Powers & the Free Will Problematic

In chapter 5 of Ontology Revisited (Routledge, 2012), I undertook to show how Humeanism structures the contemporary free will problematic.  In the paper attached below I set out what happens to the architecture of the problematic if one replaces the presumptive Humean metaphysics with a powers-based metaphysics.  [Note: by “a powers-based metaphysics” I mean one involving powers-to-do that are had by things that are powerful; not “powers” or “potencies” conceived in terms of sequences or patterns of sequences.  I make no claim that a revamped sequence-based ontology will change the terms of debate.  For further discussion of this point, see “Whose Powers? Which Agency?” in Groff and Greco, Powers & Capacities in Philosophy (Routledge, 2012).]

Jonathan Webber has kindly agreed to offer some comments in reaction to the paper in due course.  I hope that others will too.  But feel free (or compelled, as you like) to share your thoughts about the issue even if you don’t read the paper.  I mean it.

For people new to the topic, two important books in analytic philosophy on powers and free will are Personal Agency (Oxford, 2008), by the late Jonathan Lowe, and Persons & Causes, by Tim O’Connor (Oxford, 2000).  Brian Ellis has written some on the issue, though not at length.  I cite him in the paper.  Stephen Mumford and Rani Lill Anjum are currently at work on a book, and have several papers forthcoming.  Jonathan Lowe also contributed a wonderful chapter on his concept of the will to Powers & Capacities.

Here’s the link to the paper.  “Sublating the Free Will Problematic: Powers, Agency and Causal Determination.”  (If there is something legal that I am supposed to say about intellectual property, consider it said.)   Powers and Free Will, April 2013, for PCD, 2

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One Response to Powers & the Free Will Problematic

  1. Hi Ruth,

    Thank you for sharing this paper. I think it is a really impressive work. I found the synthesis of so many aspects of the free will debate from the perspective of a powers ontology to be very enlightening about the debate and about the ontology. But there was something quite central to the argument that I didn’t understand.

    I can see how the powers ontology illuminates what lies beneath such nomological regularities as can be found. So I can see why the metaphysics of powers leads us away from considering the compatibility of free will with nomological determinism. But I don’t grasp why this is ‘a non-determinist sublation’ (p. 8) or why this is really anything new.

    Although the problem of free will and determinism has often been framed in terms of laws of nature recently, it needn’t be. At its core, it seems to me, the problem has always been to understand whether only one future is possible and, if so, how that can be compatible with free will. (This is a problem, after all, that is really rooted in medieval discussions of divine foreknowledge.)

    So far as I can see, the powers ontology leaves open a fully deterministic picture, according to which the set of powers in play at any given time is fully determined by the set in play at a previous time. The set here includes not just the directions of the powers (what they exercise pressure towards), but also the actual strengths of each power (how much pressure they exert).)

    Indeed, it sometimes looks to me as if this determinism is more than consistent with a powers ontology, but is actually entailed by it. For if an action or event is brought about by the powers that are in play, then surely the full set of powers in play necessitates the outcome. (Sure, adding another power might change the outcome; but only by changing the full set in play!)

    If this is right, then William James’s definition of determinism, that ‘those parts of the universe already laid down absolutely appoint and decree what the other parts shall be’ is at least consistent with, perhaps entailed by, the powers ontology.

    I have the same difficulty in understanding the discussion of the idea of free will in your draft. I find Ekstrom’s point, which you discuss on p. 13, to be very strong. Surely it isn’t enough to say that an action was the exercise of the agent’s powers, when that simply raises the question of why the agent exercised that power to that degree at that time.

    The deterministic picture of powers I’ve just sketched can explain why the agent exercised that power to that degree at that time. Without that determinism of powers, does the question have to go unanswered? (The point that the agent has the meta-power to choose when to exercise other powers simply pushes this issue back one step.)

    So, I guess what I don’t get is why the powers ontology should reconfigure the debate in the way that you outline, rather than simply clarifying the metaphysics underlying determinism but leaving the question of the compatibility of free will with determinism untouched.

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