Episode 25: Mental Lives / May 07, 2021

With Dorothea Debus

Hosted by Keir Aitken Alexandros Constantinou

Edited by Signe Emilie Eriksen

Posted in Main feed Philosophy of Mind

What are the abilities of self-regulation and self-control over our mental lives? What does it mean to say that we are at one with ourselves? Dr Dorothea Debus, Professor of Theoretical Philosophy at the University of Konstanz joins Alexandros Constantinou and Kier Aitken to discuss these questions and many more in this episode of Thoughts.

In this episode, Alexandros and Kier take a journey through our self-regulating abilities over our mental lives through time. A discussion concerning passive attitudes, mental dissonance, treacherous friends and the ethics of wanting to become a torturer ensues.


01:27 - Defining “mental lives” – mental phenomena across temporal space

04:46 - Shaping vs. passively experiencing our mental lives

06:34 - Indirect but precise self-regulation vs. direct but imprecise self-control of our mental lives

11:59 - The instrumental value of mental self-regulation

16:28 - The intrinsic value of mental self-regulation: being “at one” with yourself vs. self-alienation

23:12 - The ethics of the self-regulation of mental lives


Alexandros Constantinou: So, if you could have your work read by everybody, eh…

Dorothea Debus: [laugh]

AC: Have it impact the world to be…

DD: The world would be a better place, you know? [laugh]

AC: Right!


Keir Aitken: Hello everyone, and welcome back to another episode of Thoughts. My name is Keir.

Alexandros Constantinou: And my name is Alexandros.

KA: And today on the show, we have Dorothea Debus, who is a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Konstanz and works on the philosophy of mind, specifically on shaping our mental lives.

AC: And now, here are some Thoughts on the value of self-regulation and self-control of our mental lives.

AC: So, Dorothea.

Dorothea Debus: Mm-hmm.

AC: What are your main interests in philosophy?

DD: Hm. I work in the philosophy of mind, and as Keir has already said, one of my projects recently has been a project that I call “shaping our mental lives”. And, em, that’s trying to understand how we are actively involved in how our mental lives develop. Before I started that project, I thought a lot about memory and I’ve also thought a bit about imagination and emotions and things like that. So, it’s all issues in the philosophy of mind, various mental phenomena that are quite interesting to think about. Yeah.

KA: Fantastic. So, on what you’re working on currently, the shaping of your mental lives, I’d like to just- almost a step-by-step, but how do we go about thinking in the first place about our own mental lives

DD: Good, excellent. So, um, you might what to ask, what am I talking about when I’m talking about our mental lives, right? So, I talked about various mental phenomena. Emotions, memory. We can believe things, we can think about things. We perceive things, like now we hear each other, we can see each other on the screen. We can imagine the future, we can remember the past. All sorts of mental occurrences there. And so, traditionally, people talk about their mind when they talked about all these phenomena as a whole, and I guess when I’m talking about mental lives, I’m talking about what people are otherwise might be referring to when they talk about “the mind”, but rather what’s really interesting is that things develop in our minds, if you want, across time. So, I might think one thought that might lead me to another thought, and then I suddenly have a desire, you know. I might think about dinner tonight, and I think, oh, yeah, I could cook x and y, and then I suddenly find myself really wanting to have this dinner right now. So- so, our mental lives develop across time, and that’s kind of interesting and that’s also important particularly when you want to think about the stuff that I’m trying to think about under this “Shaping Our Mental Lives”. So, then we…

AC: That’s very interesting.

DD: Yeah.

AC: Not only just a slice into… So, when we talk about our memory, when we talk about feelings, when we talk about perception, we usually talk about it in time-neutral terms, if that makes sense?

DD: Mm-hmm. Yeah, in a way that’s a good way of putting it. So, I’m interested in this development across time. So, like you said, I’m not just interested in time slices and what happens at any particular moment. So, I might now remember my first day at university or something, and I can do this, and that’s very interesting and we can think about what happens there, but then it’s also interesting that once I have remembered my first day of university, I might come to think all sorts of other things that are related to my studying and so forth. So, there’s a development across time that might in this case start with this memory of my first day at university, but then all sorts of other things happen. And sometimes, it’s quite interesting to look at this temporal… this process that’s extended in time, rather than just at these momentary slices as you put it earlier. Yeah.

KA: And what do you think is the benefit of taking this temporal, em, look at our mental states? Why is it- why is it, like, better or what does it give you that slices don’t?

DD: Yeah. It’s not necessarily… I mean, it’s not “better” as in we should do it this way and not the other way. I think it’s just a complimentary [as it were]. So, basically, if we want to understand us, the human condition [laugh] as it were- If we want to understand our mental lives, um… It’s important to note that they are extended in time, while at the same time also it’s very important to look at these… You know, trying to understand what happens when someone remembers something is important, too. So, it’s not kind of saying you must do it this way and not the other way. It’s just saying that one thing that we should do is to think more about this temporal dimension that our mental lives do have.

AC: So, why is it important that we can shape our mental lives, and why should we shape our mental lives?

DD: Mm-hmm. Excellent, good. So, I guess- Mmm. When we think about our mental lives, we often think about things happening to us. So, we often, um, seem to think of ourselves as mostly passive. I find myself having a thought. I find myself experiencing a certain emotion. I find myself seeing something in front of my house when I look out of the window. So, all these observations- I mean, all of these things can happen, but you know all of these cases as I’ve just described them, it seems like the subject, the person who we want to ascribe these mental states and mental events to, is quite passive. So, stuff happens to me. And if you take that seriously, then it looks like your mental life is just something that happens to you. Right?

So, all these things happen, you find yourself thinking thoughts, you find yourself having experiences, you find yourself having emotions, you find yourself desiring things. All these things. And somehow, we seem to not have paid much attention to the fact that sometimes, we ourselves are somewhat involved in what happens in these mental lives that are our own. So, I might be somehow actively involved in what I see. You know, that seems kind of trivial. I can turn my head toward- my head towards whatever happens in front of my window. I can read my book. So, these seems to be some obvious involvement on my part as to what I perceive. And sometimes, it’s a bit more subtle than that. But- So, the idea is, when you look a bit more carefully, it seems that we’re actively involved in our mental lives in some respects, and that’s important to note because then we can better explain how our mental lives do develop, given that we are actively involved in them. And then obviously, we have to ask, how are we actively involved in them?

AC: It seems obvious to me that we should be thinking about how we shape our mental lives, and we should be finding ways in which to better ourselves and better our experiences of this world and our involvement in this world. So, I guess this leads us to the second question of how it is that we can shape our mental lives and how do we miss on those opportunities?

DD: Mm-hmm. Okay. So, when I talk about this in my published work, I usually start introducing some technical terms. And so, I usually talk about mental self-regulation. And what I mean by mental self-regulation is our ability to be actively involved in our own mental lives, um, in a goal-directed way. And then it helps to think about some examples. So, think about Emma and she comes home at night. She feels a bit sad, and she puts on the music in order to cheer herself up. So, what we have here is a case of someone being actively involved in their own mental life, with a clear goal. Yeah? And so, that’s what I’m talking about when I’m talking about mental self-regulation. So, I’m talking about an active involvement with a clear goal. So- so that’s the technical stuff.

We can think about some more examples. I’ve given you one example, so that’s putting on the music. And that’s interesting because what you do there is, or what Emma does or whoever does this does, is that they act on the physical world. They put on the music. So, they turn the switch on, whatever machine they have to play the music, and then they know what once they listen to this music they’ll feel better. So, there’s an emotion that they experience, they’re feeling a bit sad, and they know they can change that by changing something in their environment. So, what we have here is a fairly indirect way of intervening on one’s own mental life. So, they’re not directly doing anything to their own mental life, rather they go via this machine [laugh] and whatever the machine then does, the machine produces the music, and that- That’s a bit of a detour, right? So, that’s an indirect way of intervening. Okay.

Sometimes, we can be regulating our mental lives in a more direct way. So, if- if you sit down now and I tell you, let’s do some maths in our heads, as it were, and I say, let’s add 1 and 3 and 55 and, whatever, 83 or something, then you can put yourself… You know, you can start attending to this and try to figure it out. Okay? So, then you seem to be fairly… So, you’re intervening in your mental life in that you give yourself, well, the order to do the maths that’s required in order to come up with the result that little addition. Okay. So… So, there it seems that the way you intervene, the way you regulate your mental life, is more direct. You just- you’re sitting there, you’re not doing anything to your physical environment. You’re just telling yourself, okay, so Dorothea has given me this stupid example so now I need to do some maths in my head.

KA: [laugh]

DD: Alright, okay. Let me try. Good. So, that seems to be a more direct intervention, but at the same time, what’s happening there seems to be that when you start out, you don’t yet know what you’re going to end up with. Uh, but then, there could be more complicated things. So, you could start thinking about what you think about the death penalty, for example. So, you wonder whether you think that the death penalty should be abolished. And you don’t have a view on that yet, right? So, you really don’t know that you think about it. But you realise it’d be important to have a view. So, you take an afternoon, and you sit down and you think to yourself, so what are the arguments for and against and what do I think, really? And again, you might say that this is some sort of very direct intervention. So, you’re regulating your mental life insofar as you’re telling yourself, okay, I’d like to think about the death penalty now, and then that’s what you’re doing rather than thinking about anything else, but you have no idea what you’re going to come up with.

So, all of this is just to say that sometimes, when we try to engage in mental self-regulation, these interventions are indirect but quite precise. So, you know what you’re going for, you know the goal and you kind of see that. You know how to reach that goal, so it’s a fairly precise intervention. You know what you’re doing, and you know what the result will be. But the way you get there is very indirect. So, you don’t just do something in your mind, as it were, but you do something in the physical world. Whereas on the other hand, there are these cases like when you start thinking about the death penalty, the case I just described, where it seems like the intervention is quite direct. You just do something in your mind, as it were, but you have no idea what’s the- what the outcome’s going to be. So, in that case, we might say that the intervention is direct but it’s not very precise.

So, what I try to argue is that the way in which we intervene in our own mental lives is, um… usually either indirect or imprecise, but not both direct and precise. And the idea is that the way in which we intervene in our mental lives differs often importantly from how we intervene in the physical world. And that’s kind of important to notice because it kind of indicates that although we can be actively involved in our mental lives, and that earlier I said it was really important to notice because otherwise we often think of ourselves as fairly passive, it’s also important to notice that this active involvement is a bit more complicated than it might be um… in the physical. So, the way that we’re actively involved in our mental lives might be more complex and more complicated than the way we’re actively involved in what happens in our physical environment.

KA: I might be making a fallacy of assuming that complexity means more valuable, but..

DD: [laugh]

KA: Do you… Do you think that there is a greater value in internal, though it might be a little bit more difficult to see where you’re going in that kind of internal self-regulation, than there is to the external self-regulation?

DD: I don’t know. I think… It kind of depends. I mean, you might think it’s harder. So, you might think it’s more valuable because it’s harder, and that it’s a greater achievement or something like that, and the greater achievement is more valuable or something. You could try that. But then, I mean, sometimes, for example, figuring what sort of music you need in order to cheer yourself up in any particular situation, sometimes requires a bit of understanding, too. And then you might put something on and you might think, oh no, not again. I can’t bear this anymore. So, you know- So, there’s quite a bit of understanding that’s required in order to engage in these indirect ways of self-regulation, too.

KA: That’s [true, though].

DD: Yeah, so…

KA: I think there’s parts of me, then… It makes me think of when is this mental self-regulation valuable in and of… for itself and it’s intrinsically valuable, and when would you say it’s more instrumentally valuable, that value for achieving for something else? Could you- Could you give an example of either?

DD: Yeah, good. So, I guess- So, now we get to Alexandros’ earlier question about the value of this ability, right? Why might this be valuable, this ability to regulate our own mental lives? Okay, but, so, basically, the value question is important. So, once we figure that we are actively involved in our own – or can be actively involved in our own mental lives, we realise that we can use that ability for different purposes. So, we might have various goals and we realise that sometimes we might reach these goals more easily if we’re able to regulate our own mental lives. So, um, the good old example of the surgeon. So, someone wants to be a good surgeon or wants to become a good surgeon, so in order to be a good surgeon, you need to be able to regulate your experiences of squeamishness. So, you can’t so easily be a good surgeon if you feel really squeamish. So, if you can regulate this emotion, then that’s going to help you to become a better surgeon, probably. Um, so then we have a case where someone does engage in mental self-regulation, say, and that makes them be a better surgeon, so that’s of instrumental value to them if they want to be a good surgeon.

Okay. Then, you can also think of slightly more general things. So, um, we might think that having some sort of mental coherence or mental integrity might be a good thing. And if you think that, if you think that it’s good to have a life- a mental life that hangs together somehow that doesn’t have too many contradictions in it, then again it might be useful to be able to engage in some sort of mental self-regulation because you might be able to regulate situations where some sort of contradiction might arise.

But then, as I tried to show there, there are also cases where it seems that some tension needs to be retained. So, if you think about cases… So, there’s this case in the literature where someone wants to help two of his friends, but he can only help one of them and both need help. And the question’s, what should this person do? So, one way for them to go would be to just regulate their wish to help both of his friends away, and then just decide I’m just gonna to want to help this one friend, and the other friend I’m just going to ignore. So, that’s going to make my mental life more coherent. That seems wrong, right? So, we wouldn’t want to have friends like that. If someone says “I’m your friend” but then as soon as they find that there’s some sort of clash between various desires to help you and someone else, and they just regulate you away, basically to say “I’m not wanting to help you anymore because that’s bad for my mental integrity” and whatnot, we wouldn’t want that. So, that seems not recommended. So, basically in this case, we probably suggest that it’d be best for this person to suffer the conflict and to remain both these desires, but then to realise that he can only help one- and then they’ll have to make a decision, of course, but nevertheless we’d like them to remember [laugh] that they wanted to help both, and that would be the ideal thing to do but they can’t now. Okay.

So, that brings us to the conclusion that the ability to be able to regulate our own mental lives might nevertheless still be valuable in these cases instrumentally as well, because when it’s important to retain some sort of dissonance in your mental life, then you can also do that by means of mental self-regulation.

KA: You’re given three examples there of it being instrumentally valuable.

DD: Mm-hmm?

KA: But is it ever intrinsically valuable?

DD: Mm-hmm. That’s, uh, that’s an idea I try to defend, exactly. So, there the idea is that in being engaged in mental self-regulation, you are as I call it “at one” with yourself, so that needs unpacking but… So, the idea is that whenever you do engage in mental self-regulation, you are at one with yourself and that’s valuable in itself. So, the suggestion will be that whenever we’re engaged in mental self-regulation, actually, the relevant activity does have intrinsic value. And then we need to understand why exactly… what exactly it means to say that we are at one with ourselves quite generally and why exactly that should be an implication of mental self-regulation. Why we should say that when we engage in mental self-regulation, we are at one with ourselves.

So, let’s start with trying to figure out what I mean when I talk about this being at one with oneself. So, I think the idea is mostly… negative, in that I think that you’re at one with yourself when you’re not self-alienated. So, we need to think a bit more about what it takes to be self-alienated, right? Alienated from yourself. So, I said earlier we- we have our mental lives. Lots of stuff happens in our mental lives that we are not particularly actively involved in. But then, we can also take a reflective point of view. We can kind of think about our mental lives. We can observe what happens in our mental lives. We can take these higher order attitudes towards our mental lives, where these higher order attitudes, again, are obviously part of our mental lives. But so, we reflect on our own… what happens in our own mental lives, we can do that. And that’s kind of a cool thing, in a way. So, some people think that that’s what makes us human, right? So, this ability to reflect on ourselves.

So, you might- you might stand back a bit too much. You might see yourself having all sorts of desires, and you might just watch it and not really… Then you might find, oh, actually, I’m not approving of that but [laugh] oh, whatever, that’s what it’s like now. Right? So, then you have a bit of a weird, um… I don’t know. There could be some sort of chasm opening up here where at a first level, you have all sorts of desires and at a second level, you don’t really want to have these desires, or you don’t care or whatever it might be. So, you might have these two parts of your mental life that are not very well integrated anymore, and they’re at different levels. So, there’s a first order level and then there’s some second order level, and these two levels don’t really link up that much anymore.

AC: Sorry to interrupt-

DD: Yeah? [laugh]

AC: Could this chasm be the reason why we usually think of ourselves as passive? So, we started this…

DD: Yeah.

AC: …this episode with you saying that we usually think of stuff happening to us. Could this chasm be why normally we think that?

DD: That’s a good point. I’ve no- not really thought about this that way but that’s good, yeah. So, then you might think, well, how do we get to think about our mental lives while we often engage in self-observation? And so, then we take up this observer perspective onto our own mental life somehow, and we kind of want to be watching objectively or something, but then the whole – the project is one that will lead us to this picture where our mental life is something that happens, and then we stand somewhat higher up somewhere, and we watch what happens.

AC: Right.

DD: And then whatever happens will be passive, right? Because we just watch and that seems to happen. So, that’s nice. That’s a good idea. So, basically this “why do we often think of our mental lives as passive?” might well be at least partly grounded in that idea. That’s cool. I’ve not- I’ve not thought about that one, but that’s very good, yeah. That seems plausible. Nice, nice. Yeah, good.

And then- So, but then- So, basically, um- So, this [laugh] is a problem then, because it leads us to this wrong view where our mental lives are purely passive, and is also kind of a problem because it might just be uncomfortable. Having- having a mental life going on, at the same time observing this from high up somehow, not necessarily endorsing what’s happening at this first order level, might be very uncomfortable and might also not be very healthy. So, then the idea could be, these moments might well be called moments of self-alienation, where you watch something happening in your mental life, you don’t even like it but it’s happening. Hmm, okay, fine, yeah, good. Em…

KA: Would an example of this be you’re watching something horrible happen in front of you, and you feel shocked by it, but you’re kind of standing back and being like, why- I should be feeling shocked or I should be feeling appalled or I should be doing something about it, but you’re kind of just watching these thoughts and emotions go by and actually not acting upon it, and that’s why it feels like you’re being passive towards your own mental life?

DD: Yeah. That-that could also be an implication. So, if you’re stuck at the observer level, as it were, you’re not then maybe gonna even act anymore on what you should be acting on. So, you’re shocked and you think, actually, this situation would require me to do something, but you’re just so… [laugh] Yeah, you’re stuck on the second order level, so you’re just watching what happens in your mental life rather than actually doing something.

KA: Yeah.

DD: So, that could happen and that might be one reason why it is a bad thing to be stuck at the second order, kind of the observer level, right? You know, you can think about it… In the literature, often people think about cases of addiction, where someone on the first- first… on the first level has various desires for some addictive substance or something, and on the second order level they actually don’t want to have these desires. So, they’d rather be clean. But they can’t really help themselves. So, these- these would all be cases where we plausibly talk about self-alienation, right? So, you’re not really at one with yourself. And all of this is a long story to try to illustrate what I- what I might mean about someone being at one with themselves. So, basically what I mean by that is simply not being self-alienated in this- in this way in which we’re now tried to describe it.

And so, the idea would be that, um, someone who does engage in mental self-regulation at- at the time at which they are so engaged, so during this time that’s usually a process, right? During this time of mental self-regulation, they are at one with themselves. So, while you’re engaged in mental self-regulation, you’re not self-alienated. And the argument is that is valuable in itself because it’s good to be at one with yourself.

KA: This is some fantastic philosophical conversation [laugh] right here.

AC: [laugh]

KA: And you talk a little bit about the ethics of our mental lives in your writings, and I was wondering if you could just explain a little bit more about what the ethics of a mental life might entail?

DD: Mm-hmm. Good, yeah. So, when we’re talking about… I mean, in ethics, we usually talk about questions about what’s- what’s right to do and what’s wrong to do, yeah? So- very simply put. And then the idea would be that if we can be actively involved in our own mental lives, there might also be things in that corner that are right to do and those that might be wrong to do. And, um… Yeah, I might sound like the thought police or something, so it might [laugh] sound really dodgy straight away, but I think it’s not that dodgy.

So, you might think of things that- ways in which you could try to regulate your mental life that are really bad for you. I don’t know, you might just try to, for some self-destructive reason, turn yourself into a really bitter and cynical type of person. You could try that. But that would be bad for you. So, it wouldn’t be clear what value would be there for you, and you might also think that that would be kind of morally wrong because you should make the best of the life you’ve got, and if you turn yourself into a bitter cynical person, that’s not the best life you could have so you shouldn’t do it, or something like that.

Okay, but then there might be a- there might be a debate. You might well think, well, I can do what I want, and if I want to be bitter and cynical, let me be bitter and cynical. Who are you to tell me otherwise? Okay, fine. But then, there might be other things where we might have stronger moral views even so. So, the- the case of the torturer, um, the torturer who… Someone wants to become a really good torturer and so they need to regulate their own mental lives in various ways in order to be a very good torturer. Probably, they also have to regulate their experience of squeamishness and all sorts of other things you have to regulate. And there, we might really think that them regulating their own mental life in that way is morally repugnant. Um, yeah, I guess- so, this is a fairly drastic case, but this is just a case to illustrate that there might be some truth to the claim that there are moral issues in this area.

KA: Is- is there morally always a correlate between the regulation to become or to do, and an action in real life? So, self-regulation to become a torturer so that you can torture? Is it actually the act which is the thing that we’d say is unethical and it’s- that it’s sort of getting into that mental state or that regulating our mental life so you’d be comfortable doing that is only unethical because the act itself is unethical, or are there mental self-regulations you can do that are unethical in and of themselves?

DD: Mm… Well…

AC: I think it would still be wrong to… to mentally self-regulate in order to become a torturer, even if you don’t ever torture anybody. Because from that perspective, it would bring you discomfort to not torture somebody. So, that’s wrong.

DD: Yeah.

AC: Even if you never torture anybody, the- the mental processes that you’ve been going through, and you’re at the point where you’ve reached your goal of being a torturer or whatever, but you aren’t torturing anybody, then that would bring you discomfort and that would be bad. Feeling that you’re a bad person because you’re not torturing somebody, I think that’s bad.

KA: Yeah, that sounds unethical to me, yeah.

AC: Yeah.

DD: Yeah.

KA: [laugh]

DD: [laugh] Nice. Yeah, that sounds good to me, yeah. [laugh] Excellent. Yeah, exactly. So, you’d- you’d, um, work on yourself- Imagine I was trying to regulate my own mental life so that I could become a torturer. So, I’d turn myself into someone who has all sorts of dispositions that would be important to be a torturer, and then imagine I’d never get a chance to engage in such horrible activities. Nevertheless, it seems plausible to argue that having turned myself into someone with all these dispositions, excellent torturing dispositions, would be morally wrong in itself.

KA: Well, thank you so much for coming on Thoughts.

DD: Thank you very much.

KA: It’s been an absolute pleasure to have you on, [and it’s been] a fantastic episode.

DD: Aw, I enjoyed talking to you guys. Thank you for having me.

KA: And thank you everyone for listening. We’ll see you next time on Thoughts!


AC: Thank you to everybody for listening. And remember you can find us on social media on Facebook under Thoughts UofG, on Twitter under the same name, and on Instagram under @thoughts_uofg. See everybody next time.

Transcript written by Monique Raranga