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Token-identity theory- Anomalous monism

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The anomalous monism is a position of the philosophy of mind developed by Donald Davidson (1917 to 2003). On the one hand, it claims that every single mental event is identical to a single physical event. Second, the anomalous monism explains that types of mental events are not identical to types of physical events. A single pain event s may thus be identical to a physical event p . However, the event type “pain” to which s belongs does not correspond to a general type of physical condition.

The philosophy historical context

Anomalous Monism
Credit: Davidl, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Anomalous_Monism.png, CC BY-SA 3.0 license

(The classic identity theory and anomalous monism in contrast. For the identity theory, every token instantiation of a single mental type corresponds (as indicated by the arrows) to a physical token of a single physical type. Hence there is type-identity. For anomalous monism, the token-token correspondences can fall outside of the type-type correspondences. The result is token identity. )

Anomalous monism is a position that tries to give an answer to the mind-body problem , that is, to the question of the nature of mental states or events. One of the classic positions on this question is identity theory . According to it, mental events are nothing more than neural events. “Event” means an event type and not just an event token. The distinction between token and type is easy to understand: a token is a single occurrence, while identical tokens form a type. The series of digits 100101 therefore contains 6 digit tokens but only 2 digit types. Since classical identity theory is based on a type identity, it claims that whenever a person is in a state of pain, for example, he is also in the same neuronal state.

The classical identity theory of the 1950s was criticized from an early stage. Hilary Putnam argued around 1967 that identity theory was empirically wrong, which he justified with the now famous argument of multiple realization . In response to the problems of identity theory, alternative positions were developed in the 1970s. While Hilary Putnam, Jerry Fodor and others formulated functionalism, Donald Davidson developed anomalous monism. In contrast to functionalism, Davidson’s rejection of identity theory is based less on multiple realizations than on assumptions about rationality.

Davidson does not want to advocate dualism, although he is of the opinion that mental event types cannot be reduced to neural event types. His proposed a solution as follows: Even if the types are not identical to one another, every single mental event – every token – is identical to a physical event. Such a position is often understood as a non-reductive materialism , even if some critics like Jaegwon doubt that the anomalous monism is a materialistic position at all .

The central argument for the anomalous monism

In his classic 1970 essay “Mental Events”, Donald Davidson arrives at the anomalous monism based on three apparently incompatible assumptions:

  1. Mental events interact causally with physical events, they can cause each other.
  2. Events that cause each other fall under a strict, i. e. without exception, law of nature .
  3. There are no strict laws of nature about mental events.

1 applies here since every individual mental event is identical to a physical event and, as a physical event, also falls under a strict law of nature in the sense of assumption 2. This assumption also makes up the monistic part of Davidson’s philosophy. But even if every mental event as a physical event falls under a strict law of nature, there are no general psychological or psychophysical laws. Based on this thesis, Davidson calls his philosophy “anomalous” – from ” nomos “, the law.

Davidson’s central argument for anomalous monism thus takes the form of inferring the best explanation : Assumptions 1-3 are true. Only when the anomalous monism is true can we explain how Assumptions 1-3 can be true. So the anomalous monism is true.


The first assumption of Davidson’s central argument is that mental and physical events cause each other. This assumption has a high level of intuitive plausibility, since it corresponds to the ideas of everyday life. It seems somewhat natural that fear (mental event) can cause an escape (physical event). Yet there are philosophical positions that deny the interaction of mental and physical events. For example, epiphenomenalism explains that mental events cannot cause physical events, and eliminative materialism denies any interaction because it claims that there are in reality no mental states.

More important than these conflicts, however, are doubts as to whether the anomalous monism itself can do justice to the first assumption. Again and again it is objected to Davidson that his position itself amounts to a form of epiphenomenalism. After all, mental events can only be causes as physical events . However, no causal role remains at all . Therefore it is sometimes even argued that it is not at all clear whether within the framework of anomalous monism at all a role for mental events remains. Rather, one can shorten through the unreduced but causally ineffective mental event types. In this sense, the reluctance of Davidson’s position amounts to a form of eliminative materialism.

Strict laws

Davidson’s second assumption was that events that cause each other fall under a strict law of nature. Amazingly, Davidson presupposed this controversial assumption for decades without explicitly arguing for it. It was only in the 1995 essay Laws and Cause that he attempted to justify this assumption. Davidson argues here that strict laws are a conceptual consequence of the concept of causation between physical events. However, it is mostly disputed that this is sufficient to justify the controversial assumption. Overall, it remains to be recognized that Davidson regards the second assumption as more intuitively justified.

This is astonishing, since it seems by no means clear that causality always presupposes strict laws. Everyday causal sentences are not always strict. For example, the phrase “smoking caused cancer” does not require that there is a strict law that leads from smoking to cancer. Davidson’s reply to this objection is that there are strict physical laws that lead from smoking to lung cancer. But even on the level of fundamental, physical occurrences, the question of strict laws remains controversial. In the philosophy of science there is a renaissance of indeterministic conceptions such as those of Nancy Cartwright have been formulated. Davidson responded to this objection by stating that strict and deterministic laws are not to be equated. The question then remains whether Davidson can find an appropriate explanation of “strict” that makes the third assumption – there are no strict laws about mentalities – plausible.

The abnormality of the mind

The third assumption of Davidson’s central argument was that there are no strict laws of nature about mental events. This thesis of the anomaly of the mental has sparked extensive philosophical debates. Davidson’s thesis is not that there can be basically no psychological or psychophysical laws. Of course there are such as “When someone is thirsty, he has a drink” or “When someone cuts his finger, he feels pain”. But Davidson wants to point out that such laws always have only one ceteris paribus character and are never strict laws of nature, such as Newton’s law of fall .

The thesis of the anomaly of the mental presupposes the falsity of the type identity theory. Should this be true , there would be strict psychophysical laws of the form M if and only if N , where “M” stands for a mental event type and “N” for a neural event type. Davidson’s argument for the anomaly of the mental therefore amounts to a criticism of the classical (type) identity theory. It is not always entirely clear how Davidson’s argument works, leading to different interpretationshas resulted in literature. However, it is undisputed that Davidson ascribes properties to the mental which would actually make strict psychophysical laws implausible, and that two of the central properties according to Davidson are the rationality and holism of the mental.

The argument of rationality

Davidson’s considerations on rationality are closely related to his more extensive linguistic and epistemological arguments. If one wants to attribute beliefs to a person, one must, according to Davidson, per principle of charity (” Principle of benevolent interpretation “) assume that the person has predominantly true and rational beliefs . Understanding would be inconceivable otherwise .

One possible reading of Davidson’s argument is as follows: The principle of charity has the consequence that an attribution of beliefs can always be revised in the light of further knowledge about a person’s belief system. Suppose there was a strict law that leads from a belief B to a physical state P. If one no longer ascribes B to a person in the light of further attribution of beliefs, then one should no longer ascribe P to him. But this is absurd, since opinions about physical conditions cannot in principle be revised by knowledge about beliefs.

The holistic argument

Davidson’s argument for the anomaly of the mental also relates to his thesis of the holism of the mental. This thesis says that one cannot ascribe a single mental event to a person alone , but that a mental event always presupposes other mental events. For example, a person may believe that they will get a tax refund only if he has different beliefs. For example, he has to know what money is and has to believe that he has an account to which the repayment will be transferred.

Davidson now argues as follows:

  • Premise 1) In principle, mental events can only occur under the precondition of other mental events.
  • Premise 2) In principle, neuronal events can also occur without further mental events.
  • Premise 3) If premise 1 and premise 2 are true, then mental and neural events are not identical.
  • Conclusion : Mental and neural events are not identical.

Perspective and criticism

The anomalous monism has been criticized from various perspectives. For one thing, it is doubted that Davidson’s arguments for the anomaly of the mental are successful. Another point of criticism concerns the question of how a token identity without type identity is to be understood at all. If the token identity is true, a single physical event p1 falls under the mental event type “blue perception”, while another physical event p2 does not fall under these event types. But now there does not seem to be an answer in anomalous monism as to why this is the case. After all, the physical events that realize the perception of blue should not have any physical property in common – otherwise they would fall under a common physical type. Ultimately, the problem of qualia remains unsolved even within the framework of anomalous monism , i.e. the question of how it can be that certain neuronal processes are linked to experience.

All of this has led to the fact that, although anomalous monism is considered an important position in the philosophy of mind, it is mostly not seen as the solution to the mind-body problem. In addition, the anomalous monism as a position has always remained very closely connected to Donald Davidson and was only taken up and further developed by relatively few philosophers. However, the neuroscientist Gerhard Roth is committed to a position in the sense of Davidson.

Includes text translated and adapted from Wikipedia

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