Mind, Metaphysics, and Philosophy of Science

The theme underlying the current NEH Seminar in Mind and Metaphysics is that there is a deficit of metaphysics in contemporary philosophy of mind and a deficit of ontological seriousness in contemporary metaphysics. According to John Heil, who is the seminar organizer and director, much of the talk of counterfactuals, possible worlds, supervenience, propositions, and other devices favoured by philosophers, is ungrounded. If we can get it right on some basic ontological issues, Heil maintains, many of the central problems in philosophy of mind will be automatically solved. Once the ontology is correct, the philosophy of mind will take care of itself, as it were. For more details on this, including Heil’s philosophical methodology, ontology, and view of the mind, see his recent book, From An Ontological Point of View (OUP, 2003).

I was raised to think in a different way, namely, that there is a deficit of philosophy of science in both contemporary philosophy of mind and contemporary metaphysics, and that if you want to do philosophy of science well, you need to understand science well.

Interestingly, these two diagnoses are mutually consistent.

Any thoughts on this? Does philosophy of mind need an infusion of good philosophy of science, good metaphysics, neither, or both?


  1. Adam

    I’ve always thought that the lack of ontology in philosophy of mind was necessary, in order to avoid begging any questions. Put another way, it always seemed to me that we can’t delineate the physics of the mind without assuming that the mind is strictly material, and since there are some (from ‘the folk’ to that relatively endangered species Homo Dualist) who refrain from that reduction, we can’t just help ourselves to a reduced ontology.

    However, I do think the trend in philosophy is moving towards a more scientific approach (which we can agree is a good thing), which I imagine would necessitate a more ontologically based approach to problems in phil/mind. In pursuing a more scientific approach, it seems, philosophers are (at least implicitly) assuming a particular stance on the ontological issues–namely, the issue of mind qua mental substance. My point is just that, any answers that are provided by the scientific approach are always going to be tainted by a foundational assumption that some will deny. But that’s okay, ‘cuz who really listens to those dualists anyway.

  2. Anibal

    I think, that what we can know depends on what exist to be known. Metaphysics and Epistemology or to be precise, any philosophical theorizing, either philosophy of mind, philosophy of… “whatever thing”; must have a detailed ontological agenda (just for the simple reason of not walking blindly).
    The big hurdle is that ussually in any scientific enterprise we have no idea before hand of what things are suppose to exist or we´ll encounter . This happened with the discovery of the helicoidal stucture of DNA. Until Crick and Watson there were so many definitions about life (elan vital, God´s effects and acts…)all flawless, that when Crick sporadically met with philosophers which liked to much definitions about things, or in other words “ontologies”, he despair. It was, and it is actually, preferable to do experimentation and then register data to construct “ontologies”. Now in philosophy of mind things are different. We now get too much sicentific knowledge accumulated from decades (or even centuries), that we have the obligation to take seriously the “tangibility” of “mind”.

  3. Eric Schwitzgebel

    I’m with you, Gualtiero. The ignorance of science, and of philosophy of science, in philosophy of mind does much more harm than any lack of metaphysics. That’s less true now, though, than it was ten years ago. The new generation is much more scientifically attuned.

    But John Heil is good, and if I’m going to look to anyone to help whip my ontology into shape, it would be him!

  4. Kenneth

    While certainly no expert on the philosophy of mind, science, ontological matters and metaphysics, my own perspective is that the philosophy of mind need develop a stronger relationship with psychology. Hence, to make it both more practical. Discussion of the ontology in the philosophy of mind is too metaphysical in and of itself without more concrete pragmatic applications. Dialogue between philosophy and psychology in general would be of great service to both areas of study. Thus, the niceness of this brain blog I just recently discovered.

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