Posted by: dacalu | 15 October 2012

Causation and Agency

Integral to the question of causation is the question of agency – whether or not we impact our environment or are only impacted by it.  And what exactly does that mean?  I have found the question of agency particularly difficult to communicate, so I’d like to see if I can’t lay it out in terms of physical causation.
As with last time, we begin with the series of observed physical events, with each one caused by another physical event.  We bracket (set to the side for the moment) the question of whether that chain of events had an ultimate beginning (an unmoved mover) or extends back into eternity.  (This was covered 3 posts ago.)

[ {Ω} >> P(0) >> P(1) >> ] … >> P(n) >> P(n+1) >> …

Recall that the brace notation {X} indicates something that causes events, but is not caused by them.  Every chain must have a first and last link, so with the chain of events, we ask whether there is a first link in the chain.  This is sometimes known in philosophy as a the ultimate cause of an event.  In the chain of events leading to the end of a game of pool, we say that the player moved the cue, which struck the cue ball, which struck the eight ball, which dropped into the corner pocket.  If that is the entire chain, then the player is the ultimate cause.

Descartes and many other philosophers (and theologians) have claimed that humans possess the power of agency – the ability to effect the world in a way that is not determined by previous causes.  In our example above, we call the player is the first cause of a chain of events.  Thus humans choose between possible realities by acting and, though their choice may be constrained by physical events, some aspect of freedom remains.  I will diagram this thus:

{Ψ(x)} >> P(0) >> P(1) >> … >> P(n)

Unlike the Unmoved Mover {Ω} we generally speak of more than one human agent {Ψ}, so it need an index (x) to differentiate one from another.

I claim that {Ψ} must be held intuitively, if not formally.  We may argue ourselves out of it or around it, but most everyone has the experience of willing a thing that comes to be.  I desire to pick up the pencil and thus pick it up.  I choose to go to the store and thus do so.  The idea that we change the world rather than simply being a part of it seems a common perception.  Though it may be an illusion (I don’t think it is) we nonetheless know exactly what is meant by the concept, have some concept of responsibility and blame, and treat others as though they could actively choose how to behave.

The idea of agents {Ψ(x)} presents several problems for science and theology that I will address in coming blogs.




  1. […] harder to identify than the proximate cause, because it’s hard to say that the donor was not motivated by something else. That said, efficient causes are quite useful and clear when we don’t require them to be […]

  2. […] issues arise in questions of anthropology within ethics, law and policy. What constitutes persons, agents (actors), and patients (sufferers)? They do radically different work than “organism in the […]

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