UC Berkeley psychologist Tania Lombrozo has responded to the Annual Edge Question for 2014, ‘What scientific idea is ready for retirement?’, with a piece entitled ‘The Mind is Just the Brain’, in which she argues for the rejection (‘retirement’) of mind-brain identity theory.

Using a baking analogy to illustrate her case against reductionism, she writes:

But a theory of baking wouldn’t be very useful if it were formulated in terms of molecules and atoms. As bakers, we want to understand the relationship between—for example—mixing and texture, not between kinetic energy and protein hydration. The relationships between the variables we can tweak and the outcomes that we care about happen to be mediated by chemistry and physics, but it would be a mistake to adopt “cake reductionism” and replace the study of baking with the study of physical and chemical interactions among cake components.

But if you are interested in the project of explaining, predicting, and controlling the quality of your baked goods, then you’ll need something like a baking theory to work with.

Rejecting the mind in an effort to achieve scientific legitimacy—a trend we’ve seen with both behaviorism and some popular manifestations of neuroscience—is unnecessary and unresponsive to the aims of scientific psychology. 

In these passages, Lombrozo makes a common anti-reductionistic mistake of thinking that mind-brain identity makes mental experiences somehow unreal or even disappear. Her reasoning implies that a correct explanation of mental phenomena cannot involve scientific reduction of mental phenomenon to neurobiological mechanism. This misunderstanding trades on a peculiar view of reduction, where it is expected that in neuroscience, mind-brain identities eliminate mental experiences. I think this expectation is incorrect.

Temperature was ontologically reduced to mean molecular kinetic energy, but no person expects that temperature therefore ceased to be real or became scientifically disrespectable or redundant. Visible light was ontologically reduced to electromagnetic radiation, but light did not disappear. Instead, scientists understand more about the real nature of light than they did before 1873. Light is real, no doubt; and so is temperature. Some expectations about the nature of temperature and light did change, and scientific progress does occasionally require rethinking what was believed about phenomenon. In certain instances, previously respectable states and substances sometimes did prove to be unreal. The caloric theory of heat did not survive rigorous experimental testing; caloric fluid thus proved to be unreal. A successful mind-brain identity of mental phenomenon such as pain means only that there is an explanation of pain. It is a reduction. Scientific explanations of phenomenon do not typically make them disappear [1,2,3].

It is critical to clear-up a further common misconception about mind-brain identity theory. This is the misconception that mind-brain identity theory is equivalent to reductionism. The truth is that whereas identity theory is compatible with a wide range of reductionistic philosophies, it is not equivalent to all of them. Here are some illustrative examples [4]:

1) Identity theory is reductionistic in the sense that it denies minds are ontologically independent of brains and uniquely self-guaranteeing, in line with functionalist and realization (physicalist) philosophies of mind. But functionalism and realization physicalism are not equivalent to the identity theory, so identity theory is not uniquely reductionist in the sense of (1).

2) Identity theory is reductionistic in the minimal sense that it claims, in line with functionalist and realization (physicalist) philosophies, that mind is ‘nothing over and above’ the brain, but since identity theory and functionalist and realization philosophies are not equivalent, identity theory is not equivalent to reductionism. A philosopher could be a reductionist without being an identity theorist.

3) Identity theory is not reductionistic in the sense that it asserts ‘micro-reductionism’. Mental phenomena might be identified with innate genetic or molecular mechanisms (John Bickle), but this is optional, not required. The core metaphysical commitment of identity theory is that mental states are numerically identical to brain states. Nothing is expected in this core claim about the precise mechanistic nature of brain states, which is a scientific question, anyway.

4) Identity theory is not reductionistic in the sense that it asserts that (e.g.) psychology reduces to neuroscience, cognitive neuroscience reduces to molecular neuroscience, or philosophy of mind reduces to quantum mechanics. One can assert identity theory without asserting epistemic reductionism.

Positively, I entirely agree with Lombrozo when she says:

But if we want to know—for instance—how to influence minds to achieve particular behaviors, it would be a mistake to look for explanations solely at the level of the brain.

Understanding the mind isn’t the same as understanding the brain.

Understanding the mind requires first-person descriptions of mental states and experiences, and third-person scientific descriptions of associated brain states, and a method to integrate them, such as the experiential-phenomenological method [5]. So, Lombrozo is right: ‘Understanding the mind isn’t the same as understanding the brain.’ More precisely, I argue that her correct thesis implies that the subject matter of psychology is brain mechanism as related to mental phenomena. For example, the subject of pain science is brain mechanism as related to pain phenomena (e.g., acute pain, chronic pain, fetal pain, empathy for pain, dreamed pain, near-death pain, and so on). Pain research aims to discover the brain mechanisms subserving conscious pain experiences accessible only through introspection, which means that pain research is entirely reliant on the first-person point of view and on using first-person investigative methods. This necessarily includes introspection together with third-person methods (e.g., neuroimaging). Since pain research aims to know which experience types are generated by which brain mechanism, researchers must naturally know when specific pain experiences occur and what their personal qualities are.

The history of scientific pain research shows that introspection has been extensively used. For example, pain psychophysics typically uses subject pain verbal-report or non-verbal behavior (e.g., facial expressions) to infer the presence of pain. That is, pain psychophysics is committed to subject introspection. It is also important to remember that the validity of pain-related neuroimaging was established by the correlation of brain images with self-report of pain [6]. Pain psychophysics, like psychology, preserves an epistemological dualism in its subject matter while rejecting metaphysical dualism.

How then is mind-brain identity theory positioned relative to the indispensability of introspection in mind science? Personal introspection is a direct way of coming to know about personal experiences and their qualities. It is epistemological. Still, despite appearances to the contrary, what introspection reveals to us may be utterly mechanistic. It may be that what scientists study through third-person methods is numerically identical with what is personally experienced through introspection, that is, brain mechanisms of the appropriate type. There is only one type of activity in question: the brain mechanism with all and only physical properties. Thus, mind-brain identity theory is preserved in the study of the mind.


[1] Churchland PM (2007). Neurophilosophy at work. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

[2] Churchland PS (1989). Neurophilosophy: Toward a unified science of the mind-brain. Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press.

[3] van Rysewyk S (2013). Pain is Mechanism. PhD Dissertation, University of Tasmania.

[4] Polger TW (2009). Identity Theories. Philosophy Compass4(5), 822-834.

[5] Price DD, Aydede M (2006). The Experimental Use of Introspection in the Scientific Study of Pain and its Integration with Third-Person Methodologies: The Experiential-Phenomenological Approach. In M Aydede (ed.), Pain: New Essays on Its Nature and the Methodology of Its Study, pp. 243-275. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

[6] Coghill RC, McHaffie JG, Yen YF (2003). Neural correlates of interindividual differences in the subjective experience of pain. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science USA, 100, 8538-8542.