Normativism and Mental Causation by Justin Thomas Tiehen, B. A. Dissertation

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4.2 Irreducibility

Antireductionism about normativity is the normative realist view according to which normative properties are irreducible to non-normative properties, but metaphysically supervene on non-normative properties.121 Because of this supervenience, the totality of non-normative truths metaphysically necessitates the totality of normative truths. G. E. Moore’s non-naturalism in metaethics clearly counts as antireductionistic in the present sense.122 However it’s not immediately clear that any antireductionistic view of normativity must be, ipso facto, either non-naturalistic or antiphysicalistic.

If antireductionism about normativity is true, then given last section’s conclusion that belief is normative and the (uncontroversial) premise that physical properties are non-normative, it follows that belief is irreducible to any physical property. This is the extent of the antireductionistic claims about mental properties I’ll be advancing in this work. It is compatible with the view defended here that qualia, intentions, desires, perceptual states, etc., are all physically reducible in as strong a sense of physically reducible as there is. I believe that the prospects of reduction are implausible for at least some of these mental states, but that this is so is not something I will try to argue in this work.

Antireductionism about normativity is also incompatible with causal functionalism, provided that the (CRT) is true. If the (CRT) is true, then folk psychology contains normative clauses like (OS) and (OI) from Chapter 2. If antireductionism about normativity is true, then no purely causal clauses will be equivalent to these normative clauses, either in meaning or in terms of picking out the same state of affairs. But, causal functionalism as I defined it just is the thesis that all the clauses of the psychological theory specifying mental states’ essences are causal in nature. Thus, taking the (CRT) to now be established, my argument in favor of normative antireductionism is, in effect, an argument against causal functionalism.


Light can be shed on antireductionism by considering the family of metaethical views that has come to be known as Cornell realism.123 Cornell realists generally take their view to be compatible with certain forms of reductionism about normative properties. However, they also generally take their view to be compatible with certain nonreductive accounts of normative properties, and in fact they have occasionally suggested that these nonreductive views are the most plausible in the end.

The nonreductive views that the Cornell realists envision are inspired by the standard versions of nonreductive physicalism which have been advanced in the philosophy of mind by people like Putnam, Fodor, Boyd, and others.124 According to standard nonreductive physicalists, neither mental properties nor biological properties nor economic properties nor the vast majority of the various other sets of properties associated with different special sciences are reducible to physical properties. Cornell realists hold that normative properties are (or at least probably are) similarly irreducible – not just to physical properties, but also to mental properties, biological properties, economic properties, etc. Now, the Cornell realists are indisputably naturalists in metaethics, and so given their own antireductionistic views, it follows that at least some forms of antireductionism about normativity are compatible with naturalism. However, there is a question as to whether Cornell realists count as antireductionists in my sense. In this subsection I want to address this question and, with it, the related question of whether antireductionism about normativity (in my sense) is compatible with a naturalistic outlook, or whether it entails a form of non-naturalism like Moore’s.

Before we try to answer these questions, I want to issue something like an apology for introducing the naturalism/non-naturalism distinction from metaethics. It would be nice if this distinction mapped smoothly onto a pair of distinction we already have on the table, that between physicalism and antiphysicalism and that between reductionism and antireductionism about normativity. Unfortunately, it’s unclear whether this is the case. Normative reductionism can be true while naturalism is false: normative properties might be reducible to non-normative supernatural properties (e.g., if a divine command theory is true). Physicalism can be false while naturalism is true: naturalism is compatible with non-physical mental properties but physicalism is not. In Chapter 5 I’ll be arguing that my antireductionism about normativity is compatible with a moderate form of physicalism. One might expect that compatibility with physicalism entails compatibility with naturalism, or that compatibility with a moderate form of physicalism entails compatibility a moderate form of naturalism. In each case one would be wrong. Or at least, one would be wrong given how certain philosophers we’ll be considering understand the views in question.125

Returning to the question of whether Cornell realism is antireductionistic in my sense, here’s a reason to think it might not be. I take it that on the standard nonreductive physicalist view, various special science properties are to be identified with certain causal-functional properties, or at least with something very much like causal-functional properties. So, for instance, pain is something roughly like the second order property of having a first order property whose instantiations are typically caused by tissue damage and typically cause wincing, crying, swearing, etc. Because causal-functional properties of this sort are multiply realizable by underlying physical properties, it’s widely thought that they are irreducible to those underlying physical properties.

Now, causal-functional properties are paradigm cases of non-normative properties. And so, if Cornell realists mean for their analogy between normative properties and special science properties to be so tight it implies that normative properties are also causal-functional properties, it then follows that their view isn’t a form of antireductionism according to my definition. Instead, it’s a form of (metaphysical) reductionism. Though normative properties wouldn’t be reducible to physical properties, they would be reducible to other non-normative properties – namely, causal-functional ones. Similarly, people sometimes say that standard nonreductive physicalism in the philosophy of mind is nonreductive in one sense but reductive in another. It denies the reducibility of mental properties to physical properties but affirms the reducibility of mental properties to causal-functional ones.

In fact, though, it’s not completely clear that the Cornell realists do mean for the special sciences analogy to be this tight. It’s not completely clear that in contemplating nonreductive views, they mean to be contemplating just views according to which normative properties are causal-functional.126 If not, though, then what is the analogy supposed to show? Perhaps it’s meant to show just that normative properties are multiply realized by non-normative properties.127 But “realized” in what sense? On one familiar conception of realization – the one we were implicitly using above in discussing standard nonreductive physicalism – a realized property must be something like a causal-functional property.128 It’s not completely clear that this is the sense of “realization” Cornell realists have in mind, though, since again it’s not completely clear that they mean to be committing themselves to the view that normative properties are causal-functional.

Sometimes philosophers have operated with a much looser conception of realization and (especially) multiple realization. According to this looser conception, a property is multiply realized just in case it is a supervening property with multiple subvening bases. Even Moore will accept that normative properties are multiply realized by non-normative properties on this looser conception, however, and so the looser conception will be useless for the purpose of distinguishing Moore’s non-naturalism from Cornell realists’ naturalism.129

The issue we’re encountering here should seem unsurprising in a way. Only very recently have a number of philosophers of mind come to appreciate that the nature of the realization relation isn’t as clear as one might have first thought.130 It would thus be to be expected if this lack of clarity infected Cornell realists’ attempts to use the realization relation in setting out their own positions. One real possibility here, it seems to me, is that in the end there isn’t really an interesting metaphysical difference between Cornell realism and Moore’s non-naturalism. To whatever extent this suggestion initially seems unacceptable, we can try to make it more palatable by noting that there still would be an important epistemological difference between the two views. Moore’s non-naturalism is generally taken to include several distinct components, including his acceptance of normative intuitionism.131 Much of the Cornell realists’ own work has consisted in developing an alternative normative epistemology that treats our knowledge of normative truths as on a par with our knowledge of scientific ones.132

While my own defense of normative antireductionism is inspired in no small part by Moore’s metaphysics, it is in no obvious way committed to his intuitionism. Thus, if we were ultimately to judge that it’s just Moore’s epistemology and not his metaphysics which makes him a non-naturalist, then it would presumably follow that there is no conflict between naturalism and the normative antireductionism I defend in this work.133

Quite possibly, though, this isn’t the proper way to view things. Perhaps there really is an important metaphysical difference between Moore’s view and the nonreductive views contemplated by Cornell realists.134 Fully sorting these matters out would seem to require us to fully sort out the distinction between naturalism and non-naturalism, and by all accounts this is one of the murkiest distinctions in all of metaethics. And so in the end, I’m not entirely clear on whether the Cornell realists count as my antireductionistic allies or my reductionistic foes. I suspect that their nonreductive views are most naturally cast as a form of (metaphysical) reductionism, in my sense, though whether or not this is so will turn on how their views regarding realization are ultimately to be understood.

At any rate, there is an important difference between my antireductionism about normativity and the Cornell realists’ views. I want to explicitly deny that normative properties are reducible to causal-functional properties or to anything remotely similar to causal-functional properties. Thus, my antireductionistic position regarding normativity, and thus regarding belief properties, is importantly unlike standard nonreductive physicalists’ position regarding special science properties, including belief properties. My antireductionism about normativity isn’t based on multiple realizability considerations, no matter how loosely we understand the realization relation. Even if it were to turn out that a certain normative property P and some non-normative property Q were coinstantiated across al metaphysically possible worlds, I would deny that P is reducible to Q.

This is a negative characterization of my view. I have explained what it is by saying what it’s not. Is a positive characterization possible? I doubt that I can improve much upon what I’ve already said: on my view, normative properties are irreducible to non-normative properties. On my view, then, normativity is primitive or sui generis.135 Like Moore, I say that normativity is what it is and not another thing.136 Give the similarities between my view and Moore’s, it’s probably most natural to classify my view of normativity as non-naturalistic (pardon the pun). In Chapter 5, however, I will be arguing that my view is compatible with at least a moderate form of physicalism. If it’s not a contradiction in terms, then, my view should be construed as a non-naturalistic form of (moderate) physicalism. If this is a contradiction in terms, then construe me as arguing that the metaphysical component of Moore’s view isn’t really a form of non-naturalism – it’s compatible with (moderate) physicalism and thus (moderate) naturalism. Nothing that really matters hangs on which of these two ways my view is construed.


Normative antireductionism as I’ve defined it requires a fine-grained conception. It allows that for any normative property P, there will be some non-normative property Q – where Q is either non-disjunctive or else it’s the disjunctive property formed by taking P’s various non-normative subvening base properties as disjuncts – such that P and Q are distinct but necessarily coinstantiated. There are a number of well known arguments for a fine-grained conception of properties, and I’m happy to enlist these arguments in my defense of antireductionism. For present purposes though, I want to focus on the following point.

There’s reason to think that nonreductive physicalism in general – and not just the specific version of nonreductive physicalism I want to defend – requires a fine-grained conception of properties. Again, standard nonreductive physicalists base their case for the irreducibility of mental properties on multiple realizability considerations. For instance, they take pain to be a univocal property realized by different physical properties in different physical systems: by firing C-fibers in humans, by inflating D-tubes in Martians, and so on. Given multiple realizability, pain isn’t necessarily coinstantiated either with firing C-fibers, or with inflating D-tubes, or with . . ., etc. But, what about the following disjunctive property: (firing C-fibers or inflating D-tubes or . . ., etc.)? It seems that pain will be necessarily coinstantiated with this property. Does it then follow that pain is identical to this disjunctive property?

Accepting this property identification would force us either to deny that pain is a natural property or to hold that certain disjunctive properties are natural, including the one we’re contemplating identifying with pain. While there are philosophers who’ve made each of these two moves, I regard them both as extremely unattractive.137 It would be far better if we could hold both that pain is natural and also that any disjunctive property is, ipso facto, not natural. And in fact, we can do this. But it requires that we deny that pain and the disjunctive property it’s necessarily coinstantiated with are identical. Because this seems like the most plausible way to proceed, I conclude that the most plausible ways of developing standard nonreductive physicalism will require a fine-grained conception of properties.

The upshot of this is that if that if one assumes a coarse-grained conception of properties at the outset, according to which necessarily coinstantiated properties are always identical, then this coarse-grained conception will by itself be enough to establish that nonreductive physicalism is wrong, or at least that all the most plausible versions of it are. But then there will be no need to consider the causal exclusion argument, or any other distinct argument against nonreductive physicalism. These further arguments will have been rendered superfluous by the coarse-grained conception of properties. Is this really the way reductionists want to argue against nonreductive physicalists? The conclusion to draw here is that in discussing nonreductive physicalism, we can’t assume a coarse-grained conception of properties at the outset. To whatever extent certain nonreductive physicalist views are judged to be attractive, they should be regarded as providing us with reasons to reject a coarse-grained conception in favor of a fine-grained one.

Bringing things back to the particular form of nonreductive physicalism I’m defending, I conclude that it’s no embarrassment of my view that it requires a fine-grained conception of properties. Or, at least, if it is an embarrassment, then it’s an embarrassment that all the most plausible versions of nonreductive physicalism have to bear. Now that this commitment to a fine-grained conception of properties has been set on the table, we can say more about what the truth of (CP) reflects according to normative antireductionism. It reflects that the property (as opposed to the concept) of belief possesses a certain normative dimension – a connection to an objective to-be-doneness, if you will138 – that no non-normative property possesses, not even the non-normative (perhaps disjunctive) property that is necessarily coinstantiated with belief.

In general, if a fine-grained conception of properties is correct, then counterpossibles will be a natural tool for drawing out the different metaphysical features that distinct but necessarily coinstantiated properties have. For instance, it would be natural for a standard nonreductive physicalist to use the following counterpossible to express her view that though pain is a natural property, the disjunctive property it’s necessarily coinstantiated with is not.

(CP8): If pain weren’t a natural property, there would be no natural property shared by humans with firing C-fibers and Martians with inflating D-tubes.139

Similarly, given normative antireductionism, (CP) is a natural way to express the view that belief possesses a certain feature possessed by no non-normative property.


In the preceding two subsections I’ve tried to clarify what my normative antireductionism amounts to; I now want to turn to arguing for its truth. I take the broader dialectic here to be such that there is some sort of initial presumption in favor of realist as opposed to antirealist accounts of normativity. The practical upshot of this for the present work is that to the extent one can show that some realist account of normativity is unproblematic, one will have thereby undermined the motivation for opting for an antirealist account. Using this as my justification, I won’t be directly arguing against antirealist accounts of normativity in this work. I will be arguing against the different reductionistic forms of normative realism we’ve been considering, however. Seeing the problems these reductionistic views face will help us fully appreciate some of the virtues of antireductionistic views. In the present subsection, I will be focusing on the biggest problem facing analytical reductionism.

Again, analytical reductionism is the view that the totality of non-normative truths analytically entails the totality of normative truths. If this view were correct, then normative eliminativism as we’ve been understanding it should be inconceivable in just the same way that married bachelors are inconceivable. It’s generally agreed that the single most daunting challenge that analytical reductionists face is posed by Moore’s open question argument (or at least by some version of Moore’s argument).140 For any non-normative (perhaps complex) term that an analytical reductionist might propose as being equivalent in meaning to ‘good,’ for instance, it seems to be an open question whether things satisfying that non-normative term are really good. In contrast, it doesn’t seem to be an open question whether people satisfying the predicate ‘unmarried male’ are really bachelors. Or, to put the same idea in terms that are more obviously relevant to (CP): given any non-normative description of the world, no matter comprehensive, it seems to be an open question what the normative truths are. If this is indeed an open question, then it would seem that the relations between non-normative truths and normative truths can’t be those of analytic entailment.

Perhaps the central task for analytical reductionists seeking to defend their view is to come up with a response to the open question argument. While they’ve thought of some things to say,141 few have found what they’ve said convincing. In fact, it’s possible to cast nearly the whole of contemporary metaethics as starting with the premise that Moore has refuted analytical reductionism, and then trying to figure out where to go from there.142 At any rate, I believe that we should take the open question argument to provide as conclusive a refutation of analytical reductionism as we can reasonably hope to get.

Without trying to provide any further objection against analytical reductionism, I want to try to locate my use of Moore’s argument within a framework that will be familiar to philosophers of mind. To set up this framework, let’s return to (CP). Back when (CP) was first introduced in Chapter 3, we assumed without serious argument that its antecedent is conceivable. At the time, we relied just on the prima facie plausibility of the thought that normative eliminativism isn’t a contradiction in terms. Now we can provide further support for this assumption. Anyone who denies that (CP)’s antecedent is conceivable, it seems, is committed to refuting the open question argument. For, if a fully comprehensive non-normative description of the world leaves it an open question what the normative truths are, then presumably it also leaves it an open question whether there are any normative truths at all – that is, whether normative eliminativism is true.

For what it’s worth, I’m inclined to think that analytical reductionism about normativity is much less promising than the analogous sort of analytical reductionism about phenomenal consciousness, according to which the totality of physical and causal-functional truths analytically entails the totality of phenomenal conscious truths.143 Given the close connection between Moore’s open question argument and Hume’s contention that no “ought” claim can be derived entirely from “is” claims,144 one way I might put the point is like this: intuitively, the is-ought gap strikes me as wider than the explanatory gap.145 I find it vastly more plausible that the explanatory gap pertaining to phenomenal consciousness might be closed via further empirical discovery or breakthroughs in imagination than that the is-ought gap could be closed in these ways. Because this is where my intuitions fall, I’m actually drawn to the (admittedly initially counterintuitive) view that it’s clearer that belief zombies are genuinely conceivable than it is that phenomenal zombies are.146 To be sure, I don’t expect to encounter uniform intuitions about which of the two gaps is more profound, though, and so I won’t be trying to get much mileage out of my comparative intuitions.

To conclude this subsection, let me draw on the parallels we’ve noted in this section in providing a final defense of the methodology I’ve been employing in this work. In the end, I regard my heavy reliance on (CP), a counterpossible, as not being interestingly different from other philosophers’ reliance on the conceivability of phenomenal zombies in making their arguments. I mean here not just those dualists who take phenomenal zombies’ conceivability to entail their possibility, but also those physicalists who take the conceivability of phenomenal zombies to show that our phenomenal concepts are different from our physical and causal-functional concepts. If it’s methodologically justifiable for philosophers discussing phenomenal consciousness to use the conceivability of zombies to draw substantive (though not necessarily dualistic) conclusions, then I don’t easily see how it could be methodologically unjustifiable for me to use (CP) in arguing for the (CRT), as I did in section 3.2, or to argue that belief is normative, as I did in section 4.1.

Let me pose this as a dilemma, then, for potential critics of my heavy reliance on (CP). What is it they object to? It seems that they must either have an argument against the conceivability of (CP)’s antecedent – which means they have a refutation of Moore’s open question argument, and a way to close Hume’s is-ought gap – or else they must an incredibly wide ranging argument against the general idea of reaching substantive philosophical conclusions on the basis of conceivability considerations, an objection which inevitably will target not just my arguments in the present work but also those philosophers who appeal to the conceivability of zombies in their works. In the absence of such arguments, I conclude that my methodology is defensible, regardless of whether the conclusions I’ve reached using it are.


Next on our list of normative realisms is metaphysical reductionism. This, recall, is the view that the totality of non-normative truths does not analytically entail the totality of normative truths, but normative properties are reducible to non-normative properties, and so the totality of non-normative truths metaphysically entails the totality of normative truths. No small part of the inspiration behind metaphysical reductionism is to devise a realist view which on the one hand isn’t susceptible to Moore’s open question argument but which on the other hand isn’t non-naturalistic like Moore’s own view.

In proposing that normative properties can be identified with non-normative properties, metaphysical reductionists take as their model the sorts of necessary a posteriori identifications first discussed by Kripke.147 That the bathtub is filled with H2O doesn’t analytically entail that it’s filled with water, as is demonstrated by the existence of subjects who possess the concept of water but not the concept of H2O. Nevertheless, water is identical to H2O. According to metaphysical reductionists, the relation between the normative and the non-normative is just like this. Normative properties are identical to non-normative properties, but our normative concepts are distinct from our non-normative concepts, which means that there are no analytic entailments of the sort that lead to problems vis-à-vis Moore’s argument.

Metaphysical reductionism is an attractive view in certain ways. I do not think the problems it faces are as decisive as those facing analytical reductionism. However, I think we should be skeptical that it ultimately can work. For one thing, there’s reason to doubt that metaphysical reductionists have really come to grips with the full depth of the open question argument. Consider water and H2O a bit more. Is it an open question whether water is really H2O? Well, if we were to learn tomorrow that we’ve been massively wrong and that the watery stuff of our acquaintance is actually XYZ rather than H2O, then the proper conclusion would be that water is XYZ, not H2O. And this does seem to give us a sense in which it’s an open question whether water is really H2O. However, given that the watery stuff of our acquaintance is H2O, the question no longer seems open. Given the totality of H2O truths, then, including the truth that H2O is the watery stuff of our acquaintance, the question of whether water is H2O appears to be settled: it is. But then, if the analogy to water and H2O is to be preserved, it seems that metaphysical reductionists will need it to be the case that if we were given the totality of non-normative truths, including truths relevantly similar to the H2O truth that the watery stuff of our acquaintance is H2O, then all normative questions will be similarly settled. But this is just what Moore’s open question argument denies. And so it seems that the metaphysical reductionists don’t really have a better response to Moore’s argument than the analytical reductionists do.148

We’ve already noted the parallel between metaphysical reductionism about normativity and those physicalist views that grant the conceivability of phenomenal zombies but try to account for it by invoking phenomenal concepts. The argument just presented against metaphysical reductionism is importantly like the argument against such views of phenomenal consciousness that has been made by David Chalmers and Frank Jackson in their “Conceptual Analysis and Reductive Explanation.”149 In that paper, Chalmers and Jackson argue that reductive explanations require analytic entailments.150 I’m inclined to think this is correct. This view of reductive explanations together with the open question argument would seem to entail that antireductionism about normativity is true if any realist view is.151

Admittedly, though, Chalmers and Jackson’s view of the relation between analytic entailment and reductive explanation is extremely controversial.152 The argument I’ve just presented against metaphysical reductionism about normativity figures to be controversial for just the same reasons. And so, while I regard the argument presented as posing a serious challenge to metaphysical reductionism, I concede that it’s less obvious that the open question argument cripples metaphysical reductionism than it is that it cripples analytical reductionism.

Now that Chalmers has officially entered the fray, let me make explicit an analogy I’ve been gradually building toward throughout the chapter. Chalmers’ phenomenal zombies are importantly like my belief zombies. Chalmers’ relation to the explanatory gap is importantly like my relation to the is-ought gap. Chalmers antireductionism about phenomenal consciousness is importantly like my antireductionism about normativity and (thus) belief. There are, to be sure, also important differences between the two views. Perhaps most crucially, I hold that normative properties supervene on non-normative properties with metaphysical necessity, while Chalmers holds that phenomenal properties supervene on microphysical properties with only nomological necessity.153 As a way of getting a first grasp on the sort of antireductionism about normativity I’m defending, though, Chalmers’ antireductionism about phenomenal consciousness strikes me as an especially useful reference point.

Moving on, a second potential problem for metaphysical reductionists concerns the point first raised back in subsection 2.4.4. If belief is normative, as I’ve now argued, then it follows that no reductionist account of normativity can appeal to belief in its proposed analysis. This imposes a severe constraint on the forms reductive accounts can take. To illustrate the point through an example, imagine an account of normativity that attempts to characterize certain (epistemic) normative properties, like the property of justification, at least partly in terms of the production of true beliefs. Nothing in my argument for normativism about belief precludes such an account from being true or highly informative. However, it does preclude such an account from being reductive, since the property of belief figures in what would be the analysans and belief itself is something normative. In the present context, recall that my argument that belief is normative doesn’t presuppose my own normative antireductionism. Thus, it’s in no way question begging for me to rely on that argument’s conclusion here.

The present argument doesn’t purport to show that no metaphysical reduction of normative properties can succeed, just that any such reduction will need to proceed entirely in terms of physical, causal-functional, and various other non-normative properties. It cannot proceed in terms of belief properties. This surely makes the prospects for such reductionistic accounts that much dimmer. Without claiming that either this or the above concerns regarding the open question argument decisively refute metaphysical reductionism, I believe that we can at least say that the problems facing metaphysical reductionism are serious enough that we ought to give antireductionism a look.


Antireductionistic accounts of normativity don’t face those problems plaguing reductionistic accounts that we’ve just been considering. This is the payoff for holding that normativity is what it is and not another thing. The widely alleged price is that normative antireductionism is incompatible with our scientific view of the world. If this is indeed the price, it’s one that comparatively few are willing to pay. Because of this, one form that an argument for antireductionism can take is to try to demonstrate that the view isn’t really incompatible with our scientific worldview: we can get the payoff without having to pay the price. This is the form that my own argument for normative antireductionism will take, starting in the next chapter.

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