Mental causation

Oxford Bibliographies (2018)
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Mental causation occurs when mental entities cause other mental and physical entities: seeings causing believings, itches causing scratchings, headaches causing eye twitches, and so on. The term “mental causation” is most often used to refer to the problem of mental causation, which is really a collection of problems with each possessing its own character and tradition of debate. The problem of mental causation began in earnest with an objection to Cartesian dualism raised by Princess Elizabeth of Bohemia (how can immaterial minds causally interact with material bodies?) and still persists via a series of different objections raised against various views including non-reductive physicalism, anomalous monism, and psychological externalism. What unites the different problems of mental causation is their attempt to address a question of this general form: is model x of the non-causal mental-physical relationship (e.g., non-reductive physicalism) consistent with there being mental causation? A negative answer is usually taken to constitute a fatal objection to model x, but not always. There have been two major avenues of inquiry since Elizabeth’s original objection began the debate: (a) what theories of causation can tell us about the consistency of model x with mental causation; or (b) what theories about the non-causal mental-physical relationship can tell us about the consistency of model x with mental causation. Nearly every contribution in the literature on the problem of mental causation can be understood as belonging in either category (a) or (b), or as containing distinguishable elements which so belong. The most important discussions about mental causation have taken place over the last few decades, hence this entry will focus largely on work conducted in that period. Mental causation is also discussed in other areas of philosophy, such as political philosophy or ethics, but this entry will be primarily concerned with the metaphysical and philosophy of mind literature.



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John Donaldson
University of Glasgow

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