An underlying project for many philosophers of mind is to form general theories about the nature of consciousness and mental states. One general theory of consciousness identifies mental states with physical states. In the philosophy of mind game, we call these “physicalist identity theories”. These theories basically assert that every type of mental state is identical to some type of physical state. A frequent example that is used to explore the soundness of physicalist identity theories is the mental state of pain. It would not be a small stretch to say that pain is the paradigmatic example of a mental state in philosophy of mind. If physicalist identity theories are true, then pain is identical to some type of physical state. Some philosophers of mind even use our experience of pain to tease out arguments for why physicalist identity theories are false. In an influential paper, Brie Gertler asks her readers to gently pinch themselves. She then presents the following argument against physicalism:
1. If I can conceive of a particular scenario occurring, the scenario is possible. (Gertler 2012)
2. I can conceive of this pain occurring while being disembodied. (Gertler 2012)
3. So, it is possible that this very pain occurs in a disembodied being.
4. If the identity thesis of physicalism is true, then (3) is false.
5. But, (3) is true. (by 1 and 2)
6. So, the identity thesis of physicalism is false.
The implication here is that experiencing pain can be generalized to an argument against physicalist identity theories. But what is it to be in pain? What is this thing we call “pain”? (Also, is pain really a “thing” we can identify with something else?) For Gertler, the concept of pain is best understood by thinking about its “essential features.” She compares pain’s essence to water and argues that water has a “hidden essence”, and its hidden essence is H2O. Pain, on the other hand, has no hidden essence. Gertler states, “[h]ere we have reached the fundamental, driving idea behind the Disembodiment Argument. As we conceptualize pain, pain has no hidden essence. If you feel you are in pain, then you are in pain; determining whether you are in pain does not require scientific investigation.” (Gertler 2012) Presumably Gertler has in mind an essentialist theory of mental states. To her, identity theories fail because they get the “essence” of pain wrong. They reduce pain to a type of physical brain state, and they identify pain with the wrong essence. A traditional essentialist theory asserts that the features corresponding to pain are essential and possesses definitional essences. So we define these features in terms of necessary and sufficient, intrinsic, unchanging, ahistorical properties. But it seems to me that when we think about more complex mental states, this sort of theory is just wrong-headed.
Consider the state of being romantically in love. Love is a complicated and multifaceted mental state that appears to lack anything like an essence, because it has many mental states and features associated with it. You can feel the rush and euphoric pleasure of first love, and at some other time you can be in love while feeling the pangs and cravings associated with heartbreak. An individual can be in a marriage, where the pleasure of first love has worn off, yet they can still be utterly and deeply in love. We can also have mental states associated with the reciprocity of love, and in other cases we can long for a beloved while our love is never returned. When trying to account for the cluster of mental states and relations that is involved when in love, one can begin to see why a traditional essentialist theory of love ultimately fails.
A better framework for understanding love may be a family resemblance framework, inspired by Ludwig Wittgenstein. Members of the state resemble each other through a variety of features that are shared by some, but not all, members of the group of mental states associated with love. The family resemblance theory allows there to be a number of mental states associated with love and is a less rigid framework for characterizing love. Moreover this theory is a good way to validate the ontological status of mental states associated with love without having to erroneous identify one state that essentially and rigidly designates love.
But what about neuroscientific investigations of romantic love? Don’t they imply that physicalist identity theories are true? It is difficult to see how neuroscience implies that identity theories are true. In fact, I would argue that neuroscientific literature on romantic love reveals that complicated mental states require a different framework than identity theories can provide. Consider the neurochemical oxytocin -the neuropeptide that is frequently associated with love and pair bodniing. Although oxytocin research is still in its infancy, it seems safe to say that oxytocin and its effects do not involve one, but several areas of the brain including the hypothalamus, paraventricular nucleus, and the supraoptic nucleus. Moreover, there are several areas in both the brain and the body that contain receptors of oxytocin, suggesting love depend on both brain and bodily states. Finally, some recent and very interesting research by Jennifer Bartz and her colleagues reveal that oxytocin can be associated with both prosocial behaviour and antisocial behavior, depending on situational and individual differences (Bartz et al. 2011). Bartz concludes that “social context is crucial in shaping the effects of oxytocin on social cognition and prosociality.” (Bartz et al. 2011) This reveals that to understand love, we need to look at a brain, inside a body that is embedded in an environment (including a social environment). It is very difficult to reduce love to a type of brain state, since it involves a wide variety of mechanisms in the brain, body, and environment. Moreover, I wouldn’t even know where to begin with formulating an identity relation between such features.
When we think about love, an identity theory may be the wrong relation to account for its multiple factors. It is extremely difficult to account for what it is like to be in love by appealing to philosophical views about essences or physicalist theories that reduce mental states to physical states in the brain. Moreover, it appears that there are a variety of mental states that are not like pain, and we may require different philosophical ontologies to account for these other conscious experiences. If the philosophers of mind’s primary goal is to understand consciousness and mental states in all forms, then perhaps we should encourage the philosopher of mind to broaden his or her taxonomy of mental states to additionally include complicated mental states like love. What do you all think? Does the study of romantic love reveal that identity theories are doomed for failure? Is there some redeeming qualities to physicalist identity theories? What else can philosophers of mind learn from thinking about love?
What’s your take?
Bartz, J.A., J. Zaki, N. Bolger, and K.N. Ochsner. 2011. “Social Effects of Oxytocin in Humans: Context and Person Matter.” Trends in Cognitive Science 15: 301–9.
Gertler, B. 2012. “In Defence of Mind-Body Dualism.” In Conciousness and the Mind-Body Problem, ed. T. Alter and R. Howell. New York: Oxford University Press.