Thursday, February 14, 2008

Mind-Body Causation as Primitive

This is a completely off the cuff post--so be it. A long while ago I read an essay by Daniel Garber entitled, I think, something like 'What Descartes should have Told Elizabeth' (in any case, the essay is in his book, Descartes Embodied). Princess Elizabeth was apparently unhappy (following general trends) with Descartes' account of mind-body causation. If my memory serves me, Garber would encourage Descartes to reply that mind-body causation is primitively true, a clear and distinct idea in fact. Garber's purpose is to correct those who, ever since Descartes, claim that mind-body causation is an insuperable problem for his system, one that Descartes ignores, and one for which he has no good answer. By Garber's lights, none of this is true--he does recognize the problem, he does propose a solution, and it's a good one.

Now, before it's dismissed as a cop-out, I want to say that I sort of agree with Descartes, if indeed this is his answer. On a certain level, denying mind-body causation is self-defeating: it is just obvious that I do certain things with my body consonant with and often directly resulting from flows and deliberations in my mind. It is also obviously true that many if not most of the contents of my mind come to me in some way from a world outside and independent of me. It's of no use to deny this, and probably of little use to demand an explanation. What we ought to seek instead is clarification. Descartes is not alone in this. Rousseau makes much the same argument about human freedom, and in a more recent context, so does Chisholm (see Chisholm, "Human Freedom and the Self").

On the other hand, I don't deny that there are methodological issues that confront Descartes if he does indeed favor this solution--even if they aren't the ones we are more familiar with from the tradition. Specifically, it begs questions about clear and distinct ideas, and their adequacey as an index of truth. A clear and distinct idea is, I take it, just an judgment that I can't imagine being otherwise and can't imagine being false. For example, I have a clear and distinct idea (or more precisely, judgment) that the interior angles of a triangle equal two right angles. This thought is clear and distinct in that I cannot imagine them equaling any thing else, and I cannot imagine this judgment itself being false. Now, whatever the intuition is that makes mind-body causation obvious, I don't think it's that: the idea may force itself upon me, it may appear incontrovertible, but it's certainly not clear and distinct. For one thing, I can say why the interior angles of a triangle equal two right angles. If need be, I could demonstrate it. Not only can I not do the same thing when it comes to mind-body causation, I can't even begin to understand how such a demonstration might proceed. And this is not just because I don't know enough, for by the 6th Meditation, we are presumably apodictically certain that the mind and body are distinct substances. Of this truth we are absolutely certain.

We seemed forced to conclude then that there are brute facts--mind-body causation--that we must nonetheless incontrovertibly and indubitably accept. Presumably, such even enjoy the ratification of God. This is different than our knowledge of mental and physical substances. I do not accept as a brute fact that physical substance is extended, and thereby definitely denumerable and infinitely divisible, for here I grasp the essence of physical extension. I understand it through and through. The brute-fact of mind-body causation is quite different than this sort of insight into essence.

I don't have any obvious or interesting conclusion to these reflections, except perhaps one: what makes the mind-body problem so intractable is its articulation within a framework of causality. Ryle warned us against this type of confusion, and Chisholm helped to clarify what we really mean. So for starters, we might recognize that while mind-body 'interaction' (whatever that is) is primitively guaranteed, mind-body causation is not.

I might add one further coda: there seems to be interest, especially as of late, to decouple our notion of moral responsibility and even agency from the framework of causality: to be a moral agent or to be responsible for your actions need not (or in fact cannot) entail that one is causally responsible for that action or its results. I've no beef with this approach, but it doesn't get to what Descartes is suggesting. For while we might have to find a suitable substitute for the notion of 'cause,' it is nonetheless primitively true or obvious that I make certain things happen in the world, and that I do so by means of my mind. It might be wrong to conceptualize this 'making happen' in terms of cause, but it is for all that a force or power that I am evidently and certainly aware of.

1 comment:

  1. Consider that a triangle's internal angles can add up to 3 right angles. If you stand on the equator and go directly to the north pole, then turn 90 degrees and head back to the equator and turn 90 degrees again you will complete the triangle. It is as easy as the notion from mind proceeds everything.