I’ve often thought that the classic debates about free will suffer from a conflation of causation and necessitation. More generally, it’s often seemed to me that without a generally satisfying theory of causation, we have no reason to be worried that free will is a mere illusion. Since the reality of rational agency — where ‘reality’ is a matter of our reasoning controlling what we do in a way that cannot be explained entirely in terms of non-rational antecedent causes — seems like a necessary condition of our being able to formulate scientific and philosophical theories that stand a decent chance of being true, we would seem to have powerful reason to be skeptical at best of any philosophical or scientific theory that denies the reality of rational agency (this may be the one thing I think Kant got roughly right). When we notice, in addition to this consideration, that philosophers and scientists have arrived at no generally accepted theory of causation, and that many have even gone so far as to deny that science has any need for the concept of a cause at all, it seems even less sensible to get worked up about the possibility that maybe everything each of us does is determined entirely by antecedent causal factors over which our reasoning has no influence whatsoever.
Happily, I’ve just stumbled across a recent paper by Rani Lill Anjum and Stephen Mumford that argues explicitly that we ought to distinguish between causation and necessitation. Unlike some earlier arguments for that claim that I’ve encountered, however, this one sketches out a theory of causation on which we would need to distinguish causation from necessitation quite generally, and not merely as a logical possibility that may, for all we know, be actual in cases of radioactive decay and rational agency. Anjum and Mumford also nicely show how we need not be led to any kind of wild causal indeterminism either. In fact, one of their main claims is that rational agency needs causation, and that we think about free will wrongly if we think that what we need is to escape from causation. What we need instead is to escape from both necessity and randomness, and we can do that, they think, if we adopt a conception of causation as grounded in dispositional tendencies to produce effects. Causation is grounded in causal powers, and rational agency is one special kind of causal power — special in enabling free will, but not special, on their view, in transcending necessitation.
I’m not sure if Anjum and Mumford are right; I’m especially not sure whether their theory meets the objection that they raise against Aristotle and Aquinas, viz. that they resolve dispositional tendencies into conditional necessities (I’m also not sure that Aristotle and Aquinas fall to the objection, or whether it would be a serious problem for them if they did). But I’m intrigued by their account, which is the first thing I’ve read that not only attempts to sever the link between causation and necessitation, but lays out a plausible theory of causation that is not supposed to apply solely to some special class of entities like rational agents or radioactive material.
PoT readers who know the free will and causation literatures better than I do may not be so intrigued or surprised, but it seemed like a safe bet that at least some of you would share my interest.
You can read Anjum and Mumford’s paper, “Causation is Not Your Enemy,” here: https://www.academia.edu/20883864/Causation_is_Not_Your_Enemy