Mental causation

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In philosophy, mental causation refers to the hypothetical possibility that the mind or mental acts can influence physical events.

A recent monograph on this subject proposes the "canonical" formulation of the problem of mental causation:[1]

Premise 1: Mental events cause physical events.
Premise 2: The realm of the physical is causally complete. (All physical events have sufficient causes that are other physical events.)
Premise 3: Mental events are not identical with physical events.
Premise 4: Physical events are not pervasively or systematically causally overdetermined. (That is, a physical event only very rarely might have two or more causes. This point cannot be established by appeal to experiment - it is an hypothesis.)

It is the problem of mental causation that it seems impossible that all four of these premises can hold simultaneously. So, for instance, if a mental event invariably could cause a physical event, and yet every physical event has a physical cause, then either Premise 3 is false, or Premise 4 is false.

Challenging causality

There are other approaches to this topic. One involves a more careful examination of what is meant by causality. The proposal is made that the usual cause-effect intuition of "cause" is inadequate to the study of mental events.

For example, another description of this issue is by Northoff:[2]

"Epistemically, the mind is determined by mental states, which are accessible in First-Person Perspective. In contrast, the brain, as characterized by neuronal states, can be accessed in Third-Person Perspective. The Third-Person Perspective focuses on other persons and thus on the neuronal states of others' brain while excluding the own brain. In contrast, the First-Person Perspective could potentially provide epistemic access to own brain...However, the First-Person Perspective provides access only to the own mental states but not to the own brain and its neuronal states." Georg Northoff, Philosophy of the Brain: The Brain Problem, p. 5[2]

These observations suggest the possibility that "mental causation" and neurology inhabit different realms, and it is confusion to try to explain "mental causation" using a neurological approach that by its very nature excludes the effects of observation upon what is observed.


In quantum mechanics the notion of complementarity arises, that is, different aspects of a description that are mutually exclusive. Bohr (1922 winner of the Nobel Prize in physics) suggested complementarity is useful outside of quantum theory. In asking whether one can perform an action, one is both observer and subject, which is posited to be an untenable situation: one must adopt one or the other stance.[3][4] To quote Niels Bohr:[5]

"For instance, it is impossible, from our standpoint, to attach an unambiguous meaning to the view sometimes expressed that the probability of the occurrence of certain atomic processes in the body might be under the direct influence of the will. In fact, according to the generalized interpretation of the psycho-physical parallelism, the freedom of the will is to be considered as a feature of conscious life which corresponds to functions of the organism that not only evade a causal mechanical description but resist even a physical analysis carried to the extent required for an unambiguous application of the statistical laws of atomic mechanics. Without entering into metaphysical speculations, I may perhaps add that an analysis of the very concept of explanation would, naturally, begin and end with a renunciation as to explaining our own conscious activity."...

"...On the contrary, the recognition of the limitation of mechanical concepts in atomic physics would rather seem suited to conciliate the apparently contrasting viewpoints of physiology and psychology. Indeed, the necessity of considering the interaction between the measuring instruments and the object under investigation in atomic mechanics exhibits a close analogy to the peculiar difficulties in psychological analysis arising from the fact that the mental content is invariably altered when the attention is concentrated on any special feature of it."

These observations are echoed by experimentalists studying brain function:[6]

" is important to be clear about exactly what experience one wants one's subjects to introspect. Of course, explaining to subjects exactly what the experimenter wants them to experience can bring its own problems–...instructions to attend to a particular internally generated experience can easily alter both the timing and he content of that experience and even whether or not it is consciously experienced at all." Susan Pockett, The neuroscience of movement[6]

Generalizations of feedback

Freeman introduces the replacement of "causality" by what he calls "circular causality" to "allow for the contribution of self-organizing dynamics", the "formation of macroscopic population dynamics that shapes the patterns of activity of the contributing individuals", applicable to "interactions between neurons and neural masses...and between the behaving animal and its environment":

"Circular causality departs so strongly from the classical tenets of necessity, invariance, and precise temporal order that the only reason to call it that is to satisfy the human habitual need for causes....The very strong appeal of agency to explain events may come from the subjective experience of cause and effect that develops early in human life, before the acquisition of language...the question I raise here is whether brains share this property with other material objects in the world. " Walter J. Freeman, Consciousness, intentionality and causality[7]

Freeman's usage for the term circular causality appears akin to the views of Kelso,[8] and is more radical than the common use of this term, which refers to causality in a system with feedback.[9] A more specific use of this term is as follows:

"Note we are dealing here with circular causality. On the one hand the order parameter enslaves the atoms, but on the other hand it is itself generated by the joint action of the atoms" Hermann Haken, Information and Self-Organization: A Macroscopic Approach to Complex Systems[10]


  1. Jens Harbecke (2008). “Chapter 1: The problem of mental causation: premises and central principles”, Mental Causation: Investigating the Mind's Powers in a Natural World. Ontos Verlag, pp. 13 ff. ISBN 3938793945. 
  2. 2.0 2.1 A rather extended discussion is provided in Georg Northoff (2004). Philosophy of the Brain: The Brain Problem, Volume 52 of Advances in Consciousness Research. John Benjamins Publishing. ISBN 1588114171. 
  3. Andrew Whitaker (2006). Einstein, Bohr And the Quantum Dilemma: From Quantum Theory to Quantum Information, 2nd ed. Cambridge University Press, p. 191. ISBN 0521671027. 
  4. For a discussion of a program to establish complementarity as speculated by Bohr, see Paul McEvoy (2001). Niels Bohr: Reflections on Subject and Object. MicroAnalytix, p. 323. ISBN 1930832001. 
  5. Niels Bohr (April 1, 1933). "Light and Life". Nature: p. 457 ff. Full text on line at
  6. 6.0 6.1 Susan Pockett (2009). “The neuroscience of movement”, Susan Pockett, WP Banks, Shaun Gallagher, eds: Does Consciousness Cause Behavior?. MIT Press, p. 19. ISBN 0262512572. 
  7. Walter J Freeman (2009). “Consciousness, intentionality and causality”, Susan Pockett, WP Banks, Shaun Gallagher, eds: Does Consciousness Cause Behavior?. MIT Press, p. 88. ISBN 0262512572. 
  8. J. A. Scott Kelso (1995). Dynamic Patterns: The Self-Organization of Brain and Behavior. MIT Press, p. 16. ISBN 0262611317. “An order parameter is created by the correlation between the parts, but in turn influences the behavior of the parts. This is what we mean by circular causality.”  Kelso also says (p. 9): "But add a few more parts interlaced together and very quickly it becomes impossible to treat the system in terms of feedback circuits. In such complex systems, ... the concept of feedback is inadequate.[...] there is no reference state with which feedback can be compared and no place where comparison operations are performed."
  9. Namhee Lee, Lisa Mikesell, Anna Dina L. Joaquin, Andrea W. Mates, John H. Schumann (2009). “Feedback and circular causality”, The Interactional Instinct: The Evolution and Acquisition of Language. Oxford University Press, pp. 26 ff. ISBN 0195384237. 
  10. Hermann Haken (2006). Information and Self-Organization: A Macroscopic Approach to Complex Systems, 3rd ed. Springer, p. 25. ISBN 3540330216.