Emergence and Non-Reductive Physicalism

Authored by: Cynthia Macdonald , Graham Macdonald

The Routledge Handbook of Emergence

Print publication date:  March  2019
Online publication date:  March  2019

Print ISBN: 9781138925083
eBook ISBN: 9781315675213
Adobe ISBN:


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Non-reductive physicalism is the view that although all empirical entities and phenomena are physical, mental properties or kinds are irreducibly distinct from physical ones. Early contemporary versions of physicalism (such as those endorsed by brain state theorists J.J.C. Smart (1959) and Herbert Feigl (1958)) were committed to the identity of mental properties or kinds with physical ones. Such type–type identity was taken to be the earmark of reductive physicalism. The phenomenon of multiple realizability of mental properties or kinds by physical ones – the thesis, made famous by Hilary Putnam (1967), that one and the same mental property or kind may be realized in the same or in different organisms by not one but rather many distinct physical properties or kinds – was one of the early motivations for non-reductive physicalism (Putnam (1967); J. Fodor (1974)). Other proponents of physicalism were struck not only by the multiple realizability of mental properties or types but, importantly, also by the intentional nature of mental phenomena, which seemed to them to have no place in physical theory, but who, for this reason, were inclined to be eliminativist about the mental (cf. W.V.O. Quine (1960); P. Feyerabend (1963)). For present purposes this entry will focus on the version of non-reductive physicalism that has its source in the seminal work of Donald Davidson (1970) and Jerry Fodor (1974). Davidson focused attention on the phenomenon of intentionality, which he considered to be constitutive of the mental domain. He argued for a position he termed ‘anomalous monism’ – ‘anomalous’ because according to it mental events do not fall under universal, exceptionless psychophysical or psychological laws, and ‘monism’ because such events are nevertheless held to be identical with physical ones. The monism argued for is a physical monism because mental/physical events do fall under universal, exceptionless physical laws governing their causal interactions with physical events. Fodor’s emphasis was on the taxonomic divergence between upper-level sciences and physics: money, for example, has no corresponding physical kind, given that monetary tokens are constituted from diverse physical items (e.g., gold, silver, paper, etc.). Both variants of the view combine token physicalism (the view that each individual mental event or phenomenon is identical with a physical one) with type or kind distinctness. Subsequent discussions of the position typically formulate the type distinctness claim in terms of properties, although Davidson himself was never comfortable with property talk.

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