Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Causal Theories of Action (II): The Limits of Explanation Abstractions

In the last post I looked at multiple reason scenarios (MRSs), cases where an agent has more than one reason to act and ends up acting for only one of those reasons. I looked at attempts by both causalists and non-causalists to use MRSs to argue for their approaches, and suggested that MRSs cannot provide a good foundation for any argument whatsoever unless one can dismiss the possibility that there are no such scenarios.

So how can one dismiss the possibility? How can one show that, at least sometimes, agents in possession of multiple reasons to A end up A-ing for only one of those reasons? Searle seems to appeal to this simply as a fact of experience: we just know that sometimes we act for a particular reason and not another. If so, Searle’s experience must be exceptionally shallow; it is a fairly common fact that, often, looking back upon our past actions we realize that we did not take those actions for the reasons we thought we did. In any case, introspection is notoriously unreliable in such cases, as any decent account of self-deception (my favorite, of course, is Sartre’s) will show. Take the example Mele gives: Al has two reasons to mow his lawn this morning (because it is convenient, and to spite his neighbor), but only mows the lawn for one of those reasons. Can Al be sure that he mowed the lawn for only one of those reasons through introspection? Al may well believe that he is mowing the lawn because this is a convenient time to mow the lawn and not because he wants to get back at his neighbor. But the fact that Al believes that he is not petty does not prove that he is really not petty. My point is not that introspection is fallible; everybody already knows that. My point is that introspection has limits, and this is one of them: introspection cannot tell us, in any situation, which reason, out of a set, we really acted on.

Searle’s entire introspective scenario, in fact, strikes me as wildly implausible. He insists that we simply know which reason we acted on, and that we know it because we chose that reason. But I can’t imagine this happening: if I have two competing reasons for doing something, and I end up doing it, there is only one type of case in which I can then be sure that I acted on only one of the reasons: if I experience one reason as motivationally stronger than the other. But this is precisely not something that I chose—what I chose, or at least perhaps experience myself as having chosen—was to act. But choosing to act is not the same as choosing a particular reason to be the reason I act on. And of the latter sort of choice, I doubt anyone can have any experience whatsoever. Reflecting on such experiences, instead, seems to support the idea that our reasons act on us and not the other way around.

Can Mele or Davidson do better? I don’t think so. For how would they go about justifying the claim that, sometimes, agents with multiple reasons for A-ing actually A for one particular reason? Well, they could appeal to the causal theory: since every action is caused by some reason, it is at least theoretically possible to be certain that a particular reason, and not any other, is responsible for some action. But of course this would be question-begging: we cannot use the conclusion that the MRS is supposed to yield in order to justify the plausibility of the MRS. Davidson, in discussing a somewhat different point (responding to the claim that knowledge of causal laws is always inductive), tells us the following:

You may be wrong about which motive made you do it. The fact that you may be wrong does not show that in general it makes sense to ask you how you know what your reasons were or to ask for your evidence… Then your knowledge of your own reasons for your actions is not generally inductive, for where there is induction, there is evidence. Does this show the knowledge is not causal? I cannot see that it does… In any case, in order to know that a singular causal statement is true, it is not necessary to know the truth of a law; it is necessary only to know that some law covering the events at hand exists.(Davidson, 18)

Not only might we be wrong about our reasons for an action, but we also have no evidence to appeal to. In other words, there is no reason to think that we aren’t always wrong; there is no reason to think that we have any causal knowledge whatsoever when it comes to our reasons. We might know that, in general, some of our reasons are causally involved in producing our actions, but we have no knowledge about what reasons in particular might be involved. And we can know the former point only because we “know that some law covering the events at hand exists”; that is, we know that events are caused. But, again, this does not show that some particular reason, rather than all available reasons, is involved in the causal production of any action.

In fact, the example Mele uses is itself pretty strained: I am not at all sure it is possible for Al to mow the lawn only because it is convenient, and not because he wants to get back at his neighbor. The problem is this: if one reason Al has to mow the lawn this morning is to get back at his neighbor, then he is aware that his mowing the lawn this morning will irritate his neighbor. And so it seems that if Al does mow his lawn, he does so with the awareness that he is irritating his neighbor; and unless he specifically wants to irritate his neighbor by his action, then the reason is—if anything—a reason against his mowing the lawn, not for it. Of course there is a way out: Al might have both reasons but act on only one of them if he simply forgets about the other reason. This is perfectly feasible. But in such a situation the one reason he remembers is active; the other reason is not, but only because it is not functioning as a reason at all. And this comes down to saying that the MRSs can only work properly by cheating, that is, by treating all but one of the existing reasons for an action as simply inert. And this seems much like the scenario where the agent really has only one reason for action to start with.

So, getting to the point: It should be fairly clear that causal theories of action, in their exposition, are generally abstractions. In real life, we do not act for precisely one reason unless we are only aware of one reason. More commonly, I suspect, our actions are produced by a causal circumstance rather than a given cause. The causal circumstance might be quite broad. Let’s say that I decide to eat a cake. My reasons for this may well include not only that the cake looks good to me, but also a general predisposition to sweets, or a gnawing hunger and lack of hot dogs in the vicinity, a general proattitude toward eating based on the past experience of its feeling good, perhaps also a commitment to keeping my strength up or not going too long between meals so as to avoid putting on weight. Each of these commitments, in turn, is likely to have other commitments behind it. To speak of an action being caused by one reason is, generally, to oversimplify matters—not just because the causes involved go far beyond any one reason, but because the relevant causes involved, the reasons, are not usually limited to one. It is not only philosophers who oversimplify, of course. In everyday life, if we stop to think about it, we often imagine that there is a particular reason for our actions. Having such a reason—or a defined set of reasons—comes in handy when we need to justify an action to others, or even to ourselves. But this focus on particular reasons may well serve to cover up a deeper fact: that our actions are, more commonly, caused by a broad range of dispositions, desires, beliefs, habits, urges, and commitments. Focusing on particular causes rather than on the whole relevant causal circumstance—what might be called “the will” in the proper sense—has benefits. It allows us to individuate the causes of actions in order to find the ones that best explain that action. But it has the disadvantage of making us forget that the range of relevant causes of any action is, normally, far wider than often thought. Understanding how these causes can operate together in producing an action—as a unified will—is thus a project underlying any causal theory of action.

The suggestion, then, is that there is a gap between explanation and reality. We rely on abstractions in explanations because we require intelligibility. And because are minds have relatively simple computational abilities, to have intelligibility we need simple models. But reality is not simple; action does not, generally, issue from one particular reason, even if one particular reason provides the most effective explanation of that action. Sticking with the Davidsonian account, then, has a problematic disadvantage: what it gives us is a theory of action-explanation. But it says little, if anything at all, about action.

Davidson, Donald. (1963) “Actions, Reasons, and Causes” in Essays on Actions & Events, 3-20.


  1. I enjoyed reading this, as I did the first post in the series. Nevertheless, let me raise a worry about your line of argument.

    So (in your view) Searle presents an argument for believing that there are MRS's; let's call this the Argument from Introspection. Your basic counter-argument is to discount such evidence, by noting that introspection has limits, and is fallible even within its proper sphere. But this counter-argument seems to veer dangerously close to an appeal to ignorance, i.e., an argument of the form:

    We don't know that p.
    Therefore, not-p.

    ('p' may be replaced with "There are MRS's.)

    To put it in a more positive light, your counter-argument does seem to undermine the Argument from Introspection, but it doesn't seem to establish the non-existence of MRSs. If one were to claim that it did, that would be a fallacious appeal to ignorance. The counter-argument could legitimately only establish that, for all we know, MRSs may or may not exist.

  2. Hi Boram,

    Thanks for commenting.

    You're right that if I were making the argument you lay out, it would be a horrible one. I am not making that argument. But you're right that I am not very clear on how the two parts of my post here are connected. So, there are two parts:

    1. Following on from the previous post, I am arguing that MRSs can't be legitimately used as premises in arguments unless their existence can be definitely established. Particularly: both Mele and Searle take the existence of MRSs as somehow self-evident, and I have a gripe with this. So my anti-introspection argument is part of the strategy of showing that the existence of MRSs is not self-evident at all.

    Side note: I take it that you are also suggesting that my anti-introspection argument is far too basic to really work as an argument; you're right. I'll work it out more soon, hopefully. But one comment now: I'm not sure that speaking of introspection's "proper sphere" as you do still makes that much sense at this point, when externalism and pragmatics have firmly undermined the notion of introspection as a kind of inner perception. Richard Moran's "Authority and Estrangement" is a brilliant guide to all that stuff--partly in pointing out that what we need to explain is not how self-knowledge or introspection can be infallible (which is dubious), but rather why it is taken as authoritative.

    2. The second part is to distinguish the theory of action-explanation from the theory of what action is really like. Part of this strategy involves suggesting that MRSs function within theories of action-explanation, but aren't as good for dealing with actions as they really are.

    The second part is not meant to follow from the first, though you're right that I didn't make this clear enough. That is, I am not arguing, first, that there are no MRSs, and then insisting that we need an action-theory that doesn't involve MRSs. Rather, I am arguing that there is no obvious reason to accept the existence of MRSs, and an appeal to ignorance works for this purpose (e.g., we don't know that p, therefore we can't assume that p and get justified beliefs out of that assumption).

    That there are no MRSs--or at least that action-theory shouldn't rely on their existence--requires independent arguments. I'll try to put up a brief post on this in the next few days.