Davidson, Donald (1917–2003)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-U057-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved January 27, 2021, from

3. The mind–body problem

Consider claims (1)–(3):

  • (1) No mental event is a physical event.

  • (2) Some mental events cause physical events.

  • (3) The only causes of physical events are physical events.

Although much can be said in favour of each, together they clearly are inconsistent. The dilemma posed by the plausibility of each of (1)–(3) and by their apparent incompatibility is the traditional mind–body problem. Davidson’s resolution of the dilemma is to abandon (1). Davidson’s account accepts the following principles about the gap between the mental (M) and the physical (P) and about causation:

  • (4) There are no exceptionless psychological or psychophysical laws and in fact all exceptionless causal laws can be expressed in a purely physical vocabulary.

  • (5) Event c causes event e only if there is an exceptionless causal law which subsumes c and e.

It is commonly held that a property expressed by M is reducible to a property expressed by P only if there is an exceptionless law that links them. So, it follows from (4) that mental and physical properties are distinct. Thesis (5) says that c causes e only if there are descriptions D of c and D of e and an exceptionless causal law L such that L and ‘D occurred’ entail ‘D caused D ‘. Theses (4) and (5) entail that physical events have only physical causes and that all event causation is physically grounded.

Davidson shows that theses (2)–(5) can all be true if (and only if) mental events are identical to physical events. Say that an event e is a physical event just in case e satisfies a predicate of our basic physical sciences. These are the predicates appearing in exceptionless laws. Since only physical predicates (or predicates expressing properties reducible to basic physical properties) appear in such laws, it follows that every event that enters into causal relations satisfies a basic physical predicate. So, mental events which enter into causal relations are also physical events. The mental and physical are still distinct in so far as mental and physical events so-described are not linked by exceptionless law; but still mental events are physical events (see Anomalous monism).

Citing this article:
Lepore, Ernie. The mind–body problem. Davidson, Donald (1917–2003), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-U057-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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