Thursday, March 12, 2009

Matthew Evans and Mental Causes

This afternoon I'm taking some of my students to a philosophy conference at the University of Michigan. U-M has one of the greatest pilosophy departments in the world. I'm glad it's close to where I live so I can catch an occasional conference.

Speaking today is Matthew Evans, Assistant Professor of Philosophy at New York University. His topic is "Mental Causes In Plato's Phaedo." I'm interested in this subject, and have been reading some of Evans's online papers. Does Evans support the idea that there is such a thing as mental causality? I'm looking forward to seeing what he says about this.

Here's something from one of his papers. "Hedonism is false... [F]ew, if any, ethical theorists still take Hedonism seriously as a comprehensive account of wat we have most reason to do. Nor should they. Hedonism is an extreme and implausible view - so implausible, in fact, that its rejection is not controversial enough to be of much philosophical interest to us at this point. For better or worse, we are all anti-Hedonists now."

So it's not only our pleasures that justify our actions. But more than that, Evans argues that Plato's idea is that "no pleasure is every worth pursuing as an end in itself, and consequently tat we never have any hedonic reason to do anything." This is indeed a radical claim, given the seeming power of wanting pleasure and avoiding pain.

Evans supports this by:

Socrates claims that every pleasure is necessarily 'for the sake of'' something other than itself. The pursuit of pleasures, Evans suggests, may be that they have a guiding role in picking out things pursuing as ends in themselves.

He then claims that if a thing is necessarily 'for the sake of' something other than itself, then it is not worth pursuing as an end in itself.

From these two premises Socrates (validly) infers that no pleasure is worth pursuing as an end in itself.

Most philosophers today agree that none of our pleasures is 'for the sake of' something else. "But Socrates seemsw to be arguing here that every one of our pleasures is 'for the sake of' something else.

All pleasures, even pure pleasures, have a suspect feature that makes them unworthy of a certain kind of pursuit.

Evans calls his argument the "Aiming Argument." By this he means that "becomings 'aim at' beings." The issue is, e.g., whether shipbuilding is for the sake of ships or ships for the sake of shipbuilding." The Socratic answer to this is, presumably, the former. A "ship" is a "being; "shipbuilding" is a "becoming." This is about the relation of "producing" to "product"; "producing" is subodinate to "product." "Every producing is, in this sense, essentially regulated by some product." (13) "Socrates wants to say that becoming is subordinate to being just as producing is subordinate to product..., [and] every becoming is essentially regulated by some being."

How does this relate to Hedonism? Evans says: "Socrates wants to say that every pleasure is essentially subject to standards of evaluation that are fixed by the nature of some being." "Becomings" cannot be considered "ends in themselves." There is something irrational and defective about the lover of pleasure.

My guess is that Evans's talk today will draw on the kind of distinctions he makes in this paper. Since "being," for Plato, is non-physical, and according to Evans functions as the cause of ethical behavior (whereas pleasure is not the cause), then we have an example of a "mental cause."