The Mind-Body Debates: Beginnings and Endings

Jaegwon Kim tells us it all started with two papers published a year apart in the late fifties: “The ‘Mental’ and the ‘Physical'” by Herbert Feigl in 1958 and “Sensations and Brain Processes ” by J. J. C. Smart the following year. Both of these men brought about a qualitative change in our approach to the study of the brain and its interactions with the physical substrate. Each of them proposed in independent studies an approach to the nature of mind that has come to be called the mind-body identity theory, central-state materialism, the brain state theory, or type physicalism. That the identity theory in itself would lose traction and other theories would come to the fore, the actual underlying structure of the debates would continue to be set by the framework they originally put in place. As Kim suggests:

What I have in mind is the fact that the brain state theory helped set the basic parameters and constraints for the debates that were to come – a set of broadly physicalist assumptions and aspirations that still guide and constrain our thinking today.1

This extreme form of reductionist Physicalism was questioned by the multiple realizability argument  of Hilary Putnum and the anomalous argument by Donald Davidson. At the heart of Putnum’s argument as the notion of functionalism, that mental kinds and properties are functional kinds at a higher level of abstraction than physicochemical or biological kinds. Davidson on the other hand offered the notion of anomalous monism that the mental domain, on account of its essential anomalousness and normativity , cannot be the object of serious scientific investigation, placing the mental on a wholly different plane from the physical. At first it seemed to many of the scientists of the era that these two approaches, each in its own distinctive way, made it possible for “us to shed the restrictive constraints of monolithic reductionism without losing our credentials as physicalists” (4). Yet, as it turned out this, too, did not last.

Ultimately Davidson’s theory of anomalous monism failed because of what it could not say about the Mind-Body debate: it could not offer a solution to why mental and physical events relate at all. His thesis was based solely on the descriptive theory of mental and physical kinds in which there are no events that have only mental properties (descriptions), although there may be, and presumably are, events with physical properties (descriptions) only (4). The point being here as Kim suggests “we want our mind-body theories to tell us more, a positive story about how mental properties and physical properties are related, and hopefully also explain why they are so related. We don’t get such a story from anomalous monism (5). Davidson’s theory could not supply this.

It was because many scientists and philosophers of mind questioned Davidson’s theory that he modified it to reveal a new a new concept “supervenience“, which is an ontological relation that is used to describe cases where (roughly speaking) the lower-level properties of a system determine its higher level properties. What many physicalists of the ear found congenial in this concept was the notion that an asymmetric dependence of the mental on the physical is clearly implied , if not stated outright (6).

On the other side were the functionalists (Putnum), who, by and large, were not metaphysicians, and few of them were self-consciously concerned about just what their position entailed about the mind-body problem (6). For the functionalists the key term for the relation between mental and physical events was another concept, “realization” (or sometimes “implementation ,” “execution,” etc.): mental properties are “realized” or “implemented ” by (or in) physical properties, though neither identical nor reducible to them (7).

Because the philosophical presuppositions underpinning both of these theories was embraced by most physicalists by the mid-70’s it came to be known as “nonreductive physicalism” (or “nonreductive materialism ” ), and has been, and still is, the most influential metaphysical position, not only on the mind -body problem but more generally on the relationship between higher-level properties and underlying lower-level properties in all areas (8).* With this new non-reductive approach to Physicalism an old idea began to emerge: the notion of emergentism. As Kim relates it:

In the heyday of positivism and “unity of science , ” emergentism used to be relegated to the heap of unsavory pseudoscientific doctrines , not quite as disreputable as, say, neo-vitalism with its entelechies and elan vital , but nearly as obscure and incoherent. With the demise of reductive physicalism, emergentism has been showing strong signs of a comeback. (8)

In summary three ideas have been, and still are, prominent in discussions of the mind-body problem since the demise of the reductive brain-state theory: the idea that the mental “supervenes ” on the physical, the idea that the mental is “realized” by the physical, and the idea that the mental is “emergent” from the physical.

In my next post I’ll return to the work of Thomas Nagel who has incorporated a form of emergentism into his thought.

1. Jaegwon Kim. Mind in a Physical World: An Essay on the Mind-Body Problem (Providence, 1997)

*(note: this text was written back in 97 so there have been other changes since, which I’ll need to incorporate at some future date)

4 thoughts on “The Mind-Body Debates: Beginnings and Endings

  1. Regarding your note: As important as Kim has been, his famous ‘double-dipping’ critique has been handily outmanoeuved by contemporary emergentists who have largely given up ‘supervening states’ and now talk in terms of complexity and process. Thompson has a whole appendix devoted to this in Mind in Life.

    I always find Davidson a slippery figure to read, so obviously an interpretivist one moment, and then talking like a metaphysician the next. But it’s instructive to remember that his position is a prototype for Dennett’s intentional stance. The principle of charity is an ‘as if’ attitude…

    Despite numerous AI set backs (check out Walmsley’s book) functionalism is still alive and well (which is why Ray and Reza have organized a workshop on it in NYC, I’m guessing), but as you continue reading note all the caveats pertaining to the very *specific* kind of functions sought: multiple realizability (like emergence) is no big whup so long as it’s regarded *epistemically.* But the functions belonging to the ‘mental’ are very mysterious indeed (given the ways they invert or elide causality). Since no physicalist wants to endorse functions that contradict physics, they require some kind of ‘super special emergence.’ This is their explanatory challenge (much as eliminativism confronts the photographic negative of this challenge: to explain why things seem super special).

    The obstacle they face is an insuperable one: since metacognitive assessments of conscious experience lie at the basis of all their specifications of function, they need to somehow vouchsafe those assessments. As far as this goes, the ancient skeptic alone could argue them into stalemate. And the science, meanwhile, continues padding the eliminativist’s case that no theoretical metacognition can be considered remotely reliable. If they have no way of reliably specifying the super special functions in question, then functionalism is a dead end – and it seems sober to conclude that science will be as ruthlessly indifferent to this particular brand of human super-specialism as it has to all the others.

    My own account is actually just an account of metacognitive assessments of conscious experience, which takes its ability to explain away super-specialism (noocentrism) as its abductive warrant.


    • Thanks for the update… obviously as a novice in all this neurosciences I’m just trying to do the background reading in historical reference. Can you recommend some historical works that bring one up today that are neutral in regard to proving a specific conceptual framework?

      The problem I’m facing is that I no you want to do away with philosophy, yet everywhere I go in my neurosciences readings I discover the extremes of philosophical underpinnings in either materialist or idealist conceptuality underpinning many of these supposed value free and impartial scientific investigations. The sciences like everything else have agendas, and for me know on which side of the divide these scientists sits is knowing their conceptual and historical connections to what underlies those agendas: and science from within its own domain cannot give that, only philosophy can uncover the layers of hidden conceptuality.

      Like you speak of Davidson as slippery… he is an Idealist pure and simple, so knowing that helps one understand the framework within which he is working. That’s where works such as Iain Hamilton Grant’s history of Idealism comes in handy… to sort this crap out.

      Even the so called new materialists are actually incorporating idealist notions and revitalizing the older traditions of “vitalism” which to me seems erroneous. As I read more and more neuroscience I see this same problem of conceptuality. One can find it in the analytical traditions as well from those that tend toward nominalist or toward realist positions regarding mental entities… on one side they exist, on the other they don’t… and these traditions inform much of the conceptuality of neurosciences.

      The sciences do not usually deal with questions of concepts in this way, that is the job of philosophy. The sciences use the concepts to uncover and interpret the empirical data. Some scientists of course invent new concepts to fit the data more accurately, but when they do that they are doing philosophy…

      Yea, liked your summation: “My own account is actually just an account of metacognitive assessments of conscious experience, which takes its ability to explain away super-specialism (noocentrism) as its abductive warrant.” Always felt that your basic tack was mainly to attack any and all who still think consciousness, intentional or otherwise, exists. But your other writings seem to be elminative + In other words after you eliminate the erroneous what’s left? That’s the key to eliminativism: after you subtract all the conceptual bric-a-brac and actually look at the data what’s there that can now be positively assigned in a new conceptual framework; and, how can we construct a conceptual framework that aligns with the actual data.


      • I can’t but see the ‘materialist/idealist’ dichotomy as one of the more discursively pernicious consequences of misapplying the aboutness heuristic in second-order contexts (which is to say, outside its adaptive problem ecology). On my view, ‘ideas’ are radically heuristic explanatory posits pertaining to a limited range of problems. Given metacognitive neglect, however, ideas can easily seem to be the very foundation of cognition (as opposed to a rough handle we can grasp dealing with certain first order problems). The thematization of ideation as a *productive activity,* the independence of idealized becomes harder to credit, making the notion of Idealism seem almost unavoidable.

        BBT lays all this out on a gradient of dimensionality, where the low dimensional elusiveness of the ‘mental’ can be seen as being of a piece with the low dimensional elusiveness of the ‘spiritual.’

        “after you eliminate the erroneous what’s left? That’s the key to eliminativism: after you subtract all the conceptual bric-a-brac and actually look at the data what’s there that can now be positively assigned in a new conceptual framework; and, how can we construct a conceptual framework that aligns with the actual data.”

        This is what Ben Cain has continually been pressing me on, but as I keep saying, this is the *project* of post-intentional philosophy: the systematic *second order* redescription of the problematics, conceptual mainstays, and multifarious human phenomena in terms that do not assume any intentional *ontology,* even in its most minimal, deflationary senses (like intentional formalisms). A great number of my posts are aimed directly at this: this is where the excitment lies! Through the Brain Darkly has them conveniently organized in a single division, so I’m hoping this constructive part of the project will become more clear. But in the meantime, I trying to encourage as many people as possible to begin looking at eliminativism as a theoretical opportunity as great as any enjoyed by Enlightenment thinkers, attempting to cobble together sense-making stories.

        I don’t even have to be right to make a case for this project. So on my narrative, the ongoing emergentist naturalistic rationalization of super-specialism is of a piece with attempts to naturalize geocentrism and biocentrism: there is simply no point where scientific knowledge will carve out a place for us to be meaning-makers in any sense friendly to our intuitions. But say that I’m wrong. Grant them all these ‘causal phase transitions,’ all these imbrications of thermodynamic processes, the bald fact of physical irreflexivity and external relationality remains, and all their attempts peter out far short of their grand ambitions. As they themselves admit!

        But how many centuries need to pass before we actually, actively begin exploring the kinds of worst case scenario views like my own present? It’s amazing it’s taken this long, if you think about it.


      • “It’s amazing it’s taken this long, if you think about it.”

        True… yes, in fact, that’s the key to my own efforts at the moment is to clear a path from philosophy to this… an act of creative destruction is in order to clarify just where we’ve come from and where we’re going: the eliminative project is the first half, the negative subtraction of all the dead end paths that have led nowhere, then the slow methodical positive movement of gathering up the threads of what’s left to construct a positive way forward.

        Can’t wait to read your new work…

        P.S. sorry for the lengthy posts on your last blog entry… seems we had a little difference in approach to Hume…


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