Carolina Sartorio, Causation and Free Will, Oxford, 2016
The styles of philosophy change. Spinoza gave us axioms, from which it was patent his “theorems” did not follow. Hobbes, and Locke and Hume gave as long essays. Berkeley and Hume, dialogues. Nowadays, philosophical style is more often like a video game with unspoken rules: the reader is told the author has a goal, followed by example, counterexample, perplex after perplex, which the author dispatches one after another, like so many arcade mopes, with occasional reverses to revive the dead and kill them again. Double tap. And, then, finally, the reader reaches The Theory. Or not. Ellery Ells’ endlessly annoying Probabilistic Causality is like that, and so, less endlessly—hers is a short, dense book--is Carolina Sartorio’s Causation and Free Will. You can’t say Ells didn’t think hard about his topic, he did, and so evidently has Sartorio, but you can say that both of them, and a lot of other philosophers, could have made reading and understanding a lot easier by laying cards on the table to begin with. At least her syntax is not contrived to hide banality beneath bafflement.
Shelled and peeled, the story is this: an action is done freely by a person if (and I suppose only if) the person caused the action via a sequence of events that included, as actual causes, rational (given the person’s desires and beliefs) reasons for the act and absences of reasons not to do it, absences, again, as actual causes in “a normal, non-deviant way.” (p. 135).
How can absences of reasons be causes, you ask. Easy, you ate ice cream because you did not have a reason not to of the kind “I am allergic to ice cream” because you are not allergic to ice cream and you know it. So the absence of that reason was a cause of your eating ice cream. In the vernacular, we allow absences as causes all the time: my tomato plants died because I didn’t water them. Of course, if metaphysicians take the vernacular literally and allow absences as causes then they will have an infinity of them in every case: my plants died because Barack Obama did not water them, and so on. Sartorio is content with that, and presumably content with an infinity of such ghost causes accompanying every cause that actually happens. Essentially, every ceteris paribus clause becomes an infinity of actual but non-actual (because absent) causes.
Absences as causes might seem gratuitous in her story. They are there because she wants to distinguish, on the one hand, between courses of action in which the agent would be sensitive to reasons against the action were the reasons real (the absent causes) and, on the other hand, courses of reasoning in which the agent would not be sensitive to similar reasons were they real (the absent non-causes). Philosophy is in some places Humpty-Dumptyish, and metaphysicians are legally free to talk as they want, including saying that if in deciding to do something you would be sensitive to a reason, were you to have it, a reason that you do not in fact have, then the absence of that reason is a cause of what you do. I don’t think such talk helps anything, and in science, where absences are ceteris paribus clauses or shorthands for unknown (or boring) positive details, it’s silly. Ask a physicist to predict the position of Mars from a position and momentum it does not have now.
Absences as causes necessitate recourse to “a normal and non-deviant way,” she argues, because the absence of a reason could be a cause of an effect because, were the reason to be present, that would cause some external process (Sartorio likes examples with miraculous neuroscientists standing ready to intervene) to prevent the effect, and so the agent would be “sensitive” to the absence of the reason.
Ever since it became abundantly clear that we are biological and physical machines, not just our bodies, as Descartes allowed, but the whole of us, as Helmholtz allowed, philosophers doing “moral psychology” have tried to reconcile us to the loss of the Thomistic/Cartesian fancy. The plain fact seems to be that we do not have anything of the kind that Aquinas and Descartes claimed for us. So live with it. Daniel Dennett (Elbow Room) assures us that we should be content, even happy with our state; it gives us everything we could want. He is wrong. We could want not to be like that, and most of us do. The that is a machine whose workings are determined—or at least caused—by forces that antedated us. The that is a person who has as a zygote or neonate been implanted with a device that determines her subsequent responses to her environment. We do not want to be like that even if nature did the implanting. To be in human bondage, and know it, is one of the metaphysical agonies.
One compatibilist response to the metaphysical agony is that it pines for an incoherence, that there could not thinkably be a system of the kind Descartes and Aquinas claimed us to be. But of course there could. We have perfectly clear mathematical theories of non-deterministic automata, whose transitions between states (Hilary Putnam once thought of them as mental states) are neither determined nor probabilistic. The other compatibilist response is Orwellian, meaning changing the language. I think Sartorio’s response is of the Orwellian kind, but tempered. She says she has the intuition that if the human machine is formed by nature, well, its actions can be free. She doesn’t offer a survey of others’ opinions. Bless her, she elaborates only on the condition that her intuition is correct.
There remains the serious scientific project of how consciousness, and deliberation happen, and how they came about, and the sociological, anthropological project of understanding the conditions under which various communities claim free agency and when they do not, and how those conditions (which have evidently changed) come about as a social process, and perhaps the moral project of consoling those who agonize for the loss of free will, but there doesn’t remain anything metaphysical to do about freedom of the will. Nothing, at least, of value.