I am a beginner in philosophy and I am currently reading Jaegwon Kim's Philosophy of Mind. In the introduction (P.g. 8), Kim states that one of the most important problems in Philosophy of Mind is the relation between mental and physical properties which is called "the mind-body problem". He mentioned that we always believed that mental events and their physical effects are caused by neurons in our brain, but it was still something where philosophy is in charge of explaining. He gives explanations as below:

All that might be a complicated story, you say but it's something that neurophysiology, not philosophy, is in charge of explaining. But how do beliefs and desires manage to cause those little neurons to fire to begin with? How can this happen unless beliefs and desires are themselves just physical happenings in the brain? But is it coherent to suppose that these mental states are simply physical processes in the brain? These questions don't seem to be questions that can be solved just by doing more neurophysiological experimentation and theorizing; they seem to require philosophical reflection.

My confusion is that it feels to me those questions are still in the scope of neurophysiology, not philosophy, such as how mental desires to fire neurons. Would someone like to give me more explanations or some examples on it? Thanks in advance!

3 Answers 3


I think the easiest way to approach this is to start with your own phrasing. You say:

My confusion is that it feels to me those questions are still in the scope of neurophysiology, not philosophy [...]

But what is the nature of this 'feeling'? It isn't a bodily sensation that we can trace to the activation of certain sensory nerves; it isn't the perception of an object produced by the stimulation of the optic system; it's not exactly auditory, since none of the mechanical parts of the hearing system are moving. There's no doubt that a lot of neurons are firing when you have this 'feeling', but how exactly does a cascade of bioelectrical discharges relate to confusion, or to the 'feeling' that something is in the scope of neuropsychology?

  • On one side of this coin we perceive patterned bioelectrical activity...
  • On the other side of this coin we perceive thoughts, feelings, ideas, mental images, dreams, fantasies...
  • But... We have absolutely no idea (as of yet) what the nature of this 'coin' is; what there is inside this coin that binds the two sides together.

The reason that you 'feel' this is in the scope of neuropsychology is that (somewhere in your mind) you carry the assumption that the subjective mind must be a physical manifestation of bioelectrical activity. There is no evidence for this, because science hasn't gotten that far yet, but like many people in the Anglophone world you blindly presume that metaphysics provides no answers to anything, so it must (somehow) all be physical. You have a belief, which is fine, but it's just a belief. If you put that belief on hold for a moment, well... on what grounds do you defend it?

  • Hi Ted, you exactly solved my confusion! Can't agree more that we can not assume "the subjective mind must be a physical manifestation of bioelectrical activity." which I did before. Thanks so much!
    – quuuuuin
    Commented May 29, 2021 at 21:08

Jaegwon Kim changed his positions about philosophy of mind continuously over his career as referenced here:

Kim has defended various mind-body theories during his career. He began defending a version of the identity theory in the early 1970s, and then moved to a non-reductive version of physicalism, which relied heavily on the supervenience relation.

Kim eventually rejected strict physicalism on the grounds that provided an insufficient basis for resolving the mind-body problem. In particular, he concluded that the hard problem of consciousness—according to which a detailed and comprehensive neurophysical description of the brain would still not account for the fact of consciousness—is insurmountable in the context of a thoroughgoing physicalism. His arguments against physicalism can be found in his two latest monographs: Mind in a Physical World (1998) and Physicalism, or Something Near Enough (2005). Kim claims "that physicalism will not be able to survive intact and in its entirety." This, according to Kim, is because qualia (the phenomenal or qualitative aspect of mental states) cannot be reduced to physical states or processes.

In his later years, Kim defended the thesis that intentional mental states (e.g., beliefs and desires) can be functionally reduced to their neurological realizers, but that the qualitative or phenomenal mental states (e.g., sensations) are irreducibly non-physical and epiphenomenal. He, thus defended a version of dualism, although Kim argues that it is physicalism near enough. As of March, 2008, Kim still saw physicalism to be the most comprehensive worldview that is irreplaceable with any other world view.

In a 2008 interview with Korean daily newspaper Joongang Ilbo, Kim stated that we must seek a naturalistic explanation for mind because mind is a natural phenomenon, and supernatural explanation only provides "one riddle over another". He believed that any correct explanation for the nature of mind would come from natural science rather than philosophy or psychology.

So depending on the time of the book you're reading was written, this may not be his conclusive view regarding mind-body problem.

  • Hi Double, this reference is amazing! I now see that maybe "what kind of mental states can be reduced to a neurological realizer" is indeed a philosophical question. Philosophy or psychology, and neuroscience are seeking explanations of the mind from different directions.
    – quuuuuin
    Commented May 29, 2021 at 21:20

I’ll take a stab at this, mainly because I feel like I get into a similar debate with friends. So a series of reflections on free will and neurology.

  1. Freud was originally a neurologist. It was in trying to understand the etiology of mental illness that disciplines like psychoanalysis were first born... from what were effectively neuroscientists. Anyway it can be good to recognize the continuity here between transcendental psychology and cognitive science, and understand that contemporary efforts to simulate the mind make use of so-called “neuropsychoanalytic” approaches which try to bring together insights from systems engineering and psychology to build plausible models of mental processes (namely there are industrial applications: what sort of beliefs/desires/intentions should a future smart home have?)
  2. Transcendental psychology is in some sense strongly reducible to mechanical engineering, but there is also a sense in which life itself is so reducible. In other words, these are sophisticated technologies — self-modifying and self-reinforcing technologies — that will take time to reverse engineer, and it may be that reverse engineering stalls without careful philosophical consideration and forward-construction of experimental models that realize important parts of artificial cognition
  3. Free will was not eliminated by neuroscience, and the mind-body problem is indeed a live one. There were some papers several years ago that suggested free will was somehow illusory; these sorts of results beg for philosophical qualification. After all it is a human being who autonomously constructs the structure of these experiments. Again local transcendental structure isn’t anything magical but it’s not straightforwardly reducible to physical instantiations, which capture snapshots or moments of a process proceeding in higher dimensions. Mental processes involve complex dynamics that tend to self-stabilize — but while certain outcomes may be predictable from biophysical factors, others do not seem to be so easily reducible (the decision to construct an experiment to investigate free will seems like a particularly, well, willful sort of decision?)
  • 1
    Hi Joseph, thanks so much for your helpful comment! Now I can see that the question, "is mental processes purely determined by neuroscience" which means an objective process, itself is a philosophical question.
    – quuuuuin
    Commented May 29, 2021 at 21:04

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