Causation

So I’m continuing to read Derk Pereboom’s “Living Without Free Will”, and in the second chapter he examines coherence objections to libertarian free will.  This mostly focuses on event-causal libertarianism, which basically posits that a choice is free if there is a “free choice” in the causal chain, at least as I understand it.  The main objections to this end up being that it’s difficult to see what sort of actual choice in the causal chain could be “free” in the right way to preserve things like moral responsibility.  If the “free” choice was caused, then wouldn’t it be just as deterministically caused as all the other events?  But if it isn’t caused, then it would seem to be random, and that doesn’t work.  So we’d need to have some kind of event that can be a cause in the right way and yet would be uncaused in the right way.  Pereboom spends much of the chapter arguing that agent-causal libertarianism isn’t vulnerable to this sort of objection in the same way, but he argues that event-causal libertarianism cannot be made coherent given these objections.

I’m not going to go into that discussion in detail (and, in fact, that’s going to be consistent across all my posts on the book).  Instead, I’m going to take a point that came to me while reading it and talk about that.  The main thrust of all the arguments revolves around causation, talking about causes for events and uncaused free events and so on and so forth.  But as all this went on, I started to feel that there was something odd about all of those discussions of causes.  It seemed to me that there might even be a sort of equivocation going on about cause, where the coherence argument ends up using cause in a very deterministic way when the sort of thing that would cause a free choice wouldn’t be that sort of thing.  Now, Pereboom could argue that that only works for agent-causal libertarianism since it would be the sort of thing that could itself be a different type of cause, and event-causal libertarianism needs the free choice to be the different type of cause but then we need to ask what causes it, but while valid that’s not really my point here.  My point is that we seem to get stuck talking about cause in a way that doesn’t really apply to what we think free choices would be.  We seem to be working with the notions of cause that don’t seem to be the same sort of cause involved with free choices and from that generate all sorts of problems for free will.  But maybe what we’re talking about is a different type of causation altogether.

The key thing that is missing in a lot of these sorts of discussions is the special nature of consciousness and free choices.  How they differ from both the seemingly deterministic macro level and the probabilistic quantum level is that their causes fundamentally depend on meaning.  For both consciousness and free choices, the outcomes are crucially determined not by the symbols themselves or simply reacting to symbols, but instead by what those actually mean.  So for free choices it’s never going to be the case that we just experience something and it will always be the case that we will react the exact same way to that situation.  And yet it won’t be simply probabilistic or random either.  What we should be able to do in all of these cases is appeal to the reasons the person has and the meaning of the things involved in the choice and determine from that what the outcome of the choice will be.  If we know all the reasons and all the meanings — and there can be a lot of these in one person so that can get very complex — we should be able to determine to more than a simple probability what choice will be made.  But contrary to views like behaviourism we aren’t going to be able to do that without critically appealing to reasons and meaning.

So perhaps there is a third sort of causation that we can describe as intensional.  We have the strict physical level where causation is deterministic, the quantum level where causation is probabilistic, and the conscious level where causation is intensional.  And the key here is that before we had the quantum level, determinists could insist that such a thing wasn’t possible because everything was deterministic, but once we’ve noted that a different sort of causation might apply at the quantum level the door is open for other sorts of causations in other sorts of areas, as long as we can properly separate that area from the others.  And all meaning-aware cases are easily segmented from both physical and quantum phenomena by the precise fact that they are meaning-aware.

So perhaps we can save event-causal libertarianism by noting that the free choice events are a special sort of cause, meaning that they are meaning-aware.  And if they are meaning-aware, then they are “free” in the way we want them to be free:  produced and explained by intensional factors as opposed to deterministic or probabilistic factors.  All we need to do, then, is recognize that the sorts of causation involved in free choices is neither of the other two sorts, and so if we try to use the other sorts of causation in describing it we are going to get things wrong and so generate inconsistencies and problems that aren’t really there.

I also wonder if this might tie into Feser’s criticism of modern science and how it rejects Aristotlean causation.  Aristotle’s view focused heavily on having different types of causes and explanations that are used in different cases, and Feser argues that a flaw in modern science is ignoring all of those to reduce everything down to direct causation.  We know that we can do interesting things by considering a different type of cause using “structuring” causes, where we can say that the reason that a specific thing happens is because something set things up that way (think of explaining why dominoes fall in a certain pattern.  Yes, it’s because the first domino was knocked over, but if something else didn’t set them that way we wouldn’t have gotten that pattern).  While I’m not an expert on Aristotlean causation and not about to dig through that to see if one of those causes could resolve the issue, perhaps expanding our notions of cause could reveal a sort of cause that free will could be using that would avoid the issues here.  Maybe we are making the mistake of only talking about direct causation (I think that’s the “formal” cause for Aristotle) when the appropriate interaction is governed by a different type of cause, that allows for the appropriate responsibility without contradicting the physical causes related to the actions that are ultimately taken.

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One Response to “Causation”

  1. Libertarianism and the Evidence | The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] interacted while having to give up any non-deterministic elements that we thought we had.  But as noted last time, when quantum interactions were discovered this completely killed that argument (although […]

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