free will, part two

In the first part, I argued that non-determined events need not be random (where ‘random’ means that there is no causal explanation of why this rather than that alternative possibility is or would be realized given the fully-specified initial conditions).  I conceded, for the sake of argument at least, that if intentional action (choice, decision) were

random, then intentional action would not be as we take it to essentially be (the concept of free will would have no application in the actual world).  But this is not exactly obvious.  I think this conditional statement deserves some unpacking and that, once we unpack it, it is vindicated (and clarified).

First things first: ‘random’, when applied to intentional actions, generally refers to the action not making much sense relative to the structure of reasons that the agent has.  For example, I, like I suppose many, have a fleeting curiosity about what it would be like to jump off of a building and plummet to the ground.  But I love my life and my desire to have this sort of experience is a mere whim.  So if I did this (we don’t always act in accordance with our considered preference orderings) my action would be considered random.  It is not explained by, and does not make sense relative to, my beliefs and considered preference orderings (and perhaps even in relation to the relative strength of my desires at the time of action).  ‘Random’ in this sense concerns rationalization specifically, not causation.  Any sense of ‘random’ associated with causally undetermined outcomes is causal.  And I’ve suggested that the relevant sense of causal randomness is, specifically, the absence of a cause or explanation for why this as against that alternative possibility is realized from some fully-specified initial conditions.

If this is indeed the relevant sense of ‘random’, then, if an free, intentional action must be such that the agent determines which of more than one alternative possibility (in action or non-action) is realized, the putative incompatibility is explained in a clear way:  if an action were random, there would be no cause or explanation – agential or otherwise – for why this as against that possible alternative (alternative action or non-action) would be realized.  In this way, the putative incompatibility between an action being free and it being random is made precise and vindicated.

But an action being non-determined (unlike an action being determined) appears to be compatible with intentional action or free will in the robust alternative-possibilities sense.  Or, if it is not, this is not for the same reason that causally random action would be incompatible with intentional or free action.  In part three, I’ll apply the model from part one and show how it provides the right elements for the beginnings of an account of how free will works (and of how it is the sort of thing that we think it is).  I’ll also apply the model to the biological system that intentional action (or free will) is a part of, showing how that model, plus some additional conditions, would provide the right elements for demystifying and explaining the sort of functional or goal causation that occurs in living systems.

10 thoughts on “free will, part two

  1. Will respond later this week…

    But just to clarify a potential confusion: there are three different but closely related conditionals in play:

    (1) If intentional action (choice, decision) were random, then intentional action would not be as we take it to essentially be (the concept of free will would have no application in the actual world).

    (2) If (or when) I act purely at whim, my action is random.

    and

    (3) If an action were random, there would be no cause or explanation – agential or otherwise – for why this as against that possible alternative (alternative action or non-action) would be realized.

    I assume you see the three as asserting three different propositions. Am I right to think that, on your argument, (3) is the basis for (1), and (2) is an instance of both? The point being that either we take intentional action to have a cause or explanation, or we’re pushed to regarding it as random–but randomness-of-intentional-action entails that action is unintelligible, and constitutes a reductio. So it must have a cause, determined or not.

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    • Thanks – those are very helpful questions.

      Yes, (3) is the basis for (the proper, relevant, clear) interpretation of (1).

      No, (2) is not an instance of both. That an action is rationalization-wise random does not entail that it is causation-wise random (in that there would be no cause or explanation of why this as against the alternative is realized).

      (If it helps, to avoid using more words than we have to, we could call this sort of cause a “difference-making cause”. There is nothing about the uranium-235 atom (or anything else) that makes it decay at t1 as against t2 if it does decay at t1. I’m concerned with an event being random in that it does not have a difference-making cause. More narrowly, I’m concerned with the absence of difference-making cause for an event that is the outcome of a brutely probabilistic law of nature. I had been using ‘causally random’ but I think ‘absence of difference-making cause’ – in the implied context of brutely probabilstic causation – is more informative and better. )

      Yes, either intentional action has a difference-making cause or it does not (in which case it is random in the no-difference-making-cause sense).

      No, I did not mean to be claiming that absence of difference-making cause in intentional action is incompatible with rationalizing cause (or intelligible rationalizing cause) in intentional action. This claim is plausible, but my claim is just that absence of difference-making cause in intentional action (intentional action being random in this way) is incompatible with the agent being the difference-making cause of her action (and that this latter thing is taken to be constitutive of free will or intentional action). You do get the first claim if rationalizing causation in action essentially works via the agent being the difference-making cause of her action.

      (Of course, in a deterministic world, it is difference-making causes all the way up and down. So the deterministic version of intentional action (or “intentional action”) does not have the problem of the agent or properties of the agent not being the difference-making causes of the action. If determinism is incompatible with free will, it is not incompatible on this count.)

      Clarifying?

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      • I think so, but let me pursue a side-issue, or what may seem a side-issue, for a moment. I’m trying to get a sense of what counts for you as randomness when it comes to rationalization. Consider your example:

        For example, I, like I suppose many, have a fleeting curiosity about what it would be like to jump off of a building and plummet to the ground. But I love my life and my desire to have this sort of experience is a mere whim. So if I did this (we don’t always act in accordance with our considered preference orderings) my action would be considered random. It is not explained by, and does not make sense relative to, my beliefs and considered preference orderings (and perhaps even in relation to the relative strength of my desires at the time of action).

        Is it fair to infer that having the fleeting curiosity can’t be random? After all, if many have it (and I think many do), its occurrence in you isn’t random: it’s an instance of a general propensity that people have, exemplified here and now by you. Obviously, a general propensity can’t be random, and it seems implausible to say that a general propensity is randomly exemplified by a given person. (Amusingly, the same exact example–of having a fleeting desire to jump from a high place–is used by Rachel Cohon in her review of Korsgaard’s Sources of Normativity, “The Roots of Reasons,” Phil Review 109:1 [2000]).

        The case in which you don’t jump is easy enough to explain, and obviously not random as far as rationalization is concerned. So put that aside.

        But now consider the case in which you do jump. You describe this as “random” (as far as rationalization is concerned), but I find that ambiguous. If we came upon an actual case of this sort, I don’t think we’d be inclined to call it “random,” or if we did, that claim would be misleading. We’d be inclined to describe the act as the exemplification of a non-random psychopathology–a form of psychosis in which people follow their whims without regard for the consequences. But psychopathology is not (I don’t think) random in either the causal or the rationalizing sense.

        Suppose ex hypothesi that we exclude the case in which the jumping is a matter of psychopathology or psychosis. Maybe this is the case you had in mind the whole time. Now, the act does seem random. But to me, it seems random in both senses, causally and in terms of reasons: it lacks a rationalizing account because it lacks a cause. It just seems like an inexplicable bolt from the blue (hence impossible). Would you disagree? In other words, I find it hard to disentangle the two things, the causal from the rationalizing account. Perhaps I’m overly Davidsonian in this way.

        I’m not entirely sure this is relevant to the real point you’re making–hence my description of the whole comment as pursuing a side-issue. I’m just trying to get clear on things.

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        • This is, indeed, tangential to my main point or points. I just sketched a rough, first-draft account of (what I took to be) the most common sense in which we describe an action as random. Yes, I had in mind the case of jumping where this (and the prior mental machinations directly leading to the behavior) is not something that, in relevant circumstances, is reliably produced by a general psychopathological condition.

          The proposal implicit in my description is twofold: (i) the relevant sense of ‘random’ here is relative to the (subjective or psychological) reasons of the agent and (some sort of) standards of good-enough rationalization and (ii) a sorta-hand-waving explication of this as sufficient departure from the agent’s value-priorities and exercise of her powers of good rationalization. When I wrote that bit, I had the inkling that acting on a whim is not sufficient for an act being random in this sense (and I think that I endorse this, at least in the case of their being a strong background value on acting out desires as they come to one and doing so does not seem disastrously costly). I let this slide though and probably should not have.

          (Nomy Arpaly’s three-fold distinction in mental causation – between mental causes that do not involve content-bearing states, mental states that do but are not instances of rationalizing causation and mental states that do but are instances of rationalizing causation – might be useful in thinking about the ways in which action-causation can radically depart from the agent’s reasons and her powers of good rationalization.)

          I don’t think that a badly-enough rationalized action (or an action based on mere fleeting or perhaps externally-imposed desire that is radically at odds with the agent’s values) – and hence a random action in the rationalizing sense – would need to be causally random in the sense of lacking any difference-making cause (or causally random in any other sense). But maybe the case can be made?

          (If, in the building-jumping case, there is no rationalizing cause at all (as there is even if the agent is acting on a whim that is violently opposed to her value-priorities), this is perhaps tantamount to the building-jumping being a reflex. Maybe this is a limiting case of non-observer-relative but good-enough-rationalization-relative randomness in action – the sort of randomness that I was initially describing with the building-jumping case. But I’m inclined to say that reflex behavioral and rationalized behavior are sufficiently different that we should, in such a case, say that the building-jumping behavior is not really action (or not really intentional action) at all. However, I don’t take reflexes (or similarly not-via-rationalization-caused) behavior to be causally random (in my lacking-difference-making-cause sense or any other sense).)

          I’m happy if there is a better or more precise account of the rationalization-relative sense of an action being ‘random’ (or an explication of more than one sense of rationalization-relative randomness in action). It occurs to me that when we say things like ‘she just randomly up and left the faculty meeting, right in the middle of the dean making her presentation’ we seem to mean that, relative to some set of reasons, value-priorities, beliefs that an external observer would be justified in assuming that agent to have, it is hard to explain or make sense of what she did’. This attribution of (a different sort of) rationalization-relative randomness in action is consistent with the agent rationally pursuing values (and value-priorities) that the observer, or a typical observer, is not aware of (such that the agent’s action is not random at all in the sense that I was trying explicit in the building-jumping case). If this alternative partially-observer-relative sense of ‘random’ as applied to action is the central common usage, then [ii] above is off-base (or is an explication of a less-common or perhaps even merely-technical sense in which actions can be random).

          So, plausibly, if somewhat embarrassingly, I may well have made a minor category error in my thinking about the most common sense (or senses) in which actions are truly described as random! But all I really need to say is that the common, familiar sense (or senses) in which actions can be random is rationalization-relative in one way or another (and hence not the sort of causal randomness that I am concerned with; my lack-of-difference-making-cause explication is not an explication of this sort of way that an action can count as random).

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          • It occurs to me that when we say things like ‘she just randomly up and left the faculty meeting, right in the middle of the dean making her presentation’ we seem to mean that, relative to some set of reasons, value-priorities, beliefs that an external observer would be justified in assuming that agent to have, it is hard to explain or make sense of what she did’.

            Dude, rethink that example! I can’t think of anything easier to explain or make sense of! 🙂

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          • You’re probably right that I was pursuing a tangent that isn’t essential to your post. What you say in the very last sentence of your 1/30 @3:18 pm comment basically resolves it.

            On the 1/29 @10:02 am comment: I take your point to be, simply, that acting on whim is random in the rationalizing rather than causal sense. Not sure whether I accept that distinction, but granting it, I get your point.

            So I think I’m following you. On to part 3!

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  2. Just a passing thought en route to part 3: I wonder whether your account has something to say about basic actions, as in the classic account by Danto:

    https://www.jstor.org/stable/20009161?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents

    If you accept the idea of a basic action, it can’t be that a basic action is random simply because it’s basic. But then, it’s a puzzle how basic actions are to be rationalized (i.e., fit into a framework of reasons for action).

    Not sure whether this over-complicates what you’re trying to do, adds to it, or just repeats it. See how helpful I am?

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    • If I directly, intentionally raise my arm (or directly, intentionally attend to something in my visual field) this seems like a basic (intentional) action, but I’m not sure if this is Danto’s sense of ‘basic’. If such an action is non-determined, it might still have a difference-making cause (and hence be non-random in this causal sense). Perhaps I am the difference-making cause!

      Such actions, it seems to me, are rationalized in a minimal sense if we have some idea, in advance, of what we are aiming to do (and are, or at least are potentially, bringing relevant instrumental information to bear on successfully doing what we are trying to do). But what about the first time I raise my arm (or focus my visual attention on some object by intention)? Or what if I do one of these things in such a way that I just don’t have much idea what I’m doing as I’m doing it? It seems a stretch to say that in such cases I would have the goal of exercising some power that I have (this is the only goal-like thing that I can think of here that might be present). If this is right, then this sort of arm-raising or attention-focusing does not seem to be an instance of rationalizing causation. And so rationalizing causation is not the ultimate home of free will.

      But perhaps there is something about such “merely and basically agential but not rationalizing” action-causation that makes the mental, causal process inherently suitable for goals and relevant instrumental information and associated rationalizing procedure? This would distinguish such actions from reflexes (and perhaps the actions of creatures like ants, assuming that they do not decide and choose). This would vindicate the broader idea that the ultimate seat of free will is in the (functionally more flexible) mental processes that either involve or are specially suited to involve rationalization.

      That actually was helpful!

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  3. If I understand Michael’s perspective correctly, I have a lot of problems with it—for example, “the absence of difference-making cause for an event that is the outcome of a brutely probabilistic law of nature. I had been using ‘causally random’ but I think ‘absence of difference-making cause’ – in the implied context of brutally probabilistic [sic] causation – is more informative ….”

    Firstly, there is the presumption that randomness is a metaphysical concept denoting the absence of an event’s cause. It isn’t. Randomness is an epistemological concept denoting the inexplicability of an event or the inscrutability of its causes and/or conditions.

    Second, laws of nature are abstractions defining in quantitative terms the manifestations of an entity’s capacities in the context of its relationships to, and interactions with, other entities. They are characterizations of the modalities under which things are made to happen. So the notion of an event being the outcome of a probabilistic law of nature is incoherent—laws of nature don’t make things happen.

    Third, there is the fundamental conceptual confusion with the notion of “probabilistic causation” as opposed to “probabilistic theory of causation”; the former conflates metaphysics and epistemology. There is no problem with probabilistic theories of causation (e.g., J. Pearl) because they provide mathematical models for the kinds of inferences that can be rationally drawn, and proscribe what rational expectations and predictions can be made in a particular domain.

    No viable theory of free will can include the premise that if events can only fall under probabilistic laws (so far as we know) then that is putative support for the metaphysical indeterminacy of individual occurrences that those laws cover.

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  4. Hey Rick! Great to have you here – it has been a long time.

    (1) I guess we’d have to go through some paradigm uses of ‘random’. You could be right. In which case, I should have used ‘non-determined’ or some such term that is definitely used to refer to metaphysical stuff, not epistemological stuff.

    (2) I’m happy to change out law-of-nature language for capacities language. I’m sympathetic to your way of framing things here, I just never put enough time into these issues to condition myself into switching to capacity-language.

    (3) I like what you say about probabilistic theories of causation and how they operate. But I think we should make conceptual room for metaphysical indeterminacy (schematically, it is metaphysically possible for cause C to produce either E1 or E2). Maybe, in some cases, there is a probabilistic metaphysics that makes (or would make) the probabilistic theory true.

    Regarding your conditional statement at the end, I pretty much agree. That any sequence of events is adequately described by probabilistic generalizations is not much support for it being metaphysics, rather than our ignorance, that explains the truth of such generalizations. I do claim, in part three, that agents being difference-making causes of their intentional actions (causing their actions as against their refraining or doing some other thing) is part of our concept of free will. So a model that shows how we can explain such a thing (and hence how such a thing is possible) if intentional action is not necessitated is helpful.

    Your feedback is much appreciated. This stuff is much closer to your areas of expertise and you are catching some sloppiness and mistakes on my part!

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