Can ‘Downward Causation’ Save Free Will?

Abstract

Recently, Trenton Merricks has defended a libertarian view of human freedom. He claims that human persons have downward causal control of their constituent parts, and that downward causal control of this sort is sufficient for free will. In this paper I examine Merricks’s defense of free will, and argue that it is unsuccessful. I show that having downward causal control is not sufficient for for free will. In an Appendix I also argue that Merricks’s defense of free will, together with assumptions implicit in his broader ontology, commit him to the implausible conclusion that determinism is incompatible with the existence of human persons.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    I understand determinism to be the thesis that past events and the laws of nature determine a unique future.

  2. 2.

    Two exceptions are Cover and O’Leary-Hawthorne (1996) and O’Connor (2000), chapter six.

  3. 3.

    For a more detailed discussion see Cover and O’Leary-Hawthorne (1996).

  4. 4.

    Cf. Kim (1998), 11.

  5. 5.

    Rule Beta was first introduced by van Inwagen (1983). The present version of Rule Beta is suggested by Finch and Warfield (1998).

  6. 6.

    This objection was suggested to me by an anonymous referee.

  7. 7.

    I assume that determinism and indeterminism are characterized relative to individual possible worlds and are not cross-world notions.

  8. 8.

    Some have argued that all Frankfurt-style cases beg the question against incompatibilists, for if it is really true that the agent cannot do otherwise, this can only be because the agent was causally determined to act as he does (see e.g., Widerker 1995). For Frankfurt-style cases that avoid these worries, see Pereboom (2000) and Hunt (2005). The Frankfurt-style case given above is modeled after those given by Pereboom and Hunt.

  9. 9.

    Some might argue that one cannot simply assume that no evidence of the sort that may be thought to bear on the truth of determinism is relevant to the question of whether human persons exist, especially if we remember the fact that doubts about the existence of humans persons are well-known in philosophy. A complete response to this objection is beyond the scope of the present paper. (This is of course what philosophers say when we’re not exactly sure how to respond to an objection.) What I can say is that I think it is doubtful that there is set of propositions that together entail my non-existence the conjunction of which is more plausible than the proposition that I exist. Now, to be sure, there have been philosophical arguments against the existence of human persons, and I do not want to discount these arguments completely. But this does not mean we should take their conclusion seriously. I think we can learn much from these arguments even if we cannot help but reject their conclusion. I am all for a priori metaphysics, but we must not loose our moorings in commonsense. If our philosophical theories lead us to reject our most basic commonsense beliefs (like the belief that we exist), beliefs that we cannot help accepting outside the philosophy room, then I think this is good evidence that we need to take another look at our theories.

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Acknowledgements

Special thanks to Joe Long, Michael McKenna, Brandon Warmke and two anonymous referees for Philosophia for their helpful feedback on previous drafts of this paper.

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Correspondence to Justin A. Capes.

Appendix: Determinism and Human Persons—A Surprising Conclusion

Appendix: Determinism and Human Persons—A Surprising Conclusion

In this Appendix I argue that (M2) together with several assumptions implicit in Merricks’s broader ontology commit him to the Surprising Conclusion that determinism is incompatible with the existence of human persons. Of course, Merricks is no stranger to surprising conclusions, as we shall see, and so perhaps he would be content with this result. Nevertheless, I shall try to explain why I (and I suspect many others) would want to resist it. Moreover, if the Surprising Conclusion is as implausible as I claim, then to avoid this conclusion Merricks must either abandon his defense of free will or revisit some of the assumptions that lead to his broader ontological views.

Merricks is an eliminativist about inanimate macrophysical objects (e.g. baseballs); he denies that such objects exist. He argues at length that if these objects did exist, they would not cause things not also caused by their constituent atoms working in concert. Therefore, such objects, were they to exist, would be causally redundant; they would overdetermine effects also caused by their proper microphysical parts. But Merricks thinks we should resist this sort of systematic overdetermination, and so given that a plausible criterion for existence is that an entity have causal powers, he concludes we should eliminate inanimate macrophysical objects from our ontology. This is a (very) brief sketch of what Merricks calls the Overdetermination Argument. Although Merricks thinks this argument eliminates inanimate macrophysical objects, he does not think it eliminates human persons. Recall that on his view human persons have non-redundant causal powers in virtue of which we cause things not caused by our constituent atoms working in concert. Human persons are therefore neither epiphenomenal nor causally redundant. We therefore survive the Overdetermination Argument.

Merricks’s broader assumptions together with (M2) commit him to the Surprising Conclusion. Here is (an unfortunately rather cumbersome) statement of the argument for this claim. It takes the form of conditional proof: assume determinism is true and derive the conclusion that human persons do not exist.

  1. 1.

    Determinism is true: every human action is a strict consequence of events in the distant past and the laws of nature (assumption for conditional proof).

  2. 2.

    If determinism is true, no one has a choice about what actions one performs (assumption: free will and determinism are incompatible).

  3. 3.

    So no one has a choice about what actions one performs and hence no choice about what one’s constituent atoms do or are like (from 1 and 2).

  4. 4.

    If no one has choice about what one’s atoms do or are like, then no one has downward causal control of one’s atoms (equivalent to M2).

  5. 5.

    So no one has downward causal control of one’s atoms (from 3 and 4).

  6. 6.

    If no one has downward causal control of one’s atoms, then no one has non-redundant causal powers (assumption).

  7. 7.

    So no human person has non-redundant causal powers (from 5 and 6).

  8. 8.

    Whatever lacks non-redundant causal powers does not exist (consequence of the Overdetermination Argument).

  9. 9.

    Therefore, no human persons exist (from 7 and 8).

The key steps in this argument are (2), (4), (6) and (8). Of these, Merricks is explicitly committed to (2) and (4) and, I think, implicitly to (6) and (8). Premise (2) is incompatibilism. Merricks is explicitly committed to (2) because he is a libertarian, an incompatibilist who believes we have free will. Premise (4) is equivalent to (M2), which as we have seen is an essential component of his response to the bottom-up threat. Turning to (6), although Merricks is not explicitly committed to this premise, nevertheless (6) is plausible given his broader commitments. If human persons lack downward control—if, for example, my decisions are not causally responsible for my bodily movements—it is hard to see how we could ever cause anything that was not also caused by our constituent atoms working in concert. Finally, premise (8) seems to be a consequence of the Overdetermination Argument. Objects that do not cause things not also caused by their constituent atoms do not exist. If there were an object that was either epiphenomenal or regularly and non-accidentally causally redundant, then we would have to revisit the Overdetermination Argument against inanimate macrophysical objects. I conclude then that Merricks is indeed committed to (2), (4), (6) and (8) in which case he is committed to the Surprising Conclusion mentioned above: if determinism is true, no human persons exist.

The Surprising Conclusion, or SC for short, strikes me as not only surprising but highly implausible as well, and I suspect I am not alone in thinking this. It seems doubtful that anyone would abandon the belief in their own existence should it be discovered that determinism is true. The empirical discovery of determinism just doesn’t seem to be the sort of thing that could undermine the claim that human persons exist. If determinism were known to be true, most of us would not conclude that we do not exist but rather that some mistake has been made in the argument for SC. I think this fact casts at least some doubt on SC. Of course, perhaps our refusal to abandon our belief in our own existence is just stubbornness on our part, but I doubt it. Determinism is, in principle at least, an empirically verifiable thesis. So if SC is true, the existence of human persons is in principle empirically falsifiable. But the thought that scientists could one day make a discovery the implication of which is that human persons do not exist borders on the absurd.Footnote 9

In any event, we have already been given reason to think that SC is false. Earlier I defended the claim that determinism is compatible with a human agent’s exerting downward control over her atoms, and clearly if this claim is true, determinism is compatible with the existence of human persons.

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Capes, J.A. Can ‘Downward Causation’ Save Free Will?. Philosophia 38, 131–142 (2010). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11406-009-9191-7

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Keywords

  • Trenton Merricks
  • Downward causation
  • Mental causation
  • Free will