Mind, identity theory of

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-V016-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved February 29, 2024, from

Article Summary

We know that the brain is intimately connected with mental activity. Indeed, doctors now define death in terms of the cessation of the relevant brain activity. The identity theory of mind holds that the intimate connection is identity: the mind is the brain, or, more precisely, mental states are states of the brain. The theory goes directly against a long tradition according to which mental and material belong to quite distinct ontological categories – the mental being essentially conscious, the material essentially unconscious. This tradition has been bedevilled by the problem of how essentially immaterial states could be caused by the material world, as would happen when we see a tree, and how they could cause material states, as would happen when we decide to make an omelette.

A great merit of the identity theory is that it avoids this problem: interaction between mental and material becomes simply interaction between one subset of material states, namely certain states of a sophisticated central nervous system, and other material states. The theory also brings the mind within the scope of modern science. More and more phenomena are turning out to be explicable in the physical terms of modern science: phenomena once explained in terms of spells, possession by devils, Thor’s thunderbolts, and so on, are now explained in more mundane, physical terms. If the identity theory is right, the same goes for the mind. Neuroscience will in time reveal the secrets of the mind in the same general way that the theory of electricity reveals the secrets of lightning. This possibility has received enormous support from advances in computing. We now have at least the glimmerings of an idea of how a purely material or physical system could do some of the things minds can do.

Nevertheless, there are many questions to be asked of the identity theory. How could states that seem so different turn out to be one and the same? Would neurophysiologists actually see my thoughts and feelings if they looked at my brain? When we report on our mental states what are we reporting on – our brains?

    Citing this article:
    Jackson, Frank. Mind, identity theory of, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-V016-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
    Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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