Action as opposed to interaction

From a comment at Feser’s blog:

[I]f meaning and intentionality are non-material/metaphysical properties of minds, how do they cause and constrain the physical behavior of our bodies? When your non-material mind rationally determines that you want to utilize the argumentative function of language by expressing a sentence using the keyboard of your computer, how does it make your hands do that?

The simplest way to imagine A acting on B is to imagine pushing,  pulling, or heating. When you take a closer look at what what these actions amount to, however, you see that they aren’t simply actions of one thing on another, but effects that result from a mixture or interaction of A and B. And so while you wanted to simply think about action, what you ended up visualizing was interaction, which is a very different thing. You wanted to consider a single causal arrow from A to B, and you ended up visualizing B acting on A in addition to this, and a net effect (C) that is something other than either action.

And yet for all that you still have an idea of action. The idea is simpler and more intelligible than interaction – in fact, interaction resolves to action just as molecules reduce to atoms or any compound reality reduces to its constituent parts. But what would be necessary for some A to just act on B? If B is a physical entity, A cannot be, for then we don’t have what we mean by action but a composite multitude of actions. And so an immaterial mind makes, say, hands act by simply acting on them, whereas a hand only “acts” on something by interacting. Even if it is easier for us to imagine the action of a hand on the hammer, upon analysis this is not what we meant to say when we spoke of action.

To put it another way: when Newton says that every action has an equal and opposite reaction, the first use of the word “action” is a logical abstraction, not something that the physical entities do. For the physicist, action just is interaction. Even if one argues that nothing acts, but that there is only interaction, that is, that an action can only occur in a larger interactive complex, it still is impossible to say that it makes no sense to speak of a non-physical action, since this is exactly what is involved in speaking of an action as such. The denial of immaterial beings would also be a denial of action as simply action.


  1. DonJindra said,

    March 1, 2012 at 11:54 am

    Not that the question was well defined, but you certainly didn’t answer it. For example, “But what would be necessary for some A to just act on B? If B is a physical entity, A cannot be, for then we don’t have what we mean by action but a composite multitude of actions.” — is total nonsense.

    • March 1, 2012 at 2:49 pm

      So my argument is wrong because it “is total nonsense”. Got it.

      • DonJindra said,

        March 3, 2012 at 11:45 am

        Can nonsense be a valid argument? Can truth be based on it? Can it describe anything?

  2. thenyssan said,

    March 2, 2012 at 6:53 am

    I think your first write-up of this (I hope this is a rewrite and not that my mind is going…) was clearer. Belaboring the point of going from material to immaterial by way of negation is probably worth the words here.

    It’s still not nonsense. =) I guess a materialist would have to go back and deny that all material action is interaction. I don’t see how to do it, but I’d read an argument for it (and not call it total nonsense).

    • March 2, 2012 at 10:52 am

      It wasn’t that this post had two drafts, it’s that the post above it had a first draft that was deleted and substantially re-written. This post was an epistemological approach to the problem: all I wanted to show is that we can understand what it means for the immaterial to act by a consideration of action. I wanted to follow it with a metaphysical account why physical action analyzes into immaterial action, but the first account (though it was a lot clearer) didn’t distinguish between resolving a physical action into intransitive actions and resolving it to action simpliciter, which I argue is the action of an immaterial means or agent. Without this division, one could muddle the two sorts of analysis with each other.

    • DonJindra said,

      March 3, 2012 at 11:49 am

      Why would a materialist have to go back and deny all material action is interaction? Of course it’s interaction — interaction of material forces. If it is more than that, how would we ever know it?

      • March 3, 2012 at 2:39 pm

        how would we ever know it?

        By analysis; that is, breaking down into units. The post talks about that.

      • thenyssan said,

        March 4, 2012 at 10:49 am

        I suppose one could deny that “action” is the element of “interaction;” i.e., that interaction is elemental. That seems strange just etymologically; scientifically I don’t know what it would mean. There is no such thing as action, only interaction? It feels like it’s pushing toward Idealism.

      • March 4, 2012 at 5:15 pm

        It would also require saying that the Third Law made no sense as it is stated: “every action has an equal and opposite reaction”.

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