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The Big Problem for Physicalism

One physicalist theory after another has either ignored or falsified the central characteristics of consciousness

Editor’s note: We are delighted to welcome the new book from Discovery Institute Press, Minding the Brain: Models of the Mind, Information, and Empirical Science, edited by Angus J. L. Menuge, Brian R. Krouse, and Robert J. Marks. Below is an excerpt from Chapter 2. Look for more information at MindingtheBrain.org.

By Angus Menuge

The history of physicalism is one of extraordinary diversity: a wide variety of theories, with multiple versions, have jockeyed for dominance. Yet it is also a tale of persistent failure. One physicalist theory after another has either ignored or falsified the central characteristics of consciousness, intentionality, and rationality that define our mental life. We will begin by tracing the history of physicalism from the early varieties of behaviorism to the present day, making the case that physicalism is now entering a period of paradigm crisis. The crisis centers on a basic dilemma for physicalism: the stricter accounts that remain faithful to the core doctrines of physicalism seem obviously inadequate, but more promising, relaxed accounts are no longer obviously physicalist at all. 

Other Currents of Change

This crisis has converged with two other currents of change with the surprising result that alternatives to physicalism are now taken seriously. First, while physicalists understood the mental in terms of states of an organism, it could not be denied that these states belonged to a particular mental life, so some explanation is needed for the existence and character of mental subjects. But it turns out that physicalist accounts of subjectivity are woefully inadequate. Second, around the same time there was an explosion of research centered on historical and new accounts of the soul, which revealed the large number of options available for dualists. 

As a result of these three factors — physicalism in paradigm crisis, a renewed focus on the self, and new research on the soul — alternatives to physicalism were put back on the table for serious discussion. These alternatives included several varieties of substance dualism, hylomorphism (which understands a human being as the combination of matter and form), and idealism, which denies the existence of mind-independent matter and reduces reality to minds and their ideas. Serious attempts were made, both to address well-known philosophical objections to these alternatives and to show how they inform current work in science, including neuroscience and a variety of practical therapies. We will end by briefly considering some of the reasons scientists should welcome these developments.

Cross-posted at Evolution News.

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The Big Problem for Physicalism