Prolegomena for a Pluralist Metaphysics: Actions, Reasons, Causes … and Ends
by Daniel A. Kaufman
I’ve been saying that I’d like a return to philosophical “normalcy,” meaning that I’d like us to stop indulging what I’ve been calling, alternatively, “crazy” and “desperate” philosophical positions: Panpsychism; Hard Determinism; Eliminative Materialism and “Illusionism”; Platonism; Mind/Body Dualism; and so on.
I’m running an ongoing series of conversations with Crispin Sartwell alongside these prolegomena, the first one of which just posted. Crispin holds a number of the positions I’m calling “crazy” and “desperate” – he seems to be a hard determinist, for one thing – and asked me for further clarification with regard to these labels, beyond what I’ve said already, in the first three installments.
Clearly the terms are prejudicial, as are the views I am expressing in these prolegomena. This is true of all philosophy – is there anyone still who seriously thinks philosophical accounts are not expressions of the philosopher’s temperament, preconceptions, and scruples to one degree or other? – though it is not always put so bluntly. (I am reminded of William F. Buckley, Jr.’s characterization of overly polite religious disputes by way of an imaginary conversation that went, “Hi, my ridiculous superstition is Christianity. What’s yours?”) These are views that I want very much to avoid and which I think are terrible for philosophy. But, if someone is inclined towards them, my critique is unlikely to be compelling. I am under the strong impression, however – not least because of what the purveyors of these views say in their own articles and books – that many feel themselves forced into these positions, and part of the purpose of these prolegomena is to show why that’s not the case.
That said, I also think that there are good non-personal reasons for steering clear of these positions and positions like them. For one thing, they are controversial to a degree and in a way that renders them unlikely ever to be resolved, and though I’ve suggested on several occasions that philosophy suffers from widespread indeterminacy generally, I see no reason to increase it. For another, a substantial majority of them represent a significant affront to common sense and ordinary ways of thinking, speaking, and acting. Now, some may want to argue that common sense and ordinary ways of speaking can be wrong, which is of course true, but as I said to Crispin in our conversation, I don’t see how it can be true “all the way down.” Unlike natural science, whose conditions of adequacy lie in making accurate predictions, the only possible conditions of adequacy for a philosophical theory lie in common intuitions and ordinary language. Otherwise, as Stanley Rosen put it in his essential “Metaphysics in Ordinary Language,” there would be no way of distinguishing ordinary from extraordinary speech and philosophy would devolve into a kind of poetry. And saying that they play this role – that they serve as conditions of adequacy – doesn’t turn common sense and ordinary language into axioms or epistemic foundations or anything of the sort. Nor does it imply that they are necessary, infallible or any other such thing.
I have indicated a number of assumptions – many of them venerable and widely held – that push us towards the “desperate” and “crazy” views on which I’ve been focusing, and I’ve already discussed one of them, namely the hypostatic conception of ontological commitment. In this installment, I want to discuss another – and probably the second most important – and that is the idea that reasons are causes. More specifically, that when we say something like, “John went to the mall, because he wanted to meet girls and believed he would find girls at the mall,” we are using ‘because’ in the same way we do when saying things like, “the 8-ball went into the corner pocket, because it was struck by the cue ball.”
The idea, then, is that our reasons for acting should be taken straightforwardly as causes of those actions, in the same way that antecedent events may serve as causes of subsequent events, in what I’ll broadly refer to as “mechanics.” Of course, this depends on the further identification of actions with events, and it is this identification when combined with the view that reasons are causes that gives us all of the problems that we refer to under the umbrella of “free will.” These, then, lead us directly to “crazy” and “desperate” philosophical positions that are supposed to solve that problem, whether Radical Libertarianism (we are uncaused); Hard Determinism (we have no agency); and so on, with all the problems to which they subsequently give rise, especially in the area of ethics.
Now, those who are familiar with my work know that I think that (a) actions are not identical with events, (b) reasons are not causes, and (c) that we have agency. What I want to do here is develop these ideas in greater depth.
It would seem clear that actions are not merely events, and specifically that that they cannot be identical with bodily movements. After all, the very same bodily movements may constitute entirely different actions, depending on both the intentions of the actor and the context in which the bodily movements occur, against a backdrop of certain common understandings within a community or larger society. If a student raises a hand in my wife’s high school English class, he is asking a question or making a request – usually to go to the bathroom – but if I am standing curbside in New York City and raise my hand in the face of the oncoming traffic, I am hailing a taxi. And if my arm shoots up in precisely the same manner, as the result of an errant muscle spasm, I haven’t done anything at all, in the relevant sense of ‘doing’.
Consider, after all that if, in the first case, my wife had called a taxi for the student, there is a clear sense in which she would have made a mistake. If, in the second case, someone had told me that I can go to the bathroom, he also would have made a mistake. And if, in the third, anyone had responded in either of these ways – or in any other like them – they would have made a mistake too. The first two mistakes involve misidentification as to which action I have performed, and the third mistake involves thinking that I’ve acted at all.
Actions consist of bodily movements, under interpretations that belong to a larger narrational structure whose logic is teleological, not mechanical. The student raises his arm in my wife’s class in order request permission to go to the bathroom, the doing of which he represents as a good. The same with raising my arm on the street corner in order to hail a taxi, the accomplishing of which I represent as a good (instrumental to the fulfilling of the desire to get to a specific place, the accomplishment of which is also represented as a good). And it’s because of these reasons and ends that these motor movements are interpretable as actions in the first place, as well as being interpretable as the specific actions that they are.
In seeking explanations of what someone has done, everything depends on what we are trying to understand. If I want to know how it is that people’s arms go up or their legs carry them onto and off of buses and in and out of malls, the relevant explanations are going to be neurophysiological and consequently, causal. But if I want to know why a boy got on the bus so that he might arrive at the mall, rather than, say, riding his bike down the street to a friend’s house, then the relevant explanations are going to lie in his reasons and will be teleological: he got on the bus to go to the mall, because he wanted to meet girls and because at that time he represented meeting girls as an overriding good. Had he represented hanging out with his friend as an overriding good, however, he would have gotten on his bike and ridden down the street instead.
Why do we want the second kind of explanation (or better, “account”)? Why are we interested in people’s actions and the reasons for them and not just in their motor movements and their causes? A prominent reason is that we want to render their actions intelligible from their point of view so that they – both the people and their actions – can be situated within a normative framework. If the boy had promised his friend that he would hang out with him, but stood him up and went to the mall instead, the friend would want to know his reasons so as to be in the position to render a normative judgment – “You promised we’d hang out, but then you stood me up to go meet girls in the mall? Not cool!” – the point being that meeting girls is not a sufficiently important good to override a promise to meet a friend. But if the boy had stood his friend up, not to go to the mall in order to meet girls, but because he had to rush to the hospital to see his mother, who had just been in a car wreck, his friend likely would have said, “Oh, man, I’m so sorry! I totally understand!” acknowledging, thereby, that visiting his mother in the emergency room was a more pressing good than keeping his promise to hang out.
In future installments, I will suggest, along with Sellars, that this narrational, teleological, normative frame and the forms of life that arise from it, is what defines and constitutes the distinctive world of persons. Persons; intentions; valuations; reasons; and actions. These are the elements that create the social, political, and moral worlds in which we operate. As Sellars wrote, in the very last paragraph of “Philosophy and the Scientific Image of Man”:
[T]he conceptual framework of persons is the framework in which we think of one another as sharing the community intentions which provide the ambience of principles and standards (above all, those which make meaningful discourse and rationality itself possible) within which we live our own individual lives.
These worlds and the people and forms of life that sustain them are not reducible to anything within the Scientific Image. They are not eliminable as unreal or as “illusions.” They are not “made of” and do not “consist in” weird, spooky, non-physical substances or processes. And they are part of the world. Indeed, for us, they are the most significant part of it; the part in which we spend the vast majority of our time and on which we expend the greatest amount of our energies which is why, as Sellars explained, “the conceptual framework of persons is not something that needs to be reconciled with the scientific image, but rather something to be joined to it.”
If we take the road I am suggesting, here, we will find ourselves spared everything to do with the wretched “free will” problem. Agency is simply the capacity to do things for various reasons that are related teleologically to the conception of various things as goods. That we have such agency and do such things, for such reasons, is demonstrable: any of us can point to any number of examples, on any given day. That there are causal forces operating on the motor movements involved has no impact whatsoever on this fact, as actions are not identical with motor movements, reasons are not causes, and reasons are related to actions teleologically rather than causally. The determinist’s position, then, involves basic category errors; the sorts that involve importing concepts, piecemeal, from the Scientific Image to the Manifest Image, something Sellars warns explicitly against. Motor movements are caused. Actions are interpreted and reasoned.
As I mentioned in my essay on the free will problem, the position for which I am advocating also makes quick, easy work of Frankfurt-style cases. Once we distinguish actions from mere motor movements and reasons from causes, it’s very easy to see that the voter in the Frankfurt case isn’t the one who voted – despite it being his arms, hands, and fingers that were involved – but rather the mad scientist. Voting, of course, is an action, and not merely an event. If I hypnotize a student to rob a bank, then despite the fact that the relevant motor movements were his, the action – i.e. the robbing – was done by me. (As the consequence of my reasons and my ends, the robbery is my action, regardless of by what material mechanisms by which it was effected.) And in the same vein, re: the Frankfurt case (from my essay on free will):
Had the counterfactual situation obtained, however, and the Mad Scientist’s failsafe gone off, it’s not as if he still would have voted, but against his will. Rather, though his hands and fingers would have engaged in various motor movements and certain buttons would have been depressed as a result (causal chain!), he would not have been the person who voted. Rather, the Mad Scientist would have voted, using the person’s body as a proxy. How do we know this? Well, for one thing, you could not interpret the person’s bodily movements in light of his reasons – could not comprehend the action from his point of view – as his intentions were to vote Republican. No, his bodily movements are only interpretable as reflecting the Mad Scientist’s reasons and are thus only intelligible as actions, from his point of view. And for another, if the whole sordid affair was discovered by the local authorities, the Mad Scientist would be indicted for fraudulent voting, which indicates that as far as the law is concerned, it was he who voted, not the brain-and-body hijacked person.
Now, Crispin is a hard determinist, and in our first conversation, he made the interesting suggestion that we do not act at all. Rather, we engage in entirely caused and determined motor movements, for which we then offer post-hoc reconstructions, in a teleological vein, largely for the purpose of self-ennoblement. His powerful example drew from his own personal experiences with addiction. I’m sure we will have further opportunity to discuss not just the example but the more general point in one of our future dialogues. But let me start us off, here, by saying the following: (1) I am entirely open to the suggestion that some of our actions may have turn out really to just been mere motor movements; that we might be mistaken in thinking we’ve acted and not just moved; (2) I doubt very seriously that one can plausibly argue that this is the majority or even a large plurality of cases; (3) the implications of such a hard determinism, especially in the moral sphere, risk saddling us with far greater and more numerous implausibiles than the idea that mundane observation that we do, in fact, genuinely act much of the time if not most of it; and finally (and somewhat cheaply), (4), even on Crispin’s account there still will be cases of genuine action, if only those involving the sorts of ennobling self-deceiving post-hoc reconstructions he wants to draw from.