Oct.20.15: compatibilist freedom of the will and quasi-perceptual intentions

If the only plausible compatibilist idea of freedom of the will demands that our conscious faculties be capable of exerting control at least sometimes over our behaviour, then it is hard for me to escape the inference that our intentions (or, anyway, our “free” intentions) are quasi-perceptual. That is, it is hard to avoid saying that quasi-perceptuality is a necessary but not sufficient condition for the free will, if there is such a thing.

[Updated Nov. 16.15]

Very quickly, there are at least two different kinds of accounts of intentions. Many agree that intentions are causally self-referential: that is, they are the sort of thing that you represent as true, and become true by representing as true, and thereby causing it to happen. I say to myself, “I will lift my arm”, and then that saying-to-myself makes the thing happen. I describe a state of affairs, and then it happens. Such intentions are cases of de dicto reference, meaning they involve descriptions that refer.

Unfortunately, that makes it seem as though intentions are contingent on our capacity to introspectively verbalize. But (some complain): can’t children intend? What about non-human animals, like corvids? It seems they can intend to do stuff even if they can’t verbalize. What’s up with that? Hence the alternative — proposed by Tyler Burge, endorsed by AA Roth (and others) — is that our intentions only have de re contents. That is, our intentions have the structural feature of causal self-reference they function in such a way as to refer, but don’t involve any inner second-order faculty that is capable of introspecting on and verbalizing the thoughts that refer.

That all sounds great, except for one thing: the free will drops out. Right or wrong, few people have traditionally wanted to say that non-human animals have a free will. The free will is supposed to be a function of deliberation and our capacity for conscious control. And it seems to me that the connection between such a faculty and the notion of a de dicto intention should be obvious enough to be suggestive.

Of course, it remains to be seen if any such thing as the de dicto intentions actually exist. In all probability, I think, even mature adults will not have rich internal descriptions that they could report as reasons, even after deliberation. For it seems to me that de dicto intentions may have gaps in their content. But this is no reason to suppose that they do not exist, or that our account of intentions must be replaced by the de re account, which is tailored to fit children and corvids.


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