Monday, March 30, 2020

Causation through another's free will

Some people think that causal chains cannot go through other people’s exercises of free will. Thus, if I ask you to do something, and you freely do it, I am not the cause of the action. I think this is mistaken.

Start with this. Suppose I want to stamp out an irregular texture in a piece of aluminum foil. I put the aluminum foil on a soft backing on my CNC router’s bed, and I generate a program for the router by randomly choosing an angle, moving an inch in the direction indicated by the angle (stopping at the edges of the foil) pressing a wooden stick down into the foil, lifting it up, and repeating for a thousand presses. At the end, I will have an irregular texture in the foil. And, clearly, I caused the texture, despite there being randomness in the middle of the causal chain. Nor does it matter for the statement that I caused the irregular texture whether this is pseudorandomness or genuine quantum randomness.

Now, suppose that I replace the random number generator with code that robo-posts trolling comments on people's blogs, reads the responses, and generates random numbers from their hashes. Now, troll-feeders' free actions are an essential part of the causal chain leading to the irregular texture. But surely I have caused the irregular texture just as much as in the previous cases.


Michael Gonzalez said...

If I'm reading your scenario correctly, the problem is that random numbers from their hashes are still not reflecting that the person willed to create a texture. If a person freely does something with the intent to accomplish that thing, then they are culpable; not you. The difference of intent is (of course) extremely relevant, because I could instruct you to lift your arm up, and you could do so without realizing that you'll punch an elderly passerby in the face. The damage to the old lady is clearly my fault, not yours, because you did not intend it. But, if I tell you "punch that old lady in the face", and you freely choose to do so, then it's on you.

Michael Gonzalez said...

Note: I am NOT endorsing the mistaken idea that all free acts are preceded by individual "acts of will". That is clearly mistaken. But, I do think there is a clear difference between you telling me to do X and my freely obeying vs. you telling me to do Y (which you know accomplishes X, but I don't) and my freely obeying.