Monday, November 22, 2010

Agent and substance causation

Some people think that events are never causes, except in a derivative sense.  It is substances that are causes (and when one or more substances are cause because they stands in some relations, then their standing these relations is an event, and we can derivatively count it as a cause).  It seems very natural for someone who takes a substance-theory of causation to take an agent-causal theory of action.  Doing so does not carry the cost that agent-causal theories of action normally carry, namely the cost of supposing two kinds of causation.  So a substance-theory of causation would seem to be a great match for an agent-causal theory of action.

However, I think that the substance-causal theorist may lose one of the benefits of agent-causal theories of action.  The traditional agent-causal theorist can make a neat distinction between my voluntarily doing something and my "doing" something in the non-agential way in which I depress the grass when I lie on it or circulate the blood throughout my body.  The non-voluntary "doing" is a matter of event-causation, while the the voluntary doing is a matter of agent-causation.  But on the substance-causal view, both the non-voluntary and the voluntary cases are instances of substance-causation, with one and the same cause--namely me.  Granted, the substance-causal theorist can distinguish the voluntary doings from the non-voluntary "doings" by saying that reasons enter in a certain way into the explanation of the former but not into the explanation of the latter, but this is exactly the sort of thing the event-causalist would say--an advantage of agent-causation has been lost.

This isn't really an argument for or against any theory.  The loss in this regard is balanced by a greater overall theoretical simplicity in having only one kind of causation.


enigMan said...

I don't know much about theories of causation, but I'm a psychological dualist, so I'm hoping you could say a bit more about why the agent-causal theorist would say that non-voluntary doings were event-causal. I'd say that my body causes the grass to squish, which sounds substance-causal to me. And I'd say that my brain substance-caused my body to do that. And presumably my spirit did something substantial to my brain since my motion was voluntary. So all that seems substance-causal to me. And generally, unintended consequences seem to be caused just like intended ones. Even if my view of my arm is of a pink cylinder, I lift all the hairs on my arm as I lift my arm.

Jonathan D. Jacobs said...

There are two ways you can have non-volutnary doings:

First, you can have non-voluntary doings in virtue of your parts doing things. As those are substances, their doings are instances of substance causation. You don't depress the grass when you lie on it; you're parts do. The story here would have to be suitably complex, of course. One will need to be able to speak of joint action, i.e., multiple substances being co-causes of an event. And you would have to deny traditional Thomism, according to which substances have no substantial parts.

Second, you can also have non-voluntary doing in virtue of having non-conscious doing.

Anonymous said...

I don't what would count as an agent-causal theory of action, so I'm wondering if in these theories there is a role for Anscombe-ish intention? Or if there is room to tell a story about what I take to be my reasons when I lie on the grass? Because as long as I take depressing the grass to be a reason for me then I would assume it's voluntary. So I'm just wondering, is there a place for reasons if you do the substance/agent theory of causation?

Alexander R Pruss said...


When I depress the grass with my weight, it seems that I do so as a whole, rather than my parts doing so. I suppose you could say that the parts do it collectively. And, yeah, I don't want my parts to count as substance.

I don't know that all voluntary actions are conscious.

Jonathan D. Jacobs said...

If I as a whole depress the grass, then my parts don't do it collectively. I'll take the modus tollens on that one.

If I have no substantial parts, then my substantial parts do nothing. Again, I'll take the modus tollens.

But I see the problem if you take the ponens route.

And my claim didn't require that all voluntary actions are conscious, only that some non-conscious actions are non-voluntary.

Alexander R Pruss said...

How about this one? When I see you, I see you, and not just your parts (though I also see some of your parts, if there are proper parts). But it is a part of the concept of seeing that if x sees y, then y is a part of the causal explanation of x's perceptual state. Hence, if I see you, you cause me to see you.

enigMan said...

It's still substance-causal though. You don't see my soul. You could see me when I was asleep, or dead. In a sense it's me, in another sense it's not.

Jonathan D. Jacobs said...

That's a good case, Alex. Here are some initial thoughts.

All that is required here, for any such example, is that either it's a case of my parts collectively doing something, or it's a case of my non-consciously doing something. (Or it's not a case of a non-voluntary doing.)

Certainly in some cases you see my in virtue of seeing my parts (if there are substantial parts). And certainly in some cases you see me in virtue of a voluntary doing of mine.

So is there a case where you see me, not in virtue of seeing my parts, and not in virtue of some voluntary doing on my part? Maybe. I'm not sure.

Suppose so. I don't think we'd be able to get a grip on whether such a case is a problem for the view unless we were already clear on the ontology of persons and the ontology of perception.