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Overdetermination Underdetermined

An Erratum to this article was published on 18 August 2015


Widespread causal overdetermination is often levied as an objection to nonreductive theories of minds and objects. In response, nonreductive metaphysicians have argued that the type of overdetermination generated by their theories is different from the sorts of coincidental cases involving multiple rock-throwers, and thus not problematic. This paper pushes back. I argue that attention to differences between types of overdetermination discharges very few explanatory burdens, and that overdetermination is a bigger problem for the nonreductive metaphysician than previously thought.

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  1. Most prominently in Kim (1993, 2005).

  2. In Merricks (2001).

  3. Deniers include Yablo (1992) and Thomasson (2007) and arguably Bennett (2003, 2008).

  4. Overdetermination accepters include Loewer (2007), Pereboom (2002), Schaffer (2003) and Sider (2003).

  5. An astute referee points out that joint causes are not necessary to bring about their effects in cases involving indeterministic causation. For the purposes of this discussion, I will be assuming determinism.

  6. Sider (2003) also notes this confusion.

  7. A more precise formulation holds that there is overdetermination when c1 and c2 are distinct, they occur, are not part of the same causal process, and are each sufficient to cause e in the way that it occurs. Thus two causes in the same causal process at different times, e.g., the big bang and a rock-throw later in time, do not overdetermine an effect. For my purposes, the more precise formulation won’t be necessary.

  8. Funkhouser (2002) and Stoljar (2007) sort overdetermination mainly on the distinctness axis. Here I sort overdetermination on four axes of difference.

  9. Thomasson (2007) uses analytic distinctness to argue against systematic overdetermination for ordinary objects.

  10. For the present purposes, I will set aside views that hold that composition is identity.

  11. For example, Yablo (1992), Shoemaker (2003, 2007) and Paul (2007).

  12. For example, Bennett (2003) and Sider (2003).

  13. The use of “occur” here is admittedly awkward, and stands in for deeper questions regarding the existence of objects versus the occurrence of events, and whether there is an object/event distinction. Here I will set these issues aside.

  14. There is a well-known problem of overdetermined effects being left entirely without causes on the counterfactual view. The counterfactual “If c1 hadn’t occurred, e wouldn’t have occurred” is false because c2 would have caused e. “If c2 hadn’t occurred, e wouldn’t have occurred” is also false, since c1 would have brought about the effect. Here I am setting aside this problem so as not to take a stand on the truth or falsity of the counterfactual account of causation.

  15. So termed in Paul (2007).

  16. See Davidson (1980).

  17. Whether Davidson’s anomalous monism is committed to epiphenomenalism is a matter of some controversy. Here I assume that the view does not imply efficacy of the mental qua mental.

  18. However, I take my suggestions to generalize to nonreductive theories of ordinary objects as well.

  19. For example, Pereboom (2002) and Paul (2007).

  20. For example, Shoemaker (2007) and Wilson (2010).

  21. Yablo (1992), most prominently.

  22. There is a large literature on causal powers and causal efficacy that I will not address here. I take causal potential and causal follow-through to encompass causal powers.

  23. Some hold that there is a middle ground here that doesn’t violate causal closure of the physical. Yablo’s (1992) proportionality strategy holds that every event is “causally determined” by a physical event, but that only the mental cause is efficacious. I agree that this strategy fully respects causal closure of the physical, but do not think that it provides a causally satisfying picture of mental causation (see Sect. 2.3).

  24. For other sorts of ontologists, this lesson generalizes. One who holds that macro-level objects have causal efficacy in addition to their micro-level realizers has a de facto commitment to causal redundancy.

  25. See Sider (2003), Schaffer (2003) and Bennett (2003, 2008) for discussions of these burdens.

  26. Indeed, Merricks (2001) uses widespread overdetermination as an argument for mereological nihilism. Willard (2014) argues that there is no good reason to seek simplicity in metaphysical theories.

  27. The substance dualist does not have such problems. For she can just admit that causal properties of the mental are fully independent, and accordingly draw a picture upon which the mental and physical properties are additive. According to this picture, mental causation is like Two Rocks: double the causes, double the forces, double the impact. Dualism and nonreductive physicalism share the same commitment to redundancy, but dualism can give a causally satisfying picture of this redundancy whereas nonreductive physicalism cannot.

  28. Subset strategists include Shoemaker (2003), (2007) and arguably Yablo (1992).

  29. This objection depends on a particular reading of the subset strategy. In contrast to my reading, Hoffman (2007) holds that the subset strategy does bestow causal powers twice over. He calls this the “piling problem”.

  30. See Ney (2007) for a detailed argument that an appeal to the constitution relation does not solve the exclusion problem.

  31. Constitution strategists include Pereboom (2002) and Paul (2007).

  32. For a longer discussion of additivity, see Paul (2007).

  33. Of a similar thought experiment based on a meddling, Malebranchian god, Bennett (2003) also argues that the meddling god case is unlike the mental/physical case.

  34. (Modal Distinctness OD) isn’t exactly equivalent to the conjunction of (O1) and (O2), for the former is expressed in terms of causal sufficiency while the latter are formulated in terms of counterfactuals, and there can be counterfactual dependence without sufficiency.

  35. Assume that the twins are modally separable, which is to say, one can occur without the other.

  36. Note that one need not be able to make sense of impossible worlds per se to agree with the idea that those are the informative worlds with respect to the contribution of the mental.

  37. See Brogaard and Salerno (2013) for another argument defending the non-vacuity of counterpossibles.

  38. See Nolan (1997) for an argument that impossible worlds can have a similarity ordering like that of possible worlds.


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I owe many people thanks for feedback on this paper at its various stages. I am particularly grateful to Terence Horgan, Lewis Powell, L.A. Paul, Alex Rosenberg, and Daniel Silvermint for extensive feedback. I am also grateful to audiences at Australian National University, University of Missouri-St. Louis, University of Western Ontario, Duke University, Southern Methodist University, and the Eastern division meeting of the American Philosophical Association for helpful comments. Finally, I thank several anonymous referees.

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Bernstein, S. Overdetermination Underdetermined. Erkenn 81, 17–40 (2016).

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  • Causal Power
  • Mental Property
  • Mental Causation
  • Impossible World
  • Causal Contribution