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I’ve been reading Owen Flanagan’s new book, The Bodhisattva’s Brain: Buddhism Naturalized, and I’ve come across a passage that I am afraid might be hopelessly confused. Flanagan’s overall project is to articulate a version of Buddhism that is naturalistic (i.e., consistent with what science tells us about the world), hence the subtitle. The passage in question concerns the reduction of the mental to the physical and the possibility (defended by some Buddhists) that there might be special states of consciousness that do not correlate with (and thus are not reducible to) states of the brain. Flanagan articulates two different theories about mental states that guide brain research. The first is the identity theory according to which, in Flanagan’s words, “all mental states are in fact brain states.” It is in describing the second, a view that he calls the neural correlate view (NCV), that things get a little fishy:

The second view . . . can be understood as quietistic or agnostic as far as commitment to metaphysical physicalism goes (the view that what there is, and all that there is, is “physical,” that is, matter and energy transfers). Although NCV claims that each and every mental state has certain distinctive neural correlates, it need neither endorse nor condemn the view that the subjective properties of every experience are reducible to or exhausted by the neural underpinnings of that experience. Perhaps subjectively experienced mental states have sui generis properties that are nonphysical.

Although proponents of the neural correlate view usually assume, as do proponents of the identity theory, that there will be neural property correlates for all the features of mental states as detected first-personally, the view doesn’t actually entail this. Since identity is not claimed, it is possible that mental states might be caused by or correlated with brain states, but that the neural correlates do not contain specific matches (correlates) for each and every property revealed at the mental level. (52, emphasis added)

The idea seems to be that proponents of NCV want to admit the possibility that there are at least some non-physical mental properties.  The claim that there are mental properties (or properties of mental states) that are not reducible to neural properties sounds an awful lot like property dualism. Property dualism, at least as I understand it, is the view that the mental realm (or at least part of it) is characterized by properties that are not the same as nor reducible to any physical properties. Property dualism is a rejection of the identity theory. While a property dualist will agree that all mental states are correlated with a physical state of the brain, they insist that mental states have properties that are not reducible (or identical with) physical states of the brain.

One way to describe NCV might be as follows: NCV is metaphysically open while the identity theory is metaphysically closed. The identity theory says that the world is composed only of physical states and so it does not allow into its worldview any state or property that is not physical. NCV says that it is possible that there are non-physical mental properties; it is open to the existence of such properties but not committed to it. Another way of saying this is that NCV is the view that property dualism might be true. I’m not certain that this is how Flanagan understands NCV but, in any event, this understanding gets rather problematic given the sentence immediately following the above passage: “It is even possible on NCV that there are no neural correlates for some rare and special mental states.” (52)

Flanagan here appears to allow that NCV admits the possibility of free-floating mental states that have no brain state correlates. There are a few problems with this. First, it belies the name, neural correlate view. Second, it admits the possibility of a kind of dualism more akin to substance dualism. Property dualism insists that every mental state is correlated with a brain state, but that mental states are characterized by properties that are not physical. If there are mental states without neural correlates, this suggests that the mental is a different kind of substance. And this would imply that NCV is even more metaphysically open than indicated above: it is open to the existence not just of non-physical properties, but non-physical substance. This is something that I doubt a naturalist and materialist such as Flanagan would be happy to accept as consistent with materialism.  Finally, it directly contradicts what Flanagan says about NCV is the passage above: “NCV claims that each and every mental state has certain distinctive neural correlates.”

So there are two potential renderings of NCV: (1) There are possibly non-physical mental properties. (2) There are possibly mental states that have no brain state correlates (which implies, does it not, that there are possibly non-physical mental states?).

This might be written off as just a bit of sloppy editing were it not for the fact that Flanagan goes on to employ the mental states reading of NVC in a brief discussion of the Dalai Lama’s claim that some states of consciousness induced by Buddhist meditation are unlikely to have neural correlates. Now Flanagan does not say whether he regards NCV as a materialist theory, but he does express disdain for those that would use the metaphysical openness of NCV to promote dualism: “NCV can be used in this way to reintroduce various mental will-o’-the-wisps that will please those with dualist hopes, aspirations, or tendencies.” (52)

The Dalai Lama, apparently, is such a person. Flanagan continues, “the Dalai Lama expressed doubt that, at least in the case of states of “luminous consciousness” (on some interpretations identical to achieving nirvana in this life), any neural correlates will be found for this extraspecial type of conscious mental state.” (53) But Flanagan has no sympathy for this view and, after briefly recounting the Dalai Lama’s argument, declares the position to be inconsistent with naturalism: “This sort of expansive use of NCV is driven purely by antecedent commitment to a view that is antimaterialist, not by any features of the evidence; as such it is nonnaturalist.” (53)

Notice also that it is not NCV itself that is allegedly nonnaturalist, but the Dalai Lama’s use of it. If a view is consistent with naturalism, then how is that a particular use of the view can be nonnaturalist? It appears that what is worrisome to Flanagan is not that the Dalai Lama is committed to a view with peculiar metaphysical commitments, but that the Dalai Lama only accepts that view because it allows him to articulate and defend his own position which he has a prior commitment to. So, the Dalai Lama’s error, it seems, is that his commitment to his metaphysical view of the mind is driven not by the evidence, but by his religion. That’s a legitimate criticism, but it does not make the Dalai Lama’s view nonaturalist. It may be contrary to the methods of scientific inquiry, as believing, despite a lack of evidence, that there was an ancient alien civilization on Mars is contrary to the methods of scientific inquiry. But that a theory is believed on non-scientific grounds does not make it nonnaturalist.

But is the Dalai Lama’s position inconsistent with naturalism? I think that would be a difficult case to make. I’m reminded of Galen Strawson’s version of physicalism as defended in his “Realistic Monism: Why Physicalism Entails Panpsychism.” But let’s put that argument aside. A great deal might depend on whether the Dalai Lama understands his position as a version of substance dualism or property dualism. If he is a substance dualist, then the case that he is a nonnaturalist could potentially be stronger (but see Strawson). But if he is a property dualist, then the case will be weaker. Usually property dualists (I’m thinking of John Searle and Thomas Nagel in particular) will describe their views as non-physicalist or non-materialist; but they are also very insistent that they are completely naturalistic. Property dualists typically conceive of mental properties as distinct from physical properties and yet through and through natural.

The main problem, as far as Flanagan’s position goes, is that he does not say whether NCV is consistent with naturalism (at least not at this point of the book). He articulates two different versions of it (the first, that all mental states have neural correlates; the second, the some mental states might not have neural correlates), but he does not say whether either or both is inconsistent with naturalism. My point about the Dalai Lama’s argument is that there is no reason to ascribe nonnaturalism to him if his views are consistent with a naturalist position, even if he adopts his beliefs for non-scientific reasons.


Jason Thibodeau

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