Transcript: 266. Tom Pink on the Will

A conversation with Tom Pink about medieval theories of freedom and action.

Note: this transcription was produced by automatic voice recognition software. It has been corrected by hand, but may still contain errors. We are very grateful to Tim Wittenborg for his production of the automated transcripts and for the efforts of a team of volunteer listeners who corrected the texts.

The first thing I'm going to ask you is a pretty basic question. Why should we posit the will at all as most medieval philosophers do?

There are two reasons. The first is that there seems to be, if we talk about our motivations as the psychological states that move us into action, they can include desires, emotions, decisions, intentions, there are certain motivations that seem quite special. The first way they seem to be special is that they seem particularly responsive to reasons for action and serve to determine how we finally act. And these aren't just ordinary desires, ordinary emotions, but our decisions and intentions to act. We deliberate about what to do and then on the basis of that deliberation, we take a decision, which seems to be an event whereby we form an intention, outright determination to act, which persists until the time for action comes and then we act. And these decisions and intentions seem very, very closely based on what we think we ought to do, on the judgments of what philosophers have called our practical intellect, our intellectual judgments about how to act so the first thing about the will is that it's conceived of as the part of our general motivation capacity that's especially responsive to reason and to our own deliberation about how to act and which determines what subsequent actions we perform. The second point about these motivations, decision, and intention is that we seem to be able to control them. Most people have a strong intuition that they lack direct control over what they desire or what emotions they feel. Desires come over us. Fear comes over us. Anger comes over us. But our decisions and intentions are things we determine for ourselves. It's not just up to me whether I raise my hand or lower it, it's up to me also whether I first decide to raise my hand or decide to lower it so there's an intuitive relation between these decisions and intentions and the exercise of freedom. Freedom starts in our own heads in what we decide and intend to do, and that makes it very natural to look at decisions as a kind of action in their own right. If we think of what we control as primarily our action, our control, our freedom seems to start in our head with what we decide to do. So decisions to act seem themselves to be a kind of action-generating action and so they're conceived in medieval philosophy.

Okay, well that combination of reasons to posit the will already pushes us towards a classification or differentiation between different kinds of medieval theories of the will, which is something I've been talking about in the podcast already, which is on the one hand intellectualism and on the other hand, voluntarism. So intellectualism is associated with people like Aquinas, for example, voluntarism with Scotus, and then a variety of thinkers of the 14th century. And I was struck by the fact that you said, well, on the one hand, the will is responsive to reasons, which sounds more intellectualist and on the other hand, it's something we have control over and that sounds like it's maybe more will favor the voluntarist. So do you think that's right? I mean, is that a good way of thinking about the difference between intellectualism and voluntarism that the intellectualists are emphasizing the first thing and the voluntarists are emphasizing the second thing?

I think it's more, I think the disagreement between intellectualism and voluntarism is not so much disagreement about how important it is to relate the will to freedom, but rather a disagreement about how to conceive freedom. Everyone thinks that the will is, in some sense, free, or the taking of decisions and the forming of intentions is something we control. But there is then going to be a disagreement about how to understand this power of control. But it is, of course, going to involve a disagreement about how importantly the power is related to reason. I think if we look at the intellectualist, the intellectualist sees the operation of the will of our capacity to take decisions and form intentions as very closely tied to the operation of the practical intellect to our judgments about what it's best to do. Whereas the voluntarist will see our decisions and intentions as occurring to some degree independently or potentially independently of what we judge it best to do. So I might judge it’s best to do one thing and end up taking a decision to do quite another thing.

So for the voluntarists, it's almost like you have to think about a situation like, “Should I eat this chocolate cake?” And I sort of weigh up all the merits pro and con, and then whereas an intellectualist would say “Well, if I deem it best, all things considered, to eat the cake then I will eat the cake and the will will just be my power of choosing to eat the cake,” on that basis. The voluntarist will say “Well, there's something I still have to do above and beyond the sort of considering it. I have to then have an additional act of will.”

Yes. That's right. Now, why is there this disagreement? I think it's important to see voluntarism and intellectualism in medieval action theory as not completely opposed points of view but actually related but differing ways of working through tensions in the way to understand and theorize about action and freedom that everyone felt at a certain level, felt in very similar ways. And I think it's also important to see intellectualists and voluntarists as sharing fundamentally the same theory of action. What's different between them is the way they understand freedom in relation to action. So it might help, perhaps, if I just talk very generally about how they look at action and then about how they look at freedom. The theory of action is really a theory of a very important relation. It's the relationship between actions-things we do, and their objects-the goals that our actions are aimed at. We might call this goal-directional purposiveness. From Aristotle onwards, purposiveness is understood by lots of people as absolutely fundamental to the theory of agency. To be performing actions is to be doing something as a means to an end. Even if the action you perform is done for its own sake, it's still got an end, its own performance. And you can look at inaction as also importantly goal-directed. If I'm not just inactive but deliberately refraining from action, that's going to be goal-directed too. I deliberately stay still in order to be unnoticed. My inaction has a goal and that's what makes it recognizable as a sort of negative exercise of agency.

I see my enemy is about to get hit by a truck.

That’s right.

And stand still.

I stand very still in case I distract them from their end. [laughter] So how do you understand goal-directedness? It's very important that goal direction, the relationship of an action to its object, is understood apart from the whole problem of freedom, which is understood as a very different kind of problem to do with the relationship between not an action and its object, but between the agent and the action. Because when we exercise freedom, we're thinking about ourselves as people who determine for ourselves which actions we perform. So we're exercising power over the action. Whereas the relationship between an action and its object is a very different relationship. It's a relationship between the action and something it's directed at, which seems like an object of thought. After all, that's of course what it might remain, merely an object of thought. Because of course, many actions are unsuccessful. The goal never happens. You never get there. So all that occurs when we perform the action is this occurrence of an event, a thing we do, and then this object is directed at the goal, which seems to be something that exists in our minds.

So it's like the idea of the chocolate cake I'm going to bake.


That explains my action even if the oven doesn't work and the cake doesn't come out.

Or the fortune I will make on the stock market through my endeavors, which of course may never occur.

Your example is even grittier than mine.

Absolutely. Even less likely to occur. So there's no reason why, of course, your theory of purposiveness-the relationship of an action to its object, and your theory of freedom-the relationship between the agent and the action as somebody who determines the action, should be particularly closely related. Indeed, we find, in medieval action theory, a fairly important gap between the way people think about purposiveness, whether it’s a huge consensus, and the way people think about freedom, whether it's a great deal of disagreement. And it is a disagreement that gives rise to the difference between intellectualism and voluntarism.

Why is it though that the theory of purposiveness doesn't kind of compel you in a particular direction in terms of this debate between intellectualism and voluntarism? Because I would have thought that the intellectualist is exactly someone who's going to think that the way that my action is explained is that the purpose, the goal, what they would call the final end of the action, so the cake or the fortune to be won on the stock market, will appear to me as good and thus compel, in some sense, my choice. And they don't see any other factors involved in coming to perform a certain action, whereas the voluntarist is going to be precisely someone who says that the fortune to be won on the stock market or the chocolate cake, and my assessment of it as good, is inadequate to get me to act. I need to also have an act of the will in addition to that.

I think it's to do with the idea of goal-directedness. You can think of an object as worth going for and just believing that it's a good goal to go for, of course, is not obviously ipso facto to be aiming at it as your goal. You're just aiming at an object as worthy of belief, as true, and the object is that a certain goal is worth pursuing. It's another thing to think of a psychological state as directed at the object as its goal. And that makes room for the possibility of a voluntarist conception of the will. You think of the practical intellect as directed at objects as true, and the object of thought is that a goal is worth pursuing. But you think of the will itself, where action is going to be going on, as directed at the object, not as something true, but as good, and not only as good, but as the goal at which your psychological state is directed at attaining. Those are two different ways of bringing the idea of a goal into an object of thought. You can bring the goal in as part of a claim to the effect that it's good, or a good goal to aim at, and then what really matters is truth. Or you can treat it as the object of your thought, as something good to be attained through the object of thought, and then it is the goal, not just a theoretical thing or theoretical claim.

So what you're saying is that both camps agree about what an action is, and what makes an action intelligible, namely that it's goal-directed. And then the question is, rather, what's happening in the psychological faculties within the soul once I've identified a certain goal as choice-worthy. So what exactly do you think are the strongest arguments in favor of the intellectualist as opposed to the voluntarist picture? I mean I would have thought that the voluntarist has a pretty easy objection to make to the intellectualist, which is precisely that sometimes people don't do the thing that seems best to them. So these are the famous cases of Akrasia, or weakness of will, where you know, I'm trying to lose weight and all things considered, I think it would be better if I didn't eat this chocolate cake, but here I am doing it. It's a kind of classic example. So why doesn't intellectualism just fold as soon as cases like that are brought to bear against it?

I think the reason has to be seen by turning from the theory of action itself to the theory of freedom, which is what we exercise through our actions and how you conceive that. Because there are certain ways of thinking about freedom that are going to lead you to tie the exercise of freedom and therefore also the actions through which you exercise freedom very closely to the operation of your intellectual capacities. It's very important that action is understood by both voluntarists and intellectualists as not just as goal direction, but goal direction at the level of your psychological states, what modern philosophers call content-bearing psychological attitudes. Attitudes because they involve your being mentally directed at an object of thought. You can have a mental direction at an object of thought, just as true. And that's clearly going on at the level of the practical intellect as I've been describing it. I think that a goal would be a good goal to pursue. What I'm entertaining is the claim that a goal would be a good goal to pursue, and I'm directing my thought at that in the form of a belief that's directed to that object as true. And that's a classic example of sort of theoretical mental operation. And it's responsive to a theoretical reason that presents objects to thought to me as worthy of belief, as likely to be true. But I can also direct my thought at objects as good. One very obvious way of doing that is just by having desires. When I want something, it looks as though I'm directing my thought to an object as good or desirable in some way. But if we think of goal direction as involving likewise an object of thought, but this time as a goal, we can introduce actions as a further form of psychological attitude or kind of content-bearing psychological state or the formation of them, where I direct my thought at an object not simply as good, but as a goal to be attained through my directing my thought at it. And the point at which we might be thought of as doing that is when we take a decision. If I just want something, I'm just sort of entertaining it as desirable. But when I decide on it, I'm adopting it as my goal and the point of my decision is to get me to that goal. And what medieval action theory does is to treat the primary case of action as precisely involving the formation of a goal-directed attitude when we take a decision, perform an act of electio as they call it. And so the primary form of action, primary way we pursue goals is in our head when we take decisions. And the special goal-directed attitude is commonly conceived of as involving decisions and intentions whereby we are especially responsive to practical reason as recommending goals to us and determining ourselves to pursue those goals by adopting them as goals, by directing our minds at them as goals to be attained through our mental direction. Of course, on the basis of our decisions, we then do things with capacities outside the mind itself, like we raise our hand on the basis of a prior decision to raise our hand or cross the road or whatever. These, for medieval action theories, are secondary cases of actions. The primary case of action is when we first take a decision to do these things. These decisions are called elicited actions of the will. The actions decided upon, the secondary case of action, are called commanded or implorated actions because they're seen as being commanded by the will. Modern philosophers very often don't believe that actions include elicited actions of the will itself. That's because, in the 17th century, Thomas Hobbes comes along and denies the existence of special reason involving goal-directed motivations occurring inside your head. Everything is just passion or passive motivation for Hobbes. The only actions are the commanded or implorated actions, which are seen as just effects of our content-bearing psychological attitudes.

So he basically just thinks you find yourself with these desires and beliefs and then the action part is the outcome of that. The way you were describing the elicited actions seems to me to give the voluntarist a potentially very powerful objection to intellectualism, which is that if we're trying to explain free will here, which is the ultimate goal, then the intellectualist is unable to do that because the intellectualist has to admit that we're in some sense compelled by the way things seem to us so if it seems to me that the right way to proceed is to cross the street or bake a chocolate cake or invest in the stock market, then in some sense, that's what I must do. So how can the intellectualist hold on to the idea that the act of will remains free?

Well, there are two aspects to freedom, as freedom is understood in medieval thought, which put together both voluntarism and intellectualism, prima facie quite appealing options. Intellectualism goes with one side of freedom. Voluntarism goes with the other side of freedom. This division between two aspects of freedom goes back, I think, to St. Augustine and also to Lombard's immensely influential commentary on Augustine's way of conceiving freedom, which you can read in the sentences. The two aspects of freedom are this. On the one hand, we can think of freedom as a kind of power over alternatives. The kind of power we intuitively understand ourselves to possess when we think that it's up to me whether I raise my hand or lower it or I have control over which I do. The very way that we think about freedom involves an expression, it's up to me whether, that comes with alternatives. And this is what Lombard talks about when he talks about the Libertas minor of this life, when we have alternatives which can include quite nasty and irrational ones as sinners, unfortunately available to us, that we can go in for. But then there is another kind of Libertas, another kind of freedom, which we will enjoy in heaven, Libertas major of heaven, which will involve a state of complete rationality and compliance with law, what we might think of as a state of liberation, which is their gloss and the kind of freedom that St. Paul describes Christ as bringing us in the epistles.

And presumably, God has this kind of freedom as well.

Absolutely. God who is perfectly free is also perfectly rational. And of course, there are many alternatives that God would not go for on the very standard conception of God, which are all the nasty, sinful, and demeaning ones. Ones that we unfortunately in this life are all too free to go in for. And so there is also a way of conceiving a freedom, not as a power over alternatives or not as immediately as that, but rather as a state of rationality. And in the sense, of course, rationality can remove alternatives. The more rational you are, the less likely you're going to go for all the dodgy things that a mere power over alternatives will make available to you. And there is a deep tension within medieval theories of freedom about how you reconcile the conception of freedom as a power over alternatives with the conception of freedom as fundamentally our capacity for reason. Or more and more closely tied to our capacity for reason, the more perfectly we enjoy freedom. So there are now going to be two projects within medieval theories of freedom. One is a theory that takes, as primary, the idea of a power over alternatives. And the other that takes, as primary, the idea of freedom as somehow provided to us by our reason. These aren't exclusive projects in that everyone, to some extent, wants to make sense of alternatives. Everyone wants, to some extent, to make sense of the connection between freedom and reason. Everyone wants to make sense of alternatives because that's just an intuitive way of understanding freedom. That's the way we immediately understand it. It's up to me whether or not I or I for various alternatives. On the other hand, people recognize that the lower animals are as plausibly free as we are. And why is that? Well, they seem to lack reason. So everyone wants to make sense of the connection between freedom and reason. Everyone wants to make sense of the connection between freedom and alternatives. But because of the tensions between these two ways of thinking about freedom, you'll get people being pushed in one direction primarily or the other. One can look at intellectualism as driven fundamentally by the connection between freedom and reason, and voluntarism as driven fundamentally by the connection between freedom and the power over alternatives.

But as long as the intellectualists can say that I'm reasoning by choosing between alternatives, then they can accommodate my objection from before, which is that there's only one choice. There's another. More than one choice and you're weighing them up against each other.

Take Aquinas. Aquinas is fundamentally constructing his theory of freedom out of the theory of our capacity for reason. At the same time, he's also linking the operation of the will in an intellectualist fashion to the operation of the practical intellect. He sees our freedom of will is linked to a freedom of the intellect, because what we fundamentally decide to do is going to be linked to our judgments about what it's best to do. But he's not going to abandon the idea of freedom as always in this life involving power over alternatives. That is going to be provided by our capacity for reason and the nature of its objects in this life as Aquinas understands them. In this life, we're always presented by a set of options that are alternative goods, where each good option is finitely good and balanceable, at least Prima Facie, against other options by way of the good. That gives us our freedom of alternatives.

What do you think that we nowadays can take from these medieval conceptions of the will and of freedom? For example, do you think that the consensus view, medieval view of action has now been superseded and so the whole thing is taking place with assumptions about how human actions work that Hobbes already showed that we should get rid of? Or do you think that there's something here that we should hold on to in contemporary attempts to understand the will or freedom?

I think that we still have much to learn. I don't think Hobbes' victory over these medieval theories that he won in practical terms in the 17th century is a victory that we should recognize as fully justified, far from it. I think there is much to be said for accommodating our conception of the distinctive nature of decision and intention by seeing decision and intention as indeed psychological attitudes directed at their objects as goals to be attained through their formation. And you can actually provide a very convincing theory of the rationality of decision and intention in those terms. At the same time, I think we shouldn't see disputes about freedom simply as they are understood in modern philosophy as disputes between compatibilists and incompatibilists, which are fundamentally disputes about the implications of freedom of causal determinism. We should recognize there are actually deep problems about the relationship between freedom and our capacity for reason as well. And those problems are very much ignored by the Hobbesian tradition. But they are actually real ones because we do intuitively limit freedom to ourselves and possibly higher animals because we see of ourselves as having a capacity for reason that really low animals like sharks and mice lack. At the same time, we do tie freedom to power over alternatives that in some sense seems to be threatened by our capacity for reason. As I say, the more reasonable you are, the less available certain alternatives should be to you, really silly ones. But that seems to be a reduction in your power over alternatives. That's a real problem that the Hobbesian tradition has led us to neglect.

Let me see if I understand what you're saying. So you're saying that contemporary theorists of freedom are usually worried about things like, “Does the physical situation of the universe compel me to act in certain ways? And if so, does that make me unfree?” And compatibilists will say, “No, my acting freely is compatible with causal determination.” The incompatibilists will say, “No.” And then they argue about that. But what they're not thinking about is, hang on a second, I'm figuring out what to do. And how does the process of figuring out what to do weighing up alternatives and coming to a reasoned view about what to do, how does that relate to my freedom? Does it grow out of the reasoning process? I mean, is it constituted maybe even the reasoning process? Or is there something over and above the reasoning process, as the voluntarist would have said?

Yes. Our capacity to go in for the reasoning process seems to give us our capacity for freedom. Yet at the same time, when we go through our reasoning process and see some options as, say, for example, overwhelmingly preferable compared to other options, our rationality seems to remove or make some alternatives, the less sensible ones, less available to us. So that if we were perfectly rational, we'd immediately go for the best one each time. So our capacity for rationality seems to both give us freedom, but threaten to remove it if we associate freedom with the power of alternatives. I think also there is something very interesting about the very idea of freedom as a power over alternatives, which I think Scotus was particularly interested in, which is the very idea of having a power that you exercise to do one thing while possessing as a power at the same time to do another thing. That's a very interesting way of conceiving of power. And it's a way of conceiving a power that's very different from the way we ordinarily conceive what the Medievals would have called bog-standard efficient causation, or we just call causation. When a brick hits a window, there seems to be only one thing the brick can do when it exercises its power, which is to break the window. There's no idea of the brick having a power to do more than one thing and of alternatives being available to the brick in the way that they're available to a free agent. And that suggests that when we exercise freedom, something is going on that is fundamentally different from ordinary causation. But that raises a problem about whether kinds of power are available to us that are unlike ordinary causation. And that's a problem that has nothing to do with the debate about the possibility of causal determinism. It's to do with another possibly deeper issue, which is what kinds of power does nature permit to occur? Or does nature leave room for? Are all cases of power just ordinary causation, as a lot of modern philosophers are inclined to think, or can you get different kinds of power besides ordinary causation? For example, freedom as a power over alternatives, or another kind of power that Medievals seem to think of, which we might call normative power, which is the power of an object of thought to move you, not by acting as an efficient cause when the object of thought may not yet be actual. It might be an option by way of action that you haven't yet attained. It's just something you're contemplating, but its goodness might move you to go for it. That seems a kind of power unlike ordinary efficient causation. It's a kind of normative power that's associated Medieval thought with formal and final causation. They think it's perfectly possible. Of course, Thomas Hobbes thought it was impossible. As he said, moved not by an efficient is nonsense. 


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