restricted access 5 Skepticism about Natural Agency and the Causal Theory of Action
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5 Skepticism about Natural Agency and the Causal Theory of Action John Bishop Action theorists often proceed with little or no motivational prolegomena, as if the question of what it is for something to count as an action is just there, most strikingly posed, perhaps, in Wittgenstein’s terms: “What is left over if I subtract the fact that my arm goes up from the fact that I raise my arm?” (Wittgenstein 1972, 161).1 Alfred Mele, for example, in the introduction to his edited Oxford Readings in Philosophy collection in the philosophy of action, begins with the twin questions (a) what are actions? and (b) what is involved in explaining actions? And he says that “inquiring minds . . . would want to know what actions are, what it is to act intentionally , what constitutes acting for a reason, whether proper explanations are causal explanations or explanations of some other kind, and how the psychological or mental items (states, events and processes) that are supposed to be explanatory of action are to be understood” (Mele 1997b, 1, my emphasis). Admittedly, Mele does remark that “one hopes that a fullblown philosophy of action will solve part of the mind–body problem and illuminate the issues of free will, moral responsibility, and practical rationality ” (ibid.). So it is, of course, clear that inquiring into the nature of actions and action explanation does have wider motivation. In my view, however, it is helpful for action theorists to be more explicit about what their wider motivations are, and to keep their theorizing consciously in contact with wider philosophical goals. Debates about action can become unfocused unless they are consciously answerable to some specific motivation or motivations for philosophical interest in action. 1 The Problem of Natural Agency One such motivation is concern with the problem of natural agency. Wittgenstein ’s question may indeed be a focal one: what is it for behavior to count as action, rather than just “mere” behavior? But this question already 70 J. Bishop deploys a technical notion of action—a technical notion that has its source in our ethical perspective on ourselves. For we hold an agent morally responsible for a given outcome only if it came about or persisted through that agent’s own action. Even if an agent’s behavior contributed to a certain outcome, the agent would not be morally responsible for it unless the behavior involved or constituted the agent’s own action.2,3 Now, if our ethical perspective applies to the world (if agents really are sometimes morally responsible for outcomes) then actions must be a feature of the world. But how is it possible for actions in this sense to be part of the natural world as our natural scientific worldview conceives it? Actions either are or necessarily involve physical events—in particular, bodily movements—and those events are open to natural scientific explanation. So there is room for skepticism about how the very same outcome can both result from morally responsible agency and also be in principle explicable scientifically. In previous work, I put the problem of natural agency thus: “We seem committed to two perspectives on human behavior—the ethical and the natural—yet the two can be put in tension with one another—so seriously in tension, in fact, as to convince some philosophers either that the acting person is not part of the natural order open to scientific inquiry or that morally responsible natural agency is an illusion” (Bishop 1989, 15). One important motivation, then, for seeking to understand what it is for something to be an action is to seek to resolve the problem of natural agency. Does the concept of action that we need for our ethical perspective have features that require going beyond the confines of our prevailing natural scientific metaphysics, or may actions be wholly accommodated within a naturalist ontology? I shall call the claim that actions can be fitted into a naturalist ontology reconciliatory naturalism. One way to defend reconciliatory naturalism is to advance a causal theory of action. I suspect that this is the only route to reconciliatory naturalism—but will here claim just that a certain sort of causal theory of action, if successful, overcomes skepticism about natural agency. To appreciate why a successful causal theory of action would achieve this, consider how best to state the nature of the tension between our ethical and natural scientific perspectives. That tension has often been expressed as an apparent incompatibility between free will and determinism...