You are currently browsing the monthly archive for December 2004.

Causality seems to be one of the fundamental pieces of metaphysics. How can anything be reckoned to exist, if it does not stand in causal relations? But what are these causal relations we speak of, scientifically considered? And how do they relate to the rest of our conception of the world? I would like to suggest here that causality is fundamentally interrelated with the mind in a sense deeper than the fact that nobody spoke of it before humans were around to do so. Causality is an element of understanding, meaning that it composes the fundamental unit with which the understanding operates. Now, to understand something is to know it in a sense permitting of conceptual clarification, dialectical refinement, and other forms of belief revision (e.g., empirical test). But what is it that permits an understanding to exist? I would argue it is nothing other than the concept of cause. 

An understanding is always an understanding of causality: grasping that something is caused by something else requires cognitive machinery subtle enough to comprehend an object as possessing relevant attributes that permit it to combine with other objects in a regular fashion. Without the concept of cause, the objects of understanding would cease to have the clarity and distinctness appropriate to constituents of contentful thought. Problems such as mental causation should therefore be handled from the standpoint of whether or not the potential cause is an object of the understanding, systematically known with respect to its role in the experienced world. On this view epiphenomena (phenomena without causal effects) are not, properly speaking, understood; their role in experience is not fleshed-out enough to permit of judgements combining them with other objects, such that we must say that with epiphenomena experience takes its leave of thinking (the conceptual comprehension of the world). 

Similarly, whether more than one type of cause is permitted is a question which devolves upon distinctions between ways of understanding (Erklaerung vs. Verstehen): there should be no more entities postulated than are necessary to preserve the discursive clarity of conceptual thought, and this is actually a well-enough-defined task from the standpoint of ordinary experience. With respect to scientific research, the questions become more complicated, but if the fundamental integrity of cause as related to the operations of the mind is respected all the commonly accepted forms of causation can be reconciled as integral to the clear conception of the object. Furthermore, such a “discursive” standard for the grasp of causality should be easily compatible with systems that order bodies of knowledge in such a way that the order preserves cross-object relations: to understand causality is to have an unconflicted object or objects.

It seems an important point to me that the structure of knowledge is discrete: the inferential status of knowledge is determined, not only by the inferential relations a piece of knowledge stands in, but by epistemic warrants awarded to individual pieces of knowledge on the basis of their relation to the world. Much as it is possible to know something without knowing all its consequences, it is possible to know something without knowing all its prerequisites. The limits on the level of consequences drawn from knowledge indicate that useful knowledge is clearly not individuated by its object, in which case knowledge would have to be as faithful to the completely given object as possible, in order to qualify as correctly related to it. Given this, what must a knower be? 

Firstly, knowledge requires a knower to have such a structure as to unobtrusively register epistemic facts: if the subject was such as to psychologically constitute all its information about the world, no piece of that information could constitute a piece of knowledge for the reason that all which was contained was information about a subject continuous in all respects relevant to epistemic assessment (serving not only as in a certain way the object of the information but also as its epistemically undifferentiated matter). In other words, sense cannot constitute knowledge for the reason that there is no individuation of known contents in such a way as to make their epistemic assessment possible: a piece of knowledge requires not only an object, but criteria indicating what piece of knowledge it is, and these cannot be supplied by the subject. 

So empirical idealism is a nonstarter for the reason that it is unclear what we are talking about when we attribute knowledge of perception to the idealist subject. What would count as knowledge on this score? Pieces of information differentiated, not by the object or subject, but by their inferential relations internal to a body of knowledge: a piece of knowledge has not only an origin but its epistemic standing as part of a more-or-less-systematic body of interconnected propositions. And as such, it is clear that what a knower must do is not only to accurately capture the contours of the object (this much can be done by sense) but to maintain knowledge’s interrelations: that is, to let knowledge be knowledge as an independent realm of thought relating itself to itself. 

Knowledge’s objectivity derives from this, that it is formally checked only by other pieces of knowledge, forming an independent unity separate from psychological states: and any entity worthy of the name “knower” needs to duplicate, not psychological states, but the independence of the epistemic qua information: a body of knowledge composed of neither objectively nor subjectively determined information could exist separate from the consciousness of the individual subject. What it could not exist without is the recognition of knowledge as inferential discreteness: that is to say, there can be no theory of knowledge suitable to the task which is not, in the end, atomistic.

Concepts are general features of thought permitting of employment to capture the structure of a given state of affairs. Can a concept be a material thing? It seems to me that this is, from a materialist standpoint, the wrong question to ask: a better question is “what features of the material world do concepts correspond to?” These are clearly not particulars, but rather the properties and relations obtaining between particulars; such that one could say the material face of the concept was in making available for thought features of reality not permitting of proper instantiation. That is, a concept has as its material counterpart every physical phenomenon the instances of which are not individuated by the individual thinker, the “overhead” of thinking physically about the world. A concept does not correspond to the thing it enables thought about, but serves to make possible simple general thought about the object: it is no disadvantage that Frege’s theory of concepts does not individuate them more finely than their contributions to structured thought. Put this way, a concept is no more problematic a piece of linguistic structure than a particle. 

The consequence of the “non-referential” account of the constitution of concepts is that problems with a materialist account of thought are solved by specifying that concepts are not made out of a special “mind-stuff”, but rather are mere elements of thought whose representative capacity derives from various objective linkages between thought and reality, not an intrinsic power to represent possessed by the concept. A materialist theory of thought can therefore include conceptual thinking as not involving added particulars without compromising its materialism: the brain and physical states of conceptuality are simply various, in accordance with the lack of referential structure implicit in concepts. Whether or not there are further consequences for the understanding of concept-related particulars depends on how intricate the non-conceptual reckoning with particulars is made out to be. This “conceptual holism” has no other theoretical committments for the materialist with an eye to incorporate concepts into the material view of the world.

The relation between mind and body takes up a great deal of philosophers’ time, but the solitary problems of the former garner rather less attention. In this note, I address what it is to be in a mental state independently of psychophysiological correspondences, and thusly prepare the way for a discussion of which such correspondences are truly relevant to the topic. A mental state is a state caused by inference. Inference is generally reckoned to “cause” only one thing: a judgment as conclusion of the inference; and while the act of entertaining a judgment is one such mental state, I mean the comment more generally than this. Mental states are way-stations of inference; they involve all the gradations employed in inferential reasoning. As such, many phenomena not to be found in complete judgments make their way into mental states. But these phenomena are not absent from inference generally. To give an example, “ideas” make their way into a mental state by way of forming predicational elements of an inference: that is to say, concepts permitting of recombination in inference form the material of all mentality and as such only in the form of concealed inference. 

The problem of qualia is one part of this; that a box is green is a judgment not only permitting of use in inference, but already involving reasoning about inference with respect to perceptual mechanisms: “When I look in a certain direction, I can see something. A green box is something to see. I can see a green box.” That I do in fact see a green box is the consequence of many chains of inference similar to this one, covering all the various elements of “what it’s like” to see a green box. The object itself is composed cross-wise out of various such chains of inference, and so it is with every conscious mental state: there are none which do not have a prior train of inferences enabling their conceptual form. Thusly, we can be wrong in perceptual reports only because a prior set of inferences went wrong: when the object does not, cannot, have the characteristics we are attributing to it. 

Finally, mental states are individuated by inference: since a logical validity obtains only when every interpretation makes the statement come out true, a mental state is the mental state it is based on what inferences it is comprised of, and there is only one mental state correlating to a certain content so individuated. The logical form of mental states extends to match the logical form of such contents, including the distinctions necessary to motivate all inferentially derived phenomena of mindedness, and thusly the physiological mechanism sought as substrate of thought is the one enabling this larger movement of thought, rather than “mental representations” containing no intrinsic connection to other items in the mind.