Friday, July 30, 2010

More on Katsafanas on Nietzsche, Consciousness, and Agency

My thanks again to Paul for a helpful and lucid set of replies (scroll into the comments for Paul's replies), which usefully focus the issues in dispute. I’ll organize my sur-replies around Paul’s 3 questions. I’ll re-state them slightly, but I hope fairly, for purposes of my reply. (I will try to say something about the other comments, some of which are relevant to what I say below, subsequently. But one thing at a time!)

First, is Paul’s account of drives compatible with my interpretation (in the 2007 paper) of the Will as Secondary Cause? The short answer is ‘yes,’ it is, strictly speaking, compatible. But Paul intends a stronger claim which is brought out by the answer to the second question.

Second, is there textual evidence of a stronger role for the Will than that as Secondary Cause? Paul claims there is, and I’ll return to those passages below.

Third, do drives “determine” or “merely influence” conscious thought. Paul opts for the latter.

Paul thinks that N. accepts a view of the will that is “more robust” than the Will as Secondary Cause reading would allow. The crucial issue is that Paul thinks “Nietzsche views conscious thoughts as exerting causal influence on non-conscious states.” Paul references his important EJP paper from 2005, and I’ve conceded previously that he is correct to object to me (in NOM) and Deleuze that consciousness, per se, can not be epiphenomenal for N. But there’s more than that at issue here.

Let’s try to make this as explicit as possible, since these issues are hard and under-treated in the secondary literature. Recall Freud’s patient Anna O (nothing turns on whether Freud is right, we are just trying to individuate possible causal roles). Anna O ‘freaks out’ when she sees a glass of water on the dining room table. What *causes* her to freak out? Most basically, it is her repressed feelings of disgust upon seeing, in the past, a dog drinking from a glass of water on a table. More precisely, the *idea* (the memory) of the dog drinking from the glass on the table is repressed, but the *feelings* (the affect) are still floating around her psyche, and are triggered whenever she sees a glass of water on a table.

Now “seeing a half-empty glass of water on a table” is a conscious thought she has. And it seems to stand in a causal relationship with her ‘freaking out.’ So here’s one causal role for consciousness in action: conscious perceptions can be part of the causal chain leading to action (‘freaking out’!)—they can “trigger” a free-floating affect (and triggering is presumably some kind of causal relation).

Quite generally, conscious perceptions, in the presence of antecedent desires, can play a causal role in action, and it would seem mad to deny it: if I *desire something to quench my thirst* and I consciously perceive water, and form the conscious belief that water is in front of me, then surely that conscious mental state plays a causal role in explaining my action (drinking the water).

So let’s take for granted that N. had better not be denying any of these causal roles for conscious mental states. That’s why it was a mistake in NOM to suggest that conscious mental states were epiphenomenal *tout court.* They can’t be, without giving up the causal influence of conscious perception on action and without giving up the causal influence of conscious beliefs about effective means to ends on action.

But that isn’t what’s really at issue here. None of these conscious beliefs or perceptions involve *the conscious experience of will.* In the preceding cases, sensory experience gives rise to beliefs which, given *antecedent* desires (or drives) yield action.

Perhaps the issue is whether (as Paul puts it) “drives are altered by conscious judgments.” Now if the phrase “conscious judgments” includes the conscious perceptions and beliefs just noted, then of course such conscious judgments can alter drives: not their *aims*, to use Paul’s useful distinction, but their *objects*.

Paul, however, cites the interesting and clearly pertinent passage D 38 titled “Drives transformed by moral judgments.” But what precisely is the transformation at issue? N’s claim is that drives in themselves have no moral character, “nor even a definite attendant sensation of pleasure or displeasure: it acquires all this, as its second nature, only when it enters into relations with drives already baptized good or evil or is noted as a quality of beings the people has already evaluated and determined in a moral sense.” His example is “envy,” which the Greeks viewed more positively than we do. So on this picture there is some underlying drive—let us say, “to wish one had what others have”—but whether it is *experienced* as good or evil, pleasant or unpleasant, is affected by, we shall say, the “cultural climate,” where that climate is internalized by the agent. I do not see that anything in D 38 requires that the internalization be conscious, but nor do I see a problem if it is: just as the *object* of my hunger drive changes with the conscious perception of different foods (even though the aim is unaffected), so too the *object* (or even the manifestation) of my envy drive may change with the conscious perception of the cultural climate. In none of this is the experience of free will at issue.

Something similar can be said of Paul’s other two examples: that the thought of eternal recurrence “is centered on the conscious reaction one has to a thought experiment” and that N’s critique of religion and morality “rest[s] on the idea that consciously embracing these modes of life and these values is damaging.” Quite clearly, N. thinks the thought of eternal recurrence and MPS values (in my terms) are or can be causally efficacious. We must be cautious, though, about the talk of consciousness in all this. To be sure, it seems reasonable to think that an agent in a culture dominated by MPS consciously experiences MPS values (e.g., feels good about his altruistic deeds, feels guilty about his egoism, and so on). But this is no different than a conscious perception of a piece of cake fixing the *object* of the hunger drive. And an agent may consciously think about eternal return—say, after reading Nietzsche—but whether it is causally efficacious may depend entirely on whether it excites a particular unconscious drive (much as perceiving the piece of cake might excite the hunger drive).

I addressed a version of this problem in NOM, so let me just reprint here my comments there (157-158):

[W]hen N. affirms the explanatory *primacy* of type-facts about agents, he is
only ruling out causal efficacy that is not ultimately traceable to causal
efficacy in virtue of type-facts. Thus, N can, as we saw, admist the plausible
view that the values an agent is exposed to can affect the agent—but only in
virtue of type-facts about that agent [e.g., exciting, or inhibiting, certain
pre-existing drives]. Thus, if MPS hinders the flourishing of higher types, it
is only because there are type-facts about higher types that make them
susceptible to the influence of these values. So, too, agents can come to accept
values that are, overall, harmful to that type of agent only in virtue of
type-facts about agents that would lead them to do so—this, in fact, is the very
essence of ‘decadence’ for Nietzsche.

So notice that on this picture, we get a causal role for conscious mental states (though not those associated with the feeling of free will), in the sense that consciousness is the medium for representation contents that excite, inhibit, or otherwise affect non-conscious drives. None of this, though, seems enough for “genuine agency” in the moralistic sense with which the tradition is usually concerned.

To sum up, so far, Paul has pressed the point (which I conceded in the 2007 paper) that conscious mental states can be causally efficacious. But that is no longer in dispute.

So do drives determine conscious thoughts? Certainly what Paul calls the “weak reading” of the relation must be right, given that everyone admits that environmental factors, including values, are causally effective on the person (I suppose they could only affect non-conscious characteristics of the person, but there is no reason to think that is so). But what prompted my challenge on this score was somewhat different. It was Paul’s claim that N. thinks “reflective thought” plays a causal role or, to quote Paul, that “reflection and self-understanding enable an agent to counteract the effects of particular drives." But none of the passages cited, and none of the argument so far, establishes these claims, as far as I can see.

Paul is explicit in his reply that he wants to defend the claim that the agent is sometimes “in control of [his] action.” But nothing in Paul’s reply establishes that. Paul notes that N’s view of agency is “quite subtle,” but no one was disputing that, and invocations of subtlety are not enough to vindicate moralistic misreadings of N. (though talk of “subtlety” seems to be a favorite rhetorical flourish of misreaders—vide Ridley’s confusions).

What we need to see is actual textual evidence that conscious “reflective thought” and “self-understanding” plays a causal role in action that can then be attributed to the “control” of the agent. Paul alludes to an argument in his paper “The Concept of Unified Agency,” which I look forward to reading. But the mere unity of agency isn’t necessarily enough for control or responsibility. And that’s what is at issue, not whether conscious mental states *tout court* are causal.


Narziss said...

I think Nietzsche thinks that we can be responsible. But we are not responsible for the reason that Christianity gives us. Christianity says that we are free and that being a free agent is required for being morally responsible. You must be free in order to be considered responsible. So when Nietzsche says something to the extent, 'we are not free, therefore, we are not morally responsible,' he means that we are not responsible in the Christian sense. And the Christian sense is a sense that requires justification for responsibility.

Christians need to justify their assigning of responsibility, and Nietzsche wants to attack both (1) this need to justify and (2) this faulty justification of freedom. Nietzsche believes that not only is the justification (2) in error (we are not free agents), but also the sentiment (1) is a sign of weakness (the need to objectively justify moral commands is not only impossible--there are no moral facts--but is also a mere tendency of the reactive type.

I think what Nietzsche is trying to say is not that he thinks we can't be responsible for our actions, but rather, that we can't be morally responsible for the reasons Christianity gives.

The "justification" inevitably fails because (A) we are not free agents and (B) Christian moral commands are based on some objective moral realm of facts, of which there is none.

Through (A) & (B), Nietzsche demonstrates that we can't be morally responsible. However, that refutation of moral responsibility does not prevent or keep anyone from assigning responsibility...

I can say that you are responsible, and I don't care whether or not I am "justified". The truth of the statement comes out of me and doesn't need to depend on any "system" or "justification" for its truth.

I can command because I want to command, but the Christian cowers behind his "justification". He isn't bold enough to say, "I command you to do this!" He hesitates and warns, "You ought to do this because the god above us has ordained it."

Leiter -- “What we need to see is actual textual evidence that conscious “reflective thought” and “self-understanding” plays a causal role in action that can then be attributed to the “control” of the agent.”

In order to do this, would it be enough to demonstrate that Nietzsche believes (i) although conscious-thought depends on drive-thought, conscious-thought is different from drive thought, (ii) these distinct, conscious-thoughts influence actions, and (iii) these distinct, conscious-thoughts influence drive-thought/non-conscious states?

I believe these three things can be accomplished, but nevertheless, I don’t think these would render the agent morally responsible because I think moral responsibility depends on other requirements which Nietzsche has shown are untenable.

Paul Katsafanas said...

Thanks to Brian for his insightful and informative reply. In the above post, Brian claims that conscious perceptions can play a causal role in action. In particular, conscious perceptions can supply the drive’s object, though they can’t alter its aim. On these claims, I think Brian and I are largely in agreement.

However, there are two points on which I think there may be some lingering disagreement. Both of these points are mentioned here:
“we get a causal role for conscious mental states (though not those associated with the feeling of free will), in the sense that consciousness is the medium for representation contents that excite, inhibit, or otherwise affect non-conscious drives. None of this, though, seems enough for “genuine agency” in the moralistic sense with which the tradition is usually concerned.”

Notice two things. First, Brian claims that the conscious mental states associated with the feeling of free will aren’t playing a role here. Second, he claims that the account doesn’t leave room for genuine agency. I disagree with both of those points. Below, I’ll explain why.

First, consider the claim that the conscious thoughts “associated with the feeling of free will”, or “the conscious experience of will,” aren’t playing a role. I do think it’s important, here, to distinguish two claims:
- The experience/perception of choosing to A doesn’t play a causal role in my A-ing
- Choosing to A doesn’t play a causal role in my A-ing
These claims seem distinct: it’s possible that the first is true and the second is false. If we keep that distinction in mind, I don’t see why Nietzsche would be committed to the second claim. An illustration may be helpful. Consider two cases:

(1) Bill’s sex drive disposes him to engage in sexual activity. His conscious perception of Sarah and Samantha, together with his conscious thoughts about what’s attractive, interact with this drive. He finds himself with a desire to be with Sarah and not Samantha. Being with Sarah is the object of the drive.

Here, an antecedent drive has interacted with the agent’s conscious thoughts and perceptions, and has thereby acquired an object. The object would have been different if the conscious thoughts and perceptions had been different. In that way, conscious thought causally influences drives. This is, I take it, analogous to Brian’s example from Freud. But now consider a slight variant:

Paul Katsafanas said...

(continued, comment #2)

(2) Bill’s sex drive disposes him to engage in sexual activity. He thinks about Sarah and Samantha, and decides that he’d rather pursue a relationship Sarah. His conscious _choice_ to pursue a relationship with Sarah interacts with this drive. Being with Sarah is the object of the drive.

The difference between case (1) and case (2) is minor: in case (1), perceptions and thoughts influence the drive’s object; in case (2), a conscious choice influences the drive’s object. If we allow that case (1) is possible, I don’t see why we should deny that case (2) is also possible. Put differently, once we’ve allowed conscious perceptions and thoughts in general to play a causal role in shaping the drive’s objects, why bar conscious thoughts with a particular content – that I’m choosing/willing/deciding to A – from playing a role?

So, that’s one point of potential disagreement. I think Brian reads Nietzsche as denying that case (2) is possible. But perhaps not—perhaps Brian is only denying that causally _autonomous_ choices are possible. That is, perhaps the point is just that although case (2) is possible, the conscious choice is going to be causally determined (by facts about the agent’s non-conscious states, environment, and conscious states). I’d agree with that reading of Nietzsche, so it’s possible that Brian and I are in complete agreement here.

However, this brings me to the second and more important point of potential disagreement. Let’s call the claims about the causal relationships between drives and conscious thought the “psychological data”. I think Brian and I are in agreement on the psychological data (with the possible exception regarding cases (1) and (2) mentioned above). However, I think we can accept the psychological data and still distinguish two different kinds of action: cases in which the agent controls her action and cases in which she doesn’t.

Paul Katsafanas said...

(continued, comment #3)

Now, traditional accounts of the controlled/non-controlled distinction rely on claims that are incompatible with the psychological data. For example, as Brian has shown, the psychological data is incompatible with libertarian conceptions of control. So Nietzsche certainly couldn’t accept any account of agential control that had libertarian presuppositions. In addition, he certainly couldn’t accept any (Galen-Strawson-style) claims of the form “the agent controls his action only if he controls all the causal antecedents of his action.”

But there are other ways of framing the debate. Here’s an example. As the Leiterreports blog often notes, you can point to various agents who are victims of false consciousness (or otherwise self-deceived). And you can point to others who are not. Suppose we labeled the former agents “not in control of their actions,” and the latter “in control of their actions.” Drawing that distinction wouldn’t require any problematic assumptions about the causal independence of the will. So, if we drew the controlled/non-controlled distinction this way, it would be compatible with the psychological data.

Now, I’m not claiming that Nietzsche uses that particular distinction. I use it simply to illustrate that importantly different forms of agency can be distinguished in isolation from claims about causal determination. (Narziss, in the comment above, makes a similar point.)

So, here’s my reading of Nietzsche on agency, presented very schematically. Nietzsche distinguishes between acts produced by a unified agent and acts produced by a disunified agent. The former acts count as controlled, or as products of the agent’s activity. The latter count as uncontrolled.

Of course, to fill out this account I need to specify what it is for an agent to be unified. I do that in my paper “The Concept of Unified Agency in Nietzsche, Plato, and Schiller.” In that paper, I also defend the claim that the unified/disunified distinction corresponds to the controlled/uncontrolled distinction. To be clear, the account of unity is not an account of how we can have libertarian freedom, independence from the drives, or anything of the sort—if that were what control required, then control would be impossible. Accordingly, the account of unity/control isn’t going to correspond to or take account of every element in our traditional conception of control. It does, however, articulate a conception of control that’s compatible with the psychological data.

Brian Leiter said...

Paul, an initial, and overdue response, to your comments, above. On your case #2, this gets it right:

"perhaps Brian is only denying that causally _autonomous_ choices are possible. That is, perhaps the point is just that although case (2) is possible, the conscious choice is going to be causally determined (by facts about the agent’s non-conscious states, environment, and conscious states). I’d agree with that reading of Nietzsche, so it’s possible that Brian and I are in complete agreement here."

More thoughts to come on the final point, which is the more important one, as you note.

Brian Leiter said...

On the final point: as I argued in the "Who is the Sovereign Individual?" paper, it certainly seems right that N. thinks there is a difference between "unified" or "coherent" agents and "disunified" or "incoherent" ones (though the metaphors are frustratingly vague, even in N.). There I raised the question what any of this has to do with "freedom." I worry something similar should be said about "control." There's precious little textual evidence that N. assimilates "freedom" to "unified" agency, and I'm skeptical there is more evidence for "control," but I'll withhold judgment until I read the paper you mention. But that's the key issue here, whether there is any reason to think N. associates a certain kind of agency with either "freedom" or "control."

Rob said...

Some recent psychological data:

‎Nothing indicated motivations originating in consciousness — instead, conscious thoughts interacted with existing motivations. [...] There are two forms of the view that consciousness is an epiphenomenon. One is that all conscious processes lack causal efficacy. This review has sought to assemble the best available evidence against that view.