Friday, May 11, 2007

Agent-Causal Theory and the Nature of Choice

Roderick Chisholm, in his essay “Human Freedom and the Self,” describes an agent-causal theory in which an agent – presumably a moral agent, i.e. man – is seen, to use Chisholm’s choice of words, as the “immanent” cause of an event. This is to be contrasted with “transeunt” causation where an event is caused by another event. That is, the agent causes event B to happen (immanent causation), but not in the same way that event A causes event B to happen (transeunt causation); the difference is that “the agent is held to be a substance,” (Clarke 273) a concrete and tangible entity. Being thus the immanent starter of transeunt causal chains, the moral agent can be called the “prime mover unmoved,” meaning that nothing necessitates the agent to immanently cause an event. Chisholm explains that, “as [Thomas] Reid put it, though we may ‘reason from men’s motives [desires, beliefs, and stimuli] to their actions and, in many cases, with great probability,’ we can never do so ‘with absolute certainty’” (Chisholm 152). This is similar to what Leibniz theorized – that of desires/beliefs/stimuli that “incline without necessitating.” Chisholm adds: “at times the agent, if he chooses, may rise above his desires and do something else instead” (153). In light of this, I wish to explore the following questions: How does the agent choose to do something else? What is choice in this context?

It appears that in the case above, ‘choice’ is the first ‘event’ that the agent immanently causes. Choice must be a necessary consequence of the agent himself, for, without it, the agent could not act of his own free will; without making a choice to act, the agent cannot possibly be an immanent cause of another event. What seems to be the case as a result of this reasoning is that for an agent to be an immanent cause, a “prime mover unmoved,” his first ‘effect’ or consequence must be ‘choice.’ Additionally, for the agent to be considered ‘free,’ his choice must also be a conscious and voluntary choice, for if the agent himself does not know, understand, and wish what he chooses, then the choice can hardly be considered ‘his,’ and as a result belongs to something ‘other,’ in which case the agent cannot be considered an “immanent” cause of the chosen event. If the choice happens to not really be the agent’s, but is instead influenced by other factors such as desires, beliefs, and internal/external stimuli, then the agent simply acts as another link in previously started causal chains (those of the other factors influencing the agent’s “choice”) and is, as a result, nothing more than a “transeunt” cause of the chosen event.

How can an agent make a choice that is truly ‘his own’? While, as stated before, desires/beliefs/stimuli may “incline without necessitating,” choices cannot be made in a vacuum, either. The choice cannot be totally “indetermined” or random – such randomness does not happen in the macro world, at least not in cases of rational beings. Rather, choices are made within a ‘medium,’ a context objectively perceivable to the agent as facts and data. Also, choices are made with a certain aim, a concrete goal; otherwise, there would be no point to them. What’s the difference, then, between this concrete goal/contextual data and the aforementioned desires/beliefs/stimuli? It is impossible to explain this without bringing in the practical philosophy of Esotericism and the Tradition as taught by G. I. Gurdjieff, P. D. Ouspensky, and Boris Mouravieff.

According to these teachings, the desires/beliefs/stimuli are ‘outside’ factors acting on man, things he has learned through ‘nurture’ in society, and the things that act within him through ‘nature.’ They are nothing more than “mechanical laws” that influence his life in a myriad of ways, usually unbeknownst to him. Mouravieff explains it thus:

A prisoner - perhaps voluntarily, but nevertheless a prisoner - man does not do what he wants to do in life, but does what he hates, blindly obeying a diabolical mechanicalness which, under its three aspects: fear, hunger, and sexuality rules his life. This purely fictitious existence has nothing real except the possibility of evolution - which remains latent, and forms the objective of esoteric studies and Work. (Mouravieff 65)

As a result, the Tradition maintains that man – in his default state – is not free, but rather has the possibility of attaining freedom. Thus, free will is seen as a process of freeing oneself from the mechanical laws of the world, not as a natural faculty of man; it must be Worked for through constant self-struggle with one’s illusions and mechanicalness. These illusions are exactly the desires/beliefs/stimuli that “incline without necessitating,” except that, according to the Tradition, they almost always tend to ‘necessitate’ in the lives of contemporary men. The tragedy is that man has become so immersed in such illusions, he cannot distinguish what’s ‘his’ from what’s not anymore. Ouspensky observes:

This sleep of man, and absence of unity in him, create another very important characteristic, and this is, the complete mechanicalness of man. Man in this state is a machine controlled by external influences; he has no possibility to resist these external influences, and no possibility to distinguish them from one another, no possibility to study himself apart from these things. (Ouspensky The Fourth 16)

To get back to the topic, Ouspensky concludes: “Our power of choice begins only when we begin to realize our situation, our mechanicalness, and when we begin to struggle for something else” (Ouspensky The Fourth 246).

From the above brief introduction to the Esoteric philosophy as it relates to free will and the nature of choice, it ought to be clear that the moral agent – man – can only be an immanent cause after he has attained a certain knowledge about himself and the workings of his ‘machine.’ Only then can he truly know what’s ‘his’ and what is simply acting on him and through him mechanically. Only then can he make choices based on the true contextual data and with a true, personal aim in mind:

Instead of the discordant and often contradictory activity of different desires, there is one single ‘I,’ whole, indivisible, and permanent; there is individuality… Instead of the mechanical process of thinking there is consciousness. And there is will, that is, a power, not merely composed of various often contradictory desires belonging to different “I’s,” but issuing from consciousness and governed by individuality or a single and permanent “I.” Only such a will can be called “free,” for it is independent of accident and cannot be altered or directed from without. (Ouspensky In Search 42-3)

By raising his self-consciousness and knowledge of himself through self-observation and self-struggle against the illusions created in him by mechanical laws, man can become master of himself and his choices, a true “prime mover unmoved” as theorized by the agent-causal theory.

Works Cited

Chisholm, Roderick. “Human Freedom and the Self.” Free Will. Ed. Derk Pereboom. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1997. 143-155.

Clarke, Randolph. “Agent Causation and Event Causation in the Production of Free Action.” Free Will. Ed. Derk Pereboom. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1997. 273-300.

Mouravieff, Boris. Gnosis: Book One. Robertsbridge: Praxis Institute Press, 2002.

Ouspensky, P. D. In Search of the Miraculous: The Teachings of G.I. Gurdjieff. San Diego: Harcourt, Inc., 1949.

Ouspensky, P. D. The Fourth Way. New York: Vintage Books, 1971.

No comments: