, I discussed some issues concerning how we understand human action. I mentioned an underlying issue: the freedom of the will. In this essay, I shall face up to it.
According to Kant, we are hard-wired to believe that all events are causally determined. But since our actions are events, it seems to follow that they too must be causally determined. On the other hand, we are also hard-wired to believe in our freedom of choice: that we can think rationally whether to do A or B, and it is up to us whether we do A or B. If we are hard-wired to believe both in causality and also in our freedom from causality with respect to doing A or B, has something gone wrong with the wiring?
The problem of freedom and determinism is usually posed as the question: Is the will free? I shall later suggest that that formulation of the question is misleading. Nevertheless, it is of interest to look at traditional answers to the question in that form.
Hard-liners come down heavily on one side or the other, but usually on the side of determinism. This is particularly to be found in the assumptions of social scientists. Hard-line determinists are faced with the issue of moral responsibility. If our actions are not free but are determined by some kind of internal causality, how can we be held responsible for them?
The more common approach, in philosophy at least, is to attempt a reconciliation of the assumptions of universal causality and the freedom of the will. One such approach was developed by Hume and can be found in the writings of many contemporary philosophers. The solution has two parts: it re-interprets the nature of the causality which is said to determine human action, and it re-interprets the relevant sense of 'free' when we say that the will is free.
We are uneasy about causality, the argument goes, because we think of a cause as something external to ourselves pushing us around. But in fact the cause of our action, its sufficient condition, is our strongest desire to do either A or B. Thus, while I did A, I could just as easily have done B if I had sufficiently wanted to. Going along with this interpretation of causality, there is a corresponding interpretation of freedom. If something external coerces us to do A or B, then our freedom is compromised. But we act freely when we do what we really want to do.
As usual with Hume, we have a plausible solution. I certainly accepted a version of it for many years. But I now think that that solution has serious problems.
First, the solution states that at the moment of action I did A but could have done B if I had sufficiently wanted to. But at the moment of action I did not sufficiently want to do B so therefore I could not have done B. Freedom of choice requires not just 'I could have done B, if…', but rather 'I could have done B, full stop'; 'I could have if...' is slipping in a causal condition which removes my freedom.
For those readers who regard this as logic-chopping, let me add two further arguments. It seems that we can act against our strongest desire. We may desperately want to act in a certain way, but feel it a duty not to do so. A strong sense of duty can counteract a strong desire. Therefore, our strongest desire is not always what motivates us.
Determinists will reply that the fact that you did your duty must mean that your duty was what you most strongly desired to do. But that claim has the consequence of making the determinist position true by definition – the evidence that an action followed from your strongest desire becomes just the fact that you did it. What seemed to be psychological theory turned out to be just stipulation.
Another type of argument against the strongest desire interpretation of free choice is that desires are psychological phenomena and like all such they depend on the occurrence of brain events. But brains are lumps of stuff and as such will follow laws of causality. Thus, you can act as you most desire, but you cannot desire as you desire! In other words, your desires are causally determined by brain events and other factors involving bodily workings. All such factors combine to create the causality which you regard as your strongest desire. So we are back with determinism. Is there another way of looking at the issue? I'll try a very different approach.
As a start, let me restate what I take to be our hard-wiring, our common sense assumptions about ourselves in respect of our choices. First, we all assume that as adults we can think rationally about what we are going to do, whether A or B. Second, we feel that it is up to us whether in the end we do A or B.
There are many occasions when we act without thinking. And there are many other occasions when we are unaware that clever advertising or social media have caused us to act in a certain way. Not all our actions are free of causal determination. But there are clearly occasions when we deliberate about what to do, and then do A but not B .These assumptions together constitute what I shall mean by 'agency': when I act I believe that it was I, a person or human agent, who acted after due consideration. My new suggestion is that it is redundant to suppose some additional causally determined act of will.
I am suggesting that we drop the whole idea of a 'will', whether free or causality determined. Nothing, such as 'the will', needs to come between us and our actions. My fingers may cause the piano keys to depress, but it is I as an agent who plays the piano. The relationship between me and piano playing is not causal but one of agency. Things happen (that's causality) but as agents we originate actions (that's agency).
It may help with following my argument if we consider how the problem of determinism has arisen. I suggest that it has arisen because philosophers have interposed acts of will between us as agents and our actions. Acts of will were then construed as events requiring some sort of causality. The problem then became that of considering the kind of causality which could leave our belief in our freedom to act undamaged.
But in the context of action, the 'something' interposed between us and our actions is unnecessary and therefore questions of causality need not arise. To put it another way, the question: 'Why did you do that?' is not a causal question; it is asking for your reason for acting in that way.
Sometimes we find it natural to speak of an act of will. But an act of will is not an event which precedes the action as a cause; rather an act of will pervades the acting itself, perhaps in difficult circumstances. For example, my running for a bus involves breathless movements and therefore causality. But I do not 'will' that my legs run; rather my will, my determination to catch the bus, is expressed through my running.
It is often assumed in social science and other contexts that 'why' questions are all answerable in terms of various sorts of causality. Certainly, 'why' questions of one type are answerable along causal lines: 'What made you sick?' 'Drinking at a Number 10 party.' But 'why' questions of other types are not answerable in causal terms: 'Why are you going out?' 'To buy more booze.' That answer is in the mode of agency, involving concepts such as purpose and intention.
My central claim is that there is no gap requiring to be filled between us as agents and our thoughts, purposes and intentional actions. My thoughts, intentions and actions are the modes in which as a person, an agent, I express myself. I originate my actions. We don't need an 'act of will' to fill a gap between me and my actions because there is no gap. Wittgenstein sums up the position very neatly: 'When I perform an action I am in action'.
Robin Downie is Emeritus Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Glasgow