Monday, February 13, 2012

Free will as a structuring cause of our actions


The definitions and examples of causation in my last blog were an arbitrary selection just for showing that one has to define what cause means in order to be able to answer the question whether there is a free will. Although the selection was not systematic, I think that it makes sense to have a closer look at the chosen instances.
Hempel defined cause as the relevant set of circumstances and events of the phenomenon to be explained. This definition is generally used in the natural sciences. In our case of the free will, we have an action (the phenomenon to be explained), which has to be an effect of one or more natural laws (according to Hempel’s theory) and a relevant set of circumstances and events. The place of the free will will be then among the latter. However, also the free will is a phenomenon to be explained. In a Hempelian approach we have to show then that the free will (= a supposedly free decision) follows from one or more general laws and a set of relevant circumstances and events. In this approach the free will debate must evolve around the question whether there are such laws and if so what the relevant circumstances are that lead to the allegedly free decision. Without further argumentation, I guess it’s not the right approach.
Let me take now the three concrete cases in my last blog. I presented them in order to show that the answer to the question “what causes what?” is often a matter of perspective and, as in the cases presented, often also a matter of social rules. In one case a dog caused an accident because it suddenly crossed the street. However, in the other case it is not the woman crossing the street who caused the accident but the motorist. The difference is in the rule that says that motorists need not to give priority to street crossing dogs but has to do so to people crossing the street on pedestrian crossings. The last instance (the ship that runs onto a rock) is even more complicated since it presents a mixture of social rules (a ship has to follow the prescribed safe channel) and natural facts (unexpected obstacles) and both together (sea maps are supposed to be correct). The upshot to be drawn from these cases is that it is not only important to employ an appropriate definition of “cause”, but also to say what “free will” actually means. Moreover, it is possible that a free will exists from one viewpoint and doesn’t from another one. Or maybe it is so that the free will is not a one-dimensional phenomenon.
How about the idea that a cause is the phenomenon that tipped the balance to produce a certain effect? This type of cause is the same as what Dretske called the triggering cause. In fact, it needs a structuring cause as a background in order to be effective. I think that this combination of triggering cause and structuring cause – so Dretske’s approach – is the best option for explaining what it means to say that we have a free will and for explaining how it works (probably in combination with the idea that the free will is a multidimensional or multifacetal phenomenon). This is so because the combination of triggering and structuring cause fits best the way the human body works. In this blog I can substantiate my point only with an example. I am skating on a lake and the ice is good. It allows me to make perfect gliding strikes: to the left, to the right, and so on. Is it my free will that I make perfect strikes? Yes and no. I have learned how to skate and I know how to make perfect gliding strikes and I can show them to you. But when I am skating there, I look at the landscape, enjoy the skating and give no attention to my strikes. It’s an automatism. But, as said, it’s a learned automatism. It was my free will to learn ice-skating well and to learn to make perfect gliding strikes. Then one can say that by learning to skate I structured my body that way that I can make perfect strikes, on purpose and automatically. It is my free will to skate there on the lake and to make there perfect gliding strikes, if possible. My free will functions sometimes as a structuring cause of my skating perfectly and sometimes as a triggering cause of it, and sometimes it’s a mixture of both. This is just an example, but I guess that if we want to solve the free will problem, we must not only look for a free will that somehow tips the balance of what we do, but we have to realize also that the free will can be and often is something that intentionally structured our body that way that at the right moment the body acts automatically and unconsciously as if we didn’t have such a will.

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