Post-physicalism and the Mind-Body Problem

From January 2016 to December 2017

What would philosophy of mind look like if physicalism were no longer the default position? In other words, how would philosophical theorizing about the mind change if it were no longer assumed that everything, including the mind, is physical? Over the past fifteen years, I have been reconceptualizing the mind-body problem, which is the problem of accounting for how mind relates to matter, so as to allow for an array of positions that oppose the standard conception of physicalism while, at the same time, capturing some of its core commitments (Montero 1999, 2001, 2003a, 2003b, 2004, 2005, 2006a, 2006b, 2007, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2015a, 2015b, in press, Montero and Papineau 2005, Montero and Papineau in press). I will write a book, provisionally entitled The Post-Physical World: An Account of Mind without Matter, that synthesizes my research to date on this topic and develops a new argument challenging the physicalist’s cherished principle of causal closure: that all physical effects have sufficient physical causes.

In the book, I aim to delineate an account of mentality that, though arguably physicalistic in spirit, does not require one’s brain and environment to dictate entirely what goes on in one’s mind. Drawing from my work on what I call ‘the body problem’, which is the problem of understanding what is meant by the term ‘physical’, I plan to begin the book by arguing that the standard understanding of the debate over the mind-body problem, an understanding that pits physicalism against dualism, is untenable; this will naturally lead into my proposal for conceiving of the debate in ‘post-physical’ terms; I would then consider the canonical arguments for dualism in light of this revision; and, finally, I would critically analyze the inductive evidence for physicalism, delving into both the physiological and neurological data. Ultimately, I aim to arrive at a picture of the relation between mind and body that is consistent with our scientific understanding of the world yet denies that mentality is reducible to any lower level features of the world.

If successful, the book would be philosophically important as it would sever the dichotomous way of thinking about the physical world that leads to either physicalistic eliminativism (whereby mentality, in being nothing over and above neural properties, is merely nominally mental) or anti-scientific dualism (whereby mentality is the sui generis feature of our world that eludes science). And I aspire for it to be scientifically relevant as well: for it is my impression that although philosophers of mind sometimes argue for the reducibility of certain features of the world—biological facts to facts about interactions of macromolecules, for example—based on the idea that scientific data supports it, scientists sometimes claim that although no reductive account of the relevant facts is forthcoming there must be one because, after all, philosophical argument supports it. My inkling, which I hope to substantiate in the book, is that a science of the mind will progress faster once this assumption is cast off.

Image: Varanasi, Emiliana Borruto

Barbara Gail Montero

Principal Investigator