Monday, July 21, 2008

Normativity and the Causal Theory of Action; Some Concerns About Causalism

Given the recent concerns by David Velleman and others about the “chilling effects” of blogging about conferences, I am a bit hesitant to say too much about the conference on “Normativity and the Causal Theory of Action.” But it was a superb and very interesting gathering, so I’d like to at least offer a few reflections. I don’t think I have anything to say that could even potentially be construed as negative, and if anyone from the conference objects, I would be happy to take down any of the points. In any case, this was a really impressive group of people, and many thanks go to Markus Schlosser, Bryony Pierce, and Finn Spicer for organizing it. The faculty and post-graduate students from Bristol, other UK Universities, and a few visitors from the Continent, provided a spectacular stream of comments that largely had me in awe. Bristol, I should add, is a gorgeous city, with winding streets criss-crossing at different levels in three dimensions; more than enough for a serious flâneur. And it isn’t every day that I get to stay in a dorm room within a 1740s Palladian villa.

Interestingly, the conference did not really attain its initial goal, originally stated as being to bring together critics and supporters of the causal theory of action (CTA). It did not attain this for the simple reason that all five speakers accepted CTA, at least in some minimal form. Though some of us were a bit critical, no one argued against such theories altogether; the papers were more focused on attacking specific versions or formulations of CTA, or raising problems that causal theorists have yet to resolve, than attempting to throw CTA out altogether. Thus, Lynne Rudder Baker defended CTA, but struck a blow against any version on which actions are caused by neural events, providing a quite brilliant argument to the effect that action-causing mental states are constituted by, but irreducible to, their neural substrates. Matthias Haase questioned the extent to which CTA can account for rule following. Maria Alvarez provided a strong account of reasons as facts, attacking causalists for speaking of reasons as the causes of actions, as if reasons were reducible to mental states. And I (on a charitable reading of my paper) argued that CTA is only part of the story of action explanation; the other part has to be hashed out through agent-constituting narrative accounts, which specify exactly what it is, within the agent’s psychic economy, that rationalizes each action.

But while all of us were open to endorsing at least some version of CTA, Michael Bratman was the conference’s major defender of causalism. Having never seen him in action before, I must say that his reputation is well earned. He has the ability to get to the philosophical core of every paper, and thus his comments sometimes had an especially devastating tendency. In his own account, he raised three features central to human agency (planning, identification, and rational guidance), argued that these are fully compatible with CTA, and insisted that we need CTA for two major reasons: (1) If we accept that the actions of non-human animals are causally produced by features of their psyche, we need CTA in order to retain continuity between those animals and ourselves. (2) Accounting for the Davidsonian challenge of distinguishing between acting with a reason and acting for that reason—that is, we need a way of specifying the connection between an action and the motives for which the action was actually performed, as opposed to the motives the agent simply happened to have at the time of action, but did not act on. Bratman added to this the consideration that, if we are to be able to speak of acting for reason R, and acting for a different reason while thinking (perhaps through simple error, or self-deception) that we are acting for R, we need an account of what the right connection—acting for R—comes to; CTA gives us this.

Ultimately, though I find these considerations important, I am not fully convinced. Let us formulate two sorts of objections to CTA. Objections of the first sort argue that planning, identification, and rational guidance are incompatible with a causal account. Those objections, I think, are amply answered by Bratman, Velleman, Mele, Bishop, and others. But now take objections of the second sort, which might go like this: the features central to human agency are, e.g., planning, identification, and rational guidance. These features may well be compatible with a causal account of action. But these concepts themselves are not causal ones. Thus, the objection might go, although giving a complete account of agency need not rule out CTA, it need not appeal to it either, since the features central to agency are explicable apart from any reference to causal relations. I think we can answer the first of Bratman’s points: we can grant that there is no radical break between human and animal kinds of agency by accepting CTA as running in the background of any metaphysical account of action. But certainly we need not foreground CTA, especially since we can explicate the features central to human agency without constantly returning to the continuities between human and animal agential powers.

Thus it is really the second point—Davidson’s original one—that seems to require CTA. It rests on the question of whether we can give a coherent account of what it is to act for a reason (as opposed to merely acting with a reason) without appealing to causality. I’ll give here a brief, and all too incomplete suggestion: we had better be able to give such an account, since CTA requires it. The reason is this: saying that X caused Y isn’t very meaningful, unless we can give a further account of what that causal relation consists of. For example, we might say that the solubility of salt (together with the salt's being placed in water) causes it to dissolve in water, but this claim conveys little information apart from a detailed account of the dissociation of NaCl molecules in H2O. That account cannot, in turn, appeal to any causal claim, since it is supposed to make the causal claim meaningful in the first place. Similarly, if we are to explain sentences of the type “Agent S’s action A was caused by motives X, Y, Z”, we need to lay out what causation by these motives consists in, and we need to do this in non-causal terms. If (in Mele’s example) Al mowed his lawn in the morning because this was a convenient time to mow his lawn and not because he wanted to get back at his neighbor for waking him up early last week, then we need an account of the relation between his belief that this is a convenient time and his mowing the lawn, and an account of how this is different from the relation between his wanting to get back at his neighbor and his mowing the lawn. And these accounts seem to require talk of rationalization and the agent’s psychological economy that is not in turn dependent on any causal talk.

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