The metaphysics of constitution and bodily awareness: a case of philosophers studying chmess?

IMG_9167In a famous essay that was republished as part of his Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking, Dan Dennett introduced the difference between chess (the well known game) and “chmess”:

“Some philosophical research projects — or problematics, to speak with the more literary types — are rather like working out the truths of chess. A set of mutually agreed-upon rules are presupposed — and seldom discussed — and the implications of those rules are worked out, articulated, debated, refined. So far, so good. Chess is a deep and important human artifact, about which much of value has been written. But some philosophical research projects are more like working out the truths of chmess. Chmess is just like chess except that the king can move two squares in any direction, not one. I just invented it. … There are just as many a priori truths of chmess as there are of chess (an infinity), and they are just as hard to discover. And that means that if people actually did get involved in investigating the truths of chmess, they would make mistakes, which would need to be corrected, and this opens up a whole new field of a priori investigation, the higher-order truths of chmess … Now none of this is child’s play. In fact, one might be able to demonstrate considerable brilliance in the group activity of working out the higher-order truths of chmess. Here is where psychologist Donald Hebb’s dictum comes in handy: If it isn’t worth doing, it isn’t worth doing well.”

The point, which I try to keep in mind every time I decide to invest time and energy in a project, is that some philosophical problems are well worth the effort (chess), and others are more akin to mental masturbations (chmess), even though the latter can be both difficult and pleasurable in themselves. I also, reflexively at this point, apply the same criterion when I read or listen to other people’s works, filing away my impressions in a continuous effort to adjust my opinions about different fields of philosophy (or science) by the method of reflective equilibrium. Couple this with my occasional returns to the field of analytic metaphysics, to see what’s it about and what’s it worth, and you have the theme for this post. (There are other kinds of metaphysics that I find more obviously worthwhile, as in this case.)

A recent occasion for such chess vs chmess reflections was given to me by attending a talk at the City College of New York, delivered by Rina Tzinman of Bilkent University (Turkey), entitled “Constitution and bodily awareness: a puzzle.” The rest of this commentary has nothing to do with the philosophical abilities of Tzinman, which struck me as of high level, but rather with whether what she was doing was chess or chmess.

Let me set the stage, based on the handout that Tzinman provided us to better follow her talk. Before getting to what the “puzzle” referred to in her title is about, we need to introduce a definition of constitution: it is an asymmetric, irreflexive relation between a material object and that which it is made of. For instance, some statues are made of (constituted by) lumps of clay.

This is relevant because some philosophers have advanced a constitution view of personal identity, and personal identity is one of the major issues in analytic metaphysics. The constitution view says that human persons are constituted by, but are not numerically identical to, human animals.

Hence the puzzle: persons and the human animals that constitute them seem (to the metaphysician) to share many properties, including, importantly, mental features. For instance, whenever a person thinks “I am a person,” the animal has that very same thought. (Obviously, adds the biologist and no-nonsense philosopher in me…)

Why is this a problem? Actually, according to some analytic metaphysicians, this opens up a number of issues, listed by Tzinman at the beginning of her talk:

(i) It is absurd that we share our place with coincident thinkers. (Wait, what??)

(ii) The constitution view of personal identity leads to an epistemological problem: how can we know that we are persons, rather than human animals that coincide with persons? (Again, wait, what??)

(iii) The same view undermines the commonly (though by all means not universally) accepted Lockean notion of a person as “a thinking intelligent being, that has reason and reflection, and can consider itself as itself.” (Well, if so, too damn bad for the Lockean notion, no?)

Let’s pause for a moment. By this point in the talk I began to lean strongly toward the conclusion that I was witnessing an example of chmess studies in action. Let me be clear about what I (and Dennett) mean by this. I’m definitely not saying that this is “bullshit,” or “nonsense,” some of the preferred terms abused by so-called skeptics who think they know enough philosophy to criticize it (see the recent Boghossian-Lindsay debacle). I’m saying that a number of talented philosophers, including but not limited to Tzinman and several of the scholars she cited, have been spending time and energy to solve a problem that appears to be such only because they bought into a number of assumptions that the rest of us simply scratch their head about before tossing them out.

For instance, (i) above is clearly a non-problem: there is no absurdity brought about by the existence of coincident thinkers, because the whole idea of “coincident thinkers” comes out of a misguided mereological account. I — the human person Massimo Pigliucci — am not a distinct thinker from the animal that is a member of the species Homo sapiens that other such animals label as “Massimo Pigliucci.” We are one thinker, not two.

Similarly, there is no epistemological problem (ii) at play here: obviously I know that I am both a human person and an animal, no possible confusion could arise here, other than in the minds of analytic metaphysicians who got accustomed to think in an odd way throughout their training as graduate students.

Finally, and as much as I don’t actually buy the Lockean account of personal identity, the current situation presents no problem at all for it (iii) for the simple reason that there is no absurdity and no epistemological issue at play.

Nevertheless, let us follow Tzinman a bit more in her chmess game, before finally recover some sanity and go back to chess. At this point in the talk she presented Lynne Baker’s solution, against which she later raised objections, as her original contribution to the debate.

Baker distinguishes between non-derivative and derivative possession of properties. The idea is that we have the property of being a person non-derivatively, while “the animal” has it derivatively. “It” is a conscious, thinking being in virtue of me being a conscious, thinking being. “The animal” inherits those properties from me.

Contrariwise, I inherit some properties from my constituent animal, like the ability to digest, circulate blood, metabolize, etc.

Therefore, Baker suggests, even though there are strictly speaking two thinkers (as well as two digesters, metabolizers, etc.), there is only one primary thinker, me, the person. That, allegedly, solves problems (i)-(iii) above.

New pause. What the heck?? But then again: clever! Baker’s solution is brilliant because — once you bought into the modus operandi of analytic metaphysics — there is indeed a logical puzzle in place, and Baker’s answer is very good (though not without problems, argued Tzinman). But of course there is no sensible reason at all to buy into that modus operandi to begin with. There is no distinction between me the person and “the animal” within me. It makes no sense to say that the animal is conscious in virtue of the person being conscious. In fact, if anything, a biologist would say that it is the other way around: certain neural and other characteristics of the human animal make it possible for it to be conscious, and therefore to be a person. Similarly for my ability to digest, metabolize, etc. I don’t “inherit” it from the animal because I am the animal. It is misleading talk, rooted, again, in a bizarre mereological error.

Okay, let’s resume with Tzinman’s talk, to see what her problem with Baker’s “solution” to the chmess problem under examination is. She introduced the distinction between self- and bodily awareness. Self-awareness is awareness of consciousness, of oneself as a subject. Bodily awareness, by contrast, is being aware of oneself qua object. For instance: if I think of a red ball, I am aware of my own mental state as a thinker; but when I become aware of my body because I press it against another object, I experience body awareness. So far so good, though not terribly enlightening.

How are bodily and self-awareness related? The token identity thesis says that some token states of bodily awareness are identical to token states of self-awareness. For instance, if you go jogging and you exert yourself, you are both — at the same time — aware of your aching and sweating body (bodily awareness) and of the fact that you, the person, is jogging (self-awareness). This does not mean that every token of one type of awareness is identical to every token of the other, just that that is the case in some instances. (Clearly, as sometimes I am aware of my thinking processes without paying attention to my body, and sometimes I am focused on my body sensations without thinking also about myself as a person.)

Stay with me, we are almost there. The puzzle raised by Tzinman against Baker gets going with the observation that self-awareness is a personal property, while bodily awareness is an “animal” property. Persons are self-aware, non-derivatively, while animals are self-aware only derivatively. Vice versa, human animals are bodily aware non-derivatively, while the person that they “constitute” is bodily aware derivatively.

Please notice how all of this makes perfect sense. It isn’t gibberish. There is an internal logic to the whole thing. Again, this isn’t “nonsense” or “bullshit.” It’s just chmess rather than chess.

And finally for the puzzle itself: what happens when a person is in a token state of self-awareness that also happens to be a token state of bodily awareness? It seems like, according to Tzinman, we have to say that the person is self-aware both derivatively and non-derivatively, which is a contradiction, and therefore a reductio ad absurdum of Baker’s view (she actually spelled out this is a properly formal argument, with a number of premises leading to the reductio as a conclusion).

Indeed, this is a formally valid reductio. But only if one bought into the whole bizarre idea that persons and their constitutive human animals are two mereologically distinct things in the first place. If one rejects that way of thinking, in favor of the more obvious biological account that being a person is a normal property of adult members of a particular species of social primates, then you just wasted the last several minutes following the meandering of a clever argument that is not relevant to anything of import. Moreover, Tzinman, Baker, and others have wasted years of their lives playing chmess rather than chess.

One more time: this is not meant to imply that these people are not clever, or that it doesn’t take effort to do what they do. And before you smugly say something along the lines of “I knew it! Philosophers engage in mental masturbation, so philosophy is useless,” I’ll remind you that there are lots of philosophers who play chess, devoting their careers to things that matter — for instance Michael Sandel on applied ethics, just to mention an example among many.

Let me also remind you that, as a scientist, I could easily come up with loads of examples of scientists who have engaged in their version of chmess. One of my favorite is that of a colleague who gave a talk years ago when I was at Stony Brook University, and who had spent his whole life studying the sexual habits of a particular species of moth found in Panama. When pressed, during the q&a, about the more general implications of his research (which few of us, apparently, could even begin to imagine), his ultimate answer was a shrugging of the shoulders accompanied by “well, it is intrinsically interesting.” That’s academese code for “it interests me, and I’m lucky enough to get paid to do it.”

The moral of the story: lots of clever people do lots of clever things. But it would pay off, both for themselves and for society at large, if they did remind themselves of Donald Hebb’s dictum: If it isn’t worth doing, it isn’t worth doing well.

146 thoughts on “The metaphysics of constitution and bodily awareness: a case of philosophers studying chmess?

  1. SocraticGadfly

    David: Like Massimo, I would take a pragmatic angle on chess vs. chmess. Arguably, “it works” is at core of many definitions of science in general, for that matter.

    Re Plantinga? I think that a bit of enlightenment has been his use of modal logic to prove that an ontological proof of god exists — without letting people know that the same tools can also be used to prove an ontologically perfect Satan at the same time. Thus, especially because of his nondisclosure — chmess.


    Cousin: When a new field, subfield or even sub-subfield of inquiry is opened, I agree that sometimes a certain amount of exploration is needed before its recognized that one is playing chmess.

    Of course, some people say “hold on” or “wait for the miracle.” And, whenever chmess is descending in the house of Libra, it’s not actually chmess, then, is it?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Massimo Post author


    “I understand what Massimo is talking about (endless pursuit of drivel), but it’s hard in practice to know what is drivel”

    And yet we (have to) do it, all the times, right? That’s why both funding agencies and journal editorial boards are always worried about relevance, broader impact, etc.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. brodix


    My point is that religion is chess.
    What is chess? A set of generally agreed on, fairly arbitrary rules, with cultural significance for the age in which it originated, by which a board game is played.
    What is religion? Stories and anecdotes to transmit the basic, sometimes arbitrary rules by which a society functions. Without the 10 Commandments, the Golden Rule, etc, along with the emotional sense of connection the narrative provides, Moses, Jesus, Mohammad and company would be about as relevant as Aesop’s Fables.
    What makes them both relevant is the fact of the rules being broadly accepted.

    Science, on the other hand, isn’t even chmess, because the rules are “whatever works.” It might be about discovering the rules, but it isn’t necessarily defined by them.


    Given the Trinity evolved from the Greek year gods(father-son should be a big hint) and the Catholic Church presumes to be eternal, having the notion of renewal as foundational to your religion likely wasn’t that appealing to the political aspirations of the early church, so the Trinity is a mystery in the same way Hillary’s loss is a mystery to many today. Beliefs override facts.


  4. brodix

    Remember there are bishops, but no astronomers in chess. It’s about politics and religion is political.

    Writing the rules.


  5. davidlduffy

    Hi Robin. “relevance of what you said to my point”. You think your conscious experience is non-algorithmic. You presumably believe I experience something similar, as did humans in the past (say 50000-100000 years ago), but not many other animals. So I am asking, do you think the cognition of dumb animals is non-algorithmic?

    Neuronal metabolism is identical across us higher mammals, so power consumption is one indicator of what might differentiate conscious from unconscious thinking (this is true regarding our own states – attention, sleep etc). I presume you are sufficiently materialist to think consciousness requires some kind of additional energy input.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. davidlduffy

    Hi SG. “a pragmatic angle on chess vs. chmess. Arguably, ‘it works’ is at core of many definitions of science”. Yes, but this is where the ethico-socio-legal bits of science come in. After all, Massimo’s point is that chmess’s actually work just fine.


  7. brodix


    I was following up on Socratic’s comment about religious studies not being chmess, even if the theological basis of it is.

    Would you agree the basis of both religion and chess are broadly accepted rules? (Though some of them would be called “beliefs” in religion, the principle of guidance is broadly similar.)

    The premise of chmess is that if you change any of those rules, it is some other game. Which would be the same with religion. If you start changing the rules, you have a different religion. Say Christianity, not Judaism.

    So comparing religion to chmess would seem to be missing the point.


  8. Robin Herbert

    I imagine that Lynne Baker, at least, would argue that it is not chmess and that it has important real life applications, ie to be able to make a clear account of why an embryo or a fetus is not a person.

    I can see how she would make the animal/person distinction – we were the animals we are before we became the persons we are so she it right, prima facie, to say that a human person is a distinct concept to a human animal. I don’t know about the step to make this an ontological distinction, but I am sure she would argue that there is no difference to her arguing in favour of constitution theory and someone arguing in favour of identity theory, token physicalism or supervenience physicalism.

    I am not saying she is correct in this, just imagining how she would argue.


  9. Robin Herbert

    Hi davidlduffy,

    So I am asking, do you think the cognition of dumb animals is non-algorithmic?

    Yes.I don’t think that the consciousness of a mouse is algorithmic either, but then again I am not in any position to know anything about the conscious experience of a mouse. But by extrapolation, mice feel pain, pleasure etc and have, in general, the same kinds of brains as we do and so I assume they have conscious experience. Certainly I think that closer relatives like chimpanzees have conscious experience.

    On the other hand, if someone comes up with a computational simulation of a mouse at a biological level that displays the all behaviour we see in real mice then I would have to rethink that.

    My prediction is that a computational simulation of a mammal brain (at least) will not display all the behaviours of the real mammal. If I am right then the reasons why will be interesting.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. SocraticGadfly

    David, actually, I think Massimo’s point is the same as Dennett’s and Webb’s: “Chmess may well work well in a coherence way but it’s of little to no pragmatic value, so why?”

    And, that’s exactly my take.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. synred

    Brodix: War us politics by other means. Even science is chock-a-block with politics, but that doesn’t mean it is politics.


  12. synred

    I suppose people have played chmess. Does it work as a game or perhaps check mate becomes too difficult and you get mostly stalemates, making the game boring…


  13. Bunsen Burner

    Robin, David:

    I believe you are making the same mistake that has been discussed frequently on this blog. Namely, mixing up concepts in the manifest image with those in the scientific image. This makes the statement ‘consciousness is/is not algorithmic’ quite meaningless. It’s like saying chemicals are differential equations. We can usefully model certain types of chemical kinetics using differential equations. That is, construct a mathematical representation of a particular chemical process, but the two concepts don’t become isomorphic because of this. Likewise, it may be useful to model certain cognitive acts such as face recognition algorithmically, but that tells you nothing about how to represent a vague, folk-psychological term like consciousness, which being in the manifest image probably can’t even be discussed in any kind of scientific way.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Philosopher Eric

    By the way that your first reply to me began, I might have realized that something was askew. It went: “Not sure that there is a “team” to be on, here…” Of course you know as well as anyone that none of us are “islands” — sociological teams exist everywhere. So permit my attempt to connect the dots. I expect others to accept your obligatory denial, though I will not. You and I are indeed on the same team.

    Your former friend, Neil deGrasse Tyson, seems to have joined a very different team. My understanding is that his team popularizes the notion that the discipline of philosophy is a worthless endeavor. In response to that team you wrote a book of your own, and while I did find it informative, I remain just as opposed to its premise as I was then. I’m still convinced that philosophy must develop a community with its own generally accepted understandings.

    I perceive that you’d like to tell me the following if you could: “Look Eric, of course I’d love it if the agreement that you’ve mentioned were to occur. But your optimism is founded in ignorance — you simply are not sufficiently educated to understand how futile your plan happens to be. Furthermore if I were to advocate the need for converging philosophical understandings, this would effectively load the gun that is held to our heads!”

    Well yes, there is that. Nevertheless in me you have a student who will not be bullied by tribal influences and a tired status quo. Philosophy must develop a community with its own generally accepted understandings, because science fails in this void, and humanity fails in this void.

    (PS: Love the theme of your new paper!)


  15. brodix


    That pretty much goes to my point. The church interpretation of the Trinity has little to do with its origins in old Greek religious beliefs. From the first paragraph of the preface;

    “Anyone who has been in Greece at Easter time, especially among the more remote peasants, must have been struck by the emotion of suspense and excitement with which they wait for the announcement “Christos anestê,” “Christ is risen!” and the response “Alêthôs anestê,” “He has really risen!” I have referred elsewhere to Mr. Lawson’s old peasant woman, who explained her anxiety: “If Christ does not rise tomorrow we shall have no harvest this year” (Modern Greek Folklore, p. 573). We are evidently in the presence of an emotion and a fear which, beneath its Christian colouring and, so to speak, transfiguration, is in its essence, like most of man’s deepest emotions, a relic from a very remote pre-Christian past. Every spring was to primitive man a time of terrible anxiety. His store of food was near its end. Would the dead world revive, or would it not? The Old Year was dead; would the New Year, the Young King, born afresh of Sky and Earth, come in the Old King’s place and bring with him the new growth and the hope of life?”

    There is a reason why separation of church and state is an established legal concept, but there is no separation of science and state, as any sort of concept.

    Reading about her recent interview, at that coding conference and some of the fallout, its getting tougher to blame everything on the Russians;


  16. Massimo Post author


    “Would you agree the basis of both religion and chess are broadly accepted rules?”

    No, I don’t think they have anything to do with each other.

    Liked by 1 person

  17. synred

    but there is no separation of science and state, as any sort of concept.

    Under Trump they seem well separated?

    And, of course,, the result of a complex even does not have a single cause. It’s not going to be attribute blame quantitatively.

    he Russian interference contributed. If Commey was influenced by Russian disinformation to go public on the Hilary email investigation, then they had a big effect.

    Lousy candidates are part of democracy. Interference by foreign governments is not.


  18. brodix


    I guess I better drop it then.


    It wasn’t to drag up current politics, but observe everyone uses the tools that are available, so that history is a bit like an old house. The current coat of paint covers as much as it presents. So there are lots of mysteries, for any number of reasons.


Comments are closed.