Thursday, February 10, 2011

This one's from the hip

It's probably not wise to post ideas that are not properly researched or thought out, but then again this is only a blog. I sort of think that half-baked (but not necessarily worthless) ideas are what it's for. So here goes.

I'm sitting in on a seminar with Tal Brewer on the philosophy of action, which is a terrific experience. Consequently I'm reading and trying to think about philosophy of action quite a bit, and am likely to blog about it or else not blog, since I only have so much time. This week I re-read Davidson's "Actions, Reasons, and Causes" (page references below are to this paper as it appears in his Essays on Actions and Events). My impression is that many people object to his claim that reasons are causes because they think of causes in a rather mechanical sense. But I wonder whether this isn't a mis-reading.

Davidson (p. 3) is interested in “the relation between a reason and an action when the reason explains the action by giving the agent’s reason for doing what he did.” On p. 12 he says that “A primary reason for an action is its cause,” where a primary reason consists of a pro-attitude and a belief. On p. 17 he considers the objection to this view that we know causes by observation but our reasons for acting as we do non-observationally. But, he says (p. 18), “the only question is whether these oddities [involving first-person knowledge] prove that reasons do not cause, in any ordinary sense at least, the actions that they rationalize.” The ordinary sense he has in mind seems to relate to the word ‘because’ (see p. 9), which is a pretty broad sense (it might cover all four of Aristotle’s ‘causes’, for instance). So one question I have is whether Davidson is really saying anything precise enough to be helpful (or criticize-able) here. On pp. 9-10 he elaborates on the issue of ‘because’ by saying that, “When we ask why someone acted as he did, we want to be provided with an interpretation.” An interpretation doesn’t sound like an efficient cause, but it might be a cause in the ordinary sense. It certainly answers the question ‘Why?’ I’m not sure how far this takes us beyond common sense and/or Anscombe though.

The last objection Davidson considers to his argument (pp. 18-19) is that there is something wrong with talking about the causes of actions at all. I’m not sure I follow what Davidson says in the final paragraph, but his initial point seems to be that it can’t be true that actions are identical with bodily movements, that these bodily movements have causes, and yet that the actions do not have causes. So far so good, but I wonder whether he has missed the point of the objection (or perhaps Melden, to whom he is responding, made it badly). I would think that an action is a bodily movement under some particular description. So the man playing a tune on a squeaky pump might perform exactly the same bodily movements as a man pumping poison into a house full of Nazis, but their actions are different. Presumably the mere movements have causes in the brain, etc., but in what sense might an action (understood as movements under a particular description) have a cause? Would the agent be caused to conceive of his movements under that description? Or is it not the conceiving or particular understanding that is caused but rather the movements-under-that-description? I think I can make sense of the question “Why do you take yourself to be playing a tune?”, so there might be a ‘because’ here, but it surely won’t be the same as the answer to the question “Why are you playing a tune?” And the answer to the question “What are the causes of the movements we observe in this man’s body?” might be different again. I suspect that the problem is that people are inclined to think of causes as efficient causes within the body. And actions do not appear to have these. But if Davidson means ‘cause’ in a much broader sense then this criticism seems to pass him by because what he is saying has so little substance. Reasons give a because, i.e. they explain why someone did something. But didn’t we know this at the very beginning of the essay (i.e. its first sentence)?

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