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The Causal Structure of Conscious Agency

Andersen, Holly Kristine (2010) The Causal Structure of Conscious Agency. Doctoral Dissertation, University of Pittsburgh. (Unpublished)

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This dissertation presents a new approach to modeling the causal structure of conscious agency, with a foundation in the metaphysics of causation and empirical tools for incorporating scientific results into an enriched causal model of agency. I use an interventionist causal analysis and experimental evidence from cognitive science to demonstrate that conscious awareness plays several significant causal roles in action. I then consider metaphysical challenges to this approach, and demonstrate that higher level causes such as awareness are legitimately causal.I expose the flawed understanding of causation required for inferring the causal inertness of awareness from experimental evidence. This leads to a differentiation between metaphysical causal questions, about the nature of causation itself, from empirical questions, which apply causal analysis to actual systems in the world. I challenge the practice of focusing on the awareness of agency in order to address the causal role of awareness in agency on the grounds that it inappropriately internalizes conscious agency. To demonstrate how we ought to incorporate scientific results into philosophical theories of agency, I offer an empirically enriched view of conscious agency. I rely on an interventionist approach to develop an evidentiary framework to ascertain the extent to which conscious awareness is a causal factor in action. Based on results from automatism research, I demonstrate at least three important ways in which awareness is a major causal contributor to human action: conscious intentions or goals; conscious perceptual information relevant to the goal; and conscious execution. I then address the problematic assumption that 'higher level' causes are derivative from lower level ones. I introduce the notion of counterfactual robustness to show how, for single tokens of causation, microphysical explanations are often explanatorily inferior to macrophysical ones, and distort the explanandum. I allay concerns about my variable choice by showing that we cannot, even in principle, replace higher level variables such as awareness with lower level variables such as neuronal processing. I introduce the notion of causal articulation in complex systems as the means by which higher level causes have lower level effects, while avoiding problems encountered by other theories of downward causation.


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Item Type: University of Pittsburgh ETD
Status: Unpublished
CreatorsEmailPitt UsernameORCID
Andersen, Holly Kristinehka1@pitt.eduHKA1
ETD Committee:
TitleMemberEmail AddressPitt UsernameORCID
Committee ChairMitchell, Sandra Dsmitchel@pitt.eduSMITCHEL
Committee MemberMachery, Edouardmachery@pitt.eduMACHERY
Committee MemberBogen,
Committee MemberSchaffner, Kennethkfs@pitt.eduKFS
Committee MemberGrush,
Date: 26 January 2010
Date Type: Completion
Defense Date: 25 August 2009
Approval Date: 26 January 2010
Submission Date: 25 August 2009
Access Restriction: No restriction; Release the ETD for access worldwide immediately.
Institution: University of Pittsburgh
Schools and Programs: Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences > History and Philosophy of Science
Degree: PhD - Doctor of Philosophy
Thesis Type: Doctoral Dissertation
Refereed: Yes
Uncontrolled Keywords: agency; causation; conscious awareness; philosophy of science
Other ID:, etd-08252009-111601
Date Deposited: 10 Nov 2011 20:01
Last Modified: 15 Nov 2016 13:49


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