“Physicalism: a critical approach” / Abla Hasan

“Physicalism: a critical approach” / Abla Hasan

PhD Department of Modern Languages & Literatures

University of Nebraska-Lincoln USA


مقال نشر بالعدد الثالث من مجلة جيل العلوم الإنسانية والاجتماعية ص  231  ،  للاطلاع على المقال وكل العدد يرجى الضغط على غلاف العدد: 

العدد  3 من مجلة جيل العلوم الإنسانية والإجتماعية




             Mind-Body problem has been considered for so long a puzzle in the philosophy of mind. Out of the many answers Modern Philosophy provided for the question concerning the ways the mental world and the physical world can be related came the answer provided by the physiclists. Very soon, the distinguished answer provided by physicalism immerged not only as a replacement to dualism but also to be viewed as one of the most reliable approaches to Mind-Body problem. In this paper, I call into question the credibility of the answer provided by physicalism. I argue that philosophical physicalism gained credibility and common acceptance from outside reasons related to epistemological and historical concerns more than being related to the philosophical merit per se.


ملخص :

   لطالما اعتبرت علاقة العقل بالجسد أحد الألغاز الفلسفية الأكثر اشكالية في فلسفة العقل. ولعل أحد أهم الأجوبة المقترحة لحل هذا اللغز و لكيفية التواصل بين العالم العقلي و العالم الجسدي كان الجواب الذي قدمته المدرسة الفلسفية الفيزيائية. سريعا اعتمدت الأوساط الأكاديمية هذا الحل و الذي ما لبث أن تطور لا ليلغي القول بثنائية العقل و الجسد فحسب بل ليحتل مكان الصدارة بوصفة الحل الأمثل و الأكثر جدارة. هذا البحث محاولة للبحث عن حقيقة الجدارة الفلسفية لعلاقة العقل و الجسد من منظور النزعة الفيزيائية الحديثة و محاولة للكشف عن العوامل التاريخية و الابستمولوجية التي ضمنت للنزعة الفيزيائية الشعبية في الأوساط الفلسفية و الأكاديمية على حد سواء.

الكلمات المفتاحية : المدرسة الفلسفية الفيزيائية، علاقة العقل بالجسد، فلسفة العقل، ثنائية العقل و الجسد.

         Physicalism provides a widely accepted answer to the mind-body problem. It is the answer that simply “reduces everything to interactions amongst elementary ‘particles” ((Richard J. Campbell and Mark H. Bickhard, p10). In fact, Modern philosophy of mind  is known for making this dramatic shift from dualism to physicalism. For the majority of philosophers of mind, dualism is an old dated fashion that doesn’t fit any more our contemporary image of the world. In his paper, “Physicalism and human sciences”, David Papineau wrote:

           A hundred years ago most educated thinkers had no doubt those non-physical processes occurred within living bodies and intelligent minds.  Nor was this an anti-scientific stance:  the point would have been happily agreed by most practicing scientists of the time.  Yet nowadays anybody who says that minds and bodies involve non-physical processes is regarded as a crank. This is a profound intellectual shift.  (Papineau, David,2009).

          However, despite the popularity of physicalism; simplest observations can be good enough to raise suspicions and questions whether physicalism can be the final answer one can provide to the mind-body problem. In their paper, “Physicalism, emergence and downward causation”, Richard J. Campbell and Mark H. Bickhard  refer to the following simple observation :

Just a little reflection on the differences between a living body and a dead corpse calls into question this lumping together of everything non-mental as ‘physical’. We all know that right from the time of death (whatever are the criteria for determining that time, and whether or not death is instantaneous or occurs over a shortish period) the corpse begins to disintegrate. It literally disappears, unless the natural process of disintegration is artificially suspended – by freezing, embalming, or placing in formalin. Obviously, there is something to being a living organism that is more than the assemblage of atoms and molecules.( Richard J. Campbell and Mark H. Bickhard)

But, if this was the case, and if our simple observation can’t guarantee any specific physical assertion, what reasons do we have to adopt physicalism? What made physicalism that popular?  First and in order to be able to answer this question I will start by explaining physicalism itself.

i.What is physicalism?

             Physicalism is defined as the thesis that the mental facts depend on the physical facts. Roughly speaking, when the talk is about physicalism, we should expect the mention, explicitly or implicitly of two levels of entities and properties: mental and psychical. Barbara Montero defines physicalism as the following,Physicalism is typically thought to tell us what the fundamental properties of the world are like as well as tell us how all higher level features of the world relate to such properties: the fundamental properties are physical, according to physicalism, and all other properties are determined, in some significant sense, by the fundamental physical properties. (Montero, Barbara, 2006)

                 Physicalism then, in a way or another, has been one of the dominant views in metaphysics and philosophy of mind  in the latter part of the 20th century. According to this view, mental phenomena were interpreted as being identical with states and processes in the brain. But as Richard J. Campbell and Mark H. Bickhard make clear, the tricky part about physicalism was to explain how can mental properties be dependent on physical properties without being simply reducible to them,to explain how it is that mental properties and events are not reducible to physical properties and events, but are nevertheless dependent upon them. Mental concepts may not be able to be defined in terms of physical concepts, but what might look like an emergent, causally efficacious property at the mental level actually ‘supervenes’ on a person’s physical properties and powers. (Richard J. Campbell and Mark H. Bickhard).

ii.Physicalism as viewed by physiclists:

In this section I explain why do physiclists believe in physicalism, and what are the main arguments in favor of  physicalism:

  1. 1.  The scientific argument (the completeness of physics):

          With no doubt the scientific explanation has dominated all other kinds of explanations. With the advent of our new scientific theories we have excluded all kinds of magical and supernatural causes and there is no more room left for explaining any phenomenon by appealing to unknown or mysterious reasons. More importantly, as a result to this scientific tendency, metaphysics like any other academic approach started to increasingly borrow its methods as well as its primacies from natural science. Eventually, the result was the advent of physicalism as the most plausible thesis amongst all the other competing ones. Many nowadays argue that metaphysics should not be approached in a way different from science but should rather be thought of as continuous with it. This is what Daniel Stoljar calls “The Argument from Methodological Naturalism”.The argument which concludes by the assertion that it is rational to believe in physicalism.

Peter Slezak describes Physicalism today as the following,

  Although Dualism is certainly the most widely held view laymen, it is nowadays dismissed by most philosophers as not merely implausible, but utterly without scientific merit and, therefore, no longer deserving to be taken seriously among the contending theories of mind. (Slezak,2000)

However, this is still a general argument; to be more specific, the scientific argument in favor of physicalism has taken the name of what was called “the completeness of physics”: the claim that physics forms a closed system, more precisely, the claim that when we start by a physical effect, we never have to leave the realm of the physical explanation to find a fully sufficient cause for that effect.  David Jon Spurrett wrote,

 The history of science since the nineteenth century shows clearly that the empirical credentials of the view that the world is causally closed at the level of a small number of purely physical forces and types of energy is stronger than ever, and the credentials of emergent is correspondingly weaker. (Spurrett,1999)

               As he explains “The Completeness Thesis is one of a small number of things about which those who call themselves physicalists are in broad agreement” (Spurrett,1999). The notion of the completeness of physics goes back to Papineau. This notion served physicalists as the following: as I have mentioned before, physicalism includes the epistemic division of entities and properties in to two levels; the level of the physical ones, and the level of the non-physical properties, including the mental ones. The later are considered to be determined by physical ones. But this requires the physical properties to be themselves determined by any mental ones. Therefore, as David Jon Spurrett puts it, “The ‘best case scenario’ for the set of determining properties is that it be causally self-sufficient, that is to say ‘complete’” (Spurrett,1999)

        In fact, the relation between the notion of the completeness of physics and physicalism is strong that we can even claim that the primary asset to physicalism came from this notion. David Jon Spurrett observed this connection, where he wrote,

 If the Completeness Thesis turns out to be indefensible, then, this would do serious damage to the credibility of any form of physicalism. If on the other hand it turns out to be strongly justifiable this fact would be a source of support for the wider physicalist project, no matter what outstanding problems remained to be solved for that project. (Spurrett,1999)

           To elaborate more what we mean by argument of the completeness of physics let’s see the following formulation was offered by David Jon Spurrett, which I found to be quite useful, “A science X is complete iff X is capable of fixing the likelihood of X-type events solely by reference to prior X-events and X-laws”(Spurrett,1999).  But if this is the main thesis of the completeness of physics, how does it assert physicalism? David Papineau, in an attempt to answer this question, refers to the need for an argument, which can enable us to get from the completeness of physics itself to the imperialist physicalist conclusion that everything is physical. However, the general shape of such an argument as he puts it is something like the following,

 if the completeness of physics is right, and all physical effects are due to physical causes, then anything that has a physical effect must itself be physical. Or, to put it the other way round, if the completeness of physics is right, then there is no room left for anything non-physical to make a difference to physical effects, so anything that does make such a difference must itself be physical. (Papineau, The rise of physicalism,2000)

           As Papineau makes clear, the rise of physicalist doctrines in the second half of this century “is due to contemporary agreement on the completeness of physics” (Papineau, The rise of physicalism,2000). However, for this main reason –I argue- we can doubt the originality of the answer physicalism provides to the mind-body problem. The completeness of physics which become a fashion in today’s academic research turned physicalism into the most appropriate most plausible candidate to solve the mind-body problem not because of what physicalism itself provided for the philosophy of mind but because of the domination of physicalism as a new fashion in our modern research.

2.The empirical argument :

             This argument depends on the empirical observation that, all human mental phenomena are dependent on neural phenomena. Andrew Melnyk says,“we never catch the human mind at work without also catching the human brain at work” (Andrew, Melnyk, 2007). All mental states, processes and activities found to be accompanied by neural activity of that takes place simultaneously in the person’s brain. As Andrew Melnyk explains, In the numerous studies that support this finding, a brain-imaging technique is applied to the brain of a human experimental subject who has been subjected to some stimulus (e.g., spoken words, objects placed in the hand) or instructed to perform some mental task (e.g., to read silently, to clench a fist). What is found in the studies is that in each subject distinctive regions of the subject’s brain are especially active when a particular stimulus is presented or mental task performed. In addition, it is not controversial that Alcohol, narcotics, some drugs can affect, cripple, or even destroy one’s capacity for rational thought and other brain activities. In fact, this empirically observed dependence of the mental on the neural was simply explained by Melnyk as many others as a physicalism about the human mind. These empirical evidences turned what was once considered as immaterial mental phenomena to material phenomena that has basis in the nervous system, most notably in the brain and its complex array of interconnected neural networks. The main problem for such tendency in the behavioral and brain sciences is their calling into question the notion that we need appeal to anything beyond or above the brain and body – an immaterial soul, for instance – to explain behavior and experience, whether normal or abnormal.

3.The argument from  simplicity :

             Although the scientific tendency to prefer the simplest theory, when more than one is available, is a traditionally rooted tendency that can be traced back even to the very first beginning of the emergence of the scientific theories, when scientific explanation separated from magical, supernatural and even religious explanation, the strongest fortification for this tendency came from the later notable place occupied by the evolutionary explanation which in a way or another succeeded in eliminating the most of the other competing explanations –at least for a while – .

               The primitive version of the scientific bias towards choosing the simpler, goes back the 14th century, with the formulation of Occam’s Razor. Leibniz, referred to the elusive connection between simplicity and truth by means of a direct appeal to the grace of God, Since God is omnipotent and infinitely kind, it follows that the actual world is the most elegant truth.

               Later on, the success of the Darwinian approach to explanation in biology formed the main support to the argument in favor of simplicity in science. Broadly speaking, the natural selection’s main proposal was the claim of explaining the complex variety by the appeal to the simple idea of the natural selection. Darwinism as Rosenberg explains is simply,“the thesis that the diversity, complexity and especially the adaptatedness which organic phenomena manifest is solely the result of successive rounds of random variation and natural selection.” (Rosenberg)

          According to the theory of the natural selection, all the biological complexity and diversity can be explained by the struggle for survival which Darwin proposed in the “Origen of species” where we read;

A struggle for existence inevitably follows from the high rate at which all organic beings tend to increase. Every being, which during its natural lifetime produces several eggs or seeds, must suffer destruction during some period of its life, and during some season or occasional year, otherwise, on the principle of geometrical increase, its numbers would quickly become so inordinately great that no country could support the product. Hence, as more individuals are produced than can possibly survive; there must in every case be a struggle for existence, either one individual with another of the same species, or with the individuals of distinct species, or with the physical conditions of life. (Darwin, The origin of species,p36)

          In fact, simplicity played a double role in the natural selection proposal, first; this easily observed simplicity in which the explanation takes place in the natural selection theory, was one of the strongest claims of this theory’s supporters in their debate with their main opponent theory, namely, the intelligent design theory, which on the other hand suspected in the first theory’s ability to reduce the complicity of the biological phenomena level that can be as simple as the natural selection. On the other hand, the success of the evolutionary project as the main scientific project in the nineteenth the twentieth centuries backed up the notion that the answer to our main questions, even those metaphysical ones can be found in simplicity which turned to became the main scientific virtue that any scientific proposal should seek.

                The echo of this tendency when applied on the main problem of the philosophy of mind; I mean the mind- body problem, was the bias towards choosing what can be interpreted as the simplest theory among other competing suggestions, and what can be simpler than physicalism!. As Kevin T. Kelly explains,

  Simplicity” is understood in a variety of ways in different contexts. For example, simpler theories are supposed to posit fewer entities or causes, to have fewer adjustable parameters, to be more “unified” and “elegant”, to posit more uniformity or symmetry in nature, to provide stronger explanations, or to be more strongly cross-tested by the available data. (Kelly,2007)

 Now, obviously, the physical approach to the mind-body problem satisfies all these conditions more than any other candidate. Consequently, one way of explaining the tendency for preferring physicalism, I claim here is by reducing it to the organized as well as the justified scientific bias towards simplicity.  In all cases, it is still worthy and somehow useful to refer to the problematic nature of using simplicity as an accredited ground for any justifiable preference for some theories over others when all are available .In his paper, “What is the Problem of Simplicity?” Elliott Sober correctly asks the following question, “If simplicity is used to justify choosing theory X over theory Y, then it must be shown that the greater simplicity of theory X makes it more plausible.” (Sober, 2002)

           Any ways, it seems as if something like preferring the simplest has in a way or another something to do with physicalism. Roughly speaking, and forgive me if it appears as a kind of an over implication to the whole body-mind problem, eliminating one of the both sides of the conjunction, I mean by reducing it to the other, will consequently be sufficient for the elimination of all the problems that are more related to the other part and in some since it can lead to the elimination to the problems that are more related to the connection between the two sides, namely, the body on the one hand and the mind on the other. But, solving the mind-body problem in favor of the simplest happens on the coast of the credibility of the answer physicalism provides. With no doubt physicalism guarantees a more accurate less tricky way of getting out of the problem. It can eliminate the possibility of  drifting away with supernatural, spiritual and even magical proposals which threatens with no doubt the reliability of any scientific theory. But, unfortunately  this elimination leaves us with the question what if the solution to the mind-body problem entails more than the limited circle of plausible answers  entailed by physicalism?


            In sum, the main purpose of this paper was to answer the question regarding the physicalism observable dominance in philosophy of mind  in the second half of the 20th century. For the purpose of answering the question three arguments were discussed. First; the scientific argument, more precisely; the completeness of physics, Second; the empirical argument and finally; the argument from simplicity.


1-   Richard J. Campbell and Mark H. Bickhard,  “Physicalism, emergence and downward causation” , Available online at: http://www.lehigh.edu/~mhb0/physicalemergence.pdf

2-   Papineau, David, “Physicalism and human sciences”, in C Mantzavinos (ed): Philosophy of the social sciences: Philosophical theory and scientific practice, 2009, available online at: http://www.davidpapineau.co.uk/articles-online.html

3-   Richard J. Campbell and Mark H. Bickhard,  “Physicalism, emergence and downward causation”.

4-   Montero, Barbara, “Physicalism in an infinity decomposable world”,  Erkenntnis Vol. 64, No. 2 (Mar., 2006), pp. 177-191, 2006, available online at http://barbaramontero.files.wordpress.com/2012/02/draft-of-physicalism-in-an-infinitely-decomposable-world.pdf

5-   Richard J. Campbell and Mark H. Bickhard,  “Physicalism, emergence and downward causation”.

6-   Slezak, Peter, “The mind-brain problem”, Evian Gordon ed., Integrative Neuroscience, Amsterdam: Harwood Academic Publishers, 2000 49-63, available online at: http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=

7-   Spurrett, David Jon, “The completeness of physics”, Submitted in fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in Philosophy, University of Natal, 1999, available online at: http://cogprints.org/3379/1/DSTHESIS.pdf

8-   Ibid, introduction.

9-    Ibid

10-    Ibid

11-    Papineau, David, “The rise of physicalism”, in J Wolff (ed), the proper ambition of science, 2000, available online at: http://www.davidpapineau.co.uk/articles-online.html : http://www.davidpapineau.co.uk/articles-online.html

12-    Ibid

13-    Andrew, Melnyk,”a case for physicalism about the human mind”, 2007,  avilable online at http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/andrew_melnyk/physicalism.html

14-    Rosenberg, Alexander, “Darwinism in Contemporary Moral Philosophy and Social Theory”, available online at: http://people.duke.edu/~alexrose/moral.pdf

15-    Darwin, Charles, “The origin of species”,struggle for existence C3 , P36 .

16-    Kelly, Kevin T., “Simplicity, Truth, and the Unending Game of Science” (2007). Department of Philosophy. Paper 382. http://repository.cmu.edu/philosophy/382

17-    Sober , Elliott , “What is the Problem of Simplicity?” from H. Keuzenkamp, M. McAleer, and A. Zellner (eds.), Simplicity,   Inference, and Econometric Modelling, Cambridge University Press, 2002, pp. 13-32. available online at http://sober.philosophy.wisc.edu/selected-papers

/articles-online.html in J Wolff .

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