Agents, mechanisms, and other minds

In Agents, Mechanisms, and Other Minds. Dordrecht, Holland: Reidel. pp. 129--148 (1979)
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Abstract

One of the goals of physiologists who study the detailed physical, chemical,and neurological mechanisms operating within the human body is to understand the intricate causal processes which underlie human abilities and activities. It is doubtless premature to predict that they will eventually be able to explain the behaviour of a particular human being as we might now explain the behaviour of a pendulum clock or even the invisible changes occurring within the hardware of a modern electronic computer. Nonetheless, it seems fair to say that hovering in the background of investigations into human physiology is the promise or threat, depending upon how one looks at the matter that human beings are complete physical-chemical systems and that all events taking place within their bodies and all movements of their bodies could be accounted for by physical causes if we but knew enough. I am not concerned at the moment with whether or not this ’mechanistic’ hypothesis is true, assuming that it is clear enough to be intelligible, nor with whether or not we could ever know that it is true. I wish to consider the somewhat more accessible yet equally important question whether our coming to believe that the hypothesis is true would warrant our relinquishing our conception of ourselves as beings who are capable of acting for reasons to achieve ends of our own choosing. I use the word ’warrant’ to indicate that I will not be discussing the possibility that believing the mechanistic hypothesis might lead us, as a matter of psychological fact, to think of human beings as mere automata, as objects whose movements are to be explained only by causes rather than by reasons, as are the actions of a personal subject. I intend to consider only whether the acceptance of mechanism would in fact justify such a change in conception.

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Douglas C. Long
University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

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