Monday, 16 November 2009

making a difference

It is sometimes suggested that there is a perfectly innocuous sense in which an agent's reasons for action can be understood as the causes of her action. A sense which it ought to embarass the anti-causalist about action to not acknowledge and which - if this is all that may be meant by 'cause' in causal accounts - might also give them pause for thought about just what they had been so busy making a fuss about all this time...

That sense is the sense in which a cause is something which 'makes a difference' to what happens or what is done. To whether the action is or is not done.

In what follows I want to risk embarassment by trying to turn the tables on the causalist. What I'll suggest is that, apart from in senses of 'makes a difference to whether something is done' which are not at all intuitively understood as cases of causation, the explanatory function of the proferring of reasons for Jane's actions is not discharged through their citation aiding us in grasping that, were it not for the reason being proffered, Jane would not have done what she did.

Let me acknowledge from the start that people do not tend to act for no reasons. That however is surely part of the conceptual analysis of 'person' and 'agent' and 'action'. So in this most general sense having reasons 'makes a difference to' what we do since, if we are a being who has reasons, then we are also in the runnings for being a being who acts.

Now I don't think that this kind of quite general 'making a difference' is what the causalist who appeals to difference-making can have in mind. In fact it would be better to phrase the actual difference made here in terms of a difference to that we do (that we are agents) rather than to what we do. Here the general having of reasons plays a purely constitutive rather than causal role in the being of actions. It doesn't touch on the issue of the likelihood of any action being undertaken, but rather on the question of whether anything that was undertaken would deserve the epithet of 'action'.

The question remains though: should we understand the role of specific reasons as making a difference to the performing of specific actions? I want to deny that this is the case.

Let's start by pitching the causal account against a hermeneutic account of action explanation. The hermeneut says that reason-explanations work by situating an action in a broader context. The explanatory work is done simply by this situating, which situating allows us to re-describe what was previously not immediately intelligible for what it is in itself as something which is intelligible for what it is in itself.

The situating, as the hermeneut has it, is not a matter of the rendering intelligible of the occurrence of an event in terms of its typical causes. It is not a matter of its origination or servo guidance but of its identity. (Er, and yes of course you can describe something - it's identity - in terms of its causes or effects, but that's not the point here!) The kind of elucidation that a reason-explanation provides is a kind which is to come simply from this identification of the action as what it is.

One of the main ways in which this identity elucidation seems to occur is through the provision of teloi for the actions. John is going across the room to the fridge. "He's getting a can of coke". Ah - that let's me know what this going across the room is: it's a case of going-to-get-a-coke. I can now place John's actions within the 'space of reasons', in Sellars' helpful phrase. The hermeneut's claim is that this placing is all there is to reason-explanation.

(Of course, you have to place it correctly in the space of reasons! One of Davidson's arguments was that you supposedly couldn't distinguish between correct and incorrect such placements in the absence of appeals to causation. Ironic, then, that Davidson himself was unable to provide a straightforward criterion to help us distinguish between cases of supposed wayward causal chains in which reasons which allegedly cause actions do and do not also explain the said actions.)

The causalist however wants to say that there is something more in action explanation by reasons, and that this is a matter of actions not being performed were it not for the reasons in play. John would not have gone to the fridge were it not for the fact that he wanted to get a can of coke. This, it is suggested, is implicit in the very idea of his action being explained by the reason in question.

But is this true? What if, were there not any coke in the fridge, he would instead have gone and got a lemonade from the fridge? It is hard to see why the burden of ruling out this possibility should be placed on the elucidation which cited the coke-getting. (As I write I seem to remember that Bede Rundle has a similar argument in his book Mind in Action.) And this surely generalises to many situations.

Again, it is surely inconceivable that John would have acted thus in the absence of some such reason. But this, I want to say, is not a function of a fact of reasons being causes, but of the fact that John is an agent: a being who acts for reasons. Without reasons we would not here have a case of action or of agency or of a person called John.

Sometimes, of course, people do also act for no reason. These are surely the exceptions rather than the rules of action undertaking. Their existence is not a prima facie challenge for either the causalist or the hermeneut, since their accounts are of how we are to understand the ways in which actions are explained by reasons when they are so explained. However it is part of the causalist's account of action that a particular action would not have occurred were it not for the actual reason for it's being performed being unavailable. What they must therefore explain is how it is possible for people to act, on occasion, for no reason.

The hermeneut claims that when people do act for reasons, as they normally do, and as is constitutive of the basic idea of action itself, their action is not guided or caused by their reasons. These reasons rather provide us with extra information about the intrinsic character of the action. It is an action aimed at a certain end, or expressive of a certain desire, for example. James is playing the piano. Why? He's practicing for his forthcoming concert. Neither the practicing nor the forthcoming concert cause the playing. Nor, according to the hermeneut, do we need to think of James' intentions or desires as causing the playing. They, too, simply further characterise it.

James may very well not have been playing the piano if he had not had to practice for the forthcoming conference. (Let's imagine he just is a lazy fellow. Then on the other hand, perhaps he is not, and would have been playing it anyway.) Again, this is because James is an intentional agent. It is part of his nature to be an agent, which is to say, act for reasons. To gloss this in terms of 'something which makes a difference to what he does is' to mistake a constituting for a propitiating contribution.

I hope these considerations will make clear why it is not ok for the causalist to simply say 'But are you seriously saying that having such and such a reason made no difference to whether or not such and such an action was undertaken?' Once again, the argument is that people are beings the essential nature of which is to 'act for reasons'; that action itself is generally, as a rule, undertaken for reasons. So of course it is unlikely that, in the absence of the reason, we would have the action in question. It is possible, of course, as an exception to the rule, but unlikely. But the point is here that we do have to do with a rule, and not to do with a cause.

I hope they also show that it wouldn't be ok for the causalist at this stage to appeal to analogies of redescriptions which reference causes. Of course such redescriptions occur (think of explanations of the character of car parts in terms of their functional roles).
But that is part of an appeal to explicate what it might be for a reason to be a cause, rather than part of an argument which shows why we should think of them as causes. The hermeneut is not claiming that we have no causal analogies which, if the causal claim was required in the first place, could not then be appealed to. They were arguing instead that the context-placing, intelligibility-enhancing-through-character-revelation, nature of reasons is all there is to their explanatory power, and that this does not need to be augmented by considerations of causation.

To return to James, at the general level his having reasons makes a difference to that, and not what, he does (ie that he is a do-er). At the specific level of an individual action it makes a difference to what and not that he does (acts).

Consider what I want to suggest is a comparable non-reason-providing explanation which also works by context situation (Julia Tanney has comparable examples in her nice piece Reasons as non-causal context-placing explanations.) I see a fragment of text on a piece of paper on the pavement; 'toes' and 'cumber' it says. How can I understand it? Well, it's a fragment of a shopping list. The shopper was reminding himself to buy tomatoes and a cucumber.

The full words do not cause in the sense of makes a difference to the occurrence of the part words, or in any other sense of cause. To be sure, it is unlikely that someone would have written the part words if they had not been writing these full words, but not impossible. (Perhaps they were writing a holiday memo about being encumbered by mosquitoes.) But this is not because the full words 'bring about' the part words. Neither does mention of teloi, reasons, desires, intentions, or beliefs discharge its explanatory duty through the identification of something which brings about something else. In recharacterising the action, the talk of intentions etc. does not serve to reference anything at all other than the action itself in all its glory.


postscript on the logical connection argument

The Wittgensteinian claims that one way to distinguish reasons from causes is through the fact that the relata in a reason explanation of an action are not 'distinct existences' whereas the relata of a causal explanation of a happening are necessarily 'distinct existences'.

It is sometimes objected to this that a) we can explain what something is in terms of its causes or effects, and b) we can say that 'the cause of A caused A', that this is a causal explanation, and therefore non-distinct existences can be invoked in causal explanations.

Against these: a) yes we can. But we cannot then merely invoke this concept in a causal explanation. If a carburettor is (I have no idea what it is but let's say:) just that which mixes the air and fuel in a car, and you say to me: what causes the air and fuel to mix? and I say 'the carburettor', I think it pretty clear that I have not just provided a causal explanation. This is even clearer in b): to say that the cause of A caused A is not to explain how A came about. It is just to reiterate that it did come about without magic!

Further, we may (perhaps) be able to think of descriptions under which non-distinct existences can be considered distinct, or in which distinct existences can be considered non-distinct (as above with A). But the relevant concern is the 'descriptions' which must feature in the explanations of the action or event. If explanation of action is causal explanation, then it must be that the action and the explanans are distinct existences. This is what the hermeneut denies. An intention is related to doing X through its being an intention to do X; the connection is constititutive and ergo not causal.