Davidson's anomalous monism
Thomas (Janice L.)
Source: Thomas (Janice L.) - Mind and Person in the Philosophy of Religion
Paper - Abstract

Paper SummaryText Colour-Conventions


  1. Essential reading – 69
  2. Further reading – 69
  3. What is Davidson's theory? – 69
  4. Supervenience1 – 70
  5. Holism and anomalousness – 71
  6. Davidson's three principles — arguing for monism – 71
  7. Criticisms of Davidson's position – 72
  8. Conclusion – 73
  9. Learning outcomes – 73
  10. Sample examination questions – 74
  11. Tips for answering the sample questions – 74
Full Text
  1. Essential Reading
  2. Further reading
  3. What is Davidson's theory?
    • ‘Monism' is the view that there is only one kind of substance. ‘Anomalous' means ‘lawless' or 'unlawlike'. So Davidson's anomalous monism is the theory that persons are entirely material entities (there is only one kind of substance: material substance) and there are no strict laws relating the mental states persons can be said to be in to their physical states.
    • What I have just given is a thumbnail sketch/summary. Now for the detail. Davidson believes that the realm of the mind, of mental states and events, somehow resists capture in scientific laws. He thinks there are not, and cannot be, laws which relate the mental to the physical and vice versa. That is, there are none of what are sometimes called 'psychophysical laws' — laws of the form, ‘when someone is in such and such a neural/physical state he is in such and such a psychological/mental state'.
    • Davidson opposes both dualism and the sort of identity theory which suggests (as the classic central state materialist position held) that science will give us more and more psycho-physical laws until we just cannot help identifying the physical with the mental.
    • Although Davidson makes various passes at distinguishing mental phenomena from physical phenomena, he is not particularly concerned with making this distinction in a precise way that would settle all borderline cases. Rather, he is convinced that there are plenty of what we can all agree are central cases of mental states and phenomena which form a realm with their own special character (holism — more on this below). The realm of the mental is different from that which is the subject matter of physics. So he is a materialist. (He will argue for token—token materialism.) But he is a materialist who does not endorse reductionism. That is, he does not believe that the right way to talk about the mental is to talk as if it could be reduced without remainder to the physical.
    • Davidson wants to explain and account for, not eliminate, mental states. He sees his position as non-reductive. In this he is quite opposed to thinkers like Paul Churchland ("Churchland (Paul) - Matter & Consciousness", pp. 43-49) whose own favoured theory is what Churchland dubs ‘eliminative materialism': in time, Churchland believes, we will realise that there are no such things as beliefs, hopes, fears, sensations, mental states, etc. as referred to in our ordinary everyday vocabulary of psychological attribution. These are nothing but states or events in the central nervous system.
    • In contrast, Davidson believes the ‘nothing but' terminology is very misleading. For example, Bach's work of composition which produced his Art of the Fugue may have involved exclusively physical substances in action (i.e. no immaterial substance was involved) but that is precisely not to say that that inspired act of creation was nothing but a mere physical event. Rather, for Davidson, mental events are supervenient upon physical events.
  4. Supervenience2
    • Reading
      "Graham (George) - Philosophy of Mind: An Introduction", 1998, pp. 164-72 and Glossary.
      "Priest (Stephen) - Theories of the Mind", 1991, pp. 118-19.
    • What does supervenience3 mean? The easiest way to explain is with a mundane example. If you sit down you may find the family dog asking to sit in your lap. Your lap is something that does not exist independently of your sitting - it is something that comes into existence when you sit and disappears when you stand up. We could say that it supervenes4 on your seated figure.
    • Again, to take a more exalted example, the beauty of a beautiful statue is not an entity or substance additional to the marble of which the statue is made. Beauty is a supervenient property. That is not to say that it is unreal. Your lap is real: when you are sitting, it is really there. The beauty of the statue is also real: if the sculptor has given it the right proportions and form, then it really is beautiful. Moreover, any statue that was physically exactly like it would be beautiful too.
    • But it is not the case that the vocabulary in which we attribute beauty is simply translatable into the vocabulary of physics. Or perhaps better, it is not (on Davidson's view) possible to explain the meanings of aesthetic concepts like ‘beauty' in wholly non-evaluative terms. (Two sentences ago I could not escape describing the proportions and form in virtue of which the statue would be beautiful as ‘right' - an evaluative term.) Likewise, for Davidson, mental events cannot be described or accounted for entirely in physical terms whether in terms of behaviour or in terms of neuronal states. Mental states and events are not reducible to the physical. (See "Priest (Stephen) - Theories of the Mind", p. 119) where he talks about the impossibility of explaining moral concepts in non-evaluative terms or of explaining the nature of physical objects entirely in terms of actual or possible sense contents.)
  5. Holism and anomalousness
    • Reading
      "Priest (Stephen) - Theories of the Mind", 1991, p. 119.
    • The lawlessness of the mental realm is, for Davidson, the other side of the coin from its holism — the ‘special character' of the mental mentioned in the first section above. The easiest way to see what Davidson means by the holism of the mental is to think again of the futility of the logical behaviourists' attempts to account for mental states — even the simplest of beliefs — completely in terms of behaviour and behavioural dispositions. A belief that it is about to rain will translate into a disposition to take an umbrella only if you also have various other beliefs and wants — you want to keep dry and believe that umbrellas keep you that way.
    • It just is not possible to identify one of a subject's mental states in isolation from the rest of his or her mental states — independently of his or her whole, largely coherent, network of beliefs, desires, intentions, wishes, hopes, fears, etc. ‘Largely coherent' means that although some of a person's beliefs and ideas may be mistaken or actually contradictory, no great proportion of them can be. If we have rational agents (and we do if we are looking at subjects with minds), we have to interpret those subjects as usually, customarily, rational, not self-contradictory, prepared to endorse the foreseeable implications of their beliefs, etc.
    • But if all this is right and no single mental state can be comprehended in isolation because each depends on its place in the whole fabric of a subject's mental life for its identity, then we can begin to see why Davidson believes there can be no laws of the sort that the early identity theorists believed in, relating types of mental states to types of brain state. It is not the type of brain state it is that makes a mental state the sort of mental state it is: rather, it is its place in its subject's whole mental life. This place will, in turn, depend on the rest of the subject's beliefs, desires and intentions. And it will certainly differ from individual to individual.
    • It is part of Davidson's view that one and the same (token) brain state in me might be identical with a particular thought with a particular content at some moment in my life while my exact physical double, who has been raised in a different culture and language, experiencing an exactly similar (token) brain state, might be having quite a different thought with quite a different content. So brain state type ought not to be identified with mental state type. Indeed it cannot be so identified. We will look in vain for laws connecting brain state types with mental or psychological state types.
  6. Davidson's three principles - arguing for monism
    • But if Davidson is so firmly against type—type identity as a theory of mind, how can he be (as he is) a materialist and a monist? The answer lies in what he says about three principles, all three of which he thinks we cannot resist. They (and their titles) look far more dauntingly technical than they are on closer inspection:
      … 1. The Principle of Psycho-physical Causation: ‘at least some mental events interact causally with physical events'.
      … 2. The Nomological Character of Causality: ‘where there is causality there must be a law: events related as cause and effect fall under strict deterministic laws'.
      … 3. The Anomalism of the Mental: ‘there are no strict deterministic laws on the basis of which mental events can be predicted and explained'.
    • The first just says what common sense tells us — we all experience causal interaction between the mental and the physical all the time. For example, when light reflected off an object enters my eye (physical cause) at the end of a causal chain involving my nerves and brain I have an experience which is my seeing the object (mental effect). In the other direction, when I hear the doorbell (mental cause) I go and answer the door (physical effect).
    • The second says that when an effect comes of or is produced by its cause there is some law governing the operation of that cause to produce that effect.
    • As we have seen, the third principle says that types of mental state are not related by strict laws to types of physical/brain state.
    • The first two principles seem intuitively to be very convincing and Davidson has given us a plausible case for the third principle. The trouble is, as Davidson says, the three seem to sit uncomfortably together. The answer Davidson gives is to show how, far from being at odds with one another, the three principles taken together give us an argument for a token identity theory of mind.
    • This argument relies on the homely fact that any individual particular thing may turn out to fall under more than one type. To take a very simple example, a red triangle falls under both ‘red thing' and ‘triangle'.
    • Now think of an apparent case of a mental event causing a physical one — say, my believing it is going to rain (mental event) and reaching out my hand to take my umbrella (physical event). The belief about impending rain would seem to be the cause of the reaching of the hand. If this is true then under some descriptions the belief and the reaching must together instantiate some strict causal law (by Principle 2).
    • But the descriptions cannot be ‘belief that rain is coming' and ‘reaching' because (Davidson has argued) there cannot be strict deterministic laws relating a mental and a physical event (this is Principle 3).
    • So the relevant description of the belief must be some physical account of what went on in my brain when I believed it was about to rain. That brain event could be and was related in a law governed by physical laws to the arm event of reaching.
    • Strict laws are not available to predict what you will believe from your past thoughts or what your body will do given what you are thinking, but they are available to relate brain states to other physical states of the body. For my belief that it is about to rain to cause my physical act of reaching out for my umbrella requires that that belief be, not just a mental state, but a physical event that admits of a physical description as well.
    • Davidson's conclusion, teased out of his three principles, is that every mental event that is causally related to a physical event is itself a physical event. That is, token physicalism or token identity is proven.
  7. Criticisms of Davidson's position
    • Critics of Davidson's anomalous monism have generally not disputed the validity of his argument. Rather, worry centres in the power (or lack of it) which Davidson has granted to mental states or happenings to influence what goes on in the world. Some fear that Davidson has made mental states causally impotent.
    • In the example above, my reaching out for my umbrella was supposed to be caused by my belief that it was about to rain. But Davidson's argument is that it is only the physical properties of the token brain event identical with that belief that cause my arm-reaching. If a qualitatively exactly similar brain event had happened but had failed to be identical with that mental event (belief), the arm-reaching would have been triggered by the brain event in just the same way. Only physical features have physical power, causal efficacy: only physical properties can be effective. Mental features and properties seem to be left powerless and unproductive on the causal sidelines.
    • Davidson's response to this objection is well captured by "Smith (Peter) & Jones (O.R.) - The Philosophy of Mind - An Introduction" (Chapter XII, section 7, p. 249) with their example of the hurricane report on page 5 of The Times and the report of a bridge collapse on page 13 of the Guardian. The event reported on page 5 might have caused the event reported on page 13, but we would not expect there to be scientific laws phrased in terms of ‘page 5 events' and ‘page 13 events' to explain the bridge collapse.
    • Likewise, we should not expect to see scientific laws relating beliefs (mental events) to actions (physical events). We should expect physical laws to be expressed in terms compatible with each other — terms, as Davidson says, that were ‘made for each other'. Terms like ‘firing pattern in my brain' and ‘arm muscle movement' are made for each other: terms like ‘belief in impending rain' and ‘muscle movement X' are not.
  8. Activity
    • Do you think that Davidson has escaped the charge of making mental states causally impotent? Does it matter whether your belief is described in terms of its content (e.g. a belief that it is about to rain) or in terms of its physical realisation (neuronal firing in such and such a pattern)? Surely it is the same entity, bringing about the same action, however you describe it?
  9. Conclusion
    • You must reach your own conclusion about whether Davidson has succeeded in accounting for the mind wholly in material terms and yet preserving the mind's causal power. In any event, as a proponent of a version of the token-token identity theory, Davidson must also have some response to make to any criticisms addressed to token identity theories or physicalism generally.
    • You might want to ask yourself what such criticisms might be. Looking back over the various theories of the mind advanced so far in this guide you will see that there are many rivals to token physicalism who may feel they have not been defeated and are still in contention. There are also objectors who, while not claiming to have proven or resuscitated substance dualism, would claim to be able to furnish good grounds for scepticism about materialism, grounds that would make us cautious about dismissing the non-monistic alternative. In Chapter 9, we will look at some of these — the scepticism of Kripke, Nagel and Jackson.
  10. Learning outcomes: At the end of this chapter, having read the secondary works recommended and at least one of Davidson's own articles, you should be able to:
    • Explain the meaning of ‘anomalous monism.'
    • Discuss what Davidson means by ‘holism' and ‘supervenience5.'
    • Outline Davidson's account of the nature of mental states and events.
    • Summarise the meanings of each of Davidson's three principles and explain how together they yield an argument for token identity.
  11. Sample examination questions
    • How does Davidson use his anomalous monism to show that a belief in God must be identical with some physical event in the believer's body?
    • If psychological properties supervene6 on physical properties does this show that, in a sense, the physical properties are all that is real?
    • What is supervenience7 and how does it help with the mind/body problem?
  12. Tips for answering the sample questions
    • As in previous topics, the examiners are looking first for your understanding of the terms of the discussion. Begin by giving a thumbnail definition of ‘anomalous', ‘monism', ‘supervenience8', ‘real'. If no single agreed sense attaches to a term (like ‘real'), you should point this fact out (being careful to say what the rival meanings are) and say which sense or senses you will be using in your answer. Then answer the question. Note that in the first question above ‘a belief in God' is just being used as an example of a belief. You are being asked how Davidson defends token physicalism — the particular content of individual beliefs is not very important.


Part 1 (The Metaphysics of Mind and Body); Section 2 (Varieties of anti-dualism and materialism); Chapter 8. Hard Copy filed in "Various - Papers on Religion Boxes (Heythrop)".

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  1. Blue: Text by me; © Theo Todman, 2018
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