In 'Mental Events' Davidson wrote "...mental events are mental only as described". Many have taken this and other of his remarks as showing that he holds that the anomalousness and irreducibility of the mental is conceptual only. But to me this opens up a further mystery: if basic ontology is physical, how is it possible for there to be relations among concepts which cannot be physically mirrored

  • Consider different usage of "ontology" here: If ontology only refers to independent being, one may very well state that mental events are depending on physical ones, emerge from them or whatever. In this sense, the conceptual sphere is an emergent property of physical being. That does not say that there is nothing mental, only that it is of a different kind than we ask for in ontology.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Commented Jan 15, 2016 at 12:59
  • what is conceptual irreducibility?
    – nir
    Commented Jan 15, 2016 at 17:47
  • Concepts, relations among concepts, and everything mental is only accessible through introspection. Davidson, like Kant, considered it too unstable and blurry to produce anything tangible. Therefore, whatever physical description of the underlying physical events there isn't enough "there" we can discern in the mental to match it to. As described, mental events are mental.
    – Conifold
    Commented Jan 15, 2016 at 23:03
  • @conifold, is there anything in a concept that may not be expressed with an English sentence?
    – nir
    Commented Jan 16, 2016 at 3:17
  • 1
    @nir Pretty much nothing that makes it a mental concept, as opposed to a propositional representation, can be so expressed. This is Davidson's point, physical descriptions are propositional representations that can be obtained from empirical experience, due to its stability and reproducibility, but not from mental introspection.
    – Conifold
    Commented Jan 16, 2016 at 3:29

2 Answers 2


You touch an open question.

An ontology which includes only physical object will not suffice. At least one has to add entities from informatics centered around the concepts of information and information processing. Because mental processes can be considered information processing: The input results from our sensory organs, the processing employs in addition the actual internal state as a kind of memory. And the output are the actions of the system. Hence one needs a combination of informatics and physics necessary for the physical substrate of informatics.

To investigate the third person view of the mental and to capture it in a neuronal model is the subject of neuroscience. Here already intelligent and autonomous robots have been built, e.g., the rover on the planet Mars.

But qualia and the first person view are quite another issue.

  • how does qualia fit it? is it to be understood as computable information?
    – nir
    Commented Jan 15, 2016 at 17:46
  • @nir qualia is a shorthand for subjective mental experiences like e.g., to experience a colour. The emphasis is on the subjective impression. Until now neither qualia could be captured by an objective description nor qualia could be implemented into an artificial autonomous system. Notably qualia do not equalize with computable information. The issue is highly debated, see plato.stanford.edu/entries/qualia
    – Jo Wehler
    Commented Jan 15, 2016 at 17:56
  • I know that it is highly debated. but what do you think? can the mind be understood as computation? if so, what about qualia?
    – nir
    Commented Jan 15, 2016 at 18:20
  • @nir I consider the computational model of the mind today's most fruitful scientific model. Fruitful because it allows to apply informatics, notably the concept of states, state transitions, algorithms etc. See a former discussion in this blog on it's approach to consciousness philosophy.stackexchange.com/questions/28526/…. But until now the computational model does not seem to approach the issue of qualia.
    – Jo Wehler
    Commented Jan 15, 2016 at 18:30
  • it seems that your answer is basically that you do not know. in particular you do not rule it out in principle. is that correct?
    – nir
    Commented Jan 15, 2016 at 18:54

Wehler is right. As your question is phrased, an exclusively physicalist ontology will not suffice (without deploying something like Wehler’s informatics ontology, or Klocking’s notion that concepts are emergent properties of [some] physical entities). But the ontological issue issue is alive and well, as you can see from nir/wehler’s lively discussion (with no end in site).

Start by considering the “knowledge argument,” which purports to show that physicalism is wrong because conscious experience involves non-physical properties, and is premised on the idea that someone who has “complete physical knowledge about another conscious being might yet lack knowledge about how it feels to have the experiences of that being”. See http:plato.stanford.edu/entries/qualia-knowledge/ for a full rendition of the notion and issues. Here, you will find Frank Jackson’s formulation of the idea which underlies the knowledge argument in the now famous example of the neurophysiologist Mary:

“Mary is a brilliant scientist who is, for whatever reason, forced to investigate the world from a black and white room via a black and white television monitor. She specializes in the neurophysiology of vision and acquires, let us suppose, all the physical information there is to obtain about what goes on when we see ripe tomatoes, or the sky, and use terms like ‘red’, ‘blue’, and so on. She discovers, for example, just which wavelength combinations from the sky stimulate the retina, and exactly how this produces via the central nervous system the contraction of the vocal chords and expulsion of air from the lungs that results in the uttering of the sentence ‘The sky is blue’.… What will happen when Mary is released from her black and white room or is given a color television monitor? Will she learn anything or not? It seems just obvious that she will learn something about the world and our visual experience of it. But then is it inescapable that her previous knowledge was incomplete. But she had all the physical information. Ergo there is more to have than that, and Physicalism is false.

The argument contained in this passage may be put like this: (1) Mary has all the physical information concerning human color vision before her release. (2) But there is some information about human color vision that she does not have before her release. Therefore (3) Not all information is physical information”

Your specific point is addressed later, where it is pointed out that “talk of ‘physical information’ in the context of the knowledge argument is ambiguous between an epistemological and an ontological reading," and two alternatives are offered: The weaker, epistemological version:

(1a) Mary has complete physical knowledge concerning facts about human color vision before her release. (2a) But there is some kind of knowledge concerning facts about human color vision that she does not have before her release. Therefore (3a) There is some kind of knowledge concerning facts about human color vision that is non-physical knowledge.

And the stronger, ontological, version:

(1b) Mary knows all the physical facts concerning human color vision before her release. (2b) But there are some facts about human color vision that Mary does not know before her release. Therefore (3b) There are non-physical facts concerning human color vision.”

The ontological version is then made explicit as follows:

“Premise P1 Mary has complete physical knowledge about human color vision before her release.


Consequence C1 Mary knows all the physical facts about human color vision before her release.

Premise P2 There is some (kind of) knowledge concerning facts about human color vision that Mary does not have before her release.
Therefore (from (P2)):

Consequence C2 There are some facts about human color vision that Mary does not know before her release.

Therefore (from (C1) and (C2)):

Consequence C3 There are non-physical facts about human color vision.”

And the article goes on to outline the various ways that C3 (ergo dualism?) can be avoided, and is a fairly good primer on thinking about whether your “basic” premise, that “ontology is physical” is tenable.

  • In order to build an ontology which covers also subjective experiences like qualia: Can you propose some entities, which are to be added to the ontology - besides physical entities (e.g., sensory organ, neuron, electrical excitation) and entities from informatics (e.g., pattern, state, state transition)?
    – Jo Wehler
    Commented Jan 15, 2016 at 22:20
  • Aside from the types of entities you have proposed, I cannot. As you’ve noted, their essential subjectivity, the fact that my pain is not your pain (the quale which most exemplifies this subjectivity), that “qualia” are not public, makes it tough to conceive of what such an ontology would look like. The most reasonable thing to say about them is that they are [very strange] properties of physical entities or states. Whether the cognitive and data sciences will someday combine in such a way as to revive and inform some form of identity and/or functionalist theory is an open question.
    – gonzo
    Commented Jan 18, 2016 at 19:53

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