Mental Causation

Mental Causation

Mental Causation

Mental Causation


Common sense and philosophical tradition agree that mind makes a difference. What we do depends not only on how our bodies are put together, but also on what we think. Explaining how mind can make a difference has proved challenging, however. Some have urged that the project faces an insurmountable dilemma: either we concede that mentalistic explanations of behavior have only a pragmatic standing or we abandon our conception of the physical domain as causally autonomous. Although each option has its advocates, most theorists have sought a middle way that accommodates both the common-sense view of mind and the metaphysical conviction about the physical world. This volume presents a collection of new, specially written essays by a diverse group of philosophers, each of whom is widely known for defending a particular conception of minds and their place in nature. Contributors include Robert Audi, Lynne Rudder Baker, Tyler Burge, Donald Davidson, Fred Dretske, Ted Honderich, Jennifer Hornsby, Frank Jackson, Jaegwon Kim, Brian P. McLaughlin, Ruth Garrett Millikan, H. W. Noonan, Philip Pettit, Ernest Sosa, and Robert Van Gulick.


Common sense and a long philosophical tradition agree that mind makes a difference. What we do depends not only on what our bodies are made of, but on what we think as well. Criticizing Anaxagoras for contending that 'Mind . . . causes all things' and then adducing only physical causes, Socrates argues:

His position was like that of a man who said that all the actions of Socrates are due to his mind, and then attempted to give the causes of my several actions by saying that the reason why I am now sitting here is that my body is composed of bones and sinews, and that the bones are hard and separated by joints, while the sinews, which can be tightened or relaxed, envelop the bones along with the flesh and skin which hold them together; so that when the bones move about in their sockets, the sinews, by lessening or increasing the tension, make it possible for me at this moment to bend my limbs, and that is the cause of my sitting here in this bent position. Analogous causes might also be given of my conversing with you . . . to the neglect of the true causes, to wit that, inasmuch as the Athenians have thought it better to condemn me, I too in my turn have thought it better to sit here, and more right and proper to stay where I am and submit to such punishment as they enjoin. For, by Jingo, I fancy these same sinews and bones would long since have been somewhere in Megara or Boeotia, impelled by their notion of what was best, if I had not thought it right and proper to submit to the penalty appointed by the State rather than take to my heels and run away. (Plato, Phaedo, 98c-99a)

Aristotle more concisely captures the popular idea that mental states and events drive intentional behaviour in Book 6 of the Nicomachean Ethics: 'The origin of action--its efficient, not its final cause--is choice, and that of choice is desire and reasoning with a view to an end' (1139a 31-3). Descartes, too, echoes common sense in remarking that 'everyone feels that he is a single person with both body and thought so related by nature that the thought can move the body and feel the things which happen to it' (Kenny 1970, p. 142).

Explaining how mind can make a difference has proved challenging, however. In a letter to Descartes, Princess Elizabeth of Bohemia observes that 'it would be easier for me to attribute matter and extension to the soul, than to attribute to an immaterial body . . .

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