concepts section: copyright Robert Ellis 2011


Supervenience is the term used in philosophy for the relationship between a higher and lower level of qualities in the world, that are understood by science in apparently incompatible ways. For example, the theories of biology are supervenient upon those of chemistry, as biology explains the workings and structure of living cells in ways that (it can be claimed) are not completely reducible to merely chemical analysis. A biological level of explanation takes life for granted in a way that a chemical explanation does not. Another tricky area of supervenience might be claimed to be the relationship of psychology to biology or brain science, which is in effect the mind-body problem. 'Do minds have qualities that cannot be wholly explained in material terms?' is a favourite question of the philosophy of mind, and this can be turned into a question of supervenience.

Supervenience debates are basically metaphysical debates, because they mark disagreements between dogmatic assumptions, rather than anything amenable to experience. The debates are always between reducibility (the claim that we can explain the higher level in terms of the lower without loss of meaning) and irreducibility (the view that an essential meaning is found at the higher level that cannot be reproduced at the lower one). These debates take for granted a representationalist view of meaning, whereby the language used represents objects in the world that can be claimed to be either complete or incomplete. In Middle Way philosophy this assumption is contested. If the meaning of language is understood as based on our physical bodies, and incorporating both cognitive and emotional elements, there is no question of language being completely representational of a state of affairs. It is hardly surprising if brain science fails to give us a complete representation of our experience of minds, because psychology also fails to do so (though in a different way) and any attempt to capture either our experience or an object itself with completeness is doomed to necessary failure.

In order to resolve the disagreements created by supervenience debates, then, we need to drop the absolute metaphysical assumptions, stop thinking in terms of either/or dualisms, and think incrementally about the qualities under discussion. For example, in the case of mind vs body, I suggest that the incremental qualities we need to think in terms of are situatedness, privacy, awareness and identification. Minds simply have more of these qualities that we can experience than bodies do. But we cannot justifiably talk about absolute situatedness, privacy, awareness or identification (or their absolute absence) because we do not, and could not, experience any such thing. For more discussion of this example see the philosophical problems introductory page. Supervenience problems are merely problems created by dualistic distinctions. The only justifiable aproach to them is a thoroughly agnostic view, avoiding the entrenched positions on either side, because the whole debate is only created by unnecessary assumptions.

Links to further discussion

The Middle Way in philosophical problems (from thesis - scroll down to section b)

Medical ethics (from 'A New Buddhist Ethics': an example of this approach applied to practical ethics)


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