashbrook and Albright’s introduction states that “God-talk is really human-talk, since it is we who are conversing.” That is, because we can experience God only as human beings, in the process of learning about human life we will necessarily learn something about God as well. Even more than this, understanding the human brain can be the key to understanding God.

It is worth taking this startling claim seriously. Asked to name the most exotic thing in the universe, most of us would mention either the very large (black holes and supernovas) or the very small (all those spooky little particles). But the most incredible structure in the entire universe may be what is sitting behind our eyeballs. Inside our heads is the most complex and sophisticated device in creation.

Every brain contains approximately 100 billion cells called neurons. Neurons connect with one another to form complex communication networks that, among other things, enable us to walk, talk and breath without thinking about it. There are a staggering 100 trillion neuron connections in the brain. As anyone who uses a comparatively simple desktop computer can testify, it seems a miracle that such a complex system could work without crashing. Yet the brain smoothly, day in and day out, enables us to perceive objects in color, distinguish the year and place of a wine by taste, and (sometimes) understand calculus. Black holes seem boring by comparison.

The Humanizing Brain: Where Religion and Neuroscience Meet – Review, Christian Century,  Jan 27, 1999  by Greg Peterson



Politics and Ethics

We all spend a great deal of time criticizing those in and out of power for their conduct and exercise of leadership or lack thereof, but rarely do we try to elucidate the qualities that we would like to see in a leader. It is important that we do this.   Politics is the acquisition and exercise of power, and real harm can come when people who are unsuitable for the job attempt it.  Here are some starting points for such a discussion.

In his important lecture “Politics as a Vocation”  the eminent German sociologist and political economist Max Weber identified two kinds of  “deadly sins” in politics: a lack of objectivity and a lack of responsibility.  In an essay early last year DHinMI discussed the latter sin, irresponsibility, in connection with Ralph Nader.  This essay discusses the need for objectivity, or “seeing clearly.”  The qualities that Weber sees as necessary in politics are very similar to qualities that Chinese sages hundreds and even thousands of years ago also counseled and trained leaders to develop, no doubt reflecting Weber’s extensive studies of Eastern thought.

Weber delivered his lecture in 1918 to a group of students as Germany was undergoing the revolution that ended the rule of the Kaisers, a moment when careers in politics and political participation would be open to a far greater number of people.  Toward the end of the lecture he discussed the inner enjoyments a life in politics could provide and the personal conditions or traits needed for such a vocation.  Along with passion, which Weber stressed was not “sterile excitement” but deep devotion to a cause or purpose, and a sense of responsibility, a politician or activist needs a sense of balance and proportion.

Weber states,

This is the decisive psychological quality of the politician:  his ability to let realities work upon him with inner concentration and calmness.  Hence his distance to things and men.  ‘Lack of distance’ per se is one of the deadly sins of every politican. . . . For the problem is simply how can warm passion and a cool sense of proportion be forged together in one and the same soul?  Politics is made with the head, not with the other parts of the body or the soul.  And yet devotion to politics, if it is not to be frivolous intellectual play but rather genuinely human conduct, can be born and nourished from passion alone.  However, that firm taming of the soul, which distinguishes the passionate politician and differentiates him from the ‘sterilely excited’ and mere political dilettante, is possible only through habituation to detachment in every sense of the word.  The ‘strength’ of a political ‘personality’ means in the first place the possession of these qualities of passion, responsibility and proportion.

Weber notes the perils and seductions that accompany the striving for power. Power can never become an end in itself.   “The sin against the lofty spirit of his vocation, however, begins where this striving for power ceases to be objective and becomes purely personal self-intoxication, instead of exclusively entering the service of ‘the cause.’”    A politician

is constantly in danger of becoming an actor as well as taking lightly the responsibility for the outcome of his actions and of being concerned merely with the ‘impression’ he makes.  His lack of objectivity tempts him to strive for the glamorous semblance of power rather than for actual power. . . . The mere ‘power’ politician may get strong effects, but actually his work leads nowhere and is senseless. . . . In this, the critics of ‘power politics’ are absolutely right.  From the sudden inner collapse of typical representatives of this mentality, we can see what inner weakness and impotence hides behind this boastful but entirely empty gesture.  It is a product of a shoddy and superficially blase attitude towards the meaning of human conduct; and it has no relation whatsoever to the knowledge of tragedy with which all action, but especially political action, is truly interwoven.

So how does one cultivate Weber’s objectivity or what i would call “seeing clearly,” and find balance?

Seeing clearly, the product of deep listening, is the fundamental prerequisite to all effective action.  This means above all seeing the world as it is, not as we would wish it to be or fear it is.  True clarity is neither excessive optimism nor a paralyzing pessimism.  Seeing clearly means not being blinded by by unresolved emotions, especially anger, fear, greed (self-seeking) or ambition.  Not being preoccupied with our own needs.  Not bringing so much baggage to a situation that we cannot appreciate nuance and small changes.  it means really listening to what someone else is saying, not immediately jumping to conclusions and reacting to what we think they are saying.  It means treating each situation freshly, reacting to the actual conditions that are presented, not reacting based on what happened in the past or what we assume to be the case.

As Weber noted, this requires a kind of detachment, or more properly non-attachment.  Part of being able to see clearly is avoiding being caught by distractions, desires, emotions and ambitions.  It is learning to find the stillness in the midst of the noise and activity all around us, and in that stillness, listening to our own intuition, our own cultivated judgment, our own inner ethical sense.  It also requires sufficient independence and integrity to avoid being overly beholden to supporters and patrons.  Seeing clearly often reveals avenues of action that might not have been initially apparent.  it is often the only way to see chinks in the opponent’s armor, and novel ways to resolve problems or extricate self, party or country from a difficult situation.
Finding balance and proportion.  Like the Greeks’ concept of the golden mean, Chinese sages teach us to find a balance between extremes.  In the Eastern concept of yin and yang, symbolized by the familiar interlocking design, opposites are seen as complementary halves of an integral whole, with each one partaking in some measure of the other.  Good contains within it elements of bad and vice versa.  No position is wholly correct or incorrect.  Neither side can, or should, absolutely prevail; attempting to bring that about only caused the tide to turn back toward the other pole.  There is always a higher vantage point in which opposites, necessary for navigating the relative world, are transcended.  Being able to step back from the conflict of the moment and to see things from a broader vantage point is necessary if one is to maintain a sense of proportion and not be crushed by setbacks and individual tragedies.  Balance also means caring for ourselves enough so that the self can ultimately become less important than the cause.  But while one should give oneself wholeheartedly to a cause, in the end what is important is not who wins but that the system and ultimately life continue.

Ethics and Politics.  Because politics involves the use of power and often requires difficult choices, a particular kind of ethical sense is needed.  Only a very principled and disciplined person can hope to properly make those difficult choices,  because only such a person is free of the self-seeking and fatal blindness that prevent one from seeing clearly.  Only one who maintains a sense of balance and distance can appropriately determine whether and when dubious measures are ever justified in pursuit of worthy goals and when a sense of responsibility dictates that they are not justified.

Someone unwilling ever to compromise or to use force or dubious means shpu;d not become involved in politics, says Weber, but neither should someone who lacks the selflessness and ethical sense to know that some means cannot be justified because their use will irretrievably damage the cause, and perhaps also the whole country, humanity or the planet.

Finally, politics requires not only discipline but toughness, what Weber called “the trained relentlessness in viewing the realities of life, and the ability to face such realities and to measure up to them inwardly.”  Speaking in 1918, at the birth of the infant German Republic and only two years before his own death, Weber was under no illusions about what might lie ahead.  “Not summer’s bloom lies ahead of us, but rather a polar night of icy darkness, no matter which group may triumph externally now.”

He concluded,

Politics is a strong and slow boring of hard boards.  It takes both passion and perspective.  Certainly all historical experience confirms the truth—that man would not have attained the possible unless time and again he had reached out for the impossible.  But to do that a man must be a leader, and not only a leader but a hero as well, in a very sober sense of the word.  And even those who are neither leaders nor heroes must arm themselves with that steadfastness of heart which can brave even the crumbling of all hopes.  This is necessary right now or else men will not be able to attain even that which is possible today.  Only he has the calling for politics who is sure that he shall not crumble when the world from his point if view is too stupid or too base for what he wants to offer.  Only he who in the face of all this can say ‘In spite of all!’ has the calling for politics.

Potentially facing our own dark night, those who care seriously about politics must demand no less of ourselves, our colleagues and our leaders.

Politics and Ethics, By Mimikatz

Dynamics of Liberalism

The purpose of this essay is to critically examine the historical dynamics of liberalism and its impact on contemporary Western polities. This essay will argue a) that liberalism today provides a comfortable ideological “retreat” for members of the intellectual elite and decision makers tired of the theological and ideological disputes that rocked Western politics for centuries; b) that liberalism can make compromises with various brands of socialism on practically all issues except the freedom of the market place; c) that liberalism thrives by expanding the economic arena into all aspects of life and all corners of the world, thereby gradually erasing the sense of national and historical community which had formerly provided the individual with a basic sense of identity and psychological security. This essay will also question whether liberalism, despite its remarkable success in the realm of the economy, provides an adequate bulwark against non-democratic ideologies, or whether under some conditions it may actually stimulate their growth.

In the aftermath of the second world war, liberalism and Marxism emerged as the two unquestionably dominant ideologies following their military success over their common rival, fascism. This brought them into direct conflict with each other, since each contended, from their own viewpoint, that the only valid political model was their own, denying the validity of their opponent’s thesis. Beaud writes that when the liberal and socialist ideas began to emerge, the former quickly cloaked itself in science (“the law of supply and demand,” “the iron law of wages”), while the latter had the tendency to degenerate into mysticism and sectarianism.[1]

Some critics of liberalism, such as the French economist Francois Perroux, pointed out that according to some extreme liberal assumptions, “everything (that) has been happening since the beginning of time (can be attributed to capitalism) as if the modern world was constructed by industrialists and merchants consulting their account books and wishing to reap profits.”[2] Similar subjective attitudes, albeit from a different ideological angle, can often be heard among Marxist theorists, who in the analysis of liberal capitalism resort to value judgements colored by Marxian dialectics and accompanied by the rejection of the liberal interpretation of the concept of equality and liberty. “The fact that the dialectical method can be used for each purpose,” remarks the Austrian philosopher Alexander Topitsch, “explains its extraordinary attraction and its world-wide dissemination, that can only be compared to the success of the natural rights doctrine of the eighteenth century.”[3] Nevertheless, despite their real ideological discord, liberals, neo-liberals, socialists, and “socio-neoliberals,” agree, at least in principle, in claiming a common heritage of rationalism, and on the rejection of all non-democratic ideologies, especially racialism. Earlier in this century, Georges Sorel, the French theorist of anarcho-syndicalism, remarked with irony that “to attempt to protest against the illusion of rationalism means to be immediately branded as the enemy of democracy.”[4]

The practical conflict between the respective virtues of liberalism and socialism is today seemingly coming to a close, as some of the major Marxist regimes move in the direction of a liberalization of their economies, even though the ideological debate is by no means settled amongst intellectuals. Undoubtedly, the popularity of Marxist socialism is today in global decline amongst those who have to face the problem of making it work. In consequence, despite the fact that support for Marxism amongst Western intellectuals was at its height when repression in Marxist countries was at its peak, liberalism today seems have been accepted as a place of “refuge” by many intellectuals who, disillusioned with the failure of repression in the Marxist countries, nevertheless continue to hold to the socialist principles of universalism and egalitarianism.

As Francois B. Huyghe comments, welfare state policies accepted by liberals have implemented many of the socialist programs which patently failed in communist countries.[5] Thus, economic liberalism is not only popular among many former left-wing intellectuals (including numbers of East European intellectuals) because it has scored tangible economic results in the Western countries, but also due to the fact that its socialist counterpart has failed in practice, leaving the liberal model as the only uncontested alternative. “The main reason for the victories of economic liberalism,” writes Kolm, “are due to the fact that all defective functioning of the non-liberal model of social realization warrants the consideration of the alternative liberal social realization. The examples of such cases abound in the West as in the East; in the North as in the South.”[6] In the absence of other successful models, and in the epoch of a pronounced “de-ideologization” process all over Europe and America, modern liberalism has turned out to be a modus vivendi for the formerly embattled foes. But are we therefore to conclude that the eclipse of other models and ideologies must spell the end of politics and inaugurate the beginning of the Age of Liberalism?

Long before the miracle of modern liberalism became obvious, a number of writers had observed that liberalism would continue to face a crisis of legitimacy even if its socialist and fascist foes were miraculously to disappear.[7] More recently, Serge-Christophe Kolm has remarked that liberalism and socialism must not be viewed in dialectical opposition, but rather as a fulfilment of each other. Kolm writes that the ideals of liberalism and Marxism “are almost identical given that they are founded on the values of liberty, and coinciding in the applications of almost everything, except on a subject which is logically punctual, yet factually enormous in this world: wage-earning, location of individuals and self.”[8] Some have even advanced the hypothesis that liberalism and socialism are the face and the counter-face of the same phenomenon, since contemporary liberalism has managed to achieve, in the long run and in an unrepressive fashion, many of those same goals which Marxian socialism in the short run, employing repressive means, has failed to achieve. Yet differences exist.

Not only do socialist ideologues currently fear that the introduction of free market measures could spell the end of socialism, but socialism and liberalism disagree fundamentally on the definition of equality. Theoretically, both subscribe to constitutional, legal, political and social equality; yet their main difference lies in their opposing views regarding the distribution of economic benefits/rewards, and accordingly, as to their corresponding definition of economic equality. Unlike liberalism, socialism is not satisfied with demanding political and social equality, but insists on equal distribution of economic goods. Marx repeatedly criticized the liberal definition of equal rights, for which he once said that “this equal right is unequal right for unequal labor. This right does not acknowledge class difference because everyone is only a worker like everyone else; but it tacitly recognizes unequal individual talents, and consequently it holds individual skills for natural privileges.”[9] Only in a higher stage of communism, after the present subordination of individuals to capital, that is, after the differences in the rewards of labor have disappeared, will bourgeois rights disappear, and society will write on its banner: “From each according to his capacity, to each according to his needs.”[10]

Despite these differences, it may be said that, in general, socialist ideas have always surfaced as unavoidable satellites and pendants of liberalism. As soon as liberal ideas made their inroads into the European feudal scene, the stage for socialist appetites was set – appetites which subsequently proved too large to fulfil. As soon as the early bourgeoisie had secured its position, liquidating guilds and feudal corporations along with the landed aristocracy, it had to face up to critics who accused it of stifling political liberties and economic equality, and of turning the newly enfranchised peasant into a factory slave. In the seventeenth century, remarks Lakoff, the bourgeois ideas of equality and liberty immediately provided the fourth estate with ideological ammunition, which was quickly expressed by numerous proto-socialist revolutionary movements.[11] Under such circumstances of flawed equality, it must not come as a surprise that the heaviest burden for peasants was the hypocrisy of the bourgeoisie, which had hailed the rights of equality as long as it struggled to dislodge the aristocracy from power; yet the minute it acceded to power, prudently refrained from making any further claims about equality in affluence. David Thomson remarked with irony that “many of those who would defend with their dying breath the rights of liberty and equality (such as many English and American liberals) shrink back in horror from the notion of economic egalitarianism.”[12] Also, Sorel pointed out that in general, the abuse of power by an hereditary aristocracy is less harmful to the juridical sentiment of a people than the abuses committed by a plutocratic regime,[13] adding that “nothing would ruin so much the respect for laws as the spectacle of injustices committed by adventurers who, with the complicity of tribunals, have become so rich that they can purchase politicians.”[14]

The dynamics of liberal and socialist revolutions gathered steam in the eighteenth and nineteenth century, notably an epoch of great revolutionary ferment in Europe. The liberal 1789 revolution in France rapidly gave way to the socialist Jacobin revolution in 1792; “the liberal” Condorcet was supplanted by the “communist” Babeuf, and the relatively bloodless Girondin coup was followed by the avalanche of bloodshed under the Jacobin terror and the revolt of the “sans-culottes.”[15] Similarly, a hundred years later, the February Revolution in Russia was followed by the accelerated October revolution, replacing the social democrat, Kerensky, by the communist Lenin. Liberalism gobbled up the ancient aristocracy, liquidated the medieval trade corporations, alienated the workers, and then in its turn was frequently supplanted by socialism. It is therefore interesting to observe that after its century-long competition with socialism, liberalism is today showing better results in both the economic and ethical domains, whereas the Marxist credo seems to be on the decline. But has liberalism become the only acceptable model for all peoples on earth? How is it that liberalism, as an incarnation of the humanitarian ideal and the democratic spirit, has always created enemies on both the left and the right, albeit for different reasons?

Free Market: The “Religion” of Liberalism
Liberalism can make many ideological “deals” with other ideologies, but one sphere where its remains intransigent is the advocacy of the free market and free exchange of goods and commodities. Undoubtedly, liberalism is not an ideology like other ideologies, and in addition, it has no desire to impose an absolute and exclusive vision of the world rooted in a dualistic cleavage between good and evil, the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, the “chosen and the unchosen ones.” Moreover, the liberal ideal lacks that distinctive telos so typical of socialist and fascist ideologies. Contrary to other ideologies, liberalism is in general rather sceptical of any concentration of political power, because in the “inflation” of politics, and in ideological fervor, it claims to see signs of authoritarianism and even, as some authors have argued, totalitarianism.[16] Liberalism seems to be best fitted for a secularized polity, which Carl Schmitt alternatively called the “minimal state” (Minimalstaat), and stato neutrale.[17] It follows that in a society where production has been rationalized and human interaction is subject to constant reification (Vergegenstandlichung), liberalism cannot (or does not wish to) adopt the same “will to power” which so often characterizes other ideologies. In addition, it is somewhat difficult to envision how such a society can request its citizens to sacrifice their goods and their lives in the interests of some political or religious ideal.[18] The free market is viewed as a “neutral filed” (Neutralgebiet), allowing only the minimum of ideological conflict, that aims at erasing all political conflicts, positing that all people are rational beings whose quest for happiness is best secured by the peaceful pursuit of economic goals. In a liberal, individualistic society, every political belief is sooner or later reduced to a “private thing” whose ultimate arbiter is the individual himself. The Marxist theoretician Habermas comes to a somewhat similar conclusion, when he argues that modern liberal systems have acquired a negative character: “Politics is oriented to the removal of dysfunctionalities and of risks dangerous to the system; in other words politics is not oriented to the implementation of practical goals, but to the solution of technological issues.”[19] The market may thus be viewed as an ideal social construct whose main purpose is to limit the political arena. Consequently, every imaginable flaw in the market is generally explained by assertions that “there is still too much politics” hampering the free exchange of goods and commodities.[20]

Probably one of the most cynical remarks about liberalism and the liberal “money fetichism,” came not from Marx, but from the Fascist ideologue Julius Evola, who once wrote: “Before the classical dilemma, your money or your life, the bourgeois will paradoxically be the one to answer: ‘Take my life, but spare my money.'”[21] But in spite of its purportedly agnostic and apolitical character, it would be wrong to assert that liberalism does not have “religious roots.” In fact, many authors have remarked that the implementation of liberalism has been the most successful in precisely those countries which are known for strong adherence to biblical monotheism. Earlier in this century, the German sociologist Werner Sombart asserted that the liberal postulates of economics and ethics stem from Judeo-Christian legalism, and that liberals conceive of commerce, money and the “holy economicalness” (“heilige Wirtschaftlichkeit”) as the ideal avenue to spiritual salvation.[22] More recently, the French anthropologist Louis Dumont, wrote that liberal individualism and economism are the secular transposition of Judeo-Christian beliefs, noting that “just as religion gave birth to politics, politics in turn will be shown to give birth to economics.”[23]

Henceforth, writes Dumont in his book From Mandeville to Marx, according to the liberal doctrine, man’s pursuit of happiness has increasingly come to be associated with the unimpeded pursuit of economic activities. In modern polities, he opines, the substitution of man as an individual for the idea of man as a social being was made possible by Judeo- Christianity: “the transition was thus made possible, from a holistic social order to a political system raised by consent as a superstructure on an ontological given economic basis.”[24] In other words, the idea of individual accountability before God, gave birth, over a long period of time, to the individual and to the idea that economic accountability constitutes the linchpin of the liberal social contract – a notion totally absent from organic and traditional nationalistically-organized societies.[25] Thus Emanuel Rackman argues that Judeo-Christianity played an important role in the development of ethical liberalism in the USA: “This was the only source on which Thomas Paine could rely in his “Rights of Man” to support the dogma of the American Declaration of Independence that all men are created equal. And this dogma was basic in Judaism.”[26] Similar claims are made by Konvitz in Judaism and the American Idea, wherein he argues that modern America owes much to the Jewish holy scriptures.[27] Feurbach, Sombart, Weber, Troeltsch, and others have similarly argued that Judeo-Christianity had a considerable influence on the historical development of liberal capitalism. On the other hand, when one considers the recent economic success of various Asian countries on the Pacific Rim, whose expansionary impetus often overshadows the economic achievements of the countries marked by the Judeo-Christian legacy, one must take care not to equate economic success solely with the Judeo-Christian forms of liberal society.

Equal Economic Opportunity or the Opportunity to Be Unequal?
The strength of liberalism and of free-market economics lies in the fact that the liberal ideal enables all people to develop their talents as they best see fit. The free market ignores all hierarchy and social differentiation, except those differences which result from the completion of economic transactions. Liberals argue that all people have the same economic opportunity, and that consequently, each individual, by making best use of his or her talents and entrepreneurship, will alone determine his or her social status. But critics of liberalism often contend that this formula is in itself dependent upon the terms and conditions under which the principles of “economic opportunity” can take place. John Schaar asserts that liberalism has substantially transformed the social arena into the economic field track, and that the formula should read: “equality of opportunity for all to develop those talents which are highly valued by a given people at a given time.”[28] According to Schaar’s logic, when the whims of the market determine which specific items, commodities or human talents are most in demand, or are more marketable than some others, it will follow that individuals lacking these talents or commodities will experience an acute sense of injustice. “Every society, Schaar continues, “encourages some talents and discourages others. Under the equal opportunity doctrine, the only men who can fulfil themselves and develop their abilities to the fullest are those who are able and eager to do what society demands they do.”[29] This means that liberal societies will likely be most content when their members share a homogeneous background and a common culture. Yet modern liberalism seeks to break-down national barriers and promote the conversion of hitherto homogeneous nation-states into multi-ethnic and highly heterogeneous political states. Thus, the potential for disputation and dissatisfaction is enhanced by the successful implementation of its economic policies.

It is further arguable that the success of liberalism engenders its own problems. Thus, as Karl Marx was quick to note, in a society where everything becomes an expendable commodity, man gradually comes to see himself as an expendable commodity too. An average individual will be less and less prone to abide by his own internal criteria, values or interests, and instead, he will tenaciously focus on not being left out of the economic battle, always on his guard that his interests are in line with the market. According to Schaar, such an attitude, in the long run, can have catastrophic consequences for the winner as well as the loser: “The winners easily come to think of themselves as being superior to common humanity, while the losers are almost forced to think of themselves as something less than human.”[30] Under psychological pressure caused by incessant economic competition, and seized by fear that they may fall out of the game, a considerable number of people, whose interests and sensibilities are not compatible with current demands of the market, may develop feelings of bitterness, jealousness and inferiority. A great many among them will accept the economic game, but many will, little by little, come to the conclusion that the liberal formula “all people are equal,” in reality only applies to those who are economically the most successful. Murray Milner, whose analyses parallel Schaar’s, observes that under such circumstances, the doctrine of equal opportunity creates psychological insecurity, irrespective of the material affluence of society. “Stressing equality of opportunity necessarily makes the status structure fluid and the position of the individual within it ambiguous and insecure.”[31] The endless struggle for riches and security, which seemingly has no limits, can produce negative results, particularly when society is in the throes of sudden economic changes. Antony Flew, in a similar fashion, writes that “a ‘competition’ in which the success of all contestants is equally probable is a game of chance or lottery, not a genuine competition.”[32] For Milner such an economic game is tiring and unpredictable, and if “extended indefinitely, it could lead to exhaustion and collapse.”[33]

Many other contemporary authors also argue that the greatest threat to liberalism comes from the constant improvement in general welfare generated by its own economic successes. Recently, two French scholars, Julien Freund and Claude Polin, wrote that the awesome expansion of liberalism, resulting in ever increasing general affluence, inevitably generates new economic and material needs, which constantly cry out for yet another material fulfilment. Consequently, after society has reached an enviable level of material growth, even the slightest economic crisis, resulting in a perceptible drop in living standards, will cause social discord and possibly political upheavals.

Taking a slightly different stance, Polin remarks that liberalism, in accordance with the much vaunted doctrine of “natural rights,” tends, very often, to define man as a final and complete species who no longer needs to evolve, and whose needs can be rationally predicted and finalized. Led by an unquenchable desire that he must exclusively act on his physical environment in order to improve his earthly lot, he is accordingly led by the liberal ideology to think that the only possible way to realize happiness is to place material welfare and individualism above all other goals.[34] In fact, given that the “ideology of needs” has become a tacit criterion of progress in liberalism, it is arguable that the material needs of modern anomic masses must always be “postponed,” since they can never be fully satisfied.[35] Moreover, each society which places excessive hopes in a salutary economy, will gradually come to view freedom as purely economic freedom and good as purely economic good. Thus, the “merchant civilization” (civilization marchande), as Polin calls it, must eventually become a hedonistic civilization in search of pleasure, and self-love. These points are similar to the views held by Julien Freund, who also sees in liberalism a society of impossible needs and insatiable desire. He remarks that “it appears that satiety and overabundance are not the same things as satisfaction, because they provoke new dissatisfaction.”[36] Instead of rationally solving all human needs, liberal society always triggers new ones, which in turn constantly create further needs. Everything happens, Freund continues, as if the well-fed needed more than those who live in indigence. In other words, abundance creates a different form of scarcity, as if man needs privation and indigence, “as if he needed some needs.”[37] One has almost the impression that liberal society purposely aims at provoking new needs, generally unpredictable, often bizarre. Freund concludes that “the more the rationalization of the means of production brings about an increase in the volume of accessible goods, the more the needs extend to the point of becoming irrational.”[38]

Such an argument implies that the dynamics of liberalism, continually begetting new and unpredictable needs, continually threatens the philosophical premises of that same rationalism on which liberal society has built its legitimacy. In this respect socialist theorists often sound convincing when they in effect argue that if liberalism has not been able to provide equality in affluence, communism does at least offer equality in frugality!

Conclusion: From Atomistic Society to Totalitarian System
The British imperialist, Cecil Rhodes, once exclaimed: “if I could I would annex the planets!” A very Promethean idea, indeed, and quite worthy of Jack London’s rugged individuals or Balzac’s entrepreneurs – but can it really work in a world in which the old capitalist guard, as Schumpeter once pointed out, is becoming a vanishing species?[39]

It remains to be seen how liberalism will pursue its odyssey in a society in which those who are successful in the economic arena live side by side with those who lag behind in economic achievement, when its egalitarian principles prohibit the development of any moral system that would justify such hierarchical differences, such as sustained medieval European society. Aside from prophecies about the decline of the West, the truism remains that it is easier to create equality in economic frugality than equality in affluence. Socialist societies can point to a higher degree of equality in frugality. But liberal societies, especially in the last ten years, have constantly been bedevilled by an uneasy choice; on the one hand, their effort to expand the market, in order to create a more competitive economy, has almost invariably caused the marginalization of some social strata. On the other hand, their efforts to create more egalitarian conditions by means of the welfare state brings about, as a rule, sluggish economic performance and a menacing increase in governmental bureaucratic controls. As demonstrated earlier, liberal democracy sets out from the principles that the “neutral state” and free market are the best pillars against radical political ideologies, and that commerce, as Montesqieu once said, “softens up the mores.” Further, as a result of the liberal drive to extend markets on a world-wide basis, and consequently, to reduce or eliminate all forms of national protectionism, whether to the flow of merchandise, or of capital, or even of labor, the individual worker finds himself in an incomprehensible, rapidly changing international environment, quite different from the secure local society familiar to him since childhood.

This paradox of liberalism was very well described by a keen German observer, the philosopher Max Scheler, who had an opportunity to observe the liberal erratic development, first in Wilhelmian and then in Weimar Germany. He noted that liberalism is bound to create enemies, both on the right and the left side of the political spectrum: On the left it makes enemies of those who see in liberalism a travesty of the natural rights dogma, and on the right, of those who discern in it the menace to organic and traditional society. “Consequently,” writes Scheler, “a huge load of resentment appears in a society, such as ours, in which equal political and other rights, that is, the publicly acknowledged social equality, go hand in hand with large differences in real power, real property and real education. A society in which each has the “right” to compare himself to everybody, yet in which, in reality, he can compare himself to nobody.”[40] In traditional societies as Dumont has written, such types of reasoning could never develop to the same extent because the majority of people were solidly attached to their communal roots and the social status which their community bestowed upon them. India, for example, provides a case study of a country that has significantly preserved a measure of traditional civic community, at least in the smaller towns and villages, despite the adverse impact of its population explosion and the ongoing conflict there between socialism in government and liberalism in the growing industrial sector of the economy. By contrast, in the more highly industrialized West, one could almost argue that the survival of modern liberalism depends on its constant ability to “run ahead of itself” economically.

The need for constant and rapid economic expansion carries in itself the seeds of social and cultural dislocation, and it is this loss of “roots” that provides the seedbed for tempting radical ideologies. In fact how can unchecked growth ever appease the radical proponents of natural rights, whose standard response is that it is inadmissible for somebody to be a loser and somebody a winner? Faced with a constant expansion of the market, the alienated and uprooted individual in a society in which the chief standard of value has become material wealth, may be tempted to sacrifice freedom for economic security. It does not always appear convincing that liberal societies will always be able to sustain the “social contract” on which they depend for their survival by thrusting people into material interdependence. Economic gain may be a strong bond, but it does not have the affective emotional power for inducing willing self-sacrifice in times of adversity on which the old family-based nation-state could generally rely.

More likely, by placing individuals in purely economic interdependence on each other, and by destroying the more traditional bonds of kinship and national loyalty, modern liberalism may have succeeded in creating a stage where, in times of adversity, the economic individual will seek to outbid, outsmart, and outmaneuver all others, thereby preparing the way for the “terror of all against all,” and preparing the ground, once again, for the rise of new totalitarianisms. In other words, the spirit of totalitarianism is born when economic activity obscures all other realms of social existence, and when the “individual has ceased to be a father, a sportsman, a religious man, a friend, a reader, a righteous man – only to become an economic actor.”[41] By shrinking the spiritual arena and elevating the status of economic activities, liberalism in fact challenges its own principles of liberty, thus enormously facilitating the rise of totalitarian temptations. One could conclude that as long as economic values remained subordinate to non-economic ideals, the individual had at least some sense of security irrespective of the fact his life was often, economically speaking, more miserable. With the subsequent emergence of the anonymous market, governed by the equally anonymous invisible hand, in the anonymous society, as Hannah Arendt once put it, man has acquired a feeling of uprootedness and existential futility.[42] As pre-industrial and traditional societies demonstrate, poverty is not necessarily the motor behind revolutions. Revolution comes most readily to those in whom poverty is combined with a consciousness of lost identity and a feeling of existential insecurity. For this reason, the modern liberal economies of the West must constantly work to ensure that the economic miracle shall continue. As economic success has been made the ultimate moral value, and national loyalties have been spurned as out of date, economic problems automatically generate deep dissatisfaction amongst those confronted with poverty, who are then likely to fall prone to the sense of “alienation” on which all past Marxist socialist success has been based.

One must therefore not exclude the likelihood that modern liberal society may at some time in the future face serious difficulties should it fail to secure permanent economic growth, especially if, in addition, it relentlessly continues to atomize the family (discouraging marriage, for example, by means of tax systems which favors extreme individualism) and destroys all national units in favor of the emergence of a single world-wide international market, along with its inevitable concomitant, the “international man.” While any faltering of the world economy, already under pressure from the Third World population explosion, might conceivably lead to a resurgence of right wing totalitarianisms in some areas, it is much more likely that in an internationalized society the new totalitarianism of the future will come from the left, in the form of a resurgence of the “socialist experiment,” promising economic gain to a population that has been taught that economic values are the only values that matter. Precisely because the “workers of the world” will have come to see themselves as an alienated international proletariat, they will tend to lean toward international socialist totalitarianism, rather than other forms of extreme political ideology.



  1. Michael Beaud, A History of Capitalism 1500-1980 (Paris: New York: Monthly Review Press, 1983), p. 80. 
  2. Francois Perroux, Le capitalisme (Paris: PUF, 1960), p. 31. 
  3. Ernst Topitsch “Dialektik – politische Wunderwaffe?,” Die Grundlage des Spatmarxismus, edited by E. Topitsch, Rudiger Proske, Hans Eysenck et al., (Stuttgart: Verlag Bonn Aktuell GMBH), p. 74. 
  4. Georges Sorel, Les illusions du progres (Paris: Marcel Riviere, 1947), p. 50. 
  5. Francois-Bernard Huyghe, La Soft-ideologie (Paris: Laffont, 1988). See also, Jean Baudrillard, La Gauche divine (Paris: Laffont, 1985). For an interesting polemics concerning the “treason of former socialists clerics who converted to liberalism,” see Guy Hocquenghem, Lettre ouverte a ceux qui sont passes du col Mao au Rotary (Paris: Albin Michel, 1986). 
  6. Serge-Christophe Kolm. Le liberalisme moderne (Paris: PUF, 1984), p. 11. 
  7. Carl Schmitt, Die geistegeschichtliche Lage des heutigen Parlametatarismus (Munchen and Leipzig: Verlag von Duncker and Humblot, 1926), p. 23. 
  8. Kolm, op. cit., p. 96. 
  9. Karl Marx, Kritik des Gothaer Programms (Zurich: Ring Verlag A.G., 1934), p. 10. 
  10. Ibid. , p. 11. 
  11. Sanford Lakoff, “Christianity and Equality,” Equality, edited by J. Roland Pennock and J. W. Chapmann, (New York: Atherton Press, 1967), pp. 128-130. 
  12. David Thomson, Equality (Cambridge: University Press, 1949), p. 79. 13. Sorel, op. cit., p. 297. 
    Sorel, op. cit., p. 297. 
  13. Loc. cit. 
  14. Theodore von Sosnosky, Die rote Dreifaltikeit (Einsiedeln: Verlaganstalt Benziger and Co., 1931). 
  15. cf. Raymond Aron, Democracy and Totalitarianism (New York: Frederick A. Praeger Publishers, 1969), p. 194 and passim. 
  16. Carl Schmitt, Der Begriff des Politischen (Munchen and Leipzig: Verlag von Duncker and Humblot, 1932), p. 76 and passim. 
  17. Ibid. , p. 36. 
  18. Jurgen Habermas Technik and Wissenschaft als Ideologie (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1968), p. 77. 
  19. Alain de Benoist, Die entscheidenden Jahre, “In der kaufmannisch-merkantilen Gesellschaftsform geht das Politische ein,”(Tubingen: Grabert Verlag, 1982), p. 34. 
  20. Julius Evola, “Proces de la bourgeoisie,” Essais politiques (Paris: edition Pardes, 1988), p. 212. First published in La vita italiana, “Processo alla borghesia,” XXV1II, nr. 324 (March 1940): 259-268. 
  21. Werner Sombart, Der Bourgeois, cf. “Die heilige Wirtschaftlichkeit”; (Munchen and Leipzig: Verlag von Duncker and Humblot, 1923), pp. 137-160. 
  22. Louis Dumont, From Mandeville to Marx, The Genesis and Triumph of Economic Ideology (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1977), p.16. 
  23. Ibid., p. 59. 
  24. cf. L. Dumont, Essays on Individualism (Chicago:The University of Chicago Press, 1986). 
  25. Emanuel Rackman, “Judaism and Equality;’ Equality, edited by J. Roland Pennock and John W. Chapman (New York: Atherton Press, 1967), p. 155. 
  26. Milton Konvitz, Judaism and the American Idea (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1978). Also German jurist Georg Jellinek argues in Die Erklarung der Menschen-and Burgerrechte (Leipzig: Duncker and
  27. Humbolt, 1904), p. 46, that “the idea to establish legally the unalienable, inherent, and sacred rights of individuals, is not of political but religious origin.” 
  28. John Schaar, “Equality of Opportunity and Beyond,” in Equality, op. cit. , 230. 
  29. Ibid., p. 236. 
  30. Ibid., p. 235. 
  31. Murray Milner, The Illusion of Equality (Washington and London: Jossey-Bass Inc. Publishers, 1972), p. 10. 
  32. Antony Flew, The Politics of Procrustes (New York: Promethean Books, 1981), p. 111. 
  33. Milner, op. cit., p. 11. 
  34. Claude Polin, Le liberalisme, espoir ou peril (Paris: Table ronde, 1984), p. 211. 
  35. Ibid. p. 213. 
  36. Julien Freund, Politique, Impolitique (Paris: ed. Sirey, 1987), p. 336. Also in its entirety, “Theorie des besoins,” pp. 319-353. 
  37. Loc. cit. 
  38. Ibid., p. 336-337. 
  39. Joseph Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy (New York: Harper and Row, 1975), p. 165 and passim. 
  40. Max Scheler, Das Ressentiment im Aufbau der Moralen (Abhandlungen and Aufsazte) (Leipzig: Verlag der weissen Bucher, 1915), p. 58. 
  41. Claude Polin, Le totalitarisme (Paris: PUF, 1982), p.123. See also Guillaume Faye, Contre l’economisme (Paris: ed. le Labyrinthe, 1982). 
  42. Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (New York: Meridian Book, 1958), p. 478. 

Historical Dynamics of Liberalism, From Total Market to Total State, Tomislav Sunic, University of California, Santa Barbara



Political Ideologies – Introduction

Over the next few weeks we’ll look at political systems and ideologies. This should enable the reader to better understand the democracies we live. We’ll start off with the basics and then move on to special interest groups and the sensitive issues surrounding corruption of various political systems, including our own.  

What is Politics?

Politics is the process by which groups of people make decisions. It is the authoritative allocation of values. Although the term is generally applied to behavior within governments, politics is observed in all human group interactions, including corporate, academic, and religious institutions.

In its most basic form, politics consists of “social relations involving authority or power”. In practice, the term refers to the regulation and government of a nation-state or other political unit, and to the methods and tactics used to formulate and apply government policy.

In a broader sense, any situation involving power, or any maneouvring in order to enhance one’s power or status within a group, may be described as politics (e.g. office politics). This form of politics “is most associated with a struggle for ascendancy among groups having different priorities and power relations.”

Political science (also political studies) is the study of political behavior and examines the acquisition and application of power. Related areas of study include political philosophy, which seeks a rationale for politics and an ethic of public behavior, and public administration, which examines the practices of governance.

Why Study Political Ideologies?

The answer to this question is quite simple. Students of politics are concerned about and interested in the various principles of that intellectual discipline. It may never be known conclusively whether humans alone are capable of formulating and then utilizing abstract ideas to govern their behavior. None can dispute however that ideas about politics constitute a most important element in that realm.

Nelson Mandella, imprisoned for twenty years for his advocacy of racial equality in South Africa, was possessed of an idea about politics. The leader of the 1979 Revolution in Iran, the Ayatollah Khomeini, planned for years during his exile near Paris, to return to his homeland with a plan of purification and change to a pure Islamic state. College students joining together in a march to protest college policies regarding ROTC programs have some motivating idea behind their actions.

While ideas are not in and of themselves ideologies, they are part of the raw material needed to produce a full fledged ideology. As will be seen below ideologies have special qualities that set them apart from other political entities. When combined with other factors such as effective leadership, persuasive rationale’, timely development, and popular appeal political ideology goes a considerable distance in the direction of comprehending things political. Nature of Political Ideologies Ideas have been called “immaculate perceptions” of an imperfect reality. This may also be applicable to the concept of political ideologies.

At least from the time of Classical Greece to the present thoughtful individuals have attempted to devise concepts regarding the nature of politics. These ideas have concerned political reality as it is perceived (descriptive observations), as it ought to be (normative observations), and some have gone so far as to suggest methods for altering reality in order to achieve the desired goal (prescriptive observations). Aristotle attempted to describe the political structures that existed in his era by constructing a trichotomy of types with two variations of each:

  1. Rule by the Few – aristocracy /oligarchy
  2. Rule by the Many – polity/democracy
  3. Rule by One – monarchy/tyranny.

This rudimentary but astute design constitutes a set of concepts regarding politics but falls short of what is termed “ideology.”

Whereas ideas about politics may range from the simple to the extraordinarily complex, ideologies occupy a special niche of these “immaculate perceptions.” At their very core ideologies offer a means to understand, explain and to change political reality. There are, in other words, descriptive, prescriptive, and normative elements in political ideologies.

Sometimes hidden within these elements are assumptions about the fundamental nature of human beings, their proper relationship to one another, the ultimate destiny and purpose of life itself, man kind’s place in the grand scheme of things, the existence of principles of justice beyond those created by man, and in general stated or unstated presumptions of a most basic nature. Discovering, analyzing and challenging these elements of ideologies will enable the thoughtful student an opportunity to discover within him/her self values and beliefs that were theretofore only dimly realized.

Of equal importance is the developed ability to thoughtfully critique ideologies that otherwise might go by the wayside without being understood correctly. Characteristics of Political Ideologies Political ideologies have a number of characteristics that distinguish them from other related concepts. At the outset they constitute a rather comprehensive set of interrelated views on the nature of politics both as it is and as it should be.

As with most, if not all, human concepts, ideologies are derived from perceptions about reality and quite often from opinions about perceived problems in the human condition. It is perhaps in the nature of a significant number of human beings to be continuously dissatisfied with existent conditions. For some the answers to noted injustices lie in the relationship of mankind to God or to some other entity larger than ourselves. For others the faults are found not in the stars but in ourselves. These are the ones who may then devise political ideologies.

Frequently an ideology is initially the product of a single individual working in splendid isolation. Perhaps the best known if not a perfect example of this would be Karl Marx working for years in the archives of the London Museum. His observations led him to the conclusion that great injustices (and ultimately historical imbalances) existed that were inevitably doomed to destruction by the inexorable forces present in human society, particularly found in the process called dialectic materialism and economic determinism. Seldom, it seems, are ideologies initially produced as a consequence of group effort. It must be recognized however that the product of one person’s thoughtful reflections on the political dimensions of the human condition necessarily encompass and build on the work of preceding commentators.

Marx’s debt to the Hegelian dialectic is widely recognized. Hegel’s own intellectual advancements were based in considerable measure on traditions of Aristotelianism present in German intellectual traditions for centuries.

The second characteristic of political ideologies has already been suggested: they are produced by intellectual elites. Only those individuals with the necessary interests and skills (intellectual and communicative) are capable of devising comprehensive analyses of politics. Although any particular ideology may be modified and more completely developed with the involvement of many people over considerable periods of time, there is more often than not a single individual who may be correctly viewed as the founder if not the ultimate creator of that ideology.

Invariably the ideas of this creative individual are published in some form and disseminated among other potentially sympathetic individuals. On occasion, such as in the development of Nazism, rhetorical development may precede written elaboration. Adolph Hitler did not put on paper his hate filled views until some four years after the Nazi party had commenced its campaign to achieve power in post-World War I Germany. Dissemination and propagation of the ideology among the mass population constitutes a most important third element in political ideologies, at least of those that become forces in the world.

As long as an ideology remains only of interest to a very few intellectuals, it is unlikely to become an agent of great change in society. At this point an ideology becomes attached to what may be called a “movement.” Movements in politics by definition involve large numbers of people. These numbers seldom constitute a majority of the adult population but may involve millions of people at one time or another.

Feminism, as an example, is viewed by some as an ideology and by others as a movement. It may also be seen as an amalgam of each. It should be noted however that there have been instances when a social theory that had political implications became accepted by both political and intellectual elites but had no wide spread public following nevertheless produced important governmental policies For example, what was termed “Social Darwinism” did in the United States have very significant policy implications for the United States Supreme Court in a variety of its decisions in the latter part of the 19th Century. Despite the fact that “Social Darwinism” was never propagated widely among any large numbers of people and certainly did not become a “movement” it did provide intellectual justification for a “hands off” or laissez faire array of policies of United States governments.

Contrary to popular belief political ideologies are not fixed or static but are subject to changes, sometimes of a fundamental nature. “Revisionism” may be viewed as a curse by purists or as necessary refinements by those recognizing the imperfections in the original idea. Changes may be resultant from reasoned critiques of the initial set of concepts or they may flow from the clash of the initial concepts with a reality that simply cannot be reconciled with the ideology.

Lenin, for example, was forced by the reality of the continuation of the capitalistic states to devise the theory of imperialism as the final stage of capitalism. This “modification” of Marx was an attempt to explain why the initial predictions of continuing accumulation of wealth in the hands of a few and increasingly intolerable poverty for the workers did not come about in the manner that Marx indicated. Similarly Mao Zedong found it imperative to adapt Marx to the special conditions in China in order to utilize communist ideology in that setting. A fifth trait of ideologies concerns their susceptibility to oversimplification and distortion.

Political concepts often times are quite complex and require, if they are to be understood thoroughly, extensive study, thoughtful qualifications, limited application, time frame containment and a host of other delimiters. For those who wish to use the ideology as a vehicle to obtain change in politics and society these “fine points” may be impediments to obtaining popular support. In the name of political expediency slogans may replace concepts, rallying cries may drown out qualifications, and what emerges is far from the essence of the original set of ideas.

This distortion of the original ideology brings forth the final characteristic needing elaboration. This concerns the relationship of ideology to the political movement that frequently develops as a consequence of the ideology itself. This extension of an ideology into the realm of political action gives a whole new dimension to the original set of concepts. At this point the ideology becomes a powerful motivator of individual and group behavior. The oversimplifications and distortions mentioned above enable movement leaders to develop emotional appeal for the goals of the ideology. This emotional commitment on the part of members of the movement is a powerful force of change in the world of politics.

Eric Hoffer, in his eminently readable and insightful book THE TRUE BELIEVER spot lighted how belief in a cause may produce one of the most formidable and elemental powers in human affairs: the fanatic. Such “true believers” in the cause, in the movement, in the ideas have no reason whatsoever to leave undone anything that would produce the desired end. Their property, their very lives (and those of anyone else) are all of secondary importance to the CAUSE.

The role of leadership is critical in this phase of the transformation of an ideology into a movement. Often the individual or individuals who were responsible for the ideology find themselves supplanted by firebrands, organizers, and spellbinding speakers who pay lip service to the founders but care little for the ratio decidendi in the concepts so dear to those who made the initial intellectual contributions. Lenin is reported to have once asserted that what communism meant for the Soviet Union was a means to rapid industrialization and its attending political/military/economic power. It has been noted with probable accuracy that Marx would have been surprised and possibly appalled at the manner in which his concepts of Communism had been implemented by Lenin, Stalin, the Khimer Rouge and other individuals and groups claiming the mantle of Communist.

The characteristics of political ideologies may be summarized by noting their following traits. They are:

  1. a coherent set of views on politics
  2. produced by intellectual elites 
  3. dissemination among the mass population
  4. subject to alteration 
  5. susceptible to distortion and oversimplification
  6. powerful motivators of human behavior
  7. manipulated by political movement leaders

Having now examined some of the more important aspects of political ideologies in general, a review of selected examples is in order. Those chosen here represent the primary ideological developments in the political realm but by no means constitute the whole of the spectrum. First there will be considered what have traditionally been referred to as “moderate” ideologies. Following this will be the more “extreme” varieties and then an overview of unfolding political viewpoints that may evolve into full blown ideologies.


Understanding the Consumer Society

Any consideration of consumer society has to begin with recognizing its enormous success, including the exponential expansion of the middle-class and the extension of ma ss-produced cultural products in global markets. Yet despite its practical success, consumer society, and the market economy that makes it possible, has never been without its critics. The paradox here is that an economic system dedicated to fulfilling desire still generates substantial dissatisfaction, even from those who benefit the most from this system.Modern critiques of consumerism and the mass media can be found in the recent popular movie The Truman Show (1998) and Nathanael West’s novel The Day of the Locust (1939). Both these works express, in very different ways, the cultural anxieties created by consumer society. But while The Day of the Locust offers us valuable insights into the problems posed by mass culture, The Truman Show gives a mythic perspective that fundamentally distorts our modern situation. I present here an anthropological analysis of consumer culture that will reveal the limitations of the neo-Marxist critique of consumerism expressed in The Truman Show. The Day of the Locust, on the other hand, poses the more serious question of whether consumer society is capable of containing the violent resentments that it generates, a question which the second half of this essay will consider at more length.

1. The Truman Show

While Marx criticized capitalism as an impersonal machine that consumes labor and then discards workers, the more recent criticism is that consumers are manipulated by huge corporations into buying an endless stream of trivial products that must be soon discarded when the next hyped item for consumption arrives. In this view, the freedom and prosperity we enjoy, incredible by almost any historical standard, are illusory, for we remain enslaved to multi-national corporations.

While Marx criticized capitalism as an impersonal machine that consumes labor and then discards workers, the more recent criticism is that consumers are manipulated by huge corporations into buying an endless stream of trivial products that must be soon discarded when the next hyped item for consumption arrives. In this view, the freedom and prosperity we enjoy, incredible by almost any historical standard, are illusory, for we remain enslaved to multi-national corporations.This critique of consumer society finds its paradigmatic allegorical expression in the popular movie The Truman Show. The main character, Truman Burbank, played by Jim Cary, lives literally in a giant bubble, a climate-controlled dome where every moment of his life in secretly filmed and broadcast as a reality show to a world-wide audience. Life in the bubble appears to Truman as free but is actually governed by the show’s producer Christof. Truman’s day-to-day life is in reality a series of advertisements: his friends and family (all actors of course) are constantly touting the benefits of various consumer products to the show’s audience while they simultaneously play their roles in Truman’s life. Truman believes that his desires are freely chosen, but in fact they are scripted, predetermined by the producer, including his choice of wife, career, friends, and so on. We find out, through a series of flashbacks, that as a teenager he met a woman Lauren who offers him the possibility of true love, but because she has not been scripted as his future wife, she is whisked off the show despite anything they can do. A more conventionally beautiful blonde named Meryl is chosen as his wife, but she only pretends to love him.

The movie portrays Truman’s discovery that a world outside his bubble exists, a world which the movie suggests is more authentic or “real,” free from the manipulations of Christof, the show’s producer, whose name suggests the biblical Antichrist. If Truman could only get outside the bubble, outside the mimetic manipulation of Christof, he could desire authentically, find his true love, and live a real, unmediated life. The movie ends with Truman leaving the dome, refusing the safe yet empty fantasy world offered by the producer.

The Truman Show is a modern Pilgrim’s Progress.  In John Bunyan’s classic allegory, Christian, an everyman, discovers with the help of the Bible that he lives in the “City of Destruction” and is accordingly doomed. He must leave his friends and family and set out on the pilgrim pathway, where he encounters various obstacles, temptations, and setbacks. He perseveres, however, and finally arrives at the Heavenly City. The book ends with him crossing the “River of Death” and entering heaven. Likewise, Truman lives in a fool’s paradise until he discovers that his life is a mere sham. He sets out to leave his friends and family and encounters various obstacles; but he perseveres, and the movie ends with him stepping outside the dome to a brave new world of unmediated desire.The movie has been universally interpreted as an allegory of the sinister influence of the media upon our lives. According to a website devoted to the movie, “It is a story that reveals an essential truth about what is happening to society in the 20 century, . . . [i.e.] how the media and corporations have begun to surround us with a universe of illusions” (Sanes). In this reading, Truman Burbank is an everyman, a “true man,” analogous to each one of us. As the website puts it,

Thus does the movie offer us a metaphor for our own situation. The fake landscape Truman lives in is our own media landscape in which news, politics, advertising and public affairs are increasingly made up of theatrical illusions. Like our media landscape, it is convincing in its realism, with lifelike simulations and story lines, from the high-tech facsimile of a sun that benevolently beams down on Truman to the mock sincerity of the actor he mistakenly believes is his best friend. (Sanes) In this allegory, “the producer-director of this stage-set world, who blocks Truman’s effort to escape, is the giant media companies, news organizations, and media politicians that have a stake in keeping us surrounded by falsehood, and are prepared to lure us with rewards as they block efforts at reforming the system” (Sanes).If the movie is criticized at all, it is for being insufficiently radical in its critique of the mass media. René Girard’s theory of mediated desire, however, suggests a rather different interpretation. Truman thinks his desires are his own, but he discovers that in fact they are all mediated by his mimetic rival, Christof, the show’s producer, who is mythically demonized as virtually all powerful and evil, a tempter figure comparable to Milton’s Satan. (When Truman tries to escape the dome by boat, Christof ruthlessly risks Truman’s life in a terrible storm which almost drowns him.) René Girard, in his seminal theory of mediated desire, argues that human desire (as distinct from mere appetite) is essentially imitative; that which we hold most private and personal, our desires, are not really our own: we imitate the desires of others. Put crudely, we want what others want, because they want it. Rather than a spontaneous expression of selfhood, desire is mediated by the model. The mediation of desire, however, remains generally unconscious; the stubbornly held belief that our desires are our own, and that the desired object or person is the key to our transcendent happiness, is what Girard call the mensonge romantique, the romantic lie or illusion. In Eric Gans’s analysis of this relationship, the repression of the mediation of desire is the origin of the so-called Freudian unconscious, not some repressed “event or fact” (Signs of Paradox 124). Rather than expressing our deeply held needs and wants, desire actually reflects our competitive and conflictual relationship with others; for this reason, desire is never really satisfied, as our mimetic relationship with others is an on-going given of our condition as social animals. Desire leads to conflict with the other, because the self and model both desire exclusive possession of the same object. Girard characterizes the desiring subject as the “disciple” and the mediator as the “model.” Describing the ambivalent relationship between disciple and model, he writes, 


The impulse toward the [desired] object is ultimately an impulse toward the mediator; in internal mediation [i.e., the mediator belongs to same group or social sphere as the subject] this impulse is checked by the mediator himself since he desires, or perhaps possesses the object. Fascinated by his model, the disciple inevitable sees, in the mechanical obstacle which he puts in his way, proof of the ill will borne him. Far from declaring himself a faithful vassal, he thinks only of repudiating the bonds of mediation. But these bonds are stronger than ever, for the mediator’s apparent hostility does not diminish his prestige but instead augments it. . . . The subject is torn between two opposite feelings toward his model–the most submissive reverence and the most intense malice. This is the passion we call hatred.Only someone who prevents us from satisfying a desire which he himself has inspired in us is truly an object of hatred. The person who hates first hates himself for the secret admiration concealed by his hatred. In an effort to hide this desperate admiration from others, and from himself, he no longer wants to see in his mediator anything but an obstacle. The secondary role of the mediator thus becomes primary, concealing his original function of a model scrupulously imitated. 

Now the mediator is a shrewd and diabolical enemy; he tries to rob the subject of his most prized possessions; he obstinately thwarts his most legitimate ambitions. (10-11)


Since the mediator competes with the self for the same object or person, the model becomes an “obstacle,” a hated and feared rival who blocks the fulfillment of desire. Despite the hatred that emerges between self and rival, the self remains ambivalently attached to the rival, since it is he who gives value or “authenticity” to the self’s desires. The rival is akin to the “other” in psychoanalytic terminology. An “internal” mediator is essentially comparable to the self, but the self’s vanity requires that his desires remain authentic, his “own”; therefore the rival is often demonized as an all-powerful obstacle that blocks the paradise of fulfilled desire. This distorted version of the mediator is the portrayal of The Truman Show.In The Truman Show, the original role of the mediator as model has been obscured, “concealing his original function of a model scrupulously imitated,” as Girard puts it. The movie rather begins with the premise that Christof, the mediator, is “a shrewd and diabolical enemy.” The movie therefore functions in exactly the opposite way from the realist novels of Cervantes, Stendhal, Flaubert, Proust, and Dostoevsky, whose works form the original framework for Girard’s theory (see Deceit, Desire, and the Novel). These novels reveal the mystifications of mimetic desire; the reader is able to witness how and why the revered model is transformed into a “diabolical enemy.” At the end of these novels, the protagonist typically undergoes a quasi-religious conversion which creates a new and revelatory understanding of his past for both reader and protagonist. 

The Truman Show recognizes on some level the anthropological truth that human desire is mediated, but the mediator of desire is mythicized as all-powerful and evil, rather than a human being similar to ourselves. Rather than accurately representing media influence, the movie misrepresents the media as the all-powerful controller of our desires. The portrayal of Christof reflects the distortions of mimetic rivalry rather than the actual power of the media in our lives.Life outside the bubble is also mystified as the realm of authentic desire. Most readers of this journal will recognize that life outside the bubble is just as mythic as life inside. The movie’s fantasy is that we can somehow get outside the situation of mimetic desire. The movie therefore has to end before Truman actually faces the reality of life outside the bubble, or the movie would degenerate into either bathos or a simplistic fantasy world easily recognized as such. A charming fairy tale the movie may be, but not a serious critique of consumer society.The disturbing part of the movie’s ideology is not its childish fantasy of being the universal center of attention, but the projection of responsibility onto a demonic other. Instead of helping people to take responsibility for their use of the media, the movie encourages a regressive projection of blame that evades the true issue.

The problem of mimetic rivalry is real, constitutive in fact of the human species. What distinguishes the human species is that the main threat to our existence is other humans, not the environment (Gans, OT 2). In Gans’s “originary hypothesis” language first emerged to mediate (and ameliorate) our relationship to other humans—not, as commonly thought, to mediate our relationship to the environment, that is, to describe the world. The threat of mimetic conflict is therefore ongoing as a function of the social nature of our existence. The potential for human violence must be continually deferred; this is the “work” of language (and by extension culture), its original, ethical function. All solutions to the problem of human violence are therefore temporary, since mimetic desire is the phoenix which is continually reborn from the ashes of satisfaction. Gans, therefore, rejects all utopian solutions, including those of the quasi-Marxist critics of the mass media. Girard, in contrast, takes a religious perspective on the problem of human violence; in Girard’s view, the only answer to our dilemma is to make God or his incarnation our model of desire, to choose absolute love over sacrificial desire. This can be a satisfying solution at the level of the individual, but it doesn’t work at the level of society. Girard fails to recognize the constructive role of consumer products in ameliorating mimetic conflict, a point to which I will return.The leftist critique of consumer society is based on a similar fantasy as The Truman Show. Christof, the show’s producer, is a Hollywood version of what Theodor Adorno calls the “culture industry.” He writes, “The more strongly the culture industry entrenches itself, the more it can do as it chooses with the needs of consumers: producing, controlling, disciplining them” (115). Consumers are completely passive in this model: “Capitalist production hems them in so tightly, in body and soul, that they unresistingly succumb to whatever is proffered to them” (Adorno 106). Just as in The Truman Show, Adorno seems to believe that if we could only get rid of these huge corporations, we could desire authentically and, hopefully, more tastefully. Certainly we would devote more money to the study of great literature, music, and art (as defined by Adorno and his colleagues). As Gans writes, “Esthetes object to the reign of money: wealth does not guarantee good taste, neither individual wealth nor the aggregate wealth of the masses” (Chronicles #25).

The neo-Marxist critique of consumerism depends upon a false distinction between authentic desire and the inauthentic desires created by a consumer culture. But what, we must ask, distinguishes between them? Most of the daily goods we take for granted in America, people living in third world countries manage to do quite well without. In fact, all of culture could be classified as superfluous. As Shakespeare pointed out long ago, culture is by definition that which exceeds “true need.” “Our basest beggars / Are in the poorest thing superfluous. / Allow not nature more than nature needs, / Man’s life is as cheap as beast’s” (King Lear 2.4.266-269). The superfluous is the essential when it comes to culture. But culture is superfluous only in the sense that the ethical is superfluous. What King Lear recognizes is that the existence of the human community may be humanly necessary but is not inevitable, “natural.” Culture, as the basis of civilization, is contingent upon our continual efforts to renew and reaffirm it. The human community is always in danger of extinction. This is the moral imperative that authorizes mass culture, however distasteful we may find its products.

What is at the root of the academic hostility to consumerism, the media, and the market in general? In part, as I’ve argued above, this hostility is based on the mystification of desire. Our vanity requires that our desires remain our own, even if we must demonize the rivals of corporate advertising. Contemporary psychoanalytic theory is in agreement with mimetic theory that the perceived integrity of our identity always requires an “other”; capitalism, consumerism, and the mass media are all versions of that “other” by which intellectuals often define and defend themselves.

Capitalism is an inevitable outgrowth of a free market. Gans points out that the market is not a thing, but the collective result of the individual decisions of all of its participants (Chronicles #8 and #34). “Reification” has become the bogeyman of recent literary theory, yet the reification of capitalism is still accepted without hesitation. There is no evil demiurge of capitalism, no “producer”: the system expresses the choices of individuals. When we criticize consumer society, what we are really criticizing is the consumer choices of our fellow citizens. At bottom, this is an aesthetic issue. The academic hostility to the market is fundamentally aesthetic. My point here is not original: Gans argues insightfully that “culture” is hostile to the market because traditional culture requires “effective mimetic models, good shows. The market is not about shows, but about the organization of human efforts toward satisfying our desires and generating new ones, in the unceasing, and, we hope, unending effort to stay a step ahead of the resentments it generates” (Chronicles #25).

Intellectuals want people to consume more tastefully, in ways closer to themselves. But this criticism misses the whole point of consumption, which is to distinguish oneself. We cannot all be the best, but we can each be different; this is the meaning of the modern valorization of self-expression, the omnipresent aestheticization of our existence.

Virtually every personal decision is on some level an aesthetic decision, from the clothes we wear, to the food we buy, to our choice of career. Our very identity is the subject of aesthetic self-fashioning. Our ability to be different, if not the best, is the key to modern culture. As Girard has pointed out, humans are essentially mimetic, which means competitive and conflictual. What each of us requires fundamentally is an arena in which we can successfully compete and be recognized as such. The aesthetic is one such arena available to virtually every modern individual. As it was recognized long ago, De gustibus, non est disputandum. In matters of taste there is no dispute. The primary ethical function of consumer society is to aestheticize our daily existence, thereby deferring the resentments created by social/economic inequalities.

Consumerism, and the mass culture that accompanies it, is a necessary evil of a mass democratic society. All societies require some structuring principle to prevent unrestrained conflict and competition. Past societies, ancient, medieval, and Renaissance, were structured along more hierarchical lines. One’s place in the hierarchy was maintained in part by sheer force, as exemplified by drastic punishments for minor thefts. Public, communal rituals and ceremonies were also effective in creating a powerful sense of divine awe for political and ecclesiastical authorities. But Protestant iconoclasm, in collaboration with Enlightenment rationality, has eroded our sense of “divine” authority. In modern democratic societies, power is relatively decentralized, and authority, always vulnerable to suspicion and resentment, is limited by market forces. As Adam Smith recognized, a free market incorporates widespread competition as a positive force, rather than limiting it by rigid hierarchical distinctions. The modern world defers the potential violence of unrestrained competition by allowing each person to create individual difference, which is to say, sacrality.

If we are unique, then nobody can compete with us. The post-modern drive for diversity is built on this principle. We need as much diversity as possible to defuse the competition that threatens to destroy us. We advocate accepting each person as he or she is. Each person is special, unique, and uniquely valuable. It becomes imperative to believe this in a world without the sacral guarantees of religion. Girard underestimates the contribution of consumerism in deferring violence. The constructive function of consumerism is in facilitating individuation, or differentiation, apart from open conflict, which when unrestrained results in rigid hierarchies ruled by the most powerful and violent. Instead of killing others, we recognize their difference, asking them to recognize us in return. Consumer products, which enable this differentiation on a mass scale, are what make a mass society possible. To argue against a consumer society is to argue against a mass society. And to argue against a mass society is to dispute the legitimacy of the modern world as such.

In pragmatic terms, we don’t want to do away with our consumer society; we want to buy the things we want at the cheapest possible price. That’s why so much of the leftist criticism of the consumer society is hypocritical, since the critics themselves enjoy the fruits of this society. Furthermore, they don’t offer any realistic alternative. Corporations can and should be regulated, and of course they are already are. But these political corrections to the free market can be handled within our existing political framework. The advantage of our system is that it allows these kind of corrections to made peacefully, through political negotiation.

From an anthropological perspective, if we can truly understand the workings of mimetic desire, we can also rationally ameliorate its destructive potential. Of course, we can never completely step outside the mimetic circle, but realizing that we live within it can transform our social interactions. The postmodern era brings an increasingly widespread self-awareness of the mediated nature of desire, even apart from the influence of Girard’s mimetic theory. In fact, consumerism is often celebrated in the postmodern world, despite the efforts of humanities professors.

Recent critics, even on the left, have recognized that consumption is an active process. Michel de Certeau argues,


In reality, a rationalized, expansionist, centralized, spectacular and clamorous production is confronted by an entirely different kind of production, called “consumption” and characterized by its ruses, its fragmentation (the result of circumstances), its poaching, its clandestine nature, its tireless and quiet activity, in short by its quasi-invisibility, since it shows itself not in its own products (where would it place them?) but in an art of using those imposed upon it. (31) There is an “art” or a “Practice of Everyday Life,” as Certeau puts it. While Certeau seems to romanticize consumption as potentially “subversive,” Jean Baudrillard sees it as more sinister, while still recognizing its active nature: consumption is surely not that passive process of absorption and appropriation which is contrasted to the supposedly active mode of production, thus counterposing two oversimplified patterns of behavior (and of alienation). It has to be made clear from the outset that consumption is an active form of relationship (not only to objects, but also to society and to the world), a mode of systematic activity and global response which founds our entire cultural system. (199) Baudrillard recognizes insightfully that consumerism is not really “about” acquiring physical objects, but rather making a positive, aesthetic statement to the world (see below). As a neo-Marxist, he characterizes both consumption and production as forms of “alienation,” but the historical failure of Marxist economics in the 20th century places the burden of proof on him to offer a better system. Despite his hostility to the market, Baudrillard recognizes how consumerism transforms traditional expressions of social and economic competition: That same ideology of competition which formerly, under the banner of ‘freedom,’ constituted the golden rule of production has now been transposed without restriction into the realm of consumption. Thanks to thousands of marginal distinctions and the often purely formal diffraction of a single product by means of conditioning, competition has become more aggravated on every plane, opening up the immense range of possibilities of a precarious freedom–indeed, of the ultimate freedom, namely the freedom to choose the objects which will distinguish one from other people. (182).It is quite possible for each person to feel unique even though everyone is alike: all that is needed is a pattern of collective and mythological projection–in other words a model. (183-4) 

Moreover, the ideology of competition is now giving way everywhere to a ‘philosophy’ of personal accomplishment. Society is better integrated, so instead of vying for possession of things, individuals seek self-fulfillment, independently of one another, through what they consume. The leitmotiv of discriminative competition has been replaced by that of personalization for all. (184)


Baudrillard recognizes that individualized consumption restructures the ideology of competition, the attempt to be the “best.” He emphasizes, however, the paradox that we distinguish ourselves by the consumption of mass produced products. But it is debatable that “everyone is alike,” as he puts it. On one level this is true, because we are all subject to mediated desire. But on another level, people really are different. Even something as seemingly trivial as the car we choose to drive is ethically significant to the extent that this choice is recognized as significant by others. What matters is not that all people are on some deep level unique, but that this system works to defer resentment and violence, even within the pressure cooker of a mass society. Baudrillard’s critique is founded on the utopian presupposition that freedom from mediated desire is possible.From the perspective of Gans’s “Generative Anthropology,” the paradox of consumer society is the basic paradox of the sign. The same sign which defers desire by substituting for the desired object also stimulates desire, by making the represented object more attractive. The products we consume are all “signs” that both defer and stimulate desire. Because desire is mediated by the other, it can never be completely satisfied. When we achieve the object of our desire, we are often ambivalent or even resentful towards it because it fails to resolve the mimetic situation which created our initial desire (see Girard, DDN 88-89). Rather than recognizing that it is not the poor object’s fault, we tend to blame the object itself, discarding it in favor of some other object. The ultimate object of desire is to be the center of everyone else’s desire, but even this satisfaction is unstable, because once we achieve centrality, we immediately become the object of the others’ resentment and hostility. 

The resentment felt towards the object is articulated at the origin of the human in the moment which Gans calls the “sparagmos” (Signs of Paradox 133-36). We destroy and consume the object, not out of simple appetite or even desire, but out of resentment towards its failure to deliver the promised transcendence. We consume the object, thereby destroying or sacrificing it. We cannot eliminate sacrifice, but we can make it more rational in expression. And consumerism is perhaps the most rational form of sacrifice.

2. The Day of the Locust

Nathanael West’s novel is addressed to the problems created by the mass media rather than consumption as such. If, however, we consider that the images and slogans of the mass media are themselves objects of consumption, then this novel indeed falls within the subject of this essay.

Nathanael West’s novel is addressed to the problems created by the mass media rather than consumption as such. If, however, we consider that the images and slogans of the mass media are themselves objects of consumption, then this novel indeed falls within the subject of this essay.The question raised by West in this novel is whether the resentments created by consumer society can continue to be contained and deferred by the system which creates them. The paradox of the sign is exacerbated in modern society because signs are proliferated endlessly. A general cynicism, a disillusionment with the promise of transcendence emerges.

The Day of the Locust tells the story of a young artist, Tod Hackett, who comes to Hollywood to work as a set designer. The novel is rather picaresque in structure, narrating Tod’s various adventures with the outsiders and hangers-on of the movie industry, and taking us to a variety of Hollywood locations; it does come to a climax, however, in a riot that erupts at a Hollywood movie premiere and which provides the apocalypse promised by the novel’s title.Hollywood as West describes it is a hodgepodge of cheap and tawdry appearances which hide an inner emptiness rather than corruption as such. The homes are an incongruous jumble of “Mexican ranch houses, Samoan huts, Mediterranean villas, Egyptian and Japanese temples, Swiss chalets, Tudor cottages, and every possible combination of these styles, “all composed of “plaster, lath, and paper” (61). The residents of Hollywood are similarly surreal: 


A great many of the people wore sports clothes which were not really sports clothes. . . . The fat lady in the yachting cap was going shopping, not boating; the man in the Norfolk jacket and Tyrolean hat was returning, not from a mountain, but an insurance office; and the girl in slacks and sneaks with a bandana around her head had just left a switchboard, not a tennis court. (60)  

The rococo homes and clothing, no matter how tasteless and absurd, reflect the basic human desire for romance and adventure, the need to transcend the mundane banality of everyday life; this desire however has assumed monstrous form due to the mediation of the movies and radio. As West comments in another novel,  

Men have always fought their misery with dreams. Although dreams were once powerful, they have been made puerile by the movies, radio and newspapers. Among many betrayals, this one is the worst. (Miss Lonelyhearts 39)  

In Day of the Locust, everyone is essentially an actor, and virtually everyone Tod comes into contact with is literally an aspiring actor or actress. Hollywood or mass culture deforms people into grotesque forms. Harry Greener, for example, an old vaudeville performer trying to adapt to Hollywood, is literally a face with no head:  

Harry, like many actors, had very little back or top to his head. It was almost all face, like a mask, with deep furrows between the eyes, across the forehead and on either side of the nose and mouth, plowed there by years of broad grinning and heavy frowning. Because of them, he could never express anything either subtly or exactly. They wouldn’t permit degrees of feeling, only the furthest degree. (119)  

As a result of mass culture, people are severely alienated, not so much from their environment, which they faithfully mirror, but from themselves as whole human beings. Homer Simpson, a middle-aged man directed by his doctor to retire to California for his health, is brilliantly described as disconnected assemblage of human parts:  

He lay stretched out on the bed, collecting his senses and testing the different parts of his body. Every part was awake but his hands. They still slept. He was not surprised. They demanded special attention, had always demanded it. When he had been a child, he used to stick pins into them and once had even thrust them into a fire. Now he used only cold water.  

He got out of bed in sections, like a poorly made automaton, and carried his hands into the bathroom. He turned on the cold water. When the basin was full, he plunged his hands in up to the wrists. They lay quietly on the bottom like a pair of strange aquatic animals. When they were thoroughly chilled and began to crawl about, he lifted them out and hid them in a towel. (82)


Tod, the protagonist, is the closest thing in the novel to a whole human being. He has compassion for others and seems capable of real love; but he is surrounded by a culture in which love is not really possible. As an artist, Tod tries to resist the allure of Hollywood, but he is finally caught up in it.  

The foremost object of Tod’s desire is the 17-year old aspiring actress Faye Greener, who epitomizes the ephemeral glamour of Hollywood.


Tod grunted with annoyance as he turned to the photograph [of Faye]. In it she was wearing a harem costume, full turkish trousers, breastplates and a monkey jacket, and lay stretched out on a silken divan. One hand held a beer bottle and the other a pewter stein.  

She was supposed to look drunk and she did, but not with alcohol. She lay stretched out on the divan with her arms and legs spread, as though welcoming a lover, and her lips were parted in a heavy sullen smile. She was supposed to look inviting, but the invitation wasn’t to pleasure. . . .

Her invitation wasn’t to pleasure, but to struggle, hard and sharp, closer to murder than to love. If you threw yourself on her, it would be like throwing yourself from the parapet of skyscraper. You would do it with a scream. You couldn’t expect to rise again. Your teeth would be driven into your skull likes nails into a pine board and your back would be broken. You wouldn’t even have time to sweat or close your eyes. . . .

If she would only let him, he would be glad to throw himself, no matter what the cost. But she wouldn’t have him. She didn’t love him and he couldn’t further her career. She wasn’t sentimental and she had no need of tenderness, even if he were capable of it. (67-68)


The men of the novel all compete for Faye’s favor in classic Girardian fashion, and they come to blows in two scenes (117, 170). Even though Tod understands the nature of Faye’s appeal, he is unable to govern his desire for her rationally. As the above description of Faye’s sexual “invitation” indicates, underneath Faye’s contrived appearance lies a curious violence, and the relationship between violence and mass culture can be considered as the main subject of the novel.  

The problem with mass culture as described by West is that it consists of images and figures that promise everything, but which continually frustrate by their inability to deliver any satisfaction. Hollywood thus incites to violence, and the ending reflects the supposed inability of mass culture to defer the (desiring) violence that it feeds upon. West’s description of the crowd which gathers at a movie premiere makes this point explicit:


All their lives they had slaved at some kind of dull, heavy labor, behind desks and counters, in the fields and at tedious machines of all sorts, saving their pennies and dreaming of the leisure that would be theirs when they had enough. Finally that day came. They could draw a weekly income of ten or fifteen dollars. Where else should they go but California, the land of sunshine and oranges? Once there, they discover that sunshine isn’t enough. They get tired of oranges, even of avocado pears and passion fruit. Nothing happens. They don’t know what to do with their time. They haven’t the mental equipment for leisure, the money nor the physical equipment for pleasure. . . .  

Their boredom becomes more and more terrible. They realize that they’ve been tricked and burn with resentment. Every day of their lives they read the newspapers and went to the movies. Both fed them on lynchings, murder, sex crimes, explosions, wrecks, love nests, fires, miracles, revolutions, wars. This daily diet made sophisticates of them. The sun is a joke. Oranges can’t titillate their jaded palates. Nothing can ever be violent enough to make taut their slack minds and bodies. They have been cheated and betrayed. They have slaved and saved for nothing. (177-178)


The anthropological content of West’s novel is that he reveals the underlying violence of consumer desire. Desire is fraught with violence; this insight is not exactly new, but West applies it to a modern context in which this message is not always apparent. In the movie theater, at home watching TV, and so on, we feel ourselves insulated from the threat of violence. West warns us that the potential for violence remains real, hidden behind the images that surround us.  

The unstated problem of The Day of the Locust is the lack of any sacred which would defer the violence of desire. West elaborates on this lack in his earlier novel, Miss Lonelyhearts, about a newspaper advice column writer. Miss Lonelyhearts (the only name given him in the novel) has an “ivory Christ” hanging on his wall, and he reads Father Zossima’s sermon on unconditional love from Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. Miss Lonelyhearts wants to offer this message to his readers, but he is unable to believe in it himself. Surrounded by absurd suffering undignified by any tragic pathos, he finds himself incapable of true faith. Miss Lonelyhearts lives in a modern world in which faith or love have become impossible. The very idea of absolute love is absurd and doomed to failure.

At the end of the novel, the protagonist seemingly undergoes a Dostoyevskian conversion in which he dedicates his life to God. In his first act of Christ-like love, he attempts to embrace a cripple: “He would embrace the cripple and the cripple would be made whole again, even as he, a spiritual cripple, had been made whole again” (57). But the attempt to express Father Zossima’s unconditional love ends only in more violence, as the cripple misinterprets the gesture and shoots him in a farcical struggle. Miss Lonelyhearts thus embodies the failure of religion to provide meaning and happiness in the modern world. This failure results in violence. The Day of the Locust continues West’s critique of modernity, but he turns from the failure of religion to the failure of art as a means of transcendence.

In traditional culture, high art teaches the deferral of desire as well as providing diversion: “to teach and delight” in classical aesthetics. But modern art, like Tod Hackett, has been prostituted to the movie industry. At best, serious art can only record the failure of mass culture, as Tod records “The Burning of Los Angeles” in the painting he works upon, and West records the same in The Day of the Locust. Mass culture exists on the model of pornography, much as Faye, as a figure for mass culture, attracts through her mediated sex appeal. As such, mass art teaches the wrong message, that desire can be satisfied. It makes the consumers impatient for more and more. At the same time, through the very repetition and juxtaposition of its messages, the promise of culture is revealed as empty because the ubiquitous images have lost their potency even as promise. West’s favorite technique is to juxtapose the various images of mass culture, thus revealing the arbitrary and illusory nature of cultural representation (see for example Tod’s surreal journey through a Hollywood movie lot, 130-35). As a result the consumer becomes jaded and cynical, impatient. The images which are meant to substitute for reality have lost their believability; at the same time, there is nothing to take their place. The main function of culture, to transcend the violence of desire, is thus frustrated.

West’s critique of modernity agrees in many respects with Girard’s. In Girard’s interpretation of Western history, the revelation of the Gospel text places humankind in a unique predicament. The Passion story confronts us with our own violence; we can no longer blame the sacrificial victim. The sacrificial mechanism can work only as long as it is disguised and mystified. According to Girard, “the effect of the gospel revelation will be made manifest through violence, through a sacrificial and cultural crisis whose radical effect must be unprecedented since there is no longer any sacralized victim to stand in the way of its consequences” (THSFW 203). In an increasingly secular world, without the protection afforded by myth and sacrificial religion, humans are in imminent danger of destroying themselves. Because of the Gospel revelation, we can no longer plausibly believe in the sacrificial myths that traditionally protect society from its own violence. We are forced to choose between “apocalypse now” or unconditional forgiveness. As Guy Lefort puts this point,


In a world where violence has been truly revealed and the victimage mechanisms have ceased to function, humans are confronted with a dilemma that is extraordinarily simple: either they renounce violence, or the incalculable violence that they set off risks annihilating them all, ‘as in the days of Noah’. (qtd. in Girard, THSFW 201).  

For Girard, this situation constitutes the crisis, but also the challenge and opportunity of modernity.  

The ending of The Day of the Locust presents a classic Girardian crisis of undifferentiation, complete with angry mob and scapegoat victim (Homer Simpson). A woman in the crowd claims that the riot began because “A pervert attacked a child,” and the crowd “agreed vehemently” (183). Ironically, this same group of people then goes on to demonstrate just how they perverted they themselves are, when one of the men takes advantage of the crunch to start groping a woman with the group’s approval. In other words, there is no meaningful difference between victim and crowd, just as in Girard’s description of the sacrificial crisis. The lack of any organized rituals of sacrifice in the modern world results in a crisis of undifferentiation which threatens the community with self-destruction. The main difference between Girard and West on the problem of modernity is that West does not apparently see Christian love as offering a viable solution.

It might be argued that West’s novel is anachronistic, since he wrote at the dawn of consumer society, in the late 30s, before the post-war economic boom. But in many ways, his novel is prescient; although consumerism delivers more now, it also promises more, so that dissatisfaction always stays one step ahead of satisfaction.

The most obvious problem with West’s critique is that consumerism marches on, becoming more and more efficient in both creating desires and recycling consumer discontent into more consumerism. Dissatisfaction is recycled back into the system as a positive force. There is no shortage of products available to express one’s dissatisfaction with consumerism. Like Marx, West failed to consider the efficiency of the free market.

But West’s point is not just that the system doesn’t work, but that it works in ways which should be rejected. Consumer culture focuses on appearances at the expense of inner reality, thus distorting people and making them into less-than-whole human beings. In some ways West’s critique harkens back to the traditional distrust of appearances in favor of inner reality. The locus classicus of such criticism is Hamlet’s rejection of “seeming”:



Seems, madam? Nay, it is. I know not “seems.”
‘Tis not alone my inky cloak, good Mother,
Nor customary suits of solemn black,
Nor windy suspiration of forced breath,
No, nor the fruitful river in the eye,
Nor the dejected havior of the visage,
Together with all forms, moods, shapes of grief,
That can denote me truly. These indeed seem,
For they are actions that a man might play.
But I have that within which passes show;
These but the trappings and suits of woe. (1.2.76-86)  



For Hamlet, then, the inner reality is incommensurable with any form of representation. No one can “pluck out the heart of [his] mystery” (3.2.364-5).  

West goes beyond Shakespeare however, because in The Day of the Locust there is no inner reality with which to oppose the superficial appearances. The charge is that consumer culture focuses on appearances so drastically that inner reality is emptied out. There is no true substance to turn to. Even Tod’s ideals, or Miss Lonelyheart’s, are arguably self-delusions. People are deformed, incapable of love or faith, and capable only of violence, or at best an artificial life of romantic illusion, as we see in Faye’s romantic fantasies which seems to satisfy her (104-5). This is a charge which is more specific to the 20th century and typical of literary modernism, as for example in T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland. To make this point, however, West gives us, for the most part, caricatures rather than realistic characters. It’s not clear that modern individuals are really as bad as West makes them out to be. In any case, it’s not safe to generalize. The other problem is that this criticism assumes the existence of some prior golden age when people were whole and complete, which is not a safe assumption. The prosperity of the 20th century arguably allows more freedom for love and faith.

The problem that West points to is real, but the solution is in this case would be worse than the problem, since any cure must trample on the freedom we rightly hold as our highest value. It’s not at all clear that there is any alternative to consumer society that would be more hospitable to morality and beauty, not to mention personal freedom.

3. Conclusion

West’s critique of mass culture shares the problem of the neo-Marxist critique: they both exaggerate the problems of mass culture, and they both implicitly assume that some viable, utopian alternative exists. The only alternative to consumerism is an oppressive government that drastically limits personal freedom, telling people what they should desire. Girard’s mimetic theory should alert us to the impossibility of regulating desire. The claim of The Truman Show that a free market enables a repressive regime of corporate media power is based on an unjustified distortion of media power. The products of consumer society are not always beautiful and elegant, but they effectively serve to differentiate individuals, enabling the human community to continue. Any political/economic system can be justified only as the lesser of two evils. Giving up utopian dreams is a sign of maturity that effectively forestalls the appeal of autocratic politics.

West’s critique of mass culture shares the problem of the neo-Marxist critique: they both exaggerate the problems of mass culture, and they both implicitly assume that some viable, utopian alternative exists. The only alternative to consumerism is an oppressive government that drastically limits personal freedom, telling people what they desire. Girard’s mimetic theory should alert us to the impossibility of regulating desire. The claim of that a free market enables a repressive regime of corporate media power is based on an unjustified distortion of media power. The products of consumer society are not always beautiful and elegant, but they effectively serve to differentiate individuals, enabling the human community to continue. Any political/economic system can be justified only as the lesser of two evils. Giving up utopian dreams is a sign of maturity that effectively forestalls the appeal of autocratic politics.The anthropological problem posed by consumer society is, how can a society exist without an absolute sacred? In historical terms, modern society is anomalous. But the sacred has not disappeared; it has rather been integrated into the fabric of our culture, integrated so profoundly that we hardly recognize it as such. We don’t have any overarching, generally accepted, public sacred, but we do have a whole host of private sacreds. Each individual creates his or her own sense of the sacred, in part through consumer products. The great advantage of this system is that it differentiates people without the need for rigid hierarchies, thus maximizing personal freedom.

Works Cited

Adorno, Theodor W. and Max Horkheimer. Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments. 1947. Trans. Edmund Jephcott. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2002.

Adorno, Theodor W. and Max Horkheimer. . 1947. Trans. Edmund Jephcott. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2002.Baudrillard, Jean. The System of Objects. 1968. Trans. James Benedict. London: Verso, 1996.

Certeau, Michel de. The Practice of Everyday Life. Trans. Steven F. Randall. Berkeley: U of California P, 1984.

Gans. Eric. Chronicles of Love and Resentment. 1995-2004. 5 Aug. 2004. .

———. Originary Thinking: Elements of Generative Anthropology. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 1993.

———. Signs of Paradox: Irony, Resentment, and Other Mimetic Structures. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 1997.

Girard, René. Deceit, Desire, and the Novel: Self and Other in Literary Structure. Trans. Yvonne Freccero. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins UP, 1965. ———. Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World. Trans. Stephen Bann and Michael Metteer. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 1987.Sanes, Ken. Truman as Archetype. 1996-2001. 29 July 2004. .

Shakespeare, William. King Lear. Ed. David Bevington. New York: Bantam, 1988.

West, Nathanael. Miss Lonelyhearts & The Day of the Locust. New York: New Directions, 1962.


Anthropoetics 10, no. 2 (Fall 2004 / Winter 2005), Consumer Society and its Discontents: The Truman Show and The Day of the Locust, Peter Goldman, Department of English, Westminster College, Salt Lake City, Utah 84105,, 

A World View of the Consumer Society

The following article is adapted from “The Simpler Way: Working For Transition From Consumer Society To A Simpler, More Cooperative, Just And Ecologically Sustainable Society.” by Ted Trainer, P. O. Box 184 Panania, Australia 2213, And Social Work, University Of NSW, Kensington 2052. Although, as a rationalist I do not see it as a soluion, it covers some aspects and perspectives of present day society that many will find useful. “The Simpler Way” referred to in the article is covered at 

With the grossly unsustainable and unjust nature of our society, radical changes are required. There must be extreme changes in lifestyles, the economy, the political system and the geography of settlements.  However the biggest problem we face is the culture of consumer society.  It is built on some strong and largely unrecognised values and ideas that are mistaken – that are driving us into rapidly increasing global problems and will soon lead to our destruction if they are not abandoned.
The changes we must make in the economy, the political system, the geography of our settlements and our technologies, are huge and radical but could be made quickly and easily –- if people in general understood that they are necessary for our survival, and that they would enable a better quality of life than we have now.  At present there is almost no understanding of any of this among governments or people in general, and therefore it is difficult to be anything but very pessimistic about our chances.  There is almost universal obsession with affluence and economic growth among economists, politicians, media and ordinary people. These goals are seen as the way to solve problems when in fact they are the basic cause of our problems.  For fifty years a few have been trying to draw attention to this fundamental cause of our problems, with almost no success because no one is prepared to even think about any challenge to the limitless pursuit of wealth.
The basic factors driving our society into increasing difficulties have been deep within Western culture for several hundred years.  This makes clear how huge and difficult the transition has to be – we will not get through the coming century in reasonable shape unless we scrap and remake much of Western culture.  (There are of course many elements in it that culture that are admirable and need not be changed.)
The following passages indicate some of the main values and ideas we must rethink.  
 With respect to values, there are three crucial clusters.
Above all else, the urgent global problems facing us are due to the fact that we in rich countries have rates of per capita resource consumption that are far beyond those that all people could have, or that can be kept up for us for long.  The limits to growth analysis of our global situation shows that we should be trying to reduce these rates to something like 10% or less of their present rates, and that we should completely abandon any idea of increasing “living standards” over time, or economic growth. (See The Limits to Gowth.)
However raising “living standards” and the GDP is the supreme commitment in virtually all countries.  People are fiercely obsessed with wealth.  They want more money to buy more things, they want bigger houses, more expensive cars and clothes, and travel.  They define identity and status by reference to the expensiveness of their possessions.  They want new and luxurious things.  All this has become much worse in recent decades as increasing affluence have become accessible to more people.
We now have a large middle class and under them a larger “aspirational” class who want to move up (and those below them with little chance are no less eager for more wealth).  Obviously the top priority for the capital-owning class is that sales must constantly increase. All this ensures that governments must take as the supreme national goal the limitless increase of economic output.
It is no exaggeration to say that the quest for affluence is by far the most important cause of the world’s many alarming problems.  Because people are trying to live with much higher resource demands than are possible for all, there is resource depletion (see The Limits to Growth Analysis), ecological damage (see The Environment Problem), the deprivation of the Third World via the “development” that allocates its wealth to the rich countries (see Third World Development), and the need for rich countries to maintain the global empire (see Your Empire).  It is also the main factor generating armed conflict and war in the world.  As all scramble for the dwindling resources it will inevitably become a more dangerous world in coming decades.  (See Peace and Conflict.)
So no factor is more important in our predicament than the value put on material wealth, yet there is in effect an adamant refusal to think about whether this is a problem.
The required alternative.
It must be emphasised that what is required to defuse global problems is not acceptance of “living standards” that are so low that there must be deprivation and hardship.  The Simpler Way is about frugal, non-affluent lifestyles, but these can be perfectly sufficient for material comfort, hygiene, etc., while enabling a higher quality of life than most people have now.  The Simpler Way solves the problem of affluence by offering values and satisfactions that are “rich” but do not require many non-renewable resources.  (See The Rewards in The Simpler Way.)  Consider having to work for money only two days a week, living in a beautiful landscape crammed with artists, craftsmen and gardeners, with fabulous musicians and actors, with many festivals and celebrations, and with a strong and supportive community.  Consider especially the fact that all would be secure from unemployment, poverty and loneliness, and would have a valued contribution to make.
A major reason why there is such obsession with consuming at present is because there is not much else to do.  In The Simpler Way all people have as many interesting and worthwhile things to do all day as they can fit in, including the working bees and concerts, participating in art and craft activities, committees, being involved in governing, and “working” in their own household economies.  There are far more important and satisfying things to do than go shopping.
There can be much satisfaction in living frugally and self-sufficiently, in repairing and keeping things going, in saving and recycling and using up wastes, in making things.  When one understands the scarcity of resources it can be a source of satisfaction to know that you have been able to keep a jumper or rake handle going for years.  Old and worn, patched and cheap things become valued, attractive, and new and expensive things can become seen as problematic, distinctly unattractive and to be avoided if possible.  Above all there is the satisfaction from creativity, making things; growing perfect food, cooking, making furniture and clothes, works of art…and houses!
Of course this is far from the way most people see things.  They idolise and desire the most lavish and expensive and luxurious things, and status comes from having them, so it will probably be very difficult to reverse these powerful tendencies.  The coming era of increasing scarcity will help us to make these changes, but it is important that we portray them not as undesirable steps that must be reluctantly taken to save the planet.  They should be seen as part of the move to a much more active, productive, cooperative, worthwhile and enjoyable way of life.  (More detail on this theme is given in The Way I Live.)
Finally, affluence is not good for you!  It undermines sensitivity and appreciation, and the ability to enjoy simple everyday things.,  Consider Kerry Packer, Australian media mogul, who bet $4 million in one sitting once.  Anyone who must go to such an extreme for a thrill is not psychologically, spiritually well.  Compare with the little old lady I knew who got great delight from roadside flowers or birdsong (see The Spiritual Significance of the Simpler Way.)  Being increasingly able to purchase increasingly expensive, luxurious, spectacular things and experiences debauches; it desensitises.
Our society is intensely, indeed pathologically, competitive!  The economy is organised in terms of firms competing for sales and people competing for jobs.  Government is largely about groups struggling against each other to get into power, and groups struggling against each other to get favours from government.  We go about disputes via an adversarial legal system (e.g., with little emphasis on conflict resolution or mediation.) “Education” is competitive; it is about striving for the best credentials to get into the best jobs.  People compete for status.  And sport is intensely competitive.
The problem with competition is that someone wins!  This is a winner-take-all society, and with the triumph of the neo-liberal ideology the winners are racing away from the rest of us at an accelerating rate (See Inequality.)  We accept arrangements which pit the strong and the weak in ruthless competition “..on a level playing field” (especially when all have to bid in the market place), then we docilely accept the few who are richest and strongest taking most of the available wealth.  This is not the way a civilized society functions!  In a satisfactory society, such as a normal family, the overriding principles determining what is done are cooperation and a concern for the needs of all.  You make sure that those who are weakest or in most need get first priority, and you make sure we cooperate to do what is necessary.  If you don’t have this attitude then the urgent needs of those least able to compete, and of the environment, will be ignored.  This is obviously the situation in our present society.
The conventional view is that “…competition brings out the best in us.  People work hard to improve the goods and services they are selling, and workers strive to improve their skills to get the available jobs.”  This is quite misleading.  Firstly any benefits of competition, such as effort and efficiency, might be achieved by other means.  We don’t run households on competitive principles.  Secondly the benefits are often outweighed by the costs, losses and damage that competition brings.  In general it is much better, far more “efficient”, far more socially desirable and far more pleasant to organise things cooperatively!  There is abundant and clear evidence on this.  (See especially the book by A. Kohn, No Contest!, .)  This evidence shows that if you want an inefficient way to organise personnel within a firm, make them compete against each other, and if you want an inefficient way to organise learning, make students compete against each other.
Kohn points out that when people compete much of their energy goes into worrying about and disadvantaging the others, as distinct from into performing the task at hand.  When people cooperate in learning each benefits from the insights of others.  It is much better if all people in a firm are thinking about each other’s task and feeding in ideas and assistance and support.  In an economy there are huge costs from competition, including the wastage in all the business failures, the legal conflicts, and the zero-sum “marketing” warfare aimed at taking sales from each other.  In this economy almost all compete against each other to try to sell something – when in a sane economy we could all live well on a small fraction of all that effort and resource use.
At the global level competition fuels the predatory domination of Third World countries by the rich world – the struggle for markets, resources and wealth that the rich win, thereby condemning billions to poverty and inappropriate development.  And what are the chances for global peace when all poor countries want to join India and China in competing their way to rich world living standards?
Even if cooperation was less “efficient” than competing, it would be much nicer if we could all work cooperatively.  The right focus and climate for human societies is working together, mutual aid, helping and nurturing.  Competing is infantile, not morally acceptable, and indeed pathological.
It is important to recognise that cooperating implies giving way from time to time, being willing to let someone else have what you could have taken.  It means that those who could have won in competition are willing not to take more than their fair share.  This is quite foreign to the mentality of winner-take-all society.  The strong do not want to have to accept only their fair share; they want the freedom to take as much as they can get.  People in general think this way, even though most of them are far from rich or able to be winners.  They think that those who are rich deserve their privileges, because they got to the top in competition, those who win deserve the prizes, and the losers would also eagerly be winners and takers if they could.
Another way of talking about this theme is in terms of the distinction between individualism or Liberalism on the one hand, and collectivism on the other.  The philosophy of Liberalism advocates that we compete as individuals seeking to maximise our own advantage or self-interest.  It claims that the individual should have much freedom to do what he wants and that this will benefit society because individuals have a strong incentive to set up firms which will produce things people want, etc.
While it is in principle desirable that individuals have much freedom to do what they wish, it is not possible to have a society without many restraints on freedom, e.g., it is not satisfactory if all have the freedom to drive on whatever side of the road they prefer.  A major cause of global problems is the fact that at present the rich and powerful have far too much freedom, especially to take the markets and livelihoods of others. Again just glance at the Inequality documents to see what this freedom is leading to.
In other words it is not possible to have a satisfactory society unless people have a strong collectivist outlook, i.e., unless they put much value on things like the common good, the welfare of others, the public interest, standards, the welfare of the least fortunate, public assets, institutions and traditions.  These values are weak in consumer society, and they are being undermined by the triumph of Liberalism.  It is not possible to have any society made up of individuals motivated only by desire to maximise their own advantage.  Society is something in addition to individual self interest; if there is no value put on public goals, assets, standards, practices, or the welfare of others, then there is no society.  There is little doubt that in recent decades people have become more greedy, self-interested, callous and indifferent to civic affairs. (See Human Nature.)
“But isn’t human nature selfish and competitive?”   Humans have a nature that enables them to develop values, habits and ideas that are intensely selfish or intensely cooperative.    It all depends on the culture they grow up in.  The Amish are extremely peaceful and cooperative, the tribal Mundugamor and Maori were extremely aggressive.
One element in the competitive syndrome is the obsession with success, achievement and status in Western culture.  Success in life is defined in terms of beating others in the competition for wealth and position.  People slave to “achieve” in school and in the company to “get ahead”.  People admire the achiever, even when the achievement is some trivial thing like a sporting prize or record.
There are powerful forces in consumer-capitalist society driving us to individualism.  We have no choice but to struggle as individuals to survive if not win.  In The Simpler Way this will be reversed.  The conditions, especially our intense dependence on each other, on our local social systems and on our local ecological systems will make us think and behave much more collectively.  There is no reason why this needs to interfere with important individual freedoms.  To call for a much more collectivist outlook is not to advocate big-state or authoritarian centralised control.  It would result in taking more social control of economic affairs, because that’s the only way good but profitable objectives can be achieved.  However this can be done via participatory means at the local level.
The coming era of scarcity will help us to overcome this problem syndrome, because people will be forced to see that their chances will be much better if they cooperate in developing more self-sufficient local economies.  They will realise that they must have local gardens and bakeries and that they will not develop a satisfactory economy unless they discuss and plan and work together.
The second thing that will help us is the fact that people will (re-) discover the satisfaction that comes from cooperating.  The Simpler Way involves strong community.  People are thrown together in committees and working bees and they will find that this is much nicer than competing as isolated individuals.
Again it is appropriate to emphasise that we will be helped by our acute awareness of our dependence, on each other, on our local social systems, and on our local ecosystems. The Simpler Way requires but also reinforces mutual assistance and concern to see the other flourish, because all will be acutely aware that their own welfare depends entirely, not on their own talents or wealth, but on whether the local community, economy, political system and ecological system are working well.  Whether all live well will depend on whether their locality looks after its bakers and musicians, etc.  All will therefore have a strong incentive to think about the welfare of others, and to contribute to it.
Easily overlooked are the synergistic effects here.  If I beat you to a parking space you feel bad and are more likely to treat the next person badly. Competition results in worse than zero-sum outcomes. But when one person helps another that person is more likely to be nice to the next person, and the goodness multiplies. 
The main concern in The Simpler Way will be to nurture, to do things that help others to flourish.  We will understand that this reinforces conditions we benefit from. The “prosperity” and happiness of others is not only not achieved at my expense, it will lead them to do nice things for me, and it will make me feel good to have made them feel good.
Why will we think this way?  Do we all have to become saints before this is possible?  Again, we will be like this because a) we will be in a situation where helping each other is obviously the best way to survive , b) we will realise that cooperating is nice!
The competition theme is closely related to individualism.  Whereas tribal cultures are very collective, western culture emphasises the freedom for individuals to pursue their own interests.  This has its origins in the long and painful struggles against rule by autocratic kings, the French and English revolutions and the emergence of Parliamentary rule.  Obviously there are valuable elements here but the neo-liberal triumph is making individualism into a socially destructive force now.  It in effect endorses the quest to maximise self interest and it neglects and de-emphasises collectivism, i.e., concern for the public good, and especially for the welfare of those least able to win in the competitive struggle.  It accepts that the individual’s welfare depends on the individual’s capacity to provide for himself.  It denies the importance of public wealth in enabling a high quality of life for all, and of the importance of all taking collective responsibility for the welfare of all. 
What we want here is not any imposition of greater state control over individuals, reducing their freedom.  We simply want to see greater concern for the welfare of others and for the public good; i.e., a more “collectivist” outlook.
In consumer society there is widespread and increasing political apathy. People tend not to be very concerned about social issues, and there is little interest in critical thought about society.  There is acquiescence with the way society works and little or no significant dissent, let alone call for radical system change.  People do grumble, e.g., about politicians, but they accept things like the existence of unemployment and the distribution of wealth and power.  Above all they accept being governed; they have no concept of governing themselves.
Ivan Illich discussed this in terms of the passivity that come with consumer society. The individual’s role in such a society is as a “passive consumer of pre-packaged goods and services”.  It is crucial for capitalism that the individual produces little for himself but purchases as much as possible.  Therefore things are done for you by corporations, governments and professionals.  Subsistence and self-sufficiency are seen as backward, characteristic of tribal and primitive societies. People even leave their own health to doctors, knowing little about diet, fitness or first aid, and just go to the doctor to be fixed up when something is wrong.
At the global level there are many extremely serious problems that would be solved very quickly if people cared enough to demand action, such as banning the use of landmines or depleted uranium weapons.  The grotesque injustice in the global economy would be eliminated quickly if even a few were as annoyed about it as all should be. All this can be put in terms of a lack of social responsibility. (For a detailed discussion, see Social Responsibility; The Biggest Problem of All?)
In a good society and a world which had solved its big problems citizens would be highly socially responsible.  They would understand, be interested in, care about and seek to fix their social systems.  We are a very long way from such a situation.
There are powerful forces at work in consumer society generating this situation.  Many are busy and stressed and have little time or energy left for civic afairs.  Neighbourhoods are dormitories, designed without community in mind.  Corporations want you to do nothing but self-indulge and consume.  Governments do nothing to stimulate community or local self-reliance.  Councils and professionals do everything for the individual so there is no need to get together to fix or run things in the neighbourhood. People watch 3 to 4 hours of TV each day.  The “hidden curriculum” of school teaches people to do what they are told, take no initiative and take no responsibility for what they are learning (teachers make all the important decisions).  Media give superficial accounts so it is impossible to form a confident understanding of issues.  Academics self-indulge in their specialisms and contribute little to the clear and simple overviews that would enable people to follow public issues.  The media and commerce work hard at confining minds to consuming.  They spend $550 billion p.a. on their marketing” effort.
The term “Postmodern society” has been applied to the situation many believe we are in; a condition of stupefied preoccupation with trivia, especially created by the electronic media.  People are focused on TV, sport, fashion, celebrities, popular music, spectacles such as football grand finals, Olympic games, fantasy etc.  The attention span is very short, trained to the fleeting thrill or image momentarily attended to then dropped for the next one.  Experiences are ephemeral and fractured, unconnected.  One meaningless but attention-catching image or experience is followed by another, so there are moment to moment preoccupations, but no enduring meanings.  It’s throw away experience, a parade of transient, trivial, mildly attention-getting trashy experiences.  Products are used up and dumped and one moves on to the next.  Self-indulge; consume now, have fun. Sensitivity is blunted. Identity comes from symbols, brand loyalty, designer labels.  One does not attach to lasting causes, values, commitments.
There is little sense of what is important and what is trivial.  There is no anger or radicalism.  There is discontent, but it is with personal situations and experience and not with the social conditions or forces causing individual hardship or anxiety.  There is no concern with global injustice.  There is no concept of oppression, no dissent, no thought of challenging the system.  Hence authorities have no need to expend effort to put down resistance…there isn’t any.  Indeed what do discontented postmodern people do…that’s right, go shopping!
The situation seems to be getting worse.  Evidence  (e.g., from Hugh McKay) indicates people are increasingly disenchanted with politics and are retreating into their private concerns.
All this is to be expected from capitalism late in the day.  It generates the mindless consumption of trivia, firstly by taking away purpose.  People have no need to take responsibility, think about their community or public issues, because they live as individuals not members of any community, and everything is done for them by some corporation or bureaucracy.  Their role is to work and then consume.  They do not have to think about getting together to manage the village commons or run the local co-op or aged care facility.  Capitalism has taken most functions from people, and will happily provide them for a fee. It has cast large numbers into struggling to cope, into boring jobs, and no jobs.
The Alternative.
The Simpler Way cannot work without a great deal of social responsibility.  It requires active, conscientious citizens.  This is because the local community must run many things, so they must make the decisions, organise the committees and working bees, run the water and energy systems.  These things will mostly not be done by councils or distant governments.  In the coming era of intense scarcity we will not be able to afford much government.  Therefore the necessary steps will not be taken unless people discuss issues, think carefully and critically and come to meetings and take responsibility for their own community.
The history of human emancipation can be seen in terms of the development of social responsibility.  For over the last 12,000 years, since beginning to leave tribal ways, humans have suffered countless tyrannical kings and regimes, which they could have thrown off at any time had enough people decided to do it.  Today it is unbelievable how tiny elite classes can dominate, taking most of the wealth and privileges, while exploited and deprived masses just accept their miserable fate.  In many situations brutal action keeps elites in power while people acquiesce in arrangements which they could easily get rid of if they chose to.  Ghandi said of the British colonial domination of India, “If Indians just spat the British would drown.”  In present society the domination is much more obscure and subtle, but it is extreme. (About 1% of Americans have 33% of wealth, 80% share 14% of it.)
Humans will not have achieved political maturity until ordinary people cease to accept being governed and take responsibility for governing themselves.  This is the basic principle in Anarchist political philosophy.  People should never be governed — they should govern their own communities through participatory processes.  No person or institution should have any power to rule over anyone else, including elected officials or political “representatives”. When some have the power to rule over others, even as elected representatives, they are very likely  to start ruling in the interests of the rich and powerful.  We will have achieved political maturity only when we have thrown off all elements of “being ruled”, of some having power over others, and have learned to rule ourselves cooperatively via a participatory democracy of equals. 
Following are some of the ideas in Western Culture which are contributing to our problems. (These merge with values.)
 Progress”, “development”, expansion and growth.
The idea that progress is possible and that it is desirable is only about two hundred years old.  Before that people didn‘t expect to see any change in their society over a lifetime.  They would have hoped for emancipation in the afterlife but it was not expected on earth.   However we are now used to “progress” and we think it is important and inevitable. 
Progress is mostly defined in terms of scientific and technical advance, and increase in material living standards and GDP, as distinct from improvement in quality of life of “social capital”, citizenship or moral standards.
Expansion; growth is good.  Set up branch plants, spread, take over, conquer, build a bigger corporation, build an empire, get richer… there is no concept of sufficiency or stability.  Limitless economic growth.  The Simpler Way is about stability, zero growth.
Modernisation for the Third World.  “Development” means scrapping tribal and traditional ways, especially “subsistence” production for self-sufficiency, and entering the market to produce only for sale.  Let the market determine all…attract foreign investment…that will maximise growth and GDP, which equals “development”.  Modernisation means adopting consumer lifestyles.
Bigness is good.  Big houses. Big corporations.  Big cars.  Big complex systems.  The Simpler Way alternative accepts that “Small is beautiful”.
Cleverness, intelligence is admired; We “can do.” There are no limits to knowledge or human technical capacity…someday we will colonise the planets.  Hubris…we humans can master and control nature.  Rationality, technique…we can make battleships …(but we do not have the  wisdom to avoid using them.)
Control of nature.   Science in seen as conquering nature, forcing her to reveal her secrets and to do things she would not choose to do.  Humans are seen as separate from and in control of nature.  We do not focus on accommodating to nature’s ways and seeking to live humbly and appreciatively in harmony with them.  Permaculture tries to work with nature, whereas modern agriculture is a battle against nature, seeking to force her to do things she is not inclined to do (e.g., keeping “weeds” out of our fields.) Science dissects nature, takes it apart to see how it works, in an effort to master and control it.  Western culture has little sense of “earth bonding”, a concept central to tribal and peasant societies. Nature exists for us to exploit; it is OK to rip up and use up forests and mountains.  Yes we think about conservation…but mainly so that there will be resources left to exploit later.  There is little acceptance of the “Deep Ecology” idea that nature has rights.
Hierarchy, Domination, Power, Privilege, Status, Inequality
One of the strongest tendencies in the Western mind is the readiness to accept hierarchical systems.  We organise society in terms of ranks of people who have power over those below them.  Those on top take it for granted that they have the right to boss those under them, and those underneath willingly accept orders.  This makes bureaucracies and armies work but the same dispositions are also through just about all of society’s institutions.  We do not see people as equals in status and power.  We think of some as of higher status and rightly having more power than others.  This is the form taken by schools, governments, and firms.  Most people find it impossible to imagine any other way…”How could you have equality of power in a school?”
Significant differences in wealth and privilege are accepted.  It is alright that some are very rich and can own mansions and newspapers while others have too little for comfort.  We do not have rules which prevent some from becoming very rich.  People like power, like to be on top, like to dominate.  They see power differences as normal.  There are leaders.   We must have a President.  Some are born leaders.”  Even thoroughly detestable tyrants and kings are tolerated. Most people accept royalty and see nothing repulsive about the idea that some people claim this kind of superiority, power and privilege.  Status is a matter of rank, level of power or wealth, as distinct for example from being a matter of one’s quality as a person or citizen.  Much effort goes into pretending, trying to give the impression that one is of high status via clothes, property, style and manners.
Inequality is therefore accepted.
People accept the fact that a few are obscenely rich, many are very rich…and many are quite poor.  They do not say “This is outrageous!  Let’s get rid of such a disgusting situation.”  Even people who are very poor do not seem to object.  All seem to think the rich deserve to be rich and the poor had their chance.  All want the opportunity to rise to be among the rich few.  How many would say, “I do not want to be part of a society in which there are rich and poor people – it is disturbing that some can be very rich while some go without necessities.”  lf many thought like this something would be done.  It is a winner-take-all society. It is OK that some can take far more than they need, and most people want to be one of the winners.
Tribal people are wise enough not to want or tolerate inequality.  Mostly their “leaders” are only like chairmen, unable to get their way unless everyone agrees with their proposals.  They are not interested in becoming rich and status comes from reputation, for instance as a hunter or musician or herbalist.  Many tribes have rules and customs which prevent a few from becoming rich.
The Anarchist philosophy emphasises that no one should ever have any power over anyone else, and that we should organise social institutions on this principle.  They want groups to practice participatory democracy whereby all discuss and make the decisions.  They do not accept that leaders, heroes and saviours are necessary.  We ordinary people can and should get together to solve our problems and run things well. Yes some people will come up with more good ideas than others, but no one should have more power to say what we will do.  We will make sure everyone shares chairing the meetings, partly because that’s good for personal development, it increases our community’s stock of skills, and most importantly, it asserts the principle of as much equality in power and status as is possible.  In the new communities of The Simpler Way everyone will have an important contribution; even bringing in the firewood is helpful.
In The Simpler Way the strength of our community will depend on the extent to which we can all come together to take responsibility and work out what to do and get the job done.  It will not be strong if all are not included and if all do not feel they have a valued contribution to make.  Only this climate can bring out the productive power of all, which will be needed. So the most able will always try to help others to develop their capacities and foster a cooperative effort, rather than take control of the situation.
 This will feed into our attitude to heroes and winners…we will not have any!  We will not be interested in them and we will not need them.  We will seek to avoid competitive situations where someone will be the winner. We will not be interested in records or grades or who won… that’s infantile.  Nor will we value saviours or great leaders.  We do not need superior individuals to solve our problems because we know that ordinary people can work together to solve problems.  It is not good for us to idolise the expert, elite, winner, guru, great leader, record holder, or those who stands out as superior.  That contradicts collective strength and de-values the worth of the ordinary person.   Expertise and skill are important in The Simpler Way, but being “the best” isn’t.  Status is a matter of reputation and respect, built up from long acquaintance within the community.  It is not a matter of rank.  There is no point pretending, because people know you well, they know how well you can fix a windmill, how often you turn up to working bees, are helpful, can persevere, be cheerful when there’s a problem, and what skills and qualities you have.  Even the smartest engineer in town will know he can‘t bake a dinner as well as granny.  We all have our different but crucial contributions to make to a happy community.
In hierarchical society there is a readiness to accept domination and exploitation,  The concern is to take advantage of others if possible and to force them to do things they do not want to do.  If someone has to sell cheaply it is alright to pounce on a bargain. The incentives are for one to get ahead at the expense of the other. These are not nice, friendly ways of thinking or acting.  Again the conditions of our new small self-governing communities will push us to be cooperative and equal.   People will see that if they try to retain elitism then the cooperative ethos that is essential for our town’s survival will be damaged.
One of the most disturbing strands in Western culture is the readiness to take what others had.  Stealing and thuggery are supposed to be wrong, but consider our record.  Westerners throughout history have found it very easy to push others off their land and simply take it.  Consider the expansion into the Third World starting with the brutal conquest of the Americas 500 years ago.  In a short time native American populations were almost entirely killed off.  The British fought 72 colonial wars to take more than half the world as their empire.  They didn’t think twice about taking Australia from its native people.  The Americans pushed the Indians off their land.  The Western mind seems to have had no difficulty doing such things.
Consider the history of international relations.  This has basically been little more than the history of attempts by one nation to dominate others, to conquer, to take the wealth of others, to plunder.  Western international relations and foreign policy today are not far from the morality of the thug.  Relations are often polite and without physical aggression, but they are usually about using weight to get as many of the available resources, markets, territory etc. as possible.  Consider the chaos, warfare, and likely future of the Middle East and Central Asia, the arena in which the West is now locked in struggle against Russia and China to control the world’s dwindling oil supplies.
This connects with the readiness to brutality, vindictiveness and aggression that is easily triggered in the Western mind, especially if righteous indignation can be summoned.   People eagerly consume brutally violent movies.  Computer games are saturated with slaughter.  “Make my day”.  People can quickly take the opportunity to attack, injure, destroy, vanquish.  The Christian ethic is supposed to be to turn the other cheek, not to hit back, to love one’s enemies.  But to do business in a market is to risk predation.  People are likely to take advantage of you, cheat you.  It is OK to “make a killing”, and to try to drive competitors into ruin by taking their business.  Law is about contests where one party wins in absolute triumph, not about sitting down to look for a sensible win-win outcome, or compromise. (In The Simpler Way there are village elders who mediate between people with a problem.)
The limitless acquisitiveness in Western culture also connects with these brutally predatory elements. Take as much as you can get.  There is no concept of sufficient.  Winner take all is OK, don’t worry about the “losers”.  There is in rich countries close to no concern at all with the way their affluence and comfort help to cause the deprivation and misery of billions of other people.
Eisler’s book The Challice and the Blade argues that for 1500 years an “Old European Civilization” thrived in the Eastern Mediterranean, with a very peaceful, equal and participatory culture, and a strong environmental sensitivity evident in the worship of Gaia the Earth Goddess Mother.  This culture was eventually overrun by a dominator culture, which Eisler says we still suffer in the West. 
The conditions of The Simpler Way will sweep all this away.  We will realise that we must be cooperative, helpful, nurturing, or our societies will not survive, and we will find these ways rewarding.
In “participator” society the basic concern will have to be to cooperate with, help and nurture the other.  It will not be a zero-sum situation where what I get you can’t have.  If we are so silly as to compete for individual advantage out town will die.  But if I help you then you will help me and others and then others will help me. Synergism works its miracles.  Goodwill multiplies.  And above all, helping and working cooperatively with others not only builds community solidarity – it is enjoyable!
Some of the silliest unexamined assumptions and habits in Western culture are do with work.  Firstly far too much of it takes place!  In a sane economy we would live well on about one third as much as is done now.  Yet work time is increasing and work conditions are deteriorating.  (In 2006 40% of Americans work for the below-poverty line income of $5.15 an hour.)  Work has been largely destroyed in capitalist society.  For many it is not a source of enjoyment or personal growth.  In the new economy it will be both.  In consumer society people firmly believe in the moral worth of working hard.  They despise laziness, even though we need a lot more of it.  In consumer society work is mostly seen as an unpleasant means to a valued end, e.g., earning the money to spend on something nice.  Thus most people are probably wasting about half their waking lives in the effort to enjoy the other half. 
In the Simpler Way there will be far less produced and consumed, and producing will be enjoyable.  Working hours will be short.  Work will be at a relaxed pace, under the control of the producers.  Work will be highly varied for the many who desire that, and making many different contributions throughout the day.  There will be no drudgery.  Much work will be cooperative, e.g., on working bees.  Most work will be in homes, in gardens, in kitchens and community cooperatives.  Much will be in craft mode of production.  The distinction between work and leisure will collapse; people will enjoy producing and will do a lot of producing during their “leisure time, e.g., in gardens and crafts.
The importance of enthusiasm.
Perhaps the worst aspect of consumer-capitalist society is the gulf between the zest for life and enjoyment all could experience, and the stunted, stressed, spiritually impoverished lives most people are forced to endure, in even the richest countries.  Again depression, stress and mental illness are at epidemic levels.  Americans average 4 hours TV watching per day.  These phenomena are due to lack of purpose, lack of enthusiasm, lack of worthwhile things to do.
About the worst thing that can happen to a person is to lose purpose.  What matters above just about all else is having things you want to do, are interested in, hope for.  To a large extent consumer-capitalist society has taken significant, worthwhile purpose from people.  Consider Aborigines, homeless, tribal people, impoverished, unemployed, disabled and aged people.  Most of them have nothing to do, no role, no contribution, no status or respect from their contribution.  There is no interest in designing a society that would give these people important things to do (that would detract from the amount corporations could supply).  Indeed this economy prides itself on the way the smart powerful few, the Wal-Marts, can take business and livelihoods from many others and dump them into boredom and purposelessness.  No surprise that we have ever-increasing problems of depression, drugs, crime and self-destruction.
Thus the main reason why people devote themselves to Postmodern mindless trivia, TV, sport, celebrities, hedonism fantasy…and shopping, is because there isn’t much else to do.
The Simpler Way solves all this, automatically.  All have important things to do, in a supportive community, full of artists and gardens, all know that their welfare depends on keeping the locality in good shape, and all are respected and valued for their contribution to this end.  All will be acutely conscious of their beautiful surroundings, the landscape, the community, well run systems, their powerful political system, their institutions, the fact that they have built and that they run an admirable society, a society to be proud of.
It would be difficult to estimate the power, energy and creativity that will be released by this change in the situation individual’s experience.  At present huge amounts of potential energy, time, skill, responsibility and are locked up in those people sitting watching TV, when they could be thrashing around their town doing things, helping, discussing, building, creating, caring for others and thinking about what would improve their town.  What miracles could be perform in our neighbourhoods and to the quality of life there if we released 28 hours enthusiastic effort per person per week!