Wednesday, 6 August 2014

The Causal Relations Between Mind & World

In the Cartesian tradition, the mind’s autonomy was of paramount importance. All we need to do, essentially, is get our internal workings functioning in good order. It doesn’t really matter about the external world. Or, more correctly, it doesn’t matter until we had got our mental ship in order.

In epistemological externalism (as well as reliabilism), on the contrary, what happens before the formation of a belief, or before cognitive operations as a whole, is what matters. The question is simple: How did I acquire this particular belief? So it's the required causal relation with the external world that determines whether or not a belief or cognitive process is justified. If it's acceptably justified, then we may have true knowledge. We may not even be able to elaborate on the external causal processes that led to the formation of a belief. Though if we are in the right situation, vis-à-vis the world, then such processes that we may not be aware of will themselves somehow justify our beliefs.

Of course it's the case that we require causal relations with the external world when it comes to our perceptual knowledge. That is, in a purely empiricist manner, all we really need are reliable causal contacts with the world. Though, as Kant would have no doubt said, there is much more to knowledge than mere causal interaction with the world. Our minds and brains need to do something with all the incoming data – they need to synthesise it. That is the case even with basic perceptual beliefs.

Can we rely on perceptual information alone to make general statements about the world? That is, no single experience, or even a large group of experiences, alone won't tell me that, say, all swans are white.

And do I ever have a basic perceptual experience of someone not murdering someone?

What about microscopic properties, objects and processes that are always beyond perceptual experience? What does pure experience tell me about these things?

What about numbers? They are supposed to be non-spatiotemporal abstract entities. How could I ever have perceptual experience of - or causal interaction with - them?

So not all beliefs and bits of knowledge are simply a question of reliable causal contacts with the concrete things that the beliefs and bits of knowledge are about. The traditional empiricist had no convincing answers to these epistemic problems. There are things about the mind-brain that work free of causal interactions. Or if there are causal processes in the mind-brain, they are of such a kind that we don’t even know that they are happening. In that case, they would have no epistemic relevance.

The internal world must have at least a little autonomy from the external world. Though perhaps we don’t necessarily need to think of it at all as the internal world. The mind-brain is indeed a part of the world. It is naturalistically acceptable. However, the mind-brain does things that other parts of the world don't do. It thinks about the world. It has representations and images of that world. It has intentionality – that is, directedness. It deals with meanings, concepts, truth, falsity and the rest.

Although  the mind is part of the world, it is a special and unique part. 

Although we causally interact with the world, and that in turn sets of causal processes in the mind-brain, it doesn’t follow that there will be some kind of isomorphic and infinitely repeatable set of relations to that world. The same causal processes bring about different beliefs and different bits of knowledge in different people - or even the same person at different times. Something goes on in mind-brains that can't be accounted for in the same way that things that go in the world can be accounted for. This is not a mystical conclusion. It may simply be a fact about the mind-brain’s astonishing complexity and subtlety. Indeed it has been said that the mind-brain is the most complex thing in the entire universe.

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