Theoretical Identities as Explanantia and Explananda

American Philosophical Quarterly 48 (4):373-385 (2011)
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The mind-brain identity theory, the thesis that sensations are identical with properties or processes of the brain, was introduced into contemporary discussion by U.T. Place, Herbert Feigl, and J.J.C Smart in the 1950s. Despite its widespread rejection in the following decades, the identity theory has received several carefully articulated defenses in recent years. Aside from developing novel responses to well-known arguments against the identity theory, contemporary identity theorists have argued that the epistemological resources available to support the adoption of identities are more plentiful than has often been supposed; further, they have argued that mind-brain identities allow for the resolution of otherwise intractable explanatory puzzles about the phenomenal properties of experience. From an epistemological perspective, identity theorists have thus argued that a central reason for believing theoretical identities—both mind-brain identities as well as more mundane identities such as water = H2O—stems from the explanatory power that they confer. Yet from an explanatory perspective, identity theorists have maintained that identities cannot themselves be explained; indeed, they have maintained that it is hardly intelligible to request an explanation for an identity. This paper considers these ideas draws out an important tension between them. The central claim is that insofar as identity theorists insist on the explanatorily efficacy of identities, they should concede that there is a good sense in which theoretical identities can be explained. However, it is moreover argued that this concession is not especially problematic and, indeed, ought to be welcomed by identity theorists.
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