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Anomalous Monism in a Digital Universe


Bermúdez (Philosophy of psychology: a contemporary introduction, Routledge, London, 2005) identifies the “Interface Problem” as the central problem in the philosophy of psychology: how commonsensical psychological explanations can be integrated with lower-level (cognitive, biological, etc.) explanations? In particular, since folk psychology is meant to provide causal explanations on a par with, say, neurobiological explanations, the question of how to understand the relation between the two layers arises naturally. Donald Davidson claimed that the interface problem is actually ill-posed and put forward his version of the “Autonomy Picture”, the view known as anomalous monism. This work reviews Davidson’s proposal in the light of digital universes: we model the key claims of the theory using cellular automata and show that Davidson’s original version of the Autonomy Picture (which differs, in some respects, from what is discussed by Bermúdez) is immune to two arguments against autonomy.

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  1. Bermúdez discusses at length also Dan Dennett’s position, especially as presented in Dennett (1991). In this work we shall focus on the version of AP developed by Davidson, even if some of Dennett’s remarks will turn out to be useful in later sections.

  2. Thanks to an anonymous referee for bringing to my attention this important “switch” between the two levels.

  3. Thanks to an anonymous referee for highlighting the importance of the differences between the “original” and the “modern” version of the autonomy picture.

  4. The following section is a general introduction to CA qua digital universes—anyone familiar with the topic may safely skip through these introductory sections to read the main features of the chosen universe. For a philosophically oriented introduction to CA, see Berto and Tagliabue (2012); the interested reader may wish to consult Mainzer and Chua (2012) for a brief survey of the research field.

  5. As a small illustration of this fact, consider that the Life Wiki ( offers a downloadable package of more than 3,000 of different patterns (last update, August 2013).

  6. As already noted, there are rules to predict the existence of gliders at t given the cell-by-cell matrix at t: therefore, Life supports strict vertical laws of the form ‘if cells are in such-and-such states at time t, a glider exists at time t’ and ‘if a glider exists at time t, cells are in such-and-such states at time t’. We shall see in later sections an example of CA where even vertical laws fail to be strict in Davidson’s sense.


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The author wish to thank Francesco Berto, Edoardo Datteri, Guglielmo Feis, Luca Gasparri, and two anonymous referees for helpful comments on earlier versions of this draft.

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Correspondence to Jacopo Tagliabue.

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Tagliabue, J. Anomalous Monism in a Digital Universe. Minds & Machines 24, 377–388 (2014).

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  • Cellular automata
  • Anomalous monism
  • Interface problem
  • Philosophy of psychology