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A causal argument for dualism

Abstract

Dualism holds (roughly) that some mental events are fundamental and non-physical. I develop a prima facie plausible causal argument for dualism. The argument has several significant implications. First, it constitutes a new way of arguing for dualism. Second, it provides dualists with a parity response to causal arguments for physicalism. Third, it transforms the dialectical role of epiphenomenalism. Fourth, it refutes the view that causal considerations prima facie support physicalism but not dualism. After developing the causal argument for dualism and drawing out these implications, I subject the argument to a battery of objections. Some prompt revisions to the argument. Others reveal limitations in scope. It falls out of the discussion that the causal argument for dualism is best used against physicalism as a keystone in a divide and conquer strategy.

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Notes

  1. Philosophers who can be read as proponents of the predominant view include Chalmers (2015: 252), Kim (2005) and Tye (2009: Sects. 2.2, 2.3); cf. Jackson (1982). I use ‘epistemic arguments’ broadly to encompass knowledge, conceivability, and explanatory gap arguments. I also use ‘prima facie’ broadly: both considerations that are on the surface and those that are available on initial reflection may provide prima facie support.

  2. Here’s the gist of the problem: a familiar route to dualism proceeds from the conceivability of zombies (i.e. unconscious physical duplicates of conscious creatures). Such conceivability reasoning can be iterated. On iteration, it implies that phenomenal states feature entities that belong to different families of fundamental non-physical phenomena. (Such families would at least include one for phenomenal qualities, one for awareness of qualities, and another for unity relations that hold between phenomenal states.) Thus, without justification for selectively applying conceivability reasoning, dualists must either relinquish it or accept the objectionable proliferation of families of fundamental non-physical states. Parallel problems arise for other forms of epistemic reasoning that dualists have enlisted (ibid: Sect. 4). Another strategy for challenging the predominant view tries to neutralize conceivability arguments for dualism by advancing conceivability arguments for physicalism [see Balog (ms), Brown (2010), Frankish (2007), Marton (1998) and Piccinini (2017)]. That strategy assumes that zombies and conscious creatures that are minimal physical duplicates of us are, in relevant respects, both conceivable. My challenge does not rely on that assumption. I regard this as an important advantage, as I find that assumption dubious.

  3. Intuitively, the perfectly natural events are those that are maximally deep joints in nature. I leave the notion at an intuitive level. But one option for unpacking the notion would be to adopt Lewis’s (1983) notion of perfect naturalness—which applies to properties (and relations)—and construe events as property instances that inherit whatever naturalness is enjoyed by the properties of which they are instances. See Sider (2011) for argument that there is a more general notion (which he calls ‘structure’) akin to Lewis’s notion of naturalness that applies to categories other than properties. See Dorr and Hawthorne (2013) for discussion of different criteria that might be taken to define the naturalness role.

    I aim to remain as neutral as possible on disputed questions concerning grounding. While I assume that grounding relates events, I leave open whether those who take grounding to hold only between propositions or sentences can find an acceptable translation of my arguments. For ease of exposition, I take grounding to be transitive. Those who take grounding to be non-transitive may replace my claims about grounding with claims about the ancestral of grounding (which is uncontroversially transitive). I leave open whether the specific relations to which I apply ‘grounding’ form a unitary family.

  4. While I run the causal argument for dualism at the level of events, it could also be run at the level of properties. I think that these arguments enjoy roughly the same degree of plausibility. But mere token physicalists—who identify mental events with physical events while identifying some instantiated mental types with non-physical types—might disagree, motivated by aspirations of running the causal argument for physicalism at the token level while resisting it at the type level. However, there are good reasons to think that token physicalism collapses into type physicalism or else into a non-physicalist position, i.e. that mere token physicalism is not a coherent position. For argument to that effect, see Kim (2012) and Schneider (2012).

  5. See Kim (2010b: Ch. 12) for argument that productive causation is the sort relevant to the mental causation debate. See Ney (2012: 247–248) for argument that physicalists cannot successfully run the standard causal argument for physicalism without using a productive notion of causation.

  6. Proponents of via negativa approaches to formulating physicalism include Goff (2017), Montero and Papineau (2005), Tiehen (2016) and Wilson (2006).

  7. Strictly speaking, this definition of dualism is compatible with the monist view according to which all events are fundamental and wholly mental. Those who find this compatibility unacceptable may understand dualism as claiming that only some events are physical. Given that some events are physical, my arguments could be run just as well with this alternative definition. For simplicity, I stick with the definition given in the main text.

  8. For arguments along these lines, see Kim (2010a: 214–217), Papineau (2002: Ch. 1) and Tye (2009: Sect 2.3).

  9. I do not endorse this Moorean line, as it is subject to complications. One complication: whereas Moorean facts about mental causation at best show that a substantial portion of mental events cause physical effects, Mental Efficacy requires all mental events to cause physical effects. The proponent of the causal argument for physicalism might try to eliminate this discrepancy by relaxing Mental Efficacy to claim that a substantial portion of mental events cause physical effects. But the resulting argument is invalid as an argument for physicalism: its premises are compatible with the dualist view [cf. Kim (2005)] that a substantial portion of mental events are physical causes of physical effects, while other mental events are non-physical epiphenomena. I am unsure whether further tweaks could preserve the argument’s validity and bring Mental Efficacy within the purview of the Moorean line without significant loss of plausibility. Another complication: the causal argument for physicalism may need to be read in terms of a thick (e.g. productive) notion of causation (see fn5), in which case Mental Efficacy needs to be read in terms of such a notion; but thin (e.g. Humean regularity) mental-to-physical causal connections may be enough to render the Moorean fact of mental-to-physical causation true. To maintain the Moorean line, such a discrepancy in causal notions would need to be ruled out, as it would prevent Mental Efficacy from achieving the status of a Moorean fact. These complications are noteworthy because they undermine what might seem to be an important advantage of the causal argument for physicalism over the causal argument for dualism, viz. that the former’s but not the latter’s premise about mental causation is clearly a Moorean fact. (Thanks to a referee for comments that prompted me to address this issue.).

  10. See Kim (2005: Ch. 1) for argument that mental-to-mental causation requires mental-to-physical causation.

  11. For suggestions regarding what makes overdetermination problematic, see Bernstein (2016: Sect 2.4), Paul and Hall (2013: 148–149, 157–158), Saad (forthcoming), Tiehen (2015: Sect 3) and Tye (2009: Sect 2.3).

  12. For such an attempt, see Papineau (2002). For challenges to his attempt, see Garcia (2014), Gibb (2010) and Montero (2003), along with BonJour (2010), Chalmers (2010: Ch. 5, fn24, fn26) and Lowe (2000) for general doubts about empirical support for Physical Closure.

  13. I argue for this at length in unpublished work. Very briefly, my reasons are these. First, I deny that dualists have any reason to accept Mental–Physical Supervenience. Second, even if they do accept it, I claim that (a) both Mental–Physical Supervenience and Inheritance need to be restricted to synchronically supervenient/subvenient entities if the argument for Physical Closure is to retain plausibility, (b) the best explanation of Mental–Physical Supervenience available to dualists accounts for it in terms of causation, thereby rendering it diachronic, and (c) careful attention to how the premises in the above argument are temporally indexed therefore reveals that dualists have a strong reason to reject it.

  14. Whereas Mental Efficacy must be read as implying that all mental events cause physical effects in order for the causal argument for physicalism to yield the physicalist result that all mental events are physical, Fundamental Efficacy need only be read as implying that some mental events cause fundamental effects in order for the causal argument for dualism to yield the dualist result that some events are fundamental. Although it is significant, I do not belabor this dualism favoring disanalogy in what follows.

  15. N.b. if that assumption is false, then so too is the predominant view’s tenet that causal arguments prima facie support physicalism. Since refuting that tenet is this section’s main goal, my argumentative strategy grants that assumption (which I happen to believe) arguendo.

  16. I also think that defenses of Non-Overdetermination in the causal argument for physicalism can be extended to Fundamental Non-Overdetermination without loss of plausibility. However, since I do not take the prima facie plausibility of these premises to rest on the availability of such defenses, I will not argue for that claim here.

  17. Tiehen mostly frames his challenge as targeting the causal argument for reductive physicalism. But he accepts that his case against that argument generalizes to the causal argument for physicalism (ibid: 2407). I will focus on the generalized version. We formulate positions and causal arguments in slightly different ways. As far as I can tell, nothing hangs on these differences. I take these points as read in what follows.

  18. Here is a (compressed and generalized) reconstruction of Tiehen’s reasoning. Physicalists should dismiss the causal argument for physicalism as uncogent unless they have warrant for believing Physical Closure that does not depend on prior warrant for believing physicalism. But any such warrant would consist in inductive support for Physical Closure’s truth that does not support Physical Closure’s truth by first supporting physicalism’s truth. Upon accepting such support, physicalists would have to accept that Physical Closure’s truth has an explanation that is independent of physicalism’s truth. But, on pain of objectionable explanatory overdetermination, physicialists must deny that there is such an explanation. Upon denying that there is such an explanation, physicalists should recognize the absence of the noted type of inductive support, concede that they lack warrant for believing Physical Closure that is prior to their warrant for believing physicalism, and (in turn) regard the causal argument for physicalism as uncogent. [This reconstruction parallels one I elsewhere (forthcoming) give of his reasoning as it applies to the causal argument for reductive physicalism.]

    I’m unconvinced by Tiehen’s reasoning. But I think that it poses an urgent challenge to physicalists who accept physicalism on the basis of the causal argument for it. For suggestions about how reductive physicalists might respond to the version of the challenge directed against the causal argument for reductive physicalism, see (ibid).

  19. Another is that Mental-Fundamental Supervenience can be restricted to synchronically supervenient/subvenient events without loss of plausibility; such a restriction is needed if it (in concert with Inheritance) is to entail a version of Fundamental Closure that yields a valid causal argument for dualism, once temporally indexing is made explicit. In contrast, thusly restricting Mental–Physical Supervenience renders it dispensable to dualists who accept the temporally unrestricted version of that thesis but explain its truth in diachronic causal terms (e.g. in terms of mental effects supervening on their prior, physical causes).

  20. She might retreat to an abductive argument for physicalism [e.g. see Bates (2009), McLaughlin (2010), Melnyk (2003) and Tiehen (2015)]. However, I think such arguments are problematic, partly for reasons given by Kim (2005) and that they provide little or no support for physicalism once the causal argument for physicalism is abandoned. In my view, the best option for the physicalist would be to use to the parity problem as a basis for rejecting the causal arguments for physicalism and dualism and then appeal to the zombie argument for physicalism that I develop without endorsing elsewhere (Saad 2016). For two reasons, I do not think this option works. First, as indicated above, there are differences between the causal arguments for physicalism and dualism that tell in favor of the latter; these differences pose obstacles to the proposed use of the parity problem. Second, I think the theoretical costs that dualists must pay to resist the zombie argument for physicalism are worth it (ibid: 2373–2374).

  21. See Chalmers (1996) Gertler (forthcoming), Kim (2005), Jackson (1982) and Robinson (2006).

  22. The causal argument for dualism also makes salient another reason for dualists to be wary of endorsing epiphenomenalism: plausibly, just as an event’s being physical provides defeasible evidence of its causal efficacy, so too does an event’s being fundamental; thus, although dualism deprives mental events of one causal credential (physicality), it also confers another (fundamentality).

  23. The non-dialectical point in the vicinity is: the causal argument for dualism supports dualism only by supporting interactionist versions of dualism (i.e. versions that deny epiphenomenalism)—on the supposition that epiphenomenalism is true, the causal argument for dualism provides no support for dualism.

  24. Thanks to a referee for comments that prompted me to consider how the causal argument for dualism bears on epiphenomenalism.

  25. There is a striking analogy, which I won’t pursue here, with the problem of the unity of the proposition. Just as propositions (apparently) cannot be recovered from lists of their constituents, neither can the complete causal story be recovered from a list of the laws and the metaphysical primitives featured in that story.

  26. Although I gestured towards these operations above, it may be worth giving more explicit characterizations of them here. A constructive operation forms a complex event from its components. An abstractive operation takes one event and forms another by subtracting features from the first; e.g. the application of an abstractive operation to an instance of scarlet may yield an instance of red. For a characterization of grounding in terms of abstraction, see Schaffer (2009: 378).

  27. See Tiehen (2016: Sect. 2) for a different proposal for how to unpack the notion of fundamentally mental and use the resulting notion to formulate physicalism. Because I have some concerns about his proposal, I opt for the proposal in the main text. Expounding those concerns here would take us too far astray.

  28. See Lee (forthcoming) for argument that a reductive version of physicalism leads to a particular deflationary view of consciousness.

  29. Objection: you assume that there are phenomenal concepts, but there aren’t any. Reply: I suspect that anyone who denies the existence of phenomenal concepts is using a more demanding notion of phenomenal concepts than I am. For example, while Tye (2009: 12) argues that “there simply are no phenomenal concepts, as materialists standardly suppose them to be”, he grants that “if we stipulate that phenomenal concepts just are those concepts we use in thoughts or judgments formed on the basis of introspection about the phenomenal character of our phenomenal states… then, it is obvious that there are phenomenal concepts” (ibid: 56).

  30. Block (2007: 461) claims that “physicalism dictates that mental properties are canonically expressible in both physicalistic and mentalistic vocabularies”. On my formulation, physicalism does not dictate that mental events (or properties) can be canonically specified (expressed) in mental terms. However, I would agree that, plausibly, if physicalism is true, mental events can be so specified, and hence that physicalists have reason to reject fundamentalist physicalism.

  31. To resolve a scope ambiguity, the intended reading is:

    There is a way W such that we conceive of pains as W under our concept PAIN, and we ordinarily believe that pains cause (say) wincing in virtue of being W.

    This type of ambiguity recurs below; the just given disambiguation applies mutatis mutandis.

  32. This unattractive feature is a variant of the problem of mental “quausation” (Horgan 1989).

  33. See Schaffer (2017) for a limited defense of a similarly formulated position with the same name.

  34. Several candidate cooperative relations that I will not discuss (in detail in the main text) are: x is a subset of y [see Shoemaker (2007)], x is constituted by y [see Pereboom (2011)], and x realizes y (where x is a lower-order event and y is a higher-order event). I don’t discuss the subset relation because I suspect that it is a version of the abstraction relation [see Ney (2010: 442) and Shoemaker (2010: 447–448)], which I do discuss below. I don’t discuss the constitution relation because I am persuaded by Ney (2007) that constitution can be understood in a number of different ways and that none of them (or at least none that is physicalistically acceptable) would render mental-physical overdetermination unproblematic. And I don’t discuss the realization relation because I find it extremely implausible to suppose that higher-order events cause effects.

  35. For recent debate on this matter, see Schaffer (forthcoming) and Wilson (2014; forthcoming).

  36. The heterogeneity relations are so called after what Crane (1995) dubs the ‘homogeneity assumption’, namely that mental causes bring about their effects in the same way physical causes do.

  37. Whereas I have been using ‘overdetermination’ in a way that leaves it conceptually open whether overdetermination is objectionable, Bennett uses ‘overdetermination’ to pick out problematic overdetermination. But, as she recognizes, the choice between these uses is “is just a terminological issue” (2003: 474).

  38. See Bennett (2003: 480; 2008: 288, fn11). Bennett places a constraint of “no backtracking or replacement” on the evaluation of instances of (O1) and (O2); since this constraint is not relevant for my purposes, I ignore it in the main text.

  39. See Jackson (1982: Sect. 2), Nagel (1986: 48), and Pautz (2010: 66); cf. Kim (2005: 169, fn16).

  40. Thanks for Karen Bennett for discussion here.

  41. Bennett (2008: fn20) inadvertently provides the materials for a case that would violate her necessary condition on objectionable overdetermination, satisfy the alternative necessary condition, and intuitively qualify as objectionable overdetermination. Borrowing her metaphorical language, the case would involve two causes, one of which metaphysically necessitates the other, and two oomph injections (one from each cause).

    Incidentally, while I take the alternative necessary condition to be an improvement on Bennett’s, I think that it too is susceptible to counterexamples. Here’s one: let p be a strictly sufficient physical cause of an effect e to which a non-physical mental event m makes a causal contribution just weak enough for the falsity of [~(p ⇒ e) & m] > e. Given the falsity of that subjunctive claim, p and m jointly violate the alternative necessary condition on objectionable overdetermination. But, intuitively, such overdetermination is objectionable (at least if systematic, though perhaps slightly less objectionable than overdetermination in an otherwise parallel case in which m causally suffices for e).

  42. Strictly speaking, the fundamentalist physicalist could hold that some events are non-fundamental, provided that she takes mental events to be fundamental (and, indeed, fundamentally physical). However, on the fundamentalist physicalist’s assumption that physicalism is true, mental events are the best candidates for non-fundamental physical events. Thus, while logically available, the fundamentalist physicalist position according to which some non-mental events are non-fundamental is poorly motivated.

  43. Recall that, on the previous notion of a physical event, an event is physical iff it is neither fundamentally mental nor grounded in a fundamentally mental event, where an event is a fundamentally mental event iff it is fundamental, not fully canonically specifiable without mental terms (or mental concepts), and fully canonically specified with the help of such terms. This notion of a physical event classifies as physical events that are fully canonically specifiable in mental terms and grounded in (links in) mental abysses, i.e. infinitely descending non-terminating chains of grounds such that every member of the chain is grounded in an event that is at least partly canonically specifiable in mental terms. This seems like a mistaken classification. [This counterexample, along with the below fix is, a inspired by Montero (2006: 186–187); see (ibid) and Schaffer (2003) for discussion of whether, and if so how, physicalism might be formulated so as to allow for its truth in worlds without fundamental levels.] To avoid this misclassification, we may say: an event is physical iff it is neither fundamentally mental, nor grounded in a fundamentally mental event, nor grounded in a mental abyss. With the revised notion in hand, we can substitute it into the previous definition of physicalism and revise dualism as follows:

    • Physicalism: All events are physical.

    • Dualism: Not all events are physical; i.e. either some events are fundamentally mental or there are mental abysses.

  44. The distinction between event and property versions of the causal argument may matter here. For an infinitely descending, non-terminating chain of different properties (or their instantiations) may be vicious even if infinitely descending, non-terminating chains of events are benign [see Sider (2011: 133–136) for defense of a view that requires an ideological ground floor while allowing infinite mereological and propositional descents]. In that case, the (event) dualist may be able to use a version of the causal argument for dualism against infinite descent (event) physicalism after all: for she could use a property version of the causal argument for dualism to establish that some instantiated mental properties are non-physical and then argue that their instances are non-physical events.

  45. Objection: infinite descent physicalists may hold that a cooperative relation from Sect. 8 holds between members of infinitely descending chains, and hence that overdetermination via those members is benign. Reply: The best candidate cooperative relations are construction and abstraction. However, applying these relations to events that are fully canonically specifiable in non-mental terms will only yield further events that are fully canonically specifiable in non-mental terms. Thus, if the infinite descent physicalist holds that only these relations yield grounding chains, then her view leads to the objectionable deflationary and error-theoretic implications for which I criticized fundamentalist physicalism in Sect. 7. Alternatively, she might appeal to other relations, perhaps positing a generative grounding relation analogous to productive causation. Such a relation might enable her to avoid the noted objectionable implications. However, such a relation would not be cooperative.

  46. For discussion, see Block (1989, 2003), Kim (1998, 2005), and Walter (2008).

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Acknowledgements

For helpful feedback on earlier drafts, thanks to Alex Grossman, Jon Litland, Michelle Montague, Mark Sainsbury, David Sosa, and an anonymous referee. For helpful discussion, thanks to Bryce Dalbey, Brie Gertler, Alex Grossman, Jon Litland, Michelle Montague, Jon Morgan, Mark Sainsbury, David Sosa, Daniel Stoljar, and audience members at UT Austin’s 2016 Spring Conference.

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Correspondence to Bradford Saad.

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Saad, B. A causal argument for dualism. Philos Stud 175, 2475–2506 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11098-017-0969-3

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Keywords

  • Mind–body problem
  • Mental causation
  • Interactionism
  • Dualism
  • Physicalism