Free Will Thoughts

Three random thoughts on agent causation.

First, a lot of the writers on agent causation seem to assume without as far as I can see any argument whatsoever that agents can’t be effects. Now I can think of some syntactic arguments that agents can’t be effects (arguments of the kind Gil Harman refers to here) but since those arguments are just as strong as arguments for the claim that agents can’t be causes, the agent causation folks can’t endorse them. So is there any argument that agents can’t be effects that doesn’t also show agents can’t be causes.

For the record, I think it’s more plausible that agents are effects than that they are causes. One of the effects, the causal effects one might think, of sex is an agent. (Or in rare cases multiple agents.) I don’t think that’s a very serious argument, but it’s enough to sustain the comparative judgment.

Second, whatever the force of the intuition that totally caused decisions are not free, it’s worth remembering from time to time that there’s remarkably little force to the intuition that partially caused decisions are not free. One’s good upbringing is a (partial) cause of one’s freely choosing the good over the bad. If it isn’t it’s hard to see what the point of good upbringing, as opposed to good indoctrination, really is. (I know this will be obvious to most people, but I’m just recording a fact for possible future reference.)

Third, I thought this claim by Tim O’Connor is rather implausible. (And I’m writing this up despite it being a very bad NFL day.)

What of the limiting case—total conscious ignorance of one’s intention in acting? Here, I think, the agency theorist must say—what is independently plausible—that one does not act freely. I, at any rate, am unable to conceive an agent’s directly controlling his own activity without any awareness of what is motivating him.

Consider a running back who makes an instantaneous decision to cut left rather than right. He doesn’t have to consciously reflect on his decision in order for it to be a free decision. In particular, he doesn’t have to even have time to consciously reflect on his decision in order for it to be praiseworthy or blameworthy. (Note how differently we judge a back who fails to score because he chooses the wrong lane to one who fails to score because once he gets into the open he can’t outrun the safeties. The first is blameworthy, the second is just not quick enough.)

In these cases the running directly and freely controls his own activity through subconscious mechanisms. And he has to do so, because there’s no time for the very slow conscious processes to operate. So free choice can be unconscious.

8 Replies to “Free Will Thoughts”

  1. I’m not clear what role folks like O’Connor think that consicousness plays in free choice. If the thought is that free actions must be preceded by conscious decisions, it seems pretty implausible. In any case, it also gets into a kind of Rylean regress: we shall want to know whether these decisions need to be preceded by conscious acts. If so, we have the regres, if not, we want to know why the decision is free, but not an action which doesn’t have conscious preparation. A lot of the debate about the Libet experiments seems to suggest that this is what libertarians want, but we didn’t need the experiments to know they can’t have it.

    On one reading of conscious intention, however, you’re wrong about the running back (whatever that is). Searlean intentions-in-action are phenomenally conscious, and I see no reason to think that the running back doesn’t have this kind of intention.

  2. It’s an NFL example – I’m going native or something.

    There is one reason to think the running back doesn’t have that kind of intention at the time he acts – he simply doesn’t have the time. My (appallingly sketchy) acquaintance with the experimental literature on conscious thought suggests that phenomenal consciousness is remarkably slow. And NFL games have are incredibly fast – in no other contact sport do players routinely have to make decisions in such short amounts of time. It’d obviously be best to have actual data to back this up, but I’d bet reasonable amounts of money that any running back that had to wait until he was consciously aware of his options wouldn’t be a very good running back.

  3. Intentions-in-action are designed for this kind of case. There just is something that it is like to carry out an intentional action, even one that is delegated to subpersonal processes, like catching a ball or slamming on the brakes. Yes, consciousness lags behind subpersonal processes, but it’s faster than a running back. Note, too, that for the IIA to be conscious the agent doesn’t have to wait for feedback from the limbs. Efference copies of the action are processed independently of, and much more quicky than, the actual movement.

  4. OK – I just don’t know enough of the empirical data to be sure one way or the other here so I should stop making unsupported claims! I’d be surprised if phenomenal consciousness could be quick enough for the runner to be phenomenally conscious of the decisions he’s making, but there’s lots in psychology that surprises me, so that rather isn’t an argument.

  5. Under some description, he’s not conscious of it. Let’s change sports, so I can talk intelligently. The tennis player is never conscious of a decision to play a drop shot rather than volley, or whatever. If the match could be frozen, and he was asked what shot he was intending to play, he’d work it out in the same way as his opponents – by looking at his posture, racket angle, etc. But he is conscious of engaging in intentional action.

  6. Brian,

    Quick comments on your points 2 and 3.

    re 2 – surely free actions are at least partially caused: Yes, that seems right, though the agent causationist is going to (or should) handle such causal claims very carefully. No space to get into all this here, especially since it involves highly contentious claims concerning the nature of causation, but I’ll note that on my view, a causal factor C may raise the probability of a free agent’s causing a decision without the former’s causally producing the latter (something I take to be impossible). (For details, see Ch.5 of my 2000 book. For a different strategy, see Ch.8 of Randy Clarke’s 2003 book.)

    re 3 — free decisions occurring through unconscious mechanisms: First, some of us will distinguish actions that are ‘directly’ free from those which are merely ‘derivatively’ free, owing to the agent’s having made prior free decisions that helped to make the present ‘automatic’ (and perhaps entirely unconscious) decision or choice-free action. Your case seems much more likely to fall into the latter category.

    But concerning my claim that you quote: I’ve been re-thinking this matter and am now inclined to think that there is a continuum of cases of free action, yielding varying degrees of metaphysical freedom. The variable factors include whether and to what degree the agent is aware of factors that incline him in this way or that. I’ve worked this up in a new paper, “Freedom With a Human Face,” that I’ll be submitting in a couple weeks to a Midwest Studies volume.

  7. I agree the agent causationist has ways to handle 2, though personally I think the most natural is to say that an agent is the effect of her upbringing. But if one’s committed to substances not being effects, that won’t work.

    We’re probably moving into agreement on the third kind of case – though I shouldn’t be too conciliatory until I see the paper!

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