Column on Can We Cause Our Actions?

Can We Cause Our Actions?

Tibor R. Machan

In a recent Op Ed column for Free Inquiry magazine–December 09/January10–Mr. Thomas Clark claims that the defense of human agency that some folks, including me, have been advancing for many years involves what he terms “contra-causal” free will. It does not.

But let me put the matter in context. In the age old debate about whether free will exists one line of argument against the idea has stressed that if we did have free will, this would violate the universal law of causality. This universal law is that everything that occurs has a cause, no exceptions. It is also put at times by stating that all things are caused or that every event has a cause. While these are nearly equivalent claims, they are not, actually.

In certain versions of the law of universal causation (or causality) there exist in nature n endless conjunction of events, moving from time immemorial to the end of existence. Indeed, by this account reality is but this endless chain of connections between events, one following another necessarily, on and on. The evidence for this is just that events do have causes, although no one of course has witnessed them all or is likely to do so. So the doctrine of such universal causation is not a discovery of science or any other discipline of study. It is an inference from numerous well established cases to the all that rest that are not established at all.

This is really the most popular idea of universal causality but not the only one. Another version of it is that whatever occurs has to have been caused to occur–it didn’t just pop into existence all on its own. This idea makes room for the former notion of causation but is not exhausted by it–some kinds of causes could exist that are not events or happenings. For example, when a beaver constructs a dam, the beaver is the cause of the dam, just as when Rembrandt painted his works, he created or produced them. All creative and productive activities involve such causation, one referred to as agent causality.

In a book I wrote nearly 10 years ago, Initiative–Human Agency and Society (Hoover Institution Press, 2000), I argued that human beings are agents and they can normally, unless crucially damaged, think and act on their own initiative. Others have defended this idea, also, such as the late psycho-physicist and Nobel Laureate Roger W. Sperry (e.g., in his Science and Moral Priority [Columbia University Press, 1983]) and Timothy O’Connor (in Persons & Causes, The Metaphysics of Free Will [Oxford University Press, 2000]). This does not involve any kind of contra-causation but is a form or type of causation. So, as already suggested, when Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart composed, Mark Twain wrote, Paul Cezanne painted and Mr. Clark produces philosophical essays, they are being agents who cause things to happen in the world. True, this means that people can be first causes in some instances but that is just one type of causation among others.

To maintain, as Mr. Clark does implicitly and as many others who take part in this debate do also, that only a single kind of causation exists in the world is contrary to what one can confirm in one’s own life, history, and most of one’s experiences with other people and other parts of nature. It is to hold, contrary to overwhelming evidence, that the kind of causality we find on a pool table, taking place between billiard balls, is the sole sort in all of reality. This is not a discovery but an dubious extrapolation, certainly not a scientific finding.

What is far more sensible to hold is that depending on what kind of thing something is, it can take part in causal relationships but not all of them are the same kind. And the reason is that not everything is the same kind of thing. Thus when a tennis ball is hit with a tennis racket the results will differ from when a billiard ball is hit with a cue stick. The nature of causality depends on the nature of what is involved in a causal relationship and since there are a great variety of kinds and types of things–that is, there are beings with a great variety of different natures–there is likely to be causal connections of a great variety as well.

Human beings, arguably, have a form of consciousness, based on a very complicated organ, namely, the human brain, that can produce certain unique actions, some of them out and out original–such as when someone writes a never before heard of short story or composes brand new music or designs a building with a unique architecture. Even the day-to-day production of ideas, words, theories, conjectures, speculations and such that surround us everywhere in the human world testify to the existence of this form of causation, one that does not at all resemble what happens on the pool table when balls collide and produce the behavior of rolling apart from each other.

This is by no means the end of the story here–the debate will continue. But it helps to have a brief outline of a certain view of universal causation, one that does not preclude human free will but treats it as a type of (original) cause in the world.

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