Richard Taylor was a student of Roderick Chisholm and Curt Ducasse at Brown University. But his "agent-causal" ideas about free will were modified by influences from students of Ludwig Wittgenstein, including Gilbert Ryle, Elizabeth Anscombe, and J. L. Austin.
Taylor has a clear and simple writing style, mostly free of the technical jargon used by his colleagues. Here, from his 1966 book Action and Purpose, Taylor describes agent causation (compare Chisholm's distinctions between event causation and agent causation):
There must, moreover, not only be this reference to myself in distinguishing my acts from all those things that are not acts, but it must be a reference to myself as an active being. Another perfectly natural way of expressing this notion of my activity is to say that, in acting, I make something happen, I cause it, or bring it about. Now it does seem odd that philosophers should construe this natural way of expressing the matter as really meaning, not that I, but rather some event, process, or state not identical with myself should be the cause of that which is represented as my act. It is plain that, whatever I am, I am never identical with any such event, process, or state as is usually proposed as the "real cause" of my act, such as some intention or state of willing. Hence, if it is really and unmetaphorically true, as I believe it to be, that I sometimes cause something to happen, this would seem to entail that it is false that any event, process, or state not identical with myself should be the real cause of it. But it is not, in fact, hard to see why philosophers should want to insist that these natural ways of expressing the matter really mean something quite different from what they seem to mean; namely, that it has been the firm conviction of most philosophers for generations that in the case of any event that occurs, another event must be at least part of its cause. If, accordingly, it is true that I am the cause of my acts, as it evidently is, then in view of this principle we must suppose that the real cause is some event intimately associated with me — and then, of course, the chase is on to find it or, failing that, at least to give it a name and create a semblance of having found it. The alternative I urge is that I am sometimes the cause of my own actions, that such an assertion is neither incomplete nor metaphorical and hence has no "real" meaning different from, much less inconsistent with, itself as it stands. In that case, however, we must conclude that the word "cause" in such contexts has not the ordinary meaning of a certain relationship between events, but has rather the older meaning of the efficacy or power of an agent to produce certain results. This idea can be otherwise expressed by saying that an agent is something that originates things, produces them, or brings them about. It might be wished that some clear definition or analysis of this idea of agency could be given, in place of merely synonymous expressions, but we have already seen that this cannot be done, and we have also seen why. To give an analysis of agency or of the sense in which an agent is the cause of his actions would amount to giving an analysis of an act, an analysis which would of necessity presuppose the truth of a metaphysical presupposition that is not only dubious, but probably false. (p.111)
Taylor describes his original researches in philosophy and psychology (at a time when psychology in the U.S. consisted mostly of B. F. Skinner's deterministic behaviorism) in the Preface to Action and Purpose:
I began thinking about these these things several years ago in London. Returning, and having no place to live and no teaching to claim my energy, I tried to think through what is involved in the idea of a man's sometimes having it within his power to do various alternative things. This idea seemed to me crucial to philosophy, but my only conviction was that what I had been taught in the matter, by men of undoubted philosophical genius, was basically false, though I knew not where the truth lay. At intervals thereafter for several years I kept working out this and related notions, quite inconclusively, until at last I had a drawerful of manuscript, all in such fragmentary and chaotic condition that I despaired of trying to make anything useful of it. I then thought I must find out more about psychology. There was certainly an abundance of books on this subject, and I thought that if any people actually know something about human nature they must surely be found among the authors of those books. I found, however, that the questions that interested me were simply ignored by these writers, that ever so many interesting things were said about brains and nerves and glands, all the names of these being duly given, and about conditioning and reflexes and the like, but nothing whatever about things so elementary as, say, a voluntary act of choice. It seemed almost as if there were a conspiracy in this branch of psychology to pretend that such things do not exist; or at least, not unless they could be twisted to resemble the model of an electrical circuit or exhibited in the perfectly comprehensible picture of a stimulus and a response. Psychological works, on the other hand, which dealt with practical problems of human motivation, with neurosis and the like, far from pretending that the questions that interested me did not exist, simply took them all for granted, speaking unabashedly of goals, freedom, the ego, and so on, with hardly the least hint of an attempt to connect these things with what was described in the aforementioned books. It seemed that these diverse approaches had almost nothing whatever in common except the name of them, that between them there yawned an abyss of human ignorance, and that, alas! it was in that vast terra incognita that all my philosophical torments lay. The philosophical problems I have dealt with in this book are therefore essentially original, and my purpose has been positive. I have not, in other words, found my subject matter by gleaning from philosophical books theories to criticize or authors to refute. Some of the things I have discussed, and particularly the idea of action, have nevertheless come very much to the forefront of philosophical thought in recent years, and the influence upon me of such writers as A. I. Melden, Gilbert Ryle, G. E. M. Anscombe, and J. L. Austin will be quite apparent. My keen interest in the concept of purposeful behavior arose many years ago from a controversy with the late Dr. Norbert Weiner and some of his associates. This controversy was published in The Philosophy of Science, 1950, but none of it has been reproduced here, for I have long since decided that both their positions and mine were substantially wrong. I hope here to have finally set forth at least some of the truth concerning this terribly important but neglected concept. (p.viii)Taylor was Peter van Inwagen's thesis adviser and formulated van Inwagen's Consequence Argument in a single sentence in his 1963 book Metaphysics.
Indeed, if determinism is true, as the theory of soft determinism holds it to be, all those inner states which cause my body to behave in what ever ways it behaves must arise from circumstances that existed before I was born; for the chain of causes and effects is infinite, and none could have been the least different, given those that preceded.Taylor also accepted the standard argument against free will
Both determinism and simple indeterminism are loaded with difficulties, and no one who has thought much on them can affirm either of them without some embarrassment. Simple indeterminism has nothing whatever to be said for it, except that it appears to remove the grossest difficulties of determinism, only, however, to imply perfect absurdities of its own. Determinism, on the other hand, is at least initially plausible. Men seem to have a natural inclination to believe in it; it is, indeed, almost required for the very exercise of practical intelligence. And beyond this, our experience appears always to confirm it, so long as we are dealing with everyday facts of common experience, as distinguished from the esoteric researches of theoretical physics. But determinism, as applied to human behavior, has implications which few men can casually accept, and they appear to be implications which no modification of the theory can efface. Both theories, moreover, appear logically irreconcilable to the two items of data that we set forth at the outset; namely, (1) that my behavior is sometimes the outcome of my deliberation, and (2) that in these and other cases it is sometimes up to me what I do. Since these were our data, it is important to see, as must already be quite clear, that these theories cannot be reconciled to them.But Taylor had a healthy skepticism for the current efforts to reduce everything to a "scientific" "eliminative" materialism and determinism.
The history of thought exhibits a certain pattern, wherein certain general ideas one after another become dominant, each of them tending to persist long after those forces which gave rise to it have waned, eventually becoming dislodged by another general conception having the same power to persist by its own inertia. The earliest speculative thinkers, for example, were obsessed with the idea of substance; they thought the world could be made intelligible simply by finding out what this substance was. That there might be no elemental substance was an idea they simply resisted. Gradually the idea evolved that the world, or "reality," is composed of nothing but "matter," and that matter has the form of "atoms," incredibly hard, tiny particles. This idea took such firm hold in men's minds that it formed the basis of physical science for centuries. Following the emergence of this notion, philosophers became obsessed with the idea of ends or purposes, supposing that the "why" of things could be expressed only in these terms. This idea, central to Aristotelian philosophy, and later to theology, was, like the theory of atoms, not the product of inquiry and discovery, but rather the more or less arbitrary foundation of inquiry. Theological conceptions, in their turn, served as the basis of speculation and inquiry for a very long period. Again, of course, these were not the fruit of investigation, but rather the foundation of thought, the framework within which men sought the solutions to problems. In the seventeenth century, the Cartesian conception of man, as consisting of two wholly distinct substances, mind and matter, came to dominate philosophy and psychology, and it is only with great difficulty that even contemporary philosophers can shake themselves free of that model, despite its more or less arbitrary character. The model itself is, like its predecessors, not so much a theory that has resulted from the observation and interpretation of data, but rather a framework within which the data themselves are interpreted—a general conception which determines a priori what shall be considered as data, what shall be construed as problems, and what shall count as solutions. Now I do not mean here to review the history of thought, but only to call attention to the manner in which certain conceptions tend to become fixed, requiring time and the labors of men of great originality and genius merely to dislodge them. The thinking of past generations often seems dogmatic; we wonder how they could have become so attached to certain general conceptions which appear to us totally groundless. Yet to their adherents these conceptions seemed quite obvious. They were what gave life and meaning to their thoughts. I believe, moreover, that we of this age are by no means emancipated from the general conception; if we look closely and sceptically at contemporary thought we shall find that it, too, proceeds within a certain framework, no less arbitrary than those it has displaced. It is usually called, misleadingly, the framework of scientific explanation. The thing to stress, however, is that scientific explanation usually does not now mean simply explanation based upon and verifiable by observation, but rather, explanation that fits into a certain general conception of what reality ought to be like. The framework is, in other words, not simply a method of discovery, but rather a fairly large metaphysical hypothesis. It is, for example, quite uncritically thought to be "scientific" to hold that men are ("ultimately") very like machines and that their behavior can ("ultimately," as we are always told) be understood in terms of the same principles by which the behavior of inanimate things is understood. Or, again, it is somehow deemed "scientific" to deny that men ever act freely. Hence arguments in favor of the causal determinism of human behavior are always received with the keenest interest and guaranteed an audience, while arguments casting doubt upon this hypothesis are generally met with scepticism and even hostility. Arguments of the former kind need not even be very good, philosophically. They can be question-begging, or even quite irrelevant, like so many of the speculations of psychologists. They are nevertheless sensed to be somehow "on the right track"— scientific in spirit if not in content. Of course, their being on the right track does not in the least entail their being cogent, objective, undogmatic, or philosophically perceptive. Instead, it results from their seeming somehow to fit more or less into the general conception of what reality must be like, a conception which was borrowed from physical science, and which thus inherited the honorific appellative "scientific." To give another example, it is generally deemed scientific to interpret human behavior that is purposive or creative along the same lines that the behavior of inanimate things, such as machines, is interpreted; to reduce, as is said, the former to the latter, giving much emphasis to conditions and little to reasons. Obviously the mere observation of human behavior does not point to such a conception. On the contrary, such an idea would not have been possible had men been guided from the start only by observations of human behavior, without any science of inanimate things. The reason such speculations find ready acceptance is, rather, that they fit into the general conception of the world that has been derived from physical science—that they fit, in other words, into a very general, metaphysical framework which contemporary thinkers find congenial, and which they are fond of assuming must, "ultimately," prove all-encompassing. I am not, of course, suggesting that science and philosophy have not progressed, that the present generation does not know more than previous ones. What I am suggesting, however, is that contemporary thought is hardly less dogmatic than that of our predecessors. The general conceptions and prevailing ideas change, but are no less stubbornly clung to, and—what is rarely appreciated—are no less arbitrary than the ones they have replaced. We find it quaint that earlier thinkers should have wanted to interpret physical nature anthropomorphically, that they should have wanted to explain everything, including the existence of the world itself, in terms of such ideas as efficient and final causes. Yet even learned men of today see no similar quaintness in the notion that human behavior must not be interpreted anthropomorphically, that is, in terms of a framework appropriate for the understanding of human behavior. What seems obvious to one age seems dogmatic and arbitrary to another. It seems to me naive to suppose that men today have suddenly ceased being arbitrary and dogmatic in the general conceptions which they have embraced, or to suppose that contemporary general conceptions are somehow more obviously correct than those of past ages. Such general conceptions do not, at any rate, become less dogmatic by being baptized "scientific." I am moreover convinced that, as philosophers, men become wiser, not by trying to force their experience into a preconceived framework which dictates what is and what is not allowable, but rather by trying to see the implications, whatever these may be, of what we do actually experience. If these implications sometimes seem to run contrary to what we had supposed and fondly hoped was the general truth of things, then it is no step in the direction of wisdom to pretend otherwise and fall back upon what we say will "ultimately" and "in principle" turn out to be so. Now if we take the point of view of external observers, that is, the point of view experimental science necessarily restricts itself to, we cannot but regard men as natural objects differing only in complexity from physical objects and other living things, and governed by the same natural laws and principles that physical science presupposes. There will, for example, be nothing in our observations, experiments, or data to convey such notions as purpose or creativity, except insofar as these notions can somehow be reduced to empirical concepts and thus made applicable, at least in principle, to all objects of observation, and at the same time rendered superfluous to any inquiry into human nature. Indeed, from the point of view of an observer it is even possible to wonder, as philosophers have long since pointed out, how we can know that men are conscious, sensitive beings—a problem that cannot possibly arise for one who considers human nature, not as it exhibits itself to observation, but as it exists in himself. For this reason, plus the fact that the problems I want to consider can only arise from reflections upon oneself, my subject of inquiry is human nature as I find it exhibited in myself. This does not mean that I proceed by "introspection"—it is not even clear what that is—but rather that the most important test of any philosophical theory we shall consider will consist in its application to oneself. Any theory which would render doubtful some distinction of which each of us is already certain will be regarded as doubtful. To illustrate this with just one example: One sometimes has no certain knowledge, when he observes a simple bodily motion on the part of another man, whether that motion was an act of that man, or simply a motion that occurred, caused perhaps by the wind or a moving object. If it is a motion of his own body, however, he usually knows, without being able to say exactly how he knows, whether he made the motion or whether it resulted from some extraneous cause, such as a spasm, a reflex, or an impact with some thing. Any theory, therefore, which obliterates the distinction between these two kinds of fact, or implies that no distinction can be drawn between them, must be rejected, simply on the basis of what each of us already knows about himself.Taylor wrote an important article entitled "Fatalism" in The Philosophical Review, v. 71, n. 1, 1962. It is important because it shows how a few important presuppositions, ones commonly accepted by academic philosophers, imply that determinism is true. This is most ironic, because anyone familiar with Taylor's work would know that this was not his position. Nevertheless, several philosophers tried to show that Taylor's arguments in "Fatalism" were invalid. Taylor's article is still widely anthologized, with the result that many philosophers today regard Taylor as a fatalist! Taylor's arguments are essentially versions of the ancient problem of Future Contingency and Diodorus Cronus' Master Argument Since Taylor wrote in 1962, C. W. Rietdijk, Hilary Putnam, J. J. C. Smart, Michael Lockwood, and Michael Levin have all argued that the future is "already out there" in the relativistic space-time continuum of a "tenseless" "block universe." One young philosopher (and later a popular fiction writer with philosophical themes), David Foster Wallace, wrote his undergraduate thesis on the Fatalism article, claiming to disprove Taylor by showing that his arguments were merely semantic and could not establish metaphysical truths such as determinism. Wallace's case is quite powerful in the sense that much of what Taylor and other analytical language philosophers tried to do was simply not possible to do - to discover truths about the physical world from logic and language. Information philosophy goes "beyond logic and language."
Excerpts from Metaphysics, 1963, p.46-50Indeed, if determinism is true, as the theory of soft determinism holds it to be, all those inner states which cause my body to behave in what ever ways it behaves must arise from circumstances that existed before I was born; for the chain of causes and effects is infinite, and none could have been the least different, given those that preceded. We might at first now seem warranted in simply denying determinism, and saying that, insofar as they are free, my actions are not caused; or that, if they are caused by my own inner states — my own desires, impulses, choices, volitions, and whatnot — then these, in any case, are not caused. This is a perfectly clear sense in which a man's action, assuming that it was free, could have been otherwise. If it was uncaused, then, even given the conditions under which it occurred and all that preceded, some other act was nonetheless possible, and he did not have to do what he did. Or if his action was the inevitable consequence of his own inner states, and could not have been otherwise given these, we can nevertheless say that these inner states, being uncaused, could have been otherwise, and could thereby have produced different actions. Only the slightest consideration will show, however, that this simple denial of determinism has not the slightest plausibility. For let us suppose it is true, and that some of my bodily motions — namely, those that I regard as my free acts — are not caused at all or, if caused by my own inner states, that these are not caused. We shall thereby avoid picturing a puppet, to be sure — but only by substituting something even less like a an; for the conception that now emerges is not that of a free man, but of an erratic and jerking phantom, without any rhyme or reason at all. Suppose that my right arm is free, according to this conception; that is, that its motions are uncaused. It moves this way and that from time to time, but nothing causes these motions. Sometimes it moves forth vigorously, sometimes up, sometimes down, sometimes it just drifts vaguely about — these motions all being wholly free and uncaused. Manifestly I have nothing to do with them at all; they just happen, and neither I nor anyone can ever tell what this arm will be doing next. It might seize a club and lay it on the head of the nearest bystander, no less to my astonishment than his. There will never be any point in asking why these motions occur, or in seeking any explanation of them, for under the conditions assumed there is no explanation. They just happen, from no causes at all. This is no description of free, voluntary, or responsible behavior. Indeed, so far as the motions of my body or its parts are entirely uncaused, such motions cannot even be ascribed to me as my behavior in the first place, since I have nothing to do with them. The behavior of my arm is just the random motion of a foreign object. Behavior that is mine must be behavior that is within my control, but motions that occur from no causes are without the control of anyone. I can have no more to do with, and no more control over, the uncaused motions of my limbs than a gambler has over the motions of an honest roulette wheel. I can only, like him, idly wait to see what happens. Nor does it improve things to suppose that my bodily motions are caused by my own inner states, so long as we suppose these to be wholly uncaused. The result will be the same as before. My arm, for example, will move this way and that, sometimes up and sometimes down, sometimes vigorously and sometimes just drifting about, always in response to certain inner states, to be sure. But since these are supposed to be wholly uncaused, it follows that I have no control over them and hence none over their effects. If my hand lays a club forcefully on the nearest bystander, we can indeed say that this motion resulted from an inner club-wielding desire of mine; but we must add that I had nothing to do with that desire, and that it arose, to be followed by its inevitable effect, no less to my astonishment than to his. Things like this do, alas, sometimes happen. We are all sometimes seized by compulsive impulses that arise we know not whither, and we do sometimes act upon these. But since they are far from being examples of free, voluntary, and responsible behavior, we need only to learn that behavior was of this sort to conclude that it was not free, voluntary, nor responsible. It was erratic, impulsive, and irresponsible. Both determinism and simple indeterminism are loaded with difficulties, and no one who has thought much on them can affirm either of them without some embarrassment. Simple indeterminism has nothing whatever to be said for it, except that it appears to remove the grossest difficulties of determinism, only, however, to imply perfect absurdities of its own. Determinism, on the other hand, is at least initially plausible. Men seem to have a natural inclination to believe in it; it is, indeed, almost required for the very exercise of practical intelligence. And beyond this, our experience appears always to confirm it, so long as we are dealing with everyday facts of common experience, as distinguished from the esoteric researches of theoretical physics. But determinism, as applied to human behavior, has implications which few men can casually accept, and they appear to be implications which no modification of the theory can efface. Both theories, moreover, appear logically irreconcilable to the two items of data that we set forth at the outset; namely, (1) that my behavior is sometimes the outcome of my deliberation, and (2) that in these and other cases it is sometimes up to me what I do. Since these were our data, it is important to see, as must already be quite clear, that these theories cannot be reconciled to them. I can deliberate only about my own future actions, and then only if I do not already know what I am going to do. If a certain nasal tickle warns me that I am about to sneeze, for instance, then I cannot deliberate whether to sneeze or not; I can only prepare for the impending convulsion. But if determinism is true, then there are always conditions existing antecedently to everything I do, sufficient for my doing just that, and such as to render it inevitable. If I can know what those conditions are and what behavior they are sufficient to produce, then I can in every such case know what I am going to do and cannot then deliberate about it. By itself this only shows, of course, that I can deliberate only in ignorance of the causal conditions of my behavior; it does not show that such conditions cannot exist. It is odd, however, to suppose that deliberation should be a mere substitute for clear knowledge. Ignorance is a condition of speculation, inference, and guesswork, which have nothing whatever to do with deliberation. A prisoner awaiting execution may not know when he is going to die, and he may even entertain the hope of reprieve, but he cannot deliberate about this. He can only speculate, guess — and wait. Worse yet, however, it now becomes clear that I cannot deliberate about what I am going to do, if it is even possible for me to find out in advance, whether I do in fact find out in advance or not. I can deliberate only with the view to deciding what to do, to making up my mind; and this is impossible if I believe that it could be inferred what I am going to do, from conditions already existing, even though I have not made that inference myself. If I believe that what I am going to do has been rendered inevitable by conditions already existing, and could be inferred by anyone having the requisite sagacity, then I cannot try to decide whether to do it or not, for there is simply nothing left to decide. I can at best only guess or try to figure it out myself or, all prognostics failing, I can wait and see; but I cannot deliberate. I deliberate in order to decide what to do, not to discover what it is that I am going to do. But if determinism is true, then there are always antecedent conditions sufficient for everything that I do, and this can always be inferred by anyone having the requisite sagacity; that is, by anyone having a knowledge of what those conditions are and what behavior they are sufficient to produce. This suggests what in fact seems quite clear, that determinism cannot be reconciled with our second datum either, to the effect that it is sometimes up to me what I am going to do. For if it is ever really up to me whether to do this thing or that, then, as we have seen, each alternative course of action must be such that I can do it; not that I can do it in some abstruse or hypothetical sense of "can"; not that I could do it if only something were true that is not true; but in the sense that it is then and there within my power to do it. But this is never so,, if determinism is true, for on the very formulation of that theory whatever happens at any time is the only thing that can then happen, given all that precedes it. It is simply a logical consequence of this that whatever I do at any time is the only thing I can then do, given the conditions that precede my doing it. Nor does it help in the least to interpose, among the causal antecedents of my behavior, my own inner states, such as my desires, choices, acts of will, and so on. For even supposing these to be always involved in voluntary behavior — which is highly doubtful in itself — it is a consequence of determinism that these, whatever they are at any time, can never be other than what they then are. Every chain of causes and effects, if determinism is true, is infinite. This is why it is not now up to me whether I shall a moment hence be male or female. The conditions determining my sex have existed through my whole life, and even prior to my life. But if determinism is true, the same holds of anything that I ever am, ever become, or ever do. It matters not whether we are speaking of the most patent facts of my being, such as my sex; or the most subtle, such as my feelings, thoughts, desires, or choices. Nothing could be other than it is, given what was; and while we may indeed say, quite idly, that something — some inner state of mine, for instance — could have been different, had only something else been different, any consolation of this thought evaporates as soon as we add that whatever would have to have been different could not have been different. It is even more obvious that our data cannot be reconciled to the theory of simple indeterminism. I can deliberate only about my own actions; this is obvious. But the random. uncaused motion of any body whatever, whether it be a part of my body or not, is no action of mine and nothing that is within my power. I might try to guess what these motions will be, just as I might try to guess how a roulette wheel will behave, but I cannot deliberate about them or try to decide what they shall be, simply because these things are not up to me. Whatever is not caused by anything is not caused by me, and nothing could be more plainly inconsistent with saying that it is nevertheless up to me what it shall be.