Said Simon

Inchoate thoughts on my stuff

Ideas, Causes, and IR Theory debates

I recently read a post on an excellent IR blog which looked at the validity of drawing an ontological distinction between the material and the ideational. I think it is a very interesting discussion, with broader implications for social scientists – it’s entirely unrelated to the particular scope of international politics – and so I am going to weigh in here.

Specifically, this post centred on the statement by one of IR’s most famous ‘scientific realists’ that

in the end there can only be two possibilities [for types of explanation], materialist and idealist, because there are only two kinds of stuff in the world, material and ideational

– Wendt, Social Theory of International Politics 1999, p. 136

, and the criticism directed against it by Patrick Thaddeus Jackson (PTJ), another theorist on philosophy of science in IR. PTJ’s criticisms, which aim to attack Wendt’s particular school of thinking on its own physicalist grounds,  are divisible into two claims:

  1. Ideas are material, because reducible  to particular configurations of a cognitive system realised in a physical substrate (ie ideas are brain-states);
  2. Because ideas are either caused by neurophysiological states or are actually non-existent, they cannot feature in explanations of cause and effect;

The post’s author rejects both these claims, tentatively, on the grounds that

many physicalists in philosophy of mind argue that mind is not reducible to material objects, but rather shares an identity with certain material processes. Furthermore, even if ideas and beliefs really are just pre-scientific labels we use to refer to particular classes of physical processes, these processes remain as plausible candidates as any others to provide explanations for social phenomena. Commitment to physicalism in the philosophy of mind doesn’t necessarily tell us much anything about what sort of processes are causally efficacious in the social world.

This response is not grounds for rejecting the first of PTJ’s claims , but it is indeed grounds for rejecting the second. PTJ’s first claim is most charitably understood as an argument for token physicalism; basically, according to it, any explanation referring to a particular idea held by a particular person at a particular time is reducible to an explanation involving a brain-state. However, this is not the same as type physicalism, which holds that ideas of a certain type categorically reduce to a certain brain-state. Many token physicalists are not type physicalists, because they believe that multiple brain-states could lead to functionally identical mental-states. To quote wikipedia:

Token identity physicalism argues that mental events are unlikely to have “steady” or categorical biological correlates. These positions make use of the philosophical Type–token distinction (e.g. having the same type of car need not mean that you and your friend share a token, a single vehicle). Type physicalism can now be understood to argue that there is identicalness between types, whereas token identity physicalism says we are only describing a particular, unique, brain event.

Token identity phsyicalism would, as the post’s author claims, mean that we still can use explanations involving ideas or mental states because while we know that our terms are identical to physical processes, we can’t know which processes beyond a set with possibly infinite members. Token physicalism does allow us to view ideas as material, because their physical realisation is in the configuration or sequence of configurations of a material substrate – ie any token idea is causally or ontologically reducible to activity in the brain. However, as token physicalism, unlike type physicalism, does not entail categorical reduction (in the opinion of most philosophers of mind, to my knowledge) we can continue to explain things using ideas, beliefs, mental kinds, etc because we can often go no further than to identify the type of mental state which is causally salient – eg if we’re speaking in categorical terms or if we have insufficient data.

Or, as the post’s author later claims (in a comment):

This means that knowledge regarding mental states provides us with reliable knowledge about the physical states and processes at work within a set of physical systems. Those physical systems (which correspond to the epiphenomena we know as ‘beliefs’, ‘desires’, intentions’) may well be causally efficacious.

Hence while we should not strictly separate between the ideational and the material, we still have good reason to continue to explain things in terms of ideas. Furthermore, while it is possible that eventually social science will be reducible to neuroscience -ie if we believe in type reduction – it is also possible that mental kinds are not simply placeholders for token neurological states but for entire sets of neurological states whose membership can never be fully defined.


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