The Mind-Body Debates: Reductive or Anti-Reductive Theories?

More and more I have come to see in the past few years that the debates in scientific circles seem to hinge on two competing approaches to the world and phenomena: the reductive and anti-reductive frameworks. To really understand this debate one needs to have a thorough understanding of the history of science itself. Obviously in this short post I’m not going to give you a complete history of science up to our time. What I want to do is to tease out the debates themselves, rather than provide a history. To do that entails to philosophy and history rather than to specific sciences. For better or worse it is in the realm of the history of concepts that one begins to see the drift between these two tendencies played out over time. Like some universal pendulum we seem to see the rise and fall of one or the other conceptual matrix flit in and out as different scientists and philosophers debate what it is they are discovering in either the world or the mind. Why? Why this swing from reductive to anti-reductive then back again in approaches to life, reality, and mind-brain debates?

Philosophers have puzzled over this question from the time of Pre-Socratics, Democritus, Plato, Aristotle onwards… take the subject of truth: In his book TruthProtagoras made vivid use of two provocative but imperfectly spelled out ideas: first, that we are all ‘measures’ of the truth and that we are each already capable of determining how things are for ourselves, since the senses are our best and most credible guides to the truth; second, given that things appear differently to different people, there is no basis on which to decide that one appearance is true rather than the other. Plato developed these ideas into a more fully worked-out theory, which he then subjected to refutation in the Theaetetus. In his Metaphysics  Aristotle argued that Protagoras’ ideas led to scepticism. And finally Democritus incorporated modified Protagorean ideas and arguments into his theory of knowledge and perception.

The knowledge of truth, according to Democritus, is difficult, since the perception through the senses is subjective. As from the same senses derive different impressions for each individual, then through the sense-impressions we cannot judge the truth. We can only interpret the sense data through the intellect and grasp the truth, because the truth is at the bottom.

“And again, many of the other animals receive impressions contrary to ours; and even to the senses of each individual, things do not always seem the same. Which then, of these impressions are true and which are false is not obvious; for the one set is no more true than the other, but both are alike. And this is why Democritus, at any rate, says that either there is no truth or to us at least it is not evident.”

“Democritus says: By convention hot, by convention cold, but in reality atoms and void, and also in reality we know nothing, since the truth is at bottom.” 1

There are two kinds of knowing, the one he calls “legitimate” (γνησίη, gnesie, “genuine”) and the other “bastard” (σκοτίη, skotie, “secret”). The “bastard” knowledge is concerned with the perception through the senses, therefore it is insufficient and subjective. The reason is that the sense-perception is due to the effluences of the atoms from the objects to the senses. When these different shapes of atoms come to us, they stimulate our senses according to their shape, and our sense-impressions arise from those stimulations.

The second sort of knowledge, the “legitimate” one, can be achieved through the intellect, in other words, all the sense-data from the “bastard” must be elaborated through reasoning. In this way one can get away from the false perception of the “bastard” knowledge and grasp the truth through the inductive reasoning. After taking into account the sense-impressions, one can examine the causes of the appearances, draw conclusions about the laws that govern the appearances, and discover the causality (αἰτιολογία, aetiologia) by which they are related. This is the procedure of thought from the parts to the whole or else from the apparent to non-apparent (inductive reasoning). This is one example of why Democritus is considered to be an early scientific thinker. The process is reminiscent of that by which science gathers its conclusions.

“But in the Canons Democritus says there are two kinds of knowing, one through the senses and the other through the intellect. Of these he calls the one through the intellect ‘legitimate’ attesting its trustworthiness for the judgement of truth, and through the senses he names ‘bastard’ denying its inerrancy in the discrimination of what is true. To quote his actual words: Of knowledge there are two forms, one legitimate, one bastard. To the bastard belong all this group: sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch. The other is legitimate and separate from that. Then, preferring the legitimate to the bastard, he continues: When the bastard can no longer see any smaller, or hear, or smell, or taste, or perceive by touch, but finer matters have to be examined, then comes the legitimate, since it has a finer organ of perception.”

“In the Confirmations … he says: But we in actuality grasp nothing for certain, but what shifts in accordance with the condition of the body and of the things (atoms) which enter it and press upon it.”

“Democritus used to say that ‘he prefers to discover a causality rather than become a king of Persia’.” (this segement on Democritus from wiki: Democritus)

So the problem of causality seems once again to be the actual situation in our own contemporary setting in the debates current within the Philosophy of Mind. As Steven Horst recently stated in his Beyond Reduction: Philosophy of Mind and Post-Reductionist Philosophy of Science:

The contemporary debate between reductive naturalists and their principal opponents (nonreductive materialists, eliminativists, and dualists) tends to proceed on the assumption that intertheoretic reductions are the norm in the sciences: that chemistry is reducible to physics, biology to chemistry and physics, and so on. Against this backdrop, the mind stands out as a striking anomaly. The centrally important properties of the mind, such as consciousness, intentionality, and normativity, do not seem to be reducible to what the brain does, or indeed to any facts specifiable in the languages of the natural sciences.1

So the question once again arises: What is the truth of the matter? Reduction or Anti-Reduction? And along with Democritus we must ask: Does the truth lie at the bottom? Does causality have something to do with it? At the heart of this divide between reductive and non-reductive approaches is the problem, variously known as the “explanatory gap” (Levine 1983) or the “hard problem of consciousness” (Chalmers 1996), was posed, according to Horst, almost four centuries ago by Descartes and has regained a good deal of notoriety in recent years (Horst, KL 84) According to Descartes, minds and bodies are distinct kinds of substance. Bodies, he held, are spatially extended substances, incapable of feeling or thought; minds, in contrast, are unextended, thinking, feeling substances… If minds and bodies are radically different kinds of substance, however, it is not easy to see how they could causally interact.2

In his own time the sciences were under the dominion of a mechanist view of life and reality. Princess Elizabeth of Bohemia observers in her 1643 letter to Descartes:

how the human soul can determine the movement of the animal spirits in the body so as to perform voluntary acts—being as it is merely a conscious substance. For the determination of movement seems always to come about from the moving body’s being propelled—to depend on the kind of impulse it gets from what sets it in motion, or again, on the nature and shape of this latter thing’s surface. Now the first two conditions involve contact, and the third involves that the impelling thing has extension; but you utterly exclude extension from your notion of soul, and contact seems to me incompatible with a thing’s being immaterial…3

In our time this comes down to the determination of just what “mental causation” is. Is it reducible to physical functions of the brain, or is it irreducible to those physical processes? And, if it is not reducible then is the Mind separate from the physical processes, or should we frame the question differently? For Horst the answer is a form of pluralism:

My suggestion is that this [to the question of why the sciences are “disunified” in the sense of not being reducible to basic physics] is best understood by considering the sciences as cognitive enterprises: enterprises of modeling local features of the world (and of ourselves) in particular representational systems. Such models are local and piecemeal. They are also idealized in a variety of ways that can present principled barriers to their wholesale integration into something like a single axiomatic system.(Horst, KL 107-109)

To answer the question: What exactly is Cognitive Pluralism comes down to asking another question – What is naturalism? On that hinges the solutions he provides in his book. I must admit that I like his approach to the problems much more than those of Thomas Nagel whom I wrote about minimally in a couple previous posts (here) and (here). Nagel admitted his preference for a form of absolute Idealism in the sense of Schelling and Hegel. His distaste for materialist or reductionist Physicalism accounts came through loud and clear. He may be right but his polemical way of beating the opposing team over the head with it put me off. With Horst on the other hand I get the feeling it isn’t about some hard line polemic to prove the case of Cognitive Pluralism as it is to open discussion for its possibility, and that makes all the difference in the world.

Polemical writers no matter what stripe always seem like they are caught up in some dogmatic cluster of ideas that always tend toward proving some pet theory whether it be about science, politics, religion, etc. It’s as if they were ramming their ideas down one’s throat to prove they hold the only keys to the truth, and everyone else is wrong. This dogmatic flavor in writing as in life always seems to me suspicious. I’ve seen it even in some of the philosophers I admire such as Alain Badiou and Slavoj Zizek in their political polemics. I don’t want to has over on this any more in this post, but mainly to point of  – even for myself (yes! I, too, should be reminded how guilty I am at times of this sort of polemic!) – the truth of this form of dogmatic assertionism. My answer to polemic is usually to turn toward satire, lambast, spoofery, etc. I have a tendency to move into my Johnathan Wild moods at such moments and begin to ridicule through pure satiric statement and duplicitous ironies, the shifting lines of reason folding into the irrational world of affective relations. (sorry for the long digression: this should be another post!)

Either way my goal is to understand why these tendencies toward reductive or anti-reductive accounts in the sciences have had such a long history and impact of our approach to our views on life, reality, and the mind-body debates. At the heart of these controversies is situated the concept of Naturalism. What is Naturalism? Paul Churchland in his book on naturalism tells us it consists of a set of assumptions that are the central elements in our standard conception of human cognitive activity, a conception often called “folk psychology” (Churchland 1995, 322). 4 Wilfred Sellars in his Naturalism and Ontology in a footnote once related:

As for Naturalism. That, too, had negative overtones at home. It was as wishy-washy and ambiguous as Pragmatism. One could believe almost anything about the world and even some things about God, and yet be a Naturalist. What was needed was a new, nonreductive materialism. My father could call himself a Materialist in all good conscience, for at that time he was about the only one in sight. I, however, do not own the term, and I am so surprised by some of the views of the new, new Materialists, that until the dust settles, I prefer the term ‘Naturalism’, which, while retaining its methodological connotations, has acquired a substantive content, which, if it does not entail scientific realism, is at least not incompatible with it.5

So for Sellars who made the distinction between the “folk image” and the “scientific image” a key to his own thinking we notice as well a turn from reductive to nonreductive materialism. Again were left with this duplicitous division between two forms of materialism or as others might suggest Idealism with another face.

John R. Shook and Paul Kurtz in their book The Future of Naturalism define naturalism succinctly: naturalism seeks to apply the methods of the empirical sciences to explain natural events without reference to supernatural causes; and it derives ethical values from human experience, not theological grounds.(7) Stephen Gaukroger in his excellent The Emergence of a Scientific Culture shows the growth of this concept as arising out of the medieval debates within natural philosophy, but that specifically the term “naturalism” itself arose in the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries with the revival of Aristotelian thought in the discovery of the writings of Averroes or Averroism as it is generally termed (101).6 As he states the case two doctrines came out of the confrontation with Averroes writings:

One is a doctrine about the autonomy of natural philosophy, the other a distinctive natural-philosophical doctrine about the fate of the soul when it leaves the body at death, namely the doctrine of the unity of intellect. (101)

A connection was made between the two doctrines by natural philosophers in that age. The first was rejected by orthodox Catholics as being untrue in regards to Church teaching, and yet because it was not formulated in theological terms but in natural-philosophical terms the idea was not undermined in the thinking of these philosophers. The other doctrine pertained to the autonomy of natural-philosophical enquiry itself, which could not be determined in theological terms so was debated by the natural philosophers rather than theologians. All of this  Gaudroger tells us came to a head in northern Italy at the University of Padua where Pomponazzi presided. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article Pomponazzi suggested that a more unified reading of his works indicates that Pomponazzi was trying to elaborate a new form of determinism, modifying Aristotelian naturalism by giving it Stoic inflections and by borrowing elements from Averroism and from the Neoplatonism of Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite (Ramberti, 78–80). According to this interpretation, if God limits himself by creating both a contingent future and a human faculty of acting in accordance with universal necessity (or of not acting at all), this amounts to a sort of freedom, since we can decide whether or not to attune our practical activities to the Intellect which reflects the order of reality (Ramberti, 80–81).6

The other forms of naturalism that infiltrated this era came out of Stoic and Epicurean traditions. All of them centered of forms of reduction in formulating principles of immanence to explain certain processes they saw in the natural world. One such notion was that of the “World Soul” which was first coined by Augustine, but was later transformed by natural-philosophers as an explanatory term that helped shift the debates of theology to naturalism in explaining the immanent regulation of terrestrial events came about. In the hands of such natural philosophers as Bernardino Telesio and Giordano Bruno this new way of seeing into reality led to a separation of supernatural and natural explanations which over time drove the wedge between natural philosophy and religion farther and father apart. With the influx of Pre-Socratic, Aristotelian, Averoesian, Stoic, Epicurean, and Neoplatonic sources of thought the stage was set for what we term the emergence of naturalistic debates to emerge in radical forms in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The main thrust of naturalism being its investment of immanent powers in the natural world of matter that as active principles guide and shape the natural events of the world. Instead of supernatural and theological explanations these natural philosophers began seeking out natural principles embedded in the world itself that might better explain the truth of reality.

One scholar has suggested that the first signs of the use of the reductive method first arose within theological debates over mortalism. As John W. Yoltan in his Thinking Matter: Materialism in Eighteenth-Century Britain states it reductionism “generally implies mortalism, but not vice versa. While reductionism was a rare doctrine, mortalism of one kind or another seems to have been not uncommon in England in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries: see Norman T. Burns, Christian Mortalism from Tyndale to Milton (Cambridge, Mass., 1972)”.

The other important thing to remember in the debates of this era was the battle between Corpuscularianism as promoted by such luminaries as Pierre Gassendi, Robert Boyle, and John Locke:

Corpuscularianism is similar to the theory of atomism, except that where atoms were supposed to be indivisible, corpuscles could in principle be divided. In this manner, for example, it was theorized that mercury could penetrate into metals and modify their inner structure, a step on the way towards the production of gold by transmutation. Corpuscularianism was associated by its leading proponents with the idea that some of the properties that objects appear to have are artifacts of the perceiving mind: “secondary” qualities as distinguished from “primary” qualities. Corpuscularianism stayed a dominant theory for centuries and was blended with alchemy by early scientists such as Robert Boyle and Isaac Newton in the 17th century.(wiki)

While those that opposed corpuscularianism were under the tutelage of the Epicurean tradition which conceived the fundamental constituents of the world as being inert corpuscles, and precluded the Stoic and Aristotelian notions of holism within their theories of a dead inert world of matter. It was out of this philosophy that the mechanistic sciences arose.

The great divide between the Corpuscular and the Naturalist battles in the seventh century led to divergent views of reality and matter. The naturalists saw immanent powers and capacities residing in matter. Enthusiasm for the naturalistic study of nature picked up in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries as more and more Christians turned their attention to discovering the so-called secondary causes that God employed in operating the world. The Italian Catholic Galileo Galilei (1564–1642), one of the foremost promoters of the new philosophy, insisted that nature “never violates the terms of the laws imposed upon her.” (wiki: Naturalism)

So as we can see there has been an underlying battle between two ways of approaching reality even during the era of the Seventeenth Century. Many of the tenets of  corpuscularianism would later inform the science of chemistry rather than physics, while the alternative course of naturalism and its theories would inform our present physics. The battle of the two forms of thought being neither merged nor resolved would become the problem of our current issues in the Mind-Body debates of our current era. The battles of reductive and non-reductive theories seem to reside in unresolved historical dimensions that seem to have been either forgotten are left in the depths of current discussions.

That’s where we are at! How we resolve these issues is up to anyone’s guess, but the knowledge that these issues between two totally opposing traditions underpins this debate might just help if not answer the question then certainly open up other avenues of research that might resolve the issue. This is just a summary of much larger issues that I need to work through… if the battle is over competing views of matter: inert against immanent, etc. then why did the one view lead to chemistry/physics and the other to biology/physics debates? That the older mechanistic view is no longer operative as a framework does not mean that its base set of principles have vanished, they seem to still inform much of the reductive physicalist explanatory framework, while on the other hand the naturalist immanence framework underpins those non-reductive frameworks we see vying for first place in the current sciences. Is some form of the panscychist or panexperentialist merger the path? Are is this to devolve incompatibles into some mesh of monstrous scientific understanding that does injury to both forms of enquiry? And what of emergence? It tries to distance itself from vitalist immanence, yet the more you study this notion of immanent powers and capacities residing in the core elements of matter that spawned the early naturalists the more you wonder if it is distant at all. Many of the so called New Materialists seem to be pushing for a non-reductive path in materialism. Is this what is needed? Is our age the moment of purging the older forms of corpuscular notions out of the sciences once and for all? Or is the battle just beginning? And, most of all, I keep asking myself: Where do I reside on this issue? A lot of my own notions are under revision, and I need to keep an open mind toward the idea that the heritage of materialism that I once thought was so assured may be a bag of wind, an ephemeral wisp of hot air that has no longer the power to sway us toward its once empowered material framework in both physicalist and historical knowledge. I may have to reexamine this whole tradition and then ask the scientists just what really is working or not. Which framework is providing the best answers? And, if neither one is, then do we need a new explanatory framework for our enquiries into life, reality, and the mind-body issues. Maybe a post-intentional framework based on eliminative of consciousness and all the debates surrounding it? A unified view of the brain end to end in a non-reductive way with just the intentional subject elided? Is Horst on the right track with the need for a pluralistic framework that does not reduce the issue to one or another science, but becomes interdisciplinary field of explanations that helps understand the underlying functions as part of a matrix of possible solutions rather than the imposition of some imperial unified field theory in the reductive manner that has up to now locked scientific endeavor in its fixed schemas?

1. Steven Horst. Beyond Reduction: Philosophy of Mind and Post-Reductionist Philosophy of Science (Philosophy of Mind Series) (Kindle Locations 81-83). Kindle Edition.
2. Descartes, R. (2008). Meditations on First Philosophy (Michael Moriarity translation of 1641 ed.). Oxford University Press.
3. Shapiro, L. (2008). Princess Elizabeth and Descartes: The union of soul and body and the practice of philosophy. British Journal for the History of Psychology, 7(3), 503-520.
4. Stewart Goetz;Charles Taliaferro. Naturalism (Interventions) (Kindle Location 53). Kindle Edition.
5. Sellars, Wilfrid (2013-02-10). Naturalism and Ontology (Kindle Locations 105-110). Ridgeview Publishing Digital. Kindle Edition.
6. Perfetti, Stefano, “Pietro Pomponazzi”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2012 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <;.

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