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Free Will
Mental Causation
James Symposium
Nicholas Rescher
Nicholas Rescher has written extensively on epistemology, the philosophy of science, Arabic philosophy, ancient Greek philosophy, process philosophy, logic, metaphysics, and values.

His latest work is Free Will: A Philosophical Appraisal, dedicated to Robert Kane and Peter van Inwagen (free-will theorists extraordinary, he calls them).

Rescher's "Appraisal" contains some of the strongest arguments for human freedom written by a philosopher in recent years. He argues strongly for the reality of alternative possibilities for action and an evaluation and decision process that is adequately determined.

The circumstances of life being what they are, the scope of our free agency is all too often distinctly limited. But it is very rarely reduced to a set of one — a single option. Crucial to the conception of freedom of the will is the idea that in most options of life we face situations where several alternatives move before us, and where the choice among them involves a decision on our part with respect to authenticity available optimism, situations where it is up to us to decide matters one way or another. And the core of the concept of free will is that this prospect of decision by deliberative choice is often possible and sometimes mandatory for us.

The ability to act, and to act spontaneously on one’s own motivating account, is a crucial aspect of the autonomy that makes an intelligent agent into an authentic person. Acting freely via deliberation may not be something that we would want to do all of the time — any more than we would ideally want to engage in reasoning all of the time. But both are things we would certainly want to do some of the time. The loss of freedom, like the loss of reason itself, would be fatal to our status as the sort of beings we are — or at any rate see ourselves as being.
(Free Will, p.2)

Like Gottfried Leibniz, Immanuel Kant, R. E. Hobart, Philippa Foot, and others, Rescher thinks that deliberation leads to a "determined" choice that is not "pre-determined" by events outside our minds. He calls this kind of determination "motive determination." This process of determination need not extend back in a causal chain to the beginning of the universe. It may extend back to new causal chains that start in our thought processes.

Determination of human actions can certainly be self-supplied and not be the fruit of an externally emanating imposition along the lines of constraint, coercism, and compulsion. And such determination would not automatically be at odds with freedom. On the contrary, determination of one’s decisions and choices via one’s own motives is the very quintessence of freedom of the will. To make a decision in the light of one’s motives is not a matter of being compelled against one’s will — it is itself what willing is all about.
(Free Will, p.79)

Maintaining that a choice or decision was made freely at once invites the question: "Free from what?" And several rather different sorts of things can be at issue, specifically including:

  • Freedom from pre-determination, of any sort, be it "external" or "internal." This is the crux of what we have here termed metaphysical freedom.

  • Freedom from determination by "external," factors and pressures, that interfere with an agent’s agenda and intrude upon his autonomy. This is the crux of what we have here called moral freedom.
However, the one thing that a free will does not—and cannot—require is freedom from one’s own motives. For an agent is never freer than when his choices give overt expression to his inner nature.
(Free Will, p.86)
Of course there are causes (even "causal chains") that go back to some structures in our minds with roots in heredity, or in environmental conditioning that formed habits long before our current decision process. These may often be the proximate cause of our decisions. The important thing is to see that need they not ever be "pre-determining." The mind has a final option to assent or not assent to our habitual decisions. These habits are reasons and motives that impel but do not compel, says Rescher. (p.130)

In some cases, our decision might seem irrational or even immoral by comparison with our past actions. But Rescher says, "If agents are to be free at all, they have to be free to be unreasonable." Unlike Susan Wolf, our decisions do not have to be rational to be free.

More important still, unlike Immanuel Kant and Robert Kane, our decisions do not have to be moral to be free. Rescher says,

Freedom is a democracy open to all, not just those whose motives are honorable, rational, and good.
(Free Will, p.117)

Rescher considers the meaning of "could have done otherwise," and connects it to quantum indeterminacy.

In one important respect, chance and choice are in the same boat: both are indispensably bound up with the idea that matters could have eventuated differently. In this regard the free will theorist does not stand alone — the quantum physicist is very much on his side, given his contention that the uranium atom which disintegrated after ten hours of observation could have done otherwise.
(Free Will, p.50)
But we must not make chance the direct cause of our actions. This is the randomness objection in the standard argument against free will. Rescher does not come fully to grips with how chance can be limited to the creation of alternative options for action. Then his "motive determination" could be the second stage in a two-stage model of free will.

Rescher examines many recent attempts of psychologists and neuroscientists to initiate behaviors in an agent that the agent mistakenly feels were chosen freely. Although many times we are wrong about our motivations for a particular action, including this kind of manipulations, they do not add up to denying the possibility of free actions.

Pretty well anything we humans do can be mismanaged. We can make mistakes in computation, mis-remember events, succumb to optical illusions, feel pain in missing limbs. And similarly we can be mistaken in judgments of freedom and err in deeming free various things done under the influence of hypnosis, conditioning, or the like. But in no sphere does the fact that we are sometimes mistaken carry over to systemic erroneousness. The possession of a capacity to will freely is not annihilated by the fact that we sometimes make mistakes in the matter. Here as elsewhere generalizing from tendentiously pre-selected instances is a very questionable practice.
(Free Will, p.156)
But such generalizing is very popular, says Rescher, citing the work of Daniel Wegner.

Rescher concludes his book by saying that the emergence of intelligence and free will (we would add creativity) is the crowning achievement of evolution.

It is thus only sensible to view free will, along with the emergence of intelligence, as one of evolution’s crowning glories. For the reality of it is that free agency is an optimally useful evolutionary resource for intelligent agents, and did this arrangement not already exist in the world, evolutionary pressures would militate for its emergence.
And finally he finds it ironic that philosophers debate the question of free will using rational deliberations.
It is interesting in a rather ironic way that when the matter of free will is posed as an issue whose resolution is to be secured on the basis of rational deliberation with respect to evidence and reasons, this approach to the issue already comes too late. For even to seek reasons for or against the freedom of the will is already to presume in ourselves a will free to effect decisions in matters of deliberations. Undertaking such an inquiry only makes sense in the context of the assumption that acceptance or rejection of the contention at issue is a free option that can and should be settled through thought on the basis of reasons — that resolving the matter by weighing considerations pro and con is an available prospect, itself freed from predetermination by factors or forces outside the range of autonomously concluded deliberations.
Rescher on Miller/Hobart
Nicolas Rescher has read and understood the work of Dickinson Miller, especially the classic 1934 paper in Mind written under the pseudonym of R.E. Hobart.

Hobart's Mind paper is cited by many recent philosophers as defending the idea of determinism, but nothing could be further from the truth. Unfortunately, Philippa Foot's misquote of Hobart's landmark article led to its wide citation as support for determinism and compatibilism.

Foot titled her 1957 article for Philosophical Review "Free Will as involving Determinism," and in her references she substituted determinism where Hobart had said determination. Nevertheless, Foot read Hobart correctly and understood that he did not mean determinism, which she too argued against.

The correct title is Free Will as involving DETERMINATION and inconceivable without it {my emphasis].

Recent philosophers from libertarians to determinists routinely misquote this title (including Robert Kane, Galen Strawson, John Martin Fischer, Alfred Mele, Derk Pereboom, and Arthur Danto.

Nicholas Rescher gets the title right, and quotes several excellent passages from Miller/Hobart.

[F]reedom of the will is nowise at odds with a motivational determinism that places the locus of causal determination is located in the thought-process of the agent—with such determination as there is canalized through the mediation of the choices and decisions emergent from his deliberations. And there is consequently no opposition between freedom and causal determination as long as that determination is effected by what transpires in the principle of agents and the matter is one of agent-causality.

The crux here is whether there is an agent-external determinism — a determinism where all reference to the agent and his motivational deliberations can be left out of consideration of consideration in matters of explanation. Once again, Dickinson Miller has put the matter well:

[No one likes to think that their] mind is so small and simple that one can predict its ideas. That is the real reason why people react in such cases against predicting their conduct, for if present human knowledge, which is known to be so limited, can foresee their conduct, it must be more naïve and stereotypic than they like to think it. [But] it is no reflection upon the human mind or its freedom to say that one who knew it [completely] through and through (a human impossibility) could foreknow its preferences and its spontaneous choices.
The comprehensiveness at issue in these means that the information requisite for determination will not be available to others or indeed even to the agent himself. Reference to the point of decision is also crucial. For only then have matters gone too far for options still to be open. But this is so not because circumstances have constrained the agent but because at this point the agent himself has settled matters.

The dictum "Tout comprendre c' est tout pardonner" gets it dead wrong. To trace the causal antecedence of a person's actions into his character, personality, psychological make-up, etc. is not thereby to erase discredit from his misdeeds. At this point the analysis of Dickinson Miller is once more right on target:

[Consider the act of a sociopath.] It does not remove our sense of its vileness to reflect that he was acting according to his nature. That is a part of why we are indignant at him. We intend to make him fee that his nature is in that respect evil and its expression insufferable. We intend to interfere with the expression of his nature. That what he did proceeded from it is not a disturbing and praise-giving consideration in the midst of our conduct, but the entire basis of it.'
And this is surely correct, for as Kant rightly stressed, inclination is the very core of moral assessment.

The thief may possibly try to argue: "You cannot appropriately blame (reproach, punish) me for that theft. It was not a free act of mine: my cupidity made me do it." But this is absurd for even granting that his cupidity played a determinative role, the fact remains that it was his cupidity—this constitutive aspect of his own very self—that was determinative. And since freedom is self-determination, that act remains free.

When we say that...a person "is not himself' and analyze an internal aberration to an external composition we treat that person as morally unfree and subject to demanded responsibility. This is an act of charity, not a recognition of fact. It is based every bit as much on a socially benign fiction as is the idea that someone less than eighteen years of age cannot bear responsibility for a capital crime. "His illness made him do it" is something on the order of "the dog ate my homework," a plausible pretext to provide cover for an appeal for clemency.

In just this light Dickinson Miller rightly deplored:

This mode of speaking [that] distinguishes the self from its wishes and represents it as under their dominion.... [For] in fact the moral self is the wishing self. The wishes are its own. It cannot be discounted as under their dominion, for it has no separate predilections to be overcome by them; they themselves are its predilections. To fancy that because the person acts according to them he is impelled, a slave—the victim of a power from whose clutches he cannot extract himself—is a confusion of ideas.... I am not in my [free] acts passively played upon by forces outside me, but am enacting my own wishes ["choices" would have been a better term, since there may be reluctance] in virtue of a chain of causation within me.
This is substantially correct. The individual is not the passive victim of her motives, but their actively consenting implementer and exponent. Free will and determinism can thus be reconciled through the consideration that determinism requires that "All occurrences are productively determined—volitions included," while free will requires that "My volitions are determined by—but not for—me."' For that second sentence rightly indicates that the "productively determined" of that first sentence cannot be glossed as having the qualifying addendum "by the causality of nature"—as classical determinism would have it. Authentic freedom of the will calls for distinguishing between the efficient causality of natural processes and motivativally mediated agent causality of choice and deliberation. And some such determination there must indeed be. For insofar as an agent's choices and decisions are not determined by his motives—by his likings and inclinations, wishes and purposes, and all the rest of it—they become disqualified from counting as his choices. As Dickinson Miller put it:
Insofar as this "interposition of the self" [this agent motivation] is undetermined, the act is not its act.... In proposition as it is [so] underdetermined, it is just as if this legs should suddenly spring up and carry him off where he did not choose to go. Far from constituting freedom, the will has, in the exact measure in which it took place, the loss of freedom.'
A will that does not extract its resolutions from the motivating considerations that figure in an agent's deliberations is arbitrary, feckless— "willful" is the most pejorative sense of the term. As was already noted, such a will is not free but frivolous.

Mind-Brain Interaction Works by Coordination, Not by Causality Here then lies the key to reconciling the two modes of causality that vexed modern philosophers from Descartes to Kant and beyond.' For the idea of a genuine partnership affords a key to how the mind comes to exercise physical causality. When I mentally decide to wiggle my fingers a few seconds hence for the sake of an example, how is it that my body responds to this purely mental transaction? The answer is that doesn't because no "purely mental" transaction is at issue. Thought always has its correlative in the domain of brain physiology.' And so an individual's so-called "purely mental intention" is not really something purely mental at all because it stands coordinate with a mind-brain amalgamating phsycio-physiological intention-state in much the same manner at issue with the mood/configuration duality of those smiley/frowny faces considered above. And the physical cause of that wiggling response is not something "purely mental" but the physical side of that dual-aspect amalgam. It must, however, be reemphasized that what actually occurs in such transactions is a matter less of causality than of coordination. In his classic paper of 1934, Dickinson Miller saw the matter quite clearly:

[In choosing or deciding] the mental process is paralleled in the brain by a physical process. The whole [two-sided] psycho-physical occurrence would then be the cause of what followed, and the psychic side of it—the mental struggle proper—a con-cause or side of the [overall, two-sided] cause. To-morrow's configuration of matter [i.e., the physical result of an action] will [then] have been brought about by a material [i.e., physical] process with which the mental process was inseparably conjoined.'
And so, when an agent acts there is no need to dream up a Cartesian category-transcending impetus of thought upon matter. The material eventuations are produced materially, by the physical side of the two-sided mind-matter amalgam at issue in psychophysical processes. And the same with thought processes.
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