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Non-Reductive Physicalism, A Brief Introduction

Before I dive into non-reductive physicalism, I’ll very briefly define two other mind-body positions for context.

Traditional Cartesian dualism.

Traditional Cartesian dualists argue that the world is split the world into two kinds: the material and the immaterial. The material includes everything we physically encounter and interact with every day, which includes our bodies; the immaterial includes everything else, such as our thoughts, our emotions, and what we call our self, otherwise stated as our consciousness.

Type identity theory.

Type identity theorists argue that mental properties are identical to physical properties. There’s a lot more to type identity than this, however, for the purpose of this brief introduction to non-reductive physicalism, more doesn’t need to be said.

Now, on to non-reductive physicalism.

Non-reductive physicalism differs from Cartesian dualism and type identity theory through these two propositions:

P1: Mental properties are dependent on physical properties.1

P2: Mental properties are distinct from physical properties.2

A traditional Cartesian dualist would argue P1 is false. Type identity theorists would argue P2 is false. As you can see, this leaves proponents of non-reductive physicalism in a funny spot they P1 and P2 as true, which leads to four assertions:

mental properties are not physical properties.3 Cartesian dualism is false.4 minds are ‘biologically generated physical systems.5 mental properties are ‘non-physical’ and ‘come into being’ when the elements of thinking organisms are ‘suitably combined.’6 As Nagel states, we have no idea how all four of these beliefs can be true and held simultaneously.7

So, then, what is the Mind?

In short, the Mind arises from the complex biological and physical properties that we are made of. But we need to be careful with what we label the Mind from this perspective. Non-reductive physicalists avoid using the term emergent because it might be confused with the way Emergentists claim the mind is emergent.

Emergentists claim that the immaterial aspect of us — i.e., our mind does not need to be explained by the laws of physics. Instead, anything mind-related (immaterial or emergent-related) that’s unexplainable is assumed to be a fact(s) or law(s) within physics itself. Non-reductive physicalists claim that whatever the mind is, it is or will be ultimately explained by physics eventually.8

In short …

Despite what non-reductive physicalists claim, the Mind seems to be emergent, whether they like the term or not. The difference to me seems that some Emergentists might be happy at ending the conversation with the statement that “whatever the mind is, physical or non-physical, it’s is emergent, and that’s that.” The non-reductive physicalist adhering to strict materialism will most likely accept that there are many currently unexplained aspects within the mind-body topic, but that one day all the currently unexplained mind-body relationships will be explained through material physical laws and facts.


Crane, Tim (2001). The significance of emergence. In Carl Gillett & Barry M. Loewer (eds.), Physicalism and its Discontents. Cambridge University Press.

  1. ibid.
  2. ibid.
  3. ibid.
  4. ibid.
  5. ibid.
  6. ibid.
  7. ibid.
  8. ibid.

Side-note: If I’ve misrepresented this position, please send me an email and I’ll be happy to edit.

Side-note 2: Tim Crane, if you read this, I really hope I accurately represented your position! If I have made an error, please correct me and I’ll make revisions.

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