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The Mind-Body Problem and the Narrow Token Identity Theory

Updated on September 21, 2017
Luke Holm profile image

Luke works as a middle school English, ELD, social justice, and mindfulness teacher in the sanctuary city, San Jose, CA.

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The Mind-Body Problem Overview

The mind-body problem questions the relationship between the mind and the body, between the mental realm and the physical realm. Philosophers ask, "Are our thoughts, feelings, perceptions, sensations, and wishes things that happen in addition to all the physical processes in our brains, or are they themselves just some of those physical processes?"

The question is important for several reasons. First the question poses a philosophical conundrum: how can something as physical as the brain give rise to something as mysterious and abstract as a mental state? Also, the problem poses an existential dilemma: what am I? If materialism is true, then I am a physical object (an organism). If dualism is true, then I am an intangible essence (a mental state), like a soul inhabiting a body. This would mean that I am just part of the body which I call myself. This latter theory, dualism, is oftentimes referred to as the narrow-token identity theory.

The mind-body problem has puzzled philosophers for hundreds of years. Until recently, the numerous theories of whether we are mind, body, or both have failed to determine where and how mind and body interacts. While there have been valiant efforts to prove that interactionism and epiphenomenalism are logically plausible conclusions to the mind-body problem, I feel that a dualistic theory called narrow token identity theory is much more precise.

In this article, I will argue for the narrow token identity theory. First I will display the arguments and counter arguments for interactionism and epiphenomenalism. In doing so, I will have created a thorough foundation on which I may then argue why narrow token identity theory is the most correct answer to the mind-body problem. By the end of this paper, I hope to bring about a better understanding of who we are in this mysterious game of life.


Interactionism: Am I a Mind or a Body?

In Richard Taylor’s Metaphysics, he declares that we are “a mind that has a body and, equally, a body that has a mind” (18). Since we believe that we have both mind and body, there must be some way for them to interact with each other. The theory of interactionism was given by Rene Descartes, and it argues that,

“1) There are material things as well as mental things. 2) Mental things are completely different kinds of things from material things. 3) Mental and material things causally interact” (Cornman, 143-42).

Knowing that we are made up of seemingly two different entities, Descartes struggled to derive exactly where the mind-body interaction took place. Descartes’ answer was simple. He claimed that the pineal gland was the “seat” of the mind (sometimes referred to as the soul). “He felt that it functioned as the intermediary which transmits the effects of the mind to the brain and the effects of the body to the mind” (143).

Epiphenomenalism: Material as a Prerequisite to Mental States

Most theorists have discontinued Descartes claim, because it is thought, today, that “the brain affects the mind in many ways that bypass the pineal gland” (143). If no place of interaction can be established, we must forfeit all hope of interactionism providing a useful answer to the mind-body problem. Perhaps, then, there is no place of equal interaction between both mind and body. A twentieth-century philosopher named George Santayana described the relationship a bit differently. His theory, later deemed epiphenomenalism, stated that, “Material or brain events cause mental events, as by-products; but mental events cause nothing whatever” (158). Instead of having an immaterial mind, epiphenomenalism claims there are only mental states that are caused by material states and bodies.


Finding Flaws in Epiphenomenalism and Interactionism

Epiphenomenalism may be attractive to evolutionists, but it is flawed. Since epiphenomenalism claims that mental states are only byproducts of physical states, this means that we no longer need thought to thrive in the world. Unlike the mountain stream analogy in Chapter 4 of PP&A–where the babbling sound produced by water flow is analogous to the mind by means of a mere by-product–the mind cannot be viewed as a mere by-product of physical states. We see that mental phenomena have a causal effect on humans when we understand that our thoughts and personal views of the world shape the course of human history. Epiphenomenalism cannot be correct, because if it were, “None of people’s hopes, desires, dreams, joys, or sorrows have in any way affected the course of human events” (159).

If interactionism is a flawed because of its problems with the point of interaction, and if epiphenomenalism is flawed because it is logical to think that mental states influence the events of physical states sometimes, then we must turn toward a theory that has neither a point of interaction nor the elimination of a mental or physical states. A theory such as this would have to be considered dualistic, seeing as how it contains both mind and body, but it would not necessarily divorce the mind and body from the single entity of human being. The theory I propose when attempting to solve the mind-body problem is called the narrow token identity theory.


Token-Token Identity Theory and Narrow-Token Identity Theory

The narrow token identity theory is the thesis that “each mental state token is identical to some neural state token or other” (188). This is a token-token identity theory. A token-token identity theory states that each instance of a mental entity, such as a pain, is identical with an instance of a material entity. It differs from interactionism, because interactionism claims “no mental state would have any material properties” (189).

Instead of searching for a point of interaction between the mind and brain, narrow-token identity theory posits that the mind is identical with brain processes. This way, the point of interaction is eliminated and rests solely on the fact that we were wrong when thinking that the mind exists outside of neural properties. We can further elaborate on this fallacy when we observe how dependent thoughts are on neural activity.

PP&A offers the consideration of mind with people who have had strokes. “People who have strokes and lose certain brain functions also lose various mental functions as well” (189). If damage to sectors of our brain influences the mind’s function in any way, we must conclude that the mind and the brain are synonymous processes. This is the main argument for the narrow token identity theory.


Narrow-Token Theory Best Explains the Mind-Body Problem

Alas, many philosophers continue to argue that the narrow-token identity theory makes no clear sense. “Narrow token identity theory must be incorrect because there are things which we can quite meaningfully say about mental states that we cannot meaningfully say about neural states, and conversely” (190). An example of this is the limit that current language puts on the meanings of words and sentences. Narrow-token identity theory claims that we ascribe material properties to neural states, but that we also ascribe mental properties to mental states. If a mental state is identical to a neural state, and a material state is identical to a neural state, then we are saying that something such as pain (a purely mental state) has properties of a physical state (such as molecules).

The objection to this concludes that, currently, our way of language is too primitive to fully grasp the meaning of the above statements. While pain is a purely mental entity, it can also be used to describe the nerve impulses that arise at the pain center and flash to the brain. Just like we have the chemical compound for sodium chloride, we also have the conventional term that makes it salt.

Even though many believe this theory to be flawed, narrow-token identity theory is still superior to other arguments for the mind-body problem. It answers many of the questions that come about through other theories, and brings about no new questions of its own. Perhaps soon, with a better understanding of how this single theory can be ascribed to both mental and physical states, the mind-body problem will be completely answered.


Cornman, James W. Philosophical Problems and Arguments an Introduction. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1992.

Richard, Taylor,. Metaphysics. Englewood Cliffs, N.J: Prentice Hall, 1992.

The Mind-Body Problem Explained

© 2017 Luke Holm


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    • Jay C OBrien profile image

      Jay C OBrien 3 weeks ago from Houston, TX USA

      Luke, I clicked on the citation and it sent me to the correct page.

      I am not much into philosophy these days, but into proof of a spirit. That is what the Cayce readings do for me. He got information through a sixth sense indicating another realm of existence. Until the other realm is shown to exist, most philosophy becomes materialism.

    • Luke Holm profile image

      Luke Holm 3 weeks ago

      Jay C, I have read a bit on Edgar Cayce (your link is dead by the way). I read his bio a while back. He is a super interesting character who I became quite fascinated with in my earlier explorations of spirituality. I think the question is still relevant, though, as most philosophers would likely argue that spirit and mind are synonymous. As the narrow-token theory suggests (as a sort of dualism), the mind and the body are intimately related, correlating both consciously and non. Thank you for commenting. You always give me something to reflect on, and you always seem to be able to take the discussion one step further :)

      Vladimir, I do love the way you think as well. I enjoy your articles, whenever I get a chance to read them. I tend to agree with you, moreso than with the theories posited throughout this article. I wrote this article as an explanation for young philosophers who are just beginning to tackle these concepts and problems.

      In my experience, through meditation and other spiritual practices, we are all consciousness and the physical reality is a manifestation of our expectations and desires (be careful what you wish for). I am more of a solipsist than a realist, and believe that we are more like waves in an ocean than physically separate entities. Point me to a specific article of yours and I'll check it out so as to elaborate further :)

      Keep those good vibrations churning, brothers.

    • ValKaras profile image

      Vladimir Karas 3 weeks ago from Canada

      Luke---Not trying to match the depth of your perspective on this topic, my humble opinion is inclined to see it through the prism of frequencies. And although I can't even claim to know much about the technology of frequency generating, transmission, and resonance, and the way a radio operates, here I go using that metaphor.

      I think the question is more about what consciousness is, because neuroscientists have located just about every mental and emotional state in neuro-endocrine system---except for consciousness. When I say : "I have a mind and body", who is saying it if not consciousness?

      So I am entertaining myself with the idea that body is a bundle of energies vibrating at different frequencies which all orchestrate life in us. Brain is the conductor, overlooking and receiving all the signals from the body and telling the body how to function.

      Consciousness could be a personalized extension of the universal intelligence---a "radio-receiver" wired to pick up a limited range of frequencies. In a physical sense, it could be composed of some of those thousand genes that scientists don't know what they are doing in our genome.

      Now, since Einstein said "there are no spare parts in universe", I would say there are no spare parts in our genome either. I think our DNA is the bridge between two realms, animate and metaphysical.

      It seems to me we were genetically engineered, so a sort of bastards between an extremely advanced race and a very primitive one---and we are displaying characteristics of both. At times some of those silent genes overwhelm with their fine frequencies the beast in us, and then a genius is born. But wars, territoriality, greed, fight for the survival resources and hoarding them up, and a need to be an alpha in the pack speak loudly about our predominant animalistic nature which is silencing those advanced genes.

      Meditators tend to go spiritual as they quiet down the "animal", allowing those fine frequencies to do beneficial work in the body-mind. So they are displaying less of animalistic tendencies, leaning towards the mystery-of-everything. I should know.

      Well, the story could go further and it does in some of my articles, but let us leave it with this somewhat oversized comment.

      I certainly admire your mind, Luke.

    • Jay C OBrien profile image

      Jay C OBrien 3 weeks ago from Houston, TX USA

      According to Edgar Cayce, there are Three states: Mind, body and spirit. The spirit is life, the mind is the builder and the physical the result. If you have not read about Cayce before, here is a citation: