Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Being, Causing and more Birds

Following my previous post about the problems inherent in attributing behaviour (e.g. birdsong) to mental phenomena, there is something I want to explore further.

Artistotle says in the Posteria Analytics that to know something is to know its cause. For him, that would mean to know its material nature, its form, the agency which brought it into being and its purpose. For Aristotle, cause is a real thing in the world. But this is not our modern understanding of cause, which largely we inherit from Hume. With Hume, cause is an idea, constructed through observation of regular successions of events. It is the regular succession of events of neuronal firings and bird tweetings which lead to the ascription of mental causation in this case.

But getting back to Aristotle for a second, one of the things about the four causes is that although we might think of them providing the prior conditions for a things existence (that it has a material, a form, someone or something makes it, and it has a purpose), this prior-ness is something which we inherit from Hume. Some of the conditions for existence may only be understood through understanding the causal power of the thing in question. This is particularly true of a thing's purpose. It may also be true of the efficient cause (who makes it), and I wonder if it is true of the formal cause too.

This is methodologically useful, because I think it is easier and more practical to study the causal power of a thing than to speculate on the prior conditions for its existence - be they neuronal firings or flapping butterflies. It also ties neatly into Stafford Beer's POSIWID principle: the purpose of a system is what it does. Understand what something does rather than speculating on antecedent (mental or otherwise) causes may be a more productive route for the study of birdsong and many other phenomena.

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