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. Massimo Post author


    I’ve heard the “you never know”argument a lot, and have even used it myself. I think, frankly, it is both simple-minded and self-serving.

    Simple minded because surely scientists and other academics have some way to discriminate between interesting and worthwhile projects and those that aren’t. We do it, or claim to do it, all the time.

    Self serving because it’s lazy, it allows to continue to do whatever we want to do without having to bother to gather some evidence for the fact that it is important.


  2. synred

    I don’t know how consciousness is generated. I don’t assume it is an algorithm or not. If it is an algorithm it could run on any ‘computer’. Any substrate would do.

    But I just don’t know!


  3. synred

    Simple minded because surely scientists and other academics have some way to discriminate between interesting and worthwhile projects and those that aren’t. We do it, or claim to do it, all the time.
    Self serving because it’s lazy, it allows to continue to do whatever we want to do without having to bother to gather some evidence for the fact that it is important.

    I worked on the proposal for the BaBar experiment and the related accelerator. We had to justify both the interest and practicality of the project. It was not easy.

    We only showed what isn’t responsible for the Baryon of asymmetry of (more matter than anti-matter) of the universe. Exciting?


  4. synred

    I’m inclined to a little looseness in the funding is a good thing … allowing some marginal projects to get through. One needs to let some seemingly ‘uninteresting’ projects through. Unfortunately there’s no way to distinguish the interesting ‘uninteresting’ projects, so a little noise in the system may help cover those possibilities.

    It might be better to select randomly among practical projects.


  5. Massimo Post author


    “We had to justify both the interest and practicality of the project. It was not easy.”

    Indeed, and my comment wasn’t about your efforts, nor did I imply that people never justify their work in terms of broader interest. I was reacting simply to the “you never know” comment.

    “I’m inclined to a little looseness in the funding is a good thing … allowing some marginal projects to get through.”

    So am I. And I have acted on that principle when I have been on NSF panels. But my point is that we ought to exercise the best judgment possible, as professionals, both on our own projects and on those of others.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. brodix

    Nature is a constant process of creation and destruction. Why wouldn’t it apply to intellectual pursuits as well?

    Chmess is a mutation.


  7. davidlduffy


    This first-person perspective is, I believe, what makes possible all the unique features of
    human beings— ability to deliberate about possible courses of action, to decide how we
    want to live, etc. These features, being unique to us, are not shared by other species, but they are what make us persons the kind of beings that we fundamentally are. Being a
    person is an ontologically significant property. We are constituted by animals, but most
    fundamentally we are persons. I disagree with Olson that our persistence conditions derive from our being animals. We could continue to exist without being animals. Why couldn’t I survive having my lower-brain functions taken over by a prosthetic device? If I could, and if enough other parts of my body were replaced by inorganic parts, I would still exist but would no longer have a carbon-based body, and hence no longer be an animal. And it would be totally ad hoc to claim that I no longer existed. If you make any such claim, I’d certainly take you to court.

    Contra Dan K, I suspect many ignorant non-professional-philosophers hold similar beliefs, and can follow such an argument. And we can imagine the arguments in court, and have probably read several science fiction stories where Baker would lose.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Robin Herbert

    I don’t know that consciousness is not an algorithm.

    But I am about as certain of it as I can of anything. I just need to consider the question of whether my experience right now could be, even in principle, the result of a simple mechanical device attached to a very long tape running one instruction at a time.

    If I can’t be that, even in principle, then consciousness is not an algorithm and it is not even worth being agnostic on the point.

    I think that raises some interesting questions, but they are not in scope here.


  9. Robin Herbert

    It is interesting that this particular thread of the identity issue, like the Trolley Problem, has its roots in the debate about abortion.

    So it has its roots in practical real life questions about morality. I guess it illustrates Hume’s dictum that the concepts in moral arguments are so vague as to lead us into ‘conceit and chimera’ after only a few steps in the argument.


  10. brodix


    “I think that raises some interesting questions, but they are not in scope here.”

    To raise the scope brings up a dichotomy I keep trying to point out, between the process and what is being processed. As in consciousness does the processing, while thoughts and experiences are what is processed.

    They go in opposite directions of what we experience as time. Consciousness goes from past to future perceptions, so these perceptions go from being in the future to being in the past.

    Think of it as a movie reel and projector light; The frames on the reel go future to past, as the light goes past to future.

    Think in terms of a factory, in that while the product goes from start to finish, the process goes the other direction, consuming material and expelling product.

    As individual beings, our lives go from being in the future, to being in the past, while the human species is constantly creating new members and shedding old ones. Just as our bodies create new cells and shed old ones.

    Now such assumptions as determinism and a platonic view of math overlook this relationship, because they assume the movie reel in the can is no different than it being run. All the events are simply laid out in a linear sequence, like that tape of algorithmic instructions, overlooking that the operations are verbs, symbolic of actions and running those actions is very much part of the instructions, without which the process doesn’t function.

    So stepping back, why would we overlook something so fundamental? Because our minds are just like that movie reel. A sequence of events, impressions, images, senses, etc, distilled and stabilized into static frames, like words in a sentence, or math symbols in an algorithm. Otherwise everything would blur together and white out, much as if there was only light and no film. Yet that doesn’t mean we can overlook the function of the light, that is emblematic the present moment.

    It is only energy which is conserved, not information. The event of the child kicking a ball is erased by the energy of the present becoming the rest of the children chasing after it. Our minds and nervous system evolved to process the information, while our digestive, respiratory and circulatory systems process the energy. Our brain is driven by the blood flowing through it and our minds are flashes of synapses.

    If you replaced the brain with a computer, it would still be driven by the electricity flowing through it. If there was no energy driving the process, it wouldn’t simply freeze as the last frame, the algorithm up to that point, but evaporate. The vacuum would cease fluctuating. Our bodies, our buildings, our planet, the galaxy, are all processes, not static “matter.” What would the earth be, if all atomic activity simply ceased. Like whatever happens in a black hole, it wouldn’t be much.

    So some people process this medium of energy as chmess, in order to expand the boundaries of what is past, even if it is just some bubble bursting on the surface and not the seed of future civilizations. Sometimes the butterfly’s wings are just a flutter in the jungle. (Make it a moth.)

    Energy moves to the future. Order coalesces as the past. Consciousness moves to the future. Thoughts move to the past.


  11. brodix

    To add a further thought;
    “Order coalesces as the past.”
    We think of past as that sequence of events, on which we keep adding, or are flowing way, depending on your point of view, but it is only really manifest as the built up order of the present.


  12. SocraticGadfly

    Robin, I can buy the theoretical idea of your very long tape, but in reality? The idea of mind as algorithm, beyond it being unverifiable, unfalsifiable, etc., strikes me as about as practically likely as the sun not coming up tomorrow, per Hume. And, on the verification, etc., I’m sure Dennett knew that when he made the claim on evolution.


    Actually, Dan Dennett is a dreamtime routine in my mind.


  13. SocraticGadfly

    Looking at a comment above, theology itself is chmess, I’d agree, but the academic study of most phenomena of religion is not. (I’m supposing Massimo agrees, not being a Gnu.) I’m of course talking about critical study of religious literature and religious origins, psychology of religion, philosophy of religion, etc.

    Liked by 2 people

  14. synred

    But I am about as certain of it as I can of anything. I just need to consider the question of whether my experience right now could be, even in principle, the result of a simple mechanical device attached to a very long tape running one instruction at a time.

    The brain is clearly not one instruction at a time, however, a single processor machine can simulate a parallel one — it’s just slower.

    To some extent I think ‘self conscious’ might just be a trick of short time memory — you are just remember what just happened. I find ‘feelings’ more confusing — why does an alarm signal have to actually hurt and be uncomfortable. Wouldn’t it be enough to pull your hand from the stove and set a bit saying ‘don’t do that again.’ No need for pain.


  15. Philosopher Eric

    Eric, This isn’t about what does or does not please me. But since you ask, yes, if I saw a lot less analytic metaphysics and a lot more, say, applied ethics, I would think modern philosophy has made a good turn.

    Massimo your personal values happen to be exactly what I’m curious about, though not specifically regarding an increased focus on one area of philosophy and a decreased focus on another. Do you think you’d be pleased if experts such as yourself, and the following generation, and the following generation, were to develop a respected community of philosophers fifty years from now, with its own generally accepted understandings? Let’s say that moral realism, dualism, panpsychism, platonism, and so on, lose their followers among this group. Let’s say that it develops a well defined conception of “mind” from which to work, highly valued epistemological principles from which to frame academic pursuits in general, and doesn’t engage in various forms of “metaphysical nonsense” (as defined by you). If all else were equal, do you believe that professional agreement would please you? Then if not, do your values suggest that it’s best for us to have a broad spectrum of competing expert opinions? (Of course this second possibity seems to mandate that the non expert public must choose between expert opinions as best they are able.)


  16. Robin Herbert

    Hi SG,

    The idea is not that you might be such a thing. The question is – could you even in principle be such a thing?

    I say, almost certainly that I could not even in principle be that simple mechanism with the very long tape and hence almost certainly I could not be an algorithm at all.

    Hence it is, in effect, falsifiable and falsified. At least as far as I am concerned.


  17. brodix


    It would be hard to understand history and the evolution of civilization without religion.

    Which actually makes it more like chess, than chmess. It is the packaging of the rules by which societies function.

    Pastafarianism would be chmess. (Of the Giant Flying Spaghetti Monster)


  18. davidlduffy

    Hi Robin. Do you think that the behaviour of other animals could be completely explained by “a simple mechanical device attached to a very long tape running one instruction at a time”? You can construct the rest of the argument for either horn. Based on carotid artery size, modern human brains ~25 watts, neadertal ~20 W, erectus ~15 W, with little change in brain architecture.

    Hi SG. Do you think there are “objective” criteria to discriminating chmess from chess? If not, then is the concept actually doing any work? I presume Plantinga, for example, thinks his working axioms are sound and so his arguments are useful and meaningful. Rocha [2015] takes up similar tools to the analytic metaphysicians in the OP:

    “Imaguire (2002) proposes a definition of God and an explanation of trinity that is based on the russellian logical type theory. He proposes that God would be concept of second-order property that instantiates three first-order properties…I present an alternative way to explain Trinity by taking the predicates of core mereology (M) as presented by Varzi (2014). The predicates are Proper Part [PPxy = df Pxy & ¬(x =y)], the Proper Extension [PExy = df Pyx & ¬(x =y)] and Underlap [Uxy = df ∃z(Pxz & Pyz)]. God might be understood as a Proper Extension of its constituent’s persons, although not been the same of each person.”


  19. Robin Herbert

    HI davidlduffy,

    I don’t understand the relevance of what you said to my point. I didn’t say anything about completely explaining behaviour, or anything about explaining behaviour at all. Also, I am not sure what the power consumption of the brain has to do with it.


  20. Robin Herbert

    Hi synred

    The brain is clearly not one instruction at a time, however, a single processor machine can simulate a parallel one — it’s just slower.

    If your conscious experience could be the result of an algorithm then it could be one instruction at a time and it would make no difference to the conscious experience. It could be ticking over ever so slowly and it would maje no difference to the conscious experience.

    It might be that simple machine ticking slowly over billions of years for one second of experienced consciousness but it would still feel like one second.

    We have very good reasons for supposing that this scenario is not even in principle possible.

    But if not then consciousness – at least as we experience it – is not algorithmic, because if consciousness was algorithmic then it would be in principle possible that the conscious experience you are having right now could be produced that way.


  21. Robin Herbert

    Hi SG

    “Just because something can be logically possible and mentally conceived doesn’t make it falisifiable.”

    No it doesn’t. No one has suggested that it does.


  22. Massimo Post author


    I see what you mean, but I’m afraid you are attempting to present me with a false dilemma: either we realize as a profession that certain pursuits are chmess and not worth it, or we maintain a diversity of opinions and approaches. But of course the two are not mutually incompatible, unless you want to go radical Feyerabend on me and claim that any idea, no matter how useless or incoherent, ought to be kept around just in case. I don’t buy it, and in fact I just wrote a short paper on this very subject which will be published shortly.


    “Pastafarianism would be chmess”

    Category mistake. Pastafarianism is neither chess nor chmess, it is satire.

    Liked by 3 people

  23. synred

    Rastafarianism would be chmess. (Of the Giant Flying Spaghetti Monster)

    Or Russell’s orbiting tea bot. They are not chmess. They are indistinguishable from God. While it might be possible to find an orbit Tea pot, it be damned hard to prove it’s not there, and impossible to prove it’s not the first cause and the origin of all.


    chmess is a ‘mutation’ of chess and a seemingly small one. Such ‘mutation’ doubtless occur in all games with a sort of natural selection determining the dominant form.

    Thus, the study of alternative rules does not seem uninteresting to me. I understand what Massimo is talking about (endless pursuit of drivel), but it’s hard in practice to know what is drivel. chmess in the more general sense of ‘mutation’ does not seem a good example of the problem, though studying to death a particular change of rule may be (or not).

    Liked by 1 person

  24. synred

    maguire (2002) proposes a definition of God and an explanation of trinity that is based on the russellian logical type theory.

    Presumably this Russelian logic works for teapots too.

    As I understood it the trinity is a mystery that a person cannot in principle understand, but must be believed. Hence, this ‘understanding’ must be wrong by definition.


  25. synred

    Robin, You included the ‘one instruction at a time’ caveat to the algorithms you can’t believe could explain consciousness.

    I merely pointed out that restriction is not needed. If algorithms can’t produce consciousness, running them on a parallel processor does not help. You make more or less the same point in your response.

    Beware of unneeded adjectival clauses. ‘One instruction’ at a time has no relevance to the issue.

    I doubt a QM computer would help either. An algorithm is an algorithm whatever machinery (ant colony, Chinese room, Eukaryote cell colony (a.k.a. brain), or QM computer) you use to execute it.


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