The necessity of agency (continued)

I will attempt to make sense here, but don’t get your hopes up. I can feel as I write what follows that I am being neither eloquent nor clear, that my subject is defeating me. Nevertheless I will try.


It is necessary to assume the reality of cause and effect. Although, as Hume demonstrated, there can be no proof — nor even any evidence — that there is such a thing as causation, any philosophy that dispensed with the concept would be a dysfunctional philosophy, one incapable of doing what a philosophy is supposed to do, namely, to serve as a guide to action. One could not say that such a philosophy would be “false” necessarily, but it would be wrong and unacceptable at a level deeper than, and prior to, the level at which the concepts of truth and falsehood become relevant. As John R. Harris says in Climbing Backward Out of Caves, “causation is not a sight but a way of processing things seen” — but despite the lack of, the impossibility of, evidence for causation, it is nevertheless philosophically necessary for us to process things in this way.

The concept of mechanistic causation is incomplete without the concept of agency. Without agency, events are caused, but nothing is caused by anything. Each link in the chain of causation merely passively passes on what it has received. Such a model of the world — all dominoes and no fingers — is incoherent and philosophically useless. In a world with no agency, there can be no real causation, either. Such a world would contain intelligible patterns — it would not be a mere chaos — but it would be an abuse of language to say it contained causes and effects. And causes and effects are philosophically necessary.


What is agency, then? Agency causes things but is not caused by things. It has a relationship with prior events which is intelligible — it is not mere randomness — but does not amount to cause-and-effect. What exactly that means is admittedly hard to grasp. The concept of agency is (to borrow a simile from G. K. Chesterton) like the sun; it illuminates other things, but looking at it directly is not advisable.

Agency is what makes it possible for contingent things to exist. Without it, it would be impossible for necessary things to give rise to contingent things.


I should mention that, as a sort of corollary to my acceptance of agency, I also now accept the existence of God. I hasten to add, lest my religious friends get too excited, that at this point my tentative theism/deism is of the barebones god-of-the-philosophers variety — i.e., I don’t yet believe in anything that looks much like Jehovah — but it is nevertheless a significant step for me. This card-carrying atheist has turned in his card.



Filed under God, Philosophy

5 responses to “The necessity of agency (continued)

  1. I think your link between the necessity of causality, and that this implies agency – is well made and striking.

    The difficulties you have had in reaching this are illustrative of the hazards of modernity – the systematic and rotational doubt concerning matters of spontanous common sense.

    Once set free and set to work, it is very difficult to get the genie of doubt back into the bottle.

  2. Thanks, Bruce. It’s nice to hear that someone thinks one of the points here is well made, because for some reason this post was almost impossible to write. I felt like I was wrestling with an alligator just trying to get each word out. Very different from writing as I usually experience it.

    As for the reasons for my difficulties in reaching this conclusion, I think what McGilchrist writes in The Master and His Emissary is relevant:

    All attempts at explanation depend, whether explicitly or implicitly, on drawing parallels between the thing to be explained and some other thing that we believe we already understand better. But the fundamental problem in explaining the experience of consciousness is that there is nothing else remotely like it to compare it with. . . . Phenomenologically, and ontologically, it is unique. As I will try to show, the analytic process cannot deal with uniqueness: there is an irresistible temptation for it to move from the uniqueness of something to its assumed non-existence, since the reality of the unique would have to be captured by idioms that apply to nothing else.

    McGilchrist is talking about consciousness here, but he mentions in a footnote that Roger Scruton has said something similar about time, which is also phenomenologically and ontologically unique — and the same difficulty applies to morality, agency, and even to causation itself. Happily, I’ve never been quite so far gone as to assume the non-existence of consciousness or morality, but I did develop a pretty serious uniqueness-blind-spot with regard to time and agency, and from time to time I considered the possibility of dismissing the idea of causation. In the case of agency, my error was very clearly that of trying to explain something unique (agency) in terms of other things I believed I already understood better (mechanistic causation and chance).

    So, instead of a general “beware of doubt,” I think the moral of the story is this: Some things are unique. Unique things cannot be explained in terms of anything else, but that is in no way evidence against their reality.

    As for doubt, I still believe it has a very important place in our thinking. As Francis Bacon said, “If a man will begin with certainties, he shall end in doubts; but if he will be content to begin with doubts, he shall end in certainties.” Why? Because in the latter case he will have earned his certainties, and he will have demonstrated his worthiness to receive them by having been content (the key word in this quote) to do without them for a time.

  3. Actually I don’t agree that doubt is important – and Bacon is wrong on this as on almost everything!

    I think what has an important place in thinking is the struggle to *understand*, based on the prior recognition that one does not (at present) understand – and that sometimes people mix this up with ‘doubt’.

    This is an error because doubt is infinite and corrosive – while the struggle to understand comes from this recognition of lack of understanding in oneself. Also doubt is facile (and indeed often glib) because effort free; while the struggle to understand is energy and effort consuming – which puts a limit onto it.

  4. Well, if one has grown up with a fundamentally false ideology (and most of us have), then one’s struggle to understand is bound to be fruitless unless and until one is willing to call received “truths” into question. I agree that doubt as a project unto itself is corrosive, but it does play an essential role in the larger struggle to understand. If Galileo had never doubted Aristotle, etc., etc. — I won’t belabor the obvious examples.

    As an example of the dangers of refusing to doubt what one “knows,” there is a passage in the Book of Mormon which speaks of educated people who, when they encounter a new truth, “set it aside, supposing that they know of themselves. Wherefore their wisdom is foolishness, and it profiteth them not.”

  5. Pingback: Philosophically anarchic vs. dysfunctional | Bugs to fearen babes withall

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