Thursday, June 11, 2015

Causation in the right way and actualization of causal powers

Consider William James' murderous mountaineer. His buddy is hanging on a rope that our antihero is holding, and our antihero decides to murder him by letting go. The thought of what he's about to do makes him so nervous that his hands start shaking and let go of the rope. The intention, and by extension the reasons behind the intention, caused the murderous mountaineer to let go, just as he intended to. But although the reasons and the intention cause the letting go, he didn't intentionally let go and his letting go wasn't done for a reason, though it was because of a reason.

This is a famous example where we need the idea of "causation in the right way". Not every intention that causes an action according with intention causes it in the right way, in the way that makes the action intentional. The problem of having to add a "non-aberrancy" or "in the right way" condition plagues a lot of philosophy. A usual thought about such cases is that there is a messy story, beyond our ability to specify all the details. Perhaps that story includes various messy exceptions for various kinds of accidentality, or perhaps it has fairly onerous conditions on the details of the causal chain.

But what if in some--it's too much to hope that in all--cases instead of a long and messy story, we just have a bit of irreducible (or relatively so?) metaphysics. It's just a metaphysical feature of some instances of causation that they are intrinsically non-aberrant.

How could that be? Think of a causal power for an effect as something that can be actualized partially or completely. When a causal power is actualized completely, that causal power automatically causes its actualization, and everything constitutive of that actualization, in the right way. When it fails to actualize completely, it falls short of causing in the right way, though perhaps we can say something more (here's one place serious work would need to be done) about the degree of aberrancy in its partial causes.

It's a medieval dictum that causes contain their effects. But that needs qualification. Causes in a sense contain their proper effects. They contain those proper effects as telĂȘ, and then some aspect of the effect--perhaps with cooperation or thwarting from other causes--just is an actualization of the cause with that telos. When all goes well, the whole of the teleologically specified effect is an actualization of the cause, but in aberrant cases, very little is. For instance, in the case of the murderous mountaineer, thinking about how to drop the buddy is an actualization of the intention, but the dropping of the rope is not. There is no further messy reductive story. The one event just is an actualization of the causal power and the other just is not.

But there is something incredible about this story. Sam leaves money for her grandchildren invested wisely in some investments locked up for twenty years after her death. All goes according to plan: the investments rise in value and eventually enrich her grandchildren. But how could the enriching of her grandchildren twenty years after her death somehow have as an irreducible feature its being the actualization of her intention? (Quick thought: It'd be very hard to get a presentist story about this. But presentism is false.) By the time the enrichment happens, her intention is long past. (Does it matter that it's long past? Probably not, but the story is more vivid then.)

There are, I think, three things I can say about the incredulity objection. First, I could bite the bullet. Her intention in some sense lives on in the effects. Yes, these intended effects in the future really just are actualizations of her intention. That's just a metaphysical feature of them. This isn't all that crazy if one believes in the essentiality of origins. For if one believes in the essentiality of origins, then the enrichment's having this cause is an essential feature of the enrichment. Somehow this makes it less surprising if in fact the enrichment is an actualization (or part of the actualization) of the intention. We could even think that the very being of an effect is its having-been-caused.

Second, we could say that when x causes y in the right way, then being-an-actualization-of-x is an intrinsic feature of y, a feature that is causally involved in everything y does, and so when y causes z in the right way, z has the intrinsic feature of being-an-actualization-of-y, and we can go back down the chain to x. Perhaps this is what Aquinas means by per se ordered causal series.

Third, I could go the road of caution. I could say that this metaphysical "actualized by x" feature only is found in immediate effects. Thus, we would in the first instance only have a story about causation-in-the-right way for immediate effects. And then we would use this feature to help construct messier account of causation in the right way for remote effects.

All of this, though, requires a fairly non-reductive metaphysics of human beings.


Ryan Thomas-Martin Miller, O.P. said...

What do we need this story for? It doesn't seem like it's necessary for Aquinas' account of moral action and responsibility: the mountaineer and the grandmother both conceive an end, choose a means, and consent to the action relating the means and end. The moral act, as Rhonheimer repeatedly insists (but Jensen et al concede, even if quibbling with the details) is fundamentally first-person. When we judge another's acts, we're doing so by looking for evidence indicative of the first-person account (in legal terms, mens rea), not by constructing a third-person account.

Or is this just a question of the metaphysics of rational causes? If so, then it doesn't seem like we need any kind of abbreviated account: the original story as told seems causally complete.

Alexander R Pruss said...

We would like to have two stories: a subjective one for culpability, but also an objective one to tell which events in the world one is responsible for. The latter is important, though not for assigning blame. We all want to achieve things: external things.
Also, the issue comes up in other contexts, e.g., perception. To see a table requires a causal relationship between me, my eyes and the table. But not just any causal relationship. One of the right sort.

Ryan Thomas-Martin Miller, O.P. said...

It doesn't seem like 'wanting to achieve things, external things' requires an analysis of 'intention fulfillment' or something like that, which would in turn require responding to the mountain climber Gettier-case-for-action-fulfillment. With knowledge, we're worried about skepticism, so we want to know-that-we-know, but with action, intention never comes about more than for-the-most-part. If a certain action-as-conceived leads for the most part to the end desired, or is expected to do so, then I will consent to it. A would-be-murderous-mountaineer would be given no pause in imitating the murderous mountaineer because of the oddity. The only time I need to worry about post-hoc-analysis of particular cases is for culpability.

Alexander R Pruss said...

One of the human goods is accomplishment. And the Gettier stuff matters for accomplishment.

If I put dinner in the microwave, I press the start button, I go away, five seconds later the microwave breaks down, my kids take the food to the neighbor and cook it with her microwave, they bring it back and they put it in our broken microwave, so it looks to me like our microwave succeeded in cooking it, dinner is no longer an accomplishment of mine. It's my kids' accomplishment instead. I may deserve praise for my intention, but I don't get the human good of accomplishment.

Or suppose it is one of my life goals to have an article by me convince Dawkins of theism. I write an article and the arguments in it are really poor, so poor that they'd never convince Dawkins. But the publisher's pet monkeys start typing on the computer and by chance they rewrite enough of the article that there is now a really good argument there, and Dawkins is convinced. It's great that Dawkins now believes in God. But it's not an accomplishment of mine. I do not get the human good of accomplishment.

You might think that this accomplishment stuff isn't very important. After all, in both of these cases I still deserve praise, and the mountaineer deserves blame. But beyond the basic human good of accomplishment, it matters a lot for understanding intention. For when I intend an action, I intend to accomplish something. And so an understanding of accomplishment is needed for an understanding of intention, I suspect. (In particular, see this paper.)

Ryan Thomas-Martin Miller, O.P. said...

So at least on the Rhonheimer and Jensen Thomist story, the ends of action are just those ends actually conceived. So whether you accomplish anything in the dinner case is dependent on whether you (actually) conceived your action as 'warming the food in the microwave' or just 'making dinner.' In the Dawkins case, it seems like the article is not meaningfully 'by you' after the monkeys' intervention, and so there's no accomplishment of the intention. Of course, this approach doesn't guarantee well-formed or time-consistent intentions, and so we could be in doubt about whether some particular end was accomplished--but this is of course a problem for mere prediction markets, too, and doesn't bring in causality or any 'right way' of causality.

I guess I'm leery of letting causal stories in unnecessarily because first, there's so much unsolved and or disputed ground in the causality literature, and second because even in the non-Gettiered cases, it's not clear what the right standard is. I mean, what if instead of monkeys, it was an extremely helpful comment by a reviewer on a revise & resubmit? Now there's nothing Gettiered about the case, but it's still murky whether I've accomplished my goal by causing 'in the right way.' So what did the causal element add? Now if human action wasn't a cause for the most part, it would become murky why I should act at all, but as long as that criterion is satisfied, I don't know what the Gettier-cases take away.