Monday, November 27, 2017

Berent Enç and free will

One of the most interesting philosophical discussions today is the free will debate. When I was rethinking the free will problem again, Berent Enç’s book How we act came to my mind. Although it is in the field of action theory, it contains insights that might help to solve it. So, a good reason to present here a few of its main points.

Enç sees his book as a naturalistic approach to action. However, he explicitly wants to show that there is room for agency in a world of causally connected events. It is here, I think, that the idea of a free will has a place. Enç makes a distinction between what one does deliberatively and what one does automatically. In order to substantiate this, he discusses examples from biology. For instance, a cricket has a built in mechanism for singing. If the weather conditions, the time of the day etc. are correct, its brain cells fire and the cricket sings. But this mechanism will also cause it to sing, when stimulated in the appropriate way by a researcher. Of course, automatic behaviour needs not be innate. It can also be learned, like the behaviour of a pigeon that has been reinforced to peck a key when a light flashes in a Skinnerian paradigm. Likewise a human agent either can do something automatically because she has been born to behave that way, or she can learn to do something automatically, e.g. tying her shoelaces: As a child the agent had to learn it and each time she initially tied her shoelaces, she had to think about the right movements; as an adult, the agent simply does, probably without even being able to tell any longer what she exactly does. However, an agent does not tie the shoelaces involuntarily, like when she sneezes, but she has a reason for it. By arguing this way, Enç substantiates that an agent has macro-units of behaviour controlled by higher centres that determine the reasons why the agent does what she does and micro-units of innate or learned behaviour that are subsystems that control the limb trajectories. The macro-units determine the agent’s purposes, beliefs, desires and intentions, and what the agent thinks on the macro-level triggers the behaviour of the micro-units that produce the specific limb movements needed to fulfil the agent’s specific goals. It’s here that deliberation plays a part. Essential in rational action is that deliberation involves weighing the pros and cons of what the agent might do. However, for Enç deliberation is not a process that finally is independent of the world around the agent. It is to be explained by reference only to events, states, and the causal relations among them in the world around the person and by the way they are represented within the person. Once the process of deliberation has been finished it will set to start the actual behaviour, which, at least for a part on a basic level, will be executed automatically without further thinking.
Enç has embedded his analysis in a discussion of current problems of action theory. For example he discusses the question whether it is possible to take volitions as a starting point of action. But how is it then possible to avoid an infinite regress: For what determines the volitions and what determines this and so on? Enç accepts the idea of basic action, but if so, what is then a basic action, he asks. These are problems that Enç discusses, and for which he tries to find an intelligent solution in developing a complicated causal model of deliberation. It is not, as he shows, that the deliberation-action process is simply unidirectional, going from events in the world to representations of these events in the agent to deliberation to the triggering of a preferred kind of behaviour to fulfilment of the purpose. There is ample room in the model for feedback loops. Moreover, at each level the agent can choose what to do, according to her preferences, beliefs, desires, action possibilities and intentions, depending on the circumstances in which the action takes place. Once the decision has been taken and the final intention has been determined, it is the intention that triggers the agent’s basic acts at the right time, and that guides the agent in the execution of the action chosen.
Enç’s book is an important contribution to the naturalistic approach, but it has also much value for the interpretive approach and with that for the idea that there is a free will (which Enç ignores, however). An interpretive approach does not explain what people do by analyzing objective causes, as the naturalistic approach does, but understands the subjective meanings that the acting people themselves give to their actions. Enç analysis potentially brings the two approaches closer together.
This becomes clear, when one looks at the action theory of Alfred Schütz, one of the founders of the interpretive approach. Schütz sees behaviour as a more or less automatic thoughtless activity, while action is performed according to a plan. Naturalists explain what an agent does in terms of the way it is determined by her beliefs and desires in an objective causal way. Interpretationists, however, emphasize that an agent’s reasons are subjective interpretations that make certain actions the thing to do. Enç’s analysis makes is possible to put these approaches together. When analyzing what naturalists do, one can say that they have in mind a Schützean notion of behaviour. In terms of Enç, it is the behaviour done by the micro-units. Beliefs, desires, reasons and intentions are then formulated as ways of explaining what the agent does on the level of the micro-units that execute the actual behaviour. On the other hand, interpretationists see action as a way of thinking what to do according to a Schützean action plan. In terms of Enç, this is the process of deliberation executed by the macro-units of behaviour. Seen in the light of Enç’s causal deliberation model, naturalism and the interpretive approach are partial approaches to the problem of how to explain what an agent does. With the help of Enç’s model these approaches can be integrated. It is in this integration that there is room for a free will, not as an epiphenomenon of the bodily process but as an autonomous phenomenon.

Enç, B. (2003). How We Act: Causes, Reasons, and Intentions. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

This blog is an abbreviated and adapted version of my review of Enç’s book in Philosophical Psychology, 2005/6: 797-800.

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