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MICHAEL V.

ANTONY

DAVIDSON’S ARGUMENT FOR MONISM

ABSTRACT. Two criticisms of Davidson’s argument for monism are presented. The first is that there is no obvious way for the anomalism of the mental to do any work in his argument. Certain implicit premises, on the other hand, entail monism independently of the anomalism of the mental, but they are question-begging. The second criticism is that even if Davidson’s argument is sound, the variety of monism that emerges is extremely weak at best. I show that by constructing ontologically “hybrid” events that are consistent with the premises and assumptions of Davidson’s argument, but entail ontological dualism. My guess is that if you want to get a lot of physicalism out [of Davidson’s argument], you’re going to have to put a lot of physicalism in. – Jerry Fodor 1989, 159

Over three decades ago Donald Davidson introduced his celebrated argument for the token-identity theory. He dubbed his view ‘anomalous monism’ – “monism, because it holds that psychological events are physical events; anomalous, because it insists that events do not fall under strict laws when described in psychological terms” (PP, 231).1 The argument had three main premises: (P1) (P2) (P3) The Principle of Causal Interaction. At least some mental events interact causally with physical events. The Principle of the Nomological Character of Causality. Events related as cause and effect must fall under strict laws. The Anomalism of the Mental. There are no strict laws on the basis of which mental events can be predicted and explained. (ME, 208)

From those premises, Davidson proposed, “we can infer the truth of a version of the identity theory” (ME, 209):
Suppose m, a mental event, caused p, a physical event; then, under some description m and p instantiate a strict law. This law can only be physical, according to the previous paragraph [in which P3 is said to have been established]. But if m falls under a physical law, it has a physical description; which is to say it is a physical event. (ME, 224) I am grateful to Hanoch Ben-Yami, Joseph Berkovitz, Ruth Weintraub, and anonymous referees for helpful comments on earlier drafts. Synthese 135: 1–12, 2003. © 2003 Kluwer Academic Publishers. Printed in the Netherlands.

therefore. see also ME. . . ANTONY The class of mental events to which Davidson’s argument applies is restricted in two important ways. and the term ‘monism’ is restricted accordingly. In the first criticism I argue that there is no way for P3 to contribute to the derivation of monism. see also ME.2 MICHAEL V. Davidson tells us.) (CR. and action. and memory. if they lack such intentionality. so much so that it is consistent with various forms of ontological dualism. I shall not attempt this” (ME. Even if Davidson’s argument is sound. First. Davidson’s claims to the contrary notwithstanding. 229–230) Excluded. PP. and the assumptions insufficiently defended. Other of Davidson’s assumptions do lead to monism. Neither criticism threatens Davidson’s argument for P3.. 240. To the extent that such assumptions are crucial to his argument. 212–213). his argument begs the question. To establish a more general monism. . my arguments are limited in application to branches of psychology that make essential reference to ‘propositional attitudes’ such as belief. or use concepts logically tied to these. “it would be sufficient to show that every mental event is cause or effect of some physical event. however. The second criticism is independent of the first. it will be to find the lawlessness of the mental serving to help establish the identity of the mental with that paradigm of the lawlike. That. learning. 224). This paper thus primarily concerns mental events that causally interact with physical events. since traditionally it had been assumed that support for the identity theory could come only from the discovery of laws or correlations linking mental and physical event-types: “If there is a surprise. the physical” (ME. In this paper I present two criticisms of Davidson’s argument for monism. such as perception. he pointed out. I argue that the monism that emerges is extraordinarily weak. desire. 223. only mental events that causally interact with physical events are addressed. are phenomenal or qualitative events like pains or itches. (Some of these concepts may not always show intensionality. Second. . Davidson’s argument is limited to mental events that exhibit the kind of full-blown intentionality characteristic of propositional attitudes: . 210 ff. was unusual.2 What Davidson took to be most distinctive about his argument was that the anomalism of the mental (P3) – the principle that there are no strict laws on the basis of which mental events can be predicted and explained – played a central role in establishing the identity theory. and the second focuses on the variety of monism that is supposed to emerge from it. . questions still remain as to the precise nature of his monism. The route from such assumptions to monism is very direct. then. . but independently of P3. and in such cases are also exempt. The first exposes difficulties with the argument itself.

it follows from P2 that some strict law or other must cover the case. Davidson often seems to argue by a simple process of elimination: “By Premise three. there might be a strict law covering m and p that is composed of predicates that are neither physical nor mental. and so events can instantiate laws . a physical event. given that he holds that an event’s being covered by a strict physical law entails that it has a physical description (ME. Davidson’s strategy is always to establish that there is a strict physical law covering m and p. Mark Johnston (1985). The possibilities thus remain wide open. “laws are linguistic. even after psychophysical and psychological strict laws have been eliminated by P3. Davidson himself is clear about this: Given the endless possibilities for redescribing events (or anything else) in non-equivalent terms. 224). 231. a mental event. it also does not bar it from having indefinitely many other descriptions. 215. and hence mental descriptions. only mental descriptions and physical descriptions can be relevant. presumably. cf. including those that are neither mental nor physical. But surely that is too fast. DAVIDSON ’ S ARGUMENT What role is P3 meant to play in a Davidson’s argument for monism? With respect to any mental event m that causally interacts with any physical event p. The reasoning is confused. see also ME. only as those events are described in one way or another” (ME. for all that has been said. For Davidson. writes: . . only physical descriptions. (1995. 215. And given that mental laws. it is clear that there may be no clue to the character of an appropriate law in the concepts used on some occasion to characterize an event. Davidson 1993. Others have noticed this point. is where P3 is meant to come in.). 6 ff. But why must the law be physical? Here. For just as m’s being a mental event does not bar it from having a physical description. 224). for example. and that an event’s having a physical description suffices for its being a physical event (ME. by P1. however. 265) So even if on some occasion m is described as mental and p as physical. that says nothing about the character of any strict law(s) covering m and p. and p. But then.DAVIDSON’S ARGUMENT FOR MONISM 3 1. But how does Davidson show that there is a strict physical law covering m and p? Since. 224). Since we are interested in strict laws for connecting m. have been eliminated. For why suppose that the only alternative to psychophysical (or psychological) laws are physical laws? Why think there are just two options? Here is a bad reason for so thinking. remain. so they must be purely physical laws” (PP. m and p are causally related. 211. and similarly for p. and hence physical laws. That done. . it follows that m is a physical event. the laws are not psychophysical.

however. there will be a strict law. Then it could be that some true psychological or psychophysical singular causal statements are not backed up by physical law but by laws of ectoplasm. That he believes P4 is clear. .. . imagine there is some other sort of strict law besides physical law. ANTONY . is that nowhere does Davidson explicitly say that the law connecting m and p must be physical because there are strict laws only in physics. “the . The trouble. since it is hard to see how “ectoplasmic” or other kinds of non-physical strict laws could otherwise be eliminated. . albeit close to the surface: It is plausible that there is a set of concepts (perhaps there are many such sets) which lend themselves to the formulation of a closed causal system. Davidson moves from closure to strict laws as if the former entails the latter.e.3 but does P4 play a role in his argument. but only redescriptions employing predicates figuring in the laws of ectoplasm. even implicitly? A recent formulation of his argument in which he appeals to the causal closure of physics appears to contain P4 implicitly. But that P4 is implicit in the text may leave many readers with the impression that excluding such possibilities is unnecessary.” (412) Call this principle ‘P4’: (P4) There are strict laws only in physics It indeed seems that Davidson needs something like P4 to infer that the strict law connecting m and p must be physical.4 MICHAEL V. 266) The first thing to notice is that Davidson seems to be saying that any concepts out of which a closed causal system can be formulated are physical concepts: physics is the closed system. nowhere explicitly employs P4 to rule out strict laws that are neither physical nor psychological. So there need be no physical redescriptions of the mental events figuring in such singular causal relations. a physical law. Hence events described in mental terms must also be expressible in physical terms: in ontic language. . it follows that there are strict laws only in physics. Since mental concepts are not amenable to inclusion in a closed system. . In this case. i. specifically. (Davidson 1995. principle that there are no strict laws except physical laws. he appears to hold that a system is closed if and only if strict laws apply to it.4 Taking the two points together. notice the tight connection between closure and strict laws. 338. P4 is thus implicit in the above formulation of Davidson’s argument. for any two events related as cause and effect. (411–412. McLaughlin 1985. Indeed. cf. mental events are identical with physical events. covering the case. Second. of course. Stanton 1983) Johnston concludes that Davidson’s needs something stronger than P3 to reach monism. say pure laws of the ectoplasm or laws relating states of the ectoplasm to physical states. Let us call these concepts the concepts of physics. the strict laws covering singular causal relations expressed in (at least partly) mental terms must also be expressible in physical terms. Davidson.

when assuming that singular psychophysical causal relations must be covered by strict laws. if closure turns out to be independent of P2). the premise that at least some mental events interact causally with physical events. and it is implicit in at least one formulation of his argument. it is equally question-begging to assume that all strict laws link up only events that are physical (P4). Mclaughlin 1985. We have reached monism from P4 and P2! Such an argument. while of considerable interest in its own right. The trouble. if he appeals to such a principle. is what Davidson took to be unique about his argument. However. So m is physical. and arguing against ontological dualism. caused p. For suppose m. a physical event. Notice that if an argument for monism is to rest on P4 or closure. For if all strict laws are physical. however. By closure. Davidson could still establish anomalous monism by deriving monism from P4 or closure. but that would be a very different argument. He needs something like P4 to rule out the possibility that non-physical and non-mental strict laws might cover m’s causing p. or to closure.DAVIDSON’S ARGUMENT FOR MONISM 5 P4 is thus something Davidson believes. Similarly. however. it follows that all causal interactions. we saw. He can appeal to P4. Again. is irrelevant to his argument for monism. The special role of P3 is also jeopardized by Davidson’s appeal to the causal closure of physics. only at the cost of radically altering his argument. But that P3 played a key role in establishing the identity theory. after all. appears to need. Davidson would still have a defense of anomalous monism. All he needs is P1. he gets monism without P3. which is proved before P3 is even mentioned. For in the context of assuming psychophysical causation. But would that be so bad? Even if P3 plays no role in deriving monism. and we have reached the tokenidentity theory without P3 (or P2 for that matter. Stanton 1983). a mental event. and then simply affixing P3 to it. notice how quickly monism follows. P3 has no work to do in Davidson’s argument for monism. all events with which p causally interacts are physical. including m’s causing p. Now if Davidson assumes closure. leaves no work for the anomalism of the mental (P3) in deriving the identity theory. presumably he has in mind at least this: physical events causally interact only with events that are themselves physical (cf. Of course. is that nowhere does Davidson defend . however. it is clearly questionbegging to simply assume that physical events causally interact only with events that are physical (closure). involve only events that are physical. So m is physical. In that case Davidson’s argument for P3. those assumptions must be very well defended. then since all causal interactions require subsumption under strict law (by P2). Davidson’s argument is thus in trouble. Though Davidson does not characterize closure.

sense data.6 MICHAEL V. 175). Similar points could be made about how Davidson’s earlier criterion for event individuation. deem them silly. regarding the individuation of events. (Davidson 1989) rules out various forms of dualism. etc. As an argument for the identity theory. if it does not. Another approach would be to insist that such proposals are so undeveloped and confused that it is unclear what they amount to. must rule out strict laws involving ectoplasm. are identical if they occupy the same places at the same times” (1985. or how his eliminativism about qualia. ANTONY P4 or closure. there is nothing else worth considering besides purely physical laws. For it is irrelevant how (im)plausible or (un)clearly formulated a certain proposed dualist alternative is. not just worth-taking-seriously or well-worked-out proposals. and that ectoplasm has no spatial location. events in Cartesian souls. Davidson needs something stronger. in terms of same causes and effects (see IE). therefore. suppose one held that propositional attitudes are token-identical with non-physical ectoplasmic events (which lack physical descriptions). like physical objects. A critic might hope to exclude ectoplasmic events on the grounds that they are inconsistent with Davidson’s theory of events. One way of doing that. etc. might be simply to ridicule the proposals. for proposals like Johnston’s laws of ectoplasm. the subjectivity of the mental. it begs the question. neither closure nor P4 would play a role in Davidson’s argument. Such responses are illegitimate. Thus one might hope to make it plausible that after intentional strict laws have been eliminated by P3. . However it might be thought that non-mental and non-physical strict laws could be excluded without P4. Davidson’s argument is directed against all ontologically dualist proposals regarding mental events. like P4. On this suggestion. however. and so forth. A related strategy for excluding certain dualist proposals is to argue that such proposals conflict with other elements of Davidson’s philosophy – for example. otherwise it is invalid. for example. To illustrate. So if his argument depends on those assumptions. Davidson’s argument itself. not worth taking seriously. it unclear how Davidson can establish the identity theory at all. Davidson holds that “events. but P3 would. If he also believes they are identical only if they occupy the same spatiotemporal locations – and it seems he does5 – that immediately rules out any view according to which distinct propositional attitudes can be simultaneously realized by distinct (non-spatial) ectoplasmic events. excludes or restricts dualisms that are epiphenomenalistic. Above it was argued that because P3 cannot rule out strict laws that are neither mental nor physical.

Questions still remain. or with more direct claims that physics is ontologically basic: Anomalous monism says that mental entities add nothing to the furniture of the world that is not treated in physics (1999b. but to be wary of anything that comes close to entailing monism or ruling out common forms of dualism. they assume that while it is false that mental events are “nothing but” physical events (cf. . Davidson’s monism is meant to be physicalistic. 654) my argument for anomalous monism .” With this Davidson seems to agree. is designed to show that the ontology of any science that is not reducible to physics shares its ontology with physics. the argument is otiose. then. Of course. But given how holistic and tightly woven Davidson’s overall philosophy is. and any number of other vocabularies. The policy I have adopted is to allow anything needed for understanding the premises and assumptions of his argument. maybe Davidson has a non-questionbegging argument for closure or P4. other non-reductive materialists (e. 453). concerning the precise nature of his monism. either because his view is non-reductionist (ME. (1999a. However. it is hard to know just how much must be presupposed. Davidson often shies away. What does it amount to? Davidson typically glosses his monism by saying that mental events are identical to physical events (e. . 214).. however. ME. In such cases we have a single event describable in the vocabularies of psychology. is that they try to do the work that Davidson’s argument was intended to do.. 214. of physics.DAVIDSON’S ARGUMENT FOR MONISM 7 The trouble with such responses. from characterizing his monism as materialistic or physicalistic. Now I grant that certain features of Davidson’s philosophy must be assumed to be in place in order to run the argument. Perhaps P3 plays a special role in his argument after all. Identity is a symmetrical relation” (1987. . 1993). if all forms of dualism must be ruled out before we even get to Davidson’s argument. so that we might see what the argument itself is able to deliver.g. however.g. again. ME. 2. or simply because “if some mental entities are physical events. most functionalists) maintain that one can both be a materialist and preserve what is distinctive about the mental. etc. 214. 214). PP. they are in some sense physical “at bottom. this makes them no more physical than mental. He often points to the privileged status of the physical. either in terms of supervenience (ME. 619) In a reasonably clear sense. we have an event monism coupled with a descriptive pluralism. DAVIDSON ’ S MONISM Let us assume now that Davidson’s argument is sound. 231).

In a similar fashion we can construct hybrid events that are identical to intentional events (e. The war’s ghosts add substantially to the furniture of the world not treated in physics. Now just as the not-entirely-physical war has a physical description. I appeal to the notion of an ontological hybrid – an entity composed of parts (or properties6 ) from more than one ontological category. but that physical description will also apply to the war itself (‘the event with such and such physical characteristics’). except in the most misleading of senses. what will concern us are hybrid events with physical and non-physical parts (subevents). Assume also that they are not intentional in Davidson’s sense. Notice that this is not an outlandish suggestion. it must count as a physical event by Davidson’s lights. Neither neurophysiological events nor phenomenal events on their own will suffice for complete propositional attitudes.. Our hybrids will have as subevents both such phenomenal events and physical (e. It is of course not a “full” description of the war (whatever that would be) . Now notice that a partly physical hybrid can be given a wholly physical description. such hybrids must contain both physically describable subevents and subevents that lack physical descriptions. in that they lack physical descriptions. where the latter but not the former are physical (i. Intentional events like propositional attitudes – at least occurrent attitudes – we shall assume are token-identical with such hybrids. or they can be sui generis. Since for Davidson an entity is physical if and only if it has a physical description (ME. etc. Kim 1998). Others have noted the weakness of Davidson’s monism (e. But it is clearly not physical in the sense required for a physicalistic monism..g. so do these not-entirely-physical hybrids have physical descriptions (‘the event with such and such physical characteristics’). But they are obviously not physical in the sense required for a physicalistic monism: they are onto- .. propositional attitudes). More specifically.g. for only part of the war is physical. Assume that phenomenal or qualitative conscious events are non-physical. but I shall attempt to bring out the point differently. but it does what Davidson requires of it: it picks out the war in physical terms.g. Since the war has a physical description. however. involves a closely related view regarding occurrent attitudes. To do that. imagine a war fought by ghosts using real guns. ANTONY I wish to argue.. neurophysiological) events.. 211. the guns but not the ghosts have physical descriptions). There will be a physical description of the physical subevents of the war.8 MICHAEL V. Chalmers’s (1996) property dualism. for example. So they too must count as physical for Davidson.e. They can be events in ectoplasm. 224). that the monism that emerges from his argument is much too impoverished to be properly considered a physicalistic monism. To take a fanciful example. Cartesian souls.

they are consistent with the causal closure of physics. Consider first the causal closure of physics. prima facie at least. then if m causally interacts with p. Let us turn now to P2 and P4. his monism is of an exceedingly weak sort. it need not conflict with closure or P4. however. For hybrids to be consistent with closure. Could hybrids enter into causal relations in accordance with P2 and P4? Since hybrids have physical subevents. which state.8 If they vary non-lawfully. many will judge that such dualisms are not to be taken seriously. as would certain forms of property dualism if properties were admitted into our ontology. and token hybrids. phenomenal components do not enter into causal relations with physical events. I do that by constructing hybrids similar to those described above that are consistent with Davidson’s premises P1–P3. the former cannot affect the latter. respectively. That means that all interactionist dualisms must be excluded. It will follow that such hybrids are consistent with. If P2 and P4 are assumed. will have a physical description formulated in terms of the physical descriptions of those subevents. . could be lawfully related to other hybrids or to purely physical events. and hence comprehended by. and that there are strict laws only in physics. the strict law(s) covering m and p must be physical. then. Given that our hybrids’ non-physical subevents are causally unrelated to their physical subevents. Consider a strict physical law φ1 ⇒ φ2 . Here. will do (sustained. each hybrid.DAVIDSON’S ARGUMENT FOR MONISM 9 logically dualistic if anything is. therefore. and so enter into causal relations in accordance with P2. I shall now show that his argument does allow for such hybrids. as with Johnston’s laws of ectoplasm. Versions of parallelism between physical and non-physical substances. Davidson’s monism. Our hybrids thus respect P4 as well. We shall see that it does not. there obviously will be no such conflicts. as well as with P4 and closure. Notice that it does not matter how hybrids’ phenomenal subevents vary across instances of the same type of physical subevents. as well as any versions of epiphenomenalism that allow for physical-to-non-physical causation. perhaps. as we saw. that strict physical laws could subsume such hybrids under their physical descriptions. and the question to be asked here is whether Davidson’s argument rules them out. they must be constructed in such a way that their non-physical. It would thus seem. Hybrids. If they vary lawfully. However. If Davidson’s argument allows for such ontological hybrids. that events related as cause and effect must fall under strict laws. then since the law need not be causal. Consequently each token hybrid satisfying ‘φ1 ’ will be followed by a token event (hybrid or purely physical) satisfying ‘φ2 ’. by non-causal fundamental laws7 ). each of which satisfy the physical description ‘φ1 ’.

If there were a law relating ψ to such a hybrid. There also can be no strict intentional-phenomenal laws so long as phenomenal events lack intentionality in Davidson’s full-blown sense. So long as there are no strict intentional-physical laws (by P3). If it is. ANTONY Are there reasons for thinking that hybrids could not fall under strict physical laws? That they include subevents with no physical descriptions might be thought to be such a reason. complex events. For the same considerations Davidson employs in arguing against intentional-physical laws (rationality constraints. Consider next P3. charity. . for example. the principle that there are no strict intentional laws. however. For hybrids to be consistent with P3. however.10 MICHAEL V. Here propositional attitudes make their appearance. Hybrids thus appear consistent with P2 and P4 after all. and not hybrids themselves. fall under strict laws. intentional-hybrid laws would appear to be impossible. our assumption of no physical-phenomenal causation ensures that the nomic relations holding between hybrids’ physical subevents and other physical (sub)events go undisturbed. since hybrids are not genuine events – much as this morning’s rainfall conjoined with the Andromeda Galaxy’s most recent supernova might not be considered a genuine event. in spite of their ontologically dualistic nature. ψ could hardly be nomically related to an event type with the same physical subevents as φ. Occurrent propositional attitudes. recall. one might claim that only hybrids’ physical subevents. hybrids differ from such arbitrary. And of course merely to stipulate that an event’s possessing non-physical subevents excludes it from subsumption under strict physical law is ad hoc. that might prevent hybrids from being subsumed under strict physical laws. and that is ruled out by P3. and Davidson has not provided one. gerrymandered events. are being assumed to be token-identical with hybrids: the belief that P. however – and it is far from obvious that it is – an argument is required. they must not involve any strict intentional laws – neither intentional-hybrid nor intentional-phenomenal – since there can be no strict intentional laws of any kind according to P3. For if no strict law connects propositionalattitude type ψ with physical-event type φ. they seem to be perfectly unified. ψ would be nomically sufficient for the realization of certain physical (sub)events. However. etc. P3 thus seems perfectly compatible with hybrids. will be identified with tokens of different physical-phenomenal types across cases.) can be marshaled against intentional-phenomenal laws if phenomenal events lack intentionality. Now if hybrids’ phenomenal subevents causally influenced the physical realm. Taking a different tack. Intuitively. and some additional non-physical subevents.

etc. when appropriately described. ‘CR’ for ‘Comments and Replies’. Davidson requires a premise to the effect that all subevents of physical events are themselves physical.). be viewed as treating the universe as a closed system . However. Dretske 1995.DAVIDSON’S ARGUMENT FOR MONISM 11 Turn finally to P1. NOTES 1 I use the following abbreviations for essays in Davidson 1980: ‘ME’ for ‘Mental Events’. 167) takes events to be identical if and only if spatiotemporally coextensive. 231). was something that one could at best hope to find in a developed physics . it follows that occurrent attitudes can interact causally with physical events. 7 Compare Chalmers’ dualism according to which fundamental psychophysical laws do not interfere with the causal closure of physics (Chalmers 1996. I usually avoid talk of properties in what follows. to charity.. 3 “I made clear that what I was calling a [strict] law . as well as with closure and P4.” (Davidson 1993. On such views the mental clearly does not share its ontology with physics. I assume here that for Davidson strict laws are causal laws. would prevent him from maintaining that an event is physical if it has a physical description. it follows that such ontologically dualistic hybrids are consistent with his monism. 219. and Davidson (1985. . . Since we are assuming that occurrent propositional attitudes are token-identical with hybrids. and ME. ‘PP’ for ‘Psychology as Philosophy’. see also 1995. since hybrids have physical descriptions. If Davidson’s argument for monism is sound.9 However. then there exists a closed and deterministic system of laws into which these events. the principle that at least some mental events interact causally with physical events. 2 Recently it has been argued that qualia are intentional (e. laws of this sort in the special sciences. . 5 Quine (1985. and we established that hybrids can interact causally with physical events. 127). fit” (PP. Such a premise. . ‘IE’ for ‘The Individuation of Events’. . Such qualia thus remain untouched by Davidson’s arguments. 8–9. It would then be unclear how Davidson could infer that m is a physical event. 175) endorses Quine’s criterion.I allowed that there are not. . however. 8 See note 7. See also note 3 above. . etc. and perhaps could not be expected to be. .) is a monism in name only. 6 In accordance with Davidson’s extensionalist leanings. Tye 1995). [and] could . the relevant notion of intentionality differs from Davidson’s (it is not subject to the same kinds of rationality constraints. . Hybrids are thus consistent with P1–P3. . ME) 4 In one place Davidson states P2 in terms of closure: “The second premise is that when events are related as cause and effect.g. p. Now to exclude hybrids. ‘MM’ for ‘The Material Mind’. any monism that admits mental events that are partly constituted by non-physical ectoplasmic events (events in Cartesian mind-stuff.

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