A Philosopher's Dozen 

Selections from the writings of Stephen Yablo


Are we froth on a wave?
—from conversation with Stephen Yablo

IN A DISCIPLINE WHERE THE PHYSICAL AND MENTAL WORLDS are seen as sharply divided (think how easy Descartes finds it to imagine himself existing without his body), there is bound to be disagreement on the causes of human behavior. That it can have physical causes seems clear. The earth’s tectonic plates moved, therefore Haiti was thrown into a state of devastation and chaos.

But when you picked up your pen and wrote a check for Haitian relief, what caused that?

In the minds of some philosophers—those who reject the possibility of mental causation—the mental world can’t affect the physical. To them, mental and physical processes exist on separate planes, as separate as body and soul. So it was not your decision, your compassion, or your sense of obligation that led to the check writing: It was the rearrangement of atoms in your arms, caused by physical processes set into motion before you were even born. You could not have caused the action, and you could not have stopped it.

Those who reject mental causation see it like this: A wave is crashing onto the beach, and we are the froth on the top of the wave, thinking, "Wow, I’m powerful; I’m pulling this wave onto the beach." But the froth is kidding itself, right? Despite lot of self-congratulations about how important we are, we are just along for the ride, like the froth on the wave. (I get the analogy from John Searle.)

If we have no influence over the course of physical events, then that’s a problem. In my work, I have tried to create a world where people can feel at home and see themselves as making a difference. Of course, the fact that it would be nice if it were so is hardly a reason to believe it. But this is one of those cases where the arguments support our instinctive worldview, rather than undermining it.  • 


Soundings, Spring 2010