Monday, December 04, 2017

Berent Enç on free will

I have something to put right, for I made a mistake. Yes, such things happen sometimes, and probably I make even more mistakes than I realize. Anyway, it’s a mistake I discovered myself. In my last blog I wrote that Berent Enç ignores the problem of the free will. It’s not true. He does give it some attention, though not much. The reason why I didn’t see it is that I wrote the blog with the help of old notes and I didn’t check them in Enç’s book. Usually I check what I write as much as I can. But who doesn’t trust his own notes? I did, and immediately I was punished. It was not Enç who ignored the problem of the free will, but it was I who did ... in these notes. But at the time I wrote them, I wasn’t yet interested in it.
Although Enç uses the words “free will” here and there, actually he speaks of “voluntary acts”. Voluntary acts, so Enç, are “movements ... caused by intentions [and] ... under the agent’s control.” (p. 221) So they are based on the idea that we act in view of our intentions. Now it is so that intentional acting need not imply voluntarily acting. A man has had four drinks at a bar intentionally. Then we can say that it was his free will to take a fifth drink only, if he was not too drunk to take a deliberative decision that he wanted to have this fifth one, too. Or, as Enç puts it, “he must have gone through a deliberation in which he considered the pros and cons of downing that fifth drink or walking out.” (221) If he was too drunk for a deliberation, “then I am committed to saying that he did not form the intention to have that fifth drink.” (221) How is this possible “in the causal network that defines the deliberation process”?, Enç asks (221). There, almost at the end of his book, he doesn’t give the answer but he confines himself to saying that the answer must be found “in a compatibilist account of voluntary acts, of autonomy, or of acts done of one’s own free will” (221), and he discusses only briefly some authors he agrees with. Discussing an essay by Stampe and Gibson, Enç refers to an example of theirs of a compulsive hand-washer who decides to wash his hands because he just has handled fish. “Rational as [the hand-washer’s] action may be in the actual situation,” so Enç, “his will may not be free if he is so constituted that he would be washing his hands even at the expense of missing a vitally important phone call. So a necessary condition for acting of one’s free will is that the agent’s decision be rational in the actual and relevantly counterfactual situations.” (222) At the risk of again saying something about Enç that is not entirely correct, I must bypass here the remaining of Enç’s short but preliminary discussion of the idea of the free will in relation to his causal theory of action. But the essence is that – and then I quote him again – “for an act to be voluntary [so free], it is necessary, but not sufficient, that it be the causal consequence of an intention that has been formed as the result of a deliberative process. An additional necessary condition would be that the deliberation involve beliefs and desires that dispose the agent to act rationally.” (227) The latter means that the action must not only be rational under the actual circumstances but also be flexible enough to adapt it to changing situations. And, I would like to add, once this free deliberation process has been finished at the macro-level, it can set to start the micro-units that execute the relevant behaviour. Seen that way, my view last week of what might be the importance of Enç’s causal theory of action for the idea of the free will is actually not too different from what Enç himself thought of it, if it is different at all.

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

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