Tooth fairies made me write this
Here’s an old topic, in the words of Bennett and Hacker (Philosophical Foundations of Neuroscience, 2003):
Of course, we commonly act because we want to, intend to or have decided to act, either for its own sake or for the sake of some further goal. But it is mistaken to think that this ‘because’ is caual. For if it were, then once the want has occured, the intention been formed, or the decision taken, then we could remain passive, sit back, and let nature take its course. […] Moreover, wants and intentions cannot fulfil the role of acts of will, since they are not acts of any kind. Willing, if it is anything, must be something we do, not a want or a desire that besets us or that we happen to have. And although making a decision can be termed ‘a mental act’, it is not a cause of behaviour, but a terminus to a state of indecision […].
To say that someone did something because he wanted to does not introduce a causal explanation of his action by reference to a mental act or event. But it may serve to exclude certain kinds of causal explanation; for example, it excludes involuntary action, so if something was done because the agent wanted to do it, then it was not a mere twitch or an involuntary start. Rather, saying that he did it because he wanted to characterizes his behaviour as action, hence as something for which it makes sense to ask for reasons […]. (pp. 227-228)
Where this is going:
[Because we’re concept- and language-users] we can know or believe, think or imagine, fear or hope, want or intend, a multitude of things which other animals cannot. […] For the concepts in question are partly definitive of what it is to be a human being […].
The concepts we have been dealing with are not theoretical concepts of a science of any kind, although they are rightly invoked and employed in psychology and in brain neuroscience. […] It is a disastrous confusion, fostered by the eliminative materialists, to represent these concepts as part of something called ‘folk psychology’, which is held to be a defective, primitive theory of human behaviour. Of course, these concepts are used not only in the overt expression of emotion, but also in the description of the states of mind and character traits of other people, and in the explanation of human conduct. But it is an equally dire confusion to suppose that all explanation is theoretical. Explanation of human behaviour by reference to emotions and motives, knowledge and belief, thought and imagination, is neither theoretical nor part of a science. (pp. 231-232)
This is wrong for a number of reasons – or so I suspect. But I wonder what people think of the last lines on explanation. Suppose B&H are able to drive their argument home up to the point of making conceptual connections explanatory. This is how we conceive of – and talk about – ourselves. Even if this were true (which it isn’t), could it ground any explanatory claims?
In the closing lines of ‘Explanation in science and in history’ (1962), Hempel shows some skepticism towards the idea that ‘historical explanation’ is not, as B&H might call it, ‘theoretical’. We wouldn’t want to collapse explanation and rationalization, would we? I find the following essentially on the right track:
But such a construal of explanation would give undue importance to considerations of ordinary language. Gardiner is entirely right when he reminds us that the ‘language in which history is written is for the most part the language of ordinary speech’; but the historian in search of reasons that will correctly explain human actions will obviously have to give up his reliance on the everyday conception of ‘real reasons’ if psychological or other investigations show that real reasons, thus understood, do not yield as adequate an account of human actions as an analysis in terms of less familiar conceptions such as, perhaps, the idea of motivating factors which are kept out of the agent’s normal awareness of repression and reaction formation.
I would say, then, first of all, that historical explanation cannot be bound by conceptions that might be implicit in the way in which ordinary language deals with motivating reasons.
What follows is strikingly similar to replies the Churchlands got to their claim that folk psychology is a ‘stagnant theory’:
But secondly, I would doubt that Gardiner’s expressly tentative characterization does justice even to what we ordinarily mean when we speak of a man’s ‘real reasons’. For considerations of the kind that support the idea of subconscious motives are quite familiar in our time […] For no matter whether an explanation of human action is attempted in the language of ordinary speech or in the technical terms of some theory, the overriding criterion for what-if-anything should count as a ‘real’, and thus explanatory, reason for a given action is surely not to be found by examining the way in which the term ‘real reason’ has thus far been used, but by investigating what conception of real reason would yield the most satisfactory explanation of human conduct; and ordinary usage gradually changes accordingly.
It is a reductio, I think, that B&H classify the kind of investigation mentioned above as a species of nonsense. And it is a telling sort of blindness to think that there is an impermeable conceptual core in our ideas about what and who we are.