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Reductive Physicalism Essay

4294 words - 18 pages

Should We Give Up on Reductive Physicalism? Paul Sperring

Richmond Journal of Philosophy 8 (Winter 2004)

Should We Give Up on Reductive Physicalism?
Paul Sperring
Supposing you were a physicalist in the late 1950s, early 1960s, and supposing you were Australian too 1 , it is highly likely you would have thought that mental properties could be reduced to physical properties. Now, suppose you are a contemporary philosopher of mind and suppose further that you are also of a physicalist stripe. Will you be inclined to think that mental properties are reducible to physical properties? It’s by no means certain. These days physicalists fall into two, broadly conceived, camps: (i) the ...view middle of the document...


The Type-Identity Thesis
One of the most famous (if short-lived) reductionist physicalist views is known as the Type-Identity thesis. Various philosophers in the 1950s argued that mental properties are identical to physical properties – thoughts, sensations, feelings and so on (mental ‘types’ 5 ) are just brain processes (physical ‘types’). So when persons are said to have some mental property, say the property of being in pain, then analysis will reveal such a property to be a property of their brains, and nothing more. Perhaps you are struck by the prima facie plausibility of such a position. Certainly, these days, when we think of minds we automatically assume a role for the brain, knowing what we know about the close relationship between the two. So when we come to examine how the mind and the brain are related we often think about it in terms of correlation or cause. By correlation we just mean that wherever we have some mental property it is always accompanied by some physical property. Now, mere correlation explains nothing of course. We want to know why every mental property is accompanied by a physical property. So perhaps we think about the relationship in terms of causation. All mental properties, we might say, are caused by physical properties of the brain. However, if we stop here then we still face a problem. How, we ask, do physical properties give rise to mysterious non-physical properties, and how, if those mental properties are non-physical do they exert any influence over

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Should We Give Up on Reductive Physicalism? Paul Sperring

Richmond Journal of Philosophy 8 (Winter 2004)

the properties of the brain (this is the well-known interaction problem that Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia brought to Descartes’ attention in the Seventeenth century, although the debate was couched in terms of substances rather than properties)? One way out of this problem is to say that the reason that mental properties are always accompanied by brain properties is because mental properties just are properties of the brain. There is also no residue to explain causally – i.e. how mental properties arise as a result of brain goings on – since we only have one type of phenomenon, at bottom. If A and B are identical then A can’t be the cause of B, and there is no mystery how B can cause things if there is no mystery about how A causes things (and if A is a brain property then ultimately physics will tell us how that does what it does 6 ). Some of the advantages of accepting the type-identity thesis ought to be pretty clear. Firstly, the problem Descartes wrestled with, how minds and bodies could be in causal communion, seems to melt away. There is no violation of well established physical laws on this view (for instance the principle of the conservation of momentum) since we have well-behaved physical particles all the way down (well maybe most of the way down – but I’ll leave quantum particles to one side). Secondly, we get a...

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