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Higher-Order Causation

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We have a familiar idea of levels of description or levels of theory in science: microphysics, atomic physics, chemistry, biology, psychology, and the various social sciences. It is clear that philosophers - such as Terry Horgan - who want to be nonreductive materialists with regard to the mental must hold that this is not mere description; there must be genuine higher-level causes, and hence, genuine higher-level properties, in particular mental properties and causes.

But there appears to be a deep problem concerning mental causes. The (micro-) physical world is causally closed. Mental states are - or depend on or are realized by - physical states. It seems, then, that the physical state on which a mental state depends will be responsible for any alleged effects of the mental state. There will be no room for mental causation. And if properties exist insofar at they have a causal role, there will be no room for mental properties either.

Many philosophers - Horgan included - have seen this problem of the "causalexclusion" ofthe mental as a specialcase of a general problem:the exclusion of higher-level causes by the causal closure of microphysics. Suppose one higher-level state, H1 leads to another higher-level state, H2. H1 is realized by some base level state, B1, which leads to a base-level state, B2, which in turn realizes H2. All of the casual work, so to speak, takes place at the base level. There is no room for any genuine causal connection between H1, as such, and H2, as such.

I argue that there is no problem about higher-order causation in general. There are genuine, unsurprising higher-level causes and properties. A ball roles, for example, or breaks a window. If there is a problem of exclusion regarding putative mental causes, it is not an instance of a general exclusion problem, but is sui generis, and mental causation remains mysterious.

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: 2002-06-01

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