Sep 212015

mental-causationSome people believe that there is a separation between the causal events of the world, and the consciousness that happens or that arises from such. In other words, even if the mental may be caused by the physical or is in ways correlated to it, they’d suggest that the mental has no causation back to the physical. This rejection of mental causation most often stems from either:

A) A certain type of dualistic notion of consciousness – meaning that the mental is something different than the physical, even if there are physical correlates, and the physical doesn’t require the mental for the very behavior that happens (e.g. epiphenomenalism).


B) Overly reductionistic notions of causality – meaning seeing causality as only the smallest particle interactions and a rejection for the need for large scale causal influence that in some way differs.

Both of these positions I am against (meaning they make little sense to me). As a physicalist, I don’t view the mental as being something separate from the physical, rather, like properties such as roundness, rolling, or wetness, …I think consciousness is something that arises from very specific matter/energy configurations as they play out and plays back down into the very causality it arises from. In other words, I truly think that consciousness is an output of brain states that is no separate than roundness is from the ball that is round – nor can it simply be reduced down to it’s parts. For more info on that read here:

Dualistic (rather than monist) notions of the physical being seperate from consciousness tend to lead to the this idea that identical philosophical zombies are possible: the idea that we could have an identical world with humans doing identical actions with the exact same physical structure – yet with no consciousness ever arising. To learn more about philosophical zombies read here:

I’d suggest, however, that consciousness isn’t dualistic nor is it reductionistic, and would assess a downward causal nature to it. If you are unfamiliar with the term “downward causation” just think of it as the parts make up the whole (upward causation), but that specific “whole” and the properties it produces also has an effect on the parts (the downward part). The smallest particles create larger scale configurations that hold properties that can and do have an effect on how those smaller particles behave (as with roundness and rolling).

In fact, for consciousness, there is evidence suggesting that it is not just the particles that make up the brain configuration that causes certain events, but the actual emergent property of consciousness (that is a part of such large scale configuration) that assists with this process. The small scale can create the experience of pain, but it’s the actual experience itself that helps amplify brain activity to build a psychological repulsion against experiencing that pain again. It’s the conscious experience that builds the capacity to learn, and act in accordance with such experience.

Stanislas Dehaene points out in his book Consciousness and the Brain: Deciphering How the Brain Codes Our Thoughts that neuroscientists have found four “signatures of consciousness”:

 “four reliable signatures of consciousness – physiological markers that index whether the participant experienced a conscious percept.  First, a conscious stimulus causes an intense neuronal activation that leads to a sudden ignition of parietal and prefrontal circuits.  Second, in the EEG, conscious access is accompanied by a slow wave called the P3 wave, which emerges as late as one-third of a second after the stimulus.  Third, conscious ignition also triggers a late and sudden burst of high-frequency oscillations.  Finally, many regions exchange bidirectional and synchronized messages over long distances in the cortex, thus forming a global brain web.” p159

To put it another way, our conscious experience seems to have an effect on our brain that’s somewhat different compared to unconscious processes. So even if we were to accept a dualistic notion of consciousness (which I’d argue there is no good reason to do so), it would seem to have some causal power within the physical universe.

I avoid touching a hot stove due to the fact that I have learned the pain of touching very hot surfaces. It’s my conscious experience that my memory of the event outputs, and the capacity to “think” about such due to the brain configuration at the time I am “experiencing” the red hot burner visually and perhaps the heat emanating from it. Yes, those small scale particles are producing the experiences, but it is conscious experience that is actually feeding back into the brain.

There is nothing magical or mystical about this process, just as there is nothing magical or mystical about the roundness of a ball allowing particles to end up at the bottom of a hill in which if those very same particles were configured as a cube instead – wouldn’t end up at the bottom.

And of course this goes into much more that just pain. It goes into all experience: the experience of  love, happiness, sadness, brightness, loudness, anger, fear, illusions, suffering, taste, smell, and so on, all causally push or pull conscious organism to or away from specific actions. Yes, configurations produce these experiences, but it the actual qualitative state of the experience that strengthens some synapses, weakens others, and assists in sparking others.

This is uncontroversial in the fields of evolutionary biology, psychology, behavioral science, and neuroscience. Sure, there are different theories on how consciousness happens (part of the so-called “hard-problem”), but most scientists (even most particle physicists) recognize that consciousness actually does “exist”…and that such plays a part in the actions of such conscious organisms.  But of course we are not making an argument from popularity here. They recognize such due to a preponderance of evidence.

Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins makes the case that pain (the actual experience) is the most effective way of getting an animal to quickly understand the gravity of a perilous situation and react accordingly. And in fact, the more agonizing the pain is, the stronger the message. This has everything to do with how conscious experience causes an animal to behave, which in fact causes particles to behave in accordance. Conscious experience may be itself bottom up (as I’d suggest it is more like a property of very specific configurations), but it’s large scale experiential value has an actual physical top down effect. Causality works from both small scale to large scale configurations and vice versa, but it could not have been otherwise without an event that is not caused. Neither is compatible with free will.

The reason we give people who need a surgical procedure anesthesia is based on an understanding of what it means to be cut into without being anesthetized first. We understand the negative experiential state that will happen. We don’t just say that the person screaming and wailing in pain (which would become a meaningless word in this context for the person claiming there is no mental causation) is moving too much and strap the person down. We understand what is happening and the reason we anesthetize the person is because we can relate to the mental state the person would endure and recognize the horrors of it.

The person’s actions of screaming and wailing around is also a causal result of the very real mental state that is occurring, and our action to anesthetize the person is based on an understanding of that mental state.

This brings me to what I deem as reasonable evidence for mental causation: For us to even talk or write about “mental states” in any meaningful way implies mental causation. Certain words that find themselves in the “physical” (through verbal speech or writing) such as consciousness, mental state, pain, misery, suffering, pleasure, taste, sweet, sour, thought, awareness, happiness, sadness, and so on – would all be meaningless words that had no real connection if no mental causation happened. If mental happenings were something that were causally separate from physical happenings in the world, there would be a disconnect between our thoughts about such happenings, and the physical product of words that are used to describe such. The likelihood that words such as “consciousness” would arise in physical form, and at the same time be lucky enough to actually describe something in reality – is too far fetched without mental causation.

For the sake of argument we can say that a non-mental and entirely physical process (such as artificial intelligence) can be a creative process. For example, it might be able to derive a fictitious idea about a unicorn from a horse and a horn concept, or even make up some off the wall non-existent creature. But for a non-mental process to derive a concept that actually exists in which it has no causal influence from, and consistently and reliably model that thing with various words and specifics, and to do so without input from another creature with a mental process giving it the information about the mental, such would be an occurrence of coincidence that it would fall so entirely outside of “chance” probability as to be absurd.

In other words, if the non-mental / physical process can in no way be effected by the mental, to believe that such a physical process might not only model mental processes through conceptual words, but to align with such by sheer coincidence would be like believing in a miracle.

Rather, me typing the word “experience” means that this “physical form” is outputting a conceptual word that describes something that it understands about such a word. It isn’t a random chance of physical creativity that produces the word experience, it’s a word that is used to describe something “in reality” (unlike a unicorn). This is important. In a world filled with philosophical zombies, the word “experience” would never arise as a conceptual model of what “people have” – as from the perspective of the physical there would be no such thing as “the mental”. In a world where philosophical zombies are possible but consciousness does happen to exist anyway as a residual byproduct, if the mental has no causal efficacy for the physical, the word “experience” and it’s definition wouldn’t come about either. But of course this isn’t the case.

If I type this sentence:

I   h a v e   e x p e r i e n c e s .

It isn’t a coincidence that the sentence above aligns with the fact that I actually do have experiences. Rather, those very words are assessing the fact that I actually experience. And for those words to assess this fact, mental causation is necessitated.  If we use words to model things about reality, we can’t say that we “model the mental” and at the same time say that there is no “mental causation”. And the notion that physical “modeling of the mental” isn’t really modeling the mental but just some coincidental creative process that just happens to align with something in reality – is an extraordinary claim of preposterous proportions.

In fact, even deriving a fictional idea about “experience” in language form without any historical (causal) access to real experience would be extraordinary, as the variables needed to give rise to such a concept would not be there. It would be like a person who was blind (total blind – no light) since birth and who had never communicated with someone who taught them about color in any way – imagining the concept of color and writing about the differing spectrum of color, all of the gradiations, which colors were complimentary colors, which colors make other colors when mixed, color illusions, and so on – and by mere happenstance getting everything right from the perspective of an actual sighted person.

Though the denial of mental causation (within the physical) can be done, I’d suggest it truly is a magical feat to get around the evidence for mental causation.

The more likely scenario is that consciousness is a property of specific physical configurations as they play out, and those properties have just as much causal influence as any other part of physical reality.

I could be mistaken, but if I am, this text wouldn’t be a part of my actual thoughts on the matter. What is your take?

Note: Mental causation isn’t any more compatible with free will than any other type of causation. If you don’t know why check out my book Breaking the Free Will Illusion for the Betterment of Humankind.

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'Trick Slattery

'Trick Slattery is the author of Breaking the Free Will Illusion for the Betterment of Humankind. He's an author, philosopher, artist, content creator, and entrepreneur. He has loved and immersed himself in philosophy since he was teenager. It is his first and strongest passion. Throughout the years he has built a philosophy based on analytic logic and critical thinking. Some of the topics he is most interested in are of a controversial variety, but his passion for the topics and their importance drives him to want to express these ideas to others. His other passions include pen and ink line art and digital artwork.

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  6 Responses to “Mental Causation – A Case for Mental Causation”

Comments (6)
  1. It seems very probable to me that consciousness is a “software icing” on a very complex “software layer cake” within a vastly more complex electro-chemical hardware system that is the human brain.
    As such it is subject to many factors, like Heisenberg uncertainty, many levels of error and uncertainty, resulting in aspects that approximate strict causality quite closely and other aspects that are far more probabilistic and a few aspects that are chaotic and stochastic.

    • I like your cake/icing analogy. Regarding the small scale whether something is “truly” probabilistic (rather than it being just a ‘lack of knowledge’ type of probabilism) or acausal would depend on the quantum interpretation being postulated.

  2. Hi ‘Trick, very simple animals compute dangers and avoid them. Are they conscious? If not, why must it be consciousness rather than patterns of ‘particles’ that feed back into the brain, when consciousness is present? If we could do this without consciousness, why invoke its agency?

    • Hi John, I wouldn’t create a dividing line between “patterns of particles” and the properties they hold (including consciousness). Even if there was a different nonconscous mechanism for a more simple biological machine, that wouldn’t imply that this is the mechanism for most creatures with central nervous systems and brains. I think conscious properties were an evolutionary trait, but beyond this, the above post should point out why I think epiphenomenalism rather absurd (and consciousness eliminativism has even more problems). :-)

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