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Hi Peter,

I think there is semantic disagreement in this case too - and perhaps metaphysical disagreement probably resulting from semantic disagreement.

More precisely, I would take issue with the idea that mental states cause nothing if everything is determined by what particles do.

For example, an impact by a big rock was very probably one of the main causes of the extinction of non-avian dinosaurs. But as I see it, big rock causation (or impact-by-big-rock causation) is not ruled out by the fact that causation also happens at the level of particles, regardless of whether determinism is true (or, plausibly, even true of asteroids when no minds are involved, though that's more difficult to characterize in detail).

Similarly, usually we talk about causation by, say, bacteria, viruses (which cause, e.g., illnesses), rain, hurricanes, acid, earthquakes, etc.
An argument mirroring the EA would seem to rule all of them out, at least under determinism, and maybe even some limited form of determinism (and, if there are turtles all the way down so to speak, so that there is no bottom particle level, that would seem to rule out all causation under determinism).

But that strikes me as conceptually mistaken. It does not seem to me that our language about causation is committed to those results.

Granted, a defender of the EA might disagree and claim that our language about causation is committed to that, and so on. But it seems to me that here we have again semantic disagreement - and then, also metaphysical disagreement resulting from it, perhaps.

Hi Peter, thanks for a great post. I wonder whether there is another equally deep, if not deeper, logically prior problem here, namely, that of explaining the relation between *the agent* and the agent’s *mental events*. This problem is prior to the traditional mind/body problem (as you described it above), since it asks not how my mental events can be causally efficacious, but rather how I relate to my own cognitive capacities (or whatever) in the first place. It seems we have to address this problem while at the same time inquiring into the causal powers, if any, possessed by my mental events. What say you?

Angra, I believe that the exclusion argument would reduce ALL forms of causation to the level of whatever causation operates at the lowest level, whether quark-quark interactions, or whatever. Ned Block referred to this as the 'seeping away' of causation to the bottom-most level. I do not agree with this seeping view at all, and will make a case in a future posting for downward causation from higher levels, particularly a level worthy of the name 'mental events,' to the level of particle interactions. But I do believe the EA is a major threat that needs to be met head on, as I attempt to do in my most recent posting. If the EA is right, then what you are saying is wrong: Speaking of a rock causing dinosaurs to go extinct is just a way to talk about causation among non-causal epiphenomena since the only events that are causal are operative at the bottom-most level. By analogy, we might be able to make the shadows of two hands, say, look like they are making each other bounce off each other, but that would be an illusion. The real causation does not happen at any level except the real object level that casts the shadows. That would be the lowest level, if the EA is correct. And as I wrote in this post, this would mean no MC, and also no FW or MR. So it is imperative to do more than say that it is just a semantic issue "that mental states cause nothing if everything is determined by what particles do." If the EA is correct this is not a semantic issue, it is an ontological issue.


I get that if the EA is right, it's not the case that a rock caused the extinction of the dinosaurs. My point is that the EA seems to me to be semantically mistaken, because even if determinism is true, and even if everything is determined by the state at the level of known particles (which may or may not be the bottom; for all I know, there might or might not be a bottom), a rock is a cause of the extinction of the dinosaurs (so, I'm using that example, as well as several others, to argue against the semantic assumptions involved in the EA; granted, there are people who disagree, and share the EA's assumptions).

In particular, it seems to me that - in the usual sense of the words - the fact that there is causation at the level of particles does not exclude that there is causation by asteroid, again regardless of whether or not determinism is true, or whether or not the other premises are true.

So, as I see it, there is a remaining significant semantic disagreement (at least from me, but I suspect that a number of other people would share those semantic intuitions).

Angra, I think, only if it can be shown that there is downward causation, can we say that a higher level is not epiphenomenal. Downward causation requires that particle-level events are influenced by higher level entities realized in particles, such as a rock or an idea. I do believe the EA is correct if determinism is the case, and that such downward causation is not possible under determinism. I will talk about downward causation assuming indeterminism in my next post. I will argue there that higher level entities can constrain which possible paths open at the particle level will become realized. This is not causal influence as a force, but causal influence via constraints.


Kim writes: “If event e has a sufficient cause c at t, no event at t distinct from c can be a cause of e.” (Barring cases of "genuine overdetermination" like someone simultaneously killed by gunshot and poison.) That Exclusion Principle may be fair when limited to events as concrete particulars. But a non-reductive physicalist is likely to insist that properties, be they mental or physical, are not themselves wielding causal influence, but rather the events that bear the properties do. So the mental property of an event's being my New Year's resolution to be more honest, and the physical property of the event's being the firings of neurons N(i) thru N(n), do not compete for influence. Those are just two apt descriptions of one and the same event.

Later on, suppose I tell the truth about some embarrassing gaffe. And that truth-telling is the same event the firings of neurons N(m) thru N(x). If we want to explain the later event on the neural level, we'll appeal to the neural properties of the earlier event. If we want to explain the fact that I told the truth, we'll appeal to the mental property of the earlier event's being a resolution to be honest. Different explanans properties for different explananda properties.

But wait, there's a whole 'nother option! We can just embrace reductive physicalism, which Kim carefully states is untouched by his argument. We can just *identify* each mental property - property conceived as something in the world, not just some of our words - with the panoply of physical properties which can realize it. Many philosophers balk at this, but I suspect the objections to it ultimately stem from sloppy use/mention thinking, and/or a metaphysical picture of "cutting nature at the joints" which denies the significance of the knife-wielder.

Paul, I would say not just that "reductive physicalism... is untouched by his argument" but that his argument is an argument that asumes reductive physicalism.

Regarding higher level causal descriptions, If the EA is valid, there is only causation at the rootmost level. Neural processing would not be causal, nor would mental activity. Talking as if there were causation at these higher levels of description might seem useful, but it would be as wrong, if the EA holds, as saying that a rooster crowing at dawn causes the sun to rise.

Embracing the conclusion of the EA means accepting that mental willing has no causal efficacy. It means freely willing cannot cause willed outcomes. It means denying FW as ordinary people think of it, which is mentally in terms of (mental)agency


Even granting that in order not to be epiphenomenal, the higher level event needs to cause something on the lower level* (which I personally don't think is the case, but leaving that aside), it seems to me that since the asteroid impact caused massive winds - which moved plenty of particles -, the asteroid did had an effect on particles.

But what if determinism is true, and the particles that made up the asteroid already determined that outcome?

As I see it, the asteroid is a bunch of particles (though, perhaps, the term "asteroid" is less precise, but that's not a problem I think), so if the particles are causally effective, so is the asteroid.

If that's correct, causation by asteroid is compatible with causation by particles, even on determinism.

In other words, it's not that the asteroid is epiphenomenal because once the particles did their causal job, there is nothing left for the asteroid to cause. Rather, when the particles did their causal job, so did the asteroid.

What about mental causation?

As long as mental events are the activity of a bunch of particles (regardless of whether some form of physicalism or panpsychism is true, that seems to be the case; I don't believe in souls), the above seems to hold for mental events as well, in my view (so, mental causation is possible on determinism).

But Angra, Kim would say that a mental event is not doing any causal work beyond what the particles are doing (on which the mental event supervenes), so is epiphenomenal. If mental events cause nothing, then volitional mental events, deliberations, decisions and intentions cause nothing. Agency vanishes if an agent cannot cause anything to happen, and along with that MR vanishes too. How can I be responsible for anything I do if particle interactions long before I was born caused what would happen? Indeed, the neural events on which mental events supervene would also cause nothing because they, in turn, supervene on lower-level particle events.

I think there is no escaping the conclusions of the EA if it is correct, as I believe it is under determinism, which is in turn stronger grounds for incompatibilism than the consequence argument. The only escape is to show that it does not hold under indeterminism, and then explain, under indeterminism how there can be downward causation. I will take that up in my next post.

It seems to me that the EA applies equally well to a lesser form of top-down causation, that of implementation of a computer program. One paper I found, by WJ Rapaport (1998)
specifically discusses the relationship between supervenience and implementation (which seems to have a sizeable philosophical literature).

To me, it seems a fact that the same program can be implemented (as a physical system) to cause the same output on a variety of different substrates, or even on the same substrate using a different encoding. Then, low level descriptions of causation that exclude (!) discussion of the high level similarities between implementations are not very interesting.

Charles, you wrote on the other thread:

"I find it truly shocking that almost everyone isn't a compatibilist [because].. Once you grant a Lewis style account of causation (either simple conditional or interventionist) it seems like you are committed to the compatibilist interpretation of ability. After all, all compatibilists are merely deriving what abilities are from these accounts of causation."

I am not an incompabilist because of the consequence argument. I am an incompatibilist because of the exclusion argument, as explained in this post. Can you see a compatibilist escape from Kim's argument? If so, please explain how it works in detail. I would be very happy to be wrong that the EA decimates your or any compatibilist stance.


But if the mental event is the event "such-and-such particles do such-and-such stuff", then it's causal as long as particle events are causal.
Of course, the mental event does not do any causal work beyond what the particles are doing, but that is only because it's not doing any causal work beyond the causal work that it is itself doing - clearly.
However, it is doing causal work nonetheless. In fact, the causal work done by the particle event is the causal work done by the mental event, because the particle event and the mental event are one and the same event.
As for the neural event, that also is the same as the particle event, and the same as the mental event, and is a causally effective event.

On a non-reductive version of physicalism (as Paul mentioned in a previous post, though he focused on neurons rather than particles, but that's still the same event), that same event has both mental and non-mental properties, (i.e., mental properties do not reduce to properties like mass, spin, etc.), but it's still the same event, and we just focus on different properties of the event, depending on the circumstances.
Sometimes we talk about intent, values, desires, etc. - that's more common -, less frequently we talk about neurons firing, etc., and even less frequently about particles, but it's all still the same event.

On the other hand, on a reductive version of physicalism, even the properties that we call "mental" are the same as some microphysical properties. So, the event is the same, the properties are the same, and mental properties/events are causal as long as events involving particles/properties of particles are causal.

On panpsychism (on some common versions, at least), particles (or whatever is at the bottom, assuming there is a bottom) would be causal, and have some basic irreducible mental properties too. But an event at a higher level would still be the same as an event at a lower level, even if we use different language to focus on different aspects of it, in different contexts - just as the asteroid is a bunch of particles, and so is a cell phone.

In any event, what level of abstraction we find convenient to use on each occasion has no impact on what is causal, of course, and the fact that we use different language does not commit us to the existence of distinct, "higher" and "lower" level events. They may actually be the same event - we're just looking at it from different angles.

Now, if substance dualism is true (i.e., if there are souls), then microphysical determinism of the sort you describe might be a problem, though soul events would still have, perhaps, causal impact of future soul events (it depends on how the determinism work), but that is probably not good enough. However, I don't think there are souls.


Contrary to your very interesting argument, I don't see that EA is a threat to compatibilism (about moral responsibility.) A person is morally responsible for some action or feeling if it indeed represents what he or she is like psychologically--that is to say, the way that he or she is disposed in general to feel and act. In order for this to be the case, it is not necessary for that feeling or action to arise from conscious willing. We can be morally responsible, for example, for failing to notice or remember certain things, if this reflects an indifference to them on our part. And in cases in which an ME of willing does seem to be involved, it is not necessary, in order for the person to be morally responsible, for the result to have been caused by this ME. What matters is just whether it (and perhaps the ME as well, were caused by and hence reflective of "what the person is like psychologically." It may be that FW as ordinary people think of it requires that mental events be causally efficacious. But I don't see why a compatibilist about moral responsibility need take that view. What such a person needs to argue is that under the conditions of agency that actually obtain, what people do and feel can sometimes be good grounds for certain moral reactions. This might not be "compatibilism about people's ordinary ideas of free will." But that is a different matter, and a less interesting and important one than the question of moral responsibility, I would say, tendentiously.

But Tim, if the EA holds, as it does, I belive, under determinism, then "what the person is like psychologically" plays no causal role whatsoever in physical outcomes or in the succession of physical events. Everything boils down to deterministic particle-level or even lower level interactions (whatever those might be), whose sufficient causes existed long before a person or agent was born. I fail to see how you or any compatibilist can squeeze FW or MR out of such a lemon. If the EA holds, compatibilists are going to have to ground person-level agency in what particles deterministically do. That is a very tall order, since the idea of agency or personhood or choice plays no role at the level of particle interactions, at least as far as I can see, under determinism. Compatibilists can't even ground agency in neural events or neural causation, since, the EA also dissolves that level of event and 'causation' into the sole true level of causation at the bottom-most level (under determinism, and assuming the assumptions of the EA are correct).

I do hope compatibilists can come up with a way out of the EA. I am skeptical that they can without redefining FW and MR into things that would be unrecognizable to ordinary people as referents of those terms. But I would be happy to have a way out of Kim's logical headlock in the case of determinism. In the case of indeterminism, as I wrote in my most recent post, I do believe there is a way out.

Has no philosopher argued that compatibilism is ruled out by the EA? Surely someone must have argued this before. If so, please tell me who I should be reading. Thanks.

Angra, you wrote "As I see it, the asteroid is a bunch of particles ..., so if the particles are causally effective, so is the asteroid."

If a particle-level analysis of causation is *sufficient* to account for all future states of the system, why do we need to bring causally inefficacious or even useless descriptors like "asteroid" into the picture? That might be a shorthand way of talking, but it would be inaccurate to say things like "an asteroid caused the dinosaur's to go extinct" if the EA holds under determinism.

It is fine if you want to try to root agency in non-concscious processing as well. But there is a deeper problem than the potential necessary involvement of consciousness in agency. The problem is that the concept of agency is an inherently causal concept. The agent is an agent by virtue of being able to cause certain kinds of events to happen. Strip the concept of agency of any causal powers, and you are left with a word that no longer means what ordinary people take it to mean. But the EA under determinism does just that; it strips agents of all causal powers. It is hard to see how agents are responsible for anything at all if they cannot cause anything to happen. And we certainly would not want to blame particles either.

Let me add that the key meaning of “the laws” (of the many ambiguously possible in the CA as it is written) that makes the CA as devastating to compatibilism as the EA is, is, in my view, the one that makes explicit the notion of causal sufficiency that is made explicit in the EA. If the state of the past and the laws are necessitarian, meaning that they and the state of the past at any time in the past sufficiently cause every actual future state of the universe, then all my thoughts, plans, intentions, willings and actions were *sufficiently* caused already billions of years before I was even born. If that is true, then there is no additional causal work to do for anything I might want to associate with MY agency and MY free will and MY conscious or unconscious decisions. In essence, under the correct definition of the laws, the CA essentially reduces to the EA. All the real causal work is left to the bottom-most level where true causation resides, and anything worthy of the name ‘me’ or ‘agent’ or 'will' becomes epiphenomenal. So there is a way to make the CA fatal to compatibilists, but there is no need to bother, because incompatibilists already have the EA. It is a simpler and cleaner argument that does everything that the incompatibilists wanted from the CA.


I am what I am, psychologically speaking, in virtue of the behavior of the particles that make me up. They are they way they are because of past events, ultimately the Big Bang, maybe. This in no way undermines the facts about what I am like, psychologically speaking, or undermines the fact that those facts cause, and thus are reflected in, things that I do. Maybe the Big Bang made me a selfish SOB. But if that is what I am, then you are justified in calling me one, and in modifying your behavior toward me in various ways that my SOB-hood makes appropriate. [This of course depends on what those "ways" are--i.e. on what blame, etc. involve.] If that claim of justification is correct (as a first-order moral matter) then I am morally responsible for actions and attitudes that reflect my SOB-hood. Compatibilism can be refuted by arguing that this moral claim is not correct, and that something more is required in order for these responses to be morally justified. I am open to hearing such an argument. But this moral question is not settled by "what most people think" about FW or MR. But we may be talking about different things. I am a compatibilist about moral responsibility, not about "what most people mean by FW."

I suspect that causal sufficiency (of the past and laws to causally specify the future) was the root intuition that led van Inwagen and others to try to formulate the CA in the first place. However, the CA was an unnecessarily weak formulation of that key intuition, in my opinion, because it did not make explicit the key point about the causal sufficiency of the laws and past to specify the future under determinism. Instead it left this key point implicit.

In addition, the CA unnecessarily brought modal operators into the argument. By doing so, incompatibilists unintentionally left open an escape route for compatibilists to take, which was that they could then interpret the laws and notions of ability in a conditional way. The CA could have been formulated in a more deadly manner if it had not left open the possibility of granting a Lewis style account of causation by not involving modal operators that make reference to notions of ability and choice. If the CA had been formulated, as the EA is, in terms of the causal sufficiency of the past and the laws, compatibilists would not have been able to escape the CA with contorted conditional readings such as David Lewis’ notion (and I don't mean this as a parody) that when we do something we could have done otherwise, such that if we had done otherwise, though of course we can't really do otherwise, the laws and/or the past would have (had to have) been different than they actually were. The EA does not allow such lawyeresque moves because there is nothing modal or conditional about the argument, at least as far as I can see. The EA makes causal sufficiency explicit, and spells out that that is what we mean by the lawful flow of physical events.

Given that the EA fulfills the original intuitions that drove the formulation of the CA in the first place, but does it better and more explicitly than the CA, without reliance on ambigous modal operators, I suggest that incompatibilists rely on the EA rather than the CA for their future arguments against compatibilism.

But again, if any compatibilist here can show me how MC, FW or MR survive the EA, assuming determinism, but without redefining these terms to mean something that nobody currently means by these terms, then all the power to you. Please explain. I hope you are right and I am wrong, since I would love it if MC and FW and MR were compatible with determinism.

Compatibilists, is there a way out of the EA under determinism that saves compatibilism?

You suggest that I am redefining the terms of the debate. I do not think that is correct.

I take MR to mean what I assume everyone means by it: the conditions necessary to make certain moral reactions such as blame and gratitude appropriate. There is nothing revisionist in that. The question is then what these conditions are. That, as I said, is a moral question. I no doubt disagree with "most people" about the answer to this moral question. But this is a moral disagreement, not a case of my redefining their terms. "Most people" may believe that (what they mean by) FW is required by MR. I think that is a mistake. But my claiming that it is a mistake does not involve redefining what they mean by FW. For what it is worth, I am strongly inclined to think that FW (as they understand it and as I understand it insofar as I do understand it) is incompatible with determinism. But, for reasons I have stated, that does not seem to me to undermine MR, as I and others understand it.

Tim, I take it that you, like John M. Fischer, advocate semi-compatibilism. I think he also thinks FW is incompatible with determinism (or at least leans toward that view based on the CA), but that MR is compatible with determinism.

It would seem to me that at least some moral responsibility follows from mental events like intentions, though there may be other kinds of responsibility, such as may follow from the consequences of our actions, independent of our intentions, that do not follow from mental states. The EA would only rule out the first kind, the ME-dependent type of MR. I see no reason why the EA would rule out the non-ME type of MR.

I think that this dual notion (ME-dependent and non-ME dependent) of MR is expressed in our laws. For example, the worst kind of killing, and the most blameworthy, involves both an intent to kill and the action of killing (premeditated murder). If there is only killing without having had an intent to kill, we call that 'manslaughter' and assign it less blame and punishment. An intent to kill, but a failure to carry out the act, is also less blameworthy than intending to do so and succeeding. So it seems that there are multiple types of MR, probably many more types than a simple ME/non-ME dependent dichotomy could capture.

Would you agree that the EA under determinism rules out the ME-dependent type of MR?


You say "If a particle-level analysis of causation is *sufficient* to account for all future states of the system, why do we need to bring causally inefficacious or even useless descriptors like "asteroid" into the picture?"

I'd like to address that passage in some detail, because I think there are a number of relevant issues involved.

1. Even if the particle-level analysis is sufficient to account for all future states (not saying it is, but even if), it does not follow that talking about an asteroid is useless. In fact, analyses at the level of particles requires an enormous amount of information that we may well not have, whereas an analysis at the level of asteroid requires far less.
In fact, we can also make predictions from hypotheses involving the term "asteroid" - not just from hypotheses involving words like "electrons" -, and often it's the case that we can't - due to insufficient information, processing capacity, etc. - use hypotheses described in terms of microphysical properties.
Similarly, talking about mental events is often useful to make predictions. We do not have information to describe the events at the level of microphysical properties. But we do have enough information to talk about mental properties (which are not the same as microphysical properties unless reductive physicalism is true, but even in that case, we do not have enough information to translate our hypotheses into microphysical properties), and we can make often accurated predictions based on those mental events (and/or mental states, if you make a distinction between events and states here).
However, the mental events in question are the same as events involving particles - well, unless there are souls or something like that, but I don't think that's the case.

2. It is not the case that the asteroid is causally inefficacious. The asteroid is a bunch of particles. The asteroid impact event is a complex particle event. It's causally efficacious as particle events are. We may use descriptors like "quark" or "asteroid", or "neuron", or "decided", depending on the case. But the fact that we look at some event from different perspectives does not imply we're dealing with different events.


Thanks for this response. You are correct that I am a semi-compatibilist (that is, about MR but not Fw.) I am in a big rush at the moment, but to reply quickly, no I do not think that EA rules out ME-dependent MR, if I understand correctly what you mean by this. I think we can be responsible for our attitudes, such as intentions, even if these are epiphenomenal, as long as they are produced in a way that actually reflects what we are like.

Got to run,


Tim, you said:

"I do not think that EA rules out ME-dependent MR...I think we can be responsible for our attitudes, such as intentions, even if these are epiphenomenal, as long as they are produced in a way that actually reflects what we are like."

So, if I understand correctly, you are saying that we can be responsible for our mental events, such as our intentions, even though you accept that (assuming that the EA holds under determinism) our intentions cannot cause our intended actions. If that is true, I assume you would say that we are responsible for our intentions, but we are not responsible for our intended actions since our intentions cannot have caused those actions? On that view, if it is in fact your view, a person who intends to kill the president and succeeds, and a person who intends to kill the president but fails are morally equivalent, since they have the same MR-inducing intention? Please clarify when you can.

Hi Peter--you've given not just a vigorous defense of your position, but a lot for me to think about.

However, I have a big-picture worry that favors Scanlon et al on all this. Incompatibilism, whether of FW or MR, is of necessity a pretty well-defined view in opposing the relevant idea to determinism. Compatibilism is any view that denies that. So any view of compatibilism is a view contrary to incompatbilism of either stripe. But contraries of this sort usually yields open-ended sets of views: it seems thus logically possible that the set of compatibilist views is indefinitely open so long as some account of FW/MR is plausibly consistent with determinism (and thus many times indeterminism as well). Even the history of the controversy demonstrates this. Prior to 1969 there was no hierarchical view. Prior to 1994 there was no (definitive) semicompatibilism. Who know what other views might be constructed in the future? What consideration about determinism would rule out not just all known forms of compatibilism, but all future forms?

Certainly one could cite classic action-based compatibilism as one that isn't touched by worries about EA and MC--because it simply does not address how minds work at all--in claiming that as long as one does what one wants, it doesn't really matter why it is that one wants this or that. Yes, that is a silly view from the perspective of many more interested in things mental (like Frankfurt and Fischer), but tell that to the states of UT, MT, ID, and KS, all of which have abolished insanity as a separate criminal defense, and thus to a large extent have abandoned mental mens rea interests about such cases in determining responsibility. That may seem crass by some lights (and it was largely in reaction to John Hinckley's exoneration rather than any positive embrace of some kind of compatibilism), but a classic compatibilist about action could certainly be encouraged by what they've done.

Again, my point is a general one about the logic of interdefinability by negation and the law of excluded middle: how could one conclusively argue that no compatibilist view, past or future, is tenable simply because it denies that determinism is relevant to FW/MR?

My view is that all this masks basic questions of value commitments, but that's for another time.

Alan, thanks for your thoughtful response. Please keep in mind that the EA does not just dissolve or reduce or eliminate causation at the level of mental events into causation at the bottom-most level. It dissolves causation at ANY level except the bottom-most level into causation at the bottom-most level. That means neural causation is as epiphenomenal as the causation operative at the level of a baseball game. It also means that any causal agency, whether based on minds or actions or events, is also epiphenomenal. I would guess, but cannot prove, that any conceivable version of compatibilism would want to posit an agent who wants things to turn out some way, and who does things to procure that which it wants. But in order to be compatible with determinism and the idea that the only real causation is at the bottom-most level, any view of FW or MR would have to relinquish the basic notion that there is agency that causes anything. Surely you are right that in the future there will be new theories of FW and MR. But if the EA under determinism holds true, then any compatibilist theories would have to make no mention of agents, agentic causation, causative wants or causative actions. A theory of FW or MR that lacked the idea that there is an agent who causes something would look, at least to me, as having lost the core idea underlying concepts of FW and MR, because it is a deciding agent who chooses and acts, and who is responsible for the consequences of his/her choices and acts. A theory without the idea of a causal agent or causal agency would be unrecognizable as a theory of FW and MR. And I would think this should apply to all future theories, though grant that reasonable people like yourself and Tim could disagree.

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