One More Link in the Chain

An act of will is “determined” in Descartes’ sense just in cases where an external force directly determined the act of the will.  If the act of the will is determined by internal forces then the act, according to Descartes, is not determined.  When I first read this, it struck me as a bit strange, but I was not able to figure out what it was that was unusual.  Ragland’s diagram on page 386 of “Descartes on the Principle of Alternative Possibilities” made me realize that acts of will determined by internal forces are often no less determined than acts of the will directly determined by external forces.  Including internal forces does nothing more than add one more link to the chain.

If a person’s internal forces are entirely determined by some external force, then the resulting act of will could end up being exactly the same as an act of will determined directly by some external force.  In many cases, adding a link between the external forces and the act of will does not seem to change the causal story enough to warrant saying that act of will is now not determined by the external forces indirectly acting upon it.

Let us suppose that internal force (I) brings about act of will (A).  (A) is determined entirely by (I) and (I) is determined entirely by external force (E).  Does this truly bring about a different picture than if (E) had directly brought about (A)?  In the scenario I just presented, the act of will is the same when it is directly brought about by (E) as when it is indirectly brought about by (E).  Furthermore, since (I) was determined entirely by (E), there is nothing that (I) brought to the table that may even hint at changing the deterministic story.

Of course there will be cases where (E) influences (I) and (I) brings something new to the table before it brings about the act of will (A), but this does not always have to be the case.  It seems that when it is not the case that (I) brings about its own new influence, that adding the extra link does not change anything in regard to the causal story.  Yet, Descartes did not make any of these clarifications or differentiations.  He was completely fine with saying that as long as there is an indirect relation between (E) and (A), (A) is not determined, and I have a real problem with saying that.

3 thoughts on “One More Link in the Chain

  1. There is a sense in which I agree with you, but I’ve been convinced that if an action is determined by an internal factor that is in turn determined by an external factor, it isn’t as straightforwardly ‘unfree’ as it at first appears to some. As an example, let’s take the classic example of a neuroscientist implanting a chip into a subject’s brain in order to “control” his actions and have him commit a murder. Nomy Arpaly points out in “Unprincipled Virtue” (2002, chapter 5) that there are a number of ways that the neuroscientist can do this. (Arpaly discusses more than these two ways, but only these two seem particularly relevant, here.)

    First, she may implant a chip such that the patient just acts, contrary to his desires, etc. In this case, the intervention seems, intuitively, entirely external, and the action is not done freely. This case seems similar to if a person grabbed my arm and forced me to kill–entirely external, against my will, and not free.

    However, another way that the neuroscientist could have the patient commit the murder is by changing his psychology, such that he has an unbearable hatred for the target, very little regard for human life or well-being, etc. In short, she could turn the patient into a murderer. In this case, the manipulation is done so that the patient chooses to do the evil deed, and even revels in doing it. In this second case, it seems that there is an external factor (the neuroscientist) that determines the internal factor (the hatred, evil beliefs, etc.) that (we can assume) determine the action.

    The relevant question is whether or not the action in the second case was done freely. Though I feel a pull to say, “Of course not!” it seems difficult to do so. This person has been turned into a murderer. He has all of the relevant desires, all of the beliefs, etc. of an evil individual that we would hold accountable for his actions. If this is true, then it seems difficult to drive a wedge between the freedom with which the two (the unmanipulated murderer and the post-op patient of the neuroscientist) acted. By this, I don’t mean to undermine your intuition entirely–I share it and think that there must be a way to distinguish the two cases–but merely suggest that it may not be as obvious as it first seems.

  2. One question you’re getting at, I take it, is whether there is any robust difference between internally- and directly-externally-caused actions such that the former makes for freedom but the latter does not. Both seem like sorts of causation, right? I don’t think anyone would deny that. But paradigmatic cases of the latter seems like ones we would want to deny are the causes of free actions. So far, so good.
    The harder question is whether there is any robust difference between directly- and indirectly-externally-caused actions such that the former does not make for freedom by the latter does. We’ve already seen, in the previous paragraph, that there is (strong?) reason to accept that the latter does not make for freedom by comparing it to (wholly-) internally-caused actions. But how is the latter relevantly different such that it can be a case of non-determination?
    I don’t have an answer to that question. But I think it is probably a mistake to focus on the case in which the actions that could be caused in these two ways are *exactly the same* even though they have different causal histories.
    Why? Well, consider a case in which I am internally-caused to raise my arm and a case in which I am directly-externally-caused to raise my arm. For example, suppose Mauro grabs my arm and raises it in class today. I take it that we have no inclination to say that Mauro’s raising my arm was a free action of mine. But note that these two cases have the feature you’re worried about: both are such that the same action occurs with different causal histories. And if you’re not worried about my freedom in the case in which I am (wholly) internally-caused to raise my arm given the Mauro case, I don’t see why you should be worried about the sort of case you raise.
    I might have misunderstood the part of your worry that I’ve focused on. Help me out here?

  3. Hi Evan (and this comment addresses Kevin as well)

    Evan – I think you may have been a bit confused by my worry. Perhaps I did not do an adequate job of expressing myself. Let me try again to see if I can more successfully articulate my point. I’ll keep your example of Mauro grabbing your arm.

    My concern was not two cases where the resulting actions are the same but the causes were different. I recognize that the same action may arise in multiple ways, some of which are free and some of which are not. My concern was: why suppose that adding one more step in guarantees freedom? Perhaps I can make my thoughts clear with the following three cases:

    (I) Suppose Mauro grabs your arm and forces you to raise it. Here we clearly have a case of an external force directly affecting your action. I think we all feel comfortable saying that you did not raise your arm freely.

    (II) Take a separate case, Mauro holds a gun to your head and says, “Raise your arm or I’ll shoot!” In the case you internally decide to raise your arm because you do not want Mauro to shoot you. The external force (Mauro) is indirectly causing your action in this, and I think again, we should feel comfortable saying that you did not raise your arm freely. In this case, however, the reason we are comfortable saying you did not raise your arm has to do with coercion. Coerced actions cannot be said to be free. (I think Kant might argue that this was a free action, but let’s put that aside for now because I have an additional example that will be far more controversial than this.)

    (III) Lastly, let us suppose that Mauro is an extremely intelligent, conniving, manipulative individual. He wants you to raise your hand in class, so he speaks to you prior to class and subtly (unbeknownst to you) plants the idea of arm raising into your head. Throughout the day he nurtures this seed, and by the time class begins, you have decided to raise your hand, and you do so. If the ONLY reason you raise your hand is because of the work of Mauro, (ie: you did not internally add anything to the decision to act: you did not think “it might be fun to raise my hand” or “I might gain something from raising my hand” etc. – it came wholly from Mauro) then I want to say that this action does not seem free, either. Though, Mauro’s actions were indirect, they still brought about the arm raising action from you. Since you did not internally contribute ANYTHING to this, then it was entirely Mauro’s actions that caused your arm raising.

    My concern was with the relationship between (III) and (I). Specifically: Is (III) more free than (I)? I want to say “no. Both actions are necessitated.” I think I even want to say that both actions are equally necessitated and the fact that Mauro was indirect in (III) does not make your action more free than the fact that Mauro was direct in (I). However I am more hesitant now than I was when I initially wrote this point. Kevin’s murderer example seems to be a version of (III), and I see Kevin’s difficulty in saying that (III) was not done freely. After Mauro’s skillful seed planting you may WANT to raise your hand. You may be convinced by Mauro’s reasons (whatever they were) that raising your hand is a good thing. Instead of forcing you to raise your hand against your will, Mauro has created a “hand raiser” out of you. You are now the type of person that wants to (and does) raise your hand. Perhaps this is where freedom comes in after all. Your will corresponds to your action, so your action is yours and you can be blamed for it. Yet, I do not want to grant this just yet. Should I be held responsible for someone changing my will? Should you be held responsible for Mauro changing your will and making a “hand raiser” out of you? I’m not sure. Perhaps you allowed Mauro to change your will, and in this case you ARE responsible because you let yourself be changed. However, my example stated that Mauro’s changes within you took place subconsciously. Are you responsible for that? Again, I’m not so sure. If the answer turns out to be “no, you’re not responsible,” then I want to say that you were not free in case (III) just like you were not free in (I). It all depends on whether or not you are responsible for Mauro’s changing your will.

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