The Rationalist Manifesto of Colin McGinn

Colin McGinn, Inborn Knowledge: The Mystery Within, (Cambridge MA, MIT Press, 2015)

Colin McGinn writes a nifty little book on rationalism, which I found to be a pleasurable and insightful read. McGinn mounts a strong case for rationalism, and being a rationalist I confess not to needing of conversion.

The preface makes an important point on the philosophy of philosophy books. Richard Feynman once retorted, with some measure of justice, that scientists are explorers and philosophers tourists.

Explorers carry about themselves the essentials. Tourists are well packed. McGinn states that he seeks not to demonstrate everything he knows about innate knowledge, doubtless considerable, but rather to provide enough information on what is known to aid interpretation and argumentation.

The result is a slim, though informative, volume. Some books have a high information to page ratio and this surely is one.

McGinn usefully divides empiricism into two types, what he calls internal empiricism and external empiricism. External empiricism is the supposition that the mind is wholly a blank slate and that concepts and knowledge are imprinted into the mind externally via the senses. This austere empiricism, as McGinn points out, is a highly impoverished and not terribly defensible position.

Internal empiricism, by contrast, posits that there exists a general faculty of the mind, let us call it reason, that through principles of induction and association leads to knowledge upon the occasion of external stimulus, again, via the agency of the senses. Internal empiricism, as pointed out previously by Jerrold Katz, is really the only type of empiricism that constitutes a viable hypothesis.

McGinn mounts powerful arguments, most notably from the poverty of the stimulus and brains in vats, against internal empiricism. These arguments are well taken. With the latter if stimulation of the vat bound brain leads to the subjective experience of sensing, and knowing, red in the absence of external perception it follows that the concept red is an innate feature of the mind.

Because brains in vats are a logical possibility it follows that knowledge of concepts, in this case colour, must be innate.

McGinn usefully also discusses a subset of empiricism what he calls social empiricism. I am glad he does this, even though he steals my thunder. In my doctoral thesis I had made this point quite forcefully. Social constructivism with respect to knowledge is empiricism, it is not a sui generis theory of knowledge at odds with the rationalism-empiricism dichotomy. The main thing with social empiricism is that the relevant external environment isn’t necessarily the world rather it is social interaction.

But the brain in a vat applies here too for it doesn’t interact socially with other brains.

Of course, if we establish, as I think McGinn does, that a good portion of our concepts are innate and that we are born knowing quite a deal then we cannot but feel a compulsion to account for the natural mechanism which brings this about. McGinn, on a par with his earlier work, argues that this is a mystery and likely will remain so for no working hypotheses readily come to mind.

To form an intelligible theory amenable to naturalistic inquiry requires the formation of viable hypotheses but when we are unable to frame a set of hypotheses it suggests that we are confronting a cognitive barrier that limits inquiry. McGinn states that many a rationalist would not accept this position, a fair point, but I think McGinn rings true here too.

McGinn also elaborates upon the nature of scientific knowledge, in a way not inconsistent with the above mysterianism, arguing that science does not come about through the development of hypotheses based on external observation or experience but rather through an innate faculty of the mind so that “science is constructed from the innate human viewpoint” (p81). The mind provides an hypothesis space, say regarding matter between continuous and atomistic hypotheses, which enables us to form sciences through experiment. The traditional picture of the scientific method, left in tatters by the philosophy of science, has failed and it has failed because it is based on a faulty empiricism.

A philosophy of science naturalised must be rationalist.

The empiricism-rationalism divide is a good example of this. We naturally frame two hypotheses regarding knowledge and we enter real inquiry when we sharpen these and make them differentiable through testing, experiment and so on. If we don’t have the hypotheses we only have a mystery.

There are also fascinating connections drawn with metaphysics. Firstly, McGinn points out that empiricism has an affinity with the mechanised world picture for the mechanical imprint of ideas through observation naturalises the mind, that is makes it intelligible with respect to physicalism. I am of the view that this is one of empiricism’s major charms. We know, however, that the mechanical philosophy holds no water.

Now the interesting thing about this is that it suggests that social empiricism is based on a mechanical social ontology, but you see how many constructivists would be prepared to concede this.

McGinn makes a telling point regarding the link to the metaphysical. Because our ideas of the world come to us via experience and observation the mind contributes little to appearances. Nature is thick and the mind thin. With rationalism one has the opposite. Our concepts are largely innate thus “objective reality, so conceived, is quite distant from the way the mind innately represents it, and more impoverished. The richness of appearance comes from us” (pp100-101).

The more science progresses the more simple nature becomes and the more unified thereby become the sciences. This fits into McGinn’s rationalism most neatly.

There is one area where I part company with McGinn, namely on the question of evolution. At times, he comes across much like Daniel Dennett. He states, for instance, “the innate human mind is really an inherited version of the old innate fish mind” (p92). Doubtless there is evolutionary continuity but there is also a good measure of discontinuity, for instance regarding language. There is much to be learnt regarding evolution and development, and until we know more sweeping statements such as this strike me as too strong.

Finally, it was great to read McGinn’s take on meaning and referencing. McGinn makes a strong case for dispensing with the externalist picture of meaning that sees it as a type of head-world reference. This is unchallenged dogma in the philosophy of language, having a lot to do with Frege in my view. McGinn argues that our concepts are innately ascribed meaning, that is those concepts for which we cannot construct a Twin Earth case, “the vast majority” (p89), are innate. Semantics consists of innate meanings and innate rules that combine meanings into compound wholes. Semantics can become a science, so long as we dispense with externalist-empiricist ideas regarding reference.

This is very like Chomsky’s ideas. For more, see the excellent documentary below (“Is the Man Who is Tall Happy?”).

Colin McGinn is an insightful thinker that writes thought provoking philosophy.

I hope that he continues to add to his oeuvre.