Behavioral and Brain Sciences

What to say to a skeptical metaphysician: A defense manual for cognitive and behavioral scientists

Don Ross a1 and David Spurrett a2
a1 Department of Philosophy, University of Alabama at Birmingham, Birmingham, AL 35294-1260; School of Economics, University of Cape Town, Rondebosch 7701, South Africa [email protected]
a2 School of Philosophy and Ethics, University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban 4041, South Africa [email protected]


A wave of recent work in metaphysics seeks to undermine the anti-reductionist, functionalist consensus of the past few decades in cognitive science and philosophy of mind. That consensus apparently legitimated a focus on what systems do, without necessarily and always requiring attention to the details of how systems are constituted. The new metaphysical challenge contends that many states and processes referred to by functionalist cognitive scientists are epiphenomenal. It further contends that the problem lies in functionalism itself, and that, to save the causal significance of mind, it is necessary to re-embrace reductionism.

We argue that the prescribed return to reductionism would be disastrous for the cognitive and behavioral sciences, requiring the dismantling of most existing achievements and placing intolerable restrictions on further work. However, this argument fails to answer the metaphysical challenge on its own terms. We meet that challenge by going on to argue that the new metaphysical skepticism about functionalist cognitive science depends on reifying two distinct notions of causality (one primarily scientific, the other metaphysical), then equivocating between them. When the different notions of causality are properly distinguished, it is clear that functionalism is in no serious philosophical trouble, and that we need not choose between reducing minds or finding them causally impotent. The metaphysical challenge to functionalism relies, in particular, on a naïve and inaccurate conception of the practice of physics, and the relationship between physics and metaphysics.

Key Words: explanation; functionalism; mental causation; metaphysics; reductionism.