Response to Criticisms of Agent Causal Libertarianism


I’ve just finished a short book “Freedom, Responsibility, and Determinism: A Philosophical Dialogue” by John Lemos, Hackett Publishing 2013, an introduction to philosophical issues surrounding free will. Lemos explains several variations (each) of Incompatibilism, Compatibilism, and Libertarianism as concerns free will. As concerns Libertarianism, he discusses three variations, the first being “agent causation” and the other two (indeterminism and “indeterministic event-causal”) trying to do (unsuccessfully I think) without the agent. As concerns agent causal libertarianism he notes three types of objections. Because my view of free will, derived from the theology reflected in all of these essays, is of the agent type, my purpose in this essay is to respond to those three lines of criticism.

In the theistic view I hold, the agent is the person, personality being a non-material “information extra” on top of non-material mind. Higher animals have mind, but not personality. God can distinguish this extra pattern (he puts it there), but we cannot. To us, the mind-personality combination just looks like mind, like consciousness, our “what it is to be like” experience. Human subjective experience is an amalgamated whole, a mereological sum consisting of everything that goes into mind, plus personality. No experience of the person takes place outside of mind, and every decision of the person occurs within mind’s all encompassing embrace.

In my essays on personality and free will I explain why we must infer personality even if we cannot discern it. To summarize, we must infer it, among other things, because we experience our exercise of free will, something that a fully macro-deterministic and micro-random universe (which would include mind in the absence of personality, higher-animal mind) cannot support in the absence of a crack in physics, a crack that allows for genuine causation, and not merely event-unfolding. My view is fully committed to agent-causal libertarian free will not because of any crack in the physical except as concerns personal agency. It is plainly what we appear to experience from our subjective viewpoint; not as concerns every choice we make, but in many of them throughout our lives.
Objections to agent cause are of the following three types:

1) Uncaused cause is not scientific, nowhere supported by physics.
2) Agent Cause does not solve the “luck problem”.
3) Agent Cause is incoherent because agents persist while the events they cause happen at specific times.

The first objection comes down to scientism. Physics allows for exactly two types of causes, and in addition causal language is taken to be naieve. For physics, events, that is physical events including the movement of biological bodies, unfold into subsequent events. Thus there are two broad types of events, those that are determined, and those (quantum events) that are fundamentally random. Because of quantum randomness, physicists concede that the macro-level of description is not entirely determined, but to the extent that it is [slightly] undetermined, it is [slightly] random. There is no room in our physical description for purposeful, that is original and  non-random cause; an event that occurs without any prior event other than the undetermined (more precisely not fully determined) but purposeful choosing of an agent.

This objection is question begging. The agent-causal claim is precisely that there is an exception to the two physical possibilities of determinism and randomness, and the exception is specifically personal agency! Agent causalists do not claim that the free agent is physical even as they of course concede that their bodies are physical. For physics simply to declare that no such non-physical thing can exist because there are only physical events having physical (determined or random) antecedents begs the question of agency being the exception.

On the theistic view, the exception is not problematic as God himself produces this exception, configures it on consciousness in time. Other than how he produces it, there is no “interaction problem” because the person is a cause only in mind. The interaction issue remains between mind and body and a topic for another essay. Non-material agents can be a cause in physics because they have a causal effect in mind, and mind has a connection to its physical root, the brain and from there to a body. From our perspective within time we cannot and never will be able to answer this question. First we cannot even access personality directly and second, even if we could, the mystery of how God does such things understandably resides with God. The universe is highly accessible to our collective minds, but there is no guarantee that every mystery is accessible.

The second objection builds on elements of the first and extends them in its own way. The “luck problem” is so called because scientists (and most philosophers) recognize only one exception to determinism, that being quantum randomness. Since randomness cannot be purposeful, if randomness has anything to do with choice, then the outcome (of choice) can only come down to luck. I have dealt with the physicalist aspect of this objection above, but there is another. Imagine a possible world in which there exists a doppelganger of you, exactly the same as you in every respect except at the moment of some decision she makes a choice different from yours. The problem here is that the “same you” made different choices under identical situations so it makes no sense to say that you, qua agent, determined one choice over another. Which choices you make still comes out to luck when considering all possible worlds containing you.

There are two broad ways to conceive “possible worlds”. One is to think of them as merely heuristic devices for exploring truth conditions in counterfactual arguments, and the other is to hold that they are real ontological entities. From a theological viewpoint either comes out to the same argument for the following reasons. If possible worlds are heuristic only then only the real world matters and there is one unified and infinite God. If possible worlds are real, then there can still only be one unqualified infinity (God) in the universe of all possible worlds.

Since God bestows personality, patterns consciousness with it, he cannot create two personalities between which he cannot distinguish. Since each personality is patterned on a separate mind (and God is related to each individually), God must be able to distinguish between them. That means no two persons in the universe can be “the same person”, that is identical to God’s eyes, and this across all possible worlds. A possible world containing a person who (indistinguishably even to God) is also you is logically impossible. Such a world would be, like a possible world containing a square circle, an “impossible world”.

In possible world talk, something is necessary if it is true in all possible worlds, and contingent if true in only some of them. Something is impossible if it is true in none of them, or true only in impossible worlds which comes out to the same thing; impossible. The luck objection is answered because that person in the other possible world, though she shares your history up to the moment of this particular decision, is nevertheless not you; she is a different person and hence can make a different choice for her purposes. Two different people making different choices do not raise the luck problem. The decision in your world is your decision and in the other world it is hers.

The third broad objection to libertarian agency is incoherence. As with the first charge, this one too comes out to begging the question. An action, random, determined, or volitional, is conceived as an event while the agent who is the event’s “original cause” is conceived as substance, albeit non-material. Since physics holds that events unfold (not cause) into subsequent events, how does the substance, exactly, become a prior-determiner of an event when it is not itself an event? A second component of this objection is temporal in character. Events occur at specific times but the agent is extended in time. If there is literally nothing other than the agent’s volition that determines subsequent events how is it that the event happened at some specific time? Why that time and not a little earlier or later? How is it, in other words, that a temporally extended substance that is not itself an event can bring about an event at a specific time? Put another way, how does an extended substance that is not an event interact with time and events?

I want to note first that the notion of “causal agent” as substance and “event” are not so far apart. E. J. Lowe in his “Personal Agency” (2008), demonstrates that any talk of “events unfolding into other events” can be easily cast back into substance-causal terms. Lowe suggests that all cause is “agent cause” but some (most) agents happen to be inannimate. An example can be taken from Lemos’ book. I thrust a red-hot iron rod into a bucket of cold water. The water (substance) causes the iron to cool down, while the iron (substance) causes the water to heat up. Lemos points out that what is really going on here is that events in the iron, the rapid motion of iron atoms, are unfolding into subsequent events as their kinetic energy is transferred to the slower moving molecules of water. What Lemos fails to note, and Lowe points out, is that it is just as reasonable to conceive of the atoms in the iron and the molecules of water as agents. They are not animate agents, and no psychology, consciousness (panpsychism) is imputed to them, but they are agents of the effect, kinetic energy transferred from the iron atoms to the water molecules. Some specific kinetic energy is a temporary property of the atom-agents. Any event description can be transcribed into an agent description, at least as concerns physical process.

Simalarly, persons can be cast as “extended events”. Given the human capacity for abstraction, this is not at all uncommon usage. A galaxy comes into existence and eventually, after hundreds of billions of years, passes out of existence, at least as an identifiable galaxy. Certainly a galaxy can be cast in substance terms, it is an agent for example when its deeper gravity well steals gas from a smaller neighboring galaxy. But it is also a process, an event, the galaxy’s temporal worm whose existence spans some interval.

That we can take what are commonly thought to be substances like galaxies and view them as extended events is not new. This is, after all, what process philosophy is about. By itself, this doesn’t resolve the problem of luck however. In a galaxy after all, when specific events occur is either determined or random. We can refer to measurable antecedent events to explain the timing. Although a person can be cast as an extended event the view doesn’t help us here. As concerns the agent-causal view, there remains nothing about the qualities of the temporally extended person-event other than agent volition enact-able at specific times also determined by the agent. Lowe would probably be uncomfortable casting persons as events and to be sure it is an awkward view in this case. Unlike an atom or a rock animation makes a difference. Either view works easily enough when the agent has no libertarian free will, or indeed any will at all. A substance-agency, becomes more appropriate precisely when the evocation of an event at a specific time is neither random nor determined other than by the agent because only then is it genuinely original cause and not merely events unfolding into other events.

So the question of the coherence of agency here turns on whether there is anything (in the universe) other than “other events” (random or deterministic) that can purposefully initiate events at a specific time that are neither sufficiently determined (by antecedent influences) or random. The agent-causal claim is at root the claim that a libertarian-endowed agent has precisely that power. Put conversely, the power, on the part of an extended (in time) agent, to trigger events at specific points in time determined by the agent’s purposes alone (and of course her skill manipulating her body to bring about the desired event) is one of the qualities (at least) that makes that power libertarian! The capacity, to be original cause at particular moments in time, moments elected by our temporally extended agency, is at the very core of what it means to have a libertarian type of freedom. That this should be is not a mystery theologically speaking because human freedom in time is a derivative of God’s freedom outside time, a derivative God himself bestows upon us.

In God, freedom is absolute, unconstrained (except by logic), and acts across all time. Human freedom is not absolute nor unconstrained. Indeed part of the timing issue can be understood in terms of conditioning influences, the history and present environment, in which the agent finds herself. More importantly, the capacity to initiate an original causal chain, to be an original cause, at a particular moment in time, is how God’s unconstrained freedom comes out in human beings altogether limited to the temporal world. Far from incoherent, this capacity is the essence of the libertarian claim. The coherence of this claim can be in doubt only if God does not exist, but that begs the question because if God does exist it is well within his capacity (not being a logical contradiction) to bestow that very power on personal agents.

The incoherence charge begs its own question because it presupposes the inconceivability of that quality in the agent, the power to originate events without sufficient antecedent cause, that the agent-causal libertarian maintains is in fact a special power of such agents alone. Agent-causal advocates do not deny that this power is not to be found anywhere else in the universe other than in [some] animate agents. To our knowledge (that is human knowledge on Earth) only persons are fully free (a fullness that remains, nevertheless, highly constrained in timespace) in a libertarian sense. The higher animals sometimes appear to exercise choice in ways that suggest they have some similar agent-properties, but I am not sure if in the animal case, the seeming libertarianism of the act is not imputed to them by us.

All three types of objections to agent-causality fail if God is real. The first objection fails because the nature of personal agency, the person being non-material, lies outside science’s domain. The second fails because if “possible worlds” are real, then persons must, nevertheless, remain unique across all possible worlds, and if they are not real, then only the actual world matters and no two persons can be absolutely identical. A person identical to you can only exist in impossible worlds. Two people who are the same person are a logical contradiction. The third objection fails because the very power, of a non-event to initiate an event at a specific time, declared incoherent under an event-only view of causation, is the power of agency given to personality by God. Even if physicists are right about causality being nothing more than the unfolding of events into subsequent events, personality is the exception to that rule in the universe. The exception is possible, conceivable, and not incoherent, precisely because God makes it possible.

God’s existence is a highly prejudicial matter with most scientists and philosophers today. One of the more general problems they have with the agent-causal view is that it so easily slides into dualism and from there to substance-dualism and God. In Lemos’ book, one of his characters (the book is written in the form of a dialogue) notes the association between the view and dualism of one form or another. From a theological perspective, substance dualism grounded in God is suggested precisely because it is a solution to the three objections discussed above. I have argued in many essays collected on this blog and books, that free will, our experience of it, and its conflict with physics, is one of the major reasons for evaluating the explanatory power of dualism. My answers to the objections noted in Lemos’ book flow from what I take to be consequences of God’s existence. Moreover, and this is perhaps the main point to contemporary scientists and philosophers, they justify and warrant our belief in the reality of what seems to our experience to be a genuinely libertarian free will at least as concerns some of our decisions. Agent-cause grounded through personal-agency in turn metaphysically grounded in God explains our seeming freedom the way we actually experience it! None of the other alternatives seem fully to encompass that feat.

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