Smart Identity Theory

Posted by on July 11, 2011

Descartes wrote his Meditations on the mind and body and ever since, academics and scientists have been wrestling with ideas to explain mental states and brain states.  Descartes presented dualism in the form of substance dualism, which then lead to the development of property dualism.  With the rise of science came identity theory, and now there is physicalism and functionalism.  While most of the human body has been explained by science in terms of biology, chemistry, and physics, the one part that still remains mysterious is the brain.  From cognitive science and the recent technological progress relevant to the research of the brain, science has begun to understand the brain and the mind in much better ways; more and more it seems “that science is increasingly giving us a viewpoint whereby organisms are able to be seen as physicochemical mechanism,” (Smart 142).   Smart is an identity theorist whose theory on sensations and brain processes will be focally discussed in this paper.  Topics of interest include: Smart’s ideas on supposed mental states such as sensations in relation to brain states, an objection to his theory which seems to suggest dualism, his reply to this objection, and also relevant ideas regarding our introspective picking of mental states.

By writing on the identity theory of the mind, Smart builds a strict sense of identity in reference to sensations and brain processes.  Smart presents the example of “lightning is an electric discharge” as his model for the sensation/brain process identity.   He states that the above quoted sentence is structured so because “science tells us that lightning is a certain kind of electrical discharge due to ionization of clouds of water-vapor in the atmosphere,” (Smart 146).  The electric discharge and lightning, then, are not two separate entities which coexist, such that there is a flash of lightning and an electric discharge.  What this means is that the experience of lightning is the physical process of an electric discharge; lightning is not a magical flash of light that we do not understand, rather it is a physical process well defined by science.  Smart uses this metaphor and applies it to sensations and brain processes.

Modern science uses Ockham’s razor in order to eliminate nomological danglers that are not necessary for a successful theory in science.  It would not make sense to explain the experience of lightning scientifically as ‘flashiness’ of light as well as an electric discharge.  ‘Flashiness’ of light would be a nomological dangler that is not necessary and its experience can be understood simply in the terms of electric discharge.  Ockham’s razor introduces simplicity into scientific theories, which makes explanations and understandings of concepts simpler.  This simplicity is preferred because it also adds a sense of beauty to the laws discovered.  Smart argues that this in turn is what occurs with his sensations/brain processes identity.  Sensations would be unnecessary nomological danglers because the experience of sensations could be described in terms of brain processes.  His theory is that of a strict identity between sensations and brain processes because it wants to reduce the experience of sensations to brain processes in the same way the experience of lightning is reduced to an explanation of electric discharge.

One of the most challenging objections to Smart’s theory is one that seems to present a dualist view.  The objection states that though Smart’s theory may be able to remove a necessary possibility of the existence of irreducible psychic processes, it does not eliminate the possibility of the existence of irreducible psychic properties.  This view can be understood in terms of an example of the Greek understanding of the planet Venus.  Initially they referred to it as two distinct stars that appeared in the sky, the Morning star (Phosphorus) and the Evening star (Hesperus).  Then for the identity of the Morning star and Evening star to be maintained as distinct, there must be some property said by the Greek that distinctly refers to the Morning star and some property that distinctly refers to the Evening star; “there must be some properties which are logically distinct from those in the physicalist story,” (Smart 148).  The problem then becomes that though psychic processes may become reduced to brain processes; there are still some distinct psychic properties that can’t be attributed to brain processes.  This presents a type of dualism contrary to Smart’s reductive physicalism because it shows that not all psychic things can be reduced to brain processes, that there are still some existing at the same time as brain processes.

Smart’s reductive physicalism, though wants to say that all psychic things, like processes or properties, can be reduced to or described in terms of brain processes.  This should not be confused with an understanding that all the talks about the mind would be translated into talks about the brain.  Smart maintains that his reductive physicalism entails talks about sensations having different meanings than talks about brain processes but that does not mean that sensations themselves could not be reduced to an understanding of brain processes.  This follows from the example of Phosphorus and Hesperus, because if both of those had meant the same thing to the Greeks then the knowledge of them both being Venus would have been a priori.  Sensations could have a different meaning when talked about, but that does not mean they cannot be brain processes.  In any case, the afore-mentioned challenge to J.J.C. Smart’s identity theory still holds.

Smart responds by stating that when people talk about properties in such a way as saying “I see a yellowish-orange after image,” they talk in terms of topic-neutral words (Smart 149).  Topic-neutral sentences can be understood in the sense of using such structures of expression as “‘there is something going on which is like what is going on when,’” (Smart 150).  These sentences use topic-neutral words like the ones in the above mentioned quotation and are used by the person reporting an experience of sensation to mean neither dualistic metaphysics nor Smart’s materialistic metaphysics.  Topic neutral words refer to neither physical nor mental states; this is why they are neutral.  In using these sentences though, the person reports what the something going on is like when something else happens, but does not say in what respect those two things may be like.  In fact, Smart explicitly states that the strength of his reply relies on a person being able “to report that one thing is like another without being able to state the respect in which it is like,” (Smart 150).   But what this topic-neutral analysis does is show how sensations can be brain processes because the report of the person is in terms of topic-neutrality; this is because it removes the idea that when someone reports a property they are referring to a psychic property that is distinct from brain processes.

Much of Smart’s discussion seems to state that we may only introspectively pick our mental-states in topic-neutral terms.  For instance, if one goes to a doctor and tells him that he or she is having a sharp pain in their back, the doctor may then ask “is it a needle like pain?” and he or she may then confirm yes it so.  In the process one has just explained to the doctor his or her pain in a similar structure as, “I have a sharp pain in my back like the pain when many needles may be pinching the insides of my skin”; he or she has just used a topic-neutral process of introspectively picking their mental state.  This seems to very strongly suggest that, yes, we do pick our mental states in topic neutral terms.

What this suggests is that we do so because topic neutral terms allow for a universality of understanding of events that occur with or within us so that we can explain our experiences or mental states to others without saying something along the lines of “I feel like blah di blah blah today” and consequently be seen as insane.  This does not mean that the experience of pain he or she is having is the same experience of pain that another is having, but only that it is similar.   Similar does not entail same, much in the same way Smart suggests the footprints of a burglar is not the same as the burglar (142).  You can correlate the two, but that does not mean they are identical.  One could be having a pain that is subjectively much more painful to them than it is to another person in the same situation, such that they both report to the doctor that they are having sharp pains in their backs like needles poked into the skin.  For one person, the pain could be a nine on a scale of one to ten, and for the other, the pain could be a five on a scale of one to ten, but both are both having a pain that is like having needles in their backs.  One could state that it is pain in both cases and so what is being reported is the same, but that would suggest something like having an experience of pain when a piano dropped on you is the same as having a needle pinch your skin.   We can agree that both those instances are not the same, and so why would the person that is experiencing an immensely different type of pain in the same situation as the other person, be considered as reporting the same experience?

This suggests that though we report our experiences to others by introspectively picking our mental states in topic-neutral terms, we do not necessarily always pick topic-neutral terms for ourselves.   For example, when one is in immense pain he or she does not think to his or her self, “I am in pain like the time a piano fell on me.”  They simply think “oh my god, this hurts.”  Or, if one has to avoid the topic of discussing pains, they do not say to his or her self, “Today is nicely sunny and breezy outside like the time when I went to California,” they simply think to their self, “It is a beautiful day outside.”  Only when one has to report their experiences to others do they have to express this in topic-neutral terms, so that others may have an idea that this experience is similar to what they may be experiencing mentally.  In spite of all this, we still cannot deny that sensations or mental states can be brain processes.  We can only suggest that topic neutral terms are simply useful for reporting to others, and not always necessarily true.

Smart’s ideas regarding sensations and brain processes received objections to his identity theory.  Smart’s replies to these objections are clear and important to understand.  Though we sometimes introspectively choose our mental states in topic-neutral terms, it may not necessarily always be the case.  Choosing topic-neutral terms is mainly helpful in reporting to others our personal mental experiences.

Work Cited

J. J. C. Smart.  Sensations and Brain Processes. The Philosophical Review, Vol. 68, No. 2. (Apr.,

1959), pp. 141-156.

Descartes wrote his Meditations on the mind and body and ever since, academics and scientists have been wrestling with ideas to explain mental states and brain states.  Descartes presented dualism in the form of substance dualism, which then lead to the development of property dualism.  With the rise of science came identity theory, and now there is physicalism and functionalism.  While most of the human body has been explained by science in terms of biology, chemistry, and physics, the one part that still remains mysterious is the brain.  From cognitive science and the recent technological progress relevant to the research of the brain, science has begun to understand the brain and the mind in much better ways; more and more it seems “that science is increasingly giving us a viewpoint whereby organisms are able to be seen as physicochemical mechanism,” (Smart 142).   Smart is an identity theorist whose theory on sensations and brain processes will be focally discussed in this paper.  Topics of interest include: Smart’s ideas on supposed mental states such as sensations in relation to brain states, an objection to his theory which seems to suggest dualism, his reply to this objection, and also relevant ideas regarding our introspective picking of mental states. 

By writing on the identity theory of the mind, Smart builds a strict sense of identity in reference to sensations and brain processes.  Smart presents the example of “lightning is an electric discharge” as his model for the sensation/brain process identity.   He states that the above quoted sentence is structured so because “science tells us that lightning is a certain kind of electrical discharge due to ionization of clouds of water-vapor in the atmosphere,” (Smart 146).  The electric discharge and lightning, then, are not two separate entities which coexist, such that there is a flash of lightning and an electric discharge.  What this means is that the experience of lightning is the physical process of an electric discharge; lightning is not a magical flash of light that we do not understand, rather it is a physical process well defined by science.  Smart uses this metaphor and applies it to sensations and brain processes.

Modern science uses Ockham’s razor in order to eliminate nomological danglers that are not necessary for a successful theory in science.  It would not make sense to explain the experience of lightning scientifically as ‘flashiness’ of light as well as an electric discharge.  ‘Flashiness’ of light would be a nomological dangler that is not necessary and its experience can be understood simply in the terms of electric discharge.  Ockham’s razor introduces simplicity into scientific theories, which makes explanations and understandings of concepts simpler.  This simplicity is preferred because it also adds a sense of beauty to the laws discovered.  Smart argues that this in turn is what occurs with his sensations/brain processes identity.  Sensations would be unnecessary nomological danglers because the experience of sensations could be described in terms of brain processes.  His theory is that of a strict identity between sensations and brain processes because it wants to reduce the experience of sensations to brain processes in the same way the experience of lightning is reduced to an explanation of electric discharge.

One of the most challenging objections to Smart’s theory is one that seems to present a dualist view.  The objection states that though Smart’s theory may be able to remove a necessary possibility of the existence of irreducible psychic processes, it does not eliminate the possibility of the existence of irreducible psychic properties.  This view can be understood in terms of an example of the Greek understanding of the planet Venus.  Initially they referred to it as two distinct stars that appeared in the sky, the Morning star (Phosphorus) and the Evening star (Hesperus).  Then for the identity of the Morning star and Evening star to be maintained as distinct, there must be some property said by the Greek that distinctly refers to the Morning star and some property that distinctly refers to the Evening star; “there must be some properties which are logically distinct from those in the physicalist story,” (Smart 148).  The problem then becomes that though psychic processes may become reduced to brain processes; there are still some distinct psychic properties that can’t be attributed to brain processes.  This presents a type of dualism contrary to Smart’s reductive physicalism because it shows that not all psychic things can be reduced to brain processes, that there are still some existing at the same time as brain processes. 

Smart’s reductive physicalism, though wants to say that all psychic things, like processes or properties, can be reduced to or described in terms of brain processes.  This should not be confused with an understanding that all the talks about the mind would be translated into talks about the brain.  Smart maintains that his reductive physicalism entails talks about sensations having different meanings than talks about brain processes but that does not mean that sensations themselves could not be reduced to an understanding of brain processes.  This follows from the example of Phosphorus and Hesperus, because if both of those had meant the same thing to the Greeks then the knowledge of them both being Venus would have been a priori.  Sensations could have a different meaning when talked about, but that does not mean they cannot be brain processes.  In any case, the afore-mentioned challenge to J.J.C. Smart’s identity theory still holds. 

Smart responds by stating that when people talk about properties in such a way as saying “I see a yellowish-orange after image,” they talk in terms of topic-neutral words (Smart 149).  Topic-neutral sentences can be understood in the sense of using such structures of expression as “‘there is something going on which is like what is going on when,’” (Smart 150).  These sentences use topic-neutral words like the ones in the above mentioned quotation and are used by the person reporting an experience of sensation to mean neither dualistic metaphysics nor Smart’s materialistic metaphysics.  Topic neutral words refer to neither physical nor mental states; this is why they are neutral.  In using these sentences though, the person reports what the something going on is like when something else happens, but does not say in what respect those two things may be like.  In fact, Smart explicitly states that the strength of his reply relies on a person being able “to report that one thing is like another without being able to state the respect in which it is like,” (Smart 150).   But what this topic-neutral analysis does is show how sensations can be brain processes because the report of the person is in terms of topic-neutrality; this is because it removes the idea that when someone reports a property they are referring to a psychic property that is distinct from brain processes. 

Much of Smart’s discussion seems to state that we may only introspectively pick our mental-states in topic-neutral terms.  For instance, if one goes to a doctor and tells him that he or she is having a sharp pain in their back, the doctor may then ask “is it a needle like pain?” and he or she may then confirm yes it so.  In the process one has just explained to the doctor his or her pain in a similar structure as, “I have a sharp pain in my back like the pain when many needles may be pinching the insides of my skin”; he or she has just used a topic-neutral process of introspectively picking their mental state.  This seems to very strongly suggest that, yes, we do pick our mental states in topic neutral terms. 

What this suggests is that we do so because topic neutral terms allow for a universality of understanding of events that occur with or within us so that we can explain our experiences or mental states to others without saying something along the lines of “I feel like blah di blah blah today” and consequently be seen as insane.  This does not mean that the experience of pain he or she is having is the same experience of pain that another is having, but only that it is similar.   Similar does not entail same, much in the same way Smart suggests the footprints of a burglar is not the same as the burglar (142).  You can correlate the two, but that does not mean they are identical.  One could be having a pain that is subjectively much more painful to them than it is to another person in the same situation, such that they both report to the doctor that they are having sharp pains in their backs like needles poked into the skin.  For one person, the pain could be a nine on a scale of one to ten, and for the other, the pain could be a five on a scale of one to ten, but both are both having a pain that is like having needles in their backs.  One could state that it is pain in both cases and so what is being reported is the same, but that would suggest something like having an experience of pain when a piano dropped on you is the same as having a needle pinch your skin.   We can agree that both those instances are not the same, and so why would the person that is experiencing an immensely different type of pain in the same situation as the other person, be considered as reporting the same experience? 

This suggests that though we report our experiences to others by introspectively picking our mental states in topic-neutral terms, we do not necessarily always pick topic-neutral terms for ourselves.   For example, when one is in immense pain he or she does not think to his or her self, “I am in pain like the time a piano fell on me.”  They simply think “oh my god, this hurts.”  Or, if one has to avoid the topic of discussing pains, they do not say to his or her self, “Today is nicely sunny and breezy outside like the time when I went to California,” they simply think to their self, “It is a beautiful day outside.”  Only when one has to report their experiences to others do they have to express this in topic-neutral terms, so that others may have an idea that this experience is similar to what they may be experiencing mentally.  In spite of all this, we still cannot deny that sensations or mental states can be brain processes.  We can only suggest that topic neutral terms are simply useful for reporting to others, and not always necessarily true.

Smart’s ideas regarding sensations and brain processes received objections to his identity theory.  Smart’s replies to these objections are clear and important to understand.  Though we sometimes introspectively choose our mental states in topic-neutral terms, it may not necessarily always be the case.  Choosing topic-neutral terms is mainly helpful in reporting to others our personal mental experiences.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Work Cited

J. J. C. Smart.  Sensations and Brain Processes. The Philosophical Review, Vol. 68, No. 2. (Apr.,

1959), pp. 141-156.

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