Post Author: Bill Pratt
Some naturalists are betting on it, because ultimately physical laws, in their worldview, have to explain everything. For the naturalist, there is nothing but physical reality which is governed by physical laws. That being the case, everything, including the human mind, must be reduced to the purely physical and mechanistic.
Philosophers have pointed out serious problems with this attempt to reduce the mind to physics. In a fascinating discussion of the origins of modern science, philosopher Richard Swinburne explains that mental states have been purposefully excluded by scientists because mental states were not seen as anything that science could measure or investigate. Here is Swinburne:
Thermodynamics was conceived with the laws of temperature exchange; and temperature was supposed to be a property inherent in an object. The felt hotness of a hot body is indeed qualitatively distinct from particle velocities and collisions. The reduction was achieved by distinguishing between the underlying cause of the hotness (the motion of the molecules) and the sensations which the motion of molecules cause in observers. . . . But this reduction has been achieved at the price of separating off the [sensation] from its causes, and only explaining the latter. All reduction from one science to another dealing with apparently very disparate properties has been achieved by this device of denying that the apparent properties (i.e., the ‘secondary qualities’ of colour, heat, sound, taste, etc.) with which one science dealt belonged to the physical world at all. It siphoned them off to the world of the mental.
But then, when you come to face the problem of the sensations themselves, you cannot do this. If you are to explain the sensations themselves, you cannot distinguish between them and their underlying causes and only explain the latter. In fact the enormous success of science in producing an integrated physico-chemistry has been achieved at the expense of separating off from the physical world colours, smells, and tastes, and regarding them as purely private sensory phenomena. The very success of science in achieving its vast integrations in physics and chemistry is the very thing which has made apparently impossible any final success in integrating the world of mind into the world of physics.
Swinburne’s point is profound. Modern science was never meant to deal with the mind and its mental states. Not only that, but its very avoidance of explaining the mind is what has made it so successful. Naturalists who demand that science explain the mind are asking it to do the impossible. Maybe the mind is not reducible to physical laws. Maybe it’s just the opposite – physical laws are ultimately reducible to The Mind.