In 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.