Libertarianism, Introspection, Skepticism, and Freud


Over at the Secular Web, the Great Debate about theism and naturalism has been updated recently. Instead of posting something about the exchange between Collins and Smith on science and the cosmos, or between Schellenberg and Jordan on faith and doubt, I want to reflect on the discussion about consciousness and free will that was between Melnyk and Goetz and Taliaffero. I will do this with the intent of answering a Freudian objection to their argument for libertarian freewill.

Goetz and Taliaffero are libertarians and substance dualists. They are trying to argue for libertarianism, and they think libertarianism implies substance dualism. Their basic argument for libertarianism is that when we introspect, we realize that many of our actions are uncaused, and explained teleologically, not deterministically. Melnyk is a physicalist and (I think) a determinist. His response is that when we introspect, we see an absence of causes for our actions; but just because we see no causes does not mean we see that the action is uncaused. Hence, Goetz and Taliaffero’s argument suffers from underdetermination: we don’t have enough evidence from introspection alone to indicate that we have libertarian freedom.

The response of Goetz and Taliaffero is as follows:

The distinction between being a mental agent and being a mental patient is grounded in two types of mental properties, namely, powers and capacities[4]. These two kinds of properties are inherently different from each other and each is an ultimate ontological category. Corresponding to these two kinds of mental properties are two kinds of events, namely, an agent’s exercising of a mental power and the actualization of a mental capacity in him. Like the properties themselves, these two kinds of events are intrinsically different from each other such that any token or instance of the kind ‘being the exercising of a mental power’ is intrinsically distinguished from any token or instance of the kind ‘being the actualization of a mental capacity.’

The intrinsic natures of mental powers and capacities respectively have important implications for causation. Because an agent’s exercising of a mental power is essentially intrinsically active, it is essentially uncaused, and because an actualization of a subject’s mental capacity is essentially intrinsically passive, it is essentially caused. Any instance or token of mental action by nature lacks an efficient cause, and any instance or token of mental passion by nature has a cause.

Consider a choice. Its ontological status as a mental action is specified in terms of an agent’s possession of the power to choose and his exercising of that power. Thus, on our noncausal view of libertarian freedom, the power to choose is ontologically an ultimate and irreducible mental property of an agent, where the exercising of that power by the agent is a primitive or simple event in the sense that it has no event parts (it lacks an internal causal structure) and is intrinsically active and, thereby, essentially uncaused. It should be clear, then, that our assertion that a choice is essentially an uncaused event is not an ad hoc claim arising out of a commitment to libertarian freedom. It is instead rooted in a general ontology of mental powers and capacities and their respective exercisings and actualizations.

Given the ontology of mental powers and capacities that is at the basis of our account of agency, it is the case that no exercising of a mental power can be causally determined because no exercising of a mental power can be causally produced. Moreover, an agent’s belief that he makes essentially uncaused choices is not justified by a failure to be aware of a determinative relationship between happenings in the micro- or macroworld and his choices. That is, an agent does not conclude that a choice of his is not an effect event on the basis of an investigation that he conducts and in light of which he fails to find any causes of it, whether at the surface or a deeper level of the physical world. If knowledge of whether or not a choice is uncaused depended on the results of such an investigation, then an agent would never know whether or not a choice of his was an effect event because it would always be possible that the choice had a cause that was beyond his introspective ken. Hence, his failure to observe the cause would count for nothing. A belief in libertarian freedom is not the conclusion of such an investigation. Given the fact that an individual knows that he is making a choice, it follows that he is aware of performing a mental action that is his exercising of a mental power and whose nature as such entails that it is an essentially uncaused event. An agent does not fail to find causes and then conclude (unjustifiably) that his choice is not an effect event. There is no need for the agent to look for causes of his choice at all. The agent only needs to be aware of his mental act of choosing to know that it is uncaused. In short, it is the simple experience of choosing along with the conceptual truth that a choice is essentially uncaused that is the ultimate support for a belief in the occurrence of uncaused choices.

The response basically seems to be this: we know what powers are, and we know what capacities are. I think by capacities they mean something roughly like what other philosophers call “liabilities”–passive tendencies to do something, that get activated by causal antecedents. When we introspect, we discover that we have libertarian freedom not based on our inability to find causes for our free actions, but because we find something incompatible with prior deterministic causes–namely an active power to do things that has no passivity.

When I asked a philosopher who is a libertarian what he thought of this argument, he told me that it seemed weak because Freud has shown us that there is always a lot more going on beneath the surface of our conscious mental activity than what we think. There could easily be some hidden cause. Now, I don’t want to rule this possibility out. But what I am interested in is whether this hesitation about accepting the conclusion is consistent with the rest of our epistemology. Think, for instance, of the fact that we are rational to take perceptual experiences to be veridical if we have no reason to doubt them. This is true in spite of the fact that there is always the possibility that some subconscious mental event is causing us to have the perceptual experience, and that this is happening irrespective of any real qualities of the external world. If we don’t let the possibility of subconscious perception-causers get in the way of our perception-caused belief that the external world exists, then why should we let them get in the way of our introspection-based belief that some our actions are intrinsically and purely active?

From where I’m sitting, this seems like an adequate-enough response to legitimize my continual belief in libertarian freedom based on what seem to be the deliverances of introspection. Are there any counter-arguments that are good?


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