What's a good reading against type-identity theory for neuroscientists?

Wayne Wu (CMU) would like to present arguments against type-identity theory to his group of neuroscientists in his phil cog sci class, and he is wondering what papers he should have them read. As the audience is a specific one, he is disinclined to some of the classics (e.g. Kripke’s argument in Naming and Necessity).

The readings have to be accessible to an empirical audience but also shorter than longer. He’s inclined to discuss multiple realizability since he thinks that would be clearer to them. As many of them are in the lab all the time, less than 20 pages, but preferably less than 15 is desirable (so excerpts rather than entire articles). Witty and entertaining to read are also a plus!


  1. Richard Brown

    Why does the specific audience preclude reading Kripke? If Kripke’s writing isn’t accessible to them then it is hard to see what would be. Surely Kripke is far better, than, say, Putnam’s ‘The Nature of Mental States’ which is the locus  classicus for multiple realization…

  2. Wayne Wu

    Thanks for the thoughts and to Gualtiero for posting my query. I should make clear my aim: I’d like them to digest a compelling argument against the identity theory, and given the nature of the class (we are looking at concepts in cognitive science), I have “one shot” to presenting a challenge to something many of them endorse. Or treat this as a thought experiment: if you had one shot to present arguments against type-identity theory to a potentially skeptical empirical audience, what reading would you choose?

    Perhaps “accessible” wasn’t the right word. The problem with Kripke isn’t readability (surely not in respect of N&N), but I don’t want to have to spend time talking about rigid designation. That’s an idea that isn’t going to get a lot of traction with my audience and I can see us fighting about that. That’s why multiple realizability seemed like a better option.

    I don’t feel bound to read the classics; a punchy, concise and non-standard presentation would be fine (even in an undergraduate text). Hence this post.

    I have found that the challenge in talking across disciplines is to make philosophy clearly relevant but also accessible to an audience that doesn’t have philosophical training and indeed is inclined to be skeptical of philosophical problems (I am reminded about a particularly frustrating ASSC meeting that I attended where the divide between philosophers and scientists was depressingly wide and unnecessarily so).

  3. I agree Kripke is not a great choice. If you want general Kripkean antimaterialist stuff (not just anti identity, but anti materialist), Chalmers is probably the best. His Scientific American article, or his ‘Facing up’ article.

    But you likely want to give them a sense for functionalism, not antimaterialism more generally. I like the brief article on functionalism by Maroney in the MIT Encyclopedia of the Cognitive Sciences. It does a great job of quickly and sympathetically getting out the main multiple realizability objections to identity theory. It also mentions problems with functionalism. It is written in a way that scientists will understand (no rigid designators, no bridging principles, no supervenience).It ends a little weak, but the first half is excellent.

  4. Joshua Stern

    type-identity theory of what, consciousness I gather from the context, and I also gather that the argument he prefers is broadly functionalist.

    but what are the interests of a neuroscientist in this, do we want to start talking about Swampman, or that we can rehost John from this brain to this thumbdrive while they operate on the brain, then reload and reboot him?

    I know the complain will be that the neuroscientists tend to hold these essentialistic ideas about neurons, on which they feel they have some proprietary interest and that this is probably the target, along the lines of, “this little blinky yellow thing on the MRI is a rememberance of a beagle barking, and we’ll never see a blinky yellow thing like that on an MRI of an Intel chip, so QED.”

    I dunno, you could find some classic Putnam on functionalism, but even Putnam later disclaimed that because, in John’s brain, that blinky yellow thing *is* the memory of a beagle barking, and neuroscientists aren’t about to operate on my Intel chip, so let them have their little neo-folk beliefs.

    at least until we do have something more readable to show them.

  5. Brandon N Towl

    I have a paper right up your alley– its a paper of mine forthcoming in Philosophical Psychology. In it, I provide reasons to doubt the argument for the identity theory based on an inference to the best explanation based on empirical data.

    If you would like to see a copy, email at btowl@artsci.wustl.edu.

  6. Richard Brown

    Rigid designation is a very intuitive notion that does not need to spelled out formally to be effective…and besides the real weight behind Kripke’s objection comes from the necessity of identity (which rigid designation helps us get clear about)

  7. Brandon N Towl

    I can do that– I was a little hesitant to post anything before it saw print, but perhaps posting a synopsis and inviting discussion can be the appetizer before the main course 🙂

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