Sukjae Lee on Malebranche’s local arguments for Occasionalism: No representations and mind-body causation

After discussing the “Representation Principle” (RP) of Malebranche’s No Representations (NR) argument[1] as it relates locally[2] to mind-body[3] causation, Sukjae Lee raises a concern about how we should understand the RP condition as it relates to mind-mind causation or volitional action.  The RP principle states that

If a thinking substance A is the cause of bodily [or mental] event B, then A intends B by representing B and is aware of this representation. (Lee, p.83)[4]

In the case of mind-body interaction, RP appears to foreclose on the possibility of the mental being a genuine cause of the physical since it is implausible to claim that we are capable of representing at a sufficiently “high level of detail” the entire causal process that transpires between the initiation of an action in, say, a decision to raise one’s arm, and the termination of that action in the rising of the arm (p.84). As far as mind-body interaction goes, the discrepancy between the complexity of the causal process and the paucity of detail contained in our representations of that process seems to be Malebranche’s principle reason for denying the mind true causality.

Setting aside whether or not NR is persuasive in the mind-body case, Lee considers how the Representation Principle might relate to volitional actions, these being quintessential examples of mind-mind causation that do not involve any transference of causal or “motor force” to a body, even when the body in question is our own. Noting that there are many passages in which Malebranche “appears to endorse some sort of real causality within souls” (p.86)  Lee asks “[h]ow does something like the NR argument relate to our volitional actions, which…seem to consist [merely] in the consent or suspension of consent to a particular good” (p.87).

Specifically at issue is whether or not we have to satisfy RP in order to qualify as genuine causes of our own volitions and if not why there would be an exception to the rule in this case. For one thing, the RP condition seems to pose much less of a problem than it does in the mind-body case; gone is the worry that my representation of the intended event will be lacking in sufficient detail. If the RP condition does apply to the exercise of volition, perhaps Malebranche believes we can meet it.

Despite its plausibility, Lee raises the interesting  possibility that this conclusion might conflict with another commitment of Malebranche’s, namely, that we do not have clear and distinct knowledge of the soul, including, presumably, its essential properties and causal powers (p.87-8)[5].  Lee’s thought seems to be that laying claim to a degree of mental transparency sufficient to satisfy the RP condition might be seen to be in tension with the belief, held with no less conviction, that our knowledge of the soul is severely limited. What further complicates things is that Malebranche appears in places to ground the volitional capacity itself in the very fact that the nature of the mind is inscrutable and differs in inexplicable ways from the nature of body (Ibid).  If we don’t have a clear idea of the soul, in other words, then we can’t know that God hasn’t orchestrated things such that we are able to exercise our wills freely. And this negative belief is enough, according to Malebranche on this interpretation, to warrant the positive belief in freedom of the will[6]. Such a conclusion, Lee speculates , “seems to go against the very idea that we have knowledge of a key principle governing our volitional actions like RP” (p.87). Lee ends his discussion on this point with an attempted resolution.

Briefly, Lee’s solution is to suggest that we can uphold the inscrutability of the mind without giving up on RP.

Malebranche could well agree that for the moral powers to be there, one does have to represent the particular outcome towards which the soul is to be directed, despite the fact that these powers themselves are mysterious and inexplicable. (p.88)

As attractive as it is, this solution may frustrate Malebranche’s desire to hold fast to NR when it comes to mind-body causation. For why couldn’t I use the same reasoning to claim that I am the true cause of my arm’s going up given that I can (a) represent (in lossless detail) the outcome of my intention to lift my arm and (b) affirm that the power that I exercise in doing so is “mysterious and inexplicable”? (Ibid).

Lee could respond by pointing out that even if we were to refute NR in the case of mind-body interaction we would still be blocked by the Passive Natures (PN[7]) argument since no amount of representation could add a motor force to a body which is in itself entirely inert.  Furthermore, even if we granted that the mind could somehow impart a force to a body, this would still do nothing to explain how that force could be transferred from one body to the next without the direct intervention of God. And since it is plausible to think that there are numerous body-body links along the causal chain uniting my volition to the intended outcome, we would still be very far from establishing any kind of necessary connection between the two.

To be sure, it is clear that one would need to do a lot more work to destabilize Malebranche’s core occasionalist commitments, including his global arguments which we have not touched on here. Nevertheless, it would not be inconsequential to have built a case using a commitment immanent to Malebranche’s philosophy itself — namely, the inexplicable mystery of the soul — that shows that at least one of the local arguments for occasionalism does not go through. If volitional liberty can be harbored in the mystery of the mind then why not allow cases of mind-body causation to be explained (or not explained) by the same mystery?

[1] The argument is Malebranche’s but the designation “No Representations Argument” is Lee’s.

[2] Although the causality in question involves two substances, viz. mind and body, the argument is “local” insofar as it is designed to show that the mind cannot be the true cause or source of interaction between mind and body. Hence it meant to establish only that the mind is causally impotent when it comes such actions.

[3] Like Lee, I mean by “mind-body causation” cases in which the causal agent is the mind and the patient the body. The opposite relationship would, of course, be notated as “body-mind causation” which is not under discussion in Lee’s paper.

[4] All paginations refer to Lee, Sukjae, “Passive Natures and No Representations: Malebranche’s Two “Local” Arguments for Occassionalism”

[5] Lee credits Tad Schmaltz with this analysis.

[6] Although this is hardly the place to go into it, I detect a slight affinity between this argument and Kant’s deriving a pro tanto justification for practical belief in freedom from the proof that we can have no theoretical insight into such a faculty given our cognitive finitude.

[7] This is Lee’s name for Malebranche’s second local argument for occasionalism. It refers to the idea that the notion of body when perceived clearly and distinctly can be known to be passive and incapable of generating movement from itself.


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