Normativism and Mental Causation by Justin Thomas Tiehen, B. A. Dissertation

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2.4 Points of Clarification

Finally, before we get to next chapter’s arguments for the (CRT)’s truth, let me say a few things (sometimes programmatic in nature) about how the (CRT) is related to various other theses.


Is the (CRT) compatible with functionalism? This, of course, partly depends on what’s meant by “functionalism.” While most philosophers who describe themselves as functionalists are causal functionalists, there’s nothing inherent to Lewis’s method of Ramsifying theories and deriving functional definitions which requires this. Thus, if one understands functionalism primarily in terms of the use of this method, then the (CRT) is clearly a form of functionalism. In connection with this point, consider the view Frank Jackson and Philip Petit have defended in metaethics which goes by the name moral functionalism.61 The central feature of moral functionalism is the claim that through the use of Ramsification, moral terms can be defined in non-moral terms. Jackson and Pettit explicitly deny, however, that the clauses that make up folk morality are all causal in nature, or that moral terms can be defined in entirely causal terms. If moral functionalism is properly regarded as a kind of functionalism, then there doesn’t seem to be a good reason to deny that the (CRT) is a kind of functionalism too.

Setting aside this point, even if functionalism is understood in a narrower, exclusively causal way – even if functionalism is taken to be just causal functionalism – the (CRT) still seems to be compatible with it. For, if normativity can be given some sort of broadly causal analysis, then presumably normative clauses like (OI) and (OS) will be equivalent, either in meaning or at least in terms of picking out the same state of affairs, to purely causal clauses. In that case, both causal functionalism and the (CRT) would be true. Folk psychology would consist entirely of causal clauses, some of which are also normative clauses.

More generally, the (CRT) itself takes no stand on the status of normativity, on whether or not normative properties are reducible to non-normative ones. Thus, if one wants to use the (CRT) as the basis of an argument against reductionistic accounts of mental phenomena – as I will be doing in this work – then one presumably will need an independent argument against the reducibility of normativity.


The (CRT) says that folk psychology contains normative clauses, but it doesn’t say in any detail what those clauses are like. In fact, aside from giving possible examples of such clauses here and there, at no point in this work will I be going into detail about them. In setting out and defending the (CRT), I see my role as analogous to that of causal functionalists, who often gesture toward a few of the causal clauses they take folk psychology to contain – that tissue damage causes pain, that pain causes wincing, etc. – but who never try to spell out in detail every last causal clause. Surely, this is legitimate. Causal functionalists needn’t go into such detail in order to defend what I take to be their central claim, that mental states have causal essences. Analogously, I as a defender of the (CRT) needn’t go into much detail about the sorts of normative clauses I take folk psychology to contain in order to defend what is really my central claim, that mental states have partly normative essences.

In connection with this point, let me acknowledge that, at least when it comes to obligation-satisfying clauses, the more specific the claim a normative clause makes, generally the less plausible it seems that the clause is truly picking out an essential feature of mental states.62 To see this, consider the following obligation-satisfying clause.

(OS2): If a subject believes that P and that if P then Q, then she will reason in a way she ought to believe given these two beliefs – namely, she will either revise one of the beliefs or she will infer that Q.

(OS2) makes a highly specific claim about a form of rationality that all believers supposedly exhibit. This claim is not one that I myself would want to defend. It seems to me that I can imagine possible subjects who satisfy (OS2)’s antecedent without satisfying its consequent (though, I should add, I do feel at least a bit of a pull toward the conclusion that the subjects I’m imagining don’t genuinely believe both that P and that if P then Q). If such subjects are possible, then it can’t be part of belief’s essence that subjects with beliefs satisfy the rational obligation (OS2) describes.

I do not think that there is a deep problem here for the (CRT). To see why not, consider first that causal functionalists seem to confront a similar situation. A causal functionalist about pain will contend that folk psychology contains clauses like (P).

(P): Pain tends to cause wincing.

Is it plausible that (P) really describes an essential feature of pain though? Imagine a state F in a world w which is just like pain here in the actual world in almost all causal respects. At w, F is caused by tissue damage, causes crying, “Ouch!” exclamations, gnashing of the teeth, and so on. The only catch is that F never causes wincing. Very few causal functionalists would want to maintain that F’s failure to possess this single causal power entails that subjects who are in F aren’t thereby in pain. Instead, most causal functionalists would want to allow that since F has the vast majority of causal powers that go with pain, subjects in F are in pain. But, if subjects at w who are in F are thereby in pain, it seems to follow that (P) must not describe an essential feature of pain.

Obviously, this point will generalize. What’s true of wincing is true of tissue damage, crying, “Ouch!” exclamations, teeth-gnashing, and so on. Imagine a state G at a world w’ such that G enters into all the causal relations pain does except that G never causes gnashing of the teeth, etc. Following along this path, we eventually seem to be led to the conclusion that it’s not really part of pain’s essence to possess any particular causal power. But then, how could pain nevertheless have a causal essence in the way causal functionalists claim?

One response to this question that causal functionalists have available to them is to adopt Lewis’s account of near realization.63 Within the context of Lewis’s original proposal for deriving functional definitions from a theory, the idea behind near realizations is that in a world in which there is an n-tuple of states almost (but not quite) possessing all the properties and standing in all the relations that the specifying psychological theory says mental states stand in – that is, in a world where the theory is almost (but not quite) realized by the n-tuple in question – the mental terms of the theory should (despite the near miss) still be taken to denote the appropriate components of that n-tuple. On this proposal then, even if F never causes wincing at w it could still be the pain-component in an n-tuple of states that nearly realizes the specifying psychological theory there, in which case F would still be the denotation of ‘pain’ at w on Lewis’s view.

The way the intuitive ideas laid out here are captured within Lewis’s framework is by construing theories not as conjunctions of their clauses, but rather as disjunctions of conjunctions of most of their clauses. So, for instance, instead of construing the theory T from section 2.2 above as the conjunction, (i) & (ii) & (iii), we might instead construe it as the disjunction, ((i) & (ii) & (iii)) v ((i) & (ii)) v ((i) & (iii)) v ((ii) & (iii)). After this initial change to the way in which theories are construed, Lewis’s original proposal for deriving functional definitions need not be altered in any way.

Incorporating this proposal into the broader discussion now, if causal functionalism is true then for that disjunction which is folk psychology, each disjunct will consist of a conjunction of entirely causal clauses. In this way we can understand how causal functionalists could consistently maintain that mental states have broadly causal essences even as they avoid committing themselves to taking any very specific causal power to be essential to a given mental state.

Similarly, if we follow Lewis’s lead and construe theories not as conjunctions of their clauses but rather as disjunctions of conjunctions of most of their clauses, then we should reinterpret the (CRT). Specifically, we should take the (CRT) to be asserting not just that folk psychology contains normative clauses, but that for the disjunction which is folk psychology, ach disjunct will consist of a conjunction which contains normative clauses as conjuncts. This gives us a rigorous way of understanding how defenders of the (CRT) could consistently maintain that mental states have essences that are at least partly normative without asserting that any very specific normative obligation must be satisfied in order to enter into a given mental state.


Sometimes philosophers arguing that certain principles of rationality are constitutive of the mental realm make a point of adding that, at least insofar as they play this constitutive role, the principles in question aren’t genuinely normative.64 Now, I deny that there’s an inherent conflict between a principle’s being normative and its being constitutive in the required sense. Still, it seems to me that these philosophers may be on to something right. To develop their thought a bit, let’s focus on consistency as our example. As a way of trying to capture the idea that consistency is somehow constitutive of belief, let’s suppose that folk psychology contains the following clause.

(C): Subject’s belief sets are largely consistent.

Question: Does (C) count as a normative clause?

Well, there’s no doubt that having a largely consistent belief set is a very good thing, but its goodness seems rather irrelevant to the claim that (C) describes an essential feature of belief. One way of seeing this is to imagine that normative eliminativism were the correct metaphysical view – imagine, for instance, that our (accurate) scientific worldview simply leaves no place for normativity. If normative eliminativism were true we would be forced to reject the idea that there are certain ways one ought to reason, or that there are certain beliefs one ought to hold. Presumably, though, we wouldn’t be forced to reject the very idea of consistency. If normative eliminativism were true, it’s not that there would be no such thing as consistent, or largely consistent, or thoroughly inconsistent belief sets. Rather, it’s that there wouldn’t be anything better about having a consistent belief set than an inconsistent one.

Even if normative eliminativism were true, then, it seems that (C) could still be true. Compare the normative clauses (OI) and (OS) on this point. If normativity weren’t real, then presumably it couldn’t be literally the case that subjects ought to follow the principle of total evidence, or that subjects who believe that P believe many of the other things they ought to believe, given P. This seems like an important difference between (C) and (OI)/(OS). What I take it to show is that while the properties that (OI) and (OS) ascribe to the subjects of belief are uncontroversially normative, the property that (C) ascribes to the subjects of belief is not. If this is correct, then according to the criterion provided above, (C) doesn’t count as a normative clause.

The property of having a largely consistent belief set, I find it plausible to say, is not itself something normative. However, setting normative eliminativism aside and assuming the truth of normative realism, it is a property whose instantiation entails the instantiation of normative properties. A subject whose belief set is largely consistent will invariably be a subject whose belief set is good in a certain respect.

In Chapter 3 I will return at much greater length to the issues touched on here. For now, the main point I want to make is that the inclusion in folk psychology of clauses relevantly like (C) would not entail the truth of the (CRT), as I’m understanding it. For the (CRT) to be true, folk psychology needs to include clauses like (OI) and (OS) – that is, genuinely normative clauses. A philosopher who takes folk psychology to contain clauses like (C) will not count as a defender of the (CRT) in this work if she does not also take it to include clauses like (OI) or (OS). When I turn to argue for the truth of the (CRT) in Chapter 3, I take part of my obligation to be to present arguments that support the (CRT) against this constitutive-rationality-without-normativity alternative.65


What is it to instantiate mental properties like belief properties? According to the (CRT), it is at least in part to instantiate certain normative properties. If the (CRT) is true, then, there would seem to be a sense in which mental properties depend on normative properties. Thus, the (CRT) appears to be incompatible with metaphysical accounts attempting to reductively explain normative facts in terms of mental facts. Maybe other reductive approaches to normativity could work – the (CRT) by itself doesn’t generally rule out such approaches. But, if the (CRT) is true, then it seems that accounts taking mental properties to be more metaphysically fundamental than normative ones are doomed.

If mental properties depend on normative properties, then are normative properties more fundamental than mental ones? The (CRT) is compatible with such a metaphysical view, but it doesn’t seem to me to require it. Perhaps the arrows of dependence point both ways. Perhaps mental and normative properties are intimately bound up in such a way that they can be said to depend on each other. In section 2.2, we considered the possibility of going through two rounds of Ramsification for a theory, using one subset of the theory’s terms to define a second subset, and then turning around and using the second subset to define the first. Maybe this is what the relation between mental and normative properties is like. Maybe a complete specification of mental properties’ essences requires us to invoke normative properties, while a complete specification of normative properties’ essences requires us to invoke mental properties.

If the (CRT) is true while mental and normative properties depend on one another in this way, then functionalists’ goal of specifying the essences of mental states in completely non-mental terms would seem to be unachievable. Now, it’s not clear that this result would be incompatible with the truth of physicalism. It doesn’t seem to be incompatible with the truth of strong psychophysical supervenience, for instance, and so if physicalism is understood in terms of such supervenience it could still be true.66 The result does seem to be incompatible with certain common physicalist ambitions, however, such as explaining mental facts entirely in terms of physical facts.

We will touch more on these issues and especially on what physicalism requires in Chapter 4. At no point in this work, however, will I be taking a stand on whether normative properties are more fundamental than mental properties or on whether the two sets of properties are equally fundamental. I suspect that the latter line provides the more promising way to develop my view. Actually carrying out the project of developing this line falls outside the scope of the present work however.

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