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Having and Making
Does causality tie us down?
We typically expect that there will be some
explanation for things that happen.
If my car turns over but won’t start, I suspect
there may no fuel getting to the cylinders, or
there may be no spark, or there may be no air
to ignite the fuel.
Each of these conditions would explain the
car’s failure to start, by causing combustion
not to occur in the cylinders.
More explanation
Of course when the car does start, I take it
that all 3 of these conditions are met, and
together they cause the engine to run.
Again, the explanation invokes causes that
either make something happen or prevent it
from happening.
We do something similar when it comes to
explaining the choices we make.
Why did I do that?
The explanations we give for our (and other’s)
actions often appeal to beliefs and desires:
Why did I go downstairs?
Because I wanted a beer, and I believed there was some in
the downstairs fridge.
If my belief was true, then by doing what I did I
managed to get what I wanted.
But if my beliefs and desires are caused by my
history, then my going downstairs was also caused
(determined, even) by that history.
So, did I have a choice?
At the moment, I did exactly what I wanted to
do– but does that mean I freely chose to go
After all, given my causal history, I was
bound to have the desire and the belief that
led me to go downstairs.
And if there’s always a causal explanation do
as I did, it looks as though I’m just a complex
mechanism, not really free at all.
An inconsistent triad
Everything we do has is determined by a
When we’re caused to do something, we
don’t act freely (after all, it’s impossible for
us to do anything but what we actually do).
Sometimes we do act freely.
Accept 1 and 2? You’re a hard determinist.
 2 and 3? You’re a libertarian.
 1 and 3? You’re a soft determinist.
 Reject 2? You’re a compatibilist.
(Note that this last means that the soft
determinist is a kind of compatibilist– a
compatibilist who believes in determinism.)
A.J. Ayer (1910-1991)
A determinist and a
A prominent mid-20th
century figure in the
logical positivist
Directed the PhD work
of my first philosophy
Ayer’s version of the puzzle
When I am said to have done something of
my own free will it is implied that I could
have acted otherwise.
(I)f human behaviour is entirely governed by
causal laws, it is not clear how any action that
is done could ever have been avoided.
It is commonly assumed that men (sic) are
capable of acting freely.
Science often seems to assume we can, at least in
principle, fully explain what happens.
The fact that I don’t immediately know the causes of
all my actions doesn’t show that they don’t have
But perhaps real ‘freedom’ is marked by precisely
this kind of limit.
“(M)ay it not be true that, in some cases…the
reason… we can give no causal explanation is that
no causal explanation is available…?” (415)
What about ‘Pure Chance’?
Suppose my trip downstairs has no (full) causal
How is this different from there simply being a
chance that I would go downstairs, and a chance that
I would not?
As it turns out, I did go downstairs.
But if that’s just the result of a ‘coin flip’, it’s not
really freedom– and it’s useless as an account of
moral responsibility.
Stuck between determinism and
Is there nothing in-between simply doing as
I’m causally determined to do, and doing
something as a matter of pure chance?
What about character?
But doesn’t character itself result from causes
(genes, upbringing & experience)?
Or, if character itself arises by chance, can I
be responsible for what it makes me do?
A way out?
Re-define freedom? Pretty crude &
Re-consider what freedom is contrasted with:
Suppose freedom in regard to a choice doesn’t
mean ‘uncaused’, but instead ‘unconstrained’.
Not every cause is a constraint.
If someone else makes me do something, then I’m
constrained (threats count here– the law recognizes
this very clearly).
If I fall out a window, gravity and my lack of wings
constrains me to fall.
If I don’t make any decision, but act out of a
compulsion or habitual obedience to someone else,
I’m constrained.
Am I sometimes free of all such constraints, despite
being caused to do as I do? Are the ‘chains of
causation’ constraints too?
Kinds of causes
“(I)t is not when my action has any cause at all, but
only when it has a special sort of cause, that it is
reckoned not to be free.”
But: don’t all causes necessitate?
Only if causation is necessitation– not in the sense
that all causes are rightly said to constrain us.
Causation applies to a strict, regular sequence of
events. Talk of ‘necessity’ here is just a kind of
Could have done otherwise and
That I could have done otherwise is a matter
of my doing something else had I chosen to.
Further, my doing something can be
voluntary, as my falling (once out the
window) or my compulsive acts are not.
Finally, no-one compels or constrains me.
All this still allows that what I did could be
explained through causal laws.
Why did we think otherwise?
Confusing causal with logical ‘necessity’.
Muddled notion of ‘force’.
Animistic notion of ‘causality’.
All portray causes as far more intrusive and
compelling than they really are.
Accepting the metaphor of cause as a
‘master’, imposing its demands on us, is the
real mistake here.
On fatalism
But if determinism holds in general, the future is
already settled. Isn’t this incompatible with
No. The fact that it’s settled doesn’t mean we don’t
make a contribution to it’s turning out the way it
Fatalism moves from the claim that the future is
settled, to the claim that nothing we could do would
make any difference to it.
But this is a non-sequitur.
Walter T. Stace (1886-1967)
British civil servant and then philosopher.
Joined Princeton Department in 1935.
Wrote on philosophy of religion, defending a
kind of mysticism while also being a strong
Worries here about the impact of a loss of
religious belief on ‘moral standards’ (though
he thinks a ‘total collapse’ is very unlikely).
On Free Will
“(I)f there is no free will there can be no
morality.” 419-20.
Unless someone is capable of doing
something other than what he actually did, it
‘does not make sense to tell him that he ought
not to have done what he did…’
What is it, for people to ‘behave as if they and
others were free’?
“For when it comes to doing anything
practical,…they invariably behave as if they
and others were free. They inquire from you
at dinner whether you will choose this dish or
that dish…All of which is inconsistent with a
disbelief in free will.” (420)
An incorrect definition?
Free will was defined as meaning
“As soon as we see what the true definition is we
shall find that the question whether the world
is deterministic…or in a measure
indeterministic… is wholly irrelevant to the
 Key issue here is common usage (ordinary
language philosophy)…
Going without food and other
The desert.
 Mahatma Ghandi.
 The honest thief.
 The hired thief.
 The forced confession.
 Going for lunch vs. being ordered out.
When do we say we’re free? When what we do is up to
us– when we could have done otherwise, if we
Causation and Freedom
“..whatever degree of determinism prevails in the
world, human actions appear to be as much
determined as anything else…Therefore,
being uncaused or being undetermined by
causes, must be an incorrect definition of free
The difference between free and
“…the causes of those in the left-hand column are of
a different kind from the causes of those in the righthand column”(423)
“Free acts are all caused by desires or motives or by
some sort of internal psychological states of the
agent’s mind”
“Acts not freely done are those whose immediate
causes are states of affairs external to the agent.”
What about internal compulsions? Mental
The Robbery
A borderline case, so close to literally being
forced, we ignore its internal cause. (Does
this work for cases of compulsion or mental
Conditionals come in; though the lie was
caused, you could have told the truth if you
had wanted to.
For the compulsive, the answer might be
‘no’… maybe this helps.
Moral Responsibility
Some claim determinism is incompatible with
responsibility even if it’s compatible with what we
call ‘freedom’.
But being determined is not, in general, an excuse.
Justifying punishment and reward is easy here: they
deter (and correct) or encourage and support
behaviour that we have good reasons to deter and to
“The only difference is that different kinds of things
require different kinds of causes to make them do
what they should.”(424)