Saturday, October 16, 2004

Why I Believe in Free Will: Point # 1

I have decided to do a series of posts (I think it will end up being a very long series) on why I believe human beings have free will (in the traditional incompatibilist 'libertarian' sense of this statement). It's a good idea for me to state up front that not all of these points will be equally crucial. Some of them will be merely supplementary points that have an influence on my belief although they are not foundational reasons for it. Others will not be reasons themselves but rather parts of reasons; that is, they only become relevant to the issue when combined with other points. So merely because I post a point doesn't mean it's intended as a direct argument for the libertarian position; and, indeed it could very possibly be intended as no more than a mere part of an indirect and supplementary argument.

I should also say right off that I don't like the term 'free will', for a number of reasons. One of these is that the issue of 'free will' is not entirely about the will. It includes (at least) two parts, which can in scholastic terminology be easily identified as 'free decision' and 'free choice', but which are never seriously distinguished in analytic discussions. Nonetheless, we need a convenient phrase for the complex created by the union of these two parts, and 'free will' is what does best in English.

Those who read this weblog know, I think, that I'm not afraid to advocate views no one else does, when I feel like doing so. This series will bring out a lot of that. So we'll start out with a bang:

Point #1: 'Event causation' is a figure of speech

Event-based analyses of causation are fairly recent in the history of philosophy. They originate when people recognize that in certain possible cases we can have a causation-like phenomenon that is not 'true causation' - and the great historical irony is that these phenomena originally identified as noncausal develop into the basis for most contemporary attempts to account for causation. In this post I will 1) sketch out the basics of this account of the origination of the notion of 'event causation'; 2) suggest that Hume is completely right about causation if causation is event causation; 3) indicate my own view of the relation between causation and events.

1.1 Event-based analyses of causation are based on the supposition that causation is a law-like relation between events. This has not been the view of most people through history; for instance, it does not describe the Aristotelian account of causation at all. Part of this account (as it later developed) is the view that efficient causation is the act of a substance. This was the standard philosophical view for a very long time. What changed this status quo was (remotely) mechanism and (proximately) occasionalism. In the 16th and 17th centuries mechanistic accounts of motion were on the rise, along with a concomitant rise in conceptions of the world (and thus of science) in terms of laws of nature established by God. In this context strains of occasionalism began to develop. Occasionalism, which is the view that only God is a cause, had occasionally shown its face before, but the newer mechanistic worldview was far more conducive to it than the older Aristotelian view. The most notable and influential of all occasionalists was Nicolas Malebranche.

Malebranche argued that attributing causation to creatures, as the Aristotelians did, was pagan and idolatrous, and because of this launched the most sophisticated set of arguments for occasionalism that have ever been produced (Malebranche's only rival for this distinction is al-Ghazali). He makes a distinction between 'true causes' and 'occasional causes'. There is only one true cause, God; God is a true cause because the effect necessarily follows on His willing it. In no other case is this true. However, we do often speak of creatures as causes, and while Malebranche thinks that we mistakenly think this means they are true causes, he does think we are genuinely latching onto something real when we speak of them this way. Creatures are not true causes; however, they are occasions for causation. When y happens to a creature this serves as an occasion for the true cause (God) to do x. When we speak of causation in creatures, then, we are really talking about the divine laws that govern what events follow what other events. This, Malebranche insists, is not true causation. It is causation only by metonymy: creatures may be called causes only because they are occasions for causation, not because they are genuine causes. This is occasionalism.

Malebranche's views on causation influence a number of people. Two of note are George Berkeley and David Hume. Berkeley accepts the basics of Malebranche's occasionalism, but insists that some creatures are genuine causes. He is not, therefore, an occasionalist in the strict sense. Berkeley draws the line between 'true cause' and 'occasional cause' differently than Malebranche; for him, any agent, i.e., any mind, is a true cause. We are true causes, God is true cause. Bodies are not true causes, however; they are inert, and therefore can only be occasions for causation. Hume takes a different tack. He takes the occasional causation found in Malebranche and Berkeley and argues that this is the only idea of causation we have; he explicitly insists that when we think of minds causing, or of God causing, the only idea of causation we have here is that of a necessary connection (which turns out, with some complications due to Humean psychology, to be lawlike relation) between objects. While he isn't the only influence by any means, it is primarily due to Hume that event-based analysis has become so common, to the extent that there are lots of people who even insist (with less argument than Hume) on the Humean line here: event causation is the only causation that makes any sense. Even the use of the word 'event' is probably due to Hume, who uses it extensively (Hume, however, seems to have used the word simply as a synonym for 'effect', the standard meaning in the 18th century).

It is noteworthy that the quarrel over whether there can be such a thing as 'agent causation' revives the Berkeleyan 'true cause' under different terminology. This is not at all surprising; theories of 'agent causation' are heavily influenced by Thomas Reid, who was a former Berkeleyan, and who used the notion to respond to Hume.

1.2 I want to insist that Hume is exactly right about causation if all causation is event causation as generally understood. The only possible relations between distinct events are 1) resemblance; 2) contiguity in space; 3) contiguity in time; 4) association in the mind. Any account of causation entirely in terms of event causation will inevitably be forced to the Humean view that causation is, objectively, just constant conjunction of events and, subjectively, constant conjunction with an inferential movement of the mind added.

To defend this would require a rather complex argument. I won't go into one here (that might end up being a later point) but will just refer you to Hume's arguments in the Treatise and the Enquiry (it's worth noting, by the way, that many of Hume's arguments are adapted Malebranchean arguments) with the insistence, which you can accept or not, that they have never been answered in event causation terms; and the suggestion that this is probably because they can't be answered in those terms.

1.3 Likewise, I won't give a full account of my own position here, but instead just list some of my views as food for thought. Essentially, my own view of causation is a return to the pre-occasionalist view in which causation, properly speaking, is an act of an actual subject. (Not all acts are causal - this is a complication of the view that I won't get into here - another candidate for a later post.) Cause is a more fundamental notion than event, but both are dependent on the more fundamental notion of act. All causation involves events, not because causation is a relation between events, but because any particular case of causation is a single event; indeed, probably the paradigm sort of event. The only relations among events are being like each other, being near each other in time and/or place, and overlapping with each other; but the latter is just because talking about the world in terms of events is an indirect way of talking about it - and the overlap of any two events is just an event mediating between two events. There are no distinct 'events' in the real world; when we actually distinguish events, we do so entirely in terms of intentions and causal dispositions of various sorts. Events are actions (described a certain way) and (mentally composed) mereological fusions of actions and/or events. We can speak of one event causing another by metonymy, but all such speech can be broken down into a more fundamental causal discourse.

Event causation is a figure of speech.

As I noted, some of the points I will make in this series are not directly related; this is one of the indirect ones. The link is that I think a lot of the acceptance of determinism and compatibilism has to do with an uncritical acceptance of event causation language as literal rather than figurative.

In blogging, it's difficult to build a sustained and thorough argument; posts are more congenial to a piecemeal construction. The above points bring up a lot of issues, most of which I hope to deal with in some form or other at a future date, but if anything particularly bothers you, leave a comment, and I'll see if I can address that issue in the comments, or in a post soon to come.

I'll be adding new points soon. You can consider it a sort of philosophical mosaic that builds up the picture of libertarian worldview. (Point # 2 is closely related, and depends upon, this point.)

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