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Journal of the History of Philosophy 38.4 (2000) 503-528

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Occasionalism and Occasional Causation in Descartes' Philosophy

University of Victoria

According to Descartes, the physical world's contact with the mind is through the sense organs and the brain, although the mechanics of this contact is by no means clear. Indeed, for many the idea that the physical world can act upon the mind at all is a complete mystery on Descartes' principles, not least because the difference between the spatial and divisible nature of body and the non-spatial and indivisible nature of mind seems to preclude the possibility of body-mind contact or of a mechanism for such contact.1 Despite this, however, Descartes repeatedly affirms that body and mind interact causally. He claims that the fact of their disparate natures poses no special difficulty, and he even affirms that the mind and body can form a union (in the case of the human being).2

In this paper I wish to examine two issues pertaining to the body-mind relation in Descartes' philosophy. First, I ask whether Descartes advances body-mind occasionalism: is there evidence in his writings of the view that bodies are not genuine causes of sensations, but are mere 'occasions' for God's production of sensations? Recently, it has been urged that Descartes begins his career as a body-mind causal interactionist, but perhaps ends as an occasionalist.3 [End Page 503] In Section 1 of what follows I argue against this. I attempt to show both that Descartes never strays from the body-mind interactionism which he is generally thought to espouse, and that he would undermine his proof of the material world if he did. The second issue I deal with concerns a position closely related to occasionalism which Steven Nadler has recently identified as body-mind "occasional causation."4 In Section 2 of the following I provide an interpretation of occasional causation as it appears in Descartes' reply to Regius in the Comments on a Certain Broadsheet. I argue that Descartes' occasional causation amounts to a form of interactionism which I term "inefficacious body-mind transmissionism."

1. Does Descartes Espouse Body-Mind Occasionalism?

1.1. Daniel Garber's Case for Descartes' Move Toward Body-Mind Occasionalism

Occasionalism, roughly defined, is a doctrine according to which God's will is the only genuine efficient or productive cause that exists, and all other so-called 'causes' are really just 'occasions' for the exercise of that will.5 As Daniel Garber understands the term in "Descartes and Occasionalism," an occasional cause is "a cause whose effect is produced through the activity of God," and not through the exercise of any causal power within finite things.6 Body-mind occasionalism is a logical inevitability in Descartes' philosophy, Garber claims, because for Descartes "God is responsible for all motion in the inanimate world."7 The idea is that because there is no causal action on the part of bodies, bodies cannot act causally on anything, let alone minds.8

Because for Garber body-body occasionalism is "as clear as anything" in Descartes' philosophy, he sets out to find evidence in Descartes' writings for [End Page 504] the body-mind occasionalism which it implies. It is Garber's case for body-mind occasionalism that I contest below, where I argue that Descartes remains a body-mind interactionist throughout his life. Clearly, my assessment of Descartes puts me at odds with Garber's more general view that Descartes is a body-body occasionalist, at least on the assumption that Descartes has a logically consistent position on body-body and body-mind causation. For, to reiterate Garber's point, to be logically consistent overall Descartes cannot be both a body-body occasionalist and a body-mind interactionist. Of course, Garber and I need not be at odds on body-body occasionalism; for since we need not assume that Descartes is logically consistent, he and I could say that Descartes as a matter of historical fact holds both positions. Within the confines of...


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