Free actions as a natural kind

Abstract

Do we have free will? Understanding free will as the ability to act freely, and free actions as exercises of this ability, I maintain that the default answer to this question is “yes.” I maintain that free actions are a natural kind, by relying on the influential idea that kinds are homeostatic property clusters. The resulting position builds on the view that agents are a natural kind and yields an attractive alternative to recent revisionist accounts of free action. My view also overcomes difficulties confronted by previous views according to which free actions might be a natural kind. On my view, free actions exist and we often act freely, as long as we possess various features that are related in the right sorts of ways to each other and to the world. In turn, we acquire and retain the concept as long as most of us possess enough of those features.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    I will use capitals for concepts (e.g., FREE ACTION) and single quotation marks for terms (e.g., ‘free action’), where relevant.

  2. 2.

    The move from considerations about reference to conclusions about existence has been challenged (e.g., Mallon et al. 2009).

  3. 3.

    I follow Nichols (forthcoming) in understanding concepts as mental representations, while avoiding commitment to the idea that they contain descriptions. Instead, like Nichols, I adopt “the deliberately vague characterization on which the descriptive information is ‘associated’ with the concept” (Nichols forthcoming).

  4. 4.

    Other presuppositions apart from indeterminism might be in error—for example, the presupposition that free actions require conscious or rational control (Levy 2016; Vargas 2017).

  5. 5.

    I concede that Vargas might adopt a non-descriptivist natural-kind view (see Sect. 8.1); however, his specific proposal about free actions goes against the spirit of such views, which typically permit preserving the concept even without specifying any revision, as I explain below.

  6. 6.

    These claims are typically made in the first instance about linguistic terms. I follow both descriptivists (e.g., Jackson 1998, p. 33) and non-descriptivists (e.g., Laurence and Margolis 2003, p. 257) in maintaining that semantic claims about terms also apply to concepts.

  7. 7.

    Salmon (1982, pp. 161–175) denies that essentialism is entailed by the causal-historical view. Even so, those who adopt causal-historical externalism usually also have essentialist intuitions, and arguments for causal-historical externalism can be framed in non-semantic terms that might be used to motivate essentialism more directly.

  8. 8.

    The mechanisms underlying homeostasis might also be historical. Thus, a biological species (like orangutans) is partly defined in terms of a cluster of properties that is homeostatic due to common evolutionary descent (Boyd 1999, p. 144, pp. 154–156).

  9. 9.

    I will return to Millikan’s idea of a stabilizing function in Sect. 7, where I say more about why the HPC view cannot appeal to a criterial or descriptive way of identifying the paradigm cases, or generalizing from them to the kind. Moreover, HPC theorists sometimes add another condition to clauses (a) and (b), such that where the relevant features in (a) are unspecified, the kind is identified partly by the criteria we actually use in identifying kinds for use in explanada, i.e., the factor that makes the kind’s members explanatorily interesting, such as the capacity to fulfill a particular functional role (Reydon 2009, pp. 733–744). This extra condition works as a constraint on identifying the (putative) kind in the first place, i.e., on identifying its paradigm cases. For me, the relevant functional role is, as I note, that the behaviors in question seem to be instances of the most sophisticated goal-directed agency typically exercised by humans, often in the context of assigning moral responsibility.

  10. 10.

    Likewise, many who rely on the HPC account for other purposes use a similar shorthand, e.g., Kumar defines reference for ‘knowledge’ by appeal to “paradigm cases of knowledge” (2014, p. 447, cf. pp. 442–443, 446).

  11. 11.

    I thank a referee for encouraging me to clarify this point.

  12. 12.

    There is some disagreement about whether detecting agency is strictly a matter of visual processing or is instead a matter of cognitive judgment. This dispute need not detain us in the present context.

  13. 13.

    The examples of Romeo and the iron filings are drawn from James (1890, p. 20).

  14. 14.

    There is emerging evidence that plant behavior is far more strongly equifinal than we previously thought (Maher 2017). Similar findings have emerged regarding purposive agency in bacteria (Fulda 2017).

  15. 15.

    Deery and Nahmias (2017) explain our ability to distinguish among differing strengths of equifinality in terms of the strength of invariance between variables representing the output of an agent’s cognitive processes and the event of the agent’s obtaining a goal.

  16. 16.

    In this way, on the HPC account it might additionally be an empirical and a posteriori theoretical question how we track whatever features underpin free actions (cf. Hutto and Myin 2017).

  17. 17.

    Recall that “paradigm cases of free action” should be read as outlined in Sect. 3.

  18. 18.

    In fact, it is a hotly debated issue in the free-will literature whether agents who are covertly manipulated can nevertheless act freely, as long as the manipulation unfolds through these agents’ capacities to reason about what to do, reflectively endorse their actions, and so on (e.g., Pereboom 2014; McKenna 2014; Deery and Nahmias 2017).

  19. 19.

    If the Martians control only some of our actions in this way, then the following considerations apply only to those actions. I thank a referee for prompting me to note this consequence of the view.

  20. 20.

    For further difficulties with this procedure, see Laurence and Margolis (2003).

  21. 21.

    McCormick (forthcoming) argues that there is a better case to be made for reference success than reference failure, even for denotational revisionists.

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Acknowledgements

Versions of this paper were presented at the University of Arizona (January 2016), Florida State University (January 2017), Monash University (September 2017), the Central Division Meeting of the American Philosophical Association (February 2018), the University of Melbourne (May 2018), and the 3rd International Conference on Natural Cognition at the University of Macau (November 2018). Thanks to audiences at those venues for helpful comments. I also thank Terry Horgan, Shaun Nichols, Michael McKenna, Eddy Nahmias, Alfred Mele, Tim Bayne, Gregg Caruso and several anonymous referees for their valuable suggestions. Finally, I thank the students in my seminar on reference and free will at Monash University (2018) for useful discussion.

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Deery, O. Free actions as a natural kind. Synthese 198, 823–843 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11229-018-02068-7

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Keywords

  • Free will
  • Action
  • Natural kinds
  • Moral responsibility
  • Revisionism