Tackling the problem of agency

Free will, or agency, is an extremely confusing, self-contradictory, seemingly incoherent, concept — which is why in the past I simply denied that it existed at all or that it was even a meaningful idea. That was a cop-out, though. It very obviously is a meaningful idea, and even a philosophically necessary one. Everyone acts as if they had free will — which implies that, on an intuitive level, we all understand what that means — which, in turn, implies that there is something to understand.

Granted, no one actually does understand free will in an explicit way, but that’s not such an unusual situation. No one fully and explicitly understands all the syntactic rules of his own native language, either, but the fact that we effortlessly follow those rules every day is proof that they exist and are, in principle, intelligible.

So I’ve decided to tackle the problem of free will instead of evading it. The first step is to admit the truth — there is such a thing as free will, and we don’t have a clue what it is — and to resist the temptation to deny either part of that statement, either to pretend free will is nonsense or to pretend that any of the lame “explanations” of it is satisfying.

*

As a name for the problem to be solved, I currently find the term agency to be more helpful than free will. This is partly due to my Mormon upbringing, and partly to the more recent influences of Goethe — whose declaration “In the beginning was the Act” seems deeper and deeper the more I think about it — and of Gurdjieff.

Fundamental to Gurdjieff’s philosophy is the distinction between things that people do and things that just happen. Happening is mechanical; doing — that is, action — is conscious. When a cloud drops rain or an arrow flies through the air, neither the cloud nor the arrow is doing anything. Raining happens; flying happens. The role of the cloud or the arrow is entirely passive; each simply receives pre-existing causal influences and passes them on in a mechanical, predetermined manner. In the strictest sense, neither the cloud nor the arrow can even be said to exist as an individual thing; each is simply part of that amorphous “it” to which we ascribe mere happenings (as when we say “it is raining”). Gurdjieff believed that most of what most people “do” most of the time is also mere happening. We go through our lives on autopilot, mechanically responding to stimuli and running the preprogrammed subroutines of habit. Most people most of the time have no real consciousness and no real will; they do not even exist as individuals. Rather, “it wants or it does not want,” and things happen accordingly.

To a pure determinist, that’s the whole story. But Gurdjieff also believed that true will — doing — agency — was possible, as it indeed it must be. A universe of pure happening — in which everything is caused, everything is predetermined, but nothing is caused or determined by anything — is unintelligible. At the very least, there must have been an agent to set the ball rolling — the First Mover of Aristotle. But there is no reason to assume only one agent, and common sense and our immediate subjective experience tell us that humans, too, are or can be agents. Gurdjieff may have been right that most of the time “it happens” — but sometimes we act.

*

One key feature of agency is decision. When an agent acts, he decides something that was undecided before. Prior to his action, two or more different courses of events were possible, and his action consists in the realization of one of them. Predicting which of them would be realized, using only information about the world prior to the act, would have been impossible even in principle. (An action which can be predicted from past information is not a true action because it does not decide anything; everything has already been decided, and all that remains is for it to happen.)

The other key feature of agency is the agent. Things are not just decided; they are decided by somebody. And this is where the difficulty — the seeming antinomy which once led me to reject the whole idea of agency — comes in. The decision must “come from” an agent who already existed prior to the decision, and it’s hard to know what “come from” can mean here if it does not refer to a relationship of cause-and-effect.  But if a decision is determined by some previous state of affairs, then it is not really a decision. Everything was already decided before the so-called decision was made.

This, then, is the fundamental antinomy. The idea of an agent doing something seems to entail cause-and-effect, meaning that the state of affairs at any given time can be derived from the state of affairs at a previous time. However, the idea of decision seems to entail the opposite: unpredictability-in-principle — the idea that a thing becomes determined at a particular point in time, and that prior to that point it was not determined. Yet agency necessarily includes both of these seemingly incompatible elements. Agency requires that decisions can be made by agents — which means that one and the same event is both caused an uncaused, derived from a past state of affairs and yet not predictable from that past state of affairs. Unless both of these contradictories can be incorporated, we don’t have agency; we just have things happening — happening either mechanically (if no decisions are made) or randomly (if decisions are made, but not by anyone), but either way, still just happening — not being done.

*

It appears that what we need is a non-deterministic form of causality — some way to say that P caused Q, but that P could just as easily have caused not-Q instead. This is complete nonsense logically — it means that “P, therefore Q” and “P, therefore not-Q” are equally correct. Is there any way to make such an idea intelligible without destroying the meaning of “therefore”?

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25 responses to “Tackling the problem of agency

  1. Although I usually comment on your free will postings, I didn’t comment on this one because either I don’t understand it properly or I don’t think it is correct (towards the end) but I can’t pinpoint why.

  2. I agree that this can’t be a “correct” understanding of agency. I am simply trying to articulate the problem, not to propose a solution.

  3. I think what confused me was this:

    “It appears that what we need is a non-deterministic form of causality — some way to say that P caused Q, but that P could just as easily have caused not-Q instead. This is complete nonsense logically — it means that “P, therefore Q” and “P, therefore not-Q” are equally correct. Is there any way to make such an idea intelligible without destroying the meaning of “therefore”?”

    I just can’t see why this is logical nonsense – because the matter doesn’t seem to be a matter of logic at all – but instead of re-statement of what free will/ agency entails!

  4. I’ve given this a little ( more ) thought and I think that you’re ( we ) are still arguing in circles.
    What is needed is a new complete top-down analysis of the problem;
    To start with; what is the ‘best’ reason for thinking that we have freewill ?
    I don’t think that its that we believe that we do. I can imagine a robot logically ‘concluding’ that it has freewill, while, we, from the outside, know that it doesn’t !
    The clue / proof for freewill has to come from somewhere else; I suspect that it has to do with the impossibility of ‘Awareness’ or the True nature of the Homonculii ? ( ! )
    The principle argument against the Homonculii is that it’s simply pushing the big man back one step and replacing him with a little man inside, but what if the Homonculii was something completely different ?

  5. Yes, Bruce, it’s a restatement of what free will entails — one which makes it clear (to me, at least) why the concept is problematic. What can “therefore” mean if it does not mean that the second thing follows necessarily from the first? If the effect is not determined by the cause, then in what does the cause-effect relationship consist?

    *

    Chrs, I am seriously considering what amounts to a theory of infinite homunculi, inspired by and patterned after Dunne’s theory of infinite temporal dimensions. I may post on this later.

    By the way, I take it as a given that there can be no empirical evidence for free will, just as (Hume showed) there can be no empirical evidence for the principle of cause-and-effect. Both concepts rely on assumptions about what is possible in a given situation, but evidence can only tell us what actually happens, not what could have happened. However, both causality and free will are necessary concepts in that humans cannot function without assuming them, so any philosophy which does not assume them will be useless.

  6. [Warning: this is going to be one of those “blindingly obvious things that were a major discovery for me” posts.]

    One useful thing I’ve learned about free will is to identify the difference between actual exercise of my own will, vs. acting on ‘pre-programmed’ behaviours. The mind, by its nature, tends to continually rehearse various hypothetical situations that are likely to occur in future, and the imagined decisions at that point (usually) accumulate into a mental habit that makes itself known when a decision point occurs in real life.

    This makes perfect sense from a survival standpoint — many decision points don’t really give a person much time to deliberate, so if one is anticipated to occur, using the imagination to deliberate on it well in advance is the only way that any serious thought can be put into it. Any exercise of free will thus occurs long before the actual visible decision.

    (One common argument cited to ‘disprove’ free will is the existence of brain imaging studies which can predict the outcome of a certain decision before the person is even aware of deciding something. The studies seem to me legitimate, but the people using them to deny free will have drawn the most useless conclusion imaginable :-P)

    Another useful question to ask about free will might be the question of willpower — what does it even mean that a given decision is easy or difficult to make?

    • Delighted to see you commenting here, Arakawa. I’ve benefited greatly from your posts elsewhere.

      Any exercise of free will thus occurs long before the actual visible decision.

      An excellent point — and perhaps one of the points Christ was making in the Sermon on the Mount. A man who “looketh on a woman to lust after her” — that is, who fantasizes about her, rehearsing in his mind what he would like to do — has already committed adultery. The decision is made then, not at the point when the physical act occurs. That is why he is considered guilty of adultery even if the opportunity to carry out his rehearsed decision never actually arises.

      Another useful question to ask about free will might be the question of willpower — what does it even mean that a given decision is easy or difficult to make?

      I’ve been thinking about just that question recently and am in the process of drafting a post which touches on it.

  7. @WmJas “A man who “looketh on a woman to lust after her” — that is, who fantasizes about her, rehearsing in his mind what he would like to do — has already committed adultery.”

    I suspect that adultery in the heart refers to a bit more than this – i.e. a plan to commit adultery, either with a specific person, or else in general.

    Somebody who was married once told me that he was always ready to ‘commit adultery’ (he did not use those words) if ever the opportunity presented itself (plus of course he sought such situations), and that not to do this would be crazy. The ‘plan’ was not for anybody in particular, but with anybody he had a chance with.

    The adultery was already done, because although circumstances and chance might prevent it, the plan was in place. I suspect that kind of thing was what was meant, not just fantasies, which may have no plan at all.

  8. “The adultery was already done, because although circumstances and chance might prevent it, the plan was in place. I suspect that kind of thing was what was meant, not just fantasies, which may have no plan at all.”

    I suppose this is a difference between Orthodox and Western analyses of sin. Where the West seems to focus more on culpability (who is to be blamed for an evil, and by extension whether a person can be trusted not to do evil in a given situation), the Orthodox view of sin is that of a disease in the human condition, which is manifested in the form of recurring passions first, and evil actions second. Thus a person who repeatedly succumbs to adulterous or perverse sexual fantasies is still far from healthy, even if the fantasies harm no one and are unrealistic or impossible to fulfil in reality.

    In the case of such a fantasy, Orthodox ascetic literature specifies that having the mental image occur is not a sin (since this is not under conscious control, but merely a symptom of a disease that must be cured), but assenting to having the fantasy, or deliberately stirring it, is a sin, since it amounts to deliberate cultivation of one’s own diseased state, i.e. self-harm.

  9. Actually, Bruce, I thought I was taking liberties with the text by assuming that Christ was talking about fantasizing as opposed to merely looking and lusting. I suspect the words mean exactly what they say: “looketh on a woman to lust after her.” The word “to” here means “in order to,” so Christ is talking about focusing your attention on something in a deliberate attempt to inflame lust — not just feeling lust, but feeding it. No specific plans are necessary.

    William James (the psychologist, not me) defined volition — willing — as effort of attention. “The essential achievement of the will… is to ATTEND to a difficult [or not-so-difficult!] object and hold it fast before the mind. The so-doing is the fiat; and it is a mere physiological incident that when the object is thus attended to, immediate motor consequences should ensue” (Principles of Psychology, chapter 26)

    If James’s analysis is correct (and I tend to think it is), the moment you focus your attention on a possible course of action, you begin the process of willing to commit that action. Of course you haven’t actually committed the action yet — so you are correct that fantasizing is not exactly the same as planning adultery and that planning is not the same as doing the deed — but the difference is only one of degree.

  10. chrs campbell

    I think I may have mentioned this before; that I don’t believe in Paradoxes. All Presumed Paradoxes are merely Asking The Wrong Question ( ! )
    In the Case of FreeWill; Fussing over how An Agent can make a Decision that is both & Neither Deterministic and Random Simultaneously is a Red Herringbone ( ! )
    The Real Question is : Is it possible to Allow for A ‘Unique Personality’ that is Both Autonomous and Free of Coercive Influence ?
    The Answer is Yes
    See : https://www.blogger.com/blogger.g?blogID=8874624#editor/target=post;postID=4426677242592405101;onPublishedMenu=allposts;onClosedMenu=allposts;postNum=0;src=postname
    Is this FreeWill ?
    The Most Curious thing about this ‘Free of Coercive Influence’ Is very interesting because this ‘Personality’ is able to be Influenced by their Environment, and Be Defined by the Sum Total of all their Experiences, Which Contribute to Each Autonomous Decision that they Make, But Not be Controlled by an External Personality Coercively ! ( ? ) How is this Possible ?
    The Trick is that all three of these elements are the same thing !

  11. Pingback: Calling things by their correct names is an aspect of self-control | Bugs to fearen babes withall

  12. I don’t pretend to be on the same level as you in discussing this topic but I hope you don’t mind my jumping in.

    Like Bruce I’m having trouble grasping your point. First you speak of it as though it’s a logical problem: P therefore Q seems to refer to a conclusion following from a premiss. But then you speak of it as though it’s a matter of material cause-and-effect.

    But I suspect that there really is a link between logic and cause-and-effect, and that this is in fact at the root of it. At its most basic level, creation is reasonable. It contains information. It follows “rules”.

    St. Thomas writes, “[S]uch as a man is by virtue of a corporeal quality, such also does his end seem to him, because from such a disposition a man is inclined to choose or reject something. But these inclinations are SUBJECT TO THE JUDGMENT OF REASON, which the lower appetite obeys, as we have said (81, 3). Wherefore this is in no way prejudicial to free-will.”

    We have free will because we have intellect. And intellect is not subject to the physical laws of cause-and-effect, nor can it be explained by them. But it can act upon them. Because this is how the universe is set up: An intellect, God, wills that it exists, and it exists, and is constantly subject to his continuing will that it exist. We are made in God’s image, and so God endows us too with the ability to will, with our immaterial intellect, that things happen in the physical universe, and they happen.

    They happen only in certain ways: Unlike God we don’t have the power to affect all things directly by our will. We only have power over our bodies. But we can use our bodies to cause other things to move, which in turn cause other things to move, and so on. And we can use our intellects to design things which cause great series of things to move other things which move other things, so that our intellect ends up having power to move much more than just its own body and things within its immediate vicinity. A ship flying to Mars, and maneuvering this way and that, is not just a “happening”, it’s a physical effect of an immaterial cause.

    I realize I may just be shifting the problem from the physical realm to the immaterial realm. But my point is that maybe the same rules don’t apply in the immaterial realm.

    You write, “Agency requires that decisions can be made by agents — which means that one and the same event is both caused and uncaused, derived from a past state of affairs and yet not predictable from that past state of affairs.”

    Yes, on earth, or rather in the physical universe, our decisions are derived from a past state of affairs, yet are not determined by them. They’re uncaused in the physical sense, because a spirit can do things without causes. Yet the spirit weighs immaterial principles and ideas and on that basis acts on material things. In other words, the intellect, this non-physical entity in the physical universe, observes things that are going on around it in the physical context, and applies immaterial standards to the various options that are available to it: What will make me happy? What is right? What will benefit me? What action is consistent with love?

    He chooses based on immaterial standards, so that the result is not that X physical phenomenon causes Y physical phenomenen, but rather more like a syllogism: I want to do what’s right, X is right, therefore I shall do X. The thing that ends up directly causing physical phenomenon Y is the spiritual agent’s immaterial choice of Y, and the his ability to then impose his will on physical things, simply by willing it.

    No doubt I’ve missed your point, but if you were to critique my attempt, it might help me to better understand where you’re coming from.

  13. Agellius, thank you for your comments, which I will address more fully in a future post.

    The gist of my disagreement with you is that I consider the practical syllogism to be essentially an algorithm which is no less mechanical than the laws of physics. That it is not physical (or not necessarily physical; certainly physical systems like computers are capable of deriving a conclusion from premises) is beside the point. It is mechanical and deterministic and hence — be it never so “spiritual” in nature — cannot be the essence of free will.

  14. @WmJas “I consider the practical syllogism to be essentially an algorithm which is no less mechanical than the laws of physics…”

    This is a very interesting comment. In many ways you think like a scholastic philosopher; but perhaps this comment explains why you have not long since become a Thomist Roman Catholic.

    I think I agree, but would probably use the term abstract, rather than mechanical.

  15. Agellius

    Wm Jas:

    I did not mean to say that the syllogism is the essence of free will. The intellect can weigh right and wrong, beneficial and detrimental, etc., but its decision is not determined by those standards. It can act in accord with them or in conflict.

    If it wishes to act morally, then the result of its weighing a course of action against the standard of morality will be to choose the course that is in accord with morality. But it may not wish to act morally; it may choose to act selfishly instead (acting selfishly is not always against morality, but let’s suppose that in this case it is). It has two standards by which to judge its course: One, the standard of morality; two, the standard of material benefit to self.

    One intellect may choose to give priority to the morality standard, and the other to the material benefit standard. What makes an intellect choose the one or the other?

    This is what I’m saying may not follow the same rules as physical cause-and-effect, or even the rules of logic. I would suggest that it’s not analyzable at all. We are made in God’s image. God isn’t caused, he just is. This challenges us, but we can’t seem to delve any further into it. If one were to say that God isn’t “just is”, but was made or begotten and acts in accord with preexisting standards and conditions, then we’re just pushing the “just is” back a step, or a million steps, but the “just is” is still there, somewhere.

    My theory is that God is the “just is”, and we being made in his image, “just do” things. We choose good or evil and there’s no explaining it, and maybe this is the essence of being intellectual, i.e. spiritual beings. In other words, this is the essence of free will. If it’s caused or necessitated by one thing or another, then it’s not free.

    I’m not saying that as spirits, we’re uncaused with respect to our being. Obviously I believe our existence is caused by God. But I’m saying that in terms of the choices of our intellect and will, we’re completely free, i.e. our choices are uncaused. God takes the hands-off approach.

    You write, “It appears that what we need is a non-deterministic form of causality — some way to say that P caused Q, but that P could just as easily have caused not-Q instead. This is complete nonsense logically — it means that “P, therefore Q” and “P, therefore not-Q” are equally correct. Is there any way to make such an idea intelligible without destroying the meaning of “therefore”?”

    When we make a choice it’s P therefore Q, but P represents the choice actually made by the spiritual being: The agent chose P, therefore Q happened. But there’s no “O therefore P” which makes the agent choose P. The agent indeed weighs “O therefore P”, and also weighs “W therefore X”, and whether he chooses P or X (leading to outcome Q or Y) depends on whether he gives a higher value to the premiss O or the premiss W. Why he gives one a higher value than the other, cannot be determined. He just does. He’s absolutely free to choose one or the other, and he makes his choice. It’s uncaused.

    “But because this judgment, in the case of some particular act, is not from a natural instinct, but from some act of comparison in the reason, therefore he acts from free judgment and retains the power of being inclined to various things. For reason in contingent matters may follow opposite courses, as we see in dialectic syllogisms and rhetorical arguments. Now particular operations are contingent, and therefore in such matters the judgment of reason may follow opposite courses, and is not determinate to one. And forasmuch as man is rational is it necessary that man have a free-will.”

    “Free-will is the cause of its own movement, because by his free-will man moves himself to act.”

    [http://www.newadvent.org/summa/1083.htm]

  16. Bruce, I’m a bit surprised at the comparison, since I rarely see eye-to-eye with actual scholastics. I’m also not sure how “abstract” relates to “mechanical.” Of course the idea of the practical syllogism is an abstract one, but each specific instance of it is concrete enough. (Wait a second, maybe I do sound like a scholastic!) My point in saying that the syllogism is mechanical is that, once you have the premises, the conclusion has already been decided; there’s nothing for the “agent” to “do” other than to obey the unbreakable laws of logic — which means it’s a case of happening, not doing. If the universe is deterministic, then its future states follow from its past states in the same necessary way that a conclusion follows from premises. Our actions would be equally mechanical (i.e., happenings rather than actions properly so called) whether they were determined by the laws of physics or the laws of logic. Abstractness seems to me to be neither here nor there, unless perhaps I misunderstand what you mean by that word.

    *

    Agellius, I agree with everything you say in your most recent comment. Our actions, to be free, cannot be determined by anything; they must be uncaused. The paradox remains, though. If my actions are not caused by anything — which includes not being caused by my own prior states of mind (beliefs, desires, propensities, etc.) — then in what sense can they be called “my” actions? If they just come from nowhere (“just are,” in your terminology), how can I or anyone else be held responsible for them?

    • @WmJas – Ah, I misunderstood – I thought you meant ‘the practical syllogism… as a method for understanding reality’ not the particular application to free will. Maybe you are a scholastic, after all?

  17. Agellius

    “If they just come from nowhere (“just are,” in your terminology), how can I or anyone else be held responsible for them?”

    I don’t say they come from nowhere, any more than God’s decisions come from nowhere. They come from me, or you, or God. I didn’t say they “just are”, I said we “just do” (make decisions). What I mean by this is that our decisions aren’t caused by anything outside us (or inside us), in the sense of being necessitated by them, in the way a conclusion is necessitated by premises.

    Certainly they can be influenced by prior states of mind, especially things that we already know and understand and believe. But they aren’t necessitated by those things since we can always change our minds, or act against what we know to be true or good.

    I have a feeling I’m missing your point and if so, I’m sorry to be tedious, but I’m hoping to catch on at some point. : )

  18. Yes, the question is how our decisions can “come from us” when they “aren’t caused by anything . . . inside us.” Saying they are influenced but not necessitated by our beliefs, desires, etc. certainly expresses the commonsense understanding of free will, but it’s hard to make sense of logically. (See my post “Agency and motive” for a failed attempt.)

    As for missing the point — well, I’ve yet to see any convincing evidence that anyone else understands the point I keep trying to make about free will, so don’t feel like the Lone Ranger. (I’m not sure that’s such a bad thing, since it’s not like I have any great insight to share — more like a persistent lack of insight.)

    • “Yes, the question is how our decisions can “come from us” when they “aren’t caused by anything . . . inside us.” ”

      It hinges on what counts as an answer to ‘how?’

      In one sense we know *exactly* ‘how’ because we experience it as a basic experience.

      Can the question have any better or deeper answer that that?

      I realize you are asking ‘how’ in a physics kind of way – such as we might ask how magnetism attracts iron. But often we can’t really answer these sciency kind of questions – and even when they can be answered, there always are further questions.

  19. WJ:

    OK I’ve read your post titled “Agency and motive”. Sorry, I didn’t realize you had already covered the ground I was covering. I will just add a couple of things:

    It sounds like you’re saying that man can’t have true, non-paradoxical agency unless he is THE uncaused cause and first mover. In other words, unless he can create worlds, so to speak, for himself from scratch, from nothing, and as a result of no facts or objects external to himself and influencing him one way or another.

    You write, “His slavery consists in the fact that he can do only what he wants — and he doesn’t get to choose what he wants and what he doesn’t want, at least not directly.”

    St. Thomas says something similar: That man’s choices are free, but he has no choice but to desire what he perceives as good (even if he is mistaken about what is good or has his priorities screwed up). Desiring the good is built into his nature.

    It seems to me that this pretty much defines agency: God (defined as the First and Unmoved Mover) is truly free in every sense, in that he can do what he wants and doesn’t need to base his decisions to act or not act on things outside himself. Man, made in God’s image, is free in a more limited sense, in that he is limited to acting within a framework that has been determined for him, and that even within that framework he is limited in what he may desire, i.e. he can only desire what he thinks is good and he doesn’t get to define “good”; yet within that framework he is free to choose one thing over another with no compulsion either way.

    Frankly I’m puzzled over why this is a problem for you. You say, “The deepest weakness, though, of this and all other models, is its inability to explain how agency constitutes a third kind of thing, neither deterministic nor random….” Why not just say that it’s a third kind of thing, neither deterministic nor random, and leave it at that? What is it that has to be solved for you?

  20. Why not just say that it’s a third kind of thing, neither deterministic nor random, and leave it at that? What is it that has to be solved for you?

    Well, it doesn’t have to be solved for me. In practice, I go through life guided by an intuitive rough-and-ready concept of free will just like everyone else, and it works well enough. However, leaving it at that is intellectually unsatisfying because of its apparent illogic. Specifically, it runs afoul of the law of excluded middle. For any given event, either it is determined by some prior state of affairs, or it is not determined by any prior state of affairs. Saying it’s “a third kind of thing” — neither A nor not-A — is mere hand-waving. In order to really understand agency — to understand what follows from it, and which metaphysical theories are consistent with it and which are not, etc. — I need to be able to formulate it in a non-paradoxical way. This may turn out to be impossible, but I intend to keep trying.

  21. Pingback: Syllogisms, free will, and the role of attention | Bugs to fearen babes withall

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