Thursday, March 08, 2007

On the causal efficacy of a lovers promise

Marcella Herdova gave a talk on mental causation last night. It opened my eyes to why I think the whole business is misguided. By “the whole business” I mean supervenience and token identity theories and the causal closure of physics. All these claims are metaphysical, which, call me old fashioned, is another word for nonsense. The causal closure of physics is not hard science, it is a belief in the same category as the omnipotence of God. England is a free country, so you can believe it if you like, but you can’t demonstrate it, or argue for it, because as it stands at the moment, hardly any physical events have a complete causal explanation, and many of those that don’t have an adequate mental causal explanation. However, this is never where the philosophy starts. The philosophy always starts with PC, the physical cause of PE. So there is no room for any doubt that there is such a thing. The causal closure of physics demands that there is so there must be. So I want to give a case where there is a physical effect and a mental cause such that there can be no physical cause.
Here it is. In seven years every cell in your body is replaced. In May 1st 1991 Jack promises his lover Jill that in seven years time he will return to her and knock the knocker on her threshold, the one shaped like the head of the lion. This promise he burns into his mind, in a metaphorical sense, since there is nothing that his mind is identical to that can be burned into, just like there nothing that a promise is identical to that can “burn in” to anything. Jack goes off on exile and has all sorts of adventures, including quite a bit of drinking and neuro-chemical abuse. Every cell in his brain is replaced. In seven years time, he keeps his promise and travels across the globe to return to his sweetheart. On may 1st 1998 he knocks the knocker on her threshold. It was his promise that caused this to happen, and his promise remained operative, functional, causally efficacious, even though every physical part of him changed. This is a token mental cause of a token physical effect to which there is no token physical event that it is identical. In other words, no physical theory, however complete, could describe any conditions in or around Jack at the time he made the promise that would count as the cause of his return and the knocking of the knocker. I lay down the gauntlet to any physicalist to say what the physical cause would be here that is identical to the promise. The only plausible thing I can think of is the entire state of the universe at the time of the promise, and even then, you’d would have to be a determinist to count this as a cause. The only metaphysical principle I am relying on here is that if A is identical with B, or supervenes on B, then A and B must be contemporaneous.

11 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don´t see the problem here. The immediate cause of Jack's knocking the knocker is his memory of the promise plus his current intention to do what he once promised. These are surely mental events that can be identified with some current physical event in Jack's brain.

6:10 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

just because you can't identify something at one level doesn't rule out the possibility that it can be identified at a different level.

This reminds me of Searle's criticisms of Penrose's arguments for the impossibility of AI, viz., that no algorithm or purely computational machine can encapsulate abstract meta-thought. Searle argues that you could ask the participant to sit in a machine [e.g an EEG or an MRI] & ask him [or her] to think of something, e.g. Jack's promise. You can identify the unique readings [dependent on the sophistication of the measuring apparatus] & identify them with Jack's thinking about his promise,etc.

So, what's the problem? we've put Jack's cognitive process into one-to-one correspondence with his mental processes...

Anyone...?

-------------
Anon.

6:44 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

In addition, it is probably simply false to say that every physical part of Jack changed. Assuming that Jack himself is a physical object, then his improper part (that is, he himself) did not change. Even disregarding improper parts, it is likely that his brain, a physical part of him if anything is, did not change. The brain he had when he made his promise is numerically identical to the brain he had when he fulfilled his promise, it's just that it has lost and gained parts in the interim.

6:45 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

just because every physical cell in Jack's body has been replaced, his memories were preserved. It is the memories [viz., of his promise] that were causally efficacious in causing him to travel across the globe to return to his sweetheart.

J.

6:54 PM  
Anonymous Anatole said...

Why has no one mentioned Davidson's Anomalous Monism w.r.t this debate? Kant mentioned this too.

Yes, mental causation operates in a seemingly different way, but the mental is the physical, so here's an alternative argument:

Jack loves Jill due to [physical] chemical processes in his mind: her presence triggers the released of dopamine and serotonin in his brain.

He wants to see her again, and therefore promises to visit her in seven years time.

It is a physical [neurological] state that causes him to love her and thus make the promise to see her again.

And besides, how can you know for certain that your mental states aren't caused by physical states? e.g. to take simple examples first: eating, sleeping, etc, all have physical [neurological] causes. In the case of sleep, the absence of light triggers the pineal gland to release melatonin, which then, through a chain of neurological events, results in a signal being sent to the RAS [Reticular Activating System], which is the part of the brain associated with consciousness, and causes you to fall asleep.

In the case of love, I've already mentioned the release of dopamine and serotonin in the brain. And certainly other complicated neurological states cause equally complicated psychological/mental states. The skeptical challenge i'm posing is this:

How can you know that your mental states [e.g. making a promise] aren't caused by a physical state? We don't have access to our physiological/neurological states in the same way we do with mental processes [viz., by introspection]. The neuroscientist can point to a region of the brain and say "see here! this is responsible for you feeling/thinking this!"

What can the philosopher say....?

7:37 PM  
Anonymous Mike said...

To Anatole: the problem isn't the idea that mental states are caused by physical states, it's the idea that mental states are (token) identical with physical states. One can deny the latter without denying that (say) feeling sleep is caused by certain neurological processes. Then a philosopher only takes issue with a neuroscientist if they say "see this pattern of brain activation?
It is token identical with being sleepy!" and I doubt a neuroscientist would say that. Besides, would anyone say that? Is it plausible to suppose that feeling sleepy or making a promise
could be the same as a pattern of neural firings? I would think not since that would mean there could be sleepiness and promises even if there were only brains with no bodies. But then if there were no bodies there could be no meaningful distinction between asleep and awake, and hence no concept of sleep, any more than there could be the concept of fulfilling a promise if there weren't people to talk to each other and do significant things(like knock on doors) at some point in the future.

Then to Jonny: I dont see why your example involves a denial of the causal closure of physics. In the case of the promise, the physical event of knocking on the door can be explained in physical terms, i.e. in terms of neural patterns, biomechanical movements,whatever. The physical action(i.e. knocking on the door) still has a physical cause. Of course this isn't a GOOD explanation of why the man knocks on the door, but all that shows is that explanations are interest-relative; there is an explanation of the action at the physical level and an explanation at the level of promises, i.e. at the mental (or social?) level.

2:12 AM  
Blogger Lee said...

The challenge to causal closure of physics, at least in its usual formulation, must operate at the level of causation, not at the level of explanation, and that, as I understand it, was the challenge offered by Johnny.

If I understand Johnny's case it is as follows. The mental state has persisted over the seven years since it caused the knocking but no physical part has persisted so the mental state cannot be identical to a physical part.

Once the question is phrased in this was we can immediately see what is wrong with the argument. The physicalist claim presumably is not that a mental state is identical to a physical object, a neuron say, but to some physical state. So for the argument to go through it would need to be argued that physical states cannot survive a change in the parts of the system/object or whatever that they are states of. This principle hasn't been argued for and seems false. Of corse you may think that there is something fishy with physicalist notions of realization but that's another story

If I may play David Lewis to your AJ Ayer: you claim that metaphysics is nonsense yet were not we discussing causation the other day? Of course you may claim that all you mean by causation is that certain patterns of counterfactual or statsitical dependence hold. Bt that was precisely the issue we both rejected - counterfactual dependence is a wider phenomena than causation.

Also in the current post you write that "The only metaphysical principle I am relying on here is that if A is identical with B, or supervenes on B, then A and B must be contemporaneous".

More metaphysics? You are a naughty boy!

8:09 AM  
Anonymous Jonny said...

Mike summed up my response to the previous comments, so thanks for that. I am happy to say that there is a physical cause for the knocking. Last minute adjustments of the dorsal stream guiding the hand to grip the knocker or what have you. My point is that this is narrow focus and there is no issue with over causation, so there is no causal identity argument. There is no reason to think that Jack's promise supervenes or is identical with these happenings in his brain that led up to and guided the movement of his arm. There is no threat to research projects involving brain scans and neurochemistry, and also there is no threat to our ordinary psychological talk of mental causation. No identity or supervenience necessary.
Lee's point is difficult. First off, when I say metaphysics is nonsense, all I mean to say that any metaphysical claim that is not self evident can be rejected and I can with equal justification say that metaphysics is nonsense. This is in itself a metaphysical claim. Causal closure of physics can be neither be confirmed nor falsified. This means you can be qually rational to accept or reject it. It can only be argued for in terms of the usefulness of accepting it. I don't think it useful to go around looking for the supervenience bases of promises, because you won't find them.
So the idea on the table is that a promise is a physical functional state that can survive the complete replacement of all its parts. It is this state that is identical with the promise.
This seems reasonable. My problem is that this state, if it is the promise, must be sensitive to the external world. Eg. if Jack received a letter saying that Jill was dead then the promise might be void. This input must be couched in mental terms because the disjunct in physical terms would be infinite. So the promise can be void iff jack has good enough reason to believe that Jill won't be there. Unless we have a naturalised epistemology, there is no way that this can be couched in physical terms.

9:11 AM  
Blogger David Papineau said...

Re Jonny's example, he seems to be assuming causal action at a temporal distance (directly from the past promise to the present deed). Such action at a distance is problematic independently of physicalism: surely we only expect the promise to lead to the deed via appropriate mental intermediaries--after all, won't the promise lose its power to cause the deed if the lover is banged on the head, or forgets, or simply changes his mind?

Re the general issue of the causal closure of the physical, can I invite those who are inclined to Jonny's view that this "is not hard science, it is a belief in the same category as the omnipotence of God" to read the Appendix to Thinking about Consciousness, where I look in detail at the way physical theories bear on the causal closure thesis? (Defending the causal closure thesis doesn't require us to produce a complete physical history for each physical effect--it's enough that we have good reason to suppose there is one. (There's surely good reason to suppose every human has a father, even though many of them can't be produced.))

2:12 PM  
Anonymous David Papineau said...

"Re Jonny's example, he seems to be assuming causal
action at a temporal
distance (directly from the past promise to the
present deed). Such action
at a distance is problematic independently of
physicalism: surely we only
expect the promise to lead to the deed via
appropriate mental
intermediaries--after all, won't the promise lose
its power to cause the
deed if the lover is banged on the head, or forgets,
or simply changes his
mind?



Re the general issue of the causal closure of the
physical, can I invite
those who are inclined to Jonny's view that this "is
not hard science, it is
a belief in the same category as the omnipotence of
God" to read the
Appendix to Thinking about Consciousness, where I
look in detail at the way
physical theories bear on the causal closure thesis?
(Defending the causal
closure thesis doesn't require us to produce a
complete physical history for
each physical effect--it's enough that we have good
reason to suppose there
is one. (There's surely good reason to suppose
every human has a father,
even though many of them can't be produced.))"

2:14 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

there is actually good reason to doubt that every human has a father...

4:10 PM  

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