Agent-Causal Free Will

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In perusing WordPress over the past few days I have found that the majority of philosophical entries touch on the issue of free will in some way, such that I have decided that today I will add to this dialogue. My interest in free will is for the most part centered on making room for the possibility of moral responsibility, such that I have pursued an answer to the question: what conditions are necessary and sufficient for moral responsibility? I doubt that compatibilism (the view that free actions are caused by one’s will, even if your will was determined by prior events to want to take that action) provides an adequately rich moral responsibility, such that its proposed conditions are not sufficient for moral responsibility, so I tend to think that agent-causal views of free will are necessary for moral responsibility. Agent-causal free will agrees with compatibilism that free actions are caused by one’s will, but counters that outside factors cannot causally determine the choice of the will. 

One of the main objections to agent-causal views are that they do not fit into our naturalistic world-view — that is, the view that the physical and social sciences can tell us everything there is to know about the world (this is a very basic definition of naturalism, but there has yet to be a consensus on ‘naturalism’). A particularly pointed objection to agent-causal views is that the social sciences and agent-causal free will are incompatible, and given the social sciences’ reputable placement in our naturalistic world-view, agent-causal views are not naturalistic. I am normally wary of crediting the social sciences with giving us robust and certain knowledge (mainly because I think their methodology is incoherent), but it certainly seems that the social sciences have shown that given certain environmental factors, it can reliably be predicted how persons will act. Agent-causal views seem to entail that we should not be able to predict the actions of human agents if human agents can rise above the causal effects of their environment and choose freely.

Lynne Rudder Baker develops this objection quite well. Baker posits that agent-causal libertarians hold that in order for an act to have been freely willed in a manner sufficient for them being morally responsible for it, the choice must not have its origin in anything outside of the agent’s control. If this is the case, says Baker, then when an agent acts with agent-causal free will, no antecedent causes are sufficient to determine that agent’s action. For Baker, this is absurd because it entails that agent-causal libertarians are committed to the position that we cannot predict peoples’ behavior using social sciences and psychology. On this matter she writes that,

The libertarian holds that if an action is free, it is not explainable by the sum of the kinds of conditions that psychologists and social scientists appeal to – such as how the agent sees her situation, what she takes her options to be, her other beliefs, her desires, her character, her experience, her genetic inheritance, her environment. Taken together, these cannot be sufficient for a libertarian free action. Libertarian free action awaits exercise of an ability that no natural being has: the ability to rise above the complex mix of causes (heredity, environment, beliefs, desires, etc.) and interject an unexplainable X factor, over which the agent has ultimate control, and which renders theretofore-insufficient causes sufficient for the choice or action (Baker, Moral Responsibility Without Libertarianism, pages 313-314).

Here, Baker posits that if causes external to the agent are not sufficient to determine an agent’s actions then past events cannot explain agents’ behavior. For Baker this consequence is absurd; surely past events can and do explain agents’ behavior – the achievements of social scientists and psychologists are proof of this. Yet if past causal conditions do explain agents’ behaviors then antecedent causes are sufficient to determine an agent’s actions. But if this is the case, then agent-causal free will is impossible. Baker’s argument against agent-causal free will can be put thusly,

1. If agent-causal free will is true then past events cannot be used to predict the acts that agents will perform.

2. But past events can be used to predict the acts that agents will perform.

3. Therefore, agent-causal free will is not true.

Indeed, Baker’s argument seems to be troubling for libertarianism as it appears that if agents have the causal power to rise above past causal conditions then it should be impossible to predict the behavior of agents. As a great deal of research has proven and has been made possible by the fact that persons’ behaviors are predictable because of antecedent causes, it appears that libertarianism entails throwing out much of what we know to be true. To survive, the libertarian must show that it is possible to have free will of the agent-causal sort and still allow that past events in an agent’s life can explain their freely willed acts.

The Agent-Causal Libertarian’s Response:

Randolph Clarke and Timothy O’Connor are proponents of versions of agent-causal libertarianism that take seriously the reality that choices are influenced by past events and choices. Clarkes’ view is that past events influence but do not necessitate choices, such that, when an agent acts freely, they are the source of acting for those reasons, even if past events have caused the current set of choices, and caused some choices to have a higher probability of being chosen. O’Connor holds that an agent acts freely when they cause the internal state of having an intention to carry out an act, but other internal factors of deliberation make it that those reasons do not determine that that action be done. As a result, “our prior reasons can explain our actions without causally producing them”.[i] Given, then, that agent-causal libertarianism allows the possibility that past causal conditions can explain why an agent acts as they do, and yet still allow that agents have free will of the libertarian variety, Baker’s argument against libertarianism fails. Let us now tend to how Clarke and O’Connor’s versions of libertarianism avoid Baker’s objection.

Clarke posits that an agent performs a free action when they cause an act to be performed for the reasons for which that act was performed. In other words, a free act is one in which an act is done for certain reasons, and the agent is the source of that act being done for those reasons. In such cases, even if the reasons are caused by past events, the act is freely done because the agent was the source of that act being done for those reasons.

That free acts are acts which are done for the reasons that the agent performs them, and that these reasons can be caused by past events, leads Clarke to the realization that past events cause but do not causally necessitate agents’ actions. By this Clarke means that, it is because of past events that certain choices are open to the agent, but it is precisely because multiple choices are open to the agent that it must be said that past events do not causally necessitate or determine the agent’s actions. If this is the case, says Clarke, then there is no sense in denying that past events were such that some actions have a greater probability of being performed than others. This is consistent with Clarke’s view of libertarianism as it only entails that from an objective viewpoint, and given past events, some actions have a greater probability of being performed due to their reasons. So long as the agent is the source of the act being done certain reasons, her free will in that choice is not any less if someone was able to predict her actions given a knowledge of past events. Thus, for Clarke, “probabilistic causation is not the threat to free will that causal necessitation is”[ii].

Yet if Clarke’s view of libertarianism allows that, “an agent’s behavior, besides being caused by her, is caused also by earlier events, among which are her having or coming to have certain beliefs, desires, preferences, aims, values, and so forth”[iii], and that these past events can be used to judge the probability that an agent will do a certain act, then past events can be used to explain actions meeting the conditions of libertarian free will. Therefore, Baker’s argument is not a bane to Clarke’s take on libertarianism.

O’Connor agrees with this general approach, and holds that an agent freely causes an act when that act was performed for reasons that the agent found motivating enough to exceed a threshold for action. The intention to act is caused by the agent in that the “intention was a direct consequence of the action-triggering intention brought about by the agent, and it causally sustained the completion of the action”.[iv] As such, the agent produces the desire to perform an action, but other factors, such as the character and beliefs of the agent, which are shaped by past events, influence the probability of that action being done. This leads O’Connor to posit that “the agent is the sole causal factor directly producing her intention to A, but her deliberation and activity take place within an internal context (including her total motivational state) that has probabilistically-delineated causal structure”.[v] The thought is, then, that past events, such as those that shaped the agent’s character and beliefs, can explain why certain actions were performed without it being the case that those past events caused those actions.

Thus, agent causal libertarianism, as argued for by O’Connor, allows that past events can factor into decisions without it being the case that those past events causally determined the action of the agent. Rather, those past events were involved in the probability of whether the agent would choose to perform that act. Therefore, past causal events can explain and be used to predict an agent’s behavior without it being the case that the agent does not meet the conditions for libertarian free will. It follows, then, that O’Connor’s version of libertarianism avoids Baker’s critique.

In conclusion, agent-causal libertarianism is not incompatible with the findings of the social sciences, such that, the view cannot be dismissed as not naturalistic on account of the social sciences. There may be other substantial objections to agent-causal libertarianism, either regarding its place in a naturalistic world-view or not, but the agent-causal libertarian will have to be content in answering them one at a time. I have endeavored to show how agent-causal libertarians, following Clarke and O’Connor, can respond to what I call the naturalism challenge posed by the social sciences. If enough progress is made responding to other objections, we can begin to embrace an agent-causal view that allows for the robust sense of moral responsibility that we experience.


[i] Timothy O’Connor, Persons & Causes: The Metaphysics of Free Will (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 107.

[ii] Randolph Clarke, “Toward A Credible Agent-Causal Account of Free Will,” Nous, 27.2 (June 1993): 193.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] O’Connor, Persons & Causes: The Metaphysics of Free Will, 86.

[v] Timothy O’Connor, “Agent-Causal Theories of Freedom,” in The Oxford Handbook of Free Will, ed. Robert Kane (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 317.

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  1. #1 by Sir Song II on November 27, 2013 - 11:18 am

    “1. If agent-causal free will is true then past events cannot be used to predict the acts that agents will perform.”

    Do agents have desires? Is desiring an action?

    • #2 by ausomeawestin on December 1, 2013 - 2:10 pm

      Agents certainly have desires, but I think agents take actions because of desires, such that, desiring is not an action in the precise sense it is meant here. Actions are volitions where we have the qualia that we chose to do that action (this is what our theories of free will must explain since we feel like we have free will), whereas, desires are not things that we have the qualia of deciding on.

  2. #3 by John on November 27, 2013 - 11:29 am

    I really like this post!

  3. #5 by Creative-Philo on December 7, 2013 - 12:37 am

    Does agent-causal libertarianism also talk at all about whether all people are agents? I’m pretty sure you’ve read some of my posts about taking responsibility for your own world so as to gain autonomy, is this something that is talked about at all by these thinkers?

    • #6 by ausomeawestin on December 7, 2013 - 9:58 am

      Hmm great question, I’m not quite sure of the answer. The research project of agent-causal libertarians is something like “what conditions would have to obtain in order for us to have free will?” So, proponents of ACL might not think we have free will because we do not meet the conditions. With this in mind I think they might say that not all people are agents in the sense of having free will.

      As for your question on responsibility for environment, I haven’t read anything in the literature that poses this as a necessary condition for ACL, but that doesn’t mean that it hasn’t been used (I’m far from an expert on ACL) in an ACL theory. It certainly has been used in other free will theories, Sartre comes to mind.

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting, I really appreciate it!

  4. #7 by Justin Caouette on December 7, 2013 - 4:09 am

    Randy Clarke is a compatibilist, not an agent-causalist. He has switched his position. FWIW.

    • #8 by ausomeawestin on December 7, 2013 - 10:06 am

      Thanks for letting me know! It seems most philosophers are compatibilists, and if agent-causalists are coming over to compatibilism then it’s starting to look like there is agreement on a philosophical question. Naysayers of philosopher be damned!

  5. #9 by Justin Caouette on January 3, 2014 - 3:23 pm

    Quick comment: you say “Agent-causal views seem to entail that we should not be able to predict the actions of human agents if human agents can rise above the causal effects of their environment and choose freely.”

    But, agent-causalists would only object to all actions being predicted and not a majority of them. They could admit that most actions are predictable but truly “torn-decisions” are not. Mark Balaguer makes this point nicely in his book “Free Will as an open scientific question”.

    • #10 by ausomeawestin on January 3, 2014 - 8:13 pm

      Great point! Thanks for the comment, I’m sure as a PhD candidate doing work on free will you noticed other misstatements I made; please feel free (I would be honored by your time, in fact) to correct any such mistakes if you so desire!

      But yes, I entirely agree with your point, my attempt was to present Baker’s argument as if I was Baker; otherwise I would be less likely to treat her argument with the principle of charity. I think most philistine critiques of libertarianism (undergraduate papers and blogs exhaust this category) make this mistake (that the libertarian is committed to the idea that all acts are free in the libertarian sense), and even some academics advance a weaker version of this thesis, i.e. Baker. Thanks for stopping by!

  6. #11 by Marvin Edwards on January 3, 2014 - 9:40 pm

    Determinism and free will are both simultaneously true. There is no “versus” between them.

    Determinism arises from simple cause and effect. It is one of those a priori things.

    Free will refers to the fact that you actually go through a process to decide a course of action. Whether this choice could be predicted by psychologists or not is irrelevant. We may assume that someone with a “God’s eye view” of all the determinant variables could in fact predict the choice. But the choice is still made by the person, nonetheless.

    The key question here is the definition of “responsibility”. Operationally, to hold someone or something “responsible” means that they are a point where correction may be applied.

    For example, suppose a man drives through a stoplight and hits another car. To prevent this from happening again, we need to change something. If the man was drunk, we may pass laws against driving under the influence, and give him some jail time and suspend his license. The jail and suspension attempt to correct his behavior, so we don’t have this problem again.

    By taking action to correct the offender, we now become part of the determinants and causes of his future behavior. So if the offender claims his behavior was predetermined, we too may claim that our corrective actions were also predetermined, and his behavior determined our action.

    • #12 by ausomeawestin on January 3, 2014 - 10:32 pm

      Alright, so you accept compatibilism. I don’t think the conditions for compatibilist free will are sufficient for the rich understanding of free will that we want for responsibility, and I don’t think you see this tension due to your holding a close, but erroneous definition of “responsibility”.

      In your example of the drunk driver you are close to the correct definition of responsibility when you note that “we want to change something”. That’s right, we want to change something in the sense that we want other options to be open to him, options other than the one that he took in the past. Thus, a man is responsible for his action if he has more than one option, this is why we want to correct him, so that he has another option than the one that has plagued him before.

      Now we are at the correct definition of responsibility: a man is responsible for an act if he could have done otherwise. But that is the tension of determinism and responsibility! If determinism is true then a man could not have done otherwise, because his actions were predetermined by antecedent causes and effects to his action. Thus, responsibility and determinism are incompatible, and therefore, compatibilism does not provide the conditions we know to be necessary for responsibility. As such, compatibilism falls short in providing the conditions for free will, and the choice is between libertarianism and no free will.

      • #13 by Creative-Philo on January 3, 2014 - 10:56 pm

        I’m curious, Ausome, whether you think identity can exist in a deterministic universe.

      • #14 by ausomeawestin on January 4, 2014 - 11:09 am

        Interesting question Creato. By identity do you mean personal identity, as in being the same person over time? I’ll assume so, and I imagine your thinking is that our understanding of ourselves is based on the fact that we chose to be certain ways and that determinism does not allow this, so determinism does not allow for our personal identity. I think that a good many of our choices are not made by us, in the sense that I am not the real causal origin of them, due to socio-economic effects that necessitate causes. But I do think it possible that there is some indeterminacy on the macro-level (Schrodinger’s cat is the most famous example) and that in such spaces of indeterminacy a human agent might have the ability to inject their causal power into the universe when their decision is a torn-decision in the sense that they really could have chosen either way. Are such events constitutive of the creation of personal identity? It’s possible. That doesn’t really answer your specific question about identity in a deterministic universe, but it does answer whether identity is possible in the semi-deterministic universe that we live in. I’ve never found a theory of personal identity that I was even mostly content with, so I tend to down play the consequences of a theory to identity as a reason to reject that theory because I don’t think there is a good working theory of identity that we need to hold on to and accommodate. What are your thoughts on all of this Creato? Perhaps I misunderstood your question.

      • #15 by Marvin Edwards on January 4, 2014 - 11:59 am

        Again, both “cause and effect” and “identity” are empirically observable and therefore cannot be in conflict.

      • #16 by ausomeawestin on January 4, 2014 - 4:12 pm

        Again, the idea that experienced things cannot logically conflict is based on a misunderstanding of empiricism.

      • #17 by Marvin Edwards on January 4, 2014 - 6:36 pm

        Empiricism is knowledge based upon observation. The most accurate observations are usually obtained by the scientific method. Did you think “empiricism” was something else?

      • #18 by Marvin Edwards on January 4, 2014 - 8:14 am

        But he could have done otherwise, because the other options were there to avoid driving drunk (take a cab, spend the night and sleep it off, ask a sober friend to drive him home, don’t drink if you have to drive yourself home later, etc). So we say that he freely chose to drive while drunk.

        And whether he FEELS responsible or not, whether he claims he has always driven under the influence and this is just the first time he had an accident, we still HOLD him responsible for the accident and for breaking the law. Because that’s how responsibility is made to work in the real world.

        The corrective penalty becomes a deterministic factor the next time he is allowed to drive.

        If you say that we cannot hold him responsible because up till now he has not been motivated to change his behavior, then at what point can you apply correction? And if you cannot apply correction, then how is his future behavior to be changed?

        That is the real world (empirical) problem. And if “too much philosophy” gets in the way of attempting to solve real world problems, then it is not such a good thing, is it? Or, you can look on this as a natural evolution of philosophy toward an actual clearer understanding of the problem that the other philosophers you’ve read were dealing with.

      • #19 by ausomeawestin on January 4, 2014 - 11:23 am

        Right, so you agree that in order to be held responsible for punishment the first condition that must be met is that he could have done otherwise. To punish someone for something that that could not help but do hardly seems just or fair. We’re both recognizing a tension between responsibility and determinism. You seem to want to rewrite responsibility to accommodate determinism, whereas I want to deny determinism so as to affirm responsibility as we already understand it. You seem to think I’m committed to saying people are not responsible, but what has been shown is that you are committed to the claim that people are not responsible, because even in the fact of indeterminism on the micro-quantum and the macro-level (think of Schrodinger’s cat) as shown by modern physics, for some reason you are holding onto the idea that the macro-physical realm is ruled by determinism. It isn’t. Modern physics denies this. Most people think either science (empiricism) or philosophy (rationalism) is the correct means to gaining true knowledge of the universe. Accepting either view commits you to indeterminacy, so why are you holding onto it? What middle ground between empiricism, which has proven determinism false, and rationalism, which has induced that determinism must be false, do you believe in?

        Philosophy does not get in the way of solving real world problems. Philosophy has given us a way to explain the real world phenomena of responsibility. You are still holding onto a contradictory grouping of claims, determinism and responsibility, and your arguments for both claims are wanting, so really it is you who is guilty of “too much [unrigorous] philosophy”.

      • #20 by Marvin Edwards on January 4, 2014 - 11:54 am

        You said, “To punish someone for something that that could not help but do hardly seems just or fair.” But that is based upon an incorrect view of responsibility and punishment.

        The main point of punishment is correction. The correction is necessary because the behavior was deemed harmful and illegal. The offender may be required to repair the harm if feasible. The offender may be subject to reasonable corrective actions which may include punitive measures so that he knows we are serious about his misbehavior but which may also include a required course in drunk driving and its effects. Finally, if there is evidence that the previous penalty was ineffective (a third drunk driving offense) he may be placed in jail to prevent the rest of us from being harmed further.

        The causes of his misbehavior are only important to the degree that they provide empirical data as to the best corrective actions to take. It may be that he is insane or incorrigible. But most often it is that his decision was ill-informed and thoughtless.

        This is what “holding responsible” is about. If the accident had been caused by a faulty traffic light, then the traffic light, and those who install and maintain it, are “held responsible” and corrected if possible. If the accident was caused by a road surface that was slippery in the rain, then we would want to correct the surface if possible.

        If there are multiple factors leading to the failure, then the accident may spur multiple corrections, each designed to reduce the likelihood of harm in the future.

        So where is “determinism” in all of this? It is always there. Because cause and effect are always there. The thing is that we are a part of it. Our choices may theoretically be traced to the confluence of multiple cause-effect chains, even if we are unable to accurately predict each decision. If we tried to do the trace in anything other than the most general terms, we’d likely be frozen in our tracks, like the guy trying to think through covering each infinite division of space between the chair and the door. So we don’t do that.

        Determinism implies that free will is inevitable. Both are empirically observed and verified. Therefore they cannot be in conflict. Therefore it is a logical error to place any “versus” between them.

      • #21 by ausomeawestin on January 4, 2014 - 4:09 pm

        So you’re saying that the reason why we do not punish criminally insane persons in the same manner as sane persons is because the same punishment would not correct them? That’s absurd, your conflating the trial and the sentencing! During the trial we see whether the person is guilty or not guilty and one reason why they are not guilty is insanity, in that they could not exercise proper judgment due to psychological and/or physiological effects such that they could not do otherwise than they did. This exhausts the considerations of responsibility. If they are found responsible then they are found guilty, such that they must be punished, and now we can decide their sentence. If they are found not responsible they they are found not guilty and there is no need for punishment, so we do not move to the next round, that of sentencing. However, if they pled insanity then they admitted to the fact that they cannot control themselves, such that they receive treatment, and this is not to be considered punishment. So it is you who have the incorrect view of responsibility and punishment, you conflate them in such a way that you lose sight of what it means to be actually responsible for an action.

        Again, you just repeat your convictions that empiricism shows determinism to be true when I have just pointed out that empiricism shows that indeterminism is true. Ignoring the facts is not akin to winning any arguments. The problem is that you are holding on to a version of empiricism that is too vague to provide any true knowledge; it seems you think empiricism means “all knowledge is from sense experience”. Alright, but according to this view of empiricism the sun revolves around the earth, because that is what sense experience tells us, and you can’t rely on anything else. A more focused version of empiricism is needed in order to avoid absurd claims (unless you think the sun revolves around the Earth). A better version, put forward by philosophers of science is that empiricism is the view that all knowledge is from theories that confirm our sense experience by explaining why we have the sense experiences that we do. That is, we empirically know something to be true if our sense experiences confirm our theories, and our theories explain why we have those sense experiences. This version of empiricism avoids the absurd claim that the sun revolves around the Earth. This is the kind of empiricism that is rigorous and takes experimentation to provide evidence for theories. To claim that because sense data tells me two things exist that they cannot logically conflict is utterly foolish, and the manner of empiricism I have just outlined would allow us to explain why we have illusionary sense experiences if those theories fit with other confirmed theories in manner of coherent justification. In short, your methodology is severely flawed, and commits you to insane claims. I advise you embrace a more tenable version of empiricism that is not so contradictory. Perhaps then you will see the tension between responsibility and determinism. But please, for the love of god, do not respond by repeating yourself another time claiming that determinism is empirically true — it is not!

      • #22 by Marvin Edwards on January 4, 2014 - 5:26 pm

        Do you wish to define “determinism” as anything other than a tautological result of “cause and effect”? What I believe to be incontrovertibly true is this: the current state of things is an “effect” of the previous state of things which could not avoid producing or “causing” it.

        It is the basic premise of all science. If you know the power produced by a specific amount of gunpowder confined in a cannon topped by a ball of a given mass and shot upward at a given angle, then you can predict how far the ball will travel and pretty much where it will land.

        If you know the effects of cooking an apple pie at a given temperature for a given length of time then you can successfully produce a pie that is neither undercooked nor burnt to a crisp.

        If you know a person well enough, his background, his medical condition, his habits, his ethical constraints, etc. then you can predict whether he will refuse to eat pork if offered, and whether he will need medical attention if he consumes a peanut.

        Social science teaches us about the norms of given groups. Psychology teaches us how people with given phobia are likely to react in a given situation.

        All of science rests upon “cause and effect”. Determinism is nothing more than the recognition that human behavior and choices also have causes, such that if you knew all of the relevant precedents and their effects, you could reliably predict the decision that the person will choose at the end of their mental process of deciding.

        But this in no way diminishes their “responsibility”, because the rest of us will hold them responsible, for no other reason than we must, to protect ourselves from the bad behavior of others. The harm they do causes us to take steps to correct misbehavior.

        In other words, their misbehavior is a cause of our taking corrective action. It is not like “determinism” is something separate from us that forces us to do things. It is rather a background fact that is always present in everything that we do and all that happens.

        Now, we may certainly take into account the person’s background that led to the crime. In fact, the worse the background, the more correction may be required for the individual. But even more important, we may want to address those background causes: poverty, illiteracy, gangs, etc. We should also hold these responsible and take corrective action in the community if we ever hope to deal effectively with criminal behavior.

        To dismiss “cause and effect” is to dismiss all science. Therefore we must assume that all personal choices are “deterministic”. But free will and responsibility, which sit upon this fabric of “cause and effect”, do not become meaningless because of it.

        P.S. The empirical evidence, as witnessed by Galileo and subsequently reconfirmed by better telescopes, is that the earth revolves around the sun. Empirical evidence gets better over time as the instruments improve.

  7. #23 by Creative-Philo on January 4, 2014 - 12:23 pm

    You have kind of answered my question. You think that responsibility is contingent on in-determinism, I was curious whether you thought identity was as well. As you rightly point out though, there are multiple definitions that we could use for identity, one of them being that we must be able to choose in certain ways. I’m inclined to think that identity is not dependent on in-determinism, that we can become autonomous in a deterministic framework, and that autonomy is the crucial factor for responsibility (in a very Kantian sense).

    • #24 by ausomeawestin on January 4, 2014 - 5:16 pm

      Hmm, yes I think a large component of identity is being responsible for the person you are through your choices, but of course, a realistic theory of identity must accommodate the fact that there are parts of ourselves which we did not choose and identity with completely. Perhaps autonomy, and only autonomy, allows such rigorous self reflection and self affirmation. Good point, I hadn’t thought about autonomy as being relevant to personal identity, but I think that you are onto something. I assume by Kantian autonomy you mean the idea of acting for beliefs independent of hypothetically based desires, in such a way that those actions are fully rational due to their being based in universalizable maxims? Please correct me if I’m wrong; I think I might be, I’m having a difficult time separating Kant’s theory of autonomy from his thoughts on the kingdom of ends.

      • #25 by Creative-Philo on January 7, 2014 - 9:47 pm

        I would say that we are not agents if we are not autonomous (and therefore are severely stinted in the identity department, though I wouldn’t say we are completely without an identity).

        I think I may have just confused the issue with my reference to Kant, so I’ll just say what I mean. I do not think we can choose who we are. I do not think that we can spontaneously choose to be autonomous. I do think, however, that given the right set of circumstances we can be ‘given’ our autonomy by the world. We do not choose who we are, but once we are someone we can awaken to our ability to choose who we become. Without this awakening we are essentially battered about by the winds of chance. (This may be more of a Hiedeggerian take then a Kantian take, now that I think about it).

        The key point is that I’m proposing a way in which we can be responsible within determinism – as an agent who autonomously allows their identity to dictate their actions as opposed to circumstance (and in this way, they also are ‘themselves’ in a much more significant way then those who let the flow of life dictate action).

      • #26 by Marvin Edwards on January 7, 2014 - 10:31 pm

        Autonomy is unavoidable. To “go with the flow” is a choice (and the Nazis who did that were still held responsible). To be bored with the flow and decide to learn to play the piano instead is also a choice. That guy who runs that private space program now would be a splashy example of the concept of autonomy versus the flow. On the other hand, the flow may offer advantages as well, like a dull job to save up to go mountain climbing, etc.

        Determinism is irrelevant. To think it is, and sit back and wait for “it” to do something for you is a lie. That too is an autonomous choice that has consequences. So the best thing is to just ignore it, and deal with the specific, relevant causes that you can effect.

        The fact that you would have done these things anyway should not play any role in the decision making process. That fact is totally useless within the process, and can only be useful when viewing the process from the outside, which is hard to get to from here. 🙂

        But maybe not impossible. One can sit and observe one’s thoughts (Zen) and perhaps learn something useful about oneself.

      • #27 by Creative-Philo on January 7, 2014 - 10:46 pm

        In a sense you’re right Marvin and in a sense you’re wrong. We obviously inevitably live and make choices, and in that sense I would say that choice is inevitable. However, the fact that we make choices is a far stretch from being autonomous.

        I think our difference of opinion might be a matter of definition. When I say autonomy, I mean a mastery of oneself in responding to the world. I think you would probably agree that we are not inevitably masters of our self – indeed I would say very few master themselves.

        As to the determinism element I must disagree about its irrelevance. We are born into a world without any control over ourselves – we can hardly be said to exist as an entity that can exert control! As we grow we acquire an identity, but this does not mean that we are autonomous. We must come into our autonomy, but since we do not already possess it we cannot spontaneously choose it since choice is a matter of autonomy. Instead the world must first hand us autonomy (I would argue).

      • #28 by Marvin Edwards on January 7, 2014 - 11:13 pm

        I can dig it. I think you’re speaking of items nearer the top of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, like “self-actualization”.

        We’re one of the mammals that rear their young for a very long time before we are out on our own. On the other hand, the newborn infant seems to take control of his environment by crying out loudly for food and warmth. So there is a case that we begin with a lot of autonomy and control, and eventually make tradeoffs with others and the environment.

        Perhaps each of these tradeoffs was an autonomous decision at the time, made consciously or unconsciously by the child. But with maturity, we may want to renegotiate a more favorable deal with the universe.

      • #29 by ausomeawestin on January 11, 2014 - 8:01 pm

        Very interesting, yes, I see the similarities to the views put forward by Heidegger and Sartre. I agree that we do not choose to be born into the conditions necessary for autonomy, such that, that we are autonomous is in part due to matters of luck. But I understand agency as the ability to make choices, and the ability to make real choices entails that our choice wasn’t forced due to having a sole choice. When I have only one option of action open to me, and I do that action, I choose, in a sense, to let the action unfold, but I hesitate to say real agency is exhibited here. The real being of the agent is not seen in this action, because they did not have alternatives to choose from, such that there is nothing constitutive of an agent behind this action. So, I think that we are not agents if we cannot choose otherwise, and if determinism is true then we cannot choose otherwise, such that determinism and agency are incompatible. I also think that agency is a necessary condition for responsibility, and thus, by extension, determinism and responsibility are incompatible.

        What I see you as attempting to do (and for good reason, I might add) is to suggest that in order to be agents we must reflectively endorse our chosen and unchosen qualities and attributes, so that actions that follow from those qualities and attributes are in some way endorsed, such that it is possible to endorse our actions in a deterministic world, and this is constitutive of autonomy. In other words, if an agent endorses a desire, then they would want to have that desire even if they could have chosen to do otherwise, such that, they are morally responsible for acts that arise from that desire. But if the agent knows the external, causally determined origin of their desire and still endorses it, then it does not matter that they could not have chosen otherwise in regards to that desire, because, by endorsing the desire, they declare that they would have chosen to have that desire even if they could have done otherwise. The thought is that, there is no difference in the degree of moral responsibility between a person who endorses a desire and could have chosen otherwise, and a person who endorses a desire and could not have chosen otherwise. Both agents would have chosen to have that desire, even if they could have chosen otherwise, so the person who could not choose otherwise is just as responsible for acts that arise from that desire as the agent who could have done otherwise.

        The problem is that I think such endorsements are meaningless if libertarianism isn’t true. Consider that endorsement should be considered as the instance wherein I value the desire I have despite where the origin of that desire lies. Indeed, there are some desires that I have that I would not shy away from if I found out their true origin was shameful. This shows that when I reflectively endorse a desire, it is purely in virtue of the desire itself, and not because, but often in spite, of the external origin of that desire.

        If this is the case, then I endorse a desire, regardless of its source, because it seems that that desire is so central to my identity that it does not matter where that desire originated. For example, I have the desire that the tax code be progressive in order to create more economic equality. In reflectively endorsing this desire, if I found out that the true external origin of this desire was something trivial, I would still endorse that desire because of the desire itself.

        This suggests that I endorse a desire because of a hidden assumption that past states of affairs might have obtained differently and in which case that trivial event would not have caused my desire. Nevertheless, because this desire is mine right now, I think that I would come to have this desire because it seems right for me to have, and this is the reason why I endorse that desire. Thus, endorsing a desire is to hold that you would have the desire you now have even if the event that actually caused you to have that desire had not caused you to have that desire. The reason why the agent thinks that they would have that desire, regardless of what external causes obtain, is because of an assumption that it is the agent, and not external events, that deterministically cause desires. Therefore, in order to reflectively endorse a desire, it must be the case that deterministic external causes are not sufficient to cause a desire, and that an agent that is the ultimate cause of desires is necessary in order to reflectively endorse desires. So, in order for there to be the sort of endorsement of qualities necessary for autonomy then libertarianism must be true in the sense that complete causal determinism must be false. The rich autonomy that you favor and determinism are, in the end, incompatible.

      • #30 by Creative-Philo on January 12, 2014 - 12:01 am

        I disagree 🙂

        I’ll just summarize how I understood you, so its clear what I think I disagree with – I think that you are proposing that there is a hidden axiom within my proposition.

        My proposition (according to you according to me), is that people can be responsible for actions through autonomous endorsement, whether or not they could have chosen otherwise.

        You suggest that there is a contradiction of sorts. The agent endorses a perspective that could be otherwise (by the axioms of my argument), which essentially means they simply endorse whatever they endorse (which means that being autonomous by my axioms is essentially the same as being non-autonomous.)

        I would say that there is an additional part to my theory that lets me avoid the trap you suggest, and it is why I frequently have brought up Kant in our discussions.

        I see the autonomous person to be different in two respects from the non-autonomous person. The first, as you have identified, is that they reflectively endorse their actions. The second difference is that the autonomous person also actively investigates the world. An individual and their world, I would say, are selfsame, so in investigating the world the person investigates their own nature. In doing so they take the other element of autonomy – they escape the arbitrary (through chance) and replace it with the capability to act in each moment as their identity dictates (hence Kant, escape determinism by obeying another set of deterministic rules).

        I still see room, in this account, for you to point out that the person has become bound to their own arbitrary self. To this I can only say yes, we can escape the world, but our only refuge is our arbitrary self (and I would say that this seems to hold true for your account as well).

      • #31 by ausomeawestin on January 12, 2014 - 4:37 pm

        Hmm, interesting points. My conception of reflective endorsement was meant to blend your two distinctions together. My idea was that an agent reflectively endorses an action, if in understanding the arbitrary factors and facts of their world that caused them to want to take that action they still want to take that action. This understanding of the arbitrariness of the facts of their life is constitutive of the active investigation of the world that you speak of. If in understanding the causal influence of arbitrary facts of the world on your values, you still maintain that those are the correct values to have, then you reflectively endorse those values, your second distinction, and by extension, reflectively endorse the actions that follow from what you value, your first distinction. But as I argued before, in order to truly endorse those values, complete causal determinism must not be true.

        Perhaps you have a stronger conception of exploring the world in mind, due to a commitment to Kantian idealism. Unfortunately, if that is where you wish to go then we have a problem, as I think Kantian idealism is flawed, as I think we can have true knowledge of the mind-independent universe.

      • #32 by Creative-Philo on January 12, 2014 - 11:53 pm

        I must warn that I am much more familiar and comfortable with Heidegger then Kant, so when you say “Kantian Idealism” I do not immediately know what that means. I assume Kantian idealism is the notion that the values of our ‘self’ are good (in an extremely simplified sense).

        Before I continue, I want to make sure I have my notion of libertarianism straight. You propose that it is the case (referencing quantum mechanics) that there is room for agents to make decisions that are NOT determined by past events. Re-reading you’re original post, my summary of the theorist you reference would be that agents essentially ‘take the past under advisement’ when deliberating between different options. You then have a separate line of argument that decisions within a deterministic framework cannot really be decisions (i.e. an agent cannot be an agent, and cannot be responsible). Is that a good summary?

      • #33 by ausomeawestin on January 13, 2014 - 9:36 pm

        Kantian idealism is mainly an epistemological thesis; we cannot have true knowledge of the mind-independent world, because the human mind necessarily organizes and sculpts sense data through a priori concepts created by the faculty of understanding, since these concepts are essentially of the human mind they do not apply to the mind independent world and the human mind cannot understand what is not shaped by these concepts, such that it follows that we cannot comprehend the facts of a mind-independent world — such facts are meaningless. Thus, when I noted that you might have a more Kantian conception of “exploring the mind” as selfsame to the world, I though you might be affirming that all objective knowledge is knowledge of human concepts and the content of human consciousness. I reject this because I think there is knowledge to be had of a mind-independent reality; just because all sense experience is filtered by consciousness doesn’t mean that all we can have knowledge of is the content of consciousness.

        But I digress. My point was that there are mind-independent truths, some of which are the truths of causally efficacious arbitrary facts, and discovering these facts allows us to consider whether we would want to hold the same beliefs if different causal facts were the case. If Kantian idealism is true then metaphysical speculation on counterfactual causal chains is senseless, so the appropriate kind of modality is not possible for Kantian idealism and we cannot reflectively endorse our values in the way I have suggested.

        As for my views on libertarianism, I think that most actions are not free in the sense of metaphysical free will, but it is metaphysically possible for there to be an act done from free will, and some people have done so. As Justin Caouette noted above, the libertarian is not committed to saying that every act is freely done, only that it is possible that a freely willed action occur. My thinking is this:
        indeterminism is misunderstood — it is not the thesis that all events are random, after all, that would be a higher-order determinateness. Rather, that indeterminism is a macro-level higher-order event means that it is indeterminate whether some lower-order events will be determined or not. John Dupre thinks that this kind of indeterminism does allow for agent-causal libertarian free will, because there are some undetermined events, and it is in this vacuum that agents call introduce causal control into the universe. It is the nature of indeterminism that some events have antecedent and far reaching causal chains such that they were predetermined by prior events to occur, and some events do not have these causal chains in such a way that it is not determined what will occur next. That some events do not have these far reaching causal chains provide the opportunity for agents to inject their causal power into the universe. So free mental events are caused, and they are caused by the agent when a prior to undetermined event becomes determined by their realizing their causal powers. They might take past interests into consideration or they might not.

        My other argument was that a person is not responsible for an action if they did not exhibit agency, and the agent is only seen when they could have done otherwise; if an agent does an action that they had no other option but to do then we do not learn anything about the agent, only the circumstances. If the agent has more than one option and they take a certain option then we learn something about the agent by their taking that option. This is a more narrow thesis than the preceding thoughts on libertarianism, what I am saying here is that an agent can be responsible for an action if past events influenced them to take an action, but if those past events created a state of affairs where they only had one option, then in taking that option that action is not performed with agency, and thus, they are not responsible for that action in the most profound sense of responsibility.

      • #34 by Creative-Philo on January 21, 2014 - 4:54 pm

        Your description of Kantian idealism does sound a lot like what I am proposing (I really need to read some more Kant…).

        So you propose the following:

        1. There is a mind independent world which we are capable of accessing.

        2. We have a ‘core’ identity which shows through in indeterminate moments (moments where previous events leave us with multiple options.) Our choices in indeterminate moments reveal our autonomous self.

        3. People can only be responsible for the choices made in these indeterminate moments.

        Is that a fair short summary?

      • #35 by ausomeawestin on January 21, 2014 - 6:44 pm

        Yes I think that is pretty fair.

      • #36 by Creative-Philo on January 21, 2014 - 8:50 pm

        Alright. I think your right that our disagreement mostly comes down to our different metaphysical views (and I am interested in exploring why you think that Kant’s theory is flawed). I would argue though that our respective theories of identity are of similar consequence. Both my theory and your theory to call upon the concept of an identity to obtain autonomy. It seems to me in both cases that this identity is not one ‘chosen’, but instead one arbitrarily acquired.

        Previously you said “The reason why the agent thinks that they would have that desire, regardless of what external causes obtain, is because of an assumption that it is the agent, and not external events, that deterministically cause desires.” It seems to me that there is no practical difference between your agent and mine because neither is responsible for their own being. Instead both simply ‘are’, and for an agent to be ‘responsible’ is essentially pass judgment on the ethical properties of that agent.

      • #37 by ausomeawestin on January 21, 2014 - 10:35 pm

        Hmm, you know when you put it like that I do think you’re right that we agree on matters of identity. I do want to hold out for the position that the agent wants to be the origin of their action even if that causal force in them is in some sense arbitrary. But I think you would allow this too, so I do see us as agreeing. I’m very receptive to Sartrean theories of personal identity, and he was heavily influenced by Heidegger, so if you are influenced by Heidegger then this might account for our similar ideas on identity.

      • #38 by Creative-Philo on January 21, 2014 - 11:31 pm

        Yeah, agreement! I don’t have any difficulty with agreeing to your middle point there.

      • #39 by Marvin Edwards on January 12, 2014 - 7:25 am

        “Libertarianism”? Really? That’s a political belief system, similar to a cult. It has nothing to do with “free choice” or “determinism”, but rather the blind “faith” that we will all be better off if we minimize the role of government. It often sleeps over at anarchy’s house. And it is amazing how they manage to brainwash young minds through indirect means. Then again, the best way to hide a lie is in a haystack of truths and half-truths.

        But, getting off politics, and back to philosophy. you made two statements:

        (1) “So, I think that we are not agents if we cannot choose otherwise and if determinism is true then we cannot choose otherwise, such that determinism and agency are incompatible.”

        (A) From the perspective of the person making the decision, even a decision to “go with the flow” or do something else, free will is an observable phenomenon. As soon you ask yourself “should I …” you have begun the decision process and become an agent of the outcome.

        At the point of choice, all of the options are always there, even if we have, by habit, limited ourselves to only a few, or even to just one, because we always know that we have the option to do nothing (or wait awhile longer to see if things change). Therefore choice is always there at every decision point (a priori actually). Therefore it is impossible to say that free will does not exist.

        (B) And if an objective scientific observer has a “God’s eye view” of the person’s history, and past decisions, and also a complete view of the current relevant factors, then he can know with reasonable probabilistic certainty what that decision will be, because the decision must result from those causes. Because “cause and effect” implies determinism, determinism must also be true.

        Therefore “free will” and “determinism” are nothing more than two different viewpoints (or “models”) of the same real-world phenomenon.

        (2) “I also think that agency is a necessary condition for responsibility, and thus, by extension, determinism and responsibility are incompatible.”

        (C) It should be no surprise that a society injured by the bad behavior choice of one of its members (e.g., murder or theft) will freely choose to create a rule against that behavior and enforce that rule by penalties designed to control that behavior in that individual. And it will be the harm done that influences society’s decision to arrest the behavior and attempt to correct the individual or at least protect itself from further harm by detaining the individual. This is called “holding the person responsible”. Correction intends to change the decision the next time the individual comes to that choice again.

        One of my middle school teachers had this sign on the wall, “Discipline Thyself or the World Will Do It For You”. You can see the interplay of cause and effect and free will.

      • #40 by ausomeawestin on January 12, 2014 - 4:05 pm

        Did you ever have any schooling after middle school? Because it is clear to me that you have never heard of quantum mechanics, and your comment that libertarianism is only a political philosophy only serves to highlight your ignorance of academic philosophy. In order to adequately critique a view you should know the nuances of the view, but you do not even know the name of the theory you are blindly attacking. It is called libertarianism. There is no point in having a conversation with you because you continue to repeat your unsubstantiated claims like they were gospel and make no effort to understand what you disagree with. If you had read the initial post you would know that the view under discussion is called “agent causal libertarianism” or “agent causal free will”, and against (B), that agent causal LIBERTARIANISM is compatible with social sciences being correct about what agents are probable to do. That was the point of the post. You are no longer welcome on this blog; going forward, none of your comments will be approved.

        P.S. Read a book on quantum mechanics.

  1. Free will? Free of what? | SelfAwarePatterns

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