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Helen Steward
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OK - so let me try to respond as best I can to some of these concerns. (I'd also like to say, incidentally, how very thrilled I am that this blog has kicked off with a discussion of my work - what an honour. Thanks, Neil, for putting it in the spotlight like this!) I agree that it doesn't, on the face of it, seem to matter much whether I have the power e.g. to pick up a drink with my right hand rather than my left, or to scratch my nose before rubbing my ear rather than after, etc., etc. But my thought is that although the powers we really want are much grander powers than these, those grander powers are dependent for their existence on the simpler ones. What I say in my forthcoming book is this: "It would be surprising if anyone thought the freedoms available to a shark or a horse or even to a chimpanzee, in and of themselves, were really terribly desirable from the point of view of a human being, were ‘worth wanting’. But for all that, it is evident that in order to be a human being, one has to be an animal. 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 also to exercise forms that in themselves almost escape our notice – 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 possessed throughout the animal kingdom are themselves already incompatible with universal determinism. I take it that if this can be made out, it will be enough already to show that no freedom worth wanting can be compatible with determinism either, since all significant freedoms depend for their existence on such basic capacities as these". So that's the idea. The second big question, of course, is whether I am right to suppose that these relatively lowly animal powers, as I think of them, really are inconsistent with determinism. Why should they be? Well - here, as Neil notes, the point is about the distinction I believe exists between *causing* and *settling*. My claim is that agents must settle (not merely cause) certain things - that is, they must be able to bring it about *at the moment (or, better, throughout the period) of action* that something occurs at that moment (or during that period) which need not have occurred. I believe that's part and parcel of the concept of agency. Why care if we don't have this power? Well, what 'we' would we be referring to, if we didn't? I guess I think, in a way, that our very existence is connected with these agential powers - that the whole idea that there is a 'we' at all is connected with the fact that 'we' (animals) are special amongst the entities in the world in the nature of the causing we do. Agency is a bit like consciousness for me, in that respect - it's connected with things like the appropriateness of personal pronouns and the distinction we make between ourselves and our bodies. We can say, if we like, that rocks and the sea and moving air, or whatever, cause events. But the causing that such things as these go in for is causing which these entities are made to go in for. They don't generally make interventions into the course of nature that they aren't caused to make. But animals, I want to claim, do do this - and the fact that they do is part of what makes it useful to conceptualise them quite differently from the way in which we conceptualise inanimate entities - as things, roughly speaking, which have minds and the crucial component of mind which we call 'the will'. From my point of view, then, the question 'what difference would it make to us if we didn't have this power?' presupposes something which I reckon it isn't allowed to assume - namely, that there would be any 'us' in the first place, in the absence of the power. Another way to put the point - if a rock (say) were to acquire the power somehow, it would become worth talking about the rock and its body). I don't want to go on too long - so I'll shut up now - but I hope that makes the general picture a bit clearer. (No doubt it's still pretty murky!)
Toggle Commented Mar 16, 2010 on Flickers of Agency at Flickers of Freedom
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Mar 9, 2010