Causal relevance and thought content

Philosophical Quarterly 44 (176):334-353 (1994)
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It is natural to think that our ordinary practices in giving explanations for our actions, for what we do, commit us to claiming that content properties are causally relevant to physical events such as the movements of our limbs and bodies, and events which these in turn cause. If you want to know why my body ambulates across the street, or why my arm went up before I set out, we suppose I have given you an answer when I say that I wanted to greet a friend on the other side of the street, and thought that my arm's going up would be interpreted by him as a signal to stop for a moment. This widely held view might be disputed, but I shall not argue for it in this paper. I want to start with the view that our beliefs and desires and other propositional attitudes are causally relevant, in virtue of their modes and particular contents, to our movements, in order to investigate the consequences for analyses of thought content. For this purpose, I argue, in sec. II, for three necessary conditions on causal relevance: (a) a nomic sufficiency condition, (b) a logical independence condition, and (c) a screening-off condition. In sec. III, I apply these conditions to relational and functional theories of thought content, arguing that these theories cannot accommodate the causal relevance of content properties to our behaviour. I argue further that, on two plausible assumptions, one about the dependence of the mental on the physical, and the other about the availability in principle of causal explanations of our movements in terms of our non-relational physical properties, content properties can be causally relevant only if they are nomically type-correlated, relative to certain circumstances, with non-relational physical properties of our bodies. In sec. IV, I respond to a number of objections that might be advanced against this conclusion.

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Kirk Ludwig
Indiana University, Bloomington


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