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Understanding Sensations

Maxwell, N; (1968) Understanding Sensations. Australasian Journal of Philosophy , 46 (2) 127 - 145. 10.1080/00048406812341111. Green open access

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My aim in this paper is to defend a version of the brain process theory, or identity thesis, which differs in one important respect from the theory put forward by Professor Smart.1 I shall argue that although the sensations which a person experiences are, as a matter of contingent fact, brain processes, nonetheless there are facts about sensations which cannot be described or understood in terms of any physical theory. These 'mental' facts cannot be described by physics for the simple reason that physical descriptions are designed specifically to avoid mentioning such facts. Thus in giving a physical explanation of a sensation we necessarily describe and render intelligible that sensation only as a physical process, and not also as a sensation. If we are to describe and render intelligible a person's sensations, or inner experiences, as sensations, and not as physical processes occurring in that person's brain, then we must employ a kind of description that cannot be derived from any set of physical statements. The kernel of the argument of this paper may be expressed as follows. There are neurophysiological processes which can be understood as sensations, as opposed to physical processes, only if sufficiently similar neurophysiological processes have occurred in one's own brain. More precisely, there are facts about certain neurophysiological processes which are such that there can be no description of these facts whose meaning one can understand unless sufficiently similar neurophysiological processes have occurred in one's own brain. But a person who has not had these neurophysiological processes occur in his brain is not thereby debarred from completely understanding a complete physical description of such neurophysiological processes. It follows that a complete physical description of these neurophysiological processes, supposing such a thing were possible, would not be a complete description: it would not tell us all that there is to know about the processes in question.

Type: Article
Title: Understanding Sensations
Location: Australia
Open access status: An open access version is available from UCL Discovery
DOI: 10.1080/00048406812341111
Publisher version: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/00048406812341111
Language: English
Additional information: This is an electronic version of an article published in Maxwell, N (1968) Understanding Sensations. Australasian Journal of Philosophy , 46 (2) 127 - 145. Australasian Journal of Philosophy is available online at: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/00048406812341111
Keywords: mind/brain problem, two aspect view, physicalism, anti-reductionism, sensations not explicable physically, J. J. C. Smart, physics cannot predict experiential
URI: http://discovery.ucl.ac.uk/id/eprint/1348842
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