The problem of mental causation

The problem of mental causation is a conceptual issue in the philosophy of mind, surrounding the idea of mind as an immaterial substance. Ever since Descartes advanced the notion of a radical substance dualism where the mind and body are two fundamentally distinct things, the mind (immaterial) and the body (material), there has been an ongoing argument against the notion that an immaterial mind cannot interact with a material body.

Mental causation is absolutely fundamental to our concept of actions performed intentionally (as opposed to involuntarily), which, in turn, is central to those of agency, free will, and moral responsibility, since we attribute or withhold judgments of moral responsibility depending upon whether an agent acted intentionally.

The phenomenon of mental causation, as may be apparent, is thoroughly commonplace and ubiquitous: I see a friend, I wave at her in a manner reserved for friends. I would not have waved like that if I had not recognised a friend. While the phenomenon of mental causation seems obvious enough, the explanation of how it is possible is far from obvious.

The problem, in short, is how to account for the common-sense idea that intentional thoughts or intentional mental states are causes of intentional actions. The problem divides into several distinct sub-problems, including the problem of causal exclusion, the problem of anomalism, and the problem of externalism. 1)

A problem of super-rationalism and determinism

A long standing problem to which a lot of research effort has been dedicated, to no avail. Currently, a number of central figures within the mental causation debate consider us to be no closer to a solution. Indeed, they conclude that, given the current form of the debate, we will never come closer; Kim (1993) concludes that those within the mental causation debate are up against a dead end 2), and McGinn (1994) suggests that a solution to the problem is forever beyond our reach.

The first-person active actions of mental causation may involve innate workings of the brain itself? 3)


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