The human mind seems to be an elusive concept in any area of study. The question of whether it is a material substance or something else is a perplexing and seemingly inexplicable matter. Descartes set the famous precedent of asserting that the mind is a mental substance, as opposed to material. Identity theorists, however, disagree with this notion. The Identity Theory holds that the mind is in face a material substance, and nothing more than the goings-on in the brain.
That the Identity Theory is valid remains to be seen, however it certainly gives a more straightforward solution to the mind-body problem. Proponents of the Identity Theory purport that by proposing that the mind and the brain are identical (that mental events are neurological events) the complications of the “mental substance” dualists suggest is elapsed. Parsimony is the term Identity Theorists use to describe this aspect of simplicity that the theory brings to the philosophy of mind. The principle of parsimony suggests that the simplest way for something to work is the more sensible; as opposed to complicating our understanding of how the universe works with pointless additions to an already intricate reality, as dualists do according to Identity Theorists. These theorists believe it is frivolous to appeal to a non-material mind, especially when there seems to be no reputable plea to apply this idea to other lesser-minded animals. Why should human beings be the sole possessors of minds when other animals, while not self-conscious in the light of human consciousness, make decisions and carry out complicated physical and mental processes? Identity Theorists hold this claim to be futile, it only makes the causal interaction between the so-called mind and body more complicated.
This theory of the mind is based upon the conjecture that mental occurrences are the goings on in the brain. Every mental state is identical to a material state. This is where the concept of strict identity is essential. To be identical in this sense is not the way identical twins are identical, but in the way water is identical to H2O. For example, the state of depression is identical to a material neurological state. This does not mean that the state of depression corresponds with a certain brain-state, as something that is itself cannot be correlated with itself. The state of depression is a neurological state.
There are apparent problems with the Identity Theory. It seems that mental states, feelings or thoughts, are very different in kind than material states of the brain. This is a very difficult theory to prove. To quote Heil, “Any object could be given multiple names; any object could be described in different ways. You could know an object under one name or description, but not under another” (Heil 76). This exemplifies the difficulty of truly knowing is one occurrence is, in fact, identical to another. As Heil says, it is possible to know an object by a different name or properties than another person knows it by, even if it is the same object. Thus, something may be described in different ways while being the same exact idea or entity. This can be applied to mental states and brain states, and perhaps in the future with more research, the theory that mental states are, in actuality, brain functions.
Another aspect of this dilemma is that if neurological states of the brain are in fact mental states, then mental states should be as publically observable as the brain. Descartes’ dualism seems to better answer the quandary of private vs. public observational states. Since dualism proposes that the mind is a mental, rather than material, substance, it appears that the privacy of the mind is very apparent and makes sense. However, for the Identity Theorist, this seems to be impossible to answer. Though adherents of this theory believe that the more scientists investigate, the more intimately interwoven mental and neurological goings-on become.
This is where U.T. Place’s “phenomological fallacy” proves helpful. Place’s fallacy holds that the Identity Theory is often mistaken because many confuse the “properties of objects experienced with properties of experiences” (Heil 81). Place and supporters of the Identity Theory maintain that once the distinction is made between the properties of an object and the properties of the experience of the object, the idea that experiences are brain processes is more formidable.
The Identity Theory may not be flawless, but it brings about eminent improvements to theories of the philosophy of mind. It dissipates the problem of causal interaction between different substances, those being mental and material as dualists hold. By asserting that mental and material goings-on in the brain (or mind, used synonymously) are the same, Identity Theorists alleviate this large predicament, but also bring on new ones. Now the problem arises of how the privacy of minds is so apparent when they are truly physical things, specifically the brain. While it leaves many questions to answer still, it does develop new answers to the essential questions of the philosophy of mind.