Being in the world and contemporary philosophy

Robert Peter Burns rburns at
Fri Nov 10 11:12:04 MST 1995

"It's all in this world".  Here are some burning issues in
contemporary philosophy, about which there is much disagreement
in the major philosophy departments of the English-speaking world.
Believe me, they do not admit of easy answers.

Suppose you have a pain.  Is the phenomenal property of that
pain--the way it *feels* to you--a property that is accessible
to another person?   Could the phenomenal property of pain--
not its associated brain or bodily states and behaviors, but
its <unpleasant> qualitative character as perceived in the
first-person perspective--could that property be something
which is amenable to scientific investigation?  It might seem
not to be, for, science-fiction and Bill Clinton aside, no-one
can feel or observe the qualitative subjective "feel" of another's
pain; the phenomenal property of pain is not observable to third
parties.  The phenomenal property of pain, it would appear, is thus
not any kind of physical object.  And this goes for *all* the
phenomenal properties of our experience--the entire way it feels to
each one of us to be the persons we are.  And yet are there not
innumerable instances of phenomenal properties?  Are these "in the
world"?  Are they "natural" objects?

Unlike thoughts, chairs, rocks and other physical objects are not
about anything.  But if there is a cat sitting on a mat, and I
have the thought, "There is a cat sitting on a mat", my thought
appears to be about a cat.  But no-one has ever seen "aboutness".
It's not the sort of thing one can even imagine observing, for
it does not appear to be any kind of physical object.  Yet we
constantly have intentions, beliefs, desires and a host of other
mental states that are apparently about both objects in the external
world, as well as about abstract objects like numbers <"Think of
a number">, and about other mental states, our own and others' <"What
was I thinking?"  "I know she loves me">.  Is "aboutness" in the world?
Can science give an adequate account of "aboutness"?

No-one has ever looked out of her window and seen correctness,
rightness, wrongness, goodness, badness, validity, rationality,
or in general normativity or value.  Though they have seen things
which they described in these terms, these notions do
not themselves appear to designate physical objects.  Or do they
in fact designate natural properties--e.g. "whatever is pleasure
giving" or "what works"?  <But see "qualia" above>  But is the
pleasure derived from torture by a sadist good?  Is torture right?
Is what "works" pragmatically necessarily correct or rational.  And
is not "what works" pragmatically itself necessarily bound up with
judgments of value?  Can these normative notions be adequately be
explained by science?  How can a world which consists of nothing
but what physics and the other basic sciences say there is also be
a world in which there is some objective fact of the matter about
whether an argument is logically valid <how could atoms generate
logical validity?>, or about whether a function is computable, or
about whether someone is a good person or has rational thoughts?
Can all these notions be adequately explained by science?  Are
reason and value "in" the world?

Do mathematical objects exist?  If so, are they "in" the world?
Are they independent of our thoughts about them <as the Cambridge
mathematical physicist, Roger Penrose, argues in his book The
Emperor's New Mind, and as many other mathematicians and physicists
have claimed>?  Where does mathematical reason come from?  Can it
and the objects it reasons about be adequately accounted for terms
of purely natural or physical objects?

Is there such a thing as freedom in the world?  Is it ever the case
that anyone ever acts freely?  We can see whether someone is physically
constrained <actually Hume wouldn't quite agree with this, but never
mind>; but what about psychological constraints?  Are these observable?
Are they just a species of physical constraints?  Are we ever on any
occasion of action able to act differently from the way we actually act?
If we are never able to act differently from the way we do act, are we
ever responsible for our actions?  If we can on some occasions act
differently from the way we do act on those occasions, is this compatible
with what science tells us?  If freedom in some sense does exist,
is it a possible object of scientific investigation?

Answers on a postcard, please, to

Peter Burns SJ
rburns at

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