Book Review

Philosophy of the Mind - A Contemporary Introduction

John Heil
(Routledge, 2004)

Peter S. Williams

John Heil’s introduction to contemporary philosophy of mind deserves praise because it succeeds on both counts of being introductory and contemporary.  There were some parts that I found hard going, even as a trained philosopher (albeit one who hasn't specialised in the philosophy of mind); nevertheless, in general terms this introduction should prove amiable enough reading for the non-specialist with little philosophical background.

Heil’s opening, which discusses the classic question about whether the tree falling in a forest makes any sound if there is no one about to hear it, is particularly beguiling.  I was also pleased to read Heil's conviction that the philosophy of the mind cannot simply be turned over to scientists, since ‘fundamental philosophical questions concerning the mind remain metaphysical questions’ (Preface).

The reader is taken through sympathetic accounts of Dualism and Idealism, as well as various forms of naturalistic account of the mind: Behaviourism, Functionalism, Representational Theory, Interpretative theories, Eliminativism and finally a sketch of his own proposal for a form of soft materialism.

Heil is surprisingly, but deservedly positive towards Idealism, for ‘It banishes problems associated with causal interaction between minds and the material world [just as simply as materialism by the way], and it does so in a way that bypasses worries associated with parallelism and occasionalism. Rightly understood, idealism is consistent with all the evidence we could possibly have. Moreover, idealism has a kind of elegant simplicity of the sort valued in the sciences.’ (p. 34.)  Perhaps Christian idealists of the last century, like Hastings Rashdal, deserve another hearing. . . Nevertheless, Heil seeks a ‘less dramatic alternative.’ (p. 34.)  I wonder if it is all that convincing that a naturalistic or wholly material account of the mind is less dramatic than a wholly spiritual or non-naturalistic account?

Although Heil makes a genuine attempt to show the competing theories in their best light, this is self-consciously ‘more than a mere survey of going theories’ (Preface), and as such Heil rightly makes clear where his sympathies lie, criticising some theories more than others.  Indeed, his sympathies understandably but inevitably colour his presentation and assessment of the alternatives.  Only someone with no views on the philosophy of mind could write a wholly objective account, and no such person would know enough about the subject to write a book about it!  Heil is therefore to be praised for running his colours frankly up the mast - but the reader nevertheless needs to keep his bias in mind and should be led to question the presuppositions that underlie it.

The point is that this introduction tends to treat the philosophy of mind as a subject in its own right, although thought about particular philosophical subjects are impossible to divorce from more general philosophical worldview issues.  For example, Heil asserts that ‘modern science is premised on the assumption that the material world is a causally closed system. . . A natural law is exceptionless.’ (p. 23.) This statement (the assertion is not argued for) reveals that Heil is a metaphysical naturalist.  The view that the cosmos is a closed system of exceptionless natural laws rules out, a priori, the possibility of miracles or the existence of any immaterial, supernatural agents such as the theistic God, angels, demons, or the human mind as conceived by the likes of Plato, Descartes, or even Aquinas.[1]

On the assumption of metaphysical naturalism there cannot be anything about the human mind that is independent of its description in natural, physical terms: ‘an explanation citing all of the material causes of a material event is a complete causal explanation of the event.’ (p. 23.)  This rules out all teleology as traditionally conceived from Aristotle onwards.

Heil writes that ‘in imagining that [one mental state] could play a role in the production of [a physical state], we seem to be flying in the face of a widely-held belief that the physical order is "causally closed" or autonomous.’ (p. 199).  (At least here one could take the gesture towards this belief being widely held as an argument from consent or authority.)  He goes on to say that, ‘Whether this is a serious difficulty, or merely a prejudice that we could abandon without jeopardising the autonomy of physics, is debatable.’ (p. 199.)  Indeed it is.  It is just this point, about whether naturalism or even methodological naturalism is necessary to science, which many philosophers associated with the Intelligent Design Movement have been competently questioning in recent years.[2]

For the theist, it is obvious that God makes the expectation of an orderly creation both rational and open to exceptions given sufficient reason for a miracle. Such a view was held, for example, by Isaac Newton.  As C.S. Lewis argued: ‘The philosophy which forbids you to make uniformity absolute [i.e. theism] is also the philosophy which offers you solid grounds for believing it to be general.’[3]

Again, Heil asserts that ‘Laws of nature are contingent; they hold in our world, but there is no further reason why they should hold: they just do. Thus, the connection between your physical nature and your conscious experiences, although predictable, is, in the final analysis, imponderable, an inexplicable brute fact.’ (p. 205.)  In fact, ‘in the final analysis’, the existent of a reliable deity provides an adequate ‘personal explanation’ for the existence of reliable physical laws and for the correlation between physical laws and mental experience. Arguments along these lines have been advanced by Robert Adams, J.P. Moreland, Richard Swinburne and Keith Ward.[4]

Yet another example comes when Heil observes that ‘I have described the world as comprising objects.  I take it to be an empirical question - a question for science - what the objects are and what they are like.’ (p. 177.)  In other words, Heil begs the question against any non-naturalistic account of the mind (such as Idealism, Cartesian dualism and other varieties of dualism).  That he does so may be a function of the introductory nature of his book, but he could perhaps have indicated some avenue of personal research readers could have followed to investigate the deeper metaphysical questions involved (I would recommend J.P. Moreland’s Scaling the Secular City Baker, 1987).

To point out that Heil works with naturalistic assumptions, and that this fact leads his sympathies in a certain general philosophical direction with regards to the philosophy of mind, is not in itself a fait accompli for his arguments or views.  Nevertheless, it does suggest that readers’ beliefs about, for example, the existence of God (or indeed the philosophy of science), will have an effect upon their assessment of Heil’s arguments.  As Heil admits: ‘Of course it is possible that immaterial minds do intervene in the material world. It is possible that the material world is not in fact causally closed and that natural law is subject to contravention. . . To the extent that we regard the intervention of non-material minds in the material world as implausible, we should regard Cartesian dualism as implausible.’ (p. 26, my italics.)

The Christian does not share the non-intervention intuition because they believe in God.  This does not mean that some form of dualism must be true, but it does mean that the question of God’s existence or non-existence is germane the philosophy of mind and in particular to the question of dualism.  As Heil says: ‘If nothing else, these reflections make it clear that we cannot hope to evaluate claims about minds and the material world without first coming to grips with a host of metaphysical issues.’ (p. 32, my italics.)  Perhaps at this point the agnostic would be wise to divert their attention to the existence or non-existence of God, before forming an opinion on the mind-body problem.

Heil makes an appealing (if underdeveloped) case for his own brand of soft materialism (which seems to me to be at least similar to the ‘bipolar’ account tentatively advocated by Christian physicist and theologian John Polkinghorne) as against the other broadly ‘naturalistic’ views of the mind that he considers.  In fact, I found his view a little confusing.  Whether the fault for this confusion lies with Heil, myself, or us both, I do not know.  As a result, I find Heil’s philosophy of mind a little difficult to critique.

It seems that Heil’s account of the mind turns on the premise that statements such as ‘is in pain’ may not refer to a property but to an object, just as ‘is a stone’ does not refer to a property but to an object:  ‘True enough, the predicate “is in pain” is satisfied by objects, and it is satisfied by those objects in virtue of their properties.  But the property in virtue of which an object satisfies the predicate “is in pain” is not the generic property of being in pain.  There is no such property.’ (p. 200.)  Rather, things can be stones in virtue of various different but similar physical properties.  Heil insists that ‘pain has. . . an essential qualitative dimension’ (p. 201.), but he argues that objects can be ‘in pain’ in virtue of the possession of different properties, just as long as those properties are ‘similar in relevant ways.’ (p. 201.)  In what ways must the properties in question be similar in order to count as relevant?  Certainly not on account of being unpleasant properties of an incorporeal, mental substance.  They are ‘relevant because they are so counted by wielders of the predicate “is in pain”.’ (p. 201.)  This account of the mind requires us to accept the claim that although pain has a qualitative dimension it is not a property.  Heil’s soft materialism also seems to provide a subjective, relative definition of what it is to be ‘in pain’, because an object, like an animal, is classed as being in pain only because wielders of the predicate in question consider it appropriate to use that predicate of that object.  No criteria for correct or incorrect application are provided.

However, my real reason for not falling in-line with Heil is the conviction that there are good arguments for the conclusion that the human mind possesses at least some properties that cannot be described in naturalistic terms.  (Nevertheless, one always wonders whether we really know enough about what matter really is to say that the mental is necessarily a separate class of thing.  Still, if God exists and is the creator of the universe, we have reason to suspect that the personal form of being can exist quite apart from the physical constituents of the cosmos.)  Thus my own greater sympathies still lie in the broadly dualistic direction, and this is at least in part because, as a Christian theist, I bring a belief in the existence of at least one supernatural, spiritual personal being to the table - namely God.

However, it is not only my different world-view that leads me to doubt the merits of a naturalistic approach to the human mind.  Despite Heil’s sympathetic account of dualism, there are serious arguments for the view that he doesn’t cover (arguments defended by the likes of Gary R. Habermas, William Hasker, Robert C. Koons, John Lukas, J.P. Moreland, Ronald H. Nash, Victor Reppert, Richard Swinburne and Dallas Willard).  Much more could have been said about the mind’s ability to believe propositions about states of affairs in the world that are either true or false (e.g. How can one piece of the natural world be about another or true of another piece?  I must admit to finding Heil’s section on intentionality opaque.)  Of course, it is unfair to expect an introductory book to cover every argument in the field; and it is noteworthy that Heil reports that: ‘In recent years, dissatisfaction with materialist assumptions has led to a revival of interest in forms of dualism.’ (p. 53.)

Heil does attempt to defuse the dualistic arguments from the ‘qualia’ or particular feel of mental states, and from the individual’s privileged access to their mental states, over against the information available on third party descriptions of the corresponding brain-states.  The proposed problem is how, while the mental state of enjoying an ice-cream includes a certain taste and state of enjoyment, and moreover is infallibly knowable only by the person undergoing that mental state, even a complete scientific description of the brain will not be infallible, or tasty or as enjoyable.  The proposed answer rests on the distinction between being or having one’s own brain state and observing someone else’s brain-state.  There may be something in this, but I don’t think it touches the nub of the dualist argument, which could be taken to be highlighting the intuitive strangeness of attributing taste, feel or infallible self-knowledge to a chunk of matter that is inaccessible by other chunks of matter (other people, such as scientists) in a way not true of such clearly physical phenomena as mass, weight, spatial position, electromagnetic radiation, etc.  In other words, qualia and private access seem to go against the grain of the previously established public accessibility of other physical phenomena, and this at least provides prima facie reason to doubt naturalistic accounts of the mind.


I would recommend this book to interested non-specialists, with the above caveats about the need to examine presuppositions.  I would also recommend, in the interests of balance, reading the work of some Christian philosophers in the field.[5]  Indeed, while Heil’s bibliography does cite books by Christian philosophers such as Descartes and Locke, it is surprising that Richard Swinburne’s The Evolution of the Soul (Oxford), one of the most famous recent defences of dualism, doesn’t even get a mention.

There is a plethora of views held about the human mind, both within and without Christian circles.  For example, some Christians argue that since we look to the resurrection of the ‘spiritual body’ they can easily embrace a materialistic account of personhood.  Quite besides any philosophical problems facing materialistic views of the self, other Christians may point to theological issues, like the worry that such an account seems to be at odds with Biblical ideas about an intermediate state between death and resurrection.[6]

John Heil could have been clearer about the importance of examining his naturalistic presuppositions, and in giving his own view of the mind, but this is nevertheless a stimulating and generally pleasant read for the non-specialist who wants to begin or deepen their thinking on this topic.

[1]cf. Peter S. Williams, The Case for Angels, (Paternoster), for a defence of all four.

[2]cf. J.P. Moreland (ed.), The Creation Hypothesis, (Downers Grove: IVP).

[3]C.S Lewis, Miracles, (Fount), p. 106.

[4]cf. Robert Adams in Geivett & Sweetman (ed.), Contemporary Perspectives on Religious Epistemology; J.P. Moreland, Scaling the Secular City, (Baker, 1987); Richard Swinburne, The Existence of God, (Oxford); Keith Ward, God, Chance & Necessity, (OneWorld).

[5]e.g. Keith Ward, Defending the Soul, (OneWorld); William Hasker, The Emergent Self, (Cornell); Gary R Habermas & J P Moreland, Beyond Death, (Crossway Books); J.P. Moreland & Scott B. Rae, Body & Soul, (IVP).

[6]cf. John Cooper, Body, Soul & Life Everlasting, (Apollos).