An explanation and critical assessment of Donald Davidson’s anomalous monism

Published: 2019/12/12 Number of words: 2424

Anomalous monism, as advocated by Davidson (1970), provides a plausible account of the relationship between the mind and the body. The position Davidson adopts is characterised by two key claims. First, all events (including the mental) fall into the class of physical events, and thus there is one type of thing in the world (hence ‘monism’). Secondly, the ‘anomalous’ component has to do with the argument that there are no strict, exceptionless laws governing the relation of the physical to the psychological (no psychophysical laws), and there are no laws relating the mental to the mental (no psychological laws). This essay will begin by outlining of the three key principles used by Davidson in his argument and then, using Joseph’s (2004) formulation, show how these principles are used in the larger argument for monism. The larger part of the essay will discuss the key principle – that of the anomalism of the mental. It will further discuss the conception of ‘strict’ laws and how they are used to argue against the nomological character of psychology. We shall see that Davidson’s argument cannot be passed without further qualification. The discussion will then turn to Davidson’s argument against the possibility of reducing psychology to physics. This argument also fails as Davidson doesn’t provide a reason for believing in the systematicity of error, rather than the possibility of it. We shall conclude that without providing a plausible account of anomalism of the mental, his argument as a whole cannot be accepted.

It is important to present important, albeit brief caveats at this point in the essay, so as to better understand Davidson’s target and prevent misrepresentation. First of all, Davidson identifies the mental in this instance with the propositional attitudes (e.g. John believes that, Jill craves that) and so overlooks discussions on the qualitative character of mental events. Secondly, these mental events are invoked to explain our intentional actions. An event is an intentional action only if we can invoke a propositional attitude to justify/rationalise it. Hence, because we cannot describe the effects of a hurricane in terms of the hurricane’s beliefs, this shows that a hurricane is not a mental event, but rather a physical one. Thus, what makes an event physical or mental for Davidson is how the event can be described. Having clarified Davidson’s conception of the mental, we can continue to the principles that ground his argument.

Davidson subscribes to three principles (1970: 208):

  • Principle of causal interaction – at least some mental events interact causally with physical events.
  • Principle of the nomological character of causality – where there is causality, there must be a law; cause-effect relationships must fall under strict, deterministic laws
  • Anomalism of the mental – there are no strict, deterministic laws which can either predict or explain mental events (i.e. no strict psychophysical/psychological laws)

Joseph (2004) takes these to feed into the larger argument for monism as follows:

  1. Take a mental event Em: by principle 1), it interacts causally with some physical event
  2. By principle 2), there must be some strict law that causally relates Em and Ep.
  • By principle 3), this law can neither be psychophysical, or psychological. Therefore, we should look to physics for this law
  1. If Em instantiates a physical law, then Em must have a physical description. Thus Em is both a physical and a mental event.

The conclusion of this argument is that mental events are reducible to physical events (hence monism), and thus Davidson is arguing for a token-identity theory: individual mental events have both a physical and mental description.

It is clear that there is considerable room for concern. For instance, Davidson, following his Quinean heritage, is committed to holism. However, if one is a holist, does one have the methodological space to posit discrete, individual mental tokens and directly relate them to discrete, individual physical tokens? There is a lot of room for denying this possibility (Lurie (1973), Antony (1989), Child (1993)). Other methodological problems arise when we consider whether it is possible to individuate determinate physical events with which to identify, or whether we are simply relegated to merely possible candidates (Hornsby (1980)). However, these criticisms are of a methodological nature, and thus there isn’t space to discuss them here. The interesting question is: granted the possibility of successfully individuating mental events, does Davidson’s argument still work?

As should be clear from the argument above, the most controversial premise which does a lot of the work is the thesis of the anomalism of the mental. Refuting the possibility of psychophysical laws and psychological laws presents an equal challenge to psychological theories that either rely on propositional attitudes, or those that advocate a reductionist approach, so warrants attention.

When Davidson calls something ‘anomalous’, he means that it is not subsumable under a strict law. McLaughlin (1985) notes that for Davidson, a law of nature is one that is confirmable by positive instances, capable of supporting counter-factuals and is a true generalisation. Some laws of nature are not strict, however, as they can be supported by ceritus paribus clauses. For a law to be strict, two more conditions have to be met. First, they have to be exceptionless and secondly, they must belong to a fundamental scientific theory. In order for something to have the title of a fundamental theory, it must satisfy two conditions:

  • It must be closed
  • It must be comprehensive

To call a theory closed is simply to say that there are no events the causal origins of which are not subsumed by the theory, and comprehensive simply means that all extant phenomena are subsumable by the laws of the theory. In short, nothing outside the theory effects anything within the theory’s purview, and everything within the theory’s purview can be subsumed under the theory’s laws.

This conception underwrites Davidson’s argument against the possibility of strict psychological laws. If we examine a candidate psychological law, for example: if S believes that p, and p entails q, then S believes q. This is what is called the ‘closure’ principle, but it is hardly a strict law. There are numerous reasons why S would fail to make the inference (distraction, inattentiveness etc.), and the law is subject to ceritus paribus clauses and thus not without exception. Thus, in order for there to be psychological laws, psychology must be a closed/comprehensive theory itself, or be reducible to one. Manifestly, psychology is neither closed nor comprehensive. It is not closed because physical events affect the mental (a knock on the head can have substantial mental repercussions, yet the collision is not a mental event) and it is not comprehensive as it cannot explain all physical phenomena (one cannot explain hurricanes in terms of propositional attitudes). Whether psychology can be reduced to a fundamental theory (physics) will be discussed later with regards to there being no strict psychophysical laws.

We should acknowledge that there is an interpretive digression. Is Davidson claiming that there are psychological laws and that they just aren’t strict (Fodor (1989), McLaughlin (1989)) or is he arguing that there are no psychological laws at all, attributing to them a normative status rather than nomological (McDowell (1984), Kim (1985))? How one interprets the argument has serious repercussions for psychology-as-science. Regardless, there should be two reasons for concern at this stage of the argument. For example, if we follow Fodor (1989) and take ceritus paribus clauses to have no metaphysical weight, but rather take them as expressing our ignorance about the relevant mechanisms, than it doesn’t seem like Davidson’s argument can go through. Davidson would instead be forced to conclude would be that we are unaware of the potential nomological status of psychology, not that there are no laws. Of course, Davidson could respond to this by claiming that we have good reasons for taking psychological laws to be intrinsically non-strict­ because they are neither closed not comprehensive. However, Kim (2003) raises an interesting challenge to this point. Kim asks where the thesis that physics itself is closed and comprehensive comes from: is it an a priori position, or is a posteriori? After all, Davidson takes the principle of mental causation to be inviolable, but this offers us the opportunity to invert his argument? Kim parrots Davidson’s reasoning when he says “Too much happens to affect the physical that is not itself a systematic part of the physical (Kim 2003, p. 122).” In summary, nothing appears to prevent us from using the principle of mental causation to argue that physics isn’t a closed and comprehensive system.

Those points are not ‘knock-down’ arguments, but rather mainly meant to gesture at the insufficiencies at certain parts of Davidson’s argument. Let us now move on to his argument against psycho-physical laws. Although interpretations of this stage of the argument differ, it is accepted that Davidson’s target is the possibility of establishing a one-way conditional bridge law of the schema:

If an agent has physical property P, then the agent has mental property M

The argument against the possibility of such a schema rests on the following principles:

  1. The holism of the mental – A propositional attitudes content is determined holistically
  2. The rationality of the mental – To be a minded creature is to have a rationally cohering set of propositional attitudes.

These are fairly uncontroversial. It amounts to saying that, when we discuss a creature with psychological properties, it must have a network of beliefs that, for the most part, are systematically rational.

Kim (1985) interprets Davidson’s argument against psycho-physical laws as follows. Due to the rationality of the mental, the propositional attitudes of the minded-creature are essentially rationally cohesive, while the laws which govern the laws of the physical are not essentially so. If we take this digression, and combine it with the position that bridge laws transmit ‘constitutive principles’ as well, then it seems that any one-way reduction entailed by psycho-physical laws fail to preserve the rationality of the mental. If the rationality of the mental isn’t preserved, then what we have reduced is ex hypothesi not a mental thing, and thus psycho-physical laws are impossible. However, this reconstruction fails on two points. Firstly, It assumes that the physical world itself is not rationally cohering, but there is no reason to accept this premise without further argument. Secondly, as pointed out by Tiffany (2001) and Latham (1999), there is no reason to assume that a failure to account for the constitutive principles of the mental will lead to a systematically, non-rational attribution of mental states. Even if it is simply by luck that the attributions are successful at preserving the rational characteristics of the mental, this is still enough to preserve the possibility of psycho-physical laws. Thus, Kim’s interpretation requires the extra premise that attempts to reduce mental events to physical events systematically fails to preserve the rational cohesion of minded-creatures.

In conclusion, it seems to be that Davidson’s argument fails to go through. In order for Davidson’s argument to be valid, and thus prove anomalous monism and provide a resolution to the, hitherto interminable, mind-body problem, he would need to supply more qualifying premises. Davidson, as we have seen, would have to demonstrate that the impossibility of psychological laws was due to more than the fact they are not subsumable under strict laws, as following Fodor, ceritus paribus clauses don’t necessarily entail the metaphysical thesis that there are no strict laws, rather that we are unaware of them. Also, Davidson has to provide a better argument to show why his argument against the closure of the mental cannot be inverted so as to similarly present a challenging argument against the closure of the physical. It seems a matter of choice for Davidson to weigh in on the side of the physicalist, rather than being justified by argument. Finally, as we have also seen, unless Davidson can provide an argument showing that one-way bridge reductions consistently fail to preserve the rationality of the mental, then his argument against the impossibility of psycho-physical laws also fails to go through. Thus, we should conclude that, without extra work, Davidson’s conclusion of anomalous monism is simply unjustified.

For an interesting criticism of the propositional attitude’s ability to explain behaviour, see Stich (1978)

Holism will be discussed in more detail when we discuss Davidson’s argument against psycho-physical laws.


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