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Causation and the explanation of human action


To: Mark S.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Causation and the explanation of human action
Date: 19th October 2011 13:50

Dear Mark,

Thank you for your email of 12 October, with your essay for the University of London BA Philosophy of Mind module, in response to the question, 'Are actions best explained as caused by agents, mental states, or something else?'

I really liked this. You have gone into an area of analytic philosophy which is dense with argument -- you know my views about the scholastic tendency -- but you have succeeded in giving a clear analysis of the problem of explaining action. I agree generally with your conclusion, although I also think there is a notion you could have appealed to which would have made your conclusion more compelling, that 'If behaviour forms a continuum, stretching from action to non-action, and retrospective analysis is often or always required to position behaviour along this continuum, then causal deviance may have to be accepted as a concomitant to even the best explanation of action.' -- But more of that in a minute.

The reason my response is more positive this time is that all the way through you motivate the claims, and the objections to those claims, so that the reader does not get the feeling that they are just following a report on the debate, as it were at one remove. I was challenged each step of the way. I was gripped.

A criticism could be made of the structure of your answer, although you are following a well-beaten path using a plan which has worked well for you -- I mean, considering all the alternatives, not just the most popular amongst contemporary philosophers. So 'awareness of initiation' and 'volition' seem to get equal treatment as serious contenders, even though they are not really. In an examination, you need to flag the proposed alternatives in some way so that it is clear where you are following the current state of play of the debate, and where you are just looking at historical antecedents of the problem (no less important).

In the literature, there are many, many proposed refinements to the causal story, and obviously there is a limit on how deeply you are able to delve into the detailed arguments. However, there is one proposal, originally by Christopher Peacocke, which although certainly not universally agreed as a way forward seems particularly apposite in relation to your conclusion: I am talking about the idea of 'differential explanation' ('Holistic Explanation' OUP 1979).

Consider your example of Jane. I agree that we should be focusing on 'tryings' as primarily what action explanation is seeking to explain. Jane want's to attract the attention of the chairperson, and believes that a cough will do this. Then she coughs, unintentionally. What exactly happened here? Jane's intended cough was not just any cough. It was a cough-in-order-to-gain-attention. A polite 'aahm', not a full-blooded hacking, sputum loaded cough, nor a barely audible suppressed 'humm'.

If the disputants had been talking more loudly, Jane would have turned up the volume of her 'aahm' to the appropriate level. Similarly, if they had been talking more softly she would have turned the volume down. Whereas her involuntary cough is not sensitive in the same way. Of course, we can invent reasons why the loudness of the conversation would cause Jane to be more nervous and therefore cough more loudly, or its quietness make her less nervous and so that her involuntary cough is quieter, but the point about differential explanation still holds -- there is all the difference in the world between a consciously judged trying, where gradations are fine-grained, and the relatively accidental differences in involuntary cough volume.

The precision of our tryings and the control we exercise over them is appropriate to the circumstances. Like the difference between turning on a light switch, and shooting an arrow in an archery competition. Differential explanation adapts to suit.

As Davidson argued in his original paper, actions are things we rationalize. Often, as you observe, rationalization comes after the event. There are many things we do where we don't stop to think or reflect on why we did what we did precisely that way. Our actions/ tryings are guided much of the time by practice and habit. It is only when the circumstances are challenging in some way that we need to judge our trying precisely. (I'm not saying that one can't execute 'precisely judged' actions from habit and practice -- e.g. the skilled footballer evading a tackle.)

The final finesse is to recognize, as you state, that there is no sharp line between the 'intentional' and the 'unintentional'. Post-rationalization creates many of the lines which were not there originally, in the spirit of creating an account of ones progress through the world that makes sense. What counts as an 'event' or a 'cause' are similarly constructed.

I don't agree with the criticism that Davidson's account fails to distinguish between human and non-human 'agents'. I don't accept that non-human animals have 'desires' and 'beliefs' although their behaviour is certainly goal-directed. It is through language, through our sensitivity to criticism and capacity for reflection, that the lines get drawn in the first place -- but now I'm veering off topic!

All the best,