This Causa Sui video has been a month in the making. To be fair, I took holiday for a week and a half, but it was still a lot of work. After some editorial commentary, the transcript is available below.
The cows are back. Making videos on a budget is hard enough. With no budget, it’s harder still.
This started with a written transcript that was fed into Amazon’s Polly AI text-to-speech engine that’s seen many improvements lately. The results were output and saved as MP3 files that were imported into Movie Studio, a video editing application. I still use version 17, as I have been unhappy with the functionality of the newer versions. Even though they have been adding features and streamlining the interfaces, they seem to retire as many features as they add new ones, and the net result has not worked in my favour.
With an audio foundation in place, I scour the internet (and my hard drives) for visual content. Although I have purchased content in the past, this project contains all free assets. Admittedly, it would look better with paid-for assets as I forwent many nice visuals, it’s hard to justify on an unmonetised site.
Taking this approach, it’s a bit like patchwork with found objects. Having no creative team and possessing limited creative skills of my own, the original content is somewhat primitive. Even this could be improved, but that takes time.
I use a Bitmoji avatar to represent myself. This provides me with a quick way to capture poses and clothing options. When I feel like it, I’ll make small animations like eye blinks, but even this takes time.
For this Causa Sui video, I feel it goes long in some areas and short in others. There are several points that I don;t resolve the way I expected, as I was distracted by other life events, and as I was compositing the final video, I noticed that I had started narrative treads and not closed them. In other cases, I had intended to focus intently on a point, and I just didn’t. But after all of the time—and this distracts from everything else I am trying to accomplish—, I just wanted to get this over the finish line. Perhaps I’ll create some shorter content to resolve these points.
In the end, I feel it still conveys the points I want to make, even if not as sharply. Give it a gander, and let me know what you think.
In this segment of free will scepticism, we’ll discuss the causa sui argument of why a person cannot have the human agency necessary to be held ultimately responsible for their actions. We’ll also touch on counterarguments and possible social responses to persons exhibiting behaviours not in line with socially acceptable norms.
This is part of a series shining a light on the plausible scepticism if not impossibility of free will. If you are not already familiar with this space, I suggest you review some of the foundational content discussing Determinism, Indeterminism, and Luck; would-be agency and luck, and no-self, self, and selves. Of course, feel free to watch this and review the supporting content if you want to learn more details.
Let’s get started.
Before we define causa sui and the argument underlying it, it’s important to note that it is agnostic as to whether the universe is deterministic or indeterministic. My position is that the universe is at least weakly deterministic, even if we do not and cannot determine what the mechanism is. Any perceived indeterminism is simply an absence of knowledge. Were we to gain this knowledge, the indeterminate intermediate process would become determinate.
As the question of determinacy or indeterminacy is irrelevant, so is the question of compatibility or incompatibility. In an incompatible deterministic model, luck might be an interesting side trip, but my position isn’t concerned with luck and would fold it into determinism with the rest of indeterminacy.
Full disclosure: Humans are susceptible to pareidolia, and my contention is that free will is an illusion in this vein. I have adopted the position of Daniel Dennett that consciousness is an emergent property of the brain in a similar manner that wet is an emergent property of water. Water itself being an emergent property of the admixture of hydrogen and oxygen. This is not to argue that consciousness is somehow not real, but I do argue that consciousness has no mystical metaphysical properties that the discipline of psychology seems to subscribe to it. Consciousness is real. Free will is a figment.
So, what is causa sui, and what’s the big deal.
Spinosa may have been the philosopher to have introduced or at least elevated the notion of causa sui to us in its current context. Galen Strawson’s perspective is heavily influenced by Nietzsche. We’ll come back to both of these blokes presently.
Causa sui is Latin. It means self-caused.
Causa means cause. Sui means self. Most of us are aware of the notion of suicide—slaying one’s self. Let’s assume there is no etymological connexion to its homophone in chop suey, though I’m taking dibs on an erudite punk rock band name, Chop Sui.
Now that we’ve defined causa sui as self-caused—, or at least translated it from Latin to English, sa cause, en français—we can look at how this is problematic.
The causa sui argument against human agency and free will is not new. In his book Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche writes,
The CAUSA SUI is the best self-contradiction that has yet been conceived, it is a sort of logical violation and unnaturalness; but the extravagant pride of man has managed to entangle itself profoundly and frightfully with this very folly. The desire for “freedom of will” in the superlative, metaphysical sense, such as still holds sway, unfortunately, in the minds of the half-educated, the desire to bear the entire and ultimate responsibility for one’s actions oneself, and to absolve God, the world, ancestors, chance, and society therefrom, involves nothing less than to be precisely this CAUSA SUI, and, with more than Munchausen daring, to pull oneself up into existence by the hair, out of the slough of nothingness.Freidrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil
Note that Nietzsche invokes God. Keep in mind that even if you believe in gods and divine intervention, that doesn’t yield human agency; that would be divine will.
Quickly reviewing the backstory, a self—or sui in this parlance—is the product of nature and nurture. Nature manifests in the form of heredity, genetics, and epigenetics; nurture is parents, peers, society, and authority.
As people like Steven Pinker and Jonathan Haidt tell us, we come into this world with the operating system installed and a basic bootstrap programme. After this, we are autodidactic automatons. Of course, Pinker and Haidt would posit that humans are more than mere meat puppets, but that’s part and parcel of the causa sui point.
Elaborating further on this, at time-zero, the moment we take our first breath, we have not yet taken in any direct experiences from which to expand our base genetics.
For the sake of illustration, let’s divide our universe into self and not-self. At the start our self has been given to us through no effort of our own. We’re the result of generations on generations of chromosomal exchange from some initial single-celled organism.
Then there’s nurture. One may argue that we have some experiences in utero, but these are substantially filtered. Once we see the light of the world, it’s showtime for real.
All that you touch All that you see All that you taste All you feel.
— Eclipse, Dark Side of the Moon, Pink Floyd
Humans are input acquisition and storage machines. The brain is at once a difference and synthesis engine. Any outputs are a result of this process. Ostensibly, we are functions.
What humans are not are creation machines. Any so-called creation is just more synthesis. Even as we procreate to generate more humans, our dimorphism facilitates the progenerative blending of ova and spermatozoa. No creation, per se. In An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Hume suggested that the idea of a unicorn was just a recomposition of the idea of a horse with that of a horn. That’s as far as human creativity goes.
The challenge with causa sui is that we cannot cause our ‘self’. Let’s explore some examples.
Let’s take as an example a successful physician. This physician was raised by someone, attended school, progressing to medical school, passed any necessary praxis, exams, and certifications, fulfilled whatever internships and residencies, and acquired some office space. Some years later, this physician bought a home, got a dog, and had some kids. I’ll stop here. You render your own mental picture.
Perhaps, instead, we look at a music virtuoso. A child prodigy, s/he attends Berklee and graduates before reaching 10 years of age. S/he starts YouTube, Insta, and TikTok channels with millions of followers, and earns millions. You take it from here. One more.
This last person is raised by a good family, but she ends up on the wrong side of the law and in prison. All friends say she’s kind, caring, and generous, but she was in the wrong place at the wrong time. At 20 she’s got a 20-year sentence to think it through. You can work this one through as well.
Let’s look into these scenarios and unpack these self-made individuals—or self-unmade if that’s how you’d prefer to characterise the last one.
Is our physician self-made? If so, how so? Let’s ignore the genetics and focus on the rest of the story. This person was sent to school. Local laws and parental concern all but ensured this. A certain teacher or teachers sparked an interest in medicine. Or perhaps it was from a book or television programme.
Perhaps a relative was ill and s/he became determined to help others.
This person was blessed with the appropriate cognitive abilities and their interest was fostered. The desire to succeed was instilled as was the drive and motivation. Nothing about this situation suggests causa sui action. Instead, everything is causa alii—caused by others, if I may misappropriate some Latin.
Any motivation was either genetically and physiologically inherent or acculturated or both. As the saying goes, you can’t get blood from a stone (or a turnip).
Of course, the second scenario plays out the same. Born with some natural ability. Could the parents not have nurtured this talent? Imagine this person was born with the propensity to be a virtuoso pianist yet never had come in contact with a piano? If a tree falls in the woods and no one was there to hear? How many people are in an analogous position?
Let’s turn to the dilemma of the prisoner. This person was instilled with whatever social cues she got. Perhaps they were exposed to bad influences. Perhaps their ‘processing unit’ is defective. Neither of these constitute causa sui events. As the saying goes, ‘she didn’t raise herself’.
Even if she did raise herself, she’d be excused as well. Some person raised by wolves in Avignon—or Tarzan of the Apes—is not expected to have acquired the rules of society.
Here’s an illustration:
First, there’s ‘sui’. That’s you.
But before you, there are the reagents. Ingredients.
The building blocks that make your physical ‘you’. And perhaps there are pre-natal environmental factors such as nutrition.
Once you are born, you begin to become a product of your environment as you absorb external forces. These might be the influence of your parents or siblings or other kit and kin.
Then you are exposed to teachers and peers. And society at large. And then there are perspectives formed by authority relationships.
We don’t even need to discuss the possible complexities and interactions between nature and nurture. These are interactive.
Perhaps you were genetically predisposed to grow no more than 168 centimetres, but you had poor nourishment, so this limit was never fully realised. Perhaps you have a blemish that makes you self-conscious. Perhaps, you’ve got a lisp or a limp. Perhaps you were in hospital due to an accident, and you lost a year at primary school. Perhaps a parent abandoned you and you were raised in a single-parent household. Perhaps as an infant both of your parents were killed by gunfire whilst watching an Independence Day parade in Highland Park Illinois in the United States of America.
Any of this might be true. But something that cannot be true is that you had any say in any of this. Causa sui. You cannot be a cause of yourself.
How did you become a virtuoso pianist?
Were you genetically predispositioned to have this talent? Probably. What if you weren’t driven to play? Again, what if you had never been introduced to piano but has this otherwise latent talent?
Let’s say you are faced with a food choice for dinner. You’ve got pork chops, dog, or monkey brains. Personally, I’d forego all of these. If I were from some Asian countries, I may have a tough time deciding but only because they all seem delicious.
In economics, we discuss diminishing marginal utility for preferences. Faced with a choice, my preferences may differ depending on the situation. But given a situation where one has to make a choice repeatedly, each subsequent choice yields less utility or ‘happiness’.
You’re at a pub, and you mention that you’re a bit peckish. Your mate orders a pizza and offers you some slices. You haven’t eaten pizza in a while, so perhaps you eat a slice and are offered another when it’s gone. Your utility diminishes with each slice. The first one really hit the spot. The second one was pretty good too. You think twice about eating a third piece. And you forego the fourth piece altogether.
Later in the evening, your mate with the hollow legs orders another pizza and offers to split it. You’re ever so slightly hungry, but you opt for pudding instead. This is your choice. But it’s not. It’s just that you’ve just eaten your fill of pizza and want something different.
Now the question is can you go against a craving? You are on a diet and are offered some dessert. You are craving it, but you exercise your free will and decline. Surely, this is free will, right? Not really. If you go for the dessert, your body is willing your action. But if you decline, it’s only because you have information that counters your craving. You need to look thin in a swimming suit at the weekend. Your choice will be guided by your assessment of prior and prospective considerations. You cannot make a choice absent these. Even if you decide to pick randomly or flip a coin. Firstly, the choice to flip is based on prior information. Secondly, the resultant choice is due to the coin rather than your free will.
Let’s summon Schopenhauer for a moment. He reminds us that whilst we can want what we will, we can’t will what we will.
This craving is not us. We aren’t in control. We only have control over whether we submit to the urge or not.
But that’s not correct either.
Picture this. You are at an ice cream vendor.
Chocolate or Vanilla
You always get chocolate, so you order chocolate. This is habit, not choice.
The vendor remembers they just got a shipment of passionfruit ice cream. Would you prefer that?
It depends, but it doesn’t depend on you, save to say it depends on your experiences until now.
If you’ve never had it before, it depends on your palate and whether you are open to new experiences. This is not something you have control over.
Let’s say your mates invite you to go skydiving. Again, you may seemingly be faced with a choice between declining the invitation and disappointing your mates. Whichever emotional response is stronger will guide your decision. This is based on experience. And this is important: even if you overrule your initial consideration, it’s because of the way you are that you are able to do that, but you had no say in the way you are. Each experience either leads you to a new experience or you experience something new and either like or dislike it.
Perhaps reading a certain book led you to enjoy reading. Given the decision to watch television or read, you may prefer to read. Some people do not enjoy reading, so given the choice, they’ll switch on the telly.
Galen Strawson formalised this by relating his so-called basic argument.
- You do what you do, in any given situation, because of the way you are.
- So in order to be ultimately responsible for what you do, you have to be ultimately responsible for the way you are—at least in certain crucial mental respects.
- But you cannot be ultimately responsible for the way you are in any respect at all.
- So you cannot be ultimately responsible for what you do.
What this is saying is that anything about you already influences what you do next and your choices. So, you as an entity may do something, engage in an activity, but it’s only because you’ve been programmed to do so on hardware you had no say in receiving.
To equate humans to computers is a little facile, but for our purposes, we can think of humans as analogous to processors or a mathematical function.
We are hardware with an onboard self-updating operating system. And we have software routines, all processed in our brains. In addition to capturing, processing, and storing data, this operating system and some of its software are also updated with experience, so we are getting updates and upgrades. Each of these might affect our next decision.
Sometimes input devices are faulty. Perhaps we are blind or colourblind. Perhaps we can’t hear or taste or smell. Each of these will affect in some manner what information we have to process.
In some cases, the processing unit itself is broken. With synaesthesia, we may see sounds, or smell colours.
But we may also just not process things correctly. Perhaps we can’t interpret social cues. Perhaps we can’t remember things. Or we have some other cognitive deficits. In these cases, we may have actually been exposed to socially accepted behaviours—don’t steal; don’t harm; obey traffic regulations, or whatever—, but we have difficulty processing these when the time comes. Or maybe our induction and deduction skills are diminished.
But my intent is not to make this about mental illness. The point is that persons considered to have full mental capacity and competency still have no ability to get outside of themselves to influence themselves. Full stop.
You may want to check out the video on agency that addresses what options society has in light of this situation. Keep in mind that I am not saying that you are stuck on a fateful path. We are not Oedipus.
If you had not been exposed to the rules, then rehabilitation may be in order. If you may be a danger to yourself or the public, you may be sequestered or quarantined until such time you are no longer a risk. This introduces its own quandaries relating to retributive justice and challenges in policing the watchers, but these are beyond the scope of this segment.
The only escape from the idea of each human being the result of a closed system of nature and nurture is the notion of emergence that would say that the admixture of these ingredients would result in something new, that perhaps consciousness contains a sui somehow transcendent of the source elements, and this is where your human agency resides—sort of an emergent soul if you will. In the world of chemistry, the combination of sodium and chloride brings about table salt, having different emergent properties than the base ingredients, yet none of these properties is consciousness nor agency. Does this emergence work differently in the brain? This doesn’t sound plausible, but it is an idea to explore if you really feel compelled to argue agency exists in some form or fashion.
So, there you have it. You are you, but you don’t have any inherent agency. Or do you? Do you think there is any place for ‘sui’ to exist autonomously from your genetic and environmental makeup? If so, where is it, and how does it gain its independence.
The causa sui cows. I had intended to work the cows into the video. In fact, I spend a decent amount of time trying to clean them up, but as I left on holiday and returned, I realised near the end that they got left on the cutting room floor—even though they are still used as cover art. Perhaps I’ll consider a feature-length production for these characters in future.