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Philosopher: Non-Materialism Is Fashionable Orthodoxy Now

Non-reductionism, which means that the mind is not simply reducible to the brain, is now well accepted, she argues

From the introduction to Giuseppina D’oro’s essay at Institute for Arts and Ideas (IAI) online journal, we learn something that might surprise many: “Non-reductionism, the idea that mental states are not reducible to physical states, is the new orthodoxy in analytic philosophy of mind.”

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Not reducible? If we listen to popular commentators, we might come away with the impression that most serious philosophers of mind accept that the mind is simply what the brain does. Indeed, much of the venom that characterized last year’s mass attack on leading neuroscientist Christof Koch stemmed from the fear that his research and theories endanger eliminative materialism — the idea that the mind is merely what the brain does and consciousness is an evolved illusion that enables us to spread our genes. Many are still earnestly seeking evidence for that.

But could Koch’s denouncers, who included prominent philosophers of mind, be fighting a rear guard action? Giuseppina D’oro, Reader in Philosophy at Keele University, seems to think so, but she offers a qualification:

Reductionism is no longer fashionable in philosophy of mind – the days when the idea that mental states are reducible to physical states was a given are over, and non-reductionism is the new orthodoxy. Yet, while many philosophers of mind would consider themselves card carrying non-reductionists, they also tend to think of psychology as a natural science of the mind. As a result, the defence of the autonomy of the mental one finds in most textbooks operates within a naturalistic framework which fails to acknowledge that humanistic explanations differ in kind from scientific ones.

D’oro, G. (2024, February 19). We must put an end to scientism. IAI News. articles

Is idealism a viable alternative?

For an alternative perspective, she points us to two British idealist philosophers, Michael Oakeshott (1901–1990) and R.G. Collingwood (1889–1943):

They argued that the methodological assumptions of scientific inquiry are very different from those of humanistic inquiry and that it is therefore a mistake to think it possible to explain the mind in scientific terms. As a result, unlike most non-reductionists in twentieth century philosophy of mind, they were sceptical of the view that psychology could be legitimately described as the science of the mind and endeavoured to expose the conceptual confusions implicit in the very idea of a natural science of the mind.

D’oro, An end to scientism

Is psychology really a science? Idealist critiques

Professor Michael Oakeshott, c1960s/
London School of Economics and Political Science

It’s a longish but very informative essay. Oakeshott, for example, criticized the popular idea of psychology as a science because it blends two different types of enterprise:

Oakeshott’s criticism is not directed at psychology as a genuine natural science but at psychology as an ‘all-purpose’ science. The target is not science, which he recognizes as a legitimate cognitive enterprise, but scientism. The subject matter of psychology as a genuine natural science ‘is a world of quantitative concepts and measurements, not a world of “mental phenomena”. And where psychology is a science, its conclusions will have the same character, significance and validity as the conclusions of any other science.’ As an all-purpose science, psychology presents (psychological) mechanisms as the motives for actions or reasons for beliefs and is not a genuine natural science but the ‘spurious intellectual enterprise’ which seeks ‘to understand “goings-on” identified as themselves exhibitions of intelligence – expressions of sentiment or belief, arguments, practices, artefacts, intentions, motives, actions…’ in terms of causal laws.

D’oro, An end to scientism

Collingwood also made careful distinctions between what types of questions psychology can answer:

R. G. Collingwood, who greatly admired Oakeshott’s work, and also thought of psychology as a pseudo-science of the mind agreed that humanistic and scientific knowledge rest on different presuppositions which philosophy brings to the fore. The methodological assumptions which inform scientific and humanist inquiries give rise to the questions that are characteristically asked within their domains.

When natural scientists ask, for example, why litmus paper turns pink, they are not asking the same kind of question that historians pose when asking, for example, why a country amassed troops on its borders. Answering the historian’s question requires uncovering the point of amassing the troops, rather than finding out what normally happens when certain antecedent conditions obtain. These questions are answered by different kinds of explanations to which there correspond two categorially distinct kinds of goings on: actions, the subject matter of humanistic inquiry; and events, the subject matter of scientific inquiry.

D’oro, An end to scientism

Overall, D’oro thinks that if idealism were better understood as a “broad church,” those who are looking for a way out of the trap of eliminative materialism — a snake that eats its own tail — would be more willing to consider it as an option.

Enjoy the essay! Note, however, D’oro may not find it easy to convince Christof Koch that the materialists do not still rule. But maybe the materialists are just louder than all the others…

You may also wish to read: A commonsense defense of idealism Idealism is the most compelling final destination for former dualists, writes Douglas Axe: “I won’t suggest that dualism is as problematic as physicalism is. Instead, I see dualism as a good place for people to land when they recognize the untenability of physicalism, but idealism as the most compelling final destination for former dualists (of which I count myself).”

Denyse O'Leary

Denyse O'Leary is a freelance journalist based in Victoria, Canada. Specializing in faith and science issues, she is co-author, with neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, of The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist's Case for the Existence of the Soul; and with neurosurgeon Michael Egnor of the forthcoming The Human Soul: What Neuroscience Shows Us about the Brain, the Mind, and the Difference Between the Two (Worthy, 2025). She received her degree in honors English language and literature.

Philosopher: Non-Materialism Is Fashionable Orthodoxy Now