Helen Steward, "A Metaphysics for Freedom" (Oxford UP, 2012)


The basic problem of free will is quite simple to pose: do we ever act freely? One of the traditional "no" answers comes from the idea that we live in a deterministic universe, such that everything that happens had to happen given the initial conditions of the universe and the laws governing its unfolding since then. A contemporary variant goes something like this: we're predetermined to do what we do because our minds arise from brain activity and brain activity is just a special kind of physical activity. In A Metaphysics for Freedom (Oxford, 2012), Helen Steward attempts to undermine the fundamentals of this mechanistic view with an alternative that she calls Agency Incompatibilism. On Steward's view, the concept of agency is very close to that of animacy, and includes the concept of being able to settle what happens, when and how with one's body. Since settling matters implies that they are not determined, agency is incompatible with determinism, and since there are agents, determinism must be false. That is, it is not up to physics to tell us whether determinism is true. Moreover, she denies that the causal efficacy nature of agency should be explicated in terms of events going on inside agents. With this subtly argued book, Steward assumes a leading role in a new non-mechanistic movement in the metaphysics of mind and mental causation.

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Carrie Figdor

Carrie Figdor is professor of philosophy at the University of Iowa.

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