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Stoeger, William R., S.J. “The Mind-Brain Problem, the Laws of Nature, and Constitutive Relationships."

In “The Mind-Brain Problem, the Laws of Nature, and Constitutive Relationships,” William R. Stoeger, S.J. argues that a correct understanding of the meaning of “laws of nature” is essential for clarifying issues associated with the mind-brain problem. He distinguishes between “the laws of nature” as the regularities, relationships, and processes that obtain in nature, and “our laws of nature” as our provisional, incomplete, and imperfect models of these regularities. In some areas of science our models give fairly adequate accounts of the actual regularities and relationships; in others adequate models are still lacking. Modeling mental processes and their relations to brain processes seems especially problematic due to the subjective and holistic character of mental phenomena; in fact, it is not yet clear what would count as an adequate model for explaining the mental in terms of brain processes.

The sense of “laws of nature” that one intends has a bearing on the meaning of essential terms in the philosophy of mind, such as “emergence” and “supervenience,” and on an even deeper issue underlying the mind-brain problem: the very meaning of “physical” or “material,” versus “nonphysical” or “immaterial.” “Matter” is not a scientific term and the meaning of “material” is historically contingent. In common usage, Stoeger takes it to refer to that which we can model, describe, and understand using the resources of the natural sciences. Correlatively, the immaterial is that which transcends the regularities known by science. Thus, the identification of the mental with the immaterial does not mean that the mental could not be a property of neurologically highly organized matter.Stoeger draws attention to the “constitutive relationships” that account for the hierarchical structure of reality, such that higher levels are composed by complex ordering of lower-level entities. The constitutive relationships of a complex whole are all of those connections, relationships, and interactions that either incorporate its lower-level components into that more complex whole, relate that whole to higher-level unities in such a way as to contribute essentially to its character, or maintain its connection to the Ground of its existence. Stoeger’s insight is that insofar as there are constitutive relationships of the sort that relate an entity to higher-level systems, those entities are not reducible either causally or mereologically (that is, as mere aggregates are reducible to their parts). Thus, Stoeger concludes that mental states cannot be reduced to brain-states: there are constitutive relationships not just among the brain-states that realize them, but also relating the mental states they determine with one another and with historical and environmental conditions. These external constitutive relations play a role in determining the sequences and clustering of mental states.Stoeger ends by reflecting on the Aristotelian and Thomist accounts of form and soul as that which makes an entity to be what it is. He notes that a scientifically accessible correlate of these notions is his own account of constitutive relationships.

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