On Formulating Materialism and Dualism
Snowdon (Paul)
Source: J. Heil (ed); Cause, Mind, and Reality: Essays Honoring C. B. Martin
Paper - Abstract

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Author’s Introduction

  1. Post-war philosophy of mind has been dominated by a near unanimous agreement that dualism is incorrect. The disagreement has been over identifying the fundamental fault in the dualist theory, and hence over what alternative way of thinking is correct. We can, then, plot the development of theories during this period in terms of one anti-dualist theory being replaced by another because reflection revealed (or seemed to reveal) that the first response itself involved an unconvincing or unacceptable commitment. Thus, for example, Ryle (to give a very crude characterisation of his view) thought that the Cartesian Dualist's fundamental error was that of miscategorising our psychological vocabulary, of regarding its terms as standing for entity-like, episodic, things, whereas according to him, the correct approach was to regard them as ascribing disposition-like states. This was eventually rejected because it seemed itself to miscategorise experiential (or conscious) occurrences, which precisely are real occurrences with causal properties. The need to accommodate this conviction within an anti-dualist framework resulted in the early versions of the psycho-physical identity theory.
  2. Pulling back somewhat from the details, it seems to me hard not to think that the emergence of the identity theory represents one divide in the period. It is, however, not easy to articulate the shift in thinking which its emergence represents. Prior to its general emergence the most discussed responses to dualism, those of Ryle, Wittgenstein and Strawson, were united in thinking that dualism springs from some conceptual confusion (of a no doubt deep and compelling kind), which was to be opposed, therefore, by displaying the confusion and eliminating it. On this conception theorising a priori with the greatest care would suffice to eliminate dualism. With the identity theory, opposition to dualism was to be expressed in the affirmation of an identity, between certain types of entities. The dualist was now viewed like someone who denied that George Eliot was Marian Evans, or that lightning was electricity. Part of the point of such comparisons was to indicate that keeping one's a priori theorising as hygienic as possible was no guarantee that error would be avoided. The hard work lay in determining about which entities (types or tokens? which tokens?) to affirm identities, in articulating precisely why to affirm an identity between them, and in explaining why long-standing arguments against such identities, which thought they had located differences of properties between the entities, were unsound.
  3. I think that it is true to say that Professor C. B. Martin's attitude to all the anti-dualist theories I have so far mentioned is that they are wrong, and that therefore the correct anti-dualist account must draw on resources which the main tradition of thought has not properly articulated. This conviction, which might be summarised in the slogan that the truth about the mind lies somewhere between dualism and conventional forms of materialism, is an increasingly popular one. I would regard Nagel (1986, Chapters 2 and 3), Stroud (1986/87), Searle (1984, Chapter 1), McDowell (1985), and Schiffer (1987b), as having expressed support for it. Dualism is not returning but there is considerable fragmentation amongst its opposition.
  4. It is, therefore, a good moment (and, perhaps, an appropriate place) to ask how best we should understand the central claim of materialism (or physicalism), and also that of dualism. If we can arrive at a conception of these views, we can then ask whether there are possible alternative views, and which option is most plausible.
  5. In this paper I shall explore one way of stating the thesis of materialism (and that of dualism). The way is, I shall claim, intuitively plausible both in the notions it employs and in its conception of materialism, but it faces problems of clarification and elucidation. So in the end it will remain unclear (and I remain unclear) whether it presents a formulation with which we can be happy. One important reason why things remain unclear is that it is very hard to decide how much needs to be explained before one can be confident that the terms are so much as intelligible or applicable.
  6. I have talked so far, in the description of this paper's programme, of formulating theories. But theories are simply answers to questions, and so we could re-describe the aim as that of formulating the fundamental question (or issue) to which these theories are competing answers. What is the mind-body problem? So sometimes I shall talk about formulating theories, at others I shall talk about formulating the issue.

Text Colour Conventions (see disclaimer)

  1. Blue: Text by me; © Theo Todman, 2017
  2. Mauve: Text by correspondent(s) or other author(s); © the author(s)



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