Sunday, February 03, 2013

Neutral Monism

By Gary Berg-Cross

My education was a bit deficient so I don’t remember running into the idea of neutral monism as part of my training in Psychology and the questions of world materialism and mind idealism.  A new book by Thomas Nagel is provocatively entitle:is provociisi Mindand Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False.” It features a skeptical take on materialism, but a naturalistic and not theistic alternative. Nagel is well known for an interesting and influential 1974 paper called "What is it like to be a bat?" He used the bat view of the world to argue that phenomenological facts about consciousness are not so obviously reducible to physical facts. In his new book he argues that lack of progress in materialistically explaining  suggests he is right in rejecting naïve materialist explanations.  Early on Nagel defines materialism succinctly as follows:

Materialism is the view that only the physical world is irreducibly real, and that a place must be found in it for mind, if there is such a thing.  This would continue the onward march of physical science, through molecular biology, to full closure by swallowing up the mind in the objective physical reality from which it was initially excluded. (p 37)

I’m not convinced by Nagel’s anti-materialist arguments about the irreducibility of mind rather than matter, although I doubt reductionist approaches that try to explain everything in reductionist concepts. I like evolutionary explanations for the emergence of cognition and the related concept of consciousness.  But I did find the discussion of neutral monism stimulating, if only because I had missed its presence in thinkers I had studied. I also appreciated Nagel's conversational style and in Mind and Cosmos and his frank admission that his aim "is not so much to argue against reductionism as to investigate the consequences of rejecting it". This blog is not so much about that as a some intro to neutral monism.
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Are you an author? Learn about Author CentralAs covered in the Wikipedia entry neutral monism is the philosophical/metaphysical view that:

 the mental and the physical are two ways of organizing or describing the same elements, which are themselves "neutral," that is, neither physical nor mental. This view denies that the mental and the physical are two fundamentally different things. Rather, neutral monism claims the universe consists of only one kind of stuff, in the form of neutral elements that are in themselves neither mental nor physical. These neutral elements might have the properties of color and shape, just as we experience those properties. But these shaped and colored elements do not exist in a mind (considered as a substantial entity, whether dualistically or physicalistically); they exist on their own.

It’s an exciting idea of continuity of reality rather than dichotomy and some faint versions of it were quietly posed in works by some of my favorite philosopher – James, Russell and Dewey as cited. 

OK, it wasn’t just my education. The ideas were probably too subtle for me to grasp when I dashed over their discussion of mind-body dualism. William James, for example, followed Peirce in developing Pragmatism as a way of getting beyond dualist debates on realistic materialism and idealism. 

According to an easy summary and readable source by David Pears (

 the philosophy of mind adopted by Russell in his middle period was neutral monism, which denies that there is any irreducible difference between the mental and the physical and tries to construct both the mental world and the physical world out of components which are in themselves neither mental nor physical but neutral. He adopted this theory because he believed that there was no other way of solving the problems that beset his earlier dualism (see Russell's philosophy of mind: dualism). The book in which he developed the theory, The Analysis of Mind (1921), is an unusual one. The version of neutral monism defended in it is qualified in several ways and it is enriched with ideas drawn from his reading of contemporary works on behaviourism and depth psychology. The result is not entirely consistent, but it is interesting and vital especially where it is least consistent.

John Dewey followed James in seeing more continuity between mind and brain than a gulf. Like many my brief exposure to philosophy courses left me somewhere in the pragmatic camp with a healthy respect for reality-based materialism as the hull hypothesis. Dewey account of phenomena like intelligence does have a naturalistic basis that integrates biology & psychology as does Nagels’ new work.  But one is surprised to see have non-reductionist subjects of intentions and communication ala social psychology as front and center in Dewey’s new view. It is interesting to bump into some of these thinker’s metaphysical struggles to reconceptualize our view of nature to resolve the issues, even if one does not follow into a form of panpsychism with mind and consciousness everywhere and everytime in the universe. 



1 comment:

Explicit Atheist said...

Stephen Meyer wrote "Signature in the Cell: DNA and the evidence for Intelligent Design". Thomas Nagel was so impressed by Meyer's argument for ID that he ranked his book one of the best books of 2009. Basically, you have to be a philosopher to be impressed by a book like that, few biologists think Meyer's book is worth the ink it is published with.

Nagel’s teleological biology is run through with talk about the “higher forms of organization toward which nature tends” and progress toward “more complex systems.” But that just doesn't fit with the evidence, which is that nature moves in all directions, both toward more and less complexity, and the "lower forms" predominate. There’s simply no comparison between neo-Darwinism (for which there is overwhelming evidence) and Nagel's natural teleology (for which there is none). Nagel's argument for natural teleology is based on nothing more than his intuition, it is not rooted in the overall weight of the evidences. It is just speculation, and as such it is fiction and very likely to be wrong.