Friday, December 17, 2010

Experience and Causation

I’m re-reading sections of Gregg Rosenberg’s A Place for Consciousness: Probing the Deep Structure of the Natural World. What’s brilliant about the work is that it starts with the Russellian insight about the mind-body dilemma (discussed here) and then “ups the ante” by linking consciousness to other metaphysical puzzles – including those of those of causation and the composition of objects.

Here’s a rough table listing a general feature of the world and the aspect of consciousness it matches up with.

Feature of Nature/Aspect of Consciousness
Intrinsic Properties/Qualitative Content (“Qualia”)
Causation/Experiential Flow
Properties bundled into Objects/Subjective Unity

The world is panpsychist in the sense that the aspects of consciousness are really ubiquitous features of nature as seen from our particular point of view.

Let me say a few words about causation:

With regard to Russell, in The Analysis of Matter he characterized the world as a network of causal events. He describes mental percepts as causal events we participate in, while physical theories are models of causal events we don’t necessarily participate in, but infer via their effects. His proposal of neutral monism is simply based on the fact that we don’t have a reason to think these categories of events are essentially different.

But while physics clearly seeks to describe the causal structure of the world, Russell doesn’t explicitly criticize physical theories for their lack of a full account of causality (unless I missed it, which is very possible). But it is pretty clear that while physics models the causal structure of the world, physics does not provide a theory of causation. Rosenberg discusses this fact in his chapter 9. (Note this critique parallels the Russellian observation that physics doesn’t provide a full ontological account of properties).

Physical theories as we have known them are compatible with several theories about causality, with philosophers debating their relative merits. Dynamic equations link states with points in time, but they don’t speak to how one state gives rise to the next. (Note they are also typically symmetric with regard to time’s direction and don’t explain the flow of time.) Hume would say they are only describing regularities, others might say they are describing causal laws, still others that there are causal connections between dispositions and their manifestations, etc.

Rosenberg proposes his own theory of causation and proposes that conscious experience is linked to the work being done moving from one event to the next. (See my original review of the book here).


Unknown said...

Hi Steve,

It looks like you wrote this blog entry six years ago, but I'm just finding it. The Internet is a big place! I wanted to thank you for emphasizing this aspect of my work. I agree your view that it is an important point and central to what I tried to accomplish in the book. Many people see the book as a theory of consciousness (rightly, given the title). But in terms of logical priority, it is a theory of causality which has a theory of consciousness as a consequence, and because the fundamental theory is about causality, it implies interesting conclusions about many things aside from consciousness including the nature of the physical, space, time, modality, freedom, objects, properties, intrinsicness, etc. My personal view is that the coherence it brings across so many issues is a big part of what makes it attractive, and that has been lost in discussion. Thanks for noticing.

Steve Esser said...

Hi Gregg:

Thanks for the comments. I hope you're doing well. I continue to be interested in causation and have made it central to my studies as a superannuated graduate student. Your work has been helpful in seeing its connections to so many philosophical problems.