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Causing Human Actions

Causing Human Actions: New Perspectives on the Causal Theory of Action

Jesús H. Aguilar
Andrei A. Buckareff
Copyright Date: 2010
Published by: MIT Press,
Pages: 336
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  • Book Info
    Causing Human Actions
    Book Description:

    The causal theory of action (CTA) is widely recognized in the literature of the philosophy of action as the "standard story" of human action and agency -- the nearest approximation in the field to a theoretical orthodoxy. This volume brings together leading figures working in action theory today to discuss issues relating to the CTA and its applications, which range from experimental philosophy to moral psychology. Some of the contributors defend the theory while others criticize it; some draw from historical sources while others focus on recent developments; some rely on the tools of analytic philosophy while others cite the latest empirical research on human action. All agree, however, on the centrality of the CTA in the philosophy of action. The contributors first consider metaphysical issues, then reasons-explanations of action, and, finally, new directions for thinking about the CTA. They discuss such topics as the tenability of some alternatives to the CTA; basic causal deviance; the etiology of action; teleologism and anticausalism; and the compatibility of the CTA with theories of embodied cognition. Two contributors engage in an exchange of views on intentional omissions that stretches over four essays, directly responding to each other in their follow-up essays. As the action-oriented perspective becomes more influential in philosophy of mind and philosophy of cognitive science, this volume offers a long-needed debate over foundational issues.Contributors: Fred Adams, Jesús H. Aguilar, John Bishop, Andrei A. Buckareff, Randolph Clarke, Jennifer Hornsby, Alicia Juarrero, Alfred R. Mele, Michael S. Moore, Thomas Nadelhoffer, Josef Perner, Johannes Roessler, David-Hillel Ruben, Carolina Sartorio, Michael Smith, Rowland StoutThe hardcover edition does not include a dust jacket.

    eISBN: 978-0-262-28913-9
    Subjects: Philosophy, Psychology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Preface
    (pp. vii-viii)
    Jesús H. Aguilar and Andrei A. Buckareff
  4. 1 The Causal Theory of Action: Origins and Issues
    (pp. 1-26)
    Jesús H. Aguilar and Andrei A. Buckareff

    Philosophy of action is often construed either broadly as including all of the problems in philosophy dealing with human action and agency or more narrowly as concerned with merely the cluster of issues that deal directly with the nature of intentional action and the explanation of action. However we characterize the philosophy of action, one theory has recently enjoyed the title of “the standard story” of human action and agency in the literature, namely, the causal theory of action (CTA).¹

    Strictly speaking, it is misleading to think of the CTA as a single theory of action. A better way to...

  5. 2 Renewed Questions about the Causal Theory of Action
    (pp. 27-44)
    Michael S. Moore

    The causal theory of action (CTA) has long been the standard account of human action in both philosophy and jurisprudence. The CTA essentially asserts that human actions are particulars of a certain kind, namely, events. Within the genus of events, human actions are differentiated by three essential properties: (1) such actions are (at least partially) identical to movements of the human body; (2) those movements are done in response to certain representational states of belief, desire, intention, volition, willing, choice, decision, deliberation, or the like; and (3) the “doing” in (2) is analyzed in causal terms. Put simply, according to...

  6. 3 The Standard Story of Action: An Exchange (1)
    (pp. 45-56)
    Michael Smith

    Suppose an agent acts in some way. What makes it the case that he acted, as distinct from his having been involved in some mere happening or other? What makes him an agent, rather than a patient? According to the standard story of action that gets told by philosophers, the answer lies in the causal etiology of what happened (Hume 1777/1975; Hempel 1961; Davidson 1963).

    We begin by identifying some putative action that the agent performed by tracing its effects back to some bodily movement. This bodily movement has to be one that the agent knows how to perform, and...

  7. 4 The Standard Story of Action: An Exchange (2)
    (pp. 57-68)
    Jennifer Hornsby

    In this second part of this exchange, I respond to Michael Smith by saying why I think that no one should endorse the standard story of action in any of its versions. I hope to show that there is an alternative to it.

    In the first part of the exchange, Smith replies to Hornsby 2004. My criticisms there were directed against philosophers (Smith among them) who tell us that deficiencies in the standard story of action are to be remedied by adding states of different sorts from beliefs and desires to the causes of bodily movements (ibid., 2).¹ I said...

  8. 5 Skepticism about Natural Agency and the Causal Theory of Action
    (pp. 69-84)
    John Bishop

    Action theorists often proceed with little or no motivational prolegomena, as if the question of what it is for something to count as an action is justthere, most strikingly posed, perhaps, in Wittgenstein’s terms: “What is left over if I subtract the fact that my arm goes up from the fact that I raise my arm?” (Wittgenstein 1972, 161).¹ Alfred Mele, for example, in the introduction to his edited Oxford Readings in Philosophy collection in the philosophy of action, begins with the twin questions (a) what are actions? and (b) what is involved in explaining actions? And he says...

  9. 6 Agential Systems, Causal Deviance, and Reliability
    (pp. 85-100)
    Jesús H. Aguilar

    According to the causal theory of action (CTA) an action is an event caused by a mental state or event that rationalizes its execution. Actions are typically exemplified by bodily movements, and their internal causes by intentions. The CTA has traditionally been saddled with problems emerging from so-called deviant causal chains, namely, chains of events that satisfy the CTA’s conditions for the production of an action but whose product is intuitively not an action. A plausible strategy for defending this theory against the possibility of deviant causal chains is grounded on the proposal that the bodily movement corresponding to an...

  10. 7 What Are You Causing in Acting?
    (pp. 101-114)
    Rowland Stout

    My target for attack in this essay is the fairly widespread view in the philosophy of action that what an agent is doing in acting in a certain kind of way is causing an event of some corresponding type. On this view agency is characterized by the agent’s causing of events. To pick one of many manifestations of this view, here are Maria Alvarez and John Hyman:

    We can describe an agent as something or someone that makes things happen. And we can add that to make something happen is to cause an event of some kind. (Alvarez and Hyman...

  11. 8 Omissions and Causalism
    (pp. 115-134)
    Carolina Sartorio

    Omissions are puzzling—so puzzling that people tend to say puzzling things about them and give up otherwise attractive philosophical theories in order to accommodate them.¹ In this essay I suggest that omissions make trouble—serious trouble, and trouble of a new,sui generiskind—for “causalism,” the standard view or family of views of agency. In particular, I am interested in causalism as an attempt to explain what it is for an agent to behave intentionally. I will argue that causalism cannot accommodate intentional omissions—or, at least, it cannot account for them in the same way it accounts...

  12. 9 Intentional Omissions
    (pp. 135-156)
    Randolph Clarke

    Often when one omits to do a certain thing, one’s omission is due to one’s simply not having considered, or one’s having forgotten, to do that thing. When this is so, one does not intentionally omit to do that thing. But sometimes one intentionally omits to do something. For example, Ann was asked by Bob to pick him up at the airport at 2:30 am, after his arrival at 2:00. Feeling tired and knowing that Bob can take a taxi, Ann decides at midnight not to pick him up at 2:30, and she intentionally omits to do so. Other examples...

  13. 10 Comments on Clarkeʹs ʺIntentional Omissionsʺ
    (pp. 157-160)
    Carolina Sartorio

    Clarke argues for two main claims in his essay. The first is:

    (i) In order for an agent’s omitting toAto be intentional, some intention with the appropriate content (e.g., the intention not toAor a related intention) must play a causal role in the situation.

    This is the main source of disagreement between Clarke’s proposal and my proposal. I argued that, at least ordinarily, the agent’somitting to intendtoA(which is itself an intentional omission) causes his omitting toA, and that this is enough to explain why the agent’s omitting toAis intentional....

  14. 11 Reply to Sartorio
    (pp. 161-166)
    Randolph Clarke

    After drinking with his buddies one evening, Tom was tired. While they vowed to carry on all night—and did—he went home and slept. Tom intentionally omitted to join them in toasting the sunrise. Was he engaged in some kind of behavior at dawn? Something dormitive, perhaps, but nothing of the kind that action theory aims to characterize.

    We can perfectly well use the term “behavior” in a broader sense, to cover all things done intentionally, including Tom’s omitting to drink till dawn. But if we do, we should see that “behavior” is a disparate category, including actions and...

  15. 12 Causal and Deliberative Strength of Reasons for Action: The Case of Con-Reasons
    (pp. 167-182)
    David-Hillel Ruben

    An agent’s having of a reason for an action (hereafter, simply “a reason”) is often said to be among the causes or causal conditions of the action for which it is a reason (in this wide sense, “action” includes many cases of inaction).¹ Hereafter, this view is referred to ascausalism, or (1). Causalism as here understood is a thesis about causation, not about causal explanation.

    Causation and causal explanation might come apart in both directions, as it were. There might be causal explanations that do not cite any or only causes, under any description. In any case, it is...

  16. 13 Teleological Explanations of Actions: Anticausalism versus Causalism
    (pp. 183-198)
    Alfred R. Mele

    Teleological explanations of human actions are explanations in terms of aims, goals, or purposes of human agents. According to one familiarcausalapproach to analyzing human action and to explaining instances thereof, human actions are, essentially, events that have appropriate mental items (or neural realizations of those items) among their causes.¹ Many causalists appeal, in part, to such goal-representing states as desires and intentions (or their neural realizers) in their explanations of human actions, and they take acceptable teleological explanations of human actions to be causal explanations. Some proponents of the view that human actions are explained teleologically regard all...

  17. 14 Teleology and Causal Understanding in Childrenʹs Theory of Mind
    (pp. 199-228)
    Josef Perner and Johannes Roessler

    In “The Emergence of Thought,” Donald Davidson argues that while we have no difficulty in describing, on the one hand, mindless nature and, on the other, mature adult psychology, “what we lack is a way of describing what is in between.” He claims that there is a deep and “perhaps insuperable problem in giving a full description of the emergence of thought”; and he expresses relief at not working “in the field of developmental psychology” (Davidson 2001, 128). In this chapter we argue that Davidson was right about the depth and difficulty of the problems involved in describing the emergence...

  18. 15 Action Theory Meets Embodied Cognition
    (pp. 229-252)
    Fred Adams

    In cognitive science, embodied cognition is sweeping the planet.¹ Interest in this perspective on cognition is becoming wildly popular. Some of the tenets of embodied approaches to cognition are compatible with the received theories of action, but some aren’t. In this essay, I will look at the problem caused for the received view by the claim that much of embodied cognition is situated and time-pressured in such a way that the received view of how intentions work in the production of actions in these cases cannot be correct. I shall defend a compatibility approach, arguing for the view that even...

  19. 16 Intentions as Complex Dynamical Attractors
    (pp. 253-276)
    Alicia Juarrero

    What is the difference between a wink and a blink? Intuitively, we would say that a wink is intentional and a blink is not. From a philosophical point of view, answering the question, whatisan intention and how does an agent’s intentioncausehis or her behavior, has a long history. This “problem of action” dates back to ancient times. In theCrito, Socrates wonders how philosophers such as Anaxagoras or Anaximenes would explain his refusal to escape from prison. How could merely physical phenomena explain how hisreasonsfor remaining keep him in jail? In the last half...

  20. 17 The Causal Theory of Action and the Still Puzzling Knobe Effect
    (pp. 277-296)
    Thomas Nadelhoffer

    It is a common assumption among philosophers that whether or not something counts as an intentional action depends on what was going on “in the head” of the agent at the time it was performed. On this view, intentional actions are events that are caused by a combination of antecedent conative and cognitive mental states such as wishes, desires, beliefs, reasons, decisions, and intentions.¹ And although the philosophers who adopt this kind of causal theory of action may admittedly disagree when it comes to the precise nature of the relationship between various mental states and human agency—for example, whether...

  21. References
    (pp. 297-322)
  22. Contributors
    (pp. 323-324)
  23. Index
    (pp. 325-327)