[Wittrs] are objects causal

  • From: "jrstern" <jrstern@xxxxxxxxx>
  • To: wittrsamr@xxxxxxxxxxxxx
  • Date: Wed, 17 Mar 2010 16:20:49 -0000

--- In Wittrs@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxx, "SWM" <SWMirsky@...> wrote:
> > > > Does a golf ball "cause" a hole in one?
> > > >
> > > > No, the whole idea is gibberish.
> > >
> > > Sometimes one event precipitates a complex of other events though, no, I 
> > > don't think this is entirely relevant to the issue of the role of a 
> > > physical agent in a causal sequence.
> >
> > Are you calling a golf ball an event?
> In some senses I suppose. But, actually, I was thinking more along the lines 
> of a golf ball in motion, which, of course, would be an event in the usual 
> sense. Of course, at some level every object is also a combination of many 
> events (mostly beyond our ken if not our intellectual reckonining).

We now have a pretty nice theory of kinetic and potential energy, not to 
mention matter and its properties, that serves a very wide range of causal 
questions.  We call this (Newtonian) physics, and expect that all macro-scale 
phenomena can be reduced to these terms, and call any such theories 

OTOH, that reduction can be very difficult in practice.  It's the Vienna 
concept of "the unity of science" that says all can or should be reduced to 
physics, Newtonian or quantum, I suppose.  Fodor is a big defender of NOT doing 
the reduction in special sciences like psychology, and other areas that one 
might argue are not science, from aesthetics to ethics, are even more 
problematic targets for reduction.

So, what are the prospects for a naturalized, causal theory of mind?  I think 
the prospects are good, and in any case, that's my game.  Well, actually, not 
quite my game.  I'm pretty sure that, as Fodor says, the computational theory 
of mind is the only theory we've got, but I'm not actually going there, I'm 
only worrying about the computation itself, which I fear is poorly understood.

Getting back to the question of whether Searle's motto of "brains cause minds" 
is coherent or not, well, it can be a bit poetic I suppose, along the lines of 
"matches cause forest fires", or "televisions cause sloth".  Objects aren't 
causes as such, but they have "causal roles".

This is quite Wittgensteinian, actually.  Words don't have essential meanings, 
they have meanings in context, in use.  They have causal roles.  I suppose I 
may be more worked up about this than your average bear.  Look at computation.  
Is this line of code, which we can view as an object, "causal" for the printing 
of your paycheck? Well, in one sense, yes, but it's not going to cause its 
cause if the computer is not present and plugged in and turned on and that line 
of code arrived at in due course.  Such is a "causal role" but not a "cause".  
This is quite clear in computation.  But getting back to this trope, do 
"computers cause payment"?  I have long been bothered by such sloppy use of 
"cause" in much philosophy of language, it slides quickly into essentialism, 
and even if "computers 'cause' payment" I cannot see that such a relationship 
could be essential or "necessary", even after the fact, yet such modal 
descriptions (Kripke) are rampant these days, and I, like Quine, find all such 
claims meaningless, or speaking for myself and not Quine, misleading or "wrong" 
in any sense of "necessary" that I believe one should associate with the word.

> Or in the sense of being the proximate cause (the source of the impact when 
> we're considering what drove that nail (rather than who drove it). For 
> instance, the hammerer couldn't have done it with a wad of butter or simply 
> by wishing.

Yes, the properties of the hammer are central to the basic matter-and-energy 
causal story.  But note the priority - a hammer is a hammer because of these 
very conventional properties.  Computation certainly requires no more than 
familiar physical properties.  Searle asserts that brains have some unknown 
physical property that enables them to play this critical role.  It's not being 
a hammer that drives the nail, it's being hard and in motion, it IS a hammer 
because it is hard and in motion, and has some other properties of shape or 
origin if you like, it is "multiply realizable" by other token hammers, rocks 
that are hard and in motion, etc.  Until and unless the magical properties of 
"brain" are enumerated, it seems entirely natural to suggest that substitutes 
should work there, too, and Searle cannot prove a negative result, that a 
computer cannot fill that role, from an unknown property of brain.

Though again, my own concern is only to tell the story of mundane computation 
in sufficient detail and proper order, what properties computation has, so that 
others can later see if the substitution for brain is workable or not.


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