Physicalism and Mental Causation

ISBN 13: 9780907845478

Physicalism and Mental Causation

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9780907845478: Physicalism and Mental Causation

This book presents a range of essays on the conceptual foundations of physicalism, mental causation and human agency.

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About the Author:

Torin Alter is Associate Professor at the University of Alabama.
Sven Walter is Assistant Professor at the University of Bielefeld, Germany.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Preface With regard to the philosophy of mind, the twentieth century has been the century of physicalism. Being the claim that everything there is in the world – including human minds – is either itself a basic physical entity or else constituted by basic physical entities, physicalism was the white knight for those vexed by dualism’s notorious inability to allot to the mental a genuine, causally efficacious place in the physical world we live in. Despaired of the failed attempts by Descartes and his dualist followers, physicalists chose to accept a suggestion of Princess Elizabeth of Bohemia, who had remarked – in a letter she wrote to Descartes three and a half centuries ago – that "it would be easier for me to attribute matter and extension to the soul, than to attribute to an immaterial soul the capacity to move and be moved by a body." Having overcome Descartes’ bifurcated ontology of two substances – the res cogitans with ‘thinking’ or ‘consciousness’ as defining property, and! the res extensa with ‘extension’as defining property – the hallmark of today’s physicalism is not so much the attribution of matter and extension to a mental substance, but the contention that mental properties are either identical to or at least somehow realized, determined, or constituted by physical properties. If judged only by head-counting, physicalism was undoubtedly the un-contested champion of twentieth century philosophy of mind.

Yet, physicalism’s hegemony comes at a price. Among the most serious obstacles for physicalism has been the problem to account for a chasm we experience in our daily lives, a chasm reminiscent of classical dualism’s bifurcation between res extensa and res cogitans: on the one hand, we experience ourselves as autonomous agents with beliefs and desires that act the way they do because they have those beliefs and desires; on the other hand, we are, if physicalism is correct, no less part of the purely ‘mechanistic’ course of the physical world than any other physical system obeying the laws of nature, and thus in a certain sense mere ‘automata.’ How do these two pictures of reality fit together? How can they be merely different descriptions of one and the same reality?

Consequently, much of the philosophy of mind during the last decades has been dominated by questions such as: How can human minds, conceived as centers of autonomous volition and decision, be physical? How can mental properties be identical to or realized by physical properties? How can mental events bring about physical effects (especially if those effects already have sufficient physical causes)? How can physical accounts of human behavior leave room for purposeful or intentional explanations in terms of an agent’s reasons?

When discussing these issues, philosophers of mind, psychologists, and cognitive scientists tend to flaunt metaphysically loaded notions like ‘causation,’ ‘property,’ or ‘realization.’ Often, however, their understanding of these notions does not exceed the pretheoretical. Yet, it should be obvious that if we are to be philosophically honest in our attempts to explain, say, how mental properties can be realized by or identical to physical properties, we need to know what properties are, and what makes a property a physical property. And prior to any attempt of seriously theorizing about how mental events can bring about physical effects, we need to know what it means to say that an entity x causes another entity y. Therefore, before we defend physicalism by building philosophical theories about the place of the mind in the physical world (such as the ‘mind-brain identity-theory,’ the ‘functional-state-identity-theory’ etc.), we first have to lay the conceptual foundation and! get clear about the basic ontological concepts. Otherwise, we are building sophisticated castles in the air.

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