Spinoza’s Causal Theory of the Affects

“(..) it is correct to insist, as Spinoza does (..), that ´the Body cannot determine the Mind in thinking, and the Mind cannot determine the Body to Motion”. We should take this to mean that we cannot infer from a cause described in physical terms that a specific mental event will ensue as effect (..): mental and physical concepts belong to independent explanatory systems.” D. Davidson in Truth, Language, and History, Oxford University Press (2005), p. 305-306.

[Re-posted from The Old Site, original dd. 17-05-2008. The original stated at the end that it was [to be redone] and I’ll try to redo it but I don’t know whether I have the stomach for it. I kind of hope it will set me up for something I wanted to do on ‘Tat Tvam Asi’ after seeing a documentary on the nth physicist (B. Alan Wallace or so) trying to find ‘deeper truths’ (and naming one specific person only serves the purpose of maybe catching some lost souls via google and, who knows?, rescueing one of them from the stupidities characteristic of the intersection of science and religion). Anyway, the basic reason why so much of religion is appealing is because it focuses on the right kind of conclusions such that it is tempting to also buy the absolutely false premises that go with it. The truth is not found in the past – or by stripping a lot of surface layers. The truth is found in the future – and the new surfaces that are constantly created.]

I cleaned the quote above from the jargon. What follows here can do without.

One should wonder about the mind and the body. It is one of the classical wonders that will forever stay actual.

There are those who believe in scientific achievement instead of in scientific method. They think mind and the mental are merely convenient, a ‘soft’ escape for the weak of mind. But the majority of people, and with an extremely wide margin,  are still true believers. They believe the mind is fully detached from all the merely material claims of science and that the really deep truths are reserved for the spiritual.

Both extremes have been and are instinctively repulsive to me.

The third way, the middle way, the way of Horace, is to reconcile mind and body as independent but interconnected: monism but with a twist. The type of monism Davidson sought to establish bringing together historical thoughts and his own modern language philosophy. Can there be two spheres that are, at the same time, ultimately independent and unescapably interconnected?

Let me not run of in too abstract musings but try to take an example, from the heart of the present matter.

If one – not just instinctively – thinks one wants to raise one´s arm there is really no issue whatever in connecting that thought to brain activity and that brain activity to activating nerves in turn controlling the arm’s muscles. Only those that are ludicrously maintaining that knowledge out of the Dark Ages outdoes present-day knowledge would challenge this. Let’s not bother here with the ridiculous. The interconnection, some form of physicalism, is established. But the interconnection does not suffice for strict dependence. It would be quite feasible to measure the brain activity during that thought and it would then be quite demonstrable that, even in the same person, that same thought with that same result would not be characterized by exactly the same brain wave activity [if the experiment has not been tried it’s just because we all know that there can’t be such strict dependence, it would be too easy].

If so, the thought and physical brain activity are not strictly paired. In fact, it is quite sufficient to note that different people can have similar thoughts with similar consequences. This is in itself enough to show that the actual physical brain activity that has to go along with such a thought is not, and cannot be, a sufficiently determining factor even if, physically speaking, it is always the brain activity that results in the arm’s raising (and never the thought itself).

Maybe Davidson and others would find this reasoning sloppy and it probably is, but I don’t have the luxury of refining it.

Sloppy or not, it is convincing in illustrating Davidon’s point of there being no strict laws coupling the mental and the physical. As a behaviourist of sorts this kind of illustration is crucial. It does not establish that there is something spiritual that somehow evades or floats over the material world. But it does show that the sphere of thought is not limited to the sphere of what is given physically, it allows for imagination.

The imagination it allows is linguistic and creative. We cannot realize things in the material world that would go against the physical laws but we can – and do- create in our imagination possible material connections (e.g. a key and a lock) that we subsequently can realize materially, as longs as they don’t defy any physical laws. The only limit to this creativity then is what is physically possible. [But this is not a limit that makes creativity bounded. It is a restriction on one side only, i.e. it is the kind of restriction that allows for endless progression of creativity.]

The beauty of language is that – even though it requires the physical possibility to communicate between bodies – it is fully free to develop regardless of physical realities. There are only linguistic limits to what can be expressed in such linguistic communication. We have science fiction to prove our physical laws are no essential to our type of language making sense.

Because of this – although for sure I will have to explain this in more detail in another place – I don’t believe Davidson’s brand of monism can be fully correct. Mental explanation is not merely independent in explanatory ways, it is quite radically independent [Bon, I hate this turn of my old argument, mainly because I hate the word ‘radical’; it’s overused to support mediocre points of view]. The mental is a world on its own just needing a physical substratum (more or less like fish need a liquid substratum).

Again, establishing the mental, through language, as independent is not at all establishing any spritualist or dualist claim. The physical world has given rise through evolution to biological species with linguistic abilities. Such kind of species have established thought and this led to all things mental. These things do not live isolated from the material world but just happen to be able to express things unrestricted by the physical world (as long as there is a physical world with the relevant features in which things can be expressed).

So, don’t please go overboard on this: the mind, the spiritual & so on, & so forth did not exist before material things existed. Nor do they exist as long as the material world existed. Physicality predates mentality. It would be interesting as a scientific exercise to date mentality/spirituality as it would be a convenient way not to have the New Age’rs go astray time and again.

One may well make stories in which people lift weights merely by thinking to make it so but one will never actually lift those weights in that way.

[Coming back to ‘Tat Tvam Asi’ and to B. Alan Wallace. The logic of the above is that the ancient trick of digging deeper and deeper to ancient origins and original truths is just that: a trick of quacks exploiting the truth that you and I are not different just because we are associated with different bodies to bound people’s imagination to theirs. And so to rule over them and to kill them mentally. Because what is truely of the mind is something that is built on language & communication and everything else that can be gathered from the surface. Any true depth is created in the future by adding layers and layers of new creative surfaces on the substrate of what existed originally but was so restricted and limited that it gave occasion to this very human need of discovery of new things. What is old cannot house the new, as it is the new that is being sought because the old simply no longer can cope with what we have become.]

[Whilst writing this I was listening to Shostakovich-Silvestrov, Gryphon Trio, Aline Kutan, Analekta 2006.]

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