The interaction problem, Part III

In a couple of previous posts (here and here) we have examined the famous “interaction problem” facing Cartesian dualism and its origins in the impoverished conception of causation the early modern philosophers put in place of the Aristotelian-Scholastic conception. But as Bill Vallicella rightly notes, whatever we think of the interaction problem and of Cartesian dualism’s ability to deal with it, it cannot be regarded as a reason for preferring materialism to dualism. For materialism faces an interaction problem of its own.

Part of the problem is that even if we identify mental events and physical events, mental properties seem to have no causal relevance. Suppose a sensation of pain is identical with such-and-such a neural firing pattern. The way it causes you to moan and to nurse the damaged body part is by triggering further neural processes which result in the flexing of the relevant muscles. In that case, though, it is the electrochemical properties alone that are doing the causal work, and the distinctively mental aspect – the experienced phenomenal character of the pain itself – seems epiphenomenal. This is called the “mental causation problem” and it is the aspect of the interaction problem for materialism that Bill focuses on. It arises in different ways for different varieties of materialism. (It threatens Donald Davidson’s anomalous monism, for example, because of his principle of the anomalism of the mental.)

But this isn’t the only way the interaction problem arises for materialism. It arises also because the mechanistic conception of the natural world makes body-body interaction as mysterious as mind-body interaction. And again, it does so because of the impoverished conception of causation the moderns put in place of the older Aristotelian-Scholastic conception.

The Aristotelian-Scholastic account of causation was rich in theoretical subtleties and carefully worked out distinctions. It included, not only the famous doctrine of the four causes – formal, material, efficient, and final – but also the act/potency distinction, the notion that causes and effects can sometimes be simultaneous, the distinction between causal series ordered per se and causal series ordered per accidens, the distinction between primary and secondary causes, the idea that causation involves the cause communicating something to its effect, an emphasis on substances rather than accidents or events as true causes, and so forth. But as Kenneth Clatterbaugh notes in The Causation Debate in Modern Philosophy 1637-1739, in the century or so between the time of Descartes’ work on the subject and that of Hume, virtually all of the characteristic theses of the Aristotelian-Scholastic account of causation were gradually abandoned. Of the four causes, only efficient causation was left, and in a radically modified form. Substances and their inherent causal powers were abandoned and causation was regarded instead as a relationship between events. Nothing was taken to be communicated from cause to effect and in principle anything might follow upon anything else.

What resulted, naturally, were the skeptical puzzles of Hume. The notion of causation as an objective feature of the world became problematic at best and unintelligible at worst. As I argue at length in The Last Superstition and Aquinas, and have discussed more briefly in earlier posts (e.g. here and here), this was inevitable given the abandonment of final causality. If there is nothing in a cause that inherently “points to” or is “directed at” the generation of a certain effect or range of effects, there is ultimately no way to make sense of the fact that it does indeed generate just that effect or effects.

Hence the fact that a material cause brings about just the material effect or effects it does becomes no less mysterious on the modern, mechanistic account of nature than mind-body interaction does. This is the reason bizarre theories like occasionalism and pre-established harmony had the cachet they did among some of the early moderns. The motivation was not, as is sometimes supposed, to find a way to salvage mind-body dualism. It was rather to find a way to deal with the fact that any causation at all in the natural order – even that between material bodies – seemed impossible given the new conception of nature.

But haven’t many contemporary philosophers tried to solve the puzzles about causation raised by the early modern philosophers, especially Hume? Indeed they have, but as I have shown in TLS and Aquinas, when they have attempted to provide a realist account of causation, the tendency has been to appeal to notions – inherent causal powers, “physical intentionality,” dispositions, and so forth – which essentially involve a return to something like an Aristotelian conception of nature. Clatterbaugh cites the example of Wesley Salmon, who in Four Decades of Scientific Explanation argues that genuine causal processes involve a “transmission” of “information,” and even of “structure,” from cause to effect. Like some of the other contemporary writers I’ve cited before (Armstrong, Molnar, et al.), Salmon does not realize that he sounds like a Scholastic.

The “interaction problem,” then, is not a problem for Cartesian dualism per se but for modern metaphysical positions in general, including materialism. Accordingly, its existence has no tendency whatsoever to provide an argument in favor of materialism over dualism. What it does provide is an argument in favor of a broadly Aristotelian-Scholastic metaphysics over any modern, mechanistic would-be replacement.
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