Causes and Cans

Sorry not to have posted anything yesterday; I spent many hours on the road, as well as selling several to my employer.

Today also my muse appears to be silent, as happens from time to time — so, looking ahead to resuming our musings on free will, I will simply offer a couple of provocative thoughts about causation and possibility, lifted from Daniel Dennett’s book Freedom Evolves. I’ll just plunk them on the page, for now; they will provide useful material for subsequent conversations, I think.

The first has to do with necessity and sufficiency. Consider the following [p. 74]:

Everybody in the French Foreign Legion outpost hates Fred and wants him dead. During the night before Fred’s trek across the desert; Tom poisons the water in his canteen. Then Dick, not knowing of Tom’s intervention, pours out the (poisoned) water and replaces it with sand. Finally, Harry comes along and pokes holes in the canteen, so that the “water” will slowly run out.

Later, Fred awakens and sets out on his trek, provisioned with his canteen. Too late, he finds that his canteen is nearly empty, but besides, what remains is sand, not water, not even poisoned water. Fred dies of thirst. Who caused his death?

Next we look at an example from John Austin (Dennett [p. 75] quotes Austin’s 1961 paper Ifs and Cans) that bears on our sense that free will depends on it being the case that we “could have done otherwise”:

Consider the case where I miss a very short putt and kick myself because I could have holed it. It is not that I should have holed it if had tried; I did try, and I missed. It is not that I should have holed it if conditions had been different; that might of course be so, but I am talking about conditions as they precisely were, and asserting that I could have holed it. There is the rub. Nor does “I can hole it this time” mean that I shall hole it this time if I try or if anything else; for I may try and miss, and yet not be convinced that I could not have done it; indeed further experiments may confirm my belief that I could have done it that time, although I did not.

What does it mean to say that something “can” happen? This is not a simple question.

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  1. the one eyed man says

    Leaving aside the question of how many people in the French Foreign Legion are named Tom, Dick, and Harry: they all caused his death because they all had murderous intent and acted upon it. Which of the three acts was most proximate to poor Fred’s death is irrelevant.

    The answer to the second example is equally simple. Instead of putting, he should have picked up the ball and called it a gimme. Having failed to do so and then having missed the putt, he was entirely justified in kicking himself.

    Posted May 30, 2008 at 11:49 am | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says

    Well, Pete, thanks for clearing that up. Now we can move on to simpler questions, like why we experience the passage of time, or why the universe exists.

    Posted May 30, 2008 at 11:54 am | Permalink
  3. Jeanie Oliver says

    didn’t Fred cause his own death by not checking the canteen before he took the first step.
    On the other issue: how do we know we can make that putt? I’m assuming that the author has at some time before hit “that shot” and thus he thinks it will be the same this time. But it’s not. During the previous shot, an entirely different set of natural factors were at work. He can never get those exact alignments exactly again. I think our brain fools us into thinking “we have done this before” or we wouldn’t be able to wake in the morning for a fear that we are having to relearn every action. The reality is we have never done anything before in an exact way or you would have to be reliving it.
    I think that perhaps your reading recs are beginning to REALLY make me think….I still don’t know if I’m thinking coherently yet.

    Posted May 30, 2008 at 1:00 pm | Permalink
  4. Malcolm says


    Fred might have prevented his death by checking his canteen, but he had filled it the night before, and had no reason to assume it wouldn’t be full when he left. But anticipating danger and avoiding it is indeed one of things free agents can do, and it is important to note that this is true whether dterminism is true or not.

    As for that putt, you are exactly right. When we say “could have done otherwise”, what do we mean, exactly? That given exactly the same conditions again, there might be a different outcome? But as you say, the conditions are never exactly the same.

    Posted May 30, 2008 at 1:07 pm | Permalink
  5. JK says


    I’m listening now to old Jefferson Airplane now so conditions never remain the same and thus neither anticipating nor avoiding are possible in the world as I read your positing. The canteen is superfluous.

    Were I to be listening to Sly and the Family Stone I might be tempted to say I occupy the same coordinates, and in occupying those same coordinates could conclude that everything being equal, the putts’ outcome would of necessity, remain the same as before.

    However, would it be determined that I was listening to say, Beatles music, the only conclusion I might reach is that the Earth has rotated.

    Posted May 30, 2008 at 6:07 pm | Permalink
  6. the one eyed man says

    Remember when the Jefferson Airplane sang that “Lather was thirty years old today?”

    Well, today he’s seventy.

    Posted May 30, 2008 at 6:30 pm | Permalink
  7. Malcolm says

    As long as he’s still thrashing the air with his hands…

    Posted May 30, 2008 at 7:46 pm | Permalink
  8. the one eyed man says

    Let’s hope so. After all, they took away all of his toys.

    I would like to think that things worked out for him, and he settled down with a nice girl like Lil McGill (although everyone knew her as Nancy).

    Posted May 31, 2008 at 11:43 am | Permalink
  9. JK says


    Just ran across something that may, or may not be of some significance to this ongoing discussion. Not being the adept critical thinker I consider you to be. That’s no joke by the way, I’d enjoy reading your take on this:

    Posted June 2, 2008 at 1:53 pm | Permalink
  10. Malcolm says

    Thanks, JK – we’ll take a look.

    Posted June 2, 2008 at 2:32 pm | Permalink