An Evaluation of the Identity Theory

The identity theory, which was developed in the 1950s, states that the states and processes of the mind are just the same as those of the brain. In short, the theory is trying to tell us that the mind is always affected by the brain and that anything that does not possess a brain cannot have a mind. The identity theory also implies that for every mental state, there is a corresponding brain state which is identical to it. An example of brain state is the firing of the C fibers which corresponds to the mental state of pain.

One thing that that further strengthened the early beginnings of the identity theory was the case of the Phineas Gage in 1848. The supposed changes in Gages behavior after having his brain severely damaged by a steel bar have led many mind experts at that time to conclude that brain states alter mind states, thus establishing a direct connection between them.

However, although the identity theory is supported by plenty of evidence from science, it lends itself to several weaknesses. It is therefore the goal of this paper to prove that the identity theory is not correct. Various arguments will be explained in this paper in order to prove the falsity of the identity theory.

In the years that followed after the development of the identity theory, several theories have been formulated by scientists in order to refute its validity and to prove that the whole theory is partly or wholly unsound.

Thought Probe Mental Relay Stations. The argument of Cartesian dualists is that we think with our minds and not with our brains. Cartesian dualism holds that the brain is nothing more than a mental relay station between the mind and the body (Schick and Vaughn ).

Simply speaking this argument involves the following basic steps The mind (not the brain) relays a specific message to the brain ( The brain (not the mind) acts out the message by commanding the specific parts of the body to fulfill it ( Feedback may be sent by the brain back to the mind. This simply means that the brain and the mind are independent with the brain performing a more or less servile function while the mind is the one in command.

The Cartesian dualists have formulated this argument against the identity theory because they believe that the world consists of two fundamental entities  mind and matter, and that there always exists a clear and distinct separation between the spiritual and the physical  between mind and body.

According to the Cartesian dualists, it is mind that commands matter, not vice versa. This implies that it is impossible to think that the brain commands the mind in the same way that the mind commands the brain. All these implications have sought to disprove the identity theory.

Identity and Indiscernibility. This argument states that if two things, such as the mind and the brain, are indeed the same, then it logically follows that what is true to one must also be true to the other (Schick and Vaughn ). The problem is that mental states have several characteristics that brain states do not have. It therefore follows that mental states are not identical to brain states, which leads us to the conclusion that the identity theory is false.

An example to illustrate this argument is the phenomenon of pain. If one is experiencing pain, he knows that he is in a particular mental state, i.e., the mental state of pain. However, he has clearly no idea what particular brain state he is experiencing at the moment. This simply implies that mental states are immediately knowable while brain states arent.

Another difference between brain states and mental states is the fact that brain states are not immediately experienced while mental states are. For example, when you see your mother, you know you love her and you know you are happy. These are your mental states. However, you do not exactly know what the state of your brain is at that particular moment  or if ever anything is happening to it.

Conscious Experience, Nagels Bat and Nagels Argument. Perhaps one of the most striking differences between mental states and brain states is that brain states can be known and confirmed by empirical investigation whereas mental states cannot. This implies that brain states can be objectively known but mental states can be known only by being the one that possesses such a mental state.

The American philosopher Thomas Nagel argued in his article What Is It Like to Be a Bat that every conscious being knows what it is like to be a being of such sort and this conscious experience or mental state cannot and can never be  measured objectively and empirically (Schick and Vaughn ).

The point is that even if you can analyze a bats brain in full and complete detail so that you will be able to know every neural pathway in it (brain state), you will still not be able to know what exactly it is like to be a bat (mental state). The only way for you to be able to know this is that you yourself should become a bat. Even that is not exact as there might still be a difference in the mental states of one who became a bat from the one who was born a bat. It therefore follows that not everything about mental states can be known through brain states. This means that mental states are not identical to brain states, which further means that the identity theory is false.

Nagels argument can be illustrated in this way Empirical information about bats known by humans ( knowledge of brain states of bats, while a bats experience (not possible for humans) of its being ( knowledge of mental states of bats.

Thought Experiment Lewiss Pained Martian. Another American philosopher David Kellogg Lewis created the theory of a Martian who had no neurons and no brain but can feel pain just like we do (Schick and Vaughn ). Lewis is trying to prove here that the physical brain and its corresponding brain states are not necessary to elicit certain mental states like pain. This independence of mental states from brain states implies that there is a clear difference between the two, thus disproving the identity theory. Lewis is trying to tell us that if the identity theory were true, then only beings with a brain can feel pain and other mental states, no exceptions.

Simply, Lewiss idea can be illustrated as follows Small cavities in the Martians feet (not brain) ( pain (a mental state).

The Cartesian Dualists argument on the brains role as a Mental Relay Station may prove to be weak if it has to answer the question What makes the brain the relay station and not the mind Nevertheless, this argument is strengthened by the scientific evidence that generally people have to think first (through the mind) before they can do something (through the brains commands). This difference between the mind and the brain is also demonstrated during an emergency where we feel agitated first (through the mind) before we can run away from danger (through the brains commands).

The next argument, Identity and Indiscernibility, may also have a weakness in that just because one thing cannot be ascertained does not necessarily mean that it is otherwise. However, it still follows that if mental states are really the same as brain states, then they must be the same in all respects. For example, if you love someone (mental state), you are supposed to know that there are corresponding changes in your brain that serve as physiological evidence of this love (brain state). However, you do not know these and even if there were really corresponding love responses in the brain, the connection of which with your mental state of love cannot be accurately determined. The Scottish philosopher David Hume theorized before that what we see between two things happening one after the other might only be mere unrelated sequence and not a cause-and-effect relationship.

Conscious experience and Nagels bat argument are a more definite proof against the identity theory. Mental state is definitely a vague term if defined objectively, but whatever it is, it is the particular experience of the being. Brain states cannot be the same with mental states because brain states are quantifiable while the latter are purely subjective. Furthermore, this subjectivity may even be equated with non-existence, which, for the strictest empiricists, could mean that the so-called mind does not even exist.

Lewiss Pained Martian may be subject to criticism because the idea of a Martian is simply a random mental thought which could have been thought of just to disprove something. Nevertheless, this Martian hypothesis remains a challenge to the identity theory. It seeks to ask the proponents of the identity theory this very difficult question Why do you think only the brain can produce mental states and not any other thing.

In light of these aforementioned theories and arguments, I maintain that the identity theory is incorrect.

The identity theory is not correct. First and foremost, it cannot substantially defend itself from the arguments advanced against its validity. The identity theory has not established enough evidence to counter the differences between brain states and mental states that Nagels argument has postulated. The identity theory also appears narrow-minded when viewed from Lewiss Pained Martian. Moreover, the identity theory cannot establish clear foolproof evidence that the mind and the brain are one and identical that is why it is still in constant attack by the dualists and those who have proposed the indiscernibility argument.


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