(This is sort of a follow-up from this question)

Can dualism, materialism, or anything in between be empirically verified? There seems to be some disagreement here. This page presents both views nicely. Tryon, from this page, says that "The mind–body problem is actually a mistake based in ignorance." He argues that because of advances in neuroscience, reductive physicalism is the only way to go.

Sarıhan, on the same page, says that "No matter what detailed and direct mapping we establish between mental and neural states, there are so many options that remain on the table before we can proclaim that we have reduced mental processes to brain processes."

Given that no empirical evidence will truly disprove either side, it is a matter of probability. But can that even be applied here? Why, initially, assume that there is a 50/50 chance of either dualism or not (which, it seems, is needed for evidence to "tilt" the scale on way or another. If the prior probabilities are too different, evidence won't have any weight)? Why do we assume that our somewhat arbitrarily defined distinctions between dualism and materialism have any reflection on reality? It seems that you can draw this line wherever you want, and assign a "50/50" probability to it. Therefore, it seems that assigning any sort of probabilities is not correct. This would make the argument essentially immune to any sort of empirical work, would it not?

So, my question is, which view is more "correct," (either Tryon's or Sarıhan's) from a philosophical perspective?

  • Tryon is channeling his personal wishful thinking, Sarihan is right (and full reduction is very likely intractable in principle), and you are half right. It is true that probabilities are nonsensical here, it is not true that "this would make the argument essentially immune to any sort of empirical work". If neuroscientists manage to extract/induce/predict subjectively reported thoughts from/by patterns of neuronal firing, neurophysicalism will become overwhelmingly plausible, and no philosophical "it could still be else" would help much. But it is a big "if".
    – Conifold
    Commented Jul 11, 2019 at 20:46
  • 1
    @Conifold Why would that make neurophysicalism overwhelmingly plausible? If there is still a possibility for something else, as Sarihan says, "The first obstacle is that correlation does not mean identity." If subjective thoughts were to be correlated with neuronal firing, how would that prove causation? Also, if there is a possibility for something else, we would not know the probability of that something else, even if it wasn't required for our theory, no?
    – Josh
    Commented Jul 11, 2019 at 21:01
  • 1
    Because academic musings like "correlation does not mean identity" and "there is a possibility for something else" mean very little in the face of a successful research program. All empirical identities are inferred from correlations, they just have to be persistent enough, and alternatives are abandoned not because they are disproved (which is impossible), but because they are discredited by the success. This is why we no longer have ether or creationism, even though "there is a possibility" and correlation between a theory and observations may not be caused by the theory being true.
    – Conifold
    Commented Jul 11, 2019 at 23:15
  • Correlation refutes identity, because it is a relation b/w two things which must be kept clear of each other to establish an association between them. As long as they are kept separate, correlation can groove deeper and thinner, only to preserve them away from merging into identity. Scientists exploit this endlessly to have research money: they wish to support the gap between mind and neurons, saying in hypocrisy (or in self-deceit?) they want to identify the two sides. Identities finally proclaimed as "found" or "proved" in place of correlations are the leaps of fatigue-and-quit.
    – ttnphns
    Commented Jul 11, 2019 at 23:52
  • @Conifold I see. So it is purely a pragmatic decision?
    – Josh
    Commented Jul 12, 2019 at 0:05

1 Answer 1


The issues hangs on what we mean by 'empirical'. You say,

Given that no empirical evidence will truly disprove either side, it is a matter of probability.

Here you are assuming that 'empirical' means 'sensory'. This accords with most dictionary definitions and is not a problem. But consciousness is not an empirical phenomenon and yet we know we are conscious. Thus knowledge is not necessarily empirical and the ability of empiricism to prove or disprove 'either side' is not a problem.

A study of consciousness will settle the matter, but it will not be an empirical study. Such a study will, if successful, leave nothing as a matter of probability.

Not all knowledge is derived from the physical senses. Sensory data is never going to tell us much about what is receiving and noting this sensory data. Sensory data is theory-laden and liable to all sorts of errors.

Note that Descartes' 'Cogito' is not sensory data. This is why he considered it reliable.

Theories in philosophy of mind may be tested by a 'hands-on' method known variously as apperception, meditation or self-enquiry. Academic philosophers of mind rarely go in for such activities so must rely on sensory data. Accordingly, they usually deny the possibility of testing their theories. But this is a very inneffective way to study mind and consciousness and not at all scientific. Those who study consciousness and mind in a scientific manner, by doing the field-work, do not leave things to conjecture and the balance of probabilities but test their theories in experience.

  • So you're saying that it's possible to derive the basis of consciousness just through the experience of being conscious? Otherwise, I think you would have to rely on empirical information.
    – Josh
    Commented Jul 12, 2019 at 17:23
  • Neat! "Empirical ≠ Sensory" And yet that fact is neither empirical nor sensory 😀
    – Rushi
    Commented Jul 13, 2019 at 1:34
  • @Josh - I don't know what you mean by 'derive the basis of consciousness', or how empirical information would tell us anything about it when it cannot even establish its existence. Do you remember Behaviourism? . . .
    – user20253
    Commented Jul 13, 2019 at 10:49
  • @Josh Just noticed I didn't answer your question. It is possible to know the basis of consciousness, but not to derive it. A derived result is never certain knowledge.
    – user20253
    Commented Nov 23, 2019 at 14:49

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