Thursday, February 1, 2007

Some Good Philosophy Behind the Strange Doctrine of Occasionalism

I've long been persuaded that Spinoza has something very valuable to say about the mind/body problem, and on a good day I'm even able to talk about what that might be. I also have been coming to appreciate Leibniz, initially insofar as he seems to go beyond Spinoza on the metaphysics of modality (with his anticipation of "possible worlds"). But I have long regarded as mostly just bizarre Leibniz's doctrine of "parallelism," the view that the mental and the physical (and indeed all the myriad substances that he took to exist) were set in a kind of pre-established harmony, each one unfolding according to its own essence alone, with God alone as the real causal force explaining the whole state of affairs. Malebranche's "occasionalism" does not add much to Leibniz but it does make one point more clearly: Individual things have no causal force. Causality is a property of God alone.
Today I'm thinking that this 17th century philosophy has some very fine stuff to it, especially when we consider it in the context of philosophy of mind. The two metaphysical problems are causation in general and mental causation in particular. Does the (Spinoza-like) claim that God is the only cause really constitute a defensible position on causality? A standard response has been that to say that God is the "real" cause is vacuous, amounting to nothing more than the assertion that the causal relations are primitives (unanalyzable givens). However, taken as a general response to the problem of causality, this seems in fact to be very close to Hume's view that, other than the observable regular correlations themselves, there is nothing that can be observed to be a "causal power." "God made the world that way" is no more or less acceptable than "Nature is made that way."
Let's think about the metaphysics of mental causation. Parallelism suggests that we will not find a causal relationship between the mental and the physical, in either direction, because the mental and the physical are not in a causal relationship. Of course this is true if we deny a priori that the mental and the physical are metaphysically distinct (and like most philosophers and scientists in this area I doubt that they are metaphysically distinct). Strictly speaking it is a mistake to talk about a causal relationship between a thing and itself. But these 17th century rationalists were mind-body dualists, so they could, conceptually speaking, entertain the idea of causal relations between mental things and physical things. The idea here is that two correlated things could both be caused by a third thing, that thing being God in this literature. Compare this with Spinoza's view: Everything (God) has both a physical and a mental description. On the Leibnizian view, there is an underlying causality that explains both the mental and the physical state of affairs. Nor does this need to be treated as a gnostic religious mystery or anything other than the primitive that it is: when there is a perceptual experience of the color red, there is that qualitative experience, when there is damage to the body, there is this one.
I used to suggest to my students that simply mapping correlations between physical states and mental states was not adequate for naturalism about the mind because causal relations are not the same as (merely) correlative relations, and thus there is some unresolved conceptual difficulty for psychology, etc. Now I'm no longer sure about that. It may be that when these correlations are familiar enough and well-studied enough, the "conceptual" mystery will simply evaporate, like the old problem of the "life force" in biology. And that, I guess, is what I'm seeing in Leibniz and Malebranche: the world is made in such a way that the mental and the physical accompany each other. There is no hidden causality between them. That does not seem to be such a bizarre thing to say after all.

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