Tuesday, June 7, 2022

Ways out of the closure argument for physicalism

One of the main arguments for physicalism is based on the closure principle:

  1. Any physical event that has a cause has a physical cause.

It is widely thought that it follows from (1) that:

  1. If a physical event has a nonphysical cause, the event is overdetermined.

And hence in the absence of systematic overdetermination, mental causes must be physical.

But (2) doesn’t follow from (1). There are at least three ways for an event E to have two sufficient causes A and B:

  • overdetermination

  • chaining: A causes B which causes E or B causes A which causes E

  • parthood: A causes E by having B as a part which causes E, or B causes E by having a part A which causes E.

Let’s think a bit about how the chaining and parthood options might avoid physicalism in the case of mental causation and yet allow for closure.

Option I: Nonphysical-physical-physical chaining: A nonphysical event M causes a physical event P which causes a physical event E. This can’t be the whole story for how we respect closure. For by closure, P will need a physical cause P2, and so it is looking like P is going to be overdetermined, by M and P2. But that does not follow without further assumptions. For we could have the following scenario:

  • E is caused by an infinite chain of physical causes which chain is causally preceded by M, namely: P ← P2 ← P3 ← ... ← M, with infinitely many physical events in the “…”.

This scenario requires the possibility of an infinite sequence of causal means, contrary to causal finitism, and hence is unacceptable to me. But those who are less worried about infinite chains of causes should take this option seriously. Note that this option is reminiscent of Kant’s view on which our noumenal selves collectively cause the physical universe as a whole.

Option II: Physical-nonphysical-physical chaining: Here, the physical event P causes E by having a mental event as an intermediate cause. This option exploits a loophole in the closure principle as it is normally formulated: nothing in the closure principle says that the physical cause can’t operate by means of a nonphysical intermediary. Granted, that’s not how we normally think of physical causes as operating. But there is nothing incoherent about the story.

Option III: Physical parts of larger events: A physical event E is caused by a physical event P, and the physical event P is itself a part of a larger event M which is only partly physical. One might object that in this case it’s only P and not the larger event that counts as the cause. But that’s not right. If someone dies in the battle of Borodino, then at least three causes of death can be given: a shot being fired, the battle of Borodino, and the War of 1812. The shot is a part of the battle, and the battle is a part of the war. One particular way to have Option III is this: a quale Q is constituted by two components, a brain state B (say, a state of the visual cortex) and a soul state S of paying attention to the brain system that exhibits B, with B being the causally efficacious part of the Q. So a physical event—say, an agent’s making an exclamation at what they saw—counts as caused by the physical event B and the event Q which is not physical, or at least not completely physical.

One might object, however, that by “nonphysical”, one means entirely nonphysical, so Q’s having a nonphysical part S does not make Q nonphysical. If so, then we have one last option.

Option IV: Some or all physical causes cause their effects by having a nonphysical part that causes the event. That nonphysical part could, for instance, be an Aristotelian accidental or substantial form. Thus, here a physical event E is caused by a physical event by means of its nonphysical part M.

What if one objects that “physical” and “nonphysical” denote things that are purely physical and nonphysical, and neither can have a part that is the other? In that case, we have two difficulties. First, the closure principle is now stronger: it requires that a physical event that has a cause always has a purely physical cause. And we have a serious gap at the end of the argument. From closure at most we can conclude that a physical event doesn’t have a purely nonphysical cause. But what if it has a partly physical and partly nonphysical cause? That would be enough to contradict physicalism.


Chris Mathew said...

"parthood: A causes E by having B as a part which causes E, or B causes A by having a part A which causes E."

Is this a typo? Shouldn't it be: "... or B causes E by having a part A which causes E."

Or am I misunderstanding?

Alexander R Pruss said...

Thanks! Fixed.