Is Any Version of the Identity Theory of Mind Acceptable?

Identity theory argues that the mind is identical to the brain and that mental events are identical to brain events, ultimately the theory enlightens materialism in that everything is physical and to further precision it enlightens material monism in believing that only material substances and their states exist (K. T. Maslin, 2007, 65). To some extent it exemplifies physicalism that humans are fully material beings that can be explained using ideally complete physics which it is essential to point out do not currently exist. The theory in summary states that when we experience something in our minds it will be identical to an event in the brain, for example pain will be experienced at the same time as the firing of c-fibres in the brain (Gareth Southwell, 2009, In this essay I will further discuss the different versions of the identity theory such as type-type and token-token. And I will prove that despite strengths such as explaining why changes in the brain through injury or otherwise accompany alterations in the mental functioning no version of the identity theory of mind are ultimately acceptable due to its inability to explain the locations of thoughts or emotions, the subconscious or conscious states, the qualia of experiences or the intentional mental states with further critique by the American philosopher Kripke.

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There are two types of identity theory and the first one I will discuss is the type-type identity theory. This theory believes that any given mental state will be identical to a brain state (K. T. Maslin, 2009, 68). This theory tries to identify the connection of mental phenomena with physical processes in the brain. This theory utilises the discoveries of science as identical with the possible connections of mental states with brain states, it states that the discovery of water as an element of oxygen and hydrogen as well as the identification of physical phenomena such as lightning with the pattern of electrical discharges it can connect the experience and feeling of pain with the physical process in the brain and central nervous system of the firing of C-fibres. The extension of this theory places impetus on reductionism. This is where it is argued that the meanings of different mental and physical phrases exactly match at their core concepts. This can be explained in terms of water and H20, two groups of phenomena that appear numerically contrasting turn out to be one set of existents and not two. Ultimately they state that mental and physical concepts will turn out to be a single type of property described by two different terminologies. They believe the true nature of phenomena can be provided by the base to which it is reduced for example pain can be reduced to the behaviour of neurons in the central nervous system.

The second type of identity theory is the token-token identity theory. This believes there are individual differences in people and animals for brain and mental states (K. T. Maslin, 2007, 70). It states that while token mental states are identical to token physical states in different individuals they may be different types of states, for example pain may result in c-fibre stimulation in one individual and z-fibre stimulation in another (Dr Crawford, 2009, 3). I personally think that this theory tries to explain the differences in individuals minds in extension of the pain example I believe this theory tries to explain the different threshold in pain for different individuals, whilst it still may be the same mental thought and brain reactions it takes some people more whilst others less pain to trigger the stimulation of their corresponding fibres whether it be c, x or y.

Firstly I will discuss the strengths of these theories in explaining that the mind is ultimately the brain. Firstly it is a simple theory, with fewer assumptions and only requiring to explain the physical it makes itself more preferable and leaves less loopholes open for critique. It also removes the mind body interaction problem, whereas before there was a requirement to explain the mental to physical causation the theory states that the mental is the physical so it only requires the physical to physical causation to be rationalised and not the non-physical with the physical. Another strength is provided by scientific discovery in the use of PET or MRI scans that show that specific areas of the brain “light up” during specific mental functions, some of these connections were identified by Borca and Wernicke over a hundred years before the creation of these state-of-the-art scanning techniques, this displays the connection between mental and brain states (K. T. Maslin, 2007, 70). However probably the most powerful of all strengths to the identity theories is the ability to explain why changes in the brain due to injury, disease, illness or otherwise results in the alteration of mental functioning. The same happens along the evolutionary scale where increases in brain sizes resulted in the increase of intellectual capacity. Because the mind is the brain when the brain is modified the mind is modified (K. T. Maslin, 2007, 66).

There were some earlier objections to this theory as well where critiques stated that because mental states are different to brain states analytically they must be different but theorists quickly dismissed this stating that “the non-synonymy of expressions flanking an identity sign does not automatically rule out the truth of the identity claim” in other words just because the expressions or terms are different doesn’t meant they cannot possibly have the same identity. To take this further the theorists state that it all depends on what you are referring to, underneath the different vocabulary the facts relate to a single reality. The example of the morning and evening stars supports this idea that while the vocabulary and specifically adjectives used to describe the star differ they ultimately refer to the same thing the planet Venus. This can also be applied to the lack of knowledge as dismissible critique using Smarts concept stating that you may know about one thing but nothing about another doesn’t mean they cannot possibly be the same, for example you may know about water but not recognise the compound of H20 but this doesn’t mean they are not the one and single entity (K. T. Maslin, 2007, 74).

The strengths identified in the collective identity theories show some serious connections identified and supporting evidence presented in proving the mind is identical with the brain. However I believe there are some serious and unsurpassable flaws in the arguments of the identity theorists that result in its ultimate demise. Firstly, the issue of the mental and the spatial arises (K. T. Maslin, 2007, 74). Whilst it is easy through the use of scanning, the location of brain processes can be easily identified during various tasks it is almost impossible to identify the location of a thought or emotion, in other words mental states are different to brain processes.. Secondly, there is a weakness in the connection between mental states and brain processes on the subconscious level (K. T. Maslin, 2007, 76), to extend this we mean that things like the natural functioning of the nervous system as well as any other system in your body such as digestion or breathing, these all have brain states that tell the body what to do however they do not have any connectable mental state because we do not think about them in any way. This shows that some things only have physical properties and hence not everything has a mental and a brain state fundamentally disagreeing with the identity theory. Thirdly is the issue of qualia which means the quality of a conscious experience (K. T. Maslin, 2007, 79). Whilst we may know what part of the brain there is activity in during a particular mental state there is no way we can access the qualia of that experience, for example if we had a pain we can identify this by the firing of c-fibres in our brain state but there is no way we could identify where that pain is, this means that while we experience thoughts and sensations they must exist in other forms than just physical properties of brain states and processes. One day science may be able to identify the qualia of an experience but at the moment we can only identify the mechanical process and cannot explain mentality or consciousness. Another critique of the identity theories emphasises the importance of dreams, beliefs, desires and many more intentional states that do not exist, they possess a representational content and the theorists believe that brain states are fully mechanical processes in brain states that cannot posses any representational content, this requires the drawing of the conclusion that brain states cannot be identical with intentional mental states (K. T. Maslin, 2007, 80). The final main critique of all identity theories is due to Saul Kripke who used Descartes sixth mediation as inspiration for his argument in stating that because we can genuinely imagine mental states without brain states then they are not identical at all, what something may look like is not essential to its being but its inner constitution is for example something may be a clear liquid in appearance but it may have as much chance in being vodka as it is water the only way to identify it is to reduce it to its inner constitution H20 (K. T. Maslin, 2007, 90 and J. J. C. Smart, 2000, The mere possibility of occurrence of mental states without the connecting brain states means they cannot be identical. Ultimately there is a lot of physical to mental approaches and connection that cannot be disproved in the same way they cannot be approved and this draws the conclusion that you ‘cannot discover the truth about reality on the basis of what one does and does not know’ (K. T. Maslin, 2007, 67).

In conclusion despite all the strengths of the identity theories such as the discoveries of science with PET and MRI scans and the explanation of changes in the brain resulting in changes in mental functioning ultimately the weakness in locating or explaining thoughts, emotions, dreams, desires, the subconscious or any qualia of experience, representational or otherwise, mean its mechanical approach ceases to advance and that is why I believe the mind is not the brain.

Crawford, Dr Sean. 2009. Lecture Notes Week 3: Mind Brain Identity Theories, University of Manchester: Blackboard.
Maslin, Keith T. 2007. An Introduction to the Philosophy of Mind, Second Edition, Malden, MA: Polity Press.
Gareth Southwell, 2009, “Identity Theory”,