Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Agent causation

I have long identified as having an agent-causal theory of free will. But I have just realized that my Aristotelian take on agent causation is far enough from the most common agent-causal theories—those of Clare and O’Connor—that it may be misleading to talk of myself as accepting an agent-causal theory of free will.

Standard agent-causal theories distinguish between agent causation and event causation as two distinct and real things in the world. For instance, they hold that I agent cause my writing of this post but there is an event causal relation between my being in this armchair and the cushion being squished. Agent causation has the agent as the cause and event causation has an event as the cause. But I think in both cases the cause is the same: it is a substance, namely myself. I cause the writing of this post and I cause the cushion to be squashed. On the standard view on which agent causation is distinguished solely by the fact that the cause is the agent, both are cases of agent causation. But that would be misleading to say.

So, if we take seriously the Aristotelian account of causation as substance causation, we shouldn’t distinguish agent causation from other kinds of causation by whether the cause is an agent or something else. But we can still make the distinction. My writing this post is an actualization of a power of my will (or my practical rationality, if you prefer). My squashing the cushion is an actualization of the power of my weight. Agent causation is distinguished from other kinds of causation not by what does the causing, but how it does the causing. In agent causation, the substance causes by actualizing its will (and any substance with a will is an agent). In other kinds of causation, the substance causes by actualizing a different power.

So, I think the fundamental relation underlying causation is actually at least ternary: agent X causes event E by actualizing power P.

This neatly integrates agent causation with reasons causation. There are more and less proximate powers. I now have a nearly proximate power to speak Polish (some motivation might be needed to make it proximate). When I was an infant, I had a remote power to speak Polish, by having a nearly proximate power to learn Polish. When the power P in the causal relation is specified as the maximally proximate power, in the agential case, it is a maximally proximate power of the will. And a maximally proximate powers of the will are tied to reasons: it is only by having a reason to do something that I am able to will it (one wills under the guise of the good). So, my reasons for action supervene on the maximally proximate power for action. Thus, the ternary description of agent causation neatly includes the reasons.


Peter said...

O’Connor and Jacobs have a chapter called “Agent Causation in a Neo-Aristotelian Metaphysics” in Mental Causation and Ontology (ed. S. C. Gibb, E. J. Lowe, and R. D. Ingthorsson) that explores and briefly refines (but falls short of endorsing) this sort of view. I was always inclined to accept this sort of unified view of causality. (They do not distinguish two types of substance causation by pointing to the will, but instead claim “What is distinctive about agent causation among other varieties of substance causation on this view is merely that the cause is conscious, intentional, and freely chooses the ends for which it will act. As we see it, each of these distinctive sorts of capacity is ontologically fundamental.”) In any case, I always thought this alternative view was preferable to the one O’Connor develops elsewhere.

One question about your own view. You write; “So, I think the fundamental relation underlying causation is actually at least ternary: agent X causes event E by actualizing power P.” I am curious about the relationship between the causation and the actualization. Does the actualization of the power constitute the agent’s causing something, or do you think of this as a process with something prior and something posterior (perhaps the actualization of the power is somehow prior to the agent’s causing the event)?

Alexander R Pruss said...

I think the actualizing is the causing.