Reconceptualizing the human mind in a mechanical society


Lawless Mind

Raziel Abelson

cloth EAN: 978-0-87722-579-9 (ISBN: 0-87722-579-6)
$41.50, Oct 88, Out of Stock Unavailable
209 pp 5x8

"Lawless Mind is an important contribution to the philosophy of mind. It will attract much attention, create a lot of controversy, and be judged a fine piece of work by an author who writes with clarity, wit, insight, and a distinctive turn of mind."
Gerald E. Myers, CUNY

While the ancients described the world as a single organism and the medieval view was theological in nature, modern thought has envisioned the world as a mechanism composed of smaller mechanisms. Raziel Abelson argues that this mechanistic explanation, when applied to human action, is dangerous because it "threatens us with a kind of spiritual annihilation…[and] it undermines our belief in freedom of the will and with it the reality of choice, value, and moral responsibility." In Lawless Mind, he presents a theory about the relationship between mind and body in order to show how voluntary actions can be causally explained while still allowing for free will.

Abelson attempts to reconcile the centuries-old debate between determinists and free-willers by making a distinction between two kinds of causality. "The impact of this [mechanistic] view on psychology, ethics, and politics is such as to replace moral judgment with the search for causal mechanisms. In psychology it results in reducing moral wisdom to medical therapy, in politics it reduces statesmanship to game theory and rational persuasion to behavioral modification, and in ethics it reduces moral responsibility to social conformity. If we are all programmed automata, as mechanism suggests, then the way to improve our performances is to hire a mechanic of the mind to tinker with our wiring. Is this the way to think about ourselves? I shall try to show that it is not."

Abelson's novel theory of mind and psychological causality provides solutions for problems in metaphysics, ethics, psychology, and the social sciences. The issues addressed include free will and responsibility, mind-body interaction, models of psychotherapy, causal explanations in sociology, and the difference between minds and computers.


Excerpt available at

"…but I shall limit this discussion of psychology to its therapeutic aspects.

"The central issue I wish to consider is this: If therapeutic psychology is, as it is usually claimed to be, the knowledge of the mechanisms, whether psychic or somatic, whose malfunctioning causes socially unsatisfactory conduct, does this entail that satisfactory conduct is causally determined by well-functioning mechanisms, or does it leave satisfactory conduct free to be explained in the indeterministic way I have described? I want to argue the later thesis. If I am right about this, an important corollary follows—namely, that psychotherapy has no more scientific warrant than the advice of any person experienced in giving advice such as clergy, teachers, or heads of large families. This consequence may strike devotees of psychotherapy as a reductio ad absurdum of my account of psychological causality, but I regard it as positive confirmation, in the light of H. J. Eyseck's statistical finding that the percentage of spontaneous recoveries from clinically diagnosed psychic malaise is the same as the percentage of success claimed by psychotherapists. The indeterminism of psychological causality nicely explains this statistical finding, which should, on the other hand, be mind-boggling to determinists.

"I have always disliked the term 'psychotherapy,' not because I question the value of helping people to resolve their inner conflicts, which is an admirable thing to do when done out of the goodness of one's heart, and thus free of charge, but because the pretense of professional expertise and the pseudo-medical ring of 'therapy' imply psychological determinism. Like Thomas Szasz, I object to the association of soul-healing with somatic medicine and, more consistently, I think, than Szasz, my reason is that medicine is properly deterministic, while soul-healing is not. If the mind or soul were the brain or its activity, then psychotherapy would be neurology, but in that case, the term psychotherapy is misleadingly redundant. I have no quarrel with clinical neurology, but we can set it aside as irrelevant. I shall argue against mind-brain reduction in the final chapter. At this point I want to consider what is wrong in the notion of (irreducibly) mental psychotherapy. I want to consider the claim that psychotherapy helps or benefits the person who avails himself of its services. To put my cards on the table, I shall say straight out that I cannot see how such a thing is possible. This is not because I hold any animus against psychotherapy or those who practice it. Some of my best friends are therapists and others of my best friends go to therapists and sometimes seem to benefit from doing so. I know at least three persons who attempted suicide and then, after receiving therapy, got along well enough not to have attempted suicide again—so far, at least. I know one young man who was shy and homosexual before therapy. After therapy he was boisterous and aggressively heterosexual. He ceased to write poetry, became an advertising executive and made lots of money. Perhaps these people did benefit from psychotherapy, at least from their point of view. But the question in my mind is not whether people do sometimes as a matter of fact derive benefit from psychotherapy, for I have no doubt that they do. People also sometimes benefit from prayer, transcendental meditation, faith healing, and even from catastrophe, if they are resourceful enough to draw the right lessons. The question I mean to explore is whether it is of the nature of psychotherapy that it benefits people, or whether whatever benefit one derives from it is accidental—that is, due more to surrounding circumstances than to the nature of the service preformed, in the way that having an auto collision may shock a reckless driver into driving more carefully, or being swindled may teach a person to be less gullible, or in the way that Father Zossimov, in The Brothers Karamazov, during a night of anguish while preparing for a duel, experienced a religious conversion and became a saint. Lots of things benefit us in mysterious and accidental ways. But the kind of skill whose nature it is to provide benefit would be a practical science like automobile mechanics or agronomy or medicine. The automobile mechanic, if he is a good one, can be relied upon to benefit you by repairing your car. The agronomist can show you or tell you how to cultivate the soil so as to improve your tomato crop. The doctor can usually be relied upon to repair your body. What about the psychotherapist? What knowledge has she in virtue of which she can repair something for you or tell you how to repair it yourself? And what object of yours does she or you repair?"

From "Healing Sick Souls"


1. Two Concepts of Cause
2. Agency and Responsibility
3. Where the Buck Stops and Why
4. Extra Credit and Discredit
5. Healing Sick Souls
6. The Myth of Mental Science
7. Youth and Other Excuses
8. Wittgenstein's Challenge
9. The Challenge of Artificial Intelligence
10. Keeping Mind and Body Together


About the Author(s)

Raziel Abelson is Professor of Philosophy at New York University and author of Persons: A Study of Philosophical Psychology.

Subject Categories

Philosophy and Ethics


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