Some thoughts on materialism, ontology, and the philosophy of mind

In my estimation, materialist or physicalist philosophy of mind has always occupied a rather strange place in the hierarchy of ideas since its coming to force in the 20th century and peaking with the “hard nosed” scientific reductionism and mind-brain identity theories in the 1950s. The strangeness arises because so many well respected scientific types accept  materialism and scientific reductionism dogmatically, yet it has a more problematic reputation in the philosophy of mind. David Chalmers is but one example of the sustained philosophical attack on the philosophical coherency of materialistic philosophy of mind. Of course, Chalmers would certainly consider himself to be a scientific monist of some sort and no doubt accepts the edicts of neuroscience without hesitation. Yet when it comes right down to it, he thinks materialism will fail as an explanation of certain mental phenomena, namely, qualia. The essence of these qualities is simply irreducible to materialistic ontology, and that’s that. Moreover, the dialectic in philosophy of mind has branched into a thousand debates about type vs token materialism, supervenience, emergentism, reductionistic physicalism vs nonreductionistic physicalism, identity theory, functionalism, and, of course, qualia, subjectivity, consciousness, experience, thoughts, beliefs, personal identity, action, and so on.

Reflecting on this twisted tangle of ideas is dizzying.  One feels as if in a labyrinth constructed entirely of neatly typed philosophy articles, all disagreeing with each other in very nuanced ways. The lack of consensus is overwhelming and, frankly, quite dispiriting. There are always revolutions within revolutions, counter-revolutions, and temporary intellectual victories, but, inevitably, the younger generations find “devastating flaws” in all preceding philosophical work. Every ten years you hear the great battle cry of “Start over!” and “Shake up the foundations!” It seems the mind sciences have always been this way.The radical shift between Jamesian psychology and Watsonian behaviorism is but one example to illustrate the “revolutionary” cliche that has crippled philosophy of mind. The once popular enterprise of exploring “deep generative grammar” is another example of rapid intellectual shifts that inevitably oversell themselves and overgeneralize their models at the expense of capturing genuine phenomena being discovered in rival labs (Chomsky’s hubris at trying to formally prove learning theories false is  embarrassing)

Everywhere we turn in the philosophy of mind we see various talk of “revolution”. I admit that I have, at times, given into the easy temptation to “turn the rugs over” and declare a sweeping intellectual coup, having at least grasped “what is truly the case”. Don’t get me wrong, I do think that a lot of “underbrush” needs to be swept away from our Cartesian and ontotheological heritage. We need to, for example, thoroughly expunge homuncular thinking, no easy task given that ontotheology is built into our linguistic forms of life. It is hard conceptual work to develop theoretical vocabularies that move away from that heritage, yet make enough sense as to be understood and accepted by the mind that is constructed by that heritage (since it is precisely  that mind which is faced with the task of consciously understanding the world around it).

Philosophy of mind then can be seen as a kind of exercise in conceptual experimentation or concept construction. Science investigates reality and philosophy generates the conceptual framework to talk about and understand that investigation. This is not an original statement. Thinkers before me (such as Deleuze) have accepted similar conceptions of what philosophy can and should do for science. When asked about his research in an interview, it is reported that Deleuze answered by saying “Bergson lamented that modern science lacked a metaphysics. I want to provide that metaphysics, and hence, I think of myself as a pure metaphysician.”

Metaphysics has a bad rap because of its historical associations with ontotheology and speculative pseudoscience. But I agree with Deleuze that we need to rehabilitate metaphysics. The classic essentialist ways of thinking simply cannot handle the complexity and dynamical properties being discovered in modern science, especially the life sciences. It seems that life has formed a brilliant habit of breaking all previous habits in the way it sustains itself through time. I contend, along with Deleuze and other developmentally oriented thinkers, that the problem of speciation and morphogenetic individuation is a paradigm model for thinking about the philosophy of mind. Deleuze helps us avoid problematic questions like, “What is the essence of the mind?”. Rather than talking about necessary and sufficient conditions, Deleuze wants to ask, “How did the mind evolve over time? What were the singularities and highest points of intensity that pushed/pulled humans into our contingent historical pathway?”

Some of my favorite points of highest intensity in human history include bipedalism, opposable thumbs, joint attention, tool construction, singing and music, symbolic thinking (systematicity in reference and compositionality), meta-awareness, introspection, theory of mind, philosophy, the scientific revolution, the information age, and, last but not least, the internet: the very tool that is allowing you, the reader, to hopefully receive these words as a stimulus for the development of interesting ideas in your brain many miles away. What do my readers think? What are the highest points of intensity for human evolution?


Filed under Consciousness, Philosophy

8 responses to “Some thoughts on materialism, ontology, and the philosophy of mind

  1. Great post!
    Good articulation of thoughts.
    I really enjoyed the last paragraph, even though, personally, I would have squeezed in the industrial revolution and ended the list with Google. 🙂
    Once more, great post.
    Keep them coming.

  2. “inevitably, the younger generations find “devastating flaws” in all preceding philosophical work. Every ten years you hear the great battle cry of “Start over!” and “Shake up the foundations!” …

    ….because that’s how you get published. I share your frustration.

  3. Vic P

    Great post. Dualisms always work because they emphasize the open questions. That’s why I like Chalmers approach. Old thinking was always posed by the origin and structure of matter and “all of the other stuff that makes minds”, so dualisms and third party causes crop up naturally all over the place. From a third party pov, being able to investigate and understand all of the observable mechanisms that made a watch or clock did not reveal qualities like spring tension and weight movement which made them actually tell time.

    Your most important thinking is that our own thinking is ruled based and we are always the “victims” of those who made the rules before us. I guess that’s why you like thinkers like Heideger who broke the molds and focused us on to being.

    BTW how’s your grad school search going?

  4. have you looked much at the work of adrian johnston, catherine malabou, or other thinkers of the ‘transcendental materialist’ ilk?

  5. Gary Williams


    No, I’m not familiar with that tradition. What are they all about?

  6. Malabou has written on the ‘plasticity’ of the brain, over against it’s malleability, for the reason that plasticity offers ideas of ‘breakage’ that allows for the truly novel to arise (whereas malleability is purely adaptive and/or cumulative). She draws a lot from Hegel and from contemporary neuroscience. More recently, here work has taken a very political turn as well. And Johnston’s work is on Psychoanalysis, neuroscience, and the irreducibility of culture to nature. I might have an article or two that I can send you, if you hit me up via email.

    • Daniel Nagase

      I would add John McDowell to the list. Instead of arguing for the “irreducibility of culture to nature”, what McDowell attempts to show is that culture is reducible to nature, which means that nature is not reducible to the realm of law. In other words, nature must include what he calls *second* nature.

  7. Tyle Stelzig

    Points of high intensity: distance running, spoken language, agriculture, writing, scientific method, philosophy of mind (jk about the last one).

    Also, I like your/Deleuze’s characterization of the role of philosophy.

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