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ZENO Lecture: EJ Lowe on ‘Substance Causation, Powers, & Human Agency’

The first ZENO lecture of the academic year 2011-12 will be given by

Jonathan Lowe (Durham)

The topic of his lecture will be

Substance Causation, Powers, and Human Agency.

Thursday, 24 November 2011, 16:00 – 18:00

Aula, Academiegebouw, Domplein 29, Utrecht.

For details see here:

Attendance is free and no registration is required.


The powers of individual substances may, I believe, be distinguished in at least the following two ways. First, some of these powers are causal powers, while others are non-causal powers. Second, some of these powers are active powers, while others are passive powers. But all powers, as we shall see, are individuated by their manifestation types, that is, by the characteristic types of activity that constitute their exercise. A causal power is one whose exercise consists in the bearer of the power acting on one or more substances to bring about a change in them. A passive power is one whose exercise is always caused by one or more substances acting upon the bearer of the power. This classification of powers leaves open the possibility of there being a type of power that is at once active and non-causal: a power whose exercise is (1) not caused by any substance acting upon its bearer and (2) does not consist in its bearer bringing about a change in any substance. Such a power may be called a spontaneous power. It seems clear that such powers do exist in nature, the power of a radium atom to undergo radioactive decay being an example. This fact shows that there need be nothing anti-naturalistic, or incompatible with current physical science, in supposing that the human will, as it is exercised in episodes of voluntary action, is another such power. In saying that the will is a non-causal power, it is not being implied that the will is causally inefficacious, only that its exercise does not consist in the agent’s bringing about any sort of effect. Agent causalists who suppose that agents cause their own volitions by exercising agent-causal powers are, I believe, mistaken in this regard and mistaken too if they think that their view explains the special sense in which free agents have control over their voluntary actions. What, in my view, distinguishes the will from any other kind of spontaneous power is (1) that it is a two-way power — a power either to will or not to will a particular course of action — and (2) that it can be exercised rationally, that is, ‘in the light of reason’. The possession of such a power would, I believe, give human agents all the control that they could need or want over their voluntary actions. And very arguably, as we shall see, we cannot — on pain of undermining our entitlement to regard ourselves as rational beings — deny that we have such a power.



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