The Role of Consciousness in Free Action

In Joe Campbell, Kristin M. Mickelson & V. Alan White (eds.), Wiley-Blackwell: A Companion to Free Will. Wiley (2023)
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It is intuitive that free action depends on consciousness in some way, since behavior that is unconsciously generated is widely regarded as un-free. But there is no clear consensus as to what such dependence comes to, in part because there is no clear consensus about either the cognitive role of consciousness or about the essential components of free action. I divide the space of possible views into four: the Constitution View (on which free actions metaphysically consist, at least in part, in phenomenally conscious episodes of a special sort), the Causal-Dependence View (on which free actions are necessarily caused by conscious episodes), the Counterfactaul-Dependence View (on which free actions necessarily counterfactually dependent on conscious episodes of certain types), and the Independence View (on which there are no necessary dependence-relations that hold between free action and conscious episodes). After surveying recent empirical literature that purports to show that consciousness plays a smaller role in generating action than is usually supposed, I conclude that it is plausible that free action depends on consciousness in two ways. First, free action causally depends on consciousness control. Second, free action counterfactually depends on the agent's being responsive to certain reasons.

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Phil Woodward
Niagara University


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