Nozick’s Self-Subsuming, Reflexive Agent: A Model for the
Existence of Free Will
Department of Philosophy
University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill
May 1, 2020
In his chapter on free will in Philosophical Explanations, Nozick sets out to answer a question: “Given that our actions are causally determined, how is free will possible?”1 The
premise of the question – that our actions are causally determined – seems contestable, but the only obvious alternative would be for our actions to not be causally determined, which seems to be equivalent to saying they’re random. Either way, says Nozick, these views of agency paint the individual as an “arena” in which events and decisions occur rather than a source from which they originate. Regardless of which premise is used in the initial phrasing of the question, the problem is really the same: how can agency be meaningful given that we aren’t really ‘in control’ of what we do?
This question has obvious ramifications for just punishment and responsibility, but more importantly for Nozick is formulating “a conception of human action that leaves agents
valuable.” The exact meaning of “valuable” in this context will be discussed later, but generally, I think, Nozick is referring to an agent’s role as an originator – rather than an instrument – of decisions. The sort of agency Nozick wants to uncover involves the agent being the ultimate source of a decision rather than the mere location or instrument of the decision (which occurs due to other factors or completely spontaneously). The sort of free will we want then is more of a procedural quality than an unpredictability (although free will would necessarily involve
unpredictability insofar as it is separate from complete causal determinism).
This paper, then, will set out to do two things: First, it will attempt to sketch out a picture of a free agent. This will be done by considering fundamental questions, such as the meaning of freedom for an agent, and considering what sorts of qualities a free agent must have. Second, it will attempt to demonstrate how human agents, such as ourselves, might be free and provide an answer as to whether it is likely that we are such an agent. Ultimately, I argue that Nozick’s model of a reflexive, self-subsuming agent does provide an adequate blueprint for the potential existence of a free agent given an account of the development of selfhood in the agent which I will explore in later sections. Furthermore, although uncertain, I do think this account gives reason for us to optimistic about our own chances of being free. Although I cannot, and will not, make a definitive proclamation of the existence of human freedom, I do feel that the conclusions presented here give substantial reason for us to be hopeful.
Freedom, Agency, and Originative Value
By describing free will as a procedural quality I mean to indicate that free will refers to the way an agent goes about making a decision, rather than the outcome or decision itself. A free agent may be constrained to the same possibilities as the unfree agent, but the way they go about making their decision is importantly different. A free decision must be freely decided, but it need not be the case that a free decision differs from an unfree decision in terms out outcome. A free agent and an unfree agent may very well make identical decisions, but this does not make the free agent unfree nor the unfree agent free.
as they could have done otherwise.” Upon initial reading the phrase seems to be stating that an agent is free as long as they have options; the presence of alternative possibilities is enough to conclude that the agent is free because things – technically – could have gone otherwise for them. Thinking further about the statement, however, should prove this conclusion to be clearly wrong. All agents are faced with possibilities, in fact, if they were not they would cease to be agents. That said, there can be different kinds of agents, all of which may be faced with the same possibilities. Let us examine a few archetypes:
First, there are objects. Objects take part in, or are involved in events, but they do not take any actions or make any decisions themselves. Consider a ball that is thrown into a window, breaking the window. The ball is an object, it is involved in the event of breaking the glass, but it ultimately had no say in the event’s occurrence – that is, it lacks Agency. Still, it might be said that “the ball broke the window.” This statement is technically true, the ball did break the window, but it is not true in the same way that saying “Billy broke the window by throwing the ball at it” is true. The ball did break the window, but only in the sense that the ball hitting the window was the reason the window broke. The ball is not, however, responsible for the
window’s breaking. It would not be reasonable, it seems, to punish the ball for its involvement in the breaking of the window.
stranger to for affection, or the dog may approach the stranger with hostility potentially leading him to bite the stranger. Ultimately, whether the stranger ends up being bitten is a decision that rests with the dog. Regardless of how the dog goes about making that decision – freely or otherwise – the dog still has agency in the situation insofar as they have the capacity to
determine the events that will occur. The dog, unlike the ball in the previous example, does seem somewhat responsible for the bite (if it occurs), because the dog has the ability to choose whether the bite will occur. The dog’s owner might reasonably scold the dog for its hostility. Further, if the stranger is injured he might reasonably blame the dog for his pain, remarking something like “the dog has hurt me!” Contrast this scenario with the ball, if the stranger was injured by a ball it does not seem reasonable for them to remark something like “the ball has hurt me!” The
difference in response is, I think, due to the assumed agency attributed to the dog.
Lastly, there is a category which I will call free agents. Free agents have the same capacity as agents to make decisions and therefore determine which events will occur, but free agents have an additional capacity to freely choose which outcome will occur.To freely choose an outcome is to both have control over which outcome will occur and have control over which causes will determine the decision. Unlike the dog, the free agent is not restricted to following their instincts in making decisions. Instead, the free agent makes decisions in a way that is undetermined. Precisely what it means to make an undetermined decision will be the focus of much of this paper, but for now it is useful to note the delineation between the agent, which makes decisions, and the free agent, which makes decisions freely.
think that freedom is essentially an expanded menu of possible options. Freedom of speech – the freedom to say more than what is popular – would fall into this notion of freedom. While this is one understanding of the word “freedom” it is not the kind I am referencing in this paper. Freedom, as in “free will,” referenced in this paper describes the ability for the agent to freely choose what action(s) they will take. In a certain sense the free agent is no less constrained than the unfree agent because the possible options presented to them may be the same.
agent came to his decision to eat the bowl of soup through a consideration process in which he scaled just how much he would like to eat the soup by comparing it to his fond memories of similar soups, and evaluated the ramifications of his decision upon his other commitments and desires, most notably, his prior commitment to dieting. For some period, the free agent’s decision was ‘in the balance,’ which is to say that it was uncertain – and this uncertainty was only
resolved through thoughtful deliberation by the agent. The unfree agent, by contrast, really had no say in the matter. He was overcome by an urge which consumed him. Even if he had wished to do otherwise (which he could not have willed in the first place, since he is unfree after all), he would have been forcibly compelled to do as he did. The free agent is free not because of what he decided to do, but because of how he decided to do it.
and the previous assertions I’ve made about freedom being a procedural capacity are also correct, then one might wonder whether the ‘free agent’ in this example is really free at all. If freedom is a deliberative quality which the agent possesses, and we have just shown an example in which the agent does not possess this quality, then it might reasonably be concluded that the agent is not free, but this is not the case, in my view. The freedom, if there is any, belongs to the agent rather than to the action being done. A free agent is capable of taking free actions, but the agent’s freedom does not require the exercising of his deliberative capacities in every instance. A king does not have to use his power to execute criminals in every instance, nor does a rich man have to use his capacity to spend large amounts in every possible circumstance. Further, the fact that they do not, in some instances, exercise their powers surely does not mean they do not possess the ability to do so. Similarly, the free agents lack of deliberation in a particular circumstance does not negate their general capacity for deliberation. However, in the example we examined here, there is a deeper problem for the free agent. He did not choose not to deliberate; he instead was not able to deliberate given the urgency of the situation he was
presented with. The rich man and the king, one might think, are able to not exercise their powers while also possessing their powers because they are the ultimate arbiter of whether or not their power is exercised. The free agent is not in the same position – in a given moment the free agent’s capacity for freedom may be robbed of them by a particularly urgent situation. In other words, the agent may be free in certain situations, but they are unfree in terms of their ability to determine when they may exercise their freedom. I still do not think this should imply that the agent be branded as “unfree” on face. Their capacity for freedom still exists, even if it is
not reach these speeds, nor by the fact that the ultimate decision of whether to reach these speeds is determined by the driver rather than the car itself. Similarly, an agent’s capacity for freedom ought not be disregarded on the grounds that their freedom may be inaccessible to them at certain times or that the ultimate deciding factor in whether their freedom may be exercised is often out of their control.
For Nozick, an agent’s decision making process involves a weighing and weighting of reasons; weighing being the process of choosing between competing reasons and weighting being the process of assigning weights to competing reasons. In the weighing process, an agent evaluates the reasons for doing a certain action against the reasons not to perform the action. The agent may also need to evaluate the reasons for doing the action against the reasons for doing another, mutually exclusive action. Weighing is not unique to free agents, although not all unfree agents perform weighing. Many agents, for example the dog who must decide whether to
The agent, perhaps could have done otherwise either through blind rebellion against their desires or through some mode of ascetic denial of self-pleasure, but they cannot have been otherwise. Whatever decision they end up making will be according to reasons which are out of their control.
In order for the agent to have the sort of freedom we want for ourselves, they must be able to not only weigh their reasons for and against an action, but they must have some say in what weights are assigned to each reason. This is what Nozick calls “weighting.” Weighting refers to the assigning of weights for various reasons. Free agents have the capacity for weighting, which gives them control over which reasons will be most important in their
weighing process. A free agent, when put in the same scenario as the unfree alcoholic agent, will be able to add weight to their reasons for not drinking, or subtract weight from their reasons for drinking. They are able to remind, or convince themselves that they care more for their family and for their future than they do for the short-lived pleasure of another drink. The free agent, then, is not beholden to their predispositions or to their instinctual weights when they deliberate. They are able not only to weigh various reasons against eachother, but they are able to
manipulate the impact of any given reason in order to facilitate their weighing process leading to an intended result. In other words, the free agent not only decides what to do, but who they want to be.
The distinction between weighing and weighting is similar to Frankfurt’s distinction between first and second-order desires2, first-order desires being what an agent wants to do and
second-order desires being what an agent wants to want to do. In formulating their first-order desires – that is, in deciding what they want to do – an agent performs a weighing process in
2Frankfurt, H. (1971). Freedom of Will and the Concept of a Person. Pages 7-12. New York, New York. The
which they evaluate their reasons for and against a certain course of action. First-order desires, then, are the result of an agents weighing process. Similarly, when an agent is formulating their second-order desires they are trying to decide what sorts of things they want to want to do. In other words, they are deciding what sort of agent they want to be. They may be the sort of agent to prioritize long-term benefits over short term pleasure, or perhaps the type that prefers solitary thought to social interaction. Whatever the case, they seem to be making statements about what sorts of first-order desires they want for themselves. In doing so, I think, they are really making weighting calculations. They are assigning relative weights to different sorts of reasons with the hope that these weights will produce a lifestyle and character that they desire. Alternatively, in some cases, the relationship between desires and weighing-weighting may be flipped. Rather than having first order desires which are informed by weighing, an agent may have a weighing process which is informed by their first-order desires, if they have competing first order desires. For example, an agent may simultaneously have a first-order desire to eat chicken for dinner while also having a first-order desire to eat fish for dinner. In order to resolve this tension, and decide what they want to do in the end, the agent must undergo a weighing process in which they weigh the relative strength of each desire. Regardless of the particular functioning of the
relationship, I am trying to demonstrate here that there is an analogous relationship between first and second order desires and Nozick’s weighing and weighting processes. While they are not exactly synonymous with each other, Nozick’s weighing and weighting model can be thought of as the background mental processes that accompany and produce first and second order desires.
decisions in accordance with their desires, but mice are not free. The weighing and weighting processes, in Nozick’s view, demonstrate a path for an Agent to make a decision according to reasons, and to have some influence over which reasons are prioritized, which in turn, hopefully, creates a model for a free agent.
However, the delineation between first and second-order desires, while not arbitrary, does not seem complete either. Just as first-order desires are governed by second-order desires, it seems logical to extrapolate that second-order desires may be governed by third-order desires, and those by fourth-order desires, and so on (this objection is mentioned by Wolf in Sanity and Responsibility). For example, an agent may have a first order desire to eat broccoli, which may be informed by a second order desire to be a vegetarian, and therefore not to eat any meat. This second order desire, it seems, should be in turn informed by a third order desire. In this case, their third order desire might to be an ethical eater – that is, they may have the third-order desire to be the sort of person who would adopt a second-order desire in order to be ethical, in this case vegetarianism. This third-order desire then is informed by a fourth-order desire, which is
informed by a fifth-order desire, etc. Higher-order desires are difficult to conceptualize because they refer to a level of self-creation that we do not normally think possible. However, their logical possibility seems reasonable. Moreover, the common difficulty in conceptualizing higher-order desires seems to be indicative of the fact that we, as human agents, do not freely control them.
their own third, or fourth-order desires. The agent, then, is determined insofar as their higher-order desires are not of their own creation or choosing, which means that their lower-higher-order desires, in turn, are also not of their own creation or choosing.
In much the same way that the alcoholic agent was not free because their first order desires were informed by their second-order desires – which they could not control – it seems that human (presumably free) agents would also not be free because our second-order desires are informed by higher-order desires which are out of our control. We are able to, in other words, decide what we want to do and what kind of person we want to be, but we make those decisions in accordance with other desires which inform ‘why we want to be the way we want to be’ which are wholly out of our control. Even if we can map out a clear account of how we control our third-order desires of this sort, it seems clear that at some level there is a point that is out of our reach. Since this higher-order desire which is out of our reach is used in the formation of our lower-order desires, it seems that all of our control – and our freedom – might be compromised.
This objection can also be phrased in terms of originative value (which is a term used by Nozick himself). A free agent, at least of the sort we want to conceive of ourselves as, must have originative value over their actions and potentially over their desires. We must have originative value rather than mere instrumental value, by which I mean a sort of influence over actions which is deeper than the sort of influence an instrument might have over the tasks it performs3.
In order for us to have originative value we must, at some step in the process or at some link in the causal chain, be the sole arbiter of ourselves (or put differently, we must be – or have the
3 In a deterministic world, an agent would retain some sort of value in the processes it performs,
potential to be – an uncaused cause). Nozick perhaps put it better: “A being with originative value, one whose acts have originative value, can make a difference. Due to his actions, different value consequences occur in the world than otherwise would; these were not in the cards
already.”4This statement provides another example of the importance of thinking of free will as a
capacity rather than a possibility. When Nozick says a free agent “can make a difference,” he, at least in my opinion, aims to say that a free agent has the ability to make a difference. Non-free agents, it would seem, can also make a difference insofar as their actions lead to different value consequences later on, but these agents make a difference solely by being an agent rather than by creating or determining the consequences that will occur. The whale that (briefly) ate Jonah made a tremendous difference in terms of world history, after all, the world would be much different if it weren’t for the story of Jonah and the whale, but the whale really had no say in the matter- he merely ate what was presented to him. The whale, therefore, had no originative value since he was going to eat anything in front of him and Jonah being in front of him was an
occurrence brought about by factors outside of the whale himself. The whale then was merely the arena in which the events of the bible occurred – it was not the thing which brought them about. Even if we assume that Jonah was placed in the path of the whale in order to be eaten, either by his own willing or by the will of God, the whale still has no originative value over the world-changing events which it took part in. On the other hand, if the whale had not been positioned to eat Jonah, it is certainly true that this would “make a difference” insofar as the events of world history would be significantly altered. Still though, the “difference” being made here is really not attributable to the whale. The whale did not “choose” not to eat Jonah just as he did not actively seek to eat Jonah in the original story. So, even though the whale took part in very significant
events, the whale itself did not “make a difference” in the way Nozick means. The whale did not bring the events into occurrence; they were, in Nozick’s terms, already in the cards.
This is a very high bar for human free will, in my view, although relatively intuitive. The free agent must be able to do things which they were not predestined to do according to the causal forces at work in the world. If they could not do anything other than what those forces dictate, they would not be free because they would be constrained. However, it is important to keep in mind exactly what is meant by this requirement. The free agent is not required to do things that were not predestined. The agent must be able to do these sorts of things, but they are under no obligation to exercise their freedom or to exercise it in such a way as to change their natural course.
It is worth considering what it means for an event to be already “in the cards.” One interpretation of the concept might be something like this: events that are already “in the cards” are events that, without any input by the agents or objects involved, would occur due to the causal forces of the universe. If we assume a deterministic world, as Nozick does5, then there are
all sorts of thing which would fall into this category of being ‘in the cards.’ For example, an apple tree produces an apple which ripens and grows large until a gust of wind breaks it off its branch, leaving it fall to the ground. Even before the apple fell – indeed, even before the apple came into being – it was destined to fall at precisely the moment it did due to precisely this gust of wind. Neither the apple, nor the tree, nor the wind exercised any agency or had any say in the
5 I am drawing this conclusion from Nozick’s Philosophical Explanations. For the sake of our
discussion, it is easier to proceed by assuming a determined world for the sake of being able to hold things constant. We can say, with this assumption, that things would have gone a certain way had there not been some sort of interference on the part of freedom or randomness. If, however, as some people believe, there were a great amount of randomness involved in the world’s events, nothing would fundamentally change about the validity of any of the theory presented here. Nozick wrote something similar in Philosophical Explanations (P. 210):
events they were involved in. They were, in this sense, all “in the cards” to begin with. Certainly this seems like one sort of case that is relatively indisputably non-originative in Nozick’s sense. However, in my view, this concept of “in the cards” is not complete because it does not give room for non-originative agency. Consider a simple agent, perhaps a mouse. The mouse is placed in a maze and is given the option to proceed left or right. Down the path to the left it will find a block of cheese, which it desires. Down the path to the right it will find a cracker, which it also desires. Before proceeding further in the experiment we can ask ourselves, “what is in the cards for the mouse at this moment?” On the one hand, the mouse enjoys cheese and would have a causal reason for deciding to go left. On the other, the mouse also enjoys crackers and would have a reason for deciding to go right also. We can also assume that the mouse is not a free agent, at least in Nozick’s terminology – it is not capable of originative value. Whatever decision the mouse ends up making will be due to reasons which it will weigh, but the mouse really has no say over the weighing process, it is beholden essentially to the reason which has more weight in its mind. Now suppose that the mouse decides to go left. We will say in this case that the mouse chose to go left because it has such a strong desire for cheese. “Of course it went left, mice love cheese!” we might say. On the other hand, if the mouse were to go right, we would say that the mouse chose to go right because it has a stong desire for crackers. “Of course it went right, mice love crackers!” we might remark in this case. The point I am attempting to
demonstrate is that, whatever decision the mouse ends up making, we will say that their decision was due to factors that were undoubtedly “already in the cards.” But how can this be? How can it be that both the decision to go left and the decision to go right were both predetermined?
As I see it, we are able to say that either decision the mouse makes would be
where the mouse’s brain places more weight on the desire for cheese than the desire for crackers, the mouse will decide to go left towards the cheese. In a reality where the mouse’s brain places more weight on its desire for crackers, it will go right towards the crackers. In either reality, the mouse really has no say in the matter – it must go where its weighing process leads it. But the case is difficult when we consider it from our own point of view because we do not, and likely cannot, know whether we are in a reality in which the mouse prefers cheese or a reality in which the mouse prefers crackers. Instead we tend to think that mouse must “choose” between the cheese and the crackers, and that choice, presumably, involves a real possibility of the mouse choosing either option.
Are we wrong for thinking this way? Not exactly. The predictability within any particular reality does not negate the possibility of other realities with different predictable outcomes. Realities, in this sense, operate much like superposition’s for electrons. Electrons orbit an atom at a relatively unpredictable speed and on an unpredictable path. At any given time, the electron is at one specific position, but that position is unknown. Instead, we can know that the electron exists within a superposition, which is many possible locations. Although the electron is only actually in one specific location, it could be in a number of others, if certain factors influencing its movements were different. Similarly, when we make statements about decisions we are making statements about the agents superposition. When we say, for example, that the mouse may decide to go left or right, we mean to say that those are two possible decisions that could come to be. However, the mouse will only actually go one way or the other, not both, just as the electron will only actually be in one specific location, not at all points in its super position.
been predetermined because we are really talking about two distinct possibilities – that is, two different realities. When we make a statements about decisions, for example the statement “the mouse may decide to go left or to go right,” I think what we really mean to say is that the reality that will come to be depends on conditions about the agent’s preferences and the conditions of the world they are presented with. So, our previous statement about the mouse might be
rephrased, more accurately, as “if the mouse prefers cheese to crackers, he will go left, or, if the mouse prefers crackers to cheese, he will go right.” When understood this way, it no longer seems illogical to say that if a non-free agent is presented with a decision, regardless of what they decide to do, it will have been “in the cards” already. Because the decision the agent ends up making will reflect conditions about the agent and the world that, if we as observers were able to know from our prospective, were predetermined to cause the outcome that ends up occurring. Any statement that we make about uncertainty regarding determined decisions is, of course, a statement of our own ignorance. There is only one decision that will be made, and that decision could be known if we had more information. So, even when we are discussing decisions made by non-free agents that are uncertain from our prospective, we are describing things that are already determined to happen.
A Model of a Free Agent
The Role of the Self
instrumental, but originative. Nozick hypothesizes that a free agent may escape the “lattice of causal determination” by performing “reflexive self-subsuming acts.”6 This sort of decision has a
very particular meaning which Nozick is very careful to articulate. Such a decision “bestows weights to reasons on the basis of a then chosen conception of one’s appropriate life, a
conception that includes bestowing those weights and choosing that conception… Such a self-subsuming decision will not be a random brute fact; it will be explained as an instance of the very conception and weights chosen.”78
The “conception of one’s appropriate life” can, I think, be thought of as selfhood. When we think about life decisions like our preference in career or our desired family type, we tend to appeal to a self that we regard as being already inside of us. We might ask ourselves, in our minds, questions like “what type of job do I want for myself?” or, in a simpler context, “should I take out the trash?” These questions don't make much sense without the presence of a self which is, in some way at least, separate from the agent. When we ask these questions we are asking ourselves what we should do – we are attempting to make our decisions as an extension of our own conception of who we are or want to be.
When I was younger, it was common for people to wear bracelets which were inscribed with “WWJD,” which is an acronym for “What would Jesus do?” The bracelets were meant to remind the wearer to try to formulate their actions in accordance with what Jesus would have done in the same situation. Jesus, for these people, was an embodiment of an “appropriate life” – he was a role model for living a moral and purposeful life. So, when confronted with some
6Nozick, R. (1981). Philosophical explanations. Page 308. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press. 7Nozick, R. (1981). Philosophical explanations. Page 300. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.
situation in life, a person with one of these bracelets might ask themselves “what would jesus do?” and, based on their answer they would formulate an action. Similarly, we tend to ask ourselves what we should do. We are attempting to do the same thing – to formulate our actions in accordance with a consistent moral authority – but we commonly will use the self (that is, our self) as our moral authority.
The agent needs to ‘be a self’ in order to ask themselves what they should do. Some actions, for example acts of instinct, do not require the existence of a self, but for a large set of life-shaping deliberative acts the self is required. In these decisions, the self plays a role as an advisor to the agent. The agent’s actions, in turn, help formulate the self in a reflexive manner. In this way, the agent is causally determined by their conception of themselves, but the very cause which determines their actions is none other than their self which is in turn informed and created through the actions which they perform and the events which they experience. A self-subsuming decision would, therefore, avoid randomness without requiring a causal stimulus by ‘baking-in’ a causal mechanism in one’s identity. However, in order for this model to be useful in our pursuit of free will, we require a self-subsuming decision which escapes the general causal lattice – that is, we need to have control over the conception we adopt. On this point, Nozick adds a
“reflexive” characteristic to the decision making model, writing “the phenomenon… has an ‘inside’ character when it holds or occurs in virtue of a feature bestowed by its holding or occurring. The free decision is reflexive; it holds in virtue of weights bestowed by its holding. An explanation of why the act was chosen will have to refer to its being chosen.”9 The decision
then, is reflexive because the weighing process it represents will reveal the weighting process that must have accompanied it. Furthermore, due to the circular connections between the
weighing and weighting processes, any decision can be justified retroactively, creating an avenue for a free decision that is not random.
This model is described but never extensively fleshed out by Nozick in Philosophical Explanations. In my understanding though, what Nozick has described is rather interesting – a decision which is uncaused in its making but justified retroactively. Consider an agent facing a decision at point x. The agent must decide whether to proceed towards option A or option B, which the agent does for reasons unknown. However, after the decision has been made it can become clear that the agent settled on the path of their choosing due to a bundle of factors F. After making several more decisions due to various bundles of factors, the characteristics of the agent are developed in ways which will eventually make them relatively predictable and, therefore, non-random. The agent will, from that point on, exist entirely within a rational world while also escaping the causal-lattice insofar as their initial decision at point x was, at the time, undetermined.
This model presents an avenue for a free agent but cannot, unfortunately, prove the existence of any such agent. This is because, at point X, an agent which is not causally
determined cannot be demonstrably non-random. A free agent would be, in this case, completely indistinguishable from a random agent. Note that a random agent may appear to be rational if their decisions are analyzed retrospectively. The fact that a free agent must be indistinguishable from a random agent, it seems, is not restricted to Nozick’s model. Any model of agency at its core must possess the same random appearance because if a governing principle could be ascribed to the agent they would become determined, even if their guiding principle is
Nozick’s model does, however, create an avenue for an agent without causal motivation to exist, and that possibility is encouraging.
The fact, however, that the random agent and the free agent are indistinguishable from our point of view does not indicate that they are actually the same. Random agents and forces often behave in such a way as to make them describable; they may produce patterns or appear to have motives, and in fact these patterns and motives may be true in broad strokes even though the object or agent is, at any given moment, completely random. For example, Uranium matter deteriorates at a predictable and fixed rate. The half-life of Uranium-238, for example, is about 4.5 Billion years. So, based on this information we can say definitively that half of a given subset of Uranium-238 will have deteriorated 2.5 Billion years from now. However, each individual molecule within the subset is unpredictable – it is impossible to predict which molecule will deteriorate next. So, we are left with a strange case in which truly random occurrences are also truly patterned and predictable, at least in broad strokes. Similarly, we might be able to say, correctly, that a six sided die will land on 1 about 1/6th of the time, even though we cannot say
whether, on any given roll, the die will land on 1.
random agent, like the determined agent, is restricted too much to be free. While the determined agent was restricted to only do what they were caused to do, the random agent is restricted not to do things that would make them not random. The free agent, then, can be neither. The free agent may or may not be predictable in either their general behavioral patterns or in their actions at any given moment. The free agent may choose to do only the things they are prompted to do and therefore they may choose to act in the exact same way as the determined agent. On the other hand, the free agent may choose to act exactly as the random agent would act. Still another possibility is that the free agent may choose to act predictably at certain times or in certain regards, while also acting randomly at certain times or in certain regards. The wide array of possibilities for the free agent to act gives them the room they need to act the way they want to, but it also makes them difficult to identify.
Delving into this possibility further involves making some suppositions about what a reflexive self-subsuming agent might really look like. A human agent’s conception of themselves almost definitely will need to be our starting point. The self is, in Nozick’s terms,
self-subsuming. We decide what we do according to who we are and we figure out who we are based on what we do. If this is true then we have successfully avoided the infinite-orders problem by creating a closed loop in which our first order desires (what we do) are determined by our second order desires (who we are) without requiring the existence of any higher order desires.
qualities about ourselves which we have to create in ourselves, such as discipline or courtesy, are at least partially products of the particular situations and societal conditions which we find ourselves in.
There is also an element of ourselves which is largely randomly determined, which is the time at which the self comes into being. A self-subsuming human agent is self-subsuming because they can learn and modify themselves in response to their previous decisions and experiences. That is, we exist as ourselves because we can remember who we were and how we acted in the past. In fact, it might be said that the self is nothing but a memory. It is therefore unsurprising that our sense of selfhood seems to emerge around the same time that our memories begin. The exact moment which our memories begin, however, is out of our control – it must be because we do not yet exist as ourselves. The factors which determine when this remembering begins are largely unknown, but even if the emergence of memory were genetically
predetermined in order to promote the creation of a certain type of self, it would not be baked in to the genetic code what sorts of events would happen to be occurring around you at the time the agent begins to remember. These events have a significant effect on the self that emerges, however, because they provide the foundation for how you begin to think about yourself and the world around you.
were proven predictable according to genetic or developmental factors, the self is a totally determined agent since its root is determined – just as the alcoholic was unfree because the root of their problem, an insatiable desire to drink, is outside of their control. We do not, yet, have an idea of a self that can be free.
Furthermore, because the self is constructed around the memory of the initial events, rather than the objective facts about the occurrences at the time of their occurrence, it is constructed as a free agent. The characterization of the first event as being a free action therefore grounds the entire self-subsumptive process in freedom. The conversion of the first event to a free event also, it seems, changes the value of the agent and the action significantly. That is, the value
consequences that will occur in the future are changed due to the agents misremembering. Most often, the self’s first remembered occurrence will involve an event that the self is given authorship of. For example, in the case of the child who first remembers stealing a toy, is an action which the self later will attribute its own authorship over – it will be remembered as ‘something I did.’ However, the general model here does not require this to be the case. Whatever one’s first memory is, it will always involve the self. The self may take the role of actor, or thinker, but it may also take a background role in the scene of the memory such as an observer. I have not been able to discover a memory that is entirely separate from the remember-er, it is not often for a person to remember something which did not happen to them. Regardless of the role the self plays in the first memory, it is able to triangulate its own nature through the event. It can remember, for example, how it felt about the events it had witnessed, or to what extent it was responsible for the events in the memory.
in fact occurred, except as memories. In another way, the self provides additional value through its reflexive quality. The decisions it makes have an additional component of value which is the effect they have on the shaping of the identity of the agent. This value too emerges purely from the emergence of the self, which emerges according to events that did not really happen, or at least did not necessarily happen in the way they are remembered. In this regard, the decisions made by the agent also ‘make a difference’ because they inform, and potentially alter, future decisions which may bring about new value outcomes which were not ‘in the cards’ already. However, it is still unclear whether the value created by the self is truly “originative.” After all, the self emerges according to prior causes (namely genetics) and bases its memories off of prior causes (namely the actual events which occurred), so even if the self does generate value, it is unclear whether this value is originative as opposed to instrumental. The self may be locally determined, by which I mean that the factors which determine the agents actions may be knowable and predictable, but the agent is not, itself, determined. Following the emergence of the self it may be the case that one’s identity and situation do accurately predict one’s actions. However, the source of one’s identity comes from the self which is a product of a
misremembering. Put differently, the agents actions are determined by themselves. Their actions, feelings, and thoughts are irreducibly caused by themselves, and, as such, produce value which has no origin other than the agent themselves.
alters the agents actions, and these actions, done on behalf of the self, affirm the existence and influence of the self as a real psychological tool. It is sometimes difficult to conceptualize, in real terms, how something such as the self could emerge from nothing and yet be ‘real.’ It may therefore be useful to consider a few examples. Consider the physical sciences, which describe in great detail the mechanics of the universe and the relationship between various events and things. The physical sciences can, for example, document very clearly the progression of human
evolution, or the history of the formation of the world’s landmasses. However, the physical sciences have long struggled to answer questions about the initial source of all things. Various theories lay out potential methods for the creation of the universe including creation by a deity, or some other supernatural occurrence. Regardless of how things came into being, however, scientists agree that things do exist and can be studied to a meaningful extent. Without needing to know, for example, how matter initially formed in the universe, we can still observe that matter does exist and that it behaves according to certain principles including gravitational attraction and having the property of mass. Similarly, without needing to understand fully the conditions that bring about the creation of the self, we can observe that the self does exist and that it does have meaningful effects on an agent’s behavior. Given these observations, we can begin to understand some properties about the self, and the ways that it responds to certain stimuli, experiences, or situations.
decisions it makes will also be original. The actions which the self will take (or advocate to the agent) will introduce new value simply by being a factor in the agents decision making calculus. The value that is created in this way is also not dependent on the agent’s actions being changed due to the presence of the self. Since freedom, as we have discussed earlier, is a procedural quality, the self generates value so long as it alters the decision making process, even if the decisions themselves do not change.
Let’s consider another analogy, Adam and Eve ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the Garden of Eden. Upon eating the fruit their perspective changed – they began to feel ashamed of their actions and became more cognizant of their own shortcomings. Their blissful ignorance had been stripped away and they had now been cursed with the
The important point I am trying to demonstrate is that the self, in being a product of misremembering, is essentially ‘created out of nothing.’ It is something which meaningfully alters the agent’s decisions (and therefore is “real”) yet has no clear point of origin. It emerges, without warning, in an agent based on versions of events that, at least in one sense, never actually happened. It is, however, inextricably linked to the agent. If selfhood were to emerge within a different agent it would undoubtedly be a different self. Therefore, it has been
established that 1) the self creates value in the form of altering the agent’s actions and 2) the self is inextricably linked to the agent. It seems reasonable to conclude based on these two points that the value generated by the self (through the agent) is originative value of the sort we have been looking for.
Delving into this possibility further, we can test the sort of value generated by the self. Is it mere instrumental value? Nothing about the sort of decisions the agent makes due to the self makes it inherently non-instrumental, but the basis for its actions does make it unlikely.
Something which produces instrumental value will merely re-route previous causal stimulus. For example, the mouse agent discussed earlier only provides instrumental value because his role in the decision process is made up entirely of taking in causal stimulus and reacting to it in a way that produces actions. The actions of the mouse will be completely predicted by a combination of the mouse’s predispositions and the causal stimuli which it is exposed to. The self, however, is operating at least partially on causal stimulus that it created for itself in its misremembering. That is, the self is creating its own causal stimuli by creating itself in the form of misremembering. Therefore, the value of the self is not merely instrumental, it is something more.
roots cannot be traced back prior to its existence. Even if the emergence of the self could be reduced to some sort of genetic event, the value of the self comes from the combination of its emergence and the events occurring at the time. If, for example, it was to be proven that the self emerges for each person on their 4th birthday, the self that emerges would still be partially based
on the events that happened to be occurring on each person’s 4th birthday. Extrapolating further,
even if the emergence of the self was a predictable genetic event and if the events of one’s 4th
birthday were predetermined, the self would still be original because it bases itself in a
misremembering of events, rather than the actual events that occurred. If we make one further logical leap we do arrive at a dilemma. If the emergence of the self were a predetermined event,
and the events occurring at the time were also predetermined, and the way the self goes about misremembering these events was also predictable then we would have an entirely
predetermined selfhood. This sort of self would have no originative value because its emergence and all of the actions it would come to impact would all be determined by a certain set of causal stimuli. Furthermore, if we suppose that instead of being determined, the emergence of the self, the events occurring at the time, and the behavior of the self were random, we would still not be free in the way we want to be. The actions of the agent would still be caused; the causes of the actions would just be random.
their decisions. In our case, we have established that our decision making process is a kind that is compatible with freedom, but we cannot prove that we are deciding freely. We do, at least, have reason to be hopeful because we can know that we may be free.
The Role of Experience
To address this concern we need to change our perspective. Thus far, we have been discussing agency from an objective point of view. This perspective has allowed us to assess general principles and qualities of various types of agents and the sorts of decisions they will make. The objective perspective, however, does not capture the reality of experience, however. At the beginning of this paper I argued that freedom must be a procedural quality, meaning that the free agent does not necessarily make different decisions from the unfree agent, but the free agent makes their decisions differently than the unfree agent. It is therefore unsurprising that our objective analysis has been unable to successfully distinguish definitively between the free and unfree agent. In order to find this sort of distinction we have to consider what it might be liketo be a free agent.
These feelings are not dependent on the agents control of the situation or their ‘freedom’ in a given circumstance. For example, consider an agent who is attacked suddenly. In a fit of purely instinctual reactions the agent defends themselves and ends up killing their assailant. Despite the fact that the agent had no deliberative control of the situation, they may notice their hands shaking and they may feel shame for the fact that they killed the assailant. On the other hand, they may also feel a degree of bravado and pride due to the fact that they were capable of defending themselves or pure relief because they have survived the ordeal. Whatever the
reaction, the agent feels things in response to their actions that are separate from the action itself. It does not seem logical for the agent to feel shame, pride, or relief in response to this scenario since they did not have any actual input in the situation.
To make sense of these feelings, I think, requires an understanding of the experience of being this sort of agent. Fundamentally, there is uncertainty involved in the experience of these scenarios that does not exist in the objective perspective. It may have been determined how the agent would react to the situations they were placed in, but this determination was not known to the agent which separates the experience of these events from the objective occurrences
This example is illustrative of a broader point about the reflexive self-subsuming agent we have been discussing. Until now, we have described this sort of agent’s ability to act in accordance with a concept of themselves which is in turn changing in accordance with the actions the agent takes. This description captures the objective occurrences happening within the agent. The experience of being this sort of agent, however, involves a learning process. Over the course of time and an increasing archive of past decisions, the agent learns what sort of person they are. They learn more about their preferences and predispositions, and as they learn, their concept of themselves morphs to match.
The learning process, however, is not directly beholden to any event that the agent is involved in. The agent may, in any given situation decide whether or not to attribute the
occurrences to themselves. That is, they may decide that some events were ‘their fault’ and some were not. In some cases, this may be an accurate attribution and in others it may not. The agent may decide what to attribute to themselves and what not to in order to steer themselves towards a certain intended self. This aspect of the human experience is difficult to capture in simple
‘bad’ pieces of themselves. They may think, in this case, that their depression is due to their over-indulgence in laziness. By placing the blame on their actions rather than their character they are able to, hopefully, gain control over the situation. All they need to do, they might think, is work a bit harder in order to feel happier.
The important point illustrated by this example is that there is an inconsistent relationship between the agent’s actions and experiences and the development and changing of the self. This inconsistent relationship is explained by the agent’s attribution of some events and experiences to themselves and to other factors. Generally speaking, it seems that the events and experiences the agent attributes to themselves have a larger effect on the self than those that are attributed to other things. An agent’s concept of self is more impacted by, for example, a hardship that they attribute to their own mistakes than by a hardship that they attribute to luck. However, some events and experiences may be attributed to other things in order to guide the self in a different way (or, put differently, to avoid the self being guided by the events and experiences in
question). An example of this sort of case might be an agent who steals and enjoys the theft but attributes the joy to something else – say the company of their friends – in order to not guide the self towards becoming a kleptomaniac. Any individual example is imperfect, but the general mechanisms of the mind being described here are, I think, not foreign to anyone.
We now want to consider the impacts of the experiential accounts on freedom. I think there are two ways that freedom may be involved in the experience of agency:
Firstly, freedom is potentially implicated in the attribution process. Certain events and experiences, as we have discussed above, are attributed to the self and others are not. But, the question remains, who exactly is doing the attributing? Who or what is determining whether the events and experiences in question will be attributed to the self, and how does this factor into our model of a free agent? Until now we have described the agent as the one determining whether or not to attribute events and experiences to the self. But, as we have discussed in previous sections, an agent makes decisions by consulting with itself. The apparent implication is that the self is involved in guiding the agent’s decisions as to what events and experiences they will attribute to the self. The self, therefore, is its own author to some degree because it exercises some amount of control over what factors will determine what it is or will become. Previously we have described the agent as self-subsuming in the sense that the agent’s actions are informed by their concept of self, which is in turn informed by their actions. Here, however, we have described a different type of self-subsuming agent. The self not only molds itself in accordance with the decisions it makes but it also controls which decisions will be used in determining itself. Therefore, even if the events and decisions the self makes were predetermined, it would still possess a control over which of these events ‘count’ towards its morphing. Still, there are
questions that remain as to what motivates the agent to attribute certain things to themselves and not others. The depressed agent, for example, did not want to attribute their feelings to their concept of self because they did not want to be depressed, but why do they not want to be depressed? What force is guiding them towards some other, possibly inaccurate, conception of themselves?10
Secondly, freedom is potentially impacted by the experience of agency. If, as I have argued in the first section of this paper, freedom is a procedural quality that does not necessarily effect the capacities of the agent but instead effects the mechanisms by which the agent
functions, then it seems reasonable to conclude that freedom may have something to do with the experience of being. To make this connection more clear, consider what it might be like to be an unfree agent. An unfree agent may do all of the same things that a free agent does, but the free agent does them differently insofar as they decide to do them differently. In order for this to be true, the agent must, at some point, escape the causal lattice. In the objective accounts we have described agency in so far, we have been unable to describe an agent that definitively escapes the causal lattice because, no matter how elaborate their decision making process may be, the agent may have some sort of causal stimulus at their core. The experience of being an agent, however, may be different because it may exist in a non-objective plane.
What I mean by describing the experience of being an agent as non-objective is just that the experience is not reducible to definitive objective statements. I may be sad, and another agent may also be sad, but we may also not feel the same as each other. In fact, it seems possible that an two agents which are exposed to the exact same causal stimuli may experience those stimuli is distinct ways. Extrapolating this concept out further might lead to absolute subjectivity. That is to say that the experiences that I feel and perceive are irreducibly unique to me. The pain or joy that I feel may be analogous to the pain or joy felt by others, but fundamentally the feelings are distinct. The other agent, when feeling pain, does not feel my pain just as I do not feel their pain
– in a literal sense.
isotope which can be predicted in broad strokes but not at the micro-level. For example, it may be the case that any agent, when pinched, will feel a neurological stimulus that will cause them to wince or to say “ouch.” That said, it does not seem implied that every agent will feel the same thing when they are pinched. Granted, they will all feel some degree of what we call pain, but the exact experience of that pain is not universal.
If this account of experience as irreducibly subjective is correct then we have discovered some degree of individuality within each agent, but we have not uncovered anything that would seem to be freedom. However, if this experiential account is accurate then we have described an agent which is both rational and yet also unpredictable. The agent will operate according to a self-subsuming and reflexive structure, whereby through their attributions of certain events to themselves they will morph their conception of themselves which will in turn alter the actions they will take in the future. This structure operates entirely rationally and predictably. If we knew all of the causal stimulus involved, we could correctly predict the response of the agent. However, we also have an element of the agent which is irreducibly subjective which is their experience of being an agent. The things that they feel and experience, separate from the incoming stimulus which may prompt these feelings, is entirely unknown to any objective perspective. The agent is determined at a micro-level while being undetermined as a whole or in broad strokes.
would, it seems, still not be you. There is some piece of agency, or at least of human agency, that seems to be remarkably unique to the agent’s particular experience of life. The distinction between you and everything or everyone else is something other than the material facts about yourself.
Individuals of this sort are, hopefully, free because they possess a part of themselves which is not part of everything else. They are able to escape the causal lattice, to some degree, because they are able to experience things uniquely and, because their experiences are unique, they are the sole translator of their experiences into their actions and conceptions of themselves. These sorts of agents must articulate themselves in the best way they can. This articulation is always imperfect because the precise concepts they are attempting to convey are not universal and therefore not able to be perfectly captured in the form of language or action. Take for example Pain, which, as previously mentioned, may be analogous in all people but is certainly not exactly the same. The precise ways in which they decide to articulate themselves and their experiences, in turn, have meaningful effects on their future actions and decisions. In other words, the agent is able to exercise some amount of control over what sorts of things they will do.
way agents go about making decisions, while placing less emphasis on what sorts of decisions they end up making.
The free agent is both reflexive and self-subsuming. They are self-subsuming insofar as they act according to a maxim that justifies itself. In our case, we act in a way that is consistent with our conception of ourselves. The free agent is also reflexive because their conception of themselves changes in response to the decisions that they make. Depending on the things we do and the experiences we have, our conception of ourselves may change to reflect our propensity for certain emotions, or our sensitivity to certain consequences. In being both reflexive and self-subsuming, the free agent is able to act with total consistency on behalf of their maxim while also leaving room for this maxim to change as we grow.
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Clarke, R. (2006). Libertarian Accounts of Free Will. Oxford University Press.
Frankfurt, H. (1971). Freedom of Will and the Concept of a Person. New York, New York. The