Thanks to the recent progress in neuroscience, the question whether man has a free will has become one of the most important philosophical topics. Also here in my blogs, I have talked about it. As so often, philosophers do not agree about the answer nor do they agree about what “free will” means. However, I think that the definition by the Belgian philosopher Jan Verplaetse gives a good description of what it is about, at least for this blog: “The free will is the capacity to decide freely what we do and why and how. With a free will you choose which action you do” (Verplaetse, Zonder vrije wil, 2011, p. 30; italics omitted). What is implicit in this definition – and in other definitions as well – is that the free will can make you something to happen: you can cause something. No wonder then that words like cause, causation and causality are central in the free will discussion. But what do we mean by cause? There is hardly any philosopher in this discussion who will tell you.
Here I do not want to say how we can best define “cause” in relation to the question of the free will. At the moment I have no idea which definition is to be preferred. But not defining “cause” is problematical, for different definitions may lead to different philosophical answers of the free will question. In this blog I want to show only what it means that “cause” can be defined in different ways. I simply give a few definitions and illustrations. I hope that it will be clear then to the reader what my point is.
– According to Carl Hempel, a scientific explanation consists of a set of universal laws of nature, a set of statements that describe a more or less complex relevant set of circumstances and events and a phenomenon that need to be explained. If the explanation is true, we can call the relevant set of circumstances and events the cause of the phenomenon to be explained, so Hempel. Note that the cause need not to be a single event or phenomenon but that it can be quite complex. (Hempel, Aspects of explanation…, 1965, pp. 348-9)
– Roy Bhaskar defines “cause”, following Scriven, as “that factor which, in the circumstances that actually prevailed … ‘tipped the balance of events as to produce the known outcome’ ”. Why did the tower fall down? Because of the gale (but actually it was already about to collapse). (Bhaskar, The possibility of naturalism, 1989, p. 83)
– Fred Dretske distinguishes between structuring causes and triggering causes. For instance, take a thermostat. When the temperature drops the thermostat turns the furnace on. Then we call the drop of temperature the triggering cause of turning the furnace on. The whole mechanism of the thermostat that is constructed that way that it can turn the furnace on is the structuring cause. (Dretske, Explaining Behavior, 1988).
– A dog crosses suddenly a street because it sees another dog at the other side. In order not to hit the dog, a motorist has to brake hard, goes into a skid and collides with another car. Then we say that the dog caused the accident (and the owner of the dog is responsible for the accident, because he did not hold the dog on the lead).
– A woman crosses a road on a pedestrian crossing. A motorist sees her too late and in order not to hit the woman, he has to brake hard, goes into a skid and collides with another car. Then we say that the motorist caused the accident (and he will be held responsible for it, too).
– A captain of a ship gives order to hug the shore for the pleasure of the passengers, outside the normal and safe course along the coast. The ship runs onto a rock and sinks. What was the cause of the accident? The captain? The steersman? The inaccurate sea map? The rock? … ?
These definitions and cases have been arbitrarily chosen. They are just illustrations of the problem. Nothing more than that. The instances make clear that we cannot simply say that there is or isn’t a free will that (sometimes) causes or makes what we do without saying what this causing or making means.