Ethical Physicalism

(This is the tenth part of the ‘From Neural Is to Moral Ought’ series.)


43: Ethical Naturalism

As said previously, central to Ethical Naturalism are the ideas of:

  1. A rejection of the ‘is’/’ought’ distinction, and
  2. The supervenience of the ethical on the physical.

In the next section I look at the supervenience aspect. Before that, I look at the first point. Together, they will finally finish off the whole is/ought discussion in this series of talks.

I previously argued that other forms of reasoning are like ethical reasoning. Here, the argument is presented coming from the other direction – that ethical reasoning is just one among many types of reasoning. Moreover, it is contiguous with other types of reasoning.  I will start by summarizing points of relevance from ‘Morality for Humans’ by Mark Johnson (University of Oregon). (More has been said about this in the ‘Moral Fundamentalism is a Scientific Sin’  and ‘Morality for Humans’  postings.):

  • Moral reasoning is not unique and utterly distinct; it is just one among many types of reasoning – one that concerns conflict within society. All types of reasoning encompass expert knowledge accumulated over many many years which are passed down to individuals whose skill in this regard develops with practice.
  • Complex problems will involve many aspects. For example, a health issue will typically have economic, social, psychological and political dimensions as well as moral and other dimensions. And these dimensions are inter-related. Identifying a dominant dimension in aparticular situation is not normally a problem. And so it is with what is identified as a ‘moral issue’. To categorize an issue as solely moral will ignore the complexity of these inter-relationships. We call an issue ‘ethical’ or ‘moral’ to emphasize that the harm or well-being of ourselves and others are a prominent concern. But it is not the only concern.
  • Growing up, children learn to distinguish between moral strictures and social conventions. By making this distinction, we avoid becoming moral relativists. The moral aspect allows us to evaluate and evolve our conventions. But the distinction between morals and conventions is grey. What one culture views as moral, another may view as merely conventional (an example: the way one dresses in public in Islamic and Western cultures).

I agree with all these points. To supplement and reinforce them:

  • The basic argument in the ‘is’ / ‘ought’ distinction is true in that ‘ought’ is not constrained by ‘is’.
  • Philosophers will tend to produce all-encompassing simplistic moral systems through reason, without recourse to the world of ‘is’. But where reason produces an over-simplified system that does not fit with their preconception, they generally modify their reasons rather than their moral behaviour.
  • Morality is about managing conflict between individuals, specifically in a self-regulatory way.
  • The cultivation of moral skills (in an individual and within society in general) is achieved by finding out what works and what doesn’t through experimentation as well as reason. Morality is open to scientific Facts determine morals, as previously noted (‘from biological is to moral ought’ ) regarding how our mortality affects our morality.
  • As in most of my talks, this is to see issues in terms of a continuum rather than making sharp distinctions.


44: Ethical Physicalism

In addition to rejecting the ‘is’/‘ought’ distinction, Ethical Naturalists also advocate the supervenience argument. But in order to accept this, we must be looking at the world differently from the traditional way…


The dualist worldview

Whilst there may be no-one in a university neuroscience department that believes so, a significant proportion of Western society, and the majority in most places, effectively subscribe to the dualist worldview, either consciously or implicitly via their religious beliefs. For them, mind is distinct from matter.

The former is the domain of our reason, soul, consciousness and choice and free will. Ethics is dependent on these and hence ethics is apart from the material world, just as other forms of reasoning all belong to mind. Hence it seems ‘natural’ and obvious that one can’t get an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’. The former is in the realm of the mind and the latter is in the realm of the material.

Contrast this then with the view of ethical naturalists …


The ethical supervenes on the physical

Ethical Naturalists subscribe to the view that:

the ethical supervenes on the physical.

What does this little statement mean? It says that it is not possible for two circumstances to be identical in all natural respects but different in their ethical respects. The physical state of the world entirely determines what is ethical. There is nothing else that needs to be brought into play here – and this includes the notion of a separate ‘mind’. To re-iterate, morals are entirely determined by reality. In inflammatory terms:

Ethics reduces to physics!

So a philosopher might assert that we cannot derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’ but:

  • The ability to make such an assertion is derived from the way that philosopher thinks.
  • And how that philosopher thinks depends on how their brain works.
  • And how their brain works depends on the underlying neurons, neurotransmitters, ions (chemistry) and, ultimately, more fundamental ‘stuff’ (physics)!


‘Physicalism’ rather than ‘Naturalism’

Note that although I am talking about Ethical Naturalism, I am saying that:

  • the ethical supervenes on the physical. rather than the natural, and
  • ethics reduces to physics rather than nature.

My reference to ‘physicalism’ rather than the conventional ‘naturalism’ is solely to make a particular point:

The natural world could still be seen by some as one in which there is both mind and matter separately, whereas referring to the physical world makes it clear we are saying that there is only matter.

Well, there is only matter, energy and maybe other stuff as well. Regardless, there is only physical stuff – which is one reason why I prefer the term ‘physicalism’ rather than ‘materialism’).

(This issue is something that I have talked about at length previously.)

And the key point here is that:

To believe that the ethical supervenes on the physical is to believe in a physicalist worldview, denying that mind exists independently of matter.


Ethics and Metaphysics

That there is a relationship between the ‘is’/‘ought’ distinction and the dualism/naturalism distinction may be obvious when you think about the term ‘ethical naturalism’, but it may not be beforehand. After all, the former distinction is an ethical issue and the latter is a metaphysical one.

The ‘is’/‘ought’ and the dualism/physicalism issues are not the same but they are very closely related in that, like a jigsaw puzzle (or like Susan Haack’s Foundherentist crossword puzzle analogy):

  • ethical non-naturalism (asserting the distinction between is and ought) interlocks with dualism, and
  • ethical naturalism (denying the distinction between is and ought) interlocks with physicalism.


Moving Ought from Mind to Matter

Dualism has the clear ethical distinction between mind and matter:

You can’t go from an ‘is’ to an x.

but this is because it has the clear separation between anything mental and the material. For a physicalist worldview, we need to merge the mental into the physical:

We need to move the ethical from mind to matter.

For a physicalist worldview, we can understand that ethics reduces to physics without committing the naturalistic fallacy:

  • How things are does not justify how things should be. We can choose to do something different if that is what we want. (Ethical issues arise where our wants conflict with that of others.)
  • But ultimately, what we want is determined by our physical construction, i.e. how things are.



45: The fMRI Argument

In response to the dualist mantra of the form:

You can’t go from an ‘is’ to an x.

… the physicalist can always respond with what I shall call ‘the fMRI argument’ which is that for any mental x:

You can always show the relationship between x and its physical cause by correlation with brain imaging instruments and techniques such as functional MRI scans.

This shows how the world of ‘is’ determines the mental world.

But in response to that, a dualist might immediately respond:

Correlation is not causation.

The dualist might claim that it is actually other way around: the physical events in the brain that cause physical motion, speech, etc. are themselves caused by thoughts in the mental realm.


  • A physicalist will use neuroscientific evidence to support their claims, but
  • Neuroscientific evidence by itself does not compel a dualist to become a physicalist.

As Tamler Sommers (University of Houston) and David Pizarro (Cornell) say in their entertaining podcast (around 10-17 mins in):

“What’s happened in the last 10 years has been this explosion of interest … in neuroscience. … all these scientific advances just provide further evidence, further reason to feel very comfortable being a naturalist.”


“… every once in a while in the last 100 / 150 years someone comes along and reminds us that our brains are made of atoms … [and] now we have cool magnets [(!) i.e. fMRI] that can show us brains and action.”


“Neuroscientists didn’t tell us that our brains are atoms and neurons and molecules. We knew that already. … Just knowing that our brains cause our choices are just reminders.”


“As Josh Greene likes to say … Neuroscience makes it even harder to be a dualist”


46: From Dualism to Neuroscience

A previous talk discussed the difficulties transitioning from one worldview to another. How is it then that “neuroscience makes it even harder to be a dualist” and so, presumably, pushes us towards a physicalist position?

The development of a new science is dependent and enabled by new technology. In the case of neuroscience, there is the progression:

  1. Behavioural: The only means of access to another’s thought processes is by observing behaviour, of which one aspect is the reports they give of their conscious thoughts. We can experiment with their thought processes by influencing their environment (particularly through talking to them). An example of such experimentation is Philip Zimbardo’s well-known ‘Stanford Prison Experiment’.
  2. Anatomical: A connection is made between thinking and the brain. The brain is recognized as the interface to the mind (c.f. those from the Ancient Egyptians to Aristotle who thought the heart was the seat of intelligence). After death, a brain can be dissected for examination and observations can possibly be correlated with behaviour of the brain’s owner in life. This is particularly useful in pathological cases where abnormal brain features may be correlated with abnormal behaviour. An example where there wasn’t even a need to dissect the brain is the classic case of Phineas Gage.
  3. Pharmocological stimulation: Going beyond this, we have a means of influencing minds through the taking of a variety of psychoactive drugs. A well-known example here is Aldous Huxley’s experimentation with mescaline.
  4. Direct observation: The next progression is the ability to ‘see’ inside the live brain without having to go through observations of bodily behaviour. A prominent current example of this is fMRI of course. With this ability, we are then able to correlate physical images with the behavioural observations.
  5. Direct stimulation: The final step so far is the ability to intrude into brain behaviour at a very localized level. Current technology here is very primitive – transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) is hardly controlled and local. But we can expect progress here.

Ongoing with this combination of stimulation and observation is the theorizing and modelling of what is going on in the brain, which then feeds experimentation (this virtuous circle is how science progresses). But this progression must also been accompanied by change of a worldview as our minds become more physically controllable and observable.

And this then creates a problem regarding our moral responsibility. Progressing from dualism to physicalism:

1: With dualism, all thinking is in the single entity that is the mind, as distinct from matter. One is judged on everything that you do, including that over which you have little control.

2: With a ‘dual process’ dualism, there is two-level model in which rational, conscious thought is in the mind and instinctive, subconscious is in matter. One is judged on the conscious activity, plus what little control we have to control our instincts (preventing bad habituation and promoting the good).

3: With physicalism, all thinking is in matter. I have previously presented this as operating at many levels (Friston’s hierarchy of adaptive predictors). This seems to leave no room for (traditional, dualist) free will. It would seem to be unfair to be judged on anything.


This leads us on to later topics, examining:

  1. Moral responsibility in a physicalist world, and
  2. The ethics of pharmocological stimulation of the brain, of neural observation and of neural stimulation.


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