free will, part three

I’m going to be brief because I just typed up my post and lost it.  Grrrr.

(1) I won’t be connecting up rationalizing causes, free will, and functional or goal-oriented systems.  False advertising there, sorry.

(2) Rationalizing causes:  what I said in response to Irfan’s last comment on part two.  Specifically, because it seems like certain basic intentional actions do not involve prior goals and instrumental information, the “home” of free will might not be with rationalizing causes and processes.  Perhaps such intentional actions are ready or suited for rationalizing (once goals and relevant instrumental information are present) but this speaks – I think – to something like the preconditions for rationalizing processes, not to rationalizing processes themselves.

(3) On my model, it might be that, in line with at least one fundamental element in our concept of free will, the agent is the difference-making cause of why she PHIs as against refraining from PHI-ing (or PSI-ing or.. etc.).

(4) Derek Bowman points out to me that my general causal model yields a view of free will that is distinct from at least one dominant “libertarian” view, according to which the agent somehow selects or determines which of more than one alternative possibility in action (or refraining-from-action) is realized.  Arguably, this lands the libertarian back in the determined-or-random soup – and thus presses her into having endorse a-causalism or miracles.  My view avoids this problem (and may or may not accurately be called ‘libertarian’).  On my view, you get difference-making causes (in fundamentally non-determined processes) via conditions affecting probability distributions, not via some a-causal or magical selection procedure.

(5) According to our concept of free will (and according to how intentional action seems to us), we are the difference-making causes of our intentional actions.  We also think of this in terms of our selves or minds selecting from alternatives – and this fits the standard libertarian model better than my model (according to which conditions, most plausibly physical conditions in our central nervous system, would affect probability distributions for relevant indeterminate processes, thereby yielding the agent as difference-making cause).  Though we would need a detailed, objective analysis of the concepts of free will and intentional action to be sure, I think that, in affirming the agent as difference-making cause, my model would produce a revisionist – not an eliminativist – account of the concept (and reality) of free will (and intentional action).  But perhaps our most “comfortable” conception of free will, once we think about it and square it with certain intuitive ideas of how causation works, is that of a special acausal or quasi-miraculous agential process (analogous to the common idea of consciousness as a fundamentally distinct soul or self).

(While I’m just asserting stuff about the concept of free will, by way of contrast, the compatibilists are wrong in thinking that their mock-up of free will satisfies enough central conditions of the concept to count as a revisionist explication rather than an elimination.)

(6) Entirely distinct line of reasoning:  plausibly, genuine objective indeterminacy that at its most basic is random (there is a brute, initial probability distribution with no difference-making conditions) is necessary (or best) to explain either or both:  (a) the physics of getting improbable or high-entropy states from probable or low-entropy states and (b) how nature, in the evolution of life on this planet, through replication, random variation and selection, “tuned” systems to achieving goals (in the range of selection-environments).  My model, or something like it, might provide something like a most-abstract explanation of how these sorts of things happen.

Again, the core idea is that, starting with nomically or boundedly non-determined processes and their brute probability distributions, via conditions significantly changing these probability distributions, we get difference-making causes.  Applied to free will, we get the possibility of agential difference-making causation (in an indeterminate process), something that is distinct from both brute randomness (there being no difference-making cause) and acausal/incoherent libertarian agential selection (and of course distinct from the deterministic “free will” of the incompatibilists).

6 thoughts on “free will, part three

  1. I’m still not quite sure I get your view, especially considering your response to Rick Minto in the discussion on Part Two.

    For one thing, now that we’ve gone through parts 1-3, it seems clear to me that your view really does resemble the indeterminism Nozick defends in Philosophical Explanations. You say:

    Again, the core idea is that, starting with nomically or boundedly non-determined processes and their brute probability distributions, via conditions significantly changing these probability distributions, we get difference-making causes.

    That seems to me the core idea of Nozick’s account as well, except that he has a particular account of your (1), involving the agent’s capacity to change the probability distributions.

    Let me come back to (2) in a separate comment.

    I don’t understand how these two sets of claims cohere:

    (3) On my model, it might be that, in line with at least one fundamental element in our concept of free will, the agent is the difference-making cause of why she PHIs as against refraining from PHI-ing (or PSI-ing or.. etc.).

    (4) Derek Bowman points out to me that my general causal model yields a view of free will that is distinct from at least one dominant “libertarian” view, according to which the agent somehow selects or determines which of more than one alternative possibility in action (or refraining-from-action) is realized. Arguably, this lands the libertarian back in the determined-or-random soup – and thus presses her into having endorse a-causalism or miracles. My view avoids this problem (and may or may not accurately be called ‘libertarian’). On my view, you get difference-making causes (in fundamentally non-determined processes) via conditions affecting probability distributions, not via some a-causal or magical selection procedure.

    If the agent is the difference-making cause of why she acts one way rather than another, how are you denying that the agent “somehow selects or determines which of more than one alternative possibility in action (or refraining-from-action) is realized”? I don’t really see the difference between “being a difference-making cause, as an agent, of the agent’s doing X rather than Y” and “the agent’s selecting or determining which of two actions, X or Y, she will perform.”

    I also don’t get why libertarians have to land in a determined-or-random soup. If you (Michael) are accepting the possibility of basic actions, why can’t agent-causal libertarians perform free, basic actions that are neither determined nor random?

    You back off from calling your account “libertarian,” but in one sense, it just looks like a form of agent-causal libertarianism, and in another, it seems a libertarian form of incompatibilism. Unless I’m misunderstanding you (and I may be), you seem to combine both in one account. But no matter how you slice it, the view is a form of libertarianism, right? You go out of your way to reject compatibilism, and the view rejects determinism, so what else could it be?

    That said, in (5), you seem to be saying that the agent’s central nervous system yields indeterministic processes, where its doing so is “the agent as difference-making cause.” Doesn’t that move turn on identifying the agent with his central nervous system, i.e. on a reductive (at least) form of physicalism? That seems a large and controversial assumption to make (if you’re making it).

    But however you slice it, by the time we get to (5), your account is adversely affected by the omission of (1): what you’re describing is not at all what anyone regards as free will. As I said in an earlier go-round, the account leaves no room for the agent’s control over mental actions that he not only initiates but regards himself introspectively as initiating. You describe your account as merely revisionary, but it looks pretty eliminativist to me. What emerges is a form of “free will” completely unrecognizable as free will–at least to me. Not sure what others have to say, but am interested to hear.

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  2. One more thing: I don’t get how your claim (6) above coheres with your response (3) to Rick Minto in the previous exchange (on Part Two).

    In the previous go-round, you agreed with Rick that no particular instance of apparent causal indeterminacy entails that the indeterminacy is metaphysical rather than epistemic; most likely, it’s epistemic rather than metaphysical. At best, we should grant a merely conceptual possibility that the indeterminacy is metaphysical. That’s a very weak claim.

    In Part Three, however, you’re making the very strong claim that objective (i.e., metaphysical) indeterminacy is the necessary/best explanation of our contemporary account of physics and biology.

    I’m not competent to evaluate either claim on its own, but the conjunction involves a commitment to a very weak and a very strong version of the same claim. It seems to me that you’re entitled, at best, to the weak version in the response to Rick, not the strong version you assert in Part Three. And you can’t have both!

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  3. Those are some really helpful points, Irfan.

    Does Nozick claim that, in one way or another, intentional action or free will operates via conditions of or in the agent affecting the probability distributions of fundamentally non-determined but nomologically constrained (NDNC) processes? I did not get this when I skimmed the free will section of his PHILOSOPHICAL EXPLANATIONS, but I could have missed this. Also it seems that Nozick is concerned with free will specifically (not how, in general, you might get difference-making causes from NDNC processes) and with giving something like an account of free will (rather than simply showing how free will is compatible with non-determinism precisely due to the coherence of the model of how to get difference-making causes from NDNC processes). But, if Nozick’s mechanism is that of affecting probability distributions in a NDNC choice process, then our views of the basic way that the causation might go in intentional action would be the same.

    The model of part one offers an explanation of how to get difference-making causes from NDNC processes. You don’t get the same explanatory element if you say “in the case of free will, the agent selects which of the alternative possibilities is realized.” This explanatory point is maybe the most basic point, but here is what I had in mind with regard to libertarians getting themselves back into the determined-or-random soup. The selection process itself (this rendition of the difference-making cause) is either determined or non-determined; if determined, then eliminativism (unless compatibilism is true); if non-determined and random, then eliminativism (unless free will and randomness or absence of difference-making cause are compatible); if non-determined and non-random, then we are back to needing to specify difference-making causes (and, ideally, a model or explanation for how you get the difference-making cause). I think it is this sort of reasoning that grounds the claim that libertarian free will is incoherent (or amounts to a kind of a-causalist, anti-explanationist, or magical sort of view).

    If physicalism is true, we might get some explanatory generality: however difference-making causes from NDCD processes go in physical nature, so it goes – it is fundamentally the same thing, not some special thing – in intentional action. I do assume that physicalism is true, but feel free to throw that out.

    I’m not trying to explain control (or the perception of control) over any intentional actions. I’m not trying to vindicate this part of the concept of free will (or intentional action). I’m just trying to show that non-determined choice can have the agent (or features of the agent) as difference-making cause. We might regard this as part of a more-robust agential control condition (that is part of the concept of free will).

    I’m speculating (and perhaps relying on some positive intuitions) with regard to the claim that some processes (or all processes at a certain level of fine detail or whatnot) being non-determined being part of a certain sort of best-explanation in evolutionary biology. I’m adopting on authority the received NDNC view of quantum mechanics. But I’m happy enough, for at least many of my purposes here, to claim only that it is conceptually possible for a process to be non-determined (rather than merely being such that the explanatorily best description is probabilistic).

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    • It’s been awhile since I’ve read Nozick, and don’t have time to re-read, but I do seem to remember that Nozick’s view involved affecting probability distributions in a non-determined, nomologically constrained process.

      But I still do not entirely get what your view is saying.

      if non-determined and non-random, then we are back to needing to specify difference-making causes (and, ideally, a model or explanation for how you get the difference-making cause).

      Right. But isn’t that exactly what agent-causal libertarians are doing? The logic you describe up to that point is essentially agreed-upon by all non-compatibilist parties to the dispute. All are agreed that libertarian freedom has to be non-determined but non-random. Agent-causal libertarians say that the agent is, or features of the agent are, the difference-making cause. And then the challenge becomes: what exactly does that amount to?

      You seem to be appealing to a form of brute indeterminacy that arises in humans’ central nervous systems, saying that the agent (identified with the CNS) makes the difference, without identifying the difference-making cause with an identifiable act of the agent qua agent. That seems to me a physicalist version of agent causal libertarianism married to quantum indeterminacy, minus an account of the locus or phenomenology of freedom. It’s not the usual approach taken by agent causal libertarians, but the formulations strike me as sounding a lot like an agent causal sort of libertarianism.

      Two relatively minor points:

      1) If you identify the agent with his central nervous system, the physicalism is an essential part of the account; it can’t be thrown out.

      2) I’m no physicist, but I don’t think there’s any “received view” on quantum mechanics. Even if there was, no part of any received view explains why quantum indeterminacy applies any more to the human central nervous system than it does to inanimate objects without nervous systems. I’ve never been able to see the relevance of quantum indeterminacy to the issue of free will: even if there is such a thing as ontological indeterminacy at the quantum level, it takes a separate argument to show that that indeterminacy is relevant to the issue at hand.

      The larger point:
      I don’t think we can get much further without getting into the weeds of “randomness” as applied to rational processes. That, I take it, is the point of Galen Strawson’s famous critique of libertarianism, which abstracts entirely from issues of causality, and focuses entirely on reasons. His claim is that libertarian freedom ends up being rationally random: free actions can’t be performed for reasons, and therefore can’t be integrated into a reasons-based account of intentional action (chapter 2 of Strawson’s Freedom and Belief, also chapter 1, “Libertarianism, Action, and Self-Determination” in Timothy O’Connor’s Agents, Causes, and Events [1995]).

      My bottom line: non-determined but ontologically probabilistic causation is not going to be appealing to anyone who regards that as one or two too many metaphysical assumptions to make, and an account of free will based on NDCD processes but unconnected to recognizably free acts by free agents is not going to appeal to anyone who thinks that if we have evidence of freedom, the evidence is fundamentally introspective.

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  4. I’ll have to go back to the Nozick. One of the questions here is whether I’m reinventing the wheel, here. Maybe the folks making the inference from non-determined to random (or absence of difference-making cause) are not taking the effecting-probability-distributions possibility into account. If the standard libertarian agent-causation view is just this (rather than a view according to which agents, whatever these turn out to be, are the difference-making causes with no particular model or explanation of why/how this is so), then I’m all wet in my criticism of this sort of view. But I do think there are two options here, one of which is (perhaps proudly) non-explanationist, the other of which (mine, perhaps Nozick’s) is explanationist. I think the latter is clearly preferable (and all the more if physicalism is true).

    My view is simply that, due to the coherence of the model, it is plausible that free will is incompatible with determinism, but compatible with indeterminism (and with causation – a broadly libertarian view need not be magical or a-causal). So it might be that we live in a not-fully-determined world with choice (or intentional action) as a non-determined event that is (a) caused by the agent with (b) the agent as the difference-making cause. Getting a scientifically and phenomenologically (and rationalizing-causation-wise) adequate account of how intentional action goes is another kettle of fish (or two or three).

    Though perhaps my language did not always reflect it, my claims here are mainly either conceptual – or “existential” or “ontological” but conditional. And very possibly old hat (or not adequately cognizant of some of the relevant literature)!

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