1. Opening Shots

In Mind in a Physical World, Jaegwon Kim wrestles with the problem of positing mental life and mental events as causally efficacious in a world that is fundamentally ontologically physical. By “ontologically physical”, I mean that we generally tend to evaluate events in the world according to the laws of physics as they have been proposed and revised over years of scientific inquiry. In this kind of a world (in our world), talking about “mind” as something independent of material substance and physical laws is troublesome. Since we can usually associate some kind of neural or physiological state with any given mental state, we are inclined to simply refer to the former rather than the latter when engaging in causal explanation. In other words, brain states are causally sufficient to explain physical events, while mental states are not – especially when their corresponding brain states get the job done just as well. Of course, this leaves us with the problem of whether or not the mental life and its events are illusory or epiphenomenal. Kim’s project is an attempt to preserve mentality, with its intentional dispositions, so that we are not forced to simply reduce all intentionality, autonomy, and agency to a byproduct or misinterpretation of neurophysiological events and states. By the end of Mind in a Physical World, he is forced to concede that, given the assumptions about physicalism upon which he is working, there is no real way to fully preserve the mental life. On his view, we can go with either a revival of property dualism (which will also revive its own set of problems) or some variety of reductionism (which essentially denies the reality of mental life).

I would like to suggest that despite Kim’s efforts at developing a new kind of causal talk that includes mentality, he remains trapped in a framework that will never allow it. This framework owes much to –and is, in fact, dependent upon– Cartesian substance dualism, which is precisely what it tries to leave behind. My aim in this paper is to discuss the problems of Kim’s ontology, and to try and present an alternative. In books like Mind and World and Mind, Value, and Reality, John McDowell presents an ontological and epistemological account in which the distinctions between the internal and external (for our purposes, the mental and the physical) are broken down (or at least softened). For McDowell, there can be no stark distinction between the mental and the physical, and neither one can be reduced to the other’s terms. It is this kind of ontology that I would like to propose that we look at adopting before we start talking about mental events as causal events. I will refer to McDowell and throughout this paper, as well as to Charles Taylor and Hilary Putnam, who write in support of him. Also, I will refer to Donald Davidson, with whom Kim is an interlocutor (but still something of a kindred spirit) in this debate.

2. Ontology: Descartes and his footnotes

Descartes’ dual substance ontology holds that there are two types of properties: the material (or physical) and the mental. They are both present in human beings and are separate, yet related. He writes that although perhaps … I have a body that is very closely joined to me, nevertheless, because on the one hand I have a clear and distinct idea of myself, insofar as I am merely a thinking thing and not an extended thing, and because on the other hand I have a distinct idea of a body, insofar as it is merely an extended thing and not a thinking thing, it is certain that I am really distinct from my body, and can exist without it. {MFP 51}

For Descartes, the mind and the brain are independent of one another but they interact causally; the brain perceives sensations from the rest of the body and transmits them to the mind. The mind, in turn, interprets the information and directs the body through the brain {Ibid. 56-7}. The powers of imagination, understanding, willing, and so on are specifically powers and properties of the mind; Descartes does not believe that they are brain functions. The autonomy of the subject is assured by the mind’s separation from and sovereignty over the brain and the rest of the body. Unfortunately, the biggest problem with Descartes’ account is that he cannot account for the nature of the relation between mind and body. This puts the mind’s causal role into serious doubt. Moreover, Descartes further complicates matters by stating that there is a law-like or nomological relationship between mental and physical events: “since any given motion occurring the part of that part of the brain immediately affecting the mind produces but one sensation in it, I can think of no better arrangement than that it produces the one sensation that, of all the ones it is able to produce, is most especially and most often conducive to the maintenance of a healthy man” {Ibid. 57}.

Descartes is proposing a very specific relationship between physical events (or kinds of physical events) and mental events (or kinds of mental events). Humans are constituted such that sensations will always cause the same kinds of mental events – this is a law-like, or nomological, relationship. As we have seen, Descartes’ inability to account for the nature of this relationship has left his ontology, metaphysics, and approach to mind-body causation vulnerable to arguments that bracket out the mental in favour of the physical: “His problem, as his contemporaries saw, was to show how his all-too-common-sensical thesis of mind-body interaction was tenable within his ontology of two radically diverse domains of substances, minds, and bodies” {MPW 29}. In other words, his whole account can be resolved by mind-body theories that reduce mental states to their corresponding neurophysiological states. This, of course, is reductionism: “to reduce a property, or phenomenon, we first construe it–or reconstrue it–functionally, in terms of its casual/nomic relations to other properties and phenomena” {Ibid. 25}.

The move to physicalism basically consists of rejecting the ontological plausibility of a non-material substance such as mind. Indeed, it seems almost inevitable, given the movement away from transcendental and speculative philosophy in the last 400 years or so. As Charles Taylor writes in the essay “Foundationalism and the Inner-Outer Distinction”, maintaining a firm belief in an autonomous and independent mental life seems impossible “if we conceive of spontaneity as a kind of limitless freedom, which at the point of contract has to hit a world under adamantine, post-Galilean ‘laws of nature’” {FD 109}. By spontaneity, he of course refers to the kind of causal efficacy and power that a mind holds when its events and states are not reducible to physical events and states. In our “post-Galilean” world (that is, a world which operates largely on the assumptions and schemes provided by the scientific method), the mental substance of Descartes’ dual substance ontology is crossed out, or at least reduced to being a function of material/physical properties. The problem is one of making room for a robust and complete mental life in a world that doesn’t need it and cannot ontologically and conceptually sustain it.

There have been numerous attempts to make room for mentality: the main thrust of philosophers like Kim seems to be dealing with both the problems of exclusion and of reduction. The exclusion problem arises for physicalist thinking when we argue, “mental event m, occurring at time t, causes physical event p, and … this causal relation holds in virtue of the fact that m is an event of mental kind M and p is an event of physical kind P” {MPW 37}. Since we look for and require physical explanations in our physical world, we are bound to assign some p that is nomically linked to any given m (Descartes already implied as much in the Sixth Meditation). It does not seem to be physicalism itself that sounds the death knell for mentality; rather, it is the necessity of reductionism, which arises because we require a nomic relation between the mental and the physical. This is what Kim refers to as “type physicalism”, which “reductively identifies mental properties with physical properties, implies mind-body supervenience” {Ibid. 12}.

Mind-body supervenience, of course, is the theory that deals with “a relation between two sets of properties, the supervenient properties and their base properties” {Ibid. 9}. Kim focuses on what he calls strong supervenience {Ibid.}, and applies it to the mind-body relationship thusly:

Mental properties supervene on physical properties, in that necessarily, for mental property M, if anything has M at time t, there exists a physical base (or subvenient) property P such that it has P at t, and necessarily anything that has P at a time has M at that time. {Ibid.}

Here we can see the problem: since M has and must have P as its base property, we can construe causal talk such that P is also causally efficacious in terms of bring about physical events in the world. We can also construe it such that P is a full cause of a physical event, which makes it clash with M: if our desire for water (to use Kim’s example in Chapter 3) can be explained just as well by a neurophysiological account as it can by an account involving intentional states, desire, and so on, then the neurophysiological account can suffice as causal explanation. In this case, the mental is excluded; certainly, it makes no sense to exclude the physical explanation, for without the physical, we cannot have the mental, either. This type of relation, of course, is also dependent upon the type-type (that is, types of mental properties are supervenient upon types of physical properties) nomic relationship involved in “strong supervenience”; there are other possible supervenience theories available.

Kim notes that Donald Davidson takes another approach, one that does not appeal to strict nomic relations between sets of properties. In the essay “Mental Events”, Davidson rejects the idea that there are strict laws between mental and physical events and instead takes up the view he calls “anomalous monism”. On this view, mental events are not reducible to physical ones; it “rejects the thesis, usually considered essential to materialism, that mental phenomena can be given purely physical explanations” {ME 214}. Further, he says that anomalous monism allows for a different kind of supervenience:

Such supervenience might be taken to mean that there cannot be two events alike in all physical respects but differing in some mental respect, or that an object cannot alter in some mental respect without altering in some physical respect. Dependence or supervenience of this kind does not entail reducibility through law or definition: if it did, we could not reduce moral properties to descriptive, and this there is good reason to believe cannot be done; and we might be able to reduce truth in a formal system to syntactical properties, and this we know cannot in general be done. {Ibid.}
In Davidson, at least, we have some possibility of adopting a supervenience theory that tries to preserve physicalism as well as the irreducibility of the mental. In a similar spirit, Kim proposes the multiple realization thesis. Multiple realization, like Davidson’s anomalous monism, rejects the notion that there is a strict nomic relation (or, as Kim puts it in Chapter 4, “a biconditional bridge law of the form P←→Q” {MPW 92}, which means that P and Q must always occur together) between mental properties and their base physical properties. In other words, there can be a whole array of physical events and states potentially at work behind any given mental state. In this case, M is not just nomically linked to P; it can be realized through properties {P1Pn}. On the multiple realization view, we can avoid reducing mental states to physical ones in the way implied by strong supervenience.

3. Kim’s futile struggle

Unfortunately, the multiple realization argument does not prevent the exclusion problem, and Descartes indeed has his revenge. Even though multiple realization complicates the supervenience picture, there comes a point at which we have to admit that any possible P that acts as a realizer for M is also in the position of excluding it {Ibid. 110-11}. As I stated at the outset of this paper, by the time he reaches the end of the book, he has to throw in the towel and accept some form of reductive physicalism:

What is becoming increasingly clear from the continuing debate over the mind-body problem is that currently middle-of-the-road positions, like property dualism, anomalous monism, and nonreductive physicalism, are not easily tolerated by robust physicalism. To think that one can be a serious physicalist and at the same time enjoy the company of things and phenomena that are nonphysical, I believe, is an idle dream. Reductive physicalism saves the mental but only as a part of the physical. If what I have argued in these lectures is in the right ballpark, that is what we should expect from physicalism. And that is what we should have expected all along. Physicalism cannot be had on the cheap. {Ibid. 120}

He examines various forms of reduction: functionalism, eliminativism, epiphenomenalism, and so on; however, they all undermine the mental in favour of the physical. There is no way to really preserve the mental, given the commitment to physicalism with which Kim is working. Even though he says in Chapter 2 that we need to make a choice between “various metaphysical alternatives, not between some recondite metaphysical principle on the one hand and some cherished epistemological practice or principle on the other” {Ibid. 62}, Kim is falling prey to the same kind of trap ontologically. What I mean is that while he is trying to evaluate different possible metaphysics (different accounts of how things fundamentally work), he is not thinking about different possible ontologies (different accounts of what things fundamentally are). The physicalist ontology is a descendent of Descartes, despite its attempts to escape from the problems of Cartesian substance dualism. While Descartes’ ontology affirms and posits two radically different substances, physicalism only posits the existence of one, while still maintaining the opposition. In other words, the difference seems to be that Cartesian ontology accepts the intuitive notion that there is a mental life above and beyond physical properties but cannot account for the relation, whereas physicalist (especially reductive physicalist) ontology tries to only affirm the physical but cannot keep the mental from creeping back in and causing problems.

It does not really make sense to doubt the existence of the mental outside of philosophical inquiry; Kim says as much in Chapter 3, when he agrees with Tyler Burge and Lynn Redden Baker and states that the issue is not “one of choosing between metaphysics and mental causation: most of us have already chosen mental causation” {Ibid. 62}. So, he is quite right in coming to the conclusion that his philosophical exercise in Mind in a Physical World has not produced a satisfactory account of mind-body causation; however, he cannot seem to see a way out of it, other than going back to trying some form of dualism out {Ibid. 120}. This is where Kim’s account is most unsatisfactory, since he does not explore other possibilities of construing the world; however, given that his project in the book was to examine the role of the mind in physicalist ontology, it is not as though he was obliged to do so. I would suggest that he merely fails by not suggesting anything outside of physicalism or dualism, when there are other options available. Here I would like to turn to the work of John McDowell and the next section of the paper, in which I try to constitute some kind of alternative proposal that may allow us to speak about the mind as causally efficacious once more.

4. McDowell and blurring the boundaries

The problem created by Descartes is, of course, the radical opposition between mental and physical, subject and object, internal and external. Just as we as we subjects are opposed to the external world as object, our minds are the true seat of our subjectivity and our bodies play the role of the object. As Descartes says, it is the mind that is the true self: the body is secondary. This is at the root of the philosophical tradition within which mainstream philosophy of mind (not to mention metaphysics and ontology) takes place. It carries with it not only the problem of mind-body interaction but also the problem of how the world is constituted. This, of course brings up the question of how we are constituted in the world, whether there actually is a subject/object or internal/external opposition. The notion that the mind is somehow the self in a truer way than the body seems to be a bit of a problem. Certainly John McDowell phrases it in this way:

If we begin with a free-standing notion of an experiential route through objective reality, a temporally extended point of view that might be bodiless so far as the connection between subjectivity and objectivity goes, there seems no prospect of building up from there to a notion of a substantial presence in the world. If something starts out conceiving itself as a merely formal referent for “I” (which is already a peculiar notion), how could it come to appropriate a body, so that it might identify itself with a particular living thing? Perhaps we can pretend to make sense of the idea that such a subject might register a special role played by a particular body in determining the course of its experience. But that would not provide for it to conceive itself, the subject of its experience, as a bodily element in objective reality–as a bodily presence in the world. {MW 103}

McDowell wants to say that positing a “true” nonphysical self is nonsensical: we require bodily instantiation in the world for experience, which not only makes mentality possible but also provides us with the content to develop a sense of “self” and a relation to objective reality. For McDowell, there is no rigid opposition between the mental and physical self. As he says in the afterword to Mind and World, “there is no obstacle to supposing that my use of ‘I’ as subject refers to the human being that I am” {Ibid. 179}. To reverse this proposition, we may ask the question of whether or not it actually makes sense to posit the physical self (that is, what we can observe in terms of neurophysiological states, for example) as being more “real” or “true” than the mental self (that is, our intentional states, beliefs, desires, and accumulated experience). We might ask the question of what doubting our own mentality becomes when even our doubt is reducible to a neural firing: if our doubt is nothing more than an epiphenomenon of some physical event, then how can we even say that we are doubting whether or not we have a mind? In that case, what are we even talking about? Why is it necessary to make such a strong distinction between what we observe of our neurophysiological states and the content of our intentional states?

The point is, as Taylor says (in support of McDowell), “ The I/O image is too powerfully embedded in our beliefs and (scientific, technical, freedom-oriented) way of life” {FD 107}. We are used to conceiving the world through a theoretical point of view: we evaluate it according to scientific inquiry and reach our conclusions for better or for worse. Since mentality (as mentality, not as a function of neurophysiological states) eludes the explanatory framework provided by the laws of physics, it is not accorded causal efficacy or relevance within that framework. It is treated as an incoherent notion and thus relegated to the realm of epiphenomena. What we are not used to doing (in this branch of and approach to philosophy, at least) is taking our mental states and events for what they are. Because of the scientific orientation so deeply embedded in us, it does not seem philosophically kosher to phenomenologically evaluate our mental states and avoid recourse to the kinds of problems inherent in adopting robust physicalism.

McDowell wants to develop an ontology of the world that proceeds phenomenologically rather than according to some a priori conception of the self or according to some detached, theoretical model. This is not necessarily meant to reject neuroscience; however, he rejects adopting that sort of model as the metaphysical or ontological schema of the world. To be sure, intentionality makes no sense on the scientific view – except as it can be described scientifically. This involves describing intentional states in such a way that only what is scientifically observable can be included.

What McDowell thinks is lost in all of this is that this description does not represent a view of the world that has to be more fundamentally true than other possible descriptions. Reductionism does not make sense: it cannot account for the content of peoples’ lives, and it still presents a “closed” view of what it is to be human. To clarify, I mean that it reductionist thinking locates the main locus of mental activity in brain states, and due to its dependence upon the scientific method, it cannot make sense of intentional states. McDowell writes that a “deep element in a broadly Cartesian outlook is an inability to conceive ‘cogitation’ as part of something ‘merely’ natural (so the cast of thought will incline us to put it), such as the life of an individual animal. This inability is manifested in the Cartesian segregation of ‘cogitation’ into a special realm of reality” {MVR 381}.

Conversely, a deep element in a robustly physicalist outlook is an inability to conceive of ‘cogitation’ as sufficiently natural–since it cannot be described in any other way than through neurophysiological states; furthermore, the physicalist outlook does not account for the fact that its grasp and dominion over what is and is not natural is always open for negotiation (to play off a comment made by Kim in MPW). To say that neurophysiology–or even physics proper–can account for all that is natural is to do two things. Firstly, it is to conceive of nature as something that can only be observed, described, and accounted for by science. Secondly, it is to forget that our scientific vocabulary and practices are not a priori or ahistorical. We have not received the laws of physics from some vantage point that is exterior to our experience of the world.

By that token, McDowell notes that modern science understands its subject matter in a way that threatens, at least, to leave it disenchanted, as Weber put the point in an image that has become has become a commonplace. This image marks a contrast between two kinds of intelligibility: the kind that is sought by (as we call it) natural science, and the kind we find in something when we place it in relation to other occupants of ‘the logical space of reasons’, to repeat a suggestive phrase from Wilfred Sellars.

If we identify nature with what natural science aims to make comprehensible, we threaten, at least, to empty it of meaning. By way of compensation, so to speak, we see it as the home of a perhaps inexhaustible supply of intelligibility of the other kind, the kind we find in a phenomenon when we see it as governed by natural law. It was an achievement of modern thought when this second kind of intelligibility was clearly marked off from the first. In a common mediaeval outlook, what we now see as the subject matter of natural science was conceived as filled with meaning, as if all of nature were a book of lessons for us; and is a mark of intellectual progress that educated people cannot now take that idea seriously, except perhaps in some symbolic role. {MW 71}
In this passage, McDowell adeptly brings the problem to the fore: one ontological conception of the world has overtaken another, and it has produced the kinds of problems with which philosophers like Kim are still struggling today. Hilary Putnam writes in agreement with McDowell, saying that McDowell “speaks of a need for a naturalism which ‘re-enchants nature,’ (and) he is deliberately coupling the issues of accepting the intentional notions and the normative notions used in connection with natural science (the epistemic norms, as it were) without reduction and without apology with the issue of accepting our ethical notions … without reduction and without apology” {MMW 187}. Kim himself says that “Metaphysics is the domain where different languages, theories, explanations, and conceptual systems come together and have their mutual ontological relationships sorted out and clarified” {MPW 66}; by attempting to reconstitute ontology in a radically different way than what Descartes bequeathed to us, McDowell is also attempting to come up with a metaphysics that refuses to accept reduction and holds on firmly to all the things which imbue our lives with meaning. I would suggest that it is only if we take on robust physicalism as a precondition for talking about mental causation and the mind-body problem that we have to find a problem with multiple forms of causal explanation and posit a conflict between mentality qua intentionality and mentality qua physical reduction.

5. You've gotta know when to hold 'em...

With McDowell’s approach, talking about mental causation does not have to be so problematic. In a manner recalling the early Heidegger, he brings out the way in which philosophical inquiry transforms over time into bodies of doctrine that cease to elucidate aspects of the world and start to act as limitations on what we can and cannot conceive – or rather, the ways in which we can and cannot conceive. In ways that Kim does not, he effectively goes a good distance toward making metaphysics “work” again. Although Kim does put in a good effort, he does not ask a lot of questions that are crucial to the project. Significantly, the topic of what physicalism (as well as the “natural”) should or should not encompass; namely, whether or not the physical really only falls within the bounds of what can be described by natural science, and whether or not there is adequate justification (or even a good commonsense reason) for adopting the vocabulary of natural science as our primary ontological category. Philosophical tinkering (that is, simply combing over and trying to reconstrue the very concepts that will not allow us to get to where we want to be) is clearly not enough if we are to save the mind from reductionism; a much more bold stance must be taken, and much more radical changes need to be made in order to make causal talk appropriate for our phenomenological and intuitive experience of the world.

Although this paper by no means can offer a complete program for making these changes happen, I would suggest that we can see an open doorway not only through John McDowell’s work, but also through the work of writers such as Taylor, Putnam, and even Davidson; these thinkers (and I am in support of their work) recognize the inadequacy of the “philosophical tradition” and its ontology, and they are trying to work toward an ontology that works with our mode of existence. That mode of existence is, of course, as human beings in the world, whose experiences, beliefs, intentions, and actions cannot sensibly be reduced to scientific propositions. Such talk not only undermines itself (by reducing its very content to a product of epiphenomena), it is also not suitable for understanding what it is to be human. Being human necessarily involves holding beliefs, experiencing real content in the world, and acting upon intentional states that do indeed “make a difference”. We need to have an ontology that reflects this reality, and the task is underway.

Works Cited

  • Davidson, D. “Mental Events” {ME}, in Essays on Actions and Events, 1980; Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2001.
  • Descartes, R. Meditations on First Philosophy {MFP} trans. Donald A. Cress, Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1993.
  • McDowell, J. Mind and World {MW}, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1994.
  • –––––––––– Mind, Value, and Reality {MVR}, 1998; Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002.
  • Putnam, H. “McDowell’s mind and McDowell’s world” {MMW}, in Reading McDowell: On Mind and World, ed. Nicholas H. Smith, New York: Routledge, 2002.
  • Taylor, C. “Foundationalism and the inner-outer distinction” {FD}, in Reading McDowell: On Mind and World, ed. Nicholas H. Smith, New York: Routledge, 2002.