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Donald Davidson: Philosophy of Mind


Many philosophers have investigated the relationship between the mind and the brain. These investigations date back to the days of Plato, Aristotle, and a few other philosophers. Historically, before the scientific understanding of the mind and the brain, theology informed the understanding of the relationship between the mind and the soul. Later, new arguments arose regarding which components constitute the mind and the brain (or if the two concepts are distinguishable in the first place). A common school of thought that occurs here is the belief that the mind represents a higher intellectual function, which characterizes memory and reason. Through this understanding, people perceived specific human emotions (such as love and hate) as primitive and independent of the functions of the mind. However, by portraying human emotions as part of the mind, some philosophers saw no distinction between the emotional and rational parts of the human mind.

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In philosophy, the concept of the mind and body magnify the controversy surrounding mind and body relationships. The main argument in this controversy is the belief that the brain is a body of electro-chemicals, while the mind is a body of mental attributes such as beliefs and desires. Broadly, people see the composition of the mind through the collection of thoughts and consciousness. Philosophers such as Donald Davidson however, claim that the complete understanding of brain functions divulge very little information regarding how the mind works. This statement has caused a lot of irritation among proponents of materialism because Davidson’s argument of anomalous monism (discussed in subsequent sections of this paper) contradicts the concept of materialism. However, for purposes of understanding this conflict, it is crucial to highlight that the anomalous monism concept (as explained by Davidson) denies the pure existence of mental states or spiritual existence. Through this contradiction, Davidson affirms that having enough knowledge about the brain does not properly explain thoughts and actions (mind).

This statement defines the framework for this study because this paper investigates Davidson’s argument that the brain shows far less about the mind and if he is right to say so. To achieve this objective, this paper first explains Davidson’s view.

Swamp man Experiment

Davidson proposed the swamp man experiment in one paper titled “Knowing one’s own mind.” This school of thought traces its ideologies from a hypothetical experiment where Davidson takes a walk in a swamp, only for lighting to hit and kill him. In another part of the swamp, the lightning rearranges molecules to resemble Davidson’s body (duplication of body structure). This new being defines the origin of the swamp man phrase. The main question in this experiment lies in establishing if the new person is truly Davidson, and if he shares the same thoughts as he does.

Davidson argues that this being does not share his mentality and thoughts because it lacks a causal history. Therefore, according to Davidson, every person must have a causal history to have the cognition needed in the mind. Davidson also says that even though swamp man may seem to have his qualities, it does not. Therefore, the mental characteristic defining swamp man is unreal and meaningless (although the swamp man may still signify humanism). This observation explains Davidson’s consistent reference to the swamp man as “it” and not “he”. The swamp man experiment created two factions of people – those that agree with Davidson and those that disagree with him. Nonetheless, it is unclear if Davidson’s utterance means he considers the swamp man an exact physical duplicate of himself (or not), because he says, it is possible to have an exact physical duplication without the mental similarities. Through this experiment, Davidson affirms that the brain cannot properly define the mind.

Anomalous Monism

Apart from the swamp man experiment, Davidson also introduced the anomalous monism school of thought to show the differences between the brain and the mind. Davidson also affirms this statement by showing that through the anomalous monism school of thought, the difference between the mind and the brain manifest. This representation provided the right ground for the development of the token theory of identity. At this point, it is crucial to show that Davidson’s understanding of the mind rests on three pillars – the interaction of mental events with some selected physical events, the influence of deterministic laws on events that share a cause-and-effect relationship, and the lack of strict deterministic laws to predict mental events. Through the understanding of the above pillars of thought, clearly, there is a contradiction in the anomalous monism school of thought because the mind and the brain differ, yet, there are some situations where the establishment of a causal relationship occurs. Unless the mind is different from the brain, this contradiction persists. The understanding of this relationship shows that physical and mental realms interact at some point. According to Davidson, this relationship is only partially true because a mental state cannot purely denote a physical state (similarly, there are no laws connecting psychology and Neuropsychology). A few laws therefore only explain the relationship between the mental state and the physical state.

Within Davidson’s understanding of the above relationship, one mental state may mirror several different states (at different times). Therefore, it is incorrect to equate one mental state with another physical state (directly), because they may mean different things. In fact, one relationship may be both mental and physical because no common relationship encompasses both relationships. Davidson also believes that there is only one substance – the physical state. Therefore, mental states (somewhat) denote physical states. Through this understanding, Davidson affirms, that mental states may denote physical states (but not always). In other words, mental states are physical states but physical states cannot explain mental states. Therefore, when it comes to scientific investigations, mental states cannot be properly investigated (also partly because they are holistic). Comprehensively, Davidson suggested that one physical state denotes several mental states (to mean that the mind and the brain relate, but knowledge of the brain may still show less information about the mind).

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Globally, people understand the world’s structure to be hierarchical. The concept of supervenience means the inclusion of low-level property elements in high-level properties. In other words, higher-level properties dominate low-level properties. For example, the relationship between social properties, psychological properties, and biological properties occur through the domination of social properties over psychological properties (and the domination of psychological properties over social properties). Davidson’s work supports this view because he claims mental properties always dominate physical properties. Other philosophers such as John Haugeland also support this view. In fact, John Haugeland advances a global understanding of supervenience when he says mental properties usually dominate global physical properties (ordinarily, the understanding of this relationship would only require a little commitment). Therefore, through Haugeland’s global understanding, any significant differences in the mental statuses of two places mean an equally significant difference in their physical worlds. Therefore, the mental status of one person does not only supervene on his physical state, it may stretch beyond one state or even one person. This analysis is especially useful to the understanding of direct reference theories and semantic externalism. This understanding also projects an example where two indistinguishable people have a dog. One has a real dog, while the other has a picture of a fake dog. Clearly, the first individual enjoys a mental state of seeing the true dog, while the latter is not exactly in the state of seeing the dog but under false pretense he believes he has a dog. One common observation advanced in this relationship manifests while incorporating the concept of time. Indeed, if the concept of supervenience occurs as discussed above, then it becomes extremely difficult to explain the concept of time – as we understand it. Nonetheless, the belief that mental states prevail on physical states (in a timeless manner) shows the concept of presentism. This concept is widely common in Galilean Relativity. Davidson’s view of supervenience exposes why he believes the brain cannot fully explain the mind (because mental states dominate physical states). People understand this view in many ways but the common understanding is the one discussed above. Thus, the above view dictates that if people are physically different, they should also be similarly different (mentally).


Davidson claims a difference between the understanding of the mind and the brain. Indeed, his explanations show that mental states cannot completely explain physical states. However, this paper proposes that the mind and the brain share a mutual relationship. In other words, unlike Davidson’s assertion (that a complete understanding of the brain would tell us far less about the mind), this paper shows the reverse is true (a complete understanding of the brain would sufficiently tell us a lot about the mind). The first argument supporting this position stems from an investigation into the main tenets surrounding the understanding of the mind and the body. For example, is it true to say the mind can completely exist without the body or do bodies exist without the mind? Many philosophers such as John Searle believe the brain causes the mind but their views are unfounded (the mind and the brain need each other to exist). In other words, it is difficult to evaluate one concept without considering the other. Indeed, one’s mental state cannot exist without the physical state (the brain) and similarly, the physical state cannot exist without the mental state (the mind). Incidentally, it is almost obvious that the mental state cannot exist in a vacuum because the physical state has to be present. This physical state is the body or the brain. Conversely, the brain cannot exist without the mental state because it will be dead. Therefore, Davidson’s argument that an understanding of the brain is insufficient to understand the mind is inadequate because an understanding of the mind requires the brain to be there in the first place.

Besides the mutual relationship that the mind and the brain share, there are a few common weaknesses in Davidson’s argument. One weakness lies in the swamp man argument. Davidson has a flawed argument here because causal experiences and thoughts are usually a product of electro-chemical processes emanating from the brain. Therefore, Davidson is wrong to say, experiences and thoughts are merely a product of formal processes. Some philosophers especially magnify this view because they believe that the brain is a critical component for understanding the mind because the physical framework of the brain creates the environment for the existence of the mind. Comprehensively, it is wrong to claim that the brain cannot sufficiently explain the mind (according to Davidson).

Finally, another weakness surrounding Davidson’s argument lies in his assertion that weak supervenience avoids the law. This argument is incorrect because Davidson also supports the dependence of the law on the concept of supervenience. Indeed, it is possible for two people to have similar mental properties but still have different physical attributes. This way, it is correct to say that some mental properties are usually independent from physical properties. Similarly, the weak supervenience concept contradicts Davidson’s entire effort to show differences in mental states mirroring the differences in physical states (since weak supervenience cannot support this dependency).


The mind and the brain work in a complex way. Indeed, in an interrelated relationship where the mind and the brain cannot exist on their own, both the mind and brain represent physical and mental states. Through the swamp man experiment, the concept of anomalous monism, and the supervenience argument, Davidson suggests that an understanding of the brain would tell us far less about the mind. However, as explained above, this paper demonstrates that some of his arguments are contradictory and selective.

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