“How to achieve such anomalies, such alterations and re-fashionings of reality so what comes out of it are lies, if you like, but lies that are more than literal truth” – Vincent Van Gogh
Ever see a ghost? It’s all in your head. Well, your heads. You have two, you know. Or rather, you have a physical head, and then you have all the puzzling stuff that goes on inside that physical head. This gives those sourpuss physicalists who want to reduce psychology to physics conniptions. Or maybe it doesn’t. My suspicion is that they have to drink a lot to quiet the disembodied voices inside their own skulls, which while an ineffective long-term strategy will likely get you through a debate on the subject. The whole thing seems to have bothered American philosopher of the mind Donald Herbert Davidson (1917- 2003), considered one of the pre-eminent philosophers of the 20th Century, so much that he turned his considerable cranium to precisely the question of the relation between mental and physical states. Like any self-respecting academic, he decided to write an essay, in particular his seminal work Mental Events, propounding his theory of anomalous monism, or what I like to think of as an eminently reasonable philosophical poke in the eye of devoted skeptics who chalk up all the anomalistic experiences abundant in the universe to bad brains, although it has largely been ignored by skeptic and believer alike. No judgement. Everyone has to have their thing. I liked the television show Farscape. Some people get off on being right. At any rate, anomalous monism strikes me as a useful philosophy in the toolkit of an anomalist. Pick one up. Keep it next to your tin foil hat. What? You don’t have a tin foil hat? Pretty edgy, my fortean friend.
Anyhow, at the core of anomalous monism is the curious conundrum that previous theories of mind held that mental and physical events (tokens), to be reducible to one and the same, require lawlike relations between mental and physical properties (types). This is functionally useless to the philosophically-challenged like myself when phrased this way. Consider this. A flock of birds is made up of the same type of bird, but each individual bird is a token. Translated into psychological phenomena, this means that “thinking the sky is blue” (a mental event) and the pattern of firing neurons (a physical event) that caused you to think the sky is blue would seem superficially to be the same physical event, except that the sky could be grey and you simply “believe the sky is blue”, or are wearing blue tinted glasses, or are batshit insane and think everything is blue. Obviously, I’m paraphrasing, but the problem is causality. Basically, a great number of mental events may precipitate your appreciation of a blue sky, the fact that the sky is or is not blue notwithstanding, and how does one choose among the causal relations that led you to conclude the sky was blue? And if one cannot choose a causal relation, it becomes very difficult to maintain a relation of identity between mental and physical types of experiences, or in layman’s terms, “Lucy, we got a problem”.
Now, nobody remembers you if your philosophy is simple. Don’t kill people. Don’t covet your neighbor’s wife. Love both enemy and friend. Be kind. Pretty straightforward. But by the way, there is a bizarre mystical trinity of the Father, the Son, the Holy Ghost and some infallible human dude wandering around making arcane proclamations about the latest technology. Oh, and eat fish on Fridays. See what I mean. The guys who come up with this stuff realize life can get complicated, so why shouldn’t philosophy. Davidson was no slouch in the esoteric argument department. He was at heart a monistic physicalist, but didn’t think reductive approaches to the mind-body problem were particularly helpful. He posited three arguments central to his proposition of anomalous monism: (1) there exist both mental-to-physical as well as physical-to-mental causal interactions; (2) all events are causally related through strict laws; and (3) there are no psycho-physical laws which relate the mental and the physical. The first proposition is easily summarized as “shit happens”. We call that shit “events”, and events form the irreducible building blocks of the universe. The second proposition amounts to the corollary that “shit always happens for a reason”, that is cause precedes effect by strict laws of the physical universe. Always. Your garden variety physicalist was nodding his head and patting himself on the back until Davidson’s third proposition, which concludes “the mental cannot be linked up with the physical in a chain of psycho-physical laws such that mental events can be predicted and explained on the basis of such laws”. Hence the name “anomalous monism”. Mental states are indeterminate translations. Physical states are deterministic and rule-based. This makes the fundamental point that even though mind and body share a physical ontology, mental events can only be said to be preceded both by physical events and irreducibly, non-physical mental events, and while conscious experience tends to converge with physical experience, this is not necessarily the case, making any given mental state, concisely put, anomalous.
How does this relate to anomalistics and inquiry into strange phenomena? You may have noticed that a common characteristic, one might go as far as to say a defining quality, of anomalous experience is a certain scoffing at physical law. Things don’t seem to behave as if they are bound to what we generally understand the rules of the universe to be (think ghosts, UFOs, Bigfoot, psychic phenomena), and we attempt to translate the experience into a comprehensible idiom that nonetheless fails to converge with anything that resembles concrete reality. The translation is a mental event, incommensurable with the physical event. Thus, things that occur in our minds need not be governed by the same strict laws as the physical events that precede or antecede them, or rather may operate under a set of laws that for all intents and purposes have no causal relationship to the physical world. Therefore, when someone says, “it’s all in your head”, you can confidently answer, “Yes. Yes it is”, without diminishing the significance of the experience. A strict scientific physicalism proposes that this is hogwash, as it only illuminates the fact that we haven’t comprehensively cataloged physical law, but as sociologist of science Thomas Kuhn observed, “Scientific development depends in part on a process of non-incremental or revolutionary change. Some revolutions are large, like those associated with the names of Copernicus, Newton, or Darwin, but most are much smaller, like the discovery of oxygen or the planet Uranus. The usual prelude to changes of this sort is, I believed, the awareness of anomaly, of an occurrence or set of occurrences that does not fit existing ways of ordering phenomena. The changes that result therefore require ‘putting on a different kind of thinking-cap’, one that renders the anomalous lawlike but that, in the process, also transforms the order exhibited by some other phenomena, previously unproblematic”.
“Mental Events,” in Experience and Theory, Foster and Swanson (eds.). London: Duckworth. 1970.
This was interesting. i’m a molecular biologist, and the journal articles I have read on consciousness studies indicate that we have very little idea as to what is going on. For starters, how does one distinguish cause from effect? Is the brain the source or the receiver? So far, knowing the neuroligical details of mental functions brings us no closer to understanding the subjective experience we call consciousness. This topic has been identified as perhaps the greatest unanswered question in scientific research. Pardon the length of this comment, but I’m having fun…
Many thanks and pleased you enjoyed it!