Detecting immaterial causes

What would an immaterial cause look like?

That is, by which criteria will we decide that a cause of some effect in the physical causal network is immaterial?

Since science works by detecting effects, and then inferring causes, how would science distinguish a material from an immaterial cause?

My guess: there is no way. Science isn’t about ‘material’ causes, but about causes. Put another way, science isn’t about the ‘physical’ world, but about prediction. If there is some cause, but it isn’t predictable, will it be classified as immaterial? No – science will simply focus on how to make predictions about its unpredictability.

Consider the following passage by Edward Feser, where he is discussing the “Mechanical Philosophy” prominent in early science (The Last Superstition, 2008, p. 179):

“The original idea was that the interactions between particles were as “mechanical” as the interactions of the parts of a clock, everything being reducible to one thing literally pushing against another. That didn’t last long, for it is simply impossible to explain everything that happens in the material world on such a crude model, and as Newton’s theory of gravitation, Maxwell’s theory of electromagnetism, and quantum mechanics all show, physical science has only moved further and further away from this original understanding of what “mechanism” amounts to. [… T]here is by now really nothing more left to the idea of a “mechanical” picture of the world than the mere denial of Aristotelian final causes[.]”

That is, things that wouldn’t have been considered ‘material’ in the past are now routinely thought of as so – as paradigms of material processes. The reason is that science is opportunistic – it finds effects, and tries to create models that explain them. If there are causes, traditionally understood as ‘immaterial’, then in the limit science will have to account for them, and will not think it is describing something immaterial in doing so.

Consider this from Daniel Dennett (Freedom Evolves, 2003, p. 1):

“One widespread tradition has it that we human beings are responsible agents, captains of our fate, because what we really are are souls, immaterial and immortal clumps of Godstuff that inhabit and control our material bodies […] But this idea of immaterial souls, capable of defying the laws of physics, has outlived its credibility thanks to the advance of the natural sciences.”

So, how would we tell that there are immaterial causes to our material behaviour? There wouldn’t be a sign blazing down from the sky saying ‘that was an immaterial cause – physics defied!’ Rather, we would have effects in the brain (say), and we would then infer causes. “There’s something there, causing these effects.” We would then develop a model of what that thing is. It would then come under the rubric of the physical sciences.

That is, natural science says there aren’t immaterial causes, but that’s because science rules out the possibility of an immaterial cause on conceptual grounds – to be in natural science is to effect the physical world, and to effect the physical world is to be physical.

8 thoughts on “Detecting immaterial causes

  1. kyle foley

    Nice blog post. I really enjoyed reading it. Nevertheless I have a few bones in it to pick.

    All causation is immaterial. When matter moves we must describe that motion. Descriptions are immaterial, you can’t point to a description, or pick it up. If we see a particle moving, we can’t split the particle open and find the source of its movement. Let’s just say we tried to split a particle open, looking for the source of its movement. Suppose we split open a particle and found 3 other particles that were also moving, and then we split open one of those particle and found two more particle but they were also moving. You see, we’re never going to find the source of movement. This is why the materialists have discovered that materialism is a misnomer and have now adopted the name physicalism or naturalism.

    Take F = MA. Can you ever pick up and hold an f=ma particle? Or take gravity. Can you hold gravity? Can you point to it?

    [[So, how would we tell that there are immaterial causes to our material behaviour? There wouldn’t be a sign blazing down from the sky saying ‘that was an immaterial cause – physics defied!’ Rather, we would have effects in the brain (say), and we would then infer causes. “There’s something there, causing these effects.” We would then develop a model of what that thing is. It would then come under the rubric of the physical sciences.]]

    This is false.

    1. Science is near-certain knowledge.
    2. If one is nearly certain, then the only way they can demonstrate that is through prediction
    3. If one is to make predictions, then one must be aware of some law
    4. human minds operate according to tendencies, not laws
    5. Therefore, the operations of the mind cannot be scientific.

  2. admin Post author

    “All causation is immaterial. When matter moves we must describe that motion. Descriptions are immaterial, you can’t point to a description, or pick it up.”

    I’m assuming a causal realism here – that behind the descriptions are something real – and that (at least some of) the causes are imminent in the physical world. This may not be true, but it’s how science tends to operate, i.e., the working belief when doing science is that causation is real and imminent to the physical world.

    I don’t think I quite understand the rest of your paragraph on that point – it seems to me your analysis would apply to particles themselves. What we see are the effects of things from which we infer that there is a particle. We never see the particle ‘itself’.

    Gravity is a process. Can one point to that process in action? Yes.

    For your argument that operations of the mind can’t be scientific, what do you mean by ‘tendencies’, what is the reason for thinking that human minds operate according to tendencies and not laws, and why can’t one make (at least statistical) predictions based on tendencies?

  3. kyle foley

    “I’m assuming a causal realism here – that behind the descriptions are something real – and that (at least some of) the causes are imminent in the physical world. This may not be true, but it’s how science tends to operate, i.e., the working belief when doing science is that causation is real and imminent to the physical world.”

    Yes, I’m a causal realist. You said it may not be true, but since you did not offer any reasons for that doubt, there is nothing to debate.

    “I don’t think I quite understand the rest of your paragraph on that point – it seems to me your analysis would apply to particles themselves. What we see are the effects of things from which we infer that there is a particle. We never see the particle ‘itself’. Gravity is a process. Can one point to that process in action? Yes.”

    We see the effects of things from which we infer there is a force, not a particle. We see the particle, not the force itself. To put it another way, we see motion, not the source of motion. We see the effects of energy, not energy itself. When we look at oil, are we seeing energy? No. Particles are in constant motion and they are in motion because of energy but why they have that energy is a black box.

    “For your argument that operations of the mind can’t be scientific, what do you mean by ‘tendencies’, what is the reason for thinking that human minds operate according to tendencies and not laws, and why can’t one make (at least statistical) predictions based on tendencies?”

    Take any initial conditions, then perform an action and you’ll find that there are always at least one human out there that will defy your prediction. Take economics. Ask enough people if they want 5 or 10 dollars, of course the overwhelming tendency will be that they choose 10 dollars, but every once in a while you will find a human that hates money or sees money as evil and will choose 5 dollars.

    Humans are not lawlike.

  4. admin Post author

    “Yes, I’m a causal realist. You said it may not be true, but since you did not offer any reasons for that doubt, there is nothing to debate.”

    Yes, I was simply getting clear that I’m assuming a kind of causal realism in the above post, not attacking causal realism. I stated that because it sounded like you were advocating a view of causality in which ’causes’ are merely descriptions of regularities, not things that exist in the world outside of our descriptions of them.

    “We see the particle, not the force itself.”

    You infer the particle from various effects you observe, just as you do with a force.

    “Take any initial conditions, then perform an action and you’ll find that there are always at least one human out there that will defy your prediction.”

    Why can’t this be explained by saying that humans are very complex, albeit following laws? To cite your example, the human that doesn’t like money (or what have you) will have a different internal state, so different behaviour by that human is not particularly surprising. An analogue to your argument: having different shaped boulders, pushing them off a cliff, noting that they don’t always follow the same path, and concluding that boulders don’t follow natural laws.

  5. kyle foley

    I understand your analogy with the boulder and it’s a good one but that’s not what humans are like. If humans are entirely governed by laws then there can be no such thing as creativity. Laws treat qualitatively identical objects identically. Language is full of qualitatively identical sounds and symbols which humans treat differently. If you want to write a novel you have to choose what things are going to happen and what things are not going to happen. Law makes no choices.

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