Anomalous monism: Mental and physical events through the lens of Donald Davidson

Anomalous Monism is a theory by American analytical philosopher Donald Davidson, that questions the physical status of mental events, what in a long run could be simplified as a question about the scientific status of psychology. In his theory Davidson showcases the problem similar to Karl Popper – which strongly argued against Sigmund Freud and psychoanalysis- and his falsifiability, claiming that psychology is not a science like basic physics because it can’t offer us exceptionless laws for predicting or explaining human thoughts and actions. But while Popper focused his studies in proving what is a true science, Davidson rather approaches psychology with his theory saying that it can’t be reduced to physics, but must nonetheless share a physical ontology (no appeal to soul or mind is required). The whole theory also makes a great significance in conversations about free will and causal determinism, which is essentially the topic I will present in this seminar paper. 

Keywords: Anomalous Monism; Mental Events; Psychology; Donald Davidson; 

Source: Davidson, D. (1988). »Mentalni dogodki«. V Raziskave o resnici in interpretacij, Studia Humanitatis, str. 7-31.


Donald Davidson opens up his essay „Mental events“ asking the question of how to reconcile freedom with causal determinism if we assume that it involves belonging to a law-like network while freedom itself requires withdrawal from it. Simplified, Davidson is noticing that it seems that we can’t have analytically predictable parameters of nature and freedom simultaneously. A good example of this problem could be traced in Steven Spielberg’s 2002 film Minority Report

Minority Report tells us the story of an elite law enforcing “Pre-crime” squad. They use three gifted humans (called “Pre-Cogs”) with special powers to see into the future and predict crimes beforehand. John Anderton heads Precrime and believes the system’s flawlessness steadfastly. However one day the “Pre-Cogs” predict that Anderton will commit a murder himself in the next 36 hours. Worse, Anderton doesn’t even know the victim. He decides to get to the mystery’s core by finding out the ‘minority report’ aka. the prediction of the female “Pre-Cog” Agatha that “might” tell a different story and prove that Anderton is innocent.

The concept of Minority Report is that all humans have “basic freedom”, on one side, so they are operating with physical events, while on the other side „Pre-Cogs“ are the ones who can predetermine crime aka. they are operating on the side of mental events. This imposes a rather interesting question. If „Pre-crime“ squad arrests someone by „Pre-Cogs“ prediction that still hasn’t committed a crime, was that person ever actually free to chose not to commit the crime in a first place? Can we judge based on mental events if they don’t align with physical events? 

To get out of paradoxical situations, as presented in Spielberg’s film, Donaldson notices that autonomy (freedom, self-government) might or might not clash with determinism while the same couldn’t be said about anomaly (non-attachment to a law), which sounds like a perfect swap to help his analytical approach to the topic. So where does this all lead? In the case of Minority Report if we were having anomaly instead of autonomy it would mean that mental and physical events could be the same so it would fine to get arrested for something we haven’t done yet. One would have the opportunity to act not attached to the law, but for those actions, there would always be determined consequences.

“Generalize human actions to mental events, substitute anomaly for freedom, and this is a description of my problem.”: says Donaldson in opening lines of his text. Furthermore, he formulates this into three principles:

1. Mental and physical events can causally interact.

2. All causal relations are governed by natural laws.

3. No natural laws are connecting physical and mental phenomena.

As all three of these principles appear to be true, he continues his essay trying to abolish contradictions upon them.

Part One: „Identity theory“ of the mental and the physical

The following lines are introduced to a reader in the opening of part „I“ of Davidsons’ essay: „The three principles will be shown consistent with one another by describing a view of the mental and the physical that contains no inner contradiction and that entails the three principles. According to this view, mental events are identical with physical events.“. 

But what does it mean to say that an event is mental/physical? For Davidson event is mental if and only if it has a mental description, or (the description operator not being primitive) if there is a mental open sentence true of that event alone. Physical events are those picked out by descriptions or open sentences that contain only the physical vocabulary essentially. But truth to be told in reality things are way more complex than that. There is a full spectre of possibilities for one event to make it more/less physical/mental.

That is why he wants to present and argue for a version of identity theory that is against the strict laws of connecting mental and physical. Further on he describes that the ground for accepting theory like this is the correlation of laws by which events described as mental and events described as physical can be linked. To simplify Davidson’s description I will present it here with a table:


Mental events are identical with physical events Mental events are different from physical events
Asserting the existence of psychophysical laws nomological monism anomalous


Denying the existence of psychophysical laws nomological dualism anomalous



Finally, Davidson describes anomalous monism with a claim that all events are physical but mental phenomena can’t be given purely physical explanations. To simply put it in terms of Minority Report example: The “Pre-Crime” squad does a splendid job because they are preventing someone dying physically, while “Pre-Cogs” predictions paradoxically can’t purely be given physical explanations.

Part Two: Arguments against strict psychophysical laws

In part „II “of his essay, Davidson proposes that if anomalous monism is true, he would be able to single out every mental event as a physical concept. Besides this, he supposes that there is a finite number of mental predicates so he assumes that there may exist a physical open sentence that is coextensive with each mental predicate. As he proceeds, he states that mental is nomological irreducible, as he puts it: there may be true general statements relating the mental and the physical, statements that have the logical form of a law; but they are not lawlike (in a strong sense to be described).

In simple terms, he is trying to say that mental that is relating to or expressing basic physical laws or rules of reasoning that can’t be reduced. We might be able to form statements about mental that are formed (logically) as a law, but we should not fall onto this semantic trickery.

So how did he come to this point? Davidson tells us that if we would find an open sentence coined in behavioural terms that we would be able to the extent some mental predicate. Then he claims: We know too much about thought and behaviour to trust exact and universal statements linking them. Beliefs and desires issue in behaviour only as modified and mediated by further beliefs and desires, attitudes and attendings, without limit. Clearly, this holism of the mental realm is a clue both to the autonomy and to the anomalous character of the mental.

So how does he bypass the issued problem? He simply doesn’t he gives a centre stage by appeal to explicit speech behaviour, thinking that we could not begin to decode a man’s sayings without knowing its attitudes towards sentences. So, he is going back to attitudes…

This brings him to a conclusion that: It is a feature of physical reality that physical change can be explained by laws that connect it with other changes and conditions physically described. It is a feature of the mental that the attribution of mental phenomena must be responsible for the background of reasons, beliefs, and intentions of the individual. There cannot be tight connections between the realms if each is to retain allegiance to its proper source of evidence; opportunistic tempering of theory;

Finally, Davidson concludes that nomological slack between the mental and the physical is essential only as long as we are conceiving man as a rational animal. Putting this in context of philosophy and other sciences he was surrounded with while working on this essay, it seems rather a lazy move from him to give others „homework “while he simply skims across many uncertainties. 

As Davidson spends the majority of this part focusing on a linguistic level of the problem, going back to our example of Spielberg’s Minority Report we would be able to draw a line with the source idea of the film. The futuristic society where the film is set accepted as a law, that mental projections of Pre-Cogs will be precise and efficient in fighting crime. By Davidson, they made the biggest possible mistake because even thou that the predictions are working, what they are getting is not a rule, a law, a logical set, but rather just a minds lawlike mimic of physical laws. As stated in the synopsis of a film, the protagonist is only one to question these lawlike entities, and even he is doing it because he just wants to save his skin. Why? Because he knows his behaviour and intentions, and they do not coincide with Pre-cog predictions of him committing a crime.

Part Three: Inference of truth on „identity theory“ 

Davidson sees as the biggest surprises in praxis might be finding the lawlessness of the mental serving that would be able to help establish the identity of the mental with that paradigm of the physical (lawlike).

His reasoning goes back to the three principles: We are assuming, under the Principle of the Causal Dependence of the Mental, that some mental events at least are causes or effects of physical events; the argument applies only to these. A second Principle (of the Nomological Character of Causality) says that each true singular causal statement is backed by a strict law connecting events of kinds to which events mentioned as cause and effect belong. Principle of the Anomalism of the Mental: there are no strict laws at all on the basis of which we can predict and explain mental phenomena.

With this being formed the demonstration of identity can easily be formed. If we suppose that m (a mental event), has caused p,(a physical event), then, m and p instantiate a strict law. Of course, this law can only be physical, if you ask Davidson, so if m falls under a physical law, it needs to have a physical description so it is a physical event. 

Eg. I have seen Minority Report film and recognized connections to the topic of this essay. Me seeing and recognizing connections between the film and this topic are instances of perception. Those are the things that are happening in my mind. That instance of perception is a mental event. It is an event because it is something that happens, and it is mental because it happens in my mind, therefore this is a physical event.

By putting this logical structure, Davidson comes to a point where he claims that even if someone knew the entire physical history of the world and every mental event were identical with a physical, it would not follow that he could predict or explain a single mental event (so described, of course). Eg. the future can’t get predicted because it did not happen physically yet, even if we could theorise that it might be assumed mentally.

With putting this down, Davidson adds that there are two features of mental events in their relation to the physical, and those are causal dependence and nomological independence combined. Avare of the fallacy he continues by saying to dissolve what has often seemed a paradox, the efficacy of thought and purpose in the material world, and their freedom from the law. To sum it all up, the anomalism of the mental is a necessary condition for viewing action as autonomous.


After presenting Davidsons’ thoughts it is easy to see that if his anomalous monism is correct, then we would need to accept that the nature of reality is materialist and there is no need for adding mental (non-physical) entities to our worldview. Even though it would be interesting to accept and satisfy ourselves with this theory we must admit that author uses simple analytical equations and basic logic tricks to stretch its thought (underlined text in this seminar paper) without trull exploring how mental phenomena can cause or be caused by non-mental physical phenomena. 

To put it in simple terms, it sounds rather irresponsible from what is presented to accept a viewpoint that humans are simply the sum of electric charges in the brain followed by neurochemical processes of their bodies. On the other hand, we might reasonably accept anomalous monism when talking about artificial intelligence, because in this case, we would be the ones who are putting these implications to a sentient being.