Philosophy 290-1

Fall 2023

Number Title Instructor Days/time Room
290-1 Graduate Seminar: Causation, Free Will and Time Campbell Th 12-2 Philosophy 234

We’ll review different concepts of causation, as found in the current literature, and look at how they apply to mental causation, our understanding of free will, and the ways we ordinarily think about time.

Discussion of free will is usually cast in terms of an ability humans are thought to have to control their actions. The opening sentence of O’Connor and Franklin’s excellent Stanford Encyclopedia article on ‘Free Will’ is: ‘The term “free will” has emerged over the past two millennia as the canonical designator for a significant kind of control over one’s actions’. And it’s usually thought that humans are distinctive among animals in having this kind of control. The more fundamental question, though, is not what kind of control is distinctive of humans, but why humans need to be able to control their actions in a way that other animals do not.

Relatedly, humans need to be able to think about linear time in a way that no other animal does. Humans think about a time that encompasses the lives of their ancestors and the lives of their children’s children, and no other animal species seems able to do that, although they are all capable of extensive temporal cognition. We not only seem to need linear time, as other animal species do not, but to make it central in our lives – it’s typically impossible to utter a sentence of any human language without indicating the location of the event reported in a linear time. And our emotional lives are built around the asymmetry between past and future.

We’ll look at differences between the causal structure of human psychology and the causal structures of the mental lives of other animals that underpin these differences in free will and temporal thinking.

The central questions here have to do with the relationship between generality and causal explanation. Does all causal explanation have to be grounded in generalizations, as most causal theorists have thought? Or is there a special place for the idiosyncratic, the one-off, particularly when we’re giving causal explanations that relate to human psychology?

The plan is for the seminar to be very responsive to what strike participants as important and interesting topics, so that we may spend longer on some topics and less on others depending on how things seem to people. Graduates are also encouraged to open sessions or to present formal comments if they would like to.

Thursday August 24th: Introduction

August 31st: Hempel, ‘The Function of General Laws in History’; Kohut, Empathy and the Historical Understanding of the Human Past, ch. 1: ‘Historical Excursus: Empathy in the Debates over Knowing in the Natural and in the Human Sciences’.

September 7th: Anscombe, ‘Causality and Determination’.

September 14th: Jaspers, ‘Imaginative Understanding and Causal Explanation’.

September 21st. Davidson, ‘Actions, Reasons and Causes’.

September 28th …. At this point we’ll review what seems to people in the seminar important to go into in more depth (Various analyses of the causal relation itself? Causation in psychiatry? In the law?, all of these?), before going on to look at our causal thinking and its relation to linear time.

…. An important paper for when we move to thinking about linear time will be Hoerl and McCormack, ‘Thinking in and about time: A dual systems perspective on temporal cognition’ Behavioral and Brain Sciences 42: 1–69.