You've heard of taking it to the next level. Now witness the spectacle, nay, the earth-shattering event of Randy Clarke taking it to the level after next! As Beyonce taught us all to say, I don't think you can handle this. So, get your mama, get your copy of Kadri Vihvelin's paper, and get ready to join in the extraordinary experience of the latest edition of the GFP Online Reading Group.
Thanks to Ed Minar and Phil Topics for letting us post a copy of Kadri's paper.
Randy's comments begin below the line:
Compatibilists have long argued that having an ability to act is having a causal power or disposition. Incompatibilists have long disagreed. The dispute was, for a long time, side-tracked by the mistaken assumption, on both sides, that causal powers or dispositions are analyzable in terms of simple conditionals: e.g., x is water soluble iff, if x is immersed in water, x dissolves.
Incompatibilists were right that having an ability to act is not analyzable in terms of any such conditional. But the core compatibilist claim, that having an ability to act is having a causal power (or a bundle of dispositions) is nevertheless correct. Seeing where the simple conditional analysis of dispositions goes wrong allows us to see where the simple conditional analysis of ability to act goes wrong, and we can then see that the latter mistake leaves untouched the thesis that an ability to act is a disposition (or a bundle of dispositions). With this correct view of ability to act, we can see that having free will–having the ability to make choices on the basis of reasons--is compatible with determinism, and, indeed, that even in Frankfurt scenarios, agents are able to choose and act otherwise.
So, in brief, argues Kadri Vihvelin in “Free Will Demystified: A Dispositional Account” (Philosophical Topics 32, nos. 1 & 2 : 427-50).
The paper is rich and instructive. (Pointing out the parallel [pp. 444-45] between cases involving disposition finks and an objection from Lehrer meant to counter conditional analyses of ability is one of many nice observations.) There’s long been a need to bring to bear on the free will debate some very good recent work on dispositions, and Vihvelin’s paper is one of a few recent papers that begin to fill this need. There’s a lot I’d like to say about the paper; I’ll have to select only a few points for comment. (Even so, the comments are lengthy. If you aren’t at all interested in what dispositions are [though you should be!], you might skip no. 1.)
1. What was wrong with the simple conditional analysis of dispositions? For one thing, the analysis failed for cases involving finks, entities that might remove a disposition in just the circumstances that would ordinarily trigger its manifestation, or that might add a disposition in precisely such circumstances. A glass might be fragile, disposed to shatter if struck. Yet a wizard might stand ready to render the glass non-fragile should it be struck. Then, although the glass is fragile, it is false that it would shatter if struck. Conversely, a wizard might render a glass non-fragile (by somehow changing its molecular structure), but stand ready to make it fragile as soon as it is struck. Then, although the glass isn’t fragile, it would shatter if struck.
In his “Finkish Dispositions” (Philosophical Quarterly 47 : 143-58), David Lewis observed that finks work by altering intrinsic properties of objects that constitute the causal bases of their dispositions. He proposed the following template for a revised conditional analysis of dispositions:
RCAD: Something x is disposed at time t to give response r to stimulus s iff, for some intrinsic property B that x has at t, for some time t’ after t, if x were to undergo stimulus s at time t and retain property B until t’, s and x’s having of B would jointly be an x-complete cause of x’s giving response r. (Lewis, p 157)
(An x-complete cause is “a cause complete in so far as havings of properties intrinsic to x are concerned, though perhaps omitting some events extrinsic to x” [Lewis, p. 156].)
Vihvelin assumes, for the sake of her argument, that something like RCA is correct. But it is quite doubtful that anything like RCA is correct.
a) Finks remove or add dispositions. Things of another sort–masks--prevent dispositions from manifesting without removing the dispositions. A poison’s power to kill when ingested can be masked by an ingested antidote. A glass’s fragility can be masked by internal packing that prevents breakage even if the glass is struck. Masking presents a difficulty even for RCAD. For, given the possibility of masking, the causal basis for a disposition may be present and retained, the stimulus conditions may be present, and yet the manifestation not occur.
Can any conditional analysis accommodate masking? One might think that all the possible maskers of a given disposition can be considered part of the stimulus condition, or that an additional condition that none of these maskers is present can be added to the analysis. But one difficulty with either strategy is that there is no end to what might mask a given disposition; a comprehensive list of potential maskers would be infinite. And all that they need have in common is that they can prevent the manifestation of the disposition, even when (the rest of) the stimulus as well as the causal basis of the disposition are present. To cover them with any such general characterization would trivialize the analysis.
b) Even setting aside masking, the stimulus conditions for the manifestation of a disposition need not guarantee its manifestation. There need be no such guarantee. A causal power might be indeterministic. In the case of such a disposition, the stimulus might be present, the causal basis retained, and all masks absent, and still the manifestation might or might not occur. This point would not seem irrelevant when what is at issue is the proper understanding of an ability to choose otherwise, particularly if such an ability is, even in part, a causal power. Shouldn’t it, at the start, be an open question whether the ability to choose otherwise includes such a power?
c) Some dispositions are unconditional: their manifestations aren’t conditional on any stimulus. Some such dispositions might be continuously manifesting. George Molnar (Powers, Oxford University Press: 2003, p. 87) suggests that rest mass may be such a disposition, as massive objects manifest gravitational power in interaction with space-time for as long as they possess mass.
Other unconditional dispositions spontaneously manifest. Again, here’s an example from Molnar (p. 85): a muon has a capacity to decay into an electron, a neutrino, and an antineutrino. The power is manifested (when it is) without any trigger or stimulus.
Of course, the point stands if there so much as can be such unconditional dispositions. No conditional analysis can cover them.
Certainly no one wants to claim that abilities to act are continuously manifesting dispositions. And no one should hold that an ability to act is just a spontaneously manifesting disposition, for the manifestation of such a disposition, in a case like that of the muon, is just a matter of chance. But might incompatibilists not think (something along these lines) that having an ability to choose to A is having a spontaneously manifesting disposition AND its being up to you whether, on the occasion in question, that disposition is manifested?
2. Setting aside the question of whether there is any correct conditional analysis of dispositions, is there some such analysis of ability to act?
Vihvelin observes that abilities to act (like dispositions) can be finkish. A fink can remove an ability in just those circumstances in which it would, if retained, be exercised, or create an ability to act only when such circumstances obtain. The lesson, she recommends, is that “persons have abilities by having intrinsic properties that are the causal basis of the ability” (p. 438). She suggests the following Revised Conditional Analysis of Ability:
RCAA: S has the ability at time t to do X iff, for some intrinsic property or set of properties B that S has at t, for some time t’ after t, if S chose (decided, intended, or tried) at t to do X, and S were to retain B until t’, S’s choosing (deciding, intending, or trying) to do X and S’s having of B would jointly be an S-complete cause of S’s doing X (p. 438).
(To be precise, her claim is that RCAA, or something reasonably close, is correct for “basic abilities,” those that are dispositions. “Complex abilities, including the ability to make choices for reasons, are not dispositions; they are bundles of dispositions” [p. 439]. On the ability to choose, see no. 6 below.)
Vihvelin argues (pp. 441-45) that various objections that were taken to be forceful against the simple conditional analysis of ability fail when applied to RCAA. Some of her claims here are puzzling.
One objection was that an agent may be able to A, and yet may try but fail to A. (J. L. Austin’s case, in “Ifs and Cans,” of the golfer who misses a putt of a sort that he usually makes is an example.) Vihvelin says the objection has no force against RCAA, but it seems to apply as powerfully here as it does against the simple conditional analysis, for it has nothing to do with subtraction or addition of any causal basis of the ability.
Another objection was that the conditional ‘if S chose (decided, intended, or tried) to do X, then S would do X’ may be true, but still S may be unable to do X, for S may be unable to choose (decide, intend, or try) to do X. Vihvelin considers this objection as part of a regress objection (which adds that if we in turn try to analyze ‘S is able to choose to do X’ in terms of a similar conditional, then we are off on an infinite regress). But the original objection may be considered in its own right, and as such it seems to count as fully against RCAA as it does against the simple conditional analysis. It may be true that (as Vihvelin says) some agent (an animal, or a young child) may have an ability to perform an action of type A without having any ability to choose to A, but the further possibility that some agent may lack that ability to choose and, for just that reason, lack the ability to A undermines RCAA as an analysis of ability to act. For despite that lack of ability to choose to A, the agent may have some set of intrinsic properties B such that, if the agent chose to A and retained B, then the agent’s choosing to A and her having B would jointly be an agent-complete cause of her A-ing.
Vihvelin also suggests that, in such a case, if asked whether the agent can A, we should answer ‘yes’ and ‘no’. But the ‘yes’ goes against one of her remarks about her target: she is concerned with the ability that is relevant to moral responsibility. An agent who can’t A because she can’t choose to A may, because of that inability, be excused from responsibility.
3. Setting aside the question of whether there is any correct conditional analysis of either dispositions or abilities to act, is ability to act a disposition (or a bundle of dispositions)?
Vihvelin notes (p. 431) several important similarities between dispositions and agents’ abilities to act. Like dispositions, abilities to act are relatively stable features that typically continue to exist even when not being manifested. Indeed, like a disposition, an ability to perform an action of a certain type can exist even if never manifested. And as objects possessing a certain disposition can behave in certain ways, so agents possessing a certain ability to act can act in that way.
On the basis of such observations, Vihvelin advances the following:
ABD: To have an ability is to have a disposition or a bundle of dispositions (p. 431).
Is this claim correct?
Here are some things we might have in mind when we think or say that someone, S, has an ability to (is able to, can) do something, A:
i) S has a general capacity to A. (S can speak Spanish, ride a bicycle, drive a car, etc.)
ii) S has a general capacity to A, and the circumstances are friendly to S’s exercising that capacity. (S is capable of driving a car, she has a functioning car handy, she has the keys to it, the weather is mild, there are good roads between her house and her intended destination, etc.)
iii) S has a general capacity to A, and it is open to S (at some specified time) to exercise (at some specified time) that capacity.
iv) S has a general capacity to A, and it is up to S (at some specified time) whether S (at some specified time) exercises that capacity.
v) S has a general capacity to A, and S has a choice (at some specified time) about whether S (at some specified time) exercises that capacity.
Some of these characterizations are less than perfectly clear; one thing we might seek is further clarification of them. Perhaps some are equivalent to others. Note that on none of them is an ability to do otherwise explicitly incompatible with determinism. It may be, however, that some argument shows that on one or another of these characterizations, the ability to do otherwise is in fact so incompatible.
The type of ability characterized in (i) is quite plausibly just a causal power, or a bundle of such powers. ABD is apparently correct about such abilities. But the other sorts of abilities aren’t so obviously just dispositions, though having each may require having some dispositions. ABD isn’t so obviously correct about them.
Is, then, THE ability to act just a disposition (or a bundle of them)? Arguably the question carries a false presupposition. There are many different things that we might be thinking or talking about when we think or say that someone can or is able to do a certain thing.
4. Can agents act otherwise in Frankfurt scenarios? Vihvelin points out (p. 447) that the would-be intervener in common Frankfurt scenarios is a fink: he doesn’t actually remove any of the agent’s dispositions, but he would, if necessary, remove those that constitute the ability to do otherwise. But since none of these dispositions is actually removed, the agent is in fact able to do otherwise, despite the set up. Frankfurt’s claim to have shown that responsibility is compatible with the inability to do otherwise is thus mistaken.
How could there possibly have been any disagreement on this point? Consider this hypothesis: there is a type of ability, abilityV, that Vihvelin is concerned with when she maintains that, even in Frankfurt scenarios, agents are able to do otherwise. And there is a different type of ability, abilityO, that her opponents are concerned with when they deny that, in Frankfurt scenarios, agents can do otherwise. Vihvelin is right that, in Frankfurt scenarios (at least in prior-sign cases), the agents have the abilityV to do otherwise. Her opponents are right that, in those scenarios, the agents lack the abilityO to do otherwise. (So maybe we CAN all be friends.)
Vihvelin’s concern is, I think, roughly, (i) above. The would-be intervener doesn’t actually mess with such abilities. But the presence of the would-be intervener arguably undermines abilities of some of the other types.
Vihvelin says that her target is the ‘can’ that is relevant to moral responsibility. If the agent in the Frankfurt scenario is responsible for what she does, then obviously no ability that is relevant to moral responsibility is missing. Vihvelin’s opponents might be tempted to say that Frankfurt’s argument shows that NO ability to do otherwise is required for moral responsibility, but perhaps that is too strong. Surely certain powers or general capacities for deciding and acting otherwise are retained by the agents in Frankfurt scenarios (at least in the prior-sign versions). Perhaps it should be accepted that, in a sense, any agent possessing those kinds of powers to A can A.
But what about abilityO? If having that type of ability to do otherwise isn’t something required for responsibility, then do we really have any interest in it, are there really any contexts in which we are concerned with it? Those who accept Frankfurt’s argument perhaps owe an answer to these questions. Since this comment is already rather long, I’ll forego offering any suggestions here.
5. Is the ability that is relevant to moral responsibility a disposition (or a bundle of dispositions)? Sometimes, in excusing, we say that someone was unable to do something, or couldn’t do it, when it was some circumstantial factor that prevented them from doing it. I regret that I wasn’t able to get to the family reunion because the airport had closed due to inclement weather. None of my intrinsic powers to get to the reunion was removed by the airport closing. There is at least A sense of ‘can’ or ‘ability’ that is relevant to responsibility and concerns more than the agent’s dispositions.
Even setting aside circumstantial factors, here’s something that one might think: to be responsible for A-ing, one must have possessed a general capacity to A, and one must have originated one’s exercise of that capacity. Whether originating an exercise of a causal power is itself simply a matter of manifesting a disposition would seem to be a relevant question. Certainly some argument would be needed to show that such origination isn’t just disposition-manifestation, but what in Vihvelin’s paper shows that it is (or, alternatively, that no such origination is required for responsibility)?
6. What is free will? Vihvelin rightly chides earlier compatibilists for attempting to reduce or replace the question of free will with that of freedom of action. Free will, she suggests, is “the ability to make choices on the basis of reasons, an ability that can be exercised in more than one way” (p. 427). To have this ability is to have a bundle of simpler abilities, such as an ability to form and revise beliefs in response to evidence and argument, an ability to form intentions in response to one’s desires and instrumental beliefs, and an ability to engage in practical reasoning in response to one’s intention to make up one’s mind what to do (p. 439). Each of these abilities is, in turn, a disposition or a bundle of dispositions. Hence,
FWBD: To have free will is to have the ability to make choices on the basis of reasons and to have this ability is to have a bundle of dispositions (p. 429).
As with abilities to act, the ability to make a certain choice that is of concern to Vihvelin is, she says, the sort that is relevant to moral responsibility.
But now, setting things up this way just about makes it incomprehensible that anyone should have ever thought that an agent lacking an ability to choose otherwise might be responsible for what she chooses and does. Whether or not that thought is correct, it’s comprehensible that some have thought it. That’s comprehensible because there are notions of ability to choose that aren’t at all obviously tied to responsibility. Many writers simply set things up differently from the start. Perhaps their target is a type of ability to choose characterized roughly along the lines of (iii), or (iv), or (v) above. (Again, it would help if they said more about what our interest in such an ability is.)
I admire much in Vihvelin’s paper. I’ve noted here some points on which I dissent, and I’ve raised some questions that bloggers may want to discuss.