Brief review of Smart’s identity thesis

FYI: I’m still in Boston looking at apartments, so I’m not at my home computer.  If this alteration at all reflects in my blogging (e.g. more syntatical errors or more typos) then please excuse this.

I was reviewing some notes from my 20th century analytic philosophy course and found some helpful remarks I had jotted down on JJ Smart’s thesis.  Smart was (is?) an identity theorist: all mental events are physical events. 

His theory begins with the folllowing statements:

  1. Statements about brain processes are not translateable into statements about sensations
  2. the two do not share the same logic (which might be interpretted as “statements about brain processes do not following the same rules as do statements about sensations”)
  3. the distinction between these two kinds of statements mirrors (parallels) the distinction between “the things themselves” and “expressing the things”

Smart is careful in his wording though, as analytic philosophers tend to be.  He is an identity theorist in one sense, but not necessarily in another.  Brain processes, he says, are ontologially identical with sensations.  The ontological identity does not carry over into language, however.

Expressions about brain processes are semantically (but not ontologically) identical with expressions about sensations.  This qualification reflects Smart’s methodological consideration of the strict vs. the non-strict.  The former represents ontology in the most robust sense.  The latter represents semantics (meaning, language, signs/symbols) and cannot be assessed via ontological identity relations.

Smart’s use of the term “sensation” is extremely broad and (probably includes) mostly any perceptual/sensory cognitive event having to (immediately) do with use of the senses and/or conscious or attentive processes. 

Smart’s philosophical motive boils down to this: brain processes are essentially identical with sensations just as statements about brain processes are essentially identical with statements about sensations. 

Now, the nature of the identity relation in each set is different.  The identity relation between “sensations and brain processes” is material, whereas the identity relation between “statements about sensations and statements about brain processes” is semantic.  Moreover, the two do not coincide and are quite logically independent of one another.


Of course, there’s a problem here.  It is empirically false that “all brain processes are sensations” in the sense that one’s use of the term “brain process” need not refer or be about “sensations” in the relevant (psychological) use of the term. 

But how or where would this objection be targetted?  My thinking is that it could defeat either the material or the semantic identity relation.  In the first sense, not all brain processes are sensations since certain cognitive processes, such as pre-attentive focal processing, need not be “made out of” the same “physical stuff”. 

One brain process might be “composed of” a certain class of neurotransmitters (chemical), whereas another brain process might be “composed of” IPSP’s (electrical). 

I need not explain how it is that the objection I cited affects the semantic identity.  Assuming that the meaning of a sentence is a function of both its intensions and its extensions, then the meaning between a statement like “S could not remember p” and “S could not see p” need not be semantically identical.  Remembering and seeing might both be “cognitive” processes, or rather be classified as “cognitive”–but remembering p may or may not immediately refer to the sensory modality with which p was captured or mediated by.  Obviously, the use of “failure to see” is intended in the sense of “being blind” or “utmost visual sensory deficit”. 

 Smart would probably reply: yes but in both cases you are expressing a cognitive event.  Because of the fact that you are expressing the same kind of thing (a cognitive event) then it is the case that your expressions are semantically identical.

How would you respond to Smart’s counter (counter)-argument?


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