Just Cause

Those who prefer a dualist account of mind sometimes raise the objection that if our mental acts are simply the result of material chains of events in our brains, then there is no room for creativity, for our apparent ability to think original thoughts. But what does “creativity” mean?

What is dreaded, it seems, is the notion that our thinking is simply “caused” by the mechanical processes – all the complex, but mundanely physical, interaction of neurons, chemicals, and electrical charges that take place in our brains. How can a thought be “creative” if it arises from such a deterministic substrate?

Well, what, then, are we hoping for instead? That our successive thoughts do not stand in a causal relationship to their predecessors, that each mental moment is a disjointed non-sequitur? That certainly isn’t the sort of thing we’re after; we want to be able to think creatively about the problems we face, not flutter randomly from one uncaused mental state to another. What we want, rather, is for our thinking to be guided by the situation at hand, given the sum of our past experience, with due consideration to the moral, emotional, ethical, practical, legal, etc., considerations that our accumulated wisdom has shown us to be relevant, and to arrive at a course of action that is, given the time we have to consider the problem, a satisfactory choice. But this is, after all, exactly what our brains do. And they do it very well.

But we are still not satisfied; we still hunger for some wiggle room, a feeling that even though we chose option A, we could have chosen option B. But upon what, then, would that alternate choice have been based? A random process of some sort? Well, let’s say that were the case – that in some way genuine indeterminacy, for example quantum randomness promoted somehow to macroscopic action – was what tipped the balance. But then in what sense are we responsible? How can we claim responsibility, as intentional agents, for a random quantum fluctuation?

Finally, even if dualism is true – if our mentality arises not from the action of our brains, but from some indwelling, ghostly mind-stuff – we are still left with having to make an account of how one “mind-state” produces the next. We haven’t eliminated causality; we have simply swept it under the rug.

Our brains are astronomically complex intentional systems, designed over billions of years to do exactly the things we wish to exemplify as autonomous agents: to find our own way in the world, and at every juncture to consider our options, to weigh alternatives, to draw on our experience, to evaluate the future effect of possible courses of action, to explore new and untried approaches, to judge the human and social consequences of our behavior, and to distill this welter of information, in real time, into the seamless flow of thoughts and deeds. At every moment, the state of this inconceivably complex system, consisting both of our brains and their situation in the outer world, is unique and unprecedented, and each impression, each thought, each decision and its consequences leaves its imprint on us, and ensures that the novelty of our inner lives is inexhaustible.

What more could we ask for?


  1. Nick N. says

    How about a backup and recovery system?

    Posted June 6, 2006 at 9:22 am | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says

    Well, right. And an always-on, appropriately firewalled broadband connection would be nice too, while we’re at it.

    Best of all would be to able to swap the drive into some new hardware in a few more years!

    Posted June 6, 2006 at 10:40 am | Permalink
  3. Nick N. says

    I’d be happy to do without the broadband if I could get that upgrade thing.

    Posted June 6, 2006 at 11:52 am | Permalink

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