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.
Posted by Brian Weatherson in Uncategorized