Monday, November 2, 2020

A Metaphysics for Freedom #1

A Metaphysics for Freedom is the title of a 2014 book by Helen Steward, a lecturer at the University of Leeds in England. Her book offers a new perspective on free will, free choice, or volition based on the concept agency. Agency is not limited to human beings. It also exists to a lesser extent in many other, but not all, animal species. 

Quotes and paraphrases from Chapter 1 follow.

In traditional terms Seward is an incompatibalist [ref.: compatibalism], holding that anything worthy of calling ‘free agency” could not exist in a completely deterministic universe. She agrees with John Bishop, who claimed that the serious problem concerning debates about freedom and determinism has nothing to do with either, but with the possibility of accommodating actions within the natural universe. Determinism is falsified as much as what is natural to think about the meanderings of a goat as by the ethical agonizing and deliberate choices of humans. Yet in recent years there has been a tendency for the ‘freedom’ side of the debate to be conceived in more lofty and sophisticated terms. 

“The supposition that agency itself – the capacity to move oneself about the world in purposive ways, ways that are at least in some respects up to oneself – is unproblematic, and that it is only something rather more special, given, perhaps, the honorific appellation ‘free agency’ or ‘free will’, that creates potential difficulties, inevitably gives rise to the suspicion that the incompatibalist must mean to insist upon the operation, in connection solely with human powers, of types of causality or disruption in the natural unfolding of events not generally found elsewhere in the world, and it is reasonably supported by many that this cannot be acceptable.” [p. 4-5; Whew!]

“[W]hat I shall call animal agency, a collection of powers that are remarkable enough, despite the fact that they are not unique to humanity, and which might themselves be thought of as representative of a variety of freedom – albeit, admittedly, a far more lowly sort than we are used to encompassing with that term – which will be the main focus of my book” (p. 5).

“In order to exercise the forms of agency that we value so highly – moral choice, exercises of taste and skill, communication, self-disciplined attention to duties, personal development, creativity, etc. – we have to be able to move our bodies in such a way as to make them carry out plans of our own devising, in the service of our ends. My claim will be that these humble abilities, which are widely possess throughout the animal kingdom, are themselves incompatible with universal determinism” (p. 5).

Causal theories of rational action, according to which an agent’s strongest desire always prevails, provide further grist to the determinist’s mill, as does empirical evidence that root explanations in sub-personal phenomena such as hormones or neurally-based dispositions (p. 10).

Quantum indeterminacy, if granted, seems not to help very much with the free will problem (p. 10).

Her argument for the falsity of universal determinism is:

1. If universal determinism is true, the future is not open.
2. If there are self-moving animals, the future is open.
3. There are self-moving animals.
4. Therefore, universal determinism is not true (p. 12).

However, the concept of self-moving animal needed to support agency is hard to specify precisely. Sponges and paramecium are not good candidates (p. 16). A goal is required (p.17).

Settling is a key concept in her theory. It is not true that everything relating to the relevant set of movements and changes in the animal’s body is determinately settled by the universe prior to the time of the animal’s activity, for at least some things have to be settled by the animal at the time of its activity (p. 20).

Reference: Scope of Volition. This doesn’t try to explain volition in terms of physics. On the other hand, perceptual attention, motivation, and goals don’t fall within the scope of physics.

Addenda Nov. 8: When writing the above I didn’t include much from pages 9-12 in order to emphasize her argument for free will rather than her argument against determinism. So I will focus on the latter here.

No one supposes that the mere existence of quantum indeterminacy lead to the dissolution of the free will problem (p. 9).

The huge success of molecular biology provide evidence that some complex, higher-level phenomena of life are susceptible to reductive explanation by chemistry. She believes explaining what these are, how higher level phenomena relate to lower level phenomena, rather than any generalized commitment to determinism, that sustains compatibilism (Steward being an incompatibilist). It is not universal determinism per se which is problematic for agency, but a localized variant of determinism. She will say more about this in Chapters 6-8, and I will also in later posts in this series. 

The relation between agency and the microphysical is as much about supposing the way different levels of reality relate to one another as it is the idea that each momentary state of the universe inexorably necessitating the next.

Section 1.3 is titled ‘An Argument Against Universal Determinism.’ However, most of the section in my view is her case for her concept of agency.

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