To make clear the controversial role agent causation plays in the free actions of individuals it will be assumed agents possess free will in an indeterministic existence. Free will has apparent roots in man’s prephilosophical enquiry of action. Most individuals believe themselves to have the power to make choices about their future actions. Free will is the thesis that individuals have a meaningful choice about alternative futures that are open to them. By ‘meaningful’ I mean not just the illusion of choices, but physically possible connections to futures that, given an agents choice of actions, will obtain. ‘Open’ futures are continuations consistent with the current state of affairs and require the agent’s actions do not violate any laws of nature; only actions brought about by miracles violate laws of nature, but no such actions will be spoken of here. How agent causation functions in the model of free will, specifically, how agent causation contributes to action theory will be investigated. My hopes are to dispel some of the mysteries of agent causation in describing its role in free actions. But first some remarks on indeterminism.
Indeterminism is the opposite of determinism. Determinism is the thesis that only one continuation of the current state of affairs is consistent with the laws of nature. According to determinism only one future is open, every future but one is physically impossible. Therefore, indeterminism is the thesis that more than one future is open to individuals. Rationally behaving agents make decisions then choices that affect which future they pursue in an indeterministic process. Rational agents decide between alternative continuations of the current state of affairs, so long as it does not violate any laws of nature, by use of their free will.
Free will coupled with indeterminism is known as incompatibilism. Incompatibilists accept free will and deny determinism. Like all positions in philosophy though, incompatibilism has its problems. Some incompatibilists believe an agent (G) can decide between reading a book (R) and going on a walk (W). G deliberates and decides to do W. G decides W out of an exercise of free will. Deciding to do W was only one of the possible futures open to G. G could have decided to do R, and that too would have been an exercise of free will. According to some incompatibilists, in an indeterministic process it is just as likely G will decide to do R as it is for G to decide to do W. Lets say G decides to do W then by divine power some omnipotent being “roles time back” to an instant before G decided to d W. Some incompatibilists argue that in this simple example of only two options G is just as likely to decide to do R as he is to do W. If this is true, however, then is G really exercising his power of free will? No, he’s not. This is one of the problems that incompatibilistis face, viz., that same indetermisnism that gives G his free will also limits G from using his free will to make decisions about his future. But wait, agent causation can help. Peter Van Inwagen argues that agent causation is a mystery. He says, “To explain how it can be that someone can have a choice about the outcome of an indeterministic process by an appeal to agent causation is to explain a mystery by a mystery” (pg. 195). Van Inwagen’s idea of an indeterministic process is similar to the example of agent G above. Van Inwagen believes because the outcome of doing R or W is indeterministic, that is, R is as probable as W, that G has no choice about which will obtain. At least he says he doesn’t understand ‘how it can be that someone can have a choice.’ So the problem resides in the choice. How is the agent able to make a choice? An appeal to agent causation satisfies this question without altering the event causation (also referred to as transeunt causation) that exists before and after the deliberation process, to see how lets begin with an event, a specific event, a need.
All living organisms have needs. Humans (I mean both the person and physical organism) have many needs, and different types of needs. Each of us at some time has experienced the need for food, a physiological need. The same can be said of the need for attention, companionship, acceptance, self worth, and many other psychological needs. Needs are a part of our everyday lives; surely few would claim otherwise. A need in an individual is an event. The need for food causes an individual to feel hungry. The need is the event cause of the individual’s interpretation of hunger. Needs give rise to wants. Andrew Schoedinger says wants are “needs of which an agent is capable of being conscious at any level” (pg. 135). Wants, then, are consciously realized needs. It must be made clear at the onset that all wants are needs, be they physiological or psychological (psychological needs are a result of a certain state in the central nervous system). Granted there are thresholds that needs must surpass before the agent is aware of the need, before it becomes a want. I might need to eat food right now to give my body the energy sufficient to write this paper, however, until that need passes a certain threshold I will be unaware of the deprivation. Once the hunger is consciously realized it becomes a want. This example cites a physiological need, but the same is true for psychological needs also. Now that I am aware of my want to satisfy my hunger, the need has been consciously realized, then I am determined to make a decision about my want.
Wants are teleological, that is, they have an end purpose or goal. Since a want is a need, then needs too are teleological. This means that our needs and wants aid us in surviving, not just basic survival either, but surviving well, or better than others; one quickly sees where this leads, but to continue in that direction would be a digression from the immediate task, which is to show that because wants are teleological they are causes. Wants cause the agent of the want to make a decision, or more precisely, to undergo a decision making process. That is not to say that the outcome is determined, rather, the decision making process is determined to occur, it must take place. Schoedinger says, “There is no uncaused decision” (pg. 143).
Wants cause us to make decisions. When an agent has a want there is no way he cannot undergo a decision making process. The decision making process is determined to happen, again, not the outcome, the process. An example will prove helpful. Sarah is driving her car on the interstate, she hears a noise then looks in her side mirror and sees that her right rear tire is going flat. Sarah was driving to work; she needs to be there in thirty minutes. Sarah needs to get to work (one can argue the validity of the need, but not that it isn’t a need). When she realizes she has to be to work soon she wants not to be late. her want of not being late determines that she make a decision, the event of her wanting not to be late determines that she make a decision. Enter agent causation.
As rational beings we explore complex alternatives and opportunities in our common deliberations. Van Inwagen sees a mystery in Sarah’s input into the decision making process of an undetermined event (I am assuming Sarah’s situation is undetermined, that she could put on the spare tire or hitchhike, or any number of things). How is it that Sarah the individual, the person, the agent Sarah and not some event, is capable of affecting her decisions and thus choices and actions? Sarah’s role in deciding what actions to take in her unfortunate position affects her choices. Admittedly it is an event cause that determines she make a decision, but her role in the decision making process is precisely the role of her being the agent cause of her choice, and accordingly her actions, and the ensuing events from her actions. “Agent causation need not be construed as an alternative to event causation; we may think of it as a subspecies of event causation” (Chrisholm, pg. 100). Roderick Chisholm’s insight is just what I am attempting to explain here.
Event causation and agent causation are not mutually exclusive. I cannot think of a single reason why one excludes the other, nor have I read of anyone arguing that be the case. Opponents of agent causation argue that they don’t see how it reduces the mystery of free actions, actions individuals seemingly choose. Galen Strawson says, It may now be suggested that the reason we are truly self-determining free agents is simply that the process of deliberation (however perfunctory or in-explicit) that leads us to make whatever choice we do finally make is truly our deliberation, our doing, ours in such a way that we are truly responsible for whatever we do as a result of it. This is, of course, an attractive idea. (pg. 22–3)
The role agent causation plays in action theory is setting in motion the actions that support the choices of the decision making process. Sarah just is the agent cause of her choice to quickly replace the flat tire with the spare. She is the agent cause of every detail of her actions in support of her choice: her speed in taking off the lug nuts, the way she moves the spare from the trunk to the side of the car, and her demeanor in so doing. She is the self-determining agent cause of her choices and actions, but that she makes some decision, any decision, is not in her power to avoid.
Agent causation, however, is not problem-free. Not everyone accepts as truth what has been sad thus far. Richard Norman says, “A want is, almost by definition, something that impels one to action, makes one bound to act” (pg. 78). But is this true? Do wants really impel one towards actions? One might have a want yet suppress any actions towards obtaining the object of want. Maybe it is Norman’s position that the suppression of a want is an action. However, the point is explanations for actions are historically controversial. Some believe actions can only be explained by causes, others by reasons, others by appeal to a model of causal necessity, and still others by appeal to a model of causal contingency. There seems to be as many theories about how an action comes about, how an action is explained, as there are philosophers making the queries.
I suggest that actions can best be understood by an appeal to reasons for voluntary, free actions. When an agent is said to be the cause of his actions then an appeal to reasons satisfies both why he did what he did, and how it is that he is able to do what he does. Just as event and agent causation are not mutually exclusive, reasons and causes, too, are not mutually exclusive. Timothy O’Connor says, “The sole account of reasons explanation that is, in the end, compatible with free and responsible agency is the agency theory” (pg. 89). An appeal to agent causation answers both why and agent did what he did, namely because he wanted X more than any of his other wants, and how he did what he did, namely because his actions begin with basic actions.
Basic actions are those actions an agent is able to perform without doing anything prior to the action itself. If I choose to lift my finger from the table I can give no explanations as to how I am able to lift my finger, it is a basic action, and those with a normal repertoire of basic actions can offer no further explanation of how it is they are able to move their finger to those who have a negative repertoire of basic actions, or in this case, lack the ability to move one’s finger. Arthur Danto says, “One can do with effort only what one can do effortlessly” (pg. 323). The truthfulness of Danto’s claim can be made evident by use of the simple example of carrying a box. One can only carry a box, and action that requires effort, only if the individual is able to lift his arms, basic actions that are “effortless.”
Basic actions have a critical role in action theory. They bridge the gap between what an agent chooses to do and how he is able to do what he chooses. Basic actions are included in the “ex post facto rationales of overt behavior,” or reason an agent does what he does. (Schoedinger, pg. 97) O’Connor supports the role of agent causation in action theory. He makes an appeal to reasons for why an agent acts. “An explanation of why an agent-caused event occurred will include, among other things, an account of the reasons on which the agent acted” (O’Connor, pg. 75).
Agent causation is precisely the deliberation process and the choices and ensuing actions that the agent is able to affect by use of his grand reasoning abilities. An appeal to agent causation is liberating. One is able to understand their role in the ever-present event causations that determine they make decisions about their actions. But to suppose that choices are truly undetermined, that is, the agent is incapable of affecting which direction a current-pulse goes in the neural pathways of a decision making process, is a significant blow to free will and actions.
Rational agents are able to decide what it is they want most, and how it is they will satisfy their wants. Van Inwagen admits we have choices about the outcome of our deliberations, but he doesn’t see how agent causation helps to explain how we arrive at our choices. By understanding the nature of wants, that an individual always attempts to do or get what he wants, and when faced with a multiplicity of competing wants he always does what he wants most, always, then an appeal to agent causation becomes clearer. The significance of agent causation is that the future of the individual is in his own hands, he is solely responsible for his actions. “Rational choice involves a belief that the course of action to be taken is the best one, all things considered, it doesn’t follow that the agent-causationist model is mistaken” (O’Connor, pg.89). Admittedly some of our actions are not the best course we could have taken, but at the time of our actions they were what we wanted to do most, as irrational as some of our actions might seem.
Agent causation is not a mystery, it is a process, the process of deciding what we want most and how we are going to satisfy that want. “A person’s voluntary action is only caused by the person” (Thalberg, pg. 17). It is a process that the individual owns, he is in control of the decision making process, the choices that are the product of deliberations, and the actions that support his choices. This does not imply a simple process; rather, our reasons for acting in such-n-such ways are very complex. I suggest that just as basic actions are not reducible, agent causation is not reducible in action theory. “Within the terms of an agency theory of action, one cannot reduce the notion of agent causality to other, more basic notions” (O’Connor, pg. 54). When prompted by a need an agent must make a decision, the outcome of which the agent causes. Agent causation is the part of our free will of actions that makes us all the authors of our own lives.