Philosophy Mental Causation
John Donaldson
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 August 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0372


Mental causation occurs when mental entities cause other mental and physical entities: seeings causing believings, itches causing scratchings, headaches causing eye twitches, and so on. The term “mental causation” is most often used to refer to the problem of mental causation, which is really a collection of problems with each possessing its own character and tradition of debate. The problem of mental causation began in earnest with an objection to Cartesian dualism raised by Princess Elizabeth of Bohemia (how can immaterial minds causally interact with material bodies?) and still persists via a series of different objections raised against various views including non-reductive physicalism, anomalous monism, and psychological externalism. What unites the different problems of mental causation is their attempt to address a question of this general form: is model x of the non-causal mental-physical relationship (e.g., non-reductive physicalism) consistent with there being mental causation? A negative answer is usually taken to constitute a fatal objection to model x, but not always. There have been two major avenues of inquiry since Elizabeth’s original objection began the debate: (a) what theories of causation can tell us about the consistency of model x with mental causation; or (b) what theories about the non-causal mental-physical relationship can tell us about the consistency of model x with mental causation. Nearly every contribution in the literature on the problem of mental causation can be understood as belonging in either category (a) or (b), or as containing distinguishable elements which so belong. The most important discussions about mental causation have taken place over the last few decades, hence this entry will focus largely on work conducted in that period. Mental causation is also discussed in other areas of philosophy, such as political philosophy or ethics, but this entry will be primarily concerned with the metaphysical and philosophy of mind literature.

Overviews, Textbooks, Collections

There is a reasonable number of good overviews, textbooks, or edited collections that focus solely on the topic of mental causation. And every competent overview, textbook, or edited collection that covers the philosophy of mind in general will include a section on mental causation, as will many such texts that cover metaphysics. Perhaps the best overview of mental causation is Robb and Heil 2014: it is comprehensive (covering all the major problems of mental causation), regularly updated, and contains an extensive bibliography and links to further resources. Contemporary discussion of mental causation is dominated by the exclusion problem, and so most overviews and collections focus on it. Perhaps the best survey of the exclusion problem is Gibb, et al. 2013, which contains significant contributions from many of the main players in that debate. A similar collection is Hohwy and Kallestrup 2008, which focuses on the junction at which the issues of reduction, causation, and explanation meet. Bedau and Humphreys 2008 contains important classic papers, and although it focuses more explicitly on the topic of emergence, the issue of mental causation is a frequent theme. Kim 2005 is an overview of the debate and remains a work of major significance, as well as being a readable and informed introduction. Walter and Heckmann 2003 contains a relatively wide-ranging series of articles on the overlapping topics of physicalism and mental causation. Gillett and Loewer 2001 collection also contains a range of prominent contributions to the debate, although focuses heavily on physicalism. Finally, Jackson 1996 and Bennett 2007 both provide a useful and relatively short overview of many aspects of the mental causation debate. All of the texts in this section could be used at advanced undergraduate level or above.

  • Bedau, M. A., and P. Humphreys, eds. Emergence: Contemporary Readings in Philosophy and Science. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008.

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    An excellent collection of classic papers from many of the most prominent contributors to the debate. Although the focus is explicitly on emergence, the issue of mental causation is frequently discussed. Includes a significant proportion of philosophy of science contributions.

  • Bennett, K. “Mental Causation.” Philosophy Compass 2.2 (2007): 316–337.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1747-9991.2007.00063.xE-mail Citation »

    Survey article that clearly and succinctly gives an overview of some of the problems of mental causation. Does not discuss anomalous monism or psychological externalism.

  • Gibb, S. C., E. J. Lowe, and R. D. Ingthorsson, eds. Mental Causation and Ontology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.

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    An authoritative collection of original essays, primarily focused on the exclusion problem as faced by non-reductive physicalism, but other views such as substance dualism are also discussed.

  • Gillett, C., and B. Loewer, eds. Physicalism and Its Discontents. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

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    A useful collection of original essays particularly for those interested in physicalism first and mental causation second. Also useful for those keen to find out how the different varieties of physicalism might best accommodate mental causation. Those who are so motivated should read Jaegwon Kim’s contribution first (see pp. 271–283), and then consider the other contributions in its light.

  • Hohwy, J., and J. Kallestrup, eds. Being Reduced: New Essays on Reduction, Explanation, and Causation. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.

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    An important collection of original essays. Much of the discussion concerns reduction—its nature and the prospects for achieving it. Includes some interesting contributions from the philosophy of science literature.

  • Jackson, F. “Mental Causation.” Mind 105.419 (1996): 377–413.

    DOI: 10.1093/mind/105.419.377E-mail Citation »

    Gives an overview of the mental causation problem, with autonomy theses a particular focus. Is generally “sympathetic” to mental-physical reduction. Also covers psychological externalism and options for how mental causation might be implemented at the neuronal level.

  • Kim, J. Physicalism, or Something Near Enough. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005.

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    Kim’s influence on the contemporary mental causation debate in general, and the exclusion debate in particular, is unmatched. This book contains the clearest and fullest statement of his own position, and provides a cohesive, engaging, and informed introduction to the key issues. Focuses on the exclusion problem but discusses a wide range of related issues including the mind-body problem and qualia. See Kim 2007 (cited under the Exclusion Problem) for an important clarification of his views on causation.

  • Robb, D., and J. Heil. “Mental Causation.” In Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Edward N. Zalta. Stanford, CA: Stanford University, 2014.

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    The most up-to-date and comprehensive overview of the mental causation debate. Also includes an extensive bibliography and links to further resources.

  • Walter, S., and H. Heckmann, eds. Physicalism and Mental Causation: The Metaphysics of Mind and Action. Exeter, UK: Imprint Academic, 2003.

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    Somewhat superseded by later collections, such as Gibb, et al. 2013, this is still a useful collection of original essays about the basic concepts employed in the debate about mental causation and physicalism. Also contains essays on human agency.

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