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Steven Horst
Beyond Reduction: Philosophy of Mind and Post-Reductionist Philosophy of Science


Philosophical discussions of the nature of the mind have, in recent years, consisted in debates between four camps: dualists, reductive physicalists, eliminativists, and non-reductive physicalists. Proponents of each of these views tend to assume that, outside of the sciences of the mind, the special sciences (such as chemistry and biology) are all reducible to physics. Over the past decade, however, there has been an increasing recognition that there seem to be “explanatory gaps” between mind and brain: there are features of the mind, like consciousness, intentionality and normativity, that do not seem to be explainable by way of a reduction to neural or physical phenomena. The explanatory gaps between mind and brain thus seem to pose a unique and compelling problem for philosophy, to which dualists, eliminativists, reductionists and non-reductive physicalists each have distinctive responses.

The aim of this paper is threefold.

First, I shall introduce the “current state of play” in philosophy of mind. This will begin with a survey, framed for a general audience, of the major views in the field, and an explanation of such key notions as “inter-theoretic reduction” and “supervenience”. I shall then introduce the problem of the explanatory gaps, and the characteristic analysis of these given by each of the four camps, locating them with respect to the answers each gives to four questions:

  1. Is inter-theoretic reducibility the norm in the natural sciences?
  2. Do phenomena of the special sciences supervene upon physical phenomena?
  3. Is it possible to give an inter-theoretic reduction of all mental phenomena?
  4. Do mental phenomena supervene upon physical phenomena?

In the second part of the talk, I shall begin by focusing on the fact that proponents of all four major views generally answer “yes” to questions 1 and 2. However, philosophers of science have, over the past several decades, generally rejected the view that inter-theoretic reduction is a general account of how the special sciences are related to physics. Thus, philosophers of mind tend to be framing their problems in terms of an outdated assumption from the philosophy of science of the mid-20th century.

The third part of the talk then turns to the question of what implications the general rejection of inter-theoretic reductions in philosophy of science ought to have for philosophy of mind. Clearly, post-reductionist philosophy of science weakens the case for reductionism and at least some forms of eliminativism, and “vindicates” the intuition that there can be explanatory gaps between mind and brain. However, it also raises important problems for dualism and non-reductive physicalism. Dualists typically argue that failures of reduction imply failures of supervenience as well, and hence if the mental phenomena are irreducible, they must be non-physical. But if chemistry and biology are not reducible to physics, this principle would require us to conclude that chemical and biological phenomena are non-physical as well. Likewise, while post-reductionist analyses of the relations between the sciences bolster the non-reductive side of non-reductive physicalism, they leave physicalism a standpoint of faith, devoid of scientific evidence.

Steven Horst, PhD is currently the Chair of Philosophy at Wesleyan University in Middletown, CT, where he has taught since 1990.  He has also been a visiting scholar at the Center for Adaptive Systems at Boston University (1993), Princeton University (1997), and Stanford's Center for the Study of Language and Information (1998).

His research began in philosophy of mind and cognitive science, and has branched out into metaphysics and the interface between philosophy of mind and philosophy of science, particularly the implications for philosophy of mind of the assumptions we make about the nature of laws and explanation.  He is currently finishing off projects critiquing reductive naturalism and examining the nature of laws in psychology and the natural sciences.  The new projects involve articulating a view called "Cognitive Pluralism" and working on an account of concepts that does justice to work on concepts in several scientific disciplines: notably, developmental psychology, cognitive ethology and neural modeling.

He has also taken an interest in moral psychology in recent years, broadly construed as the intersection of theoretical models of the mind/soul/self, ethics and techniques of therapy or self-actualization.  The main focus of this has been in a course called "Moral Psychology: Care of the Soul", but he has also published an article called "Our Animal Bodies" which he hopes to develop into a book for a broad readership when time permits.

Within Wesleyan, he helped found the course cluster in Christian Studies and has been involved in activities exploring how best to study and teach about Christianity within a pluralistic university.  He also spent two years as Wesleyan's Director of Pedagogical Renewal.  Outside Wesleyan, he plays cello and has been involved in Irish music for almost 20 years.  He is the founder of an academic software company, IntelliGents, LLC, the makers of NoteWorthy Virtual Notecards(tm).


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