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Chapter 2
Definitions of Terms and of Regulative Principles

In this chapter, I formulate the parameters that guide the following discussion, specifically the definitions of several ambiguous terms and the regulative principles that define a satisfactory theory of the power of thought.

I. Definitions of Terms

This discussion deals with general philosophical terms only. In the chapter on Whiteheadian Process Philosophy, I deal extensively with problems in terminology, but that discussion covers problems unique to the process model. The terms are defined as they would apply in Parts I and II of this essay. Some of these definitions are significantly narrowed by implication in Part III, where I take a more definite philosophical stand on the issues. However, for purposes of Parts I and II, the following definitions apply:


Thought is any mental activity, as ordinary language uses the term "mental." It includes things such as fantasies, beliefs, ideas, concepts, intentions, volitions, decisions, hallucinations, and ratiocinations. For Parts I and II of this essay, I leave aside the issue of whether thought is accompanied by, caused by, or identical to any corresponding brain activity. On the other hand, I do exclude things that necessarily involve other bodily activities, such as bodily positions, movements, and even sensations. Initially, I leave the ultimate nature of what constitutes thought open. It could be "mental" activity in the Cartesian sense, i.e., an activity of a completely immaterial substance, or it could be no more than the way in which our brain and other bodily states are experienced, as materialists and epiphenomenalists would claim. Under this definition, even materialists can say that we have thoughts, although they would also say that only the corresponding brain states have causal efficacy.

I have chosen to begin with this broad definition for three reasons. The first is that I would like to avoid committing myself, simply by definition, to any particular position on the mind-body problem, such as dualism, materialism, or some version of idealism. I especially want to avoid committing myself to some form of Cartesian dualist interactionism. (I intend to argue, in fact, that the unstated presupposition of Cartesian dualism is what has made mental healing seem so strange in the first place.) The second reason is that if I defined "thought" in a way that presupposes a particular position, then later chose to argue for that position, I would run the risk of circularity. However, I do indeed address the mind-body problem, it being the central philosophical issue in this essay.

The third reason for adopting a broad definition of thought is to mitigate some of the opposition to mental healing in health care, especially the opposition to examining the data on the grounds that mental healing is "unscientific." Materialists may argue that the evidence for mental healing is irrelevant, because we are trying to prove the existence of something known to be impossible, namely mental causation. However, this would only be true if mental healing entailed causation by an immaterial substance. Although I am no materialist, I share the materialists' objections to Cartesian dualist interactionism. By defining "thought" broadly, I am deliberately entertaining the possibility that mental healing may really be just a manifestation of brain and other central nervous system activity, a phenomenon that should be palatable even for materialists. It is probably a vain hope, but I would like to encourage even materialists to examine the evidence for mental healing and mental healing techniques, especially those who are involved in health care and can significantly help or hinder the incorporation of psychosomatic therapy into modern medicine. My motives in making this move may be political, as well as philosophical, but I believe the move to be well worth making and consistent with my arguments.


For purposes of this essay, the term "to believe" means to hold a proposition, which can be expressed by a sentence, as true or false. Such propositions can be universal or particular, positive or negative. For example, a positive universal proposition would be "All crows are black." "A crow is white" and "Some crows are white" are positive particular propositions. A negative universal proposition would be "No crows are white." Negative particular propositions are illustrated by: "Some crows are not black" and "This crow is not black." For purposes of this discussion, beliefs can include value judgments -- even though this kind of proposition may actually say more about the person uttering the statement than about the logical subject. For example, the proposition "California wines are tasty" appears to speak about the qualities inherent in the wine, but my belief in this proposition may in fact say more about my preferences in wine than it does about the characteristics of the wine itself. I make this distinction because some of the kinds of beliefs that deal with the quality of our lives express propositions of this sort. In this essay, we will be looking at the capacity of beliefs in propositions such as "The universe is friendly" to become self-fulfilling prophesies.


For our purposes, faith constitutes more than belief, in that it also entails an element of decision and commitment. To believe in a proposition is to accept it as true intellectually. To have faith in a proposition is to be willing to act on the presumption of its truth. The strength of faith may or may not correlate with the certainty of a belief. I may, for example, be quite convinced that flying on the airlines is safe. However, I may also, based on a peculiar phobia with respect to flying, refuse to fly. Or, suppose that I am playing a hand of stud poker and holding three aces, while the person across the table from me is showing a hand of four clubs. The odds say that his hold card is of a suit other than clubs, and therefore that he does not have the flush that beats my three-of-a-kind. However, if he throws a $1,000 bet on the table, his bet suggests otherwise. In this case, I may be very uncertain if he has the flush, but if I call his bet, I am certainly acting on faith that he does not. Of course, faith and belief usually go together. For example, I have talked with people who have done the fire walk, in which they walked barefoot on red-hot coals for a distance of 20 feet or more. All of them have told me that, by the time they actually did the walk, they thoroughly believed that the hot coals would not burn them and felt safe from harm. But there are other times when we have to act on faith with very little sense of certainty, such as in the poker game described above. Of course, one could argue, along with the pragmatists, that any professed beliefs upon which we are not willing to act are insincerely held. My refusal to fly would therefore belie my claim to believe flying is safe. What I really believe may be limited to what I presuppose in practice. For now, I will leave this issue unresolved, allowing for at least the possibility of intellectually believing in some propositions without also having the faith needed to act on them.


Defining matter is not easy. The definition I learned from high school physics class was "anything that has mass and occupies space." Even back then I found the definition less than satisfying. For one thing, there were entities like photons that did not fit neatly into this definition, but which could hardly be called immaterial. Also, it was known that matter can be converted into energy and vice versa. Finally, it turned out that matter itself consists of energy. However, energy does not always have mass, nor does it always occupy space. I was left with the rather unsettling conclusion that matter was by definition ultimately not really material!

I must confess that, in the intervening years, I am still unclear on this issue, and I certainly do not intend to provide a definitive solution to the problem here. For purposes of this essay, especially in Parts I and II, I will stick with the commonsense, high-school-physics definition presented above, with the acknowledgment that the definition ultimately breaks down when one gets really technical.

Two philosophical technicalities, however, need to be addressed: We are not necessarily defining matter in the Berkeleyan sense, as something that exists independently of all perception of it (in which sense Berkeley denied its existence). For purposes of the first two parts this essay, it may or may not exist independently of our perceptions. Secondly, I am not defining matter as something that is necessarily devoid of all experience, as something that can only be "in itself" and never "for itself." I am, therefore, leaving the door open to the view that, if matter does exist independently of perception of it, this may be because it has a kind of perceptual experience in its own right. In Berkeley's terms, if the essence of what we call matter is not simply percipi (to be perceived), this may be because its essential nature is percepere (to perceive). Such a position might still be called a form of "physicalism" or "materialism" insofar as the inherited sense of the "material" or the "physical" can be modified in this fashion. I discuss this possibility in Part III.


For our purposes, I will define a "mind" as any enduring entity that has the capacity to have experience. By this definition, all animals -- including insects, snails, and possibly even protozoa -- have minds, albeit in some cases primitive ones. Plants too may possess minds. However, by our definition minds endure through time. What is called the "mental pole" of a single "occasion" of experience in Whiteheadian philosophy is, accordingly, not a mind by our definition. For the purposes of Parts I and II, I am also setting aside the issue of whether the mind is ultimately identical to the brain. As in the definition of "thought" above, I intend to postpone discussion of this issue until we address the mind-body problem in Part III.

Idealism and Realism

The idealism-realism debate arises from the Cartesian paradigm of mind and matter as two substances that are self-existent but can causally affect one another. Idealists argue that Descartes was right with respect only to minds or Mind. Matter may or may not exist, but its existence depends totally on the existence of a mind to experience it. For purposes of this essay, "idealism" is the claim that fully conscious mind is the only kind of self-existent thing, with everything else being creations of some mind. "Realism" is simply the denial of this claim. Realism holds that there are some entities that can exist independently of a mind's perception of them. Such entities, be they lifeless matter, or mental-physical entities like Leibnizian monads or Whiteheadian occasions, can exist without some other mind to perceive them. By this definition, idealism is the affirmative position and is more extreme. Its true counterparts among realist ontologies are epiphenomenalism and materialism, which take the more extreme position that matter-energy is the only fully actual thing, reducing the mind's status to that of a mere effect or property of matter, or else an outright illusion.

Objectivism and Subjectivism

Our definition of objectivism and subjectivism at this stage is preliminary, because it can actually carry several different meanings in a discussion of the mind-body problem. However, for purposes of this essay, the terms "objectivism" and "subjectivism" will have the following meaning, unless otherwise specified. In an objectivist world, insofar as two experiencing subjects experience the same thing, they do so at least partly on account of the nature of the thing experienced, not just on account of the similarity between the experiencing subjects. In a subjectivist world, the similarities of their experiences are wholly due to the fact that their natures are similar. By this definition, subjectivists would usually lean towards idealism; objectivists, toward realism.

Psychosomatic Healing

Psychosomatic healing is defined as the healing of one's own body by means of one's own thoughts, beliefs, or other mental states or activities.

Psychokinetic Healing

Psychokinetic healing is defined as the healing of a person by means of the thoughts, beliefs, or other mental states or activities of another person.

II. Regulative Principles

By "regulative principles" I mean the guidelines by which one evaluates a theory, i.e., the criteria by which one defines a theory as satisfactory or unsatisfactory. Griffin defines these principles as follows:

All discussions of the mind-body relation presuppose various regulative principles. Some of these are formal, such as, that a theory should be self-consistent. Others are substantive, such as the principle that a theory should be compatible with the evolutionary origin of human beings. Regulative principles, by specifying the conditions to which any theory must conform to be potentially acceptable by the author or community in question, indicate the range of theories that can be eliminated a priori.(9)

The danger in using regulative principles, especially those of the substantive type, is implicitly presupposing the thesis one is trying to prove in the very act of applying the regulative principle itself, which renders one's argument circular. However, without using at least some regulative principles, there is no way to distinguish acceptable theories from unacceptable ones. Accordingly, I have attempted to keep them to a minimum here. The regulative principles I use to define an acceptable philosophical theory of psychosomatic healing are as follows:

Adequacy of Explanation

This essay is intended to provide a philosophical explanation of psychosomatic healing -- both its successes and its failures. Both Christian Science and New Thought have formulated theories of how mental healing can occur, but neither offers what I consider an adequate explanation of its apparent limitations. Materialists, on the other hand, can tell us why it fails (it is said to be impossible), but not why it sometimes works. A satisfactory theory should explain both the successes and the failures.

I also address the religious implications of the theory. Is it God, or the mere belief in God, that actually heals? Knowing what I do about the placebo effect, I am careful not to underestimate its power. However, although I intend to put forth a naturalist theory of psychosomatic healing, I do not intend to reduce God's role to that of a placebo. I am merely ruling out Divine intervention in the form of suspending the laws of nature or otherwise interrupting the normal causal processes in the world. Psychosomatic healing, as I conceive it, still involves Divine activity, but God is working in and through nature, not contrary to it. This position seems more adequate to both the facts and the implications for religious faith in healing. Indeed, given the fact that prayer for healing does not always result in healing, I hold that my position provides a better basis for sustaining faith than the view that God interrupts or overrides nature.


Another criterion is that the theory should be rational, i.e., it should be both self-consistent and compatible with the evidence. Internally inconsistent theories and those that do not square with the evidence must be rejected. This does not mean, however, that the theory will always dictate that one should always be rational. For example, an acute coronary patient may have a better chance of recovery by denying the gravity of the situation or even the heart attack itself. In this case, intellectual integrity can be unhealthy. A theory that says it may be healthier, at times, to be irrational is not necessarily an irrational theory.

"Hard-core" Common Sense

A concept borrowed from David Ray Griffin is the regulative principle of "hard-core" common sense, which says that certain commonsense beliefs, such as the existence of a real world beyond ourselves and consciousness, should hold the epistemological status of indubitable facts in determining issues of adequacy and rationality. Drawing on arguments made by Thomas Reid, and more recently by Whitehead, Griffin says that we must presuppose these beliefs in practice even if we deny them in theory. Therefore, whenever a theory denies these beliefs, either directly or by implication, then we must reject it as irrational. Insofar as it fails to explain relevant hard-core commonsense beliefs, it is inadequate.

Common sense has been a much-abused term in philosophy. There was a time, for example, when common sense dictated that the earth was flat, as well as a time when going to the moon was the paradigm of impossibility. Griffin refers to these notions as "soft-core" common sense. Soft-core commonsense beliefs can be widely held, or even widely presupposed in practice. However, we need not necessarily presuppose them in order to function as human beings. This is the critical difference, according to Griffin, between hard-core and soft-core commonsense beliefs. For example, we presuppose the existence of consciousness whenever we attempt to engage in an intelligent conversation. We presuppose the existence of real objects whenever we pick one up. Hard-core commonsense beliefs can therefore be denied only in hypocrisy or in self-contradiction.(10)

We must be careful in applying the hard-core commonsense regulative principle, because it is easy to confuse a hard-core commonsense belief with a particular interpretation or understanding of it. For example, we treat living things differently from non-living ones, self-moving creatures differently from those that cannot move, and most of us treat humans differently from other forms of life. The existence of mentality at various levels would be a hard-core commonsense belief. However, making these distinctions does not necessarily commit us to believing in a world with ghosts in machines. Cartesian dualism is but one particular interpretation or understanding of relating mentality to the body. It is also possible to formulate other theories explaining the differences between the living and non-living, the self-moving and the non-self-moving, and the human from the animal. What hard-core common sense tells us is that we can expect living things to behave differently from non-living ones and humans to behave differently from animals.

Ockham's Razor (Parsimony)

Whenever two theories are equally acceptable according to other criteria, I follow the principle of Ockham's razor and argue for the simpler of the two. Unfortunately, what is "simpler" can depend a great deal on one's perspective. For example, idealism offers a very "simple" explanation of the power of thought: What we call reality is simply what we dream up and believe. It sounds simple enough, but when one takes into account the problem of how two dreamers in the same room have shared experiences of the room, idealism quickly becomes quite complex. For purposes of this essay, I adopt a general bias against ideas that are unnecessarily complex. However, complexity is sometimes necessary to satisfy other criteria, such rationality or adequacy. Each application of Ockham's razor will, accordingly, need to be discussed individually.

Scientific Bias

Like Ockham's razor, this criterion is applied when choosing the better of two or more alternatives. By "scientific bias," I mean that I prefer theories that fit with other known, empirically-verified explanations of similar phenomena over those that do not. In other words, if I can explain something in terms of chemistry, biology, and physics, I will prefer that explanation over one that involves evil spirits or even benevolent ones.

Ease of Applicability

Finally, I would prefer to develop a theory that ordinary people, who have not been to graduate school in philosophy or theology, can understand well enough to apply in their daily lives. Faith healers themselves are more often than not intellectually unsophisticated. Moreover, I have a personal bias towards pragmatism and prefer theories that work. Note that this does not mean that I expect everybody to follow the logic of how I derive or defend my views. Nevertheless, I would prefer to put forth a theory that is relatively easy to apply, even if its underlying rationale is complex. After all, technically unsophisticated people learn to drive cars and operate personal computers -- without understanding any of the inner workings of either.

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Notes on Chapter 2

9 Griffin, Unsnarling the World-Knot, 22. Return to Text

10 Griffin, Unsnarling the World-Knot, 15-21. Return to Text