Consciousness and Causality

Mental Causality: What’s at Stake?

All of man’s nature as a thinking, rational being presupposes the causal power of the mind.  The mind is said to be the cause of our behavior, especially when we mean intentional, voluntary, conscious behavior.  Mind is presupposed when we hold the individual responsible for his/her behavior and heap blame or reward on individuals for their actions and creations.   Among those creations we include both the products of mentally guided physical effort as well as intellectual (idea guided) creations.  Above all, we assume that all humans (with the exception of the severely mentally ill) understand how to reason and therefore can both persuade others and be persuaded by others regarding the validity or lack thereof of intellectual arguments and theories.   Scientists, above all people, are deeply conscious of this latter, for it is the foundation belief without which science as an institution could neither come into existence nor flourish. Thus the validity of the fact that minds can cause human actions which result in human products and and other physical consequences is central to the very existence and practice of science itself.  The axiomatic fact of mental causality is clearly stated by David Robb et al. in the article ‘Mental Causation‘ in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

Mental causation—the mind’s causal interaction with the world, and in particular, its influence on behavior—is central to our conception of ourselves as agents. Mind–world interaction is taken for granted in everyday experience and in scientific practice. – from Mental Causation, 2013

Mental causality is at the heart of philosophy itself, for every branch of philosophy, including epistemology, ontology, logic, ethics, aesthetics, and politics embody inquiries concerning how one can come to know the world and how one can properly apply that knowledge to ones own actions and institutional practices.

But mental causality is also at the center of the mind-body problem, which is concerned primarily with how the mind and body can interact causally; how mind can respond to the body (its movements and stimulations) on the one hand and how the mind can regulate the actions of the body on the other.   Robb et al. also state this clearly:

In metaphysics mental causation is said to be “at the heart of the mind-body problem” (Shoemaker 2001, p. 74), often figuring explicitly in how the problem is formulated (Mackie 1979; Skillen 1984; Campbell 1984). To ask how mind and body are related just is, in part, to ask how they could possibly affect one another causally. – from Mental Causation

Mental Causality: An Inescapable Axiom

The preconditions for knowing or proving anything are themselves philosophical axioms.  The two most fundamental of these axioms are: (1) Existence exists, independent of our knowing it.  This is the ontological axiom. (2) Consciousness is the intentional act of grasping, identifying, existence, at some level of specificity.  To be conscious is to be conscious of something outside of consciousness itself.  That is, to be conscious of external (consciousness-independent) existence.  This is the epistemological axiom.

Since consciousness and existences are two axiomatic principles of all knowledge (episteme) , they are presupposed in all attempts to know or prove anything about reality.  In logic, therefore, one cannot without self-contradiction demand proof of the very preconditions of the concept of proof.  Thus, from the perspective of epistemology,  neither philosophy nor science may logically or coherently demand proof for the facts (1) that existence is the irreducible precondition of being and (2) that consciousness is the irreducible precondition of knowing existence.  From these axioms it follows: (1) that our senses are our first and primary cognitive contact with the external world, (2) that the evidence of our senses are the precondition for all cognitive validation or proof of all human thought, and (3) that our senses are an integral part of our nature as animate beings and (4) that our capacity to reason is an integral part of our nature as human beings.

But what of consciousness of consciousness?  Awareness of consciousness and its nature is a later, conceptual achievement, not present in nor possible at the basic level of perceptual contact with reality, a level shared by all conscious beings.  Awareness of consciousness is the act of focusing on the process of consciousness in relationship to its external content (the world and our own bodies as well).  No one can be conscious of consciousness per se, of consciousness itself,  but can only be conscious of ones own consciousness with respect to (or in relationship to) its content, content ultimately given to consciousness at the level of perception.  This is because consciousness is not a thing, no matter now complex a thing nor is it a substance.  This is in direct contrast and denial of Cartesian Dualism, which holds that consciousness (qua cognition) is a substance, or ‘stuff’, to use Descartes’ term: res cogitans.

Conceptually, consciousness cannot be separated from content, i.e., it can neither be understood nor analyzed independent of its content.  This is because consciousness is a relational phenomenon.   It does not exist except as a relational process.  Consciousness exists and can only exist as  a power of the organism to apprehend external content by virtue of a process of identification unique to a given kind of cognitive being.   Furthermore, this process is not automatic nor mechanical, but essentially volitional in the sense that it is driven and controlled by the exploratory aim of the organism to remain in cognitive contact with its environment at a level that is defined by the organism’s ecological ’embeddedness’ (an idea originating with James J. Gibson and expounded in his book The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception).  In sum then, before we can be conscious of how we see the world, we must first be conscious that we perceive the world.

Yet it is the failure to grasp or embrace the fundamental axioms of cognition, i.e., of knowing itself, that underlies why so many thinkers about mind, philosophers and sciences alike, have historically expended such enormous energy demanding that both mind and existence somehow ‘account for themselves.’  For the solipsist existence must account for itself.  For the physicalist consciousness must account for itself.  Such dualism is self-refuting.

Physicalists fail to see their own a priori doctrines of radical materialism and materialist reductionism as circular arguments for removing mind and consciousness from the realm of science.   This doctrinaire reductionism rests on the premise that all phenomena in the universe (including mind) if they are expected to be regarded as ‘real’ or ‘scientific’ must ultimately be explained in terms of and fully reducible to the local motions of the elementary particles that constitute all of material being.

As we have seen above, there is no contradiction in holding on the one hand (a) that all the exists are constitutive of elementary particles (or at least those that we currently have identified through particle physics) or something even more basic (whatever that may turn out to be), and on the other hand (b) that higher order  causal powers may emerge from higher order physical organizations, giving new laws of nature that are not themselves reducible to the laws governing the local behaviors of particles in isolation.  This perspective is applicable as much at the atomic level as it is at the biological and psychological levels of system organization.  The perspective required is that of emergence of higher-level order and law from lower-level order and law without demanding causal reductionism.  See for example a related discussion in this blog on: ‘Water: A Thomistic Approach to Emergence and Causal Powers.’

Embracing emergence as a broad principle of scientific explanation (beyond its application to the idea of ‘order on the edge of chaos’) as a power or potentiality of ordered matter at any level of complexity, has already helped tremendously to unwind the Gordian Knot of Cartesian Dualism, which has paralyzed  the entire field of science (not just biology, psychology and sociology), and has, as a consequence helped bridge the gulf between ‘The Two Cultures.

Physicalist  Abandonment of Aristotle’s Four Causes

Of Aristotle’s four causes, only two of these, the material cause and the efficient cause are accepted by modern physical science and empiricist philosophy.  By material cause, modern science means the matter of which an object is composed and to which it is reducible in any analytical process.  By efficient cause science mean the physical action and reaction of matter impacting and reacting to the impact of other material objects.

From a strictly physicalist scientific perspective, consciousness, exhibiting neither of the above forms of physical causality is, by virtue of their absence, declared to be outside the realm of science, in effect, outside the realm of physical reality, which to the physicalist means outside the realm of reality qua being (qua res extensa).

Mental Causality vs Physical Closure/Completeness

To understand the common rejection (by modern physicalist philosophers of science) of mental causation, let us begin by referring the reader to a significant article from Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy discussing Mental Causation.  Modern physical science argues that if mind exists at all, it is the causal product of physical laws regulating the material content of which the brain is composed, and that mind is a causal effect of brain activity.  Thus physical causality is not a problem.  But the assertion that mind (supposedly a non-physical non-material phenomenon) can effect and even regulate the actions of body (a mere organized complex aggregate of matter after all, say the physicalists), is patently impossible and violates the principle of physical causal closure, also called ‘completeness’, which holds:

When you trace the causal history of any physical effect—that is, of anything physical that has a cause—you will never need to appeal to anything non-physical. The physical universe contains within itself the resources for a full causal explanation of any of its (caused) elements, and in this sense is “complete”.  – from  Mental Causation: The Completeness of the PhysicalDavid Robb and John Heil, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2013.

This is the definition of physicalist supervenience.  This problem is, if we think about it deeply,  just a restatement of Cartesian Dualism, discussed elsewhere in this blog (Descartes and the Philosophical Crisis of Modern Science). But , contrary to Descartes, the mind does regulate the body (as Aristotle and even Plato understood over 2300 years ago).  So if this fact cannot be accommodated by physicalist reductionism (without resorting to epiphenomenalism and other absurd arguments), then so much the worse for completeness:

Start with Completeness. Baker (1993), not herself a Cartesian dualist, argues that if the principle threatens to undermine our ordinary (and scientific) explanatory practices—many of which cite the mental—it’s Completeness that has to go. Entrenched explanatory practices trump any abstract metaphysical principles with which they might conflict (see also §§6.3, 7.5). Others argue that physical science, far from supporting the principle, may in fact undermine it. Hendry (2006) finds indications of “downward causation” in chemistry, while Stapp (2005) culls evidence from contemporary physics suggesting that there are, contrary to Completeness, causal gaps in the physical world, gaps filled in by the mental (see also Sturgeon 1998; Davies 2006). Emergentists in general deny the principle, either on scientific grounds or by appeal to our conscious experiences of agency (see emergent properties, esp. §4). And although the death of emergentism has been declared more than once on empirical grounds (McLaughlin 1992; Papineau 2000), the view continues to attract philosophers and scientists. (See, e.g., the contributions to Clayton and Davies 2006; Bedau and Humphreys 2008; Macdonald and Macdonald 2010.)  – from Mental Causation: The Completeness of the Physical

Cartesian Dualism and the Denial of Mind-Body Causality

Cartesian Dualism still dominates modern science and philosophy of mind.  Once we have accepted as valid the substance dualism of Descartes, the division of the universe into two mutually exclusive and collectively exhaustive substances (or forms of being) res extensa and res cogitans, we cannot ever, even in principle, arrive at a unified view of the world.  The word ‘physical’ after Descartes came to mean res extensa (the extended stuff or extended being or extended substance) which is said to exist in contradistinction to res cogitans (the cognitive substance, being or ‘stuff’).  Thus any attempt to find mind in the physical world or the physical in mind is doomed to failure as mind has been defined out of physical existence!

According to the doctrine of Cartesian Dualism, because mind and body (res cogitans and res extensa) are radically unique, mutually exclusive and collectively exhaustive forms of being, there can be no conceivable or possible causal interaction between mind and body.  For causality requires a sharing of place and time at which the causal interaction occurs, as well as a common interface for interaction, such a sharing is their common locus of interaction. But mind (res cogitans) is, by definition,  by its very nature if you will, devoid of extension and therefore locus and therefore causal power.

Mind-body dualism was not the product of scientific  investigation, since any form of human investigation depends upon the validity of empirical observation and therefore upon the validity of sense perception as the basis for all knowledge and cognitive investigation.  All knowledge of the external world depends upon fundamental (i.e. perceptual)  cognitive contact with the world.  As philosophers we may ask ‘What is the nature of perception?’ As scientists we may ask ‘How is perceptual contact with the world and its cognitive integrity and validity achieved?’

What then was the basis for Descartes’ dualist division of the world into two mutually exclusive substances, mind and matter?   His insight was the product of pure intellectual intuition, which he held as ‘clear and certain’, a rationalist criterion for fundamental truth which Descartes invented or intuited.  Clarity and certainty are themselves of course properties cognition itself, and not properties of the external world.  Clarity and certainty, according to Descartes, were the desiderata of all true knowledge.  To be clear and certain meant to be unable to cognitively deny  or rationally doubt any facts possessing these epistemological qualities.

Hume Abandons Substance Causality

With the emergence of the Cartesian ‘New Science’, only physical (material) causes are scientifically determinable.  But such material causes, according to Descartes, are not intrinsic to material objects themselves, but are rather mathematically quantifiable, external relationships between the physical pushes and pulls, i.e., the mere mechanics of the interaction of objects.  This raised the question of whether such causal relationships are clear and certain, epistemologically.  Descartes argues ‘yes’, but this view is challenged in the 18th century by the philosopher David Hume.

Causality, for Hume  does not, as it does for Aristotle, refer to the capabilities and necessary activities following from the internal nature of entities (or substances).   But, as Descartes’ new science held, refers only the the external relationships between objects as they are perceived under common observation.  Hume denied that the law of causality (action and reaction) had anything to do with the law of identity (the internal nature of entities).  Hume believed, matter is, as the Neoplatonist science from Descartes to Newton held, simple, passive, featureless , unchangeable,  inert, uniform, ‘extended’ stuff, capable of being moved but never of self movement.  Thus it followed that all that exists in physical reality are passive particles of matter in motion.  Matter has (given this view) no interesting or important internal  ontology to be studied.  So all that is possible to matter is induced motion and therefore all that is possible as a cause is the relative impacts (actions) and deflections (reactions) of material particles or aggregates of the same (billiard balls, being the classical example), i.e., Newton’s laws of motion, and that is all.

Thus Hume’s theory of causality was a necessary direct deduction from the Neoplatonic a priori doctrine of passive matter instantiated as material particles in motion.  But Hume went beyond this shared view of causality and held that causality was in fact entirely subjective.  Cause and effect cannot, he held, be directly perceived, or observed in nature.  What can be observed are consistent reactions following from given (controlled) impacts of objects.  The necessity underlying these reactions are illusory, and entirely the product of expectations on the part of the observer, expectations involving associations the perceived events that are expected to follow other perceived events.  The latter are called effects, the former their ’cause.’  But where is the causality in this arrangement?  Only in the mind of the beholder, says Hume.   Causality, as an ontological category is not given to the senses but is merely the manifestation of expectation re-injected into the situation by the habitual expectations of the observer.

Humian Subjectivism and Solipsism

But, one might object, Surely the law of causality is based on the laws of motion and surely these are discovered through sensory observation.  Hume would reply that observation is a function of the mind, res cogitans.  Yet mind cannot be causally impacted by the physical world (nor vice versa), for the simple reason that res cogitans and res extensa are ontologically mutually independent, sharing no common characteristics, and cannot therefore interact!  Hume understood this very well, being a dualist, and argued that the content of the mind consists entirely of  mental ideas, the product of mental integrations of mental states, such as sensations generated in the sense organs, sensations which create their own subjective experiences and which, by their very nature, cannot ever be in contact with the physical world as their cause, nor even identify the being of an external world as apart from the being of the sensations themselves.  Indeed, the sensations cannot even be assumed to represent causal events in the external world.  The mind is given sensation and not their causes.  These latter are imagined or constructed from human expectations or assumptions.

Thus all that man has available to him is an awareness of sensations which may (or may not) have a regularity in temporal sequences and whose assumed external causes (objects and their properties) are strictly unknowable.  Such temporal sequences or regularities of sensations (or perceptions) are all that can be used as the basis for assuming, or more precisely, imagining something about an external world and its causal laws.

Through this process of reasoning, Hume was the first thorough-going solipsist.  Given Hume’s view of consciousness, how then does man come to navigate the external world so successfully?  Hume would say, by associative learning and automated habits and expectations.  Thus sensations when acted upon in a particular mechanical (behavioral) way yield other sensations that are followed by pain, pleasure, frustration or satisfaction.  And so, Hume was also the unintended great-grandfather of radical behaviorism.   To fully understand the implications of the  Humian solipsist universe on man’s mind and his subjective beliefs about the mind’s causal powers as well as the causal powers of external objects, which are themselves subjective products of his own imagination, read or better still see, The Matrix series.

Radical Physicalism Denial of res cogitans

Turning Humean subjectivism and cognitive solipsism on its head, modern science has embraced and is fully dominated by the idea of universal physicalism,  which argues for a materialist monism. This form of monism rejects Cartesian dualism, and argues that if mind exists at all, it must be material and part of the physical world, and therefore must be a manifestation of  a state or property of matter.  For example psycho-neural reductionism, a form of physicalism, argues that the mind must be the activity of the brain (or nervous system).  Thus consciousness would be merely a complex physical (or physiochemical) state of the brain.

For the modern radical materialist, the very concept of ‘real’ means ‘having a basis in material existence’ or ‘being a consequence of matter and its physical properties, and only these.  This means that no principles are necessary to explain all entities or substances composed of matter, except the laws of physics (and the derived laws of chemistry) themselves.   ”Real’ also means, in modern science, having causal consequences or exhibiting causal laws or being fully reducible to physical laws of matter with nothing added in terms of higher level principles or non-physical forces or substances.

It is important to remember that the concept of cause, in modern science, still embraces the Humian definition of causality as the measurement of a regular ordered external relationship between two or more external events, where an event is the measured (observed) mechanical (or physical) interaction between two or more objects.  Remember also, that the Humean as well as the physicalist  views reject as meaningless the idea of internal, native, or immanent causality.

Philosophy’s Self-Imposed ‘Paradox’ of Mind vs. Body

The mind-body problem can be stated simply as the question: Can mind (consciousness) be reducible without remainder to body (physical extensiveness)? As indicated above, this question was answered in the affirmative in light of in Descartes’ dualism of res extensa versus res cogitans, accompanied, in radial physicalism, with the fundamental rejection of the latter as unreal, by virtue of the fact that res cogitans has, by definition, no physical being.  This dualism explicitly writes consciousness out of the physical world, by defining the physical as the non-mental and vice-versa.  If one accepts this radical definition of mind and matter (as mutually exclusive, collectively exhaustive and non-interactive) then it becomes absolutely impossible, epistemologically or ontologically, to ever explain mind in physical terms or to reduce the mental to the physical.  It is impossible because one has made it methodologically, ontologically and epistemologically illogical, and invalid to even speak of mind and matter in terms of mutual reducibility or ontological foundational equivalence.  Nor can one argue logically for a common ontological origin or substantial foundation of mind and matter (the arguments of Spinoza to the contrary not withstanding).

Nor can one argue coherently that mind is an emergent behavioral property of living beings which has survival value in terms of Darwinian evolution, whereby consciousness is said to have a pragmatic functional influence in so far as it is correlated with behavior that promotes the survival of the organism.  By this argument, consciousness is itself the product of evolution having been selected for its survival value.  Thomas Nagel has recently published a profound book summarizing his many years of thought on this and other related ideas regarding the origin and nature of consciousness.  His recent book was given the intensionally provocative title:  Mind & Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False. Defending Nagel’s book against its critics, among at the many astute insights presented in his blog on this topic, Edward Feser has offered the following cogent argument:

. . . Similarly, the “physical” facts as the materialist conceives of them cannot possibly account for consciousness precisely because the conception of the physical the materialist has inherited from early modern thinkers like Galileo, Descartes, and Co. has defined the mental out of the physical, making the physical as devoid of mental features as the symbols on the screen of a calculator are devoid of any inherent, non-derived arithmetical content.  You will never get even a partial explanation of the arithmetical content, specifically, of the symbols displayed by a pocket calculator by doing physics alone and ignoring the intentions of designers and users.  Neither, in Nagel’s view, will you get anywhere close to an explanation of consciousness if you confine yourself to the physical as the physical is understood by materialists (as opposed to the various conceptions defended by neutral monists, panpsychists, Aristotelians, and others). – from Edward Feser in his blog: ‘Nagel and His Critics’, Part VII .

NOTE: In the opinion of the bioperipatetic, Nagel’s book is a ‘must-read’ and Feser’s  defense of Nagel’s book is a well-reasoned and clearly argued literary achievement, which, it goes without saying, is also highly recommended to our readers.

Action-at-a-Distance and the Modern Concept of Fields

Newtonian science was built on a composite approach to mechanical causality.  Components of wholes consist of arrangements of matter that obey the same causal laws: the laws of motion and of mechanical action (including elastic collision and rebound).   But much of modern science, even at the level of physics (leaving aside  quantum mechanics for now), deals with causes that are not strictly mechanical (exhibiting merely particle motion, collision and rebound).

As far back as Newton, with his brilliant concept of universal gravitation, new concepts of remote forces (forces that do not represent physical contact of body-upon-body) emerged in physical science.   Yet even today the concept of non-contact force is considered an occult phenomenon, for it implies action at a distance, i.e., object interaction without intervening material substrate to carry or propagate the causal interaction.    This is especially true when these forces were said to exist in the presence of a spacial void (empty space) as is often still claimed by modern science.    How, for instance, does gravity pull on bodies?  How does magnetism attract or repel metallic objects or other magnetized objects?

To explain forces without what Einstein called ‘spooky action at a distance,’ modern physics introduced the concept of the field.  Fields are viewed as real but not physical (not themselves material nor matter in motion)–see Faraday.   Yet the ontology of forces, and therefore of fields, is not clearly understood nor even fully embraced by modern physics.  Fields are physical purely by virtue of the fact that they can influence the motions of particles and are susceptible to mathematical modeling.   Fields are, essentially, the geometric (spacial) domains within which their associated forces (gravity, magnetism, electricity) have the power to influence other objects.

Physical Causality as a Product of Emergent Complexity

The phenomena of magnetism, electricity, and gravity are central to modern physics, yet they are known to modern quantum physics to be in fact emergent, in that they only come into existence (or rather emerge) as a function or property of very large aggregates of self-organized particles or molecules.  Thus, modern physics tells us that magnetism and gravity do not exist at the subatomic level, but are macroscopic phenomena with emergent macroscopic laws that are not reducible to the laws and actions of the microstructure (or ultrastructure) upon which they rest.  (See A Different Universe: Reinventing Physics from the Bottom Downby R. B. Laughlin, Winner of the Nobel Prize  in Physics for his work on the Quantum Hall Phenomenon).  

What are these forces really?  What are fields really?  What, in other words, is their ontology?  Modern science has given up attempts to understand or theorized the ontology of physical phenomena (see  Scientific Nihilism: On the Loss and Recovery of Physical Explanation by  Daniel Athearn).  Instead, physicists limit themselves to mathematical modeling and prediction of  one event (or state) from the known quantitive properties of a given physical system.

Consciousness and Field Theory

Surely the concept of fields as the geometric dynamic locus of influence between objects and distributed forces is one key to understanding consciousness as a causal principle whose locus of causal power is the entire body of any conscious organism.  It is certainly true that we do not yet have an ontology that explains how such a phenomena or power such as consciousness physically interacts with and motivates the actions of living bodies.  But neither do physicists currently have an ontology for explaining how electromagnetism and gravity actually interact physically with material bodies to move them through attraction or repulsion without physical contact (whatever that turns out to mean).  This does not make the nature of field forces ‘occult’ but only mysterious, i.e., not explainable in terms of science’s current understanding of the causal basis (ontology) of physical bodies interacting with fields of force. The same may be said for mental causality — though consciousness, though relational, is not necessarily a field phenomenon.

Recovering Causality in Aristotle’s Philosophy

One of the key constraints that prevents modern physics from understanding active entities, is their persistent embrace of Humian causality that considers only external relationships and event sequences as the exhaustive meaning of causality.  What is needed is a philosophical resurgence in modern science of the multiple aspects of causality, specifically the four-perspective view of causality taught by Aristotle.

Hume who sees only the efficient cause and sees it as an external relationship between the motions of two or more objects, and not involving the internal ontology of the objects involved.  By contrast, Aristotle doctrine of causality refers to the capability of an entity of a certain type to act on or be acted upon by other entities.  Capability is understood as a potentiality of an entity for change.  Aristotle defined change itself as the actualization of potentiality.  The actions and reaction possible are a function of the nature, i.e., the identity, including the potentiality, of the entity in question.  Ultimately, what is possible to an entity is determined by its manifest nature as that form of entity, i.e. by the substance of that entity.  Aristotle argues that the cause of some change is that which provides us with the answer to ‘why’ that change occurred.  Aristotle believe that there are four possible explanations of the ‘why’ of change.  These are Aristotle’s famous four causes regarding why a bronze statue came to be:

  • The material cause: “that out of which”, e.g., the bronze of a statue.
  • The formal cause: “the form”, “the account of what-it-is-to-be”, e.g., the shape of a statue.
  • The efficient cause: “the primary source of the change or rest”, e.g., the artisan, the art of bronze-casting the statue, the man who gives advice, the father of the child.
  • The final cause: “the end, that for the sake of which a thing is done”, e.g., health is the end of walking, losing weight, purging, drugs, and surgical tools. – from Aristotle on Causality,  by Andrea Falcon in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Aristotle argued that a scientist, a student of the natural world, must thoroughly understand the nature, interrelations, and applications of these causal principles in his quest for understanding why nature is the way she is.  Aristotle emphasizes the fundamentality of final cause, especially for the understanding of generation and creation. He believes that to understand a thing and how it came to be or change, one must understand that thing  in terms of its final actualized form.

Aristotle explores the systematic interrelations among the four modes of causality and argues for the explanatory priority of the final cause. In so doing Aristotle not only expands on his theory of causality; he also builds explanatory principles that are specific to the study of nature. Aristotle considers these principles an indispensable theoretical framework for a successful investigation of the natural world. Both Physics II and Parts of Animals have a foundational character. More directly, Aristotle expects the student of nature to have mastered these principles before engaging in the investigation of any aspect of the natural world.  – from Aristotle on Causality

If Aristotelian causality, the power of active beings to act on the world and on themselves, in its four-perspective ontology, is applied to living processes, including and especially processes of embodied consciousness, the path is opened to a new view of mental causality, a view that is monist and not dualist in nature.  A monist theory of mind that recognizes the full causal power of mind to animate and regulate the body is possible and needed.  Fortunately,  the renowned neuroscientist Dr. Roger W. Sperry has developed such a monist, mentalist theory of consciousness, granting consciousness full causal power over itself and the body.

Sperry’s Emergence Theory of Causal Consciousness

In 1964 Sperry wrote a paper, Problems outstanding in the evolution of brain function. James Arthur Lecture, American Museum of Natural History, New York, reprinted in The Encyclopaedia of Ignorance (1977) (eds DUNCAN R. & WESTON-SMITHM.) pp. 423-433.  That 1964 paper described biological evolution as a series of newly emerging forces manifesting new scientific laws that supersede without cancellation the laws from which they emerge.  Sperry describes this process without using the term ’emergent’, but the emergent nature of the phenomena is clearly articulated:

Evolution keeps complicating the universe by adding new phenomena that have new properties and new forces and that are regulated by new scientific principles and new scientific laws—all for future scientists in their respective disciplines to discover and formulate. Note also that the old simple laws and primeval forces of the hydrogen age never get lost or cancelled in the process of compounding the compounds. They do, however, get superseded, over­whelmed, and outclassed by the higher-level forces as these successively appear at the atomic, the molecular and the cellular and higher levels (SPERRY, 1964).

… recall that a molecule in many respects is the master of its inner atoms and electrons. The latter are hauled and forced about in chemical interactions by the overall con­figurational properties of the whole molecule. At the same time, if our given molecule is itself part of a single-celled organism such as paramecium, it in turn is obliged, with all its parts and its partners, to follow along a trail of events in time and space determined largely by the extrinsic overall dynamics Of Paramecium Caudatum.  (Sperry, 1964).

Sperry concludes his argument with the nature of brains and the special powers of the mind, including perception and cognition, whose causal dynamic laws supersede their underlying neuro-chemical forces:

When it comes to brains, remember that the simpler electric, atomic, molecu­lar, and cellular forces and laws, though still present and operating, have been superseded by the configurational forces of higher-level mechanisms. At the top, in the human brain, these include the powers of perception, cognition, reason, judgment, and the like, the operational, causal effects and forces of which are equally or more potent in brain dynamics than are the outclassed inner chemical forces (Sperry, 1964).

In 1980, Sperry wrote his theory of mind as emergent “mental properties that interact by laws and principles different from, and not reducible to those of neurophysiology”. In the abstract of his seminal and revolutionary article, MIND-BRAIN INTERACTION: MENTALISM, YES; DUALISM, NO, R. W. Sperry (1980) wrote:

A traditional working hypothesis in neuroscience holds that a complete account of brain function is possible, in principle, in strictly neurophysiological terms without invoking conscious or mental agents; the neural correlates of subjective experience are conceived to exert causal influence but not mental qualities per se. This long established materialist-behaviorist principle has been challenged in recent years by the introduction of a modified concept of the mind-brain relation in which conscious­ness is conceived to be emergent and causal. Psychophysical interaction is explained in terms of the emergence in nesting brain hierarchies of high order, functionally derived, mental properties that interact by laws and principles different from, and not reducible to those of neurophysiology. Reciprocal upward and downward, interlevel determination of the mental and neural action is accounted for on these terms without violating the principles of scientific explanation and without reducing the qualities of inner experience to those of physiology. Interaction of mind and brain becomes not only conceivable and scientifically tenable, but more plausible in some respects than were the older parallelist and identity views of the materialist position. –  Sperry,  Mind-Brain Interaction: Mentalism, Yes; Dualism, No, by R. W. Sperry, CIT, Division of Biology,  reproduced in Neuroscience Vol. F, pp. 195-206, Pergamon Press Ltd, 1980 [PDF format].

Sperry consistently argues that his theory is not dualist (demanding two independent substances: consciousness and matter) but rather monist (representing a single substance, not mere ‘matter’ but the organism, that evolves multiple levels of organization each with its own non-reducible level of causality).

This revised concept of consciousness as causal, with its recognition of mental phenomena as explanatory constructs in science, has brought a marked change during the past decade in the scientific status of consciousness and of mental and cognitive phenomena generally. …Reasons are advanced to show that our latest mind-brain model is fundamentally monistic and not only fails to support dualism, but serves to further discount fading prospects for finding dualist forms or domains of conscious experience  not embodied in a functioning brain. –  Sperry,  Mind-Brain Interaction: Mentalism, Yes; Dualism, No.

Sperry goes on in his paper to articulate the need to retain the traditional definitions of dualism and monism:

Dualism and monism have long repre­sented a dichotomy that offers opposing answers to one of man’s most critical and enduring concerns, namely, Can conscious experience exist apart from the brain? Dualism, affirming the existence of inde­pendent mental and physical worlds, says ‘yes’ and opens the door to a conscious after-life and to many kinds of supernatural, paranormal and other-worldly beliefs. Monism, on the other hand, restricts its answers to one-world dimensions and says ‘no’ to an independent existence of conscious mind apart from the functioning brain. –  Sperry,  Mind-Brain Interaction: Mentalism, Yes; Dualism, No.

Sperry argues that his mentalist position as clearly not a materialist nor a reductionist theory of mind, but one that stresses the “functional primacy of mental phenomena and their role as high-level causal determinants , obeying laws [not reducible to whose of their constituent materials and processes]”. In Sperry’s own words:

Finally, in defense of the mentalist rather than the materialist designation, I would only add the follow­ing: If there is anything in this world that has been commonly defined as a contrast to the material or physical, it is the intangibles of conscious experience. The psychological contents of mind from their first recognition in language, philosophy and science, have been treated by tradition as opposites of physical and material in the mind-matter dichotomy. Accordingly, a position can hardly be called materialist if its very essence and reason for being is a new antimaterialist stress on the existence and functional primacy of men­tal phenomena and their role as high level causal determinants in brain function, obeying laws that are different in kind from those of their constituent material, neuronal and electrochemical processes. A mentalist is defined in behavioral science as one who, in opposition to behaviorist doctrine contends that mental entities and laws are involved in determining behavior and are needed to explain it. The concept of consciousness as causal emergent has been presented from the outset as a view that restores to science the common-sense impression (overruled during the behaviorist-materialist era) that we do indeed have mind and mental faculties over and above, and differ­ent from, our brain physiology—just as we have cellu­lar properties that are over and above and different from their molecular constituents.  –  Sperry,  Mind-Brain Interaction: Mentalism, Yes; Dualism, No.

Embodied Mind (or Brain)

Often completely overlooked in trying to understand the nature of consciousness are the following five principles:

  1. That all cognitive processes are based upon and derived from the perceptual level of awareness.
  2. That all forms of cognition require that the knowing organism actively and intentionally engage its environment my probing that environment with its body parts, including its sense organs.
  3. Bodily engaging the environment results in a correlation of organism (self) induced features of the ambient array of stimulation impinging on and absorb by the organs of perception.
  4. That the organism is, at the sensory level, automatically capable of responding to pattern invariants under transformation that proceed from object interaction controlled by self-initiated and self-controlled motions of the body and the sense organs.
  5. Finally, no sensory experience is ever strictly passive.  All cognitive contact with the external (and internal) world fully dynamic.  Without these body-controlled volitionally induced dynamic invariants detected by the sensory system, NO PERCEPTION IS POSSIBLE.

Thus, although a brain may be ‘vatted’ a mind cannot be.  A vatted brain is a passive brain, a tabula rasa that cannot yield consciousness, cannot differentiate its content from the properties in the external world giving rise to them.  An embodied mind is not a mind driven by its hosting body, but rather a hosted body directed by its brain to serve the function of contact with and controlled navigation through the world to be explored by the mind.  A mind whose function is to preserve the body and use it to learn how to build its vision of the not-yet here.

Because modern neuroscience (its protestations to the contrary not withstanding) has never freed itself from the vicious and fully arbitrary doctrine of Cartesian Dualism, where the material, the real, must be and ONLY be extension in space (res extensa), and therefore geometric; while mind must be and ONLY be ideation, cognition (res cogitans), with no mechanism by which mind may interact with and identify the extended being of res extensa.  Yet mind and body do not live parallel lives in two realms as two mutually exclusive substances.  Mind inhabits the body, wherever in our body we can feel, sense or perceive or probe for the nature of anything, there is mind.

Neuroscience (now and in its entire past) has always regarded the brain as a material object (a highly complex structured organ, but still essentially a material object).  Mind, by contrast, is either held to be non-material (usually meaning supernatural) or in fact material with its subjective properties being illusory, for matter can have no ‘qualities’ (according to physical reductionist doctrine.)

So how is the field of neuroscience  to resolve the nature of mind-in-brain, without reducing the former to the latter.  It cannot, given its current doctrines which it refuses to yield or deeply examine.  Based as it is on physics as its fundamental roots, it is locked into the physicalist’s view of matter, which, Raymond Tallis characterizes as follows:

The physicalist gaze, of which neuroscience is a part, squeezes consciousness, appearances, out of the world.  – from Aping Mankind, by Raymond Tallis, Accumen Publishing, 2011, p. 353

This is the exactly proper way to characterize Cartesian Dualism.  Extended stuff (res extensa) is defined, I repeat, defined to stand radically and irrecoverably opposed to mind (res cogitans).  Once this fatal dualism is imbibed by all of science, there is no way to bring mind and matter back together.   So clearly the only proper approach to solving this dilemma is to reexamine the history of the fundamental premises of modern physics and neuroscience, and to find a proper way to understand that mind and body are two collections of real facts that naturally interact in such a way that there is causality in both directions.

Modern Neo-Aristotelians are wisely going back to Aristotle, who was the first to see man as an integrated unity of mind and body.  Aristotle saw man’s form of mind as characterized by the faculty of reason.  Thus his announcement: ‘Man is the rational animal.’  For Aristotle all that exists, all that is real, consists  of the integration of two co-dependent principles: hyle and eidos.  Unfortunately, these two concepts are often poorly translated as matter and idea, leading to a totally incorrect view that Aristotle, the ultimate realist, was in fact, like Plato, an idealist.   Aristotle did not mean by hyle anything like what modern science calls ‘matter.’  Rather hyle for Aristotle was an abstract principle that states that all that exists must be formed from some sort of  stuff, a stuff that is appropriate to that form of being, not a universal stuff, not the modern doctrine of universal matter.  For a complete and deeply reasoned book on the nature of Aristotle’s physis, see The Nature of Physical Existence, by Ivor Leclerc.

For a further and more in depth discussion of the causal efficacy of mind see the related page on Emergence of Mind .  For more on the need and consequence of resurrecting the valuable insights of  Aristotle, see Recovering Aristotle.

¹· There is something fundamentally important about Descartes’ concept of ‘clarity’ and the associated concept of ‘certainty’ derived therefrom.  For it points out an essential property of conscious awareness: All forms of awareness have at all times a dimension of ‘clarity’ and (as we will discuss in depth in other pages on this site) the objectively causal property of  of ‘specificity.   This latter is a scientific technical term which  refers to the the relationship between the physical information (ultimately the patterns of ambient energy gradients) given in to the sensory system as its static or dynamic ‘input’, on the one hand, and the clarity or non-ambiguity with which the corresponding object of perception is experienced .  To take an example from perception: When we see a distant object, perhaps on the horizon, we can always classifying our perception of it as clear or vague, precise or ambiguous, clearly differentiated from other objects and from its background, or difficult to differentiate.  The psychophysical measurement of this is called specificity.  This term was first defined by Dr. Robert Efron in his paper entitled What is Perception?, Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science, IV, Holland, 1969.

Emergence and Neo-Aristotelianism

With the abandonment of Aristotle’s four causes,, causes as ‘powers’ were banished, with the important exception of very recent attempts to recover Aristotle, (see Recovering Aristotle) through Neo-Aristotleism.   From the perspective of Neo-Aristotelianism in the philosophy of science, the idea of emergent principles and laws can now be shown to be logically derivative from the Neo-Aristotelian principle of hylomorphism, which holds that all substances (from molecules to men) manifest an ontological duality (not dualism) consisting of two interdependent principles of being (ontos), namely that any  substance (ousia)  must be understood both (1) in terms of its matter (more precisely hyle), which provides the explanatory principle for that substance’s potentiality (dynamis), as well as (2) in terms of its form (eidos), its principle of organization, configuration or order, which provides the explanatory principle for that substance’s actuality (energia).  These two principles underlie the two corresponding principles of change, namely (1) the material cause and (2) the formal cause of a substance’s being (ontos) and change (kinesis).  For Aristotle, causality is the (formal) actualization of a (material) potentiality in so far as it remains a potentiality.

For man and all animate beings, Aristotelianism holds that mind is the formal and the body the material principle  of man’s very being (ontos) qua man.   For man’s form of mind is rational and his body animal, thus Aristotle’s formulation of man as the rational animal, with mind being man’s formal causal principle, that which, for the most part, accounts for man’s  actual nature qua man.  Mind, psyche (psuche) regulates the specific and overall powers of his body and dominates his being.  Thus, from the perspective of causality, psuche is the formal cause of human thought and action.

It is important to remember that by form Aristotle meant not merely a concrete static order, shape, or configuration,  but both a dynamic and abstract order defining an underlying essential principle.  The principle of a man’s mind, psyche (psuche) is that in the man’s being that is invariant under transformation.  It is thus an abstract principle that defines a form of constancy in the face of formal change (transformation) not merely morphological but functional in nature.   Interestingly, we see this same concept of invariance under transformation underlying the nature of perception in the system of James J. Gibson, which is, beyond their shared realism, the fundamental connection between Gibson and Aristotle.

Aristotle’s Soul-Body:  Neither Dualist nor Materialist

Aristotle developed a conception of the relationship between soul and body that is in no way either dualist or materialist.  Aristotle defends the idea that both body and soul must coexist as a unified active substance and are as such inseparable from one another.  He rejects bot Platonic Dualism, where the soul transcends the physical realm, as well as reductive materialism, where both soul and body are reducible to matter with no immaterial remainder.

In the same way, then, the presence of the soul explains why this matter is the matter of a human being, as opposed to some other kind of thing. Now, this way of looking at soul-body relations as a special case of form-matter relations treats reference to the soul as an integral part of any complete explanation of a living being, of any kind. To this degree, Aristotle thinks that Plato and other dualists are right to stress the importance of the soul in explanations of living beings. At the same time, he sees their commitment to the separability of the soul from the body as unjustified merely by appeal to formal causation: he will allow that the soul is distinct from the body, and is indeed the actuality of the body, but he sees that these concessions by themselves provide no grounds for supposing that the soul can exist without the body. His hylomorphism, then, embraces neither reductive materialism nor Platonic dualism. Instead, it seeks to steer a middle course between these alternatives by pointing out, implicitly, and rightly, that these are not exhaustive options. -from Aristotle’s Psychology, by Christopher ShieldsFirst published Jan 11, 2000;  Revised Jan 8, 2016; in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

One author argues explicitly that Aristotle is offering a ‘third way’ to understand the unity of substantial being.  The author holds that Aristotle cannot be understood in terms of the strictly either-or framework of the materialism-dualism dichotomy.

Given this theory of the soul, including its implications for the nature of the mind, Aristotle’s views cannot be assimilated into the seemingly strict either-or choice between materialism and dualism1 that often characterizes contemporary debates about philosophy of mind (Searle 204). Aristotle cannot be a dualist because he clearly rejects the idea of the soul as something ontologically distinct from the body. But neither can Aristotle be a materialist, for such an interpretation would make his basic contrast between soul as the form of the living organism and body as the matter incoherent. Aristotle, it seems, is offering us a third and new choice in the philosophy of mind, despite the propensity to interpret him as either a kind of materialist or a kind of dualist (Sorabji 163).2

Irreducible Consciousness Scientifically Explicable

This paper in no way denies, but fully embraces the need for scientific explanations of how the power of consciousness is achieved, physically and biologically, as well as how it physically and biologically influence and controls the processes of human thought and action. I have attempted to address one aspect of consciousness, viz. perception, from the physical, biochemical, and biological perspective and have formulated a theory of perception very much dependent upon and in the full spirits of both Aristotle and J. J. Gibson.   But any scientific attempt to discover and explain the nature of consciousness, at any level of human (or animal) functioning,  presupposes as axiomatic, consciousness and the causal power of the mind.

  1. Mental Causation: The Completeness of the PhysicalDavid Robb and John Heil, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2013.
  2. Descartes and the Philosophical Crisis of Modern Science, bioperipatetic, October 27 , 2015,
  3. Recovering Aristotle, bioperipatetic, Latest Revision: December 27, 2015.
  4. Emergent Properties, by Timothy O’Connor, First published Sep 24, 2002; substantive revision Jun 3, 2015
  5. The Matrix, the movie released on 31 March 1999 (USA)
  6. Mind & Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False, by Thomas Nagel,  Oxford University Press, 2012.
  7. ‘Nagel and His Critics’, Part VII ., by Edward Feser,  on his eponymous blog, March 21, 2013.
  8.  The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception, James J. Gibson, 
  9. Water: A Thomistic Approach to Emergence and Causal Powers,

Published on: Aug 6, 2014 @ 10:21 pm

Latest Revision: February 2, 2019 @ 1:01 pm

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