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Meditation on a Prisoner: Towards Understanding Action and Mind Hardcover – April 1, 1975

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Here is a book that will repay a second and a third reading. Among other things, it combines an appreciative but critical appraisal of neurophysiological solutions to the body-mind problem with a constructive sketch of the metaphysical elements any future approach to such problems ought to begin with. The author takes his theme and title from the picture drawn in Phaedo 98f: It is Socrates, calmly determined to obey the law rather than escape and, about to propose his own theory of causation by the Forms, insisting that any materialistic explanation of his actions would fall short of their reality and the truth of his responsible human agency. Against that back ground the thesis is developed that post-Cartesian causal accounts of human thinking, willing and acting generally are as blind to the autonomy of human agency as were Plato's materialists. Even the serious efforts of contemporary actions theorists are foiled: their linguistic preoccupations prevent them from grappling with anything nearer to the experience of action than our ways of talking about it. indeed, most contemporary philosophy is crippled by an undeclared imperialism of scientific methodology and language which allows it no privileged direct access to reality and simply excludes or strait-jackets metaphysics. So the official philosophical doctrine of causality is the Humean sort which reduces agency and action to logical sequence and interprets the experience of power and efficacy as an expectant habit of mind generated by repetition. By contrast with the "bones, sinews and muscles" of the Phaedo, the author concede, modern mechanistic accounts and psychophysical identity theories are more persuasive in applying sophisticated scientific results to the conditions of knowing and acting. But they still fail "to distinguish the real cause from that without which the cause cannot be the cause." Physical and physiological components or prerequisites are mere infrastructures marshaled and utilized by it. By reflective consideration of an act of understanding or of valuing decision, the author suggests, one finds such structural conditions to be integral neither to the intended object of the action nor to subjective consciousness of it. In subsequent constructive chapters action and entity are developed as categories which, ontologically and in our understanding, take priority over the kind of causality that is amenable to scientific analysis and systematization. The argument proceed from originative action to appropriately competent agent-entity and from agent-entity to Being, whose "ontic power" is expressed in all entities and agents. Thus powered, a comprehensive entity energizes and controls its infrastructure to execute an action; so, eventually, is the fact of physical causation accounted for, without the physical causes (any or all of them collectively) explaining the action itself. . . .

For the richness and depth of its insights. . .and for the sustained power of its constructive development, Meditation on a Prisoner invites and will reward the philosopher's attentive reading and reflection. -- Linus J. Thro, The Modern Schoolman, 54, March 1977, pp. 292-93

From the Inside Flap

When we break up the unity of any human action into a number of physical components or events bound together by the relation of cause and effect under the governance of the laws of nature, the reality and importance of the act escapes us. At least it escapes us, Pols claims, if we accept a common misreading of science and take it for granted that analysis of that kind is the only rational way to understand action. What from the point of view of this book seems to be the unifying power of the agent, a power that expresses itself in and through the multiplicity of physical events ingredient in the act, loses its authority when we are committed to this kind of analysis. We are simply unable to take the act seriously as a genuine power-unit. Consequently, we cannot take seriously the power exercised by the agent's mind and by the principles and values he holds and the truths he sees, since these aspects of the "action" are subject to the same analytic dissolution.

The prisoner of the title is Socrates, who, after a series of actions involving moral decisions, finds himself under sentence of death, and who has now decided to undergo the sentence rather than accept the opportunity to escape that has been provided by powerful friends. Pols takes as his point of departure Socrates' naive statement of the contrast between the view of action in terms of scientific analysis and the view of it taken by the agent himself. Socrates rejects the scientific analysis, and Pols contends that we have not yet managed to come to grips with the point Socrates was making, and that, inadequate as his way of formulating the issue may have been, the point is fundamentally sound. This book is an attempt to give the issue an adequate formulation and solution in contemporary terms. The controlling idea is that of the originative act, although the originative act is understood to be but one example of actlike powers that are to be found at all levels of nature. The idea is developed in terms of a quantum-view of time called act- temporality, and in this setting the author is able to treat the views of causality prevalent in science and common sense as less fundamental than the power expressed in originative acts. By this move a causal analysis of action is deprived of much of the threat it is usually understood to pose to the autonomy of human action. The theme of the prisoner is recurrent throughout the book, and Socrates' own acts are used as examples of originative acts in a discussion that ranges through such matters as the status of the laws of nature, the dispute between reductionist and anti-reductionist science, the use of the computer model in studying the brain,the views on the mind-body problem of leading contemporary neurophysiologists and philosophers, and various other features of the contemporary debate about the adequacy of materialism as a philosophy.

Lessons learned from the consideration of originative acts are eventually applied to the mind-body problem. In fact, the intelligent, conscious, and articulate activity of mind, together with moral activity, which is so dependent upon mind, is understood to be among the highest examples of originative acts available to us. A treatment of the activity of the brain as an important part of the infrastructure of originative action is one of the more illuminating features of the latter part of this volume. But in many ways the key to the cogency of the book is its reexamination of the most crucial feature of any originative act that has an aspect of mentality in it: the capacity of an activity that is in some sense "subjective" to attain an apprehension of the real that is in some sense "objective." it is this theme that warrants the books final return to the nature of the agent out of whose "ontic power" originative acts spring.


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