It seems like most philosophers have moved away from physicalist and/or reductive materialist position on the mind-body problem? Can somebody explain why? I really don't have any arguments in favour of complete physicalist view of the world (which is what I hold) except that it seems more simple, beautiful and elegant if the world is only physical and all mental states have in fact physical counterparts. But I think the dualist position is also difficult to argue. So why are most philosophers moving away from such a physicalist interpretation?

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    There's a striking difference between phenomenology and what Wilfrid Sellars called the "scientific image." He noted that the appearance of the world defies explanation: "Here, I believe, sheer phenomenology or conceptual analysis takes us part of the way, but finally lets us down. How far does it take us? Only to the point of assuring us that[, when viewing a pink ice cube,] something, somehow a cube of pink in physical space is present in the perception other than as merely believed in." How can science explain the presence of qualities that can neither be communicated nor quantified?
    – user3017
    Apr 4, 2018 at 10:34
  • @PédeLeão What ideas cannot be communicated? If they cannot be communicated, can they be in the scope of philosophy?
    – sdenham
    Apr 4, 2018 at 14:48
  • @sdenham. Phenomenal qualities cannot be communicated through neural pathways, since, according to our current understanding, all data which needs to be transferred over extended distances is passed by means of discrete signals (i.e. by action potentials which are basically digital in nature). At best, such signals can only symbolically represent those qualities without communicating the qualities themselves (similar to the way #FF0000 represents red without being red).
    – user3017
    Apr 4, 2018 at 15:06
  • @PédeLeão You wrote, and I asked about, ideas, not phenomenal qualities - do you consider the two terms to be synonymous? What is the significance of limiting your response to neural pathways, extended distances and discrete signals? Is it your position that anything apparently unexplainable by our current understanding is impossible? Can I take it that your position is that 'red' represents red without being red?
    – sdenham
    Apr 4, 2018 at 15:56
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    I think you are confusing the volume with the number of voices. Most philosophers espouse some kind of physicalism, or something fully consistent with it, from outright materialism to some sort of emergentism, often with what used to be idealist elements enfolded as social or linguistic constructions. That is one reason why there is analytic philosophy, an entire branch devoted to those problems. But those who reject materialism do so vigorously and mix in their religion to add volume.
    – user9166
    Apr 6, 2018 at 22:47

1 Answer 1


It seems like most philosophers have moved away from physicalist and/or reductive materialist position on the mind-body problem? Can somebody explain why?

Where do you get that idea? It seems as though most are physicalists.

But I think the dualist position is also difficult to argue. So why are most philosophers moving away from such a physicalist interpretation?

Let's see. Firstly, substance dualism isn't the only opponent of physicalism. There's also property dualism for example. I believe there's disagreement on whether or not that is still physicalist. We could for example think of property dualism as a kind of token physicalism. If we think it makes sense to put token physicalism under the label "physicalism" then we can both (at least some kinds of) property dualism under "physicalism". But some believe that "physicalism" usually means at least supervenience. Token physicalism doesn't imply supervenience, however.

Hence, secondly, it sort of depends on what exactly you consider to be "physicalism". Is it reductive? Does it mainly come from views on supervenience or from identity?

This can also be broadened. One direction of criticism comes from the idea that "physicality" is poorly understood and make be trivial, vague, etc. Here's a paragraph about it.

Generally though, proponents of something other than physicalism - whatever that means - like to put an emphasis on the mental. How could phenomenality possibly arise out of something physical? One way of looking like this issue is this: while a physicalist might think there's a epistemic gap here, they'll have to think that ontologically there's no issue. This means that a physicalist could posit that we have no idea how exactly emergence works but going by certain other ideas - supervenience etc. - that we'd have no reason to think it's not physical in some sense (supervenient f.e.). Meanwhile a non-physicalist would argue that there's an ontological gap. They will focus on ideas like qualia or p-zombies in order to argue for that gap. Non-physicalists think there's a hard problem - as in special problem - of consciousness while physicalists could think the problem is just a difficult normal problem.

I'd argue it's poorly understood how exactly we ought to even think about that problem. Chalmers has written a paper about "The Meta-Problem of Consciousness". I've only superficially glanced at it. But I believe the underlying motivation that "... the meta-problem is a potentially tractable research project for everyone." is spot on.

There are also some approaches coming from philosophy of language and some other issues. More here.

  • What's an ontological gap?
    – BlowMaMind
    Apr 4, 2018 at 13:18
  • Take any problem of the sort "How does ... come from ...?". Either we could answer the question but simply haven't done so yet. Or the question is misguided due to there being a difference that can not be closed. For example if we ask "How can something living come from something not living?" then it seems as though we can explain gap. With phenomenality coming from something physical it seems not possible. So non-physicalists posit that there's something metaphysically/ontologically different required for explanation.
    – Marc H.
    Apr 4, 2018 at 16:26
  • Do non-physicalists mean something different from "very difficult normal" problem of consciousness when they say "hard" problem of consciousness?
    – BlowMaMind
    Apr 4, 2018 at 17:20
  • Yes. While physicalists think that the "hard problem" can just be solved like any other scientific problem - just that it's probably very difficult -, non-physicalists usually think that either the problem is not solvable for us or that we can't solve it without something non-physical coming into play to bridge the explanatory gap. The former position is f.e. taken by Dennett, the latter by Chalmers. (Note that the latter view on the "hard problem" is compatible with "physicalism for everything except when it comes to phenomenal qualities". Jaegwon Kim is someone with such a stance.)
    – Marc H.
    Apr 4, 2018 at 17:50

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