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Certainly, accounts of causation that date back as far as Mill's may have some of the problems that you address here, but none of the major contenders in the causation literature still suffer from these issues. " There is of course an ancient assumption that a cause must precede its effects. Again, this may not hold for the class of causation I am discussing here under the name 'criterial causation.' Traditional (non-criterialist) interventionist accounts of causation might also have implicit in them that causation always operates over time, such that an intervention on A has only subsequent effects on B (and B', B'' etc.). In contrast, some situations appear to involve 'causal knots' that are locked together in one moment holistically" Even in the simple conditional analysis forerunner of interventionist models of causation people in the causation literature considered it to be a necessary condition on any adequate account of causation that it did not build these temporal aspects into the concept. When Lewis defended the simple counterfactual account of causation he was quite explicit that we could not build a temporal aspect into the analysis because doing so would make backwards causation impossible and we ought not legislate from the armchair that things taken seriously in science are impossible. Some versions of transfer accounts of causation have been dismissed in the literature precisely because they build into their analysis aspects that do not take seriously the sorts of problems that you address. There are also quite a few cases discussed in the causation literature about simultaneous causation....including the cases you address here. All major accounts of causation consider it necessary to accommodate these sorts of causation. I certainly agree that accounts like Mill's and Hume's incorporate too much of our pre-theoretic intuitions about causation and build them into the analysis....but the problems you address here are ones of earlier views of causation and not of ones that are taken seriously in the literature today. In fact, if it could be shown that an analysis of causation does not accommodate the sorts of cases you address here, it would be dismissed in the causation literature (at least since Lewis's early writings....probably a lot earlier). I think the mistake you are making in thinking of the issue of compatibilism or incompatibilism as a matter of how we stipulate definitions of terms is one that neither compatibilists or incompatibilsits in the literature would accept. What we are arguing about isn't merely a use of terms. There are debates in philosophy that some people argue are merely terminological debates. The chief example here is whether a world that consists of only two 'atoms' in the traditional sense is a world with two objects or three. Is there a third object that is composed of merely these two indivisible particles? Many people think that there is no substance to this debate and it is purely about how we define our terms. If this is the case in the free will literature, both compatiblists and incompatibilists lose. Instead, what participants in the debate assume is that we are arguing about the same thing. We are trying to figure out what agent's abilities are, provide an analysis of them, and then ask what they say about free will. The reason the debate is not about merely how we use the word 'ability' is because we assume that there are such things that we are trying to provide an account of. The reason that compatibilists and incompatibilists disagree is because we disagree about what abilities are. I find it truly shocking that almost everyone isn't a compatibilist....except for the fact that many of the people who work in free will spend very little time acquainting themselves with the causation literature. Lewis's project started with giving one of the first plausible semantics for counterfactuals. From there, he attempted to define causation in terms of counterfactuals (a project that ultimately failed, but lead him to also start the interventionist accounts of causation in philosophy.) In free will, he shows how if we adopt something like a counterfactual or an interventionist account of causation, assume that causation is possible in deterministic worlds, and assume that abilities are causal concepts we are left with a compatibilist view. Notice, in order to alter the antecedents of a counterfactual in a deterministic world we must consider worlds with different laws of a different past than our own. After all, considering any world where the antecedent of a counterfactual has a different truth value than what it in fact has would require that the laws or the past be altered. So, if causation is related to counterfactuals in the manner that interventionist accounts suggest then analyzing any causal claim will require considering worlds with different laws or a different past than our own in a deterministic world. When compatibilists offer their accounts of abilities all that they are doing is offering something like an interventionist or a simple conditional account of causation for abilities. Yet, incompatibilists tend to reject the compatibilist analysis of abilities. To do so, however, requires either rejecting the interventionist accounts of causation that compatibilists use to analyze abilities, reject that abilities are a causal notion or reject that causation is possible in a deterministic world. Alternatively, an incompatibilist could accept standard compatibilist accounts of abilities and then try to show why despite appearances they do not lead to compatibilism. (Yet, to my knowledge, no incompatibilist has taken this route yet). Once you grant a Lewis style account of causation (either simple conditional or interventionist) it seems like you are committed to the compatibilist interpretation of ability. After all, all compatibilists are merely deriving what abilities are from these accounts of causation. As far as the point about accounts like Woodward's assuming something like causation as energy or momentum transfer, this is certainly not the case. There are transfer accounts of causation (Russell, Salmon, Ehring, etc.). The earliest interventionist accounts were intended to be in opposition to these accounts. Lewis saw both his simple conditional analysis and his later interventionist approach as reductive accounts of causation. As a reductive account, Lewis thought there was nothing more to causation than what these accounts provide. So, the addition of transfer issues is irrelevant for causation. There is a pretty massive literature on debates between early interventionists (and simple conditional accounts) with their opponents who accept the transfer accounts. One of the things that made Woodward's account very beneficial in the development of interventionist accounts is that he abandons the reductive strategy of Lewis. So, Woodward's account can remain non-committal about these transfer issues. Depending on what stripe of interventionist you are, these accounts are either inconsistent with transfer accounts or they are non-commital about transfer accounts. Certainly, interventionists do not presuppose a transfer account. The earliest interventionists explicitly rejected these transfer accounts. Woodward expands the interest of interventionist accounts in the causation literature by abandoning the reductive aspect of these accounts and thereby no longer making them directly opposed to transfer accounts. Today, there certainly are some theorists attracted to interventionist accounts who are also attracted to the transfer intuitions that you mention...yet they are probably in the minority of people attracted to interventionist accounts because it is not too long ago that these accounts were seen to be in direct competition. Also, seeing interventionist accounts of causation as being patterned off of work on causation in the sciences seems historically inaccurate. These accounts began (in philosophy) as responses to problems with the simple conditional accounts that really took off with the development of a semantics that could finally produce a logic for counterfactuals. Later interventionists saw the parallels between what was being developed in different sciences and the interventionist account that was being developed as a response to counterexamples to the simple conditional account of causation and thought that the fact that different fields seem to be converging on something similar yet doing so for drastically different reasons as evidence for interventionist accounts.
Maybe I'm missing something, but from your posts it seems to me that you're a compatibilist and just don't know it yet. I think you ascribe to the compatibilist a more magical ability than they claim agents posses. All we are claiming is that abilities are a causal concept and that causation ought to be evaluated in terms of interentionist accounts of causation.
The counterfactual analysis you provide here is not an interventionist account of causation. Instead, this is something like the simple conditional account of causation that Lewis held early in his career. Because of multiple counterexamples to this account, even it's chief supporter (Lewis) later abandoned it in favor of an interventionist account. What changes an account from the simple conditional to an interventionist is that the simple conditional account only concentrates on whether the consequent would occur. Interventionist accounts add that how, when, whether the antecedent occurs influences how, when, whether the consequent occurs(often other differences in the antecedents and consequents are also added to interventionist accounts as well). Given your dislike for compatibilist interpretations of abilities I find it a bit surprising for you to be supportive of interventionist accounts of causation. It is precisely the idea that we ought to be thinking of abilities as causal combined with the simple conditional account (and later the interventionist accounts) that leads Lewis to his compatibilism and many early attempts to reject Lewis's compatibilism stemmed from a rejection of the core of interventionist interpretations of causation. Also, notice, if you accept these accounts of causation you cannot claim that you are only concerned with "real possibilities" meaning those where the past and the laws are held fixed. After all, in a deterministic world there is only one set of events that are physically possible given the same initial conditions. Combining this with an interventionist account of causation and the claim that we can only consider possible worlds with the same laws and past as our own denies us the ability to vary any of the antecedents without producing trivially true conditionals. So, on an interventionist account, neither causation nor causal reasoning is possible in a deterministic world (if we are only allowed to consider your 'real possibilities). In fact, the extreme success of interventionist accounts of causation both in the sciences and in philosophy is probably the best argument for compatibilism about free will. After all, all compatibilists are claiming is that abilities ought to be analyzed in terms of interventionist accounts of causation.
Also wanted to make a brief comment about how to think about possible worlds. Possible worlds talk does not start in metaphysics...it starts in modal logic. "Possible world" is merely short hand for "a way a world might have been." It seems to me that except when working directly on the metaphysics of possible worlds (or how different accounts of possible worlds might influence other debates) the best strategy is to just think of possible worlds the way logicians do and bracket the question of what these ways actually are (although it also seems to me quite clear that anyone who thinks about what ways are would think these are properties of a world and not concrete worlds) One thing we certainly do not want to claim is that these are conceivable worlds. The main reason is that (at best) conceivability is a manner in which we come to know which ways are metaphysically possible. Yet, it is important to keep the epistemic and the ontological questions distinct. Even if the way we come to know which ways a world metaphysically could have been is through conceivability what makes it the case that a world might have been a particular way is not conceivability. Second, while philosophers still frequently assume that the epistemology of modality stems from conceivability there has been a great deal of work on how modal knowledge is actually possible done by psychologists. Contrary to what philosophers at least since the middle ages have assumed, conceivability has very little to do with how we actually acquire modal knowledge.
Toggle Commented Dec 13, 2014 on Possibility Arguments at Flickers of Freedom
Peter, free will is not a semantic concern, it is an ontological concern. The question has nothing to do with language (other than the fact that we use language to explore the topic...yet this is true of any topic). The worry has nothing to do with senses of 'can' nor with senses of 'ability'. It has to do with what agents abilities consist in and what is required for an agent to have an ability. Incompatibilists claim that to have the ability to X, x-ing has to be consistent with the laws and the past. Compatibiilsts disagree. It is really important to think about the dialectic in the CA here. Those who defend the CA claim that compatibilists are wrong and use this argument as a way of showing this. If they then either stipulate a particular reading of 'can' or claim that this is a semantic issue the CA fails. You cannot show me that agents lack the ability to do otherwise in a deterministic world by having a mere verbal dispute. While compatibilists and incompatibilists disagree about the truth value of the sentence "I am able to do otherwise in a deterministic world" our disagreement is not fundamentally about the sentence. The disagreement is about what the sentence refers to. We disagree about what abilities are...certainly this disagreement about what abilities are leads to a disagreement about what the word "ability" means. Yet, we are not engaging in a semantic dispute but a metaphysical dispute. It is for this reason that compatibilists and incompatibilists disagree not just about language but about the world. Sadly, this fact is frequently missed in the literature because so many people engaged in the free will literature falsely assume that we can easily slide between semantics and ontology and don't recognize how much confusion (and logical problems) are caused in this slide. This mistake is not found, however, in the metaphysicians who study free will (regardless of whether they are compatibilists or incompatibilists). Some of the best examples of arguments for the fact that this is not a semantic dispute come from van Inwagen.
Toggle Commented Dec 13, 2014 on Possibility Arguments at Flickers of Freedom
Well, Amanda is back from the hospital so I finally was able to read the comments here. The only disagreement I have with Eddy is one of terminology. He's willing to call this a case of "changing" the future...I'm persuaded by Lewis that this isn't really a change. Yet, at least as far as the free will debate goes, this doesn't seem to be a substantive disagreement. Peter, I think part of what makes this discussion seem to be merely people defining terms differently is that way too frequently we move from discussions of what abilities an agent possesses to what an agent can do. The problem with this move is that the agent's ability sense of 'can' is merely one of many different manners of disambiguating the term 'can'. We can refer to metaphysical, logical, epistemic, physical modalities (and many many more). Yet, when we are referring to agent's abilities we are picking out a modality that is distinct from each of the ones listed. The agent's ability sense of 'can' is not equivalent to the physical possibility sense. Even if there is a non-zero chance that I walk through a wall in the next minute (because the extraordinarily improbably event of every atom of my body and the wall being arranged just right) I lack the ability to walk through the wall. While it may be physically possible, I lack the ability to do so. So the agent's ability sense of 'can' is not merely physical possibility. Yet, this example merely shows that physical possibility is not sufficient for the agent's ability sense of 'can'. The next important question is whether it is necessary. Here is where the compatibilist and the incompatibilist disagree. Yet, this is a substantive disagreement about what abilities are, and not merely a terminological disagreement. While I can't say nearly enough in a comments section to explain why this isn't merely a terminological disagreement, one thing that is relatively easy to show is that defenders of the Consequence Argument must assume that this isn't merely a terminological issue. Incompatibilists cannot merely stipulate a definition for 'can' without losing the debate in the Consequence Argument. Incompatibilists are trying to show us that we lack the ability to do otherwise in a deterministic world. Yet, in doing so, they are not trying to tell us how they use language but instead trying to teach us something about the world. If they next merely stipulate a meaning for the term 'able' that leads to their incompatibilist conclusion then this provides no reason for the compatibilist to be moved by the Consequence Argument. Instead, we just learned how incompatibilists talk. In order to provide an argument for incompatibilism, incompatibilists must argue that under the correct (or at least best) interpretation of agent's abilities the Consequence Argument is sound. Otherwise,the argument provides us no reason to accept incompatibilism.
Toggle Commented Dec 13, 2014 on Possibility Arguments at Flickers of Freedom
I want to be following this discussion much more closely, but I am in the middle of grading papers and my wife has been in the hospital most of the week and has not yet been released (she's fine). Since I'm pressed for time, I just wanted to mention that it is precisely for reasons like those given by Paul's earlier post that it seems to me that compatibilists neither want to claim that an agent can change the past nor change the laws. Basically, I think that compatibilists ought to accept Lewis's arguments about changing the past or the future. Hopefully, my wife will be released tomorrow and I can start following these discussions more closely.
Toggle Commented Dec 12, 2014 on Possibility Arguments at Flickers of Freedom
I'm not sure why the account of free will you are sketching here is an incompatibilist account. Certainly, the development of criterial causation seems important for why we have the abilities that we do. Further, any account that allows agents to change the laws of nature or change the past certainly wouldn't be accepted by any scientist....but nor would it be accepted by any philosopher. I am not aware of any classical compatibilist who claims that we have either of these abilities. Instead, what they claim is that modal reasoning requires considering what would occur given certain manipulations. Certainly, physicists deliberate about what would occur given certain manipulations to a system even under the assumption of Newtonian mechanics. Doing so, they might discover that a certain system is able to do something that it is not currently doing. Certainly, worlds in which the system performs that behavior would have different laws or a different past than our own. Yet, when physicists engage in this sort of reasoning, they are certainly not claiming that the object has the ability to break the laws nor that it has the ability to change the past. This is even more important in other sciences where frequently the scientist may believe that macro-level objects under examination operate under deterministic laws. These scientists are still able to pose hypotheses about what would occur given certain manipulations. Far from scientists being opposed to the move that classical compatibilists make, they seem to highly depend upon it. Classical compatibilists tend to claim that we are able to do otherwise in the same sense that an engineer might claim that a bridge is able to withstand x amount of weight even though the bridge has never encountered a weight that large. Certainly, the sorts of abilities that agents have are distinct from the sorts of abilities that bridges have, yet the form of reasoning that classical compatibilists adopt is no different than that of scientists. In fact, it seems to me that most classical compatibilists today are drawn to interventionist accounts of causation that were spurred by work in different scientists and only later appreciated by philosophers.
Toggle Commented Dec 8, 2014 on A Follow Up on Constraints at Flickers of Freedom
I greatly enjoyed your post (especially as the father of a teen video game addict). My worry though is whether anyone disagrees with the main point you are making. "Henry, like many of us, especially I suspect in the West, have a default notion of freedom as freedom FROM constraint." Maybe I'm just naïve, but are there people who really believe that freedom requires lack of constraints (instead of lack of a certain class of problematic constraints)? I have yet to hear someone object that we certainly do not have free will, because there is gravity. Even political freedom does not seem to be about lack of constraints, but instead about lack of certain demeaning constraints. Even the crazy Tea Party people don't think we need to get rid of all government constraints. Certainly, they would list as troubling constraints something much greater than any sane person would, but even they think that freedom requires some governmental constraints.
Paul, It seems like the account you are giving would be forced to accept transitivity. Certainly, in a deterministic world, specifying the properties of a large region will determine that a particular later event occurs. Yet, this is a case of distal causation. Setting those conditions only causes that later event by causing a bunch of intermediate events. We certainly do know that setting these conditions would start a causal chain that terminates in the event. So, we can ensure that the event occurs by setting these conditions. Yet, whether these conditions caused the event depends upon whether causation is transitive. If not, the mere fact that it is the first step in a causal chain that results in the event is not sufficient for it to be a cause of the event. So, it seems like your comments about the light-cone assumes transitivity. Yet, you also seem to accept an interventionist accounts of causation. It seems to me that the chief reason to deny that causation is transitive is precisely an attraction to interventionist accounts of causation. Interventionist accounts are merely counterfactual accounts that take more than whether the event occurs into consideration(how, when, etc.). Yet, transitivity horribly fails for counterfactuals. To the extent that one accepts interventionist accounts for causation one ought to be very skeptical about transitivity of causation and very worried about the assumption that the first step in a causal chain that deterministically brings about an event is a cause of that event. (There is a significant difference between the claim that a causal chain of events that terminates in some event is a cause of that event and claiming that the first event of that chain is a cause of the event.)
Toggle Commented Dec 3, 2014 on The Consequence Argument? at Flickers of Freedom
Eddy and Paul, I don't understand how we could claim that the events in a region of space in an early stage of the universe cause my present actions unless we do so by assuming that causation is transitive. Yet, there seem to be a huge host of counterexamples to the transitivity of causation in the literature. Just a few of them: McDermott gives the following case. A right handed man plans to detonate a bomb. The day before, his dog bites off his right forefinger. So, he pushes the button with his left forefinger. The dog bite caused him to push the button with his left forefinger. Pressing the button with his left forefinger causes the explosion. Yet, the dog bite did not cause the explosion. Harty Field gives the following case: A man places a bomb under my desk which I find and survive. Placing the bomb was a cause of my finding it. My finding it was a cause of my continued survival. Yet, placing the bomb under my desk was not a cause of my continued survival. Igal Kvat provides the following case: A mans finger is severed in a factory injury. The injury causes him to go to an expert surgeon who attaches the finger so perfectly that a year later it is fully functioning. The accident is a cause of the surgery. The surgery is a cause of the finger being fully functional a year latter. Yet, the accident is not a cause of the finger being fully functional a year later. There are a host of other counterexamples to the transitivity of causation in the literature. Certainly, there are those who defend the transitivity of causation against these challenges. Yet, unless causation is transitive, I can think of no reason to believe that the state of the universe at an early point in time is a cause of my current actions. If arguments like the CA depend upon the transitivity of causation, they are significantly weaker than many people in the free will literature believe.
Toggle Commented Dec 2, 2014 on The Consequence Argument? at Flickers of Freedom
Joe, I certainly hope to be catching up with many of my free will friends at the Pacific this year as well as meeting some new ones. Since the main purpose of this post is to try to convince other newbies to take advantage of the featured author at Flickers, it seems worth mentioning that it was your invite to co-author "More Trouble for Direct Source Incompatibilism" that convinced me work I had been doing on modality would allow me to participate in the free will debate. I hear way too frequently from graduate students and new PhD's that they perceive philosophy as being a very hostile enterprise. It's been my experience among free will people that for the vast majority of people even when they are being critical they do so in the spirit of being helpful. I owe so much to the many seasoned philosophers who genuinely try to help those of us trying to get our foot into the door.
Toggle Commented Dec 1, 2014 on Cyber Monday at Flickers of Freedom
John, sorry I had not responded to your post earlier. The reason that I hadn't is that until I read Joe's post I didn't see anything in your post to disagree with. I do think that those who push for the importance of the actual sequence of events are certainly on the right path. As I see it, there are many different problems that go under the name of "free will". One is a question about agent's abilities. Another is a question about moral responsibility. I don't think that the two problems are as intimately tied to each other as is often assumed in the literature. Someone might think that there are many different senses of the ability to do otherwise. In order to determine what the right sense of "ability" is for free will, we then might need to figure out which sense of "ability" is relevant for moral responsibility. I agree with van Inwagen that this is a mistake that stems from the fact that possibility claims are ambiguous. Like van Inwagen, I don't think that ability claims share this ambiguity. Yet, clearly, I disagree with van Inwagen about what the proper analysis of ability claims are. Another reason that I didn't see your post as anything to disagree about, is for reasons similar to what Joe claimed. I have a strong temptation to think that the only plausible accounts of laws of nature are the Humean account and the neo-Aristotelian account. While I think that the Humean view can easily support compatibilism, the neo-Aristotelian view seems just as congenial. When considering the actual sequence of events, we are not merely considering categorical properties, but instead the actual sequence of events is full of properties that are themselves already modally loaded. Also, when we look at plausible actual sequence accounts (like yours) there still is the modal element. Now, certainly, on incompatibilist accounts of the ability to do otherwise, your account does not require the ability to do otherwise. Yet, it seems to me, that on the correct account of the ability to do otherwise your account does demand that morally responsible agents have the ability to do otherwise. What strikes me as odd is that the more I consider what abilities are, the more I am convinced that an agent is able to do otherwise in a deterministic world. Yet, at the same time, I find accounts of moral responsibility like yours very appealing. For that reason, while I am a classical compatibilist, I think it is a mistake for claissical compatibilists to spend too much effort seeing views like yours as the opposition. I think this is especially important for classical compatibilists. Those most likely to be persuaded to endorse our accounts of agent's abilities are semi-compatibilists. Yet, if classical compatibilists spend a great deal of time seeing positions like yours as the opposition and spend a great deal of time rejecting Frankfurt cases instead of trying to illustrate their importance we are liable to create opponents where they need not be.
Toggle Commented Dec 1, 2014 on The Summer of Sixty Nine at Flickers of Freedom
In the next few days my online time will move from concerns with Flickers posts to Christmas shopping. I greatly appreciate all the helpful comments I received throughout the month and am thankful to Thomas for giving me this opportunity. Only a few years ago I started focusing on issues... Continue reading
Posted Nov 30, 2014 at Flickers of Freedom
1969 was an ideal time to be a compatibilist. Most people in the debate still believed that the ability to do otherwise was consistent with determinism. Yet, thanks to publication of Frankfurt's "Alternate Possibilities and Moral Responsibility", there were also good reasons to believe that even if the incompatibilist could... Continue reading
Posted Nov 20, 2014 at Flickers of Freedom
http://proteviblog.typepad.com/protevi/2014/11/open-letter-in-support-of-cheryl-abbate.html Given the current job market in philosophy, graduate students can be exceptionally harmed by having their teaching criticized in the media. Cheryl Abbate has become the victim of a public smear campaign. Her troubles began when a John McAdams (a political science professor at her university Marquette WI) started... Continue reading
Posted Nov 20, 2014 at Flickers of Freedom
Michael, The reason I think you are conflating epistemology with metaphysics stems from cases like the Flash Gordon case. Isn't it clear that waking up with those powers I now have the ability to run a world class 100m prior to successfully doing so? If so, the ability to run a world class 100m cannot consist in having successfully done so in the past. Yet, it may be the case that our evidence for claiming that UB can run a world class 100m is that he has successfully done so in the past and nothing has relevantly changed about his intrinsic properties.
Toggle Commented Nov 17, 2014 on Iffy Abilities at Flickers of Freedom
What the laws of nature are ought to impact how we think of free will. For example, Humean accounts seem congenial for being a compatibilist about the ability to do otherwise. What appears to be the most popular non-Humean account, however, also provides some support for compatibilism. Dispositional compatibilists note... Continue reading
Posted Nov 16, 2014 at Flickers of Freedom
Nate, If we are talking about the relevance of opportunities to the free will debate, then it seems like the wrong thing to say is that UB lacks this ability. The right thing to say is that "UB has the ability to run a world class 100m" has both a true and a false reading. Those who like the opportunity distinction claim that the word "able" is ambiguous. They grant that there is a purely intrinsic sense of ability, but claim that the word has a second meaning that is more relevant to free will that includes opportunities. There is excellent reason that those who employ the opportunity distinction claim that the term 'able' is ambiguous. Consider the claim "The chair of the mathematics department at Harvard is able to solve the equation 2+2=x." Certainly, there is a true reading of this sentence. Further, I don't need to know whether the chair of Harvard's math department is currently asleep when I make this assertion. Cases like these make compatibilism seem obviously true. Incompatibilists respond that there are two senses of ability at play here. Sure, in one sense, we do not need to know if the chair of Harvard's mathematics department is currently awake in order to know that he is able to solve the equation 2+2=4. So, ability claims have a reading in which present circumstances are irrelevant. Yet, they insist, there is another reading where it is false that he is able to solve this equation. Here, they employ the opportunity distinction. If you insist that there is only one reading of the term 'ability' then incompatibilitsts in the literature who employ the opportunity distinction have already admitted defeat. The entire argument to defend incompatibilism through the ability+opportunity distinction is to claim that the term 'able' is ambiguous. So, if we are following the line of argument in the literature that actually employs the ability/opportunity distinction, then we must claim that the term 'able' is ambiguous. Whether or not adding opportunities to the debate helps the incompatibilist depends upon whether they can show that the term 'able' is ambiguous. I am trying to argue that there is no reason to claim that their is an ambiguity in the concept of ability, but there is an ambiguity in what it is an ability to do. We can refer to the ability to simply run a 100m, which we all know that UB has. In this sense, it does not matter if he is awake or asleep. We all know that UB is able to run a 100m. We do not claim that we are unsure whether UB is able to run a 100m because we don't know if he is currently asleep. Yet, maybe there is another sense of 'able' one that takes into account circumstances. But, what is it to be able to run a 100m in one's current circumstances? It seems that it just is to carry out a plan of action (intention) that results in running a 100m. Defenders of the opportunity distinction have to deny this. Otherwise, they have not shown that there are two senses of 'ability'. So, here's my challenge. Provide a case where an agent can carry out a plan of action that results in her running a 100m in her present circumstances even though she lacks the ability to run a 100m in her circumstances. Alternatively, provide a case where someone has the ability to run a 100m in her present circumstances even though she cannot carry out a plan of action that results in her running a 100m in her present circumstances. I don't think either of these things can be done. If there are no such cases, then the reply to dispositional compatibilism that rests upon opportunities fails. Since those who employ 'opportunities' already admit that there is a sense of able that is consistent with compatibilism, if they cannot show that the term 'able' is ambiguous they have admitted defeat to the compatibilist. Yet, while her opponents have convinced Vihvelin that there are two different senses of 'ability' she should not have been so easily swayed.
Toggle Commented Nov 16, 2014 on Iffy Abilities at Flickers of Freedom
Michael, I think your account very clearly conflates epistemology with metaphysics. Consider your claim: "“UB has the ability to A” means “UB has successfully A-ed at least once”." Here, you seem to be conflating our reason to believe that UB has the ability with what constitutes the ability. Certainly, our evidence that UB has the ability to run an amazing 100m is his past performance. Yet, his past performance has nothing to do with what grounds his ability. Consider the case where I wake up with the powers of Flash Gordon....but haven't run a record 100m yet. Isn't it clear in this case that I am able to run a world class 100m even though I have yet to do so? If so, then having the ability to run a world class 100m cannot consist in past performance. Past performance is only epistemically relevant. It is what convinces us that UB has the ability, but isn't what the ability itself is.
Toggle Commented Nov 16, 2014 on Iffy Abilities at Flickers of Freedom
Michael, The most amazing thing happened last night. I woke up this morning with the powers of Flash Gordon. While I have not yet run a world record 100m I am now able to do so. It is extremely important when thinking about ontology not to be bewitched by semantic ascent or epistemological issues. Our evidence for the claim that UB is able to run a world record 100m may be his past performance. But, it is important to keep separate what his ability consists in and what our evidence for him having that ability is. (As far as I see it, thinking about abilities and seeing where some theorists are making errors in their accounts of agent's abilities becomes extremely easy if while thinking about this topic you hear the voice of John Heil chanting repetitively "ontologically serious.") He has the ability to run a 100m because of certain skills that he possesses. He does not lose those skills when locked in the room. So, he retains the ability to run the 100m in the room. When people point to the fact that he can't run the 100m they provide exactly the reason that he can't but then seem to fail to recognize that we already have an explanation for this. He lacks the ability to pick a lock. Regardless of whether the door is locked or open, he lacks that ability. Now, in order to leave the room and run a 100m he would need both the ability to pick the lock and the ability to run the 100m. So, he lacks the ability to carry out his intention to run a 100m when locked in the room. No new senses of ability are needed here.
Toggle Commented Nov 15, 2014 on Iffy Abilities at Flickers of Freedom
Michael, Thanks for the comments...really good to hear from you. While I think my argument here is just as effective against opportunities as abilities, I am very interested in this issue. I'd agree that nothing we did changed any of UB's abilities....I'd also agree that it makes sense to claim that the problem is that we removed his opportunity to run. What I can't understand is why we think this requires creating a new modal notion since we already have all the necessary resources to resolve these cases from concepts at the core of action theory. We can ask about the ability to run a 100m. That ability does not change when we lock the room. We can ask about the ability to pick a lock. That ability does not change when we lock the room. We can ask about the ability to carry out his intention to run a 100m here and now. The difference between carrying out the intention to run a 100m and merely running a 100m is merely a difference in how complicated of a series of actions UB carries out. Running a 100m requires moving one's legs in certain ways. Yet, carrying out an intention to run a 100m requires a more complicated action plan. Also, notice, what action plan is required will depend upon his circumstances. When the door is unlocked, the the has the ability to carry out a plan of action that results in running a 100m. When the door is locked, he lacks the ability to carry out a plan of action that results in running a 100m. Yet, let's not be confused by language here. We are not claiming that his abilities change when we lock the door. Instead, what action plan would be required for running the 100m changed. When the door is locked, he would have to be able to unpick the lock. It is precisely because he lacks the ability to pick locks that he lacks the ability to run a 100m when the door is locked. When the door is unlocked, then carrying out a plan of action that results in running a 100m would not require the step of picking the lock. So, he can carry out such a plan of action. I'm perfectly fine with people claiming that the natural thing to claim here is that we remove his opportunity to run a 100m. What I don't understand is what the argument is that this provides us with a different kind of ability. We can capture everything we want to say about these cases while just referring to standard abilities and then incorporate what we want to say about opportunities by considering the ability to carry out plans of action (or intentions). There is no new ambiguity in these cases....it is the sam ambiguity everyone who studies the philosophy of action should already be aware of. We already talk about the ability to perform simple actions and the ability to carry out our intentions (action plans).
Toggle Commented Nov 15, 2014 on Iffy Abilities at Flickers of Freedom
Alan, Why think that we need both abilities and opportunities to explain these cases? Usain has the ability to run a 100 m. Doing so takes many steps. Yet, locked in the room we have good reason to claim that Usain is not free to run a 100m. Why not? Well, in order to do so, Usain would have to carry out a significantly more complex plan of action than were he unchained. In order to run a 100m he would have to first pick the lock and escape the room, and then run. When we claim he is unable (in the sense that includes opportunities) aren't we just claiming that he is unable to carry out a much more complex plan of action that includes picking the lock? Isn't claiming that he is unable to run a 100m in his current circumstances just saying he is unable to carry out a plan of action that concludes with him successfully completing the 100m? Yet, if all that changes is the content of what it is an ability to do, and not a different kind of ability, then those who grant that we have the ability to do otherwise in deterministic worlds cannot reply that we lack the opportunity. After all, when we refer to opportunities we are merely referring to abilities to do more complex things.
Toggle Commented Nov 15, 2014 on Iffy Abilities at Flickers of Freedom
Joe, What would you say about the following case? At your fastest sprinting speed you can reach a bike in five minutes. There is no other way to get to the bike except a fast run. Now consider the following claim: "I am not able to ride a bike in the next four minutes, but I am able to ride a bike in the next ten minutes." Isn't there an interpretation that makes this sentence true and seems to be about agent's abilities? If so, doesn't this suggest that there is some ambiguity in sentences like "I am able to ride a bike in the next five minutes." I don't think the ambiguity comes from the word 'able' but in what it is an ability to do. Yet, if I were convinced that the ambiguity had to be stemming from the term 'able' I'd be tempted to accept the opportunity distinction.
Toggle Commented Nov 15, 2014 on Iffy Abilities at Flickers of Freedom
Joe, I am equally deeply confused about the opportunity distinction. Consider a case where someone’s finger is in perfectly working order. Is that person able to flip a light switch? Here it seems like we ought to say yes. Is the person able to flip the light switch on the other side of a locked door? Well, here I think it depends on what we are asking. Are we asking whether the person has the ability to merely flip that switch? If so, the answer is yes. But, I can also think of a clear sense in which we might want to say no. Yet, contrary to Vihvelin’s claim, this does not show us that there is an ambiguity in the term ‘able’. Instead, there are two distinct abilities. One is an ability to flip the switch. The other is the ability to carry out a plan that results in the switch being flipped. Now, in order to carry out that intention, the agent will have to pick the lock, break the door, or do something else in order to approach the light switch. The reason it makes sense to claim that the agent lacks the ability to flip that switch is because the agent lacks the ability to pick the lock. There are not two different concepts here, one the compatibilist account of ‘ability’ and the other the incompatibilist constraint of ‘opportunity’. Instead, it seems to me that the difference is between an ability to carry out a simplistic action and the ability to carry out a more detailed plan. So, I think that adding in opportunities merely confuses the issue. To help motivate this, think of a case where someone is completely normally functioning. That agent has the ability to turn on a light by flipping a switch. Now, imagine an agent who is almost completely paralyzed but can move his finger only a millimeter. Does this agent retain the ability to flip the switch? While I think the right answer is no, once we add in the concept of opportunities then the answer seems to become yes. After all, if the switch were right next to the agent and near the point of almost switching to the on position, then the agent’s capacity to move the switch a millimeter would be a case of flipping the switch. Since such an agent successfully flipped the switch, the agent was able to flip the switch. Yet, if this agent is able to flip the switch then an agent that is intrinsically identical to that agent but doesn’t have a switch that is near the tipping point is also able to flip the switch. It seems if we make use of the opportunity distinction we ought to claim that while the nearly paralyzed agent has the ability to flip the switch, she lacks the opportunity to do so. It seems to me that adding the opportunity constraint limits agent’s abilities to only basic acts.
Toggle Commented Nov 14, 2014 on Iffy Abilities at Flickers of Freedom